Author Conversations: Jenny Drai and Elizabeth J. Colen

 

JD: Hi Elizabeth! I thought I’d jump right in and say that as I was reading What Weaponry, which you call a novel in prose poems, and The Green Condition, which you call an essay, I started thinking a lot about the concept of story as somewhat separate JDraiHeadshotfrom what we (or at least I) often think of when I hear the word ‘narrative’. (I suppose I’m thinking of what I encounter when I read what is termed ‘narrative poetry’.) To me, your work seems to speak very much to the power, and to the necessity, of telling stories, even as you let the reader create connections from what’s left unsaid in the spaces between lines, between sections, in the silences. I’m reading your work as a series of impressions that build, that accrete, into whole pieces. Lyric stories. Could you say more about the importance of story in your work and how/if that influences the mode you write in for any given project?

EJC: Well, they’re both hybrid texts, both poetry and. And so, as such, I’m interested in the tensions between genres, the tensions between modes of meaning-making. So while in each there is intense play with sound as well as a forward motion (the simple way I define narrative or story), there is also a haltingness, a turning back, echoing, re-vision of events, etc, that takes place. Which also adds to the sound-play. And is more like the way memory works: wecolen_light_2 obsess over the details, rarely thinking big picture all at once. I like what you say, letting “the reader create connections from what’s left unsaid.” That’s very important to me. What Weaponry is certainly story in jumps, gaps that intentionally wait for a reader to co-produce narrative, which happens in any work no matter how seamless the narrative hand-holding. I’m interested in making those seams apparent. As a reader we expect the writer to bring content and structure; I like to turn that back a little: I’ll bring the structure and let’s both bring the content and see what we can do together. I hope the collaboration is more inviting than vexing, though I’ve had both responses.

In reading your work I’m also interested in your relationship to narrative. It’s definitely not a straight-forward endeavor, but that you align your work with existing narratives says something about your desire to tell a story. What made you come to align your story for example with Young Werther’s in The New Sorrow is Less than the Old Sorrow? Of course Wine Dark also immediately conjures connections with Homer. How important is that parallel?

JD: I think the parallels are important in the sense that I, as the writer, am saying something like, “This is epic. All of this has happened before. (And will again.) You/I/We aren’t alone in this phase of your/my/our existence and even though many of our experiences will differ greatly from each other’s as we move through time and space, maybe the connections, the points where our lives touch each other’s, as well as how they touch pre-existing cultural narratives (as found in stories, literature, etc), may be what can, ultimately, offer comfort.” I’d say epic isn’t necessarily comfortable, so there’s a tension there, in my trying to make the epic lived in, livable. Comfort is important to me, in the sense of coziness as a soothing balm for frazzled nerves, restorative warmth, safety. My whole life, I’ve looked for this comfort in the books I’ve read and I think this is why I am so apt to involve pre-existing literary narratives in my writing. In The New Sorrow is Less Than the Old Sorrow, for example, the Speaker comforts herself by comparing her loss to the great literary loss of Werther, who loves Lotte but can’t have her and therefore commits suicide. But my Speaker decides, meh, maybe her situation is less tragic than it seems. She goes on. In Wine Dark, in my mind at least, all of the poems have the same Speaker, someone who is a bit at sea maybe, who connects to blood and the sea as she literally sails the ocean and figuratively sails in and out of the personae she climbs into—Heloise, Jane Eyre, Scheherazade, Elizabeth Bathory. So even though Wine Dark consists of separate poems, they comprise, again in my mind, an unofficial series, and in fact were written during a relatively short period of time, then revised over months, years even. To me, it’s a book-length project in feel (but maybe all books are!!), if not in name. I think what I’m trying to say is that these poems always lived together as a group.

Since we’re both clearly interested in longer projects, serial narratives (or stories, if you will), I want to ask you about the importance in your work of going on, as opposed to, say, ending. It occurs to me that there is always going to be a tension, in story, between continuation and ceasing. In What Weaponry, for example, you begin the text with the line, “We build a place to be safe, start talking in circles and so build that way.” And you go on to describe a process of building concentric circles with found objects that widen out and grow. It seems, to me at least, that a text that begins in such a way can never really end. How do you negotiate in your writing the tension between having to impose ending, structure, and arc, with the fact that, I think, you are also very much writing in order to continue?

EJC: Yes! I am interested in books that are controlled in craft, while the content and concept gets out of hand. Books that consume themselves uroburos-style. Books that refuse completion. In What Weaponry I have what feels to me like both the ultimate ending and an anti-ending. The last poem “No One Waits in the Side Yard” is, I think, the loneliest poem I’ve ever written. It serves as anti-ending in that all sentences written in negation, everything spoken is also taken away. Everything both there and not there at the same time. Part of this might be my lifelong interest in The Twilight Zone. There is often the world and the not-world and they replace each other at will. Isn’t this a little bit how life is though. Nothing’s ever wholly there, there’s also the fear of the thing’s absence and the language that keeps it there.

