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.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Terrapin Books Interview Series: Diane LeBlanc Interviews Robin Rosen Chang

The following is the thirteenth 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. Diane LeBlanc talks with Robin Rosen Chang about the role of a prefatory poem, the use of myth in poetry, manuscript organization, and the function of form.

Diane LeBlanc: The first poem in The Curator’s Notes, “My Mother Was Water,” introduces some of the collection’s central motifs: water, a mother/daughter relationship, origin stories, exile, survival. It serves as a preface or frontispiece. I always wonder if poets choose a poem with great weight for that position in a book, or if a poem gathers force when situated alone before a series of sections. What can you tell us about that poem and about its place in the collection?

Robin Rosen Chang: “My Mother Was Water” was actually the working title of my collection. However, I felt that, as a title, it incorrectly implied that the collection was all about the mother figure. On the other hand, the poem works well as a prefatory poem because it introduces many of the book’s themes. Through this poem, the reader is presented with the importance of stories—origin stories, stories we inherit, stories we adapt, stories we ourselves curate—as well as the types of relationships that are prominent in The Curator’s Notes, namely those between mothers and daughters and between women and men. It also serves as a launching point for my own origin story, while foreshadowing some of the turbulence that ensues.

Diane: We just touched on origin stories. You begin the book with your origin story. Then, poems such as “Bleeding into the Garden,” “The Creation of Adam,” “Apple,” “The Snake,” and one of my favorites, “Motherless, Eve,” return to the Biblical creation myth to contemplate origins of human beings, paradise, sin, loss, grief, even stories themselves. What draws you to the Garden of Eden story in these poems?

Robin: I’m not sure what initially impelled me to write the Creation poems, but in retrospect, I’m sure I intuited there was something crucial about the figure of Eve. “Bleeding into the Garden” was the first one that I wrote, and in it and the other Creation poems, I begin to interrogate stories that have been handed down to us. For example, why should it be taken for granted that Eve was the first to be disobedient? Why would Eve and Adam be ashamed of being naked? It was exciting and liberating for me to be able to write poems that felt so different from my usual preoccupations, but also, interrogating those stories empowered me to think more critically about my own story. When I began to reflect on how the Eve poems related to the poems I had written about loss and about the speaker’s mother, I realized that Eve was literally motherless. That understanding prompted me to delve into what being motherless would really mean. Imagining Eve and Adam together also gave me a way to explore relationships between women and men.

Diane: Knowing that you had several poems in dialogue with the creation myth, how did you determine their placement in the book? I can never decide if I should group similar poems or weave them throughout a collection. The dispersed effect in The Curator’s Notes is powerful. The myth becomes increasingly integrated into the world of the book until the real and mythical, the ancient and the contemporary, are interchangeable in “After Eden.” What can you tell us about organizing the collection?

Robin: Organizing the collection was a challenge. The collection started as my thesis for my MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. I had always wanted the Creation series to be part of the thesis, but I didn’t know how to integrate them into the collection. My advisor, Rodney Jones, suggested that they could be interspersed and in conversation with the other poems. That’s when I started understanding the relationship between Eve and the speaker. Still, deciding where to place different poems was difficult because The Curator’s Notes has other threads related to nature, art, language, and Spain. I first experimented with placing the narrative poems in chronological order and strategically placing the lyric poems among them. When Diane Lockward began working with me to bring the book to fruition, she suggested I let go of chronology since this book deals with curating stories and also with memory. That opened up lots of options.  

Diane: Let’s talk about form. Your poems vary in terms of the number and pattern of stanzas, line lengths, and alignment. That variation creates appealing use of negative space. I’m particularly interested in what I call the skinny couplets of “Futility,” “Ashamed,” and “Holding On.” The lines are two to three words long with a lot of white space to their right. Do you have an influential poet’s work in mind or does a certain kind of content inspire those spare lines? I’m curious how a poem’s appearance on the page influences your form and language choices.

Robin: William Carlos Williams is of course well known for some of his very spare poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” or “This Is Just to Say.” Rae Armantrout, a contemporary Language poet, is also masterful with short lines. While Williams, Armantrout, and others use short lines in different ways, parceling information into small chunks and offering only the most essential bits, surrounded by white space, intensifies the impact of what is there. It pops and takes on more meaning, while what is not said is almost ghostlike and still felt.

