Sofia Starnes

“Do not discard any of the little things, those tactile, sensory, daily experiences; they are like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs leading the way home.”

SOFIA

The Consequence of Moonlight (Paraclete Press, 2018)

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

Invitation

Imagine one magnolia in the yard,
a solitary grosbeak out of reach
on a solitary branch—
the season’s final archive of ascent.

Imagine that it drops a leaf.
Your glance catches it,
forgoes the arbor and the drift-wing
and the extent to which they live,

to reconcile the iris with one sky,
one tree, one mortal bird.
Intent, it’s all about intent—
as with the eye, no more surveyor

but a lover in the momentary light,
or with the moon, drawn resolute
when tugging at the mist,
the immaculate lagoon, the girl

in mid-discovery.
At last, she stirs, full weight on little
feet, her focus on the door….
How green each word outside her room.

Why did you choose this poem?

This poem is, as its title indicates, an invitation to the reader to enter into the book. Each poetry collection creates its own landscape—spiritual, physical, mythical—wherein the reader must be made welcome. In this case, the mystery of that poetic landscape (and there will be much mystery throughout the book) seeks to be offset by simple hospitality, expressed through the archetypal character of a girl, emerging into life. The emphasis on the word “intent” is meant to recognize that things are not so much what they appear to be but what they are called to be, in other words: things (and we) are known for  their (and our) intrinsic purpose. We spend much of our life figuring what that purpose is, in other words, our identity, as individuals and as part of the human race.

What obsessions led you to write your book? What is it about?

This “being called by name” is something of incredible importance to me. It is vital. It sustains our worth. So, this would be the underlying obsession that led to the poems. However, the catalyst that allowed them to unfold as a unified body was my attraction to the moon.  Why the moon? Well, the moon has no light of her own but lives on borrowed light, as we do. She fulfills herself in absence. She is both luminous and obscure, generous and aloof, source of knowledge and evidence of mystery. She is all this, because she must be here and there, orbiting the earth but not of the earth. Whether I wished for it or not, the moon kept appearing in my work, obsessively. I had to give her the place she had earned, allowing her qualities to radiate into our own paradox: our being both temporal and atemporal, out of sorts with the reality of death, not yet filled with the reality of living.

What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that was the seed for the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

I don’t recall exactly which poem I wrote first, but one of the earliest—if not the earliest—was “Elena Leaves Home.”  Elena is the girl of the initial poem “Invitation” and she takes us through the book, threading her way amid the other poems to hold them together. She is out on a search, a journey—a perennial theme in literature—in a Spirit-saturated world that never ceases to be intensely physical as well.  Her need to answer the question “has anyone called me?” guides her motions, and I hope those of the reader as well.

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

When I’m writing the poems, initially, I’m merely allowing my current “obsession” to find its expression. Eventually, I sense that I have no more to add to it, that the next poems will be but a repetition of earlier ones. And I stop. It is time to look at the poems as a whole and to figure out their narrative, how they might reflect an emotional movement, a transformation in thought, from one poem to the next.

All of my full-length books thus far have been organized in three parts (it seems I am Trinitarian, not only in faith but in poetic outlook), and The Consequence of Moonlight is no different. The poems in the first part reflect the emergence of Elena (she could be any of us), her initial venture into life. The second part situates us in that place (or time) of life, somewhere between becoming and being, when we experience a loss of identity. Already too far from our initial home, yet not close enough to our destination: who are we after all?. Hence, there are no Elena poems in the second part of the book. The closing section is one of rediscovery, of coming home to the name we have been given, our only name. Elena re-emerges to personify that experience.

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

“Elena Faces the Fire.” The scriptural quotation that accompanies it is, “For our God is a consuming fire”(from Hebrews 12:29).

When I was a child (decades ago!), we lived in Manila, the Philippines. Not too far from where we lived there was a horrific fire which killed an entire family, except for their smallest child who was somehow saved. My father knew the parents, distantly, and one day we drove by to see the charred ruins, which I never forgot. I wondered about that child, on and off, over the years; she was survivor and victim all at once. I thought, too, of the God who spared her—or allowed her to be spared—while the rest of her family were not. The poem is in the child’s voice, now grown, and yet it could be any of us, facing the mystery of suffering.

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

Tough question. If there is one, it could be “And His Name Was Clemens”, because it is the only poem in the book that refers to a specific, historical person: Mark Twain, who was unflinchingly merciless to himself, bore a name closely akin to “mercy” (Clemens: clement, clemency). I wondered about him, his creative genius yet his painful inability to experience mercy, when experiencing the loss of his loved ones, especially his beloved wife.

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

The last poem I wrote was “Invitation,” which is, as I’ve noted above, the first poem in the book. Having already determined, more or less, the trajectory of the poems and where each was likely to go, I found myself needing an entry into them, something to hint at a central character (Elena, the archetypal creature). The collection begged for an introduction, and so “Invitation” emerged. Fortunately, the poem did not require too much “handling.” When poems are driven by need, channeled by purpose, and steeped in an already existent poetic scene, they come more naturally to me. It is as if half the task were already done; that is, the task of rooting the words, recognizing their landscape.

