Interviews

‘The first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds’: An Interview with Kathryn Nuernberger

Nuernberger Kathryn Photo2

Poet and lyric essayist Kathryn Nuernberger won the 2015 James Laughlin award, joining the company of poets like fellow BOA Editions pressmates, Li-Young Lee, Jillian Weise, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Having been familiar with her 2010 Antivenom Poetry Award–winning Rag & Bone, The End of Pink fascinated me with its deftness of language and unique influences. Nuernberger is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where is also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. We recently discussed over email about the role of research in her poetry, and how her directorship plays a role in her reading and writing.

You and I share a bond in that we both live in the state of Missouri these days. Considering you now teach and live in Missouri after doing your doctoral studies in Ohio, did you make a conscious choice to return to your home state? What do you appreciate about the Show-Me State?

I never really expected I’d wind up back in Missouri—like a lot of nerdy art types in the Midwest, I think I had my eye on the coasts as final destination point. But after living in Louisiana, Montana, Washington, and Ohio, I was fortunate to find a great job at University of Central Missouri. I know MO isn’t as sexy as a lot of other places in our union, but I’ve found that are an awful lot of brilliant, creative, wonderfully eccentric people here. And my goodness we do have some weird, wild geological formations and excellent spelunking made possible by our spectacularly karst topography. I’ve got some relations in the Ozarks who have also helped me appreciate the terroir of fried morrel mushrooms with squirrel meat and blackberry wine. And, bless their hearts, they didn’t even throw me out of the house when I started going like the most insufferable elitist you’ve ever met about how all this good food gathered locally in season reminds me of the French notion of terroir. They just said, “Well, ain’t that something.”

Current Missouri Poet Laureate Aliki Barnstone states that “Writing is not just about your individual selfhood but also being empathic with other people.” What’s your opinion regarding empathy, writing, and artistic expression?

I think Aliki said it beautifully. I also like what Frank O’Hara said, very cheekily, in his “Personism Manifesto” about this subject. He wrote, “I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” I like the idea of the poem providing a space where there can be a profound sort-of psychic intimacy between the author and the reader that isn’t possible in the real world because basic manners and eye contact and itchy noses and stuff like that make it so tricky and weird to really talk to each other. And I also like the idea of that space being a little casual, a little crass, and maybe with a little room for us to fall in love with each other across time and space.

A mentor of mine once told me that it’s not enough to write about what you know, you have to write about what you want to know. I am thinking of one of my favorite poems of yours is “Translations” from your first collection, Rag & Bone, in which the speaker states:

Color is an illusion, a response to the vibrating universe
of electrons. Light strikes a leaf and there’s an explosion
where it lands. When colors change, electromagnetic fields
are colliding. The wind is not the only thing moving the trees
.

Nuernberger Kathryn Book CoverCan you explain how research plays a role in your writing?

Research is often how my poems begin. I start my writing time every day reading poems by other people. By which I mean I start my writing time every day wallowing in profound feelings of self-doubt and inferiority. This may or may not be the best way to do things, but it’s how I do it. And then I try to get my head back on straight so I start reading in other rhetorical modes that don’t make me so keenly aware of my limitations as a poet. I love Public Domain Review and Cabinet a lot, but also art criticism, Wikipedia stubs, and super-dense literary theory.

Sometimes I’ll get on a jag with a particular subject—I went through a women-in-hot-air-balloons phase a couple years back. Spoiler alert: women in hot air balloons for the first hundred years of ballooning were pretty much all prostitutes or opera singers, because everyone thought it was such a scandal to experiment with the effects of the stratosphere on your lady parts. Second spoiler alert: it was very popular to experiment in all sorts of ways with the rocking baskets and also very popular to just chuck your wine bottles out the side into whatever field you were passing. Which was not super-appreciated by the peasants below.

But to get back to your question—once you know the first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds, how can you not write a poem?

Can you explain how The End of Pink came to be a full-length collection? Did you reach out to BOA Editions or did they reach out to you?

I submitted The End of Pink to BOA during their annual open reading period. And then Peter Connors, the director at BOA, called me up and said he wanted it. I like Peter very much, in part because he calls me up very rarely and every time it’s just to say the thing I most want to hear.

As director of Pleiades Press, I’m curious as to how your experience as an editor informs your poetry and vice versa.

I really love how my work as an editor requires/allows me to read hundreds of poetry manuscripts every year. It’s such a great way to encounter a huge range of new poetry—I don’t think I’d read that many books of poetry if “the job” wasn’t breathing down my neck, but I think I’m a better and happier writer for all that reading. Reading influences our work in ways that are so hard to pin down—mostly I’m inspired by what I read, but sometimes I do encounter the cautionary tale. I find it beneficial to be so constantly steeped in this grand ongoing conversation about poetry and through poetry.

Your poetry involves some interesting characters (Benjamin Franklin, Derrida, Bat Boy), how does their presence influence your poetic psyche? Is there a particular historical or cultural individual that you’d like to write about that you haven’t?

