Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week we’ve chatted with poet and educator Sumita Chakraborty about ecology, Alice Oswald’s work, and poetic inspirations. We hope you enjoy it, and, as always, thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: Why did you choose Oswald? What was your first experience reading their work?
Sumita Chakraborty: I chose Oswald because I’ve been learning from her work for a long time, and the way she thinks about language and poetics (among other thematic obsessions like death and ecology) really resonates with me. Technically, the first time I encountered her work was when I still worked for AGNI, where I was on the editorial staff for 13 years—at the beginning of that stretch of time I was an intern, and her poem “Dunt” (which is now in her fairly recent collection Falling Awake) was initially published in the very first issue of AGNI on which I worked, back in 2006. My real sustained engagement with her work came with her excavation of the Iliad, Memorial, which I read when it first came out and then became even more significant to me after my sister died in 2014. I read it multiple times a day for a few months and then started digging through all of her work.
SC: Countless ways, to be honest! One thing that’s lately been on my mind, especially post-Arrow, is that I think Oswald has a remarkable way of dissolving the imagined boundary between the “experimental” and the “lyric.” I think that boundary is one that we often internalize or are taught to internalize, whereas Oswald reminds me that they are both very much two sides of the same coin—or, probably, basically the same side of something much more complex than a coin. I also love the way she honors and follows language, as well as the way she fluidly balances and re-balances each poem’s investment in ambiguity and concreteness alike. To be honest, I could go on for ages about her work and its importance to me; I wrote about some other things I’m drawn to some years back for LARB, and I do go on for ages there! I completely trampled the initial word limit I was given and I am very appreciative that the editors there let me run with it.
AH: There seems to be an intersection between Oswald and you: you both have a tendency to dabble in the discussion of the environment. Where did your interest in this begin?
SC: That’s kind of you to say and to notice! Ecology studies is a huge part of my scholarly life, so I’ve been thinking about it fairly actively at least since I began my PhD in 2012. I think where I especially resonate with Oswald’s approach to it is best captured in a remark she made in, I believe, an interview with Granta. She says that the nature poets that she likes the most are Homer, Ovid, and Shakespeare, specifically “because they include the human and the non-human in the same picture”; of ecosystems, she says, “How can you categorize that?” A similar approach guides my interest in the environment.
AH: What have you been up to lately? Got any news to share (life, writing, small achievements—anything!)?
SC: I’ve got something environment-related, actually! My academic book—which is one of my main preoccupations at the moment, and is called Grave Dangers: Poetics and the Ethics of Death in the Anthropocene—is newly under an advance contract with the University of Minnesota Press. On the poetry side, I’m playing with some new forms of visual and multimedia poetry that I’m really enjoying, and my second collection is shaping up to be rather obsessed with questions of interiority.
Alice Oswald is a British poet; although she is not as well-known outside of her native country, her work is widely circulated. She is the author of The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile and six other poetry collections. Her poems delve into the topic of nature, history, and environment. She was the first woman to serve as the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.
Find her award-winning collection Falling Awake here.
Sumita Chakraborty is the author of the poetry collection Arrow, which was published by Alice James Books in the U.S. and Carcanet Press in the U.K. in 2020 and has received coverage in the New York Times, NPR, and the Guardian. Her work in progress includes a scholarly monograph, Grave Dangers: Poetics and the Ethics of Death in the Anthropocene, under contract with the University of Minnesota Press. She lives in Ann Arbor, where she teaches in literary studies and creative writing at the University of Michigan.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear in Barren Magazine, Hobart, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com
Sundress Publications announces the release of The Familiar Wild: On Dogs & Poetry, an anthology edited by Ruth Awad and Rachel Mennies.
What does it mean for a poet to love a dog—especially knowing it will never outlive them? The Familiar Wild: On Dogs & Poetry catapults readers into the marrows of living and feeling alongside our mysterious canines: a species that often teaches us what it means to be human. These selections interrogate our lives as they’ve intertwined with humanity’s most beloved house companion. What catalyzes our hunger to share our vulnerabilities and lived realities with these curious, interdependent animals?
Writers, including Chen Chen, Noah Baldino, Hanif Abdurraqib, Carly Joy Miller, Maggie Smith, and Raena Shirali, among others, grapple with the simultaneous heaviness, happiness, love, and loss that comes with dog companionship, exposing deep truths about what it means to share space with our fellow non-humans. This collection examines both the routine and the unexpected lives this anthology’s poets have built with their dogs, exploring wildness and domestication, boundaries and freedom, rescue and grief through works centered on the complicated, expansive writer-to-canine connection.
Ruth Awad is the Lebanese-American author of Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize and the 2018 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, Poem-a-Day, The Believer, The New Republic, Pleiades, The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and she lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio, with her four bratty and joyous Pomeranians.
Rachel Menniesis the author of The Naomi Letters, forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2021 and The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, the 2014 winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry and finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. Her poetry has appeared at The Believer, Kenyon Review, and American Poetry Review, and her nonfiction has appeared at The Millions, The Poetry Foundation, and LitHub, among other outlets. Mennies serves as the reviews editor for AGNI. She lives in Chicago, where she works as a freelance editor and writer, with her spouse and her rescue greyhound mix, Otto.
