profiles in poetics: Jamie O’Hara Laurens

FullSizeRender (1) (1)Jamie O’Hara Laurens

Websites: jamieoharalaurens.com

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How do you wear your otherness? Is it comfortable? Are you a visitor to this space or is it as if you are sitting on the corner of a small soi as the traffic warms your seat on the edge of a marble bench? Are you at a dunken donuts while the wind presses and stares cherry lined blossoms into the sidewalk? Are you climbing the slip of algae licking the rocks of an ocean running into street art tattoos caves music your sexuality your age your home? Does your otherness melt away or build your sense of self? Is this empowerment or shame?

In her book Medaeum, now out from Ping Pong Free Press,  poet Jamie O’Hara Laurens takes on the tricky character of Medea. “When you ask ‘Who was Medea?’ the immediate answer is that she committed the most unthinkable crime. My intention is to investigate with empathy her peculiarity and rage.” O’Hara Laurens confronts issues of feminism, otherness, domesticity, borderlessness, and language. The book is dedicated to  The witches who must,  which Laurens intimates, “allows for the uncomfortable notion that Medea is incarnate today in women who, caught between duty and true nature, are faced with impossible choices.”

Jamie O’Hara Laurens has collaborated with choreographers, sculptors, and translators. She completed her MFA in poetry and translation in 2014. A native to the West, she has an ongoing curiosity about the natural world. Recent work can be found in One, EnclaveThe FEM, Alexandria Quarterly, and HawkmothMedaeum was released in the fall of 2016 from the Press of the Henry Miller Library.  She became a feminist writer by necessity. She lives in Brooklyn.

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  1. If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I might be a lyrical feminist who dabbles in time travel.

  1.  In the first poem, “MEDEA RAISES THE WHITE FLAG”, we begin with, “The Proper Guide to Household Life / has fallen open on the counter.” As we read further we learn, “Wait: the blood is still in the bodies / & her pinafore is still tied. / The setting sun red-orange & tremendous.” Medea has not yet murdered anyone. She is numb with rage. In the next poem however “SELF PORTRAIT IN HER FATHER’S ORCHARD” we jump to a flashback of her previous young self, “lost in the blossoms’ fragrance.”  It is here we are able to access issues of historical patriarchy and violence. Could you please introduce Medea,  and describe why you chose her as a persona to straddle these issues on a more personal intimate level?

When you ask anyone “who was Medea?” the immediate answer is that she committed the ultimate crime, which is against the very things we hold dear. If she is a victim, it is of hysteria; otherwise, she is just a monster, and this makes it impossible for us to see her any other way. But she was also an immigrant, a warrior, and the gatekeeper who helped Jason win his famed and celebrated conquest.  She inherited a talent for sorcery from her aunt, and was  one-quarter divine. Medea fell in love under a spell, and became Jason’s right-hand woman, helping him defeat an army, get past a dragon, kill a king, and escape her own family. She burned bridges and committed crimes against her own family in the name of his pursuits. When they arrived back in his homeland, they had two sons, and then he left her for the young local princess to improve his social status.

I wanted to ask two questions: First, what if her crimes were metaphorical? And second, if we put them aside, what do we see when we make a fair study of her rage? Her crimes were crimes of passion, and crimes of passion come not from calculation but from reactivity to provocation. What I found was a woman afflicted with landlessness, cut off from her family, a woman whose strengths were exploited, who fought her partner’s battles, used her skills, and then was discarded. If we reimagine the murders as a metaphor for vengeance, or interpret the removal of her children in a modern context, such as a more mild rejection of family roles, or as a controversial abortion, a different, suddenly a modern narrative emerges: one that looks a little more like The Real Housewives, and a little less like Sleep No More.  It was in my classroom that we came to the conclusion that if she has one single label, we are more at ease with her. But she doesn’t. She is ingénue, warrior, witch, herbalist, healer, battle axe, voyager, immigrant, wife, mother, and woman scorned before she is a murderess. We ignore her complexity and stick with the most comfortable name, so we can cast her aside and get her crimes away from us, like we do with anything we attribute monstrous qualities to.  It keeps us safe.

  1. Medaeum in this uprooted or perhaps contradictory visible social structure is able to step outside of her social contract. In the poem, “DIVINER I (FIELD)”, “There were innumerable cells / to begin from. / Forty thousand thumb- / prints on the body / where one could strike up / a symphony of trouble / & call it love.” Medauem then questions her humanity in “TILL AND TROUBLE” asking, “What separates our sleep / from the sleep of wolves? // What separates our work / from the work of vultures? // Why, love why, do you look cornered? // Wind, we are sick. We are sick and beautiful.” Medea in her transformative process becomes closer to the natural world. Could you intimate why you chose to bring her closer to the position of medium? How is this reflected in her remorse?

Medea spends the better part of the play tortured by what she perceives to be inescapable and inevitable consequences. We don’t often carry this part of the play in the collective consciousness – that she laments what she sees as the only way to save her children from shunning and exile and an eventual fate similar to other children who had to flee across the ocean. Medaeum spends the better part of the collection reflecting on how she got where she is, deciding not to have twin sons, and contemplating the murders she doesn’t actually commit, except of her own self-concept, which she escapes by distancing herself from the social construct and as a survival mechanism, aligning herself with her own animal nature and the natural elements in her foreign surroundings. At the turning point, where she is rejected and begins to retreat, she is more of a Mary Webster from Margaret Atwood’s “Half-Hanged Mary,” or a Hester Prynne—a woman who knows more than she should, who knows also that she has been shunned. She is already more in touch with the natural world as a sorceress, and turns to that aspect of herself in refuge, but for the strength to do what she foresees as inevitable—ending the potential future of her offspring (in this case, ending pregnancy).  Like the women in witch stories, being shunned, rejected, or convicted lead her to contemplate criminality.  

  1. The degradation of reality shifts to the disintegration of language structure. In “BOXING THE COMPASS” she struggles with, “testing / my new language, / holding the old one inside / my tongue’s folded flag, / a closed tattoo / in a fold of skin. // When I opened my mouth / Atlas & witchbody moths / flew the coop.” How do her issues of displacement give resonance to and invert her shame on the level of language?

Some believe that place and person are inextricably linked, that landlessness leads to a sort of unhinging, an inevitable loss of some part of the self. The experience of immigration is different for everyone, but for me there were many moments when I felt like I could wear my otherness like a skin, when I was considered to be an aberration, a shame. The spoken accent is something we can try to abolish, but when we do, we erase a part of ourselves. Medea gets in trouble for being different, and for speaking up against authority, for not being able to keep her barbarian outsider mouth shut. At this point in my re-imagining of the story she is going through the erasure of the self that comes with trying to fit in, failing, and trying again. She also experiences an inability to find an outlet, to put words to her experience. In a few texts about similar experiences, we could perhaps call them witch narratives, shame starts outside the self and mores inward, from the external world to the internal.

  1. Medæum slips further and further from her definition of self. The regression seems to suggest an ancestral mindset which displaces us into similar issues that occur regularly in present society every day. In “NOT QUITE A MURDER” she states, “My ancestors divined it: / I hate to be the bearer of bad news … I drive a knife into the earth / just far enough to scare up a shudder— // not quite a murder / of crows.” Can you iterate how closely this reflects contemporary issues in the news? Was this intentional?

Medeaum cannot fit in the confines of the domestic arrangement as it is imposed upon her. At this point in the narrative she senses the threat of breaking with it within herself. I see this drama playing itself out over and over again in contemporary culture, in narratives of possession, in the coding of social contracts, and in the stretching or acceptance of that coding. I see her moving away from traditional structure as she grapples with the conundrum of her true nature.  

The next—or rather, the very current and necessary— frontier of feminism, is deeply domestic. Couples in gender-normative roles will need to find the way to dismantle the expectations they set for themselves. Those who have embraced queerness and otherness by necessity perhaps will become role models for reconstructing them.

  1. We are offered a scenario consisting of a bird and a house. The bird is free outside of the house, but a nuisance inside of the house. Medea likewise is both inside and outside of the house simultaneously twisted in multiple spheres by her social contract. At the end of “DIVINER III (ANOINTING)”, we hear her say, “What whispers in my ear? // Dear Everyone, / Please, let me / let me disappoint you.” Considering this, could you please expand on the two lines in “& REQUESTS SEPARATION”: He says: you’re not a bit tamed. / She says: I’m untranslatable.”

Yes, the bird as a nuisance, or a prescient haunting in the house, was intended to show the discomfort of knowing what we don’t want to know before we know it, or before it has been confirmed. It was inspired by true events. It indeed does resonate with her dilemma and acts as a metaphor for her discomfort. A metaphor about freedom and entrapment could be found in the image of a bird in the house, but it is traditionally viewed as an omen, which was my intention. She has a failure of memory as she tries to remember the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Is this because she has lost touch with her native language? Or because she is so unable to reconcile with her current situation that she can’t quite locate the folk logic on whether to go, to stay, to keep the pregnancy? I’m not sure. I’d rather let the reader decide.

At the end of “Diviner III” she grapples with the notion of the expectations placed on her as woman, wife mother, in opposition with what she describes to be her true nature—soldier, and the facet she takes refuge in— the sorceress. The only way out of the trap she is in may be failure to perform the role of indulgent wife and mother. She says in her famous address to the women of Corinth that she’d rather be on the battlefield than in childbirth.  

The lines from “& Requests Separation” suggest that the failure of the union is blamed on the woman being too wild, untamable, while Medaeum knows that Jason cannot grasp her complexity. We can see in Jason’s language for and about her that she is at fault for being an inconvenience to him—too strong, too wild, too different.

  1. I would like for you to touch on is Medea’s continual reference to a captainless ship. She relates these to failure and solitude. In the poem, “MEDEA COUNTS TO ELEVEN” she says, “I woke up one day on the wrong end of a country song. // Flung from loveless authority. // Holy Fuck, I thought: This is the captainless ship// This is the captainless ship //Screw the captain shit.” And at the end of the poem we are told that she grows fangs and states: “I empathize with vivid garçons. / I run my tongue.”

As the captain of the Argos, Jason left his boat of heroes to settle with Medea; and subsequently abandons the ship of their marriage and family. The captainless ship refers to the vessel of the Argos, and to the household without the presumed driver, who has abandoned his traditional role, leaving Medea with the two children to fend for themselves.  Medaeum is at once bewildered and enraged that there ever needed to be a captain, and that the captain who insisted on his role has left. What to do with the Argos when the captain has fled? Careful reading of Jason’s personal life such as it is possible, given that it is mythology reveals Jason to be more ringleader than hero. The animal grows in her beyond Medeaum’s will. Euripides painted Medea as a victim of passion: “passion is a curse.” She was in trouble with Jason prior to his departure to move in with Glauce (Medea’s Becky) because she spoke frankly about the political leaders of her time. So when she “runs her tongue,” it is both colloquial and literal—she runs her tongue with the need to speak too freely or too often, and runs her tongue over the fangs of her anger, her newfound animal nature.

  1. Lastly, in “CONSIDER THE GHOSTED LIVING” she is neither living nor dead. She states: “Do not ask me, ever, / who I do and do not forgive— / least of all, myself.” Could you comment on her struggle to find faith in any structure as she finally intimates in the last stanza of the book: “Is that what I was? A misbehavior? / See, I have outgrown the signifier, / have outgrown being the signified. / O! To have faith in something new.” And how does this relate to the very dedication in the forward, “For the witches who must”?

Medeaum’s only faith resides in the reinvention of structure outside the norms.  This modern interpretation of the character has chosen to end a pregnancy,  to divest them of their swords before they have them, and must leave as a marginalized Other; a process she is reluctant to undergo even if it suits her better. A woman who has carried a pregnancy carries the DNA of that being in her blood until her death, and so it can be a very difficult process to reconcile with. Medea may be considered sociopathic. I wanted to present a version of her who wasn’t. Medeaum hasn’t and cannot and won’t absolve herself entirely, but she will forgive herself enough to be able to survive. So she abandons being the “sight,” being the “signified,” being a woman possessed in a traditional role, and leaves in pursuit of ‘something new;’ a future time, or a future self, where there will be room for her.

Medea’s departure at the end of the play is considered widely to be a miscarriage of justice— an unmerited deus ex machina. Why would a monster get to ascend to the sky and escape? I tried to make her modern counterpart face an unchartered territory in which she would have to reassemble her relationship with the world.

It does mimic somewhat my own journey through process I both needed and feared. Nobody died, but my own image of what I and family were supposed to be had to be “cut from with a violence.”  

I am weary of the endless feminine apology. It goes without saying that I protect my child’s life with my own; that this is what they need and deserve.  Where I find an affection of a sort for a monster like Medea is that when you look beyond the unthinkable and try to really see her, you see the trappings of feminine power that have threatened over the centuries in a single character: the cauldron and the sword, the seducer and the banshee, the power to take away life as well as to make it. We can’t handle her. But on a metaphorical level beyond any crimes, I believe that may be a good thing.

  1. What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I love harmony, language has the power of casting a spell, and voices that seems to reach through time. I’ve had an obsession with borderlessness. Among the first “aha” moments I remember were reading and rereading Hurston, hearing TS Eliot’s voice, and watching Brecht performed live, seeing Robert Wilson’s plays, reading about Rothko, watching PJ Harvey and Bjork; reading Marquez, Blake, Chekhov, Kundera, Neruda.  My favorite writers are the ones who acknowledge, see through, and play with music, time and space– like Keats’s living hand that reaches toward the reader.

The desire to become a writer is troublesome. Like many things, we mistake the verb for a noun. I come from a family with a musical ear, but hear words instead of music, and I just have always wanted to write. In my dreamscape, I hear things, and especially in the place on the edge of sleep .

 

 

  1. Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

There are the writers I turn to for technique (Hopkins, Berryman, Ashbury, Hirschfield, Niedecker, Levis, Graham, Carol Frost, Brigit Pegeen Kelly) others I turn to for inspiration, solidarity and companionship, like  Caroline Bergvall, Alice Notley, and Ann Carson. I enjoy the poetry that is in conversation with other genres, like the fertile modernist period.. I definitely feel the importance of a feminine aesthetic lineage. Carol Frost taught me to put my heart back again and again to the work, and Malena Morling taught me to trust it, and to keep out of its way.  Jorie Graham and Helen Vendler have influenced transformed my view of many things.

  1. How has your own work changed over time and why?

I’ve learned to completely separate generation and craft. They are two distinct practices. Generative work is like divination, and craft can be like automotive mechanics. I try to write what I’m told; as HD said, ‘follow my daemon,’ and then let it marinate for weeks before I return to it with the Allen wrenches.

  1. Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Yes! When it’s going well, writing is like quilting. Starting points sparks can come from random places; sometimes philosophy, sometimes a dog bark,  line, to find a place to start, like striking a tuning fork. For Medaeum the play made the voice click into place.  I’m afraid of being a poet who writes only for poets.

The most inspiring work I’ve read recently has been challenging, transgressing, and hybridizing genres. Ann Carson has been doing this her whole career, but more recently Ben Lerner, and Maggie Nelson, Sjøn, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are redefining the novel, the historical novel, and memoir in a way I find exciting—making story inhabit the body in a way it hasn’t before. We process information differently than we ever have. I’m curious to see what’s next.

  1. What are your plans for the future?

Right now I’m continuing to develop on Medea’s story in its larger context. I’m also developing a collection of urban-set eco-poetry inspired by the Symbolists. I want very much to make activism that matters without renouncing the privacy needed for creativity.

  1. What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I see a redefinition of boundaries in publishing which has led to a remarkable expansion in the number of homes available for a growing number of voices.  It was not long ago that anyone who wasn’t male needed a man’s permission to be published. Now you can now find the words hegemony and patriarchy on advertisements in the subway. We’ve reached a sort of critical mass. The pursuit of agency has gone from being a radical choice,  to a necessity, to a norm. We can work to join together excellence and truth.  In the new cacophony of user-generated content, writing can feel like a competition to be heard, but we mustn’t fall into this notion.  I believe we must turn to each other in solidarity and gratitude; in inspiration rather than in competition,  because in fact the work may never be over.  Right now, in the public sector, we are lucky to see a genuine shift, but the private life of many remains very coded. Alice Notley reinvented the epic with The Descent of Alette. Caroline Bergvall has been taking on language and the history of art and religion through conceptual poetry.  Ann Carson has rewritten our relationship with classic voices from Sophocles to the Brontë sisters to philosopher Simone Weil. And now feminist writers like Claudia Rankine,  Marwa Helal and Salwar Sharif are holding new mirrors up to nature and really rearranging the gaze. I think it is an incredible time to be a woman writer. We have taken the surface apart. Now we need to continue to go deeper, to find the next layers.  

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profiles in poetics: Marilyn McCabe

15991577_10211998735393730_955433917_o-1Marilyn McCabe

Websites: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com

Tell me … how do we leave all guts on the page? Poet Marilyn McCabe will certainly ask you this. She is fond of videopoetry, soundscaping, and placing these intimacies to the page. Women writers she has found are “more willing to reach for new ways of communicating through the arts, to be louder, more unruly.” Consciousness is a central theme and the topic of this interview in her work Glass Factory newly released in 2016 from The Word Works. Simply she says, “how we connect to each other’s consciousness over space, time, death is of interest to me.” The way that the body specifically withholds memory is of a particular focus.

Here we address “Other”. Her poems consider the “mystery of connection with the Other and with the self, even in the face of the annihilation of the consciousness of self and Other in death or in loss of memory.” The self is one of a temporary task. A talk we permute indistinguishing how we ultimately disintegrate. McCabe states, “Time is something we have constructed and float ourselves along even as we caress ourselves into pieces.” In the end, we may only be as she reveals, “a rolling stone” that which, gathers “moss but it certainly gathers dust, mud, bacteria, insect wings, bird shit, and more fragile vegetation than moss.”

Marilyn McCabe’s new book of poems, Glass Factory, was out from The Word Works in Spring 2016. Her poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize, fall 2012, and appeared in the Los Angeles Review. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest (available from Small Press Distribution, http://www.spdbooks.org). Her work has appeared in literary magazines such as Nimrod, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly, French translations and songs on Numero Cinq, and a video-poem on The Continental Review.  She blogs about writing and reading at marilynonaroll.wordpress.com.