I’ve been writing a series of poems about plants historically used for birth control and my research led me to Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first woman ecologist who traveled to South America in the 1700s to research the plants there. She wrote about the Bird of Paradise, which was a plant that could be used to induce a miscarriage, and while I am fascinated by her, I’m also troubled and disappointed in her, because she did her research in a slave colony and used slave labor to gather her specimens. And though she expressed ambivalence about slavery in her journals, it would be a pathetic stretch to suggest she was any sort of ally. But I keep reading about her because I want to try to find a way to see through the unwritten parts of her story and history more generally to the lives of the women who told her about the uses of this plant.

Those women said that they used the plant for birth control in part to prevent their children from being born into the horrors of slavery and in part to resist their own bodies being used as a commodity by the masters. I’d really like to be able to hear the story of their lives, their struggle, and their resistance in their words. But one of the cruel things about history is the way the voices we most need to hear are the ones that so often are the most aggressively erased.

Can you talk about the role of the Saint Girl persona?

I was raised in a Catholic community that placed a lot of emphasis on morality and social justice. This is a training I appreciated, but there was also a celebration of self-abnegation and insistence on nurturing feelings of guilt and shame that made me feel really messed up.

The Saint Girl persona was born of that tension between feeling a strong desire to do and be good and the contrary notion that happiness might be a necessary part of goodness. Or, to put it more bluntly, I wrote these poems during the years when I was turning away from my work as an activist (among other things, I taught high school in under-resourced schools for a while, and then had a job in the foster care system) and turning towards poetry.

Poetry made me really happy, but I also felt a lot of guilt and uncertainty about the ethics of that choice. So I guess the Saint Girl recipe is something like: (Guilt+Shame) × (Conscience) ÷ Happiness to the power of Poetry = Saint Girl.

One thing I noticed is that you received research grants at the American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.

These two awesome libraries are kind enough to open their collections to creative writers and artists as well as to historians and other more conventional researchers. I love libraries and I also love auctions and abandoned cabins and oddball museums. These sorts of research libraries are the perfect combination of such wonderful places. The collections at these libraries include rare books, but they can also bring you collections of stereo cards from the 1904 World’s Fair, so you can see the Pike in 3-D by using this rickety old mahogany contraption. Or broadsides used to advertise P. T. Barnum’s huckster operations. Or pamphlets advertising Dr. Kilger’s quack elixirs and tonics.

At the Bakken you can actually crank a felt wheel until static makes your hair stand on end as Benjamin Franklin used to do as a party trick. (Although he’d have ladies of ill repute there so you could kiss them and get a little blue spark between your lips amongst all that frizziness.) These research libraries are wonderful because you get to interact with physical objects and have physical experiences, which all have the potential to become settings and images in poems about historical material.

You also have a collection of lyric essays coming out (Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, Ohio State University Press 2017), how does the fluidity of genres (poetry/lyric essay) play a role in your writing? What draws you to the lyric essay?

I love the way genre-blur writing breaks the rules or just forges ahead, as if there are no rules to even contend with. Sometimes, when I’m rambling about history or science or other experiences, I feel the need to provide a fair amount of context so readers can appreciate the landscape where the facts are unfolding. In these cases an essay is born. Other times when I’m rambling I realize that what readers need are moments of silence so they can really process the images or the factoids as they spring forth. In those cases, line breaks prove very useful. I always think some silence is necessary to create the sense of a phone call across the void, so that’s why I haven’t written prose that doesn’t have the adjective “lyric” attached to it.

Stephen King often states that a writer who writes more than he or she reads is not a writer. So, who and what are you currently reading?  

Right now I’m reading (copy editing and laying out, to be precise) EJ Koh’s forthcoming book of poems, A Lesser Love, for Pleiades Press. It’s going to blow all your minds when it comes out next fall. And I keep rereading Nance Van Winckel’s Book of No Ledge, which contains collage and erasure poems made out of an old Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has been keeping me feeling sane and hopeful about human goodness and the beauty of supportive communities in these grim times; while Adrian C. Louis’s poems have been keeping me as pissed off and riled up as I think we also all need to be.

Last question: What is the greatest piece of advice you received from an instructor or mentor?

Maya Jewell Zeller always tells me to try writing it backwards and with more plants in it. Ellen Welcker tells me to quit giving those dead white guys the benefit of the doubt. Laura Read says to start with a song and a great longing. And Jaswinder Bolina once told me to quit whining, in a less blunt and more gentle way. That might be the best advice I ever got.

 

Furlong Stephen Author PhotoStephen Furlong is a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, MO. His poetry, reviews, and/or interviews have previously appeared in or are forthcoming from Chariton Review, Big Muddy, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Additionally, he has a poem in the forthcoming anthology A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault, edited by Joanna C. Valente.

Poetry

“Become so fluid” by E. Kristin Anderson

Wanderlust knit a modern beat,
often synchronous, the way we dress.

Eight years would know:
there are always women a long way

from the world, smaller, interpreting
the lens of American skinny jeans.

