At Acre Books, we’re working through the proofs of our first publication, A Very Angry Baby: The Anthology. Here’s a peek at some of the wailing within its pages.
At Acre Books, we’re working through the proofs of our first publication, A Very Angry Baby: The Anthology. Here’s a peek at some of the wailing within its pages.
These days it’s easier to fall down the rabbit hole than ever. To see an interesting morsel of information, and grabbing it, is like a kind of reverse fishing; we put the lure into our mouths, bite down, and get yanked into the binaric seas of the information age. Once we see information that we’re interested in, it’s easy to lose track of time completely, remembering little of it but the search, and waking with more in our heads but not necessarily more to say. Here are a few authors from 13.2 that fell down the rabbit hole, sure, but invented some marvelous little songs along the way.
Leslie Miller on “Cutaneous Rabbit Illusion”: I have long been fascinated by the way science names things, and though contemporary scientists themselves seldom have the luxury of expanding the metaphors they reach for, poets do have that luxury, even that obligation. When I read about the “Cutaneous Rabbit Illusion,” a tactile illusion wherein a few successive taps on one’s forearm produce the illusion of additional taps “hopping” up the arm after actual touch stops, I found the rabbit vehicle fascinating and wanted to explore additional dimensions of the rabbit metaphor: for example, the fact that rabbits are vulnerable, easy prey, and the fact that we sometimes involuntarily remember or imagine touch when we’ve lost access to a loved one. Ultimately, loss, and even the possibility of it, makes easy prey of us all.
Jennifer Moore on “Skeleton Clock”: Last summer I spent a month in rural Wyoming where I was able to work on a new manuscript of poems. My interests and research were pretty divergent while I was there. One week I studied local birdsong; another, I pored over poems by Zen monks in China. Then my obsession turned toward skeleton clocks—watches or timepieces which expose the intricate mechanisms that guide their design and operation. I found so many examples—antique, classical, Victorian, contemporary—exquisitely designed, meticulously crafted. The more research I did, the more I fell in love with the idea of making clear the inner workings of any kind of art. In that sense, the poem’s a bit of an ars poetica.
Writers don’t just describe the settings they inhabit, they make them their own. Twain’s Mississippi River, the Brontës’ haunted moors, Langston Hughes’ Harlem—even as these places change, they are forever defined by the writers who loved them and preserved them in language. In Issue 13.2, our poets explore the emotional complexities of setting, drawing on family history, American history, memories, and careful observation to find beauty in the mechanical and communion in the solitary. As Philip Pardi writes in his poem, “Ocean in View,” “I’ve come far to be near.” These two poets get up close to find the bigger story.
Andrew Hemmert on “Smokestacks”: One of the prevailing themes of my writing is urban landscape and its potential for lyric reinvention. Driving through Apollo Beach, I’m always drawn to the smokestacks. My uncle worked at Tampa Electric when he was in college, and he used to climb the smokestacks in a hazmat suit to sample the output. I always thought there was something glamorous in the grime of that story. This poem touches on environmental concerns, but ultimately seeks to identify the human elements that burn at the heart of our machines.
Philip Pardi on “Ocean in View”: I live in the mountains. The birds I know by name are mountain birds. The trees are mountain trees. Each night after work I cross the Hudson River, and as the bridge rises beneath me, so too do the mountains before me. Days off, I hike: lots of up and down, of climbing up to look down. No surprise, then, that the mountains figure in my work; in recent years, the landscape around me has been a place where poetry begins or converges. This poem emerged when I found myself, after a long, long drive, on the flattened North Carolina shoreline. I felt utterly unprepared for it: ocean, distance, seagulls, horizons. I had been reading the journals of Lewis and Clark, which is where the title comes from: the full line is “Ocian in view! O! the joy,” and I wanted something of that joy, but then “wanting” seemed suddenly and precisely to be the problem. This poem is an attempt to start again.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first saw the microscopic monsters that the naked eye can’t see, describing the odd creatures as “cavorting, wee beasties.” A barrier had been crossed; the world of flesh and blood and dirt, so tangible around us and within us, was once again enveloped by mystery. The homunculi of our knowledge had come into question, challenged by the microscopic beasts whirling not only in some drops of water, but in all water everywhere. As poets, we ought to keep our eyes sharp for the immense as well as the Lilliputian. Between eye floaters and a bedbug infestation, some of the contributors to issue 13.2 have focused on the importance of the micro-world that lives in tandem with our own. While we’re always interacting, often unconsciously, with the wee kingdom, these writers focus on the minuscule, seeing in that impossible smallness our own condition as humans.
