Posts Tagged ‘interview’

microreview & interview: Jennifer Givhan’s Landscape With Headless Mama

Monday, April 17th, 2017

by Jose Angel Araguz

In “Rummage,” midway through CR contributor Jennifer Givhan’s Landscape with Headless Mama (Pleiades Press), the reader is presented a scene of a yard sale; the opening image of a wedding dress as “a white tumble / alongside registry gifts rattling our tarpaulined front porch” sets the tone. As the speaker details the scene, we learn:

You’ve lost your job as I’ve lost

my faith, selling all our things:
our marriage, our love, the birth

certificates of our imagined ones. How much?
is the only question I can answer.

The connotations of a yard sale, of putting personal belongings for sale on display where one lives, are amplified by the speaker’s monologue, establishing this public act as one born out of loss and need. This layering of meaning via a distinct sensibility for image, voice, and rhetoric presents what is at stake in a clear and compelling manner. When the reader gets to “the only question” the speaker can answer, that question “How much?” is given an emotional torque that evokes how everyday public conversation is often edged with the personal.

Throughout the collection’s poems that engage with narratives of motherhood, family, adoption, love, and culture, Givhan works out various answers to this question of “How much?” which reaches after the cost of things. The poem “Prayer for the Child I Keep Losing,” delves into how much it costs to lose a child:

She’s curling at the edges—
she’s steam from smokestacks unused for ages
yet curing each winter
& finding breath
miraculous against the cold.

Here, the imagery shifts from “steam from smokestacks unused for ages” to the steam of human breath. This transformation implies a restlessness, a further “losing” of the child played out in lyric observation. Yet, holding is also implied; as the poem develops its images that pass into each other, each line holds a sense of loss and presence. That the poem is titled a prayer brings us back to the public/personal dynamic; this personal expression of loss is made in a public space, the poem. What is present, then, in the poem is the tension that makes lyric poetry compelling. The question of how much is answered by the poem’s closing lines:

She’s a light I cannot see
at the edges of every rising, &, oh, every falling thing.

This final image drives home the situation of the speaker, one of finding reminders of the loss and reasons to pray all around her, and, thus, always having to interpret the personal through public, exterior means. This motion at the end of “rising” and “falling” leaves the speaker back at restlessness, but a restlessness sought after and explored.

This impulse for seeking and exploring finds expression in both lyric and formal innovation: “Chicken-Hearted” subverts the sestina, and “A Crown for Headless Mama in Her 14×14 Music Box” presents a crown of sonnets. This latter sequence allows for the full range of the collection’s narratives to meet, the speaker going through many roles as mother, daughter, wife, woman, artist, and poet-storyteller. From this multiplicity, a current of possibility arises; through juxtaposition and voice, the reader is swept up into the worlds of the book. In the second sonnet of this crown, the following dream is evoked:

In a museum, once, we were trapped like frost
on the windowsill when they dimmed the lights
& the monkey-woven Kahlos began
scuttling from their walls toward my babies &
me, demanding I choose. The chirping
smoke alarm woke me, no longer able
to dream us back together. Still the art
kept repeating we’re alive, we’re alive.

This repeated phrase runs counter to the question of how much things cost, making it clear that it isn’t the cost, ultimately, that matters, but that one is alive and able to ask the question and that the presence of art will answer it.

interview

JAA: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

JG: Poetry is tough, it spits pulp, it is cactus spines, it carries water in its belly. Slices of Landscape with Headless Mama were written through a mental breakdown when I feared seriously for my life and my children’s lives. I pulled trauma from the breaking points & stoppered the cracks with flowers, with chicle on the roadside, with inky love. Poetry does that for me, the hard & gorgeous, harrowing & mending poems I read of others & the poems the Muse brings me.

The challenge is how to dwell in darkness searching for light without succumbing to either. Finding unstable truths & rendering them on the page without flattening them. Keeping their luminescence & their shadow stains. It’s easy to say this thing is done. My heart is glad. I will rejoice. Sometimes it’s even easy to mean it.

When the pain returns—cyclical as genetics—what then?

I pulled poems from earlier drafts of the collection & rewrote what clung like berries to a windstormed tree, a hundred times, no exaggeration. I sang these songs until I knew them by heart & then I changed my heart. I laid them on the ground & watched them root themselves to the floor or each other & then I pulled them like weeds & sheared their flowerfisted heads. I was relentless. Because poems are tough. They make me tough. & I tried hard only to take into myself & by myself I mean Headless Mama that which made me stronger.

In my MFA program I heard all kinds of voices. Most of them I had to silence. Most of all I had to watch the paintings swirl. Most of all I had to turn up the music & dance. & there were some voices that danced inside me & those I cultivated, for those I rejoiced. If this sounds strange it is but poetry is strange. & again & again & again have faith.

Poetry is faith. This book is my first as my first child as any first heartswell & reminds me of what is possible.

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Landsape With Headless Mama is available for purchase from Pleiades Press.

To find out more about Jennifer Givhan’s work, check out her site. We look forward to featuring two of her poems in our upcoming issue, due out in mid-June.

Contributor News: Wayne Miller

Friday, March 10th, 2017

Here at the Cincinnati Review we’re always rooting for our talented contributors, so we’re especially happy today because of some good news from Poetry Editor Don Bogen:

Don Bogen: Congratulations are in order for poet, translator, editor, and CR contributor Wayne Miller, whose most recent book Post- (Milkweed Editions, 2016) was just awarded the Rainer Maria Rilke Prize from the University of North Texas. The prize is for “a book that demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision written by a mid-career poet.” And while it does not provide free room and board in an aristocrat’s castle, as its name might imply, it includes a reading at UNT and a good-sized check of $10,000. It is much deserved.

