Friday, April 12, 2024

The Cover Story Behind A WORLD IN WHICH: An Interview

Poet J.L. Conrad's beautiful book—beautiful both inside and out—has just been published by my press, Terrapin Books. Jenny and I both fell in love with the art of Amy Salomone and were thrilled when she agreed to having one of her pieces on the cover of Jenny's book, A World in Which. Jenny recently did a Q&A with Amy about Amy's work and its use on Jenny's cover. Here is that Q&A:


The image on the cover of A WORLD IN WHICH (Terrapin Books, March 2024) comes from artist Amy Salomone (Forms Most Beautiful), whose digital collages often depict the human form—both external and internal—as an integral part of the natural world. I am indebted to the poet Heather Swan for introducing me to Amy’s work.
Today, I’ve invited Amy to respond to a few questions:
JLC: Your background is in the sciences, specifically cellular biology and evolutionary biology, or animal behavior. How does this play out in your work as an artist? What are your fascinations?
AS: So my background in the sciences is really where my pieces come from. Most of the pieces that I make are communicating some concept about our place within larger biological and cosmological stories. Rather than make a piece about our experience of love, I might make a piece about the evolutionary basis of love, the neurotransmitters and hormones that dictate our love response and reproductive tactics of other organisms. So, while my pieces are about us, they are not about us. I kind of like to think of them as a perspective shift. How can I get the audience to see their own experiences from a different vantage point? I feel like the more you know, the easier it is to navigate life. Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” and that really is the basis for why I make what I make.
My particular fascinations are pretty broad, but I would say I get the most excited about natural selection, nucleosynthesis (or atomic generation in stars and supernova), decomposition and symbiotic relationships, microorganisms, animal behavior…haha. So ya know, a lot. I could go on for days.
JLC: When I first shared your artwork with my editor, Diane Lockward, she responded, “I absolutely love Amy’s work! She’s the one. Thrilling pieces. But which one? Hard decision ahead.” Diane and I went back and forth, sharing favorites and even cover mockups. We both ended up preferring “My Heart Beats with Nature,” the image that appears on the cover of A WORLD IN WHICH and are so glad you agreed to allow it to appear in this context!
This piece deeply resonates with my own areas of inquiry—including with the body and its representation. Here, I love how you depict a heart severed but also a heart preserved within a landscape, a heart generating new life and growth. Can you tell us a bit about how this particular work originated and/or what was on your mind as it came together? Did anything surprise you?
AS: First off, you get me. Haha. Your interpretation of that work is pretty right on for what I was trying to communicate. For me, this piece is about how humans seem to always separate themselves from natural systems and are not aware of how intrinsically connected they are to them. So, we don’t like to call ourselves animals, we talk about “getting into nature,” we make terrariums, we talk about climate change as if we are somehow saving the Earth, or the polar bear, but not ourselves. We are of natural systems. We are super organisms, drenched with bacterial, archean and fungal life. Our human decisions are dictated by those microorganisms and the genetic code we share with countless species. This piece is really about why I make all of the pieces that I make. To put a mirror up to a person and change how they look at themselves in the world around them. Science has this amazing capacity for profoundly altering our perspectives of how we see ourselves, and this piece is me communicating that.
JLC: You’ve indicated your interest in collaborating with authors. What do you appreciate about this process? How does your work change, or shift, when it’s put into conversation with a writer’s work?
AS: Well, first off, I LOVE books. I am a self-proclaimed bookaholic, so the idea that someone who wrote a book and poured their heart into that project wants to use my art is just so amazing. I also love commissions. I really love hearing peoples' stories and their intention for what they want to communicate through the written word and then trying to translate that into a piece. I think I am just a collaborator at heart and working with an author or anyone else who wants to commission or license a piece is like free inspiration. My work changes in that there can be an added depth there because I’m trying to translate the intent of the author, let’s say, into a piece. It's about them and their experiences. I have had some of my best work come out of the commission process, so I also love it when someone gives me feedback on a piece, and it ends up pushing the work so far forward. That has happened often. 
JLC: What else (if anything) would you like readers to know about your artwork, or about your creative process?
AS: I started making my artwork because I was stepping out of a science education role, and I needed to fill that void of talking about human discovery all day. When I start a piece, sometimes I know what I want to say, but more often I just open up my computer and begin. The piece takes me where it takes me, and the message of the piece almost always comes with its creation. Digital collage is great because I can incorporate so much of myself. My pieces often include anatomical forms from vintage lithographs, combined with European or American paintings, combined with microscope slides, combined with photography. Because of my extensive background in the sciences, I have visually been in love with science illustration and science communication for over 20 years. It’s exciting that I get to share that love with a larger audience. My heroes are scientists who aren’t just great scientists but, more importantly, great communicators, and the hope with my artwork is that I can continue the tradition of storytelling through art, but storytelling that tells a story much larger than the typical human experience. A story outside of ourselves.
JLC: Thank you so much for your time, Amy! I’m absolutely thrilled to have “My Heart Beats with Nature” on the cover of A WORLD IN WHICH, and I look forward to the book and your work making their way into the world together!
AS: Thank you again J.L. I am so excited to have my work on your amazing book!
A World in Which is available at 
Praise for A WORLD IN WHICH: 

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

More Thoughts about Manuscript Submissions

I recently completed the 18th submission period at Terrapin Books. Here are some thoughts I jotted down as I read. I hope you'll find them useful for your own manuscript submissions, though each publisher and editor has their own guidelines and perhaps an idiosyncrasy or two.

