Alyse Bensel

“These poems explore the monumental pressures put upon bodies to conform to specific beauty and behavioral ideals, especially how those struggles to achieve or reshape the physical self should appear easy.”

alyse bensel

Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018)

Could you tell us a bit about the title poem?

“Lies to Tell the Body” establishes the world of this chapbook, one in which men feel agency over women’s bodies, where women’s pain is delegitimized by the medical establishment, and where mistakes are often made when reclaiming the body. This poem, which opens the chapbook, serves as the map for the poems that follow. In fact, every poem could all get placed somewhere along the ridges and crevices.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I ordered the chapbook to follow the conversations between poems. For example, “Neighbors” and “Your Eye Is A Red Dwarf Planet” both revolve around distance and lost physical objects. The damaged satellite signals paired intuitively with the marked eye in the following poem.

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?

Ron Mohring, the editor of Seven Kitchens Press, was very open about the editorial and design process from the moment he emailed me about my manuscript. Lies to Tell the Body is part of the Summer Kitchens Series, which publishes limited edition runs of chapbooks that typically placed in the previous year’s competitions. The chapbooks in this series all have a similar design aesthetic, although Ron ran a few vintage quilting fabric designs he was considering for the cover by me for my approval. I also received a proof of the chapbook and discussed a few changes to help with the overall appearance of the poems, so I felt that I had considerable input for a chapbook of a print run of 49 copies.

Lies to Tell the Body seems, obviously, concerned with the speaker’s relationship to their body. At times, the speakers in your poems seem to reject, accept, or be betrayed by their bodies. Could you say a bit more about how your work explores alienation from and intimacy with the body?

These poems explore the monumental pressures put upon bodies to conform to specific beauty and behavioral ideals, especially how those struggles to achieve or reshape the physical self should appear easy. I wanted to display those scars and nonconformities despite these anxieties by having speakers admit to their conflicting desires to embody an unachievable ideal and to be wholly themselves.

“Do Not Consume Raw” plays out these tensions with the speaker shopping at Target—she’s disgusted with the idea of shrink-wrapped produce and begins to revel in the irony of trying to preserve her own youth through beauty products. Even as she’s likening her own body to the rhubarb, she’s also considering her past lovers as pinballs: metallic, disposable, unloving playthings. The body always points to something (or someone else) trying to control it.

Other speakers may approach their bodies differently, but they still arrive at the inevitable tension between what the outside world dictates as their desires, their own projected desires, and the reality of how their bodies move and interact with the world. There’s no simple solution to an “acceptance” or “rejection” of the body. Instead, the body remains in tension from desire to desire.

Plants and fruits appear in your chapbook often. I read in another interview at the York Daily Record that you worked on a community-supported agriculture farm. Could you reflect on the relationship between nature and the body in your poems?

I worked on CSA farms extensively for several years. But before that I grew up in a house with a modest garden that included green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, and several rhubarb plants. In Kansas, I kept a small garden of mostly chard and kale and a small herb garden in my front yard, so I have a history of being in and tending gardens. Harvesting produce for someone else educated me on proper growing and harvesting techniques and broadened my knowledge on produce. I could never have told you what kohlrabi or fava beans were until I began working for other farmers.

There is something very repetitive but meditative about picking produce, removing pests by hand, prepping onions in midsummer heat. When I was writing some of these poems, I returned back to that headspace, where the image of harvest and produce kept on returning. Farming and gardening are very bodily acts in which we sometimes end up projecting many of our fears and desires onto the plants. A lot of conversations happen between you and the plants when you’re out there, and not all of them have to do with growing techniques. The conversation may be one-sided, but it gets pretty personal.

The speaker in many of the poems seems to estimate their relationship to beauty, telling the reader, “I was pretty but not too pretty” and exploring how they are sometimes common, sometimes accidentally seductive. How does beauty and others’ response or nonresponse to it inform your writing?

You know that idea of having a full face of makeup that doesn’t look like you’re wearing makeup? There is that impossible task of conforming to beauty standards without appearing threatening to others. When critiquing others for superficial reasons, there is that cruel idea that if someone wears too much makeup they are trying too hard, but if they aren’t wearing any makeup, then they are just a plain, lazy human being. That contradiction—what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of beauty—informs this chapbook.

The women in your poems tell their listeners that they are resilient or strong. One teenager is given the power over water currents. What kinds of strength are you interested in giving the women in your poems and your readers?

In the periphery of these poems is a very real physical violence. When I was writing these poems a few summers ago I would take breaks to walk downtown. Men would slow down their cars and yell at me, honk their horns, follow me for periods of time. The catcall is a promise for control. I did not want the speakers and women in these poems to have control ripped from them. Even if they appear subservient, they are biding their time. That defiance is essential for me.

How does your former work as the Los Angeles Review Book Reviews Editor influence the way you read and write?

Being an editor, especially for book reviews, over the past several years has developed my critical eye for what I appreciate in a poetry collection and also to truly consider audience. If no one is responding to your work, or wants to have a conversation with you about your work, then there’s an issue.

Lies to Tell the Body is your third chapbook. Is there something about chapbooks that draws you to them? If so, what? If it just happened to work out that way, why is that?

Chapbooks are, for me, little experiments I can set in motion to see if my ideas are working before I go further with a concept. Each of my chapbooks has been its own experiment, sometimes attached to a larger concept or full length manuscript, other times only living within the scope of the chapbook.

*

Alyse Bensel is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.

https://www.alysebensel.com/

 

Nathan Charles Lipps

“I think this is one of those poems that many poets have where there’s a turning point in their writing. A shift towards something bigger and more mature.”

nathanlipps

the body as passage (Open Palm Print, 2019)

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

I grew up on a small farm in the rural landscape of western Michigan. There were cattle, chickens, and so on. There was that wonderfully awkward introduction to death and sex that one can find on any farm. We had a lot of rabbits. But mostly we grew asparagus. It was a conservative and religious world. I was quiet and liked to read. I wrote my first few poems in second grade. It felt good. I liked what could be done with words when they were freed from the constraint of a single moment—when there wasn’t someone standing there staring at me while my tongue tripped over the oral recitation of the English vernacular. I’ve been writing on and off since then. But it wasn’t until the end of high school that I began to take it seriously.

How do you decorate your writing space?

There is very little intentional decoration. I try to clean the clutter off my desk about once a week. I write the first draft for most of my poems in a paper notebook with a pen. This can happen anywhere. I try to sit outside if the weather is tolerable.

Of course, currently my writing space is basically my living space: a studio apartment on a hilltop in the woods that overlooks the city of Binghamton. The rest of the building is vacant. I keep many plants inside, and I live with a beagle (Dill).

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

FOREIGN

This day.

Looking for the goat lost

over that hill. And finding

the gun.

Learning the music

of a spent cartridge.

And perfecting it.

 

There is no burial

for the body

without looking at the body.

We have abandoned the field

anyway, unwilling to dig.

 

There is only this brief pause of noon.

Shadowless. The smell of rust lifting

off the orchard floor.

 

Wind-knocked peaches feeding

the ancient grass bordering

every entryway, hungry.

 

A static hand upon your neck.

The miraculous erasure of home.

Catching your breath. Good

child. Good.

Again.

Why did you choose this poem?

I’d like to believe that this poem incorporates my rural, conservative background while attempting to make a political statement. I suppose in that way it seems honest. And I think this is one of those poems that many poets have where there’s a turning point in their writing. A shift towards something bigger and more mature. This poem was selected for inclusion in the Best New Poets of 2017 by Natalie Diaz. That was and is an honor I’m still trying to earn.

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

Usually when I’m asked about my favorite (favorite poet, author, musician, etc.) my response is to simply refer to what I am currently reading (of quality) or recently read, listened to, etc. I’ve recently read Tiana Clark’s Equilibrium, and I am currently reading Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds. I’d recommend both, they’re great! They each, in their own distinct manner, compel the reader to slow down and return, to listen.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

“Obsessions” is a curious word. Is it negative? Is it good? Is it dangerous? There is the obsession to write, even when I’m not writing, perhaps especially when I’m not writing, which is more or less the larger portion of my time. It’s hard to admit, perhaps because its buried beneath a thin veneer of persona, but I may be obsessed with proving myself. But aren’t most of us? Proving myself to whom or what, I’m not entirely sure.

