Jack B. Bedell

“More than anything, that urge to archive and to honor those people and moments is the same urge that generates poems for me.”

jack bedell

No Brother, This Storm (Mercer University Press, 2018)

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

Books were not a big priority in our house growing up. We had a full set of World Book Encyclopedias and Yearbooks, and as best I can recall every series Time/Life published, but the only poetry I remember seeing was a Reader’s Digest version of Robert Frost we used as a doorstop (which I’d actually love to find so I could see what it contained!).

I didn’t really attempt writing any poetry myself until I took a creative writing class my final semester as an undergraduate at Northwestern State University. I had only read the Romantics in high school classes, so everything I wrote in the creative writing class was a horrible imitation of William Blake filled with whatever ideas I’d learned in my philosophy classes. It was all truly awful stuff.

Luckily, my professor was kind enough to take me out into the hall to tell me everything I was turning in was awful but didn’t have to stay that way. He loaned me a copy of R.S. Gwynn’s At the Drive-In to show me what poetry could be. Reading Gwynn’s poems was the perfect education for me. His stuff is formal, so I was able to relate to its structure, and his range of subjects opened up the world of contemporary narrative to me. Once I found out I could tell stories about growing up in south Louisiana instead of visionary treatises based on Kant, I dove into writing poems about my family and home and haven’t stopped since!

How do you decorate your writing space?

I used to write best sitting in a comfortable chair holding a legal pad and pen while gazing out the window, but that all ceased when my first child was born. I tried to continue that tradition of quiet creation by following my friend Virgil Suarez’s advice to wake up before the kids to write in a sleepy house. I had to abandon that notion quickly, though, when doing so meant getting up at 4am.

These days I love to write in public places with other writers. If my writing space is decorated with anything, it’s decorated with noise and energy. I need the juice provided by working writers in busy places to make me get busy. The noisier the writing venue, the easier it is for me to focus on doing the work.

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?

I always have the same New Year’s resolution: Find the Good in the Day. As a person, I do my best to honor and to celebrate the people and events that add goodness to my life. More than anything, that urge to archive and to honor those people and moments is the same urge that generates poems for me.

Even when the subject matter of my poems turns to unpleasant or disturbing subjects, I do my best to find a way to go beyond an inventory of that negativity. The poems in No Brother, This Storm that deal in some way with loss of loved ones, or loss of coastline, or loss of ways of life in south Louisiana definitely try to find way to live past these tragedies, to find life beyond them.

What songs soundtrack your making of your book?

If there’s music coming through my headphone while I’m working, odds are it will be a Deftones album. Adrenaline, White Pony, and Diamond Eyes are always in steady rotation. Just like I need energy in my surroundings whenever I’m working, I need a little aggression in my music to help my mind focus on the work. Nothing sounds more like the blood moving through my veins than Deftones!

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?

Remnant

They happen in the kitchen, these visits
with my mother. She’s always working, something
busy, like separating yolks for chix buns.

Alive, she would’ve passed the eggs through her fingers,
letting the whites drip through, holding the yolks
gently in her palm. During these dreams, though,

she uses the shells like they do on cooking shows
passing the yolks from half to half before
dropping them into the mixing bowl. She makes

her dough patiently, without much fuss,
pressing it out and balling it up quietly
in the hollow of an old balsa plank.

When the dough is gold and dense enough,
she raises the plank as high as she can
above her head to place it in the warm spot

on top of the refrigerator. Straining like this
she is so much like herself I can barely breathe.
If I try to help her or open my mouth to speak,

the alarm will go off and morning will burn itself
onto the day. Quiet or not, I can never stay
long enough for the dough to rise, for her

to roll and cut the buns, place them in the oven
on buttered sheets. Even though I’ll wake
before the smell hits me, the taste remains.

Why did you choose this poem?

“Remnant” is the opening poem in No Brother, This Storm. It recounts a recurring dream I have of my mother making Chix de Femme rolls in our kitchen. My mother passed away just as I was beginning work on this collection of poems, and that loss connected itself to the ideas of coastal erosion, cultural loss, and storm damage addressed in many of the other poems written for this book. Writing “Remnant” was painful in many ways, but facing that pain by sharing a pleasant memory and by archiving favorite details of those memories really became the blueprint I used to move forward with hope in the other poems dealing with loss in the collection.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

The earliest poems written for No Brother, This Storm arise out of an urgent concern for loss of land in coastal Louisiana. Poems like “Elliptic,” “Storm, Grand Isle,” and “Breakwater” focus on coastal erosion with an eye toward restoration and recovery. As someone born and raised in south Louisiana, I could only see so many of those maps predicting complete loss of our coastline over the next three decades before I had to address that loss in my life and my work. Most importantly, though, I want my work to move beyond simply archiving loss. I really feel it’s important to recognize the ways we can live past this loss, ways we can help our ecology restore itself. To me, this is where hope for the future is born.

What’s your book about?

The poems in No Brother, This Storm are unavoidably about loss. While the majority of poems in the book are about environmental and cultural loss due to coastal erosion and natural disasters, the book includes a few poems about personal loss. As I mentioned earlier, my mother passed away at the onset of writing these poems. Toward the end of the process, I also lost my father. Those two personal losses really changed the tenor of the collection. Probably the most important impact of the poems about my parents was a renewed conviction to honor memories and to focus on hope, recovery, and restoration more than inventorying loss and damage.

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

“Elliptic” is the oldest piece written for No Brother, This Storm. More than any of the other early poems in the book, that poem set the course for the subject matter in the collection. Since “Elliptic” is about coastal erosion and gradual loss of home, I wanted to write the poem in a sparse, elliptical style. I used white space and text placement to connote missing pieces. In that elliptical narrative, however, I wanted there to be sense, emotion, and hope. As a poet indebted to narrative, it was definitely difficult to leave story off the page intentionally, but it struck me as the best, really only, way to deal with the loss of coastland we’re suffering here.

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

Putting the poems together for this collection, it was easy to recognize thematic unity in the poems, but it was difficult for me to find a flow that worked from poem to poem until I grouped the poems into three movements: “There and That,” “Gone to Gulf,” and “Fables.” The first movement contains poems more focused on culture and tradition, the second addressed the environment, and the third offers narratives leaning more toward allegory. Once I grouped the poems by subject matter and/or perspective like that, it was much easier to build flow from beginning to end in the book.