1. There’s a bit of a trend now with plentiful use of ampersands. I don’t care for them as I find them a visual distraction, especially if there are a lot of them in the poem. Avoid them or be very sparing.

2. I find way too many hyphen errors. Be sure to check your hyphenated words. I use the online Merriam Webster dictionary.

3. Poems in columns rarely serve any useful purpose. Go cautiously!

4. Avoid pretentious Notes at the end of your manuscript. They often provide unnecessary information. Can you, instead, use an informational note in the poems’s epigraph position?

5. Speaking of epigraphs, avoid name-dropping in that spot, e.g., “dedicated to famous poet/ person,” or “after some famous poet.” 

6. If your poem really is after another poet / poem, be sure to indicate that in the epigraph position. Without the proper attribution, you risk being accused of plagiarism.

7. Avoid excessive use of epigraphs. 

8. One space after a period, not two. I shouldn’t have to be saying this as two spaces died at least 30 years ago. You date yourself when you stubbornly cling to an outdated practice.

9. Don’t be that person who waits until the last minute to submit! You know that’s when your power is going to go off. And when you write me a begging note the next day, I’m going to have to say Sorry.

10. Don’t include blurbs with your submission. That looks presumptuous. Blurbs come after your manuscript has been accepted.

11. Get the name of the press right. Check your cover letter. I never hold it against someone when they misspell my name or get the press name wrong, but it’s not a good look. Makes you look careless.

12. Do not ever use the copyright symbol. It’s insulting, as if you fear the publisher might steal your work. And your work is automatically copyrighted. The symbol is unnecessary.

13. In your cover letter, if you list any titles of books you’ve had published, be sure to include the press along with the title.

14. Do not say that you have been “widely” published. Sounds braggy.

15. The time to research a press is Before you submit, not After. Before you submit, be sure the press is one you'd really like to have publish your book.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Thoughts on Poetry Manuscript Submission

I just completed the 15th reading period for Terrapin Books. It's hard to believe but the press has now been around for seven years! During that time I've read a lot of poetry manuscripts. I've read lots of wonderful material. But I've also noticed some of the same errors being made again and again. So I've jotted some of them down and offer them here, hoping that they might be useful to you as you prepare your next manuscript submission for Terrapin or another press. Of course, these are my thoughts; another press may have very different thoughts.

1. The first thing your reader sees is your cover letter. Make it work for you. Keep it brief and focused on you as a poet. Don't bother to tell your age (you'd be surprised how many people share this irrelevant information). Also don't list the big name poets you've studied with. Do not be a name dropper!

2. Also do not include in your cover letter any words of praise from other poets or teachers. This will not affect the reader's impression of your work. Definitely do not include blurbs. Why would you already have blurbs, the potential publisher wonders. But feel free to include information about any close acceptances the manuscript has had.

3. If you are asked to provide a description of your manuscript's content in your cover letter, keep that brief and focused. If you find it impossible to describe your manuscript, it's possible that you haven't yet found its center. I see lots of descriptions that list a dozen themes covered in the manuscript: nature, climate change, love, death, religious conversion, pollution, birds, waterways, marriage, children, and so on. Look at that list. Can you find some common themes? Might they suggest a way to tighten up your cover letter—and your manuscript? I also often find that after a list of a number of dark themes, the poet adds a note to the effect that there's also some optimism or that the collection ends with hope. It's not your job to cheer me up. If it's there, fine, but don't force it. I like darkness and so do a lot of other readers.

4. The next thing your reader sees is your title. Don't title your collection with a word no one knows. Why confuse the reader and put a fence around your collection? You can get away with this for an individual poem but not for the collection title. 

5. Also regarding titles, there's a trend towards long titles. Go easy here. Some of the ones I've seen just struck me as a kind of strutting, showing off—look at how clever I am! Also very long titles are difficult to format on a cover. This won't get you rejected, but why do it?

6. In your poems, be parsimonious with "how" clauses. I too often see lists of these. This has become an overused strategy. Likewise, avoid overusing "the way" to begin items in a series.

7. Be very sparing with poems about poems. I can take maybe one per manuscript. You won't get rejected if you have more, but if your manuscript is accepted, I will almost certainly ask you to revise some of those poems. I find this kind of poem particularly vexing when the poem is making its way along beautifully on a particular topic and then suddenly starts referring to itself as "this poem." That knocks me right out of the poem. My heart sinks with disappointment.

8. Avoid great blue herons in your poems. I add this here for a light touch, but seriously that bird is so overused in poetry! Surely there are other magnificent birds. And does it have to be a bird?

9. In your Acknowledgments do not include bibliographical information such as page numbers. Just journal titles and poem titles. And be sure to use alphabetical order. Get out a few books by the press you're submitting to and follow the format used for the Acknowledgments in those books. It's pretty standard. 

10. Read the Guidelines and follow them. Also read any FAQs that the press provides. Terrapin provides FAQs which should answer most questions submitting poets might have. Yet each submission period brings some chapbook submissions (we don't do chapbooks) and a few New & Selecteds (we also don't do these). Don't waste your time and submission fee by submitting what the press doesn't publish.