The feminine, breezing around, messy—
we may be our edge, closer to home,

full with style.

 

This is an erasure poem. Source material: “Global Style Now” by Christine Whitney. Harper’s Bazaar, September 2014, page 94.

AndersonEKristin photoBased in Austin, Texas, E. Kristin Anderson has been published widely in magazines. She’s also the author of eight chapbooks, including A Guide for the Practical Abductee, Fire in the Sky and Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night. Kristin is Special Projects Manager for ELJ and a poetry editor at Found Poetry Review. Once upon a time she worked at The New Yorker.

 

Poetry

“Sweet Wolf #1” by Darren C. Demaree

We’ve named all of the animals
& we’ve put our fingers into the names
of each of them.  We’ve dragged

their names up to our faces
& forced them to meet our made
up world.  Sometimes we are given

kisses.  Sometimes there is
a great warmth.  We know they
are wild.  We know there is danger.

We know if we allow the sweet wolf
into our veins it will become
the alpha inside our own bodies

& yet, what a pool to drown in.
The chemicals of each breed
brings a new threat.

There have been so many Ohioans
eaten from the inside out
that I’ve been forced

to re-think exactly what these drugs
are in our world.  They are wolves.
We’ve been raised by them.

 

DemareeDarrenC_picDarren C. Demaree is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Many Full Hands Applauding Inelegantly (8th House Publishing, 2016). He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He currently lives in Columbus, OH with his wife and children.

Interviews

‘Mythmaking, second-hand information, and outright lies’: An Interview with Sarah Sweeney

Sweeney_Sarah_photoNonfiction writer Sarah Sweeney was new to me, but as soon as I read an essay’s opening line of “I never planned to throw my tampon on a stranger’s car,” I knew that her writing was something that I would enjoy immensely. Her most recent collection, Tell Me If You’re Lying, adds up to a modern-day coming-of-age story, and all that entails: music, actors, skipping class, and pulling pranks. Sweeney writes about such topics in a genuine way that isn’t afraid of getting too personal. Rather, her writing speaks for itself and invites the reader along for the ride.

Sarah Sweeney writes both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has also appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, Rattle, The Pinch, and others. We recently emailed about her new book, creating themes, and the dangers of dyeing your own hair.

Nearly all of the essays in this collection have a thread of pop culture through them, though the essays aren’t purely about pop culture. Instead, the essays straddle a thin line between discussing the lightness of pop culture figures—Madonna, Rod Stewart, Adrien Grenier—and deeply telling, personal narratives. What was the experience of writing in this way like? Do you think the pop culture is more characteristic of our time, or does it function as a vessel to tell other details?

I’m obsessed with pop culture, but more specifically, music. At nearly all points during my day—if I can—I’m listening to music. So I have very specific musical attachments and rituals, and I associate periods of my life, places, and people with songs or musicians or albums, especially the classic rock of my parents that more or less defined my childhood.

I’m also very particular about what I listen to while I’m writing because music is definitely a vessel for me, a means to channel a mood or an era and then infuse that into my work.

In writing this book, though, I never set out to write about pop culture, but because pop culture is very much essential to my personal history and identity. Those connections came naturally. I was so pleased to take stock of them all when I looked at the book as a whole. Funny how that happens.

Many of the essays tell one story while hinting at other personal details. For instance, the brief mention of the “troubled teens” workshop while discussing pulling pranks with Evie. Does the larger story take precedence, or do little moments like this reveal information without having to construct an entire narrative around certain life aspects?

I knew I was being a tease with that troubled teens line, and I’m glad it didn’t sail by unnoticed. Without delving into something that ultimately would detract from the larger story of Adrian Grenier and my friendship with Evie, I wanted to make clear that our pranks weren’t one-time occurrences, but rather one of many symptoms of a very particular kind of teenage psychosis stemming from ambition, boredom, parental neglect, and desperation. And showing that school officials had taken note of our behavior underscores that idea without tackling it explicitly.

Hair dyeing comes up in many essays, and I think that’s something we’ve all done in response to something at one point or another. I remember dyeing my hair a particularly unpleasant shade of blonde after a particularly bad breakup. Most of the hair dyeing in the collection, however, results in something unpleasant. Is this poor advertising on behalf of boxed dyes? Or does it capture the essence of a semi-rebellious teen figure?

Both. In college my hair stylist best friend got me a job as a receptionist at her salon where I learned so much about hair coloring. I could go on and on about it, but I’ll just say this: unless you’re going darker, it’s best to avoid those drugstore kits! For many people they’re economical, because salons are so expensive, but you’re playing with fire, in my experience.

But sometimes you’re just that desperate and I was. Hair dyeing became my way of asserting my identity as a young person, making a statement about nonconformity. Standard teen angst. Remember in that first episode of My So-Called Life, how Angela Chase (Claire Danes) dyes her hair red? I could write 10 more hair-dyeing essays, at least. I had white hair; pink hair; half-blue, half-red hair; lilac hair; green hair. When you’re young and essentially powerless, changing up your appearance can be a pretty satisfying way of claiming something for yourself.

tmiyl

Why did you pick “Tell Me If You’re Lying” as the titular essay?