For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we are joined by Sundress author syan jay. They read poems from poet laureate Joy Harjo, and talk about the role of storytelling in indigenous poetry. Thanks for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: What is your personal connection to Joy Harjo that led you to read her poetry for Lyric Essentials?
syan jay: Joy Harjo is the first Indigenous poet I was ever introduced to, my first connection to seeing how storytelling could be done on our terms through poetry. Her book, “Map to the End of the World” was the first poetry book I read outside of school and I instantly felt bonded to it. Her and her work have been integral to my creative landscape since I was a child. I cannot imagine a world without her work.
EH: Of Joy Harjo’s expansive body of work, why did you choose these two poems?
sj: These poems have been sitting in my mind recently. To think of the ways my people, and Indigenous people all over the world, have survived or haven’t survived these apocalypses of settler colonialism and all its violence. I think it’s necessary to look at the ways in which we interrogate the systems that have displaced and dispossessed our people, and the methods in which we continue ceremony and connection to each other. This includes questioning the ways America is seen as America by settlers and non-Indigenous people who may benefit from settler colonialism now.
EH: How do you think it’s important to experience Harjo’s poetry read aloud?
sj: Her work has unshakable cadence, the ways in which she utilizes line breaks has such concussive force. I love being able to feel the way in which her words form landscapes, the low valleys to high peaks. She is one of my favorite poets to read aloud.
EH: There is a particular line from “Perhaps the World Ends Here” that reads: “It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Do you make use of that concept of what it means to be human in your own writing, or in your newest poetry collection Bury Me in Thunder, specifically?
sj: Storytelling in my community, and so in many others, is a reflection of humanity itself, to explain or process the situations we’ve encountered since time immemorial. Bury Me in Thunder specifically looks at how we are made through intergenerational trauma, the experiences of our family members, and how we process our individual life events. In the case of the book, it was the ways in which I came to terms with grief and healing through these facets, and how it reinforces, instead of diminishes, my humanity as a transgender, Indigenous person.
Joy Harjo is member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). An acclaimed poet, musician, playwright, and activist, Harjo was named the 23rd U.S. poet laureate, becoming the first Native American to serve the position. She is also the chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, directs For Girls Becoming, an arts mentorship program for young Mvskoke women, and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. She is the author of nine books of poetry, two award-winning children’s books, and a musical play. As a poet, she is best known for writing about vast landscapes and incorporating indigenous storytelling and histories, and social justice traditions into her work by exploring the violence of settler colonialism and the reclamation of her heritage. Awards for her work include: the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, a PEN USA Literary Award, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writers’ Award, a Rasmuson US Artist Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Purchase Joy Harjo’s book How We Became Human Read NPR’s feature, announcing Joy Harjo as the first Native American U.S. poet laureate Listen to an interview with Joy Harjo, from the Academy of American Poets
syan jay is an agender writer of Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee descent. They were the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and were Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/forthcoming in The Shallow Ends, WILDNESS, and Black Warrior Review. They currently live with their partner in the occupied Massachusett homelands of Nutohkemminnit (Greater Boston). Their debut poetry collection, “Bury Me in Thunder” (January 29, 2020) is out now with Sundress Publications. You can find more of their work at www.syanjay.com.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/
Sundress Publications announces the pre-release of MR Sheffield’s new collection, Marvels. An “irreducible kind of book that pivots on every page, refuses to be pinned down” says Julie Marie Wade, author of Catechism: A Love Story and SIX, cautioning that “this book will wild you, Reader, gently.”
MR Sheffield’s Marvels is a séance; a chant of snake bites, wrens, and spiders, nesting and untangling; the instinct of a mother disoriented by her grief; a daughter finding her way in sex and obsession; a family broken and searching for something to pull it back together. Sheffield utilizes H.D. Northrop’s found poems, which describe various creatures, to reveal the wild, instinctive nature of human emotion by repurposing Northrop’s descriptions and applying them to a family. Sheffield couples the poems with manipulated original images from Northrop’s text to drive the skepticism of the poems. Multiplied spiders in the wrong color, transposed boa constrictors, and streaked antelope eyes are juxtaposed with poems about familial grief and resentment, alerting the reader to her instincts. This is the collection that steps back and reveals that instead of visiting an exhibit, admiring the lifelike animals from the soft fur to the magnetizing eyes, we are the exhibit, propped up and trapped behind the glass.
“When the narrator of MR Sheffield’s collection imagines “making a nest of you,” we are invited to make a nest back. Each word and image in this text builds a found and invented structure, layer by layer, for us to writhe around inside of. This multimodal work aims to enthrall us with a nontraditional, visual magic, both human and animal.”
— Nicole Oquendo, author of Telomeres and some prophets
“‘…there is no grief like this and no name for it,’ Sheffield’s speaker confesses in ‘the boa-constrictor,’ which, like all poems inside Marvels, uncoils to reveal monstrous truths about love and loss in a wilderness haunted by the familial. I have yet to find my way out of Sheffield’s collection, months after entering—I don’t believe I’ll ever want to. Between admiring the partnering images and found language from H.D. Northrop’s book of the same name, this collection asks readers—no, dares them—to put their face close to its glass and tap.”
— James A.H. White
MR Sheffield’s work has been published in Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s FerryReview, The Florida Review, and other publications. This is her first book.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose and a longtime reader of Maureen Seaton. When we sat down to talk about Seaton’s work, Wade had deeply valuable insight which took us down roads from the epiphanous to the Blunderbuss. Wade looks deep into the heart of Seaton’s work and evidences the grace and good humor with which she connects. This interview is as much a tribute to Seaton by Wade as it is an instructional for anyone who hasn’t yet considered the importance of Seaton’s wide-ranging body of works. This interview made me wish I were one of Wade’s students.