11. Terrapin's Guidelines ask that 25%-50% (or more) of the poems in the manuscript have been previously published. Why then submit a manuscript with none of the poems previously published? A few years ago someone who wanted to submit but who hadn't published any of the poems chewed me out about this request. It wasn't his fault, he insisted, that none of his poems had been published; it was the fault of journal editors who wouldn't accept his poems. My argument ended there.

12. Don't wait until the last minute to submit your manuscript. Poets ask if there's any benefit to submitting early or late. Really, no. But lots of poets wait until the last two days of a submission period to submit. Might make the reader cranky. Not me, of course, but maybe some other reader. 

13. Get your hands on at least one book by the press you plan to submit to. (If you can't afford to purchase a book or two, at least peruse the Look Inside feature at Amazon for a sample of what the press publishes and how they format a book.) It makes no sense to submit to a press you know nothing about, yet I more than occasionally receive submissions from poets who clearly know nothing about the  press.

14. Only submit to a press if you would be happy to be published by that press. If your heart is set on winning a contest, then only submit to contests. A few years ago I accepted a manuscript. The poet stalled her response, then said she'd decided to withdraw as she really wanted to win a contest. She should never have submitted to the press in the first place.

15. Practice Patience and Persistence. Poetry is a slow art. I have a number times received two or even three submissions from the same poet. How is it possible to have that many solid manuscripts in circulation? Consider pulling out the very best poems from the manuscripts and making one new manuscript.

I hope that these tips will give you some guidance as you put together or revise your manuscript. Terrapin's next reading period is January 24 thru February 28. Check out our Guidelines and our FAQs.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Terrapin Books Interview Series: Ann Keniston Interviews Kory Wells

The following is the sixteenth in a series of brief interviews in which one Terrapin poet interviews another Terrapin poet, one whose book was affected by the Pandemic. The purpose of these interviews is to draw some attention to books which missed out on book launches and in-person readings. Ann Keniston talks with Kory Wells about using a central metaphor as an organizing principle, the role of facts and stories in a collection, and the arc of a poetry collection.

Ann Keniston: Sugar is central to your collection, as the book title, Sugar Fix, makes clear. Yet sugar seems to mean different things—at times it’s aligned with desire and pleasure, and at others it’s something to be resisted, an “urge,” in one poem, that the speaker is “unlearning.” Can you talk a bit about how you understand sugar in the collection? How did it become central to the collection? Did its meaning change or become more complex as you worked on the manuscript?

Kory Wells: It’s hard to believe now, but I didn’t know that sugar was going to be such a central motif of the collection for quite some time. I knew I was writing about identity and connection and love, and that I was witnessing to the power of story and memory. I also knew I wanted to incorporate a wider sense of history and social context. But it wasn’t until I wrote “Due to Chronic Inflammation,” which interweaves the speaker’s addiction to sugar with America’s addiction to gun violence, that the bells went off in my head: I can’t tell my story without talking about sugar: red velvet cake, sugar sandwiches, Dairy Queen, marshmallow pies. My ancestors even lived at a place called Sugar Fork! Sugar represents many factual details of my family history. But more than that, for me sugar represents longing: my longing for romance, yes, but more than that, for kinship and connection—even across time and the troubling aspects of our country’s history and present.

Keniston: I noticed that you use the word “fact” several times in the course of the book, often in relation to something you want to amplify or contradict. And then the word “story” also recurs. Can you talk about how you see the relation between those two terms? Are stories a way to correct so-called facts or to amplify or complicate them? Given that many stories are associated with family, especially a grandmother figure, do these stories have the weight of truth, perhaps emotional truth? Or can they also be misleading or deceptive?

Wells: Thanks so much for this question! This tension between stories and facts dominates our entire socio-political climate, right? It’s common to hear someone say, “We need all the facts” and believe those facts tell THE story. But we don’t often hear, “We need all the stories.” And even if we did, how often are we truly open to hearing someone whose story we think we may not like or agree with?

I think that’s what Sugar Fix is attempting to champion, in its own small way—the idea that we need all the stories, and that the best, fullest stories dissolve the line between us and them.

A major thread of this book comes from my obsession with how my family’s oral history jibes—or fails to jibe—with facts I learned from genealogical research and DNA testing. In my experience, the stories my grandmother and other family members told definitely captured some of the truth, and that still matters deeply, even if it’s not the full story.

The facts are that my family traces back to the Catawba, and before that a Saponi tribe, but hearing the story that I was descended from Cherokee who narrowly escaped the Trail of Tears still shapes the empathy and connection I feel today.

The facts are that I’m descended from a woman who was arrested for dancing and masquerading as a man in Philadelphia in 1703. The facts are also that I am of African descent. I can’t say these facts—which are relatively new to me—are life-changing. But they expand my story, and that’s part of what I was writing toward in these poems. How I include new facts in my story, my own self-reckoning, particularly as a person who tries to be intentional about connection and allyship, is, to me, significant.  

Keniston: I was really interested in your use of the word “cousin,” first in relation to the possibly-but-probably-not blood relative Gypsy Rose Lee and then as an addressee in several other poems. It seems like part of the book’s project is to destabilize conventional lineage-based ideas of family, as well as race and history. Can you talk a bit about how you extend the notion of family, maybe especially in relation to your use of form, including renewable forms like the villanelle, sonnet, and ghazal? To put it another way, what is the relation of the theme of family to that of political reimagining in the book?

