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Marcus Elliot is a jazz musician from Detroit who has been playing professionally since the age of 15, and continues to garner increasing recognition for his imaginative improvising and fervently thoughtful voice on the saxophone. Elliot has led the Marcus Elliot Quartet for the past eight years; they perform weekly in the Detroit area. He has performed internationally, including in Cuba, Barbados, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia. He has two self-released albums, Looking Forward (2010) and When the City Meets the Sky (2015), and has shared the stage, as a sideman, with a long list of exciting performers, including Talib Kewli, Bob Hurst, Karriem Riggins, James Carter, Jimmy Cobb, Bobby Broom, Marcus Belgrave, Johnny O’Neal, Jimmy Heath, Sean Dobbins, Kris Johnson, Thaddeus Dixon, Ettiene Charles, Mulgrew Miller, Rodney Whitaker, and many others.

In addition to his impressive résumé as a performer, Elliot is a composer and educator; he has been giving private saxophone lessons for approximately the past decade, and is the current Artist-in-Residence at Troy High School. He served as saxophone instructor at The Young Musicians Program in Berkley, CA, from 2009-2011, and as the Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Band in 2012-2013. A strong supporter of the arts, Elliot has created and funded a scholarship at Milford High School in Detroit that gives monetary awards to young musicians and visual artists who exhibit both creative promise and tenacity. After listening to several recordings of Elliot’s live performances, I asked him whether he would be willing to share some of the aspects of his creative process with us. He graciously agreed.

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through music. There are many ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to create music, specifically?

Marcus Elliot: The core of my creative drive comes from my hunger to express ideas and concepts that cannot be expressed in other mediums. Music is one of the few art forms where you can actually express the idea that you are trying to convey in real time. You cannot receive all of the information at once: it must be played out through time to be understood fully.  This forces people to truly appreciate each moment that goes by. It forces you to feel how time moves and dances.

 

FFF: That description is fascinating to me. Can you talk a little bit more about your creative or aesthetic influences (what and/or who), and their impact on your work?

ME: I am currently drawing a lot of inspiration from Nature. I want my music to be an expression of how things in our natural world exist. Everything from plant life to the planets has a rhythmic cycle that governs them. Even our own bodies have cycles that we must obey or we will cease to exist. I am interest in understanding these patterns at a deep level and somehow reflect these cycles in my music. It already happens naturally with sound, what I am interested in is organizing the sound in ways that imitates these patterns that we see in nature.

 

FFF: Conceptually, that seems like such an interesting approach to creating your art. Coming off of that idea, I want to ask about how you balance this really organic approach to creating art out of sound with some of maybe the less organic or more artificial aspects of being a working artist in the world. I know that in the literary world, for example, it becomes very important to make the distinction for yourself between your art & its genesis and the industry side of things. It can be sort of soul-crushing, I think, if you don’t differentiate your success in creating your art from your success in marketing that art as a product. I’m speaking about the literary industry, but I’m curious about what this is like for professional musicians. Do you find yourself needing to make a distinction like this, or is it a more seamless path between the genesis of the music and the marketing and/or public performance of the music?

ME: This is something I think about a lot. The way I am dealing with this issue in the present moment is to make sure that I put the music first. Yes, I must feed myself and put a roof over my head, but it is more important that I stay focused on what is really important to me and my community. I have always been told since I was young, “If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.” What that means to me is if you stay true to who you are, everything else will fall into place the way it needs to. It is an example of living in harmony with yourself.

 

FFF: I really like that idea. I also admire the tenacity and hustle that I think it takes to live that attitude out in the world. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about your aesthetic motivations—what do you value most in your music?

ME: I value original thought. I value bold, original and thoughtful music. I value music that transforms me emotionally and spiritually. These are all things that I hope to accomplish in my own music and so I am constantly seeking others that are making music like that from their own perspective.

 

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it help shape your creative consciousness?

ME: I have a weekly gig with my quartet. For the most part, we play all original compositions written by myself and other people in the band. The bass player has a composition that is essentially a launching pad for “free” improvisation. We have played this composition multiple times, but one particular performance of this tune was a very powerful experience for me.

We began to play the melody of the tune and then we moved into the section of “free” improvisation. As we begin to step into this unknown territory, a series of emotions and thought begin to run through my mind. This is not an unusual thing to happen when I begin to improvise. First is a feeling of excitement for beginning the journey. Then it’s a feeling of fear of not having any clue of what is going to happen next. Then I become very self-conscious, and I begin to start asking myself, “Am I playing too much? Should I play more? Does the audience like this?” Et cetera. These thoughts that are zipping through my mind can sometimes get to be overwhelming to the point where I forget that I am even playing music. But this one particular time I made a realization that, if I am so busy having all of these thoughts, then who/what is playing the music? Obviously, these thoughts that I was so focused on did not have as much weight as I was giving them. The music was still happening. As I let these ideas float away, I was able to fully submit to and immerse myself in the moment. This realization made it clear to me that playing music can be used as a tool to transcend the self.

Once I was able to do this, it brought me into a state of mind that connected me to a larger/group consciousness. It was no longer four musicians on a stage improvising individually: there was only the music. The music became this living, breathing, morphing organism that I was just a small part of. As we continued to play for another 15 minutes or so, the music had taken on so many different forms and shapes, highs and lows, until it began to die. It was almost as if it had lived a life full of experiences and it was at the end of its journey. As we all played our parts to the end, finally we all stopped playing. The silence at the end felt like it lasted an eternity. Everyone in the building was silent as if they had witnessed a death. Then, finally someone broke the silence and began to clap. We had another 15 minutes to play in our set, but we decided to just end it there. There was nothing more to be said and we needed a brief second to catch up with ourselves.

This experience proved to me that music is much more than some sort of enjoyable, passive exercise that takes place at social functions. It became clear to me now why we use music in so many religious rituals. It connects you. It can be used as a tool to send a message. It can literally raise your consciousness. These are all things that our world needs desperately. If we understood the FACT that we are all connected, so much pain and suffering would be gone. We have been fooled by our own egos to think that we are separate from each other, when this is just not the case at all. We are all parts of a much larger consciousness, and music can provide the experience for people to understand that.

 

 

Marcus Elliot currently lives in Detroit, where he is studying, practicing, composing, and engulfing himself in the rich history of the Detroit music scene by performing with local artists and ensembles. Readers who are interested in listening to more of Marcus Elliot’s music and finding available downloads may do so here.

 

Malachi Black – Storm Toward Morning

Copper Canyon 2014

Page Length: 75

Retail: $15

 

Like the greatest formal poets, Malachi Black writes in shapes. Received forms sculpt the shape of a poem by the measure of their recursiveness: the manner in which the poem moves forward and back simultaneously. In a traditional sonnet, for example, as the speaker develops an idea, a scene, or a narrative (an argument), she also, at the end of each line, creates sonic consonance with that which precedes and/or follows. The result is the sensation of forward movement through recurring patterns and the modulation of poetic effects (in this example the effect in question is end-rhyme, though the same argument can be made for poetic features like anaphora, syntactic parallelism, and other features that can echo through a poem). This recursiveness of the sonnet is heightened and dramatized when the poem looks back on itself in its volta: the previous content is artfully repeated and thereby modified, and the result is something like epiphany. The extent to which a poem establishes and then resists its form can be understood as its poetic “shape.”

 

Malachi Black’s poetic shapes are both elegantly discursive and dizzyingly circular: spiritual yearning in swirling eddies of sonic clusters. Storm Toward Morning, Black’s first full-length collection, relies heavily on received forms (most notably the sonnet) to present an aesthetic argument that is equal parts familiar and strange, and the result is palpably beautiful tension: between the traditional and contemporary; between first-book energy and technical virtuosity; and, most importantly, between faith and doubt: a spiritual disquiet masterfully imbued into content and form.

 

Black possesses an astounding command of prosody, and like a world-class athlete, he moves through his lines without wasted motion.

 

“Rocking in my midnight robe, I am

alive and in an eye again beside

 

my kind insomniac, my phantom

glass, companion and my only bride:

 

this little window giving little shine

to something. What I see I keep

 

alive. I name the species, I define

the lurch and glimmer, sweep and pry

 

of eyes against the faint-reflecting glass

by what they can and what I can’t

 

quite grasp…” (Against the Glass)

 

While this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, Black opens with a procession of trochees that accentuates the quietly desperate state of the speaker. Notably, the opening line ends with a kind of existential release: “I am,” which both posits a stability of self and shifts the poem into its natural meter, which wraps itself around the line in a series of enjambments that create a cascade effect as we progress down the page: “I am / alive”; “my phantom / glass”; “What I see I keep // alive.” But as we course through the couplets, we are returned to previously introduced sounds. At times this consonance is semantically pleasing: “I am / alive;” “my only bride;” “I keep / alive.” However, at other times the effect is something more unnerved: a kind of haunting: “phantom” and “companion;” “faint” and “can’t.”

 

Black’s formal recursiveness is a microcosm of his poems’ engagement with poetic tradition: there is something undeniably traditional in Black’s prosody, yet that quality is cantilevered by Black’s associative ingenuity and contemporary diction, concerns, and general aesthetic orientation. In this regard, there are echoes of James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Frederick Seidel, Thom Gunn, and the very best of Philip Larkin. And yet: the heart of Black’s formalism, which is, in the end, utterly Psalmic, seems to be in the spirit of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century: John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell, to name a few. These poets sought in their verse an ascent into the mysteries of the divine—mysteries rarely resolved but left open like metaphysical wounds that are simultaneously fatal and freeing. It was this quality, their articulation of spiritual brokenness in formal precision, that T.S. Eliot found utterly compelling, which led him to not only champion these once-derided poets into their still-standing critical favor, but eventually state that devotional poetry is actually poetry in its highest form.

 

Black’s poems are devotional in this regard: rather than proclaim “truths” about the divine, they are poems written toward the possibility of God. This postmodern faith is most prominently displayed in the second section of Storm Toward Morning, a crown of sonnets that testifies to both the undeniable reality of the sacred and its impossible position within the profanity of human living.