All the essays have something to do with mythmaking, second-hand information, deception, deducing the truth for oneself, and outright lies. And because my father is an overwhelming presence in these stories, and someone who definitely understood the power of storytelling and self-mythologizing, the essay that most encapsulates him—and the theme—seemed like a no-brainer.

Music comes up again and again, as well as the inclusion of lyrics to several great songs. Were there any other musicians or songs that you wanted to write about that didn’t make it into this collection?

So many. Bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney or The Clash all pretty much gave me life as a kid. One of my freelance jobs is researching and writing liner notes for Light In The Attic Records, and last year I was doing a big project for them and got to connect with an obscure musician named Robb Kunkel. In one afternoon phone call, he basically changed my life and encouraged me to take some big risks—and I was supposed to be interviewing him. A short while later, I learned he was in the hospital, and we had this amazing end of life conversation that was basically the conversation I never got to have with my dad before he passed. So I’m currently trying to write something about Robb, too.

Who are the writers or essayists that inspire you?

I seek out and read a lot of women writers: Roxane Gay, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Melissa Febos are a few of my current favorites. I love Emily Nussbaum’s and Jia Tolentino’s work in The New Yorker (and her prior stuff at Jezebel). I also loved Abigail Ulman’s short story debut Hot Little Hands—talk about troubled girls!—and I am currently trying to ride the Elena Ferrante wave.

In one word, what would you say is the central theme to these essays?

Love.

Do you have any words of wisdom for fellow nonfiction writers?

My advice for nonfiction writers is: Write fearlessly. Write truthfully. Roadblocks are inevitable. Fear is inevitable. Push through that. Maybe you’re worried about hurting someone; maybe you’re worried about exposing yourself. When I was getting my MFA, a lot of fellow students fretted over what their parents would think, what so-and-so’s brother would think. We don’t want to hurt anyone, but the bottom line is this: If you’re serious about your craft and your story is bursting to be told (and the best ones do burst), you owe it to yourself to pursue it. Everything else will fall into place, or it won’t. That’s something you have to reconcile with yourself. (Or a good therapist, which is a highly effective life hack.)

 

FullSizeRenderAlyssa Cohorn is the Managing Editor of Pine Hills Review and an MFA student at The College of Saint Rose. She writes nonfiction and poetry while avoiding the cold weather of Albany, NY.

 

Poetry

From “The Good House and the Bad House” by Doe Parker

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Parker_Doe_fromthegoodhouseGALLEYING_Page_6

 

parker_doe_thumbnailDoe Parker grew up around San Francisco, CA. They’ve been published in the Bay Area Teen Writers Anthology and Habitat Lit Magazine. Doe put together their first chapbook when they were a senior in high school and now attends Columbia College Chicago with a major in poetry. Their work is fed a lot by their photography and their interest in the psychology of place memory. Doe was on the editorial board for issue #29 of Columbia Poetry Review and are staying on as an editor for issue #30 in the fall. Find their photos at parkerphotography.tumblr.com and more poetry at doeparker.tumblr.com.

 

Interviews

“Poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood”: An Interview with Sage Cohen

Cohen Sage Photo4

Sage Cohen brings the fierceness. I learned this first-hand, when she and I met when we were both greenhorns in Manhattan, studying for M.F.A. in poetry at New York University under the tutelage of heavy-hitter teachers like Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. It was plain to me then that Sage was mindful of what she was doing, both in poetry and in life. She was, in other words, pretty freaking fierce. (As for this writer, that is another story.) In the years since, she’s blossomed as a poet, writing instructor, and author of books focused on helping writers do what they do, first in Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books 2009), then in The Productive Writer: Tips & Tooks to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success (Writer’s Digest Books 2010). In straightforward, empathetic prose, Cohen helps writers tackle the challenges usually faced alone in a dark room. She continues this project with Fierce on The Page: Become the Writer You Were Meant to Be and Succeed on Your Own Terms, just out from Writer’s Digest Books. I had a chance to talk to Sage over email, where from her home in Portland, Oregon, she discussed being fierce, as well as teaching, workshops, and our common ancestral homeland of South Jersey.

This is your third book about writing and the writing process. What motivated you to write this one? 

My first two writing books were how-to’s: one for poets, and one for writers striving to increase productivity. What I discovered in writing those books, and in the decade of blogging about writing along the way, is that I am more interested in exploring possibilities than offering prescriptions. Because there is no one-strategy-fits-all in the writing life. There’s only what works for you.

Maybe five years ago on my blog, I stumbled into writing personal essays, in which I explored various writing themes through the lens of my own life experience. And readers really responded. Eventually, I came to understand that what I was offering people (and what they were seeking me out for) was not advice, but permission. To come closer to who they are, to notice what’s working and what needs recalibration, and to find their own true way forward in service to their craft.