Wells: Oh, thank you for noticing how I address cousins! Perhaps I’m intrigued by the idea of consanguinity because I’m an only child. Or because I grew up in a small town, where people are more connected than you realize, and you have to be careful you don’t bad-mouth your new friend’s second cousin. Or perhaps, amid our national divisiveness, I’m reaching, reaching for common threads.

At any rate, I think my use of form is, in one sense, a nod to the various rhythms that have shaped me as a Southerner with Appalachian roots: a rich storytelling tradition, the cadence of Southern and Appalachian speech, the rhythms of old time and classic country music, the spread of a Sunday soul food dinner, the particularly Southern customs of hospitality and manners. All of these things ignite my sense of kinship.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, as someone who came to poetry by way of computer science, I have occasionally felt like an outsider to the literary community. I want to be clear: I do feel a deep belonging much of the time—I have so much gratitude for the kinship of fellow writers! But let’s face it—there are a lot of poets, and it can be easy to feel overlooked. By employing poetic form, I think I am, in a small way, acknowledging literary tradition and saying, “I want to belong.”

Keniston: Can you talk about the shape of the book? Your last section title is “As I Already Said, Sugar” and circles back to some of the themes of the first section. Yet things seem different by the end of the manuscript: several of the poems look forward to an uncertain future rather than back to childhood. Can you talk about how you imagined the arc of the book?

Wells: I enjoy reading poetry collections that have a definite arc, so I started thinking about that with my manuscript early on. Initially, for a few years while I was working on the manuscript, I used a James Dickey quatrain—the last lines of “Into the Stone” —divided into four sections as an organizational device. One of my early readers, a novelist friend, said it was “impenetrable,” so that’s when I backed up and started looking at excerpting my own words as section titles. But the Dickey excerpt was still in my mind: this idea of how the dead “have the chance in my body,” and how that interweaves with stories and what we carry, and the comfort of knowing and being known.

In revision, I also faced the fact that my grandmother, who is a definite character in my earlier chapbook, Heaven Was the Moon (March Street Press) and who I thought I was sort of done with, deserved a greater role in framing the collection. “Untold Story,” which is the first poem in section one, and “When the Watched Pot Boils,” the first poem in the final section, were both written relatively late in the process and reflect how I finally came to understand this collection as being all about story.

Sample poem from Sugar Fix

He drove a four-door Chevy, nothing sexy,
but I'd been thinking of his mouth for weeks

when he finally called me up
and asked if I'd like to get
some ice cream.

I was full from supper and my
thighs sure didn't need it, but
I've never struggled with

priorities. That Dairy Queen
had gone downhill even then—
bright red logo faded like a movie star
who's kissed away all her lipstick—
but it still had a drive-in, and he
knew how I was about nostalgia

and sugar. This is how a place
became our song. We parked
under the sun-bleached canopy
and I leaned over him
pretending to read the menu.
Then at his rolled-down window
we confessed our desires
more or less into thin air,
which now that I think about it
sounds a little like church
and believe you me

I'd been praying about him.
How I wanted him.
How if I couldn't have him,
I wanted to be free
of want. Do you get that way
sometimes? Where all
you can think about is
chocolate, chocolate, chocolate,
or in my case man, man,
that man. The bench seat
of his Chevy became a pew,
the space between us palpable
as the early summer humidity.

I kept telling myself
it's just an ice cream,
but even then I knew
love is a kind of ruin.
When those cones arrived
so thick and voluptuous,
I almost blushed to open my mouth
before him, expose my eager tongue.

                                       Click Cover for Amazon

Kory Wells is the author of Sugar Fix, from Terrapin Books. Her writing has been featured on The Slowdown podcast and recently appears in The Strategic Poet, The Literary Bohemian, Poetry South, Peauxdunque Review, and elsewhere. A former software developer who now nurtures connection and community through the arts, storytelling, and advocacy, Kory mentors poets across the nation through the from-home program MTSU Write and has served as the poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Ann Keniston is a poet, essayist, and critic interested in the relation of the creative to the scholarly. She is the author of several poetry collections, including, most recently, Somatic (Terrapin, 2020), as well as several scholarly studies of contemporary American poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in over thirty journals, including Yale Review, Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literary Imagination. A professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches poetry workshops and literature classes, she lives in Reno, Nevada.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Terrapin Books Interview Series: Kory Wells Interviews Theresa Burns

Click Cover for Amazon

The following is the fifteenth in a series of brief interviews in which one Terrapin poet interviews another Terrapin poet. In this interview, Kory Wells talks with Theresa Burns about her use of color, the role of gardening and humor in her book, running a reading series, and persistence in getting a manuscript published.

Kory Wells: One of the first things to strike me about Design is how color infuses this collection. The epigraphs introduce white and green through the words of Frost and Lorca, and soon the reader is drenched in color: the yellow of a magnolia goldfinch, a hosta "blue as a lung," turquoise storefronts, the gray-greens of dreams, a burgundy dress, and so on. You even have several poems with color in the title—“Green," "Embarrassed by Orange," and "The New Black"—the latter of which I want to talk more about later!

