Poetry is Good Company: A Conversation with Wendy Carlisle on Her Second Poetry Collection Discount Fireworks

Doubleback Review Social Media Intern, Bethany Milholland, asked Wendy Carlisle to participate in an interview about her poetry collection Discount Fireworks. A hymn to the landscape of Carlisle’s native Arkansas, the subjects of these poems range from Greek myths to motherhood to a high school shooting. Timeless yet personal, Discount Fireworks is an ode to self-discovery and the beauty of finding one’s home.

Bethany Milholland: What does the poetry collection Discount Fireworks mean to you? 

Wendy Carlisle: This collection was my second, completed five years after I had finished my MFA in Vermont, and after a fruitful residency on the West Bank of New Orleans. My wonderful publisher Jacaranda Press folded immediately after it was published, alas. I love this book because it was a watershed for me. It marked, I think, my passage into poetry-for-sure.

BM: How long did it take to write and what was the process like?

WC: These poems were collected over almost 8 years. I found poems that I believed spoke to one another, and added to the sum of the book, then sent them to my editor. She weighed in, and we began again. This process took about 6 months. The final book opens with thinning glaciers and closes with Hurricane Katrina but in-between, it contains everything from vampires to Bible stories. I am surprised now by how many forms are here, from faux sonnets (the precursors of my Ozark Sonnets) to syllabics. The thing that clinched the collection for me was that the individual poems said something I wanted to hear.

BM: Who or what do you find inspiration from? 

WC: I am inspired by other Arkansas poets, Jo McDougall, Arkansas’s poet laureate, my first teacher Miller Williams, and that giant of Arkansas letters, C.D. Wright. I just discovered Laura Kasischke, that was like finding gold. Kim Addonizio continues to be an inspiration and my poetic practice has been built on the foundation of my friendship with the late Phillip Dacey,who continually reminded me about the bone work of poetry, showing up.

BM: Can you tell me about the front cover? 

WC: The cover is Discount Fireworks, a 1985 painting by a first-rate Arkansas artist, Robert McGehee, from Paris, Arkansas. I lived with the painting for over a decade when it occurred to me it would make a great cover for my book-in-progress. After that standing at the kitchen counter, I wrote the first draft of the poem “Discount Fireworks” in a flash.

BM: What is poetry to you?

WC: Poetry is good company. Poetry is hard work. Poetry is laughter. Poetry is a soul stretcher, a teacher of compassion. It animates wit. I seek poetry out, and we have a cup of coffee. We walk in the woods and look for morels. Outside of my family, poetry is the great love of my life.

BM: Do you consider yourself a regionalist author? Why? 

WC: In Discount Fireworks, the subjects of the poems range from Greek myths to motherhood to a high school shooting, but I’ve lived in Arkansas for 45 years and everything I write is touched by its wind and water, its patois and the rocky Ozark soil. Its people speak through me. I can’t say if I’m a regionalist, but I expect so.

BM: Do you have any advice for beginning poets?

WC: Don’t come to poetry expecting to be noticed. Come expecting to work hard for no money and meagre rewards. Come because you cannot help yourself. Come for the sheer joy of making something that didn’t exist before. Read and read and read poetry. Don’t worry about being influenced by other poets. If you can write like Emily Dickinson, do that. And don’t be above the scut work of poetry—the mishigas of submission and rejection. In the end, expect to give everything you have to poetry, but don’t expect poetry to give you back anything but jubilation.

BM: What was the most meaningful poem to you in the collection and why?

WC: That question reminds me of, “who is your favorite child.” But, if I have to say, the book contains one of my first love poems to my husband, “La Bamba Dance Club.” It was a nice surprise to write that.

Bethany Milholland is a senior at The University of Evansville majoring in Creative Writing. She is the former Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Evansville Review. She is also a former intern for her university’s magazine The Crescent. In her spare time, she enjoys earning a cat’s love and shopping at every thrift store within a thirty-mile radius.