I got so excited about this more intimate and spacious way of accompanying writers that I wrote a proposal in the hopes of writing a book-length treatise exploring this form. And then I sat on the proposal for three years until I had come far enough through divorce and single parenting a very young child to believe I had the stamina to write a book in parallel with my full-time business and life.

Fierce On The PageIt’s plain to me you enjoy motivating writers to write, to go places they haven’t gone, to be fierce. Was there a time you didn’t think of yourself as a fierce writer?

I don’t really think of myself as a fierce writer—more like a writer who practices ferocity. And for me, that means relentless self-responsibility. The truth is, what I think of myself as a writer has never been of much interest to me. What I have devoted myself to as if my life depended on it—and it turns out, it does—is my writing practice. I’m not sure how it happened, but I have always loved and tended my writing, absolutely dedicating to helping it reach its potential, without much concern about who liked it, or what it would do for me. It may be the purest relationship I have. A devotional practice, of sorts. I just want to serve my writing. I just want to help it grow and flourish. I just want to exist in that liminal space where words are taking shape.

What do you get out of teaching that fuels or informs your writing? Or is it a different relationship altogether?

I love being with people. I love watching them wake up to their own possibilities and discoveries. Teaching and lecturing has given me deep insight into what writers are struggling with, hoping for, and moving toward—and this helps me serve them better.

How about readings?

I also have spent a few decades overcoming a terror of public speaking. And putting myself in front of students and audiences as much as possible—as a practice of overcoming this fear—has fortified me as a person and a writer. I know I can count on myself to get up at a podium, even if I’m fairly certain it will kill me, and do it anyway. This is an important thing to know about myself.

What I have learned through this is that writers are seeking permission to be themselves, assurances that they’re welcome in the writing mosh pit, and trust that they have everything they need to do the work they are called to do. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to write and publish books that offer this kind of guidance, along with all the practical and technical stuff.

I love how your advice in FOTP is both nourishing and straight-shooting. You write early on how you “have simply committed to showing up and writing down what wants to come through,” and that that’s the “single most important thing we can do as writers.” At the risk of sounding mystical, how does the writer find what wants to come through?

I think that process is unique for each writer. Here’s how it works for me: I find what wants to come through when I practice paying attention: leaning into discomfort, softening into vulnerability, listening to the conversations of strangers, taking in the natural world. The more curious I am about the world, other humans, and myself, the more “what wants to come through” is revealed to me.

For me, free writing was my way in. I started this foundational practice in my early 20’s, inviting language to move through me without forethought or effort. After many years of writing blind to find that there was an endless supply of language, image, metaphor and insight pouring through me, I came to think of myself of more as a channel, and my writing practice as a kind of cosmic weight lifting. My goal has been to train myself to be agile, strong, and receptive enough to tap into currents of language that I might otherwise not know how to be listening for.  So I could ready myself for writing, whenever it might happen to ask something of me.

Practically speaking, I am never out of arm’s reach from an index card. When a thought, image, or phrase strikes me, I write it down, no matter what else is happening. By being accountable to my own creativity and curiosity in this way, I think I maximize my receptivity to “what wants to come through.”

What are your thoughts on the traditional workshop these days—by traditional I mean a group in the room, copies of a draft, everyone talks about it, marks it up, perhaps the author stays silent. 

I think the value of workshops is largely in the eye of the beholder! What I value most from my own education through traditional workshops is how I’ve learned to evaluate and use (or ignore) feedback. I have also gained valuable insight about my tendencies and vulnerabilities, and I have cultivated skills in thinking and speaking critically about poetry. I take it for granted now, but workshops have really helped me grow up as a writer.

For people like you and I, who have a few decades of writing practice under our belts, I think the value of a workshop becomes highly dependent on who is around the table. I didn’t workshop for years and didn’t miss it. But I did attend lots of readings and gather with many writers in those years and fill my cup that way. These days I have a group of poets I meet with here in Portland intermittently. Because I have great admiration for their work, just clearing three hours to step in and collectively contemplate their poems (plus see my poems reflected through their lenses) is invaluable for me.

Whether it’s a workshop, conference, reading, or lecture, I think there is huge value in writers coming together in person to remember that we are not alone, that we are a part of a larger conversation, and that we can always learn from each other, at any stage of our evolution.

I am especially gratified in those chapters where you talk about being a mother, a co-parent, who has found kindred souls online and in person for support as people and as writers. That didn’t come without a struggle, I’d imagine. As a father, I can’t help but rely on cliché when I encounter expectant writer-slash-parents. Do you have any advice or say anything when speaking with soon-to-be parents who are concerned about their identity as writers?

What comes immediately to mind are the first two years of my son’s life during which neither of us slept more than two hours at a time. I’d sit in the rocker in the middle of the night with my magnificent child in my arms, at the brink of my earthly sanity and patience, and I’d tell myself: This is my poetry practice.