So I really want to know: Is color as important to Theresa Burns the person as a whole as it is to Theresa Burns the poet? For example, what colors are in your home? Do your rooms mostly share a palette, or do they differ wildly? Do you dress in bright colors?

Theresa Burns: I love your question about color! It is important to me, and I think it's become more so as I've gotten older. It's probably rooted both in my kids' enthusiasms when they were young and also what excites me in the landscape.

When my daughter was a toddler and we asked what her favorite color was, she genuinely couldn't decide. "I love all the colors," she'd say, helplessly. (Though I think she's now settled on yellow.) The older I get, the more I'm with her on this. Why do we need to choose? My son, when he was young, loved purple most, then orange. The poem "Embarrassed by Orange" is about him helping me get over my adult need to push color away, blunt it somehow; he gets me to share his unabashed joy in it.

Color has a huge psychological impact on me. If I'm feeling a little depressed or dulled, I run out to find some orange to bring into the house. Orange tulips, a bowl of tangerines. And everyone in my house knows that if they spot an American goldfinch at the feeder, I must be summoned immediately. So colors make their way into the book, too.

Kory: The patterns in your poems are not only emotional—you also deftly layer nature with the made world, with relationships, with identity, with memory. I don’t mean to imply that a lot of the poems in Design are set in a garden…they’re not…and yet I feel this sense of garden and design as creation, if you will, throughout this collection. Are you a gardener?

Theresa: I love gardening, but I'm not a knowledgeable gardener. For a couple of years, I wrote a column for a local online edition of The New York Times. The idea was a person like me—recently moved from the city, who knows nothing about gardening—writing a gardening column. Instead of expert advice, I would write about the trial and error. And I could be funny. Over time, I came to see how much I loved the garden in a way that was not really scientific or knowledge based, but relationship based, story based. Stories about failure and negotiation and learning from your neighbors. When the Times dropped the local edition after two years, I needed another place to channel this new passion I'd developed. That's when the garden started entering the poems.

There are several poems in the book that are titled “Design,” and the first one did begin with the idea of garden design in my head—like the rule of three. But the poem quickly evolved and became as much about faith and intention and luck as any aesthetic concern, themes closer to those in the Robert Frost poem, “Design.” When I realized all those ideas could live in one small poem, I knew it could form the heart of a manuscript.        

While I don’t consider myself a “nature poet” exactly, I am drawn to the language and rhythms and emotional life I find in the garden, and in nature overall. Because you can make mistakes and change your mind, it has helped me to take more risks. It’s also excellent for those of us in recovery from perfectionism, especially writers! There is no room for perfectionism in a garden; we can start things out, but we are not in control. And it is never finished.   

Kory: “Only when I got a little closer to the dirt,” as you say in your poem “Teaching Whitman in the 21st Century.” You are speaking of the passage of time in that poem, but you’re making me want to go dig in my own perennials now!

Another thing that I appreciate in your poems is your tendency toward humor. And that brings me to "The New Black," your poem in which the speaker (can I call her you?) is at a poetry reading, possibly feeling a bit out of place because you're in mom jeans and an orange sweater, "possibly one / with flowers" (I adore that detail!) and everyone else there seems to fit the stereotype of a poet. It’s a super-fun poem and yet it pokes the beast of poetic identity and the sometimes-gatekeeping of the literary community. As the founder of a community reading series (Watershed Literary Events), can you talk more about the intersection of your personal writing practice with the poetry community?

  I'm glad you asked this question because my knee jerk response might have been a glib one about the gatekeeping and cliquishness of some folks in the poetry community. But that, by and large, has not been my experience. That said, the poem "The New Black" is based on a conflation of two real life events, both of which took place in Brooklyn a few years back when my kids were small, and it took enormous reserves of time, money and guilt capital just to get myself into Brooklyn to be part of a reading.

In one case, the poet introducing me seemed to be apologizing to the audience that I lived in New Jersey, stressing that I used to live in Brooklyn, so maybe that mitigated it. In the second case, the poet introducing me to the host seemed to apologize to him for how I was dressed: "She looks conservative, but she's anything but!" I was wearing a blouse with flowers on it, and it was being read as political or social conservatism. And then I became acutely aware that everyone else there was dressed in black and grey, with heavy black boots, and I sort of wrote that poem on the train on the way back to my town that night, where the next day everything was blooming and lots of folks were dressed in bright colors and kind of drunk on Spring, and I felt perfectly at home.   

When I first started Watershed Literary Events in 2019, it was part of a plan in my town to offer some off-site activities while their arts center was being renovated. The town leaders liked the idea of a spoken word series, and I figured well, we could keep this going for a couple years with just Jersey-related people. And what I soon realized was the depth and breadth of the talent out here. It seems every week I learn about another writer I admire who was born here, or moved here, or teaches here. Everyone knows Whitman and W.C. Williams lived in NJ. But Paul Auster grew up in my town, and so did Alicia Mountain, a young poet who I think is brilliant. I'd never heard of Jane Wong or Rachelle Parker before I worked on Watershed—now I'm their #1 fan. I could do this for decades!

Yes to all of this! As the founder of a local series myself, I understand—and celebrate—that sense of local richness. But I know I also struggle, sometimes, with getting to my own work when there are so many opportunities for community outreach. So, for a final question: How much do you feed community, and how much does it feed you?