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

It’s a tough call to pick a MOST meaningful back story, but I would probably go with “Revenant.” That poem began with an interesting point I learned helping my oldest son study for a science exam just after my mother passed away. He was studying weather patterns at the time, and his textbook claimed in a sidebar that the wind circulating around the planet today is the same wind that’s circulated since the atmosphere formed. For some reason, this assertion reminded me of my mother’s favorite spot on their drive up from the coast to visit us. Whenever she passed Manchac near Hammond where we live, she’d roll down her car window to smell the air over the lake. As fate would have it, the spot she loved so much had a small camp on the water there that had been blown over in a recent hurricane. All of those facts/stories fused into “Revenant,” and that conflation really makes the poem my favorite in terms of background.

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

No doubt, the “misfit” in this collection would be “Coastal, Aberration.” The poem moves from traditional lineation, to prose, to sparse spatial language at points. The poem takes place at a commercial fishing camp on the day of a storm. Since that place holds fear, anxiety, destruction, loss, beauty, and hope all at the same time, I wanted to use shifts in language and design to communicate these different perspectives on the page.

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

After decades of working with Texas Review Press on full length collections, it’s been a really positive, exciting change working with Mercer University Press on No Brother, This Storm. Because I’d worked with the director of TRP for so long, I’d inherited a good bit of trust and responsibility with the press, so they expected my collections to be totally edited and ready for press when sent to them. Texas Review also had me do my own book design since I edit a journal and direct a press myself.

With Mercer, though, I’ve been really privileged to work with careful, conscientious editors to refine No Brother, This Storm. I definitely appreciate the care they took to make sure the poems were as good as they could be. Mercer also took total responsibility for the cover and text design for the book, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it all turned out.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just completed another full-length manuscript, Color All Maps New, and I am about three quarters of the way into writing poems for a brand new collection, There Is No Train, But the Tracks Will Lead You There.

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Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. His latest collections are Elliptic (Yellow Flag Press, 2016), Revenant (Blue Horse Press, 2016), and No Brother, This Storm (Mercer University Press, fall 2018). He has been appointed by Governor John Bel Edwards to serve as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019.

“Owl-and-Wolf-Infested Lands”

www.jackbbedell.com

Valerie Nieman

“Dinah (I only knew her as the Leopard Lady at first) started to talk to me/through me, and I scrambled to set down 13 pages of poems and fragments in that initial burst.”

Nieman

Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse (Press 53, 2018)

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

I grew up in snow country, the Allegheny Plateau of western New York State, and spent those cold months hunkered down with books and more books. My parents made sure I had red shoes, Little Golden Books, and a library card. I used to love the Christmas treasure boxes of paper, books by local authors, notebooks, and other items from a female relative’s printing house. So, when my sixth-grade class put together a holiday anthology and my poem was chosen as the title poem, I was hooked. I wrote in high school and in college, then went into journalism at West Virginia University and with two jobs as well, had precious little time for “creative writing.” I did not start again until I was a couple of years into my first newspaper job. My first novel was shelved (and lost, I hope) but my second gained me an agent and a publishing contract. Neena Gathering is back in print, and audible, thanks to a resurrection a couple of years ago by Permuted Press. On the poetry side, I had a couple of chapbooks published before finally putting out my first collection, Wake Wake Wake.

How do you decorate your writing space?

I don’t know that decorate is the word. I have a photo board covered with poems, photos, cards, reminders, and other material. An illustrated tourism map of the Great Glen of Scotland is tacked to the wall to my left, a visual reminder to keep working on my current project, a response to my mother’s death through the prism of a month spent solo hiking and wandering in the Scottish Highlands and islands. The desktop is awash in papers, including a stern book in which I’ve recorded my submissions since 1987. To my right, a “Terrible Towel” and a painting by friend Al Sirois adorn the walls. Two paper bubble-lights from Ikea provide illumination enough. My back is to the porch and the lure of watching things outside.

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

It’s pretty eclectic. Growing up, I read the books that I could find in the “den,” including Tennyson and Poe, Emerson and Mark Twain, and “boy books” like Treasure Island. I loved a volume of Jack London that I bought at a school book fair. I read a lot of science and nature (Rachel Carson) and biography because the town library did not let young people descend to the fiction department in the basement. I found science fiction as a young teen—Bradbury, Le Guin, Heinlein, Herbert, McCaffrey. Totally passed over children’s classics and romances. Bought Lady Chatterley’s Lover from a blushing uncle at a family yard sale. Tolkien grabbed me for awhile. Camus, Hermann Hesse. Dostoevsky. Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison. Lots of poetry and stories along the way. Too many books to name!

What might these books suggest about your writing?

That I read widely and enjoyed what was good regardless of the label. This has caused me no end of grief as a writer in today’s market, where we are urged to be “branded” in one form and genre.

What songs soundtrack your making of your book?

I cannot listen to music while I write, any music. Music that has some connection to the book might make up a playlist, however: “Magic” by Bruce Springsteen. “Tomorrow Is My Turn” by Rhiannon Giddens. “Carnival of Rust” by Poets of the Fall. “Fortune Teller” by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss. “En vain pour éviter” from Carmen. “Locked Within the Crystal Ball” by Blackmore’s Night. “Sandy” by Springsteen. “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams. “Raining in Baltimore” by Counting Crows. “Wayfaring Stranger.” “Predictions” by Suzanne Vega. “A Love Supreme: Part 4, Psalm” by John Coltrane. “Moonshadow,” Cat Stevens. “When the Deal Goes Down,” Bob Dylan.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

This book has its genesis many years ago, when I began to hear a voice. Dinah (I only knew her as the Leopard Lady at first) started to talk to me/through me, and I scrambled to set down 13 pages of poems and fragments in that initial burst. From there, it was a process of letting the voice guide me in discovery, while I also read and did research into carnival life. Her voice was later joined by that of The Professor, who lectures on the freaks in the sideshow, and who has his own fraught background as a divinity student who’s lost his faith. Their friendship was unexpected, but vital to the second half of the book.

What’s your book about?

Leopard Lady tells the story of Dinah, an orphan child of Appalachia who runs away to a carnival, and the emotional, physical, and spiritual journey she embraces. Born in the depths of the Depression, the biracial child is “given” to the childless Gastons to raise. She eventually finds her way out of exploitation into a life on the road as a carnival hootchie-kootchie dancer and fortune-teller. Self-educated with the King James Bible and a volume of Shakespeare, her voice blends Elizabethan phrasings with Appalachian and carnival speech. When Dinah is afflicted with vitiligo, she adds a turn as a “freak” called the Leopard Lady as the show travels back roads from the Carolinas to Pennsylvania. A dropout from divinity school joins the show, and they begin a debate over the nature of God and man–each seeking an understanding of their place in the universe–that becomes a close friendship.

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

The opening poem, “The Leopard Lady Speaks,” came in that initial blast of poems and fragments. It has been revised, of course, but is essentially the same as when it arrived.