When poems come easily, one does wonder whether they’re “done.” I worried about “Invitation,” but it was soon picked up for publication by ARTS and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I was very grateful that and felt that the poem was a gift to me.

Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?

I always read each poem aloud when I revise it, and I try to listen to it as someone would at a reading—for the first time. I find that the ritual of hearing the words, as if they were coming from someone else, is important. It reinforces the identity of the poem outside the poet, where it must survive unassisted. It lays bare any flaws in the poem’s cadence, a word or phrase that may not flow smoothly. However, having done that, I do not read the collection aloud as a whole, when it’s done. You might say that I whisper it to myself, from beginning to end.

Describe your writing practice or process for your book. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I can only write in one place: at my desk, by the window, overlooking the quiet street we live in. There are dog-walkers, and children, and a few cars, and large trees—pin oaks, pines, maples—visible from my perch. I need that setting. I do not write while I’m traveling or anywhere else. I do not make notes, or scribble verses that come to my mind unbidden. I do not journal.

I’m not picky about the time. When I’m in the middle of writing a poem, any time is good; when I’m struggling, no time seems to work. I do not wake up at the middle of the night with a poem, or part of a poem. I can’t rely on that. (I sleep too soundly.) I do force myself to stick to a ritual: the place (by the window, as I’ve just mentioned), the time, evening hours. I believe it was Richard Wilbur who said (and I’m paraphrasing): “It’s the muse who writes for us, but she must know where to find us.” The muse knows where I will be and approximately at what time every day.

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

Paraclete Press has been extraordinary. Once I had submitted the final version of the manuscript, their design team set out to create the book. I was asked for some input, mostly if I had some preferences for the cover, as well as a priori objections. I shared some ideas… and waited. When the cover arrived, I was allowed to comment on it (I liked it!) and then we worked on the proofs: several rounds, in which I was allowed to make further changes to the poems. The same process applied for the back cover, the endorsements, the brief bio, etc. It was the smoothest process I could have envisioned, with a staff that was and continues to be genuinely supportive.

What are you working on now?

Every full-length book is followed by a fallow time, at least for me. A time to listen, watch, wait to be called, while continuing to abide with words. I remain open to whatever may be next. Every  poem must fulfill a need, must respond to an urgency, something that had to be said or shared. There is no need to clutter the literature with unnecessary poems.  In the meantime, I  have been doing extensive translations of art essays, from Spanish to English, and am mentoring several writers through Creative Writing Critiques, an editing service I provide which brings me enormous satisfaction and (I hope) is of value to the writers with whom I work.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Definitely music. Perhaps a classical guitarist. Unfortunately, it takes an enormous amount of work, between being a neophyte and an accomplished musician, and while you’re not yet good at it, you have to put up with your own inadequate,  painful-to-the-ear playing, before anything gratifying can emerge. I would need to be a different “me” to fulfill that alternative dream.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing? What wisdom do you think you may have arrived at?

Do not shy away from the big questions of meaning;  they are at the heart of how we experience the little things.  Do not discard any of the little things, those tactile, sensory, daily experiences; they are like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs leading the way home—but strive to set them in a larger landscape. Forgo easy gratification.  Just because writing is language and we learn language as toddlers does not mean that writing is easy—even when it seems to be. In my experience, the more we write, the harder it is.  People will tell you to believe in yourself. I agree, but I would add that we need to believe in something, someone, outside ourselves, so that when the going gets tough (as it will), we have a lifeline to pull.  Cynics and nihilists do not write genuinely creative work.

What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

Questions that relate to being—and to meaning. Big questions whose answers might be found by following little things, minor events, daily occurrences, to their ultimate consequences.

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Sofia M. Starnes, Virginia’s Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, is the author of six poetry collections, most recently, The Consequence of Moonlight from Paraclete Press; she has also edited two poetry anthologies. Her first collection, The Soul’s Landscape, was selected by Billy Collins as co-winner of the Aldrich Poetry Prize. Her first full-length book, A Commerce of Moments, won Editor’s Choice in the Transcontinental Poetry Prize competition and was named Poetry Honor Book by the Library of Virginia in 2003. Another collection, Corpus Homini, was awarded the Whitebird Poetry Series Prize. In addition, Starnes is the recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Prize for “A Poem for Single Flesh,” the Christianity & Literature Poetry Prize for “Provinces,” and the Marlboro Editor’s Choice Poetry Prize for “The House that Bled,” as well as five Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Notre Dame Review, The William & Mary Review, The Laurel Review, The Southern Poetry Review, and been anthologized in the Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology, The Hawai’i Literary Review Best of Decade edition, and in Poems of Devotion, an Anthology of Recent Poets. In 2013, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters degree by Union College, Kentucky. Currently, Sofia Starnes serves as Poetry Editor and Poetry Book Review Editor of The Anglican Theological Review; she is also a translator of art essays for Galería Cayón (Madrid, Spain) and the Ayala Foundation (Manila, Philippines). She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with her husband, Bill.

www.sofiamstarnes.com

https://www.amazon.com/Consequence-Moonlight-Poems-Sofia-Starnes/dp/161261860X

https://www.paracletepress.com/Products/18609/the-consequence-of-moonlight.aspx

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Nick Makoha

“the fact that I lost the use of my mother tongue… meant I leant on language and poetry in particular to codify my emotional experience.”nick

Resurrection Man (Jai Alai Books, 2017)

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

I was born in Uganda and had to flee Uganda because of the Idi Amin regime. My mother and father were separated at the time, so I spent much of my childhood in boarding schools in Kenya and England and also spent some time living with my father, who worked in Saudi Arabia as a doctor. I think the nomadic nature of my childhood and the fact that I lost the use of my mother tongue in the countries I moved to meant I leant on language and poetry in particular to codify my emotional experience.