What is your writing process like? Do you have rituals? I’m interested in writers as conjurers. Like, for me, I’m always reading out loud. And that’s what makes the writing start up for me. And also do you have a whole-book plan before you sit down or do you figure it out as you go along?

JD: I’d say my writing process is pretty structured, and yes, I often have a plan going in, and rituals, like organizing my pencils and highlighters and index cards at my desk before I start writing. The preparation of hot beverages also plays a role. But for me, what makes the writing start up is reading. I especially love pouring over history, legends, hagiography, fairy tales, and any sort of criticism taking any of that into account. I love to do research, albeit in a not-so-academic fashion. The worst part about living in Germany is that I had to leave a lot of books behind in a storage space in Vancouver, Washington. If I could go back in time and do one thing over, I would make different choices about what books to bring with me. I have a lot of books on medieval history and on Anglo-Saxon England in Vancouver that I would die for a look in right about now. But I did make some good choices too, and I’m happy to have those books here, all my books on fairy tales, for example, which I’m using a lot right now in the fiction I write. And there’s also the internet. There is so much online and a lot of time I copy and paste text and create MS Word files for myself of research I’ve compiled on different topics. So to answer your question more succinctly, reading (a lot of different things) and then research is what inspires me, what wakes me up, what gets me going. I would only add that sometimes I read a lot on a topic but end up writing very little. “Bathory,” for example, in Wine Dark is a very short poem, but I’ve read quite a lot about Elizabeth Bathory and watched several movies about her life. Although, to be fair, she shows up in a poem sequence in an as yet unpublished manuscript. I don’t finish with topics/figures easily, I suppose, and possibly this is because I spend so much time with them as part of my writing process.

But what about you? How did you approach writing What Weaponry? Did you write these pieces as individual prose poems and then see the larger connections or did you have the idea of them as a novel beforehand? Also, I’m curious about order. Did you write the pieces in the order they appear in the book, because I do see a narrative arc as I’m reading, or did they come to you differently?

EJC: We’re alike in that with a lot of what I write (especially The Green Condition and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies) I do a lot of reading / researching / thinking far in advance of any writing happening. I tend to work project by project, slowly establishing some strong concept of a book-length project (or multi-book-length) and not so much writing towards that, but holding that concept at the back of my head while I write whatever it is I’m writing. At some point the pieces start to cohere into the bigger plan. Then I see what I have, the unexpected connections, and revise heavily to bring those to the surface. So I start with the grand plan, but the project never ends up being exactly that. It’s just something to keep me grounded.

My daily practice before writing involves reading poetry out loud. It’s the only way I know to get started. And when I read poetry, I always read it out loud. So you should know, when we traded books for this, I stood in my kitchen reading your work out loud.

What Weaponry was written on the train one summer. The Coast Starlight and the Southwest Chief. I had less of a plan with this book. I had plucked these two characters out of my first book, and was existing within / writing from a place of strongly conflicting excitement and deep sadness. I had a loose story after a few poems; the thrust of the narrative was built during the many-month revision process a year or so later, once I was clear of my own emotional upheaval and could let the characters do their thing.

***

Jenny Drai is the author of Wine Dark and The New Sorrow Is Less Than The Old Sorrow, both from Black Lawrence Press. Her first full-length collection of poetry, [the door], was published by Trembling Pillow Press in 2015 and her novella, Letters to Quince, was awarded the Deerbird Novella Prize from Artistically Declined Press. She is an Associate Poetry Editor at Drunken Boat and lives in the Rhineland. She has recently completed a novel.

Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration Your Sick. She teaches at Western Washington University.

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: RON KOLM

ron kolm photo parkside oct. 13th


WALT WHITMAN
By Ron Kolm

You,
Walt
Whitman,
Like
God,
Are
Everywhere
All
At
Once.



(Today’s poem originally appeared via Brevitas, was published in the poetry collection Divine Comedy, and appears here today with permission from the poet.)

Ron Kolm is a member of the Unbearables, and an editor of several of their anthologies; most recently The Unbearables Big Book of Sex! Ron is a contributing editor of Sensitive Skin magazine and the editor of the Evergreen Review. He is the author of The Plastic Factory and, with Jim Feast, the novel Neo Phobe. A new collection of his poems, Divine Comedy, has just been published by Steve Cannon’s Fly By Night Press. He’s had work published in the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Live Mag! and the Poetry Super Highway. Kolm’s papers were purchased by the New York University library, where they’ve been catalogued in the Fales Collection as part of the Downtown Writers Group.