Wendy Taylor Carlisle was born in Manhattan, raised in Bermuda, Connecticut and Ft Lauderdale, Florida and now lives in the Arkansas Ozarks in a house she built in 1980. She has an MA from the University of Arkansas and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the author of The Mercy of Traffic (Unlikely Books, 2019), Discount Fireworks (Jacaranda Press, 2008) and Reading Berryman to the Dog (Jacaranda Press, 2000.) Chapbooks include They Went to the Beach to Play (Locofo Chaps, 2016), Chap Book (Platypus Press, 2016), Persephone on the Metro (MadHat press, 2014), The Storage of Angels (Slow Water Press, 2008), and After Happily Ever After (Two River Chapbooks, 2003.) Her work appears in multiple anthologies.

Sundress Reads: Review of Future Sarcasm

In Future Sarcasm (Tolsun Books, 2020) through a series of short, connected poems, Michael Buckius prophesizes a future where all is bleak and desolate. The speaker acts as a tour guide to this reality, guiding the reader through a dystopic new normal, where donuts at a conference table are a nostalgia of the past, and body cryogenics is a favored hobby. Each scene is mimicked or depicted in some way through Doug Bale’s explosive art, line-drawn figures, and faces that are made strange by floods of color and oddities like clouds within heads or tree trunks as skeletons. Most of these interlinked, title-less poems are anaphoric, including the book’s refrain “in the future.” All of the poems—or perhaps it’s one poem cutting in and out like an old static radio—are fairly prosaic in their language and simple in their forms: short stanzas with conventional line breaks. The title of the collection plays prominently across the poems, sarcasm dripping heavily through the scenes Buckius depicts. In one, he writes:

Before the world ends
consider investing
in a suit of glass
It isn’t very comfortable
but damn, it looks good
Sometimes you have to suffer
for fashion (35)

Though the imagery is unrelenting and ominous, there is a dark wit that makes the sharpness of this future feel bearable or navigable. It’s as if the new landscape is an amalgam of George Orwell’s 1984 and Mitchell and Webb’s Peep Show; yes, “The future is a rat race” (3) but those who remain still have humor in their grasp: “Check out the / end of the world! / Bummer” (21). Much of Buckius’ future world is unidentifiable and foreign to people today:

In the future we will have four brains
a regular one
the government one
the one attached to your hand
and the heart-brain (13)

This strange concept is accompanied by its own illustration from Bale of a colorfully-headed person with a brain full of easter egg shapes, picked out in all the shades of a child’s paint pot, with additional faces and brains spilling forth, line-drawn in black and white. Indeed, every short poem by Buckius is preceded by an image from Bale in some vibrant hue, blasting back against the mundanity of the proposed future, as if the images have pilfered the color right from the words. But that is not to say that Buckius’ poems are bland or completely bleak.  A personal favorite is one of the only poems that points back to the America we know and love to critique, centering on New York City. Buckius declares: 

New York City is a great place to live
if you have a cool hat
That’s true now
and especially in the future (7)

This time the preceding image is not of Manhattan’s skyline—as one might expect—but a male figure fading into a desert heatwave, upending the reader’s understanding of how this text operates. America has been reimagined into a climate change wasteland, and these figures are barely existing in it.  There is a charm to this mundane new way of living, though many of the images are haunting or horrifying or both. The everyday has been turned on its head: the public pool has become “a suicide chamber” (19), implants “turn / multiple personalities / into multiple people,” (17) and “physical intimacy” is just a link back to the familiarity of the womb, easily replaced by computers (29). But there is still an impulse of humanity here, a sense of belonging or wanting to belong to something bigger, among this society’s chaos and collapse. 

