Interview with moira j., Author of Bury Me in Thunder

Ahead of the release, Sundress author moira j. sat down to discuss their forthcoming collection, Bury Me in Thunder (Sundress Publications, 2020) with editorial intern Kimberly Ann Priest. In the discussion they touched on writing through trauma, moving against colonial notions of research, landscapes as memory, and the ways we carry our homes with us wherever we go.

Kimberly Ann Priest: moira, the book covers topics on abuse, confusion, intimacy, and pain. Were there ever moments when you felt like you were saying too much on these topics? Too little?

moira j.: Bury Me in Thunder was put together with care and thoughtful intention. Yes, it explores intergenerational trauma, illness, and pain. It also celebrates love, kinships, and the ways in which we learn to heal. To call back to my interview with Frontier Poetry, prioritizing my boundaries with writing is key. Every word, image, and piece, I reviewed to be mindful of what I was saying and how I was saying those things. I only felt the manuscript was completely finished when I felt fully in control of my narrative.

KAP: How do you make aesthetic choices and know where to break lines in a poem? Why the winding nature of these poems?

mj: I am a visual learner, and in understanding that landscapes are not linear, neither is my writing. Some pieces call for such breath, to expand and move as a river. Others call for structure. The poems tell me how they want to be made by how I write. Most of it comes through experimentation and trust in the process of self-editing.

KAP: Tell me, what research went into writing these poems?

mj: Quite a few of these poems are from personal or invented places. I remember Kaveh Akbar discussing Zbigniew Herbert and how there are cat writers and ox writers. Cat writers may wait for extended periods of time before being “hit” by inspiration and suddenly burst into writing. A majority of these pieces were written during these moments of spontaneity. Even the ones that did involve subsequent research, such as my poem “The Infant Machine”, were written without planning. I was listening to a podcast and the topic fit into scraps I had kept of other poems to work into a larger, final piece.

At the same time, I think the idea of research within poems is often within a colonial, Westernized framework. It carries the idea that there must be a source cited or be verified by some “objective” truth. This does not allow for Indigenous knowledge to exist on the same plane. Oral storytelling is research; how I carry the culture of my people through connections and sharing of knowledge is research. This process of Indigenous research was at the core of this book.

KAP: Do you feel it is important to draw attention to how traumas from our past and past generations inform our present and our future as individuals?

mj: Of course—we do not exist as singularities. Trauma is carried in our DNA, through memory, and in the body. BMIT seeks to draw on my own experiences. I don’t want to try and think that I can understand or claim the narratives of other people and their trauma. I do not experience the same violence and struggles that are faced by Brown and Black Indigenous people. BMIT was a reckoning toward my own healing, and being able to find clarity in what my ancestors, my family, and myself have experienced.

KAP: Talk about the women in your life. How have they formed and shaped you? How have they influenced you as a writer? And why do you think it is so important to write about the lives of women?

mj: Well, to start, I am not a woman but I was raised in girlhood. This book wasn’t looking to only discuss the lives of women. Much of it discusses my grandfather. I talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women because it is ongoing. Settler colonialism is a continuous project.

I dedicated this book to my mother, who has survived abuse and other traumas. She was the one who taught me how to write poetry as a way to show others my world and how I describe it. It helped me navigate the frightening experiences I was going through and to find another connection to land, beauty, and love. Even if the writing was filled with pain, it ultimately comes from a place of love and acceptance. She raised me with my siblings, most of whom are women.

My culture is matrilineal. Perhaps the work can be read as maternal and about women, but it is for myself and the generations that came before me. My priority will always be to my transgender and gender non-conforming kinships.

KAP: Talk about landscapes. I see a strong desert motif in the poems, but you also mention other places such as Nebraska and Oregon. Tell us about your relationship with landscapes; specifically, as home or lack of home and how it relates to your ancestors in this book.

mj: Deserts are not exclusive to the Southwest. My homelands have forests, mountains, and beautiful rivers too. Oregon has deserts, green valleys, and long coastlines. There is so much space to know and be with, and I wanted to acknowledge all of these places.

BMIT tells stories of all the places I’ve lived or where my loved ones lived, or even as I was on a plane flying over Nebraska writing a poem that one day became the title for this book. I am of the land and connected to it. I have a responsibility for its care because it takes care of me. This is how I was raised. It felt natural, then, while writing these poems to call to the land.

We are always tied to place, even if we leave it, because it exists in our memory. How we remember, what we remember, they inform our relationships to a place. I was not raised on my ancestral homelands, but it will always be a part of me because it is where my ancestors lived, it is near where my mother grew up. Home is a place you always carry with you, even as you create new homes and find new places.

KAP: What is significant about “teeth” in these poems? What do they represent or allude to?

mj: Our teeth provide evidence of where we are from. The land and what we have access to during childhood will influence how our bones grow. Scientists use isotope chemistry to look at tooth enamel and bone in order to measure geochemical signatures that carry evidence of where a person lived as a child. We can tell how someone lived, what they ate, and their access or barriers to nutritional food and clean water. The body carries so much and yet, we do not think of what we can find beyond what we say. What can the body say? What can teeth tell us about intergenerational trauma, legacies of forced malnourishment through cutting off access to traditional diets?

KAP: Tell us how you came to name your book and what this title means for you as an overall statement of the book’s content.

mj: Bury Me in Thunder was originally the title of a poem included in this book. I had been considering which of my poems could tie together all of the themes. The first versions of the manuscript were titled Mother Warhorse, from another poem. Eventually, I decided upon BMIT as I wanted to utilize the storm to frame these complex issues and stories. Thunderstorms are integral to my culture for many reasons, and it serves as an anchor to who I am. BMIT honors the legacies of where I come from and the process by which we heal. There will be ruptures and storms, but eventually, clear skies follow.

Pre-order Bury Me in Thunder today.


moira j. is an agender, Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee (White Mountain Apache) poet who resides in Massachusett/Nipmuc/Wampanoag land. They are the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and are Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/upcoming with The Shallow Ends, WILDNESS, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Black Warrior Review. You can find more of their work at www.moiraj.com

Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Still Life (PANK, forthcoming 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass Poetry Press, forthcoming 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP, 2018). Her work has appeared in several journals, including The Laurel Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, and The New Delta Review. You can find her work at kimberlyannpriest.com.

Interview with Nicole Oquendo, Author of Space Baby

Following the release of their chapbook, Space Baby, author Nicole Oquendo sat down with Sundress Publications‘ editorial intern, Jacquelyn Scott. They talked about form, desire, violence and forgiveness.

Jacquelyn Scott: Can you talk about the three different sections? How do they speak to each other?

Nicole Oquendo: I imagine the speaker transitioning in different ways as the narrative shifts between sections. They begin infatuated in this rapturous love with our “villain,” only to reveal their true nature as the poems progress. I see the middle section as a realization that they aren’t satisfied with experiencing love in all the ways they have up until this point; nothing is enough. In that third section, desire for more burns everything. 

JS: What do you hope your work says about the violence we do to each other as human beings or as partners?

NO: This is a complicated question, as many people, me included, experience love as a violent thing, much like our protagonist. But there’s a fine line between consensual violent play and what seeps into our speaker’s destructive behavior. This is up for interpretation too, though, as their lover meets an end no more violent than the deaths we know he inflicted upon others. 

JS: How does our speaker interpret or give forgiveness? How far are they willing to go to forgive?

NO: I think the love present at the start was more important, more necessary, than any previous wrongdoing. And the nature of the wrongdoing is important, too. Sometimes we do things we feel we have to and find ourselves trapped within the constraints we’ve placed around ourselves. I believe this is the case for the speaker’s partner, but also for the speaker as well at first. Even that great love became a constraint that the speaker eventually burned free of. Forgiving ourselves is important, too, and perhaps that final burning is the truest act of forgiveness present in the book.

JS: What do you hope readers will take away from this act (or lack) of forgiveness?

NO: This book is in no way a guide on how to behave when you’re in love, but at the core, these are love poems, and I’m of the mind that loving freely requires a lack of constraint. We want to be bound, but we want the bindings to be the ones we choose.

JS: How does desire play a role in your work?

NO: Desire is a huge driving force behind most of my work, and in many ways, like a lot of writers, I end up creating art that validates my own worldview. My neurodivergent lens (and the fact that my “emotional regulator” is frequently broken), chronic pain, and disability, in general, make both experiencing the feeling of desire and acting on desire arduous at best, but in a narrative world of my own making, I can experience it in whatever way I want.  

JS: How did the written word limit or liberate that experience?