Claire Hero on “The Intraocular Ocean”: Several years ago, to further my understanding of scientific inquiry, I enrolled in some biology courses. Over and over, when I was first learning to use a microscope, I saw not the cells on the slide but the floaters in my own eye. These floaters seemed like things swimming through my eye, and I started to think of the eye as an “intraocular ocean,” an ocean replete with the strange creatures we find in the deep sea. Working with this metaphor I developed the poem. This poem reflects the writing process as I understand it: one sits down in the dark, plunges a hand into the eye, and writes what emerges from the uncharted waters of the imagination. At the same time, the poem speaks to the violence that creativity and scientific inquiry are capable of in the name of knowledge or art.
Taylor Gorman on “Insect”: This poem came out of a long year that I had. I had five different addresses and moved around a lot in grad school during 2015, mostly due to bad luck. When I finally had a permanent apartment, I found out too late that I had moved into a place that had bedbugs. I threw all my stuff out: the couch, my keyboard, paintings. I sat in my empty apartment and wrote this poem. Though it has little to do with bedbugs themselves, this poem is a direct result of my “giving up” to the disaster of that year: I, for one, welcomed my insect overlords.
What do we do with memory? As far as our writers are concerned, they certainly aren’t going to take contributor Todd Hearon’s comic advice: “Forget it.” Instead, these 13.2 contributors’ poems explore how memory connects us with the people we’ve lost and with former versions of ourselves, trapping us as well as giving us solace. In Chowdhury’s poem, life and memory are cyclical, the joy of children’s “scattered laughter” inextricably tied to the knowledge that “I was born into my grandfather’s death.” In Christiansen’s poem, the memory of her grandmother inspires a meditation on aging and longing, a “kestrel . . . chitter[ing] for her fledglings” who will not return. Hearon brings us full circle, from memory as poetic subject to memory as poetic form, reminding us how powerful rhyme and song can be, how they make memories that never seem to fade.
Shayok Misha Chowdhury on “Creation Myth: Morning”: These days, I measure my time in funerals. The old ones are passing out of this world. Some young ones too. In my language, when someone dies we say they become a “picture.” My grandfather has always been a picture to me, hanging black-and-white against the walls of our family homestead at P544 Raja Basanta Roy Road, Kolkata 700029. I find myself taking comfort in that inevitable alchemy: we will all be pictures one day. This poem is a part of an ongoing series of creation myths. I mean myth not as a synonym for “lie” but as a formative truth: how we came to be. It’s a question I imagine I will never be finished with. How is that I am, that we are? I rarely write formal poems. But the relentless repetition of the pantoum allowed me, in this instance, to return obsessively to words that have always haunted me, that refuse to leave me alone. Dead. Mourning. Mother.
April Christiansen on “Dysphagia”: This poem is from a manuscript that explores themes of growing up in Arizona, the complicated relationships of family and an adult perspective on how people do and do not communicate. While the family is placed in the middle of the beautiful and stark Sonoran Desert, many of the poems deal with the places we have left the desert for and my imagined experience of those who both remained and departed. I am interested in the tension between the tangible and the intangible and how those things are experienced in tandem. This particular poem is inspired by my grandmother and imagines her thoughts and experiences near the end of her life.
Todd Hearon: Mnemosyne—mother of the muses, speaker of this poem—is the goddess of memory. That said, I have no memory of what inspired this poem or how it was composed. I think it grew out of a fragment—advice that a businessman-father might give to his son:
Forget it. There’s no future in it.
I do remember that the poem came quickly and that it surprised me with its sonnet form. I also remember being surprised during the writing that it came out on just two rhymes. But that shouldn’t surprise, rhyme being one of the best forms of mnemonics.
Writers are consummate observers: we stand to the side, notebooks in hand, pencils behind our ears, eager to see and understand the world around us. In issue 13.1, two contributors take on the task of processing the most universal human experiences—birth and death—and they do it by attempting to remain above the fray even as they enter it. In Robert Foreman’s story “Awe,” a man goes to watch the birth of a child by a near stranger. Hoping to feel something new, to experience “awe,” he finds himself in over his head. In Anatoly Molotkov’s poem “Obituary,” the author takes a sidelong look at death, “hid[ing] among reflections” like a man who observes the Medusa by hiding around a corner, able to look on her face only through a mirror.