The poems you mentioned—“Futility,” “Ashamed,” and “Holding On”— are among the most difficult poems I wrote because they intimately and directly deal with loss. They address a loss that is not mitigated by distance, but one that is immediate and acutely painful. In these three poems, the speaker’s mother is dying, and the speaker’s feelings are complex and raw. Because of this, the only way I could write these poems was by uttering what I felt I had to say. Thus, the content led to the form of these poems, while the form also acted upon the content. In this sense, these poems are very organic. I have to add that concise poems like these are incredibly difficult to write. Each word must be earned, and their placement on the page and every line break becomes crucial.

The poems in your collection raise timeless questions. In the book’s title poem, you recognize the tension between extinction and survival in species and in family. Since other poems explore the relationship between knowledge and responsibility, I’m wondering about “the curator’s” responsibility to the dying and the living. At what point in writing the poems in this book did you realize you were living with these questions?  

Robin: You’re correct that a lot of the poems in The Curator’s Notes deal with survival, whether it is of individuals, families or entire species. This only became evident to me during the process of revising some poems with an eye to making the collection more cohesive. “Great Green Macaw,” the final poem in the second section, is one I had always been fond of, but I could never find the proper closure for it. While revising that poem, the line “[t]ell me how you survive/this perishing world” came to me. That’s when it became clear to me that survival is the underlying subject of this book. But also, recognizing beauty and love, even when it appears in unusual places and unrecognizable forms, and curating one’s own story are essential for being able to live in this world.

Sample Poem from The Curator's Notes:

The Curator’s Notes   

In amber, the thin, articulated vertebrae of a Coelurosaur,
feathered landlubber, festooned with thousands of wispy fluffs
resembling leaves—rachis with pinnules, chestnut-color on
top, colorless on the bottom—probable cousin of the “chicken
from hell.” Neither destined to endure—

Like the rodent, Bramble Cay Melomys, recently extinct. Or
the Darwin Fox, numbers dwindling as earth, once recovered,
gets increasingly inhospitable. Our generations will also
shrink. The Formicidae will prosper, a most dubious hero—

The ant. One glows in the amber resin. Its multi-chambered
spine—head, thorax, bloated abdomen. Six legs, each bends
in three places—eighteen joints that motored him through ferns
and conifers, under lumbering big-headed dinosaurs and
tiny-brained armored grass grazers, between the legs of
cockroaches. The species marched 100 million years to the
other side of the K-T mass extinction, dropping small white
eggs on its way, colonizing almost every landmass. Survivors.
At any moment, 10 quadrillion walk the planet—

And in her bed, my mother. Her bowed back, its protruding
spinous process, like a nautilus’ chambers, spirals inward
toward oblivion. The archivist, I note the world disappearing
before my still-good eyes, and wish I could change nature’s
course—uncurl her.

Click for Amazon

Robin Rosen Chang is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Curator’s Notes (Terrapin Books, 2021). Her poems appear in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Journal, Diode, Verse Daily, Poet Lore, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Cortland Review, and other journals. They have also been included in Terrapin Books’ A Constellation of Kisses and The Strategic Poet. She is the recipient of the Oregon Poetry Association’s Fall 2018 Poets’ Choice Award, an honorable mention for Spoon River Poetry Review’s 2019 Editors’ Prize, and a 2020 and 2021 Pushcart nominee. She has an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Diane LeBlanc is a writer, teacher, and book artist with roots in Vermont, Wyoming, and Minnesota. Her books include The Feast Delayed (Terrapin Books 2021) and four poetry chapbooks. Her poems and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Cimarron Review, Green Mountains Review, Mid-American Review, Sweet, and other journals. Diane is a certified holistic life coach with emphasis in creative practice. She directs the writing program and teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Terrapin Books Interview Series: Robb Fillman Interviews Meghan Sterling

The following is the twelfth 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. Robb Fillman talks with Meghan Sterling about poetry and place, poetry and parenting, the function of titling, and poetry and form.