Beyond that I wanted to engage in my past. The landscape of childhood. I wanted, tried, to write poems that were more honest. I don’t want to be the hero in my poetry. I hope I avoided that. And I’ve lost some serious love: an obsession in my personal life that surely seeped into my writing life.

What’s your chapbook about?

Beyond those obsessions, the book is about a kind of midwestern silence. It’s difficult to explain what this silence is, but it haunts many of us.

The poet Joe Weil wrote a blurb for my work. I love what he has to say, and it may further explain the aboutness of the book. If it’s okay, I’d like to refer to it:

“Tomas Transtromer wrote in one of his poems of the buildings coming closer together all around two sleeping lovers. All things in that landscape became watchful, had a being beyond sentience. In these wonderful poems by Nathan Lipps, a being beyond sentience is the rule. Everything has a hovering presence– not a haunting, but a watchfulness. A poet owes the world deep attention and accuracy. Lipps comes through on both counts, and as a not inconsiderable bonus, these poems are beautiful in their subtlety of sound and their spacial appeal. A wonderful first book.”

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

The opening poem, “Before Death”, is the most meaningful to me. I was at low point in life. Alone, depressed. Though the poem may capture that experience—aloneness & depression—I find it overall to be uplifting. For me it’s a poem that says yes. Yes to what comes before death, which is, of course, life.

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

“The Body” I suppose is a misfit. It’s sparse, lacks nearly any pretense of a narrative, and asks the reader to try harder. Maybe. Ha. I’m probably too close to all these poems: it’s hard to know the misfit. I have a few poems that lack a narrative, but they still have an element of substance and structure, they can make sense because they basically become imagist poems. However, this one lacks even the clarity of logically related images.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

I believe the last poem I wrote for this book was “We are the Same and then Gone”. It’s an extremely loose interpretation of Baudelaire’s poem “Semper eadem”. I tried to strip the poem down to its basic statements, and then contemporize their implications. I think this is that last-written poem in the classic realization that it’s a departure from where you were as a writer. It’s not an indication of where I’m going, but simply the sign-post that lets you know your journey is about to shift.

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

I need to finish the first draft in a hurry, which doesn’t always happen. After that it’s just a matter of time and distance: time put in to returning to the draft, again and again, and slowly reshaping it. During the revision process I’ll return to a poem many times, but each time only briefly. Usually.

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?

The editorial experience has been great. Open Palm Print has been very kind and good to me. The overall layout of the chapbook was a mutual collaboration. For the cover design I asked a friend to design something that he believed fit the poetry.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a full collection of poetry that focuses upon the rural landscape, the Midwest and all of its nuances: the patriarchy, human exceptionalism, the assumed inheritance of tradition, religion, other ideologies, the dislocation of sexuality.

How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?

That’s tough. I try to limit the various portals or channels that bring me information. On twitter I try to follow intelligent people who have conviction, well-thought-out opinions, are trustworthy, and who know how to use/cite their sources. I like people who believe in the existence of facts. I try to avoid the bubble. At the same time, if I want to participate in any positive cultural progress I need to know what’s going on. Also, for my part, I don’t provide a great deal of content to any social platform. At least not at the moment. Maybe it’s cowardice, but tweeting, or posting otherwise, feels very much like striking up a conversation in a room full of beautiful strangers. Except you’re talking to the backs of their heads. In the moments that I do speak up I’m usually glad, but it takes some time for me to work up the nerve. Of course, everything changes when the strangers become less strange, which I suppose is the good purpose of it all.

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

Read good contemporary writers. Understand what people are writing today. Why they are writing it. What they are trying to accomplish. And then look to your own writing. Ask of your own work those questions.  I would refer you back to Tiana Clark (she just came out with a new book: I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood) and Shelley Wong (Rare Birds), or Solmaz Sharif (Look), Ada Limon (The Carrying), and Adam Clay (Stranger), for example.

*

Nathan Lipps lives in Binghamton, New York, where is he is currently a PhD candidate and teaches creative writing. His work has been published in the Best New Poets of 2017, BOAAT, Colorado Review, Third Coast, Typo, and elsewhere.

http://www.boaatpress.com/before-death

http://banangostreet.com/issue-11/nathan-lipps/

http://www.typomag.com/issue27/lipps.html

Jeremy Paden

“Let your writing be an exploration, be a part of your process, your path to insight. This is to say, write your way into discovery.”

IMG_5764.JPGprisonrecipes.jpg

prison recipes (Broadstone Books, 2018)

How did you become interested in South American politics and social justice?

I grew up in politically unstable places, grew up around refugees, and grew up in a family whose focus was helping the orphan and the exile. Specifically, I grew up in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic in the 80s, which means I grew up speaking Spanish. My parents were medical missionaries in Central America and the Caribbean. When we moved to Nicaragua, the Sandinista Revolution had just happened. Soon after moving there, the US began to fund the Contras, a right-leaning insurgency. The collateral violence of the Contra/Sandinista conflict forced us to move to Costa Rica. While in Costa Rica, my parents worked with the Nicaraguan refugees.

When researching the unjust violence in South America, did you first have an interest in the episodes of violence themselves or the artists affected by such events?

Unfortunately, the topic of state-sponsored violence is as old as the Psalms and the Prophets, even older. Juan Gelman became a favorite poet of mine in graduate school. As a graduate student in a Spanish program, a good bit of what we read in our contemporary Latin American literature classes, whether poetry, fiction, or essay, explored political violence—contemporary or historic. Also, though Víctor Jara was killed in the early 70s, it was still common to hear Jara songs as I grew up in Latin America—something akin to hearing early Dylan or Baez. And, as a professor of Latin American literature, I routinely use Jara in classes—not just because of the political content of his songs, but because he and Violeta Parra, another Chilean singer-songwriter, were at the forefront of the Latin American folk movement. I say this to say, I have lived with this topic for a long time. I was already very familiar with what had happened in Chile and Argentina and state-sponsored violence in many other Latin American countries before the idea for the collection came to me.

I began to write the poems after an encounter with a detainee. The chair of Modern and Classical Languages at my first appointment as professor, Fernando Reati, had been a detainee. Much of his research was on this topic. During that time, he brought Margarita Drago, the other detainee to whom the collection is dedicated, to campus. She told the story of passing around recipes and making dulce de leche from the daily milk ration and hoarded sugar. When I told Fernando that I found that to be quite poetic, he told me of a number of other things that they would make: the bread pudding flavored with strawberry toothpaste, the cheese. Based on these stories, I began to write.

What was the last piece of the puzzle for prison recipes? What was the last piece to make it into the collection, or what was the last piece that you significantly revised?

The last piece of the puzzle were the two Jara poems and the two Gelman poems. Those four made it feel like a book (albeit a short one), rather than just a sequence. Once they were written and once they were placed in the book, I felt that it was complete and I could send it out.

I loved your conversation poems with Victor Jara and Juan Gelman. I feel like your experience with translation would have been helpful in forming a poem in their two unique styles. Were there other Argentine writers that shaped your collection? Where do you see their influence coming through most?

Yes. These poems are bad or unfaithful translations of theirs. They spin out and away from them and continue to play according to the logic of the original poem or lyric.

There are many Argentine and Chilean writers I love and admire: Gabriela Mistral, Enrique Lihn, Nicanor Parra, Gonzalo Rojas, to name a few more Chileans. Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Juarroz, Alejandra Pizarnik, Olga Orozco, Angélica Gorodischer, to name a few more Argentines.

Were I to assign some sort of influence to the poem dedicated to Jara, I’d have to say it owes more Juarroz and Pizarnik than Jara himself. This influence has less to do with anything conscious or intentional on my part… and more that I deeply admire them and read them frequently.

I felt like the Argentine and Chilean writers you model in your chapbook represent two very different sides of the struggle of an average citizen in Argentina. Victor Jara’s call to tear down the fences shows the revolution, the heart of the people banding together. Juan Gelman mourns in the aftermath of the revolution, in the wake of the “disappeared.” Who are the other voices in your chapbook? We see the prisoners struggling and some failing to survive; we see their memories of home and family in pieces like “night song.” Who are they, and what makes them similar or different from the voices of Jara and Gelman?

They do represent two sides—but not two sides as they relate to ways of resisting power. Instead, more of a before and an after—as in the call to resistance and what happens when the state comes down on those who resist.