Robert Foreman: My first daughter’s birth was a c-section. I wasn’t allowed in the room until the very end, and a surgeon was there, too. It was a joyful experience, but it was nothing like when my wife gave birth to our second daughter, without the intervention of a surgeon, or for that matter an epidural. Whereas our first daughter’s birth was thrilling, the second’s was astonishing, and I found that when it was over I felt like a different person. I wasn’t a different person; I have all the same bad habits I had before, and I’m still a bad driver. I spend a lot of my time looking at things on eBay that I can’t afford. But I knew, as soon as Daughter Two was born, that what had happened there was unlike anything else that had happened in all the other rooms I’d been in.
Writing “Awe,” I was at least as interested in my distance from the event of childbirth as I was in the sheer astonishment of childbirth. The awareness of my secondariness to the experience colors all my memories of it. In order to represent and exaggerate that distance, I made the witness to childbirth in “Awe” a virtual stranger to the woman giving birth and to everyone else present. The moderate fun and great difficulty of writing the story lay in figuring out just what circumstances would lead someone to want to see a baby getting born, and what sort of people would plausibly let a stranger watch the birth of their child. I wanted to convey the life-changing, life-making beauty of human reproduction, but I had to work my way toward it via fabrication.
Anatoly Molotkov: When I write prose, I’m focused on telling a compelling story, on characters whose reality I expect to be authentic to the reader—it should all come together, “make sense.” In poetry, I seek a less linear approach to discourse. Poetry’s workings defy logic. A poem should not be completely understood by either the reader or the writer—instead, it should open an interpretive space in which multiple possibilities coexist. “Obituary” begins a series of poems that attempt to project a distinct, confident voice via the use of statements that do not easily lend themselves to causative relationships yet accrue as symptoms of the speaker’s views and, more generally, of the human condition.
Is poetry a pool filter that needs to be cleaned out? How can we transmute our day-to-day detritus into poetry? Two of our contributors from 13.1 grapple with how to explore and write about experiences both external and internal. Catherine Staples, in detailing the events and images that resulted in “Like a Sleeve of Arctic Air,” shows how an accumulation of sensory information can be generative. For example, the big, difficult questions here aren’t plucked aimlessly from the air, but rather gleaned from the bitter cold, childhood tales of angels, and owls. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re the protagonists of our own stories. The “horrifying novel-in-progress” that Angela Ball mentions seems like an apt way to think about how we’re simultaneously experiencing and creating the realities that we participate in.
Inspiration comes in many forms, but it’s our willingness to make do with what surrounds us, or once did, that allows us to create art. When the oxygen mask drops from the overhead compartment, be sure to strap it on.
Catherine Staples: “Like a Sleeve of Arctic Air” began with weather, a winter blizzard that knocked out power all along the mid-Atlantic. At first it was thrilling; we lit candles and piled on comforters. With a good supply of wood and kindling, we reveled in keeping the fire going. We boiled water on stacked logs for oatmeal and tea, and wrapped our dog Rosie in blankets. But by the fourth day the temperature in the house was dangerously low. As I rushed out to relight the fire, leaving the warmth of my husband for the cold hearth and struggling clumsily to make the matches light, I was struck by the dire nature of the cold. How thin is the veil between this world and the next? What keeps us any of us alive? As a child I had learned about guardian angels; they tempered that terrifying line in the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer—the one that mentions “if I should die before I wake.” Imagination leapt from the concept of guardian angels to the plausibility of feathers, wings, proximity. Months earlier, I had been out to Rushton Woods Preserve with my Villanova pastoral literature students to watch as northern saw-whet owls were banded. These diminutive owls are flush with feathers, head to foot. Up close, you can see that the wing feathers are fringed, which muffles their flight, rendering it virtually soundless. Perhaps more remarkable, as a saw-whet lifts off your palm to return to the dark after banding, you can see but not hear it leave. The lyric impulse for accuracy is a necessity when you introduce the uncanny; with luck, the detail about wings and the dog’s knowing glance suspend disbelief.
Angela Ball: “You Say It’s Hard to Join the Hours” was written during an April marathon featuring current and former Center for Writers students and colleagues. I’ve always liked the British expression for someone who has gone a bit bonkers: “she/he has lost the plot.” I think that we form part of a complicated, continuous, sometimes boring, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes horrifying novel-in-progress constructed of our travels through the world, during which we lean heavily on pro forma, often useless advice and rigid convictions passed down from family experience. The poem plays off of this notion.