Theresa: I'll just say it's probably worth noting that the poetry book I'd been writing and revising and submitting for about 20 years—Design—finally got done during the last couple of years, while being locked down during a pandemic and continuing to work on Watershed with our Program Manager, Anne Wessel. I don't think that's an accident, and it may be why those wise people who give advice to poets trying to get manuscripts published tell them to keep trying, and while they're trying, to practice their poetry citizenship, help poetry happen around them. It changes something, makes you feel part of the whole continuum of poets and poem making. It helps you find your place in it. 

Sample poem from Design   

The New Black

Because I wore an orange

sweater to the reading, possibly one

with flowers, and had my black

standard-issue MFA glasses

holstered for the moment

in a pocket of my mom jeans,

my poet friend apologized

to the emcee while introducing me,

hand at her throat, assured him

good naturedly that though

I lived in Jersey now, I did in fact

reside in Brooklyn once

and, despite appearances,

belonged among them, the ones

in black leather, black jeans,

Doc Martens, ombre hair, smoke

lenses, each one a small storm

gathering as he took the stage

to read, features illumined

from below, crepuscular,

and I wanted to shout, Am I not

one of you, brother, confrère

though I’ve taken the train

to this dive, not the subway.

And the trees of the town I just left

were exploding like seltzer

bottles thrown down a stair.

What’s more, I have a garden there,

and the craziest orange azalea

opened just last week,

its color the latest cheesy
devotion I wear on my sleeve.

Click Cover for Amazon

Theresa Burns' debut collection of poems, Design, was released from Terrapin Books in 2022. She is also the author of the chapbook Two Train Town (2017). Her poetry, reviews, and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, Verse Daily, The Cortland Review, The Night Heron Barks, Plume, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee and former book editor, she is the founder of the community-based reading series Watershed Literary Events and teaches writing in and around New York. An earlier version of Design was a finalist in both the Barry Spacks Poetry Prize from Gunpowder Press and the Homebound Publications Poetry Prize for 2021.

Kory Wells is the author of Sugar Fix, a poetry collection from Terrapin Books. Her writing has been featured on The Slowdown podcast and recently appears in The Strategic Poet, The Literary Bohemian, Poetry South, Peauxdunque Review and elsewhere. A former software developer who now nurtures connection and community through the arts, storytelling, and advocacy, Kory mentors poets across the nation through the from-home program MTSU Write and has served as the poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Making More of Revision

During revision discussions, we poets hear a lot about compression, reducing clutter, and cutting out the non-essential. Who hasn’t sat in a poetry class or workshop and been told that less is more? So when someone tells us to add more, to expand, to keep going, we might be hesitant to pay attention.

But we should pay attention. The less-is-more principle is often good advice, but it’s not always good advice. As I once heard Mark Doty say, Sometimes more is more.

Too often we start revising and hacking away at the poem before it’s even fully written. We quit before we’ve given the poem life, before we’ve discovered its full potential, before we’ve found its real material.

Stephen Dunn addresses the topic of revision in a 2007 interview in Pedestal Magazine:
"A fairly new experience that I’ve been having is revision as expansion. Most of us know about revision as an act of paring down. Several years ago, in looking at my work, I saw that I was kind of a page or page and a half kind of poet, which meant that I was thinking of closure around the same time in every poem. I started to confound that habit. By mid-poem, I might add a detail that the poem couldn’t yet accommodate. That’s especially proven to be an interesting and useful way of revising poems that seem too slight or thin; to add something, put in an obstacle. The artificial as another way to arrive at the genuine—an old story, really."

Before you begin to strip down your poem or abandon it as no good or decide it’s good enough as it is, first consider how you might expand your poem. The following expansion strategies just might help you to discover your poem’s true potential and arrive at the genuine.

1. Choose a single poem by someone else, one that has strong diction. Take ten words from that poem and, in no particular order, plug them into your own draft. Make them make sense within the context of your poem, adjusting your context as needed. Or let the words introduce an element of the strange, a touch of the surreal.

2. Find the lifeless part of your poem. This is often the part where your mind begins to wander when you read the poem aloud. Open up space there and keep on writing in that space. Repeat elsewhere if needed. Remember that freewriting can occur not only while drafting but also while revising.

3. Find three places in the poem where you could insert a negative statement. Then go into the right margin of your draft and write those statements. Add them to the poem. By being contrary, you might add depth and richness to the poem.

4. Go into the right margin and write some kind of response to each line, perhaps its opposite, perhaps a question. The material that you add to the right margin just might be your best material, the real material. Bring what works into the poem. Make friends with the right margin; good things happen out there.

5. Put something into your poem that seemingly doesn’t belong, perhaps some kind of food, a tree, a piece of furniture, a policeman, or a dog. Elaborate.

6. Add a color and exploit it throughout the poem. This is often a surprisingly effective enlivening strategy, one that can alter the tone of the poem.

7. Go metaphor crazy. Add ten metaphors or similes to the poem. Keep the keepers.

8. Look up the vocabulary of an esoteric subject that has nothing to do with your poem. The subject might be mushroom foraging, astronomy, cryogenics, perfume-making, bee keeping, the Argentinian tango, or zombies. Make a list of at least ten words. Include a variety of parts of speech. Import the words into your poem. Develop as needed.