In fact, Gelman came from a family of Russian Jews who were politically active on the left. His father had been part of the 1905 revolution in Russia, immigrated to Argentina, returned after the Revolution of 1917, before returning again to Argentina for good. Indeed, a number of the pre-World War II Jewish immigrants to Argentina (of which there were many) were of the political left or anarchists. And, Gelman himself was very politically active on the left—to the point of being part of a group that were a leftist urban guerrilla. When his son Marcelo and his daughter-in-law María Claudia were taken, Juan Gelman was in exile in Europe.

In terms of the other voices, many of those taken were just young idealistic students; students who may or may not have been politically on the left, but might have had friends who were; students who found themselves at the wrong place; students from families with the wrong enemies; students who, frustrated with politics, began to be interested in the left; students whose lifestyle, for various reasons, was deemed improper.

Many pieces in the chapbooks are written as how-to’s or recipes. Was there a reason why you were drawn to this mode of writing for this collection? What was it about this mode that made it so effective in conveying the images you crafted?

The main and principal reason was that I heard a survivor of Argentine detention centers talk about passing around recipes as a means of remembering home. As the cook of the family, and one who learned to cook from my grandmother and mother, this made sense to me. Recipes are both rooted in the past—that which is handed down one cook to another—and are also future projections, at least when we are talking about thinking about what you might want for dinner. In prison, they are acts of the imagination that engage memory of a time when life was good and hope for a time when life will be better. That these women passed recipes around seemed like a wonderfully poetic act.

As I started writing, another reason emerged. Recipes are about steps, about focusing on the task at hand in order to make an end goal a reality. This seemed to me to be a metaphor about survival. Recipes also seem to be a way to encode messages.

How does poetry, both what you read and what you write, affect the way you teach Spanish?

This is a lovely question. Words matter. Words and their history and the tentacles they send out to other words are important. I try to get students to love words. Also, at one point, I used to teach thinking of the need to prepare students for the academic task of rhetorical or political or aesthetic analysis. But now, and I think poetry has played a big role in this, I want students to pay attention to the play of language and to the wisdom contained in literature. Among other things, this means slowing down in the reading and paying attention to the way things are expressed, rather than rushing forward and presuming we know what has been written based on one hasty reading.

Can you walk me through your research methods? Could you tell me a bit about your writing process, how you will generally begin a poem and how your ideas come together to create surprising imagery? At what point do you begin crafting your poems?

This might not be the answer you’re looking for, but it’s the one I’ll give.

A good friend of mine, who is a poet from Spain, once answered the question about process saying, I’m a magpie. I go about collecting this and that and hoarding it. Then I pull it out and marvel at it, and place it here or there in a poem. While it is true that I will sit down and read up on things (after all, one doesn’t want egregious inaccuracies to mar the experience) – the biggest part of my process is just reading and reading widely. Not just poetry or novels or non-fiction (if by non-fiction we mean the confessionalist memoir that has taken over Anglo-American prose), but also philosophy, long-form journalism, and essays in the tradition of Montaigne and Emerson and Thoreau. In order to write, we need a deep, deep well – one of information, but not just information, one of rhetorical and syntactical moves, and one of images too.

As far as crafting a sequence goes, I’ve yet to sit down and say, I’m going to write a sequence. I simply sit and begin to write. If the next day, when I sit to write another poem, I draft something along the same lines as the poem of the day before, and then the next the same thing happens, and the next, I begin to wonder about a sequence. But, as soon as I wonder I push that out of my mind. The logic of poetry is a dream-logic. As with dreams, if you try to force something it deflates.

Zapruder in his recent book Why Poetry writes that poetry’s logic is associative. Metaphor and simile are associative. Rhyme is also associative. The surprising imagery comes about through strange associations.

That’s about all I can say about that. Except to say, along with being associative, which moves into a certain kind of hazy, imprecision, poetry is also about precise, concrete language. Poetry thinks through detail, not through abstractions. To do justice to a topic and to the lived experience of others one must know things about them. One must do research. Research happens at the beginning (to give you the language), in the middle (to correct and push you forward), and at the end (to further correct and help polish). It’s important to use the right language and finding this comes through reading. In the case of the ruina montium collection, the front-end research was much heavier than prison recipes. I was more familiar with the Dirty War.

I love the premise of “songbird in a bell jar” and the idea of Víctor Jara’s courage to create music despite his stifling social surroundings. In the poem you write, “unaware you collected birds / I came to you without guile”; are you commenting, here, on Jara’s sincerity in a Chilean political climate not fully known by him?

I think, in some way, this is the case with all artists who align themselves with political movements and projects. It’s not that artists shouldn’t have political feelings or commitments or express those in their art. But, the world of politics can consume you in various ways. It cares more about the power of the artist’s sincerity than about the artist. You quickly become a lightning rod for love or hate and a symbol rather than a person wrestling with words or paint or music. And, in the case of Jara, because of the power of celebrity and his song, he became someone that needed to be silenced quickly.

The backslash, which you describe in your notes to be an homage to Juan Gelman, can be used as a replacement for punctuation, but you also seem to use it to create musical rhythm, especially in those poems that explicitly name Jara and Gelman in their titles. Did you enjoy using the backslash in different ways, and is it a technique that you’d like to continue to use in your poetry writing?

I enjoyed the backslash immensely. I haven’t used it again. But, I might. Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz were poets who throughout their career kept experimenting with new forms—whether punctuation or otherwise. Gelman, once he came across the backslash, used it rather consistently for several years. At the moment, I’ve been experimenting with a lack of punctuation—a little like W. S. Merwin, a little like Juan Carlos Mestre—though this latter poet has no consistent punctuation, poem to poem he tries something different.

The guard in “blessing for the sugar” is characterized as a threat and an opportunist, someone the subject must “pay / to fatten up the guard’s eye/blind him for a bit/”; however, “hot plate prayer” instructs the reader to thank the guard as well as “the relative who paid the guard,” demanding the guard get respect if for nothing more than his common humanity. Does the “guard” in these poems represent the State, and if so, what are you saying about the humanity of those who seek political reform through violence?

Guards in prison systems are curious persons—emphasis on personhood, or humanity, as you’ve noted. Like all of us, they will at times be lenient, and at times not. Like all of us, they can and sometimes do show mercy—the accounts of Auschwitz survivors, like Primo Levi, show fleeting glimpses of the kindnesses shown. At the same time, often within systems like concentration camps, military detention centers, gulags, the guards themselves are poor, hungry, and susceptible to bribes. Always, though, there is a difference of power. The need for a prisoner to thank a guard for the kindness of taking a bribe and letting the prison keep something that they might shouldn’t, or not taking away something that they can have because the guard wants to show their power, is just part of that relationship. The subordinate person in the arrangement, as a tool of survival, must find ways to placate those in power. Gratitude is one of the tricks of the weak. That’s where I was going with that.

As to the last part of the question, I am a pacifist. I think nonviolence is the way. I also think there are times when acts of civil disobedience can be nonviolent but be taken as violent by those in power. But, that’s not what you’re asking about. You’re asking about those who do take up arms… this world is complicated. They are no less human. I will still sit and have tea with them.

Two poems that face each other, “smooth pour” and “how to multiply bread crumbs,” have certain religious allusions that made me rethink the entire chapbook. Do you believe there is a spiritual undercurrent in your poetry and in this chapbook?

It’s hard for there not to be. The Psalms and the Prophets were my first introduction to poetry. Songs and poems are spiritual hymns—even ones that aren’t focused on some other world or aren’t overtly religious in any way; even ones, especially ones, that simply marvel at the goodness of cold plums, or fog creeping about on cat feet. This world is suffused with spirit, as are each of us. Poems that speak to how we relate to each other are spiritual. I don’t want to slide into a facile mode of speaking about spirituality or religion. These are, I think, weighty matters. But it is true, my deep language is the language of the Prophets and the Parables. There’s no way around that. That is the case even if I don’t set out to write about specifically religious topics.

Why did you choose to focus on food as a mediator for your themes of imprisonment, art, and injustice? And, what is your reasoning for opening your chapbook with “ingredients”?