NO: Writing is beyond liberating, and the painting, as well. It doesn’t all have to be about pain, though pain plays a role here. What I was able to focus on was a strange joy that unfolds as the narrative does, and while some of this might be toxic, to me it’s beautiful as well. And I hope I’ve crafted an experience someone else can find beautiful.

JS: What characteristics of otherworldliness or space are essential in this chapbook?

NO: This love story is magical to me, and I wanted to set it against an appropriate backdrop. We talk about the desire to see the world, going from our default sheltered state to wide open, but raising the stakes, giving this protagonist the ability to have entire galaxies a short trip away, made things even more romantic in my eyes. The book might have started as Star Wars fanfiction, but the settings in these poems were all deliberate. 

JS: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

NO: My hope is that readers will feel the mood each poem is infused with and be able to follow this narrative arc to a satisfying conclusion. Most of all, though, I want the work to be fun. I’ve been writing a long time, and these poems are some of my favorites. I don’t think I’ll ever connect to a project that is unwaveringly happy on the surface, but I really think this protagonist finds a happy ending in their own way. 

JS: What projects are you working on right now?

NO: I wrote two fun books in a row, so, of course, now I’m back to chewing on more difficult content. I don’t have any poems from my book-in-progress published yet to share, but I can say that each poem is about different fathers growing in unusual ways and eventually meeting unusual ends. I’ll spend a few months at a time working on the projects that allow me to explore joy so I have the armor I need to tackle the work that’s more deeply rooted in trauma, or the more difficult stuff to deal with in general. This way, I never forget that writing is something I love. 


Nicole Oquendo is especially interested in nontraditional, multimodal compositions and translations in all genres. Their work can be found in numerous literary journals, as well as in the chapbooks some prophetsself is wolfwringing gendered we, and Space Baby, and the hybrid memoir Telomeres. Nicole has also been serving the community since 2000, giving time as an editor to several literary journals and presses, and has been working as a writing educator since 2008.


Jacquelyn Scott is a student at The University of Tennessee where she is a candidate for her Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Mountain ReviewThe Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and The Write Launch. Find her on a hiking trail or on Twitter @jacquelynlscott.


Vintage Sundress with Daniel Crocker

vintage sundress

The Vintage Sundress Series offers us an opportunity to catch up with writers who published with us in the past. In 2011, Daniel Crocker published Like a Fish with Sundress, followed by The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood in 2015. He took a moment to speak with our Editorial Intern, Annie McIntosh, about how mental illness affects his writing and the future of poetry.

Annie McIntosh:  I’ve often found phrases from pop culture or literature that just echo on a loop for me, sometimes for years—and you’ve talked about this before as well. Are there any poems that you’ve written, or maybe haven’t written yet, that have the same effect for you? What poems or lines still haunt you? 

like a fishDaniel Crocker: Most of my OCD manifests itself through intrusive thoughts, so I understand where you’re coming from! Mostly they are dark thoughts about self-harm, how stupid I am, that one time 20 years ago I said something embarrassing, etc. There was one piece of pop culture that often repeats nonstop in one of these episodes. It’s from The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s when Richie looks into the mirror and says, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.”  That’s a usual for me. Luckily, on the medication I’m on now I don’t have a lot of intrusive thoughts—usually only when I’m having high anxiety. Anyway, I did write a poem about a line getting stuck in your head from OCD. It’s “Jazz” from Shit House Rat.

AM: How has using black humor in your poetry and fiction informed your creative process, particularly when you’re drawing from deep places of childhood trauma? 

DC: I just always used humor to cope, and often that humor is dark. Also, people like funny poems. It makes them happy, even if the underlying theme is depressing. I love reading them at poetry readings. Nothing makes me feel happier than when the audience laughs when I want them to laugh. Then, I bring the hammer down on them.

AM: What was it about Sesame Street characters that inspired you to have this dialogue about mental illness in your poetry? 

DC: I thought many of them just lent themselves to bipolar symptoms. Snuffy is depression. Big Bird is mania. Cookie Monster is addiction. It just seemed like a natural connection for me. I think the first one I wrote was about Oscar the Grouch—that one is in Like a Fish. When I was working on Shit House Rat, I think I wrote the Snuffy poem first and after that everything else just fell into place.

AM: In your essay “Mania Makes Me A Better Poet,” you discuss the balancing act of mania/medication affecting your creativity as a poet. Do you have any advice for others in finding that balance? Does poetry ever trump being healthy? 

theonewhereDC: Sometimes poetry trumps being happy. Not as often as it used to, but sometimes. For the most part, however, I try to stay stable. I mean I have a family and a job. It’s good to stay as sane as possible. Though, I do want to clarify only a mildish mania (hypomania) is fun and creative. Full-blown mania is scary as hell.

AM: Where do you see poetry moving forward? Are there any poets we should really be paying attention to right now?   

DC: I think it’s already moved forward just in my lifetime. I started in the ’90s small press poetry boom. The old cut and paste magazines. They were great. That was our time, though. Now, it’s time for new poets. I mean, I could have never imagined when I was 20 that there would be Instagram poets, YouTube poets, etc. I think it’s great. It is bringing a lot of attention to poetry in general. I also like that poetry is much more inclusive than it used to be—though it still has a way to go. When I was starting out, I was one of the few non-straight (I’m bi) poets I knew of.

Poets I love: John Dorsey, Rebecca Schumejda, Laura Kasishke, Erin Elizabeth Smith, David Taylor, Mike James, Tim Siebles, Nate Graziano, Chase Dimock, my wife Margaret, and there’s so many that I just can’t name them all.

AM: What are some future projects you’re working on right now?

DC: I have a new book coming out called Sick. It’s a split book with me and John Dorsey. I should have my first fiction collection in many years coming soon. Probably my last fiction collection too. After that, I might work on a memoir. I don’t know. I might just be done.


13254447_1581128562184653_8497943936354604041_nDaniel Crocker’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Hobart, Big Muddy, New World Writing, Stirring, Juked, The Chiron Review, The Mas Tequila Review and over 100 others. His books include Like a Fish (full length) and The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood (e-chap with thousands of downloads) both from Sundress Publications. Green Bean Press published several of his books in the ’90s and early 2000s. These include People Everyday and Other Poems, Long Live the 2 of Spades, the novel The Cornstalk Man, and the short story collection Do Not Look Directly Into Me. He has also published several chapbooks through various presses. His newest full length collection of poetry, Shit House Rat, was published by Spartan Press in September of 2017. Stubborn Mule Press published Leadwood: New and Selected Poems—1998-2018 in October 2018. He was the first winner of the Gerald Locklin Prize in poetry. He is the editor of The Cape Rock (Southeast Missouri State University) and the co-editor of Trailer Park Quarterly. He’s also the host of the podcast, Sanesplaining, about poetry, mental illness, and nerd stuff.

Annie McIntosh is an English major at Franklin College, where she writes about gender-queer studies in science fiction. She is the Lead Poetry Editor of Brave Voices Magazine and a Fiction Editorial Intern for Juxtaprose Magazine. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming from Okay Donkey, Theta Wave, Digital Americana Magazine, carte blanche, and others. She recently received her first Pushcart Prize nomination and was named one of Indiana’s Best Emerging Poets for 2018. Currently searching for a publication home for her first chapbook, she lives in Indianapolis with her partner and their dog, Jackson.

 

Interview with Sundress Author Aaron Dylan Graham Part 2

Prior to the release of his new poetry collection, Blood Stripes (Sundress, 2019), Aaron Dylan Graham continues his interview with Sundress editorial intern Stephanie Marker as they talk about landscape, space, and language in the making of trench poetry. This is part two of the interview. Part 1 can be found here.

Blood Stripes CoverStephanie Marker: The geographic landscape also worked to shape the poetry. What was it like to recreate that landscape from memory? As a writer, can you speak to the process of weaving physical landscape into the language of your work?

Aaron Graham: Yeah, I suppose the way I conceived of this was that there is mirroring in the way warfighters experience war and the way one perceives a landscape. Like, all we know is really a set of concrete particulars. Like, this event happened at such and such a location at this time on a given patrol. While at the same moment, there were countless other events in the theater of combat, on different patrols, with other war-fighters flying air cover, or conducting reconnaissance, or interrogating an enemy combatant, or giving the last scrap of food from their only MRE to a kid whose parents had been killed by the insurgency the day before. So, a poem, or a collection of poems can only present a single blip on the radar of “the war.” I suppose the process of weaving the physical landscape into the language of the collection occurred more through the description or incorporation of the effect of the landscape on those who were in it. That’s another thing, too, about the military experience—even the landscape of a place is considered first in terms of its purposiveness. What do specific topographical features mean in terms of their ability to conceal threats or provide tactical leverage in a given situation? This results, both fortunately and unfortunately, I think, in an inability to even consider a landscape or a natural feature as an aesthetic object or from the perspective of aesthetics at all. So there was an attempt in the collection to resist that and to re-envision the place of all these events as having a vitality or an existence that animated the events that occurred within their reality.