9. Pick any one concrete object in your poem and personify it throughout the poem. For example, if there’s a rock, give it feelings, let it observe and think, give it a voice. As the object comes alive, so may the poem.

10. Midway or two-thirds into your poem, insert a story, perhaps something from the newspaper, a book you’ve read, a fable, or a fairy tale. Don’t use the entire story, just enough of it to add some texture and weight to your poem. Your challenge is to find the connection between this new material and what was already in the poem.

Now go into your folder of old, abandoned poems, the ones you gave up on when you decided they just weren’t going anywhere. Then get out some of your recent poems that feel merely good enough, the ones that never gave you that jolt of excitement we get when a poem is percolating. Finally, return to some of the poems that you’ve submitted and submitted with no success, those poor rejects.

Mark all of these poems as once again in progress. Now apply some of the expansion strategies and see if you can breathe new life into the poems. Remember that this kind of revision is not a matter of merely making the poem longer; it’s a matter of making the poem better.

(This craft tip appears in my book The Crafty Poet II: A Portable Workshop.)

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Terrapin Books Interview Series: Paige Riehl Interviews Ann Keniston

The following is the fourteenth in a series of brief interviews in which one Terrapin poet interviews another Terrapin poet, one whose book was affected by the Pandemic. The purpose of these interviews is to draw some attention to books which missed out on book launches and in-person readings. Paige Riehl talks with Ann Keniston about combining scholarship with creativity, the role of research in writing poems, the speaker's voice, syntax, and manuscript organization.

Paige Riehl:  Thank you, Ann, for discussing your powerful poetry collection Somatic with me. Somatic is organized into four sections that explore the complexities of illness, in particular the diagnosis of hysteria, through the life and treatment of Anna O, the first hysteric diagnosed by Dr. Josef Breuer in the late 1800s. You expressed your interest in the relationship between the creative and scholarly, so would you tell us a bit about those intersections in Somatic as they relate to your process of researching hysteria and Anna’s case and writing the poems? Was it a more circuitous than linear process? From where does your interest in the subject matter stem?

Ann Keniston:  The book evolved from several sources. One was the aftermath of my mother’s death; I actually published a chapbook of elegies about her (November Wasps, Finishing Line), some of which I revised—mostly pretty heavily—for Somatic. My interest in Anna O. and hysteria had several sources: I’ve always been interested in the relation of mind and body, and somehow I stumbled across a bunch of documents about Anna, from the first case study to a radically revisionary article by H.F. Ellenberger published in 1972 to a bunch of more recent feminist and other studies. Anna was kind of a blank screen for critics, it seems, who projected their own interests onto her. Before I ever thought of writing poems about this topic, I compiled a little anthology of those writings as a unit in an honors composition course I was teaching about memory. I just kept reading about Anna and hysteria and got more and more fascinated, and also a little repelled. I began writing poems about Anna, and also in her voice (or that of a more generic hysteric who was also, of course, partly me), and realized that the elegies were in fact relevant to the Anna poems, so I worked to bring those elements of the ms together.

Paige: The opening poem titled “Opaque” begins with the line “and then my mother wasn’t / there.” This poem explores the concept of absence, which is a theme in the book, and how it’s unexplainable, more defined by what it isn’t than is, although the poem ends with “unless someone chooses / a single moment / to preserve and undertake / the labor of transcribing it.”  I read those lines as relating to both the poem’s content and to you as poet, the transcriptionist laboring to illustrate and preserve these tangled and complex historical moments, including what is absent from the records. What unique opportunities does the poetic form provide when exploring this history and subject matter? Do you think that the poetic form offers an opportunity achieve a “truth” that the medical records and case studies cannot?

Ann:  I was definitely thinking about my own poetic project in that poem; in fact, this is one of the poems I revised heavily from the chapbook, so I was literally engaged in a laborious process. When I write poems, I often try to unfasten myself from linearity and narrative. Poems like “Opaque” allow me to explore contradictions and paradoxes that feel powerful to me. I often say that writing poems allows me to bring my analytic, thinking self to feelings that are powerful but inchoate, the kinds of often contradictory or self-defeating feelings that I sometimes think organize my life—and maybe everyone’s. In that context, I was especially interested that Breuer’s familiar published case history of Anna was in fact a radical revision of a shorter, unpublished one that was much less conclusive. Writing poems based on the case histories, from which I cite in often scattered ways, allowed me to further disrupt their logic, to focus on them as linguistic artifacts rather than arguments, and to expose the ways their arguments were in fact fictions constructed to support newly emerging theories. I was interested in the book in trying out different forms, both more and less coherent, again to try to get at what felt almost inexpressible, especially in terms of the complicated relation between bodily symptoms and their psychological causes.

Paige:  I keep returning to the poem “Conversion.” I so admire the intensity of the short lines, the surprising metaphors, the way the poem turns and builds upon itself: “And then I made / an actual girl, hysterical, / from husks / and scattered pages / and her dust. / I licked her lips / and then her scar, / hurt bruise, / bereaved, her / hiding place. I mean / she was a house / I squatted in.” Will you talk a little about the speaker in this poem as well as your process of determining who else would be given voice in the collection? Do some poems have a speaker whose voice blurs or overlaps with your own as poet?