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

The title came from the poem mentioned above, and from the subject matter. Initially, the book was called “The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse,” but the use of my sideshow banner painting for the cover pushed us to revisit that. “The” was dropped, and the idea of a novel in verse seemed a bit off-putting, so Kevin Watson suggested “A Life in Verse.” This was inserted in the “bullet” area of the banner, which originally carried the traditional sideshow slogan, Alive!

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

I think I’m most drawn to “What I Could See,” in which Dinah recalls her brief love affair with Shelby. I set this meeting in a town I knew well, Eden, NC — but in its earlier incarnation as three separate mill towns of Leaksville, Draper, and Spray. I worked there as a newspaper bureau chief when I first came to North Carolina. The Fieldcrest mill was still working then, but it’s long been closed. The big brick factories have been converted into loft apartment complexes boasting their original heart pine floors. The rivers no longer run with blue and red dyes, but are the centerpiece of a growing tourism economy for Rockingham County. Still, I always felt drawn to the history of the textile industry, and wanted to memorialize it in some way. In the course of the book, the carnival pulls up in a number of real places like Beaufort, SC, and Oil City, PA, and many others that are not named.

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

“Marching Jay-bird.” The book has several poems that address the natural world, especially birds, and this is one of them. The title comes from an old fiddle tune, but the inspiration was seeing a heavy crop of acorns one fall, the nuts piled along the streets. Still, it seems to be an outlier.

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 closing poem, which brings the main character to Coney Island Museum at its opening. A heavy rain while I was studying there and Professor Marie Roberts’ story about the ghosts on the rides came together with Dinah’s memories of the show. It ends with a line from “The Tempest” to create a kind of benediction. “We are none of us more/ than a handful of spit and dust./We live and then we are melted into air.”

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

For my poetry, I am fortunate to have a small poetry group that has met each month for something like 20 years. They’ve read every poem that has gone into Leopard Lady, sometimes more than once. I have another faithful reader who gives (sometimes brutally) honest feedback, and occasionally I foist poems on others. I use this feedback to go back into the poem, generally pruning away excess, clarifying syntax, and cutting away extra lines at the beginning and end.

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 book?

Working with Press 53 has been a joy. I was surprised and delighted that they wanted to use my “folk art” painting of the Leopard Lady as the cover art. I’ve been involved every step of the way, from cover design to typeface to choosing the little bits of artwork that separate sections of long poems. (What are those things called, anyway?) I spent a whole morning with the editors tweaking the final layout, feeling quite blessed to be included in the process.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a hybrid prose/poetry book or prosimetric work, a form that draws on Basho’s haibun travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as well as a long tradition of combined prose/poetry forms in many cultures, from the Mahabharata to Dante’s La Vita Nuova to William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All. I’m framing a meditation on my mother’s life and death in the context of a month spent solo hiking and wandering in Scotland’s Highlands and islands. I spent much of my life struggling against my mother’s traditional roles as a wife and mother, trying to to set a different course, rejecting the accommodations she made before slowly coming to understand and honor those choices.

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 difficult, especially during this time when I am touring for two books. I need to keep up on contacts and correspondence using Facebook and Twitter. Reluctantly, I even went on Instagram, and am trying to learn how to “do” that. Posting information about readings, responding to other writers—it’s part of the work, but I admit that I am not creating much new writing as a result.

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

Have a plan. Realize that writing will not pay the bills unless you are spectacularly lucky, so you should find something you want to do that also leaves space for your writing. Many choose to teach—it’s a pretty direct path—but there’s nothing that says you can’t be a carpenter, insurance sales agent, physician, journalist, farmer, therapist etc. etc.

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

How do you feel about “branding”? Some writers work widely across form and genre, yet we are regularly told to create a brand and stick with it.

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Valerie Nieman’s latest poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, features work that has appeared in The Missouri Review, Chautauqua, and other journals. Her fourth novel, To the Bones, a genre-bending satire of the coal industry in Appalachia, will be published in 2019 by WVU Press. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She has held state and NEA fellowships. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she teaches at North Carolina A&T State University.

www.valnieman.com

Sarah Nichols

“Art, specifically visual art, has always excited me and haunted me. Writing this book was a way to capture some of those emotions.”

sarah nichols pic 2.pngHow Darkness Enters a Body (Porkbelly Press, 2018)

 

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

I knew that I wanted to be a writer at a very young age; ten or eleven, I think. I was very lucky to have parents who were voracious readers, and they passed that down to me. Libraries have always been places of refuge for me; whatever has been going on in my life, good or bad, I know that I can go to a library and that I will be welcomed by what it holds. My childhood and early adulthood were tumultuous; to know that I could escape into a book meant, and still means to me, a great deal. When I told my parents (specifically my father), he told me that being a writer was hard, and what would I do for a “real” job? At the time, I had no answer to that question. I didn’t really know how to even begin to be a writer. I wanted to be a journalist for a long time (When I was 15-16, I was a newsroom assistant at my hometown’s paper, and I had done a week-long internship at the Yale Daily News between my junior and senior years of high school.) I realized that the pace was too fast for me. But as I got older, I never envisioned myself as primarily a poet. I won first prize in a college writing contest, with a poem about Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. I was also taking a more general creative writing class, and my instructor saw something in the poems I was writing for that, and I think of that as the beginning to what I’m doing now. It’s difficult to believe that it’s been twenty years.

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?

CONTACT SHEET
After Contact Sheet #4539 of three different sets of identical twins, by Diane Arbus

In our secret language,
we float upside down.

It’s like speaking to a mirror. Or
an x-ray. Those shrouded outlines

presenting us with maps.

Here is your tongue, sister. Let
me share it.

Here is my hand. You take it
into
yourself, a

piece left over
from the time before

when we slept in
the aperture of our
mother’s body.

Here are our eyes. Pinholes
or
cataracts.

Equally blind.

Why did I choose this poem?

I chose “Contact Sheet” because I see it as an entryway into the other poems. I use specific terms related to photography, like “contact sheet,” “aperture,” and “pinhole.”  One of Diane Arbus’s most famous photographs is of a pair of identical twin girls, and perhaps using a work that may be familiar to others is another way to entice readers to explore the book further. I made an effort to use lesser-known Arbus photographs for the rest of the book. I also chose this poem because I like its strangeness. There is something eerie to it.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

For a long time, I said that I would like to do a chapbook of ekphrastic poetry, and I have a long history with that, from that college writing contest prize, writing about an Edward Hopper painting, to my first non-student poetry publication, which was about another Hopper painting, New York Movie. Two ekphrastic poems appear in my first chapbook. However, I kept circling around Arbus, and the way that she never looked away at people and things that were too often ignored, or if not ignored, instances that might just be thrown away. She was an extraordinary portraitist. My project became more urgent, I think, after I had an opportunity to see an exhibit of Arbus’s early work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016. After only seeing the photographs in books, being up close to it made it more alive. It was also around this time that I first heard of Valerie Wallace’s full length book, House of McQueen, which was published this year, and deals with the life and work of the designer Alexander McQueen. It was such an innovative idea, and I wish I had thought of it!  It shows me that there are no limits to what ekphrastic poetry can do, and was a real impetus to start working on this thing that I had wanted to do for so long. Art, specifically visual art, has always excited me and haunted me. Writing this book was a way to capture some of those emotions.

