Nicole-Rollender-The-TNB-Self-Interview

Who are you? And also, why do you write? Actually, why don’t you just write me a poem right now?

Poetry is: an artifact of the shining me, the radiant, the torn: the execution of that self: the contending with who do I think I am to live so freely here: walking this riverbed: kneeling in dirt: putting my lips to cemetery stone: loving the glow of metacarpal bones under me, in my stumbling: decay: in my children: their spines: their flows: their jaws: my God, where are you blinking?: because I am among the abandoned: scattered: fragmented: a broken word: do you know what I mean by broken?: because even swallowing: even: broken: witness: heard: any song: any move into slow: the dead hold out their palms: I approach as lamb: for food: for daisies: for slaughter: for an end to thirst: for white blooms on my tongue: for being in a body: disembodied: embodied: an embodied spirit: the intersection: revenant against my teeth: a rosary for sorrow: a litany to see the dead in mirrors: joy in finger bones: if I lay me down: if I lay me down: because I have wished for death: but now I would go fighting: the poem is: my voice: my clawing for light: my internal song/scream/cry: it’s the part of me that will endure: here: can I believe that there is a skyward: that my bones float in it: unsheltered: here.

Why do I write poetry? It’s the part of me that will endure: here.

dear-petrov-cover-1I hesitate to call Susan Tepper’s dear Petrov (Pure Slush Books) a novel; if anything it reaches closest to that magical, ethereal and mysterious realm we call poetry, though I also hesitate to call the sixty-four connected, half-page pieces poems, for taken altogether, they construct a beautiful whole that can very well be a novel. And yet…I hesitate…yes, now I’m repeating, having thoroughly locked myself into a savagely incoherent loop. This is so mostly because this book defies a label, and any fool (like this one) who undertakes the futile task of reviewing Tepper’s offering will be left verbally challenged—doomed to spin his wheels in perpetuity, trapped in a circle of babbling nonsense as witnessed above. The closest we can come to pegging down dear Petrov is “a work of art.”

Thrilled to announce that The Beautiful Anthology has been named one of the Best Bathroom Books of 2012 by The New York Times.

Money quote:

Like a David Cronenberg movie, this offbeat anthology zeros in on beauty’s dark and complicated side. Another bonus: it mostly features good writers you’ve never heard of.

Dear O, I’ve been told drink makes
truth froth from a soul’s center.

When we first met you slurred
your words—said I had eyes
bright as birds—how you wanted
to hold flight.

I thought you were making a punch
line of me—how as a child a tree
branch stole my eye.

So, I handed you my glass globe
replacement and left. I never
expected you to follow after me—

knocking on my door with gifts
of return— explaining how you
loved to play marbles—entering

me with my eye in your palm—
seeing my face, not as a void,
but a window.

 

first appeared in Ampersand

 

Why write?

 

 Why write?

 

 Why write?

 

Why write?

 

 Why write?

 

Why write?

 

Why write?

 Why write?

 

Why write?

 

Why write?

 

Soutine: Book One

By Rick Mullin

Poem

Chapter 1:

Portrait of the Village Idiot

I

A charcoal line divides the wrinkled scrap
of butcher’s rag. And in a lightning strike,
another follows. A child’s fingers snap

and fumble with a brittle charcoal spike.
It crumbles, leaving marks that coalesce
into an aquiline and golem-like

portrayal. Repeatedly the fingers press
the black material into the brown—
a beard, the eyes, an overcoat. A mess.

They tear the paper. And they throw it down
as charcoal limns a landscape in the sky
and February hunkers over town.

II

And blood will fall. A life of Chaim Soutine
would almost have to drip in lacquered red
across a crusted base of brown and green.

