Category Archives: Blog Posts

Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant…Poets?

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I’ve just retuned to IVTFWB after a very long absence. Basically, I got a new job in March, completed my thesis in May, and it’s taken this long for me to get my ducks in a row and return to writing. I’ve been wanting to blog about a certain collection since AWP, but I wanted to make sure that I could devote uninterrupted time to it, so that I could reread it, digest it, and go back for seconds. If you couldn’t tell from my slightly uninspired blog title, the collection of which I write is Erika Meitner’s Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga, 2011).

I read and thoroughly enjoyed MIFVG. I finished it months ago, and went back and reread it more than once, in fact, then realized that I hadn’t read Erika’s first collection Inventory at the Allnight Drugstore , which one the 2002 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Call me anal retentive but, whenever possible, I always read poets chronologically. Not so with these collections. I read Ideal Cities (2010), then Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (published 2011), and then the debut collection Inventory at the Allnight Drugstore (2002). Remembering that Makeshift Instructions was written before though published after Ideal Cities got me thinking: what makes chronology? Date of publication or when a work is written?

When you open a book and see a page in the front matter like, “Other Works By the Author,” they will likely appear in the order of publication. If the author has written a series  (like Philip Roth’s books about the fictional author Nathan Zuckerman), parts that comprise the series might be clustered together. I know that the published chronology of Erika Meitner’s works is different from the order in which she wrote the books, with Makeshift Instructions actually being written after Inventory. So as I was reading and rereading, I kept thinking about how it feels like Ideal Cities is so different from either of the other collections. There is a definite, palpable sense that Makeshift picks up where Inventory leaves off. In Ideal Cities, the speaker is a mother, and many of the poems focus on motherhood, from pregnancy to battling toddler fevers. The speaker in the other collections is younger. There is no mention of motherhood. There are many poems that ruminate on the speaker’s teenager years and recollections.

As I write this, I realize that it is not, as the title might suggest, a review or rumination on the single colletion, but rather, a way to think about how these collections–each one free-standing and wonderfully written–instruct the reader and the writer within me. One piece of advice that these works have given me: my poems will find a home. Maybe they won’t be published in the order that I wrote them, but they should and can be published. (I say this as if I had more than one manuscript kicking around…) As a reader, I cannot know if every author’s works have been published in the order in which they were written. So I should not blindly read poets in order (as I often do) and instead, read for the pleasure of finding the small joys and conduits that unite collections in a cluster, and not a straight, chronological line. Finally, I should read for reading’s sake, so that I can better connect with my own self and my writing. Through interviewing Erika previously, I was able to learn that we had a lot in common: the LIRR, Law and Order, fascination with emoticons, to name a few. I never thought in a million years that someone so cool and smart would start out as a middle school English teacher, as I did, and as I learned when reading Inventory at the Allnight Drugstore. (This gives me hope, as I am no longer a teacher, and wish to do something more rewarding, less stressful, and more awesome). I read Erika’s poems about teaching in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn and I thought, “Wow. Poets have regular lives before they become Poets. They teach in poor neighborhoods and have kids with fierce b.o. Huh. Maybe I can do that, too. 

There’s hope for us all, so long as we remain vigilant.

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AWP 2011

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After a long hiatus from the blog (because the poets I queried for interviews did not respond), I thought that it would be good to make my first post of 2011 about my time at AWP.

I was unable to attend the New York (2009) and Denver (2010) conferences, so Washington, D.C. was my first experience with all that is AWP. After a lovely four hour nap on the Bolt Bus, I arrived and was immediately overwhelmed. AWP is like SXSW on a smaller, self-contained scale minus a few decibels and free liquor before noon. I counted just under 500 exhibitors at the book fair alone, not to mention the dozens of concurrent panels running at the Marriott Wardman Park and the Omni Shoreham.

I possess neither a clone nor a Time Turner, so I only got to see a few panels and I was surprised to come away from AWP disliking more than I liked. One big problem is that so many “panels” are actually readings. Friday’s “Reading and Discussion on Transracial Adoption” was 90% reading and 10% author musings. The authors told the audience about their work; however, they did not have a discussion, did not exchange thoughts, ideas, approaches to craft, or commentary about each other’s work. Later that day, I walked out of “Beyond Ekphrasis: The Endless Possibilities in Collaboration” because 1) one of the presenters was in attendance at AWP but was late to his own panel and 2) the woman who opened the presentation began by reading a very tedious essay.

The best panel I listened to was “One Word Please: Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe” presented by Sarabande Books and MC’ed by Sarabande President and Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gorham. The presentation was a clever event to promote Sarabande’s One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe, edited by Molly McQuade, who could not make it to AWP due to weather. The panel was lively and featured eight authors who contributed their loved/loathed word and musings on it for the anthology. This well-attended presentation kept the reading to a minimum (eight authors read eight essays in under a half hour) and the rest of the time was devoted to discussion in which the authors entertained questions from the crowd and spoke to each other.  To be fair, the Transracial Adoption presenters left about ten minutes for questions, though no one seemed invested enough to ask. I do not know Sarah Gorham personally, but when she deftly handled an irritating (likely) MFA student who asked not one, but two idiotic questions, she became my AWP hero. I only wish that all of the events I attended were that entertaining and interesting.

Unlike many of my MFA colleagues, I did not attend the big events–the Jhumpa Lahiri keynote, Junot Diaz’s appearance–because I don’t find those kind of large scale events to be personal. I like the panels because they are more intimate. I gave Mary Gaitskill and Sapphire’s joint reading a try but left early because 1) I was not a fan of Gaitskill’s Veronica and wasn’t taken by the reading from her work-in-progress and 2) I did not care to hear Sapphire read from Push, a book that was published fifteen years ago.

Though it was overwhelming, my favorite part of the conference was the book fair because I really enjoyed meeting new people and meeting authors who, like me, might have made their first trip to AWP as an MFA student with a partial manuscript.