Black: What made you choose the work of Maureen Seaton?
Wade: I think there are poets each of us have needed for many years before we find them, and when their poems appear before us at last, the experience is almost mystical—a feeling of having known someone before you knew them, of being deeply affirmed by the epiphany of their presence in the world. Maureen Seaton is just such a mystical, epiphanous, much-needed poet for me.
I went to high school and college in the 1990s, at a time when Maureen was coming out as queer and coming into her own as a poet who worked as diligently in form (sonnets, villanelles, et al.) as she did in the most envelope-pushing, experimental spaces. She was taking risks, in her life and in her art, that I didn’t yet realize a person, let alone a woman-person, could take.
Somehow I did not encounter Maureen’s writing until after I had already taken the greatest plunge of my own life, though—not going through with my marriage to a man at the end of my first year of graduate school and continuing my journey through life with my true love, a woman named Angie, to whom I am now happily married.
Not long after that plunge, in 2003 or 2004, I read a poem by Denise Duhamel called “When I Was a Lesbian,” which I found stunning and thrilling, a poem which opened doors for me to imagine my own life as formerly (for all intents and purposes) heterosexual. I took that poem as an invitation to begin exploring more consciously the first twenty-two years of my life “when I was straight.” But what I didn’t realize until I delved deeper into the collaborative poetry written by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton (Exquisite Politics indeed!) was that Denise’s poem was written as a response to Maureen’s own “When I Was Straight,” which belongs to an ever-growing series of other poems—“When I Was Avant-garde,” “When I Was a Jersey Girl,” “When I Was Bi(nary),” etc.—that opened onto the vast landscape of Maureen’s work in conditional, circumstantial, and subjunctive spaces.
Years later, I had the privilege of meeting and coming to know both of these poets, long-time friends and collaborators, in real life, and I was audacious enough to ask them to bless my own book-length project, a collection of poems called When I Was Straight. Not only did they bless it—they blurbed it, collaboratively!
Black: Why these particular poems of Seaton’s?
Wade: I have never read a Maureen Seaton poem where I didn’t have the sensation, at one point and usually at many points, of hearing a gong reverberate inside my head. When I read Maureen’s “When I Was Straight,” the gong struck loudest at this moment: “there is no lover like a panicked lover.” It was one of those moments—the best moments for readers of poetry, I think, or readers of any literature—where I sketched in my notebook, How did she know?!?! There was a cosmos in that line, one I recognized in my own life but had never even attempted to name, let alone in such a concise and elegant (and witty—I love the omnipresence of Maureen’s sense of humor across her canon) way.
So I knew I wanted to record this poem because it was the first, though by no means the last, of Maureen’s poems to seize me in that visceral and oracular kind of way. Then, I started looking at other aspects of the poem, particularly the diction and the juxtapositions. Who describes heteronormativity as “that Old Boyfriend Theory of Headache and Blunderbuss”? Who uses the word “blunderbuss”? I started noticing the little sparks coming off of pairings like “linearity and menthol” (an abstraction paired with a potent concrete), “pretense and fellatio” (there again), and chewy Anglo-Saxon words and phrases like “crowded with cleavage,” “fickle,” and “winged clavicle.” Which is to say I fell in love with this poem on all levels: conceptually, sonically, stylistically. It’s also meta, as the poem performs its own “trapeze art and graceful aerobics.” The poem is that art, those aerobics.
For the second poem, I ran into the challenging fact of the enormous range and depth of Maureen’s body of work to date. With so many gongs striking inside my head, so much marginalia scribbled on every page, I decided to choose a poem that moves in diametrically different ways than “When I Was Straight.” That poem is pulled taut like a tightrope in its shape on the page—all those lovely tercets upon which the speaker-as-tightrope-walker is performing her remarkable feats, turning somersaults and riding unicycles and juggling torches. I wanted to showcase something different. There were so many poems I considered— “What She Thought,” “Impatiences,” “The Nomenclature of Wind,” “He Crossed the Hallway with a Soul in His Hand,” and “Red” standout among them—but in the end I chose “The Realm of the Wide” as exemplar of Maureen’s wide-realm poetics. Instead of a tightrope, this poem is the circus tent, a canopy she opens over the whole world of her knowing and longing and wondering. If this poem were a horoscope, it would describe something essential about every Zodiac sign.
Black: “The Realm of the Wide” is particularly unique in its scope. This is a winding long-poem with a lot of great turns. What about it do you want to call particular attention to?
Wade: Through all my years as a student, there was an incongruity—really a snobbishness—that I never understood in the realm of literary theory. We learned there was a school of criticism called reader response, but then we learned, both explicitly and in a variety of subtle ways, that this school didn’t “count” as a real school. We could deconstruct and post-structuralize. We could go through mimetic doors and intertextual doors and feminist doors in our examination of texts, but we couldn’t go through that primary door of our own personal experience of intellectual-emotional-visceral engagement. As a teacher of creative writing, I know I don’t stand a chance of encouraging my students to “write as readers”—to cultivate an awareness of their audience—without acknowledging and anticipating a reader’s response to their work. And if we are writers, we were readers first and also readers in a state of essential perpetuity, let’s hope! So how can I ask my students not to cross the threshold of reader response, which I value not only as a doorway to meaningful analysis but also as a doorway to meaningful emulation?