Our conscious minds notice only the tiniest fraction of all the stimuli in our environment: car horns, baking bread, ants on the sidewalk, a gust of wind, a buzzing phone. Sometimes, it seems easier to put in our headphones, tune everything out, and get through the day. Thankfully, our issue 13.1 contributors are on high alert, noticing the little, the obscure, and the strange, bringing us the news of a world that is challenging and beautiful. Tabloids we might not notice become critiques of our own voyeurism, a museum we may never visit becomes a site of religious power, and the chilling fog reminds us that unseen does not mean lost. Check out what our contributors have to say about finding inspiration from the world around them.
Allen Forrest: The idea for my comic came to me as I was waiting in line at the grocery store and looking at all those tabloids at the checkout. The psychology of their subjects and headlines made me think “what if” they spelled it out a little more. I am a big fan of the late Mae Brussell and all her amazing research work—so I incorporated some of her views into this piece.
John A. Nieves: Both “Brume” and “While the Radio Was On” are poems in a series on everyday disappearances. I am interested in the way things slip from the world and the different ways people deal with that slippage. “Brume” engages the way fog erases by filling space, by obscuring. I was interested in disappearance by addition instead of subtraction, so even the final note of the poem is one of addition. “While the Radio Was On” engages a particular suspected suicide, though even the finality of that tragic occurrence (and the body disappearing below) gets called into question as the surety about the motive of the act is troubled and doubt dissolves into a narrative we all know perhaps too well. Even the doubt, then, disappears in its own way.
Alison Pelegrin: “The Doomsday Prepper’s Villanelle” was inspired by binge watching (as a comedy) the series Doomsday Preppers. I live in the deep South, where this kind of preparedness has been hard core among citizens since (and probably long before) Y2K. “Hot Sauce Shrine” came to me from all over. There is a found objects/junk museum near my house that has a hot sauce house. A lot of the imagery in that poem I have seen on a country road I drive sometimes to and from work. The last line came from a video featuring the poet Campbell McGrath—I have no idea of the source (I think this was pinned to the wall behind him), but it has always reminded me of Bede’s sparrow.
In my reading of The Catalog of Broken Things (Airlie Press, 2016) by poet and 13.1 contributor A. Molotkov, I found a thematic thread made up of moments within longer lyric sequences where the given speaker of a poem gestures toward a spirit of assessing the nature of “broken things.”
We dive right into the catalog, so to speak, with the poems in the first sequence, “The Catalog of Broken Things,” which approach family narratives with a surrealistic sensibility. The opening poem begins:
I let my dead mother in.
She’s lonely out there on her own.
Her ears are seashells
empty of sea.
Reading these lines, I get a sense of a poetry that feels out the world through images. This aesthetic creates a reading experience where the reader is carried into the meaning-making process through sensation as much as language. The following section is another example of this sensibility at work:
My aunt, a shadow without a landing.
In her chest, small
streams fight for the chance to be
I list her in my catalog under tumors.
She deserves more attention.
We all do, we keep
telling the moon,
but it’s dead. It doesn’t listen.
The concept of a catalog implies a sense of order and control; what is being wrestled with here is the lack of both. By proceeding to pit themselves against the image of the moon, who is seen as “dead” and unable to listen, the speaker, and, in a way, the poem, are in the role of providing “more attention.” This is a gesture not of repair but of acknowledgement. Life cannot be controlled and ordered beyond our personal understanding, our “listening.”
This acknowledging/cataloging voice appears again in the later sequence, “The Melting Hourglass.” In this sequence, the reader is presented with the story of Zungvilda and Goombeldt as narrated by a disembodied speaker. This speaker alternates from sounding like a family member, complete with shared memories, to sounding like the voice of the hourglass of the sequence’s title. This variation in voice and narration add to the reading experience; one gets a sensation of the lyrical line as live wire. The following section of the sequence presents the kind of torque available through this imaginative conceit:
Zungvilda shares her thoughts
I have no choice but to listen
after all she lives inside my head
she asks why men are so difficult
don’t generalize I say
but she can’t hear me in there
I’m afraid it’s a monologue
I’m afraid it always is
she wonders why every day seems to start
with wild yanking and smoke
like an old lawn mower
she muses about the interchangeable
questions and answers
she suspects that the new crater
that just formed on the moon
might be her early grave
she remembers the time
when she was a girl
lost in the forest
I remember it too
even though I was
too young to remember
The narrative turns developed in the speaker’s mediation here provide a fruitful disorientation in that the reader has to follow the lyric sense of the line as it develops. In the first two stanzas, the speaker is shown to be privy to Zungvilda’s thoughts while also being at a remove; this tension of intimacy and distance is paralleled in the last two stanzas where one of Zungvilda’s memories begins to take shape, but is quickly turned away from by the speaker.