I also remember the impression of the smallness of myself, as part of the war effort, as part of humanity, and more as part of the landscape. I mean the sand that I was walking on is the same sand that Paul was stricken blind in on the way to Damascus. There’s just a reverence and an awe that I felt when I thought about the totality of human experience that that landscape has witnessed play itself out. That was an interaction I wanted to try to capture in the sense of place the collection gave off—the smallness it made me feel, but not in a negative or insignificant way. It was in a fashion that I remember being, in some odd way, grateful for.

So maybe in that sense, there is no physical landscape in the work, I’m not sure. I started to consider this question and came to the realization that the physical landscapes I am rendering in the collection are much more the mental impressions or the affective states the natural world gave off, or created in me at the time, that remain in my memory with sufficient detail to become part of the linguistic topography of the collection.

SM: This collection also plays with psychological and emotional distance, and maybe the universal human habit of creating space for ourselves between us and the life that surrounds us. Can you speak to how you created these distances, these spaces, in your work? How you crafted your language to hold such spaces?

AG: So, one thing I realized in writing the poems that make up the collection is that being at a close proximity to death, either in your experiences literally being proximal to a lot of death, in your thinking through death a lot and trying to mentally prepare for it coming to find you, or in your thinking through death a lot to mentally prepare for putting an end to another human life, creates a psychological and emotional distance between yourself and life, in all of its forms, to the point that you cannot help but come to conceive of yourself as somehow apart from or separate from life. And this is something I’ve only come to realize in the last few years. And it really took the birth of my first daughter to bring me back into contact with life and in that moment I became aware of the gulf that had emerged in my own consciousness between myself and life in such a way that I became acutely aware of the distance, and for the first time since I enlisted in the Marines, made me feel any desire to close that chasm.

The interesting thing about the creation, or even merely the existence, of distance—whether psychological, emotional, geographic, or even temporal—entails the co-production of a border that delineates the end of that space we are capable of creating for ourselves and the beginning of the remainder of existence—what we each can control and that with which we struggle, each day of life. It’s the delineation that creates “Self” and “Other” but it’s also the delineation of order from chaos, and, no matter on what level of analysis you look at existence, these points of division arise and form a border. An attempt to delineate distinct wholes.

It seems impossible that experiences can create such a distance between one’s self, who is alive, and life itself, including the life one inherently participates in. I guess this is also what I perceive to be the misperception of the public about the sacrifice those who serve in the military make. The real threat, the real danger, in military service which those who go to war assume so that those who remain at home will hopefully never have to, is not the risk of getting killed. The real risk those who serve endure so civilians will not be required to, is the distance between self and other, between live-self and the other of death that collapses when one invites death into the world with their own hands. The Greek word “to wound” (Tramatus), literally taken, means “To pierce or to rupture” and, as I see, it is this distance between life and death, that is the space between self and other that collapses such that you cannot rupture the space between another’s life and their death without simultaneously rupturing a necessary barrier that preserves you from the damage a psychological proximity to death entails. And this rupture in what is a natural barrier between selves (my-self should never exist at the expense of your-self) is also a rupture of one’s own life by the same death dealt to the other.

So, when Levinas says, the face of the other contains the moral imperative “don’t kill me,” there is a reflexive imperative that states, “if you sever my connection to life, yours will be cut as well” and so in the act of killing, there is always already, self-slaughter. Which, if you buy into—I think I do—really makes you think differently about Shakespeare’s characterization of poor Hamlet’s predicament.

SM: Speaking more specifically to this psychological space, the speaker in this collection serves as a witness, and although present in these scenes, feels distant from them. Can you speak to this choice? What part did it play in telling this story, in constructing these landscapes?

AG: I suppose the choice comes from my reading of other poets after I got out of the Marine Corps. I didn’t really read at all before I went into the Marines and pretty much just skimmed some of the books on the Commandant’s Reading List and news articles in Arabic while I was enlisted. I started to read about three years after I got out, I guess to just try and make sense of things at first, or try to find something to relate to. The crowd of my fellow undergrads in the pre-medical program I was in possessed a set of experiences with which I just failed to relate and, so, I suppose I turned to literature to find what some folks made of their un-relatable experiences, and so I read about authors’ accounts of war.

One issue I faced was that, partly because of a TBI I had while enlisted and some cognitive difficulties in the aftermath of that, I didn’t have the capacity to read very much prose before my attention wandered and I had to get up and do something, so I kind of defaulted poetry because it was short enough. Generally, I could get through a poem without my mind blinking off or being disinterested or distracted by whatever was at hand. What I found was that the majority of “war poetry” seemed, to me, so heavy-handed and Manichaean in their treatment of their experiences of war, which I felt and feel are deep, complex, and rooted enough in fundamental questions of the human condition and our place and duty as human beings in relation to other human beings as to resist any hasty totalization or monolithic grand narratives of good triumphing over evil. I mean, in the world wars, or even Korea and Vietnam, there was more of a rationale for that kind of account. By which I mean that I could imagine warfighters seeing it along those lines, and how the experiences based on the sort of combat operations occurring in those conflicts could similarly be considered along those essentialist lines.

Still, especially concerning the more recent conflicts we’ve actively participated in, poems that present a narrative that reifies itself in terms like: war is hell, but we had God and justice on our side, so we prevailed against the bad guys by just being extremely badass, was just not helpful to me or representative of my experience and I came to think that it’s also unhelpful concerning the broader culture’s understanding of actual difficulties, and conflicts and situations folks are put in and endure in which the costs of war are most clearly visible. Poetry to me is a way to play out these impossibly difficult scenarios and leave the tension and the irresolution that characterizes the experience fully in the writing. Like, to read poems that have the speaker as a protagonist, heroically overcoming dangers and felling foes with Pietas reminiscent of Aeneas or that present all the moral evaluations, confusions of combat operations, and chaotic cognitive thrum one experiences…intellectually trying to make sense of something going sideways during an operation assumes a perspective and a level of clarity that I certainly can say I do not possess. So to end a poem with a moralization like: So, that’s exactly how it happened, so the good guys won that day, so freedom and liberty triumphed over evil, or even sometimes you gotta roll the hard-six and let the god of war take you in their hands, or, I’m alive so that alone justifies whatever happened in the field; gives the reader the dictate: “here’s what the experience was, here’s what I, the poet, think of it, and here is what you should take away from it.” This is, I think, wrong for a poem, because it gives the reader the impression that the experience can be directly comprehended at all, and not only that, but the poet has comprehended it, made sense of it, and realized how it fits seamlessly with the warrior ethos, the national narrative of exceptionalism, and the series of events in their life both before and after their military service. Really it is forcing a specific sense-making on the reader and places the poet in a position of authority over both the experience and the limits of its presentation, in verses, meaning. I think this ultimately betrays the duty of the poet—to culture, to her work, and to society.

Like, I don’t think I’m in a position to know or to say exactly what the ultimate impact or the deeper meaning of a certain event is. So, to circle back around to the actual question, the distance is intentional because I don’t want the speaker of the poems to be myself, to carry my own set of prejudgments, experiences, biases, values, and rationalizations. I don’t want ever to moralize or justify in a poem. So this psychological distance you aptly pick up on is precisely the space I’ve tried to vacate so the speaker in the poem can convey the emotional landscape of an experience such that can be inhabited by a reader, and its contours can mean something unique to them based on what they bring to the poem as another human being. I don’t want how I’ve rationalized and made sense of something to overdetermine and force out other readings or views of the experience. I guess, in the simplest of terms, the distance exists because I am trying to communicate that, not only do I admit, but, in fact, I find it quite likely, that I’m flat wrong about the meaning I’ve derived from many of these experiences and in my perception of how they’ve affected and continue to affect me. And I don’t know what these experiences mean, but I am certain there is something essential to the warrior ethos and human condition writ large that’s present in them, but to pretend I can pin down or totalize or even grasp in a concrete fashion what that is would be flatly untrue. So, in that sense, that psychological distance I intended as an attempt to invite the possibility of truth into the poetry and give it a place to abide where it can take on its own life by meeting whatever a reader brings to bear on a poem resonate with their humanity.