Wayne’s work has been all over our pages and our blog, and we’re glad to have it. Post- includes a poem that originally appeared in our Winter 2015 issue, and you can read José Angel Araguz’s microreview of the book & an interview here.  A review of Wayne’s previous book The City, Our City appeared in the Summer 2012 issue, and another poem of his back in Winter 2010. Wayne’s been here in the flesh too.  If you’d like to hear him talking about his work and reading some poems from Post- and The City, Our City, a reading and a Q&A from his 2010 visit to the University of Cincinnati are available in the Elliston Project archives here.

Hearty congratulations to a friend, a contributor, and one terrific poet.

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Please note that our reading period ends in less than a week! Submit here before March 15th.

microreview & interview: Rochelle Hurt’s In Which I Play the Runaway

Monday, March 6th, 2017

by José Angel Araguz

RUNAWAYIn “The Miami River Floods,” from Rochelle Hurt’s collection In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street Press), the speaker addresses her father while watching footage of the Miami River flooding and speculates on the following:

how many babies will be born tonight in heroic backseat
deliveries as cars float down the freeway? They will carry

those stories all their lives like everyone else—
not from memory, but narrative inheritance. How dutifully

we gulp down circumstance as fate

This idea of narrative inheritance lies at the heart of this collection whose poems challenge accepted narratives about womanhood, fairy tales, movies, and family, always with an eye toward questioning the reflex to “gulp down circumstance as fate.”

Throughout the collection, Hurt displays a deft ability to create images that allow narrative to be carried, developed, and understood on an intellectual and emotional level simultaneously. In the poem “Self-portrait in Needmore, Indiana,” for example, the reader is presented with the following:

As expected, after the wedding, the house
became a cough we lived in, trembling
in the throat of that asthmatic spring.

These three lines set a narrative, then quickly compound it. Within the logic of these lines there are implications of weakness and affliction. A ceremony of union changes the world around the poem’s characters, so that it can only be understood in terms of an afflicted body. This metaphor places the emotional charge of the poem within the body, while the imagery unfolds in a way that mirrors the sudden and unwieldy transitions of real life. This poem continues in terms of the body:

The streets stacked and curved like fingers
on a grease-knuckled hand gripping
the waist of our Midwestern dream.

The narrative of affliction continues here with the additional pressure of possessive relationships added. As the self is caught in the body, the speaker of this self-portrait (one of a series in the collection) is caught behind the narrative inheritance of marriage. The poem’s conclusion makes clear what the stakes are of being caught:

I could have died etching my name
into the glass eye of my cage—a bay
window painted with lace. The skyline
in its expanse was a farce played out each night.

Sometimes my reflection was the star
of the show. Sometimes it was the child
clapping from her seat, so looking out
and looking in became the same thing.
Sometimes it just rained for weeks.

After the description of the bay window as a “glass eye,” the poem develops the metaphor of hindered sight by presenting several shifting images. The speaker’s listing of reflections of self then of the child evokes the potential loss of self of parenting. This loss is further emphasized in the last line, where the speaker sees only rain, implying a complete loss of being able to see themselves or anyone.

While the above poem and others present a poetic sensibility capable of speaking in terms of the body, the “runaway” of the collection’s title is also present throughout offering its own language. The runaway theme runs counter to the body-centered theme and creates a push/pull effect. In “Poem in Which I Play the Runaway,” these two themes interact:

It could open with a party, strewn
with girls like tinsel, girls looking
for a house to stuff themselves in [. . .]

Or a chase scene: some ranch house
with walls thin as a mother’s dress,
long emptied of men and closing on me.

I never wanted a home in him,
but the sex was like licking sheets
of corrugated iron, my torn maw
breathing in the corrosion

Here, the speaker works out two variations on house narratives, the speaker’s voice charged with swagger and conviction as they reimagine via metaphor. The third stanza shows this reimagining impulse suddenly grounded. After the statement of not wanting “a home in him,” a statement still working on the intellectual/imaginative level, the speaker describes how “the sex was like licking sheets / of corrugated iron,” a description which brings the poem back into the body. This synesthesia mirrors the argument between the imagination and the body engaged with in this poem. The runaway theme here is embodied in the speaker’s attempts to escape narrative while acknowledging their ties to it.

It is in this tension between escape and acknowledgment where the collection’s most compelling takes on narrative inheritance occur. Over time, this tension becomes imbued with empathy, as in “Some Oz,” where the speaker meditates on how their father learned from his father how to leave as if looking for the Oz of the title:

Some Oz where the clock of your life could unwind.
But you’ve returned to us now, your hands

full of years like salvage. And how could you
have known what you’d wake to—a home

inescapable, you wearing your father’s face [. . .]

you search for a word like an opening

into some storm strong enough to take us both
to a place where your daughters can forgive you.

The runaway theme here becomes a running toward. The narrative inheritance of fathers and daughters is suspended in a way that honors the complexity of the relationship while continuing to question it. While the runaway theme implies motion, the body implies stillness; the interplay of these two themes makes for poetry capable of reimagining the world while facing it.

interview

JAA: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

RH: One thing poetry can do very well is destabilize language—or use language to destabilize ideas. My favorite kind of poetry, no matter the school or style, is poetry that uses linguistic slippage and play to challenge concepts we might otherwise consider stable. A primary theme in my collection is the instability of self-image, given the precarious relationship between self, story, and place. The book is structured around a series of poems that use intriguing town names—Last Chance, Hurt, Honesty, etc.—to tease out narrative, metaphor, and persona. Many of the poems are narrative, but still rely on lyricism as an engine for moving between the town name and the self that is painted in the poem. Many of the poems also mix autobiographical confession with tale-telling and hyperbole as a means of further dislocating the self. We do get lost, I think, in the shifting narratives about where we come from, who our families are, who we could have been/are/could still be. I know I do—and I look to poetry not as a means of affirmation or comfort, but as a way of continuing to question those narratives.