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  1. What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I have always been a reader, from “Aunt Allie’s alligator…A…A…A” on, and I think it was books by Madeleine L’Engle that wakened in me a secret desire to be a writer. But it wasn’t until my 30s that I began to write, starting with YA fiction — but I found I really have no head for plot. I then started writing essays, influenced by Annie Dillard, e.g., and Terry Tempest Williams and John McPhee. Then Mary Oliver’s work inspired me to work in poetry. I was taking a summer seminar in creative nonfiction when I wandered in to a lecture by Ellen Bryant Voigt, and that also tumbled me off the essay path and into poetry. For the most part, my favorite writers remain my favorite writers. I still reread periodically Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, one of my foundational texts, and go back again and again to Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris. I just keep adding to the favorites. I have a hard time juggling all my rereading with all my new reading.

  1. Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

I’ve worked with a handful of people who have inspired me, but many of my “mentors” have been so only through their work. Albert Goldbarth, for example, continues to teach me how to make connections and leaps; Bruce Beasley teaches me how to wrap religion and emotion and science; Louise Gluck and Carol Frost teach me how to leave guts and all on the page; Kathleen Graber teaches me to be smart yet accessible. I read widely and allow myself to be influenced by whatever work is speaking to me at the time. I’m inspired often by visual artists and by multimedia artists such as Laurie Anderson. I’m also mentored by my writing group, the Women of Mass Dispersion (the WMDs), who are supportive and patient when I’m all crabby and insecure, and generous when I need a fresh eye on my work.

  1. How has your own work changed over time and why?

I hope it’s changed and changing. I hope I keep digging deeper. I want to be doing that.

  1. Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I am often inspired by visual art, and, as I mentioned, multimedia work. I go to museums often. I also read a lot of nonfiction in the sciences, religious studies, art history. All of that feeds my work.

  1. What are your plans for the future?

I hope to keep pushing and broadening my creativity while digging deeper into emotional verity. What the output will look like I have no idea.

I’ve been making videopoetry, soundscapes, as well as still toiling to the page. I have big dreams of installations, place making, sensurround poetry. I worked with a choreographer two years ago who set one of my poems to a dance while I and two others voiced the poem on stage with the dancers. I am eager to find other collaborative, cross-genre opportunities. I am just not sure of my next steps. But the future has a way of rolling right at us, the way those moving sidewalks at airports force us to hop off them or fall on our faces. Either is a possibility.

  1. What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Women seem to be more willing to reach for new ways of communicating through the arts, to be louder, more unruly. I like the work of VIDA, keeping a sharp eye on how women are being represented in the arts world.

  1. Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Oh, there’s so much good work coming out, and only a very small portion of it comes across my attention. There’s so much to read! If I start to name names I’ll inevitably forget whoever is topmost on my list of favorites. I will say that I try to read at least one author a year, male or female, coming out from The Word Works, Black Lawrence Press, Tupelo, Four Way, and Alice James. But, see, even there I know I’ve neglected several favorite publishers. I also like to read the work of people I may have met through the year. Right now poems by women on my pile of books: Lisa Sewell, Sarah Freligh, and Carol Ann Davis.

  1. If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Not to be difficult, but I’d rather not label myself. I think the identity politics that has seized the world and particularly the world of American poetry these days is a bit bizarre and I can’t really, if you’ll pardon the expression, “identify” with it. My work is my work. I’m me. I shift. I don’t know.

  1. In your work, Glass Factory, forthcoming from The Word Works in 2016, we are inducted into a space of absence, congruity, and chaos. Sentimentality responds to connection in the poem “Goldsworthy Variations”. Here we encounter, “The last work we all make will be a hole, the black/ hole of our pruned energy, raisined reason,/ icy with our inner fires.” And later in the same poem, “Gravity, though physicists may quibble, I imagine,/ makes us endless, and what I think is a frisson of your ghost/ may be the wormhole of you coming home. … What nature tosses, man must assemble”. The body assembled is the collapse of the chaos and a return to the chills of our ghost. So then who keeps the order? The body into the structure or the collapse of the structure into chaos?

Connection, indeed. Love, if you will. Love — for the earth, for each other, those with us still and those departed, and for the transient nature of life, of matter. Love keeps the order.

  1. Continuing the interrogation of these evaluations we read in “Homeaway” that “Even her home has become alien,” allowing one of a few lines “and I will be queen” as the remainder of those unforgotten. In the poem “Incarnate” as well we face death and displacement: “A beak and one quarter of a skull./ Small something: song bird, sparrow, / glow buried; but one plume will wing skyward,/ as I am gorgeous with my dead, and full of mysteries.” Is the collapse of the striation in nature the collapse of our ego onto our skin? And in turn is this when we become the chaos and at the same time order of nature itself?

The body is an extraordinary order, and even in death the body disintegrates into earth, into another kind of order. The question of what is consciousness remains unresolved. And how we connect to each other’s consciousness over space, time, death is of interest to me. That the body holds memories interests me.

I took voice lessons for many years and my teacher would talk about students starting to weep when their voice work forced them to release some tension in their bodies — in the throat, the shoulders, the abdomen. The body remembered what the mind hid, and singing brought the memory to mind through the body. Where do I start and my body end?

These poems consider the idea of the self, the dear Other, and the mystery of connection with the Other and with the self, even in the face of the annihilation of the consciousness of self and Other in death or in loss of memory (as the earth “remembers” its glaciers in what is left behind, for a time, anyway).

  1. We encounter the backdrop of the dream in the poem “Munch’s Melancholy” in the lines “He appears to sleep but is dreaming, is/ awake to how sea and sky –/ as waiting, as living –/ are two parts of the same thing.” Yet in “River” the reader is strewn; “There straying, fringed, forgetting./ Deepening, I depend on the cycle/ of my own disintegration.” And later, in “Time series: Jordan River” the simple statement beholds “What cannot be held/ holds.” My question is then how does the dream interact in the landscape of the continual disintegration of order?

Most of the poems in this collection were written as I was wrestling with the loss of several friends, and with the increasing fragility and dementia of my very old mother. So death resides in them all. And again this question of consciousness and the idea of self. The self seems to be mutable, but provides order to a life even as that life disintegrates toward death. Time is something we have constructed and float ourselves along even as we disintegrate into it. The earth seems solid but is churning underneath. Everything is moving moving moving even as it seems to stay still. Where do memories go when we die? What are we living for? What are we waiting for?

  1. Lastly as we approach the end of this work in “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” we are asked to address the mathematical structures of these philosophical negotiations. The poem reads, “How can we solve ourselves, as zero is no answer, and x// resides always in the community of variables?” This question of identity is simultaneously addressed in “Self-sight” which questions “Or did I identify/ too closely with the corpse; ironic,/ as what is human of me is least/ corporeal: mood, memory and that other / impulse: the soul’s/ determination not to be alone.” This paradoxically attaches itself to the last poem of the collection “At Dusk”, in such that “You are you are// on your own, not a feather/ to your name. // But turning./ Turning.” So then do we reside in the x of variables as skin deconstructing in the chaos of also applied congruity? Or do we exist in the absence of these forms? How do you believe this is mimicked and or addressed in nature?

In these poems I am considering that any one thing is the sum of all that it gathered in its coming to be in the particular moment — as a rolling stone may not gather moss but it certainly gathers dust, mud, bacteria, insect wings, bird shit, and more fragile vegetation than moss.

Again, it’s this idea of connection, and that the self resides in the accretion of its experience coming up against the world, the tender licks and hard knocks, all the whiffs and stenches, the laughs and stories, the dogs and pet rocks. Therefore what and who we have contact with transform us, and that transformation is reciprocal and mysterious and lasting through our mortal time. And maybe even beyond. Maybe even beyond. Who knows?

profiles in poetics & linguistics: Bhanu Kapil

image (2)Bhanu Kapil

Websites: jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com

Bhanu Kapil is set upon the windowsill. Her mother whispers “Sing a poem to the stars, Bhanu.” A way of half clouds moving across the breath of an ocean, to her grandmother. As a British-Indian poet her work is complex. “Crystallized and condensed – the two kinds of water” surround questions of the female, immigrant body. We experience what she calls the “non-identical: brown body”. This occurs through similar intonations of music and improvisation; a “connection with someone very far away, the familial listener, the one you had to leave.” Her post-colonial eye has led to questions of migration and mental illness, racism and the way a “visible body” postures the light in mostly white cultures. This is specifically in regards to built environments, social care and domestic violence.

Kapil aspires to write in a way that literature is not made from literature. Her work Ban en Banlieue, recently published by Nightboat Books (2015) is the focus of this interview and performs in an “axial space”. Here theory, performance art, and the novel interact in strange converging dialogues. This fusion allows her to bridge cultural differences of the body in a way we see that nudity is perhaps unreadable. It is here she says in some ways we are able to “look away from the ‘glimpse.’ A glimpse that is also an abyss.”

Bhanu Kapil is an Indian or British writer who was born and brought up in the UK.  She now lives in Colorado, where she has, for many years, taught through the monster at Naropa University.  At Goddard College, she teaches at the intersection of narrative, social care and urban housing.  To clarify, these are her interests.  Her books track: colonial and post-colonial: flows: of various kinds.  But also: what does not flow.  And is yet to be discharged.  Her most recent publication — notes toward a novel never written — is Ban en Banlieue [Nightboat Books: 2015]. On an almost daily basis, Bhanu blogs about institutions, bodies, racism, motherhood, animals and true love at Shame May Be Fatal: A Daybook for Monsters and Immigrants Of All Kinds.  The name of the blog sometimes changes; earlier this year, it was called: Reading Moten in the Cherry Orchard.  But the site can always be found here: SHAME MAY BE FATAL

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Auto-sacrifice (Notes)

— from: Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books: 2015)

1. Pink Lightning for Ban

“The day of the riot dawns bright and lazy with a giant silky cloud sloughing off above the rooves.”

“The mouth of the riot is a stretch of road.”

Pink lightning fills the borough like a graph. All day, I graph the bandages, race passion and chunks of dirt to Ban – plant-like, she’s stretching then contracting on the ground.

Three streets over, a mixed group nears a house. Their faces are pressed to the blood-flecked window, banging their forehead on the glass. Inside the house, a woman arranges the meat on a tarp. She tucks and pins the shroud behind its ears with quick-moving hands, looking up from time to time at the crowd that’s gathered to spit on the window and call.

That night, I dreamed of exiting the subway at the interface a car would make with the M25. The commuters are processing around a semi-rural roundabout, their hands on imaginary steering wheels, their wing-backed loafers shuffling on the tarmac, the black road, like wheels. Evening Standards tucked sharply beneath their arms.

The dream requires something of me.

It requires me to acknowledge that my creature (Ban) is over-written by a psychic history that is lucid, astringent, witty. No longer purely mine.

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2. Meat forest: 1979

Ban fulfills the first criterium of monstrosity simply by degrading: by emitting bars of light from her teeth and nails, when the rain sweeps over her then back again.

I like how the rain is indigo, like a tint that reveals the disease process in its inception.

Above her, the pink lightning is branched — forked — in five places.

A brown ankle sparkles on the ground.

Genital life gives way to bubbles, the notebook of a body’s two eyes.

Like a person in an ancient pose, I lean in a L-shaped posture over the counter: flat back, rump displayed to any passer-by, blood dripping down the backs of my thighs. They don’t see me. I clean the street until all that’s left is a ring of oily foam, the formal barrier of a bad snow. Are you sick and tired of running away?

Then lie down.

Invert yourself above a ditch or stream beneath a bright blue sky.

Then pull myself up from your knees to clean.

Clean the street until all that’s left is a ring of oily foam, the formal barrier of a bad snow.

It snows that April for a few minutes, early in the day. Children walking on the Southall Broadway open their mouths to receive the aluminium snowflakes. In their bright pink and chocolate brown dresses, tucked beneath the heavy blue coats, these immigrant children are dazzled by the snow, even though they were born here, a train-ride from a city tilted to receive the light, its sprig bending over in the window of the pretty bank.

Many years later, I return. To place a daffodil on the Uxbridge Road.

Is zinc an element? It’s a sheen. Spread it on the ankle of Ban.

Is there a copper wire? Is there a groin? Make a mask for Ban.

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3. What is Ban?

Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas.

Looping the city, Ban is a warp of smoke.

To summarize, she is the parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall.

April 23rd, 1979: by morning, anti-Nazi campaigner, Blair Peach, will be dead.

It is, in this sense, a real day: though Ban is unreal. She’s both dead and never living: the part, that is, of life that is never given: an existence. What, for example, is born in England, but is never, not even on a cloudy day, English?

Under what conditions is a birth not recognized as a birth?

Answer: Ban.

And from Ban: “banlieues.”

(The former hunting grounds of King Henry VIII. Earth-mounds. Oaks split into several parts by a late-century lightning storm.) These suburbs are, in places, leafy and industrial; the Nestle factory spools a milky, lilac effluent into the Grand Union canal that runs between Hayes and Southall. Ban is nine. Ban is seven. Ban is ten. Ban is a girl walking home from school just as a protest starts to escalate. Pausing at the corner of the Uxbridge Road, she hears something: the far-off sound of breaking glass. Is it coming from her home or is it coming from the street’s distant clamor? Faced with these two sources of a sound she instinctively links to violence, the potential of violent acts, Ban lies down. She folds to the ground. This is syntax.

Psychotic, fecal, neural, wild: the auto-sacrifice begins, endures the night: never stops: goes on.

As even more time passes, as the image or instinct to form this image desiccates, I prop a mirror, then another, on the ground for Ban.

A cyclical and artificial light falls upon her in turn: pink, gold, amber then pink again. Do the mirrors deflect evil? Perhaps they protect her from a horde of boys with shaved heads or perhaps they illuminate — in strings of weak light — the part of the scene when these boys, finally, arrive.

The left hand covered in a light blue ash. The ash is analgesic, data, soot, though when it rains, Ban becomes leucine, a bulk, a network of dirty lines that channel starlight, presence, boots. Someone walks towards her, for example, then around her, then away.

I want to lie down in the place I am from: on the street I am from.

In the rain. Next to the ivy. As I did, on the border of Pakistan and India: the two Punjabs. Nobody sees someone do this. I want to feel it in my body — the root cause.

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4. Cobra Notes for Ban

I want a literature that is not made from literature. A girl walks home in the first minutes of a race riot, before it might even be called that — the sound of breaking glass as equidistant, as happening/coming from the street and from her home.

What loops the ivy-asphalt/glass-girl combinations? Abraded as it goes? I think, too, of the curved, passing sound that has no fixed source. In a literature, what would happen to the girl? I write, instead, the increment of her failure to orient, to take another step. And understand. She is collapsing to her knees then to her side in a sovereign position.

Notes for Ban, 2012: a year of sacrifice and rupture, murderous roses blossoming in the gardens of immigrant families with money problems, citizens with a stash: and so on. Eat a petal and die. Die if you have to. See: end-date, serpent-gate. Hole. I myself swivel around and crouch at the slightest unexpected sound.

When she turned her face to the ivy, I saw a bunch or cube of foil propped between the vines. Posture made a circuit from the ivy to her face. The London street a tiny jungle: dark blue, slick and shimmering a bit, from the gold/brown tights she was wearing beneath her skirt. A girl stops walking and lies down on a street in the opening scene of a riot. Why? The fact of the riot pricks her prone form and at points it rains. In a novel that no one writes or thinks of writing, the rain falls in lines and dots upon her. In the loose genetics of what makes this street real, the freezing cold, vibrating weather sweeping through South-east England at 4 p.m. on an April afternoon is very painful. Sometimes there is a day and sometimes there is a day reduced to its symbolic elements: a cup of broken glass; the Queen’s portrait on a thin bronze coin; dosage; rain.

This is why a raindrop indents the concrete with atomic intensity. This is why the dark green, glossy leaves of the ivy are so green: multiple kinds of green: as night falls on the “skirt.” The outskirts of London: les banlieues.

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5. Some notes: I wanted to re-imagine the boundary

Perhaps I should say that I grew up partly in Ruislip. The Park Woods that bounded it were rimmed, themselves, with land forms that kept in the boar. I used to go directly to those masses and lie down on them, subtly above a city but beneath the plate of leaves, in another world.

One morning I went there though it was raining.

To soften this scene would require time travel, which I am not prepared to do. I am not prepared to take off my clothes. I am not prepared to charter or re-organize the cosmic symbols of Sikhism, Anglican Christianity and the Hindu faith. One night, I went home, and my hands were caked in dirt and dew. My skirt was up around my ears. My legs were cold. The insides of my eyes were cold. The bath I took, I couldn’t get it hot enough. That night, my eyes turned blue.

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More recently, I’ve been obsessed with the image of a dark-skinned girl walking home from school.

Imagine your fingertips are animals that still carry the imprint of a plant memory.

And the veins of the nearby plants flood with sugar. The sugar and the sky suck the body of a black woman. They surge towards her through the mud and air in tubes. Pinned there, scrawled, like a name. A woman so black she radiates a limited consciousness. In this scene without depth, she is supine, lifting her arms very carefully then setting them down; an image that is never exhausted, though I write it again and again. With a careful hand.

How the street tilts and the rain and blood slide into the gutter below the pavement’s lip. A dress slides off and is received by the white space beneath the ivy. Is the street a letterbox? Is the night a letterbox? A long black hair is carried to Yeading High Street on the sole of a shoe. And it’s there behind The White Stag, a skinhead pub on the border with Hayes, that the hair sheds off. At this moment, like a delicate clock, like the difficult music of another century, the riot begins – a distant roar, the sound of broken glass; a van with orange stripes – a strobe.

I made the ivy go faster like a carpet or rug I could pull.

Ban turns her head, at some points in that last night, to the wall.

Imagine a cloud of milk as it dissipates, spilled on a London street in an act of protest.

Imagine mica glinting in the oily curd of the pavement.

Imagine that the rough, pink tip of a girl’s tongue slips out, extending to the ivy’s salt – for nourishment.

What did Ban do that outweighed art? What kind of art did she produce?

Returning to the U.S., I dug a rectangle of mud and lay down in that, removing my clothes and exposing my body with its waist and hips and suitcase of limbs. Above me, in a bush of late summer flowers – white pom-poms with deep green leaves – migrating finches made a choral sound.

From one angle, Ban is slick, like the emerald or indigo tint of ring feathers. From another she is a kerosene seam set on fire with a careless match.

It’s time to go home. As we coast up the estuary, veering left and north towards Heathrow, I can see the Southall water tower and the golden, balloon-shaped minaret of the Sikh temple. I look down as we fly over and there, close enough to touch, is the set of Ban. I describe the creamy clouds in my notebook, how they emit dark silver beams of light. I analyze my glimpse of the asphalt.