SM: There is more than one mention of Greek mythology in your collection—can you speak to this choice, and what part you see it playing in these landscapes you’ve created?

AG: The choice to use Greek Mythology, allusions, passages pulled from Greek source texts, I think one could call accidental but inevitable when trying to assess the topography of war, invasion, the psychological, sociological, political, personal, and physical costs of any war. Consider the Odyssey. The story isn’t about Odysseus, not really. The poem is about the cost of going to war for all those who are left behind by the soldiers and generals who leave to fight the war. Also, it’s about the cost the surviving warfighters pay themselves upon returning home and how they are implicated in the damage their absence has wrought. In fact, in the Greek conception of duty and social order, they cannot escape culpability for it. The story is about how, generationally, society is traumatized and deeply wounded in its perception of self, other, family, and neighbor as a result of prolonged campaigns of war. The Oikos and Polis are literally configured based on their mutual suspicion against each other, disrupting the structure of authority, productivity, and the social trust that allows such things like military campaigns, commerce, rule of law, foreign relations, and artistic production to be maximized in any society. If one believes Ann Carson in Eros the Bittersweet—which was a life-changing work for me when I read it, and thus I tend to believe her argument in it—the Greeks were incidentally involved in the conceptional innovation of thinking through how our bodies serve as the experiential containers for emotion—how embodied all emotion is—at the same time they considered by necessity how written language can be a container for speech and for the breath and the effect that can be spoken into a room, but that resists complete transposition in the written word.

I suppose, I mean, that, as a warfighter, there are very few words I experience more acutely and can bring me to tears faster than most of book IV of Odyssey. The epigraph for the poem “The Curse is a Hammer About to Drop” is taken from Book IV:

If Zeus of the far-reaching voice had allowed us to return together… I would have given him a city in Argos: I would have built him a palace, and brought him from Ithaca with all his possessions, his son and his people… Then we might have lived here together, with nothing to part us, loving, delighting in one another, until death’s black cloud covered us.

I do not know of a veteran who can read the words, meditate on what they’re actually expressing about the unique nature of the relationships between warfighters during a war and how that must be altered by the toll war takes and reevaluated after a war, and not be moved on the deepest of levels. So, I guess, to put it simply, there are some essential aspects of the effects of war on warriors and on their society the Greeks just get right and since I cannot outdo them in their perceptions of the human condition, I need to cite them for it.

SM: Is there a poem in this collection that speaks most strongly to its story as a whole? If so, in what way(s) does it encapsulate the collection’s mood or message?

AG: The Poem “Violence,” I think, best takes up the primary concern of the collection and conveys what I think is the general mood I hope the collection gives off. It tries to express the difficulty and frustration, as well as the humor and pleasure, language inevitably leaves all of us trapped in. The poem tries to laugh at the absurdity of the whole scenario and at the same time, emphasize the reverence I believe we should all pay it—merely for its (and our) existing. And by “it,” I think I mean idiom, life, love, war, anguish, and language. By which, I think I really mean humanity.

SM: Finally, there are, of course, literary traditions surrounding war. Do you see your work as a traditional telling of war, or as breaking with these traditions? Maybe a mix of both? And how?

AG: One thing I can say is that the military experience is vastly different for junior enlisted military personnel than it is for commissioned officers. The differences between experiences that exist in the military along these lines, when in garrison, compound exponentially in a theater of war. I’d certainly imagine that, as the military—and specifically, warfighting experience—of commissioned officers and enlisted marines is so divergent, their respective writings about the experience would diverge as well. So, one thought about the literary tradition surrounding war that I think is broken to some degree here is who is telling the story.

Almost every major, publicly known telling of war—especially poetic tellings, but also the vast majority the prose as well—regardless of their branch of service, was written by a commissioned officer.

This seems especially true of the poetry which has garnered national attention written in the Post-911 era. I mean, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner is likely the best known. He’s an officer with an MFA from an Ivy League. He goes into the military because he wants to write war poetry, so he’s in Iraq writing about what’s happening to the troops he is literally in command of and—maybe only theoretically—responsible for the well-being of. I think any enlisted servicemember would feel a certain kind of way about that kind of officer’s war poetry.

Redeployment, Phil Klay’s tremendous collection of short stories, which you can tell by its voice and language is DEFINITELY written by a Marine, is still the language of a Marine Corps officer. Ron Capps of the Veterans Writing Project out of Walter Reed and John’s Hopkins was Commissioned in the Army. Black Hawk Down was written by a journalist with no military affiliation. All you’ve really got to go on from the enlisted side is The Things They Carried, prose by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien was a sergeant in the Army in Vietnam, so he was at least enlisted. Still, I wonder if an NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officer) experience of war—especially combat operations—may be drastically different from that of a Marine Lance Corporal or Private First Class.

They are the ones, at the age of 19 or 20, who are kicking all the doors in and stepping on IEDs and standing post in the middle of the desert with orders not to return fire because of political optics. So, I suppose I hope, in some small way, this collection gets the experience, the voice, the reality, of these warfighters—who make up 70–80 percent of the troops the Marine Corps fields in combat operations, into the literary side of the tradition. More than anything else, I hope if one of those warfighters picks up the collection and reads a few lines, they might think: “damn, yeah, that’s how it was….” That would be the largest break in tradition I could see these poems as perpetrating. It would also the greatest form of success I could hope for.


Aaron GrahamAaron Graham is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has appeared in f(r)iction magazine, Scalawag: A Journal of the South, and Rising Phoenix Press, among others. He served as the editor-in-chief for the Squaw Valley Review, is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and The Ashbury Home School, and the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop. Aaron is currently attending UCNG’s MFA program in poetry and finishing his Ph.D. at Emory University. He currently resides in Greensboro, NC with this wife, Alana, and their three daughters, Alexi, Nora, and Naomi.

 

markerStephanie Marker received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2010, and her PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2017. Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, she now resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her partner and their two puppies. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry ReviewThird Coast, and The Collagist, among others.

Interview with Sundress Author Aaron Dylan Graham Part 1

Prior to the release of his debut poetry collection, Blood Stripes (Sundress, 2019), Aaron Dylan Graham spoke with Sundress editorial intern Stephanie Marker about language, the untranslatable, distance, and the making of trench poetry. This is part 1 of a two-part series. The second in the series can be found here.

Blood Stripes CoverStephanie Marker: Your collection examines the nature and shape of other languages—Farsi, Arabic, even the language of the military—and the ways that they are seemingly grafted onto the temporary culture of American military life overseas. Can you speak more to how those languages informed your work, your approach to your work on a language level? There is a similar grafting of local culture onto this temporary American military culture, already so separate from the culture back home. Few have experienced the creation of such a culture—how does this collection act as a study of that phenomenon?

Aaron Graham: Well, there’s this old theory that language is much more local than thought, that it’s closer to feeling and is even kind of co-determinant of feeling. I can say that, at least for my own personal experience, this has borne out. That said, each language has a feeling that is unique to it. And to feel in a foreign language is something different from thinking in it, and also not the same thing as knowing the word for an emotion in a foreign language. Of course, there is a great deal of crossover between what different languages can express or can express well. However, there are certain feelings, emotional states, that Arabic expresses very well, very specifically, that English only gets at more generally. Even within English, the sub-dialect of military jargon also expresses certain feelings, certain emotional states very well and in such a way that the feeling is much more acutely felt at the local level—by the individuals using this language daily—as it has co-developed along with their daily experience in order to describe and make sense of that experience.

This specific military language and contemporary experience in the United States military has contact with and thus is not devoid of meaning within the broader English-speaking community. However, the expressed feeling is received much more generally and much more vaguely apprehended by the civilian population, which lacks the closeness to the effects and experiences it has been shaped by or described.

So, I think they each inform my work in a different way because the objective of each language is, or at least was to me as I encountered and studied it, vastly different. For example, when I encountered the true language of the military for the first time, it was at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. I had just finished my first year of college and, only a month prior to landing in California had been competing in the NCAA Speech and Debate National Tournament in Morehead, KY. There, I was giving extemporaneous speeches on tenable policy solutions to the Israeli Palestinian conflict—given the (then-new) development of the U.S.’s coalition’s invasion of Iraq; or debating whether, the individual’s constitutional right to privacy should be upheld when in conflict with the federal government’s claims that limited violations of those rights are necessary for national security, given the threat of global terrorism.