What is your chapbook about?

Aside from using Diane Arbus’s photographs to fashion a sort of “back story” for what I think or feel is going on inside the world of the photo, I notice that not a few of the poems are centered in women’s stories. I write about a sword swallower learning her trade from her mother. A headless woman who wonders what her mother might think about her being on display in a sideshow. I have a persona poem in the voice of Arbus herself, related to an accidental double exposure self portrait over a scene of New York City at night. I don’t know that when I set out to write the poems that I had in mind the idea that women’s stories was going to be a parallel thread to describing my interpretation of certain works. But that’s what happened, and I’m glad it did.

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 my chapbook?

I submitted the manuscript to Porkbelly Press’s annual open reading period for micro-chapbooks last year. I think by that point it had already been turned down at another press; and I knew that Nicci Mechler, the EIC of Porkbelly was looking for Arbus related poems.

I was asked if I would be willing to drop a poem from the ms, and change the title, which at the time of the submission was Contact Sheet. I was willing to do that, and it was accepted. I knew that I would have a gorgeous book at the end of the process. Nicci asked me about cover ideas, and when I started looking around, I was looking too hard for art that had a similar aesthetic to Arbus’s work, and I came to the conclusion that I was looking, and trying, too hard to duplicate something that can’t be duplicated. One day when I was still looking for images, a friend on Facebook posted some illustrations from a German book on Astronomy, and that appealed to me. I somehow found myself in the digital archives of the New York Public Library, looking at images that were free to use, and I found this illustration of a total solar eclipse, which had been observed by the artist, E.L. Trouvelot, in 1878, in Wyoming.  Light, of course, is needed for photography, but Arbus’s work is full of shadows, physical or psychological. I shared my find with Nicci, and she agreed that it was right. She chose to put it on a green background with red endpapers, which makes it pop. It’s like holding a dark green jewel in your hand. It was such a positive collaboration.

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

By the end of 2018, I will have had seven chapbooks published since 2012.

The Country of No (Finishing Line Press, 2012): This was my first chapbook. It dealt with the end of a relationship, the death of a parent, and acknowledged my primary influence, Sylvia Plath.

Edie (Whispering): Poems from Grey Gardens  (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). This collection was my first of exclusively found poems, using the transcripts from the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens. I used persona more than I ever had before. I wrote it fast, and it never felt like work.

She May Be a Saint  (Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2016.) This chapbook is a collection of centos using the work of C.D. Wright and Sylvia Plath as sources. Since 2016, the press has closed, but the book can be read online for free; it was chosen last year to be included in San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange Program.

How Darkness Enters a Body  (Porkbelly Press, January, 2018). A collection of ekphrastic poems using the work of Diane Arbus.

Dreamland for Keeps  (Porkbelly Press, 2018.) A chapbook of found poetry using James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, as its source material, again using persona to restore the

the voice of Elizabeth Short, the victim of a notorious murder in 1947 Los Angeles.

Little Sister (Grey Book Press, 2018.) Another collection of found poetry, using Anne Rice’s novel, Violin, as its source material.

This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl Press, 2018.) Forthcoming. This is a collection of poems that deals with the end of my active opioid addiction and my experience of early recovery.

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

Don’t be in a rush to publish or feel like if you’ve reached a certain age, you “should” have accomplished a certain writing goal. This is a marathon. Take breaks, or engage in another creative activity if you don’t feel like writing at a particular time. You are still a writer, even when you aren’t. Read widely. Read your contemporaries. Speaking for poetry only right now, there is a glut of incredible work out there, dying to be read. Ask yourself if this is truly what you want to do. Writing takes time, patience, and more patience. It can be a lonely job, so try to find a community that is welcoming, either online or in real life.

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Sarah Nichols lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the author of seven chapbooks of poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Dream Pop, Memoir Mixtapes, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Rogue Agent, and the RS500.

Chapbooks:

Dreamland for Keeps:  www.porkbellypress.com/poetry/dreamland

How Darkness Enters a Body: www.porkbellypress.com/poetry/darkness

She May Be a Saint: www.poetrychapbooks.omeka.net/items/show/67

“Suburban Dream,” (the poem I cut from How Darkness Enters a Body):

www.badponymag.com/october-2017-poetry/2017/9/28/sarah-nichols

Kristin Robertson

“A big part of writing a poem is in the searching, the wondering, the questioning.”

kristinrobertson

Surgical Wing (Alice James Books, 2017)

The title Surgical Wing and the different poems titled “Clinical Trial: Human with Wings Patient-Reported Outcomes” on the contents page excited me when I first opened your book. It’s genius! I felt like a nurse going through patient files. How did you come up with the idea of arranging the book in these sections?

Thank you so much! The “Clinical Trial” poems start each section because they are this strange series of persona pieces that somehow manage to bring together the human poems and the bird poems.

Why a book about birds and wings? I’m the type of person that likes to understand a person and why they do what they do. This fascinates me. I want to know the story behind the book.

When I had major surgery, my surgeons who were birdwatchers talked about birds for hours over my open body on the operating table. It’s one theory.

Many, if not all, your poems in this book are couplets. I know from your interview with Hank Backer that you try to do some “conscious uncoupling.” But would you say that couplets are your go-to style when writing poems? And if so, what do you like so much about them apart from the wonderful white spaces they create?

Maybe bilateral symmetry? I say that only half joking—pairs, two halves, come naturally to humans. But, yes, it’s the airing out of the lines and the breaks on the page. The subject matter also informs the poems. I was writing about wings. Now I’m writing a lot of longer, single-stanza poems.

My favorite poem in this book is “Moon Elegy.” It resonated with me and my childhood in so many ways. I have so much love for these lines: “If we search the dictionary for Lunar Perigree, the closest moon ever to the Earth, we’ll find it cast after Pedigree and Peregrine – stay and feed the dog, or fly away?” They invoke in me the need to go out and follow my dreams (perhaps because I’ve never really owned a pet and have never experienced the bond people seem to have with them). Could you tell me more about your process when writing this poem?

I wrote this poem the day after the closest moon ever to the Earth. It’s a poem about how we can’t write about the moon anymore. So it’s a poem about the moon. I’m not a fan of making the moon or the ocean or cats off limits in poems. Certainly you can talk to beginning writers about cliché and sentimentality, but don’t outlaw leaves or stars. I wrote a whole book about birds.