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What can I do? The boundaries of my work are structurally weak. I am weak. Too weak for a Monday night.

When it was time for such a thing, I could not bear to be touched – by another person.

The Chrysler building was burning like a star in the clouds below, when I – arrived.

The sun burns and heals.

Ban opens her mouth for the fluorescent pink flakes that pour from the early morning sun on April 23rd, a Monday morning in 1979 – just as the rioters are eating their breakfast, an egg on a piece of toast, with not a thought – of riot – in their heart.

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6. Notes Toward a Race Riot Scene

In April 1979, I was ten years old.

This is a short talk about vectors. It’s about Brueghel’s Icarus. It’s about a girl walking home from school at the exact moment her neighbor laces up his Doc Martens, tight. It’s about a partial and irrelevant nudity. It’s about the novel as a form that processes the part of a scene that doesn’t function as an image, but as the depleted, yet still livid mixture of materials that a race riot is made from. Think of the sky. Think of the clear April day with its cardigans and late afternoon rain shower. Think of the indigo sky lowering over London like a lid. Think of Blair Peach, the anti-racism campaigner and recent emigrant from New Zealand, who will die before this day is out.

Think about a cyborg to get to the immigrant.

Think of a colony. Think of the red and white daikon radishes in a tilted box on the pavement outside Dokal and Sons, on the corner of the Uxbridge Road and Lansbury Drive. Think of the road, which here we call asphalt: there, it is bitty. It is a dark silver with milky oil seams. A patch up job, Labour still in power, but not for long. It’s 1979, St. George’s Day, and the Far Right has decided to have its annual meeting in a council-run meeting hall in Southall, Middlesex, a London suburb in which it would be rare — nauseating — to see a white face.

To see anyone, actually. Everyone’s indoors. Everyone can tell what’s coming. It’s not a riot, at this point, but a simple protest in an outlying area of London, an immigrant suburb: a banlieue. Everyone knows to stay back, board the glass up, draw the curtains and lie down. Lie down between the hand-sewn quilts shipped from India in a crate then covered in an outer cotton case stitched to the padding with a fine pink thread. The quilts smell of an antiseptic powder, an anti-fungal, Mars. We lie down beneath the blankets in front of the fire. It’s 1979, so there’s a small gas fire and a waist-high fridge, where we keep our milk and our bread and our cheese, right there, in the living room. It’s 1979, and so I live in Hayes, though in two months, we’ll put our house on the market and move.

Move away. As would you.

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7. Ban en Banlieues (suburban)

A puff of diesel fumes on an orbital road.

The country outside London, with its old parks and labyrinths of rhododendron or azalea
, futile and tropical pinks in a near-constant downpour of green, black and silver rain.

In the forest surrounding London, a light ice falls through the trees.

Like glitter.

A snake, aspen-colored, bright yellow with green stripes, slips through the bracken, its pink eyes open and black diamond-shaped irises blinking on then off. In frozen time, ancient beings emerge with the force of reptiles. In the forest, time and weather are so mixed up, a trope of bedtime stories, bottom-up processing, need. I need the snake to stop the news. This is the news: a girl’s body is dressed and set: still yet trembling, upon a rise in the forest. There are stars. Now it’s night. Time is coming on hard. The snake slips over her leg, her brown ankle. She’s wearing shoes, maroon patent leather shoes with a low heel and three slim buckles, but no socks.

Whoever dressed her was in a hurry.

Imagine the scene: a forest outside of London, 10 p.m.

An April snowfall, the ground still coppery, gold. A snake has escaped from time: a water box, a shelf. Volatile, starving, it senses a parallel self, the girl’s body emitting a solar heat, absorbed in the course of a lifetime but now discharging, pushing off. Without thought, below thought, it moves towards her through the rusted trees.

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8. Inversions for Ban

“To ban someone is to say that no-one may harm him.” Agamben.

A “monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city.” (Ban.) To be: “banned from the city” and thus: en banlieues: a part of the perimeter. In this sense, to study the place where the city dissolves is to study the wolf. Is this why some of my best friends have come from the peninsula of Long Island?

To ban, to sentence.

To abandon is thus to write prose. “Already dead.” Nude. A “wolfe’s head” upon a form. The form is the body — in the most generic way I could possibly use that word. The nude body spills color. Blue nude, green nude. The nudes of pre-history in a pool of chalk in an Ajanta cave. Agamben’s thought familiar to me, already, from the exchange of Arjun and Krishan on the battlefield. I should stop writing now.

What do the wolf and the schizophrenic have in common?

Here, extreme snow. I mean fire. The extreme snow makes me neutral about the strangeness of this first intact fragment. Of Ban. A novel of the race riot, “Ban.” Nude studies/charcoal marks: wired to the mouth of a pig. A boar. Some of the work is set in the outlying, wooded regions of Greater London, where King Henry VIII had his hunting grounds. As a girl, I would lie down in my coat and trousers in the snow upon an embankment of earth: engineered, centuries before, to keep the meat in.

I wanted to write a book that was like lying down.

That took some time to write, that kept forgetting something, that took a diversion: from which it never returned.

I wanted to write a book on a butcher’s table in New Delhi: the shop-front open to the street, a bare light bulb swinging above the table and next to it a hook.

Swinging from that hook in the window, I wanted to write a book. Inverted, corrupted, exposed to view: a person writes a book in their free time, calling that time what they want to call it.

I wanted to write a book about England.

I wanted to write a book about lying on the floor of England. I wanted to return to England. I went to England. I was born in England. I lived in a house in England until I was thirty years old. My parents were English. I was English. After 1984, we all shared the same nationality, but by 2006 or 7, this was no longer true. Between September 2010 and late December 2012, I studied a piece of the earth, no longer or wider than a girl’s body prone upon it. The asphalt. As dusk fell: violet/amber — and filled — with the reflected lights coming from the discs, the tiny mirrors, positioned in the ivy as she “slept.”

On a balcony.

The asphalt’s green stars, the shed parts of a ragged elm come Spring.

Ban is a portal, a vortex, a curl: a mixture of clockwise and anti-clockwise movements in the sky above the street. I study the vapor as it rises, accumulates then starts to move. How a brisk wind organizes the soot or casings and bits of bark into whorls.

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  1. What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

My mother used to wake me up, on the occasions that there was a sky full of stars or a visible moon, and set me on the windowsill.  “Sing a poem to the stars, Bhanu.”  Her own mother was in India, and, in the era before this one, communicated through astral bodies!  My grandmother had told my mother that if she sang to the moon then she, my grandmother, would receive it when the moon rose in Punjab.  Thus, a first poetry.  My mother would write down what I said and sang; a first writing – and a first feeling that poetry was music, improvisation, the being woken up from sleep, a connection with someone very far away, the familial listener, the one you had to leave.  I remember that my mother also had a shrine to Krishna in the linen cupboard that was also in my bedroom, and sometimes I would wake up to a tiny oil lamp flickering. And the bhajans of Mira Bai – a lyric, you could say, of abandonment and reunion in its own way.  “I am standing under this tree, Krishna, in the rain, in the darkness./ Just a crumpled note on my dresser./ I am going to stand here until you return.” Okay, I made that up.  But the bhajans are basically that, for all time.  And in this way, you could say that Mira Bai’s poetry, which I did not understand was poetry, was the first poetry that I listened to, attenuated – a child — stirring in my bed before dawn.  Also: my mother’s bedtime stories – which, after a while, I realized – combined – the trauma story of Partition with the Ramayana – the fabular epics that she told and re-told in her own way, and never from a book.  The form that narrative took: a hybrid account, you could say.  Though I didn’t have language for any of this until I came to the U.S. and perhaps not until my forties, strangely enough – which is the time in a woman’s life, my friend Diane Kempson says, when a “deep pelvic grief” may rise.  And the thing to do is to: “adequately grieve.”  It is perhaps natural, then, to answer your question by returning to the deep sources of grief and poetry – the two things are not separate – in my own life.  Am I writing too much in response to your question?  Suddenly, I was on a windowsill beneath a tinny English sky.

My favorite writer as a child was Turgenev.  My grandfather used to take me to the Russian bookstore in Sector 17, on our long summers in India, and leave me to read while he played chess and drank cup after cup of milky chai with the owner, a Russian, from little glasses.  I remember the onion skin pages of the mass-made books; opening Fathers and Sons for the first time.  As a teenager, I wore black “like a little funeral,” to emulate the girl in the poems by Sylvia Plath.  I read and shoplifted books of poems obsessively.  At university in Loughborough, I read the plays of William Congreve: writing as revenge.  That stayed with me for a long time: literature as butcher’s shop.  In the U.S., I broke free of the Larkin-Tennyson vortex, and was amazed, one day, to see my hands surrounded by violet light as I lay on the grass holding the News of the Universe above me – against a bright blue sky.  In this collection, I read Bly’s translations of Mira Bai for the first time, confused but also dazzled by their unrecognizable structure, sound and content.  At the same time, I recognized them as identical, or near-identical, in their capacity for ululation: to that long-ago time in feral Middlesex; Middlesex, that is, of the long nights.  When I moved to Colorado, Laura Mullen – whose seminar I was in – gave us Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee to read.  I don’t remember reading it, but rather carrying it with me from place to place, opening here and there: to a line.  A fragment.  Voltage.  Life that comes from life.  A taken: life.

  1. Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

John Lucas, Anthony Piccione, Laura Mullen.  Those were the professors who put books in my hands – that changed my life.

  1. How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work has crystallized and condensed – the two kinds of water – around the question of the female, immigrant body.  In The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, I began with broad travel, polyphony, encounter, the non-identical: brown body.  This project had two longer section; a vision of photocopying the notebooks in which I wrote down the answers as they were, or a list of some kind.  Another section, too, built on my sticker graffiti – the way I wrote before I came to U.S. But Kelsey Street was only able to publish the first section, for which I am grateful – though perhaps I should do something about the fact that the complete work resides in a cardboard box somewhere in the Bear Skull Pantry off the kitchen!  Is it still there?  In Incubation: a space for monsters, what varies? Travel happens through hitch-hiking.  And the writing happens through a girl both singular and multiple: a presence.  She mutates.  My first monster.  In humanimal: a project for future children, I take up the story of two sisters – contested feral life – and if I think about how movement is happening here, I recall my research into Ida Rolf’s narratives of movement pathologies and rehabilitation, transposed with a study of correction and colonial life.  How does the human-animal body reach for the tail of the cat in the tree?  I went to India and climbed that tree; I investigated the claims that the girls were not real; that they were somehow faking it, or being asked: to fake it.  Girlhood, I suppose.  In Schizophrene, I turned my post-colonial eye, you could say, to questions of migration and mental illness: with a particular focus on the high-incidence of schizophrenia in women of Indian and Pakistani origin, in immigrant neighborhoods of north-west London.  In studying psychosis rates, including the question of misdiagnosis and treatment paths, I came to the astonishing finding that, in fact, it’s not migration that is the stressor, but rather – chronic experiences of racism; the way a very visible body moves through a mostly white neighborhood; the posture this body might take.  How do you tell this story from the bottom-up?  Through the nervous system as much as narrative: modes: themselves? I began to think about how syntax – the part of narrative that held: non-verbal flows – was happening in my work.  What a sentence could be.  What postures the “bodies” in my books were taking.  From this work, a worlding, some of which I had to work out through performances of my own, came Ban en Banlieue, which was, very simply, an attempt to track the effects of oppression upon the brown, female, immigrant body.  Yet Ban mutates, and is a monster of her own kind.  What does she lick?  Who does she become?  I ended that book with the figure of mermaid – a fusion of the body, mid-sacrifice, with the pink dolphins of the Ganges, that carry her – out to sea.

  1. Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Reading and teaching (at Naropa University) — through architecture and GIS mapping  – what the grid is, what happens when it fails – was very useful to me in mapping humanimal and Schizophrene.  I began to have conversations about built environments, social care and domestic violence – with students at Goddard, I recall.  Kristen Stone and Sayra Pinto come to mind. Researching cross-cultural psychiatry – narratives of refugee and immigrant physiologies – and attending a conference (as a delegate) in which these accounts were grounded in discussions that included relief workers, epidemiologists and social workers, was extraordinarily useful for me.  It came after Schizophrene, but it gave me the confidence to understand that experimental writing practices have an extreme value in the way they match up, more than more linear forms, to “clinical experience.”  How will the fragments attract?  What is the pathology of the fragment?  Where does it “lodge” in the body (Andrea Spain)?  But also, what happens when it reverses itself?  Holding it up in the air, how can we attend to the fire and water that begins to stream from it?  All of this – on a spectrum of hallucination to integration – the extreme power of the fragment to charge the atmosphere in which it finds itself – became the ground of Ban.  And the ground of the sentence around which Ban is built: “I want a literature that is not made from literature.”

  1. What are your plans for the future?

Before I came to this country, I said, to Dennis and Inge Goodwin, who had invited me to their home in St.John’s Wood for tea: “I want to write a novel on yellow paper.”  They were asking me what I wanted to write, how I wanted to live.  Dennis had been a commander of the Ethiopian army.  Am I remembering this correctly?  A story of colonial time.  Inge was a translator of German poetry into English; in an orchard outside London, she pointed out the apple tree Michael Hamburger had planted when he first visited them.  I don’t know how they recognized me as a writer-to-be; it now seems like a miracle.  Of love.  Once in the U.S. I hitch-hiked through Oregon – with an A4 pad of light yellow paper; I remember sitting in the Eugene Public Library, unable to begin.  I discarded that paper on a table after the third day, and continued on with my physical adventure.  A week ago, over twenty years past the moment I am describing, I parked my car outside the bank in Loveland and ran across the street to the Quick Print Shop, which often has remaindered paper on a shelf.  I immediately saw a batch of gold-yellow or cadmium-yellow or gold or goldenrod paper, and bought it.  I can see it from where I am writing to you.  So that is my plan. To write a novel on yellow paper.  To write myself out of one life and into another.  To find a way to begin

  1. What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

We are putting the failures of our lives into our books – its bloody leaks – at the expense – of a lyric mode.  At the expense, you could say, of how beautiful a book could be.

  1. Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

To answer this question is to exclude, or to engender a feeling of exclusion, perhaps, in all the promising women writers I do not name or forget to name.  I suppose I cannot answer this question at the cost of publicizing the writing of a woman writer who your readers would not encounter otherwise. And yet: I refer you to VIDA or to the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo twitter feed or my own Friday Interview Series on my blog or the Action Books catalogue – as venues for where to: look.  Look at the future, I suppose.

  1. If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

“Experimental writer” is not exactly working out.  I used to say: “experimental prose writer.”  But what it really is is that the middle of me is poetry, or poet.  And that anything I write, whether it resembles fiction or a hybrid work or non-fiction or poetry itself, comes from that. I want “poet” to mean all of this, I suppose, but in reality, I never win the grants I have applied for.  Is it that I am a bad writer?  Or that my writing doesn’t resemble poetry enough for it to receive funding in that category, or even the category of prose?  Actually, because I have given up even trying to apply for grants, perhaps this is no longer true!  What else?  “Failed British novelist” is another favorite.

  1. The landscape of Ban is as you summarize, “parts of something re-mixed as air: circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall.” The setting is painted with strokes of compassion that hurt hard; “violence like snowflakes under the bed.” I would like to ask you how one psychically and emotionally deals with entering into the horrific bones of a historical event such as this? How does this affect the evolution of the character? How does the author complete the bend of compassion aware of the outcome?

It’s something I talk a lot about with my students.  How can we attend to the earth memory, the body of the witness – the body of the reader, perhaps – as much as our own bodies or the bodies that appear in our writing?  What are the ethics of asking a reader to discharge the “event” – the materials and matter of a violent event, in particular – through what the reading will be itself?  I think this is where syntax – in its capacity to re-pattern the eye movements of the reader – to replicate a kind of light, consistent touch that repeats but not in a completely organized – thus human – way – helps.  Not as trauma therapy, per se.  But as a nervous system pathway within the writing, that releases – what is in the writing – into what might receive it.  The ground?  To the beings – seen and unseen – who arrive at the edges of the work as it is being written?  So that a part of writing the character is to look away, to glance into the environment that surrounds her – or deflects her, I suppose, then return.  This makes for a wet book, a book that opens and closes – fluttering – all the time.  I am responding in the most simple way I can to your question; part of answering it is to re-enter: the other world.  Of the work.  And perhaps I can’t, this morning.  But I have written about these questions on my blog, and what it has been to work on these questions through memorial, ritual, and performance/re-performance, in particular:

http://jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com/2015/02/detritus-and-decompressions-ban.html?q=discharge+nervous+system

  1. We first meet the character Ban in wet smoke. She is above a mirror in the hands of your pen, your heart, and your mind. You intimate to the reader, “I wanted to write a novel but instead I wrote this.” Furthermore, “I wrote the middle part of the body to the end”. Character development is enumerated when we learn “Ban is not an immigrant, she is a shape or bodily outline that’s familiar: yet inaccurate.” And perhaps more important to this work is not Ban herself, but your relationship to her. You lie next to her, “extending my own tongue to the ivy that curls down to the sidewalk with its medicine and salt: so close to my own mouth. Lick it and you could die. I do all these things.” How close does the writer need to delve into the characters that they extricate in their work? What do you believe this does to the author and how much of the self is reconfigured and formed in the body of the character as well as the writer? How did this enumeration expound and transform your own life?

Perhaps I can answer this differently to the answer I gave above, accompanied by the writing on the blog, by speaking through the lens of diasporic writing.  I think to write books about a particular place in a place that does not resemble that place is to engage, also, the blankness of the earth and sky: these huge blocks of energy that take the place of memory.  So that the alchemy of changing the red of Colorado to the gold of a north-west London sunrise – is something I am always trying to do.  To substitute one intensity for another.  But also, I can’t, sometimes, activate my own “worlding” – my own time or imagination – except by taking the posture the body takes in the writing; thus, to feel it in my body, or to track the sensations there.  And in some cases, on my loops through the U.K. or India, I am able to lie down: there.  To see the glossy green leaves of the ivy; the seams of the asphalt – and so on.  It is about, in the U.S., compounding, always, a symbolic scene – in order not to be making something up: about the middle of the body.  About what it could be to write a narrative to its end-point and beyond; into the minutes, I suppose, when it stops trembling.  Is this reenactment?  I am not sure.  In terms of transforming my life, it has brought me into a new area: the axial space and theory between performance art and the novel.  And different conversations, with radical others, about how to progress this: strange art.