JAA: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

RH: Writing the individual poems was less challenging than organizing them into a book. As you can imagine, it’s somewhat difficult to structure a collection with an arc of some sort when you’re specifically trying to mess around with narrative. At first I tried to mush everything together into one clean story over three long sections, but that traditional structure just wasn’t working. I knew that if a reader approached the collection expecting a singular speaker with one coherent story to tell, that reader would be confused and disappointed. After reorganizing the collection close to twenty-five times, I decided to make six short sections guided by experiences and ideas. The speaker, in all her plural forms, moves through different places and contexts patched together from family history, memory, and fabricated stories. Emotional states and revelations are mapped onto place, and the book moves forward through this map. The arc wound up leading to a place of honesty for this speaker, as she begins to more directly confront her own tendencies toward exaggeration and fatalism. She winds up, after all, in Honesty, Ohio.

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In Which I Play the Runaway is available for purchase from Barrow Street Press.

To find out more about Rochelle Hurt’s work, check out her site.

microreview & interview: Leah Poole Osowski’s Hover Over Her

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Leah Osowski’s poem “Vs. Field” is forthcoming Issue 13.2. In today’s blog post, Associate Editor José Angel Araguz reviews Osowski’s collection, Hover Over Her.

by José Angel Araguz

While reading Leah Poole Osowski’s Hover Over Her, I found myself coming back to the phrase “the poetics of suddenness.” Throughout the collection, moments are built up into a spark and flash of imagery and linguistic resonance, so that often a reader is engaged in the act of keeping up with the poem as it happens. These lines from “For the Unrealized Girls” serve as a brief example of how this kind of suddenness works:

—the throb that comes the first time

an earlobe is sealed into the envelope of a mouth,
the beating wingspan of an owl under-chest—

The juxtaposition of physical descriptions here, from human to animal, is executed in such a way that both come alive simultaneously. The human acts are imbued with that of the animal, and vice versa; these twin moments of intensity push the lyric to a sudden level of emotion, lingering there before moving on.

In “Three Girls and Something Like Hovering on a Hill in Vermont” this same suddenness works as a narrative engine. This poem begins by contextualizing the lives of three girls via ideas of motion:

They’ll take more walks in this phase than any other—

the budding years right before driver’s licenses

just after boundaries…

These three lines paint a picture indirectly; rather than an age, the reader is given before and after. In this gesture, one can read the title’s “hovering” as pointing to a state of being indefinable. From here, the liminal energy of youth carries the poem forward through various details of the three girls’ respective lives, culminating at the end in images whose succession and immediacy have a meaning on the level of near physical sensation:

…There’s homemade

dandelion wine in the top cabinet. A little brother

grasping a fly swatter. A rooster hung from a cypress,

bleeding out in a kill cone. Most of the poplar stairs

lick the girls’ bare feet as they lightning past.

Here, the velocity of the three girls’ lives is mirrored in the speed of the narrative. Meaning and narrative happen in confluence through juxtaposition, the story realized through each image and phrasing registered. In a poem where a little brother is presented poised on the edge of violence, and a rooster hangs as a victim of violence, the image and sensation of the last line resonate with a mortal urgency.

This urgency is also present in a series of prose poems from the perspective of various inanimate objects. The poem “Blood Speaks of the Heart” begins:

It’s like coming home. Like running through a corn maze. Like the Vatican. But it really depends on which side you’re in, the blood gushes. If your next stop are the lungs then it feels like you’re climbing so many flights of stairs at an area of high elevation. And if you just came from the lungs it’s like a dance party in the atrium where nobody ever gets tired and the music is pumping and the energy is so high that the crowd always spills out into the streets and takes to sprinting…

Here, the imaginative leaps serve to redefine the biological working of blood via metaphor. This redefining becomes another kind of hovering, pushing against expectation through the conceit of blood speaking. Yet, metaphor and conceit necessarily push the poem back to its human terms:

And what about love, we ask? The blood gets real quiet. It whispers, we’ve heard of that version of the heart, we’ve heard it lives upstairs. And then in a barely audible murmur, like heaven lives upstairs up from you.

In this back and forth between blood and the speaker, one can see with what suddenness the redefining and reimagining impulse can be curbed. Osowski’s ability to evoke both exuberance and pathos within this conceit makes for an engaging reading experience.

The ambition of this poetic of suddenness can be seen in the emotional range of the poems discussed. Like the hovering implied in the collection’s title, a poem becomes a space where reader and writer can linger and consider experience. In Osowski’s hands, a poem is a way to reach after, but not hold or restrain, experience. Suddenness, then, becomes a way to do this work. The speaker in the sequence “Moonstone” asks a telling question:

10. You think you know the shade of someone once your body has laid next to theirs a certain number of times. But then the question arises—what color, if any, are they when the light goes out?

As the reader lingers in both the physical and conceptual dark of the speaker’s question, inklings of how unanswerable this question is and why begin to crack through. The speaker goes on to end the poem with an image of what it feels like to hover such questions:

11. Snow angels in a blizzard.

interview

JAA: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be? 

