Poetry

“Enlightenment”by Virginia Konchan

There is nothing eternal about us.
Therefore, I embrace my dogness.
Therefore, I recover my dignity,
lost in Acapulco centuries before.
Welcome to the pecking order.
Welcome to the wet dream
of interminable rank and file.
Joy is on hiatus, and at parties,
all that’s spoken of is Netflix
and the catafalque of female desire.
My lips get in the way of speaking.
My hands flap, like fat pigeons
unable to take flight.
Parenthetical Lord,
there is an expiration date
on cold cuts, on nature’s
syphilitic blooms.
All I care about is everything.
All I want is an endless supply
of something.
I have a blind date with destiny:
no doubt I won’t be recognized.
I am done erecting boundaries,
done with adjectival phrases
and post-confessional lore.
I am an animal very rarely.
I will not entreat you anymore.

 

VK author photo 1

Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do (Carnegie Mellon, 2020) and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, including Empire of Dirt (above/ground press, 2019), Virginia Konchan‘s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boston Review, and elsewhere.

 

 


Photo by Matthew Klein

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.

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.

 

Poetry

“What Happened to Winona Ryder” by Erin McIntosh

I looked up and saw the wrong thing.
I walked over and did something bad.
I mean, I felt bad about it afterward.
We were fifteen when we learned
to stop talking about what we really mean.
It was an exercise in driving our care
to the dump. Shoving it out of the car
and asking them to take it away.
We were asking for it. We didn’t know
any better. We promised our mothers
we’d get better at wearing sunscreen
so the light wouldn’t wreck our perfect
skin. They kept warning us about wrinkles.
They said nothing about cancer, hospital
beds, hairlessness. They said nothing
about calling up to ask for help.

What happened to Winona Ryder
was everybody’s question. I was
twenty-one by then and knew more
than anybody else. What happened
was a simple case of misunderstanding
how to be in the world. What happened
to Winona Ryder was an example
of someone wanting something
and not knowing how to get to it.
She just went about it in the wrong way.
I knew this because everyone told me
I was smart and yet I kept getting
things wrong. My friends assured me,
saying, you give very good advice.
Now try following it.

But Winona I understand your anger
and how once having thought everything
there is under the sun to think,
all that remains is one’s desire. I fear
my own desire is becoming my identity
and I don’t know what to do about it
either. Do you feel me, Winona?
Do you remember what it is to want
something and be handed back words
like no and bad and wrong? Shame
gifted to us by our loving parents
in place of joy or taffy or familial love.
I nearly pray Holy Father forgive me
and Winona too for screwing this thing up
but I stopped going to church a long time
ago, not long after a girl two blocks down
was burned to death by her boyfriend
and I could no longer stomach
anybody else’s praise and thanksgiving,
least of all mine. I couldn’t stand to lift
my arms to a heaven I wasn’t sure
I wanted to visit. If all they remember
us for is our mistakes Winona, so be it.
If no one remembers me at all,
well amen to that. Thank God for that.

McIntosh Erin Photo

Erin McIntosh is a writer and actress currently living in Los Angeles, CA. She served as the youngest judge and panelist for the inaugural Cybils Book Awards three years running and also spent several years as part of the founding volunteer team for the award-winning non-profit organization readergirlz. Her poetry has appeared and is forthcoming in various journals including Bone BouquetLavender ReviewHawai’i Review, Plenitude Magazine and Speak Easy Mag.

Poetry

“After Two Months” by Kris Bigalk

I dreamed myself blind
in a burned-black room
the curtains blowing
the scents of autumn’s end—
caramel smoke, with an edge
of chill, of rain, of endings,
and then
sweet softness
your gentle bearded cheek
sliding alongside my body
until your mustache
rested on my upper lip
and the cool mint
of your tongue slid
to meet mine.
I woke, but didn’t open
my eyes.

I know that ephemera
only rides the wind
and doesn’t circle back.

I know the way mist
gives way to rain,
then to snow.

But knowing is not believing.

So I waited, eyes closed,
and listened to the curtains
whisper, smelled the last
of the bonfire embers,
and held a hand
to my cheek,
where your breath
left its warmth,
where you had been,
somehow still are,
and then
I opened my eyes.

 

Bigalk Kris PhotoKris Bigalk is the author of the poetry collection Repeat the Flesh in Numbers (NYQ Books), and is anthologized in The Liberal Media Made Me Do It (Lummox Press), Down the Dark River (Louisiana Literature Press), and elsewhere. Her poetry has recently appeared in Paper Nautilus and The Good Men Project, and is forthcoming in Water~Stone Review. Bigalk serves as Director of Creative Writing at Normandale Community College in Minnesota.