  1. The following line is written in the section of the book titled: “Notes for a novel never yet written”. We read, “Are those two words? Someday. Tucked into a suitcase. Or sent in a crate. This pure banality, the sending of household supplies by freight, is an emigrant act. A form of nudity.” Is nudity the exposure of one of “other” as immigrant in a suitcase? Are all “others” naked in some sense and is this why there is a lack of sexual nudity in the project?

Sexual nudity, in my host culture, would result – in decimation.  I think a part of me writes experimentally – in order to conceal the potential for this other kind of nudity.  To make it unreadable.  Also, the stories in my family are all about people being beheaded, gutted – the evisceration of the female body, glimpsed — and so on.  What people did, what they saw.  Post-Partition.  Those stories have been inherited, culturally, as a kind of domestic and gender violence – in the communities I lived in or belonged to or am from.  Is this true?  I read an extraordinary book this year, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital that matched to my sense of this: glimpse.  How a glimpse mutates, inherited, as the desire for abject nudity: to be made visible – as part of a series, you could say, that the glimpse: precipitates.

This is why, perhaps, there is always: a partial scene.  On my blog, however, I think I am more explicit.  But also I sometimes delete those entries, the ones where I write in more direct ways about my sexual experiences, or my body itself.  Delete, delete, click.

  1. Can you please describe your intention behind the project as a character named after your personal childhood name, your memoir pieces throughout the book, and the ending passages from your “rogue notebooks”?

My friend at Haberdasher’s Aske’s School for Girls, Lindsey Norman, called me Ban.  As to the other decisions, they match up – to the way in which, over many years, the novel – as it was intended to be or dreamed – was stored.  I began to think of other things, other gestures, other kinds of writing that fill or might fill: a “novel-shaped space.”  The rogue notebooks come from a kind of ennui – no, the sense of being daunted about – opening each notebook in turn and reading it thoroughly.  And also, as I have written about elsewhere, an interest in sensation – as what allows a person to discharge trauma – an attention to sensation – rather than narrative or even image-based content – – which re-loop: the content or activate it too strongly.  The notebooks also function as an expanded environment; what it would be to look away from the “glimpse.”  A glimpse that is also an abyss.

profiles in poetics: Maria Garcia Teutsch

winepartypiedterre2Maria Garcia Teutsch

Websites: marialoveswords.com

You are sitting beneath the shade of a coral curtain. The curtain was created by ‘we’ hand-strung ornaments, balanced from sandy trees in the Far East. In the Western hemisphere of the world ‘I’ stretch out my legs on a plush Ikea perch, making sure to check if ‘I’ have enough. Carbon dioxide cartridges for my home made sparkling mineral beverage, for example. Take a step away from the romanticization of these images and ask yourself the following. Does patriarchal structure and commodification depend on its cultural configuration? How does self and subjugation interplay in the conversation? Does identity depend on its soil? We converse today with Maria Garcia Teutsch: a writer whose journey in this interview begins as a young girl planter of wishes.

Teutsch now, self-ascribed as “southern-protestant-pacifist-radical-chicana-feminist-super-pussy-take-no-crap-offa-nobody-no-how-type-of-writer,” is a well-traveled poet, mother, wife, teacher, community builder devoted to “helping artists get their stuff out there.” We speak to her about America’s open markets and how language is “shaped into the image of its maker”. The message is not always easy for readers to digest because of the origin of the earth. She admits, “part of the beauty of poetry is that I can break language down and let it do the work.” Here we glimpse how revolution occurs every day, pronounces and obscures the inscriptions of our cultural framework, and how we learn to respect the nuances of that glass of water.

Teutsch’s most recent work, the focus of this profile, The Revolution Will have its Sky, is the recent winner of the 2014 Minerva Rising chapbook competition. The collection contemplates existential notions of the self. She tells us, “we little beings do all we can to change the world, and the effort is worth it, but don’t confuse good work with importance.” The focus of this book is about “women as subject, object, and ruler.” Here we “invert the social order and in the end, the madame becomes queen. Queen of what? The social order is still patriarchal, the war machine still goes on, but the revolution, well, that may have just begun.” Let us applaud and take part. In the revolution.

Maria Garcia Teutsch is a poet and editor. She has published over 20 journals of poetry as editor-in-chief of the Homestead Review, published by Hartnell College in Salinas, and Ping-Pong journal of art and literature, published by the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California. She teaches poetry and creative writing online. She serves as president of the board of the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

photo credit :  Debi Lorenc : http://debilorenc.zenfolio.com/

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Revolution of One-page-001

1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

My first inspiration came at age 3 or 4. I wanted to write a letter to god to see if I could get a pony because my father’s stone agenda did not permit the getting of ponies for young girls. I knelt in the back yard with my mother’s silver spoon, dug a hole and planted my letter. What I knew about god at that point was that when you died you were buried and then shot straight up to god’s presence. I figured my pre-literate letter would also find an audience in the divine presence. Still waiting for that pony. Then in fourth grade I became infatuated with Helen Keller, Elizabeth Farnsworth, Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony and finally, Emily Dickinson. I still love Emily Dickinson.

2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Every woman who has struggled and come before me has inspired me. I loved Anne Frank early on, also Sylvia Plath. I realized the power of the written word through Anne Frank’s diary. Sylvia Plath taught me how to see. Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, these women shaped my poetics. I also love Lillian Hellman and Anais Nin. Then Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. These were all my early influences, some kick ass women, no?

3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?

Well, I have been writing seriously since the 6th grade, so it’s gotten a lot less sappy. Like most beginning writers, I used to only write when I felt depressed, or when the muse arrived on my doorstep. Now I don’t have time to wait for anyone, I just write when I have time. I try to be disciplined and write at least once each day.

4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I have definitely been influenced by music. I can be listening to Radiohead on my way to work and compose an opera which comes out as a poem. I listen to Beethoven and fragments of scenes flow out of me. I love physics, actually married a physicist, and the world of the sciences definitely influences my understanding of poetry. If I am writing a poem about water, I research water vocabulary. I read reports by hydro-geologists. If I am writing about birds, I read up on their habitat. I love the specificity of language. I almost always do a bit of research when I write. I am also influenced by plays. I love to create worlds, scene by scene.

5.) What are your plans for the future?

I have spent a large portion of my life supporting other artists. Most of my spare time and energy have always gone into helping artists get their stuff out there. I serve as EIC of two literary journals, The Homestead Review and Ping-Pong journal of art and literature. I also serve as president of the board of the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California, which is a cultural arts center. I have reached a point now where I am willing to pull back and focus on publishing my own work, spending the time I need to write, edit and publish my own stuff. I have never felt an ego-attachment to publishing, I mean, two of my biggest heroes saw very little published in their lifetime: Emily and Anais. I think it’s easy to get published these days. In an interview I did with Alice Notley she said, “there are a lot of people out there calling themselves poets.” I think this is true. I don’t write to be published, that will surely come after I die (ahem), I write because if I didn’t I’d spontaneously combust.

I recently won a chapbook contest for an obscure group of poems, The Revolution Will have its Sky. Heather McHugh chose my book. Now that’s kind of cool. I like her poetry a lot. So there’s this community out there that I love. It’s part of why I write, to enter into this often insane conversation with likeminded individuals. So I plan to keep writing, publishing, and also publishing others, but in a different capacity than as EIC of two journals.

6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Well, there are some great writers out there. I love Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck, Alice Notley, Anne Carson, Gloria Anzaldua, Joy Harjo, Kim Addonizio, Diana Garcia, Anne Waldman. I love poetry of social consciousness, or poetry that’s just fucking smart. I write because I want to enter into a conversation with these amazing artists. I want to talk flowers with Louise Gluck, I want to talk about social injustice with Lucille Clifton, I want to talk about pre-Columbian goddesses with Joy Harjo, and about Greek mythology with Anne Carson. I want to beat a drum with Anne Waldman.  I see something beautiful in their writing and want to share it, or because I see an injustice and I want to rectify it, or at least cast a light on it. These women have all written words that have changed the world, or at least, their portion of it. Their words matter to me.

7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

There are too many to name, but let me try. I see thousands of poems a year but some stand out: Christine Hamm, Cynthia Cruz, J. Hope Stein, Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, Brenda Coultas, Joanna Fuhrman, Eleni Sikelianos, Matthea Harvey, Laura Kasischke, Tracy K. Smith, Jennifer K. Sweeney, Amy Lawless, and Carmen Gimenez Smith. There’s more, I suck, I can’t remember everyone.

8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be

southern-protestant-pacifist-radical-chicana-feminist-super-pussy-take-no-crap-offa-nobody-no-how-type-of-writer.

9.) In your series of worldwide headlines under the title Not a Psalm, each line juxtaposes conversing thoughts such as: “Teenager sells kidney for an IPad.” And “Baby sick, baby sick, baby sick. His father would have given them the finger.” As readers we question how much the language of commodity illusively buries itself into syntactical equations. Often we forget that the language of math and science is built in the marketing of manipulative vernacular. How do you believe the trinity of technology, media and historical structures of thought is built to externalized syntactical structures of speech? Take for example auto correct, which mimics the personal culture of one’s own writing tendencies and learning the pools of our minds. Do these equations change the projection of our thoughts and are they under political and societal influences? What do you believe our capitalist driven ideologies are doing to language and notions of love and intimacy?

Wow, this question is like a dissertation. I don’t think I’m smart enough to answer it, but here goes. I can be a conspiracy theorist when it comes to commodifying just about everything: America makes wars to open markets, corporations are bigger than governments and shape policy etc. I mean, it only makes sense that our very language should be shaped into the image of its maker: Google. My headline poems are difficult for some readers, because they want to talk about what they know about these countries instead of looking at the issues of the poems. It is hard because as an American I also carry the baggage of the industrial war complex on my back. No matter that I am a lefty-pacifist. I travel extensively and have lived overseas, and let me just say, as an American I am often looked at through a narrow lens. Part of the beauty of poetry is that I can break language down and let it do the work. The headlines are real, but what it evokes from me as a poet is something I don’t think about, I just write it down. In the line you quote above about “his father would have given them the finger,” well, that’s a reference to North Korea’s Kim Jung-un. There’s no way a reader of this piece will get that reference, and yet it is there all the same. I remember Bob Dylan saying he doesn’t ever tell folks what his songs mean, because they mean something different for everyone, especially the writer.

10.) The following poem is taken from the same collection, this time under the title “Headlines from the United States”. The poem reads:

Boy Scouts’ say kids safer from abuse in Scouts than at home

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in a house

where mothers make

from Scouts’ abuse of mothers

red-velvet

cupcakes.

I have been thinking of our notions of self and subject. How self-narration is interconnected to the passions: desire, rage, love, and grief. And to confront these senses, in this case trauma, illustrates how self-subjugation can ignore the passions we seek to face. How do you view self and subject? Can you describe how this prism shifts culture to culture? And do you believe that we are able to alter this cyclical phenomenon?

I view self and subject as object and obstacle. I am quite the existentialist when it comes to the notions of self. Or, like Richard Wright, a naturalist. We little beings do all we can to change the world, and the effort is worth it, but don’t confuse good work with importance. In Asia, where I lived for a number of years, it is “we” in America it is “I.” Total paradigm shift. I am not saying one is better than the other, but it changes one’s worldview significantly. If we want to alter this cyclical phenomenon we can, through our words. Change is always possible.

11.) My last question centers on your chapbook, The Revolution Will Have its Sky. The series of poems are based on underlined sections of Jean Genet’s play,The Balcony. As we traverse from character to scene to character, themes, namely a mirror encapsulates a revolution. The revolution is slighted by the mirror. In “The Brothel Trick” we read, “Time to start over again. / Places a watch between / Her breasts. Jewels are / the only thing that’s real. / Life is a brothel trick, no, / one long funeral trick.” Where does the feminine voice find balance in that of her body in one of empowerment and or subjugation? Is the nature of the mirror argument a patriarchal trap, and if so, how do you believe that we can change the structure of the revolution to empower both the real of the body, of the self, and also how it participates in the cross stiches of culture?

Funny you should ask. I recently won the Minerva Rising chapbook competition for this very collection. Heather McHugh was the judge. When I submitted my manuscript it was with this descriptor: My collection is about women as subject, object, and ruler. The poems are inspired by Jean Genet’s play, The Balcony. My collection centers on women who are the subjects of male fantasy, but who invert the social order and in the end, the madame becomes queen. Queen of what? The social order is still patriarchal, the war machine still goes on, but the revolution, well, that may have just begun. Here’s to revolution in all of its varied manifestations.

profile in poetics: Danielle Vogel

2Danielle East Beach August 2014

Danielle Vogel

Websites:

daniellevogel

lavaguejournal.com/lavague01/vogel

noemipress

How the writer processes life informs language. The molecular cerebral-woven sensuality of moments brings to fruition capacitates of life in both trauma and commemorating materializations of concrete beauty. In an essence of life that is distributed to the page, inscription is not only an act of love, but also the ebb and flow in the ways in which it holds the reflections of the sky with branches of shooting stars; swimming in the middle of a school of circling fish; speeding on a motor scooter through the rain. Danielle Vogel is a writer inspired by how language is able to participate in a conversation with the self. The cellular and the spiritual act of reconstructing the prisms of self-definition and how the integration forms, heals, and embraces the divine in both life and writing. In this way language is matter, with the ability to hold balance and inspire a change of greatness.

As a child, Vogel was deeply connected to her mother, she states, “my senses were an extension of her senses,” and in this sense, she “learned to let language shore up around [her],” in the same way that she “liked to drag [her] fingers over the [newsprint] until they became stained with ink.” In this way the cognitive reasoning and instability that she found within her bones was able to slow and organize. She says this shadow: “gave [her] a sense of tactility, a skin to encase [her] thinking;” to experience language “viscerally.” The viscerally places the body back into the language of mind and body, experience and story, language and enumerative living of one in both words and ligaments.

The body in this way is then returned to a state of elements in the same way that it is processed through sensory living. She iterates, “I want to make bodies and meet bodies through words … I want to return language to the elements, to their origins. I want to return my body to the elements … I try to energize new synaptic patterns through the contortion of grammar.” She highlights the focus of our interview with her book, Between Grammars, forthcoming spring 2015 from Noemi Press. The lineage of the letter and the self and the body is contained in the expression of communication that we choose to enumerate. She states, “I believe each letter contains an archive, a lineage of all its origins. I believe language is capable of being changed and of changing. Of design and reformation.” The transformative possibility of this in life and lesson is one of being aware and open to possibility. And, as she states it calls upon the reader, “to become an active participant—almost a possessed lover—in the construction of the absent character,” one that is at once in focus and out of focus as they participate in the adventure.

Danielle Vogel is an artist and writer who grew up on the south shore of Long Island. She is the author of Between Grammars (Noemi Press 2015), Narrative & Nest (Abecedarian Gallery 2012) and lit (Dancing Girl Press 2008) and has exhibited her work at RISD Museum, The University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, and Abecedarian Gallery. She is currently a visiting writer teaching at Brown and Wesleyan Universities.

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5Poem from Between Grammars-page-001

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  • What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer?

My desire to write began when I began. I grew up on the south shore of Long Island where I was an only child for nine years. I shared most of those years with my mother. We had an unusually close relationship. The result of our connection was that the only physical body I understood to exist was my mother’s. My senses were an extension of her senses. My experience of being a person began through my consciousness, which seemed to have no skin to enclose it. Whatever linked most people’s voices to their forms didn’t seem to exist for me. My thinking was my body. I was composed of thought-experience, a spectral sensitivity that felt to me like a concentration of light and electricity. 

As a child, I was sometimes afraid of my own living. I existed. I was alive. And for some reason I held a lot of panic, shame, and guilt about that reality. Living—in my body—didn’t seem to belong to me somehow. In order to mediate that feeling, I learned to let language shore up around me. Language gifted me a corporeality that my own bones and skin couldn’t. At 3 years old, I can remember sitting on the floor with a newspaper spread out in front of me. I couldn’t read, but I could pretend to. I liked to drag my fingers over the print until they became stained with ink, with the act of inscription and reading.

My mother also loved words. She kept notebooks of words, their definitions, and etymologies. Before I could write, I would watch her write in these notebooks and feel myself writing. As a child and young adult, the only time I experienced my own private form was in the practice of reading and writing, even if I was only pretending. As I read and wrote, I became a home within a house. I was within my own living in a way that felt safe. It wasn’t that I was living inside what I was reading or writing, but that these acts composed a kind of internal intimacy for me. As I read, I felt organized, contained; I felt touched. It wasn’t about imagination—my reality wasn’t transformed—but instead it was about a bridging between my voice and my body. Somehow, through those acts, I not only experienced a kind of communion with whatever was being read or written, but I also met myself in a way that felt impossible at most other times. Language slowed the world for me; it gave me a sense of tactility, a skin to encase my thinking. I know now that this was a form of dissociation, and, over time, I’ve realized the many gifts of this way of experiencing the world. This feeling of living at the sill between presence and non-presence is why I’m a writer, why I’ve chosen language as my primary medium. It’s these feelings that I’ve been working through in my first three books: Between Grammars (Noemi Press 2015), Clasp (under consideration), and A Library of Light (in-progress), books I’ve been writing for the past eight years.

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  • Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

The first books I remember—and this is pre-reading time to the time I was about 9—are a pictorial-dictionary outlining the Rider-Waite Tarot deck (this was my mother’s book when she was a teenager), a children’s bible with a bright yellow cover, and a book about the lives of women saints, which I still have. I received the bible and book of saints from my mother’s mother who was very religious—she voluntarily cleaned a catholic convent and church weekly—and thus was mortified that I lugged around this Tarot book whose cover was foxed with mold. The children’s bible terrified me. There was so much blood! There were so many wounds. I became obsessed with those gaps into the body. I used to touch the pages, close my eyes, and imagine that I was sealing up all the wounds. The book of saints deeply affected me. As I read, I felt as if I had known all of these women. In 2nd grade, I was able to bring something in for show-and-tell once a month. For some months, I brought myself in dressed and acting like one of the saints I was in awe of.

As a teen, I kept what I called “holy books” on a shelf directly above the head of my bed. These were Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and Sea and Foam (again, my mother’s books from when she was a teen), Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels, Sylvia Plath’s Winter Trees, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, and Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest.