LPO: This summer I lived at a camp in the woods next to a lake. A larger lake nearby spit out rocks perfectly smooth and flat. I wrote the word “transformation” on one and kept it on the table in the center of the cabin. I believe poetry transforms experience. It’s a way of accessing memory and image through a layer of language. And language has a mind of its own. It can render reality optional, persona flexible, and insert rooms into the smallest details. All day we walk around with gravity and a whole slew of rules that apply to this world—poetry transcends those limitations, so when you have an art form that can do that you must. Poetry also tends to corral your preoccupations and obsessions, sometimes subconsciously. In that way, we access what’s pawing at us, herd it all into a fenced-in area, and hope to calm it down. But back to that lake stone: by adding words to the natural world we aim to understand it, or maybe just increase our proximity.

JAA: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

LPO: I tend to begin poems on a line or an image and let the language take over and drive the content. I wrote most of the poems in this book in a 2 ½ year period and it wasn’t until the end of that time that I laid them out to witness the conversation they were having. The challenges weren’t in the individual poems but how they were working as a collection. I realized that the narrative backbone of this book is the poems about the “three girls” and their arch needed some shaping. But when I tried to write a prescripted poem it fell apart. The lack of spontaneity results in a dulling of luster. I’d write them and my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, would tell me they were terrible, and I’d go back in and mess up their hair. They’re like kids in that way—if you try to dress them up and keep them neat by the end of the day there’s grass stains and bruises and four wardrobe changes. Poems, like all living things, need their freedoms, and the challenge is in allowing that to happen while steering a collection towards cohesion.

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Hover Over Her is available for purchase from The Kent State University Press.

To find out more about Leah Poole Osowski’s work, check out her site.

microreview/interview: Wayne Miller’s Post-

Monday, October 17th, 2016

by José Angel Araguz

In his latest collection, Post- (Milkweed Editions), contributor Wayne Miller (6.2, 11.2) presents poems whose guiding poetic sensibility is able to navigate the terrains of memory and day-to-day life and mine them for what they have to say about personal and social life. “The Debt” opens this work by presenting variations on the title’s concept:

He entered through the doorway of his debt.
Workmen followed, bringing box after box

until everything he’d gather in his life
inhabited his debt. He opened the sliding door to the yard—

a breeze blew through the spaces of his debt,
blew the bills from the table onto the floor.

One can see how financial concerns impose themselves on life. Debt is the house lived in as much as a concept. What makes this poem such an effective opening piece is how it brings together a number of the collection’s themes, namely the way such intangible facts—in this case, debt and laws—affect our tangible lives.

The law theme is again explored in “The People’s History,” which creates a narrative around “the People,” and follows them as they comprise both a group of chanting protesters on a city street and a group policing them:

we, the People, will not be denied.
Then the People
descended upon the People, swinging hardwood batons
heavy with the weight of the People’s intent.

The narrative method here is compelling on two levels: 1) The use of “the People” for both sides makes the intangible nature of rhetoric and law transparent, which in turn makes the tangible effects on human action and experience all the more vivid; and 2) Rather than dulling or deflating the intensity of the scene, the use of the phrase complicates the narrative further:

But the People had grown tired of the afternoon
and released dogs into the crowd, dogs
that could not tell the People from the People;

Subverting the implied idea of an impersonal collective, the phrase takes on, through the poem’s twists and turns, a personal, individualistic meaning. In doing so, the poem indirectly paints a contemporary scene that becomes a direct and compassionate critique.

The themes of debt and inheritance are also found in poems that deal with the nature of words themselves. In “On Language,” the reader is presented the following fabulistic conceit:

1
There were only certain stones
we could step on to cross the river.

2
The stones we could step on to cross the river
were not certain.

Further developing this conceit, the poet states that “the stones we stepped on/ dropped away behind us/ like the notes of a song.” The connotations of this premise are rich: A set of stones is language, the river is speech, and the other side of the river is meaning. Not only is the transient and harried nature of establishing meaning conveyed, but so is the “not certain” feeling of the human effort to communicate. And yet, the speaker’s fable is one of hope, which the urgency behind the midpoem statement—“Love, stay with me inside this syntax of the river”—makes evident.

The sequence of five poems titled “Post-Elegy” that are scattered throughout the collection present a confluence of debt/inheritance narratives. The first describes how “After the plane went down/ the cars sat for weeks in long-term parking.” The speaker’s journey to retrieve the dead person’s car becomes a process of growing awareness, culminating in the following observations as the speaker drives off:

. . . I realized

I was steering homeward
the down payment
of some house we might live in
for the rest of our lives.

The metaphor here makes grief a physical presence, the car suddenly a space where the memory of the dead person lives on.

In the world of Post-, we are left in such complicated afters: the after of accumulating debt; the after of having to distinguish “the People” from each other; the after of wanting stay inside “this syntax of the river.”

interview

JAA: What role do you feel the personal and the social have in your work as reflected in this collection?

WM: For some time I’ve been interested in complicating that personal-social dichotomy by considering how personal narratives bump up against larger historical moments and metanarratives. Thus, in Post- I’m often trying to entangle the personal and social—to juxtapose them or contextualize each inside the other.

For example, Post-’s opening poem, “The Debt,” depicts a father-son relationship while insistently pulling into the frame how middle-class American life is built structurally on debt. Similarly, “Consumers in Rowboat” presents a tug of war between a couple’s own perception of themselves as private, autonomous individuals and the larger economic perspective that they’re demographically trackable consumers. And throughout the book poems about parenthood and loss sit intentionally beside poems about sociopolitical conflict and violence.