These two moments are variations of the “broken things” theme of the book. When the speaker states “I’m afraid it’s a monologue / I’m afraid it always is,” a moment rich in metanarrative and self-awareness occurs; the “monologue” here is not only a metaphor for time and existence, but also poetry. In the same way that poetry is able to provide “attention” in the poem discussed above, poetry here is seen as able to acknowledge its limits and “broken” nature. Seen this way, the title of this collection becomes its own mission, writing as a way to catalog the broken things around us.
A. M. : The challenges of balance. Once I commit to a longer work, the next question becomes: is it going to be five pages, or fifty? Working with recurring themes and motifs, it’s tempting to keep going. How to choose the length that keeps the tension, helps me avoid repeating myself, and allows for a substantial investigation? Once I settle on an approximate length and write my selections, their order becomes both an opportunity and a challenge. Ultimately, any poem could have emerged in many different ways, but happens to be the way it is, not optimal in any objective sense, but a compromise between intention and the infinity of possibilities. If we consider the many points of view and tastes the readers will bring, it’s easy to see that each word shivers with fear and anticipation for the unlikely connection it may fail to make.
My tendency in poetry is to push the text outside my own comfort zone. Often, I end up distanced from the capability to evaluate my own poems. I am in three writers’ groups in order to compensate for my myopia and my personal obsessions. Almost thirty people had their eyes on some or all of the poems in The Catalog and provided a wide variety of suggestions. I’m indebted to them for breathing their reality into my work.
The Catalog of Broken Things is available for pre-order from Airlie Press.
Special thanks to A. Molotkov for participating! Check out his poem “Obituary” in issue 13.1.
Find out more about his work at his website.
Since before Keats got excited about a Grecian urn, poets have been reworking, reimagining, and revolutionizing the classics. One of our issue 13.1 contributors went all the way to Greece to follow in the steps of Odysseus, and found in the modern streets full of shops the tempting decadence, and ultimately empty promise, of material possessions. Though it is not named in the poem, we feel the influence of The Odyssey in the journey of the writer and the objects for sale from all around the world.
Another contributor found the classics much closer to home—inspired by classic rock as she takes a jog—and ponders in her poem how art and context affect one another in a constant feedback loop. Thoughts of Tom Petty songs combine with “hard lines Doric/ at the mouth” to remind us that, like the classics, we are always aging, and, if we are lucky, always changing.
Barbara Hamby on “A Farewell to Shopping”: In Summer 2013 I received a grant from Florida State to follow The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaka. I reread Robert Fagles’s translation just before leaving, and I was using Tim Severin’s book The Ulysses Voyage to plan my trip. Severin built a Bronze Age ship and tried to replicate Odysseus’s voyage. One of Odysseus’s first stops after leaving Troy was pillaging a coastal town. I was in Heraklion, Crete, on my way to the spot where Severin thinks Polyphemus’s cave might have been if the story was based on fact, though it was probably highly fictionalized. In Heraklion I was walking down a street filled with the international shops you see everywhere, and the whole street seemed so tawdry. I thought, “I’m finished with shopping.” I suddenly thought of Odysseus’s pillaging as a shopping stop. The poem started percolating during lunch and I had a draft by the time we arrived in Sougia, where I did find Polyphemus’s cave. And I still go shopping from time to time.
Laura Kolbe: “Classic Rock” started when I took a run on Maine’s first warm day last year. House after house, men and women were putting to rights their porches, lawns, and driveways, while stereos and boom-boxes piped classic rock over their efforts. When I ran past “Purple Haze,” I had to stop and laugh—it seemed so incredible that a sound once deemed revolutionary, even socially dangerous, was now helping retirees maintain their equanimity while dredging gutters. Things often achieve “classic” status for their forceful, violent beauty, but once canonized, they are as rapidly, even comically, domesticated. The poem says this—and more, and better, I hope.