I wrote my first poem when I was six and carried on writing through my childhood. But the death of my maths teacher Mr. Patel in my boarding school of a heart attack was a  pivotal event. He was like a father figure and took me under his wing. When he passed I was inconsolable. I remember crying under a tree. In my grief I thought there must be something I can do, so I wrote him a poem. They published that poem in a yearbook. My classmates caught me crying as I penciled each line.

This outted me as a poet and I have pretty much written ever since. But it was not after leaving University with a biochemistry degree that I decided to take poetry on as a career. I left my job in banking in quite dramatic fashion by burning my suits. I knew if I was going to have any chance as a writer, I could not give myself a back door or safety net.

How do you decorate your writing space?

I think of my writing space a bit differently. I often work from home to allow myself to be in easy reach of my library in the living room. The ingredients that make up my writing space are reading, silence, my computer, a notebook, and music. I work at the dining table, much to the annoyance of my wife.

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook?

King of Myth

Back when you were taken from our lives like
the son of God ascending into heaven at the barricade
to another life, policemen on their motorbikes
named you King of Myth. You danced to tossed grenades,
all part of the charade in their fire ritual. In a restless air
we surrendered our weapons – axe heads, shanks, short rope,
blades, some poison and all its animal understanding – now fair
game to the enemy with our world in their scope.
They came down hills during the blackout, phantoms
from a fallen sky with years of practice at soft landings
onto roofs in darkness, like a spirit slipping into skin.
The voice of their guns kept the violence from escaping.
A disturbance in the trees is easily mistaken for wind.
Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me – as the radio sings.

Why did you choose this poem?

One of Uganda’s great poets is Okot p’Bitek, and the poem he is known for is Song of Lawino, an epic poem written in rhyming couplets. My poem is not as grand but also uses rhyme as its engine in the form of a sonnet. I am impressed by Okot’s narrative strength.

This book but particularly this poem is an homage to him and that poem.

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

Chapbooks are like trailers to a great films. With that in mind there are several poets I like Inua Ellam’s chapbook Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales — it led on to a wonderful theatre show called The 14th Tale. Anything by Jay Bernard but you can’t go wrong with The Red and Yellow Nothing. And my fellow East African Warsan Shire’s  Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us. You might also like sugah. lump. prayer by Momtaza Mehri or Safia Elhillo’s Asmarani. There is a new generation of writers whose work is so exciting in the way it bleeds into other art-forms.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

Rather than obsession I would use the word enquiry. I realize that the Idi Amin war was my event horizon. My identity as a writer comes from having to define my African experience in a Western world. The impact of this event is what the core of the book is about.

What’s your chapbook about?

Resurrection Man is about life. My life and the other Ugandans that form my birth nation. It looks at how life is infected by war. War tests all aspects of the human condition. If you read the poems my hope is you will see that the world I present before you is tangible.

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 title poem “Resurrection Man” and “The Self” are the oldest poems that look at identity. “Resurrection Man” places you in the heart of Uganda, and “The Self” places you at an interrogation at Heathrow Airport. I knew when I was arranging the order that the poems would echo the moving away from Uganda and entering a new world.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you?

“Kingdom Of Gravity.” I wrote it when I was at Caven Canem. It speaks of the River Nile, which has its source in Uganda. This poem acts as a bridge between the world of the reader and the world of the writer. If they can follow me along the Nile to the source, then they can look at themselves in the river and not just see my world but more importantly themselves.

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

I do not know if “misfit” is the word I would use, but I can say that the poem “Language We Cry In” is the only poem in the chapbook that did not make it to the full-length book Kingdom Of Gravity. My editors and I set a high bar for the poems that qualified for the collection.

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

Revising is not an easy skill to master. As far as strategy, the aim is to arrive at the best      version of the poem. Part of that process requires critical feedback from people you   trust. You also have to have a hibernation period.

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 had three layers to it. First, it had to be read by Robin Coste Lewis, as she was the judge for the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Cave Canem Chapbook Prize. I was notified by Cave Canem the day before Christmas that I had won. At that point, Jai-Alai Books took over. They read it several times cover to cover, individually and as a team. They gave four editorial suggestions. I was okay with all of them, as they did not disrupt the flow of the collection. The cover design was out of my hands. That credit goes to Seth Labenz.  What I like is that it gives nothing away about the narrative, but at the same time exposes us to two elements of the world, smoke and darkness.

