Momtaza Mehri

“I’m endlessly fascinated with the odds of being a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. The arbitrariness of it all.”

2017-11-09 (2)

Sugah Lump Prayer (Akashic Books, 2017)

How do you decorate your writing space?

Right now, I’ve got my favorite embroidered pillow next to me. I decorate sparsely, but I’m always surrounded by a stack of books, my laptop and a water bottle. I keep it as bare as possible as it helps lessen distractions.

Could you share with us a poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

excerpt from Clockwise

kow

Dew or the wetness on a man’s cheek.  Find me a distinction.
Both descend at night,
leave by morning.
I want to believe in so much more than this.
I want to say we are more than our geographies of loss

and believe it. Help me believe it.

labo

What is there to write about after exile?
After this dress of loose skin
and zipcodes?
After the blue sighs of those before us?
Wait for it. Our backs straining into loaded crossbows,

in the meantime.
I think I’ll write about the rain making an industrial disaster

out of your neat face
and that time I used your toothbrush to fix my baby hairs in the sink
and never told you.

Why did you choose this excerpt?

It’s part of a longer poem that helped me interrogate my own understanding of empathy and its limits. The thin and equally monumental line that divides me from those I call kin. Clockwise came out of this need to articulate a kind of cognitive dissonance I feel whenever I witness the televised death and degradation of my people and then think there’s any way to have that recognized and represented on the page. Or that I have to be the one to do it. For me, there’s always been an uncritically indulgent element to the act of observation, especially from the perspective of the diaspora. I wanted to speak to that as much as it could possibly be spoken.   

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?

This question is such a nightmare for me. Chapbooks whet the appetite, and I usually devour them in one sitting. Ladan Osman’s Ordinary Heaven, Kill the Dogs by Heather Bell and Ochre by Gla4 are outrageously good chapbooks. 

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about your writing?

That I love a deceptively simple poem. I’m conscious of having so much going on in my own poems, so I admire poets who can stay true to the exoskeleton of a line and draw something much bigger from it. I also like chapbooks that challenge my own biases around structure and continuity.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

Movement. I’m obsessed with movement of peoples, borders, temporality, ideas. Movement and the possibility or impossibility of return. I’m endlessly fascinated with the odds of being a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. The arbitrariness of it all. How displacement is embodied from generation to generation. The terrible joy and pain of never having the luxury of standing still. Why I enjoy the kind of safety I was born into and what makes me different from those who look and speak like me who don’t. The wounds I carry by proxy; what it means to inherit and then assume ownership over traumatic histories and presents that aren’t really yours.

What’s your chapbook about?

It’s about my own movement as well as that of those around me, both across and within borders. The domestic and communal scenes that depict that movement in all its beauty and fraughtness. I use the five Muslim prayers to ground the people and places in my poems; that’s the one thing that stays constant in any Muslim individual’s life. To bow down wherever you may be in the world and face the same direction. Bittersweetness is also a recurring theme, both literally and figuratively. Beyond me having a sweet tooth, I associate sweetness with traditional family gatherings over tea, histories of illness, childhood indulgence and delicious moments stolen away even in the worst of times.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest is “Grief in HTML.” I wrote it at least three years before the rest of the chapbook. It was during a period of my life that was marked by constant worry about family members who were living in Mogadishu and were always under the threat of violence. Beyond that, what struck me was how mundane we considered it and how desensitised I’d become. To the point of hearing about a bombing and automatically thinking I should probably Whatsapp my father to check if he’s, you know, alive. Or the death of family friends and their still active Facebook profiles. At that point, I started thinking more about mourning as a technology and our own survival strategies as ever evolving.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

The poem “Choices,” which is dedicated to my paternal grandfather. He was killed in the civil war. I’ve never met both of my grandfathers but they have always loomed in the background as these larger than life figures who I got to know through stories and photographs.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“If He Wills It” is the one. It’s about a very specific memory that can be interpreted either way. Maybe it’s about a checkpoint. Maybe it’s about a boy. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?  

This might sound weird but if there’s a line or turn of phrase I’m unsure about, I sing it. I don’t bawl it in the shower or anything like that, but I do repeatedly hum it (Kid Cudi-style) until I make sense of what needs to be changed. It also helps to print your poem and hold it out in front of you at arms lengths just to purely focus on how it looks on the page.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I couldn’t have asked for a better editor. Kwame Dawes is legit one of my favorite poets, so being edited by him was a dream. Akashic Books was fantastic to work with, and it was wonderful being part of an established series like the New Generation African Poets. The beautiful cover art was by the late Eritrean painter Ficre Ghebreyesus. I’m still really hyped about how it all turned out and how smooth the process was.

What are you working on now?

My first full collection. I feel like it will kill me, but I’m willing to die trying.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

You’re always told to do the readings, but it’s important to remember we don’t all read the same way. Think about the baggage you bring to whatever you are reading and how that influences what you take away from it. Find time to read work you dislike or don’t ‘get’. Sharpen your critical scalpel. Trust yourself. Everybody’s winging it anyway.

*

Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist and literary researcher. Her poetry has been featured in DAZED, Buzzfeed, Vogue, BBC Radio 4, Poetry Society of America and Poetry International. She is a Complete Works Fellow and winner of the 2017 Out-spoken Page Poetry Prize. Her chapbook sugah lump prayer was published in 2017. She also edits Diaspora Drama, a digital platform showcasing international immigrant art.

*

momtazamehri.contently.com

Advertisements

Jessie van Eerden

“Writing things myself seemed the best way to participate in the memorialization of small parts of the world.”

jessieThe Long Weeping: Portrait Essays (Orison Books, 2017)

Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up in the Whetsell Settlement in rural West Virginia, a small mostly-paved loop of thirty families or so tucked into the mountain. My family lived more toward the top, so the space was windy and open, and there was a fluidity between outside and inside—meaning, out through the screen door to the yard and field and back in to the kitchen, and meaning also inside the person and outside the person, both always seeming equally hallowed. I was the youngest of four, and as we watched Saturday morning cartoons, taking turns churning butter, I felt such a hugeness in my siblings, inner lives that always hummed, as we churned, as we flailed around and built forts with feed pallets. I was a lucky kid to have my imagination nurtured there. As young as eight, I tried writing poems. In second grade, I had a diary that locked, with a sleeping kitten on the cover, in which I took notes on the Book of Revelation. In college, after I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my journals were addressed to A.D., or sometimes to God, or sometimes to myself but that seemed a riskier addressee. I wrote a lot of letters and still do. As a child, I had a penpal from Finland—Maria—who sent me Finnish paper dolls and cut-out flowers and enlarged my world. I didn’t live outside of West Virginia until I graduated college, so missives from the world from people I kind of knew (like Maria) and people in books were how I came to know things beyond my own boundaries. Writing things myself seemed the best way to participate in the memorialization of small parts of the world.

Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?

Here is a short excerpt from the longest portrait in the book which shares the book’s title. It’s a sectioned portrait Rizpah, a concubine of King Saul mentioned by the biblical prophet Samuel; according to a couple of verses in 2 Samuel, when six of Rizpah’s sons and grandsons are executed, she spends seven months keeping animals away from their bodies. This fictional essay became, for me, a meditation on grief.