I’ve long loved Donald Justice’s well-anthologized poem “Men at Forty,” which feels personal and distilled as the men move solitarily through their domestic spaces while considering their own aging. When, in the last line, Justice describes their houses as “mortgaged,” it felt to me like an almost shocking (and compelling!) breech of the poem’s private lyrical “purity.” That’s just one small example—but it’s the sort of complicating of lyrical isolation that I was reaching for when I was writing Post-.

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Post- is available for purchase from Milkweed Editions.

To find out more about Wayne Miller’s work, check out his site.

microreview/interview: A. Molotkov’s The Catalog of Broken Things

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by José Angel Araguz

amolotkov1

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:

11

My aunt, a shadow without a landing.
In her chest, small
streams fight for the chance to be
called river.
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.

I 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.

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interview

amolotkov2J: Were there any challenges in writing these poems, and  if so how did you work through them?

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.

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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.

microreview/interview: MRB Chelko’s Songs & Yes

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

by José Angel Araguz 

…Some crazy guy told me. His mother was beautiful. And perhaps I should have listened. To him. Perhaps. I was his mother. Just then. In a way.

As I read through MRB Chelko’s chapbook Songs & Yes, I kept thinking in terms of weather: the weather of details, the weather of personal perceptions. The poems here keep the reader in close contact with the materials of the poet’s world. As can be seen in the short excerpt above, the poetic experience is guided by distinct choices in phrasing. By varying the length and duration of sentences, the poet is able to place emotional emphasis on each movement of the poem. In doing so, the poems enact a logic and aesthetic similar to modern dance.

When asked what inspired this chapbook, Chelko writes:

“…in an effort to purge myself of ingrained habits/constructions/aesthetics/themes, I decided to write one new sequence per month for a year, shifting the formal constraints each month to force myself into new aesthetic and thematic territory. I’d never written prose poems before, so that’s where I started: prose poems of approximately 100 words, comprised of sentence fragments, with the refrains rest and silence.

This impetus towards using formal constraints to work into a “new aesthetic and thematic territory” pays off in this project in pieces like the one below, where narrative detail is lyrically conveyed by voice and image:

With the dark jars of her eyes the pharmacist disapproves. Silence. No doctor signed this. But look at me. I am dragging the trash bags of my feet up the stairs. The jars empty. Pharmacist. Look up. I am hanging a shirt. Light blue and wrinkled. Single dangling ballerina of thread. I am pouring. Black. The coffee’s heart out. Time. Prescription. Rest. Which arrived earlier. Like a decent book in the mail. Silence and a pack of smokes. And the pink depths of the book’s cover. And the purples. Rest. I got tired. Rest. Unwrapped a secret. Wrapped it again.

I like how the repetition of silence and rest hold the poem’s mood together while coloring what comes before and after. The pharmacist’s disapproval is made more emphatic; later, several levels of fatigue are implied. Here also, Chelko’s formal vision plays out in aesthetically and emotionally stunning ways. The juxtaposition, for example, of: “ …I am hanging a shirt. Light blue and wrinkled. Single dangling ballerina of thread. I am pouring. Black. The coffee’s heart out.” streams together perception and sentiment, using the sentence form in a way that gathers lyric momentum.

About this particular piece, Chelko shared:

“Around the time I was writing these I had a series of abscessed root canals, which resulted in quite a bit of pain and ultimately the removal of four of my upper molars. So, I was walking around the city with these deep, aching holes in my face that only I knew were there. It felt like I was holding a secret in my mouth. The loss of my teeth—they’re still missing—was a tender experience and deeply personal. I smiled tightly, or not at all, for years.  On one rainy, metal grey December afternoon, I received a package containing Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s New and Selected Poems,Reliquary Fever. An almost glowing pinkish red, the book’s cover depicts fingers reaching, tentative, for a soap bubble. There’s a specter of violence even in the gentleness of the image. The bubble, if touched, would of course disappear. I love that book. It was a kind of medicine.”

This recognition of “a kind of medicine” in the day-to-day details makes up much of the engine driving this chapbook.

Buy it from sunnyoutside: $12.

Make sure to check out MRB Chelko’s poem “Snow Be” in issue 12.2!

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Are you a past contributor interested in a microreview/interview? Write to us [editors@cincinnatireview.com] with the subject heading “microreview/interview inquiry” for more information and guidelines.

Pas de Deux: Romanosky & Murvin

Monday, March 17th, 2014

The feast continues with the second course in our feature Pas de Deux, in which Jennifer Murvin turns the tables on fellow 10.2 contributor Christa Romanosky and asks how in the heck she came up with her ironic, biting, and heartbreaking story “Assets.” In what follows, Romanosky reveals her secret recipe: one part biography, eight parts imagination, and two parts kitten experiment, with a dash of Deborah Eisenberg.

Jennifer Murvin: “Assets” is both wickedly funny and deeply moving. The narrator Louise Hayle approaches rather serious conflicts with a sarcastic and clever charm; for example, the word “asset” functions in the narrative as both verbal and situational irony. Tell me about the role of humor in your writing. Did you have any writers or stories in mind as a model while creating the voice of your narrator?

Christa Romanosky: I think the idea for this piece came about when I received a call about my student loans from a debt collector who insisted, out of the blue, that my loans were ninety days overdue, and that if I didn’t pay immediately, the company would seize all of my assets. Panicked, I called my father, who assured me that I had no assets. It ended up being a mistake, but the experience led me to ponder what exactly defined an asset. That’s where it all began. I wanted to write a story about a girl who had nothing, and yet seemed to still be losing things. I had a real-life Marla at the time I was working on “Assets.” Our motto was to laugh at the really hard stuff, since we’d be crying about it later anyway. I try to carry this philosophy with me. I was reading a lot of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories at the time, which probably helped to sculpt this view.

