We’re excited to announce that Colleen Morrissey’s story “Good Faith” (CR volume 9, number 2) will be included in the 2014 O. Henry Prize Stories, due out in September. Huge congrats, Colleen!
Archive for April, 2014
Thanks for stopping by to check out the last poetry Pas de Deux of the season: our second interview between poets and 10.2 contributors Kathryn Nuernberger and Shara Lessley. Below, Nuernberger asks Lessley about her poem “They Ask Me to Send,” one of a series of narrative-lyrics that explore Lessley’s time living in Jordan. Scroll down to learn how she negotiates the autobiographical and speaking selves in her poems, what it’s really like for an American woman to shop for soap in the downtown suqs of Amman, and how spectacular the night sky appears when populated with hundreds of fire balloons at the end of Ramadan.
Kathryn Nuernberger: “They Ask Me to Send” makes me want to reread Edward Said and Elizabeth Bishop. Which writers were you thinking about when you wrote the poem?
Shara Lessley: I’m very interested in how Americans romanticize and deride the Middle East (sometimes in the same breath), although Said’s Orientalism certainly wasn’t on my desk during the drafting process. What I remember most about “They Ask Me to Send” is the moment that triggered the poem. My husband and I were having drinks on a patio overlooking Amman’s many hills, its downtown maze of suqs and mosques. We’d only lived in the Middle East a few weeks and I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. Drifting over the rooftops and then across the face of the Citadel, there they were—the “paper chambers” Bishop so perfectly depicts in “The Armadillo,” the ones that “flush and fill with light / that comes and goes, like hearts.” Fire balloons! I couldn’t believe my luck. Unlike Bishop’s illegal balloons, however, the globes weren’t “rising toward a saint / still honored in these parts” but launched to celebrate the final hours of Ramadan.
KN: Your bio in Cincinnati Review indicates that you are a “recent resident of the Middle East,” which reinforces inclinations readers might have to think of this poem as nonfiction. The speaker castigates family and friends of the family, and the poem approaches an emotional climax with frustrating phone calls from the speaker’s mother. How do you think about the line between yourself in the world and yourself on the page?
SL: The three years I lived in Amman were a privilege. However, even as I did my best to immerse myself in the language and traditions, to learn as much as I could about the country and its people, to engage respectfully with its values and flaws, I remained an outsider. Another American passing through. “They Ask Me to Send” is less castigating of others than of the cultural script we’ve been given of the region (enter Said?). The first questions I’m asked about Jordan almost always concern safety and sexism. At no time while bartering for soap or scarves was I ever Carrie Bradshaw—you know the cartoonish Middle Eastern scene in the Sex and the City movie where Carrie and company traipse through the suq like circus clowns while crowds of hostile Arabs gape and stare?
We often ask readers to separate the speaker from the author—and for good reason. In this case, the speaker is clearly me, although my mother never demanded “a precise ‘timeline’ detailing / our stateside return.” (Sorry Mom!) What’s true is that expats are often asked for stuff. Trinkets. Recipes. Evidence of a life abroad. “They Ask Me to Send” takes stock of the care packages I shipped from Jordan. I mailed Dead Sea products, mosaics, Lebanese sweets. A lot of coffee. Miniature flags and stickers and stuffed animals (camels mostly) that were probably made in China. The boxes were filled with good intentions, but failed to convey a life lived. No matter how hard I tried, I could never send what makes Amman so magical—the generosity of its people, for instance, “the air at Aaron’s tomb,” or fire balloons drifting over columns from the Temple of Hercules, fragments more than six thousand years old.
We’re back with an early Mother’s Day installment of Pas de Deux in which Shara Lessley interviews fellow poet and mother Kathryn Nuernberger about her poem “Toad” from issue 10.1. Read on to discover how Lessley and Nuernberger confront some of the painful/joyful moral ambiguities of motherhood in the twenty-first century, and to finally figure out how Toad, beloved cartoon character from the Frog and Toad easy-reader series, cures his amphibian melancholia.
Shara Lessley: Poems about parenthood frequently figure the child as static or godlike, enigmatic or revered. What I love about “Toad” is its refusal to idealize mother or daughter. What roles do kids (or mothers) typically play in poetry, and how does “Toad” defy such conventions?