A Dream of Kites

She stands on a hill not welcoming the wind. She knows what it will bring. She longs for solitude. This is unseasonable, it’s winter with a warm spell whipped with wind which means a day for kites, and their boy-hands work at it all morning, to catch up with the wind before it dies, or goes elsewhere. They build the kites from dowels and newsprint, lace and coffee filters, screen mesh, T-shirt sleeves, ribbons. Come fly, they plead, and her voice is too sharp, No, go on, as her blown hair webs her face and hides her away, her dress wrung by the gusts and trapping her legs where she stands. The boys run ahead and she stays apart and it is almost sundown so the kites pink up in perfect light as they shrink into the sky. The trimmings tear off but the paper bodies stay solid and what she knew would happen happens, watching the youngest let out more string: You were one of the ones inside me, now on the outside—I see it for the first time when you fly the kite, the string wrapped around a stick, we are two and I don’t know you. Just like that. Strangers.

The wind pastes her dress to her body, each of her curves tight unto linen so it’s difficult to move, it is slow, but she makes it to the youngest whose head comes only to her navel, and she is not magnanimous, no: she grabs the spool of kite string from his hands and holds tightly, trying to rein it in, to bring the speck of translucent color back to the ground. It won’t be called back, she grips the spool more and more tightly round, frantic, trying to memorize his small face at the same time.

And that’s when she wakes on her rock by the river, and her hand is not on a wound spool at all, but around the neck of a bird, one of the smallest, one that has grown familiar with her. Dodging her stones and her swats, it often sleeps in her hair with its head tucked behind the lobe of her left ear as if about to tell her a secret, but it never speaks, and she has nearly killed it now—must have grabbed it in her sleep. She holds the tiny throat, feeling with her thumb the little bird heart like a white blister to burst, and she doesn’t want to let go because the kite will be lost, the boy will cry. She holds tightly and, oh, she can feel the heart like a tiny seed, loose and unencumbered by a large and clunky chest bone like hers. Just a grape seed loose in pulp and pressed, and pressed. But the eye of fright and appeal gets through to her dream-mind and the kite colors fade. She cannot call them back. She cannot save them. She can­not save the self that refused them. She saves the only part of her that can be saved: the thumb at the bird’s throat: lifting it, she lets go. Or, anyway, unpins the thing, but still softly rings the neck. Pets. Howls.

Why did you choose this excerpt?

I’m not sure, but it’s often been a magnetic section for me. The recurrence of imagery here is important to me, the kites, the birds, the estrangement from self and others. It’s a new kind of writing for me, too, to enter the dream-mind as an extension of the essayistic imagination. The section is a sample of the blur between pure fiction and the essay’s impulse to seek something doggedly through all the wrinkles in the brain. This long essay also tries to depict and embody the relentless instability of emotions in grief: regret, guilt, anger, relief, hate, love, regret again, guilt again, and so on. This section seems to exhibit that attempt. Also madness, the kinship madness has with grief in its power to unmoor. The section shows, in all that instability, that there are inexplicable moments of mercy.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

When I read Simone Weil the first few times, I was struck by her notion that “contempt is the contrary of attention.” I wanted these essays to be acts of attention. Contempt rules our world and tyrannizes the way we act with one another, whether it manifests as self-aggrandizement or ridicule or pity. That’s an Annie Dillard verb too, the imperative: attend. It’s perhaps one of the essay form’s highest functions.

What’s the oldest essay in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

“Woman with Spirits” may be the oldest in terms of material I was trying to access. I first wrote about Eliza when she was still living and I was fifteen and my high school English teacher Fran Kirk (a wonder) used photographs to unlock our stories, and Eliza’s being photographed was a story I wanted to unlock. I knew her story only second-hand, but it felt central to understanding the place I came from. Fast forward many years and many theory books on photography later (Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber), I tried the material as an essay in grad school, first somewhat flatly, as a straightforward narrative about the photographers coming to Eliza’s during the War on Poverty media campaigns; in that version, the essay did explore ethics of photography and the nature of how we see one another, but it had no lift. Then I came across this line from Kafka: We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes. I tried the lines as an epigraph and meditated on the connection between photography and driving someone away, exorcizing someone, and then new strands entered the essay: a narrative of an exorcism I’d witnessed in Eastern Europe, and a sub-strand of an exorcism I’d heard on Christian radio as a child. I further researched Walker Evans’ documentary photography that was made in my home state and other material on the ethics of photographing the poor, and over time, I was able (I hope) to begin to show the complexity of portraiture itself. Since the essays that follow “Woman with Spirits” in the book are also portraits in varying degrees, they all exist for me in an uneasy space that I hope might provoke conversation about how we see and regard one another.

How did you decide on the title of your book?

The prologue to the book is a distillation of what used to be a very long essay called “The Beatty Portraits” that focused on members of Beatty Church in my home community. There was, as the prologue depicts, a hand pump for drinking in the grove across the road from the church which had no indoor plumbing. Its emblem of spiritual thirst has always remained central for me, a key image that helped my young self become. Once, describing the drink from the pump, I used the phrase “a long weeping kiss,” which eventually got cut for its inaccuracy, but I remained drawn to the mix of grief, longing, and love the image held. Thus, the title. Also, the book’s title is an homage to Dorothy Day whose spiritual autobiography The Long Loneliness is a major influence on my life and writing.

Which essay in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

The extended, episodic portrait of Rizpah may be the most meaningful to me because it best embodies the act of portraiture as the seeking of companionship, as the need to fix on someone’s face. I had my own versions of grief going on at the time of writing about her, and she was someone I could sit down in the rocks with, not as a mirror for me—her griefs are unspeakable and not to be conflated with mine—but as a soul that bore what was unbearable—as many people do every day—and as a way to embody the question (without answering it in a facile way): what’s on the other side of life’s disappointments and devastations?

Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?

This book evolved over twelve years. I did not work on it consistently; in fact, I wrote two novels during that period. But I always return to the essay form, even when immersed in a novel project. Essays written and revised over such a long span, though, shift significantly in voice and focus. So I had to revise, or revocalize, older essays as the manuscript came together. It helped me to focus on the portrait form, to limit the kinds of essays I wanted to include. And the theme of loss and grief also coalesced across essays, grief over immediate losses (like a divorce) and also grief inherent to human existence.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I don’t know if I have a favorite strategy, but it often helps me to cannibalize parts of essays, or whole essays (or even sections across genres—failed poems or short stories or novel chapters) and use them in new work. One short essay in the book, “Work Ethic,” is actually an outtake from the novel I’m working on. My mother still uses a wringer washer and she keeps a few other washers around (covered neatly with a quilt and used as a shelf for the time being) so she can cannibalize them for parts when she needs to. I do this a lot with passages—lone sentences or images, or big chunks, or scraps of dialog, phrases I obsess over that don’t work in another project. Sometimes it can lead to a happy accident of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “widowed image,” an image shaved from its context and used someplace unexpected so that it takes on new vibrancy. My process of writing “Without” was one of cannibalization (which is a pun of sorts, I suppose, since the essay focuses on eating and nourishment). I had an old essay about fasting that bore the title “Without,” and I had another called “The Slaughterers Copybook” which looked into the butchering of animals I did as a child, and I had a ton of notes on Simone Weil, as well as a long readerly autobiography from my history of reading her at various times in my life. The material started layering in together and became, I hope, a more dynamic essay than any of those singular pieces were on their own.