If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

Resurrection Man (2017) and The Second Republic (2014) form the core part of my first full collection Kingdom of Gravity. It is a cinematic portrait of Uganda during the Idi Amin regime. My lens focuses on the people of Uganda hopefully without bias as they struggle to hold on to the values of life in the extreme context of war.

The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man (2005) is my first chapbook and the title is a nod to Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. It looks at how my Ugandan identity renders me invisible in a Western space. It is my first look at what it is to be a writer in exile.

What are you working on now?

Currently I am working with Fuel Theatre and director Roy Alexander Weise on a play called The Dark. It charts my mother’s journey as she smuggled me out of Uganda during the fall of the Idi Amin dictatorship. I am also embarking on a national book tour with my fellow writer Roger Robinson. The tour is called Mixtape and will fuse all the influences that helped create the poetry we write.

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

Take it seriously in the good times and the bad. Good writing is a function of good reading. These two elements are part of a process and although we may all have different processes to achieve our writing, we must find ways to keep these processes alive.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

If you could not write, what would you do with your life ?

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Nick Makoha‘s debut collection Kingdom of Gravity was shortlisted for the 2017 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and nominated by The Guardian as one of the best books of 2017. He won the 2015 Brunel International Poetry prize and the 2016 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize for Resurrection Man. A Cave Canem Graduate fellow & Complete Works alumni, His poems appear in  The New York Times, Poetry Review, Rialto, Triquarterly, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri.

www.nickmakoha.com  

Hannah Cohen

“writing and reading was my way of interacting with the world around me.”

hannah cohen

Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018)

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

I’ve been writing since before I could talk (literally). I was diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) as a child and was in speech therapy for years – writing and reading was my way of interacting with the world around me. As a teen, I used to be involved in online roleplaying forums and wrote fanfiction. Funny enough, that community was instrumental in how I receive criticism and feedback as a writer now.

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook?

 Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal

This shitty cocktail is more insightful than I am.
Unfilled, I count all the secret valleys in my rib cage.

Even the universe lets me down. I’m drunk, awake.
Is this how to feel? Next morning’s sunk in my rib cage.

There’s something romantic about a building condemned.
All that space. All the never-smashed ribs in my rib cage.

Call it a tendency to forget. I like things false
and true. Can’t pray for what isn’t there in my rib cage.

I keep returning from the dead. What a masochist.
Don’t, don’t, don’t—that self-defeating heart in my rib cage.

Inhabiting a body is easy. But living
in one? Can I be more than the bones in my rib cage?

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

Why did you choose this poem?

I am not very good at writing formal poems with rules and meter, so the fact I was able to stick to a set number of syllables (13) and repetition is impressive. Combined with its autobiographical content, I think it makes for a pretty cool poem.

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

Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic holds a special place in my heart, and it’s one I keep returning to over and again. I am currently reading Anita Olivia Koester’s Apples or Pomegranates and my mentor Laura-Gray Street’s Shift Work. I also admire fellow Glass poet Ariel Francisco’s Before Snowfall, After Rain – I think his was actually the first poetry chapbook I ever bought.

What’s your chapbook about?

I’m not sure if it’s “about” anything as in a concrete narrative, but there are threads of anxiety, depression, loneliness, internal change, and stuff like that.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

“Saturnism” was written in early 2014 and was part of my undergraduate senior thesis – thankfully that version will never see the light of day.

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

To tell the truth, I settled on Bad Anatomy because it sounded cool. Also, there are several poems about the body, so it works. As for organizing poems, I like seeing what words echo/reflect other poems, whether side-by-side on the page or scattered throughout the manuscript.

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

Probably “Saturnism” because it’s the oldest poem and it’s mostly about Vincent Van Gogh. But you know, he struggled with a lot of internal shit, so maybe it fits after all.

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?

[“and the deer flash guernica”] was the last poem I wrote, and serves as a sort of coda. It echoes the words “love” and “moon” that are found in the chapbook’s opening poem “Aubade Inverse.”

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?

Anthony Frame is a real gem, and I appreciate how open the communication was during the entire process. I got to choose my own cover art, and if I had a question or concern, he’d get back to me right away. The advantage of working with a small press is that you really get to exercise creative control while also giving the publisher some space. I couldn’t be happier with how Bad Anatomy turned out.

What are you working on now?

I’m still promoting my chapbook, and I’d like to look into doing more readings. I’ve written/am writing a second chapbook that was originally part of my MFA thesis, but I don’t know whether it’ll stay a chapbook or a collection. A handful of weird nonfiction/lyric essays. I’m also writing some new poems that haven’t quite found a home yet.