A Conversation with Erika Meitner

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I’m ecstatic to share this latest post with everyone because it is unlike any interview I’ve done so far. What sets it apart from the others is that this interview–really this conversation–took place in real time. National Poetry Series winner Erika Meitner was kind enough to set aside some time for me to interview her–no easy feat, since she’s an assistant professor with a full teaching schedule, writer, wife, and mother to a four-year-old.

Erika Meitner is the author of two collections of poetry, Inventory at the All-night Drugstore and Ideal Cities. I learned a lot about the poetry world (it costs a lot to be a poet) and that inspiration for a poem can come from anywhere, even prime time television.

DM: Hi, Erika! I hope you get this.

EM: Yup! Just trying to figure out how to expand the screen…

DM: Awesome. Thanks again for doing this. I really loved the collection and I promise not to keep you too long.

EM: No problem! Is there a way to expand the screen? Mine’s tiny!

DM: Are you on a Mac or PC?

EM: Mac.

DM: You can drag the bottom right of the screen. Where the diagonal lines are.

EM: A ha! I clicked an arrow and it got bigger!

DM: Woo hoo!

EM: I swear I’m not a Luddite! I’m actually really tech savvy, current case notwithstanding.

DM: I believe you. And anyway, poets don’t have to be tech savvy. Aren’t we supposed to be writing with fountain pens on acid free paper, 24-7?

EM: Totally. And then sending our stuff out via homing pigeon while designing our own websites in our spare time!

DM: In between writing poems and lamenting over rejection letters.

*

DM: So as I said, I loved Ideal Cities.

EM: Thank you!

DM: How long did it take you to write and complete it?

EM: That book was a strange collection, as it feels like it happened really quickly. I had been working on my second collection for about seven years—from 2001 to about 2008. That collection, called Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (due out in February 2011 from Anhinga Press) was a finalist or semi-finalist at about fifteen contests, and I kept re-writing, re-shuffling, and re-titling it, and then re-sent it out over and over again, until finally, in the fall of 2008, I decided I had to move on.

(I’m getting to Ideal Cities—bear with me.)

Back in July of 2007, I picked up and moved from Washington DC to Blacksburg VA, as I got a job as an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech. I had my four-month-old son in tow, and I was sick (from a bacterial infection I got in the hospital when I had him), and the whole move was so chaotic that I didn’t ever think I’d have time to write. But there was this sweet spot (I’m a night-owl) from about 11pm to 2 or 3am when I’d wait for him to wake up and want to eat. And I had this virtual group of poet friends who all decided to throw down a challenge—we would write a poem a day for the entire month of August, and post each poem to a closed on-line group.

So I tried my best to keep up with the NaPoWriMo group poets (the concept of a poem a day was taken from Maureen Thorson’s National Poetry Writing Month/NaPoWriMo project), and we did it again a few times a year–the group met virtually (and still meets)–and by the end of that year, I thought I might have a manuscript. So I took off to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for a week, left my husband (he’s a saint) with the baby, and started pulling the poems together to see what I had. The book was done by mid-2008, and there are a few older poems in there, but for the most part, it was about two, two-and-a-half years to finish the manuscript.

Then I sent it to a few friends to read. One—my most constant reader—said she didn’t think it was a book yet, which felt discouraging. But then I sent it to my friends Sandra Beasley, Aimee Nezhukumathatil, and David Stack (a friend from college) for advice and help with ordering, and the manuscript took shape a bit more concretely. They helped me figure out what the poems were doing, exactly.

DM: Wow. So as you were writing Ideal Cities, you had no idea that Makeshift Instructions would be published?

EM: Actually, the situation with Makeshift was more complicated. What happened was that I got tired of sending it out, and it got expensive to have two manuscripts circulating.

I contacted Rick Campbell at Anhinga Press to see if I could send it to him. They had done a fine job with my first book, and I really wanted to give Makeshift a good home, and I also wanted to start sending out Ideal Cities. Rick agreed to take Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls in 2008, before I even started sending Ideal Cities out, but the press was so backlogged that the publication date wasn’t until 2011.

Ideal Cities got picked up really quickly, much to my delight and surprise. I sent it out for about seven months. It was a finalist at two places (like in the top two, but the presses didn’t ultimately publish it) and then I found out that it had won NPS (National Poetry Series).

So my second manuscript is now my third book. Weird.

DM: What made sending them out expensive? Were you entering the manuscripts in contests that had reading fees? How did you decide which ones to enter?

EM: When you start to send out a second book manuscript, there are a few presses you can query that don’t charge reading fees, but for the most part it’s twenty-five to thirty dollars for each place you sent the book to (in fees), then the copying costs for Xeroxing sixty pages of manuscript (and in some cases you need to send two copies), and then about seven dollars for mailing costs. It starts to add up. I was sending to probably twenty to twenty-five contests a year, and if I had had two manuscripts out at once, the costs would have gotten untenable. And I’m employed! I can’t imagine how students manage the contest thing.

In terms of deciding which contests to enter, I had gotten some encouraging rejections from certain presses with the second manuscript (Makeshift) so I sent Ideal Cities to those. I also sent to presses whose books I read and enjoy, or places that had guest judges whose work I liked.

DM: Is it strange to have you third manuscript published before your second?

EM: I do wonder what readers will think about Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, as it’s very much a follow-up book to my first—Inventory at the All-night Drugstore—whereas Ideal Cities is quite different from both of those books.

DM: To me, Ideal Cities was about push and pull; I saw motifs of transience vs. permanence, departure vs. return. It doesn’t have a “plot,” so to speak, but I felt that setting and where the speaker was in each poem created mood and tone. Was that what you were going for, or am I totally off the mark?