I’d lean in to my discomfort and mine it for the ecstasies of attention. I’d study the exquisite smell of his fuzzy head. I’d notice the arc of warmth where our bodies were now only temporarily joined. And I’d know that there were women all over the world awake with their children, that my son and I were a speck of a wave in the endless ocean of humanity.

What I am saying is, poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood. And in return, motherhood became a potent poetry practice. I didn’t write many poems in my son’s early years. Yet, I would argue that my entire life became a poem—a study of sound and image, a resonance with the exquisite beauty of impermanence. Which is to say, nothing was lost. And so much was gained.

Parenting and poetry are both love practices. They ask of me similar things: to be patient, to show up at the most inconvenient, awkward and downright humiliating times, and to be willing to take myself apart and reassemble myself at a moment’s notice in pursuit of what is true and just and loving and beautiful. I have been seasoned and humbled by marriage, C-section, miscarriage, divorce, single parenting, co-parenting, and finding my way toward a collaborative little blended family. Through all of these incarnations, my identity as a writer stretched, severed, scarred, and grew stronger at its new, more inclusive seams.

I believe that when we love what we are doing and we love the lives we have chosen, there is room enough for everything we want, throughout many fluctuating seasons. What we may compromise in time at the page we gain in wisdom and authority when we return to the page. If that’s how we choose to hold it. And I believe we can all choose to hold it that way.

Lastly: we’re both from South Jersey. Is there anything about our childhood home, the place, that sticks with you in your writing life, now that you’re living in Portland, Oregon, for nearly 14 years? 

Yes! You stick with me. Seriously. Even though we met for the first time in graduate school in New York City a decade post-South-Jersey, the fact that I had a friend with similar roots whose trajectory through the territory of poem paralleled mine was a huge gift—and a kind of welcome I’d never felt before.

South Jersey was a terribly lonely place for me. I didn’t understand who I was, what I needed, or how to get it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t know how people survived the anguish of being people. So I wrote poems secretly—and kept writing them—through which I revealed myself incrementally to myself over the course of a lifetime.

My desire to see clearly, to make sense of feeling and experience and context, and to keep evolving as a person and a student, were nurtured by the generosity and support of my parents, the epic discomforts of adolescence, and my English teacher, Mr. Carr, who dared me to be better than I believed I could be.

I learned when I was pregnant that when butterflies are assisted out of their cocoon, they die. Fighting their way out is what activates their wings and gives them what they need to survive. South Jersey was my cocoon. Fighting my way out of the binding old ideas of self, I came to inherit and inhabit my wings.

I am incredibly grateful for all that shaped me, held me back, and ultimately set me free.

—interview by Daniel Nester

Poetry

“Apotheosis” by Ainsley Pinkowitz

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

We were born of carbon. The human body is made of it, with carbon surpassed only by oxygen in abundance. We are twenty-two point nine percent carbon.

In all its abundance, carbon is beautifully recycled by the planet, endlessly refreshing its supply. Carbon lives in our bodies for a hundred years at best, but has existed and will exist far longer. We breathe in oxygen and with each breath, give our carbon back into the cycle. The plants take it into their leaves, and we in turn devour the leaves. Of the seven million billion billion carbon atoms in the human body, only four percent were born into us at infancy. As for the rest, ingestion and inhalation assimilate carbon into a full-grown body, borrowing the particles that have been a piece of a billion men before. Then at last, Death and Decay gift us to the earth in whole.

Chemistry chews on our bodies long after the fungi have had their fill. We are rich catalysts, sacks of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Swallowed by the pressure of the earth and pounded to fluids, we are born again as oil after ten million years of purgatory.

When we see the sun again we see it up close. We feel the sun, the intolerable burn of incineration decimating our long chains into tiny gaseous particles escaping the blaze. Perhaps we have been the birth of an ingot of steel, perhaps we have delivered a father home safely to the embrace of his cherry-cheeked daughter. Unleashed by combustion we ascend as carbon dioxide, with front row for the spectacle of daybreak as we settle into our layer of the atmosphere.

Some of us escape our terrestrial confines enraged. We bundle up in deep-earth cracks, our long rest cut short with the greatest insult. We have not become lengthy molecules, carbon-rich gasoline or thick hunks of anthracite coal. Barely decomposed, we are too eager to escape the nighttime of our planet’s core, and bubble still gaseous from vents inside this celestial rock. We build up and pound at the surface for freedom, riled like a lynch mob to demand some unearned justice. Freedom from the ground before any use can come from us, and when we can ascend to the sky given one straight path from here to there we feel we have that right. Our impatience explodes, pressure rocketing out of a still mountain lake and overturning the water, only to find in all that miserable rain a pathetic fallacy, that our dense bodies can fly no further, that all we can do is drive the oxygen away, that all those living in this crater lake were born to be suffocated by our hubris and take our place. The cycle churns, the bodies rot, and we wait in line by vine and sprout in infinite monotony—unless a more glorious opportunity thrusts us from our march.