Another one of my favorite poems is “Hyoid Bone.” I notice lines like “Lonely versus lonesome, seeking a companion or pitifully forlorn.” I love how these two similar words are actually very different. In this poem, as well as a few others such as “Haint Ceilings,” you reference a runaway girl. How did she develop and what does she mean to you?

Yeah, she’s a ghost of the book. Maybe one of many, but she’s James Wright’s Jenny to this book. I wouldn’t call her a muse, though. One exception is “Haint Ceilings.” The girl in that poem is a different girl than the others. She and her boyfriend were murdered, and the case still haunts a lot of people who lived in my hometown.

Did you really create the book’s last poem “Will Humans Ever Have Wings?” out of Yahoo answers?

Yes! I was reading articles about human beings and wings, the history, all the different apparatuses, and on a whim I typed it into Yahoo Answers. The responses were so bizarre. This one is truly a found poem. I copied the answers verbatim and pieced them together. I could’ve added a lot more—they talked about DNA, bones, weight in grams—but I feared my reader might not find them nearly as charming as I did.

Does the poem “Will Humans Ever Have Wings?” mirror your ideas/beliefs?

The book is full of sickness, death, and loss, which is not to say it doesn’t have moments of light. This final poem, though, attempts a bit of levity. And in doing so it also helps to bring the whole thing down to earth, I think.

“Rules of Surgery” could read as six separate poems. The idea of one poem separated into six different sections and yet still one poem blew my mind. What was the inspiration behind the rules? Why these specific rules? Was it really “recited by surgical interns at a nurses’ station”?

Yes, these are “rules” new surgical interns learn on the job. I wanted to turn them around, look at them from the patient’s point of view, and have a bit of fun with them.

After reading your book, I stared at the book cover for a long time. I almost want to see a patient with one wing in a hospital background. I know that often times the publishers get the say in choosing the cover (which somewhat upsets me, being an aspiring writer and illustrator). Did you have a particular image in mind for your book cover? If so, what was it?

My publisher asked for a list of images I liked, so I brainstormed a lot of artwork. I sent them about fifteen to twenty pieces, and from those they chose “Black Crow.” I think it’s a haunting, beautiful painting, and the artist, Michael Creese, has been so supportive since the book’s publication.

In the last Clinical Trial poem, the last lines stand out: “It means while surrendering, you kiss the ground.” It’s a huge contrast to “Human wings will be here. Mark my words.” There is a shift from pride to humility in a way. What is your take on this?

The book wonders, in pretty much every poem, what it means to surrender.

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

By far the oldest poem in the book is “While You Were Out.” It’s about ten years older than the rest of the poems in here, but I fought to keep it. It’s an old friend. And it’s part of the love story.

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

“White Birds” was the first poem I wrote about being sick. Many of the others are true stories: “Crane Wife,” “Alaskan Charter,” “Leaving Coins on the Mouths of Cadavers at Emory Hospital, A Defense.” Most of the poems in this collection are true stories. Some are just told slant.

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

Oh, so many! The strange abecedarian. “Emergency Rooms During Thunderstorms.” “Killing the Geese.” “Retiring the Human Name.” Even the “Clinical Trial” series is a misfit. It’s a book of misfits. While I like a project book as much as the next guy, I appreciate a collection of poems that stand alone and also whisper to each other.

A first book often ends up being a scraping together of the poems you’ve written and published during a graduate program. But poets write their obsessions or at least what’s going on in their lives at the time, so inevitably themes and subjects recur.

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?

I revised down to the last possible minute. I was revising even while on the phone with the copyeditor. I revised the “Clinical Trial” poems significantly on the final set of page proofs. I have a hard time letting poems fly the coop, if you will. The book is complete because they sent it off to the printer.

In your interview with Hank Backer at Grist Journal, you said that your clinical trial poems were previously published “as one” and that you saw them “working together as a series.” Were these poems your inspiration for this book? What was there a definitive point when you decided that you wanted to expand on this idea of “human beings who undergo plastic surgery to get wings”?

No, they weren’t the inspiration for the book, but they do link the book together. The book is about living in a body you want to escape and coping with illness, love, loss of love. It’s also a book about birds and birds as symbols, as metaphor. The wing poems came very late in the writing of the book, and I wasn’t sure at one point if they would even make it in there.

In your interview with Alice James Books, you say that “when you get really sick, the line between natural and unnatural, well and unwell, becomes murkier. The object of so many procedures, your body can become barely recognizable, and you want to transcend, transform, even transmogrify. At this point in the writing of the poems, the birds appeared.”

In “How to Transform Your Arm into a Wing,” this freedom to turn your arms into wings, to have “four meters of wingspan for human flight” comes at a price: “forever give up violin, a pen, your rings, the button shirt.” This seems to say that perhaps flying, perhaps escape is not really what we need. Can you tell me more about this contrast between freedom and escape?

In the end, you can’t escape from your body. This book doesn’t have all the answers. But I’m suspicious when a poem, or a book of poems, or a poet seems to have it all figured out. A big part of writing a poem is in the searching, the wondering, the questioning.

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Kristin Robertson is the author of Surgical Wing (Alice James Books, 2017). Her poetry appears recently or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals. The winner of the Laux/Millar Raleigh Review Poetry Prize, Kristin has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley. She lives in Nashville.

www.kristin-robertson.com

Marjorie Maddox

“Writing is part of the process of discovering the world inside and around us.”

Maddox.png

Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Wipf & Stock, 2018) (re-issue)

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

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that values the arts. My aunt, after whom I was named, was an artist and traveled the world in her VW camper. She would take me with her out into the countryside, set up an easel, and—while she was painting a field of corn or the hills of southern Ohio, she’d assign me the task of writing a story or poem.

My father, after his health forced him into early retirement, became an accomplished photographer. Often, he would encourage my creativity by welcoming me into his world of images. My mother, although not an artist herself, was an avid reader and art enthusiast; she would type up my childhood stories and poems into small “books.”  At every turn, I was made to feel that writing and reading were valuable, necessary, and enjoyable activities. Never were these considered a waste of time.

As a young child and as a teenager, I worked diligently on stories and poems, submitting these to church and school contests. I carried a notebook or a library book with me everywhere. As an undergraduate college student, I took as many creative writing classes as I could and worked on the student literary journal. I went on to receive my MA with a creative thesis, working with novelist Sena Naslund, at The University of Louisville, and an MFA in Poetry at Cornell, where I studied with A. R. Ammons, Robert Morgan, Ken McClane, and Phyllis Janowitz. For the past twenty-eight years I have had the privilege of working with my own students—including young poets, fiction writers, and essayists—at Lock Haven University. And, of course, I continue to read and write.