Which is to say: “The Realm of the Wide” speaks to me directly as a poet with similar intellectual and emotional investments to Maureen Seaton. It also speaks to me as a poet who is always studying the possibilities of poetic form and the elasticity of poetry as a genre. It speaks to me as a teacher of poetry for similar reasons—the thrilling range of invitations and permissions the text offers to fellow and future writers. This poem further addresses me as a person with multi-genre and hybrid-text infatuations and commitments. I wonder whether poem is really only one name this text might answer to. Is it a micro-lyric-essay, too? A micro-lyric-segmented-braided essay? Some or all of the above?
This imperative alone: “Feel yourself mingle with the word you love beside you.” That’s what poets do, and lyric essayists, too. The words are alive. They can lose cells and run temperatures.
I’m also obsessed with finding new ways to talk about the moon, something that crystallized for me when I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s extraordinary memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. She invites readers to tell her something she hasn’t heard before about that much-romanticized heavenly body. Maureen does it here, seamlessly: “this moon has got me up the way someone comes in and drags you out of bed to play cards or eat mayonnaise on toast at 3 AM…” Yes! That way. That moon. Exactly.
There are bullet points in this poem, denoting the list from “baby pigs” to “a shaman in a wheelchair.” The blanks that follow the chorus of adjectives “Sorrowful,” “Joyful,” and “Glorious” are actual blanks, not the word “blank,” which changes the experience of reading the poem on the page versus listening to the poem read aloud. These visual poetics in Maureen’s work instantly transform the ranch house poem into a multi-floored mansion: rooms on top of rooms, a ceiling that is also a floor, etc.
And then the two quotes juxtaposed at the end, the high-art intellectual sound of Magritte’s statement about “symbolic meanings” and the profound yet directly accessible statement about vanilla attributed simply to “Nick,” the famous artist in conversation with the Everyman or Anyman. This is Maureen’s hierarchy-neutralizing power as a poet. She validates so many ways of knowing simultaneously. She rejects high horses. Her work is full of dark horses and wild horses. Her work epitomizes for me what Magritte means by “the inherent mystery” that many people sense in an image but are also frightened by because it can’t be easily named and thereby tamed. I find that inherent mystery everywhere in Maureen’s work, so I’m just holding up this poem as a representative example. When she says, “It mattered, but only slightly,” she is making a spectrum out of a taken-for-granted binary. If we are used to thinking of things mattering or things not mattering, as many of us are, then here come those surprising hoofbeats of “slight mattering,” the invitation to a thought experiment of mattering on a sliding scale.
Maureen’s is a luminous, curious, capacious, unrelenting mind. I would follow her anywhere because she has never used her intellect as a weapon or crafted her rigorous, expansive poems with only an elite readership in mind. On the contrary, I find Maureen Seaton to be one of Poetryland’s most generous guides. If she takes her readers into a swamp, she supplies the waders. She also grows and tends the orchids we are destined to find there.
Black: Does this work connect to your own in some way?
Wade: Perhaps more than any other poet, Maureen has taught me that you can write as and from all your varied versions of self, including the most seemingly contradictory. Many poets become known for writing a certain way, a certain kind of “signature style,” a recognizable shape to the content and/or appearance of their poems—but not Maureen. I think her poems are deeply fluid, within and across every book project and sometimes even within a single poem. These poems are queer in the truest and deepest sense of the word—spectral, rhizomatic, protean, “all-of-the-above” poems. And this fact alone has given me tremendous permissions in my own approach to writing. I’m not trying to make my work into something that stays put after it’s placed on the page. I want to make work that feels like a living organism, the way Maureen’s poems do. Instead of the poem (or lyric essay, or hybrid form) as art object, I want to learn how to make the most porous and anti-static kinds of creations. If the poem is likened to a painting on the wall—vivid and imagistic—let it also be a painting where the eyes move, where the frame slants, where it is never the same painting twice that the viewer looks upon.
I often talk to my students about entering their own writing “through the smallest door,” and sometimes the smallest door is a single word. I like to get as close as I can to individual words, and Maureen’s poems bless and press that enterprise further. One whole stanza from “The Realm of the Wide” consists of: “The word: Outlandish.” And what a word! I love the invitation to stare at the word, to see the “out” and the “land” and the “dish” in it just by lingering in that long pause. I’ve never asked Maureen if she is synesthetic, but her poems are, and as a synesthete who experiences the world of language in vivid colors, Maureen’s poetry amplifies my synesthetic experience of the world as well, adds another tier/floor/skylight. “You could jump the fire and ride to where the words are backdrafting,” she writes. How visceral and invigorating and absolutely true!
Finally, I think it’s Maureen’s own biomythography she’s drafting and revising and reimagining across these pages. (I hope Audre Lorde wouldn’t mind my invoking her term here, as I know Maureen and I both deeply admire and write as grateful readers of Lorde.) Maureen’s poems resist stasis because she has resisted stasis—staying put in any one role, category, or geographical location. Maureen is candid about falling into and out of love, marriage, divorce, sexual awakenings, motherhood, faith, doubt, and always, the complexities, dare I say “the inherent mysteries,” of gender, desire, and the body. There is much in her life’s reckoning and recurring themes that overlap with my own. In another salient capsule of experience that seems to denote the way she was raised, Maureen writes, “Everything/ should be Disney or saintly.” That was my first imperative, too. With every poem and hybrid form, Maureen is teaching me how to write my way beyond those initial strictures of conventional beauty, contrived happiness, and religious dogma.