Photo copywright Steve Trost, 2009

EM: No! I think that’s right. When I sent the manuscript to Sandra Beasley, she had said that she thought the first part was about how place shapes relationships, and the second part was about how relationships shape place. I wrote a lot of the book as a sort of love letter to DC, where we lived from 2006 to 2007, through my whole pregnancy and the birth of our son. I’m from New York—I grew up in an urban environment—and when we were in DC, I would walk for hours around our neighborhood with my son in the stroller, and when you’re a pedestrian like that, you have to interact with everyone and everything. And then we moved to this crazy ex-urban place (Blacksburg) where I was always in my car or by myself in a big box store. The transition was sort of shattering, and I think the book was born, in some ways, out of that dislocation.

But in terms of ordering, too, it’s interesting—in my first pass at ordering, the book was really linear. I had all the “sexy” poems up front; my pregnancy (in the book) proceeded in a linear fashion, I slowly became a mother, etc., etc. And then my friend Dave Stack took the manuscript and mashed everything up. He suggested that it was more interesting if it didn’t have a linear order, and he was totally right. His suggestions drew out the subtler thematic connections between the poems. When I first rearranged it though, it drove me crazy that there were poems in the first section where I had a baby, and poems in the second section about giving birth or still being pregnant. Now I can see what Dave was getting at.

It’s always really interesting to me that sometimes my friends/trusted editorial readers are better at articulating what my work is doing than I am. I think I have to be in that place of dumb unknowing to write the poem. I remember so clearly I had written this poem—and I had no idea what it was about, but I liked the way it sounded. And I read it at a reading in NYC and Matthew Zapruder was in the audience; afterwards he came up to me to tell me how much he liked my love poem, and that’s when I realized that it was, in fact, a love poem. I call this the Forrest Gump School of Poetry.

DM: Sometimes, all it takes is the confidence to sell a poem. I’ve had that happen in workshops, where I read something that I’m iffy about and others are like, “You’ve said about loss what I’ve never been able to,” and then silently, in my head I’m like, “Uh, okay, but this poem was really, literally about baking cookies.”

EM: For me, I think of it more as my subconscious being smarter than I am. It’s able to make these connections–to put them in poems–and if I had tried to make them consciously, they would have been clunky and effortful. One of my first really successful poems (called “Rubber”) was one of these. It’s about a speaker who’s dealing with the after-effects of a broken condom and a flat tire on the same day. And both of those incidents really happened to me on the same day, so I thought I’d write a poem about it for workshop. And when I brought it in, Rita Dove (this was at UVA) pointed out what a great metaphor one was for the other, and I honestly hadn’t even realized it. It was totally accidental, but my subconscious must have known that these connections were working on some level. So I spend a lot of time free writing, trying to get back to that more random place where things happen by accident.

Were your cookies really sad? Was there a grandmother involved?

DM: There’s always a grandmother involved when it comes to cookies!

EM: So clearly, your poem was about loss. 🙂

OMG. That smiley face just turned itself around. I swear it winked at me too. What kind of technology is this? Google is creepy.

DM: That’s true. It was about loss, by the time I was done with it. I had begun it about the cookies and the process of rolling them out, but then it spiraled into this elegy. It’s funny how those things happen.

Yes, that’s an interesting feature of GChat. It automatically animates your emoticons.

😦

😀

EM: Your heart just turned pink! Will wonders never cease? Soon GChat will write our poems for us!

DM: There’s that great line in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” where she writes, “I lost two cities; lovely ones…” It’s clear that you’ve lived in a lot of different places—how did location positively or negatively affect your writing?

But before you answer that:

At Adelphi we use this online system called Moodle; it’s very similar to Blackboard. My friend and fellow poet Kimmy Grey titled a poem “Why I Writ(h)e” and apparently, (h) is Moodle code for a heart, so her title got “Moodled,” which is also strange. Added a new level to her poem.

EM: I moved every year after graduating college in 1996, up until we finally moved to Blacksburg in 2007. I’ve lived in Hanover, NH; Jerusalem; Brooklyn; Charlottesville, VA; Santa Cruz, CA; Madison, WI; and Washington DC. If I didn’t move cities, I moved apartments, and I spent a few years bouncing between Charlottesville and other cities, as I kept leaving and going back to a PhD program in Religion that I’m still enrolled in. The first time I got really super homesick was when I moved to Charlottesville to do my MFA at UVA. I had never lived in the South or a small town like that, and I was so utterly wracked about leaving New York that I found myself watching Law & Order episodes just for the opening street scenes. It was bad.

So one day I was telling my mother this, and she said, “Well, why don’t you just write your way back home?” I remember this nugget of wisdom as something that came from my mother, which is strange, as she’s a financial planner. But it was really excellent advice. I write my way back to beloved places all the time.

I think partially because I’m a more narrative-/outwardly-focused poet, landscape—the human and physical geography of a place, its built environment and its detritus and its characters—are really important to me.

I want a Moodled poem!

Visit Erika's website to buy this book. Like now.

DM: I saw a show at the Williamsburg Waterfront (formerly East River State Park) and seeing these huge condos with only a few lights in only a few occupied apartments made me think of the first line of “Vinyl Sided Epiphanies”: “The windows on the soon-to-be luxury / condos across the way say things / to the darkness I can’t hear.”

And, to make you a little jealous, my boyfriend works in lower Manhattan, near City Hall, and has seen episodes of L&O being filmed. Sad now that they’ve ended regular L&O; I can’t watch Law & Order: LA; it looks funny.

EM: I wrote that poem in Charlottesville! The crazy grad student rental house I was living in with my then-boyfriend (now husband) had this beautiful forest behind it, and beyond that, the train tracks. And then developers came and cut down the forest and put up these condos and the strange thing about it was that our neighborhood was quite sketchy, and considered “the wrong side of the tracks” (the pizza delivery guys actually told us this pretty regularly when they refused to deliver there). The strange thing about that place (Is this in the poem? It probably is…) is that the conductor on the Amtrak line would call out all the stops and if we slept with the windows open, the station/city names would work their way into my dreams.

P.S.: Law & Order is totally too sanitized. I agree with you on that wholeheartedly.

I kind of miss Lenny too.