In the beginning? Well, the rabbi’s head.
The nightmares that transgression might engender,
and the power of nature. Elemental dread

as, liver-lipped, the tenth child of the mender
waddles through the gray-slate thaw of Smilovichi.
Chaim the pariah, blood and dander

drawn distractedly across his twitching
face. His blood describes a dizzy trek
between the wagon ruts where Nietzsche’s

underdog progresses in the wreck
of finished business, punctuating shtetl
street with fallen drops. His chicken neck

and urchin’s chest exposed above the wattle
of a tunic ripped within the hour, the boy
is beaten once again. Not by his brutal

brothers this time, but by others. Oy!
Beware obsession! For in this world are things
as likely to empower as to destroy,

a light and darkness through the land that sings
precariously in the resonance
of every day. A pendulum that swings

inside a hidden engine. There’s a sense
of latent danger, violence in a law
beyond tradition, an experience

in nature and the Lord’s imprimatur,
“Behold the Child”.
       Having never seen
a work of art beyond the constant noir

vignette of Jewish poverty, Soutine
compulsively confronts the world, his scrimmage
with the word of God, by drawing. Green

and gray convert to charcoal in his homage,
meanwhile flouting a severe taboo,
the second one, against the graven image.

And now, it’s learned, he’s sketched a learned Jew.
“As if such portraits weren’t forbidden, dunce!”
The rabbi’s son, the village butcher, screw-

locked, punches Chaim and kicks him once.
The butcher’s brothers throw him at the wall.
“We teach frumkeit and how to take a punch,”

the eldest grunts and swings a board with all
the force of his observance on the slumping
boy. And then the boots. And then the crawl

toward the doorway of the shed. Then something
drops on Chaim’s back—a burlap sack
of poultry offal. Now the older boys are bumping

into one another heading back
to town, ecstatic in the rage they’ve spent
and laughing, satisfied with their attack.

III

At the end of the road he sees his father
sitting in a window sewing rags
and davening. Factotum to a tailor,

poor as gravel, Soutine père reneges
on any promise of Chagall nostalgia
that the shtetl might suggest. He sags

over a pile of scraps in a neuralgia
of repetitive despair. His cuff
must be avoided! Surely all the

Soutine children understand the stuff
of dreamless sleep. The ghetto’s endless drone.
The heavy thud of father’s mad rebuff.

But how long has Chaim been standing there alone,
the raining shots of multicolored light
behind his eyes? He plucks a chicken bone

and feathers from his clothes as night
chokes over Smilovichi. Then she’s there,
as always, to collect him. “What a sight,”

his mother says, and pushes back his hair.
And what a sight indeed. An eye is swollen
shut. He’s bleeding almost everywhere,

his face, his hands. His hat is likely stolen,
“for he had one, yes, this morning, if you please!”
He isn’t crying this time, though. A woolen

shawl is wrapped around him. Mother tries
to lift the boy, but at 13, her youngest son
won’t budge. “He usually cries,”

she mutters to the doctor’s wife who’s come
to see what all the trouble is about.
“It’s bad,” she tells the mother—the child is dumb

and listless. “Some cuts are very deep. I doubt
they’ll stop without some stitches. Let me help.”
They carry him. Now half the shtetl’s out

to see the doctor take the sorry whelp
indoors. A mass of beards and pipes and hats.
The donkeys haw. The scrawny street dogs yelp.

IV

For sixteen days, Soutine remains in bed
recuperating at the doctor’s home—
a bed he doesn’t have to share. His head

is wrapped in cotton gauze, a comb
of rooster shock protruding from the crown.
At first he worries he’ll go blind and roam

the streets of Smilovichi like a clown,
a village idiot. The term had been applied
at various localities in town—

When the schul dismissed him, Chaim stayed inside
and helped his father. He would watch the light,
remembering as a toddler how he’d hide

behind a chest of drawers, stay out of sight
for hours, while the window’s square design
traversed the room. And now, in bed at night,

he only has to close his eyes. The fine
bouquet of pin-scratch lights still shoot and twist
inside his mind. By day, he struggles with the line,

a charcoal sprig inside his healing fist.
The springtime air outside makes slight incursions.
His mother visits once. She brings a list

and shows it to the Smilovichi surgeon.
“Your mother’s going to the village council
with her case”—the doctor’s wife, her words in

gentle pace, describes to him a town still
buzzing with the news of how they nearly
killed him. He considers how the town will

someday do the job and sees it clearly.
Should he heal, he’ll somehow have to leave.
This incident will cost the rabbi dearly.