What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

I felt a strong resonance with Orison from the very beginning. Their commitment to spirituality as valid and relevant and highly fraught subject matter attracted me, and they’ve been great to collaborate with. Luke Hankins is determined in his work to produce quality books, and I loved going back and forth with Nathan Poole, the nonfiction editor, on revisions for the book. I felt they understood my intentions and honored them (and also reined in my sprawling syntax). I’m thrilled, too, that Vince Trimboli—a fine WV artist and fine poet who graduated from the MFA program at WV Wesleyan College that I direct—gave us permission to use his artwork for the cover.

*

Jessie van Eerden is author of the novels Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012), winner of ForeWord Reviews’ Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize, and My Radio Radio (Vandalia Press, 2016), and the essay collection The Long Weeping (Orison Books, 2017). Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, Willow Springs, and other publications. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

*

www.wvwc.edu/MFA

www.jessievaneerden.com

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

“Narrative is its own kind of medicine.”

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2017)

You open the poem “After Electric I” with the lines, “After the electricity / her mouth slipped open / and her tongue loosened / all over—spilled out / what doctors wanted.” Similarly, in your essay “My Voice for their Drugs,” you create striking images of the inhibition of speech: “There is a salamander in my throat, his black body slimy with regret, his claws piercing my words.” How does this theme of the inability to articulate experiences characterize your work?

I’m interested in the inability to articulate experiences as it is related to silence. There is a long history of silencing medical patients, for we tend to value medical authority rather than patient perspective. Those with mental illnesses have the added difficulty of “proving” they can be trusted and being required to tell their stories within a framework of reality they may not occupy. It is hard to describe the outrageous fears of anxiety, the compulsions of OCD, or the truth of hallucination to those for whom they are not a reality. The burden falls on patients to frame their stories in a way the healthy world understands or is willing to accept. Silence, then, becomes a powerful tool by those in power to regulate which narratives are privileged and which are stigmatized.

At the same time, however, silence can be an active, purposeful rhetorical move, a choice that grants power by way of its agency. Patients can choose what to reveal and to whom. Those who feel forced into certain narrative pathways or coerced into certain power dynamics can employ silence as a strategy. They can voice their stories within their communities, resisting dominant narratives to share with audiences that are willing to accept diverse ways of knowing, being, and telling in the world. My work is interested in both these forms of silence and tries to tease out the implications, pitfalls, and possibilities of articulating the inexpressible. I want to fill imposed silence with narratives that complicate our understandings of mental illness, but also employ silence as a strategy through white space, time shifts, and experimental form.

In “Bloom,” you describe a pit – “dense walnut wrinkle” – that transforms by the end of the poem into a “pearl / luminescent.” Is this conversion analogous to the process of embracing mental illness as a part of identity? How does that journey inform your poetry?

Absolutely—we often rely on the narrative that mental illness is wrong and that patients must “fight,” branding them a “failure” if they somehow do not succeed in ridding themselves of their diagnosis. But for many, mental illness is the lens through which we view the world. It is an embodied, lived reality that cannot and should not be separated from the individual. Accepting my anxiety, OCD, and PTSD as inherent parts of my identity rather than deficits or embarrassments was crucial to my understanding of self and mental diversity. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate these qualities about myself, for though they can pose challenges, they enrich my understanding of the world, my engagements with others, and my ability to be a writer, editor, and teacher. I am far better because of them, a narrative that flies in the face of what we are often taught to believe about mental illness—and something I examine in my forthcoming memoir, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir.

“Prescription Doll” seems to take a harsh or perhaps contemptuous view of prescription medication for mental illness. “Prescription dolls simply need a windup,” the poem opens, “pinprick pills to turn keys.” It ends with the line, “Wind yourself up, rosebud mouth. Smile.” Do contempt and sympathy both play a role in this poem, and if so, how?

Medications help millions of people with mental illnesses survive—for many, a prescription is the difference between life and death. One of the worst criticisms of mental health care is that people are weak for taking medications. So I’m not critical of prescription medications as much as the rhetoric surrounding them, particularly in wellness marketing. This poem responds to a series of print and commercial Pristiq ads that depict depressed patients as windup dolls slowed to a stop—or “broken”—because of their illness. When medicated, the dolls are suddenly “fixed,” reenergized and productive. What is problematic about this narrative is that it dehumanizes patients and oversimplifies mental illness, making it a mechanical malfunction with an easy fix—even though medications do not always work for patients and certainly not as quickly as the advertisement makes it appear, and many patients manage symptoms with multiple approaches. The ads also imply patients must perform certain tasks or roles to be considered “well” or “productive,” which becomes a means to police behavior and emotion.

More problematic, however, is the fact that nearly all of the dolls are women, as though only women need to be medicated, or worse still, as though mental illness is a woman’s illness. When “wound down,” the dolls each wear drab, ill-fitting clothing, their hair hanging limply about their expressionless faces. They are overwhelmingly depicted alone.  Dolls who take the medication wear bright, formfitting clothes and perform gendered tasks like hosting parties, cooking for families, and doing yoga. The narrative constructed in the ad is that mentally ill women are unattractive, unfashionable, and unlovable. Even the use of dolls to replace women is suspect, shaping our cultural expectations about gender roles and responsibilities and our ideas about what constitutes a “normal” or “sane” woman.

Does composing poetry energize or exhaust you? What about writing nonfiction?

I derive energy from writing each genre but find poetry to be a welcome respite from the personal reflection required of me in nonfiction writing. Writing memoir in particular requires me to dig through my past, focus on myself, and in the case of Quite Mad, spend long moments with painful memories and occupy unhealthy or unhappy mental spaces in order to more effectively write about them. While I’m immensely proud of this book, the writing was long, emotional, and anxiety-producing. Not all of my nonfiction requires this—I enjoy place-based writing, science writing, and the intellectual movement afforded by the personal essay—but my memoir certainly proved taxing.

I began writing poetry as distraction or palate cleanser from my memoir. In poems I can write about anything—strange science facts, historical tidbits, a rainy day. I can occupy other voices, which was a kind of freedom when memoir required me to stick closely to my experiences and my family’s history. I examined space exploration in my first poetry chapbook and living on the Great Plains in my second. And Regenerate, while inspired by my own experiences with mental illness, is largely a collection of persona poems from historical and literary madwomen. Along the way, I discovered that I enjoy writing both and now write the two genres simultaneously—working on particular elements of craft in one genre (voice or image or rhythm) invariably leads to discoveries in the other.

“Stain” evokes a dark image of an abusive partner in a relationship: “his hand patting / her hindquarters / insistent then, as now / as he pulls her / towards his eager body.” Has the subject of abuse impacted your writing? Could you tell us a little about this?