Editor’s Note: At a recent reading in Brooklyn featuring SPS-beloved poet Leah Umansky, a man walked up to me believing we’d met at another poetry event. I told him I did not believe that we had, and in response he gave me a copy of his most recent poetry collection. This is poetry. Community. Going to readings and meeting artists whose work you love. Books given as gifts because poetry is connectivity; poetry is love.

I read Divine Comedy from cover to cover on my way home on the train that night. Gritty, blunt, and overtly sexual, it is not a book for the faint of heart. But what I found was that the backdrop of harsh reality made the book’s quieter moments shine more brightly. Today’s poem was found within those pages, a peaceful and meditative beacon of calm amidst an ocean of neon lights, graffiti, and chaos. There is room for all of this in poetry, of course, but I am a sucker for the beautiful, for the contemplative, and, of course, for Walt Whitman. Whitman who, as Ron Kolm so simply and eloquently points out, “Like God,” is “everywhere all at once.”

Want to read more by and about Ron Kolm?
MungBeing
Sensitive Skin magazine launch reading – Youtube
The Villager
Poetry Superhighway
Urban Graffiti

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

Cousins Potato Room

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

by Jennifer Dane Clements

Something in the Potato Room, the book-length poem that won Heather Cousins the Kore Press First Book Award, is an unexpected ars poetica. It is about many things, but ultimately about moments that surprise and redefine us. The constraints that birth new freedoms.

These constraints stripe each page: lines or coffins or boundaries, asking the reader to look beyond. Boredom. Routine. Depression. Sometimes—adulthood. Stillness is a rope, solitude a tether. We enter this book with an unnamed character bound by each of these things, exhausted by the details of her own routine:

“A pot of
paperwhites. A green
mug. A bottle of ibuprofen
and a sheet of Sudafed, the
little red gems sealed in foil.”

It is a dead boy, emerging from the basement earth, that breaks from his own hiding place and ultimately pulls the unnamed character from hers. Sometimes you are the skeleton buried in the basement of a newly purchased home. Sometimes you are the homeowner buried in the minutia of a tedious job and a solitary life. The unexpected makes you feel suddenly “pink/and full of skin.”

Sometimes a poem is a constraint. Sometimes a book. Mutual exclusivity can have that feeling too—the entrapment of either/or. We feel it for the unnamed character, and for Cousins too—for her poem that won’t be tucked in to notions of brevity, for her anthropologist’s eye for charts and medical illustrations and the things they only suggest.

We see the tidy boxes, squares and rectangles of text on the page, holding in what needs to be suppressed.

And we see the things that emerge from constraint. A discovery, an adventure. An excuse not to dress and go to work. A skeleton in the basement of a house. Death reimagined into life—and this doesn’t just mean the skeleton. The book, too, emerges from the brevity and smallness expected from the word poem. The book is a poem, the poem is a book, and the bones of a dead boy swim through layers of basement dirt to the surface to insist these constraints are all imagined.

“It seemed as if it hurt—
the coming-back-to-life.
Like frozen toes in hot
water. The ache and
shiver of blood breaking
from its sluggish sleep.”

The skeleton is dead, then reborn through imagined story. The unnamed character is alive without playing a part in her own existence. That thing that we expect, that very simple fulfillment of definition, is shut down and broken apart.

“Life
doesn’t stay still, and
death doesn’t stay still ei-
ther”

And here, still, are the things that can be made whole from the dirt, from the seeming emptiness of an unsatisfying routine. Here is a poem that was made a book, the skeleton made flesh through Cousins’s imagining.

Heather Cousins, Something in the Potato Room, Kore Press, 2009: $12.99.

***

Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp (forthcoming) and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and others. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. jennifer-dane-clements.com.

The Wives Are Turning into Animals

MWSTHB_Cover_04.27

The Wives Are Turning into Animals

by

Amber Sparks

The husbands are almost sure of it. They have strong memories of an earlier time, of the wives with soft smooth faces and ten fingers and toes.

But lately, things have changed. Some of the wives have grown scaly patches, or sprouted thick pelts. Some wives have shrunk considerably. White, wide wings have unfolded, horns have appeared, tongues have grown longer and rougher and pinker, noses wetter and more sensitive than before.

The men have grown uneasy at night, listening to the wheezing and snorting of the wives as they sleep, as they embrace their husbands with tentacles and talons and long tails. The husbands aren’t sure what to do, whether to say something. They wonder if it would be rude to ask about the wives’ new appetites, their sudden hunger for mice and mealworms and raw, wriggling fish. They worry that they won’t be able to keep these ravenous wives fed. They worry that the neighbors will complain about the carcasses littering their lawns.

The husbands worry, most of all, that their wives will finally fly or crawl or swim away, untethered from the promises that only humans make or keep.