So, it was rather disconcerting to suddenly, two months later, be in Marine Corps Boot Camp where I’m expressly forbidden to refer to myself in the 1st person. (for anyone not familiar with the protocol of Marine Corps Boot Camp, new marines are mandated to refer to themselves only as “This Recruit” and will face the threat of bodily harm if they dare distinguish themselves as an individual apart from the platoon by uttering “I.” While the platoon of recruits was adjusting to this new linguistic formulation, it was not uncommon to hear—reverberating from some corner of the squad bay:

I?!…I?!…You want me to poke you in your goddamned eye?!

No.

No!? No?1 N0?! No-What, (bitch)!?

No, Sir! Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Corossco, sir!

The whole time I was standing there thinking we are literally deconstructing subjectivity; we’re wiping the “I” from its connection to reality…this is wild.

The process of defamiliarization did not end there, however. There was a new nomenclature for what I had considered the most mundane of everyday objects. And you don’t really think about it but that basic level of language is what really affects the way you interact with the world. A pencil is now a “lead-stick.” A pen is an “ink-stick.” Showers are now “rain-trees.” Both glasses and windows become “portholes.” The restroom is the “head.” Using it is “making a head-call.” Hence a normal utterance to hear would be:

This recruit requests permission to speak to Drill Instructor Gunnery Sargent Atkins, sir.

What, (bitch)?!

This recruit requests permission to make a head-call, sir.

Permission denied.

The thing is, the Marine Corps doesn’t waste time with anything that doesn’t work, that hasn’t been proven methodologically, overwhelmingly, to accomplish the particular objective it wishes to achieve. So, it was a little insane to see how language had already totally shifted its function and application within my first week at boot camp. Not only that, but that this deconstruction and this deterioration, which is how I viewed it at the time, was in fact constructed and intentional, it was being perpetrated on and then enacted by all of the recruits.

When I arrived at DLI and began Arabic Language training, the course was eight hours a day for 72 weeks and consisted of total immersion—meaning no English was to be spoken in the schoolhouse from day one. So, at Presidio of Monterey Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Middle East School III (POM DLIFLC ME-III), the instructors claimed they could tell who was going to rock out of the 72-week Arabic language course by the end of the 16th week. If you had not begun to dream in Arabic by the end of week 16 of the course you likely never would, which meant you did not FEEL in Arabic, which they were clear was not the same as knowing the Arabic name for a feeling, or talking about feelings in Arabic. The marker for success was that one felt in Arabic—which is a rather impossible phenomenon to describe, in any language.

But there is a great deal of truth to that statement if taken broadly. Because there is a unique feeling to a language that is not totally disconnected or disconnectable from the lived experience of those who speak it and whose daily experience it has arisen from and been transformed over time to describe. There is a basic level of the disposition and spirit of the people who speak a language that is somehow latent in the language, both in idioms and in normal translatable expressive thought. As a rough example of how the two are intertwined, the song a number of Arabic-speaking families sing on a family member’s birthday (phonetically rendered) goes, “Kool-ee sen-na woo ant-ta -tie-yib, ya-woo ell-bee car-eem woo tie-yib.”

Which means something to the effect of, “A whole year, and you’re doing all right. Your heart is noble, and you’re more or less O.K.”

This was telling, to me, because it paints a picture of the mentality and the outlook on the world individuals who would sing this song non-ironically, to mark the anniversary of a loved one’s coming into the world possess—even if in the most tertiary sort of way. And that’s both a remarkable and a beautiful thing language can and does do. Eventually, at some point, I came to realize in conjunction with my military linguistic experience, that, yes language is necessary and useful to describe reality and the objects we encounter through experience immersed in that reality, language also creates our reality and shapes it in ways I’m not sure enough people appreciate.

So, all this to say, the grafting of languages that occurs in the collection is both inevitable to a certain extent as I sift through everything and find the military jargon, for one thing, is more approximately the feeling I’m trying to communicate than either the Arabic or the standard English words will allow me to get at, or if an Arabic phrase has some relevancy to either the situation and experience that spawned the particular poem, I’m inclined to not translate it unless absolutely required to (i.e. the poem would be literally incomprehensible in the everyday sense of the word without the translation being provided in lieu of the transliteration or translation of the word or phrase).

SM: One thing that struck me particularly about the weaving of languages and language shapes was the seemingly urgent expression of the nature of these scenes, that there are elements of extreme experiences that can’t be translated, can’t be expressed fully in the language of an old life. Was this an intentional expression? If so, can you speak to the struggles of the process of writing the un-writable?

AG: I’m deeply humbled to be asked this question and suppose the discussion about the “shapes” of languages and shapes language takes may be helpful in thinking this through. The extreme elements of experience—whether hellish or ecstatic—I would argue are actually incommensurable—because the complexity of emotional intensities that accompany both the heights and depths of human experience cannot be characterized linguistically because we experience the word as embodied emotional and mental content. As such, we can communicate roughly about objects we come into contact with because we presume other folks also come into contact with them and also presume their experience of the objects to be more or less the same as our own. Yet, when we speak to someone else about their experiences, our baseline for giving meaning to the response they provide, whatever that is, must be and cannot exceed our own experiences of that emotional complexity.

So, for example, when someone says they “are more jealous than they have ever been in their entire life,” I can intellectually understand that emotion as a gradation of jealously near or at their peak capacity for jealous feelings. I can thus understand the relative severity of the state they are likely to be in—both mentally and emotionally. However, as far as my emotional understanding of what that level of jealousy feels like, or what someone else’s jealousy feels like at all, I have no ability or knowledge or experience whatsoever. Even if I know of an object by the same name, Jealously, I cannot interpersonally transmit that emotion, that deep feeling, and its specific intensity to anyone, through direct communication or even the most detailed description.

So in that sense, trying to create a negative space that can never come to be filled by any expression of any language—English or Arabic, Military or Civilian, Farsi or Dari—but that rather comes to be defined by its absence as illustrated by a network of “near misses.” A desmology of impossible spaces that comes to be defined only as a silhouette appearing in contrast to the collection’s misfires and failures to accurately define that negative space. However, the issue of language, as I came to believe, follows the notion put forward by T.S. Eliot, “the word Chimera is the beginning of the reality Chimera.” Words do more than feebly point toward an object of reference; they mark the history of our exploration of the world of concepts. And I suppose that sentiment is more or less a profession of faith of some sort. It’s a statement of a belief in a strong or non-semiotic theory of language where a word is more than an arbitrary or semi-arbitrary grouping of signs and signifiers that only have a loose relation to the reality they describe.

Poetry has the possibility to explode, decenter, and reconfigure meaning. While I know this is a vast overgeneralization, what I mean by it is that the language of poetry allows for the existence of unresolved questions, uncertain interpretations, confusion, contradiction, and outright paradox to exist within its reality. But it’s more than even that—in the conceptions of existence and experience poetry instantiates—it gives these points of ambiguity and conflict the central focus and holds them in tension. So there is this distance and this compression simultaneously occurring between the meaning given to words and reality we all inhabit. And I think the best thing about poetry as a genre is it looks at unanswered and unanswerable questions. Or, at least it doesn’t say: “thou shalt not ask unanswerable questions” or “Thou shalt not suggest that A = ~A.” Because in a poem I can be entirely serious about the validity of the statement “A = ~A” and then turn and leave it at that—with “A = ~A” just hanging in the air.

SM: Much of the imagery in your work is, of course, quite upsetting. Can you discuss the process of revisiting these scenes, not as a soldier, but with a mind for craft, as a writer?

AG: Well, there were certainly uncomfortably personal or troubling moments—ones that reemerged in interesting and unexpected ways while writing this collection. These gave me great pause sometimes and made me think of the whole project—of writing at all—in kind of the same terms you’re getting at here. In those moments, I tried, from a craft practice, not to flinch or offer some moralization, or tell the reader—either directly or indirectly—how they should feel about anything. That kind of lingering ambiguity or irresolution was the most authentic manner I could ultimately recount so many of these experiences and so it became the rendering I felt compelled to give. Where/when/if I’ve succeeded, I’m probably the worst person to say.

But I think that, really, the most frustrating thing, both about the military experience writ large and my own experience, is that these sort of intense, or traumatic, or muddled experiences, by their nature, strenuously resists any easy answers. In the moment something unsettling or disturbing or downright tragic happens and in the eternity that stretches forth from that moment, there’s not really that “ah-ha” moment where everything just falls into the correct place and sense is made in its entirety. The whole damn sequence of events and any tentative resolution you arrive at is always—to a greater or lesser degree—dissatisfying.