The link between trauma and mental illness cannot be understated, and my discussions of mental illness invariably involve discussions of abuse—violence leading to diagnosis, violence in the treatment of mental illness patients in this country, the violence we erroneously label as a symptom of mental illness. Mental illness rates have historically been much higher for women, and much of this can be attributed both to the ways we treat the female body and mind and to the violence that so often accompanies the female experience. When we look at rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, harassment and stalking, unpaid and underpaid labor, the burden of invisible domestic labor, and other factors, it can come as no surprise that so many women experience depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. When it is reinforced daily that women are less than, are wrong, are not worthy, are disposable, are broken, it is no wonder bodies and brains react with pain, fear, dissociation, and confusion. It is not just my writing about mental illness that is fueled by explorations and critiques of cultures of abuse, however. My previous books and current projects about the history of the Great Plains, representations of wicked women, and the cultural expectations of motherhood all require an acknowledgement and an interrogation of the roles of systemic abuse.

In your nonfiction essay “My Voice for their Drugs,” you discuss the inherent incommunicability of pain. Citing Elaine Scarry, you write, “Sufferers cannot articulate their truths and those without pain cannot begin to comprehend. What exists for those in pain is simply unreal to those without it.” However, you have also commented on the relief that can come from sharing struggles with friends and being part of community. How, if at all, has this redemptive aspect of community influenced your writing?

While it is difficult to share the experience of pain with those who have no context for the reality of chronic mental and physical ache, there is a wonderful relief, a joy even, in recognizing your lived experience in others. I’ve received far more nurturing from the stories of other patients than I have from medical writing, and the vibrancy of the community has reframed the way I view my illnesses—mental illness is an inherent identity I claim proudly, a benefit that allows me to see the world more richly and to live in it more fully. Erasure occurs when patients are met with disbelief time and again, so to have someone see you—to not only accept, but to validate and value your story—is incredibly healing. Narrative is its own kind of medicine.

A theme that emerges from “My Voice for their Drugs” is the overwhelming inability to speak up about mental illness, the kind of seizing that occurs when trying to articulate such confusing and complicated emotions. However, you write so eloquently and with such vivid imagery: “Shortness of breath like the time I blew up too many balloons, like falling into the deep end of a pool as a child, like running in the humid south, like breathing through gauze, through purple velvet, like eating too much shortbread or chewing on a cotton ball.” Could this irony be seen as a statement about the empowering nature of writing?

First, thank you! And yes, writing opens up both literal and metaphorical spaces for narratives often overlooked or ignored in favor of medical texts and perspectives. Part of what we require from patients is a reliance on symptoms, medical terms, the power structure of physician and patient, and a particular narrative arc that requires patients to translate or edit their narratives for the healthy world. These requirements can be incredibly limiting for patients who may have other ways of articulating their pain, but creative writing and narrative medicine empower patients to craft narratives on their own terms, to determine what is important, to establish and enforce the tools they believe necessary to the tale, and most important, to take ownership of the narrative with a kind of agency and action a ten-minute doctor’s visit simply can’t accommodate.

In “Marguerite,” the voice in the poem seems to be collective first person: “She paused by the door as if to speak, / and how we wished she’d used that mouth.” Who are the speakers in this poem, and how does your poetry represent the voices of those other than yourself?

This is one of the few poems in the book directly inspired by my own life—the poem describes a girl bullied by boys on the school bus each day. I distinctly recall riding the bus: many girls confined to a few seats in the front while a few young male students occupied much of the rear, antagonizing female students and threatening them with bodily injury if they entered male-claimed space or even so much as spoke back. Marguerite was one of the last to get on the bus each day so she had to sit in dangerous territory and experience daily harassment, which she did stoically and silently. The “we” in this poem are the girls who witnessed as Marguerite claimed space from those that sought to deny it to her. We were both proud of her efforts—we never ventured to the rear—and simultaneously wished she were braver, as she never spoke back and was clearly made miserable by the taunts. In many ways, Marguerite was scapegoat and saint, someone we hoped we’d never become yet also desperately wished to emulate. Stories like this are hardly new, so this poem and others in the collection voice a collective “we” that silently witnesses harassment, abuse, and violence and occupies poetic space in order to challenge culpable silence.

Do you prefer writing nonfiction or poetry? What about an idea indicates to you that it would be better expressed in nonfiction or in poetry?

I enjoy writing both and tend to work on projects in two genres simultaneously. For example, right now I’m hard at work on a collection of poems and a collection of essays. Certainly length and space play a role in determining the genre of each project—the scope and subject of my current nonfiction project requires the length and narrative space of the genre. But the creative processes each genre affords also influence my decisions—I tend to be more playful with poetry and more reflective in prose—so the project usually determines the genre. And the flexibility and freedom to move between genres—and in many cases to break the arbitrary borders between them—is something I derive energy from as a writer.

*

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, as well as three poetry chapbooks, including Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women. Her work has been notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared in The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review, DIAGRAM, Terrain, and others. She has been the Nonfiction Editor for Prairie Schooner since 2011, and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University, where she teaches creative writing, disability studies, and women’s literature.

*

www.sarahfawnmontgomery.com

@SF_Montgomery

Angie Crea O’Neal

“Writing is inherently hopeful. I have long thought that what motivates me to write, above all other things, is a longing for wholeness and completeness.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 10.21.26 AM

The Way Things Fall (Anchor & Plume Press, 2017)

You allude to Romantic poets throughout your poems. How does your work as a professor of British literature influence your themes and writing style?

I was a student and then a teacher of literature long before I started writing. I don’t think I realized then that, during all that time spent admiring the work of other writers, whether it was Wordsworth, Austen, even Annie Dillard, I was discovering my own voice, slowly making my way to the page. Those years in the classroom provided me with the intellectual tinder I needed to fire up my own work. I’m continually inspired by what I still discover about texts I’ve read many times before, and, more often than not, this process of discovery and inspiration takes place within the context of the classroom and a study of “the canon.” After all, the human experience really hasn’t changed that much in the last 200 (even 1,000) years or so—the basic struggles of life remain the same across time. This is why, after my divorce, teaching Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” helped me to understand and articulate my pain in ways that were as true as conversations with friends and mentors. When I look back at the book’s “narrative arc,” I realize that most of the poems chronicle a decade-long process of confronting loss and the ways this process has taken spiritual, relational, geographical, and even literary forms. To see my students having the same kind of personal and spiritual experience with literature, and to know that I played some small part in that, gives my teaching and my writing greater purpose. I think I’ve been inspired in this by Holly Ordway and her concept of “literary apologetics.” Her book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, is a valuable read.

In “Theodicy,” you write, “Maybe it was gravity, not villainy…,” which hints at ideas of God’s allowance of evil rather than his creation of evil. Was there a particular work or thinker that influenced the philosophy behind this poem?

It’s hard to isolate a single influence, but if I had to cite one thinker, it would be C.S. Lewis. In The Problem of Pain, he explores the issue philosophically, while in A Grief Observed he does so on a raw emotional level. Both books have been profoundly influential to me and are must-reads for anyone (read: everyone) who struggles to understand evil, death, and suffering. In “Theodicy,” I am seeking, exploring, trying to reconcile personal suffering with the same suffering I see in the natural world around me, a nexus of suffering in which I, too, am implicated. The poem challenged me to think of my trials from a new vantage point to avoid the pitfalls of solipsism and self-pity that personal trials can inspire. In some ways, pain can become an idol that traps us in a cycle of cynicism and dysfunction, even violence. The only way out of that is to see the drama from an authentic place of humility, a place where we can find freedom from it only by extending to others the same grace and forgiveness we have been given. By doing so, we embrace some mysterious and otherworldly form of justice that has the power to truly transform and heal. G.K. Chesterton was once asked what he thought was wrong with the world, to which he simply replied, “Dear Sir, I am.” Studying writers like Chesterton and Lewis have changed the way I understand sin and evil as not just things “out there” but things “in here,” ideas which occupy the emotional terrain of this poem as well.