DM: That’s pretty insane about the station names, but believable. I live about  two miles from an LIRR station and can hear the train whistles from my suburban apartment. On a side note, my sister says that British Law & Order will change your life…though I’m skeptical.

EM: Have you ever written a Law & Order poem? I feel like that’s a way overdue project of mine…

How can we get British Law & Order? Do we have to move? Can I Netflix it during the next Snowpocalypse?

DM: That sounds like a great idea for a collection because there have been so many versions with so many memorable characters. It could be a whole collection narrated by different characters, like Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife.

It’s worth a shot to Netflix it, but I’m sure you can find it bootleg online.

EM: What else can I tell you about, aside from my embarrassing Law & Order addiction?

P.S.: Which LIRR station do you live near?

DM: I eyeballed the table of contents recently and noticed an interesting pattern: there’s “In Dispraise of Heat” and “In Praise of Heat”; “January Towns” and “Christmas Towns”; and “North Slope Borough” and “North Country Canzone.” Are we supposed to read them, especially the last two pairs, as companion pieces?

P.S.: I live near the Bethpage station. My aunt used to live in Flushing, where the Auburndale LIRR station was literally in her backyard and her china used to shake when the train passed. You could actually FEEL the difference between the local and express.

EM: Hmmm. That’s a good question. I knew the book was going to somehow deal with place, and so the “town” titles (and the “city” titles) were really intentional. But it was more like I sort of wrote the poems (sometimes) in proximity to each other. The heat poems, though totally different (“In Dispraise of Heat” is about the terror of mothering, death, and accidents, while “In Praise of Heat” is about sex and travel) were written around the same time as each other. The “town” poems were titled for symmetry’s sake. And the North Country poems were a happy accident. “North Country Canzone” was written in 2006, when I was at Blue Mountain Center, an artist colony in the Adirondacks. I was there in the fall and it kept snowing and snowing. “North Slope Borough” was written much later (2008-ish?) when I was reading a book by Edie Turner called The Hands Feel It (The full title is The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence Among a Northern Alaskan People), where she went to live with the Inupiat people in the North Slope Borough of Alaska. I was reading the book for one of my comprehensive exams for my PhD, and that location title seemed so right for the poem—so New York-esque! Other places have boroughs!

DM: New York used to have wards, like New Orleans, which seems so strange to me.

EM: I hope you’ve written, by the way, about your aunt and the local/express dishes.

DM: I haven’t yet, but maybe I will.

EM: Every time I’m home I use my cell phone camera to take pictures out the window on the LIRR—my parents still live on the Port Washington line—and I’ve been using the blurry pictures as starting points for poems.

We’re the only line that doesn’t go through the Jamaica Station so I was spared the LIRR mess this weekend when I was in.

DM: That’s a really cool thing to do. I’m writing from Park Slope in Brooklyn right now, so I have the best (and worst) of both urban and suburban New York.

I guess I only have one more pre-thought out question for you. I read many of these poems, maybe the whole collection in some ways, as an ode or love letter to your son. Did motherhood change the way you wrote?

EM: Yes! It made me way more efficient!! (Necessity is the mother of invention?) My drafts are often more finished earlier in the process because they have to be.

DM: Because your son may need to tell you he hates you for not giving him M&M’s?

EM: Totally. Right before the interview started I got called up twice to his room because his feet hurt (?).

DM: Which new poets excite you? Any recommendations for reading?

My mom told me that when I told her I hate her when I was two, she cried and was sad for days; by the time my sister came around, she was like, “Yeah, and?”

EM: So many great new poets!!! So many terrific new first books! Anna Journey, Karyna McGlynn, Allison Titus, Carrie Fountain’s Burn Lake…I just finished a terrific new manuscript due out in the spring from Persea by Cynthia Marie Hoffman.

Anything you’ve read lately that you’d recommend?

DM: I loved Beth Bachmann’s Temper, Jericho Brown’s Please.

I can’t wait to read one of my professor’s (Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s) forthcoming collections. It’s called Last Seen; it’s about missing minority children, and partially, I think, how their disappearances never seem to garner as much coverage as the disappearances of white children.

EM: Yes! Those are both great! I also loved Melissa Stein’s Rough Honey. If you like Temper, you’ll like Burn Lake, I think. I’m also really excited for Vievee Francis’s new book (she just won the Cave Canem prize).

DM: Very neat. Oh, I also loved Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope.

EM: Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls has to do with abducted girls, so I’ll totally have to find Last Seen!

DM: And Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, which I should have read a long, long time ago.

I know that Jaci just saw the cover art, so it should be out in early 2011.

EM: How cool!

I adore What the Living Do! It’s heart wrenching, as a collection.

DM: I just saw Marie read and speak at Poets House with Nick Flynn and Kevin Young; they discussed the new anthology of poems about death that Kevin edited (The Art of Losing, Bloomsbury). Hearing her read from What the Living Do was a thrill.

Well, I’m not going to keep you from your son and his feet any longer. Thanks for this great opportunity; any brilliant, parting words?

EM: Kevin’s new elegy antho is fabulous!

Parting words?

Hmm.

Anything at all can go in a poem. That, and read everything you can get your hands on, which should be a lot, since you live in NYC!

DM: Even Law & Order characters can go into poems? 🙂

EM Oh, definitely Law & Order characters. And creepy floating emoticons!

DM: I promise I will.

EM: I dare you to write a good poem with emoticons.

DM: Oooh, a challenge. I’ll definitely try it and will send you the fruits of my labor.

Please visit Erika Meitner’s website to let her know what a fine poet she is; if you ask nicely, I bet she’ll tell you who her favorite Law & Order character is.