In my twenties, I fell in love with women who wrote about the act of writing. Women who helped me to understand that language—in all iterations—is always a physical act; language is always a verb. These women are: Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Hélène Cixous (who I didn’t read until I was 29! I felt like I had just been given the biggest gift.), Jeanne Hyvrard, and Carole Maso.

Now, in my thirties, I’ve mostly been reading books on visual artists to help me better understand my writing practice. How language looms us through sight and sound to time, to presence, and also non-presence. I’ve been looking especially to artists whose work acts simultaneously as a tool for divination: Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz. But also to artists who work primarily with grids, hinges, and clasps like Gego, Lenore Tawney, Ruth Asawa, and Agnes Martin. These artists have helped me to think not only about the invisible implications of language, but also about its bulk, its physicality—how it knots, clasps, extends.

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  • Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My teachers: Anne Waldman, Akilah Oliver, Selah Saterstrom, and Bhanu Kapil.

Anne and Akilah for holding space. For demanding that we—their students—do the work required to make change in the world. To see and speak for the voiceless places in history. Selah for helping me to see better. For teaching me to track and learn from my writing tendencies. And for helping me understand that each and every manuscript arrives with its own blueprint, we need only to open ourselves to communicating with our work in order to read and learn from that blueprint. Bhanu, who told me during my first year at Naropa University where I received my MFA that I already had all I needed within me to be a writer. That charged my writing life. I’m sure she’s said that kind of thing to many writers, but for years, whenever I felt desperate, I was able to call up that sentiment.

These women are fierce in their living and in their work; in fact, the two are often impossible to separate. I feel blessed to have been able to learn from and work beside these artists, to carry what I learned—and continue to learn—from each into my practice of living, writing, and teaching.

Outside of the writing community, my father’s mother has been one of my greatest supporters. Her name is Violet. I still send her all of my work. She also gave me my first divinatory tool—a pendulum—when I was five years old.

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  • How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work is directly influenced by my practice as a visual artist, ceremonialist, and diviner. Alongside each of the books I’ve written, and am currently writing, there have been physical components—textile and ceramic exhibitions, public and private ceremonies—that have helped me to understand what my books are trying to become as I write them.  

I have also been fortunate enough to be a part of innovative writing communities that have nourished me. My work is in direct communion with the Front Range writers in Colorado (especially those involved with Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, The University of Denver, and Counterpath), those who run and come through the Poetry Project in NYC, the Belladonna* Collaborative in Brooklyn, and, most recently, the writers and artists in Rhode Island and Boston.

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  • Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Oh, definitely. I have been influenced by everything and write through many genres. I especially love to read etymology dictionaries, the diaries of naturalists and clairvoyants, artist daybooks, artist monographs, books about natural sciences, animal architectures, ancient herbals, lamentation and trauma theories, and books on divination.

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  • What are your plans for the future?

Goodness. To keep my heart open and to write from and for that openness.

More specifically, I want to finish A Library of Light, which is the barest and most vulnerable book I’ve written so far. I am also writing an extended version of Narrative & Nest, an artist book published in 2012 in conjunction with my ceramic exhibition at Abecedarian Gallery. I am working toward future exhibitions in porcelain and hand-harvested clay alongside the writing of A Library. As well as working with Iceland/Los Angeles-based Theater Artist Samantha Shay as she adapts A Library of Light for the stage.

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  • What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I don’t know how to answer this question. I don’t feel qualified somehow! But I am a woman and I have been alive longer than twenty years. I am carried by this writing. I am in constant conversation with it. I am a writer because these women have made room for my voice.

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  • Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

There are so many that I could never name them all. Some presses that I look to are: Dorothy, a publishing project; Belladonna* Collaborative; Noemi Press; Rescue Press; Nightboat; Counterpath, and Kelsey Street. Poet Jennifer Pilch runs an incredible online all-women’s journal bridging visual art to poetics called La Vague. And Two Serious Ladies is an online journal I visit frequently.

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  • If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Writer. This word contains all possible iterations.

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  • If the field of the page is infused, as you say, in your poem, “Volume : Page,” “in space through the / speaking. The wet membrane, / syllables sound,” we internalize and embody our language. Language then becomes knotted on the cellular level. In this way to change language do you think it is possible to embody, as you say, “the present tense. / A trellis of water. A wet column of / words to walk through,” if the encounter of the word is a body within itself?

I think I’ll be answering this question for the next twenty years in my work. It’s one of the reasons I write. I experience language viscerally. It feels like a body against and inside of my body. I feel conjoined, deranged, unhinged, soothed, cleaved, and presenced to and by it. For a long time, language was the only sensual body I felt safe inside of. So much happens on the bodily level—physically, through desire, invisibly at the level of my cells and synapses, and whatever this electrical feeling in my body is that animates my thinking—that I’ll never understand. And all of it happens in a continuous present where I am reaching out—with my thoughts, with my language—in all directions through time and space and desire. I imagine a halo. I imagine a mandala of light. I imagine something with heft and a life of its own: my thinking and all it encounters.

I want to look at these questions through language. I want to place my thinking and my physical desire next to it in my books. I want to make bodies and meet bodies through words.

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  • Can you describe your motivation for placing this animal “hide” of language in a landscape underwater? We read, “She is learning to breathe underwater. / With each sound, a surfacing. She / says:,” and later, “maybe ) ( your ) ( arrival ) ( my ) ( / body a ) ( thick ) ( rope ) ( of noise ).” How do you view the relationship between the molecular structure of sound, self, and language, and its movement through water?

I began a ceramic practice in 2006. Alongside the first vessels I sculpted, I wrote a tiny book called lit, which Dancing Girl Press published in 2008. That book places language underground where the words take shape and erode and cast light in this buried landscape. That book was a small investigation into language’s relationship to disassociation and its ability to both erode and repair the landscape of a body. Between Grammars is an extension of that early investigation. Here I pull language through the element of water while thinking about the symbiotic relationship between a writer, language, and her reader. And I continue this investigation in my next two books: Clasp and A Library of Light. In Clasp, I pull language through the places where water meets land. And in A Library, I pull language through light and ether. I am doing this for many reasons. I want to have more bodily understanding of the somatic interdependence between language and presence. Between form and disjunction. Between the physical and ethereal parts of a body. Between people. I want to return language to the elements, to their origins. I want to return my body to the elements. And in doing so, I have this idea that I’ll better understand my own physicality. That I’ll feel healthier or more in and of the world.

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  • The intimate relationship that the writer has to her language is reciprocal. She, you write in the poem, “Volume : Book,” is “waiting. Flooded by the book./ She floods the book in return. / Watershed, she floats below the lip. / And the little words are with her in the / dark.” The body as it is pronounced through the field of the page is a bit of her, a whole of her, a song of the ligaments of an inhalation. Language then becomes a limb, a cerebral cortex, an emotive extension of the self. How do you believe that language, as we read, “Unblotted through the body. / So exposed. A piece of her. A letter, / liable. On paper or on language,” changes the writer? Do you believe that the writer changes the letter or the letter changes the writer? In broadening the canon, then, does language become part of the feminine? How does the imagination interplay with this space? What part of the writer lives her life as a poem? Is there a difference and what is the importance of the difference?

First, I just want to say how honored I am to have my work read and responded to in these ways. Your questions get at the marrow, the very cellular structure of my work. And because of that I find myself writing alongside your questions instead of answering them outright; I hope that’s okay.

I don’t know if the physical act of writing changes the writer, but I’d like to believe it does. I think it does. What I understand is that memories compose synapses within in the body. When we learn something new, strings of synapses are created or old sequences are adapted to include the experience. As I write, I try to energize new synaptic patterns through the contortion of grammar. I write in a way that, for me, might heal through a reconfiguration of past experiences. I believe language holds this capacity. Or, at least, I really want to believe that it holds this capacity. That it can enter the body and rework the muscle of past experiences. That it can locate areas of numbness and release residual traumas. That it can create endless opportunities for proliferation and reparation.

I believe each letter contains an archive, a lineage of all its origins. I believe language is capable of being changed and of changing. Of design and reformation. Language imagines through us and remembers all of its imaginings. It is a living and mutable archive. I think all of this transcends masculine and feminine binaries. But the feminist in me wants to say, yes, writing is entirely a feminine act. It is beautiful and bloody. Sexy and guttural. Entirely of the body. But the parts of me that do not feel like a woman, those parts that feel more like electricity and light, want to answer this in a different way. The act of languaging is not feminine; it is what happens at the limit, the threshold of the self. And in that place, at that juncture, we—all of us—are neither male nor female.

I’ve said elsewhere, in another interview, that I don’t see much difference between a book and a body. So when you ask: “what part of the writer lives her life as a poem?” I want to answer that I believe—as I write, am written, and read—I expand through sound into the space of language. And that that sound-space is of me and of the reader, simultaneously. I am gatherable, utterable, alive. Met and meeting.

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  • Is the relationship to language as you say to, “( someone’s ) ( lover ) ( / someone’s reader ) ( each sound ) ( a / ) ( skin ) ( myself ) ( through a voice ) / ( one of us ) ( opens ).”? If this is the case, how do you view cross-cultural encounters of language? What happens when the encounter is not one of love-making and what happens when language does not have words for the body that it inhabits?

It is as if you are seeing into the future of this series. I wrote Between Grammars in a fit of deep loneliness. I was mourning the death of my mentor and friend Akilah Oliver as well as mourning the passing of a six-year partnership. I wrote the first (very rough) draft of Between in one ten-hour stretch. I had never lived alone before. I had never—literally—had only my writing to keep me company. So Between was a conversation with that loneliness. I was already six years into the writing of Clasp, which, secretly, I consider a translation project. Not a cross-cultural exchange, but the translation of an untranslatable absence, silence, and vacancy. It seeks to gather and transcribe the voice that cannot be heard because it does not have a conveyable logic. Clasp is written at the intersection between language and the unutterable. It is concerned with the inherent violence and sensuality embedded within the act of languaging. And it calls upon the reader to become an active participant—almost a possessed lover—in the construction of the absent character: this girl who cannot arrive or come into focus. I have so much more to say about this. I want to take apart the word violence for you, but I’ll save that for another time, I think. 

And while I cannot speak directly to translation projects between languages because I am not a translator, I do study translation theory. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in “The Politics of Translation,” writes: “Translation is the most intimate act of reading. I surrender to the text when I translate … The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying.” I experience the act of writing in this way. When I write, I feel the weight of an atmosphere in my body, almost like a wet bolt of fraying cloth, and I aim to translate that dissipating atmosphere into sense as closely and as faithfully as I can.

profile in lingusitics: Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

FrazierAuthorPic0714Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

Websites:

wikipedia.org/Frazier

somafrazier.com

I realize if we lived here we could be home by now. So how do you suggest we communicate? Do we receive and appropriately reciprocate the words of another? Do we communicate the internal gestures of our own healing or projection of trauma? How are we loved? In each encounter we address elements of verbal and nonverbal communication. Soma Mei Sheng Frazier is a writer who focuses on the rigidities and relaxations of our verbal and nonverbal cues and how this intimacy is shaped through the body of our words as well as our actions. In this interview we take a close look at Frazier’s fiction chapbook Collateral Damage: A Triptych, winner of the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize in where she intimates, “every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done?”

Some characters need to “hit rock bottom, in a way that [they] wouldn’t forget.” Some characters have found “peace, so there’s little left to write about”. There are gender tensions present in the work to which Frazier points out, “I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.” Gender aside we are reminded how, “as adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.” Perhaps it is more about the patience we have with others and how we learn to live in our sentences as well as our bodies.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s debut fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, won the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize of 2013 and earned high praise from Nikki Giovanni, Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Antonya Nelson and Molly Giles. Soma’s writing has placed in literary competitions including Zoetrope’s and the Mississippi Review’s, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, been named a Notable Story of 2009 by the storySouth Million Writers Award and won nods from Robert Olen Butler, Jim Shepard and others. Recent work is available in Glimmer Train (Issue 89) and online, at Glimmer Train (Bulletin 72) and Carve Magazine. New stories are forthcoming inZYZZYVA this year and Glimmer Train in 2015. Soma is at work on a novel that walks the line between traditional and urban lit.

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1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

When I was four, I played boys’ games and wore boys’ jeans: Toughskins, and at least two pairs of dark denim monstrosities whose tag, “Husky,” stuck straight up from the ass. Given my odd interests, stout form and not-so-swank style, I found myself with plenty of alone time.

That year, I picked up the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series – asking my dad for help with larger words; persisting even after Burroughs cracked civilized Tarzan on the head with a rock so he could start from scratch again – and somewhere around Tarzan and the Leopard Men I started wanting to write too.

Once I devoured Grace Paley, Joy Harjo, Nikki Giovanni, Raymond Carver, Maurice Sendak, Judith Budnitz, Kiese Laymon, Kobo Abe, Louise Erdrich, Bob Butler, Tupac Shakur, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Yasunari Kawabata, David Foster Wallace, Stephen King, James Baldwin, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Denis Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Shel Silverstein, Molly Giles, Uwem Akpan, Richard Bausch, Paulo Coelho, Simone de Beauvoir, Sara Teasdale, Joy Williams, Thomas Hardy, Richard Wright, Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Ann Beattie, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Molly Giles. Many more. Nowadays I’m so fickle or time-strapped or both that I can barely make it through a book. I read a lot of anthologies, piecemeal, as well as poems by Charles Bukowski and Charles Simic (I do like me some Chuck). I have an enduring fascination with Daniel Handler, who was kind enough to blurb my little fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, and my favorite writer to talk with in person would have to be Arisa White.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Hmmm. Burgious Frazier; Shannon Williams-Zhou; Candice “Antique” Wicks, of Antique Naked Soul; Colleen Chen; Marty Rippens; Arisa White; Robert Mezey, who once told me I had “the ear;” Sarah Lawrence College mentor Myra Goldberg, who pointed out that if I was too stubborn to write accessible stories I might as well keep my work to myself; Lisa Schiffman, author and friend; Dartmouth professor Li Hua-yuan Mowry, AKA “Mom.”

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work was once vivid; striking. Now it’s factual and quirky, as I’m disenchanted with drama. What is it that Queen Latifah said in “U.N.I.T.Y?” “Uh, and real bad girls are the silent type.” I guess I like work that sneaks up on you to get its hand around your throat.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I have a hard time delineating genres, but I’m interested in translation – from gut feeling to motion, understanding to imperative, experience to page and screen.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

But of course, world domination. Muahahaha!

I’ll be completing a novel this summer. Shortly thereafter, I’m hoping to secure a full-time, tenure-track teaching gig someplace in the Pacific Northwest.

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I’m always getting surprised by women’s work – Lori Ostlund’s, last week – and I’m hoping that the industry will surprise me as well, by correcting the imbalance that leads to more men’s books being reviewed than women’s, and more males being commissioned write reviews. Women are, after all, the primary consumers of American literature. Another lingering disparity is the industry’s disproportionate whiteness.

7.)      Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Akemi Johnson, Muthoni Kiarie, Arisa White.

8.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Oriental Cracker Mix. (Delish!)

9.)      “leave,” is a short prose story about an aggressive abusive familial relationship. Jason we learn, “is an alcoholic; but it’s not the drinking that’s the problem. It’s the problem that’s the problem, and drinking is what he does to avoid thinking about it. […] The problem is that our government trained him, and neglected to untrain him.” The feminine persona here, Sarah, is first mothered by her child, Lilli. Sarah lost her breasts to a double mastectomy when she was eighteen. Her mentally abused passive personality regularly leaves their home to avoid physical domestic abuse when her daughter tells her, “Mama, leave”. But Jason is not a machine. Sarah tells us, “And that is how I knew that the military had left some part of him untrained, and that, if I ever needed to, I could touch that part and be rid of him.” And she does. She traces his humanity, insulting him and calling him a “sodomized friend-killing LOSER!” He hits her repeatedly; close to the point of death. She tells us, “Oh free oh free oh free. I smile up at him, just for a moment, and let my face fall slack.” And then it is she who tells him, “Jason, leave, […] evenly.” And she knows that these words will keep her safe. I am at point most attentive to the juxtaposition between Sarah and her daughter. The transfer of responsibility, and how both parents seem to have gone through degenderizing identity creates friction; Jason, through his military experience, and Sarah through the removal of her breasts. When you were creating Sarah as a character, what do you believe gave her the strength to sacrifice herself, to address Jason? And also why he knew, that what she spoke to him was in fact the pain he needed to face, in order to allow her to leave?

I think Sarah’s devotion to Lilli led her to provoke and abandon Jason. I’ve watched people kick bad habits when faced with a child’s reliance – even conflict-averse, starry-eyed addicts who aren’t fully sold on their own worth. A kid is a strong incentive. Hell, I’ve kicked a few habits myself for my daughter Zoe: people, substances, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. (Okay, I lied about the last one. But I eat them furtively now, and mainly in the winter so I can blame my red fingertips on the cold. Brrr.)

Jason – he needed to hit rock bottom, in a way that he wouldn’t forget.

10.)   When we enter into, “everyone is waiting,” we see how spectrums of suffering effects how we are able to relate to one another. The main character Dan is in a fruitious relationship that ends tragically and unexpectedly with his partner Lena when she vomits blood and passes away almost immediately. He is befriended by a woman who is the only one he feels can relate to his most intimate soft spots. Similar to “leave,” even though here the woman is only a friend, we see how the experience of trauma can unite people in a space that is alien to most. Ancanit, who we learn was in the LRA was kidnapped, most of her family was killed, and she was abusively held captive to save her family. There is a dissonance between Ancanit and Dan. While she is able to comfort him, we are left we a startling image of her with a gun at the end of the story. One that seems to haunt her. The women in both of these stories seem to assume responsibility for the pain of their male counterparts. Why do you believe the stories evolved this way, and why do we not hear more about the muted counterpart to the relationship?

Every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done? I wrote “Leave” as Sarah’s story and “Everyone Is Waiting” as Dan’s. The secondary characters are less visible, but in some cases more solid. For example, Acanit is practical. At thirteen, she’s withstood more pain than Dan. She handles business and lives with the repercussions, and she’s also a very direct person – whereas he’s tentative; skittish; prone to hiding in facts and figures, turns of phrase. No matter how precarious her situation, she’s found her peace, so there’s little left to write about her, whereas we can still speculate about Dan finding his.

I hadn’t noticed that both Sarah and Acanit took on more emotional responsibility than the men in the first two stories, so your question gave me paws. Meow. Perhaps I was writing from the experience of watching women step up to deal with emotional matters on men’s behalf. I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.