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Hannah Cohen lives in Virginia and received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She co-edits Cotton Xenomorph and is a contributing editor for Platypus Press. She is the author of Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). Recent and forthcoming publications include Noble/Gas Qtrly, Glass, Calamus Journal, Cease, Cows, Yes Poetry, Gravel, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere.

www.hannahlewiscohen.com

Twitter/Instagram: hcohenpoet

Nina Li Coomes

“how does one carry oneself in the between?”

nina

haircut poems (dancing girl press, 2017)

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

I was born in Nagoya, Japan and moved with my family to the United States on January 1, 2000.  Most of my writing is informed by the “between” of existing as both Japanese and American, existing in both of these places, even the literal travel it takes to get from one place to the next. I’m not sure what led me to start writing exactly. Perhaps it’s genetic. My mother has told me before that she wanted to be a writer as a child, and my father told my sister and I what he would call “verbal stories” for much of our time growing up.  There’s something about growing up shuttling from one country to another though that impresses upon you just how temporary or fleeting something might be. In many ways, I think my writing comes from a place of urgency, of wanting to note everything in case it fades.

How do you decorate your writing space?

Right now I do most of my writing at my kitchen table, so it’s not quite a dedicated writing space. I guess when I start writing I like to light a candle, open the blinds. I also make sure there’s some sort of spray of color, whether in the form of flowers or a bowl of tangerines.  Mostly, I try to keep it uncluttered, although any such efforts quickly fail as my notes / books / scribbles take over the space.

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?

This is an excerpt from a poem called “Hiroshima is a city of light,” which was first published in RHINO.

3. what is the obligation of a body? the responsibility of a skeleton? how should one stand when sandwiched by war? the posture of both massacre and massacred? when love is made in an armistice, what color is the flag to be waved? is it salvation that is born, or simply the reality of a battle, the way fighting can sometimes look like fucking? is there mercy in the meeting? can a body apologise to itself? or forgive it?

Why did you choose this excerpt?

I think this excerpt sums up a central tension of the chapbook, which is: how does one carry oneself in the “between”?  I think about this in more metaphorical ways, even in this poem beginning with history, but I also think about it a lot in a very concrete way, as evidenced by the end of this poem. (It’s a four part poem, this being the third part.)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you? What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about your writing?

My favorite chapbook is Jamila Woods’ The Truth About Dolls. It feels genre bending and explorative of poetry as a form. It also reads in some places like a love letter, which is a quality I seek in writing more and more, writing that is meant for someone dear to the writer.  Recently I’ve also been very into Death By Sex Machine by Franny Choi. She articulates something in these poems in a very grotesque but delicate way, something like the nature of womanhood (specifically womanhood of color) and wanting, automation and need, giving and being taken from. Overall, I think chapbooks are exciting because they allow for experimentation, for forays into specific subject matter that might not fill a whole book. I am inspired by such flexible, curious writing.

What’s your chapbook about?

Haircuts!

Or rather, what a haircut might mean. In Japan there is a tradition of women cutting their hair if something of note has happened in their lives. I wanted to write using the haircut as a framework, thinking about bodies, sustenance, the physicality of existing, the ways we change or try to change when faced with trauma and tumult.

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 poem and the poem that catalyzed the chapbook are one and the same: it’s the three haircut poems that mark the beginning, middle and end of the chapbook.

Originally they were one long poem with styled as a triptych. I don’t remember writing it, but I do remember reading it for the first time. I was at a reading / performance at the Stony Island Art Bank, and Jamila was singing something. I was asked by a friend if I had a poem to read and this was the only one I had on me. Funnily, what I remember is that it didn’t go over that well—it wasn’t very catchy or charismatic, much more introspective than something that people like to hear at an outdoor party. Generally when poems are met with silence, I have a hard time going back and trying to edit them again. I lose confidence, and it takes me many months before I go back to the poem. But this poem, regardless of the silence, I really enjoyed writing and working on. So I went back, and kept working on it, and now here it is!

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

The title of the chapbook is the title of that triptych. The arrangement of the poems I think largely focused on what felt like an appropriate way to lay out tension and resolution via the dramas painted in each poem.

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

Perhaps not a backstory ,but the poem “yesterday” draws from a couple snapshots. The preoccupation with red and red lips in particular comes from something I once heard at a Mixed Race Studies Conference about how after the war, in US occupied Japan, comfort women wore red lipsticks to signal their availability to American GIs. As you may know, comfort women were employed by the Japanese government in Korea, the Philippines, and even in Japan where certain women were designated a sexual buffer for soldiers, whether they were Japanese soldiers or American ones.  I think this is a very shameful, condemnable part of history that needs to be better acknowledged. I also think a lot about how mixed-race children after the war were primarily borne of this violence, and what it means to come from violent histories, and how one might reconcile ore reclaim them.

Another snapshot that fed into this poem is a white girl I saw on the N train one Halloween who was dressed in a pitiable Geisha costume, a girl who I never said anything to, even though the pink of her face under her white pancake makeup is something I still cannot unsee.

Finally, the poem begins with the etymology of the word chink, which comes from the French word chine, which describes an animal’s backbone as visible through a cut of meat.

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?

“yesterday” was also the final poem I wrote and revised for the chapbook. It poured out of me on a July day in my New York apartment.  I remember sitting down to my desk, thinking I had nothing to write, and then out came this strange poem that was simultaneously the largest leap in form for me, as well as perhaps the truest thing I could manage at the time. I’m not sure I ever feel that something is complete, but this poem, its grossness, its ambiguity, how fun it felt to write it—it made me excited about poems again in a way I was increasingly feeling resigned to.” haircut poems” may have catalyzed the book, but “yesterday” finished it.