 

“There is no end: what has come will come again

will come again: and then distend: and then

and then: and then again: there is no end

 

to origin and and: there is again

and born again: there is the forming and:

the midnight curling into morning and

 

the glory and again: there is no end:” (Vigils)

 

Rarely are form and content so seamlessly transposed: as in Heaven so on Earth; so too in the poem. “There is no end” is both a joyful declaration and an ominous lament: to be “born again” in poetic rapture is to see the infinitude of experience within the finite moment. Or, as Blake famously wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” And yet: to be born is to be subjected to death. Incessant birth yields incessant death, and this fact yields profound ambivalence in Black’s poetry, which hiccups its rebirths and stutters its praise. In this, we are reminded inseparability of beauty and death, a tension that cannot (and must not) be resolved.

 

This resistance to resolution is Black’s most unique aesthetic move. While it has become a hallmark of postmodern poetics to parade this resistance, Black’s angle is fresh because of the shape of his formalism. Received forms convey implicit order: they are teleologically determined from the outset. Black’s sonnets are both elegant and desperate—their formal ruptures proceed out of existential doubt.

 

“Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze

glides almost too easily through me,

 

and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to

some flap of me is freed: I am severed

 

like a simile: an honest tenor

trembling toward the vehicle I mean

 

to be: a blackbird licking half-notes

from the muscled, sap-damp branches

 

of the sugar maple tree… though I am still

a part of any part of every particle

 

of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed

by the white gloves of metonymy,

 

I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut

that doesn’t heal a bit too much.” (This Gentle Surgery)

 

Black oscillates between formal precision and something like an artful wobble: by embracing imperfection in the presence of technical virtuosity, he dramatizes spiritual poverty and celebrates the fallibility that constitutes the essential distinction between the human and the divine.

 

 

 

Every few weeks she met Saint Jim in the park.
She just wanted to get on Saint Jim’s bed and float

away; the bed which happened to be on the same
street as her beloved Mark. But, Saint Jim was

difficult and recalcitrant as is often the
case with saints. So, for now she had to be

happy with their short walks and discussions
of New York, October light, tiny animals, and politics.

Saint Jim told her don’t you dare put me in a poem
as he tried to feed a squirrel an acorn.

JenniferBartlett_forTHETheFeaturePiece 2

If I cut my body in half, vertically,
words would come pouring out.

If I cut my body in half, I would
have to cut vertically, I would need

really big scissors to do this
and fish would pour out.

JenniferBartlett_forTHETheFeaturePiece 4

She imagined him telling the next one

about her as he had told her about

 

the previous one. She imagined him

kissing her as he had kissed the previous

 

one. She imagined him holding hands

with the future one as he had held hands

 

with her. She imagined him putting

his hand up the skirt of the future

 

one near the river as he had put

his hand up her skirt near the river

 

and up the skirt of the previous one.

She imagined him not telling the future

 

one nor the past one that he loved them

just as he had not told her he loved her

 

not in their bar, nor the house, nor by the river.

She imagined him putting his fingers

 

inside of the others: the future, past and present

as he had put his fingers inside of her.

 

She imagined him lying to the previous

ones, the future ones, and the current ones.

 

But some of the facts were also true.

 

Jennifer Bartlett is the author of three books of poetry and co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. She is currently writing a biography on Larry Eigner.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Jennifer Bartlett.

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Jennifer Bartlett: I have always been attracted to words and reading. I love visual art too, but using words and connecting with the world through language feels natural. In terms of “why poetry” I believe it’s random. I know people who are musicians and visual artists and each kind of art, including nonfiction and fiction, has its own language.

I don’t know to what extent I’m really involved in po-biz. I am in the sense that I’ve gotten in quite a few fights for my radical views on disability. I tend to insert myself in places that I probably should not. I believe that ableism (the prejudice against disabled people) should be spoken about and fought with the same rigor as the other isms. I have gotten into “battles” because sometimes my methods aren’t always the best. I sometimes insert disability into discussions about gender or race, and this makes people feel put out. But, there is also the fact that people don’t want to discuss disability at all. Ever. Poets pick and choose what they want to fight or speak about and, disability as a metaphor or inaccessible spaces just doesn’t interest them.

I do not have a university job in creative writing. I currently teach English Comp and this is what I prefer. I also don’t make much money. I make some but not enough to live on. I wonder if this takes me out of the ‘competition’ to a certain degree because there is no prize for me. I do it because it’s fun and it connects me to people. But my livelihood isn’t really connected to whether I publish.

 

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

JB: I want to answer this in form of lists [more or less]:

Poets: The Language Poets, The Black Mountain Poets, mostly Charles Olson. I love the idea of duration. Lisa Jarnot, Lisa Robertson, Fanny Howe, Kathi Wolfe, and Andrea Baker. Earlier than that, two big influences were Muriel Rukeyser and Allen Ginsberg.

Visual Artists: Woody Allen, Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Bill Viola, and Mark Rothko.

Music: Miles Davis, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Fiona Apple.

Personally: My husband and son.

Nature: specifically Oregon. Motherhood. New York City.

Politically: Ableism and the way that people approach people with disabilities. I want to break down all the barriers and perception of disability, specifically in terms of education, accessibility, and sexuality.

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

JB: I read this term in an old copy of Acts of verse called Analytical Lyricism. That seems as good a term as anything. In poetry, I am most interested in beauty. For me, that is the number one quality that makes a piece of art worth engaging. It can also show great ugliness and still be beautiful. I also like simplicity and understatement. Meditative.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

JB: Not to be too egotistic, but I really think Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability is the book that “everyone should read.” I think this because it is so crucial for people to learn about disability and how people with disabilities actually live rather than perception. The essay that comes to mind is Laura Hershey’s “Getting Comfortable.” This is part of the book that people who are not poets have told me they connect with the most. I assigned it to my students this semester and they loved it. Hershey’s writing is direct and honest. She has a gift for evoking empathy. Unfortunately, Hershey passed away before Beauty was published. I wish she had lived to see what a great effect her writing had on people.

The other thing about Beauty is that it was put together by three different editors with different experiences and tastes. So, the book comes at poetry from many different angles. It includes poets who derive from the New York School and Black Mountain as well as narrative works that come from the crip poetics side of things. The essays also open it up to non-poets. Do I sound like an ad?

 

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

JB: I don’t want to sound like Denise Levertov, but I really would be a better writer if I didn’t have a cell phone and owned a working dryer and a good vacuum cleaner.

 

Jennifer Bartlett is the author of three books of poetry and co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. She is currently writing a biography on Larry Eigner.

Beauty Broken and Decamped

The women in Ivy Alvarez’s chapbook Hollywood Starlet (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) have all lost something. Whether it’s their minds, a man, anonymity, peace, or a sense of self or place, it’s not coming back. We feel for their losses, but like any disaster hungry mob, we cannot look away. All of the titles have a name of a “starlet” followed by a word depicting an action of loss. Here are some of the titles: “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,”  “What Greta Garbo Offered,” “What Betty Grable Gave.” These women are missing pieces; like the artist Lana del Rey, they embody that idea of “beautiful sadness.” Alvarez captures this theme to a tee in this collection.

In “What Katherine Hepburn Lost,” we are transported into her inner conscious. Alvarez writes:

“Yorkshire. Why’d he bring me here?”

“…How long since I’ve had dirt under my nails?

This pantsuit’s stained with chlorophyll.

Maybe I’ll change. He can’t marry me. I have my role to play—

good time girl and quick repartee doth not fine marriage material make…”

Alvarez’s last lines carry a plea: “Oh Spencer, It’s me Kathy.”

The poem goes from recognizing Hepburn as the quick witted “girl Friday,” the friend, not the lover, and ends in heartbreak; we feel her plain yearning at the end. Alvarez brings out the “Kathy” (vs Katherine)  in us, in the wanting what we never seem to get, even though we already seemingly have it all.

Even the elegant and pristine Olivia de Havilland pines silently. She says, “Errol –

please call me Livvie once more.”

In “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For,” the last couplet is:

“I wish for something more than a celluloid kiss,

the mirage of eternity between our lips.”

Alvarez captures the persona of these famous heroines in a few lines of poetry. Olivia de Havilland was classy and perfect, never mussed up. What did this cost her? Alvarez offers us a personality for us to recognize and touch. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction. The poems are emotional truth.

We never know where Alvarez is going to direct us next. These short celebrity poem portrayals are surreal and bizarre. There is a welcome grittiness to some of the poems.

In “What Clara Bow Stole,” we are introduced to an obvious director’s statement when he says “Don’t speak…look pretty.” And Clara is a trouble maker, full of vim and vigor.

“…When I stole

my mother’s coat, after she held that butcher’s

knife to my throat, it scratched like that…

One more bite. Just like her, I’m committed

to my paper bag, my asylum of sweetness.”

This was one of my favorite poems. With Clara Bow, Alvarez draws attention to the fact that these women were forced to fit in a certain mold/persona.  The movie production companies controlled them and used them to make a profit.  These women fit into boxes of “best friend,” “siren” “ingénue,” “tomboy,” etc. Once the die was cast, no one could escape. These poems offer an escape. Alvarez offers an insight to a different reality for these women. They can escape, leave the set, love someone they are not supposed to. And they do it with tenacity.

In “What Ingrid Bergman Wanted,” we are made privy to Bergman’s thoughts. The actress was always so cool and collected in her films, but Alvarez throws in some grit and immediacy:

In Bergman’s thoughts:

“I spot a chapel in the shade

covered in lichen’s dull brocade.

No-one’s looking at me, kid.

Take a flake of rock, scratch the word

Ingrid into bark, letter by letter.

By the force of my hand.

I might earn permanency.

Let that plane leave without me.”