11.)   “charlie golf, charlie golf one” is the concluding story of this chapbook in which we meet Mike and Celeste. Mike narrates the relationship and describes, “I’m the one who enlisted at eighteen, shipped out at thirty for one last tour in a field artillery MOS and stepped on a goddamn pressure plate.” The story is one of a “perfect wife” relationship, until the trauma. And Mike cannot tell her, he does not want to tell her about his memory. That after the explosion he heard: “‘Holy shit! His legs! His fucking legs! Where the fuck is fucking Medivac?’ Over and over he shouted those words, but I heard what he was really saying. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you Mike.” He admits, “I want to tell Celeste this story. More importantly, I want to say that I need her—Charlie Golf, Charlie Golf, for God’s sake, don’t watch me sink—but it’s like I lost my language when I lost my legs. Both of us lost our language.” The language of disaster is loss. Communication is lost. He needs her to listen, but in a way he also knows just as in the previous stories that his words will somehow falter to the devastation of trauma. There is a shift in the story when both characters realize that language is not enough, but the relationship and love through eye contact is. They speak to each other through their eyes. Can you please speak to how we utilize language to intimate the trauma, where it stifles, and how bodies possess the ability to speak past language, to something perhaps more human that allows us to persist in love?

I have a Pit Bull. He’s sentimental: smiles up in the way that Pits do; leans into our legs without language. At night, the dog sits quietly at the window in our stairwell, listening to creaking trees and other questionable sounds that might harm us. His expressive ears twitch. They stand up and sometimes he does too and then, slowly, he sits back down. When friends come to the door he rolls over and submits – lets their children grab his tail. The kids hear him loud and clear,and take advantage. Yet when we go walking, there are always a few pedestrians who flinch away from my tail-wagging dog. Some step off the sidewalk entirely, right into the street with the cars.

My husband is a black man and people react to him the same way, sometimes even while saying Nice to meet you. So I’m guessing most folks who own dogs or are attuned to racism, classism or other under-the-radar isms already understand how bodies speak past language.

But for politically insensitive readers with dog allergies, I will simply defer to multiple studies indicating that human communication is heavily sight-based; less than 10% conversation-based. Even our speech is shaped by nonlinguistic elements: voice quality, pitch, volume, rhythm, intonation, accent and pace. When we’re babies, we’re fluent in all of this. As adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.

While some courageous, desperate, immodest or impatient people always take full advantage of language, most of us only gesture toward trauma with words.

My father was quick to use his hands, we might say, on both me and my mom. And then comes the rest of the communication, in micro and macro expressions; a slight lean forward or a slow lean back.

profiles in poetics: Caryl Pagel

Pagel-PhotoCaryl Pagel

Websites:

h-ngm-n.com/twice-told/

www.rescuepress.co/

factoryhollowpress.com

From a tiny red notebook, Caryl Pagel watched “improvisational tales unfold in real time”. This act taught her to receive things that “stun her” in a thinking map delineated by structures of physical manipulation in which the brain tucks and pockets content. Twice Told,recently published by H_NGM_N Books, is a flexing flock of poems that gather “the vision and presence of another”.  She states, “To read or listen carefully is—at its best—to inhabit the vision … of another.” The present receiver is altered by the interaction; a multiplication of the self that bears memory, passion, and perspective simultaneously. This metamorphic narrative changes our tales, our recollection; the internal structure of our self-identity. Another associated circumstance with embracing other is empathy. These empathy exams can, if one is not careful, “eventually make a wreck of you,” although at the same time this act carves out parts of yourself for others to find comfort; essentially the same places that you yourself are seeking as well.

The concentrated loop of Twice Told has much to do with the life and death cycle. The repetitive notion of life in a concentric dream is each individual’s interpretative taste. So the reflection of our reception of these qualities shifts from each story, each evaluation; each interaction. As Pagel asks, “how much care is too much? And for what end, and to what purpose?” This “captivation” is savory, but also needs to be regarded with self-care so that the self is not swallowed up in the other. She asks, “Is care the clearest expression of love? How is it related to freedom? What is the right amount of care for someone who is sick, or in danger, or angry, or depressed? Does requited care matter? Can you harm yourself with care for others?” These questions are at the heart of Twice Told. The answers are by no means readily handed to you on your grandmother’s holiday china. They are ones of endless vision. Perhaps the central message is in the permutation of circles.

Caryl Pagel is the author of two books of poetry: Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012), and Twice Told (H_NG M_N Books, 2014), as well as the chapbook Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences (Factory Hollow Press, 2008). Caryl is a poetry editor at jubilat and the co-founder and editress-in-chief of Rescue Press. Her poetry and essays can be found in AGNI, The Iowa Review, Jacket2, The Mississippi Review, and The Volta. This fall she will join the faculty of the NEOMFA program in eastern Ohio and serve as the Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.

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. What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

When I was little my dad had, or I remember he had, a tiny red notebook that he’d scribble stories in. This is how I learned to read: by watching improvisational tales unfold in real time. We’d practice sentences as he invented them, creating a secret (so I thought) tether between the two of us. I was extremely disappointed when in kindergarten all of the other children began chanting the alphabet and I realized that language was a public and communal tool, not a private puzzle between me and my Pops. Once I recovered from this minor trauma I knew that I wanted to write. A few of my all-time favorites are Inger Christensen, Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker, and W.G. Sebald. They are compelling in part because as I have changed my relationship to their work has become increasingly bewildering and bizarre.

. Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

The teacher who altered everything was Dan Beachy-Quick, who I was lucky enough to work with at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about a decade ago. Others whose conversation, presence, and practice have transformed my approach to writing are Amy Margolis, Amber Dermont, Robyn Schiff, Emily Wilson, Elizabeth Robinson, and Madeline McDonnell.

. How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work shifts every time I read something that stuns me. I am frequently impacted by sentence structures or sound, by something that physically manipulates the way in which my brain receives content. Most recently an essay I was working on was affected by Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

. Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Absolutely. The poems in Twice Told engage the creepy gothic narratives that I (we all?) grew up re-reading and obsessing over: “A Death in the Woods,” Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Ethan Frome, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” The Haunting of Hill House, etc. These days I probably read more fiction and nonfiction than I do poetry and most recently I’ve been writing essays. I should also say that one of the greatest gifts to my practice has been the opportunity to work alongside visual and performance artists at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where I went to grad school) and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (where I taught some of the most inventive students I’ve ever met). The way the makers at both of these schools dealt with perseverance, chaos, humor, form, and difficulty continues to affect the way I write and teach.

. What are your plans for the future?

I’ve been working on a collection of linked essays for a few years now. The most recent one includes rambling on Sir Thomas Browne, addiction narratives, deception, Fleetwood Mac, Kurt Schwitters’ Mertzbau, George’s Buffet, ice patches, and a particularly bleak year I spent in Iowa City. I’m also in the process of boxing up my books in order to move to Cleveland at the end of the summer where I’ll join the NEOMFA faculty and serve as the Director of the CSU Poetry Center. I can’t wait.

. What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many of our contemporary game changers—the most compelling formal innovators, risk takers, experimenters, and thinkers—have been women. I think of the rangy, genre-bending, thoughtful and inventive work of Chris Kraus, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Dara Wier, Renata Adler, Abigail Thomas, Lauren Slater, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Lucy Lippard, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Robison, Sabrina Orah Mark, and Lia Purpura, to name a few. And, too, distinctive first books by wonders like Rachel Glaser, Andrea Rexilius, Suzanne Scanlon, and Hilary Plum. I’ll also say that while I (and every woman I’ve ever known?) have encountered the peculiar horrors of gender bias (such silly insult!) in writing and publishing (M v. W!) my spirits are buoyed by the brilliant lady editors who work so hard to shepherd strong writing into the world—people like Emily Pettit, Sandra Doller, Rusty Morrison, Janet Holmes, Kathleen Rooney, and Joyelle McSweeney, again to name only a few.

. Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Some of my recent favorite books are: Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years, Amina Cain’s Creature, Anne Germanacos’ Tribute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Kiki Petrosino’s Hymn for the Black Terrific, Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer, Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, and Michelle Taransky’s Sorry Was In the Woods.

. If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

 

. The opening poem, “Old Wars,” in your manuscript TWICE TOLD, negotiates how memory, sense of self, and communication fracture in stifling societal climates. The rupture follows repressive measures. We read, “They were on a dusty / black road being marched to death / and you know this because the / narrator is delivering this information within / a story via another story—a / story told by the same old / woman who may or may not / have existed whom he may or / may not have met on a / train who may or may not / but most likely was a part / of the war             She was not / a hero […] There are no / heroes here.” Could you please allude to how the poem expresses multiplicity in identity, memory as story, and the puzzle as not one of “heroes,” but of “monster and master”?

To read or listen carefully is—at its best—to inhabit the vision and presence of another. Through this process one necessarily multiplies the self and bears many memories (or passions, or perspectives) at once. One can be, in fact, possessed by a story; their very body taken hold of, which is simultaneously a gift and curse. Empathy, although rightly associated with a certain kind of bravery and courage, can also eventually make a wreck of you. A many-selved monster. When writing “Old Wars” I was thinking about (or am at least now thinking about) the ways in which we are transformed by the narratives we read and recall, the ways in which stories become us, and us them, and how one might begin to remember (or suffer) others’ tales as if their own. I’ve long been enamored with writing that acknowledges this act of captivation.

. In “The Traveler,” the opening stanza reads, “The only fact to continue to / bear is suffering and the suffering / itself is what one requires to / exist—it is purely grief that / prevents one from vanishing completely.” Some of us our survivors, some of us are not. The traveler evaluates this wisdom from a stranger, but the intimate encounter surpasses the definition of someone we do not have physical personal history with. How is this poem addressing the personal / public sphere of intimacy and how does this relate to suffering?

I’m fascinated by the role of the traveler, often the first indication in gothic fiction of a framed narrative. In so many 19th century novels, for example, the reader receives the story through a stranger’s point of view. In Wuthering Heights we learn of Heathcliff and Catherine’s tumultuous romance through Mr. Lockwood, a stranger, who hears of it from Heathcliff’s housekeeper. In Ethan Frome, too, the narrative is conveyed by an outsider passing through town who hears it from, if I remember correctly, a shopkeeper. Story as rumor or hearsay; as something that necessarily includes both the personal and public spheres of intimacy.

. In the poem, “Four Dead Men,” we meet four individuals. One man, “He needs someone to circle his / sickness He needs you and only / you to circle his circles and / he needs you and only you / to attend to his sickness.” But the “you” in the poem does not. One man dies from a suicide and returns to help is friend. He has the hope that, “the third dead man— could inhabit again the tone and / humor and luminous brilliant beautiful significant / wonderful loving tortured sorrowful stagnant angry / awesome puzzled tragic hurtful magic difficult / mind of his dear friend during / the time in which he still / survived—when this man was not / yet ill but lived instead to / write about architecture and remarkable buildings.” The juxtaposition of these two life stages presents the desire to embrace the remarkably complex stifling and incredible beauty of our darkness and our light, love and madness, linear and dissonant multifarious experience of both life and death. I am interested in how you pair patriarchy to this conversation? How do you believe the fear and embodiment of death to also be the stimulus to “circle his circles,” not in the approach towards death, but as a vehicle later negotiated in death towards life?

The various circles—“the first of forms,” so says Emerson—that occur in “Four Dead Men” via repetition of subject matter and phrasing mimic an obsessive sense of looping that I found inescapable when writing this book. The cycle of life and death of course and also the circling that occurs in the at-times faulty and obsessive logic or repeated narratives of those who struggle with mental illness or addiction, and how easy it is to—purposefully or not—slide into someone else’s orbit of anxiety. Dependency shifts one’s experience of time, whether that dependency is on another person (many new mothers, so I’ve heard, experience an alternate sense—or speed?—of time after giving birth) or on a substance or idea. I was curious about this manipulation of time as well as the relationship between dependency and care, which is perhaps an idea related to your question about patriarchy. How do women—willingly or accidentally or reluctantly or forcefully—inhabit care-giving roles that threaten independence or creative autonomy? I have no answers, only more questions, some of which were the impetus for “Four Dead Men,” such as: how much care is too much? And for what end, and to what purpose? Is care the clearest expression of love? How is it related to freedom? What is the right amount of care for someone who is sick, or in danger, or angry, or depressed? Does requited care matter? Can you harm yourself with care for others? And on and on. You see the loop. I was also at this time steeped in the work of Thomas Bernard, who I find to be a fascinating writer, and whom I had just discovered was a hero of my hero, W.G. Sebald. In part this poem responds to fictional relationships in his novel Correction. I was interested in investigations of the disturbed, addicted, possessed, and pathological, and how those investigations might be expressed through relentless and oppressive sentences, creating—through endurance, doubling, recollection, endless revisions of thinking, second-guessing, and duplication of phrasing—ripples of paranoia and a sort of frenetic or frantic engine.

profiles in poetics: Tamara J Madison

in discussion colorTamara J Madison

Websites:

www.tamarajmadison.com

facebook.com/TamaraJMadison

twitter.com/TamaraJMadison

google.com/+TamaraJMadison

linkedin.com/pub/tamara-madison/73/265/795/

Historically intact structural architecture promotes the climate of our values & bias. The courageous act of deliberating these conservative and experimental systems takes courage and empathy. To converse with dialogue of the past means that we are confronting aspects of ourselves that may affront the traditional view of our perception. In this interview with poet Tamara J. Madison, we access the structural boundaries of her own past, as well as how this creatively motivates the way she is able to address the post traumatic environment of slavery in America and the ramifications of this volatile attack on the most intimate of humanity, family.

Madison states, “Despite the progress and change, it will obviously take continuous personal, social, spiritual, emotional and creative commitment across cultures, races, for decades, scores, and maybe even centuries to heal and eradicate that ripple effect.” This responsibility is personal and public, daily and universal; one that requires continual evaluation of our stories.

Madison accesses her passion for performance and spoken word to extend the conflicting emotional sphere of racism, motherchild relations, violence, and what this means in both the mental health of those who experience the trauma and the way the world is shaded by these warping perspectives. She uses music as a way to break down the emotional urge to reject the uncomfortable. The jazz soaked musicality of her line breaks pause, stretch, and reflect, with syncopation, silence, and melodic lyric. The invitation promotes a communal space for the reader/listener to embody both the message of the idea and the destructuralization of thought.  This illuminates the need to address the whiteness of skin, what the visibility of color and trauma means pertaining to the past, and movement to adjust the spectrum of light to restructure our world with empathy.

Tamara J. Madison is an internationally traveled writer, poet, performer, and instructor.  Her critical and creative works have been published in various journals, magazines and anthologies including Poetry International, Web del Sol, Tidal Basin Review, Temba Tupu (RedSea Press), and SisterFire (HarperCollins).  She has performed and recorded her work for stage, television and studio. She holds a BA from Purdue University and a MFA from New England College and is a former English instructor of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

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From Kentucky Curdled

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1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Writing seemed to be a pretty natural ability for me early in school.  I understood the magic and power of it at an early age. As a teen for community talent shows and local beauty pageants, I often wrote and performed a dramatic poem for my talent. Everyone else was singing, dancing or roller skating.  I knew that if I wrote my own piece, it would be unique and attention-grabbing.  THAT WAS FUN!  I was doing spoken word on stage before I knew there was such a thing as spoken word!

My favorite writers have definitely changed over time.  I loved the work of Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange very early on when I stumbled upon them at my neighborhood library.  I later fell in love with the fierceness of Sonia Sanchez and the dense imagery of blues poet, Sterling Plumpp during my years in Chicago. I love the elegance of Poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the wicked risk of Ai.  Home is Lucille Clifton for me.

I am absolutely in awe of the work of francophone poet, Aimé Césaire from Martinique. The density and intricacy of his imagery and the commitment of his life to poetry and the culture of Martinique are a continual inspiration to me. I am a big fan of Toni Morrison, Bernice McFadden, Tananarive Due, and Octavia Butler as well.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Poet Sterling Plumpp of Chicago was a definite mentor in my youth.  I related to his southern background and mannerisms and his creative focus on the blues. His intensity of imagery blew me away, and I knew that was something that I wanted to do as a writer.

Music was a very potent influence in my writing in the early years and remains so.  During grad school, all of my instructors served as mentors to different dimensions of my being a writer.  I know that is rare, but it is so very true for me.  Poet Carol Frost challenged me to see observations in poetry as brilliant. Writer/Poet Paula McLain strongly encouraged me to “surprise” myself rather than play it safe.  Poet Ilya Kaminsky insisted that I question my feelings about language and be clear about my intimate relationship with it.

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

(Laughing) My first response to that is that my work has changed greatly over time because I have changed greatly!  Thank goodness!

In my earlier years, my focus was rhythm, music and the stage. I even traveled with a band was the featured, bilingual (French/English) vocalist and performance poet.  Later, I longed for a different type of intimacy in my work. I also realized that I needed other tools to craft certain stories.  At that point, I committed myself to the page.

On the page, the focus of craft is different. I began to focus more on line breaks, white space, and intentional imagery with clearer purpose. The music remains ever present, but it is less predictable complimenting stronger imagery in my work.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I have a thing for the paranormal/fantasy, but it has to be rooted in in something earthly and accessible to me.  That’s why I love Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due.  Those fantasy and paranormal elements show up in my writing as well.  I have written poems and stories where inanimate objects talk and people fly away and babies sprout from plants.

Musically speaking repetition, call and response, and rhythm patterns of gospel heavily influenced my earlier work. In later years, jazz, juxtaposition, and syncopation became much more of an influence.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

My plans are to publish more and travel much more widely with my work. I have two poetry manuscripts that I want to complete within the next 5 years. I have a companion recording planned for one of them as well. The other project, I would like to do a film adaptation of it. In my travels, I want to share my writing and do workshops with others who feel they have a story to share, whether they are professional writers or not.

I love to inspire “the art of story.”  I feel that the intimacy, power, and magic of stories are slowly being lost to our culture.  Many people feel that their stories are not valid or worthy of sharing without the backing of Hollywood or celebrity bling! NOT TRUE!  We come here to experience this life and share our stories with one another whether at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, in the beauty/barber shop, or across the pillow or pulpit. Our stories uplift, heal, inspire, and encourage us to continue dreaming.

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Women are continuing to be more and more adventurous with their own personal writing as well as with the business of their writing and supporting other women writers. Many are no longer waiting for traditional publishing houses and institutions to honor and support them. Women are starting their own networks to grow, support, publish and produce their work. Women’s Quarterly Conversation is an example of that. (Thanks, Jillian.)