On the one hand, it was given to me by Margarita Drago. That little moment, that brief description of her making the dulce de leche roll-ups, spoke to me because of its clarity in her memory and because of how important food is. I grew up in a family that cooks. My mother is an amazing cook, as was her mother before her. I learned how to cook with them and I am the cook in our family. Cooking is my love-language. The family table is the center of the home. The ways in which families eat speak to hyper-local culture. So, when this image of eating and food preparation, of remembering family and freedom in prison was given to me, I immediately saw in it an image that was also one of communion as a form of resistance to the inhumanity of state oppression, and communion also as a form of extending forgiveness – at least among those oppressed.

What advice would you give to writers pursuing hard topics involving violence and unrest? I’ve found that it’s difficult to write on these topics without becoming overly sentimental, or heavy. How do you balance the gravity of your topic?

Frankly, this is something that I wonder and worry about all the time. Poems are not sermons. In fact, poems, at least in the way I think of poems, work very differently than sermons and arguments. This is not to say they can’t persuade people to change their lives; even, at times, command people to change their lives. This is also not to say that poems can’t be arguments or deploy the kind of rhetoric that debate or academic papers muster. But, the logic of poems is different… they move through the world by association. Of course, the minute I say something like poems aren’t sermons, poem after poem comes to mind where a poem that sidles up to sermon proves such a categorical statement wrong… (Pedro Mir’s Contracanto a Walt Whitman, Ginsberg’s Howl, Audre Lord’s Power), but that’s because poetry resists definition or limitation.

The one piece of advice, though, would be to find the small moments, to find the tender, and the humanizing moments. Resist the urge to go big and dramatic. Resist, also, the urge to tell everything. Resist, also, the urge to write out of certainty. Let your writing be an exploration, be a part of your process, your path to insight. This is to say, write your way into discovery.

*

Jeremy Paden is Professor of Spanish at Transylvania University. He is a recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship given out by the Kentucky Arts Council. He is the author of three chapbooks of poems Broken Tulips (Accents, 2013), ruina montium (Broadstone Books, 2016), and prison recipes (Broadstone Books, 2018). He has published one chapbook of translated poems Delicate Matters/Asuntos Delicados (Winged City Press, 2016). His collection ruina montium has also been published in Spanish (Valparaíso Ediciones, 2018). His poems and translations have appeared in various journals and anthologies.

Find more at https://jpaden4.wixsite.com/jeremypadenpoet

Anne Panning

“I always tell my students to write about the things they can’t stop thinking about.”

AIQ picture not Kamara

Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss (Stillhouse Press2018)

How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?

I do all of my writing in my study upstairs at home. I have two desks: a big metal teacher’s desk for actual writing, and an old wooden one tucked in a corner for collecting things like miniature Japanese food erasers or cool stationary or thrift store finds (I recently got a cute vintage recipe box). Even though I work on a laptop, I never stray from my desk or I’d lose focus and start rearranging the Tupperware drawer or something. I almost never work at night, unless things have gone wonky with our family schedule or I’m cramming to get something finished by a deadline. I’m a work day writer, banker’s hours.

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

Excerpt: “Tender” from Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss (213-215).

Tender

               Once the funeral was over and everyone had gone their separate ways, I had a hard time adjusting to my life again back in New York.  Hudson approached me warily at first, as if I might break. Lily seemed wittier and savvier, singing and dancing and performing every time I entered a room to keep the mood light.

Mark gave me wide berth to cry, retreat, sleep, wander off if I needed to.  But where would I go?  What would I do?  Everything seemed to require more energy than I was able to summon.  To make matters worse, I had to start teaching in a couple weeks, and had no idea how I was going to manage being a lively and engaged person in front of students day after day.

All I could manage to do was watch bits of television. The Food Network was soothing, and I came to love Giada DeLaurentis.  Even scrappy little Bobby Flay grew on me, and I loved watching him barbecue with his friends and talk about Serrano peppers.  But if I ever tried to watch a real TV show, I found it pointless.  Who cared if Robin couldn’t get a date on “How I Met Your Mother”? So what if Jim tricked Dwight again on “The Office”?  I craved tenderness and sincerity, not wryness or irony.  I spent my time with the kids, reading or coloring, and occasionally walked along the Erie Canal listening to violin adagios on my ipod.

Soon there was less than a week before classes would begin, and I knew I wasn’t ready to face it all. I decided to ask for a reduced teaching load, going from three classes to one.  It was a creative nonfiction workshop with only nine students, which seemed manageable. With a small class, I could be honest with them if I had to.  If I had a rough day, I could step away, or even cancel.

The weeks blurred by. When the snow began to fall and the cold crept into the corners of our old Victorian, all I could manage most days was to wrap myself up in the wedding quilt my mother had made me.  Often I’d just lie there, bundled up inside the quilt like an infant, and stare out my bedroom window at the dark bare maple trees.

The students in my class that semester ended up being a significant part of my grieving process. I rarely shared personal information with my students, but this time it felt right.  One woman, Ashley, had flashy dark eyes and dark hair and rode horses somewhere east of Rochester almost every day. She wrote so beautifully it buoyed me.

Another student, Matt, brought in essays about his father, who’d recently come out as gay and caused tremendous family problems, especially for his depressive mother.  Matt, like Ashley, wrote with empathy and compassion.  He took risks and submitted essays about his family that broke my heart in the best of ways.

I’ll never forget sitting in our tiny basement classroom that winter with those students, watching the snow fly outside, talking quietly about what makes a good essay:  sincerity, vulnerability, a desire to connect with others through stories of pain, truth and honesty.

Thanks to that workshop, I managed to write a short piece about losing my mother.

 So

 I have parasailed in Malaysia –so what?  My mother died days later in a high-tech Minneapolis hospital.  I flew back: suntanned, frantic. The nurses hung a piece of gauze soaked in peppermint oil above her bed to mask the smell of death. I cannot forget the smell. Or hanging above Penang Bay in my black swimsuit –warm wind rushing my sails, white lip of beach biting into blue.  My two bare legs dangled dangerously. From below, my small children watched and waved, squinting. When I landed, legs bicycling through sand, a woman from England congratulated me for my bravery. “I could never do that,” she said. “That’s what I thought,” I said. But up in the sky someone else was already lifting off.  A Muslim woman in black burka hung high under a rainbow parachute— free.

END EXCERPT

Why did you choose this excerpt?

I chose this excerpt because it’s about those little pockets of grief that happen and affect all the parts of your life.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I always tell my students to write about the things they can’t stop thinking about. In the case of my memoir, my mother’s death was so unexpected, traumatic, and medically confusing that long after she was gone, I kept trying to figure out what had actually happened. (For context, it was a routine medical procedure and its many mishaps that eventually led to her death.) I studied her voluminous medical files with different colored highlighters in hand, researched the procedure she’d had done, talked to doctors, sorted through boxes of her old letters (both to and from her), scrapbooks, photos, home movies, canceled checks, report cards. I was only beginning, I realized, to figure out who my mother had really been. There were several surprises both in the medical records and in her memorabilia. I couldn’t stop. I was like a dog with a bone. I simply had to figure it all out.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

In terms of the memoir’s order and structure, I discovered the three predominant “strands” of a “braid” as I wrote the book.  Strand #1 is what happened to my mother medically and her subsequent death; Strand #2 is what I discovered about my mother’s past life; and Strand #3 is my own life and grieving process as a mother myself.  Between those strands are very short pieces about dragonflies—some scientific, some personal, some strange.  Once I had all that figured out (there are roughly 35 sections/chapters total), I began braiding the strands together in a way that I hoped would make sense for readers.  Even though it was obvious that my mother had died, I wanted to create suspense and concern about how it had happened, a reason for readers to turn pages, per se. I’m not going to lie: putting this book together made me want to tear my hair out.  I must’ve had those 35 sections spread out all over the floor of my study 100 times or more. Although I don’t know how to quilt (though my mother did, expertly, and I, her audience), the process of building this book reminded me of how she’d balance colors and patterns, make sure the math was correct in her measuring, pull out huge sections of hand-stitching if they weren’t exactly right, then finally choose the right border and backing to unify the whole thing. So that’s the metaphor I’m going with—writing this memoir was like making a quilt with words.

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

The way I approach writing has changed a lot over the years, especially since I’ve moved into writing book-length works. When I’m in the process of writing a book, I’m steady with it, stay in touch with it at least a few times a week. I really count on my summers to get a lot of writing done, since I don’t teach then. I’ve never been one of those people who gets up at 5:00 a.m. and writes for two hours. That’s not me. My best writing time is around 10:00 a.m., break for lunch, then write again for a couple hours in the afternoon. I find I can’t stay focused for much more than a four or five-hour chunk of time. At that point, I either go to the gym, take a nap, or drive my kids around somewhere.