JM: “Assets” is structured in titled vignettes, some of which contain numbered lists. I absolutely love the choices you’ve made here. How did you come to this structure for the story?

CR: The structure came about as I was making lists to keep track of Louise’s thoughts and feelings. Vignettes helped me to create a sense of movement, a change in topic or time that might otherwise seem too abrupt or jarring. “Assets” was the first successful short story I wrote, and it was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation. I think sometimes it’s a good thing to not know what you’re doing—to color outside the lines because you don’t understand what the lines are—like those poor kittens in the psychology experiment by Blakemore and Cooper that were deprived of vertical lines: dendric field modification for new writers. That should be a class.

JM: The story juggles several plotlines—a terminated pregnancy, a two-timing boyfriend, a flirtatious best friend (everyone needs a Marla!), financial troubles. Tell me about how these different conflicts emerged during your writing process.

CR: I embraced the idea that sometimes bad shit happens to good people. I mean, Louise isn’t perfect. She’s the other woman in a relationship with Paul, and she hasn’t made the best career choices. She’s got low self-esteem, but that’s real life. I’m very interested in gender and sexuality, how it shapes our identities—what women and men deal with on a day-to-day basis, and what we often refuse to talk about despite the fact that it might be a basic biological function most everyone experiences, like sex. Statistics indicate that approximately one in three women has an abortion by the time she reaches forty, yet the topic is so provocative that it’s rarely discussed without the frills of shame and verdict. The multiple conflicts and plotlines emerge in “Assets” as a way to diffuse the idea that unplanned pregnancy (or other crises) happens in a void, or that choices are made without other considerable factors, some helpful, some not. I wanted to write about how people cope.

JM: “Assets” is written largely in conversations between the narrator and Paul, the narrator and Marla, and the narrator and Dan from Advanced Credit Solutions. Can you talk (no pun intended) a little about your approach to writing dialogue?

CR: A former professor of mine stressed the importance of daydreaming about characters and conversations, and I find that I work out dialogue best that way. I start with one phrase or statement, then assemble at least ten different ways that conversation could develop, depending on what is said to whom, how s/he interprets it, how the speaker wishes to be interpreted, the mood, etc. I sometimes do this in my own life, while conversing with strangers or acquaintances. When I’m asked a question I imagine entire branches of dialogue that could transpire, weigh each potential response, insert sarcasm or wit I’d heard somewhere, envision future interactions that might go poorly because I misrepresented myself, panic about our incompatibility, wish I’d done things differently, and return to reality to finally reply “yes” or “no.” It’s a hard-knock life for an introvert.

JM: I admire the specificity in which you write your characters. Paul doesn’t just have a girlfriend who lives far away; he has Judy, who lives in Phoenix and writes poetry. Louise doesn’t just receive calls about her outstanding loans; she receives calls from Dan of Advanced Credit Solutions. Tell me about how you arrive at this level of detail in your characterization.

CR: I wanted the reader to feel as though she stumbled upon lives already in motion, dynamic lives. While I was writing “Assets,” I daydreamed about these characters in great detail: internal struggles, attachment styles, former relationships, emotional capacities, even the types of foods they would eat. I spent a lot of time at coffee shops, pondering.

JM: I may be reading too much into this, but there is something lovely and almost metafictional about the dialogue in the last scene when the narrator says, “This is as good a place as any to end it.” How did you know you’d reached the end of the story?

CR: I like looking at fractals, at repeating patterns, not just in nature, but in relationships and in what shapes us. The ultrasound image of Louise’s pregnancy, in her mind, looks a lot like female anatomy, the one part of her that Paul clearly wants. I knew that Paul and Louise must ultimately part ways if Louise was to ever have a shot at growth and happiness, but that she needed to build agency before she could break away. When Louise imagines announcing to Paul, “You’ve been sleeping with a potato. . . . Don’t you feel stupid,” it is her way of beginning to put Paul in his place, using what small amount of power she has. It took a total of about two years to finish this story. It was on again, off again, like a very unstable, ahem, relationship. But I finally ended it.

Jennifer Murvin’s essays and stories have appeared The Sun, Mid-American Review, Midwestern Gothic, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Baltimore Review and Moon City Review. She is a faculty member at Missouri State University, where she teaches Fiction Writing, the Graphic Novel, and Contemporary American Fiction. Jen is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Christa Romanosky earned an MFA from the University of Virginia in poetry. Her poetry has been featured in Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Cincinnati Review, Boston Review, and Crazyhorse. She has also completed two albums of music, All Things Left Unsaid and Talk about the Sky, available on Amazon, Pandora and iTunes.

Emerging Writers: Writer as Reader

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

This month, UC’s English Department hosted its Emerging Writers Festival, bringing to campus  four fiction writers who are emerging from their rough-spun cocoons into full-fledged writerly beings. (Okay, maybe all of them already have awards and critically acclaimed books.) During their time at UC, they took part in readings, discussions, and discussions about reading, and this week we’re delighted to bring you some excerpts from a panel discussion dubbed “The Writer as Reader,” moderated by Professor Jim Schiff. Read about how W. G. Sebald broke Ben Loory’s heart and how Ron Currie Jr. is actually not afraid of the internet. Stay tuned for Part II, coming later this week.

Jim Schiff: Name a book you love, and tell us why.