Kathryn Nuernberger: There’s a disconnect between our idealized expectations of mothers and the lived experience, which, if you’ve internalized the impossible standards of the romantic ideal, can only result in falling short. Motherhood is composed of many spots of time, while lyric poetry has tended to the put the spotlight on just one kind of moment. Robert Hass has this really insightful, humane line in “Dragonflies Mating.” He writes:
When we say “mother” in poems,
we usually mean some woman in her late twenties
or early thirties trying to raise a child.
We use this particular noun
to secure the pathos of the child’s point of view
and to hold her responsible.
Hass points out we use the word mother as a stand-in for “every need fulfilled,” and that’s not a sustainable endeavor for an actual mother. How many years can a real parent go before the child cries for reasons no mother or father can solve?
I could give you a seven-page treatise on the theme of parenthood in contemporary poetry, but nobody wants to read all that on a blog. So my final words on the subject will have to be: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, K. A. Hays, Douglas Kearney, Matthea Harvey, Rachel Zucker, Jennifer Kronovet, Larissa Szporluck, Corey Marks, et alia.
SL: “Toad” perfectly enacts the daily chaos of parenthood—that contradictory rush of surprise that interrupts routine, our sad (perhaps I should speak only of myself!) efforts to manage, maintain, monitor, make fun! The poem’s sentences are both energizing and exhausting. Can you talk a little about how syntax builds momentum and what it suggests about the speaker’s emotional state?
KN: Toddler frenzy + sleep deprivation = addled. Addled = long sentences + overreliance on conjunctions.
SL: At the beginning of “Toad,” a mother admits to pushing her child to the floor and then spins fifteen or so lines narrating the scene before arriving at the turn: “And I know this should be the poem about how I’m horrified/ at myself,” the speaker confesses, “the poem about what in ourselves we have to live with . . .” I wonder here about the speaker’s expectations—of herself, of motherhood, of poetry’s ability to capture the complex dynamics and unstated tensions that accompany parenthood. When you were drafting “Toad,” did the “but” that follows the aforementioned lines surprise you? Did it feel risky to write? To justify why the speaker pushed her “two-year-old/ against a wall”?
KN: One thing I like about poetry is that when you say something is “not” something it instantly becomes that something, while remaining not it at all. To say “this is not” is to invite the reader to consider what it would be if it were. And so it is a poem about what in ourselves we have to live with.
SL: The poem finally flashes forward to a playful (more idealized) day that involves hide-and-seek, hunting for bugs, and reading Frog and Toad. How does the children’s book connect with the title? Why is reading so significant to “Toad”?
KN: Toad suffers some pretty crushing melancholy in that book. He won’t get out of bed, and Frog tricks him into coming into the sunshine to play; he lives in squalor because he can’t find the will power to wash his clothes or clean the kitchen. We all know part of becoming an adult is realizing your parents are people, and I think the image of the daughter reading this particular book alone points in that direction.
Gabe Ostley is the artist for The Hammer (DC Comics), as well as Hero Action Persons, Snatcher Bodies, and My Date With Medusa, published by Devil’s Due Digital. He was born in Minnesota and graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Sequential Art. After working in illustration and licensed characters in New York City, he moved to Hong Kong to the post of Artist-in-Residence for Yew Chung Education Foundation. His work has expanded to include murals and large scale sculptural works in addition to paintings in galleries around Hong Kong. Recently he has worked in animation for Filmages. He’s also storyboarded, filmed, and edited several documentaries and short films for Yew Chung.
Gabe’s next project? Moth the graphic play, a handsome 6×9-inch perfect-bound book, coming in at about 56 pages, which will be mailed (free of charge!) to our subscribers. So if you haven’t subscribed for our anniversary year, do so here.
More on Moth: Moth is the story of Anime-obsessed Sebastian and emo art-freak Claryssa as they awkwardly navigate the cruel social hierarchy of high school. A horrific event on the school’s athletic field threatens their friendship and sends Sebastian on an apocalyptic mission, whereby fantasy and reality intermingle with dangerous consequences. Written with dark wit that’s ultimately after your heart, Moth is an exploration of friendship, adolescence, loss, and mental illness. It is currently making its American debut at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC. Click here for a preview of the play, and then imagine it expertly illustrated by Gabe Ostley.
Citizens of writerdom, our reading period ends tomorrow. That does not mean we stop reading. Nay. We have more than fifteen hundred manuscripts waiting in the Submission Manager wings, which is why we need to close for a wee while. Can’t keep you fine people waiting endlessly for a response from our swamped selves. So tomorrow the portal becomes . . . a lot less portal-like, and we wade into all that swampy goodness with our rubber overalls, as well as nets (for the slippery submissions) and tranq guns (for your wilder offerings) and snorkels (for the deep stuff). Come August 15, we’ll have worked through the backlog and will fling open the doors again. In the meantime, you can submit to our summer contest, which runs in June and July, with winners (one in poetry, one in prose) announced October 1.