Poems Like Poured Gasoline–an Interview with Beth Bachmann

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These days, I’ve been gobbling up first collections faster than fun size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. One that I can’t get out of my mind is Beth Bachmann’s Temper. It is chilling, startling, memorable–all things that I crave in poetry. Temper was awarded the 2008  AWP Award Series Donald Hall Prize (chosen by Lynn Emanuel) and the 2010 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Sometimes, I read prize-winning collections and think, “Really?” Not this one; I read it, read it again, and came back to it, each and every time noticing something new and wonderful. I wanted it to win more awards. Because I can’t give it one (that will matter), I will share my good fortune with the lovely people who read this blog–an interview with award-winning poet Beth Bachmann.

DM: What impressed me most about Temper is that, for a first collection, the narrative arc is exceptionally tight. How did it come together?

BB: I knew that I had lit certain fuses in the first section that I had to return to but I didn’t feel the desire or obligation to do this in a linear way. My uncles used to make gunpowder firecrackers. We’d go out into this dark field and sure there would be the requisite blasts of light but in between there would be voices and shadows and fireflies and after-images and debris.

DM: So many of the poems deal with the speaker’s sister’s death, yet all of those poems are unique. How do you keep the experience of writing new for yourself?

BB: That must be a character trait of the poet: not tiring of one’s own poems, at least while writing them. It probably has to do with artist narcissism or mania. I think of Bergman. It’s so clear he’s never bored. Note here the narcissism through which I compare myself to Bergman. I’m obsessed with Bergman.

I guess I wasn’t so much interested in making it new as much as holding the gaze. At the time, psychically, nearly everything triggered a threat of violence for me so it wasn’t hard to keep it ‘new’ in that way. If anything, I probably took a dull pleasure in the indulgence after years of refusal.

Photo by Brian O. Bachmann

DM: I heard Nick Flynn speak at Poets House recently, and he noted that he doesn’t write poems about death for catharsis, but rather, for cathexis. Did writing Temper provide either for you?

BB: Ah, yes, catharsis. Nick and I talk about that a lot. The thing about catharsis is that its root comes from purging in an effort to purify and I’m certain that aesthetically,at least, that was not what I was after: pure vomit. What I mean is I wanted the violence to remain dirty, not clean, as a way to honor it.

I think Nick talks about Aristotle as only promising catharsis for the viewer, not the maker. I know I’ve found deep calm in Nick’s poems, so maybe he’s right. Aristotle, I mean.

As for cathexis, I am really interested in energy right now. In my new poems, energy is almost displacing my fixation with tone. Cathexis has ‘holding’ at its root, which to me does seem more akin to the act of writing, holding the poem in the body, in the breath, in the mouth and ear and hands.

DM: One difficulty I’ve had while compiling my thesis is organization; how did you embark on organizing the poems into the three sections that comprise Temper?

BB: Once everything’s written, it’s not hard to know where everything goes. The hard part, for me, was figuring out what needed to be written. Reading army manuals led me back to my father and from there out of the book (in poems like “Evasion,” “Tracking,” and “Supple” in the final section). They gave me the after-image I was after.

DM: How did you know that the collection was complete?

BB: The title poem was the last poem I wrote. I knew I had everything. I even had the title Temper but I knew I wanted a poem “Temper” to define that space. This took about a year of waiting for it to arrive. Then it was fall and I was nursing my baby and reading about California wildfire. I wrote while she slept. The poem felt like poured gasoline. It was just the place I’d been longing to enter.

To purchase Temper, visit Beth’s website. After you read it and fall in love with it, drop her a line and tell her so.

What Do the Living Do?

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The Art of Losing, edited by Kevin Young

They write elegies; they write poetry of necessity.

“Nobody wants to write an elegy but you don’t have a choice,” said Kevin Young, editor of the newly published anthology The Art of Losing (Blooomsbury, 2010) this past Saturday at Poets House.

Young and fellow poets Nick Flynn and Marie Howe spoke on a beautiful day that belied the seriousness of conversation and of the elegy. He spoke of his inspiration for the collection, which included the deaths of his father and several close friends and family members, the notions of private and public grief, and the idea that the elegy is private grief expressed publicly. Young’s most recent collection, Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008), is basically that. When I read it about a year ago, I found the close to one hundred poems in the collection to be overwhelmingly sad and because of this, I don’t think I gave it its fair shake. But something about seeing the poet in the flesh is a lot like going to a concert and seeing a performer you feel lukewarm toward. The proximity makes it easier to get closer.

The Art of Losing isn’t the first anthology of poems about death, but it definitely the one that features the most contemporary poets. This, in itself, is a triumph, as obtaining rights (and paying publishers’ fees) is often an arduous task. Young read selections from Natasha Trethewey, Jane Kenyon, Stephen Dunn, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, William Matthews, and “Bereavement,” one of his own pieces. The thing that struck me most of anything Kevin Young said was that he feels that closure is forced and false, that grief is evergreen, a way to “begin afresh”–to borrow a line from Philip Larkin.

Marie Howe (What the Living Do, Norton, 1999) followed up by saying, “Every elegy is a love poem.” I thought that an enlightened way of looking at it. Howe was, in many ways, the most moving speaker because in speaking about What the Living Do, she spoke intimately of her brother, John, who died of AIDS at the age of 28. In talking about John and the collection he inspired, Howe also paid tribute to her close friend, the poet Jane Kenyon, who helped her edit parts of Living. She recalled a particularly special moment;  while living at her mother’s house to be closer to her brother, Howe opened a letter from Kenyon that contained an early draft of her poem “Let Evening Come” which was included in Young’s anthology and was read twice during the discussion (by Howe and Young).

Nick Flynn, the last poet to speak, devoted some of his time to discussing the idea of catharsis. Witty and self-deprecating, Flynn said that writing about death is “like returning to the scene of an unbearable tragedy” and that he doesn’t feel like he is a sophisticated enough life form to ever move toward getting past that tragedy. He likened his writing to cathexis and described it as putting emotional energy into an object–in this case, a poem.

Listening to Young, Howe, and Flynn made me proud to be a poet. It made me feel inspired. There is something exciting and motivating about seeing poets in the flesh, even on a gorgeous autumn day when they’re talking about death.