Alvarez gives Bergman a voice. She isn’t “made” to get on a plane by Humphrey Bogart, the symbol of a masculinity and control. Bergman stays because she wants to stay and maybe she lives in the woods, carves her names into the pines. Other starlets are given a voice as well: Frances Farmer chooses to swallow a chicken fetus whole while living in a foreign country. Rita Hayworth is nostalgic for her childhood, dancing with her father.

The closing poems are a direct line from A to B in terms of “innocent girl” transformed into Hollywood icon. They are “What Marilyn Monroe Ran From,” and “What Norma Jean Became.”

With Norma Jean, Alvarez pointedly describes an insecure girl, seeking validation:

“I’ve trimmed my flesh for muscle…

…becoming more anonymous with every step.”

With Marilyn, she is pursued by a swarm, “a halo of flies.”

“Jackrabbits, ears pricked,

follow me with their eyes.”

Like Ophelia wandering in madness, who takes center stage handing out herbs and flowers in one of her final scenes, she enraptures the audience for a time, steals their hearts.

But then we hear of her death offstage. Only her essence lives on, floats through our memories until the next breath of fresh air, the next live performance.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow – Whale in the Woods

Rescue Press 2012

Page Length: 73

Retail: $14

 

Blueberry Elizabeth’s Morningsnow’s debut collection, Whale in the Woods, is mythic and mammoth. Winner of the 2011 Black Box Poetry Prize from Rescue Press, Morningsnow gives us a vision that is obsessive, oddly spiritual, and urgently beautiful. The result is one of the freshest, most original spiritual voices in Contemporary American Poetry.

 

At the core of Morningsnow’s poetics is the fusion of the elemental and the spiritual. Many of these poems center on large, recurrent, elemental themes and symbols: the weather, the moon, stars, fields, bodies (human, aquatic, celestial), dust, mountains, and copious amounts of light. Atop these Morningsnow layers a spiritual valence that ambiguously and provocatively begs the question of how imbued these elements might be with spiritual forces: ghosts, god, breath, and death.

 

“Ghost trapped in a cloud:

it’s not my fault when a fish drowns
look at me lakestorming
I’m dissolving all the time

A cloud is a crowd, a crowd

My brains drip onto flowers, roofs, absences, whatever

Yet I’m not part of the external and its edges

I even help this lake

But the lake’s without humility

And forgets that there’s a middlest, finest hole

An internal to everything”

(“Ghosts Are Nature”)

 

The title of the poem makes a bold metaphysical claim: “Ghosts Are Nature.” If this collection’s sprawling metaphysics could be summarized by a single statement this would surely be it. It would follow naturally, then, that our experience of the natural world would be haunting—that beauty would be wound tightly with terror—that the known would merely float in the greater expanse of the ominous unknown.

 

Morningsnow’s poetic forms follow this animism: often presented in bursts of lyrical vapor, evanescent and inevitable, voices emerge from the previously inanimate. We find the landscape surrounding the human milieu to be fully alive and capable of speech, and the words being spoken are equal parts human and oddly-something-else.

The following is spoken by “The Lake,” a recurring character:

 

“Can I kill as well as die many times? Yes. Can I live as well as get born forever? Yes.

 

I am the bone that never stops softening. Yes. There are swellings and

balloonings inside me. Yes and I am chunked up with ice.

 

I’m the Lake and a poem.

 

My consciousness goes grey and I turn to sleep in my center for I am not sorry, as you are, that everything constantly changes.

Look how I am. I have drowned you with my swillings. Look how I carry you into silence. Do you feel that words are true. I am ragged, I am ragged. I am ragged.

Breath is the only thing that’s fair.”

 

(“Of Clearness and Birth”)

 

However clever many of Morningsnow’s poetic constructions can be, she is also, at times, stunningly forthright. In very basic terms she makes a very large claim: the poem is not human. While it is composed of language, the most human phenomenon in the universe, the poem is more a coalescence than a willed construction: it is a lake that collects its contents passively and then reflects to its reader what may be momentarily looked into before it changes irrevocably.

 

The resulting effect is a brilliant juxtaposition of clarity and obscurity: a voice that phases between registers, scenes, and characters, yet never hides behind those devices for fear of what they might reveal. Accordingly: this is a poetry of revelation and discovery, a kind of poetic animism that seeks to divine the sacred from within the world’s (and the mind’s) many strange forms. Its vision is offered with a ferocity that testifies to the unadulterated violence of beauty.

 

“Remember when I killed my own brother       turning him suddenly and stabbing

him …

then, chopping up his various parts and scattering them in the path of our father’s warriors?

how is it, we wonder, that people are bound to each other

remember when I was darkening and widening                like a river

tearing its throat out in the sea”

 

(“Argosy”)

 

While some poets may opt for highly-sanitized creation-symbols such as the epiphanic sunrise or beatific copulation, the creative center of Morningsnow’s universe is thoroughly visceral: the image is of perpetual birth, and where there is birth there is afterbirth, not to mention the looming inevitability of death.

 

“And you are dead if you’re reading this because I have bursted on you and

killed you out of this and beyond dissolvings.

And because I have seen

trembling transparent eyes

rippling eyes

eyes of dying

there are pure psychic places

inside my self

inside my drain

inside my up and down

Because I have no such thing as desire or guilt

poems do not exist

they are merely:

discardings of skin (something you float in)

 

(“How the Lake Learned English”)

 

Morningsnow’s spiritual-poetic animism is preceded in the 20th-century Western canon primarily by poets influenced by the East: Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, and Allen Ginsberg, each of whom refuse to distinguish between the earthly and the heavenly: the profane and the sacred.

 

However, Morningsnow’s approach to this dissolution (the central action of her poetics is captured by the verb “to dissolve”) is entirely different from these quasi-mystics. While the destination of her poetic orientation is similar, Morningsnow’s path couldn’t be more distinct. Indeed: her path is distinct because the starting point is her own. Whereas Snyder, Merwin, and Ginsberg bring to the poetic line the simulated weightlessness of meditation, Morningsnow is thoroughly Western in her rough pilgrimage through a world of terrible, dangerous beauty. Accordingly, an aesthetic kin can be found in the ragged Deep Imagism of Robert Bly and James Wright, not to mention the epistemically-obsessed naturalism of Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Forest Gander, and Susan Howe. Graham is, I think, a particularly interesting comparison, as Morningsnow, too, is concerned with the ever-shifting lines distinguishing the known from the unknown from the unknowable.

 

Whale in the Woods is equal parts shocking and lovely: its poetic machinations are diverse and unpredictable, and its dream is utterly unique. Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow presents us with a fiercely singular spiritual vision and a world entirely her own: dissolving; unstable; filled with bright and strange debris; uncompromising; necessary; fleetingly salvific.

where I went while you were dying

 

this poem is                                                                                (about when your mother

collapses in front of you)

the emergency plan you don’t have when the emergency

comes.

not knowing your mother’s or sister’s or sister’s

blood type.

medications.

history.

is                                                                                  (about your mother

telling you she is dying and then       ____________)

in lieu of health insurance.

anxiety over social worker called

height weight charts. or

is                                                                                        (what your mother’s

face looked like without oxygen)

the story of your mother saving your newborn life. or

waiting to find out if you’ve returned the favor.

 

this poem                                                                                     (is about prying your

mother’s teeth apart)

wonders whether you did all you could to return the favor.

says it will let you know. whether you did.

enough.

 

this poem is                                                              (this is not a poem. about her saying

she was dying)

hope that grinds you down.

neither here nor there.

cannot remain present.

not a gift.

will not firm no or yes.

passes hours without blinking its eyes.

without waking up.

does not know how to leave.

a horrible bedside manner.

cold hands and bad breath.

 

this poem is                                                                                (this is not a poem. about her pitching into your      arms and _________)

 

the stuff your mother is made of.

nothing you recognize.

what’s under skin deep.

 

 

 

an octopus escapes the fishing net: in which my daughter becomes cephalopod

 

in this life, where you must be both

predator and delicacy, rend

for yourself the tenderest bits.

 

enter a world, daughter

where you may drink brine and not be

pickled;

 

lose remorse in the hunt for that which feeds

you. be sure

there are eight passions

for each arm’s embrace,

in case your dreams are injured

or cut short.

 

by all means, keep yourself

whole, even as you adapt with grace,

 

honey love. my

sinuous structure

pure musculature                               and give;

 

infinite flex and reshaping, do not

be confined to any that would contain you.

 

be gentle relentless

manipulation; hang on, love,

or disappear       in the confusion of your melanin

 

clouding the display; how they love

to watch you squirm                        and ooze;

be not object

entertainment,                                      remember how

to pry open exits                                 remember

camouflage.

 

learn both lurk                   and listen;

eyes open to color of danger

of safety

 

do not forget that tucked up

in the unfurling of your

pretty petticoat                                   of a body:

 

you are thought

and plot. beak

and brain. predator

and delicacy.                         Feed.

 

 

 

your nephew gives your daughter a toy gun for her birthday 

and you imagine retaliation

you imagine riddled;

you gift her a story of dead brown skin

and the child who once inhabited it:

 

your nephew, pale and safe,

is worried; says the story

of the dead brown thing is scary

how the cop just ________

how the kid just ________.

your daughter agrees, refuses to play

even inside, even where she is _____.

 

you realize maturation means presents

come with an edge, sharp or

bitter. she’s big now. it’s time to watch

out for giggles ridden with gunshots.