So, to offer some sort of moral bookend to the experience, or offer some platitude about what something might mean, how I have come to comprehend its significance in the greater mosaic of my life experience, or even just tolerate the fact it happened by repeatedly justifying its necessity to myself over the years, is really kind of disingenuous and, ultimately, just bullshit.

From the perspective of an intentional craft practice, I wanted to eliminate, as much as possible, any trace of what I thought, or have come to think, about the experiences. I try to communicate the emotional intensity of an experience—as close as I could get at least—without presenting my thoughts about the experience—this, hopefully, would allow a reader to get as close to the affective intensity of the initial experience as possible. I also know this was a doomed enterprise from before it ever began and that I cannot remove my consciousness from anything I write or do. So maybe it’s cognitive dissonance, but knowing full-well its impossibility, I tried to do it anyway.

The question, however, was never in my mind like, “Hmm, how do I make X experience poetic?” or “what about X patrol to Y province was/could be rendered poetically?” It’s a lot more like I had a number of events, images, scenes, words, perceptions that have existed barely below my conscious thought that would peek into it from time to time, unexpectedly for the span of over a decade. So, I had been wrestling more with the question of if I should put any of them down on paper much more than I was pondering how to put them down.

I guess, even today, when I mentally revisit any of those scenes, I revisit them as a Marine, as a warfighter, and not really with a craft-centric mind, or as “a writer.” I don’t think I would have had any interest in revisiting the scenes just as a writer, just as a renderer of one perspective of whatever happened as kind of historiography or a still-life.

My mind for craft in revisiting the scenes, experiences, images etc. all basically revolves around the same paradigm, which is to remove the speaker of the poem, or to negate his subjective presence sufficiently to allow someone who reads the poem to inhabit its space and its presentation of a set of emotions or experience and feel or live their own way through the situation based upon whatever life experiences they bring or bear on the poem and on the situation they happen to encounter the poem in. Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that me telling you what I felt about any given situation, any rationalizations I have made or excuses that have accrued to become “reasons” or to make sense of the experiences I’ve encountered is really rather boring, whether done in verse or prose—uninteresting and not particularly helpful to anyone, save maybe for myself, and I’m not sold entirely on that either.


Aaron GrahamAaron Graham is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has appeared in f(r)iction magazine, Scalawag: A Journal of the South, and Rising Phoenix Press, among others. He served as the editor-in-chief for the Squaw Valley Review, is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and The Ashbury Home School, and the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop. Aaron is currently attending UCNG’s MFA program in poetry and finishing his Ph.D. at Emory University. He currently resides in Greensboro, NC with this wife, Alana, and their three daughters, Alexi, Nora, and Naomi.

markerStephanie Marker received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2010, and her PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2017. Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, she now resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her partner and their two puppies. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry ReviewThird Coast, and The Collagist, among others.

The Invented Meal: Sloppy Macs by Jennifer Jackson Berry

The Sundress Cookbook series brings you meals made by our writers and the stories behind them. In this installment, we have sloppy macs with Jennifer Jackson Berry.

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I always hated this Jackson family meal when my Mom would make it when I was growing up. She continued her mother-in-law’s Depression-era mentality of stretching the sauce to cover 2+ lbs. of pasta, but this needs to be saucy. My revised recipe calls for 1 lb. of pasta to serve 3-4 people, but most days, my husband and I make it with only 2/3 – 3/4 lb. and devour all of it between the two of us. My “to taste” for the listed spices is heavy. I shake them over the pan right from the bottles, but I think it would probably be a good palmful of all three. Yes, even the red pepper flakes; we like this spicy!

 

 

Sloppy Macs

Ingredients:

1 lb. of bacon, chopped into bite-size pieces

28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

Oregano and onion powder to taste

Red pepper flakes (optional, but highly recommended)

1 lb. elbow macaroni

Parmesan cheese for serving (optional)

Directions:Sloppy Macs

Sauté bacon pieces until crispy in large pan. Add crushed tomatoes without draining any of the rendered bacon fat. Stir until fat is incorporated. Add oregano, onion powder, and red pepper flakes. While the sauce simmers, cook the elbow macaroni according to the box directions. Drain macaroni, then stir it into the sauce. Serve sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

 

The Invented Meal

Praise the invented meal, the pound of bacon

scissored into bite-size chunks and dropped

into the deep pan. Praise the meal invented

to stretch meat and the ignorance of generations past

as the grease won’t be skimmed off, but stirred in.

Praise the feel of a wooden spoon in fist

as the fat shrinks to crumbles,

as the can of crushed tomatoes is dumped in,

onion powder and oregano added. Praise

the red pepper flakes, heat that sticks like a slap

and steam that rises—elbow mac drained into a colander.

Praise anything that rises, even cholesterol,

because watching what falls is for every other day.

Not days with sauce this red, with bowls this empty.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Jennifer Jackson Berry is the author of The Feeder (YesYes Books, 2016). Her most recent chapbook Bloodfish was published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2019 as part of their Keystone Chapbook Series. Her other chapbooks include When I Was a Girl (Sundress Publications) and Nothing But Candy (Liquid Paper Press). She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Vintage Sundress with Jessica Rae Bergamino

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Sundress’ Vintage Sundress Series offers us an opportunity to catch up with the writers who have published with us in the past. Three years ago, Jessica Rae Bergamino published The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them , a beautiful chapbook that explores questions of selfhood, mythology, and queer femininity in an intergalactic landscape.  In this installment of the series, Sundress intern Athena Lathos interviews Bergamino about the evolution of her creative relationship with space, as well as the pieces of writing and art that have preoccupied her since.

Lathos: You published The Desiring Object with Sundress in 2016, and UNMANNED (with Noemi Press) in 2018. Can you tell us a bit your about the project(s) you are currently working on?

Bergamino: The project I’m currently working on is a hybrid exploration of intergenerational family trauma and violence, though I’ve also been thinking a lot about an interview recently with Brenda Shaughnessy where she talked about the generative capacities and possibilities that come with learning something new and the freedoms of not only being a beginner but being bad at something. So, right now, I’m approaching things that I’ve storied myself as being “bad” at, like gardening and playing music, and looking to see what I can learn in that practice.

Lathos: I enjoyed reading this interview that Adam J. Gellings conducted with you in August of 2016, particularly because it offered insight into your use of compelling and unusual primary sources for The Desiring Object (namely, “recordings of the congressional hearings on the Voyager project, [and] maps of moons made from the Voyager observations”). Can you talk about some primary sources in the media, popular culture, politics, or art that have informed your work lately? desiringobject

Bergamino: I actually spent a huge amount of time working with the Voyager material; along with The Desiring Object, UNMANNED is a collection written through the personae of both Voyager space probes. That book project allowed me to take a deep dive into Cold War era popular culture and politics, science fiction, and Carl Sagan’s critical and creative writing. I knew that I wanted any pop-culture, scientific, or historical references in the book to be relevant for the Voyagers’ launch in 1977.  Since I was born in the 80’s I couldn’t access my own cultural memory of the time period, so I became increasingly interested in the way that some popular culture morphs into a popular mythology and, in turn, how popular mythology might interact with the so-called classical mythologies written into the stars in the names of planets, moons, and satellites.

Lately, I’ve been interested in exploring what might constitute intergenerational popular mythology of girlhood, especially as it is related to queer youth. George from Nancy Drew, Kristy from The Babysitters Club, Anne Shirley, Harriet the Spy, the list goes on… I’m not interested in what subtext may or may not be present in the books or source text, but, rather the way that a shared queer imagination has sprung up around these characters.  Inevitably when I talk about this, a straight person feels the need to tell me that my queer kin are wrong — homophobia makes people so boring!

Lathos: The praise for UNMANNED applauds your capacity to “queer our space canon” (Julia Bloch) and envision “science goddesses through whose aspects [you] explore both the human and stellar condition” (Kazim Ali). What was it like for you to explore gender and sexuality in a galactic landscape, especially through technologies (like the Voyager probes) which might be considered cybernetic, posthuman, or even genderless?

Bergamino: One of the many threads I ended up following in UNMANNED was depictions of space-age femininity that come to us through science-fiction. UNMANNED contains many of what I call “nested persona poems,” where the persona of Voyager Two “tries on” the personae of Princess Leia, Barbarella, and Miss Piggy, to name a few. These nested persona poems provided me space to think through and about some of the possibilities of femininity and feminized bodies that have already been imagined in outer space and then expand upon, re-imagine, and re-vision these performances of gender.  