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?

Working with Stillhouse Press has been a very positive experience. Meghan McNamara is a terrific editor and marketing director, and has really helped push the book along. There was also a great sense of shared input about the cover. I loved the original idea of the dragonflies made out of maps, but suggested different colors and backgrounds. After several back-and-forths, the cover came out better than I could have imagined. I absolutely love it. I’m grateful for that collaboration, especially since so many readers have told me how much they love the cover.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m about a hundred pages into drafting a memoir that focuses on my late father, addiction, and my relationships with men. I’m at a standstill, though, as this summer my brother died unexpectedly, and I really haven’t been able to focus much on writing. I know I’ll get back to it eventually, after some much-needed healing and grieving time.

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

My main advice for aspiring writers is to turn off your phone, put it in another room, and just get down to it. Set a timer for an hour, and don’t let yourself get up until it dings. Odds are you’ll go more than an hour.

*

Anne Panning is the author of three previous fiction titles, most notably Super America (University of Georgia Press, 2007), which won the 2006 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection. Several of her nonfiction pieces have also been recognized in The Best American Essays series. Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss, is her first published memoir. Originally from rural Minnesota, Panning now lives in upstate New York with her husband, Mark, and two children, Hudson and Lily. She teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport, where she serves as Co-Director of The Brockport Writers Forum reading series, and is currently at work on her second memoir, Bootleg Barber Shop: A Daughter’s Story, about her late father, a barber and an addict.

Author photo by Michele Ashlee. Cover design by Doug Luman.

www.annepanning.com

 

Andrea Blancas Beltran

“Writing has helped me rediscover myself, the land from where I was raised, and my ancestors who made it possible for me to be here reading, writing, learning, and (re)imagining.”

 

Re- (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018)

First of all, I (Hope) appreciate the way your chapbook, Re-, is divided into themed sections, and I think the prologue and epilogue are perfectly placed; they frame the other poems in a way that not only makes sense, but gives greater meaning to the collection as a whole. “Nostalgia” draws us into the world of memories and unanswered questions—“if / Nostalgia is all grit / & kindled earth cradled by bodies / of deepening blue, why / must it be so far / from here”–and “Navigation” gives us hope and continuation after we’ve walked through the grief that hangs heavy throughout the collection, with the last phrase, “who we were & are becoming.” The arrangement of this collection seems to follow a series of flashbacks that the speaker has about her grandmother and family, although these flashbacks do not seem to be chronological.  Which poem in Re- was the first that you wrote?

Thanks for this thoughtful observation; the chronology of this chapbook is the aspect that underwent the most revision since I began assembling it in 2015. Two friends, Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny and Ben Hahn, read early drafts of Re- and helped me to really think about my ordering process; Elizabeth Dingmann Schnieder, my editor with Red Bird Chapbooks, helped me to refine it. The concept of time is irrelevant to Alzheimer’s disease, and it was important to me that the timeline not be perfectly (or predictably) linear.

As far as the earliest poem to appear in Re-, I believe it was the poem “Why grandma won’t play jacks with me in the backyard.”  I wrote this poem sometime in 2011 and it has taken a number of forms since—if I recall correctly, it began as a prose poem. Elizabeth Dingmann Schneider retitled it perfectly from “Grandma’s Answer to Why We Can’t Play Jacks in the Backyard.”

For those earlier publications, what was the publishing process like? You’re published in Glass, Barzakh, Fog Machine, Gramma, ATTN:, and Acentos Review. How did you decide what and where to submit? Many writers, especially first submitters, go through a good deal of self-doubt and hesitation before thrusting their work out into the world. Were you always confident in your submissions?

My earlier submissions were not as well-researched as I now would have liked them to be. I didn’t realize at the time how widely I needed to read to familiarize myself with literary journals and small presses, but I do commit a greater amount of time to reading now. I pay attention to where writers I admire are published and make notes—it’s an ongoing process for sure.

I’ve been in a sales position for my day job for two decades now. Rejection isn’t anything I take too personally, so I think this experience helped reassure me once I began submitting my work. Just because someone says “No” now doesn’t mean it’s forever, and over time you learn how to refine your approach/process/work. So much of submitting work is about timing. You just have to keep putting yourself and your work out there.

Besides being a writer, you are also associate editor of MIEL. How do you balance those two modes of creative work?

Editing seems to fuel my creative work. I’m exposed to (and challenged by) new narratives, forms, ideas, and modes of thinking. I think editing other writers’ work has improved me as a writer, and while I don’t feel I’ve ever sought to find a balance between editing and writing, I’ve always considered myself a reader before a writer.

Which piece in Re- holds the most personal significance to you? Have you ever struggled with presenting those parts of yourself to the world? In what ways has the publication of Re- allowed you to grow as a writer in terms of vulnerability?

The poem “Re-” specifically. The memory of that day with my grandmother in El Paso’s Municipal Rose Garden is acute—she was suffused with wonder. I question every day my authority to my subject matter. I want to proceed with as much care and thought as I can in my writing, and this care (and vulnerability) is something Aracelis Girmay has taught and continues to teach me through her work. In her acknowledgements for the black maria Girmay writes: “How do I work inside histories of such violence without further brutalizing the black body in the work? How do I, especially here, make critical space for joy and tenderness in the remembering, so that my own imagination (gesture by gesture, line by line) isn’t rendered by the values of white supremacy or violence as I resist it?” I want to be aware of the privilege and responsibility I have in recovering and recounting the stories my family could not (or would not) tell.

I (Abigail) was very intrigued by the inclusion of the piece “July 31, 2015”. I know that you are an artist as well as a poet and I wondered about whether this was a very intentional piece created for Re- or more of a spontaneous, art-journaling type of piece that you decided to include?

I created this piece for ATTN:’s open call for submission my friend Rosa shared with me. ATTN: is an event-based print journal from Further Other Book Works. The call from C.J. Martin and Julia Drescher read in part: “On July 31, set aside some time to write/sketch in response to, or to simply document, what has your attention that day. Poems, prose, discussions, reviews, visual work, exchanges, etc… If it makes sense, let it be a collaboration w/someone else—a group even.” I’m grateful my work was included in this project. It was the first time I’d written or made anything in a long while after my grandfather died in November 2014.

In the poem “Preservation” you write about “chiaroscuro / of the rebirth into one’s younger self.” I (Abigail) am slightly familiar with chiaroscuro as a term in reference to contrast in visual art. Could you expound upon your decision to weave this theme into your work, and in this piece specifically as “the rebirth into one’s younger self” in relation to memory?

I attended the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots” exhibition in 2016; the poem arrived after spending a good deal of time with Pollock’s black paintings then walking out of the museum to encounter a wisteria, much beloved by my grandmother, in full bloom. I wish I could say I was more intentional with this poem, but it was a gift, really. I can say that Pollock’s work in this exhibition had me thinking about William Utermohlen self-portraits each year for five years after he received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. His final self-portrait was in black and white, and just to see the regression of color and perspective over that short period still saddens me.

Your poetry is full of vivid, metaphoric imagery, much of which is nature-centered; in what physical places do you find the greatest inspiration for these beautiful and creative connections? Was it ever difficult for you to find balance between direct storytelling and this more nature focused metaphoric expression in the writing of Re-?

I’m very fortunate in that both of my grandmothers’ homes were places of absolute wonder for me as a child. They both loved growing things and feeding people. At my desk I keep photos of rooms in both their homes, so these spaces, or the sensation of them, always surround me while I work.

Some of the more imagistic and metaphorical pieces from Re– were written after daily walks I’d go for in the neighborhoods of Montpelier, Vermont while completing my last residency at VCFA. I’d signed up for a collaborative workshop given by Bob Vivian and Richard Jackson, so we were to complete work daily to exchange and discuss during each session. I’d often return from my walks with the poems mostly composed in my mind and then work to send them to my workshop partner Scarlet Michaelson, who’d write something in response.