Robert Fillman: Thank you, Meghan, for taking a moment to chat with me about your ambitious debut collection, These Few Seeds, which I loved! The book covers a lot of ground—Brooklyn, London, Greece, California, New England, Texas—was your intention to evoke place (and a range of places) when you set out to write this collection? Or did you have some other governing principle in mind? 

Meghan Sterling: It is a whirlwind, isn’t it? A big part of my life has been traveling the world—it was actually in Peru that I decided to have my daughter. As my first collection, I wanted to give it the breadth of my life, all that came before that delivered me to my daughter, as it were, that made me the person who could be her mother, who could mother at all. Traveling also gives me a broader sense of grief about what we are losing to climate change. And she may not take after me, but if she does, I hope she can travel a world that still has sacred and pristine spaces.

Robb: So many of the poems in These Few Seeds are tender representations of motherhood. And yet, they are often textured by an awareness of the environmental crises that threaten to upend intimate moments with your child. Could you talk about the feelings you are working through as you bring these themes together?

Meghan: There is a sharpness in intense joy that sometimes carries the resemblance of intense grief with it. When I was pregnant with my daughter, the wilderness around Asheville, NC, where we were living at the time, was on fire, and Asheville was a bowl of smoke. Australia was on fire, California was on fire, and the Amazon was on fire. The world was on fire. It has been on fire in every way since that time. With my daughter's tender growing comes the grief and uncertainty that this world deserves her, or that the parts that do will survive long enough to become part of the landscape that shapes her. And I write into that fear and sorrow and love.

Robb: I appreciate that the phrase "these few seeds" (which is, of course, the title of the book) appears in the last line of the final poem. It keeps the reader in suspense, waiting for that revelatory moment! Would you walk us through how you arrived at the title of the book and how you see that metaphor operating for the collection as a whole?

Meghan: Oh, titling. I went through so many titles. It took me months. I went from long titles to one word titles—I tried everything. By the end, I knew I wanted something that was three words and contained assonance. I had been inspired by my friend and fellow poet Suzanne Langlois’s chapbook titled, Bright Glint Gone. I loved the clean brevity of it, and the sound of it.  Diane Lockward (publisher of Terrapin Books) and I worked together to search through the manuscript for just the right three-word phrase—and she found it!

Robb: I admire a poet that embraces different forms. Free verse clearly dominates the book, but each of the five sections of These Few Seeds experiments with line and stanza length. In fact, it is rare to see two poems in the collection adopt an identical form. Can you explain how you arrive at the formal structures of your work?

Meghan: I love playing with forms. I started out as a formal poet who has branched into the world of free verse and modern sonnets. However, I love to play with the way a poem looks on the page. One criticism I got early on was that my poems were just blocks of text on the page, so I am sensitive to create space and variety.

I like to let the poem inform me as to the shape. Something very dense might become a series of couplets. Something that has a song-like quality or a certain way of repeating itself might become a series of tercets. If something feels breathless and urgent, it might remain in a block of text, without breaks. And, if something has a certain longing in it, it might become a sonnet. But I experiment until it settles into the form that gives it life.

Robb: I loved so many of these poems: "Morning Prayer," "The Absence of Birds," "Man Subdues Terrorist with Narwhal Tusk on London Bridge," "Adeline," "Apology After the Fire." I could go on! If you had to pick a single poem from the book that means the most to you (for whatever reason), which would it be—and why?   

Meghan: I have a few. “Still Life with Snow,” “Jew(ish),” and “All That I Have is Yours” are some that jump to mind, but my very favorite is probably “Weaning.” It captures some of the raw feeling, the intense physical love between a mother and child, that I really didn’t know existed until I had my daughter. That deep, powerful, physical love has changed me utterly. That poem captures the anguish at each layer of losing a closeness with her. It was the first one—weaning her. There have been more since, and so many more to come. But when I read that one, I cry a little, every time. And that makes me feel like I got at the truth of something, which is, ultimately, why I write poems.