Jericho Brown Helps an MFA Student

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Recently, I went out on a limb and e-mailed an interview request to a poet whose first collection I admire. I hoped for the best, but expected the worst, realizing that I had contacted him right before the start of the fall semester. Despite my poor timing, Jericho Brown, author of the beautifully honest and carefully crafted collection Please, responded to my e-mail (subject line: “Help an MFA Student?”)and was kind enough to answer these questions with great detail, candor, and alacrity. What began as a desire to find out what Jericho’s process was like ended as a chance to reflect upon my own practices, and has proven to be very helpful as I prepare to turn in the first draft of my thesis.

DM: One of my mentors, the poet Jacqueline Jones LaMon, once said that what is both beautiful and potentially frustrating about crafting a first collection is that the poems that comprise it are often written before the theme or meaning of the collection as a whole is realized. What so impressed me about Please is that it is, among other things, a meticulously crafted debut–how did it come together for you?

JB: Slowly. I wasn’t as interested in writing a book as I was in writing poems, so Jacqueline is absolutely right. The book really did come together as a result of reaching the end of my Ph.D. program and having to defend a creative dissertation. Before that, I only tried writing each poem for what it is.

The closer I came to the date scheduled for graduation, the more I thought about the way themes are brought to the forefront in books that I love and the varying levels of advice I got from good poet friends and in manuscript workshops in school.

One of the wonderful things about having people close to me with a common endeavor is that, at some point, some of them begin to get worried. People were calling me here and there and saying things like, “Don’t you think you have enough poems for a book now?” That’s what I mean when I say good poet friends—folk who feel that they can contribute to my life and the progression of poetry by giving me a nudge and by asking sincere questions about my writing.

At some juncture, I started thinking about making the book my own. I mean that I did a lot of ordering based on influences but then put the influences aside to see exactly what would be Jericho Brown about Jericho Brown’s first book.

DM: The book is divided into four sections–Repeat, Pause, Power, and Stop. At what point in the compilation process did you decide to divide the book this way?

JB: I’m obsessed with very different kinds of music, much of which was most popular before I was born. Coupled with my admiration for pop divas, that obsession seemed to be the best way to think about the book’s mode of artifice. I started to think of the poems as songs and of the book as a debut album. I also wanted to make sure that the voice in the poems had the opportunities to show the best of what it could do in the same way that producers and songwriters tailor songs for performers. .

Poems that relate to a particular aspect of the speaker’s voice are grouped together. The titles for each section came from words that went with the mode of artifice. For instance, I was lucky enough to have a second section of sexually charged poems that includes a poem titled, “Pause,” and fortunate enough to see that I was revisiting very familiar themes from the Oedipus archetype and from a great deal of African American poetry in a section I ended up naming, “Repeat.”

DM: Please uses music, rhythm, and pop culture as motifs. The poets I know seem to have very strong feelings that lyrics are not poetry; where do you stand on the issue?

JB: I wouldn’t say that lyrics are not poetry. Sometimes, they are. It’s just that they don’t have to be because the singing voice and the music to which the lyrics are set can make powerful the most cliché of phrases.

Poetry is different because it makes music from words only, and the rhythms can be heard in the head of the reader without the help of real instruments. This is why, though one of my favorite things in the world is to hear good poems read aloud, there is no experience as intimate as reading well-crafted poems on the page.

DM: I loved that “everyday” characters in your poems (“Betty Jo Jackson,” “Detailing the Nape,” “Lunch”) can hold their weight and resonate just as clearly and strongly as the celebrities you mention or to which you allude such as Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, and Luther Vandross. How much thought goes into character development in your poems? How do you choose whom to create or recreate in your work?

JB: A lot of thought and none at all, Danielle. The poet must be free of thought in the drafting process and heavy with it while revising. But then again, maybe that’s not it at all.

The important thing for me is following what ever is tugging at my mind. The poem is the place where it’s okay to be consumed with a single set of ideas. Or maybe that’s wrong too…

Let me try it this way. When I wrote the poems in Please, I was just writing poems. When I was thinking about putting those poems together for a book, I wore myself out figuring what the hell they had to do with each other and even changed some poems so they would have more to do with each other.

Yea. I think that’s it.

I should add, though, that when it came to some celebrity characters I knew that there were some I wouldn’t use them because their mythology was already too obvious or known. For instance, I knew I would never write a Tina Turner poem because so much of the book dealt with domestic violence. I’m a big fan of Turner’s performances, but there would be no discovery for me or for the reader in a poem about her getting beaten by her rock music co-founder.

DM: Are you ever worried about how your friends and family might react to your work?

JB: Sure, but probably not as much as people who feel that their families care for them. I wrote the poems in Please at a time that I was certain of something I had in mind since age six or seven. (Maybe eight, but the thought was definitely in its firm place by the time I was ten.) One of my own personal problems in this world to this very day is that I have to remind myself that my parents love me, and in our culture, that means we owe them something. There is also the fact that because of them making love I was born. Still, I grew up thinking that the goal was to get out of my parents’ house so as not to be a burden on them any more.

My parents are very religious people, and my father and I have had literal fistfights over my own sinful life. By the time I was writing, I had completely convinced myself that I didn’t have anything to lose in the realm of family because I didn’t have a family that really wanted anything to do with me anyway.

Typing this now, I see that this all sounds very dreary, but (true or not) it was really quite a goldmine of a revelation for me as a poet because I could write without any particular hate or love for my friends or family. I just needed to get the poems right for the sake of poetry.

DM: How did Please go from manuscript to published work? What practical advice would you give to MFA students when it comes to publishing their first volume?

JB: I entered book contests and lost them all. After I lost their contest, the editors at New Issues decided take a risk on the book in spite of the fact that the judge that year wasn’t as interested. I only have two and a half pieces of advice for every situation:

1. Try everything. 2. Never say no. 2.5. Always use condoms.

DM: What was the best self-discovery you made about your craft during your MFA studies?