One of our favorite aspects of your writing is the attention to detail and the magnification of small things that you employ so beautifully throughout the pieces in this work. “Uninvited Guest” with its magnification of the spider web, and the focus on the detail of the pie in “Lacuna” are two that come to mind. Is this attention to detail writing something that has been intentionally developed over time or something that has always been a part of your writing process?

Thank you for sharing this. I’m an observer of small things, especially insects, snails, or fragmented things. I also try to really take in moments and document the details of them so I won’t forget them; I found myself really doing this because I didn’t want to lose anything my grandma said or did. Maybe my impulse toward writing with such detail comes from my deep love for Naomi Shihab Nye’s work. Her poem “Making a Fist” is never far from my mind. Her collection Transfer is a moving work in memory of her father.

I (Hope) like that you occasionally use code-switching, especially in the title poem, “Re-”—for example, in the lines “yellow amarillo ri ri ri re” and “Forever in Spanish is siempre re re re re re re re.” How do you decide when to include Spanish as part of a poem? Who would you name as influences in the bilingual aspect of your writing?

Eduardo Corral’s gorgeous collection of poetry Slow Lightning helped me believe in my languages, the use of them together, after many had discouraged such “code-switching” if you will. It is natural to me and therefore feels natural in my writing. I don’t ever try to force Spanish into my writing. I think my connection to Cecilia Vicuña’s work always has me thinking about the wonder and flexibility of language in any tongue.

Your website states that you’re from El Paso, and you talk about Socorro in “Grandma on faith as fieldwork”: “Driving through Socorro, cotton bolls glowed in the light of the moon. These are what I wished upon.” Your experience of the Southwest and living on the border clearly influences nearly every aspect of your writing. Have you ever wished that you were from somewhere else? Do you use writing as a way to come to terms with your roots, or is it a natural outflow of your upbringing?

At one point in my life, I wanted to be from anywhere but El Paso. After living in Dallas for almost a dozen years and then returning to El Paso over ten years ago, there’s virtually nothing that could get me to leave the city. I’m grateful to call this place home. I’m continuously learning from the people I share space with. I’m in love with and terrified of the desert. When I am away from home, I’m longing to be home. Writing has helped me rediscover myself, the land from where I was raised, and my ancestors who made it possible for me to be here reading, writing, learning, and (re)imagining.

Many of the poems in this collection use the stream-of-consciousness technique, especially “Perseveration”: “the the it’s the / now see how / now see how it’s the / air / air the air.” Personally, I think this is an intriguing technique to explore grief and memories, because those two things defy our attempts to organize and understand them; they muddle or are muddled by our thought processes. And that scattered, rule-defying feeling that stream-of-consciousness gives is especially powerful when talking about memory loss. But when it comes to putting the natural flow of our thoughts on paper, we tend to want to structure those thoughts, as if to give shape to our psychological landscape as well. So, as a writer who uses this technique frequently, does stream-of-consciousness writing come naturally to you or is something you had to learn?

Jack Myers, my undergrad mentor at SMU, offered many stream-of-consciousness writing exercises in his classes, and it wasn’t until reading your question here that I realized how much those exercises must have made their ways into my being. I know he’s sitting somewhere feeling delighted about this. He was always reminding me to believe in where the poem wanted to go, as opposed to where I thought I wanted it to.

It seems that it would be difficult to edit a poem that is designed to mimic unstructured thought. For those stream-of-consciousness poems, what does your revision process look like?

I tend to overwrite and then cut because it’s easier for me to do this than to try to write more after I’ve put the poem away for a time. I like to give my first drafts time—a couple of months at least—before revisiting them for revision. I find this distance allows me to be more objective during the revision process.

A follow up question about your art—how has visual self-expression helped to highlight and support your work as a writer? Was there any difficulty in creating such smooth integration of the two within Re-, and were there other visual pieces that potentially were going to be included in this work that had to be cut?

There weren’t any other visual pieces under consideration for Re-, although at one point I regretted not creating a cover for it, even if it was temporary. I was very particular about the cover art and I’m grateful for Sarah Hayes’ patience with me at Red Bird Chapbooks, so in the end a miniature photograph—about 1 inch by 3 inch—I’d discovered of my grandmother (and who I think is my Uncle Jr., her first child and son) made the cover, which now seems to me to have been what this collection wanted all along.

Can you tell us about the cover design of Re-? Who are the people pictured in the cover photograph, and where was the photo taken?

I’ve been sorting and reordering two small boxes of photographs my grandmother kept in the entryway to her home. Based on the other photographs I’ve grouped with the one from the cover, I believe it was taken somewhere in or around El Paso, more than likely in the lower valley where my aunt Honey (Esther), the sister with whom my grandmother was closest, lived. The black and white nature of the photograph speaks to that of memory, or the chiaroscuro, if you will.

What authors and poets have influenced your writing? What are you reading now? Do you have any reading suggestions for young poets?

Naomi Shihab Nye for her wondrous narrative abilities, Ralph Angel for his lyricism and white space, Cecilia Vicuña for her raw and honest approach, and Aracelis Girmay for the tenderness in her poems as well as her asking the difficult questions in her work, but more importantly about her modes of work. My reading suggestions would be endless, but if I had to choose one to start with, I’d recommend Teeth by Aracelis Girmay. I’d also recommend that beginning poets read outside of their comfort zone(s). Read books by poets whose style(s) and subject matter(s) unsettle you—ask questions, examine their process, write poems that model or engage with their work.

When it comes to the writing process for you, are you more of a sporadic writer who survives off of inspiration or do you have set times daily, weekly, etc. in which you sit down and work on your craft? How do you manage your writing time with editing work and art?

I’ve finally admitted to myself that I am a binge writer. I’ve tried daily poem writing, but I find myself mostly procrastinating when I set out for a month to be more consistent. I do journal daily, but the poems tend to come sporadically and usually in a period of a few weeks and then the quiet settles in. I’ve learned to trust the quiet periods and focus on reading, which always leads me back to the writing. I’ve also learned to know which time of day is best for me while reading, writing, editing, making: early morning. The phone isn’t ringing, the inboxes are quiet, and no one expects my attention. If I allow myself thirty minutes to an hour most mornings, I feel productive at the end of the week. One Saturday a month I work solely on revisions or submissions.

What do you want readers to take away from your work?

I’ve long been concerned with the authenticity of the speaker, and while this remains a concern in my work and the work of other writers I read, these days I find myself most grateful for any moment of connection with a reader.

*

Andrea Blancas Beltran is from the El Paso/Juárez borderland. Her work has recently been selected for publication in About Place Journal, Scalawag, A Dozen Nothing, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Fog Machine, Gramma, Pilgrimage, & others. Her chapbook Re- was published in July 2018 by Red Bird Chapbooks. (un)learning, a collaborative project with Melissa Matthewson, was published by Artifact Press in 2016. You can find her @drebelle.

Wendy Oleson

“I’m almost always writing about characters struggling to understand the world around them, people reaching for connections and thwarting them simultaneously, people who don’t always admit to wanting to be heard, seen, found.”

Please Find Us (Gertrude Press, 2018)

Wendy Oleson Picccccccs

Please Find Us is your second chapbook. What continues to draw you to this medium?

First, thank you so much for reading my chapbook and taking the time to ask such thoughtful questions!

Presses and authors don’t publish chapbooks to make money; it’s a labor of love. This means, among other things, that there’s more room to experiment. I’ve also noticed that short story collections almost always shift gears thematically and tonally; chapbooks don’t necessarily have to.

Which piece of writing that you have written is your favorite?

That’s such a good and hard question. In my mind, “favorite” quickly translates to “most proud of” and that often means “the piece I struggled with most.” There’s a story I’ve been working on since 2005, and if it ever sees the printed page, it’ll be my favorite. But I’m also really fond of a dog character in another unpublished story—the dog came about organically but is ultimately so necessary to the story. And I’m goofy for dogs.

What other writers inspire your work the most? What works of literature are your favorites?

I’m thrilled by the passionate readership Carmen Maria Machado found through Her Body and Other Parties. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed Nick White’s story collection, Sweet and Low, and his debut novel, How to Survive a Summer. Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, and Roxane Gay all make me want to keep writing, and when it comes to chapbooks, Split Lip Press, Black Lawrence Press, and Rose Metal Press publish consistently stellar work. Of course, I’m also partial to Gertrude Press!