The theme of gravity is also present in “Maricopa County Fair,” but here “zero gravity holds us together.” How do you reconcile gravity’s role of unification in this poem to gravity’s function of separation in “Theodicy”? What does gravity mean to you with respect to this chapbook?

I think this all boils down to me watching George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity one too many times! Despite the film’s vacuous landscapes, I was inspired to imagine space not only as empty and terrifying but as a place sublimely outside of time, where things, beyond the reach of gravity, might remain immutable, constant, even eternal. “Maricopa County Fair” expresses this longing to find that place where things don’t fall apart, where things—relationships in particular—aren’t subject to change. I’m completely terrified by carnival and amusement park rides, so that poem captures my very real phobia of falling and uses it to explore the equally terrifying psychological and emotional experience of falling out of a marriage.

What is the inspiration behind “Entropy” and its ideas of maturation and true identity?

I first became acquainted with the term when I bought my quaint 1935 Tudor bungalow nearly ten years ago. Newly divorced and on my own after living with friends and family for over a year, I was eager to feel settled in a permanent home with my girls, then ages 4 and 1. Little did I know what owning a vintage home would entail—patchwork plumbing that would give me fits for years, an underground wet-weather spring that would flood my basement/crawl-space, constant upkeep. Then, I turned 40 and realized maintaining an old house is not so different from maintaining an aging body, as both are subject to the law of entropy—which, in a nutshell, is the tendency for systems to move towards disorder: cars don’t get newer, bodies don’t get younger, homes don’t renovate themselves. I think my poem is a feeble attempt to find imaginative freedom from the cultural demand that we can and should somehow outwit nature, that we are more powerful than the laws of physics. You can’t escape math unless you stop trying to get life to add up and embrace the uncertainty and chaos instead. It’s like seeing the world through the lens of quantum versus classical physics, I suppose—not that I understand either!

One of my favorite poems from The Way Things Fall is “Clocks” because it cleverly combines a lack of time with a maturing perception of time. What is the relationship between the passage of time and personal relationships in this poem? Does this idea of time relate to your poems about divorce and the inconsistency of nature?

This is one of several poems about my dad, who figures prominently in the collection and to whom the book is dedicated. He has always been an avid reader, and so I owe much of my love of books and words to him, since he read to me and my brothers tirelessly when we were little. He was a hands-on father, from making us breakfast every morning to taking us on random excursions—even if it was only to our backyard, as I recount in the poem “Orbit.” “Clocks” was inspired by a childhood memory of him lifting us up by his thumbs—one of our favorite games—juxtaposed against more recent memories of him always setting my clocks to the right time. He worked most of his life for Northwest Airlines, loading and unloading airplanes, and so he was always very strong. Having turned 83 back in May, he is no longer the robust father of my youth, and this poem pays tribute to him and the ways he still shows his love and care for me. I’ve realized by writing these poems how much he invested in his family and just how far his devotion extended. In the titular prose piece that is placed in the middle of the collection, I recount a summer I spent in Glacier National Park during college. My mother was nervous about me traveling that far on my own, and so my dad accompanied me on every leg of the trip out there and then flew back again in the fall to bring me home. The mortality of a parent, as much as our own, is a difficult truth to face and one that sends shock waves through my soul. But, I’m grateful for an earthly father who, despite all the inexplicable vagaries of life, would never leave me to find my way out of the wilderness on my own. What a gift that has been to me. He is not a perfect father, any more than I am a perfect mother, but he comes oh so close.

Your chapbook explores childhood memories and maturation, and in “Extinction,” you even directly address one of your daughters. Do you find the ability to reflect on your childhood while watching your daughters experience their own to be a significant source of inspiration for your writing?

Absolutely. Toni Morrison once said that writers are like water, always trying to find the way “back to our original place.” I think that’s what many of my poems attempt to do, exploring the strange prophetic quality of memory and the way the past shadows the present and illumes the future. My eldest daughter, Marin, is a voracious reader and my youngest, Maeve, loves to write stories; just the other night, Maeve wanted me to help her edit a narrative she wrote for school. It’s a joy to watch them grow up so well, becoming young women with such wisdom and compassion. But at the same time, it also feels like loss. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Extinction,” which grapples with Marin turning 11 and outgrowing her bunk bed. I also love “Hosea plays in the rain,” which describes Maeve and her friends playing with the water hose in the yard on a hot summer day. These are simple, even cliché childhood moments that may seem sentimental. In some ways, I understand the pathos of what Wordsworth must have felt watching, from the vantage point of age and experience, his younger sister Lucy still living in the “thoughtless days of youth.” Maybe these poems are my “abundant recompense.”

I noticed that you write about God and religion throughout your poems and in your blog articles. Do you find writing to be a spiritual practice or even a way of solidifying your faith?

Yes, definitely. On the most basic level, writing is an act of faith. Rarely do I know what a piece is about when I start writing it; writing is itself an act of discovery that requires a stepping out and gradual clarity. With each new piece, there’s a risk of failure and the inevitability of rejection, but a writer writes on anyway, despite it all. Writing is inherently hopeful. I have long thought that what motivates me to write, above all other things, is a longing for wholeness and completeness. Like Conrad expresses in the book’s epigraph, I think creativity is a gift God gives us, a momentary fulfillment on this earth of our deepest longing to understand, to set things right, to see “into the life of things,” as Wordsworth said. Writing doesn’t change the material conditions of our life, but it can alter our understanding of these conditions, our attitude and our behavior. In this way, writing is a spiritual practice that, like prayer, can change the world, one heart and mind at a time—starting with our own.

Do you have a favorite contemporary author, and if so, does his or her writing influence your own? Do you ever attempt to emulate new styles or techniques?

Annie Dillard. When I read and taught her essay “Living Like Weasels” for the first time years ago, it was one of those turning points in my writing life. Her audacious style challenged me to loosen the restraints a little, letting go of some of my writerly inhibitions. Her attention to the finest details of the natural world, gleaning wisdom from all created things, taught me that writing isn’t about waiting for those epiphanic, mountain-top moments of inspiration but rather about taking what we are given, what’s around us, and finding the meaning in them through the process of writing itself. That may seem like an obvious principle, but I didn’t understand that for a long time. I was often paralyzed by the notion that I had to start with the dazzling and the profound and work my way to the particulars when in fact the process is exactly the opposite. Dillard taught me that if she can write so spectacularly and profoundly about a weasel, maybe I could write a little less so about the seemingly non-entities of my own life and experience.

Could you discuss the relationship between your writing process and your research? Do you research to supplement an idea, or are you more apt to write because of the ideas that arise during research?