Ben Loory: Probably my favorite book is Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. He was this German writer, this super, hyperintelligent, overeducated guy. All of his books were just him going to some foreign country, stumbling around in some depressed fog, taking pictures of buildings and thinking about all the horrible things that have happened there. And also the good things and the literature and art that came out of it. I just loved it. When he was writing, it was this brand new thing I’d never seen before. And then he died in a car accident. And that was the last time I read contemporary literature. I just couldn’t handle that I had found this writer and then he died. I just completely checked out. Now I only read people who are already dead or who have written enough books for me. But there’s something in his writing in which the entire world is a haunted house. All the books are these ruins of what happened and a forerunner of what’s coming.

Caitlin Horrocks: For me, it’s Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I was able to read it as escapism and enjoy it as a reader. It’s a book that’s fearless about what a book can do and what he’s capable as an author of pulling off. It’s a magic trick. You think, “You can’t pull this off,” and you’re waiting for him to fall off, and I don’t think he does.

Ron Currie Jr.: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’m reluctant to say it’s my favorite book, but it’s certainly the heavy-weight champion in terms of scope and ambition. It appreciates the importance of and demonstrates the possibility of being bound by nothing in fiction. I don’t really see the point of writing fiction if you’re not willing to hang your ass out in the breeze and just get as crazy as you possibly can without going over the edge. A lot of people think Wallace went way over the edge with Infinite Jest, but for me, it’s an absolute master class in the possibilities of fiction. [. . .] That’s what I was after as a kid. How far can we go with this; how fantastical can it be?

Schiff: In your view, what’s the contemporary literary landscape? Are people doing different things than they were doing ten, twenty, fifty years ago?

Horrocks: A contemporary writer who is a sort of representation for things right now is Karen Russell. She does such a great job in picking zombies or picking vampires or taking these playful things and integrating them into such beautiful stories, doing something that is both realist in some ways and magical in others. You can see that in the aesthetic of places like One Story. There is this hunger for things that are not magical realism in a Marquez sense, but a contemporary formulation that is still evolving. Also, Roxane Gay for both fiction and nonfiction. She somehow writes and processes at internet speed, which I can’t. She does so much online writing with quick turn-around and responds to things happening right now, but there is that depth of thought and that humanity and a gracefulness that comes through in a lot of what she’s doing.

Audience Member: How does the business of life affect your fiction?

Currie: Everything I write, including the book coming out in February, is very episodic, even when it’s published under the guise of a novel. That may be the result of the din of modern life. Maybe I don’t have the attention span, or maybe I can’t write a coherent narrative. I have no doubt that the staccato pace of information intake is affecting how I write. I sort of hope that it’s because that’s the direction we’re heading. It’s only going to get more compact and shrunk. I think the kind of book Franzen writes is a dying breed. I’m fascinated by possibilities of technology. I’m fascinated by that New Yorker story that Jennifer Egan did on Twitter. She wrote the story for the medium. It worked really well. I tried to imagine it being a longer narrative in that form, and I couldn’t do it.

Lorry: You go to a bookstore, and lots of books are similar, and I think that’s a result of writers all talking to one another. No one is developing in isolation, on their own.

Horrocks: But I think there is still a hunger for big books from readers. People want to sit and be immersed in a world. With the internet, people are always like, “This will usher in a renaissance for flash fiction or the short form because people only have a little bits of time.” But that’s not true. Even short forms require really close attention. Short forms take a lot of work for the reader. This is a weird moment when writers can think of being driven to short pieces, but for readers, as pressed for time as they are, there is still a hunger for that unbroken dream.

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Ron Currie Jr. has had stories in Cincinnati Review issues 7.2 and 2.2—the latter story, “False Idols,” appeared in his collection God is Dead (Penguin, 2007). He is also the author of the novels Everything Matters (Viking, 2009) and the forthcoming Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Viking, 2013). Currie has also received the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the Willard L. Metcalf Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Caitlin Horrocks’s story “Embodied” appeared in issue 3.1 of Cincinnati Review; it was her first published story and later appeared in her collection This Is Not Your City (Sarabande, 2011). Her stories have also appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories 2011, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, Pushcart Prize XXXV, and elsewhere, and she’s won awards including the Plimpton Prize and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship.

Ben Loory’s fables and tales have appeared in the New Yorker, Gargoyle, and Antioch Review, as well as on NPR’s “This American Life,” and live at Selected Shorts. His book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program and the Starbucks Coffee Bookish Reading Club.

Interview with Jane Springer

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

The Cincinnati Review is delighted that our contributor Jane Springer is one of the winners of this year’s Whiting Awards. Her first book, Dear Blackbird, won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize and was published by the University of Utah Press. Jane’s other awards include the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Poetry, an AWP Intro Award, and an NEA Fellowship.

Whiting Awards of $50,000 each are given annually to writers of promise early in their careers. Here’s some of what the judges had to say about Jane’s work: “She makes splendid connections between the narrow world she knew as a child and the intimate rhythms she acquired as a poet. She is a poet full of verve and lyrical passion, a new and authentic American voice. There’s as much verbal energy in a single poem as many poets use in an entire book. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and play in the mud of Poetry Land.” We heartily concur.

Poetry Editor Don Bogen interviewed Jane early in December:

First, congratulations! The Whiting Award is wonderful news, and much deserved.  Tell us about how you found out, and what the ceremony in New York was like.

Thank you. In late September, Whiting Foundation board members called to tell me the news. I called their number back the next day to make sure it was not a joke—several co-winners expressed to me, later, they’d had the same sense of awe and disbelief at hearing the announcement.