Many of the stories in Please Find Us deal with difficult topics, such as death, grief, suicide, abduction, and broken families. Many of these stories center around young protagonists. “The Snow Children” stands out in particular. In this story, Sarah becomes increasingly isolated, as she grieves the death of one of her classmates. Could you discuss the juxtaposition between adult topics and child protagonists in this chapbook and elaborate on how this device works in “The Snow Children”?

The idea that some topics belong to the realm of adults makes so much sense on the surface, but it quickly breaks down in light of children like Sarah who find themselves in essentially incomprehensibly-horrific situations. Adult brains should be more capable of understanding death than the developing brains of children and adolescents, yet the grieving process often goes haywire—even for adults. In Sarah’s case, she’s having trouble understanding how she should think, feel, and behave, but she’s also acutely aware that the adults around her aren’t doing such a great job either. When reality and the natural world fail to provide answers, she’s forced to look elsewhere.

“Suffocate” uses various contrasting images of oil to tell a story about unfulfilled dreams.  How did oil develop as a recurring image?

I don’t always write this way, but the image/sensation of oil was the engine of the story. This idea of a spreading, unwelcome oil and it being a problem: that’s where it began. Now it makes me wonder whether I’d recently seen footage of crews cleaning wildlife after an oil spill—that delicate sudsing of birds.

The theme of dysfunctional relationships is present in several stories in this collection: “Little House, 1979,” “The Snow Children,” “Sister,” “Brother,” “The Milky Way,” “Where Sleep Hides,” and “Record from a Farmhouse.” The imperfections of these characters make them seem more realistic. What do you think about when developing characters?

I have to be patient. The significant details that help compose characters in my work usually don’t come all at once. It’s a slow process of discovery and paying close attention to their sensory experiences. I truly delight in imperfections despite my perfectionist tendencies. Or maybe they go hand-in-hand, knowing perfectionism in myself is dangerous and counter-productive and delighting in the imperfections of others?

Tell us about your writing routine. When do you write? What does your writing space look like?

Two beverages, that’s the constant: a glass of water and a mug of coffee or tea, or water plus a mason jar of iced coffee with almond milk. Or water and seltzer water. I’m a thirsty person. My brain takes a while to turn on in the morning—or maybe I just tell myself that—so I tend to write in the evening instead of early mornings. I envy those people with the gumption to get up at 4:30 a.m. in order to write. Those people deserve all the glory.

In “Sister,” details such as the “cat’s cradle of scars” on the narrator’s hip and the “six-chambered fury” of a heart allude to the idea that the sisters were born as conjoined twins. In “Brother,” the imagery is reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, where the siblings could not survive without working together. Both of these stories allude to the idea that the narrator needs her sibling to live. Were they meant to be read as a pair?

Yes and no. Yes, because I did love the idea of this pair of super-short flashes playing off of one another. No, because I also regret that it would be so tempting to read them as connected in terms of assuming character overlap. I worry the pairing then becomes a bit confusing (I’ve been told by a family member or two that my work can be unnecessarily confusing). I certainly don’t aim to confound!

The pieces in this chapbook address a diverse array of topics and are told in a variety of tones. How did you decide on the order for Please Find Us?

I honestly go by gut feeling—what I think should come after what, and so on. It’s an imperfect arrangement, I’m sure, but it felt right to me. In the past, however, I’ve taken other approaches. For example, when I was trying to figure out how to order a full-length manuscript of short and short-short stories, I got out scissors and markers and tried to create a color-coded index card for every piece. This quickly became complicated because I was coding and labeling them based on narrator/POV/tone/theme, and I was taping/removing/re-taping them onto a dollar-store cookie sheet in order to “see” how the collection might work. The flash pieces were cut smaller (to indicate their brevity) and kept getting lost. Still, it was fun and hands-on in ways writing isn’t. And time-consuming.

How long does your revision process typically take? Which piece did you spend the most time revising?

A long time! But it varies so much, too. I never know exactly if it’s going to be an easy revise or a this-is-going-to-take-years situation. I wish I did. I frequently need to rely on other readers’ perceptions of whether a piece of writing is “finished.” Or I require a lot of distance, months and years of distance to see a piece clearly. “The Snow Children” took years–many, many years.

In a previous interview with Laura Madeline Wiseman at The Chapbook Interview, you were asked about “work that is hybrid or genre-confusion.” You said, “The chapbook offers the writer the opportunity for playful, joyful exploration.” Of all the pieces in Please Find Us, “When A Child Dies (Bear It Away)” seems to play with genre the most, combining poetic elements with prose. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing it?

I sure can!

I wrote this piece while I was taking an experimental fiction class with Tantra Bensko (through UCLA Extension Writers’ Program where I teach online) and listening to the audiobook version of Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. My reaction to the novel—or at least an aspect of the novel—was so strong I had to write about it. But I wrote about it in a way that reflected the experimental work I’d been reading. It was originally a two-page piece—more poem than story but kind of also neither—but the brilliant Meg Pokrass suggested it be pared down to that final paragraph.

Though highly entertaining, “Jane” doesn’t immediately seem to fit in this collection. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this story about a ten-pound hamster and why you decided to include it in Please Find Us? (Bonus question: Do you have any pets?)

I have a delightful dog named Winston. He’s from the Pasadena Humane Society and was featured prominently in electronic advertisements between 2015 and ’17 for their Wiggle Waggle Walk fundraiser. This is a great source of pride for me. But I used to have hamsters. Many of us did, right? A couple dear writer friends and I wrote a collaborative piece about hamsters and “Jane” is from a section I wrote. Jane is wonderful and monstrous and deserves to be found.

Both “Little House, 1979” and “The Slide” have a character named Erin. Are they the same person? Are any of the unnamed characters in the chapbook repeated characters as well?

Yes! And in some alternate-reality way, the narrator from “We Used to Play at Kmart” is also Erin. There aren’t any other overlaps in the chapbook that I can think of, but I do have several stories featuring characters from “The Snow Children”. Molly is a first-person narrator in one of them—that’s also the story with the great dog. I really like that story, particularly because it took years to figure out how to write it—to find that entry point—and once I did, it went pretty fast.

The title of the chapbook, Please Find Us, comes from the last sentence of “So You Survived the Apocalypse?!” Why did you choose this phrase for the title of the chapbook? How does the theme of “please find us” relate to the rest of the pieces as a whole?


My favorite part of that flash is the last sentence. It’s hard to come up with a compelling title. Once I realized how much I liked that line, that it seemed title-worthy, I considered what in my body of work spoke to the title. I wasn’t necessarily planning to pair a full-length short story with a bunch of flash, but it made sense when I read the pieces together. I’m almost always writing about characters struggling to understand the world around them, people reaching for connections and thwarting them simultaneously, people who don’t always admit to wanting to be heard, seen, found.

*

Wendy Oleson is author of Please Find Us(winner of the Gertrude Press 2017 Fiction Chapbook Contest) and Our Daughter and Other Stories(winner of the Map Literary 2016 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award). Her fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. She teaches for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and Washington State at Tri-Cities. Wendy lives with her wife and dog in Walla Walla, WA.

*

Find Wendy on Twitter: @weoleson

Sally Rosen Kindred

“There’s a journey here, and a search, a dreaming back—as there is in so many fairy tales—into wildness.”

stfttg-frontcover

Says the Forest to the Girl (Porkbelly Press, 2018)

They say “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and the aesthetics on your cover are visceral, much like the words inside them. How do you think the cover illustrates who you are as a writer?

Oh my goodness—I’m not sure I can claim the cover illustrates who I am as a writer (though it’s fascinating, so I wish I could!)…but I do like to think about the patient, dangerous conversation the cover is having with the poems. I love the word “visceral” to describe artist Alexandra Eldridge’s brilliant vision here, and Nicci Mechler’s sharp, intuitive cover design. Eldridge’s painting, “subtle bodywork,” has its own life and narrative, of course; but in its context as a cover, I love the work it’s doing as an entranceway, a dark door into the poems, and the journey they make through forest and the woman’s interior life—her mind and body (which touches elements you can see here—egg and crow—and those you can’t yet: wolf, fox, basket, oven, girl).

Like Says the Forest to the Girl, the topic of another chapbook of your poems, Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, was a look at a familiar story, Peter Pan, through the perspectives of the other characters. What is it about old fairy tales that inspires you to look at them through a fresh lens?