 

***

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and the co-author, with Robert Kloss, of the upcoming The Desert Places—both published by Curbside Splendor. She lives in Washington, DC, with a husband and two beasts.

FRIDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: RACHEL ZUCKER


LETTER (PERSEPHONE TO DEMETER)
by Rachel Zucker

At home, the bells were a high light-yellow
with no silver or gray just buttercup or sugar-and-lemon.

Here bodies are lined in blue against the sea.
And where red is red there is only red.

I have to be blue to bathe in the sea.
Red, to live in the red room with red air

to rest my head, red cheek down, on the red table.

Above, it was so green: brown, yellow, white, green.
My longing for red furious, sexual.

There things were alive but nothing moved.
Now I live near the sea in a place which has no blue and is not the sea.

Gulls flock, leeward then tangent
and pigeons bully them off the ground.

Hardly alive, almost blind-a hot geometry casts off
every color of the world. Everything moves, nothing alive.

In the red room there is a sky which is painted over in red
but is not red and was, once, the sky.

This is how I live.

A red table in a red room filled with air.
A woman, edged in blue, bathing in the blue sea.

The surface like the pale, scaled skin of fish
far below or above or away—


“Letter (Persephone to Demeter)” is printed here today with permission from the poet.

Rachel Zucker is the author of seven books, most recently, Home/Birth: a poemic (co-written with Arielle Greenberg) and Museum of Accidents. She lives in New York with her husband and their three sons. Currently she teaches at New York University and is studying to become a childbirth educator.

Editor’s Note: By some accounts Persephone intended to remain a virgin goddess forever, before her kidnapping by the King of the Underworld, Hades. But as she reminisces about those halcyon days in the world above she acknowledges her secret guilt, “My longing for red furious, sexual.” To survive in the Underworld, the virgin must become the whore, but she still misses her mother. The transformation never completes as she vacillates between childhood and womanhood for eternity.

This speaks to life in that our identities constantly shapeshift. How many people are you in a week, depending on where you are, the people around you, or even the kind of shoes you’re wearing? I’m a tomboy in my loafers on the way to work, but twenty minutes later in heels I’m a sex object. And when I walk through the city listening to James Brown on my ipod, I’m pretty sure I’m not even a white girl anymore. Identity is fluid, and when red calls, we must adapt to red.

Want to read more by and about Rachel Zucker?
Rachel Zucker
Amazon

FRIDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: HANNAH GAMBLE


YOUR INVITATION TO A MODEST BREAKFAST
by HANNAH GAMBLE

It’s too cold to smoke outside, but if you come over,
I’ll keep my hands to myself, or won’t I.
I would like to tell you about the wall eaten up

by the climbing plant—it was so beautiful.
Various things have been happening to me,
all of them sexual. The man on the bus

took off his pants so I could see him better.
Another man said, “Ignore him darlin’,
just sit on my lap.” But I’m not one of those

who’s hungriest in the morning,
unlike the man at the bakery
who eats egg after egg after egg.

Listen. Come over: the cold has already eaten
the summer. I need another pair of ears:
from the kitchen I can’t tell if I’m hearing wind-chimes

or some gray woman with failing arms
dropping a pan full of onions and potatoes.
This morning I need four hands—

two to wash the greens, one to lift a teakettle,
one to pour the milk. This morning, one little mouth
will not do. We could play a game

where we crouch on the tiles, two yellow dogs
drinking coffee from bowls. We could play a game
where we let the breakfast burn.

Outside there’s a world where every love-scene
begins with a man in a doorway;
he walks over to the woman and says “Open your mouth.”


Poem first appeared in Ecotone and appears here with the permission of the poet.

Hannah Gamble is the recipient of writing and teaching fellowships from Rice University, Inprint/ the University of Houston, and the Edward F. Albee Foundation. Her poems and interviews appear in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Ecotone, Mid-American Review, Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston, and elsewhere.

Want to read more by and about Hannah Gamble?
Ink Node
Gulf Coast
Barnstorm

FRIDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: PAUL CELAN


SPEECH-GRILLE
by PAUL CELAN

Eye-orb between the bars.

Ciliary lid
rows upwards,
releases a gaze.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dim:
the sky, heart-gray, must be near.

Skew, in the iron socket,
the smoldering splinter.
By the sense of light
you guess the soul.

(Were I like you. Were you like me.
Did we not stand
under one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The tiles. Upon them,
close together, the two
heart-gray pools:
two
mouthfuls of silence.


Translated from the german by Joachim Neugroschel.

“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.”-Paul Celan

Editor’s Note: This post is dedicated as a Happy Birthday wish to Matt Gonzalez, who introduced me to the importance of Celan.

Want to read more by and about Paul Celan?
As It Ought To Be
Amazon
Poets.org