“The idiot gets paid! Can you believe?
As if the world were rattling with such rubles.
Soutine the mender cannot sew a sleeve—

he gets a quarter-hundred for his troubles?
Our rabbi is a fool to play along.”
The muddy street of Smilovichi bubbles

for an hour. And it isn’t very long
before the artist leaves the family hovel
for the school of Vilna. That’s where things go wrong.

Karla Kelsey knows a good poem when she sees one. She also knows a thing or two about writing them. Last year she published her second book, Iteration Nets, (her first book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, won her the Sawtooth Poetry Prize with Ahsahta Press) and she is also the editor of  The Constant Critic. In addition, she finds time to edit Reconfigurations, an online journal of poetry and poetics, and is also on the editorial board of Tarpaulin Sky. She created Imprint Press, a project devoted to book arts, which publishes limited edition artists’ books, and is on the creative writing faculty at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. During spring of 2011, she will be teaching at ELTE in Budapest as a Fulbright lecturer.

Recently, Karla and I found some time to talk via email about her latest book, writing and reviewing, and her experience at Denver University.

AS: Let’s talk about the premise of Iteration Nets. This work is a collection of varied forms (traditional and otherwise) of connected sonnets and prose poems. Tell me how this idea for this structure came about.

KK: The book’s improvisation with the sonnet form traces to several sources. The most immediate source was a course on the sonnet that I took while working on my PhD at Denver. Here we looked at the tradition of the English-language sonnet spanning from the first sonnets in English—which were translations of Petrarch—through the cannon, and out to radical innovations with the form such as Jen Bervin’s Nets, a text that erases Shakespeare’s sonnets. The course opened up the form for me (and, in fact, the whole idea of form), in an incredible way. I realized that, all along, the sonnet, which seemed to embody Tradition (with a capital “T”), had always been a conversation between innovation and tradition—and I wanted to participate. During this course I started working on the first section of Iteration Nets, which is composed of 19 sonnets that weave lines of other writers’ texts with loose sound translations of those lines. While working on these poems I began the second section of the book—19 prose poems which are expansions of the first poems. And then, when these two sections were absolutely complete and revised I wrote the third and last section of the book, which is an erasure of the second section. All in all the process took two or three years and spanned my time finishing graduate school in Denver and then moving to Pennsylvania, which became, itself, part of the book.

A less immediate source, and so perhaps more interesting, is my background in ballet, which I studied ardently from the age of 4 until about 18. I have always been fascinated with the creation and transmission of choreography. The result is something that we feel is fixed—and in the context of ballet we feel the result to be the epitome of tradition. But the process is continual innovation. Ballets often take their source from story, but the way the work develops is in collaboration with a composer (if temporally possible) and with the dancers themselves as the choreographer tries out different patterns, bringing the work into being through the dancers. The way choreography is disseminated is that it is brought to other companies (or brought back within the same company after years—decades—of silence) by dancers, choreographers, and directors who have performed the work before. Ballets are rarely written down, and if they are, the written text is necessarily sketch-like, only a framework. The real essence of the work resides within the bodies of the dancers and directors who have worked with the ballet and the work is passed on by showing, by doing. I feel great kinship with this compositional tradition and like to think of Iteration Nets, in its intertexutal elements, in its tensions between tradition and innovation, in its conversation with form, as a written embodiment of such a process.

 

Tell me about your research process for this book. What was it that inspired you in terms of voice/style, etc., in terms of influence?

Celia and Louis Zukofsky’s translation of Catullus acts as continuous inspiration for me. Their translation works to render the sound, rhythm and syntax of Catullus’s Latin into English, but also manages to pick up the sense. Engagement with their text not only delivers an unparallel sonic experience, but it also throws into question my assumptions about where meaning resides, for perhaps the anchor of meaning is this constellation of sound, rhythm, and syntax. And if one can anchor English in the same sounds, rhythms, and syntax as the Latin, the meaning then would follow, coming out of the very fibers of the language. This kind of translation is of course an impossible task, which makes it all the more exciting to me. The first section of Iteration Nets takes its engine absolutely from this process.