Yes, these poems capture the memetic, pseudo-destructive energy that seems to have become the fight song of the Millenial generation. Towards the close, Buckius decrees:

It also shows your indifference
to the end of the world
Like, whatever dude
right? (33)

Buckius has a brilliant ability to build a world by using language sparingly, and Bale somehow pulls the seeds of these scenes into vibrant and vivid depictions that satiate even as they surprise. Buckius is a writer and filmmaker from Pennsylvania, who earned his MFA at Northern Arizona University, while Bale is a multimedia artist who illustrates, paints, and murals in his local Phoenix community. The poems in this peculiar and eclectic collection will tickle you and fill you with dread and delusion all at once. Welcome to the future.

Future Sarcasm is available at Tolsun Books

Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Louisiana. She is currently a joint MA-MFA candidate in Poetry at McNeese State University. She is the Non-Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review and Social Media Intern for Sundress Publications. She also holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in The Forge and Great Weather for Media, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

Sundress Reads: Review of Gravity & Spectacle

Half-photography and half-poetry, Gravity & Spectacle is the killer combo that you didn’t know you needed. This collection is a truly cinematic experience made possible by a collaboration between self-professed college dropout and poet Shawnte Orion and Asian American poet and photographer Jia Oak Baker, both based in Arizona. This work seeks to make sense of its atmosphere: at times thick and suffocating, at others, colorful and intriguing. These pieces work in cohesion, like the cogs of a turning, anti-capitalist wheel, in order to critique the world in which they find themselves. As Orion writes: “we will begin by taking scissors to the strings of kites” (55).

The first half of this collection—Gravity—is filled with Baker’s photos, often featuring metropolitan locales or arid dustbowls, where light and contrast set the tone at every stage. What’s most striking is the central figure, the same in each photograph, a man (presumably Orion from interviews given), wearing a gigantic mask on his head. This almost Orwellian mask, created by Phoenix artist J.J. Horner, resembles something between a many-eyed octopus behemoth, or a mutant saguaro. Saguaros and Arizona’s Sonoran Desert feature prominently in both these photos and Orion’s own lines in the second half of the book: Spectacle. Even urban Arizona becomes some recast version of this barren wilderness: “the official / State Bird of Arizona / is the Ceiling Fan” (46). The masked figure becomes a looming presence, both speaker and spectator as the reader moves back and forth between image and lyric.

Certainly, these connections are distinct and vibrant. In Baker’s “Elliptical Proximity,” the masked figure takes a selfie at a fairground, mid-air with just a few inches of himself in the frame, a disconnected father and son in the background, lit by brightly colored bulbs that juxtapose a sense of American nostalgia beside many of the more muted photographs (29). This same photograph is nodded to in Orion’s poem “You’ve Gone Supernova but Nothing Burns Brighter Than Itself,” where he alludes to the discovery of Neptune: “like how the presence of other people in your elliptical proximity is the only way to understand that you are alone” (56). Many of the poems contain winks, nudges, and nods to the images that precede them.  There is something both cheeky and somber about Baker and Orion’s united perspective.

Orion’s poems are as close to punk rock as we can get in 2021. When he isn’t taking shots at a certain former president—“Make Orwellian Dystopia Science Fiction Again (79)”—he’s unspooling social and class commentary: “a guide to which fifty states in America / women who care about their rights should avoid / ranked in no particular order” (64). This collection is witty and wry even as it is biting. In a piece where the speaker wonders about the flat earth conspiracy, Orion grounds us in reality, back to blue-collar workers and the mundanity of the everyday: 

My supervisor still believes
the earth is flat and we fall
off the edge every night
when we clock out (59)

It is the outliers who are the key players for Orion and Baker. The reader cannot take their eyes away from the masked stranger in the grayscale laundromat (18) or under the lit-up letterboard at Phoenix’s Rebel Lounge (5). With short clipped consonant sounds that call to mind the grinding skaters who are dotted throughout these pages (perhaps pro-boarder Rodney Mullen, whose name and words crop up once or twice) as well as piled-on metaphors that are somehow both sumptuous and gritty, every Arizonian doldrum is made sharp, funny, and irreverent.