Each Voyager probe carries a golden record which includes an audio-visual story of life on Earth, and ends with an EKG recording of Ann Druyan — the creative director of the record  — meditating on, among other things, falling in love with Carl Sagan. She’s talked about this in a number of different settings, though I came to the story while listening to an episode of Radiolab. As the project developed, the EKG became one of the least compelling things about the Voyager mission, but it also meant that I never thought of the probes being gender-less; if anything, they are, in my mind, saturated with gender.  I wanted to explore that saturation and use it as an opportunity to pivot into more and more queer visions of femininity. In the queer femme community, we celebrate and talk a lot about femme identity and resilience without orienting femme in relationship to butch or masculine-of-center bodies; by writing both Voyager probes as femme, I hoped to enact some of that celebration.

Lathos: Though two different projects, UNMANNED and The Desiring Object share a common subject. How are the two related, and what was navigating that relationship like from the perspective of craft?

Bergamino: I appreciate the pun there in navigating because so much of The Desiring Object is asking what it means for Voyager Two to navigate the interstellar mission while also learning to navigate her own relationship to identity and desire.  I like to think of The Desiring Object as the poem where Voyager Two learns her own capacity for individualization; in UNMANNED, a sequence titled “Excerpts from Voyager One’s Private Correspondence with Carl Sagan,” explores similar questions through the consciousness of Voyager One.  

While The Desiring Object expands and contracts across the page  as Voyager Two struggles through her relationship to both the mission and herself,  using the scientific tools and experiments that make up the Voyagers bodies as the organizing principle — I like to think of it like the body scan relaxation technique, where a person relaxes by focusing intently on one body part, and then another, and then another.

“Excerpts…” is a series of linked prose poems which follow a linear arc informed by the western zodiac.  Because each Voyager probe is unable to communicate with the other, I wanted to put two very different forms of poem in motion in order to place pressure on the fact that while they were identical in many ways, their social-political-emotional concerns are very different within the books.

Lathos: Given that you have written both a chapbook and a full-length book about space and the Voyager probes, I couldn’t help but ask you about the recent death of the Mars Rover, and the way in which the internet responded with an unexpected magnitude of grief. What do you think it is about space, as well as our attempts to explore it, that we find so compelling?

Bergamino: I’ve been sitting with this question for weeks now, trying to find new ways to put the nature of awe into words and making Star Trek jokes like “damnit Jim, I’m a poet, not a philosopher.” But, most simply, I think the idea that we’re alone in the universe is terrifying for all sorts of reasons —  including the possibility that there is nothing out there, god or alien, to save us from ourselves — and that the stories we can tell about outer space are one way of staving off that terror. Also, in modernity, capitalism loves a “clean slate,” and we haven’t enacted the irreparable harm that we’ve done to this planet on other planets (yet).

Lathos: A classic question, but one for which I always love reading the answer: What have you read lately that has inspired you, impressed you, or moved you to think about something in a different way?

Bergamino: I’ve been reading and learning so much from adrienne maree brown, both in her written work and podcast, How to Survive the End of The World, which she’s created with her sister, Autumn Brown. brown’s concept, in particular, of “moving at the speed of trust” from her book Emergent Strategy has deeply informed my evolving sense of poetics and understanding of the possibilities of poetry moving in the world. Also, I was lucky to be in New York while the Hilma af Klint exhibit was on display at the Guggenheim; her paintings exploded for me in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. I want to follow af Klint’s threads of tender wildness and see where it takes me.


 

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Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of UNMANNED, winner of Noemi Press’ 2017 Poetry Prize, as well the chapbooks The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them (Sundress Publications, 2016), The Mermaid, Singing (dancing girl press, 2015), and Blue in All Things: a Ghost Story (dancing girl press, 2015). Individual poems have recently appeared in Third Coast and Black Warrior Review. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where she is the Senior Book Reviews Editor for Quarterly West. Find her online at www.jessicaraebergamino.com.

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Athena Lathos is a poet and nonfiction writer from Santa Maria, California currently living in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her work can be found in Enizagam and Verseweavers, as well as on her blog, Bertha Mason’s Attic. Her recent essay about the job market, “I Applied to 200 Jobs and All I Got was this Moderate-Severe Depression,” was featured as an Editor’s Pick on Longreads. Lathos completed her MA thesis, “A Sea of Grief is Not a Proscenium: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Spectacle of Racist Violence in Cyberculture,” at Oregon State University’s School of Writing, Literature, and Film in May of 2017. Lathos was a finalist for the 2016 Princemere Poetry Prize and a runner-up for the 2018 Princemere Poetry Prize.

Vintage Sundress with Danny M. Hoey, Jr.

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Vintage Sundress is back with another installment, this time featuring Sundress author Danny M. Hoey, Jr.

Danny wrote his debut novel, The Butterfly Lady, in 2013, and he took some time to speak with intern Lauren Sutherland to touch base on life since his first publication and take an honest look at the struggles of publishing and the literary community.butterfly lady

Sutherland: What has changed for you since The Butterfly Lady was published?

Hoey: Since The Butterfly Lady was published, honestly, I have become a little more anxious. Not because I can’t write or produce, but because I am afraid that what I write next won’t be good enough. I have been invited to a lot of readings/panels; people have taught my book, and I have gotten great feedback about the work. And, every time, the question comes up, “When is the next book?” So, that makes me anxious and nervous and fearful that I can’t write a good enough book again.

Sutherland: Has the publishing of The Butterfly Lady altered your perspective on the literary community?

Hoey: Honestly, I thought more folks in the literary community would be more supportive. I support other artists by reading their books and telling folks publicly that I read their books. I have folks who read my book and tell me in private that they loved it but never say it publicly. That bothers me, and I hate that I feel bad about that.

Sutherland:  Was your rise to publication smooth or a struggle? What obstacles did you face?

Hoey: It was rough—I got a lot of rejections that were “positive” with remarks like, “I like the book, but it’s not for us.”  Also, because of the subject matter, I was fearful of folks not accepting the work. But once it was accepted, things moved smoothly, and the book was received very well. And, I am thankful for that.

Sutherland: What is something worth noting about being published that you would want unpublished writers to know?

Hoey: You must keep going—keep producing, writing, creating—even when the book is out. Because the work must continue.

Sutherland: Have you published other full-length works or chapbooks since being published at Sundress?

Hoey: I have not.  I have had some stories published as well as some academic articles. Also, my book was a feature at a Writing Festival at Broward College in South Florida—all students in the ENC 1101 courses read my book and did various projects/research/responses over the work.

Sutherland: What are you working on now?

Hoey: I have a complete draft of my second novel, and I am in the process of polishing it. I am kind of superstitious, so I don’t want to divulge too much information, but it is about a soul singer and race riots.

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Dr. Danny M. Hoey, Jr., an Associate Professor of English, joined Indian River State College in 2011 as an Assistant Professor of English. He most recently served as the Administrative Director of Minority Affairs and English Department Chair in addition to his professorship. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree and a Master of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing, along with a Master of Arts degree in Africana Studies and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He actively participates in the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the Modern Language Association, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. His stories have appeared in WarpLand, Women in REDzine, Mandala Journal, Connotation Press, African Voices Magazine, SnReview, The Writer’s Bloc, and The Hampton University First-Year Writing Textbook. His pedagogical essay, “Dutchman, The Black body, and The Law,” is forthcoming from the Modern Language Association’s Series Approaches to Teaching Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. The Butterfly Lady, his first novel, won the ForeWord Firsts’ Winter 2013 debut fiction award and the Bronze Award in the IndiFab Book of the Year Award. He is currently at work on his second novel.

Some of Hoey’s work:

“The Watermelon Eating Contest” on Mandala Journal‘s website

“What Do We Do?” on SnReview‘s website

The Butterfly Lady from the Sundress store online

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Lauren Sutherland is a recent graduate of Lee University in Cleveland, TN and proudly has a Bachelor’s degree in English with a writing emphasis and a Deaf Studies minor. Lauren enjoys reading and writing poetry, but her ultimate passion is for editing. She has been interning with Sundress since July and loves getting the opportunity to have a hand in the literary community.

Wendy Chin-Tanner Reads Vera Pavlova

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In this conversation, Wendy Chin-Tanner talks about how reading Vera Pavlova‘s work gave her a model to follow in writing short poems about romantic love and about how Pavlovas’ writing disallows sentimentality and by engaging with the past. Pavlova’s poems are sincere, terse, and often also deal in ars poetica. Chin-Tanner puts them in context with Rilke’s Liebeslied, and identifies them as a “call to see things as they are.”