How do you decorate your writing space?

With windows. I often write on my back sun porch, looking out on the world.

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

How I see the world and how I process what I witness very much affects what and how I write. That being said, I am intrigued by point of view and how that influences the ways we interpret experience.  Much of my writing has to do with looking at the world from different angles. Sometimes, that involves looking through the lens of various genres. (I write poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature.) Sometimes it involves blurring the lines between genres. For example, in Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, I experiment with prose poems (“Seagulls”), travel poems, concrete poems (“Ribs” and “Tongue”), a long series of poems on body parts, poetic responses to an Anglican theological exam, free verse, as well as fixed form, lyrical, and narrative poetry. In short, I am a workaholic who enjoys experimenting with different styles, forms, topics, and perspectives.

How does my work reflect who I am and am trying to be as a person? As Joan Didion famously explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” To me, as for many authors, writing is part of the process of discovering the world inside and around us. Our subject matter is wide! For example, some of my books focus on the body, current events, baseball, fairy tales, Pennsylvania, travel, identity, faith, the teaching of writing and literature—and that’s just for starters. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

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 is the opening poem in the collection.

Treacherous Driving

____________________“It’s as safe as traveling to work…”
____________________–a cardiologist before performing a transplant

The first night of the blizzard
that stranger inched into Ohio.
Halfway through he skidded
into our snow-spackled lives.
His heart is buried
in my father,
who is buried.

This is the hole
in the stranger, in my
father, in my own
cracked chest, hail cupped in its cavity,
the aorta beginning to freeze.

All winter,
the weather preaches white
lies: fields blank of roads,
a curve straightened,
the even light of sky.

Tonight the breeze is all
icicles, banner-like
from the clouds. Nothing
is moveable
in this treacherous state.

Our wheels spin,
their rhythm: a breath
that pulls us
then stalls. The law

of the body, of the state,
cannot replace the chain
reaction, jack-knifed lives,
hope piling into hope.

The man and his heart,
cold on an icy road,
warmed us for weeks
while winter, a clear blue thing,
wafted light.

Why did you choose this poem?

My father had his first heart attack at the age of 39. After surviving ten cardiac arrests, he died following a transplant when he was 65. A good part of my early years until right before I was married were spent not knowing if or for how long he would survive his latest episode. For years, my father waited for a heart donor.

Poem background: It was my first year of teaching at a state university in Pennsylvania. I was in Ohio visiting my parents over my “spring break” when blizzard warnings began flashing across television screens. I hurried back to Pennsylvania, arriving just before the “Blizzard of 93” hit fast and furiously. An organ donor in Ohio died in a car accident, and his heart was rushed to the hospital for my father. For days, I could not get back to Ohio. Snow was chest-deep; two dozen states were buried in white, their highways completely shut down.

Although the transplant itself took hold, my father’s blood eventually became infected. Desperate, doctors amputated his legs and some fingers. At the end, they could not save him. To this day, I think of that stranger’s heart buried inside my father, who is buried.

Because it begins the collection, “Treacherous Driving” introduces many of the themes that follow: the transplant itself, the body, intersection of the medical and spiritual, danger, hope, fear, grief, travel, early marriage (mine and later my mother’s when she remarried), teaching, others’ tragedies—including the Flight 800 plane crash from my community that killed 16 students and 5 chaperones. Driving/traveling, as the epigraph alludes, becomes treacherous on many levels, the promise of safety slippery in this sometimes dangerous world.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

After my father’s heart transplant, I became particularly obsessed with all things medical, even carrying around Gray’s Anatomy for an entire summer while writing the long series “Body Parts,” which includes 34 sometimes funny, sometimes serious poems on kidneys, lungs, hearts, spleens, and other parts of the body. Here are two examples:

The Lung

A miniature stingray, it glides only inside its bone cage,
slate-gray and shiny,
sliding about its domain, inhaling
anything within breath: the wind,
whispers, wild weeping, the way
a man walks through the winter
air toward a frozen pond,
a pole, a cigarette.

He looks down through the hole
in the ice and sees the stingray, or its memory,
circling the dark cold
of his body. What does it take to breathe
in or out? To keep
the poisonous spine swishing
in such chilly waters about the heart?

And here’s another, lighter one:

Esophagus

The shuffling-off-to-Buffalo, toboggan ride slide,
do-not-pass-go short slope to the stomach;
the tunnel of swallows and masticated morsels
bound for the belly, the bowels, and the bowl
on days when everything (boiled, spoiled, or fried)
in the choking world goes down,
the right way.

The intersection of body and spirit remains a central focus of my work.

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

The book begins with my father receiving his heart (“Treacherous Driving”) and ends with a poem about finding, years later, an answering machine tape, which my mother had saved in a drawer and labeled “Dad’s voice.”

Tape of My Dead Father’s Voice from an Old Answering Machine

He keeps telling me he’s not at home,
that he’ll reply soon. He doesn’t know
he’s lying, that what’s hiding between the space
of words is space he’s gone to. He repeats his name,
which is not the name I call him. I call him now,
hear only the unanswerable space answer. Home
is always where we’ve left, the space that means “before.”
I know to keep his voice rewinding until the space
of now begins to answer. At the tone, I can’t find a home
for how all space rewinds. Lying, I repeat that I am fine,
take out the home he was, and leave my name.

I think this particular poem, and the repetition of words that it employs, emphasizes the haunting and sometimes invisible grief of those who have lost a loved one, particularly if that loss has happened bit by bit over a span of many years.

As for the title of the collection, the poem (vs. book) “Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation” has for its catalyst a news story about a man whose job it is to transport via airplane a suitcase of eyes and skin to transplant recipients. It imagines his spouse anxiously waiting at home, as well as recipients hopefully expectant in other countries. Perhaps one of the oldest pieces in the collection, the poem helps connect transplant poems, travel/transportation poems, and transubstantiation (body/spirit, theological) poems.

Which poems in your book have the most meaningful back stories to you?

The collection as a whole and the heart transplant journey it records are particularly important to me on a very personal level. Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation is my second full-length book of eleven poetry collections, but perhaps the one to which I feel most connected. I am particularly happy to have it back in print. One of three finalists for the Brittingham and Felix Pollack prizes, the book won the Yellowglen Prize and was published by a small press in 2004. My hope is that these poems may now be introduced to the larger poetry and medical world, particularly to those who have or have known others in similar situations. Here are two poems that speak to this:

The Waiting Room

does not wait patiently
for us, its stucco walls vacant
of the pain we hang upon the gray
and graying we soon become. Between,
we pretend to plan a son’s
baptism, book revisions, a summer life that lives after
this. Your husband wants a liver;
I want a heart that breathes an average rhythm
within my father’s ribs. The others here
won’t fit into our tight, cramped list
of miracles and what we need
to get there. Behind our prayers
the backdrop of another family winning
what they’ve lost, their stuttered cares:
the infection and rejection on our cross.