Sample poem from These Few Seeds:

Still Life with Snow

It fell away, that slant of light
that followed us across the North Sea,
across a stable yard, hoofmarks
sunk into the frozen mud. The way the barn
cut the night in two, the hay steaming,
the chickens soft in the roost. I had dreamt
us before we ever came to be, clutching the cold
like a talisman against the bruising of old dreams,
against the inevitable age that would grip us
in its fulsome mouth, a dog in the stable yard
mawing its one mean bone. And what sky was left
was hollowed moon and piecemeal as a memory
of what I thought I could be if only love would
find me, traveling the Arctic of my heart,
gnawing its white bone.

Click Cover for Amazon

Meghan Sterling’s work was nominated for four Pushcart Prizes in 2021 and has been published in Rattle, Colorado Review, Idaho Review, SWIMM, Pinch Journal, and elsewhere. She is Associate Poetry Editor of the Maine Review. Her first full length collection These Few Seeds (Terrapin Books) came out in 2021. Her chapbook, Self Portrait with Ghosts of the Diaspora (Harbor Editions) will be out in 2023.

Robert Fillman is the author of the chapbook November Weather Spell (Main Street Rag, 2019). His poems have appeared in such journals as The Hollins Critic, Poetry East, Salamander, Sugar House Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Tar River Poetry. His criticism has been published by ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, CLAJ: The College Language Association Journal, and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University and teaches at Kutztown University. His debut full-length collection, House Bird, was published by Terrapin Books in February 2022.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Terrapin Interview Series: Dion O'Reilly Interviews Yvonne Zipter

The following is the eleventh 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. Dion O'Reilly talks with Yvonne Zipter about discovery in poetry, dealing with difficult topics, poetry and religion, and finding solace in poetry.

Dion O’Reilly:
Nature, or what we now call The Living World, is a prominent feature in your poetry. Do you consider yourself an eco-poet?

Yvonne Zipter: I’ve never actually thought about it, but I think that’s a fair label to apply to my work. If ecopoetry explores “the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception,” as Forrest Gander posits in The Ecopoetry Anthology (eds. Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street), then it makes perfect sense to apply that term to my work. Kissing the Long Face of the Greyhound, for instance, is organized roughly as a dialogue between the natural world and humans, the intent being to show how they—we—are interrelated. But I tend to agree with Naturalist Weekly that “labels can be challenging for readers and writers. They have a tendency to limit our ability to see the world. One of the things I really appreciate about poetry is that any given poem may produce different meanings to different people. . . . Any poetry that gets you to think about your role or place in the natural world is beneficial and . . . the labels we give them are only helpful if they contribute to the joy of the audience.” That said, I would be honored to be thought of as an ecopoet.

Dion: Do you strive to take turns in your poems, what we call voltas or peripeteia? In other words, do you seek a deeper layer, what Robert Frost called surprise and what many poets call discovery?

Yvonne: For me, part of the joy of writing poetry is discovering what the poem is about as I’m writing it. That surprise or discovery, to my way of thinking, is an important component of a compelling poem, not only for me as the poet but for the reader as well. The delight I feel when an out-of the-ordinary perspective emerges regarding some ordinary thing—I want the reader to feel that delight as well. A poem for which the significance of the subject remains opaque to me is never successful. I end up trying to force a revelation, and the resulting poem feels empty, too glib, uninspired—boring. What I aim for in my poems is being able to take the reader along with me in the process of seeing something in a new way that might ordinarily be taken for granted. Well, that’s not quite true—I write for myself, for the joy of learning something I knew but didn’t know I knew. It’s only afterward that I think about the reader.

Dion: How do you feel poetry should deal with what some call, perhaps unfairly, darkness—topics like death, pain, "the slings and arrow?"

Yvonne: Pain, death, and adversity are common to every living being and are thus topics that should be universally relatable. As a poet, writing about these difficult topics has not only given me solace but has also been a way for me to find beauty and/or poignancy about some of life’s least pleasant moments. The hope is that such poems can allow readers to think about their difficult moments in a new way and/or help them process their own pain or grief. At the very least, poems on topics such as these let people know they are not alone in what they’ve been through.

However, much as with love poems, poems about pain and death are hard to write without falling into abstractions and clichés. I often have to let months or years pass before I can write a poem about something dire that has happened before I can focus on the kinds of details that will let me tell the reader “this was awful” without telling them that.