Black: What are you working on now?
Wade: On the prose front, I’m writing essays for a collection called “The Regulars,” which is another slant on my own bildungsroman. At a certain point in time, I realized that I have stories I tell and stories I write, and it occurred to me that some of the stories I tell—which are often the most absurd glimpses of my childhood, darkly humorous but also intimidatingly sad—might have another kind of life on the page. The title is a reference, in the most literal sense, to being regular customers at the Old Spaghetti Factory every Sunday, my parents and I, but also to the relentless quest for normalcy—or at least to be perceived as normal and consequently likable, admirable, and good—that governed my upbringing. (“Everything/ should be Disney or saintly” indeed!) Angie, my spouse, suggested the title, which I love, and so I’ve been writing my way into some of my own personal oral tradition, the stories I have only shared with close friends who say, “Tell us about the time you had to …” or “What was it your parents did when …”
On the poetry front, I’m writing a lot of secular psalms for a sequence that I think will belong, eventually, to a collection called Quick Change Artist. That project might also subsume some or all of the poems from When I Was Straight, which illustrates the before-and-after experiences of someone, essentially the same someone, who was first perceived as heterosexual and trying very hard to tow many tacit heterosexual lines, and then who, in the second half of the project, reckons with all the new ways people respond to her as an out lesbian, a woman marked by sexual difference.
There’s also a hybrid-form memoir about food that I’ve been toying with for years called The Western Family. (I grew up on the West Coast, and the brand of most of the food products we ate in our home was “Western Family.” Food as source of pleasure, shame, ritual, family connectedness and family discord, and food as marker of a particular zeitgeist is something I intend to explore.) And eventually, I plan to write a collection of poems that mirrors the question-and-answer clues on Jeopardy!, the game show that seems to have played ceaselessly at the dinner table throughout my youth and is now playing throughout my adulthood, recording daily on our DVR, in fact!
Maureen Seaton received her MFA at Vermont College and is the author of nine poetry collections and a memoir, Sex Talks to Girls among many other projects. Her work has notably appeared in Best Small Fictions and Best American Poetry among many other places. Seaton has received multiple awards and recognitions for her work. Among them, several Lambda awards, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection, Fisher was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Seaton is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Miami, Florida.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, including Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Catechism: A Love Story, SIX, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, and the forthcoming The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Florida International University in Miami.
Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. She received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM,The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.
Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of The Desiring Object or Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering of Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them (Sundress Publications, 2016). She sat down to talk to our editorial intern Adam J. Gellings about process, influence, and more!
Jessica Rae Bergamino: First, thank you Adam for such a generous reading of The Desiring Object and for these thoughtful questions!
I first became interested in the Voyager mission’s emergence as contemporary mythology while listening to Ann Druyan’s discussion of the project on WNYC’s Radiolab. These antiquated robots — without enough memory to play an MP3! — are floating through space with a golden record encoded with, among other things, the brain waves of a woman falling in love. I wanted to explore what would happen if that knowing of oneself as something that can both desire and be desired was transferred on to their robot bodies. As the project evolved it became my love letter to queer femme resilience and the ways femmes constantly evolve the boundaries of desirability.
AJG: Other than poets, were there any other outside influences that were formative to the poems in this collection coming together?
JRB: Along with re-watching the original Cosmos, I read as much about the Voyager project as I could. I was lucky to have access to some amazing primary source material through a university library, including recordings of the congressional hearings on the project and maps of moons made from the Voyager observations and flybys. Two books, though, were particularly instructive: Murmurs of Earth, which explores the contents and creation of the Gold Records, and The Voyager Neptune Travel Guide, which is a weird little book prepared by NASA to orient Earthlings to the interstellar mission. It has a flip book of Voyager’s approach to Neptune! It also has incredibly detailed explanations of what each of Voyager’s scientific instruments do and how they work.
AJG: There is a playful rhythm to many of these poems as you read through them. Most notably in pieces such as ‘Ultraviolet Spectrometer” & “Triaxial Fluxgate Magnetometer,” where the reader is brought back to a single word or sound to bounce off of from each line. I wondered if you could talk a little about the construction of these poems in particular? How did you know when they were complete?
JRB: Each section of The Desiring Object is titled after a scientific instrument that composes the Voyager’s bodies and the corresponding text explores, however tangentially, the work of that instrument. I wanted to anthropomorphize Voyager Two without stripping away her scientific realities and hoped I could reverse engineer Charles Olson’s ideas about projective verse as if the typewriter were experiencing the text, not the poet. The ultraviolet spectrometer measures light, so it lent itself to the opening poem, and I loved the visual rhyme between the ultra-poetic O – invocation and exhalation, whole and hole, planet and a mouth, boundary and unending loop, etcetera, etcetera – and the binary 0.
At the same time that the list of scientific tools provided a great constraint, I knew I couldn’t commit to a linear narrative of psychological development wherein each section had a clear resolution and the next section presented an entirely new challenge — the poems needed to experience technical glitch, repetition, and failure. The triaxial fluxgate magnetometer measures magnetic fields, so I knew that had a great potential to gravitate – pardon the pun – back to an earlier section of the poem. I knew each section was done when I could no longer see the seams where the poems were knit together, but I could still feel the strain against them.
AJG: Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
JRB: I read drafts aloud to my cat. A lot
AJG: Who are your ‘go-to’ authors, or specific books that you reach for when you’re in a crunch?