 

 

An award-winning writer and performer, Amber Flame is also a singer for multiple musical projects. Flame’s original work is published and recorded in many diverse arenas, including Def Jam Poetry, Winter Tangerine, The Dialogist, Split This Rock, Jack Straw, Black Heart Magazine, and forthcoming from Sundress Publications, Redivider and more. Her one-woman play, Hands Above the Covers: Hairy Palms & Other Nightmares of a Church Kid, was mounted under the auspices of a CityArtist grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. Since moving to the Bay Area, Flame works as a teaching artist and runs the Oakland Slam as slammaster. while performing daily feats of Black girl magic. She performs regularly on musical, literary, and cabaret stages, and works as an activist and organizer for a diverse number of queer and POC communities. Amber Flame is one magic trick away from growing her unicorn horn.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Amber Flame. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Amber Flame: It is necessary for me to create – I literally can’t help it, even if I gave up on putting it out in the world. I am compelled by everything; visual art, dance, music, as well as all kinds of writing, primarily for my own happiness. I always did write poetry, was drawn to writing creatively from an early age. I think now I am comfortable writing poetry because I can complete a piece in one sitting, which is harder to do with longer forms. So, I guess the biggest motivation for being a poet right now is being a single working mother who needs to write and having limited time to focus.

I am incredibly lucky in terms of the poebiz landscape! For the first time last year I made a commitment to submit my work for publication, and I am still reaping wonderful benefits. I haven’t actually worked on navigation with intent; my goal was simply to discover whether my poems could be successful on the page. The more I immerse myself in the literary world, the more motivated I am to better myself as a writer – always looking to up my level!

 

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

AF: My fortune is that I have somehow surrounded myself with creative people in all mediums. My friends and peers are artists and creators – giving me a motherlode of inspiration. Mixed in with that is the fact that I’m an avid reader and a trained musician, and the list of influences is too long. I am drawn to those who want connection most, drawn to the outsiders, to those who analyze the experiences they go through and make beautiful things from that analysis. That is what I am forever doing – I am a Black queer mother in the United States who was raised fundamentalist Christian by white people, and I’ve practiced Buddhism for over 15 years – there’s a lot to analyze!

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

AF: I love the things that make me gasp, make me think or wonder, make me jealous – where I wish I had written that, or had thought of that trick or perspective first. It is a very rare book of poems that can keep me all the way through, but the ones that do have just enough story and mystery to make me invest in the characters. Throughline is important. I want people to read my work and sigh, breathe “yes” or “damn” or to cry or feel a gut punch or laugh out loud. I want to break through their barriers or reserve and get under their skin. As for my aesthetic, I seek to be a wordsmith, a clever craftswoman. I want every word to be specifically chosen and elegantly placed. I value that in other art. Like when I find myself enjoying a Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift song because the hook is just so damn good, and it got me despite myself!

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

AF: I cannot avoid mentioning the loss I’ve experienced. I lost my mother earlier this year – she was too young and it was completely unexpected. I was with her when she collapsed and I still don’t know all the ways I am being shaped by the loss of her. She was one of my best friends, almost daily companion. The greatest grief of my life does influence every piece of art I make, of course. But I am too deep in the process right now to analyze it with any objectivity. Then, this fall, I lost my chosen mentor – the two most influential female figures in my life are gone, I am a mother without a mother. I keep saying I am not old enough to be my own elder. What I do know is that I am absolutely determined to be my best self, if only to honor them and my daughter. It is learning how to hold joy and pain at the same time, how to go on when there is no other side to get to – I will never get to “mom” again. The heartache quite literally knocks me down some days. I hear it won’t ever get better but it will get easier – I’m not holding my breath. Just deciding to get up and live well anyway. It is almost always someone’s creation that drags me out from under this shadow – be it a funny meme or video, an engrossing Netflix series, a song…

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

AF: I love so many books! Christopher Moore’s Lamb definitely blew my mind, though. I’ve read the Bible many a time and he does such an exquisite job – it’s easy to believe it is a part of the original story and makes so much sense filling it in. Also, we all know how the Jesus story ends and I still hoped… cried when the cruxifiction happened – that is some powerful writing. I also really love Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl series (this speaks to my less-than-discerning taste in fantasy, mystery and sci-fi fiction but is incredibly well written). As for poetry, Nayirrah Waheed’s Salt is more than anyone could ever ask for, makes me react in all the ways I seek to elicit from my readers as a poet myself.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

AF: Being an artist and finding some kind of joy and/or release in the creative process is a great privilege. More than ever before, I am conscious and truly appreciative of that fact. Surrounding myself with artists who are working on a higher level than I am, or in a medium I never tried before constantly pushes me to grow. That, and a consistent daily practice shape the reality of my artist life.

 

 An award-winning writer and performer, Amber Flame is also a singer for multiple musical projects. Flame’s original work is published and recorded in many diverse arenas, including Def Jam Poetry, Winter Tangerine, The Dialogist, Split This Rock, Jack Straw, Black Heart Magazine, and forthcoming from Sundress Publications, Redivider and more. Her one-woman play, Hands Above the Covers: Hairy Palms & Other Nightmares of a Church Kid, was mounted under the auspices of a CityArtist grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. Since moving to the Bay Area, Flame works as a teaching artist and runs the Oakland Slam as slammaster. while performing daily feats of Black girl magic. She performs regularly on musical, literary, and cabaret stages, and works as an activist and organizer for a diverse number of queer and POC communities. Amber Flame is one magic trick away from growing her unicorn horn.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

Turtle Finds Himself Once Again Upon the Land

 

Turtle stands, claws digging dimples in the dirt,

wondering which direction to go. Everything is

possible in this new life granted by the Great Creator

in which he was able to relinquish the weight

of the Earth, suspend it from El Sol with clear celestial

ribbon of sewn-together star particles and neutrinos.

 

We’ve got to center it, Turtle had instructed, adjusting

the ribbon around the curls of light emanating,

endemic of El Sol’s brilliance. If the animals feel

the swing and tilt too much, the proliferation

of motion sickness will cover the roads in vomit,

making it impossible to travel between the 7 Wonders.

 

And it is not as though Turtle even truly wanted

to see the 7 Wonders, so much as he wanted

the opportunity to see them. Want begets want

and he knew if allowed to swell, the want would grow

toward desire and desire would point its knurled

 

finger toward a direction. This would be the path

Turtle would take. But when opened like a yard house

spigot, even desire can’t focus, so here Turtle found

himself standing, not sure where to go, his purpose

lifted, like the weight of seventy-five billion souls.

 

 

 

 

 

Turtle Wonders About Sex

 

Carrying the Earth on his back, Turtle

overheard the many sounds

of lust and longing. He felt the vibrations

of millions of beds and couches and cars,

tree branches and sand dunes rocking

to the rhythm of pleasure.

 

Never having the elasticity of neck

to crane and see, he spent the better part

of a millennium wondering how it worked,

whether it would be enjoyable enough

to risk the pain that seemed

so often to accompany it.

 

Turtle, though sore from the weight

of the Earth’s abundance, had never

bled and blood seemed a scary thing

and so he thought he might skip sex for now.

It caused rivers and rivers of blood

to flow and the smell of the iron

had always made Turtle’s stomach a bit queasy.

 

All in all, in whatever direction carnal knowledge lay,

he hoped to go the other way.

 

 

 

 

 

Turtle’s First Valentine’s Day

 

I’m slow glad you’re mine!

squalls in red letters above a rude

sketch of a turtle, head turned sideways,

one large eye ringed in white, staring

blindly from a heart-shaped box.

 

It’s filled with candy, the human says looking,

Turtle thinks, quite pleased with themself.

Using long, papery fingers

the human unwraps the plastic

and lifts the cardboard lid to reveal

small light and dark brown squares within.

 

In the millennium that Turtle held the earth

he often caught snatches of the sounds

of this day, a holiday, he admitted to himself,

he did not understand. Amongst crying,

he knew there were hearts

not at all like real hearts, and love

not at all like real love

where humans scrambled to tear

flowers from their deep-gripping roots,

drove too quickly in machines

that grumbled and spit fumes,

and drank fiery liquid

until the emptiness

of their gestures looked full.

 

On the Earth before it was Earth,

the animals of the land and the animals

of the sky and the animals of the water

had no such day reserved

as all revolutions of the moon and sun’s dance

were days to show love.

No one day need be reserved as there was no

separation, no distillation, no need

for reminders. All actions in kindness:

sharing of a leaf, licking of one’s face, playful

splashing in the water

were all understood as affection and all

affection was known to be real.

 

It was for this reason Turtle pitied

this strangely popular holiday, but still,

for the sake of the bright anxiety beginning

to brim in the human’s eyes the longer

Turtle sat motionless,

he rubbed his cool head along the human’s hand

and stuck his tongue out to touch

the brown square that had been set before him.

One lick. Then two.

Turtle’s head became delightfully woozy

with the rush of smooth sweetness lingering

in his mouth. This indeed,

Turtle thought, taking a full bite,

feeling his prehistoric teeth press into

the chocolate’s soft flesh,

may be worth celebration.

 

 

 

Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts and Political Punch: The Politics of Identity, as well as the journals North Dakota Quarterly, The Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and The Boiler Journal, among others. Her debut full-length collection, Hands That Break & Scar, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. www.sarahachavez.com

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Sarah A. Chavez. 

 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Sarah Chavez: It’s funny, but I think a lot about what poetry does and how it has functioned in my life, but hardly ever why I ended up devoting myself to it. I did have other creative outlets: I played piano briefly and am fair at drawing; I even got within a class or two of an art minor with a focus in mixed media, and had a lovely professor encourage me to keep going with it, formally or not . . .

Sometimes I think what dictates the activities in my life – and to some extent, the people – is a sort of trial by fire or survival of the strongest, what’s left after the fall out. I love painting and drawing and collage, but those mediums are in some ways delicate, high maintenance. They require certain conditions, special spaces, a variety of instruments which can be costly: brushes, good pens and pencils, chalk, glues, epoxy, canvases. In comparison, poetry is like the working person’s art. All you need is something to write on and anything to write with. I used to write on the back of receipt paper while waiting to hear “order up” when I waited tables. I wrote in fifty cent notebooks between classes in college, and before that between chores when I lived at my mom’s. I’d take a pocket notebook out on ten minute cigarette breaks when I worked as an administrative assistant. Poetry (& writing in general) is portable and low tech, accessible. There’s a lot said about poetry being difficult and hard to understand, but ultimately, if someone gives a poem even cursory attention, whether or not they think they don’t “get it” overall, they will see an image, recognize a feeling, hear a pleasing set of sounds. Life, and our understanding of it, doesn’t happen in one linear comprehensive experience; it is snatches & moments. In that way I suppose poetry has always felt the most natural, it provides for me the best way to process and appreciate what I encounter in the world.