Dion: You have a few poems which could be interpreted as having a theme of religion versus spirituality—"Still Waters" and "Manners of the Flesh" come to mind. Is this a theme you grapple with?

Yvonne: Religion, in my poems, functions as a sort of shorthand—like myth, in a way—to convey a lot about a subject without having to elaborate in great detail because the themes, terms, et cetera are well-known. I think of myself as a spiritual person. When it comes to traditional religion, I consider myself to be an atheist, but I was raised going to church (three different denominations, actually—Lutheran, Methodist, and Unitarian) and my wife is Catholic, so despite my beliefs, I am nevertheless steeped in this culture. But because I use religious imagery so often in my poems, my wife sometimes teases me that I’m the worst atheist ever. “Manners of the Flesh” was actually written for a friend of mine who has struggled with his own relationship to religion, especially during the time his sister was dying, hence the ambivalence about heaven, prayer, and so on, whereas in “Still Waters” I use the terminology of religion to express my reverence for nature and the awe I often feel in its presence—in other words, as a way to put spirituality on the same plane as religion.

Dion: Danusha Lameris talks about poets having a solace and an irritant. The irritant feels broken or off-kilter and inspires them to speak. But poets also often experience a solace, a relief from that irritant. It appears that the Living World (nature) and your dogs are a solace for you. Would you say that is true? And what is your irritant?

Yvonne: You’ve hit the nail right on the head: nature, including pets, is definitely a place of refuge for me. When I’m looking at a Cooper’s hawk in flight or hugging the dog, I’m not thinking about the precarious nature of our democracy or inequities of race and class. As a kid, I immersed myself in nature, haunting the nearby creek for frogs and garter snakes, climbing trees, and chasing bumblebees and fireflies trying to catch them in a jar so I could watch them up for a while close. But as I got older, I drifted away from the natural world. There was always so much else to do—studying, reading, learning what it was to be a feminist, to be queer. But as things began to slow down a bit, with a steady job and long-term relationship, I found myself drawn to nature again.

As for an irritant, I have a few, from racial inequities to political skulduggery. But these irritants overwhelm me in a way that, for the most part, makes it hard for me to write poetry about them without sounding shrill and prosaic. But then, that gives me something to work toward.

Sample poem from Kissing the Long Face of the Greyhound

Osteosarcoma: A Love Poem

          —for Easton, Zooey, and Nacho

Cancer loves the long bone,
the femur and the fibula,
the humerus and ulna,
the greyhound’s sleek physique,
a calumet, ribboned with fur
and eddies of dust churned to a smoke,
the sweet slenderness of that languorous
lick of calcium, like an ivory flute or a stalk
of  Spiegelau stemware, its bowl
bruised, for an eye blink, with burgundy,
a reed, a wand, the violin’s bow —
loves the generous line of  your lanky limbs,
the distance between points A and D,
epic as Western Avenue, which never seems to end
but then of course it does, emptying
its miles into the Cal-Sag Channel
that river of waste and sorrow.
I’ve begun a scrapbook:
here the limp that started it all, here
your scream when the shoulder bone broke,
here that walk to the water dish,
your leg trailing like a length
of   black bunting. And here the words I whispered
when your ears lay like spent milkweed pods
on that beautiful silky head:
Run. Run, my boy-o,
in that madcap zigzag,
unzipping the air.

Click Cover for Amazon

Yvonne Zipter was born in Milwaukee, WI, and following sojourns on both coasts, has replanted herself firmly again in the Midwest. She lives in Chicago with her wife and a long succession of retired racing greyhounds. She is the author of the poetry collections Kissing the Long Face of the Greyhound, The Patience of Metal (a Lambda Literary Awards finalist) and Like Some Bookie God; the nonfiction books Ransacking the Closet and Diamonds Are a Dyke's Best Friend; the novel Infraction; and the nationally syndicated column "Inside Out,"which ran from 1983 to 1993. Her poems have been published widely in periodicals.