JRB: It utterly depends on the type of the crunch, but Elizabeth Bishop, Brenda Hillman, Sina Queyras, Lucie Brock Broido, and Alice Notley are among the constants.
AJG: What upcoming projects do you have on the horizon?
JRB: I have been working on – dare I say completing? – a full length manuscript which imagines both Voyager One and Two as they grapple with the ethical and intimate limitations of the interstellar mission. I’m also beginning a project which explores the intersections of haunting, anxiety, and girlhood.
Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of 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 or are forthcoming in Salt Hill, Willow Springs, The Journal, Gulf Coast, The Offing, Colorado Review, and The Cincinnati Review. She is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Utah, where she is poetry editor for Quarterly West.
Adam J. Gellings is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. He is currently a PhD student in English at SUNY Binghamton & he received a MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. You can find his work in Quarter After Eight, Rust + Moth & forthcoming in Post Road Magazine.
Amorak Huey is the author of the poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump, which was published by Sundress Publications in August, 2015. He sat down to talk to our editorial intern Adam J. Gellings about process, influence, and more!
Adam J. Gellings: What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine?
Amorak Huey: My writing routine is the absolute lack of a routine. I envy those writers who are all like, “Oh, yes, I arise and write from 5:30 to 7 every morning. The sunrise and the quiet house are so inspiring!” My life is far too chaotic for any such thing, and probably I lack discipline for all that anyway. I write when I can fit it in around the edges of things. Sometimes early mornings. Sometimes late at night. Sometimes with Criminal Minds on TV, or while the kids are doing homework, or in the car while waiting to pick up the soccer-practice carpool. Often when I’m supposed to be grading or doing the laundry. There’s no better recipe for getting writing done than having something else I need to be doing. Conversely, there’s no better motivation for getting other stuff done—the house cleaned, the checkbook balanced—than having writing I need to do. It’s a weird life. I don’t write every day, but I write more days than not. Maybe this fragmented writing life is why I mostly write poems and not longer things that might require a more sustained kind of focus.
AJG: When did you first become interested in writing poems? Who were your early influences?
AH: It’s hard to pinpoint a true first moment. I grew up in a family of readers, talkers, storytellers, so words and books and writing have always been important to me. The first contemporary poet I was captivated by was Raymond Carver, whose work I came to through his short stories. I know his poems are not especially well thought of these days, but when I was in college, they opened up verse for me. He showed me that poems can be narrative, can be personal, can be driven by voice, can be clever, can be readable. These things are probably self-evident for most poets, but I had to learn them, and have to continue to relearn them over and over. Other poets I read with hunger early in my writing life included Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, David Kirby, Tess Gallagher, Bob Hicok, Jorie Graham.
When I was a senior in college, I had plans to be a novelist and short story writer. One of my mentors and writing professors sat me down in her office and asked if I was serious about writing prose, because she thought maybe I should write poetry instead. I don’t know exactly how she meant it—probably as a compliment to my poetry—but I was kind of devastated, despairing about how crappy my prose-writing must be for her to say this. In hindsight, this conversation probably was kind of a turning point for me, and gradually I started writing more poetry and less prose. I started grad school in fiction right out of college, but dropped out after a few semesters, and by the time I went back to do my MFA 10 years later, there was no question I was going to study poetry.
AJG: You have previously worked as a newspaper editor & reporter. What experiences as a news writer shaped your voice as a poet? Is there a bond between your creative writing & your work reporting the facts?
AH: The biggest connections between news writing and poetry have to do with language. They share the aim of achieving your purpose in as few words as possible. Wasting not a syllable. The demand that each word have maximum impact. My years as a copy editor taught me a lot about how sentences work and how to express a complex thought with clarity. Clarity isn’t always the goal in a poem, but it helps to have that ability in your writer’s toolbox.
The contrast between news writing and poetry comes in context and purpose. I’m always telling my students that if someone asked them, say, what happened at a meeting or where they wanted to go for lunch, and they wrote a poem in response, that would be weird. A poem is not the best way to handle the straightforward delivery of information. A poem is not a memo, or a news article, or a status update, or a text message to a friend, right? I mean, it can look like those things, it can take the shape of those things, it can borrow from those things, but as soon as you call it a poem, it becomes something else. I won’t say something larger, because I’m not sure about the hierarchy there, but definitely something other. So then the purpose of a poem must be something else, and it’s tough to articulate, but it’s along the lines of: a poem exists to create an experience for the reader, to use language to explore and evoke some event or emotion or memory, some facet of human existence, and in doing so the poem will necessarily bump up against the limits of language. The role of language in a news article is to be as invisible as possible, to deliver the goods and get out of the way. In a poem, the language is the goods.
My poetry voice is definitely shaped by my years as a journalist. It’s sometimes an obstacle I have to overcome, a tendency to over-explain or oversimplify. In a news article, it might be enough to write, like, “I was sad,” or whatever. But that straightforwardness isn’t always what a poem needs, though it can be. I have to create sadness (or happiness or lust or hunger or whatever). Invent it almost from scratch, using language, which is an incredibly imperfect medium. So then I have to reach for image or metaphor or another rhetorical device. Have to find something new in the language. Express something in a way it hasn’t quite been expressed before. And it’s so much fun. I am pretty terrible at it most of the time, but I love the attempt. It’s invigorating.