Poetry

“Radiation Day 4” by Ally Malinenko

The machine is broken,
they tell me when I arrive
but to get changed anyway
because it won’t be too long

which is why 2 ½ hours later
and really late for work I’m pissed off.

The waiting room is packed now
the 9 am people, like myself
have mingled with the 10
and the 11’s
and to compensate
they’ve brought in
graham crackers
and apple juice
to which the patients
flock like vultures.

Next to me is a health aid,
Puerto Rican
young so
it’s to me that she turns to talk

about how this is his first day,
hooking a thumb towards the old
blind man in the chair next to her
about how he’s pissed about waiting
and how maybe she shouldn’t have taken this job

it’s only her third day of work and
already the guy is getting on her nerves.
I give a nervous look but she tells me not
to worry he doesn’t speak any English.

She sighs heavy
tells me this whole Ebola thing is worrying her
I mean, she cleans up shit and piss from this guy
every day and she heard it’s in Jersey
and also Puerto Rico
and once it gets to NYC
holy cow,
they’ll be no stopping it
and she just hate sickness
and I think about suggesting
a job change but instead let her
talk about how
Ebola freaks her out
but not as much as STDs
because, she tells me,
her eyes wide
you can be like
with anyone and then not find out
for like six months
that you’ve got something.

Yeah you gotta be careful
I tell her
and she promises she is
because even though she’s already 21
she can’t imagine dying

I just feel so bad for them,
she motions around the room
her voice way too loud
and I want to remind her
that even though he might not
speak English

the rest of us here do
but she just
shudders
and adds
I can’t imagine being old like this and dying.
I just feel so bad for them,

don’t you?

 

Malinenko Ally Radiation PhotoAlly Malinenko is the author of the poetry collection The Wanting Bone (Six Gallery Press) and the novel This Is Sarah (Bookfish Books). She lives in the part of Brooklyn voted to have the best halal food truck.

Poetry

“Death, Sleep, Beauty” by Shaindel Beers

Beers Shaindel_Accompanying Photo by TK
After a photograph by Katie Pearce

The girl lies in her stark
white dress. The grass
the unreal green velvet
of spring. March buds
push from the trees.
Everything becoming—
everything alive
except the girl.
She is a pearl on display
in a jeweler’s window.
Clouds dapple the ground
around her. Years from now
she will be a story
that haunts this hill.

 

Beers Shaindel_PhotoShaindel Beers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing. She teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, OR, and is the poetry editor of Contrary Magazine. Learn more at shaindelbeers.com.

 

Beers art Pearce Katie PhotoKatie Pearce is a 19-year-old self-taught photographer from Pendleton, OR. She has hosted her own gallery show at Pendleton Center for the Arts and has received a regional prize in photography from the same organization. Her photography can be viewed on her Flickr.

 

Interviews

“I won’t make excuses for them, and I won’t make excuses for myself, either”: An Interview with Nickole Brown

Joli Livaudais
Joli Livaudais

Fanny Says, Nickole Brown‘s hilarious and touching poetry collection centering around her grandmother, is garnering all sorts of praise. Fanny Says, Julie Marie Wade writes in The Rumpus, “is in essence one long poem—138 pages—chambered like a heart and pumping language like blood to every stanza throughout this single, vital organ.” In the Oxford American, Parneisha Jones writes that “[w]hat makes this book essential to the growing cannon of writers confronting the American heritage is that these poems resist sympathy.”

The author of the novel-in-poems Sister and co-editor with Judith Taylor of the anthology Air Fare, Brown currently works at White Pine Press as editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied literature at Oxford University, and served as Hunter S. Thompson’s editorial assistant. I got the chance to ask her some questions about Fanny Says, which she answered from her office on a hot summer day in Little Rock, Arkansas.

You’re busy these days. Where are you writing from? 

Hi, Jenna! I’m answering these questions from Little Rock, Arkansas. We’re right on the cusp of summer, which means the mockingbirds are good and loud, repeating their roll call of songs from all the other birds in the neighborhood and throwing in an imitation of a car alarm or two. With the heat index, we’re already in the triple digits, so for today, I’ve retreated into my office with some iced coffee and probably won’t reemerge until the crickets kick up their legs to tell me it’s cool and dark and safe outside again.