Bury Our Heart

________Like every other,
this is the year of shifting
sorrows, the thin shadows of land
that slip from countries we’ve left
for fear or want
of finding ourselves
in a handful of dirt.

________Even in sleep,
a warm wonder of birth and loss,
there too the earth’s vibrations,
the leveling of cliffs in eyes we claim.

________The soul is the land
liquid in the lines of veins
that stripe the inner atlas.
It bubbles and flows, smooths
the rough roads, carves out
our caves of refuge,
our weeping echoes.

________Here too, they will find us:
the outcasts, the fugitives,
the lost, the abandoned,
the running-for-our-lives.

________Oh homeland of sadness,
these dusty bones that could not save.
I have held in my clay hands,
the fine grains of his blood,
bold in my muddy palms;
I have held in my earthen arms
the jagged pot of his pain,
brimming and bitter.

________I have waited
for that open mouth
of the world
to lay him down.

That being said, I feel compelled to add that the book also contains hopeful and humorous pieces. Life, after all, continues to be a mix.

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

I’m not sure there are “misfit” poems, but there are pieces that take on different meaning in the context of contemporary society. For example, the final stanza of “After the World Trade Center,” which was written before 9/11 and, of course, Trump’s presidency, ends with this stanza:

Outside and down
the street, the Trump Tower
shadows the sidewalk.

In retrospect, the poem seems a bit prophetic.

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

I am particularly grateful to the designers at Wipf & Stock for how well they listen to and then implement ideas for cover designs. The image of a surgeon’s hand peeling back a blank page to reveal a world beneath—brilliant! This is my third book for Wipf & Stock. For each, the designer took my cover ideas and ran with them, creating images that not only are eye-catching but also represent well the overall themes of the books. See other covers here.

What are you working on now?

My next collection, tentatively entitled Seeing Things, will focus on memory, psychosis, disease, and their ramifications, as well as explore the ways—on both a personal and national level—we distort or preserve memory, define or alter reality, and see or don’t see those around us.

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?

One way I cope is to write about them, which is what I did in Local News from Someplace Else—a book that responds to headline news and raising children in an unsafe world. But sometimes you just have to get away from all of the busyness of the world. I write best in the mornings. Otherwise, I tend to get overwhelmed by the day’s mundane obligations. In connection to your question, this week I began a poem that starts with the lines

I woke up this morning with poems in my head
but somehow the world got in.

Enough said?

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Marjorie Maddox, Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, has published eleven collections of poetry—including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize, Wipf & Stock 2018); True, False, None of the Above (Poeima Poetry Series and Illumination Book Award Medalist); Local News from Someplace Else ; Wives’ Tales and Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award)—the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite Press); and over 550 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. The recipient of numerous honors and co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (Penn State Press), she also is the author of four children’s books. For more information, please see www.marjoriemaddox.com.

three poems at Poetry Foundation

“Journey Into Poetry”

“Take Note: For Father’s Day, Poets Talk About Writing About Their Dads” (interview about Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation)

whyy.org/articles/poet-marjorie-maddoxs-love-of-baseball-stems-from-family-lineage/

ArtScene (Fiona Powell speaks with Marjorie Maddox about Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems)

“Learning to Weather”  on Verse Daily

Poetic Lines TV interview

Fomite Author Page with reviews

Writing across the Genres interview

Speaking of Marvels interview about True, False, None of the Above

Dorothy Chan

Chan

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018)

What’s your book about?

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold is all woman. It’s an ode to all your fantasies and nightmares and desires. It’s the idea of reversing the heteronormative male gaze and instead, focusing on the female gaze—in my collection, woman becomes the sex subject rather than the sex object.

More specifically, the speakers of my poems are mostly independent Chinese American women. They’re the alpha females who “refuse to be the only one with / feminine wiles” (“Ode to Nurses, Love Hotels, and Marilyns on the Covers of Playboy,” originally published in The Boiler). They’re the ones combating fetishization, particularly of minority women, while at the same time both refusing and honoring the Asian traditions they come from. My speakers may talk a lot about sex, but they’re also tracing back their family histories in conversation. For instance, in the opening poem, “My Father is the Son of a Concubine,” originally published in Duende, the speaker is first remarking on how “It’s crazy how much cleavage the concubines / on the hot, new Hong Kong soap are showing,” but then transitions into a familial tracing of her father’s past as the son of a concubine, which in this context means second wife.

On a practical level, the book is divided into three parts: I. Snake Daughter, II. My Chinatown (我 的 中國 城), a quadruple crown of sonnets, and III. Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Here’s a comprehensive-obsessions-list: food and sex, food and sex, food and sex, the Chinese Zodiac, B-movies, Old Hollywood Glamour, Hong Kong, my parents’ past, the abridged story of how my parents met, my celebrity crushes, intersectional feminism, the female gaze, popular culture, snakes and eels, the sonnet, the ode, Playboy, queer culture, Japanese love hotels, anime, kitsch and visual art, fashion (both haute couture and ready-to-wear), and Las Vegas.

What songs soundtrack your making of your book?

A lot of drag queen music, in particular The AAA Girls’ latest album, Access All Areas.

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

To be honest, each of my three sections contains at least one poem that catalyzed the rest of the book. I’m going to name the highlights: in I. Snake Daughter, it’s “Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum,” originally published in Hobart; in II. Chinatown (我 的 中國 城), a quadruple crown of sonnets, it’s I. Chinatown From the Movies,” originally published in The Great American Poetry Show; and in III. Centerfolds, Histories, and Fantasies, it’s the title poem, “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold With the Killer Legs,” originally published in SELFISH.

“Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum” really represents the vibe of my poetry: Chinese American female speaker is unsatisfied with the men around her, and this pattern brings to light bigger issues such as fetishization, “Yellow Fever,” and microaggressions. She narrates how, “I’m sure none of these guys get it—/ they’ve called me an adventurous eater as I spit / out the bones from my chicken’s feet bathing in porridge, / though my grandmother orders the same dish / every morning in Kowloon.” Food is inherently tied to both culture and family, and this speaker has had enough: she no longer wants to explain to her dates the difference between buns and dumplings. She can now enjoy all the food by herself. And she’s most certainly not taking any of these boys back to Kowloon to meet her grandparents.

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

To me, the idea of three sections is just so beautiful because it pays homage to the triptych in art history. I love the idea of books in three sections. Three beautiful columns.