As for the poebiz landscape, I don’t know. It can be pretty rough, especially if you come from outside the literary/art/academic world. There’s so much insider knowledge no one tells you. I didn’t even try to publish a poem until I was getting ready to graduate with my MA, and I only did it then because I’d decided I might want to eventually apply to a terminal degree program and I found out you needed that sort of credential to be seriously considered. Once I started sending out my writing though, I realized it was a lot like other jobs: you just need to try, learn from experiences, & don’t stop; not if you think it’s what you want. Of course this is not to say sending out again and again after repeated rejections is easy, but when I look at the grossly low number of women, queer people, & people of color (this is true of other industries as well, such as academia), it becomes more than just personal desire for some perception of success. Navigating the poebiz and getting my work out into the world becomes about visibility and asserting the rights and talents of traditionally marginalized groups, about influencing the aesthetic of the literary landscape.

 

FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

SC: A few things in particular I am influenced by are music, visual art, & oddly enough sociological theory. Music especially has been huge, not a specific singer, band, or style of music, but the feelings elicited. I’ll become obsessed with a band or singer and will listen to them over & over again until the mood has fully seeped in. That mood usually attaches to social and/or personal associations, and it’s those together that the writing comes from, like I’m trying to recreate the mood or feeling of the music through my writing. Similarly, with the visual art, the influence is about having feelings awakened. The sociological theory though, that helps me intellectually understand and translate the feelings, especially as they relate to other humans. I want to understand the context from which both positive and negative behaviors and choices come from, especially as it relates to ethnicity/race issues and social constructions of gender and sexuality.

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

SC: What I tend toward, both in what I write and want to read, is narrative and rooting in the physical. Language is about communication and communication, ultimately, is about connection. I want to use sensory details and the recognition and empowered engagement with our own bodies to aid in understanding. What makes art & literature meaningful to me is personal growth toward social harmony. I appreciate the skill & technique art for art’s sake takes, but at this stage in my life, I’d rather have visceral connection than marvel at solely intellectual endeavors. I want to see & touch things. I want to encounter something outside myself, but told to me in such a way that I feel it through my bones and blood. I think in many ways this is most challenging. It takes skilled craft and hard work to create that kind of situation, while maintaining the feeling of being organic. I want art & literature to work, to earn its keep, have a purpose outside itself.

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

SC: I can’t remember if I’ve told this story before, but when I was around 13, my friend’s mom stole a notebook filled with poems my friend and I had written together, set them on fire, and tried to have me arrested.

This friend of mine and I started writing limericks after my maternal grandfather gave me an Ogden Nash book. As is a convention of the genre, though the book contained many limericks that were cute and harmless, there were also many that were crude and, let’s just say, “inappropriate;” of course our favorites were the bawdy ones. My friend and I both had difficult home lives, but hers was particularly bad and we disliked her mother quite a bit. So whenever her mom would commit some new sort of terrible (or just the same old terrible all over again), we’d write mean limericks about her. The poems were often making fun of her appearance, or how she smelled. They sometimes focused on how pathetic we thought she and this guy she was dating were. We wrote them all down in a standard college-ruled, red-covered, spiral notebook that I kept with me all the time. And it wasn’t just filled with our limericks, but also some of my deepest young teenager thoughts, feelings, and fears.

One day my friend and I decided to take the bus somewhere, or maybe we walked to 7-Eleven, I don’t remember which. Either way, we knew we’d wouldn’t be gone for too long, so I just left the notebook on the dining room table. When we returned, we didn’t expect anyone to be there, because her mom often left in the late morning and didn’t come back until after dark (if she came back at all). The mobile homes we lived in had stilted side porches that went half the length of the structure, so when we turned to go up the steps, at first all we saw was smoke and the back of her mom’s house dress. As we went up the stairs, she turned to look at us, revealing the notebook smoldering in the pit of their Webster grill. I don’t remember what she said, but it was definitely screaming and something about how could we and we were terrible people and I was a bad influence and she never wanted to look at our faces again. She commanded I leave her property, but I said I wouldn’t leave without the remains of the notebook. She said if I didn’t leave she would call the police and say I was trespassing, I said “good, call them.” I was going to charge her with destruction of property.

One of the things that has stuck with me all these years and helped shape my understanding and relationship with art was the realization that writing caused that out of control situation (and it did get more out of control). Part of my friend’s mom’s yelling and crying was quoting some of the lines from the limericks back to us so we could hear how cruel they were. It occurred to me later that even though those dumb limericks were just born out of the imagination of two teenagers messing around, those poems were powerful. They evoked rage and pain and humiliation. We certainly never intended for her to see them, but it was more a fear of half-hearted grounding than anything else. It never crossed our minds that what we said and wrote could truly, fundamentally affect someone else. Since then, I’ve never forgotten the potential power encased in a poem. Even though reading was always a source of comfort for me, it was that experience that made me think maybe I could not just consume the words, but write them too. If I could be so affected by what I read, and my friend’s mom could be so affected by reading what we wrote, there seemed to be limitless possibility (and power) in poetry.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

SC: Argh, this is such a difficult question! There are so so many . . . If I have to pick one or two, and I stick to poetry because this is a poetry blog, and I don’t feel comfortable picking something more contemporary because I have thought about them less, then in my current state of mind, taking into consideration multifaceted awesomeness, then the two that have come to me first are Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Words: Selected Poems and Philip Levine’s What Work Is, and Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New. And I totally just cheated. Twice. It’s cheaty to pick selected works, and I totally gave three titles instead of two. Anyhow, one of the characteristics that make these books so mind-blowingly awesome is their shared ability to accessibly discuss difficult emotions and social concepts while tightly controlling craft. Levine and Nye have both been criticized for being too plain-spoken. This is silly though, because why exactly is the striped down word or image “plain?” Precision is a talent and if someone can be precise, clear, and emotionally resonant . . . shit. Sometimes the best way to communicate about the things that are most difficult is to strip them down to the physicality of the experience. And while Rich doesn’t often have that criticism leveled at her work, she is also able to create sensory worlds in her poems that can set the body on fire. It’s a good fire, the kind that makes you feel more alive, makes you want to be a better person. I guess ultimately, that’s what these books have in common and why everyone should read them: you walk away from the poems wanting to be a better human to other humans.

 

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

SC: Not that I can think of. I thought the provided questions were wonderful and I deeply appreciate the invitation to think more about these topics and to share my thoughts with you.

FFF: Thanks so much for participating in this series, Sarah!

 

 
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts and Political Punch: The Politics of Identity, as well as the journals North Dakota Quarterly, The Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and The Boiler Journal, among others. Her debut full-length collection, Hands That Break & Scar, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. www.sarahachavez.com

 

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

She collects pieces, forms whole body slowly

 

In Movement No.1: Trains, by Hope Wabuke, (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) an abundance of unexpected, organic relationships power through this chapbook, transmitting energy between humans and people, sound, color, and movement. Like the line referenced in the title above, there are many bodies at play in this collection. The train is a body, and the people, parts, stored inside.

Using fluid language and an almost dream-like tone, Wabuke gives us glimpses of humanity’s core like spying on a commuting passenger through the windows of a subway car: intense yet indirect, witnessing a presence briefly. It’s how Wabuke wants us to see: life like “tiny match stick toys.”

The word “movement” in the title illustrates a dual meaning: physical movement and orchestral movements, the actual text caters to the ebb and flow of daily life while also illustrating the navigation through an urban jungle. The energy never stops.

Wabuke begins her first poem in mid-sentence— we are moving already—and the train is alive in all of its magnificent silver glory. We have all waited for a train but Wabuke’s writing anticipates an animal coming around the corner:

 

“…and when she waits, knowing its coming by the movement of light

across rusted metal, the dirty white tiles of tunnel wall almost

beautiful in the light sliding closer through darkness…she imagines the sound she hears is breathing.”

Like a mystical living force the train gives birth to shadow and light. Turning corners unseen, making noise, consuming space. We read these poems as blurryeyed infants seeking out black and white shapes, alternately lulled and startled by Wabuke’s insightful words and descriptions.

Metal is a wonderful detail that ties people together in this book. Who is holding the metal poles, who lets go of them to fall into each other as the train lurches ahead, who holds steady. The metal is a lifeline for all of the riders, forced to hold on and mesh their limbs into places that don’t mesh. There is other frenetic pops of color as well. The colors Wabuke uses are very specific: grey, (grey water, grey bridges, grey sky,) but also a relieving blue ink sky, a yellow moon piercing the night, and popping red seats are beacons of light and reprieve amongst the train’s cacophony.

 

“sometimes when she sits on the red plastic chair that is one among

many alternating rows of yellow and red seats bolted to the inside

walls of the train, she is not used to so much space below her…shifting

slightly against molded plastic shape that does not fit her form.”

 

It is through this image, trying to curve one’s body into a tiny plastic chair, that we meet “him.” He is mostly described in the past tense already, almost as soon as we meet him, he is gone.

At one time he used to bump arms against the girl in the poems, but no longer. We get the sense of “him” and time, whooshing by. He is there one second, gone the next, like a missed train.

 

“…he would hold her hand then, first pressing two fingers tight

to circle her wrist marking the point of meeting until, releasing, he

would hold the two fingers up to his eye, laugh and call her tiny…”

 

And then later:

 

“and on the day after his leaving. she notices his absence in the

awkward stillness of her legs, the way her arms hang stiffly at her

sides…”

His presence is secondary to the action of the train, the girl, and the crowds. The masses are always moving: dancing on the platform while waiting for the train to a hypnotic drum beat, hands waving above heads, eyes in heads looking up for rain. All of the senses blur together magnificently where one can never escape noise or people. This could be any city.