JB: What I remember most about my MFA was learning to write a clear sentence and learning to allow the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated sentences to say what connective sentences would over-explain. John Gery and Kay Murphy and Randy Bates taught me how to do this.

While getting my Ph.D. it was something about perspective. I learned that I could zoom in and out of a situation about which I was writing—see the landscape of a thing as well as its pieces. I had no idea I was doing it until I took workshops with Claudia Rankine and Mark Doty. What they have in common as teachers is being able to show a poet her gifts and encourage her to properly exploit those gifts.

DM: Your author bio says that you were a speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before shifting your focus to poetry. How did you become a speechwriter, and is there any overlap between speechwriting and poetry?

JB: I became a speechwriter because New Orleans city employees get paid very little to do very big jobs, making for an extremely high turnover rate. I started in one position at the Mayor’s office but found myself in another almost every year that I was there until I became speechwriter.

I enjoyed writing speeches and still think of my boss, Mayor Marc Morial, as a role model, but there is nothing as exhilarating as being overtaken by a poem. I was always aware of my point when writing speeches. The joy of writing poems is not knowing the point, following the sounds of words where ever they may take me.

DM: It’s clear that you’re a fan of music. To whom are you listening these days?

JB: I’ve been overdosing on a Stephanie Mills. She uses this interestingly masculine moan that often seems to be moving toward something of a growl but at just the right time transforms into a very feminine purr. Just lovely and vulnerable and endearing. She does it in almost every song but does it differently each time, proof that she’s paid attention to the lyrics. Some singers sing so well that they don’t think they need to know what they’re singing.

Please won the 2009 American Book Award and was published in 2008. For more information about Jerich Brown and Please, visit JerichoBrown.com.

Well Versed: an Interview with the Resplendent DéLana R.A. Dameron

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Photo by Curtis C. John

I was fortunate to meet DéLana R.A. Dameron when she visited my poetry workshop last fall. Seeing that she and I were roughly the same age was an inspiration of sorts–she had recently published her first collection, and I had barely begun to make heads or tails of mine. Now that I’ve begun to (finally) compile my thesis, I’ve been thinking a lot about what DéLana had to say about creating her first collection and realized that I had more questions. DéLana was kind enough to take time from her writing and teaching commitments to answer my questions; what she had to say was though-provoking and inspiring to me, and I’ve produced our interview here so that it may be the same to you.

DM: Before you won South Carolina Poetry Book Prize and published How God Ends Us, your work appeared in many places. What attracts you to certain journals and makes you want to place your work there? Are there any deal breakers when it comes to publication and where you will or won’t submit your work?

DD: When I first started submitting a few years ago, it was right at the cusp of the debate of whether or not online journals were acceptable venues for publication. I was suspicious myself, but found a few that some writers I knew and respected submitted to and published with, and felt that if those writers submitted and trusted the journal with their words, then I could, too.

That approach is largely how I go about submitting works, though I have to say, I am very bad at being a good submitter. If I read a book of poems by a poet that I love, generally a new(er) poet, I will immediately go to their Acknowledgements page and see where they have submitted, and if my work might be similar to theirs. I then check out the journal, read past issues online or in a Library (oh, those great, great institutions!) and try to figure out if my work might be a right fit.

Because a lot of literary journals have gone to online submissions, and submitting poems is almost as easy as pressing a few buttons, I don’t believe now there are any deal breakers. There is an important component to online literary journals, and the amount of immediate reach it guarantees you that print publications just can’t. My family members can click a link and read a poem. My co-workers, who might not have ever read a poem before, can click a link and say, “Hey, I know this person, they say they write poetry. Let me check it out.” Print Literary journals that utilize a subscription-based reach cannot do the work online journals can. I try to have a nice mix of both.

DM: Can you walk me through the steps that got you from manuscript to published first collection? Is it as simple as writing, writing, revising, revising, cutting a check for the reading fee, and dropping your manuscript in the mail?

DD:Some people believe that publication is simply a series of chance encounters. I subscribe to that notion, as well as, publishing is as simple as writing, writing, revising, revising, spending all of your money for a reading fee, and praying for some sort of miracle.

For How God Ends Us, it was timing and prayer. I believe in prayer, I do. I had just taken myself out of a graduate program, and it was the first time in 13 years that I was not attached to some type of learning institution. I had relocated to a whole new state, new region, and lost a large part of my immediate writing community. I was lost. My manuscript (at the time, under a different name) was in a file somewhere on my computer, and I was writing poems and in my journal about the desperate times I was going through. I needed to know that my decision was not going to break me.

Let me back up. How I got to How God Ends Us, also came by way of friends reading a pile of poems and finding good things to say and encouraging me to change things up a bit. If I didn’t have that outside eye, someone to say: hey, this is “okay”, but I think it can be better, I don’t think I would have gotten to a point where I would have felt okay with sending it out.

So, back to my broken state in my new apartment and no food on the table. Truly, my writing was all I had. I found out by way that there was a book contest for native or resident poets of South Carolina and that the deadline was the next day. I stayed up all night revising and fixing up the manuscript which had gathered digital dust in my folder way back on my desktop computer. I printed it out and prayed.

A couple of months later, I was at the reading in which they announced the judge and the winner. I won.

DM: Were you asked by your publisher to make any revisions prior to publication?

DD: Kwame Dawes is the series editor for the poetry series my book is published under. A few months after the high of winning wore off, I received in the mail a printed-out version of my manuscript with blue markings all over the page, and a hand-written note in the beginning in which he suggested I let the manuscript breathe by changing up the ordering a bit, and if I had some new poems, I could feel free to add them in. I was at a writing retreat at the time, and so had nothing but endless days to brood and think and challenge this idea that he asked me to change what I felt was a great manuscript. My inner child argued: but THIS version won. Soon, reason won, and I acquiesced and moved poems around and found a much stronger (I think) narrative arc. Much of the poems are the same, and the original idea – death and love and the world – was preserved.