The other writer who continually influences me is Ronald Johnson. In Iteration Nets it is RADIOS, his erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost that informs my work. I met Ronald Johnson’s work in one of my very first poetry-writing classes at UCLA. I was studying Paradise Lost when Stephen Yenser, my poetry teacher, brought in Johnson’s erasure. I was astounded at the way in which Johnson had created something completely different in texture and voice than the original text. While Milton’s syntactical and rhetorical work was a revelation to me in many ways, Johnson’s lyric arc was equally as revelatory. And I have always loved the fact that the Milton is there underneath—just as Zukofsky’s Catullus absolutely has Catullus’s Catullus underneath. This feels so resonant to how writing happens, to how being happens—always a palimpsest.

As you can tell from my responses, much of the book comes from reading, from being inside other texts. The path to these texts has most often been dependent on the teachers and peers I have met through writing programs, and now in a broader community of poets, many of whom I would not know about if I had not studied poetry in school. Of course there is always the complaint that writing programs might be ruining poets and poetry, and while there may be ways that this is so, I know that I would never have been able to learn about poetry without my path through higher education (and yes, I am sort of a “pure product” having done a BA with a philosophy and English double major and creative writing emphasis at UCLA, an MFA at Iowa, a PhD at Denver, and now I teach in a program at Susquehanna University that has an undergraduate creative writing major). I think I read one poem in high school (something by ee cummings, surely) and so how would I ever have been exposed to poetry without what people disdainfully call “the institutionalization of creative writing?” In the US we cart our kids to ballet and band but offer no place for poetry. I am currently in Budapest for the semester, teaching creative writing, and you probably know that not many European countries have creative writing classes or programs. But they have poets. How can this be? Well, for one, Hungarian culture includes poetry. In addition, there is a strong tradition of mentorship, wherein older poets form one-on-one relationships with younger poets, teaching them tradition and craft outside of any sort of institution. I like this idea, but it also bothers me that many of these relationships seem based on family connections—on whether or not your relatives are in the position and inclination to know people in the arts. This may be OK if your culture supports the arts and so each creative child is likely to have at least one adult to help her cultivate his or her inclinations. But, I know that in the US, many of my finest students absolutely do not have relatives interested in any of the arts whatsoever. The arts, according to such relatives, are a waste of time and money. What a shame if poetry was closed to these students, because we decided that academia was “ruining” it, and so they never read such a thing as a contemporary poem, let alone wrote one.


Your publisher, Ahsahta, published your last book, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary. What has that experience been like?

Working with Ahsahta has been remarkable and I could not ask for a better experience. Not only is Janet Holmes a wonderful editor and promoter, but she also has endless patience and genius when it comes to typesetting. The first book has some really long lines and it is important that they not wrap, but rather span margin to margin, creating tensile space. Before she set the book I suggested to her that I would revise the lines so that they would fit into the width of the page. But instead, she was able, with that book, to make the pages wider. The willingness to do this in spite of the extra expense of both design time and money just blew my mind. Iteration Nets was even more of pain to deal with. I thought I was being smart when I wrote the second and third sections of the book using In Design because I wanted the text of the second section to literally underlie the third, which is an erasure of the second. I knew that unless I wrote the book in In Design that margins, etc, would shift, upsetting the spatial movement of the erasure. Despite my good intentions, though, Janet had to reset the whole thing because I really didn’t know what I was doing with In Design. She was enormously patient both with this task and with my endless tweaking after the text was set.


Do you find the process of finding and working with a publisher via a contest different than that of  submitting work to various places for consideration?