We circle this planet, and we leave this planet. We are carbon, and our compatriots are elsewhere: in the dusty surface of Mars, scattered in the asteroids that whirr through space, speckling the comets that streak the night sky back home. We are in astronomical nurseries being birthed by massive nuclear furnaces. We are swallowed by stars and disintegrated beyond our atom body only to emerge as a part of one hundred larger bits. By proton we build new elements, new molecules, new meteors, new planets. We do as we did honorably on earth and give ourselves to new life as breath and body.

We are born of carbon; we were born as carbon, with the carbon. Like an infant grown old who can’t remember the start to their life, our unconscious life extends beyond what our parents measured with new steps, words, and smiles. We existed before conception, before our species’ conception, before rock cooled for the first time and the bacterium reigned as sole possessor of life. We existed, and we will exist as long as our elements exist, waiting for the right occasion to form consciousness again.

 

pinkowitz_ainsleythumbnailAinsley Pinkowitz is a poet and a scientist. She is currently a graduate student of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. She’s a four-time winner of RPI’s McKinney Prize for poetry, and a regular at open mics and poetry slams around New York’s Capital District.

Fiction

“A Puppet Show On Top of a Puppet Show and Under a Puppet Show” by Rhoads Stevens

The child watched the burn pile.

She had a hose, which had a rusty nozzle gun on its end, and every time the fire made a move toward the house or toward the fields, she worked the rusty gun and sprayed that fire.

Earlier, the child caught her palm in the clamp that worked the gun. The clamp left a purple mark. She had wanted to cry, but she didn’t because her father was near.

The child’s father stacked the child’s mother’s furniture onto the burn pile. Sparks flew up at him. He put her clothes into the fire. He dumped her books into the fire. He tossed her collection of puppets into the fire. One puppet had black glass eyes in a wood head, so its head burned but not its eyes.

“Don’t let the fire get too big,” the man said. “And don’t let it reach the house. Or me.”

 

Stevens_Rhoads_picRhoads Stevens was born in Baltimore and grew up in Honolulu.

Poetry

“Night Songs” by Wale Owoade

I listen to a door open its robe
to a street full enough to be a sky
too cruel to be a sky

we were never lonely
just a fire in need of heat

I want to be a wind and wake
an ocean to be a street then
chase out all the water the body
longed for before it turned to ash 

II
I listen to my wall turn its back
to a street wide enough to be a sky
too bruised to be a sky

I was never lonely
Just a body in need of flesh

I want to be the voice that wakes
the world to be a street then
brings back all the peace the light
longed for before it turned to dark

 

Wale Owoade is a Nigerian poet and creative enthusiast who lives and writes in north-central Nigeria. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in About Place Journal, Apogee Journal, Chiron Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Radar Poetry, Spillway and Vinyl, among others. Some of his poems have been translated to Bengali, German and Spanish. Wale is the publisher and Managing Editor of EXPOUND: A Magazine of Arts.

 

Fiction

“The Gazers” by Neil Serven

Rollie was convinced that what Michael Stipe was really singing was come into the Winnebago and that “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” was about child abuse (the evidence in the lyrics: candy bar, falling star, The Cat in the Hat), but nobody on the boards was having any of it. The other newsgroup members pointed him to the FAQ—he pronounced it like a word in his head, rhyming with whack—and congratulated him on figuring out Usenet, now stop being a sorry-assed troll.

They were out there, ducking in and out of rec.music.rem to show off their pistol wits as artfully as the white-dot VAX graphics allowed. He imagined, from how they strung together eloquent sentences or tucked in extensive literary .sigs, that they were English majors like he was, only they blew off their classes to read Baldwin, Nabokov, and Bertrand Russell in paperbacks with their spines broken. They spun hard-to-find seven-inch vinyl at their campus radio stations. They had outsized personas and carried pocket handkerchiefs and drank whiskey in heavy glasses and dashed off verse on cocktail napkins. They got no joy from rage. They didn’t hook up, they made love.

Were he able to swing the postage, he would send everyone on rec.music.rem the new issue of Smug Fossil. There would be one hundred fifty copies of Issue Three, twenty-four pages of poetry and fiction and cartoons and rants folded and stapled and hand-numbered and brilliant. A few souls humored him by tossing a poem or doodle his way, but most of Issue Three was the work of himself and Alyssa, who now sat at the main table of the Writing Center, folding and stapling and numbering the issues and stacking them inside a printer-paper box. The school didn’t know it had loaned the paper. Rollie and Alyssa had hid under the table as Campus Security did midnight sweeps. Then they kept the lights off while the copier went to work, emitting its patient hums and hot black musk.

He logged back into email to see if there was another message from Melody, the sophomore at Ohio State whom he had met in alt.music.betterthanezra and with whom he had been pen-palling for much of the semester, she dropping him lessons in conversational French and sharing complaints about Newt Gingrich. He worked out that a trip to Columbus from New Hampshire would take twelve hours by bus. Melody had mentioned a boyfriend back in October, but since then the guy had thinned out promisingly to a murmur.