7.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

At the risk of possibly not understanding this question, I am going to say “gypsy/griot/cat-o’-many-lives/adventure-poet”…

8.)      Kentucky Curdled grew out of a brutal, tender and gritty story from your true Southern lineage. Can you describe your interview process? How did you poise the illuminative heart of the work: family? How many of these sources are still living and did you find it difficult to unearth non-conflicting concrete sources? How did the research component of this experience evolve your creative process?

I learned the story of Kentucky Curdled (a tragically mother murders her child) as oral history from a relative who shared it with me.  The same relative also had a photograph and portrait of the main character. I later researched and found evidence of the life and death of this woman by way of an obituary.  There were very few details about her life and the crime other than the dark skin of the child.

I decided at that point to follow the advice of writer/poet, Richard Hugo (The Triggering Town) and his quote, “Knowing can be a limiting thing.”  I allowed myself to use the little that I did know as a catalyst or starting block. The rest I embraced as an adventure allowing the muse of the poem to chart and oversee the rest of the journey.  From there, characters came as visions and voices like puzzle pieces slowly forming and finding their place.  Not having “concrete sources” encouraged me to step into very new territory:  persona poems, personification of animals and inanimate objects, and even more intricate form.

As far as managing the darkness of the subject matter, the greatest darkness was the lack of compassion in the way that the story was shared with me. When I asked the storyteller/family relation, why the crime, I was told that the elder auntie was merely, “mean, evil.” That response felt felt heartless and dismissive to me.  It was far too simple.

Illumination came with each new poem in the sequence.  Each poem/persona and the journey of its crafting shed light on the subject matter and on me.  It lightened the burden of carrying the story, which I had done for many years before writing the first poem.  Each new voice, no matter how painful the testimony, lightened the load and carried a bit of the story along with me. The whole process was so new and dynamic for me as a writer that I didn’t have the time or need to be lost in the darkness or grieving of it.

From my research I believe the story happened in the late 1800’s (post-slavery) yet in the heat of post-traumatic slavery disorder. I also believe that the story relates to oppression, depression, and trauma of all kinds that weaken mental health.  Such has existed in various cultures around the world, ancient to the present.  We often simply do not know the stories of those who have been traumatized. Because of death, madness, illness, etc., many were/are unable to articulate and record their own histories.  Many others have had their history erased or crucially revised.

9.)      Kentucky Curdled is a chapbook and spoken recording. I am particularly interested in how the experience shifts from the spoken word to the written word for both the reader and the listener. As a listener, it was easier to digest the emotive spectrum of the work. Was this intentional? What inspired you to create a recording? I am also interested in why you did not choose to add music, only sparse sound effects?

The aural and oral nature of poetry come natural to me and continue to influence in my work.  Even when revising poems that I may never read to an audience or record, I read them aloud to see/hear if the music and voice I hear in my head are translated effectively on the page.  At various readings, a number of people suggested that Kentucky Curdled would make an interesting performance. Before adapting the poetry for a script or looking at anything on stage, I heard it first, so I wanted a recording or audiobook to be the next stage of development for the work.

When I first heard one of the final stages of the recording, I experienced it differently as well.  I have recorded a number of times before and am used to hearing my voice recorded, but this was different.  It affected me.  This caught me by surprise because I am the writer and was the one in the sound booth.  All that I can say is that this project feels to have a life of its own, and I am blessed to be a part of it.

I agree that there is some “ease” in digesting the project audibly.  Something about the sound ushers you through the pain.  That was not at all intention, but I am most grateful for it.  That is part of the magic of poetry for me. It is a multi-dimensional language in whatever language it is spoken or written.

I purposefully chose not to have a lot of music and background in the project.  I wanted the sparseness to reflect the time period. I also wanted the raw feel of the project.  The final product is reminiscent of an old school radio listen where the family is gathered around and glued to their seats until the story is finished.  It is a sacred and powerful space that our culture has lost. I hope that this project revives some of the power and fellowship of those kinds of moments.

10.)   The processional unfolding of the character Rachel is at the core of the sequence. Rachel kills her child because he is “too black”. We read in “Beulah”, an interrogation of “black”. How black is “too black”: “ass-black”, “ink-black”? We are asked to consider what the linguistic focus is actually masking: the invisibility of white.  We hear from Rachel. In the poem “Rachel:” we listen to her monologue: “What you ‘spect me to say?  Sorry? / Sorry was snatched from me the day / the devil yanked me from my mama’s bed, / from her arms. // Before I could even see my own blood, / the devil seent it, / snapped my body like a twig / as kindling for his fire. / He broke me, bed me, / come with 12 different faces.”  How did working the violence of your family history affect you? How do you believe language has to shift in order to illuminate and make visible the “white” dialogue? How much do you think that the linguistic component of racism constructed in language has shifted from Rachel’s voice to the present? What steps do you believe we have taken and which ones are we missing?

As a person of color growing up in the United States, “white” is always visible in everything. What you describe as the “’white dialogue” is always loudly audible and remarkable for me as a person of color. Part of the intention behind Kentucky Curdled is that it is not at all matter-of-fact or simple. Such circumstances are never that black and white, right and wrong with regards to the human brain, human behavior, and trauma. Add the intensity of slavery, oppression, and racism on top of that and the “matter” is all the more complex.  I don’t believe any of us can fully understand such matters, but we have to try.

With centuries of oppressive and violent racial history, the linguistic and other effects of racism are still painfully existent around the world.  We see the residue of such all over the media, in conversations, and behavior of people of all races. Even within the Black/African American community there is the term, “color struck” which describes a person of color having color prejudices and not wanting to associate with a person who is too dark or too light-skinned.

Despite the progress and change, it will obviously take continuous personal, social, spiritual, emotional and creative commitment across cultures, races, for decades, scores, and maybe even centuries to heal and eradicate such a ripple effect.  I think that understanding is what is missing—the fact that it is ongoing, daily personal, interpersonal, cultural, social, political, etc. work and commitment to change these things. It does not disappear because we have “friends” of a different race or because legislation changes. It takes more work than most of us are willing to imagine.

Kentucky Curdled’s process was enlightening and invigorating.  The lack of compassion around such stories was/is the most challenging for me.  Rachel might have been abused or traumatized, especially given the time period in which she lived. How might that have affected her choices?  What about the possibility of post-partum depression or mental illness?  For us in this age to not consider such regarding our ancestors and their challenges is absent-minded and irresponsible. We can and should afford to be more thoughtful and informed regarding their histories simply because they survived in order that we might be here.

I had a very prominent literary journal send me a rejection letter telling me how respectfully they read Kentucky Curdled but ultimately refused to publish it because it reminded them too much of Toni Morrison’s, Beloved.  I was initially offended because it said to me that we should only be allowed one such story when in reality for everyone that we may catch a glimpse of, there are hundreds that we may never know, yet they haunt us.  Kentucky Curdled is poetry, not a novel. There are no slave catchers hunting this woman down at the time of this act.  There is no jealous or vengeful ghost here. This is not a reminder of Beloved, though it reminds us all of the horror in our collective history. One story is simply not enough.  Many thanks to aaduna and And/Or for taking the risk and publishing very generous excerpts of this work.

My intent is to honor those who endured such horror, to give them all a sacred space to come forth without my judgment or anyone else’s.  I wanted to share and release the story and those haunted by it without exploiting anyone or anything.  I also wanted to creatively illustrate how our choices affect the environment (living and inanimate) all around us, thus we must move responsibly.

I hope that somehow the story inspires productive conversation and behavior around the issues of racial/cultural oppression, domestic violence, and mental illness and moves us to greater health and wholesomeness in our human experiences.

Lastly, I pray that it makes the souls of my ancestors smile and the souls of my children enlightened.

profiles in poetics: Arisa White

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Arisa White

Websites:

facebook.com/Arisapage

arisawhite.com

Seeing is an act of love. Arisa White is a writer of empathic impulse seeking to break down destructive cultural perceptions and personal conduits as they take place in speech and language. She views women writing to be “more daring, more vulnerable, more rational, more chick, more dick, more mindless, more mindful, speculative and absurd, funny and thorny, ugly and navel-gazing and it is reaching into various corners and ways of being woman in this day and age.” In a similar manner, White establishes her own, “emotional rhythmic-textures” in style and content. The outcome enables her to simulateously traverse trauma and empowerment. This shared love and loss permits the extremity and mutual narratives of our private and public spheres.

In this interview we focus on White’s latest book out from Willow Books, A Penny Saved, motivated by one of the worst documented cases of domestic violence in the United States. Her inspiration becomes a vehicle of wonder, “about [Penny’s] daily life, surviving torture, creating family, and continuing, how best one can, in such circumstances, to cultivate love.” She states: “It all felt so contradictory to me. Confusing.” The story allows her to unwind notions of intimate violence and how this affects personal and civil liberties.

When we take responsibility for our common fear, nostalgia, desire, failure, and triumph, we are able to witness movement; change, and accessibility to difficult tangibles of historically shattered and abrasive actions. She intimates, “I think this is the conversation we are having and needing to have across cultures and countries.” This dialogue manifests the transformative power of personal healing. Self-compassion, “is a part of being an adult. No longer are we children, expecting the unconditional love of those around us. That time is over—begin the necessary grief work, so you can go about the world being more responsive/responsible and less reactive, acting from old beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you, and all of humanity.” This means actively seeking the courage to be vulnerable and speak to the vertigo and calm experienced in both balance and imbalance. We awknowledge the rips and thread back together bits and pieces of our world. If left unaddressed, according to White, writing “[misses] out on what their mamas gave them. And that intelligence is vital.” Active witness has the power to heal a world; much smaller and larger than ourselves.

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon (which is being made into an opera), as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival. One of the founding editors of HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and the editorial manager for Dance Studio Life magazine, Arisa has received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, an advisory board member for Flying Object, and a BFA faculty member at Goddard College; her poetry has been widely published and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. Arisa is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her partner.

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1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer?

Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton—“go anywhere, be anything.” That’s the perfect invitation for this restless spirit of mine. For this body that has been told it cannot do or it will have to concede in order to justly be—the written word offered an escape, so the writer must be Harriet Tubman.

I was a 4th grader—I recently transferred from another public school in Brooklyn—and I decided to run for school president. Another girl from my class ran too, and for her election-day speech, she beautifully rapped it, in front of the entire school, K-6, faculty too. And of course she won—who wouldn’t vote for her after such a grand performance! (It also worked in her favor that she attended the school since kindergarten and everyone thought she was so dope.)

My 6th grade teacher, Ms. Williams, had us write stories every week, using words from our Vocabulary List. Plus, this large cardboard fabricated treasure chest, filled with treats and goodies, which she gave to those that read the most books each week. I was sure to be the one with the most golden stars.

For a borough-wide contest, I wrote an essay for my brother, who was in 5th grade at the time, so I was in 8th, about diversity. I used a garden metaphor, and my brother won! (I also wrote a similar essay for my grade, and didn’t make the cut.)

Spending summers as a young kid bored out of my mind, curled up on the couch reading whatever was on my mother’s book shelf: Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillian, Agatha Christie, Ishmael Reed, Iyanla Vanzant, Gloria Naylor . . . and my brother’s comic books, which I wasn’t supposed to be touching. I liked X-Men the most.

2.) Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Including the writers mentioned above, there is, in no particular order, Nikki Giovanni, Saul Williams, Hart Crane, Jessica Care Moore, Audre Lorde, Toi Dericotte, Pema Chodron, Rebecca Seiferle, Tyehimba Jess, Terrance Hayes, Dara Wier, Harryette Mullen, bell hooks, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, angle Kyodo williams, Alice Walker, Nikky Finney, Reginald Shephard, Adrienne Rich, Bob Kaufman, Medbh McGuckian and the list continues to expand, in all sorts of ways, over time. I keep meeting writers who point me in the direction of other writers and I keep looking and reading and being willing to encounter what I did not know before.

3.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Nila Grutman, India DuBois, Tracie Morris, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Regina Arnold, angel Kyodo williams, Dara Wier, Rebecca Seiferle, Nikky Finney. Dear friends: Darrell, Sulay, Geimy, Serena, Matthew, Alicia, Rosebud, Soma. My family. My fiancée is quite a muse! She reminds me to pay attention, and sometimes that isn’t so easy, but always rewarding. All these folks have offered me ways of seeing and distinct ways to language it.

4.) How has your own work changed over time and why?

Nikky Finney once asked me, after reading my graduate thesis project: “What is Arisa’s natural swimming style?” To find out, I had to accept that I wasn’t really swimming. When I got in the water, I panicked, let fear instruct, and did whatever strokes that would get me to safety. Over the years, I have learned to pay attention to what I do, why I do it, and learn to accept more of my natural impulses when I write. I’ve embraced more of the rhythms of my voice and the quirks of my imagination and given myself more permission to be, let go, and let down the censors. I think each time I’ve pushed through or knocked down a wall within myself, a new pathway for speech was formed, and I considered new ways to approach it (and define and reimagine what it is) and with that came the confidence to write and say it.

5.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Fiction, for its use of narrative and plot—I like story. I think about how to take the time to evolve the telling.

Short-form playwriting has made me consider how the poem occupies space. Or how can the poem occupy the reader—how does it emotionally shape inside her? Thinking in this way, I try to create emotional-rhythmic textures that make the body/reader consider one’s presence, place, and time.

6.) What are your plans for the future?

Currently, I’ve adapted my chapbook, Post Pardon, published by Mouthfeel Press in 2011, into a libretto. NYC-based composer Jessica Jones is developing the score. All of this with a cultural funding grant from the City of Oakland; and in July 2014, for two nights, we will have a concert of songs. Although having to do a little fundraising for this event is daunting, I’m excited to be doing this. Jones and I have never done opera before, and she’s a great collaborator to make discoveries with.

This fall I was awarded an Investing in Artist grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to write a collection of poems inspired by my estrangement from my father who currently resides in Guyana. I’m taking what tidbits of story that was shared with me over the years about him and making my own mythologies. It is my way to make sense of his absence; to construct a grand story of why he’s not here that’s rooted in histories of Venezuelan slavery, Guyanese police culture, and U.S. immigration and extraterrestrials.

With this grant, I will invite the public to participate. This is the first time I’ve ever thought to do something like this—to incorporate other voices in my writing process. But there was something about this project that made me wonder, how have others made sense of their fatherlessness? If given the chance, as I was, to write your father, what would you say? How would you say it? Midway through this project, I will send out a call for submissions for letters addressed to estranged fathers. I will select 33 letters, and mail each a copy of the poetry collection. Using the letters, I will do an epistolary mash-up for a later manuscript.

7.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I’m speaking in a general sense, with no specifics in mind, the writing is what it is. I don’t have much of an opinion about what has occurred or hasn’t occurred. I can say, the writing is more daring, more vulnerable, more rational, more chick, more dick, more mindless, more mindful, speculative and absurd, funny and thorny, ugly and navel-gazing and it is reaching into various corners and ways of being woman in this day and age.

8.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Rosebud Ben Oni, R. Erica Doyle, Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, Natalie Baszile, Roxanne Gay, Kiki Petronio, Kamila Aisha Moon, Remica L. Bingham, Emily Pettit, Emily Kendal Frey, LaTasha Natasha Diggs, Lauren Allende, Camille Dungy, Karen Rigby, Sharon Suzuki-Martinez, Cassandra Dallet, Minal Hajratwala, Katherine Hastings, francine j. harris, Metta Sáma, and so many, many more.

9.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Lyrical writer.

10.) We begin A Penny Saved out from Willow Books with a quote from David Richo: “When God is seen as a rescuer or parent in the sky, we may depend on him for protection and lose our faith if he does not come through. When we give up the childhood version of life, we stand on our own surrounded by others but not necessarily defended by them against life’s disturbing threats. With no “parent” on the lookout, we notice that we sometimes have to bear more than we can handle, and we may fold under the pressure. This too requires a yes. Our purpose in life is not to remain upright at all time but to collapse with grace when that is what has to happen. The fact of impermanence gives us the hope that we will rise again.”

Can you please describe your motivation for writing a book inspired by Polly Mitchell’s story? She was held captive for 10 years in her house by her husband David with whom she had a family of four children with. Her story is documented as one of the worst cases of domestic in the history of the United States. Many of these stories remain undocumented. Many of these women do not survive. We hear stories from Penny herself, her daughter’s emotional bereavement, and later in the story from her husband himself. Here, as you say in the title of a poem, “Questions are rabbits”: … one leads to many more”. Everyone wants to know why she stayed. On her Larry King interview she says she stayed because she loved him. The layers of emotional complexity I know here are in a way unanswerable, so as a poet, how and why did you choose to illume this particular story? How do you see this conversation interacting with other cultures?

Mitchell’s story is one that is extreme and because it is extreme, we pay attention to it. My attention was captured and with that came the questions, the wondering about her daily life, surviving torture, creating family, and continuing, how best one can, in such circumstances, to cultivate love. It all felt so contradictory to me. Confusing. How to live with those contradictions? Having grown up with a mother who was in abusive relationships, Mitchell’s story was another way to investigate intimate violence. To create a persona that must find ways to survive in these extreme circumstances. Even though, as a culture, we may act as if our lives are OK, we are living intimately with violence—the constant erasures of our and others civil liberties, the distractions of race and class and all those isms that force use to view ourselves and others as separate, we learn each day how to be in radical denial of what’s going on around us and the failure to accept, is violent. What is going on in our homes, in the personal, in the private—does it match up with the face we wear in the world? So I wonder, what has patriarchy taught us, showed us how to be, and how are we showing up for others and ourselves in this? And I think this is the conversation we are having and needing to have across cultures and countries.

11.) A good portion of the poems are dedicated to the exchanges that we have with Lizzybeth, the daughter and Penny concerning her imaginary friend Jewelie. In the poem, “Jewelie can’t be her friend anymore” we listen to Lizzybeth, “[Jewelie] was doing it all night. She had sweat on her. She put it in my nose too. Then she put dead bodies in there like I was a grave.” How did these stories develop and why are they most focused on the make-believe world created by the daughter?