Dion O’Reilly’s prize-winning book, Ghost Dogs, was published in February 2020 by Terrapin Books. Her poems appear in Cincinnati Review, Poetry Daily, Narrative, The New Ohio Review, The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, Journal of American Poetry, Rattle, and The Sun. She is a member of The Hive Poetry Collective, which produces podcasts and radio shows, and she leads online workshops with poets from all over the United States and Canada.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Terrapin Interview Series: Meghan Sterling Interviews Robb Fillman

The following is the tenth 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. Meghan Sterling talks with Robb Fillman about masculinity and poetry, parenthood and poetry, ordering poems in a manuscript, and more.

Meghan Sterling: The poems in House Bird, which are lovely, have a thread of masculinity/an examination of men and manhood running through them, both painful and yearning. Can you talk about how you came to a place of writing about manhood? What do you feel is most urgent about doing so?

Robb Fillman: To be honest, I don’t believe it was a conscious act. In other words, I did not set out to write about masculinity per se. I think I started writing poems about the relationships I had with the people around me—my wife, my children, my father, my grandfather, my uncles, my childhood friends, and so on—and I started thinking about what it means to be a father, a husband, a son, a brother. And it wasn’t until well into writing that I noticed that I was actually trying to speak the words that had been, for whatever reason, difficult for me to express in conversation.

Sometimes, I think men and boys feel as though they can’t talk openly about their feelings, so we talk around the "thing" we wish to say, or we don’t talk at all. And I suppose, one of the reasons I started writing poetry was because I felt inarticulate. In that way, the poems could speak for me. And really, it was after I had children when I began to think: I don’t want my kids not knowing what their dad thought or felt. I want them, when they are older, to have a map, to know I was (and still am) a "work in progress." I never want them—my son or my daughter—to be afraid of their own feelings. Poetry opens up that space.

Meghan: How do you feel fatherhood has changed the way you see your father and grandfather? Your mother? How do you feel your poems reflect that?

As I was beginning to say, becoming a parent changed my entire outlook. Until I had children, I don't think I was nearly as reflective as I am now—in my poetry, or just in my daily existence. After having kids though—playing with them, caring for them, reading to them, witnessing their facial expressions, listening to what they say (and don't say)—I came to realize that even the slightest interaction, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time, affects them. Every experience they have is a discovery.

So becoming a father got me circling back to my own childhood and the people who influenced me. I was very lucky to have nurturing and generous caregivers. But we are all human, so we are flawed and subject to human frailties. I try to be mindful of those complexities in my poetry. If anything, writing about the important people in my life has only made me appreciate them and their experiences more.  

Meghan: These poems deal a lot with the intimate spaces of home—in regards to one’s original home and the one we create as adults. How do you approach writing poetry that is located in the familiar, physical spaces of the past and the present?

That's a great question! One of the dangers a writer faces when writing about the familiar is that you very often have to face those spaces (and those people) day in and day out. As a poet, fortunately I have the freedom to play with details in the world of a poem. What I try to honor most are the feelings associated with the experience. When I write about a childhood memory, or a loved one's presence in the home, or something that happened at the breakfast table two days ago, I don't want my thoughts or feelings to be separate from the text I am creating. I want the emotion that I am experiencing at that moment (or about that person) to leach from every corner of the text. To allow that to happen, I have to give myself permission to know that my feelings are momentary, and likely to change ten minutes later. If I didn't allow myself that "out," so to speak, the understanding that what I am writing at any given time is only a snapshot of a situation, and an incomplete one at that, I don't think I would be able to get up the nerve to write about things close to me at all.

Meghan: Which is the poem you feel closest to in this collection?

Robb: That is such a difficult question, though a great follow-up! As you know, every poem contains a part of the writer, so it’s almost like picking which part of yourself you like best.  There are poems I am almost certain to read at readings: “House Bird,” “The Bones,” “Superstition,” “For Snowflake,” “The Blue Hour.”  Like many of the poems in the collection, these are syllabics that unfold accretively and quietly and build in intensity, so they were all very much written in the same headspace. But if I had to pick just one from the bunch, I would say “Superstition.” To me, this poem represents a turning point in my career as a writer. “Superstition” was the first poem I wrote in which, upon its completion, I was 100% satisfied with the results. I wrote myself out of the idea suddenly and decisively. From the moment I placed the final punctuation mark, I knew that was the poem I was supposed to write that day—and it was at that moment that I started to gain confidence in my ability as a writer.