The ceremony was held at the Morgan Library, and Peter Matthiessen delivered the keynote speech (informative, witty, and delightfully odd). Each winner was lauded and received a book with a check enclosed (mine arrived in a volume of James Agee’s work), then we gathered upstairs for the reception. What was it like? First ride on a wooden roller coaster—nowhere to go but—

Did the judging committee consider just the work in your first book, Dear Blackbird, or was it a combination of that and more recent poems?

Whiting Awards are shrouded in secrecy—I don’t know who nominated me or what materials the panel of judges considered over the course of the year it took them to decide that I would be named a Whiting recipient. Maddening—not to be able to thank whoever it was who had a hand in the whole shocking and blissful mess.

Dear Blackbird was selected by J. D. McClatchy for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize and published by the University of Utah Press in 2007. Looking back, can you tell us a bit about your sense of that book and how the work in it might compare to what you’re doing now?

I view my work now as an extension of Dear Blackbird, which was, to my mind, a book- length pastoral elegy and love letter to the South. The major difference between that book and my new manuscript (Murder Ballad) is this: Murder Ballad concerns itself more with the decline of the oral tradition of storytelling than with the encroachment of “civilization” with regards to landscape. Both books seek to explore the shifting mythologies of the American South at the crossroads of language where narrative and lyric forms collide.

The poems you’ve published in The Cincinnati Review—“An Addict’s Guide to Pregnancy” in Winter 2007 and “Whiskey Pastoral” and “Murder Ballad” in Winter 2010—are striking for their range and overall energy.  These are all poems of a good length—four pages in the case of “An Addict’s Guide”—with a powerful sense of voice  behind them.  How do you go about writing such dynamic stuff?

You are very kind to describe those poems as dynamic. Thank you. I try to tell stories worthy of retelling when I write. I guess I always have, in the back of my mind, Lorca’s thoughts on duende—how it arises from a kind of human urgency and life/death struggle that trumps meditative musings that demonstrate mastery of poetic technique so seamlessly as not to shed blood. I say I try because I fail far more often than I succeed—and I hope I get closer to writing with an authentic voice with each poem.

As the titles indicate, the subject matter in your poems is anything but tame. Where do your poems come from?

They often begin with trouble that I hope the poem will help me sort out (though not, necessarily, resolve). For example, “Murder Ballad” acknowledges the violence inherent in that form of music and asks: So why do we hate the thing we love? “Whiskey Pastoral” asks what the pastoral looks like in the 21st century (an age of environmental wreckage).

“Addict’s Guide?” When I was nursing my newborn (and hardly allowed to take half an aspirin), a friend of mine dropped a pile of mushrooms on my coffee table and asked: “I don’t suppose we could do these, considering?”

Do you remember what the birth of your first child was like? The joyous miracle/year-long adaptation to the yowler’s outrage at all forms of would-be sanity and sleep? I googled hallucinogens/breast milk exhaustively that night before conceding, reluctantly: “I suppose not.” The poem went where I could not possibly go in my new role as a responsible adult.

That’s another way of saying I tend to explore the boundaries of contradictory forces (both real and imagined) with genuine curiosity in the hope that this subversive act will produce the kind of tension/forward momentum that could justify writing 2-4 page poems (my preferred length). If Flannery O’Connor and Larry Levis had a kid . . . that’s what I’d like to read and what I aim to write.

You grew up in small towns in the South and earned your doctorate at Florida State.  Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

Dyed in the wool.

At Florida State you studied with another of our contributors, James Kimbrell, whose poem “How to Tie a Knot” is in our new issue. What was that like?

He showed me his first version of “How to Tie a Knot” in 2006. It’s gone through many permutations since then; regardless of what form it shows up in I consider it one of the most personally-influential-poems-extant. The voice there (as in all of his poems) is so compelling, rhythmic, authentic, surprising, and smart (and the questions asked in the poem are so deeply moving, pertinent, and unanswerable) that I wrote a whole cadre of inferior knot-poems after he showed it to me. I couldn’t/cannot still get the voice out of my head. I don’t think it is overstatement to say his poems are flat-out genius touchstone pieces that inspire me to try and write beyond my own capabilities.

When he sends me new poems now, I share them with students to hear them say: “Wow—you mean we can do that?” (Sure you can do that! Go read Archimedes, sit in a chair 5 hours a day for several days a week for several years writing and revising, then show me what you’ve got.) Does that answer your question? Its sort of like asking what was Keats (if Keats had a drawl and an uncle Skinchy) like as a teacher? Well—read the Odes.

You’ve been teaching at Hamilton College in upstate New York for a few years now.  How do you like it?

What I ask from a college: a) writing faculty whose work I genuinely find exciting, b) students who work hard when given reason to do so, c) an administration that values the humanities beyond the concerns of the corporate profit margin (dying breed).

Hamilton College knocks all three out of the ballpark. As to the region: I live in the foothills of the Adirondacks in the snowbelt. Dark by 3 pm. The snow fell the day I arrived—2 ½ years later it hasn’t yet ceased. 11,782 feet last time I measured it. No wonder the highlight of fall is the annual snow plow parade. And honey-crisp apples. So sweet they would make Eve’s Paradise worth ditching.

Thanks very much for talking with us. One last one: Now that you’re rich and famous, will you still be sending us those terrific poems?

Aw. The most compelling writing always is in literary magazines, don’t you think? That’s where the greatest risks are taken—by writers who have not yet earned reputations they dread losing. The more success that meets a poet—the harder it is to write with a sense of abandon (Virginia Woolf said it best: The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages).

Considering the stack of form-rejections littering my desk right now, I’d say I’m un-famous enough to write with the fervor afforded by anonymity. I’m humbled you’d consider my work at all and will send you some soon—thanks so much for requesting it.