Both of my books have been published by Ahsahta and I felt that Janet gave just as much attention to Iteration Nets as she did to the prize-winner. And other than these books, I don’t really have the experience of submitting to various places and working with other editors except with the chapbooks, which came about in a different way. One thing I can say, though, is that winning a prize and having a book published feels like double-affirmation. Not only had Carolyn Forché liked my work enough to select it, but Ahsahta thought it worth publishing. It is really rare to feel such enormous affirmation from complete strangers, and so it was an extraordinary way to have my first book come out.


The structure of this book is of particular interest to me. I am in the process of deciphering order and structure to my first book, so I’m curious to know how you chose the compositional method used in Iteration Nets.

The structure of Iteration Nets was less of a choice, and more a consequence of process set into motion. I began with the first section of sound and translation-driven sonnets. As I worked on these poems, possible trajectories of what might come between the lines and phrases kept announcing themselves. For example, the first sonnet begins: And suddenly we were in it and it was snow. What is this “it”? Life? Love? And what about snow? So suddenly we were in the middle of love, but it is already winter, already over? I began writing the prose poems of the second section out of these trajectories, and worked on the first and second sections together. I don’t know when I had the idea of the third section. I feel as if the idea of erasure just came to me, although when I was working on the first two sections I was always aware that the book had so much density. That it needed a bit of light. This is probably why, when I came to the erasure idea it felt inevitable, that of course one proceeds by addition and then proceeds by subtraction. With both of my books the sense of texture was of primary importance in figuring out the structure of the book, although with Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary the poems were finished before I ordered the book (or, rather, they were originally in a different order). With Iteration Nets, the structure was part and parcel with composing the poems themselves. Attention to density, weight, tensility, space (etc) fundamentally creates a path through the text for readers.


Each movement is divided into three sections. First: Sonic Packet Enclosures–the notes on your process in your book say it’s derivative of Wyatt and Surrey’s 16th century rendering of Petrarch’s Italian into English—into process. What about that process inspired you?

The fact that the sonnet, in the English language, comes to us from a tradition of translation affirms for me the idea that everything we create comes from some place else. As Spicer channeled alien muses, the sonnet channels a series of formal movements and revisions. As we know so very well, there is no such thing as a perfect translation, and so in the act of moving Italian over to English Wyatt and Surrey had to improvise with the form. These innovations infuse their own sonnets and the rest of the English-language tradition. In addition, I find resonance in the fact that both poets translated many of the same sonnets, and so something like Tottel’s Miscellany, the first printed anthology of English-language poetry, in which their translations and original work appeared, had two versions of the same poem. This speaks to an openness to plurality of meaning that I think many people today would balk at.

The second movement, Riven Arc Explosions takes with it the complexities of form in the first movement and opens that up into prose poems. Your narrative expands to incorporate elements of the first movement. When you wrote Iteration Nets, was this your idea from the beginning (in terms of structure) or did it evolve as you figured out how to put all the elements of your book together?

The idea to move into prose poems in the second section came to me fairly early on in the process. Because my first book is also tripartite in structure, I think that I began the project suspecting that the Iteration Nets would also have three movements, a kind of “Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand.” The content of the second section, however, is very much a product of life as I was living it. In this way the section evolved as I did and includes moments from lived-life: a cousin’s wedding, a grandmother’s illness, a dinner party, the exploration of a new town, a new landscape, and many other small, daily details. The process of writing the second section made me very aware of the value of the daily and I feel huge influence of, for example, Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. Although, of course, her project is temporally circumscribed, and my project works with very different formal parameters. And so one of the challenges of working on a temporally extended project of place-based writing, and the writing of the everyday, is that your life might change in the middle of the book, as mine did, when I moved from Denver to Pennsylvania. And then, as author, you need to figure out ways in which the project can maintain integrity which is the same as asking yourself what it is about you that has remained the same, even when many of the daily aspects of your life have become completely different. We all take some sort of form or structure with us and we might call this identity. The structure of the book absolutely gave the process continuity, and I know a looser form of prose poem would have lost this.


Your third movement: Fragile Ladder Barques really focuses on fragmented structure by way of blank spaces and leaving out connective tissue of narrative. This section reminds me of Cecilia Vicuna’s style of erasure and maybe even Loy. How difficult was this portion of the book for you compared to the first two movements, if at all?