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

Reading a loud. When you read a work a loud, it cannot hide what is excess or weak.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

My cover design is actually an illustration by my sister, Mary Blair Coomes. She is many times my most trusted reader since we have experienced together so many of the things that inspired these poems. I asked her to read the manuscript, sent over some line drawings that I liked and she came back with the now-cover image, which I love. I’m almost more proud of the cover than the actual book.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a monthly column for Catapult, as well as trying to apply to as many summer writing workshops as possible! I’ve never received any formal writing training and attended my first real structured workshop this past year at the Kundiman Creative Nonfiction Intensive. That experience and the community it provided, all the new ways to write and think about writing it uncovered, it reinvigorated and regenerated my zeal for writing. I’d like to do more of that.

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

I am not the best person to ask this—I worked for about two years as a news producer where being saturated was quite literally my job. Now, post-producing, I’m still a news hound in my spare time and don’t do very much to curb that inclination. It’s not the healthiest thing, but it informs my writing and the way I move through the world. However, when it does come time to step away, I find that focusing on the immediate relationships with people I love is a good way to pull the focus back onto what matters most.

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Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer born in Nagoya, raised in Chicago, and currently resides in Boston, MA.  Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The Collapsar, RHINO, The Margins, and | tap | lit mag, among other places.


www.ninalicoomes.com

 

Laura Leigh Morris

“I try to convey the richness of what it means to live in West Virginia.”laura

Jaws of Life (West Virginia University Press, 2018)

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

from Frackers

Picture it: four industrial bulbs, 1,000+ watts each, trained on the house all night. And it doesn’t matter if I use blackout curtains or move to another room – there’s no way to ignore the production happening just a quarter mile from my bedroom window. I can hear the workers yelling, the whine of machinery, the wrecks that sometimes happen because drivers are confused by the brightness. I can see the lights through closed eyelids.

When you’re looking at a check full of zeroes for just a few acres of land, you think about a new roof, replacing the furnace that hasn’t kept the house properly warm in at least ten years. You think about how you won’t have to pinch pennies until the beginning of the next month. You don’t think about the fact that fracking is a 24-hour business. Or that they’ll point their lights straight at your bedroom window, then claim it’s the only angle that works.

For six months, I called Jameson Wells, the county, the state, anyone I could get on the phone. Everywhere I turned, I received the same stony silence. So I got out of bed one night at midnight and slid off my nightgown, replacing it with black pants and shirt, black shoes, my white hair tied up under a black hat. They wouldn’t see me coming. I crouched behind trees and crawled across the field on my elbows, a serious undertaking for a woman my age. About fifty yards off, I lay on the ground and caught my breath. Then, I pulled the BB gun off my back and aimed for center mass. There was a small ping and then a tinkle of broken glass as the first bulb burst. The men hadn’t figured out what was going on before I’d shattered two more. I never got a chance with the final bulb. They’d realized what was happening and turned the light from my line of sight. As their voices filled the night air, I crawled back to my house and slid into my bed without anyone realizing I’d been gone. It was the soundest I’d slept in months.

Why did you choose this excerpt?

This is the opening of the first story, “Frackers,” which invites readers into one woman’s response to hydraulic fracturing on her land, and I view all of the stories in the book in this vein – they reflect how individuals interact with a world that often feels like it’s actively working against them. In West Virginia in particular, we often do get caught in the jaws of larger problems – fracking, coal, drug addiction, poverty. This collection is all about how we deal with those worldly realities in our own unique ways.

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

When choosing the order of the collection, I sprinkled my favorite stories throughout the book. I love “Frackers” and “Photographing the Dead,” so I began and ended with those. Then, I placed some of my favorites in the middle – “Jaws of Life” and “House of Tires” are the two that come most readily to mind. I like the worlds I created in these different stories – they are some that I really enjoyed writing and still enjoy reading.

The funny thing is, I did not actually come up with the title Jaws of Life. A writing friend suggested the title, and when it came time to name the book, I thought it encompassed the entire collection. A reader suggested I change the name to Photographing the Dead, and while I do like that title, I don’t want to imply that the people of Appalachia are dead. I want the region to be a place of life and vitality – not somewhere that only exists in the past. So, yes, the people in the collection are alive, but they’re also caught in the jaws of life, which is a place where people have to fight just to exist.

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

“House of Tires,” hands down. It’s one of those stories I worked on for years, always revising, never quite content with it. Even when I gave my revisions to my editor and she was happy, I told her I wanted to take one more crack at “House of Tires.” A month before the absolutely final date to submit the manuscript, I scrapped almost everything beyond the opening scene and rewrote it from scratch. While this method isn’t usually a good idea, the final result is one that I really love. When I finished “House of Tires,” I knew I could be content in what I would submit. So, while there will always be problems in any published work, the moment I felt content with every story’s arc, I knew I was done.

Why West Virginia?