Divorce. The rate in the US, by some estimates, is 50 percent, but it seems like more. I mean, Al Gore and Tipper. Not to mention Deb and Gary, your high school friend’s really cool parents. And Gwyneth Paltrow and that guy from Coldplay? If they can’t make it, who can? As Louis C. K. says, “Marriage is just a larvae stage for true happiness, which is divorce.” He says that because he is . . . yep . . . divorced. Everyone, it seems, is either divorced or getting married so they can get divorced. So why try? Why tie the knot in the first place?
For one, you crazy kids, it might just work out. And for two, you might get some fantastic poems and stories out of it, like our four contributors in CR 10.2, who find inspiration in this ancient institution. Emma Duffy-Comparone addresses whether there is marriage through our many reincarnated lives, if you have a soul mate as a fish or a birch tree. Bruce Beasley ponders the intersection of marriage and atmospheric disturbance (hint: wind is divorce). Kevin Clark found his poem in the juxtaposition of an Italian Renaissance painting and the story of a marital love life gone stale. And Maureen Seaton looks at her daughter’s marriage for proof that her generation’s idealism has not gone to waste.
Bruce Beasley (on his poem “On Marriage”): During a period of several weddings of couples close to me, set alongside divorces of several other couples at the same time, I started thinking of marriage as a balance of desire and satiation, stability and restlessness for change. During a windstorm I started mulling the fact that what we call “wind” is nothing but air driven by changing atmospheric conditions into motion. I thought “divorce is to marriage as wind is to air”: an unexpected turbulence that disrupts or destroys. The inverse, though, also seemed true: marriage as a contained turbulence of desire. In thinking about the weddings and the divorces (and a divorce followed quickly by a marriage) I thought about the word immotive, which means “unmoving, immovable,” but sounds a great deal like emotive, which means “moved.” Marriage, then, as a mixture of the emotive and the immotive, the moving and the unmoveable. Marriage as a mixture of stasis and change, the restlessness of desire and the stability of devotion. I went looking for oxymoronic words and phrases—“hold fast” suggesting both stillness and speed; “still” containing both incompletion and change on the one hand (still going on) and motionlessness and stasis on the other (stillbirth) to suggest the paradoxical nature of marriage as a stillness amid the perturbations of change.
Emma Duffy-Comparone (on her story “Crossing the Sagamore”): I watched a Ted Talk once about how mushrooms can save the world: something about how they can clean up our most brutal waste, our oil spills, and our nuclear meltdowns. After learning this I went nuts, cooking with them almost every night. I think the affair lasted about a week, and then I called it off. But then I kept dreaming that I had beautiful gills down my ribs. I think these gills were more like a mushroom than a fish, but that made sense, too: my love for the ocean is so physical I’d have to call it lust, and I’ve always known on some level that I’ve lived in there. I mean, I just know I was a fish. And then, partly related to this issue is the question of whether there is a soul mate, one you keep bumping into whether you’re tuna together or birch trees on the side of the highway or soldiers in the Civil War, etc. I’m not sure if I believe it, but Deirdre and Ted seemed to, and then I sent Ted away. And in the meantime I gave those mushrooms a lot of work to do.
Kevin Clark (on his poem “Watching Kira Learn to Surf”): The poem emerged out of the longest sequence I’ve ever attempted. I’d known a long-married woman decades ago who broke up with her husband because he had no imagination in bed. Year after year, same thing in the same order, no matter what, she said. I’m sure that wasn’t the only problem, but I’d carried the idea of such a circumstance around in the back of my mind until I thought to myself, hey, that could be a dramatic subject for a poem. The effort led to the idea for a verse novel I’m calling Magdalene in Ecstasy, after a Renaissance painting by Sigismondo Coccapani. I want each poem to stand on its own, much in the manner of Andrew Hudgins’s After the Lost War, even though my book is structured differently than his. Marie, the speaker of “Watching Kira Learn to Surf,” is the main character, though two others speak as well: her ex-husband Jesse, a Vietnam vet and surf shop owner suffering silently from PTSD, and a lonely Italian lit professor named Raffaele with whom she’d spent a memorable night in the Baja when they were both twenty. Kira is Marie and Jesse’s only child. The poem describes a key moment in which Marie is with Jesse when she realizes that she must eventually leave him. The three characters have experienced a mix of deeply erotic and spiritual longing on their way to hard-earned, barely certain self-reliance.