Should you read this collection? If not for the strangeness of Baker’s composition, or Orion’s “Desert Tarot Six-Card Spread”—first in Spanish and then in English—that so perfectly recalls that familiar, rehearsed mystic phrasing, then do it for those striking, heartbreaking moments tucked away amidst the cleverly virgule-d prose poems:

don’t wait for second responders / like you waited for dad to return
from the bar with that elusive gallon of milk / like you waited
for mom’s hair and smile / to return from the oncologist’s office
don’t wait for the world to stop spinning (53)

You might end up with repetitive strain injury after flipping back and forth so often to search for the photographs that link to the poems you’re immersed in. You’ll find yourself unable to forget that alien-headed man under the fairground lights. Orion writes that “The eye is the quickest muscle” (49). It’s clear that in Gravity and Spectacle, perspective is everything. 

Gravity and Spectacle is available at Tolsun Books

Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Louisiana. She is currently a joint MA-MFA candidate in Poetry at McNeese State University. She is the Non-Fiction Editor of The McNeese Review and Social Media Intern for Sundress Publications. She also holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in The Forge and Great Weather for Media, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

Sundress Reads: A Review of The Burning Where Breath Used To Be

In The Burning Where Breath Used To Be, Jen Karetnick offers a collection of semi-autobiographical poems that mixes emotion with logic in its examinations. Ruminations on culture, experience, womanhood, and science ground the reader in Karetnick’s poems.

The collection’s opening poem, “23andMe Says My Body Is a Sanctuary City,” encapsulates the speaker’s relationship with her DNA results translated across different universal contexts. She wonders: “who have better prospects at being made into widows on refugee / boats that have been returned to the wholesale of war,” echoing the sentiment in the next stanza: “from the cyclic pitch of death flights, in the in-flux policies in / detention rooms at airports, where green cards change to red.” The ache of this kind of awareness, coupled with the beauty of the language, runs through every poem, allowing the reader to notice and glean the truth in each line.

Biological and mathematical terminology is expertly used throughout the poems, as well. In “Extreme Value Theorem”, the speaker reminisces on the reactions to her tattoo being visible while wearing her wedding dress: “I’d intended to hide it, I confess / but had it placed too high up on the shelf / of my scapula.” An extreme value theorem guarantees there is a maximum and minimum value, which is clearly shown in the poem based on the high-intensity reactions and the speaker’s overall nonchalance: “the rabbi nearly belched / the prayers as if he had lox for breakfast; my mother attempted to ignore, herself, the tattoo framed by my wedding dress.” Instances like these are sprinkled throughout each poem, allowing universal experiences to become framed in a new light with precision and elegance.

Finally, Karetnick utilizes ailing organs or biological processes in relation to her experiences in life. The poem “Dyskinetic” compares her aching soldier to America: “Frayed and inflamed, your parts do not like to work / together.” Current political and social issues are examined closely: her experience of being a teacher, specifically during fearful times of the ever-rising school shooter, provide an example of the ways in which Karetnick seeks to connect on a universal level that which is specific to her speaker. In her poem “How to Dis/Arm a Female Teacher”, the opening stanza boldly states: “Don’t offer me the Chic Lady Handgun / with a barrel the color of bubblegum, / faux alligator case included / to carry with tests and term papers done.” These tongue-in-cheek reflections of modern times are prevalent throughout the collection. Sometimes they are balanced with the past, such as in “Sonnets for Code Red”, a poem which finds its speaker drawing comparisons between nuclear bomb drills in 1975 and school shooter drills in 2015. Sometimes these poems are in response to articles, art, or statements. “Nobody Dies Because They Don’t Have Access to Health Care” serves as a title for one of the poems, yet it is also a quote attributed to Rep. Raúl Labrador. “Economic Understandings” is in direct response to Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.” She questions: “Who will be the first to move this glass? It’s clear / no one pays attention to the Irish maid / lowering like a willow the dragging weight / of a bird bigger than the space it’s allotted”, pushing the reader to wonder the same.