This association with Cecilia Vicuna actually helps me to explain the difference in compositional experience because making the third section of the book was very trance-like and I felt that I was in relation with language in a different way than I ever had been before. The words became very material in their location on the page and in their sound. The path that I made through the text felt more directed by the language than by me. It made the decisions and drove the poem. My job was to be as clear-headed as possible and to obey. While there is always some resonance of this as I write, the process of writing Fragile Ladder Barques absolutely made me an instrument carrying out some other plan. In many ways working on the section felt close to being part of one of Vicuna’s performances. I remember, in particular, the beginning of one of her performances in Denver. She began walking through the audience, weaving us together with red yarn while softly singing/chanting. As she made her way through us I felt inevitably connected to her and to everyone else in the room. I felt my mind channeled into the energy she was creating.

 

Talk about your experience at Constant Critic and how you choose the work you review there? How important is a review to the success of a book in your eyes?

On one hand, reviewing might seem to be very generous work: spending time and energy on the work of a book that somebody else has written. However, editing and writing for the Constant Critic is compelling to me in very selfish ways. First, it allows me to engage the ideas and writing of the other critics who write for the site. Jordan Davis, Ray McDaniel, Vanessa Place, and Sueyeun Juliette Lee all have wonderful minds and I have learned so much from them about poetry—and about thinking through and with poetry. So, the main reason I value working with the Constant Critic is that I get to have an on-going dialogue with these writers about writing. Nearly all of our reviews are essays that reach beyond a simple descriptive or evaluative articulation, and this is fundamental to the reason the site offers something different, and much more rare, than much of the review-based criticism being written today.

In terms of selecting books to review, I am also completely selfish in this regard. I review what I am interested in. I review what I am instantly drawn to read but can’t immediately figure out. I review work that I would love to have written, in some capacity, or that troubles me in its mode of articulation. Many people would think this to be the wrong way of going about reviewing: that one ought to select texts one has some sort of immediate authority over, or that the reviewer thinks will be important to the future. And that readers will then value the criticism because such-and-such reviewer, with such-and-such authority, has pronounced X, Y, and Z about them. I reject this notion for myself as critic. I am too skeptical about the role of the “Culture Maker” that this model implies. Also, this mode does not interface very well with the texts that I value—they eschew such authority. I am much more interested in writing and reading criticism that shows the mind at work with difficult and mysterious art—that offers an example of the kind of attention one might bring to a text—than I am interested in reading or writing criticism that pronounces or becomes didactic. I am interested in analyzing the cultural forces that institute gate-keeping, but I am not interested in a position on the patrol.


What was your experience like working for DQ with Bin Ramke? And in general? Do you feel that time as an editor for the magazine helped you have a keen eye as a reviewer? Do you feel like your own work changed as a result of that position?

While my writing and thinking absolutely changed as a result of working with Bin, the transformations and revelations were mostly due to long talks over coffee and to engaging with the community of writers who are drawn to DU for the express purpose of working with someone like Bin. However, working with him on the Denver Quarterly did teach me many things. Mostly the instruction was towards aspects of the “poetry world” such as AWP and publishing—things I knew almost nothing about. Here is an example: when I began at the Denver Quarterly I had the usual tasks of sorting and opening mail, of reading through the slush pile. Bin taught me to always paperclip submissions such that the poems were first and the letter and envelope were last—this way I could read the work for what it was, rather than through the author’s name and accomplishments. He taught me that care should be taken with all manuscripts, even the ones that were clearly (very clearly) not going to be published. As a result of this instruction, I remember distinctly feeling that the poems had value because their writers had written them and sent them off into the world and that this value was something to be honored irrespective of the quality of the work. For a young graduate student, overly-willing to dismiss work that did not align with her aesthetic or uncompromising sense of “quality” (and so young and with much to be learned), this ethic of manuscript care was something that (luckily) impressed itself upon me. I needed to learn that dismissal is easy, but the how and the why is often complex. And, imagine my joy when I read a beautiful submission that was clearly typed on a typewriter and then discovered after reading the poems several times that my suspicions were correct: I was holding Gustaf Sobin’s work in my hands. Through the slush pile. “Just” “like” “everyone” “else.” Though not really, because the poems were luminous. Brilliant. They made themselves distinct from the other work. And so, yes, each of us who makes a poem is engaged in a related act. But, also, there are poems–and there are Poems. And so which kind do you want to strive to write? Which kind do you think are worth sending out into the world, to make their own way?