I know this is where I’m from, but it’s more than that. West Virginia is such a rich landscape, because it’s a place that often exists outside of the realities of most Americans. It exists as stereotype for many, but underneath that stereotype, the lives of the people who live there are so rich. In this book and in all my writing, I try to convey the richness of what it means to live in West Virginia among so many hardships a person must contend with. It makes for an extremely rich cast of characters.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently writing a novel. It takes place in the community I created and built in the collection, but the story is very different, and the form of the novel is brand new to me. I learned so much about the story and about writing in Jaws of Life, but the novel is a different beast. I’ve had to really consider the differences between the story and the chapter, how narrative arc works over pieces of different lengths. It’s exciting – and terrifying!

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

Keep writing. No matter what. I’ve seen so many people give up, and that’s the one way to truly fail. Writing is about being in it for the long haul, practicing your craft, piling up rejection after rejection until the acceptances start rolling in. It’s about perseverance and learning from every word you read and write.

*

Laura Leigh Morris lives in Greenville, South Carolina, where she teaches creative writing and literature at Furman University. Before that, she spent three years as the National Endowment for the Arts/Bureau of Prisons Artist-in-Residence at Bryan Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas. She’s previously published short fiction in Appalachian Heritage, Louisville Review, Notre Dame Review, and other journals. Originally from north central West Virginia, all of her fiction is set there, the place she is most at home. From the landscape to the rich variety of people to the long history of resource extraction, the region serves as a rich backdrop to both her life and her stories. Jaws of Life is her first book. She is currently hard at work on her first novel.

http://www.lauraleighmorris.com

Anna Maria Hong  

“The writing of this book was driven by the question of how or whether one can be a responsible and ethical member of empire, particularly in the face of white, hot reversals and upheavals….”

Hong Cover Age of Glass.jpgAge of Glass (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2018)

How do you decorate your writing space?

Three desks: one for writing, one for holding work-in-progress, and a standing desk.

A lucky bowl from Phoenix; a lucky mirror shaped like a genie-lamp from Kerala, India; a small, lucky cup from Qatar; a candle with holder made from a drupe from Peru (all given to me by friends); a favorite lamp sculpture titled Girl Reading to Shadow by Saya Moriyasu, and many other beloved totems.

What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?

The writing of this book was driven by the question of how or whether one can be a responsible and ethical member of empire, particularly in the face of white, hot reversals and upheavals, as this era comes to a close, and particularly as a writer, a person of color, and a woman.

I chose the form of the sonnet to inform this long series of poems, for the emotional ballast the form provides in its rigor, but also because the sonnet lends itself to argument and countering established notions (sometimes established by the poet herself) and because my writing in this form in a self-consciously feminist voice shifts the long (mostly male and white) tradition of this ur-form in English.

What songs soundtrack your making of your book?

I think of Blondie’s Heart of Glass now when I read the title, but it wasn’t a conscious influence during the book’s making. I do love Blondie.

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

Here’s the title poem:

The Glass Age

Every age an age of glass: A slipper shoes

the foot, takes giant steps of tock and tick,

a cone blown, known gone, glass is fashioned, metal

spun to color, mineral made light,

 

and this is the last poem I will write.

Glass is sand is time falling loose,

a gap of glass is wrapping, a bottle

(    ) or swan (    ) of the human whose

 

hand will flip the glass, grabbing it

by the neck. Every time a nick.

And it is our glass to raise and smash.

A female silhouette, a shape, a vase

 

with two closed ends, one met. Two cones have kissed.

And the skin of our limit is glass.

Why did you choose this poem?

This poem is one of several poems that concern our current moment, speeding toward apocalypse, and what seems to be the last gasps of the American empire for better and worse. All of the poems in this mini-series have the word “Age” in their titles: “The Platinum Age,” “The Iron Age,” “The Bronze Age,” “Age of Evidence,” etc.

Other poems in the collection include dramatic monologues from the points of view of mostly female characters from myth and folktale. These poems also concern the strangeness of our current time from a feminist, female-bodied perspective and the infuriating, disorienting effects of sexual assault and systemic disparity. And other poems in the collection address all these ideas about time and gender in other ways.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Obsessions with form, structure, and “rules” themselves, the pleasures of inhabiting form and bending and destroying it. Always loving the sonnet form in particular—I don’t love any other traditional/ received form.

Linear and circular conceptions of time, embodied by the form of the hourglass and the gyre, as articulated by W.B. Yeats.

Misogyny, sexism, and the absurd, bludgeoning persistence of these forces.

How did you decide on the arrangement of your book?

I worked on this collection for 14 years from drafting the first poems to publication. I’d set out to write 100 sonnets and ended up drafting well over 300 over seven years—then I had the large task of sifting and tossing and arranging and revising, which took a few more years, so the book went through many iterations including recent substantive changes in ordering while I was working with Caryl Pagel, the Director of the CSU Poetry Center, who had many valuable suggestions. I also solicited and received a lot of great advice along the way from other poet friends including Joanna Klink, David Micah Greenberg, and Liz Powell.

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

“A Parable,” as it’s not a sonnet in any way.