Maureen Seaton (on her poem “Skinny Dipping”): “Skinny Dipping” came along as one of those poems that slams into your brain, messes with it, and leaves by the back door. I’ve been trying ever since to figure out if I actually believe what I wrote. I want to. I want a practical idealism, not something my imagination cooked up to keep me in the poppy field. I wrote it at 7,500 feet above sea level in New Mexico, far from the farmland of upstate New York, observing my daughter and her husband as they went about their gentle lives: December 2012. I think it occurred to me that something luminous had indeed survived from those four sodden days, our small and large wars, our bare feet and poppies. That my father had been wrong, after all, and there was Mike’s and my kid and Diane and Morton’s kid to prove it. Look at them, I thought, and the poem crashed into me fiercely, like music at 3 a.m., Woodstock, turn of an epoch.
Donny Boy P. is back on our blog with an olfactory edition of Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions—a whenever-he’s-not-swamped-and-can-actually-get-writers-he-admires-to-respond-to-his-crazy-questions series, this time with John Henry Fleming, who, obviously, responded.
John Henry Fleming’s story collection, Songs for the Deaf, has just been released from Burrow Press. He’s also the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary, and The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially at the Atticus Books website. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, Better: Culture and Lit, and Carve, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida, where he is advisory editor of Saw Palm. Visit his website at www.johnhenryfleming.com.
JHF: Ideally, the reading experience of any good book changes the scent of the reader. Can you not tell, stepping into a coffee shop, which patron is reading Flaubert and which Tennyson? It is written on the breeze. Well-crafted language transforms; one has only to open one’s receptors and activate one’s glands. Pheromones are released, poisons get sweated. A once-secret self broadcasts like the charged air before a storm. Are there words for it? No, if the scent could be contained in words it would not be itself. It is you but not you. It is you on books, on this particular book, this story, this poem, this line. It’s good, you say, looking up at the sound of my deep inhale. Have you read it? No, but I’ve read you reading it, and sometimes that’s enough. I know you better now. I love you, reader of books. I love the scent of you, the multitudes your book-scent contains, worlds so light as to drift on the breeze, settling now onto steamed milk like dustings of cinnamon. But don’t let me interrupt your reading. Cinnamon is fine, too. I can absolutely accept cinnamon if that’s how my readers smell. Warm crayons are also good. Either way, thank you for smelling.
Team Alcalá -Kirby strikes again with this rematch Pas de Deux interview in which David Kirby spars with Rosa Alcalá, administering his questionnaire regarding—appropriately—her poem “Questionnaire” (10.2). Stay tuned to read the incomparable Alcalá’s ruminations on the care-taking of an elderly parent, domestic doppelgängers, and the philosophy of the Q&A.
David Kirby: I’m a sucker for questionnaires—I always answer phone surveys as dinner cools in the other room—so naturally I love your beautiful, provocative poem. You seem to be questioning just one person in the first few stanzas, but then the questions start becoming more cosmic. Can you talk about that change?
Rosa Alcalá: The speaker is watching someone else take on the role of daughter, reaching the realization that her “avatar,” the nurse’s aide who performs the job of taking care of her mother with much more care and sensitivity, is less able, for socio-economic reasons, to refuse that role. The realization is that the caretaker, in temperament and class station, is closer to the mother than the daughter. In short, the speaker indirectly asks the mother: Who is this woman doing what I should be doing? Which is really the question she’s asking herself. She’s anguished by the presence of her twin, but also by her own absence. The doubling effect is there to suggest that the daughter and the caretaker are not distinct, although there are important differences. Each could have easily taken the place of the other had life’s circumstances been slightly different (or maybe this is just the romantic version she tells herself). The speaker, with her “questionable” agency and power, gets to administer the “scripts,” in the sense of both roles and prescriptions, that keep her and her mother strangers.
DK: As we all know, a great thing to do in a poem is to set up a pattern and then disrupt it just when the reader is starting to get comfortable. When and how did you decide you wanted to answer your own questions? Also, you answer just three questions, not all; how’s that work? For me, one quick test of a poem’s quality is asking whether or not it can be taught, that is, will the poem generate a fruitful conversation among people who know about and love poetry? Now that’s the case here, but all poems (and conversations) must come to an end, and we all know that endings can be tricky. Your question calls for a yes or no answer, but are there other options? Or did you just want to throw out a rhetorical question and leave the reader saying, “Hmm . . .”?