The skeleton of an avocet erupts
in a cigar box. A fire

like cognac. Like the avocet.
I have trouble choosing: worm

or sleep. Luckily,
I am not long-legged.

This morning, I told my wife
my belt was an eel, coming to surface

for the sheen of the snaps, for what might
be hidden in the shores

of the back pocket. She told me
a joke in Portuguese, about the avocet

who ate the eel and turned into
a flying fish. It’s funnier

in Portuguese. In this language,
we build our coffins like homes—

the purple drapes here, the dinette set…
The avocet is a female apricot,

she says, the burial is a long
slow look at a solemn channel—

before the shovels, streaked with the leavings
of omuboro cherry, allow

for rain. I told my wife,
if I worked at the graveyard,

I would also try to knock the fruit
from the tree. She tells me

the joke about yellow feet
and other signs. How,

to bury the bird
is to choose between two unknowables.

Flight, death. We only think
that she’s the one we’ve been spooning with.

In the creased lid
of the cigar box is only

the aching of paper, and a punchline:
How the armless man

lives with itch. This
is who we have to live with.

Tell us about your new collection, Condition of Fire.

It’s a collection of poems inspired by the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses interspersed with poems about a post-apocalyptic world where change is the only hope for survival. I wrote almost all the poems while on the Aeolian Isles, thanks to the Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary. The islands are a volcanic archipelago said to be the home of the god of the winds, and you can see volcanoes erupting there. The soil is rich and all around you there are plants growing, bugs crawling, fish swimming, birds swooping – it was just the right place to go to think about what change is, and what being is.


You mention melopoesie on your website – what is that?

Melopoesie is music and poetry together, but the idea is that rather than being poetry stuck on top of music or vice versa, the two are generated in a collaborative way so that they form something new in which the poetry and music are in conversation with one another or intrinsically bound.


You’ve collaborated with artists and musicians/bands – why?

It started with looking for more provocative ways to perform or to present poetry to an audience rather than standing in front of them with a piece of paper in my hand reading out words. That can be a wonderful way to perform and a good poem read well by a talented poet can keep any audience’s attention, but poetry can be a difficult thing to take in when you’re hearing it for the first time in a room full of folks. Sometimes having something with it – film, music, pictures, et cetera, can really help people to focus and to understand what you’re on about.

Also I’ve met a lot of people who say they have trouble understanding poetry. I think a lot of people got frightened off of poetry in school, or are under the mistaken impression that it’s beyond them. Or some people think all poetry should be instantly accessible and easy – I don’t think that this was necessarily the case in the past, and is perhaps a sad reflection on our current approach to the unknown. My poetry over the years has been described as ‘obscure’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘imagistic’, ‘abstract’, and whether or not I agree it’s often been met with frustration. So I try to encourage people to let go of their fears and be willing to engage with the poem – to use their imaginations and intellects to inhabit the metaphorical spaces rather than to feel left out. Further to this, I’ve often found that the process of collaboration both helps to clarify my own understanding (and often actual wordings and line breaks) of the poems, and also provides another way in for people who find the poem on its own elusive.


You’ve been in Britain for 10 years – has your poetry changed?

I think so, though it’s hard to say how much of that has to do with the place I’m in and how much has to do with getting older. For a number of years I tried to write a poem a day, which helped me work through some problems I was having with getting my ideas out the way I wanted and getting my lines to match up with the rhythms in my head. How much Britain has influenced me, and how my work might have been different had I stayed in America, is hard to quantify. My sense of what I’m trying to convey and the means by which to do that seems clearer, and I wonder if being outside of the place where one grew up helps one get perspective on one’s self and one’s origins in a useful way.