I won’t be here for long though; on Saturday, my wife Jessica and I hit the road again, this time to teach for a few weeks at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. After that, I head over to Murray State in Kentucky to hear those big, green dog-day cicadas and work with the graduate students there. The rest of my summer then will be spent on tour, rambling up to New York and P-town then over to New Mexico and every place in between that will have me. By the time I’m able to return, the leaves will be edging themselves orange, which makes me a little sad. It’s a long time to be away from home.

A long way from home indeed. How did you decide which stories about your grandmother to put in Fanny Says? Were there stories about your grandmother that you thought about putting in your book but didn’t?

Well, there were some standards I knew had to make it into the book. How she bought her first car, for example. She was only twenty-three, but even then she had enough moxie to buy the exact one she wanted, even without her husband’s permission, which was unheard of in those days. She ordered it by calling the lot and literally purchasing it over the phone. They delivered the car straight to her door; she had never even driven before.

Or another story of hers: how as a child she used climb up into a tree and stuff her bloomers with green apples. Or how she carried me from the hospital by snatching me from the nurse and wrapping me up in her mink coat. Or how she used to go to church revivals and let her cousin Elizabeth—who “never was right in the head”—take her up to the altar. These are the Fanny Classics, the stories I heard a hundred times growing up and, quite literally, the ones I was fortunate enough to have written down, word-for-word, as Fanny said them. With these little snippets dictated on the page, I felt as if I could write the poems I needed to about her life but still have her speak for herself as well.

But yes, of course, there were many pieces that didn’t make it into the book. I’ve been filling my notebooks with Fanny’s stories since high school, so a large part of constructing this manuscript had to do with sifting through those materials, deciding what to keep and what to cull. Some were cut because they were too personal; even though I wanted to flesh out Fanny’s life, I didn’t feel comfortable revealing stories about others in the family. Others were left behind that weren’t as solid on the page as I needed them to be; even though dear to me, I had to remember that these were poems and had to stand on their own. Still more were lost because, well, I had to serve the reader. I had to remember how complicated her life was, how layered and contrary she became, and I didn’t want to pile so much on that the narrative became tangled and confusing. It’s about choice though, isn’t it? Yes, writing is almost always about choice.

FannySays_COVERDid including or excluding some of the less, shall we say, socially acceptable elements of these narratives influence your choices? I am thinking of issues of racism, or the baby-raising techniques in “Fanny Says How to Tend Babies”? 

Here’s the thing: my charge was to tell her life, close to the way she would have told it. I had to transmit her advice, just as she gave it to me. I mean, I won’t say she didn’t give me some outdated tips on how to raise a baby, but you have to remember that she came from a time when doctors actually encouraged women to smoke in order to keep the birth weight down, which would insure a safer delivery.

And you also have to remember that she had seven children, all of which, miraculously, survived to adulthood. Every single one of her kids (and some of her grandkids, including myself) were raised without breast milk or car seats or any of the contraptions we use now to protect and coddle infants. I don’t think I ever once rode a bike with a helmet until a few years ago, and yes, when I get an upper respiratory infection, I still do as Fanny taught me and choke down a mix of whiskey, honey, and lemon before I fuss with a doctor.

Like all of Fanny’s advice, there might be a whole lot that’s ridiculous, things that you would never dream of doing nowadays, but look closer—there’s a lot of solid advice there too. When it came to raising her children, you can see a fierce independence in everything she said. She was wary of doctors, and rightly so, especially when one considers the medical practices of her time. And she kept things simple.

Many mothers today are tangled up in a web of information, thinking they don’t have everything they need, but she knew better. She’d tell them, “No sense in going out and getting baby magazines and all that expensive shit swinging and rocking and propping your baby up. You won’t use it two seconds, and besides, it won’t be good to you in six months. . .  Use common sense—now, if you’re hot, they’re hot. If you’re cold, they’re cold.”

Now, what was I thinking when I wrote about Fanny’s racism? Well, that is a more complicated question, a conundrum that takes up the entire third section of my book, really, with the long sequence “A Genealogy of the Word.” (I’ve been asked about this before, so I hope you don’t mind if I use a bit of what I’ve written for other interviews as it’s quite difficult to articulate.)