Jessica Hudgins: How has Pavlova’s work influenced yours?

Wendy Chin-Tanner: Vera Pavlova’s work speaks to me about relationality, its contradictions, conflicts, and nuances, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Her poems are imbued with a masterful compositional musicality that stems from her background as a trained classical musician and are delivered with the absolute greatest possible economy of words. I discovered her when I was working on the poems in my first collection Turn through my best friend, Russian-born anthropologist Veronica Davidov whose father, writer Mark Davidov, had worked with Pavlova. Short form poetry was already of great interest to me, but I was having trouble wrapping my head around how to write a love poem and Pavlova showed me the way. She quickly became both a poetic and personal touchstone, as she writes with urgency, immediacy, unsentimental sincerity, and mechanical precision about the emotional dynamics that underlie romantic love, how they necessarily replicate traumatic and triggering patterns of partners’ families of origin and how they are then called upon to make a choice between reproducing those wounding patterns and doing it differently, a choice between “rehashing” and creating. Not only is this an apt description of emotional processes in relationships, but it’s also a metaphor for the artistic process, and on a meta-level, the conflicts and layers expressed in this concept supply the necessary dramatic tension of the poetry. When I began developing the trisyllabic tercets that make up the majority of the poems in my second collection Anyone Will Tell You, I returned to Pavlova whose short lines and confidence in claiming blank space on the page emboldened me to do it, too. Reading her has not only informed my understanding of craft, but also the difference between sentiment and sentimentality.

Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova

JH: In both of these poems, Pavlova brings two actions in relation to one another in order to clarify what each word means. So, when I read, “Enough painkilling, heal,” I get worried, and ask myself, “When have I tried to remove something painful instead of trying to heal?” And, when Pavlova writes “to sing or howl,” the difference between singing and howling emerges, just because the words are next to one another. Do you respond the same way to these poems?

WCT: Poem 22 takes a Rilkean preoccupation, as we see in his poem Liebeslied, with the relationship between the self and the other, and the negotiation of the space between engulfment and abandonment, and gives it a fresh twenty-first century psychoanalytic feminist perspective. I read the opening line, “Enough painkilling, heal,” as a call to see things as they are, to face the truth about ourselves and others, and our situations, the good and the bad, in order to affect positive change.

In poem 62, my interpretation of the line, “to sing or howl,” is that it speaks to the gendered performances of masculinity and femininity as the poet addresses her partner as “a wall of stone,” behind which she is both protected (so that she is free to sing on the other side of the gender binary) and unheard (or stonewalled). Our lived experiences cannot occur, regardless of our politics or wokeness, in a cultural vacuum, and the many contradictions of heterosexual love in an unequal society are played out in this poem in both its pleasures and frustrations.

Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova

JH: What are you working on now?

WCT: Right now, I’m working on the second draft of King of the Armadillos, a novel based on a true story that takes place in New York City and Carville, Louisiana in the mid-1950s that explores the ways in which power, bio-ethics, race, gender, sexuality, stigma, community, illness, recovery, immigration, intergenerational trauma, loss, love, and redemption come to bear on families, relationships, and human experience.


 

Vera Pavolova Vera Pavlova is a Russian writer whose books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She is author of several poetry collections, including The Heavenly Beast, translated into English by Derek Walcott and Steven Seymour;  Letters to the Room Next Door, a collection of 1,001 hand-written poems with illustrations by Pavlova’s daughter; and If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems, Pavlova’s first collection in English.

Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collections “Turn” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards, and “Anyone Will Tell You,” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019). She is a poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, and co-founder of A Wave Blue World, an independent publishing company for graphic novels. Some of her poems can be found at RHINO Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. A trained sociologist specializing in race, identity, discourse analysis, and cultural studies, Wendy was born and raised in NYC and educated at Cambridge University, UK. She is the mother of two daughters and the proud daughter of immigrants.

Further Reading

Vera Pavlova’s Website
LitHub Interviews Vera Pavlova
Vera Pavlova Reads at PBS News Hour

Wendy Chin-Tanner’s Website
Four Poems at The Account
Purchase Turn


Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.

Vintage Sundress with Sandra Marchetti

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Head Shot 1In our first installment of Vintage Sundress, a series which will check in with our authors in a “where are they now” style, intern Lauren Sutherland interviews Sandra Marchetti, author of Confluence, a book of poems published in December 2014. Sandra’s lighthearted dialogue is refreshing to take in, and her joy in sharing her story as an encouragement to others is such a sweet read. We hope you enjoy!

Lauren Sutherland: What has changed for you since Confluence was published?
Sandra Marchetti: Confluence succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and I am so grateful to the literary community for embracing the book the way they did. This is due in no small part to the commitment of Sundress—saving the day and publishing the book after my first publisher temporarily shuttered—and a lot of hustle and the goodwill of others. The book was reviewed in some of my dream destinations: The Rumpus, Rain Taxi, andThe Kansas City Star to name a few. The book sold almost 500 copies (I believe). I didn’t think that was possible for a poetry book from a small press. I took my book cross country (the South and the Midwest, really) on a reading tour that lasted a whole summer. Confluence was a dream-maker.
Sutherland: Has the publishing of Confluence altered your perspective on the literary community?
Marchetti: One thing I learned was that the literary community is willing to embrace you when you have something new to offer. It’s harder when your latest book-length work is a few years old (for better or worse). That’s natural. It’s the way consumerism works. On the positive side, it taught me that if you’re willing to hustle, assemble a good team behind you, build some connections, folks are willing to give you a chance and invite you into their digital and physical spaces. 
Sutherland: Was your rise to publication smooth or a struggle? What obstacles did you face?
Marchetti: It was a struggle, but maybe it needed to be. Many first books are. The book was my MFA thesis, so I began work on it nearly 8 years before it was published. The book went through many iterations. I sent it to nearly 200 open reading periods/contests before it was accepted anywhere. I had very few encouraging notes from publishers, and the farthest I made it in a contest was as a “quarterfinalist” once.

The privilege I had was some money behind me to keep sending and to go on residencies. Without that, I might have been out of the game. Once the book was accepted, the press stalled, then shuttered (see above) and the book was homeless again. Erin Elizabeth Smith asked to see the manuscript and she took care of the rest, shepherding it into the world. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to the story.

Sutherland: What is something worth noting about being published that you would want unpublished writers to know?
Marchetti: It’s cyclical. I’m in a down period right now—not publishing as much as in the years immediately before, during, and after Confluence came out. I’m still learning that that’s okay. The biggest thing is to gain trust in yourself. It was a long time before I stopped thinking during a dry spell, “I’ll never get published again,” or “I’ll never write again.” I always do. It takes time to learn that, and publishing does help to boost confidence, for better or worse. My first chapbook publication, The Canopy, in 2012, pushed me to finish Confluence. 
Sutherland: Have you published other full-length works or chapbooks since being published at Sundress?
Marchetti: I have published two chapbooks since Confluence. Heart Radicals, a collaborative chapbook of love poems,and Sight Lines, an e-chap that’s part lyric essay and part poetry. Before Confluence, I probably wouldn’t have pursued either of these projects. Publishing Confluence really opened me up to other kinds of books—collaborations, cross-genre work, publishing a book entirely online—none of these things were projects I saw myself participating in previously. Once I got my “dream” publication, I decided it was time to “play.” 
Sutherland: What are you working on now?
Marchetti: I’ve been drafting two full-length manuscripts since the week after Confluence was first picked up, and they are finally gaining some maturity as projects. Aisle 228 is a book of baseball poems about the Chicago Cubs, going to ballgames with my dad, and listening to baseball on the radio. I’m also working on a book of poems about influence—poetic and environmental—that’s sort of akin to Confluence. The second work is on the back burner right now as I’m starting to send out Aisle 228 to publishers. It’s an exciting time. 
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Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from SundressPublications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Heart Radicals (About Editions, 2018), Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Poet Lore, Blackbird, Ecotone, Southwest Review, River Styx, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Whiskey Island, Mid-American Review, Barrelhouse, Pleiades, and other venues. Sandy earned an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from George Mason University and now serves as the Coordinator of Tutoring Services at the College of DuPage in the Chicagoland area.
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Lauren Sutherland is a recent graduate of Lee University in Cleveland, TN and proudly has a Bachelor’s degree in English with a writing emphasis and a Deaf Studies minor. Lauren enjoys reading and writing poetry, but her ultimate passion is for editing. She has been interning with Sundress since July and loves getting the opportunity to have a hand in the literary community.