I will say here what I tell my students all the time, that research is as essential for creative projects as it is for academic ones. Without it, a piece can often lack depth, relying too much on the voice and thoughts of the author. Research adds layers of meaning, detail, and complexity. Many of the poems in TWTF relied on outside research, especially “Imago,” which required me to study the life cycle of cicadas. Through research, I was able to find interesting vocabulary (words like imago, timbal, even thrumming) and a fresh way of describing the cliché idea of lost innocence. Studying the river dolphins in India helped me to express my emotions in “Extinction.” I could cite many other examples. Doing research is also a technique I use to work my way out of writer’s block. It never fails to pull me out of my own cycles of thought and allows me to make new and interesting connections.

*

Angie Crea O’Neal’s poems have appeared in the Cumberland River Review, San Pedro River Review, Kentucky Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Gravel, and Kindred. Her chapbook The Way Things Fall is available from Anchor & Plume Press. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she received a Ph.D. in English from Arizona State University and currently holds the Joan Alden Speidel Chair in English at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia, where she lives with her daughters.

*

https://angiecreaoneal.com/

Leah Tieger

“Whenever I let my ambition get in the way of gratitude, I remember my earlier self and let her revel in the win.”Tieger Interview Pic

We and She, You and Then, You Again (Finishing Line Press, 2017)

What motivated you to split your work into these specific sections: “We,” “She,” “You,” “Then,” “You Again”? What do each of these sections refer to?

I found myself writing a lot in the second person, either plural or singular, and at the same time I found myself writing in the third person about a mysterious She. The book’s progression (from a plural togetherness to a mysterious other; from the self to an effacement of self; to a final arrival at the self again) traces the overall complications of self and other, how we constantly come together and grow apart, and how we are changed in the process.

“Cedar” is my favorite of the collection, because it evokes nostalgia through raw imagery: “Our questions unwind us like sweaters.” Does the poem suggest we seek answers in people and interpret life like it’s language?

I’m very happy to hear that “Cedar” spoke to you. The poem, like many in this collection, is concerned with the ineffable and impossible nature of interpersonal connection. In “Cedar,” that connection is fleeting and riddled with entropy, with moths and dust, with lost commas and devastating questions. If “Cedar” suggests that we interpret life like it’s language, then the poem also suggests that language is simultaneously the best and worst tool for interpreting life.

In the section, “She,” there are many instances of women eating things that normally would not be consumed. The lines in the appropriately-named poem “Eat” that say, “She watches you watching her / so she picks them up / and eats them / orders more…” indicate that this woman might be repressing things due to pressure from others. Does this theme of eating reflect the suppression of women in light of society’s watchful eye?

In a way, yes. A lot of the poems in this section address desire and the repression of desire (both from the self and from others). I think in the case of “Eat,” the She persona swallows her most intrinsic desires, partially to keep them private from watchful eyes, but also to make a performance of doing so. I think the action stands as a metaphor for the many ways in which feminine desire is both reviled and objectified (and the ways in which that revulsion and objectification are so often concurrent).

Throughout your chapbook you reference Marfa or the Marfa Lights, specifically in the poems “American Grandchild” and “Planet Marfa.” In my understanding, Marfa is a small town in West Texas, known for the mysterious and unexplained lights that appear in the desert on the outskirts of town. When did you first hear of this phenomenon and decide to write about it?  

I first saw the Marfa Lights in 2010, and I saw them a second time in 2015. They eventually made their way into my work because there’s no definitive explanation for their existence. It’s sort of the same fascination I have with the unexplored depths of the ocean. I’m interested in how little we understand about our planet the same way I’m interested in how little we understand about ourselves.

Through the chapbook you reference culturally specific details, like crawdads and banjos, which led me to wonder if you grew up in the South. I read that you currently live in Texas, but did you grow up there as well? Did your childhood impact the setting of these poems?

I’ve lived in Texas for over a decade, but I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. You might find faint whispers of my childhood in “Gulf” and “I-30, I-20, Farm to Market Road,” but this book is very much about the Texas landscape. My adopted home is a chimera of disparate climates and cultures, and California is a chimera of the same. In that way, Texas and California are in conversation with one another, but they are also entirely different creatures. I think I’m trying to say that place is as mutable as the self, and I hope that comes through in the collection.

You seem to use different structures throughout the chapbook, such as couplets or blocks of text without line breaks. Were you experimenting with structure? How do you decide on the structure of a poem?

I’m always experimenting with structure. While there’s a very loose pseudo-sonnet in “American Grandchild,” I write almost exclusively in free verse; for me, each poem moves toward or away from existing forms on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes I write in lines as they arrive, other times I’ll write without stopping and break the lines later. Either way, I tend to try out different structures as I revise. I don’t stop until I’m happy with the interplay between content and form.

Is there an author that made you believe (directly or indirectly) that you could become a writer?

This is really silly to admit, but I had an illustrated book of nursery rhymes organized by author, and a lot of the rhymes were credited to Anonymous. I was maybe five years old at the time, so I thought Anonymous was a single person, maybe someone from ancient Greece. I thought if Anonymous could write so many poems in so many voices and styles, that I could probably write a few myself. By the time I knew better, I was already a writer.

If you could give your future self something to remember about your current writing goals, what would it be?

Compassion. By which I mean: sometimes my present self doesn’t celebrate reaching a goal because I’ve worked so long and hard for it, but my earlier self—the self who couldn’t imagine reaching that goal—she would have been thrilled. Whenever I let my ambition get in the way of gratitude, I remember my earlier self and let her revel in the win. It’s an approach that applies to a lot more than writing.

What is your dream literary publication that you hope to be included in?

I just had a poem accepted in Pleiades, and that was definitely a dream come true. I’d really love to have a poem in Gulf Coast or Los Angeles Review someday.

Do you have a set amount of time each day that you devote to writing? Is it difficult for you to stick with your writing goals?

I don’t set time-based writing goals because I tend to beat myself when I don’t meet them, which makes me avoid writing altogether. Sometimes I write a lot and sometimes I don’t, but I tend to get antsy or blocked if I don’t sit down at my desk at least once a week. As long as I make sure that happens, the rest works itself out.

How many writing projects do you currently have in the works?

I tend to write on the fly in notebooks and make sense of the mess afterward, so I think there’s probably a few collections in the mix. That said, the main thread I’m focused on traces the interplay between power and perception, and those poems are part of my first full-length manuscript. Right now I’m calling it Forced Perspective.

Who is a poet you aspire to learn from?

Maybe it’s cheesy, but I aspire to learn from every single poet I encounter. I just got back from the Texas Book Festival, where I got to hear Chen Chen, Morgan Parker, and Sam Sax read from their new books. I’m reading collections by Erin Adair-Hodges, Bruce Weigl, and Gabrielle Calvocoressci at the moment, and I’m almost always reading poems by Audre Lord, Muriel Rukeyser, and Adrienne Rich.

*

Leah Tieger is the poetry contest editor for American Literary Review, as well as cofounder and host of WordSpace’s Looped readings in Dallas. She was a finalist for the 2016 Raynes Poetry Prize and (thanks to Menacing Hedge!) a 2017 Pushcart prize nominee. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Entropy, Rattle, and Heavy Feather Review.

*

leahtieger.com

Sara Moore Wagner

“I feel like most art searches for God in some way. So does mine.”

 Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 10.22.31 AM

Hooked Through (Five Oaks Press, 2017)

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? 

I would go visit my dad on the weekends as a kid. He had this old (well, new then) computer which was really only a word processor. I’d spend the whole weekend writing on that thing. At that time, I wrote stories and plays for the neighborhood kids. I liked to be seen as a writer then, and I think I knew it was what I’d always want to do. Eventually that turned into poetry I’d write for the preacher’s son (yes, really). Short answer, I guess I always just naturally turned to writing.

The dedication of your chapbook says, “For Cohen, my first born.” Are you often inspired to write for your family? 

Yes. Cohen is eight now. When I had him, I was going through a long writing dry spell.  I’ve met people who say they stopped writing after having kids, but for me it was the opposite. I came into myself as a writer after I became a mother. I dedicated the book to him because sometimes I would look at him and feel this terror about the world in front of him, which of course I couldn’t express to him. I also write for my husband a lot. I actually send him every poem in its first draft stage, so he’s always my first audience.

During our Skype session, you mentioned that your grandfather is Native American and passed to you motifs about life and death from his culture. Could you say more about how Hooked Through draws on your familial lineage and Native American culture? 

My family moved from Appalachia to inner city Columbus before I was born, so they were relocated Native Americans (Cherokee/Seminole) in many ways—shrugging off their own culture in favor of assimilation. Despite this, there were still many stories and beliefs my grandfather passed on which I use in the book—my grandfather would hunt and fish and use every part of the animal, for instance. He was very in tune with nature. He was legally blind, but could go out into the middle of the lake and catch more fish than anyone else. He also would tend the earth, he had a huge, complex garden—and my family made different medicines and had a very holistic approach to healing and medicine which I used often in the book. I pepper images of all of this throughout. He is the bear, and I am the fish.

In “After the Burial,” the imagery is very vivid. How do you find these images in your mind’s eye? What place do you go to, mentally or physically, to attain such out-of-the-box descriptions?

For this poem, I think this was a real moment with my son—a dark sort of epiphany in nature. In general, though, I like to push myself to be a “literalist of the imagination,” to quote Marianne Moore. Sometimes I’ll turn to mythology or research to help jumpstart this sort of thought.

 In “Until I Learn to Let Go Part II,” you write a very short but impactful phrase, “Death is nothing like the stories I keep telling you. But neither is life.” This sentence rang very true to me because often, it can be difficult to portray the reality of life and death through writing. Could you tell us more about this phrase? What advice do you have for expressing serious meanings with few words? 

For me, story was such a central part of what I was trying to do with this chapbook, and it’s why I chose to separate it with Zipes and Bakhtin, whose theoretical work inspired how I approached mythological and family lore.  I wanted to find my place not only as a character in these stories and forms, but as a human being who, though she will die, may use her words to find the immortality the characters in these stories have. For, as Jack Zipes says, “tales are marks that leave traces of the human struggle for immortality” (“The Changing Function of the Fairy Tale”). Many speak about death theoretically, disconnection from death out of fear. There is a postmodern push toward really looking at death as a physical thing. Stories bring immortality, but I try to pull these classical bodies back to the world of the grotesque (a la Bakhtin) by infusing them with the fear of death. My core drive is to protect my son from this aspect of the world, something I believe story was created for. But in the end, stories can’t replace experience—so for me, that end was a kind of letting go.

As for the brevity, I think it’s just about cutting back and cutting back until you get to the real core of what you want to say. I spend most of my revision time cutting off the excess!

What do you like to do when you’re not writing? Do you ever find inspiration for your poetry in day-to-day activities and do you stop right then and write them down, or wait until later when you sit down to write?

I wish I could say I stop and write it down because I feel like I lose a lot not doing that. I have three kids now (the youngest being eight months), so I have to find quiet times to write, usually when they are all sleeping. I will often get a line or idea in my head I’ll keep spinning and spinning, then it’ll be a more fully developed poem when I get that time to put it on the page. I always want to be like Joan Didion with a journal, but I’ve not been that organized. Someday over the rainbow.

As for when I’m not writing, I like cooking, dance parties with my kids, obsessing over Tori Amos, long baths, TV Shows with strong female protagonists (thanks for the category, Netflix), folk art, travelling, and of course reading.

What does your writing and editing process look like for your poetry? 

I write pretty quickly, then spend a lot of time editing and revising. I will usually let a poem sit for a few months before I even touch it to revise because it gives me that fresh distance. I also have a great group of women (special shout out to Rae Hoffman Jager and Caroline Davis Plaskett) who I know I can count on to inspire me to keep writing, and who can offer me strong feedback when I hit a revision wall. I haven’t always had a writing group, but now I think it’s invaluable.

In Hooked Through you mention God a lot. What are your spiritual beliefs and how do they influence your writing? 

I grew up with conflicting spiritualities. From the Native American culture to my grandmother’s hardcore Pentecostalism, I’ve been surrounded by spirituality and religion. This has made me desire truth. The trauma explained in the book threw that into a tailspin, though. It’s hard to find belief in that much darkness. I feel like most art searches for God in some way. So does mine.

 What do you consider literary success? What would be the greatest advice you could give to a young writer looking to attain such success?

That’s a tough one! I’m not sure anyone really feels successful. Maybe someone like Mark Doty or Jorie Graham does. They seem to have it all, poetry wise—recognition, awards, etc. I guess there are the big names, then there are people I still think of as very successful, like Chen Chen who is becoming more widely read and discussed, and whose poetry moves and speaks to a broad range of people. I really don’t think of myself as completely successful, so I guess my advice to a young writer and to myself would be to just keep doing it. There’s a lot of rejection in the poetry world. My mentor Kelly Moffett always says “the best stuff is going to rise to the top.” When you’re in a huge thicket of rejection, just tell yourself that and keep going.

A common motif throughout your chapbook is teeth and skin. Is the process of developing a theme intentional, or do these motifs show up on their own? 

They definitely show up on their own. I don’t think you can force a theme too hard. For me, if I am dwelling on something, I come back to the same images over and over naturally. Teeth and skin are the parts of the body we see and touch, they are mostly what we know of the body, we see them age and decay.

 Who are some of your favorite authors and what kind of books do you read most often? 

I mostly read poetry and I love all sorts, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, H.D., Alice Notley, Anne Carson, Olga Broumas, Matthea Harvey, Harryette Mullen, Charles Wright—I loved Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, which I just read. I also do like to read fiction. I enjoy magical realism and fairy tale inspired stuff a la Angela Carter or Aimee Bender. I am most inspired by myth and epics. The Iliad is my absolute favorite. I’m currently working on a chapbook inspired by The Inferno.

If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be? 

Apply yourself! I feel like that’s what everyone would tell their younger self—I needed to, though.

 What is the meaning behind “As If Death Were Nothing”?

This poem illustrates my desire to take story to a pre-patriarchal place. The characters in it are connected to the earth, not to ideology. I also allude to many types of story (Eve, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood), but they are given an equal footing. What I want to show is that story in a natural instinct in humans and might help us get to the real in ourselves and the world.

Many of your poems make statements about life and death. Do all of these reflect your own opinion or do some of the poems have speakers who are different from you? 