The Writing Center was on the top floor of the library. From the darkened room, the windows showed a nice night for stargazing. Howlers were out, stumbling back along the Rape Trail. Through Rollie’s lenses, the new lamps along the trail were halos.

Alyssa had finished with the issues and was now squinting at the Boston Phoenix. “Pavement’s coming to the Middle East,” she said.

Rollie said, “I hate the new album.” It came out hostile. Then he said, “Let me see if I can turn up funds.” There have been more of these suggestions to ditch campus and have adventures in the city. One month ago, a mosh pit on Lansdowne Street: Juliana Hatfield with special guest Cold Water Flat. Their friends disappeared. Rollie had the urge to muscle up against the BU fratholes copping handfuls of Alyssa’s tit as she crowd-surfed. Then she accidentally on purpose put her left shitkicker into one frathole’s ear, and when the guy came to, Rollie was the one he wanted to fight. He sort of felt something for her then.

But Alyssa hung too close. She had read Prozac Nation, and began to suspect that Rollie’s every eccentricity was a warning sign. (Rollie couldn’t finish the book, too annoyed by the platter of opportunities handed to the author.) Alyssa found him on the roof of the science building, stripped to the waist in subzero temperatures, gazing out at the lights of Manchester Airport with Automatic for the People spinning on repeat on his Discman.

The school called his parents. Rollie refused to talk to them. They’d say he was being a brat. Alyssa made him promise to get counseling. His symptoms were consistent with manic-depression, she said. It made Rollie think of the hair dye they sold at Newbury Comics.

Why did he choose to go to school with these unhappy walled-in Catholics, with their flip-flops and Irish kegger politics and pajama drama, their proud aversion to complexity? At other schools, it seemed, you could hang in the lounge all night, pass around a two-liter of Mr. Pibb and watch Barton Fink or S.F.W., and not have to explain any of it, and it didn’t matter if you lacked the thumbs for NHL ’94.

Diane at Health Services—an aunt-type who talked hip and let Rollie smoke in her office, his Chucks up on the split, electrical-taped upholstery—pressed him to find a creative outlet. So he started Smug Fossil. It was cathartic: a fuck you to every hacky-sack-playing, Cider Jack-drinking, Neil Young-listening mock-anguished trust-fund baby who had ever stuffed a towel under a door. If ten people opened the thing before chucking it into a garbage can on the quad—last spring, the pages piled up everywhere, caught in the wind, snagged in bike racks—then there was the satisfactory chance that one or two might bleed a little bit.

Alyssa put the cover on the box, then stretched back in her chair. Her t-shirt rode up. She said, “You’re awfully quiet.”

He was thinking that if he returned to his room he would find Shep’s gray ankle sock slung over the doorknob, insultingly content in its limp threadbareness. On that floor, it only encouraged knock-bys.

“Need a place to crash?” Alyssa asked.

“Thanks. I can sleep here.”

“We were going to deliver these in the morning.”

“I said I can sleep here.”

“Until security throws you out, then what?”

“They won’t find me.”

He did want a cigarette. He would have to go outside, and then he wouldn’t have a way back in.

Alyssa lived in one of the community houses set aside for straightedge kids. Her roommate was visiting a friend at UVM. She and Rollie used the Rape Trail to cut across.

The box was heavy. The cardboard handles cut into his fingers. “I need to stop,” he said.

He shook out a clove cigarette and lit it, and shared it with her.

Alyssa looked up. “You can’t see shit now since they put in these lights. This was the best spot on campus.”

“The science building.”

She looked at him.

“I know a way in.”

“So do I, remember?”

It involved going through a window. Alyssa, a foot shorter than Rollie, had to stand on the box to reach it. The cardboard almost gave way. Rollie then passed the box through the window and followed her inside.

They moved hushedly, though nobody was there, no alarm had sounded. Up four flights, through a service door. They were on the roof. He wedged the box inside the door to hold it ajar.

“Is this why you come up here?”

“Shh. We might see a shooting star.”

But every twitch they spied turned out to be a plane. The airport twinkled to the east. With his head craned upward, Rollie started to lose his balance; he let Alyssa lean against him. They lost themselves in the whirl of blues and blacks and lavenders, the visible static: light-years, ecstasy, shiver of a proof of God.

Beneath his chin she said, “Nobody’s going to read your stupid zine.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Everyone already knows what’s in it. None of it’s you. All your talent, and you’d rather be a creeper in a world that’s crammed with ‘em.”

Rollie lay in Alyssa’s roommate’s bed feeling the weird scratch of flannel, his nose tickled by a strange shampoo. Posters looked down on him in the dark. Alyssa, removing any doubt, fell right asleep on her side of the room. Shadows of feet darkened the light beneath the door. Rollie passed the time making lists in his head. He pondered second acts. He wondered if he should transfer to another school, or drop out and learn a trade. He wondered if he should try Pavement again, if the new album would grow on him.

 

Serven_Neil_picNeil Serven lives in Greenfield, MA and works as a lexicographer. His stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Washington Square Review, Cobalt, and elsewhere.