I was at a lecture once where the claim was made that American poetry tends to separate ‘nature’ and ‘the city’ whereas the two are more often interlinked in British poetry. I’m not sure whether this is true, but I suppose my own collection contains a mixture of these two notions.


What is the best and worst thing about Scotland, where you live?

The best thing is my partner and his family – he’s Scottish! Scotland is a magnificent country, rich with natural and hewn beauty, and its people are warm, funny and wise. The worst thing about it for me is the weather, the lack of sunshine and seasons. Where I grew up we had long, hot summers, very distinct springs and autumns and cold, snowy winters. I do love the long summer days in Edinburgh but I miss the sun the rest of the year.


Do you get along with other poets?

Yes! I wish I knew more. I like them.


What else inspires your poetry apart from other people’s poetry?

People I collaborate with and their work, other art forms and strange, frightening, gorgeous moments that happen every day that feel like poems.

Also dreams.


What are you working on now?

Two collections – one about war (and peace) and one about nature and identity.


Is there anything you don’t enjoy writing about or avoid writing about?

I try to avoid writing about stuff that is so personal it isn’t relevant to other people. The personal can be universal but it has to be handled very deftly to be so.


What else do you do apart from poetry?

I’m the Literary Officer at the Traverse Theatre, Scotland’s New Writing Theatre www.traverse.co.uk. I make music and watch movies and go for walks with my partner and play with our cat, Tibor.



Confession: I couldn’t think of what questions to ask myself so in the spirit of collaboration I asked for help from James Iremonger, a very talented musician and composer

Jellyfish

By Gayle Brandeis

Poem

It was a big year for jellyfish,
La Niña pulling them
like magnets to the shore.
A fresh translucent mass
was heaped every few feet
along the beach—
edges scalloped
like flamenco skirts,
some hemmed
with thready purple—
the poison ones,
we learned from Chris,
who used to have jellyfish fights
with her friends in Massachusetts.
Didn’t they sting you? I asked,
remembering horror stories
of foot stings, leg stings,
vinegar poultices,
but she said no, they knew
which were safe to lob
at each other,
the creatures smacking
against their bodies
in brief wet flashes
like living artificial breasts.

The beached jellyfish
did look like saline implants—
a vast exodus of implants
on the lam from Tinseltown,
panting their freedom
into the great bosom of sand.
I could almost hear chests deflate
up and down the Sunset Strip,
could almost hear
a chorus of nipples
sigh in soft relief
as one buoyant sack
after another slid
out of its mammary cave
and flopped its way back
to the sea.

Later I saw jellyfish
swimming in the harbor,
their flounces
billowing in and out
like valves of a blowsy heart.
Jellyfish have no heart, no gills,
no brain—they are all undulation,
all open mouth. I wanted to scoop
them out of the water,
plaster them over my breasts,
let them harpoon my areolas
with their stinging cells
the way my nursing children
would clamp their jaws
around my nipples
when they first began to teethe—
La Niña, El Niño, returned to me
as babies, their suckling skulls
all fontanel, bells of milky light.

A Closer Look at What You Should Be Reading

UNSOUND by Jennifer Martenson

Burning Deck/Poetry

63pp.

 

Reading Jennifer Martenson’s poems are like ingesting the tastiest word soup imaginable. Unsound, Martenson’s first full-length book overflows with numerous concepts and thinking bits of poetic logic. It’s these logical phrases, words and thoughts that morph into actions and bigger words resulting in a specific kind of full-blown cohesiveness in this lyrical book of poems. In Preface, she begins to delve into inner thoughts and feelings about such things, “in my attempt to explicate by touch, I struck my forehead violently against the corner of an ambiguity. Was I holding your hand or merely an opinion? Here again were twisted paths, this time covered with damp, matted layers of perspective. Fate has a margin of error equal in width to the desire of one woman for another.”