Regarding my title, I really have my mentor Barbara Hamby to thank—Barbara is a goddess. We were looking at my table of contents at Black Dog Café, this great place in Tallahassee. I remember my poem, “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold With the Killer Legs” jumped out at Barbara, and she suggested shortening it to the title it is now, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold. It’s an ideal number of syllables. Barbara’s selection inspired me to challenge my Poetic Technique students to create titles that are five words or longer. On a side note, regarding the title poem, I really have my mentor, David Kirby to thank for the capital “W” in “With the Killer Legs.” He told me to change it to a capital “W” to make my poem more like a Prince song. Brilliant.

How do you decorate your writing space?

Haha! I remember this was the question I suggested in my Chinatown Sonnets interview. Thank you, William. I decorate my space with a lot of knickknacks, Kidrobot Blind Box toys, Sanrio figurines, and little gifts from friends. I like a lot of color and animation. I hate the stereotype that artists and writers can only work when moody. You’ve got to be able to write regardless of mood.

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

I like to do what I call a “test run.” I think it’s crucial for poets to be willing and able to revise over and over and over and over again. The “test run” doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific strategy or device, but what it means is having the poet keep the original copy of the poem, make a copy, and then experiment the craziest ideas on that new copy. And then repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s important not to get too attached to the work in its original form—that makes one unnecessarily defensive. Instead, it’s important to test out any and all new ideas. Innovate. Do a “test run” on a poem like you would a “test drive” on a brand new vehicle.

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

What’s your beverage and/or snack of choice while writing?

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Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The Common, Diode Poetry Journal, Quarterly West, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review.

dorothypoetry.com

Shauna Osborn

“Surrounded by different tongues as a young girl attuned my ear to the cadence and verve that makes each one distinct.”

Osborn.pngArachnid Verve (Mongrel Empire Press, 2016)

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

For the first seventeen years of my life, I lived in a small, rural, agriculturally based town in southwestern Oklahoma. The oldest of three daughters in a working class family, I became a primary caregiver for both my younger sisters at an early age. Both our parents worked evening and graveyard shifts—my father at a tire factory and my mother as a convenience store clerk. We lived in a trailer home on my grandparent’s land right next door to their house. Everyone in the family worked as field hands through harvest season, primarily bailing and hauling alfalfa.  I grew up hearing four different languages almost daily. Many of my poems code switch between those languages– Numu tekwapu (Comanche), Spanish, German, and English. Surrounded by different tongues as a young girl attuned my ear to the cadence and verve that makes each one distinct. It became easier to connect each language with its cultural markers and the spices inherent to its sound. Because of this, my poems often create a landscape common to working class multi-lingual life in rural America.

My uncle told me as a child what I’d be when I grew up. He said because I wrote and read more than any adult he’d met, that meant I’d have to be a teacher or a book writer. I didn’t believe him, because I didn’t know anyone who’d written a book and teaching meant you had to go to college—another thing that was out of the ordinary where I lived. Yet, since then, those are two of the things I’ve included in my career path. Thus, my uncle had figured me out way before I ever did. When I was younger, I wrote mainly fiction. I didn’t write much poetry until the second or third year of my undergraduate degree. It took a lot of encouragement, practice, and small successes before I thought I could write things that other people would want to read. When I found out I got accepted into an MFA program, that started to change and the possibility of being a writer seemed real for the first time. It still feels strange when people tell me they’ve read my work or enjoyed reading my book. It’s a good strange, though.

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?

Certainly. Also, if you go to my website, there’s a mini collection of poems from the book available for download with the press kit. The first poem in the book, “Antes Taabe (Before the Sun)” sets the tone of the collection.

poem 1

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

I’m a big fan of backstories (well, all forms of story, really). That’s one of the reasons I included so many notes about my poems that tell the backstory/inspiration/etc in the book. It’s hard to pick one as the most meaningful, especially since many of the poems in the collection are written portrayals of people I know especially well. If I had to choose just one, I’d go with one that isn’t a poem focused on those folks (just to keep it equal between all of them) and is focused on one of my favorite musicians. “Song for Nina” came about while mourning the loss of Nina Simone on the day she passed. Her music has always hit me square in the solar plexus and left me an emotional ball of goo. She’s amazing—every single part of her goes into her songs and you can feel it when you listen. She wrote and performed some of the most amazingly overt political works during the Civil Rights movement, which almost killed her career. I remember hearing about her death like it was yesterday—it shook me pretty hard. After walking around in a daze, listening to her albums for several hours while mourning, I started writing. The poem became my eulogy for her—a way to show gratitude to her for what she created.

I’m pretty calloused when it comes to death—I’ve had a lot of close family and friends pass. Somehow, the creatives I really admire bring out a response that’s quick, strong, and usually lyrical when they pass. The death of people I know personally goes a completely different way—it takes a while of mourning (sometimes years) to find anything articulate/lyrical to say in response. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to work—the closer someone is to you, to harder it is to move on, intellectualize the loss, etc. With people like Nina, it’s easy to visualize the hole they’re leaving when they pass and the gifts they’ve left for us.

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

To be honest, I think the whole collection is a misfit in some ways, very much like me. From the content and varied inspirations for the pieces to even the press that published it. Like the namesake of the press, the book’s a mongrel—a mixed breed of poems that mainly focus on characters living the Southwestern life, which is one of misfits, outlaws, wolves, and coyotes.

What are you working on now?

I have seven book projects on the burners now, but currently am focusing on the research and drafting of a poetry collection focused on quantum physics and identity     politics. I’m also spending a great deal of time building Puha Hubiya, a nonprofit            Indigenous literary arts organization I founded less than a year ago.

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

If you’re passionate about your writing, find a way to do it that will allow you to fuel that passion. Build a community of writers you can talk to and share work with, find people who value your work, and challenge yourself often to build your writing skill sets. Every form of writing can influence and inspire work in another genre—studying poetry can make you a stronger editor of prose and writing dialogue in plays can help build stronger character- and voice-driven pieces for your poetry or fiction. Outside of practicing your own writing, the best way to build your skills is to constantly read what others have published—both in your chosen genres and out. You cannot quantify how much what you pick up to read will influence how (and what) you write.

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Shauna Osborn is an award winning Numunuu (Comanche)/ German mestiza artist, researcher, secret agent, and wordsmith. Shauna earned a BA from the University of Oklahoma, an MFA from New Mexico State University, and her list of honors includes a Crescendo Literary Fellowship, a National Poetry Award from the New York Public Library, and the Native Writer Award from UNM Summer Writers’ Conference. Shauna is the founder and Executive Director of Puha Hubiya, a nonprofit Indigenous literary arts organization. Arachnid Verve is her debut poetry collection and an Oklahoma Book Award finalist.

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