Ann: Absolutely. “Conversion” talks about a hysterical figure without appropriating her body or voice. It is a kind of ars poetica: I literally had the pages of different articles scattered around me as I wrote. I’m still not exactly sure why I became so preoccupied with Anna and hysteria, though I have had some firsthand experience with psychosomatic illness (now called conversion disorder). (I was also interested in the pun: I was converting documents depicting someone with conversion disorder into a not-quite living person who was also a version of me. My scholarly work on contemporary U.S. poetry has focused a lot on elegy and the ways poems create and invoke ghostly versions of the dead.) Using Anna as a foil and adopting the kind of “hysterical” voice that I and others have associated with the operatic aria—halting, aphasic, redundant, nonlinear, but also kind of histrionic—enabled me to express things I couldn’t otherwise. So, to answer your last question directly, I’d say all the poems in the volume, no matter who narrates them, speak in versions of my voice.

Paige:  You are adept at using language and syntax to create tension in your poems that reflect and reveal the layers of historical tension—the tension between what is imagined vs. recorded, real vs. performance, between “treatment” and mistreatment. In “Concordance,” you write “each / almost-theory disproven by the newest batch / of symptoms till psychoanalysis became a curtain / filled with holes and also light.” Is effective poetic tension like that metaphor—"a curtain / filled with holes and also light?” Is building tension an intuitive process for you? Tell us about your process of creating and controlling tension and the function of disjunction in your poetry.

Ann:  I often say I’m not an especially good drafter of poems, but I’m pretty good at revision. All the poems in the volume were heavily reworked, and at times reimagined from scratch multiple times, so I’d hesitate to say that these poems were “intuitive” in the sense of having written themselves. I think tensions are what I am most interested in—the tensions you mention, and how they are evident in tonal shifts and turns. In the poems I most love (and study most intently), the process of reading the poem involves surprises. I love it when poems swerve—when they move, especially over a line or stanza break, into unexpected territory. The idea of something simultaneously torn and revelatory is really powerful for me. I had a yoga teacher who used to play a piece called something like “Light on Fish Scales” during savasana, which reminds me of Bishop’s image of iridescent fish scales in “At the Fishhouses.” The notion breakage or splintering makes something more beautiful is really powerful for me, amd that suffering allows things to be revealed that can’t be otherwise. I’ve strayed quite a bit from your question, but I think that the topics I’m most drawn to write about are ones that involve, or let me create, tensions of different kinds.

Paige:  Will you talk about the book’s structure a bit more? The book is divided into sections subtitled Elegies, Odes, and Arias. What are those forms for you and what is the effect of juxtaposing them?

Ann:  I’ve long been interested in the elegy and ode as forms. As I mentioned before, I’ve written quite a bit about elegy in my scholarly work, and was very influenced by a weeklong seminar I took on the ode at the National Humanities Center led by Susan Stewart over a decade ago and actually wrote an article on the contemporary ode afterward. I am interested in the distinctive features of these forms, but also the ways they overlap, the ways elegies can end up as praise poems  and odes can focus on unpraiseworthy entities or experiences. I kind of stumbled on the idea of the aria as a third (hysterical) mode: it seemed to me to express the kind of extremist and also performative speech a hysteric might use, and I was especially happy to see that Peter Brooks (in an article I cite from as the epigraph to Part Three) sees the operatic aria as a distinctively hysterical form. I return to the ode in the last section, entitled “Assemblage,” but differently: these poems attempt to locate a mode of praise that emerges from fragmentation and the reassembly of parts. Those poems focus direcly on actions of breakage and remaking, as the poem titles (“Profusion,” “Sutured,” “Reassembly,” “Accrual,” etc.) indicate.

Sample poem from Somatic:


So I could let her in    
                            and spill

my secret animosity and

sweet, I found some other

broken girls I hadn’t known

existed till she
                got lost to me, lacy

wraiths I pitied first, then came

to love since all they had

were bodies and the body’s

requirements come both first 

and last. Illness is another

form of speech,
                    somatic, enmeshed

in flesh and manifest as symptom

and release,

                   a code

I also speak, their voices

my portion, penance, snippet.

violent or tender but

                           always loyal

since all I wanted

was not to further harm

my fragile, lost, familiar one.

                Click Cover for Amazon

Ann Keniston
 is a poet, essayist, and critic interested in the relation of the creative to the scholarly. She is the author of several poetry collections, including, most recently, Somatic (Terrapin 2020), as well as several scholarly studies of contemporary American poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in over thirty journals, including Yale Review, Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literary Imagination. A professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches poetry workshops and literature classes, she lives in Reno.

Suspension (Terrapin Books, 2018) and the poetry chapbook Blood Ties (Finishing Line Press, 2014). Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications such as Artful Dodge, Crab Orchard Review, Water-Stone Review, Portland Review, and Meridian. She was a finalist for the 2017 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry with Milkweed Edition, winner of the 2012-2013 Loft Mentor Series in Poetry, and was a 2016 & 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee. She served as the Poetry Editor for Midway Journal, as poetry mentor for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and is an English faculty member at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, where she is Chair of the Two Rivers Reading Series and 2021-2022 Co-Coordinator for Minnesota State Write Like Us.

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