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

Revise immediately after drafting and then wait a good, long time and revise again.

What are you working on now?

I’m revising my second poetry collection, Fablesque, which won Tupelo Press’s Berkshire Prize and will be published in 2019. I’m also embarking on a new work focused on sites of partition, beginning with the Korean peninsula’s DMZ.

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?

It’s overwhelming, obviously. I work most of my waking hours, but I employ social media judiciously, and I’m off-line most of the weekend and all day on Saturdays. I do not Tweet or Snap.

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Anna Maria Hong’s poetry collection, Age of Glass, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2017 First Book Poetry Competition. Her novella, H & G, won the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Clarissa Dalloway Prize and will be published by Sidebrow Books in May 2018. Her second poetry collection, Fablesque, won Tupelo Press’s Berkshire Prize and is forthcoming in 2019. A former Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, she has published poetry and fiction in journals and anthologies including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Poetry, Ecotone, POOL, Fence, Verse Daily, Fire on Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry and The Best American Poetry.

https://www.english.upenn.edu/people/anna-maria-hong

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/anna-maria-hong

https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/news/in-news/breaking-sonnet-barrier

Emily Jungmin Yoon

“I don’t spend too much time on a poem in one day.”

Yoon

Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017)

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?

An Ordinary Misfortune

Mine is the jam-packed train. The too-weak cocktail. This statement by an American man at the bar: Your life in Korea would have been a whole lot different without the US. Meaning: be thankful. This question by a Canadian girl, a friend: Why don’t you guys just get along? The guys: Japan and Korea. Meaning: move on. How do I answer that? Move on, move on, girls on the train. Destination: comfort stations. Things a soldier can do: mount you before another soldier is done. Say, Drink this soup made of human blood. Say, The Korean race should be erased from this earth. Tops down. Bottoms up. Things erased: your name, your child, your history. Your new name: Fumiko, Hanako, Yoshiko. Name of the condom: Charge Number One. Name of the needle: Compound 606. Salvarsan means, an arsenic to save. Ratio 291: 29 soldiers per girl. Actual count: lost. Lost: all. Shot, shot, shot, everybody. Give thanks.

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

Year Zero by Monica Sok, Sad Girl Poems by Christopher Soto, Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named by Nicole Sealey, After by Fatimah Asghar, and Fruit Mansion by Sam Wein are some of my recent favorites. I really love chapbooks for their focus. Not all poems in a given chapbook might have the same “theme(s),” but I enjoy seeing how the poet strung them together in the condensed space and how the poems still come in conversation with one another.

What’s your chapbook about?

In the core of my chapbook are poems that speak about the history of the Korean “comfort women” (a euphemistic term for sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial army), although not all the poems are about that history.

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?

I think the poem I shared above, “Ordinary Misfortune,” was the beginning of this chapbook. The poem is one of the many poems under the same title, and of course the title of the book itself is also the same. I wrote the poem after reading a history book on comfort women that said being forced or tricked into becoming a comfort woman was so common that it had become an “ordinary misfortune.” The phrase struck me because of how understatedly it was written, in juxtaposition with the painful accounts. So I wrote the first poem, and soon it became a series of poems that speak on various historical and contemporary violences against the body.

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

One of the poems in the “Ordinary Misfortune” series—one that begins with “What is pressing”—was born out of my grandmother’s story. She tells me about her childhood and youth during the colonial period and the Korean War, and that particular story was about how many Korean women were raped and assaulted by American soldiers during the War. War isn’t just battles and bombings in the front lines but also what it does to lives seemingly in the margins of war and less documented. The story also reminds me to question how war histories are presented; it is easy to portray war as if it is a fight between absolute good and absolute evil, but it is always much more complicated. Oversimplified, nationalist, and uncritical views of war can perpetuate damages even after its end.

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

Sleep on it! I don’t spend too much time on a poem in one day. For me, looking at one poem or a part of it for too long muddies my judgment on it and can lead to me falling a bit out of love with it. When I come back to it after I let my mind rest or have it accept stimulations from other activities, I find that I almost always have something new to do for the poem, and it can really help the poem, even though the edit might not be a big dramatic change.

What are you working on now?

I am currently in the editing and proofing stage for my full-length collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, forthcoming from Ecco this fall.

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

Instead of trying to read and catch up on everything, discussing that issue with friends can be really useful—since it’s likely that I would have read something that my friend didn’t, and vice versa, we can exchange information on what we know and talk through our raw reactions.

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

Treasure everything you’ve written! I have poems that I wrote a long time ago that I’m embarrassed by, but often there is something I can salvage out of them. I might like a line in a bad poem from years ago. Sometimes old poems can function as a sort of a journal, too—I’ll read one and remember what I cared about at that time and how this poem became a launching pad for another one.

***

Emily Jungmin Yoon is the author of Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017), winner of the Sunken Garden Chapbook Prize, and A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco Books 2018). She has received awards and fellowships from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, the Aspen Institute, Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and elsewhere. In 2017, she received the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. She currently serves as the Poetry Editor for The Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is a PhD student studying Korean literature at the University of Chicago.

emily-yoon-poetry.tumblr.com