DM: At times, the poems in your collection seem very personal and intimate; there are also poems that seem to be rooted in history or the imagination.  I was particularly impressed by how well the different types of poems meshed.  It’s a quality that confounds me when I think about my own collection of work.  How do make the transitions between individual poems and sections so effortless?

DD: Thank you for the compliment. When I originally gathered poems under the manuscript title How God Ends Us, I had to first look at each poem I’d written through the lens of what I felt that title was trying to convey. This meant a type of drafting of poems for inclusion in the manuscript. Some poems made the cut, some poems, I liked a lot, a lot, just could not fit into that vision. I had to accept that for the larger whole of the book. Once I had a list of definite poems for the collection, (and now, I’m speaking to the process after I was pushed to re-arrange) I went to my journals for quotes. I read a lot, and tend to write down favorite quotes in the same little moleskin so that they can all be in the same place. I found two quotes off the top that I felt might assist a reader as section titles. One quote took a little searching. Once I had my three quotes, I began to shift and sluice again. I love that word: sluice. An aside: when I wanted to be a geologist in 4th grade, we traveled to a rock quarry, where we were given wooden boxes with mesh bottoms, and given a big pile of dirt and a river. We held the wooden boxes in the water and shook the dirt around so that the grains would fall through the mesh bottom and leave rocks and quartz and crystals in the top. Then we had to search for the gems. That is how I think I moved poems around within each section. I had an epigraph, and shook poems around based on that as a filtering method, and decided what poems would fit into which sections. Then, I thought about chronological and emotional arcs, and tried to honor both at the same time when ordering within the sections.

DM: There are several poems in How God Ends Us that feel like part of a sequence–the poems about Jamaica. How did you arrive at the decision to scatter them throughout the book?

DD: There are several “sequences” within How God Ends Us. And in the first manifestation, all of the Jamaica poems were clustered together. When I went back to the manuscript with the method described above, I found that the Jamaica poems could not realistically change sections – they were always in the second section – but they could shift order a bit, and could be separated by other ideas introduced through other poems. For the second section, I largely thought about migration of blacks from Africa to the Americas/across the Across the Atlantic, and how my own identity played a part in it, and how I witnessed it through art, through photos, through my travels to Jamaica, and how religion and spirituality weaves its way through it all.  That was my framing technique. Looking back now, I think I could have moved some other poems to different areas, but largely that section is about discovery, about identity and ways of seeing ourselves and others, about how we transition from one world to another.

DM: Oftentimes, the manuscript/first collection is less cohesive than a poet’s subsequent works because the fledgling MFA student begins writing before he or she comes up with that over-arching idea that unites the collection. Did How God Ends Us begin in that way, as individual poems first, and then a collection?

DD: I sort of touched on this idea already, but I guess I will say that How God Ends Us was not a project collection. I wrote poems in little separate series. So I had my poems in response to art from the collection in the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. I had my poems in response to my travels to Jamaica. I had my poems about my dead and gone. I had my poems about veiled attempts at loving, or simply, giving of myself and my flesh. I felt they all had to do with some type of ending or unrealized opportunity or some direct reference to religion/faith. That was my over-arching idea that allowed them to exist within the manuscript.

I have since become I suppose a “project” poet, which is to say, I have a grander idea of a manuscript and write poems I think might fit within that idea. I don’t know which way I like best, but I think after you have the experience of putting together a book, you can “see” a scope better, and write towards it. I think full-length projects don’t come until after the first attempts to write everything else you have to say out. The poems in How God Ends Us and the poems written in the same time that never made it into the manuscript, and might not make it into a book at all, were something like “everything else I have to say” before I started guiding my poems into certain directions.

DM: In her forward to How God Ends Us, Elizabeth Alexander wrote that you “listen to your own strange music and play it” and that your poems “sound like no other” to her. In your mind, what is the “strange music” that propels your work and how conscious are you of distinguishing the sound of your poems from each other and from the poems of others?

DD: I am a musician, though I don’t play nearly as much anymore, I still consider music to be a very big part of my identity. Before I found writing, I used instruments to vary tempos within solos in order to “feel,” in order to “say.” Once I have my words down on a page, in the revision process, I read the poems out loud, and they sort of become my instrument. I listen for the music in the words, the tonality of speech and certain way of saying things. I try to compose little songs with poems in addition to telling a story, in addition to trying to find the right image. I consider how a poem might sound in a reader’s ear just as much as I wonder if the image is right. Sometimes the sound of the poem wins out. I took a poetry writing class as an undergraduate (this is after I’d been writing for a while, and was in a writing group, the Carolina African American Writer’s Collective) and probably the best thing to come from that class was a part in our textbook Western Wind, where the authors discuss how vowels can equate to a musical note, and how you can put vowels on a musical staff. Visually seeing how “high” on the ledger a vowel like “a” when it is long, or how “low” on the ledger a vowel combination like “ou” as in “through” or the “o” in “bow” helped me even more to compose my little songs.

DM: How long did it take you to finish How God Ends Us? What is the revision process like for you?

The poems in How God Ends Us span about 3-4 years, with some outliers. I didn’t write towards a book then, just poem-by-poem.

10. Have you changed anything about your writing process now that you’ve started writing for your second collection?

DD: I’ve “finished” what I believe/hope to be my second collection, currently called Cartographer. I still may write a poem here and there and put it up against the manuscript to see if it might find a home within its pages. What’s changed is, like I said, I do sort of give myself projects or bigger “series.” Outside of Cartographer, I have some poems about Palestine, and an epic poem I’m writing that seeks to re-tell/re-create a family myth. I’m looking to Milton and Martha Collins and Sonia Sanchez and Rita Dove. I suppose I’m more “directed” now, when before I just wrote, not knowing I needed direction. Sometimes, I wish I had that back. I believe I took more risks.

How God Ends Us is available from DéLana’s web page.