Anyhow, I’ve never worked on a single poem so hard in all my life as I did that one, and it still makes me queasy. You see, it shamed me—it still shames me—the way that Fanny talked sometimes. To make it more difficult, things never were as clear as I needed them to be to get a grip on right and wrong, good or bad, because as hard as it is to believe, one of Fanny’s best friends in this world was a black woman hired to come to her house every morning. They would put on a pot of coffee and cut-up nearly all day, and once I got older, a part of their fun was to rile me with racist banter and jokes. I suppose it was their way to have a laugh at the uptight girl who read too many books, who saw fault in the way things were, and in the not-so-subtle way of politically-correct teenagers, who was casting judgment on a way of life they were trying to live as best they could. I won’t make excuses for them, and I won’t make excuses for myself, either.

You see, the legacy of the South, the entire damn culture of the South, well, it shamed me then, and it shames me now. But it’s one thing to turn away from your culture, to even reject it outright; it’s another to abandon your people. I suppose this poem is my way of dealing with some of the ugly truths about my grandmother so that I can understand her better. Li-Young Lee talks about this in his memoir, The Winged Seed, as he struggles with his Chinese heritage in America. He talks about how we all, at a certain age, spurn our own kind and feel as if we should pretend not to know them. “Then we find our kind again and love them,” he writes. “If we’re lucky.”

And now you’ve gone full circle. On your website that you’ve encouraged readers to send you stories about their own grandmothers. Have you learned anything interesting, or been surprised by anything you’ve gotten?

Absolutely. I’m still encouraging readers to send in profiles of their grandmothers, especially if they have their own kick-ass matriarchs that fussed and fought their way to some kind of solid ground in this life. The page, which I lovingly call “The Bingo Hall,” is a memory wall, really, a place where these fierce women can be recognized in some small way.

So far, I’ve gotten grandmothers from Paris and Cuba, Alabama and Appalachia. I’ve gotten Cajun grandmothers and Jewish grandmothers, grandmothers who rose up from coal-mining towns and world wars and abusive husbands. These are women who, like Cynthia Arrieu-King’s grandmother, “smoked, drank, and ate whatever she wanted and lived to be 88.” I love these women. I love them for their chutzpah and tenacity. Things were considerably harder for all women just a few generations back, but that didn’t stop them from driving cars and wearing pants, and well, doing exactly what they pleased.

What do you hope that your readers take away from your book?

I wrote this book because I wanted to understand Fanny, because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her for good. You see, I could feel the memories of her blurring every year since she passed in 2004, and that was unacceptable to me. I wanted my sisters’ kids to know that good fire of hers in their veins, and writing this book helped me remember too. In terms of the reader, well, I’m hoping they’ll keep her alive in their own way too.

At the very least, I hope they’ll get a kick out of her cock-eyed stories, maybe sit for a spell in her particular kind of world. Most importantly—and I’ve said this before—I want readers who have never met anything like my grandmother in their whole life to somehow gather up some of what Fanny had, and if need be, pick herself up from a difficult situation and walk straight past, as Fanny taught me to do, with her head held high.

—interview by Jenna VanWely

 

Poetry

“Regrets are Upside-Down Celebrations” by Jade Sylvan

If you’d told me then we’d live to see thirty
I’d’ve taken a shot, and fucked the wrong person,
and eaten too much, and dropped out and crawled back,
and flown across the ocean, and covered my body with tattoos,
and slept on Faulkner’s grave, and posted my nude photos,
and tried cocaine exactly four times, and sold everything,
and let my brother’s best man finger me on Mom’s washer that Christmas,
and believed I was the world’s only true exception.

If you’d told me we’ve never had any responsibility at all
and that every day is a series of nanoscale willful yeses,
maybe I’d have kissed you then, and ruined our friendship
(Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in the background),
or maybe I would have cleaned you up, rinsed the bathtub of vomit,
tucked you into the queen mattress on your splotched flophouse carpet,
driven home through Boston’s lunar November midnight,
and done everything exactly the same.

 

SylvanJade Sylvan, called a “risqué queer icon” by The Boston Globe, is the author of Kissing Oscar Wilde (2013 Write Bloody Publishing), TEN(2013 Launch Over Publishing), and The Spark Singer (2009 Spuyten Duyvil Press). A genderqueer writer, producer, and performing artist based out of Cambridge, MA, Jade has been on the cover of The Boston Globe Arts Section, ScoutCambridge, and DigBoston. The author has toured throughout North America and Europe performing poetry, and has produced and performed in a number of acclaimed shows in the Greater Boston area, including, The Literary Roast, All You Need Is Myth, and Encyclopedia Show Somerville. In 2012, Jade cowrote and starred in the indie feature film, TEN, which is currently touring the film festival circuit. Publications include pieces in: The ToastBuzzFeedPANKDigBoston, Carve MagazineMudfishWord Riot, and many more.