AJG: Could you talk a little about how you came about choosing Ha Ha Ha Thump as the title for your collection & the decision behind starting each section with a poem of the same name?
AH: That title came fairly early in the process, even as the book went through numerous drafts and revisions. I liked the tone of it, the idea of humor followed by something more alarming. I like to think that’s a metaphor for what some of the poems in the collection achieve. You’re laughing along then you’re like, wait, what?
I was interested in the idea of using a joke in a poem—not just wit or cleverness, but a straightforward joke with a set-up and punchline—and that’s what I was trying to do in the first “Ha Ha Ha Thump” poem I wrote, to go back to this childhood joke: What goes ha ha ha thump? Someone laughing their head off.
Then, when I was working with the amazing Erin Elizabeth Smith, my editor at Sundress, on the final shape of the collection, she wanted me to reorganize it to fight against my tendency to shape collections like narratives, because this isn’t a book with a single coherent speaker or storyline. So I was making piles of poems that felt like they could be sections and seeking some device, some structural mechanism by which to organize the piles, and I thought, What if I come up with other answers to the question? What else might go ha ha ha thump? I came up with a Hollywood marriage, a hyena falling out of a tree, a clown having a heart attack, and laughter to measure the silence between lightning and thunder. Those became the opening poems for each section, with each answer loosely—very loosely—connected to what I see as the uniting themes or tones within the sections.
AJG: Do you have a favorite poem in the collection?
AH: All my babies are beautiful! But since you asked, I’ll say the last poem in the book, “Ars Poetica Disguised as a Love Poem Disguised as a Commemoration of the 166th Anniversary of the Rescue of the Donner Party.” The absurdly long title makes me smile, and I think the poem comes pretty close to doing everything I want it to. I’m also happy with the hopeful chord it strikes at the end of this book, which I suspect at times might come across as somewhat cynical about love.
AJG: Are you part of a writing community where you live? How do you know when a poem you have written is officially done revising?
AH: I am so fortunate to have a built-in community of writers in the Writing Department at Grand Valley State University. How awesome is it to go to work with colleagues and students who value what I value, who want to have the same conversations I want to have about language and teaching and learning and writing?
I also am part of an online writing group with about a dozen other poets, where someone comes up with a prompt each month and we all write a poem for that prompt. Some of the poets in the group are local, but others are spread across the country. Each April, some friends and I do the poem-a-day thing, sharing our poems with each other for accountability.
So, yes, I am part of lots of writing communities, these that I’ve mentioned, but also being engaged with other writers through social media, reading their work and the work they find and link to. Reading literary journals and books published by small presses and discovering new writers and new poems, even submitting my own work, attending the AWP Conference—it’s all part of engaging with a larger community of writing and writers. Without these communities, I don’t know how I would keep writing.
I suspect that since you linked your question about a writing community with a question about revision, you’re also asking about a workshop-like group, a set of readers who offer feedback and help answer that “how do you know when it’s done” question. That, I don’t really have. In the online group, we offer encouragement and some feedback to each other, but the main point is to keep each other writing; if you’re in the group, you know you’re writing at least a poem a month. Similarly, our April thing is mostly about having someone on the other end who expects you to email them a poem every day. We do get together in May over burgers and beers to rehash and talk about the poems, but it’s more about celebrating having survived the month than about offering detailed feedback.
So when do you know you’re done revising a piece? The flippant answer is the real answer: You don’t. And you never have to be done. Even publication doesn’t mean you have to stop. Robert Lowell was famous for tinkering with pieces even after they appeared in prestigious journals, often to the irritation of his editors. But, yeah, at some point, you want to stop, right? You want to feel like you’ve reached some milestone, some point where the poem is ready for its close-up. And eventually, you do gain a sense of confidence that you can tell when your work is some approximation of finished, a felt sense of things having clicked into place. There’s no shortcut to that felt sense, though. You have to read literally thousands of poems and write thousands of poems that fall woefully short of your ambitions for them. Then read some more and write some more. Eventually, you’ll learn to trust in your feelings about a piece.
AJG: What upcoming projects do you have on the horizon?
AH: A new chapbook, A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road, is coming out later this year from Porkbelly Press. I have two other full-length manuscripts in circulation, with all the revision and revisiting and rejection that process entails, and of course the most important project is always merely—merely—to write the next poem.
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, is author of the poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress, 2015) and the chapbooks The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl, 2014) and A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road (Porkbelly, forthcoming in 2016). He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, The Collagist, Oxford American, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere.
Adam J. Gellings is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. He is currently a PhD student in English at SUNY Binghamton & he received a MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. You can find his work in Quarter After Eight, Rust + Moth & forthcoming in The Tishman Review.
Sarah J. Sloat’s chapbook, In the Voice of a Minor Saint, showcases small moments that belie great significance and trumpet the author’s ear for the specific. This collection is rich with metaphor, and Sloat uses form in a way that emphasizes the lyric. Broad in scope, while still giving the reader intimate insight into the speaker’s psyche, these pieces are touched with the divine. In the Voice of a Minor Saint was re-released earlier this year from Doubleback Books, an imprint of Sundress Publications.
Sundress: Do you have any writing rituals or routines?
Sarah Jane Sloat: I don’t. I just try. If I’m stuck, which I often am, I read.
Sundress: Your poems often deal with smallness and small things: tongues, bees, grains of rice. “My heart is small, like a love/ of buttons or black pepper” and “Mine was a small world, small/ and flawed.” Tell us a little about how this theme developed.