I can’t really say how the stories developed—most of them just came to me and during the first draft. I was on retreat at Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island, and having a lot of uninterrupted time in nature to daydream, trained my brain to see things differently. . . . I knew I was working with a persona who was using her imaginary friend as an interlocutor. This enables Lizzybeth to gain authority over her voice, to feel empowered to speak and speak out against the violence she is witnessed to in her home, as well as do some creative problem solving about how to deal with the things she hears and sees. How to make sense of her father’s aggression and her mother’s perceived passivity.

12.)   One of the most the most simultaneously chilling and evocative moments emits from the narrative of David. He says, “I ashed you. Your scalp birthed red dots – I smelled the hair I ripped. You removed from the force of constellations, obeyed the temperaments of my bursts – I loved you for that.” In this space we view the body and negotiation of intimate and universal pain and violence. At once we are placed in a binary of trauma and compassion; ambiguity and the specific. The goal of this piece is not necessarily redemption, but rather the fracture of the wound and the power of survival. What do you believe is the message of this book?

We need to make personal transformation. Take time to heal our personal wounds, those deep, dark, shadowy parts of who we are—embrace them. Be a compassionate witness to yourself and love you in the ways you need to be loved—that is a part of being an adult. No longer are we children, expecting the unconditional love of those around us. That time is over—begin the necessary grief work, so you can go about the world being more responsive/responsible and less reactive, acting from old beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you, and all of humanity. Be vulnerable. Lets stop resting in our comforts, thinking we are a-OK, because our failure to look critically at our selves, is the reason we have so much violence going on around us.

13.)   Have you tried to connect with Polly, and what does she feel about her story?

No, I haven’t. I have taken her story as inspiration to create A Penny Saved, which is by no means Polly Mitchell’s story. Only Polly knows and can write her story.

14.)   How does sharing her story affect you as a writer?

My debut book, Hurrah’s Nest, was a collection of memories in verse. It was important for me to share my story first, so that I could write about other people. That appeals to my sense of fairness. So, when I am sharing, I’m sharing an expanded part of myself. A broader I/eye. I feel like my voice houses a chorus, echoes, and bottled notes.

15.)   I would also like you to take some time to describe how your work and how you identify yourselves in the world affects the work that you do for VIDA.

I’m trying to be a better citizen with my work (as poet, editor, teacher), a part of something larger than myself. It’s a way to balance all that time I spend alone, writing away. When a manuscript is completed, I really think I’ve done something for the greater good. (It’s the Aquarian in me—which is why I get offended when I’m told that what I do is nothing, a waste of time, or stupid.) As a black, queer woman to speak often feels like “I’m chewing on rocks”—and to push up against all those master narratives requires a fluid language, and finding your own way, that validates your multiple selves. We are all on those individual journeys, so it’s good to share field notes, the experiences life has offered so far. VIDA is this opportunity to create a community that supports women who are developing a public writing voice, finding their style, alongside those who have one, and to put into praxis that all women’s words are heard and welcomed.

16.)   How do you see the literary community changing to include more voices for women and how and why is this so vital?

Critical look at the conditions, systems, and beliefs that make the community lacking. Honest assessment of whether or not more women voices is wanted and why. . . . Changes in technology is changing the way we make, identify, and name community, women will create the communities they need to sustain them . . . There will be some dedicated activity involved. A commitment to go the miles, to seek, search out, to go beyond what is known and convenient, comfortable. Look, find, discover, and be active in, across, and between communities: give workshops, forge collaborations, and honor what is important to the voices you want to attract. (More verbs to be used, I guess.) But all that activity is going to remind the literary community that it’s a living body, with living consequences, and when it’s not functioning from the whole, it’s missing out on what their mamas gave them. And that intelligence is vital.

17.)   What in your point of view needs to happen in our larger cultural communities to continue to address these topics and promote change?

To slow down so we’re not so reactive, take the time to recognize your privileges and how you benefit from them and are limited by them each day. Identify your powers and decide how you will use them. And there is no half-stepping. You need to commit. You need to see how your behaviors may not align with your missions, visions, goals, objectives, beliefs, thoughts. Do you take responsibility for your words? Know how corruptible you are and what silences are deadening up your truth.

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Photo: Photo by Samantha Florio

profiles in linguistics: Amber Dermont

Amber Dermont for Inprint 2Amber Dermont

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As a child, Amber Dermont grew up in the resonant renaissance of rare book dealers. Poems, she intimates, “taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness.” This intrinsic revelatory relationship between story and text nurtures her admiration of, “writing that doesn’t give up its secrets”. Take for example one musing inspiration she had for her book Damage Control, out from St. Martin’s Press; Bette Davis. Dermont describes her affinity towards the, “beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it.” These sentiments reflect her personal linguistic style, dreaming brightly in a wildfire.

Dermont’s view on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years? She states: “In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same … Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.” For Dermont, “Being a woman is a political act.” There is an advantage sitting in the reams of marginalization: “I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening, but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.”  This is a position one cannot take for granted.

Damage Control is a political pro-choice investigation highlighting the geometric tensions evident in domestication and women’s bodies. Our landscape takes place in an etiquette school between a teacher and his three passion stricken girls who refuse to quiet their desires. Mr. Foster falls for the girls he fosters. He falls for their intellect and their permissive humor. Ultimately, we learn, “the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice, but I also wanted to complicate the narrative.”

Dermont reflects, “Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned … Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger.” The story is one that honors and respects the courageous act of exalting flaw and freedom.

Amber Dermont is the author of bestselling novel, The Starboard Sea, and the short story collection, Damage Control. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Amber received her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Damage Control was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and The Starboard Sea was selected by the New York Times as one of the top 100 Notable Books of 2012. Amber lives in Houston, Texas where she serves as an Associate Professor of English at Rice University.
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1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer. My parents are rare book dealers and I grew up in a home filled with first editions. As a child, I spent most of my vacations hunting for literary treasure in red barns and antique fairs all over New England. We’d speed around in the family Fiat listening to books on tape—short stories by John Cheever, Saki, Guy de Maupassant. A semi-charmed literary upbringing but one that made me take the business of books and writing seriously from a very young age.

Even though I write fiction, my first love is poetry. Many of the poems I have memorized are the ones my father read to me as a child—“The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” “The Bat,” “High Windows.” My father is a fan of subversive verse. When I was nine, my Daddy actually handed me Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” then asked, “So, what did you think? Pretty cool, right?” Poems taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness. My mother specializes in children’s books. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of stories and if you tell her the half-remembered plot of your long-forgotten favorite childhood tale, she will know the title and the author. My parents taught me how to care for and about books and I am forever in their debt. They are my first inspirations.

I’m less interested in playing favorites with writers and more invested in what I can learn about storytelling, craft and narrative complexity from authors who take real risks in their writing. As a reader, I’ve come to greatly admire difficulty and am particularly engaged by writing that doesn’t give up its secrets. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum, Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec, Holiday Reinhorn’s Big Cats, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity, Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart, Melissa Ginsburg’s Dear Weather Ghost, Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide To Being Born are books I return to over and over again. These are complex, ambitious texts that warrant multiple readings. Ideally, I want a book to invite me back; to demand more from me as a reader.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My friend Amy Margolis has taught me the most about storytelling, pacing, word choice, dramatic enactment and defamiliarization. Amy is the director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and when I was a grad student at the Writers’ Workshop, I sat at her feet and listened. Amy’s lessons were always immediate and life changing. She understands how to turn/detonate/deliver a story and she has a singular relationship with language. No one is a better storyteller. No one. At the moment she’s working on a memoir and it’s the one book I crave daily and cannot wait to read.

As a child, I watched a lot of classic Hollywood cinema. Bette Davis was my ideal. Here was a beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it. “Number One Tuna,” a story in my collection, Damage Control, is an homage to Bette Davis’s incomparable filmography. Barbara Stanwyck’s sadness and her unhappy childhood—actually, her entire unhappy life—are a source of constant concern and amazement. She’s my current muse and I long to honor her work. Jean Seberg haunts me and moves me beyond measure. Her political activism probably cost her her life—a gift of basketball uniforms to the Meskwaki nation sent the FBI after her—imagine that.

A dear friend and a cast of Hollywood icons all taught me how to dream brightly and warned me about the dangers of doing so.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I never want to write the same story twice. Though writers are the crummiest and most dubious authorities on their own work, I might hazard that my novel, The Starboard Sea, is different in style and tone from my collection, Damage Control. Hopefully the short stories are each their own animal. Maybe my greatest wish as a writer is to escape all categorization. Yes, I wrote a novel about a prep school (a guilty pleasure for most) but writing The Starboard Sea was like setting my childhood on fire. A controlled burn is often the only way a writer can create new worlds but sometimes you need a wildfire. With Damage Control, I challenged myself to learn something new with every story. Each narrative pays tribute to someone I love or loved and lost or loved and temporarily misplaced then found hiding under my bed. The stories are an attempt to reconcile this longing.

Most writers are strange people and I am no exception. I am riddled with contradiction. I’m incredibly shy but I feel most at home on a stage. I would give my shoes to a stranger and walk home barefooted but would prefer to never put on shoes or leave my home. I loathe humanity but an enthralled by the human condition. I admire profound and complex human intelligence but nothing is more moving to me than a wild, open heart. My writing will probably always reflect these contradictions.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

When I was a child, you could sit me down with a stack of Archie’s comic books and I’d be very happy. Over time, I’ve tried to heighten my reading powers—though I would still feel at home at the malt shop with Betty and Veronica. I’ve always had eclectic taste and am inclined to read books that others might dismiss as pulp or genre—not for hipster cred but rather for serious appreciation of form, plot, world creation. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Phillip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler have been claimed by the academy as literary writers but I loved them first when they were marginal mavericks. I adore British novels about class and privilege especially those by Evelyn Waugh, Martin Amis, Alan Hollinghurst, and Edward St. Aubyn. Their books play with satire and point of view in daring ways. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the power of fairytale especially Kate Bernheimer, Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. Ultimately, I just wish I could be Alice and write through my own looking glass.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

I’m drafting another novel. It’s terrifying and literally keeping me up at night. Last week, I was doing research and discovered a fact that actually confirmed one of my fictional details. I felt invincible for two glorious days and wrote with conviction. Don’t worry: all of that glory has worn off by now and I am back to my old terrified self.

Recently, I’ve been developing an original screenplay with the novelist Teddy Wayne. I’ve also written with the author and screenwriter, Mark Jude Poirier. Film is a collaborative art and passing drafts of a screenplay back and forth is particularly challenging and invigorating. Most of the time, writing is isolating and no one knows if you’re keeping honest working hours. It’s comforting to have a comrade in arms—someone who urges you on, helps you meet deadlines, fights your worst instincts and benefits from your minor gifts. Mark and Teddy are both blisteringly funny and sharp but they also have big hearts. It’s a curious thing to be able to write with another person—we enjoy shared sensibilities but we also each need to have something the other doesn’t. Mark and I had been friends for over a decade before we wrote together and the intimacy of that friendship made collaborating a real pleasure. Neither of us has any ego so we both wrote in service to the script. Teddy and I barely knew each other when we began our project but we share a similar drive and instinct for storytelling. Teddy has an extraordinary work ethic. You need to sustain that level of commitment if you hope to write a film worthy of production.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same. Prior to that the color black was used to distinguish a widow or woman in mourning and dresses were meant to hide a woman’s body and hinder her movements. Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.

I’m looking for a literary equivalent.

In the past twenty years, seven women have won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and nine in poetry. Ten women have won the National Book Award in Fiction and five in Poetry. Seven women have won the Booker Prize. In that time, six women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. What does any of this mean?

Women buy/read more literature than men (this is a fact) and female writers often top the best sellers lists. More women are being heard but I fear we are still losing voices especially in terms of race, class, ethnicity and sexual identity. For years, I taught at a women’s college and I encouraged my students to not only be writers but to infiltrate the publishing world and make significant changes in terms of who and what is published. All too often when women achieve some degree of power, they give that power away to a man—either by championing his work or privileging his heart and mind over their own. I write this as someone who has worked with male writers and supported their efforts (at great sacrifice to my own) so I myself am guilty as charged.

Writers benefit from maintaining an outsider status. Women, as a rule, are outsiders. We may make up more than 50 percent of the population but we hold 10 percent of the world’s wealth (who knew that this answer would include so much math). For me, the advantage of being marginalized is that I can observe the world and no one really expects me to comment. “Oh, we didn’t see you there with your notebook writing down all of these terrible things we’ve been saying. How dare you?” I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.

Being a woman is a political act. Writing, speaking in public, telling stories are all acts that can result in a woman’s death. I take my position as a writer very seriously and try not to take my privilege for granted. This past year I gave a reading with Jesmyn Ward and I remain in awe of her storytelling, her lyricism and her capacity to understand the good and evil we do. Ward’s writing is one of the great gifts of the last twenty years. She gives me hope.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I’m a big fan of Madeline McDonnell’s novella Penny, n. and her short story collection There is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out (both from Rescue Press). McDonnell’s writing is all razor wit and wild heartache. No one has a better command over language or double entendre.

Kelly Luce has just published a dreamy and daring collection Three Scenarios in Which Hanna Sasaki  Grows A Tail (from A Strange Object) that I recommend to anyone who loves magical toasters, imaginative leaps, outrageous honesty and miracles, miracles, miracles.

Melinda Moustakis won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for her collection, Bear Down Bear North and her writing is in direct dialogue with O’Connor’s work. Moustakis is fearless. She will take you into the darkness then teach you to love the white nights of Alaska.

A. Naomi Jackson has two novels that are about to be published and her words will light

up the sky. Her writing carries the wisdom of the ages.

Laurie Watel writes with profound strength and narrative authority. Her sentences contain a clarity and purity that readers hunger for but Watel never makes easy choices. She complicates her narratives in brilliant and surprising ways.

Megan Mayhew Bergman dazzles me on all fronts. She understands the natural world better than anyone and draws on our relationship to animals in surprising, harrowing and delightful ways.

Periel Aschenbrand is one of the funniest, dazzling and most uncompromising memoirists around. Her two books, The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own and On My Knees will keep you laughing, screaming and reeling but they will also teach you how to take better care of yourself.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I am searching, always searching for the next story.

9.)    In your short story “Damage Control,” there is a triangulation between the relationship to Landon, the boss’s daughter, and the girls in the Sis and Hasty Breedlove School of Southern Etiquette. The school is based around the curtsy; the performance of the comfortable. As the main character, teacher, and boyfriend Mr. Foster elucidates, “manners are neither commonsensical nor elitist, but rather an inclusive, complex methodology for making people feel comfortable.” The established frictive pull to the girls is intensified by their utter lack of manners. Can you describe this tension, why it feels solidified in a genuinity that contrasts Mr. Foster’s statement, and how this relates to the connection he has with his lover Landon?

I’m very grateful for these questions but I also want to say at the start that I do not believe that my opinion regarding any of my stories is any more valid or informed than any other reader’s. What will follow are merely thoughts—not explanations.

Years ago, I was struck by the relationship between gender and etiquette. I was teaching a class on gender studies and used an old etiquette book to illustrate the social construction of gender. If there’s an etiquette around a subject matter then that subject can and will be discussed according to the rules of etiquette. However, if there is no etiquette, there is no discussion. I wanted to write a story with a happy ending where the happy ending was not just one but three abortions. The girls in the story refuse domestication. They are audacious and reckless but they are also smart and funny and in control of their bodies. Mr. Foster believes he can control the world through etiquette and charm but he is merely a servant to these girls and their desires. It’s a strange story; one that I never thought would actually be published (never mind turn out to be the title story in my collection.) I thank Jill Meyer from American Short Fiction for taking a chance on a coven of untamable teenaged girls.

Love stories require triangulation and conflict. Mr. Foster has to choose between his lover Landon and the girls he fosters. I hope he makes the right choice.

10.)    The dialogue of the girls in the etiquette school is robust, overtly sexual, and encompassing. We ruminate between lines such as, “my mom knows how to swim. She thinks I’m a lesbian,” to “Molly showed us her bikini wax. Want to see it?” to “Molly thinks I’m polymorphously perverse”.  And as he himself admits, draws him into their world. The relationship is reciprocal; they need each other. One student tells him, “Mr. Foster, we should all sleep with a picture of you at the bottom of your beds. If your face was the first thing that we saw every morning our lives would, like, totally improve.” Does he want them to improve though and what does that mean? Is he, not in a way improving, further seduced by their inappropriate nature? Can you please describe how you utilize the dialogue of the girls to present this unraveling?

I believe that characters should only speak when they absolutely have to and only when they have something revealing to say. I love a great one-liner, a bawdy non sequitur. From Mae West and Moms Mabley to Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, so many women in stand-up comedy have made heroic advancements in feminism by saying smutty, outrageous and transgressive assertions regarding our bodies, our desires and our disappointments. I love that Mr. Foster falls for these girls—not for their bodies but for their good humor and wit.

11.)    These girls, Mr. Foster admits, “are a mystery to me. Their rituals and desires terrify me, and I feel myself getting lost among them.” He goes on to say, “Everything will go as planned, as ordered and conceived by me. These girls are my future and my family, my destiny, my choice.” But are they really his choice? The connection to the girls seems an unswayable trance yet he remains in a position as facilitator. Can you elaborate on this relationship? How do you see Mr. Foster and the girls participating in the teacher student dynamic? Who is in fact the guiding factor and how does this relate to the title of the story?

Ultimately, the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice but I also wanted to complicate the narrative. Mr. Foster isn’t entirely reliable—he has his illusions/delusions.

Frequently, rumors emerge about anti-abortion politicians who have secretly arranged for and insisted that their partners or mistresses have abortions. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a classic patriarchal rule of etiquette. I feel obligated to call out hypocrisy wherever I see it. Years ago, I heard a story about a famous ex-president who (allegedly) arranged for his girlfriend (pre Roe V. Wade) to have an abortion. It’s an extraordinary yet all-too-predictable story, well-sourced and most likely true and it speaks to a particular culture of American hypocrisy. I had that story in mind when writing “Damage Control.”

Abortion is legal but states make it harder and harder to achieve access. I wrote this story while living in Texas and—at the time—if I’d wanted to get an abortion, I would have had trouble finding a doctor willing to perform one. Yet again I find myself in Texas and yet again reproductive freedom is under siege. (Wendy Davis for Governor!) Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned. Hospital administrators don’t want abortion protesters on their front lawns and so we live in a world where a medical procedure is criminalized.

Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger. A pregnant woman is most likely to die at the hands of the person who made her pregnant. I wanted to write an unapologetic story about abortion but I also, more importantly, wanted to create a world with wounded, complex characters willing to exercise and exalt their freedoms.