Wabuke captures an ethereal stillness amongst such noise and music. People sway and look and touch and never stop but it is beautiful. The masses moving and stopping is similar to an orchestral swell or street performer ten minute act. She writes:

 

“…he would touch drumsticks to upside-down white buckets to make beats, she would

see sound touch tile in tunnel walls and touch heels to ground.

rocking upward in tiny motions, she would lift hands lightly; she

would move her body in tiny circles of his rhythm.”

 

These masses move and strive to find a rhythm and a place in the world that makes sense. As Wabuke so accurately describes: “the pressing of a shape into something else.” Strangers mingling can be unsettling, but Wabuke joins them, links us to a higher power. These poems are so spiritual despite describing and participating in a commute, which is often a source of stress for most people. Wabuke writes:

 

“…in this space without sound or light, she will remember how in the

sounding of first explorations they would move parts to form one

body. so she will stand, rise and press close to half-open window,

push frame to crawl out. the train, restarting.”

Wabuke’s words transport us out of the train, into the pouring rain, into the sky. The water invades the tunnels and platforms. This natural element is not supposed to exist down here along the cement with the rats, sprawling puddles on concrete, dripping its own drum sound. Yet here it is. It finds a way in through rivulets, the ceiling breaks open, people push with one big surge to get out, escape into daylight, reborn. The water is a relief.

No matter what walls and tunnels are built, the boundaries of silence, not making eye contact with someone five inches from your face on a train, human-ness finds a way, rushes to the next stop, runs to get to the exit first to breathe the fresh air.Trains_cover

In these poems, Wabuke deftly explores that transition form “I” to “you” to “us” and back again. Leaving the inside to step outside is tough, but she tells us the movement will happen, whether we like it or not.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Recent chapbooks are out or forthcoming from Grey Book Press, Dancing Girl Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Pith Right Hand Pointing, Chiron Review, Cider Press Review and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Deskins_Prairie Fires
Deskins_Choose with Care
Deskins_Love
Deskins_Prairie Fires
Deskins_Flowerets
The above text and images are by Laura Madeline Wiseman and Sally Deskins, from their book Leave of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affections, a collaborative work whose lush look at the body and nature in this collection offers a rich pallet on the human form and these tall creatures that stand among us. Moving from fairy tale to children’s book, film representation to fact, Leaves tells the love story of two trees as they fall from a growing forest into the outstretched limbs of the other. Deskins’ body and tree prints and drawings weave a rich ecology of place to show us that even when we’re reaching away from what we know, our lives are actually becoming more entwined, binding us to what we love. 
 
Sally Deskins is an artist and writer who examines womanhood, motherhood, and the body in her work and others. She’s exhibited in galleries nationally and published her art and writing internationally. She is founding editor of Les Femmes Folles and illustrated Intimates and Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). sallydeskins.tumblr.com
 
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of the full-length poetry collections American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative book  Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her newest book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. lauramadelinewiseman.com
 
Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.
Deskins_WonderBra
 

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. We are excited to have an extra installment of our Spotlight Series during the month of February, featuring the collaborative poetry-visual art hybrid work of Sally Deskins and Laura Madeline Wiseman.

Fox Frazier-Foley: How did you two come to work together? I know you’ve collaborated on other books/projects in the past. How would you describe your collaborative dynamic? What’s it like working together?

Sally Deskins: We met a few years ago via a poetry/exhibition event I produced in Omaha and thereafter did several events together until our first formal collaboration Intimates and Fools.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: We’ve luckily been able to participate in a few gallery shows and readings. Sally is a fantastic curator of exhibits of artwork by women. Our collaborative working relationship takes place online or over the phone. Though we once lived in the same state, now one of us lives on the east coast and the other in the Midwest.

SD: I moved to West Virginia where I’m currently in graduate school in art history. We worked remotely via email and phone conversations on our second collaboration that is just out, Leaves of Absence, and another that is in process! Thus far we have worked with Madeline’s writing first, then my reading and creating various drawings and body prints. I usually like to get ideas and feedback from her while I’m making it, so I’ll send her sketches and ideas. Once I have enough images with which to work and the writing is finalized, we work to find a home for the book.

FFF: What are your influences, respectivelyand I mean “influences” in terms of creative influences such as art/literature that inspires you or that you find yourselves drawn into conversation withbut also influences you may have personally, and socially/politically that shape your art?

LMW: As a gift, I received National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. I’d always wanted to learn about trees. I wanted to be able to name them—those in my yard, neighborhood, and city. I gave myself a writing and research assignment. I decided to learn to identify trees by the book and write poems about them, using the historical information and tree identification cues to inform the poems I wrote. I wrote dozens and dozens and let the story that became Leaves of Absence emerge. One morning as I explored a nearby city park looking for a tree that I could identify and write about, I thought about Sally’s art. She had recently sent images of new work—a watercolor illustration of a forest line of trees with women’s bodies within the darkened hues of old growth trunks. Along the trail in the park, a line of cypress followed a set of newly constructed houses, each back porch like the back porch beside it, but the trees’ trunks had shape, curve, lush evocative bodies.

SD: Most directly with these projects are the luscious words by Madeline of course! I read them over and over, together, in bits and I’ll pull sections or words that grab me, and create an image from there. I never thought about integrating nature with my body work until reading Madeline’s words which made it seem so natural to do! Of course I’m also constantly inspired by feminist artists from past and present, and this varies from day to day. I love artists who also collaborate and work with text like Judy Chicago, who has included either her own journaling, or words by other writers she admired like Anais Nin. Such collaborations and artwork inspires me greatly.

FFF: How would you describe the aesthetic of your work? What do you valuewhat, to you, makes cool art/literature? (I realize this question is a broad one, but I like it that the answers can be limitless!)

LMW: My aesthetic is eclectic. I am deeply honored to work with an artist as talented as Sally. She is the editor, publisher, and curator of Les Femmes Folles, that has published over 500 interviews with local and national writers and artists. It has released four anthologies, one for each year of LFF’s running. They each anthologize artwork, writing, and interview excerpts published during the year. I was lucky enough to have my work featured in the first anthology. I distinctly remember receiving the anthology, one I took with me as I was traveling to a Minnesota gallery exhibition of my collaborative work with another artist. As I read the anthology, I was astounded to see so many women presented with such care, thoughtfulness, and inclusion. It made me feel part of a powerful movement. Having the opportunity to create books with a woman who is doing such good work is a gift in and of itself.

SD: My personal artist aesthetic is feminist in intent, stylistically raw, bright and fun, and hopefully a bit unnerving. Madeline’s writing is feminist and often really subtle and surreal which I love. LFF’s aesthetic is broad, open, expressivesome with intentional feminism, some not.

LFF is inclusive and seeks to feature women featured and the anthologies who are passionate about their work, whether they are at a major point in their career, or just getting back into art, writing, acting, etc. I’m in my second year of graduate school for art history where I’m finalizing my thesis on the curative work of Judy Chicago and such study has helped crystalize the work that I find most provocative and necessary. For me,I like work with a feminist intent that has a broad reach makes the best literature and art.

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about somethingan experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

LMW: I loved one tree in college. Fall semester senior year in ecofeminism, we were asked to keep a tree journal—pick a tree and journal about it weekly. My tree stood outside my window, the only tree on a block of homes remade into student-apartments. It hid the alley and parking lot. It made a canopy of dinner-plate sized, like yellow-green hands. I once hoped to kiss another under that tree, but I never did. One day I heard chainsaws. When I turned the corner I saw them talking, cutting it down. My memory fails me here—did I gape, dash unseeing through the curling bark and brittle twigs or did I speak to them or did I stand with others to watch? Later, after they were gone, I foraged outside and grabbed a limb within my arms and took it inside. I propped it beside my desk. When I told my teachers, they said, “Pick another tree,” but I couldn’t, not for years, not until Sally and I began collaborating on Leaves.

SD: It’s hard to pick one. Many moments through books and art have inspired me—discovering Dada in high school, Valerie Solanas in college, The Yellow Wallpaper as a new parent, Wanda Ewing’s fearless figurative artwork, Judy Chicago’s autobiographies as a grad student and visiting Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I found common ground with all of these—and a sobering irony of women’s situation, women’s representation in art, and the high/low gendered value placed on art–that some things are still the same. But hopefully in making my art and doing LFF, raising my kids/having family along the way (not one or the other), I can make a difference.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read and/or some visual art that everyone should experience, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

LMW: I’ve mentioned National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Learning about trees, learning to name them, learning about their uses and history, I found fascinating and richly entertaining. It changed the way I approached exploring my city.

SD: Besides Intimates and Fools and Leaves of Absence and all of Madeline’s other books and LFF anthologies :), everything I mentioned in the last answer—SCUM Manifesto (Valerie Solanas); The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman), Judy Chicago’s Through the Flower (1972), definitely an exhibition of Wanda Ewing’s artwork (pin up girls, video grrrlzzz, her dresses, any and all of it). And of course, visiting The Dinner Party will change your life—experiencing a history of Western women is mind-blowing, after a life of being the same old HIStory. And of course it’s gorgeous.

____________________________

Sally Deskins is an artist and writer who examines womanhood, motherhood, and the body in her work and others. She’s exhibited in galleries nationally and published her art and writing internationally. She is founding editor of Les Femmes Folles and illustrated Intimates and Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). sallydeskins.tumblr.com

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of the full-length poetry collections American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her newest book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. lauramadelinewiseman.com

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

 Prayer, as Ghost

I wave at the blackbird just lifting from the crab apple

tree. I’m among

 

the flightless, the left-behind. An opossum curled
behind this tree

 

stump, dead, half-buried, its fur soft as ash. Everything
is the ghost

of something else. The starlings’ wings half-stab air,
you leaving.

The opossum’s eye, its last glitter—a gravedigger

lifts his shovel. I ate

peaches this morning. Dropped their pits mindlessly
onto the kitchen floor.