RA: Rosmarie Waldrop, in an essay on translation, quotes Hans-George Gadamer who says that of every statement you can ask, “Why do you say that?” I like that here each question propels the speaker, with mounting insistence, to keep asking until the final question is really the terrifying answer. In fact, all the questions for me are really answers, as they reveal the speaker’s sense of her own identity and estrangement (who, who, who, like an owl on a limb, alone, at midnight). So, following Gadamer, of every question we can ask, “Who is asking and why?” But the final question is certainly not rhetorical. I think it’s the question that implicates the reader in this situation (she must be to blame), but even that realization leads to more questions: Did she create this situation? Or was the situation created and she perpetuates it? This sense of perpetuation, of inevitability, is present in the anaphoric rhythm of the poem.
Welcome to our third installment of Pas de Deux in which Rosa Alcalá interviews fellow poet and 10.2 contributor David Kirby about his poem “Is Spot in Heaven?” Scroll down to discover the secrets behind Kirby’s characteristically staggered (and staggering) stanza patterns, to read Kirby’s thoughts on the popular-versus-high-culture debate, and to finally learn whether heaven—or at least doggie heaven—exists.
Rosa Alcalá: Your poem has an interesting form. For the most part, the tercets are enjambed, which allows for continuity in the narrative, but also shifts. Can you talk about your intentions regarding the relationship between form and content?
David Kirby: Oh, gosh, Rosa. When I’m asked about my signature stanzas, as I often am, I think, “How do I explain thee? Let me count the ways.” Probably the baseline explanation is this: I like long, loopy sentences, which means lots of “ands,” and since lines tend to break after nouns and verbs, that means a whole series of lines are going to have “and” as their first word. And, and, and: that’s pretty unsightly, yes? So by staggering my lines this way, I avoid those word stacks. There’s an essay on my work where the writer says I’ll take six or eight bits—a childhood memory, something I read, a piece of overheard conversation, and so on—and create a kind of emotional pendulum so they all swing back and forth together, and the look of a typical poem heightens that effect. But the truest answer to your question is what we say when someone asks us why we do anything, which is that other people seem to like it.
RA: Humans don’t come off as particularly sensitive or kind here: they keep elephants in cages, train bears for their own amusement, and mock a child’s innocence. Yet, the speaker, whom I gather is human, knows he will meet the same end as Spot, and takes comfort in that. Can you tell us how these observations emerged? What issues do you see this poem addressing, and did you know the poem was heading in that direction?
DK: I never know where a poem is heading. As I say above, I gathered a lot of disparate materials that share an emotional core and began to play with them. I certainly don’t mean to say that humans are bad (you are correct in pointing out that I, too, am a member of that species), but I did want to isolate some moments where humans were thoughtless. That’s the way we are, and there’s no cure for it, except in poetry. As with a lot of what I write, here I use my poem to think and feel my way toward a world I’d like to live in, in this case, an Eden of sorts.
RA: I thought the mention of Leonard Woolf was clever (Virginia’s husband, yes?). The only enlightened human here shares his name with an animal. But in citing Woolf you also engage us in different realms of knowledge and world views, from Catholicism to Sam Cooke. Can you talk about your use of high and low culture (or larger philosophical issues and the quotidian)?
DK: Ha, ha! That’s another one you interviewers are always throwing at me. I guess I don’t see the difference. I wrote a poem once about looking at Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in Rome and hearing Aretha Franklin singing “Chain of Fools.” Why not? Both works are pretty colossal, pretty passionate. Another writer once said I was a Kitchen Sink Poet. Hey—guilty, your honor!
RA: I read this poem as saying: we subjugate or suppress because we fear the unknown; we control what we can. The speaker is starting to see the other side of the river, and he’s welcoming it. He wants all things, then, to be free, to have his freedom to love and be loved. What’s your perspective regarding your poem?
DK: That’s it, Rosa. You get the poem; in fact, you get it better than I do, because, as I say, mainly I’m playing here. But, yes, I want more, and I want the world to be better to all its inhabitants. I’m glad you point out that the new and better world hasn’t arrived yet. A lot of my writing (thinking, teaching, talking) deals with these almost-moments. If you lead your reader and yourself up to the edge and let them look over, that’s more moving in a lasting way than it would be if you concluded tidily and put up a little placard that said “The End.” As the filmmakers say about a scene, you should arrive late and leave early.