Womanhood is also emphasized, specifically in Karetnick’s experiences. She writes about Botox, anorexia, menopause, motherhood, and sisterhood. Judaism is also a part of her life and this collection’s poems.

The Burning Where Breath Used To Be was a riveting read with its nuance of normality. Karetnick brings attention to the importance of the present moment while reflecting on the past and the universal worries of humanity. She catches your breath, and she won’t give it back.

The Burning Where Breath Used To Be is available at David Robert Books

Bethany Milholland is a senior at The University of Evansville majoring in Creative Writing. She is the former Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Evansville Review. She is also a former intern for her University’s magazine The Crescent. In her spare time, she enjoys earning a cat’s love and shopping at every thrift store within a thirty-mile radius.

Sundress Reads: Magnolia Canopy Otherworld

Erin Carlyle’s debut book of poetry, Magnolia Canopy Otherworld, compels readers to ask themselves where the line between animalistic and humanistic lies. This book shows the blurred lines between human and inhuman, especially in relation to young girls and the objectification of their bodies. 

Carlyle’s poetry beautifully presents growing up as a young girl in the impoverished South during the opioid crisis. These poems, shown through an animalistic and naturalistic lense, seamlessly presents themes of death, womanhood, motherhood, sexuality, and nature. 

The book opens with the quote “Family is family, but even love can’t keep people from eating eachother” by Dorothy Allison. It perfectly sets the tone of the book and constantly floats in the back of the reader’s mind. There are multiple poems within the book about watching parents struggle with  alcohol and opioid addiction as well as connecting with their children. 

The collection consists of three parts, the first one showing the overall themes that will be present in the parts that follow. The majority of them are about the problems women face for simply being women. Carlyle writes “you are on a bed/ he made of other women’s bodies. He tells you not/ to look, but you can’t/ shut your eyes” in her poem titled “Tales.” 

The second part opens with the poem “On the Horizon of Recollection” and shows the reader a soothing image of women in white skirts raising you up from the water, almost like a baptism, but it’s not. “This is not a baptism,/ but a call back to your life after you crawled out of the cave of your mother,/ that old danger.” This is also where the reader’s are introduced to “The Animal” which is a representation of the narrator herself, however the pronouns for The Animal is it/its. The Animal is trying to navigate life and dealing with things such as first blood, sexual awakening, and family trauma.

The majority of part three is about the search of a girl who the narrator had a connection with. This part is the most haunting; the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness reaches out from the page. The book ends with the narrator standing among the dead in the poem “The Afterlife of Women” and they can “smell the oldest/ danger in the air– magnolia on the wind” but their mother calls them home. This theme of motherhood opens the book and closes it. The circularity of motherhood is embraced in this book as well as the hardships and comforts that comes with it. 

These poems are based on the stories of Carlyle, the stories of women Carlyle has known in her life, and the stories of women Carlyle has seen on the news. Carlyle’s poetry of these women, including herself, are raw, uncensored, and unapologetic. It’s real, they’re real, and they need to be heard. They need to be felt. 

Magnolia Canopy Otherworld magnificently shows the importance of place. The poetry is sharp in the right places, always ready to strike and expose the gory interior when necessary. The collection is a delightful and impactful read, the beauty of the poems perfectly juxtaposes with the darkness of the content. I highly recommend this book, especially to those who understand the animalistic tendencies of men. 

Magnolia Canopy Otherworld is available at Driftwood Press

Bethany Milholland is a senior at The University of Evansville majoring in Creative Writing. She is the former Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Evansville Review. She is also a former intern for her University’s magazine The Crescent. In her spare time, she enjoys earning a cat’s love and shopping at every thrift store within a thirty-mile radius.