 

Their gravities also pulling me closer to the earth’s core.
Their gravities reminding me

I’m flightless. Though an angel once in church’s nativity play,
where I had glittery wings,

that I wished were waxed to my bare back, I can’t
lift off the ground.

 

If I jump, for an instant I separate from the dirt I’m anchored
to—before I’m pulled back,

I see a ghost, it’s my hands making the shape of a cross,
of a bloodied rag falling

from my hand, blackbirds crowding the window sill,
bread scattered: Come closer,

come.

 

 

NO ONE ASKS

No one asks where you’ve come from,
what shimmering constellation of bones
and fear hold you together,
or what you’re trying to hold quiet
in your tongue. No one asks if you’re sick
of living like a flower in your mother’s hair.
No one asks if you ever watch your death
coming, like light that’s supposed
to have traveled here to your room
from such a great distance. No one asks
when you tired of desire and getting
inside another woman’s skin, unfurling
your fingers in hers to touch her neck.
No one asks if you’ve thought about
grabbing the braid of the woman
next to you on the train, and cutting it
off, what it would feel like to unleash
her. No one asks when you stopped
being afraid of your drunk father breaking
your records. No one asks what’s burning
underneath your lungs, what you’ve
buried there under dirt, because it’s so
quiet now, even you sometimes forget
its flare. No one asks when it will
kill you.

 

 

 

 

WEARING A DEAD WOMAN’S HAIR

 

I bought part of you. Funny how your hair’s spidery
roots braided and knotted are stronger than your place

here on earth. Hair like smoke around my wrist.
Yet, there was some brilliance around your skull.
The kettle’s caterwaul, you whistling for a black horse
to escape. This impermanence is one sip of salt

water at a time, unknotting what’s meant to survive.
I’m a woman who’s not ashamed to die. Wild in your eyes,

said the man I married. I learned to say husband—held

its strangeness in my mouth, bit its bridle that tamed me
into lowering my head, mare walking in mist, spine a slow
twist. This is why I wanted to become a sky inside of you.
Because we die. Witch-flowered girl born with a caul,
I’m still here. I stuck myself with pins—we fear we won’t

ever be again. You recited the names of saints. Or maybe
we’re afraid we will survive. You once refused his hand
in marriage. Your body hinged like a door. The children
of God last forever
, the minister said. Air through a reed.

I’ve found you, named your gathering, cowbells, bag
of seed pearls, so perform the miracle of unhexing
this hair. I move among felled beasts. Yellow eyes close.
Hiss of foliage outside. It’s time to crawl out of my body.
I’m tired of singing one last bar with the harmonium—
your voice’s creation myth, wander in me, a midnight


bell in a terrible field
. There’s no time to put myself
back together in this snow season: Undressed,
I follow your tiny hoof marks till they disappear.

 

Hear these poems aloud:

 

Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe Journal, THRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, was published by ELJ Publications in 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Nicole Rollender. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Nicole Rollender: Probably like many writers, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t tell stories or write stories. When I was a teenager, I really zeroed in on writing poetry, after buying an 1880s volume of Tennyson’s poetry in a used bookstore. I carried the tome (it had a green cover with flowers on it, and was ragged at the seams) around with me, and practically memorized “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Two Voices”—I’d recite the stanzas to myself over and over. The poetic form always felt the most familiar to me—so is being a poet predetermined by our genetics or something else?

After I finished my MFA program and went out into the wider world, it was a different landscape than it is now. Barely anything was online. If you wanted to submit to a journal, you went to your local library, hoping they had a copy of the journal for you to read. Then, everything was also snail mail submissions. I know that’s dating me a bit, but around 2012, when I really came back to the idea of submitting (I had pretty much just been writing alone, not really interacting with the community at large), everything was different. Meaning that most print journals had websites and a presence on social media, there were many, many more online journals so you could actually read other poets’ work from your smartphone, and most importantly, you could connect with so many other poets via social media.

For someone like me, a by-night poet with a full-time day magazine editor job, two small children and an extremely limited ability to travel, I was able to start cultivating a life in the poetry community—reading others’ work, submitting my own work, volunteering my time to presses and journals, and workshopping with other writers. Like most poets/artists, I create work that I want to share with readers, so because there’s now a cyber-element to the poetry world, I’ve been able to put chapbooks and my first full-length collection out there. I want to keep writing, interacting, reading and sharing my work. I don’t ever see an end to it.

I read this excellent quote from Claudia Rankine on Facebook the other day: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” That’s where my poetry is rooted—in my body, in my body’s past, in my mother’s body, my grandmother’s, my children’s bodies. I write from my body, and perhaps that gives my poems a neo-confessional feel because they come from so highly personal a starting point even as they spin out into other people’s lives, and other events and topics. There’s also a very otherworldly/mystical element to my poems because I come from two grandmothers who saw spirits, and passed the ability to see down to me: I’m very aware of my body’s mortality and of the thin line between this life/ afterlife. The idea of the female body being a conduit for the living (babies) and also the dead (who go and in out of me at will) figures heavily in my poems for this reason.

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

NR:

1.  Religious iconography, medieval statuary, tomb effigies, saints’ relics and reliquaries

  1. Poetry by mothers, especially Adrienne Rich, Julianna Baggott, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Traci Brimhall, Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Audre Lorde, Rachel Zucker, Louise Glück, Jennifer Givhan and Jessica Goodfellow
  2. The acts of becoming pregnant twice, and birthing two children—watching my body unfold as creatrix, releasing new bodies into the world
  3. Poets of light: Lucille Clifton, Anne Carson and Louise Glück (again on my inspiration list)
    3. Men’s poetry in the vein of Timothy Liu, Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty, Ocean Vuong, Peter LaBerge, and of course, Rilke, Vallejo and Neruda
  4. Paintings by Frida Kahlo and Vincent Van Gogh; photography by Ansel Adams
    5. Music by Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Keith Whitley, Amanda Perez and Mary J. Blige. Gregorian chants.
  5. What Audre Lorde said of the poems in her 1986 collection The Dead Behind Us: “Here are the words of some of the women I have been, am being still, will come to be.”

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

NR: I’m an image-based poet who writes loose narratives by leaping images, scenes, vignettes. I gather the detritus around me, the grotesque and the gorgeous. I want my work (and I suppose also the work I read) to:

  • scream. It’s probably like the overly passionate lover singing below your window. It’s intense. Like Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and … all forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences.” My poetry is a love potion (poison).
  • be beautiful and arresting. I want it to make a reader feel discombobulated and coming apart, and then coming back together again.
  • stain. I want the images to stay with my readers for hours, days, weeks, maybe years, if I’m lucky. If I can ever come close to making people feel like the roof of the room they’re in when reading one of my poems just flew off, then I’ll have succeeded.
  • haunt. The dead appear pretty frequently in my poems as they do in my personal life. I’m haunted and so are my poems.
  • hurt. I don’t think I’ve ever written a funny poem. My poems come out of places that hurt or have caused scarring: What have I lost? But also, what has replaced what I’ve lost? There’s a story here in the poem—to get to some kind of resolution, there has to be conflict.
  • reflect what it’s like to be a mother-writer. Because once another body forms in your uterus, everything becomes different, alien, unmoored. Your body is not just your body anymore—between writing lines of poetry—endless diapers and bottles, all those baby milestones, first words, first days of school, projectile vomiting and falls off the swing set. But also, the type of love that cracks you open and never lets you heal, the small hands in yours. How when you watch them as they run across the yard and you think, “They came forth from my body in a river and now they can live forever.”

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

NR: This is how it was: I never really thought about being a mother—or looked forward to it, or dreamed of it, or even longed for it. My husband and I were married for five years when we decided to see if we could have a child—and the next month I missed my period. The truth is, I was terrified out of my mind. I thought I had done everything wrong up until I peed on the stick—ate rare steak, went tanning, had a glass of wine. I was totally unprepared.

But then, I was more unprepared for the way the pregnancy unfolded: at 35 weeks, one of the ob/gyns in the practice I visited told me my stomach was measuring too small, and told me to go to the hospital immediately. While getting the ultrasound, the room was silent. A doctor came in and ran the wand over my stomach again, telling me that my baby was only 3 lbs., because I had an abrupted (half of it was decayed) placenta, and that the child hadn’t been getting the right levels of nutrition and oxygen—and that she would be very small (severe intrauterine growth restriction), might have brain damage and would definitely be spending time in the NICU. Despite hearing this—this baby had kicked me in the ribs so strongly for weeks—that in my gut I suspected that she’d be OK, but I wasn’t prepared for how traumatized I would be by the time she got home.

Because I had a placental aberration the doctors tested my daughter (and me) for all kinds of things, including a CMV virus (that if contracted during my pregnancy could render her deaf at around nine months) test that I didn’t get the results on for three weeks. After almost four weeks, my tiny daughter came home, and we learned that the doctors could find no reason for the abrupted placenta—including CMV. (And as it turned out I would have a history of defective placentas, and two children who had no side effects from their complicated births.)

During that time, it was painful to do so many things, including write. I finally wrote a poem called “Necessary Work” (you can read the poem here) that went through many drafts. I carried a sense that my body was broken, that it could not do the necessary things that would get a child here safely. The poem was rejected from several literary magazines, and then after another rewrite, I submitted it to Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize – and as if in some bizarre twist of fate to me at the time, I won.