I love stories—they’re how I think, learn, and dream—and Grimm fairy tales are some of the earliest stories I encountered, so I think they helped introduce me to the power of narrative, and their elements are inscribed in me. That primal relationship—as well as the work they do with the domestic and mystic worlds, which are the worlds that most concern me in poems—with family, nature, power/vulnerability, and magic, the sacred—draws me to them. And the flatness of fairy-tale characters, combined with their compelling drama, just cries out for exploration through voice.

I also love that many readers are at least somewhat familiar with Grimm tales—so the reader often brings an investment in Little Red and Briar Rose, and their woods, into any poem I write about them. It raises the stakes for both of us in the poem; the reader’s expectations, and relation to the possibility of surprise, are heightened, and I feel like I’ve got to rise to meet them and deliver. It also gives the poem a quicker launch-time—I don’t have to explain as much, though I have more to live up to.

You open this chapbook with “Woman at the Crows’ Funeral” and close it with “I Tell What Kind of Girl.” What was the logic behind having these pieces both introduce your work and close it?

I sat with it a long time. I wanted “Woman at the Crow’s Funeral” to open the chapbook in part because I wanted, in the chapbook’s first moment, the story of that woman found by crows, and that movement—from home and bed into woods, and from woman alone to pines/crows/girl/ground. There’s a journey here, and a search, a dreaming back—as there is in so many fairy tales—into wildness. And I wanted it to be a journey of the body (skin, mask, wings, shoes) and of language (“Antonyms for ghost: Woman. Entity. Crow”). The final poem is also a girl’s journey, but what, from Grimm tales, it has let go of—the woods, the wolf—matters. I wanted it there in part for what, in fairy tales, it resists—what kinds of darkness, what singularity of story. It is tentative, and lit. It begins with a girl, and a meadow. And ends with telling.

What’s the oldest piece in the chapbook? Or is there a piece that inspired or catalyzed the rest of the book?

The Sleeping Beauty poems are the oldest. When I wrote them, I wasn’t planning a chapbook; they came on the heels of writing Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, which is almost all persona poems, so I was still in that mode of using voice as a point of departure. I think that the imperative mood in some of the poems—including “Sleeping Beauty Says Goodnight to Little Red,” but also “Said Rapunzel to the Wolf,” and the title poem—helped me think in terms of relationship, and of recasting relationships in way that would help reconsider and redefine survival, which became an important theme in the poems.

But if I’d kept going like that, in persona, I think the work would have shut itself down sooner. What may have set them on the path to a chapbook was the prose poem “Little Red.” Entering her woods as a way of approaching chronic illness—the path as a diagnosis journey—broke open my sense of what kind of canvas and range the stories might offer me to talk about adulthood and the body, and made me want to move past a more familiar heroine’s voice, to see how I might surprise myself.

This chapbook interconnects itself by having the pieces talk back to one another both in their titles and in the body of the poems. For example, the title Says the Forest to the Girl talks to “I Tell What Kind of Girl” and “Little Red: Morning” responds to “Sleeping Beauty says Goodnight to Little Red.” Do you think it is important that the pieces talk to one another as well as the reader? Why?

One of the things I love about the chapbook form is that its relative brevity means you can create a really concentrated, coherent emotional and narrative experience for a reader. (The tactile beauty of Porkbelly Press’s chaps—that toothy paper, the soft edges of the ribbon binding—adds to that experience, I think: those intimate, in-your hand feelings—which is one reason I was so thrilled to have this chapbook accepted and produced by the amazing Nicci Mechler.) It’s possible to read a chapbook fairly easily in one sitting, and the conversation between poems is what makes me, as a reader, want to do that, so I look towards that experience for anyone reading the poems. In sequencing this chap, I wanted some bookending poems (such as “Little Red” and “Little Red: Morning”) that would hopefully enhance each other when read together, and elements that would recur (such as the crows) much the way elements recur in Grimm tales, and in a walk through the woods.

You describe yourself as an introvert. How do you think that affects the way you tell stories about other people/characters?

Well, there’s likely a connection between introspection—a favorite pastime of introverts—and an interest in work on persona poems and on voice. I think many introverts spend a lot of alone time listening to and considering others’ voices retrospectively, and examining those voices in moments of (blissful! And/or obsessive!) concentration.

What does your writing process usually look like when you sit down to work on a new idea?

For the first part, I’m usually not sitting down. I often start a day’s writing by walking in the woods with my dog. Walking gets my words and sounds going. Then I move to paper, usually taking down messy notes and fragments to begin with. Once I have reached some critical mass in a draft, I type a version into the computer, and then usually I copy it back into my notebook, making changes as I go. Then I type a new draft of it on the computer, also making changes along the way. Copying—moving from paper to screen and back again—is a way for me to keep re-entering the poem and having to examine it slowly, word by word. I make many changes as I “copy”—adding and cutting lines and whole stanzas. The kinds of changes I make when I’m copying by hand are very different from the ones I make on the screen, which is why I do both.

Before I walk, I read and reread other people’s poems—a book or a journal (my piles are always growing). I read before writing most days—it’s not writing, but it’s as critical to my process as anything I do with my own words. Some days I just keep reading.

Is there any piece in this chapbook that you would label as the “misfit piece”? Why? What is the story behind that piece?

I might be the only person who would think of “Sweeping,” the third poem in the chapbook, as the misfit piece, but yes, that’s what I’d call it. While it was written more or less contemporaneously with the others, they just weren’t part of my conscious mental context as I drafted it. It was written out of such a local, mundane moment—a suburban kitchen: no wolves, no witches—really, I literally dropped the broom and sat down to write it. Much later, when I was assembling the poems for the chapbook, I flipped past it in my notebook, and it hit me that it could be written in Briar Rose’s own kitchen—I had never considered it one of my fairy-tale poems, but once I saw it as belonging, I could not un-see it.

What books or other writings that you read as a child inspired you to later pursue writing as a career?

When I was really young, my mother returned to writing poetry after a long break (during which she was raising children: I was the youngest). She read me her own poems, and poems by Emily Dickinson and Sara Teasdale, which inspired me to write my own (sad little) poems, well before I became enthralled with Sylvia Plath’s and Theodore Roethke’s work in a different, more sustaining way as a teenager. I still know a few Dickinson and Teasdale poems by heart, from childhood. As a child, I also wanted to write novels (and my first attempt, from fourth grade, has these crazy talking flowers, so I’m pretty sure it’s the first, wildest draft of my second book of poems, Book of Asters). Reading the Anne of Green Gables books and Little Women over and over probably shaped me more than I can imagine; their “unladylike” openness and sensitivity made room for my least acceptable traits, and the spirit, sense of justice, imagination, and creative ambition of both Anne Shirley and Josephine March made me want to both know and be them.

We read an older interview of yours on The Chapbook Interview from 2014, not long after you finished Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, and in it, you mentioned field guides and the science and lore of asters being part of what inspired you to write Book of Asters. What’s a subject you’ve been diving into lately? Or, if you don’t mind our asking, what’s next for you? Any projects in progress you’re particularly excited about right now?

I’m working on two things right now. One is my third full-length manuscript, tentatively titled If a Wolf, which engages storytelling and narrative thinking (including the structure and elements of fairy tales) to consider motherhood, daughterhood, the body, survival, and mystic experience/the sacred. There will likely be a few poems from this chapbook in the book—though my wolf-work took a different, more magical realist, turn after Says the Forest to the Girl, so it really isn’t as clear a continuation of these poems as one might imagine.

I’m also working on poems about Johannes Kepler, the astronomer, and his mother, Katharina Kepler, whom he defended against charges of witchcraft over a six-year period in the early 1600’s. So far I’ve done a lot more reading than writing about the Keplers, though two of the poems are out in the world now—in The Gettysburg Review and Bear Review. I admire both Keplers, and love everything about their story—I mean, it’s got outer space, courtroom drama, and witchcraft!—but most importantly, a strong mother and a strong son, the pain and tenderness of a complex, compelling family love.

*

Sally Rosen Kindred is the author of two poetry books from Mayapple Press, Book of Asters and No Eden, and three chapbooks, including Says the Forest to the Girl (Porkbelly Press, 2018). She has received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Missouri Review’s Poem-of-the-week web feature, and Kenyon Review Online. She is a poetry editor for the Baltimore Review.

Find her at sallyrosenkindred.com or on Twitter @SallyRKindred