I think they are and aren’t me. As I mentioned, in many of them I am trying to get at the nature of the stories we tell, so I take on the more traditional narrative voice of the fairy tale speaker. The first section after “Like a Fish” is meant to be more detached in this way, the second closer to me and my actual feelings.

 

*

 

Sara Moore Wagner is the author of the chapbook Hooked Through (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Stirring, Gigantic Sequins, Alyss, IDK Magazine, Reservoir, and Arsenic Lobster, among others, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. Her poetry has also been supported by a SAFTA residency and a merit scholarship from the Juniper Institute. She lives in Cincinnati with her filmmaker husband Jon and their children, Daisy, Vivienne, and Cohen.

 

 

www.saramoorewagner.com

 

 

David Russomano

“Each of these places got my attention for different reasons, but I suppose they all challenged my understanding of foreground and background.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 10.21.55 AM

(Reasons for) Moving (Structo Press2017)

What have you read that has shaped the way you write now?

I suppose I’ve read a fair amount of poetry, but (and this is just speculation) I don’t think I’ve read as much poetry as other serious poets have. I’m still actively trying to figure out who I really like and/or identify with and why. With that said, there are a few widely anthologized poets who’ve had varying degrees of impact on my writing: Robert Frost, W.C. Williams (or the idea of Imagism), Gerard Manly Hopkins, and to a lesser extent, T.S. Elliot.

Could you tell us about your path to becoming a writer and, more specifically, a copyeditor?

My path to becoming a writer probably started with the lyrics I came up with for my high school punk band, but choosing an English major in university was the real turning point. At that time, I made a conscious decision to carry a pen and paper at all times so that I would never miss a moment of inspiration. Nearly 15 years later, I’m still carrying pocket journals everywhere I go. In 2009 or 2010, a friend turned me on to a great database of literary journals and I started to get serious about submitting my work. I got my first poem published in 2011 and never looked back. As far as the copywriting goes, I was doing an MA course in creative writing when a few representatives from a local business scheduled a little recruitment session to see if any of the students could help improve the content on their website. I got the job and I’m still there now.

Do you tend to write during your travels, or is it something that you reflect on later?

A little of both. If I can, I take notes as things happen or shortly thereafter and turn them into poems later. Sometimes, the gap between the rough handwritten notes and the final draft (or even the first draft) of a poem can be several years long. Sometimes, the poem doesn’t spring out of notes at all. Instead, it’s just a memory that comes back to me out of nowhere or something I’ve been thinking about all along, but never written down.

What are your feelings as you reflect back on your published writings about your travels? Does it cause you to want to travel more?

I definitely want to travel more, regardless of whether or not I look back at the poems I’ve had published. There are still so many things I’d love to see. But, yes, I suppose when I re-read some of my travel poems, I think “That was great; I’d love to do more of that.” I probably spend more time day dreaming about it than I should.

Does reading your own work inspire you to write more poetry about those same travels?

I’d love to write a poem about every single noteworthy travel experience I’ve ever had in every place I’ve ever been. It’s a goal of mine, but I’m the first to acknowledge that it’s probably not realistic. When it comes to the places and/or experiences that I’ve already written about, sometimes I look at the poems and think “That’s all I have to say about that and I couldn’t put it better if I tried.” But I look at some older poems (which don’t appear in this collection) and think “I could do better; I should try again later.”

(Reasons for) Moving includes a variety of works from what seems to be a well-traveled life. How long did it take you to complete this chapbook in its entirety?

I’ve been working on this collection off and on since about 2013. That was the first time that I submitted a manuscript focusing on ideas of place and travel. Eight of the poems in that early version of the chapbook survived in one form or another and made it into (Reasons for) Moving, but countless others were cut and the whole thing changed shape several times along the way.

Why did your travels take you to places like Ankara, Phonsavan, and Phnom Bakheng? What compelled you to write about them?

From 2008 to 2012, I taught English in Indonesia, Thailand, and Turkey. While I was living in Indonesia, I took a trip to Cambodia to visit ruined temples, like Phnom Bakheng. Before leaving Thailand, I traveled through Laos and made it a point to visit the Plain of Jars, for which Phonsavan is the jumping off point. For the two years that I lived in Turkey, Ankara was my home.

Each of these places got my attention for different reasons, but I suppose they all challenged my understanding of foreground and background. In Ankara, the call to prayer was omnipresent, but it wasn’t until we left it behind that our experience of it really came into focus. In Phonsavan, an archeological site that should have been as apolitical as Stonehenge was overshadowed by the legacy of The Secret War. On Phnom Bakheng, I felt like I was sitting right in the middle of a manic intersection where binary oppositions like past/present; rich/poor; young/old; local/foreign; and distant/present all collided and crystallized into one superb irony.

Was travel a part of your childhood, or has most of your travel happened later in life?

My travels began with a university semester abroad in 2004 in Athens, Greece. For the next four years, I don’t think I let an entire year pass without leaving America for at least a little while. I’ve more or less been living abroad since the beginning of 2008.

I noticed that distant poems like “Ankara” interweave with poems located closer to home like “We Pass.” Could you discuss the connections between two places thousands of miles away from each other?

The last lines of The Catcher in the Rye are “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” This phrase comes to mind when I think of places like Ankara and Pennsylvania, because from where I’m standing now, they all seem equally distant and I miss them all in a similar way. I have this fanciful theory about memory and travel. Most people think that when you remember a place, it’s because some impression of that place has stayed with you. But I imagine that you actually leave a residue of your soul behind, and what you think are memories are actually moments of reconnection with the bits of yourself that are still back in those places, revisiting the same spots over and over. So, long story short, the thread that binds these disparate places together is me.

“Writing Home from Quepos” follows a prose style, which is unlike the other poems in (Reasons for) Moving. Why was this the only poem written in this form?

“Writing Home from Quepos” was an attempt to piece together an entire month’s worth of observations and impressions. I originally tried to turn this material into a series of postcard messages, but decided that it was better off in a single letter. Though, this letter actually un-writes itself. The speaker describes things as if addressing a specific recipient, but goes on to explain that some of those descriptions will ultimately be kept from them. As far as formal variety goes, it was important to me that this collection included several different approaches, lest it get boring or come across as too one trick pony-esque.

A common theme I noticed in these poems was the value of home. There’s a push and pull between the value of home and the wanderlust of travel that’s constantly contrasting. Could you tell us more about this contrast?

I remember hearing that Rimbaud pursued “derangement of all the senses.” If there’s such a thing as ‘sense of home,’ becoming a serious traveler completely deranges this. Eventually, there’s nothing behind you, around you, or ahead of you that truly constitutes a home. The impulse to look back in search of home is still there, but it’s mitigated by the impulse to look forward and wonder, “Where next?” It’s also about the tension between a desire for stability and a desire for discovery.

*

David Russomano’s poetry has appeared in roughly 40 digital and print literary journals and anthologies since 2011. In addition to being nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ 2012 Best of the Net Anthology, he was awarded the 2014 Faber & Faber Creative Writing MA Prize by Kingston University. His debut chapbook, (Reasons for) Moving, is available now from Structo Press.

*

  https://davidrussomano.wordpress.com/