The judge, poet Li-Young Lee, chose my poem as the winner and wrote in part about it: “… Among the many virtues that recommend it are the vivid images, as well as a complicated music arising out of a deep unconscious word-counting and word-weighing. One can sense the poet sorting the music of thinking and feeling from the chaos of an outsized undifferentiated passion. But above all, it is the passion that I love about this poem, and how that passion is canalized by discipline to create a work of profound beauty.” And so, winning this contest galvanized me in a way that I hadn’t felt previously to believe that my work had value—that it could speak to others, that it could make them feel some deep emotion. This poem, in a way, saved me—and it’s still awe-striking to me when I read it and someone tears up, or someone I don’t know writes a blog that she taught the poem to her poetry class.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

NR: Hands down, Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us. Like the poet, these spare poems are woman-warrior fierce and unapologetic. Lorde’s work focuses on difference – between groups of women but also of conflicts within the self: as Marilyn Hacker has written, “ … none of Lorde’s selves has ever silenced the others; the counterpoint among them is often the material of her strongest poems.” Lorde’s work speaks to me especially because recently, I described the poems in my full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications, 2015), this way: The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who’ve been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children’s bodily needs and saints’ incorruptible bodies. Lorde is many women within herself—her poems celebrate and confront those differences.

Also: Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s ridiculously amazing poetry book, Paper Doll Fetus (Perseus) is a collection of haunting poems about pregnancy and motherhood, and the history of obstetrics, from medieval midwives to early doctors who were pioneering the field. There’s an unusual cast of characters who speak in this collection, like a deformed ovarian cyst apologizing to the woman in which it grows, or a phantom pregnancy speaking to a nun who wanted a child. Since so much of my work does center on pregnancy and motherhood, themes that also figure in this manuscript, and the role this act of creation within the body plays for women in different time periods, I was happy to encounter this book now. I have a review posted on LiteraryMama.com, if you want to learn more.

 

 

 

Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe Journal, THRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, was published by ELJ Publications in 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

Christopher Gilbert – Turning into Dwelling

Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series 2015

Page Length: 187

Retail: $16

 

“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”

This is the question Terrance Hayes asks at the beginning of and throughout his Introduction to Turning into Dwelling, the collection most recently published by Graywolf’s Poetry Re/View Series. It’s a simple question with a few answers. Most of the answers, though, only produce more and larger questions.

The question, of course, is really two questions. The first is relatively easy to answer: Christopher Gilbert was a poet born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama, who then died in 2007 after a twenty-year battle with polycystic kidney disease. The only book he published during his lifetime was Across the Mutual Landscape, winner of the 1983 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. A student and then friend of Etheridge Knight, Gilbert was an active member of the American Poetry community through the late-70s and 80s, and received a number of distinctions for his work including an NEA Fellowship in 1986.

The second question, though, is probably impossible to answer. I only heard about him a couple months ago, and there’s a pretty good chance you’re hearing his name now for the first time. Why? Well, one answer to the question is that he only published one book during his lifetime. In the world of American Poetry, it is no small accomplishment to publish a book of poems, and this is especially true when that book wins a prestigious first book prize and attracts, over the years, a considerable following. Across the Mutual Landscape is as promising a debut as one could hope to find from an up-and-coming poet: a bit uneven, as first books are expected and allowed to be, but brilliant, fierce, extraordinarily intelligent, and, most importantly: wrought from an original voice packed with surprising turns of syntax, unexpected grammatical tinkering, and sharp diction stretched across the page in unique and strange constellations. Readers in the mid-80s would have been delighted with the collection and, I would imagine, anxiously anticipated Gilbert’s follow-up.

But this is where the story gets muddy, and the question of why we’d never heard of him until now becomes a bit sobering: for the remainder of his life (over twenty years) Gilbert never published another collection. Why not? Was Gilbert, like James Tate and Anthony Hecht, a bit overcome by the success of his first collection, which became something like a creative burden even as it initiated a rather promising professional trajectory? It seems plausible to me that if Christopher Gilbert had continued publishing books he would have been rendered ineligible for the extraordinary Graywolf Re/View Series that brings Turning into Dwelling back into the American Poetry mainstream.

The series, edited by Mark Doty, is four books into a noble and necessary mission to:

“Bring essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print. Each volume—chosen by series editor Mark Doty—is introduced by a poet who comes to the work with a passionate admiration. The Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series offers all-but-lost masterworks of recent American poetry to a new generation of readers.” (quoted from the Graywolf website)

Gilbert is hardly the only poet to have published a single, successful book of poems before receding into the backdrop of the poetry world. The Re/View Series is brilliantly conceived and urgently needed in an American Poetry landscape increasingly crowded by unknown up-and-comers. The multitude of voices we find in our current climate is not something to bemoan: far from it! Like other artistic forms adapting to the Internet age of inexpensive publication and decentralized avenues of promotion, American Poetry has never been more diverse in terms of whose voices get heard and how. Certainly this is something to celebrate. But it comes at a price: because the traditional “gate-keeper” roles have been radically undercut, we have more poets writing and publishing poems than ever before, which leaves the critic/reader with simply too many books to read with any reasonable degree of “authority” regarding what’s “out there.” Whether this was ever actually true or not, the perception is that, at one point in American literary history, a critic could cleanly distinguish the truly great from the rest, made possible only by that critic’s access to “the rest.” But today, “the rest” is astoundingly diverse and overwhelming in volume, and anyone who claims to have an adequate handle on the breadth of contemporary American poetry is frankly full of shit.

What makes the Graywolf Re/View Series so necessary is its response to this problem with an honest (if implied) admission: sometimes the great ones fall through the cracks. Though we tell ourselves that, with time, the cream rises to the top, the contemporary catalogue might suggest otherwise. Sometimes it takes tremendous effort to raise the cream to where it rightfully belongs: at the center of our attention.

Turning into Dwelling is an astounding book not just because of the story of its re-collection, but how it, page-by-page, sequences the DNA underlying the question of why we don’t yet know the name Christopher Gilbert. Turning into Dwelling is not one collection of poems, it is two: first, a re-issue of Across the Mutual Landscape; and then a previously unpublished manuscript compiled posthumously by Gilbert’s friends: Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell. While the poems cannot ultimately answer the biographical question regarding Gilbert’s relative obscurity, they do provide a fascinating look into the mind of a poet whose aesthetic very clearly evolved after his initial publishing success.

Masterfully edited by Quinn and Fell, the second manuscript, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation (Music of the Striving That Was There) is decidedly better than the first. To lean on a tired but too-perfect-to-pass-up metaphor: in the first book we see Gilbert mastering the scales of late-20th century lyric poetry; in the second, Gilbert deconstructs those scales like Charlie Parker, the result of which is a poetic texture modeled on bebop, in which the melody is often presented and then turned inside out acrobatically with odd connective tissue and explosive unpredictability.

 

“That that that all day the vulture overhead was

screeching at in long resignation like naming

something not happened but always here

down here where dusk has begun covering

everything is even more a mystery,

even more a place whose passages deepening

lead to a way beyond testament tonight,

tonight after all day talking those small talk

things till talk was just a loud grasping

without any reaching, till what came forth

was the risk when the tongue goes random and

finally resorts to regarding the world as ‘whatever.’” (Getting Over There)

 

For Gilbert, the “melody” is generally a presentation of self. While some may lump his poetry into the increasingly vague category of “identity politics,” Gilbert’s take on the question of identity is highly intellectually engaged, specifically with the question of linguistic identity. When Gilbert essentially left American Poetry during the nineties and 2000s, he worked as a psychotherapist and a professor of psychology. This expertise is clearly present in Gilbert’s poems written during that time.

 

“Because it is the route that is the work

you could take the world itself to mean

yourself. Into these hills you’ve taken to

like the present, you could take place and be one

with the subject of your feeling arising

before you. The way the Queen’s lace sways

could be an indication of your breath

coming and going. As if an outline for time

itself, here I am stepping forth as an instance

walking the mountain road to the hilltop where

around the bend I’ll hear someone working

on the house the frame of whose part—the material

and the aesthetic and their perishing—linked

together will stand for history.” (Tourist)

 

Reading this poetry requires a diligent obedience to the unfolding syntax of complicated, systematic thought. It is highly, though not prohibitively, philosophical. The figures that arise from Gilbert’s late poems are neither neat syllogisms nor clean delineations of a unified self: they are self-interrogations, not merely of the author or the “speaker” of the poem, but of the very linguistic substance out of which selves are constructed. This linguistic self-consciousness is not only radiantly postmodern, but it fuses the language-as-object conviction of Objectivists like Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen with the communal, lyrical spirit of the black community first brought into the American mainstream by the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance and the countless schools and movements that have worked in their wake. It should come as no surprise, then, to find so much jazz in Gilbert’s line.

Music in this tradition is both a means of mourning and celebration; it unites individuals who have been outcast by society—people who are themselves a cluster of fragments. For Gilbert, music is the ultimate metaphor not only for the poetic project, but, perhaps more urgently: the human self, which is a cluster of chaoses out of which certain harmonies may arise. The song is self: an ephemeral container that can, through formal repetition and sheer emotive will, produce unity and transcendence. Perhaps the most uninhibited articulation of this music is the following, which concludes the second manuscript’s title poem, the scene of which is a hospital room after receiving a kidney transplant.

 

“The IV unit with my name and directions for my care

taped to the top will indicate I am. The ID bracelet

I’ve been wearing since I got here will say for me,

‘I am.’ The scar the surgeon left as a signature

on my belly’s right side will say, ‘I am.’ I am

I feel a gathering possibility passing from temporary

articulation to articulation the way the horizon

arises in the sun as a series of evident illuminations

while the earth spins clockwise toward futurity.

When the time comes I’ll rise and say, ‘I am.’

I’ll gather all my questions, step into their midst

and say, ‘I am.’ I am I am.” (Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation)

 

“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”

 

Christopher Gilbert is a breathtaking poet who, for reasons not entirely clear, most of us have never heard of. It seems that his genius was unappreciated during his lifetime, which is sad. Thank god for Terrance Hayes, Mark Doty, Graywolf Press, and the Re/View Series for bringing his work back into circulation. Thank god for Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell, who recognized in Gilbert’s unpublished poems a singular poetics that lay obscurely dormant for far too long. In an increasingly crowded poetry world, it is tragically too common for a brilliant and original voice to go unheard. Thank god, in the case of Christopher Gilbert, at least, that voice is singing again.