Sarah Jane Sloat: I have a button collection. And the world’s smallest Indian pot. I like things you have to get close to to appreciate. I like “things” in general. After “In the Voice of a Minor Saint” I put together a chapbook focused on things found in the home – the whisk, the faucet and toothbrush.
In the case of this chapbook, smallness has to do with the minor saint, patron of the overlooked and unassuming, who fail to get much attention. S/he’s their champion, though they probably would never ask for that.
Sundress: Tell us about the process of writing a cento like “Naked, Come Shivering.” Did you build the poem around one line, or did you find lines to fit what you wanted to say?
Sarah Jane Sloat: A cento shouldn’t use more than one line from any single poem. That’s the only rule I’d pay attention to.
Every cento I’ve written so far, including “Naked, Come Shivering,” I’ve done by pulling lines I loved from French poets, mostly the surrealists. I am always struck by their beauty, their oddness, how many lines seemed self-sufficient and self-contained. I put the lines together in a way that rings right, without any goal in mind.
In “Naked, Come Shivering,” the line I started with was either “not wanting anything to die of hunger” or “the whole town has come into my room.” Both evocative, bust-down-the-door kind of lines. The title came last.
Sundress: What is your favorite poem in this collection, and why?
Sarah Jane Sloat: This is very difficult. Probably it was “Ghazal of the Bright Body.” I’m a big fan of the ghazal. This was the first one I wrote, and for me it shrugs off all its could-be burdens. It avoids becoming overwrought, which my less successful ghazals (hopefully unpublished) do not.
Sundress: Besides writing, what is your favorite way to participate in the literary community?
Sarah Jane Sloat: After writing, I participate, if you can put it this way, by reading. I really believe reading is a way to interact with the world. In reading, I feel I’m participating in the past, present and future. And you can chose your company. And be introverted to your heart’s content.
I recently got the latest issues of The Journal (Ohio) and the annual RHINO. I’m not ass-kissing when I say they’re really wonderful publications, and in both of them I found work I loved by poets I’d never read before, who are now my imaginary friends.
There are also dozens of online journals I read and love – DMQ Review, Adroit, Plume, Birdfeast, etc etc.
I live in a foreign country so my participating in an English-focused literary community excludes physical presence! I’m not terribly outgoing or social, I must admit. But I keep up, like most everyone, on social media.
Sundress: What is the best writing advice you have ever been given?
Sarah Jane Sloat: There’s no right way.
Sundress: If you could tell the world one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Sarah Jane Sloat: It would be what most poets who want anyone to read their poems would say:
Sarah J. Sloat lives in Frankfurt, Germany, a stone’s throw from Schopenhauer’s grave. Her poems and prose have appeared in West Branch, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Beloit Poetry Journal. Sarah’s chapbook of poems on typefaces and texts, Inksuite, is available from dancing girl press, which also published Heiress to a Small Ruin in 2015.
Pretty Owl Poetryis now open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and art for its summer issue, slated to launch in late June.
-something shameful. something surreal. a deluge of desire. confessions of crimes & hearts teeming with rattlesnakes. a merry-go-round that makes you dizzy.
-send us your yellowed sweet tooth in a plastic bag. or lockets filled with tiny twig hairs. tell us everything we don’t want to hear. say it in a way that’s sweet to the ear. send us a flash, a jolt, a tickle in your belly. something simple but ahh. give us something that slaps & stings.
-keep the quiet for the mornings & make us dance, twist, shout, & fold around our bodies. send us something to slink into. show us a basket full of molded fruit & take a picture of your mother’s grey, stained socks. tell us about the time you dreamt & flailed.
Pretty Owl Poetry is an online quarterly journal that publishes new, emerging, and established writers in poetry, fiction, and the visual arts. We support all approaches to writing, be it collaborative or individual. We’re interested in experimental and traditional forms and flash fiction masquerading as poetry, all with a lyrical quality.
Sundress Publications is pleased to announce the release of The Desiring Object OR Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them by Jessica Rae Bergamino, which was the runner-up for the 2015 Sundress Chapbook Contest.
“In Jessica Rae Bergamino’s The Desiring Object OR Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them, each word carries a heavy weight. This chapbook forced me feel every vibration in order to fully experience the hybrid collage of science and sound. From the epigraph that contextualizes the ambitious theme, and through the immediacy of every line down to the last, I traversed the stars.”
-J. Nicole Oquendo, 2015 Sundress Chapbook Contest Judge
“We rarely ask about the instruments behind scientific discoveries, but perhaps we should. Or, better yet, perhaps we should ask them how they feel about themselves and their work. Jessica Rae Bergamino’s The Desiring Object imagines the inner workings of a Voyager Two who—like Star Trek‘s V’ger and Welcome to Night Vale’s Fey—has become sentient and pursues desires of her own. As she wonders ‘what body knows what’s left of herself / when she’s drifting from her shadow,’ we can’t help but turn skyward, dream of probes barreling through interstellar space and how, if they spoke as beautifully as Bergamino, they’d answer our questions.”
-T.A. Noonan, author of The Bone Folders
Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of two previous chapbooks: The Mermaid Singing and Blue in All Things: a Ghost Story (dancing girl press 2015). Individual poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Slice, So to Speak, West Branch, and elsewhere. She splits her time between Seattle and Salt Lake City, where she is a PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah.
The Desiring Object OR Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them
is available free download from the Sundress Publications website!