Meghan: House Bird looks closely at childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and the poems are woven thematically instead of ordered chronologically. How did you choose the poems for this collection and then choose the order—how did you make the choices you did to construct the narrative arc?

Robb: Another great question! I really admire poets who think in terms of an entire book manuscript. They seem to know intuitively what a collection needs, what's missing, the order of things. I haven't been able to do that. I write what I write-- which is a lot of individual poems. And it is only after some distance-- and looking back on what I have created-- that I can begin to see what I've done-- which themes I keep returning to, which voices tend to dominate, which subjects I can’t let go of.

House Bird
had many iterations: it was four sections; it was five; it was organized chronologically; it was ordered according to the seasons. It took a lot of shuffling, and it wasn't until Diane Lockward (Terrapin Books publisher) made some excellent suggestions about re-ordering that I was able to see the collection's potential. Rather than create a straightforward narrative, we opted to abandon a linear "plot" or organizational formula and instead create a collage, or maybe several mini collages—a kind of mosaic of experience in which images, and words, and subtle through-lines reveal themselves gradually, building enough resonance to give the reader, by the end, a sense of a uniform whole.

I wanted House Bird to be an excavation of memory, to work the way the mind does, shadows coming and going, hazy outlines sending the reader backwards in time, the familiar drawing them back into the present.

Sample poem from House Bird:

The Bones

What I remember most
are the bones—and my dad's
fingers slimy with guts

as he pulled apart bits
of smoked whiting he bought
from the market downtown.  

He sat in the kitchen
most of the afternoon,
working over headless

glistening flesh, picking
through the soft pink insides
without a knife or fork,

offering my brother
and me a horse-radished
peck now and then. We stood

by his side and waited,
listened to him humming
along with Merle Haggard

between long sips of beer.
He was always careful
with the giving, his hands

like a slow, warm current
feeding another. That
cold fish with its many
bones. Dad never let one
slip past. It was all smoke
and silver scales, the tang
of root wet in our mouths.

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Robert Fillman is the author of the chapbook November Weather Spell (Main Street Rag, 2019). His poems have appeared in such journals as The Hollins Critic, Poetry East, Salamander, Sugar House Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Tar River Poetry. His criticism has been published by ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, CLAJ: The College Language Association Journal, and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University and teaches at Kutztown University. His debut full-length collection, House Bird, was published by Terrapin Books in 2022.

Meghan Sterling’s work has been nominated for 4 Pushcart Prizes in 2021 and has been published or is forthcoming in Rattle, Colorado Review, Idaho Review, Radar Poetry, The West Review, West Trestle Review, River Heron Review, SWIMM, Pinch Journal, and others. She is Associate Poetry Editor of the Maine Review. Her first full length collection These Few Seeds (Terrapin Books) came out in 2021. Her chapbook, Self Portrait with Ghosts of the Diaspora (Harbor Editions) will be out in 2023.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Terrapin Books Interview Series: Karen Paul Holmes Interviews Hayden Saunier

The following is the ninth 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 these books which missed out on book launches and in-person readings. Karen Paul Holmes talks with Hayden Saunier about place in poetry, sections in a collection, selecting a publisher, choosing cover art, and reading/performing poetry for an audience.

Karen Paul Holmes: I’ve dog-eared so many pages in this beautiful book, A Cartography of Home. Please tell us how this collection came about. I note a thread of homestead/weather/growing things that almost feels pioneer-like, but in a modern sense. And you do, after all, live on a farm. But there are other-located poems too: mini-market, hotel, church, for example. What can you tell us about the sectioning of the book into four parts? How much of the choosing and ordering of poems throughout the collection was purposeful and how much intuitive? Did you write any of the poems for this book specifically or did you assemble poems already written?

Hayden Saunier: I’ve been thinking about place for a long time. I’m a southerner who moved north into cities for theatre opportunities, but I grew up attached to a rural landscape and with an awareness of the innumerable lives that have inhabited a place long before me. Moving to the farm where my husband grew up reignited that deep connection to a particular landscape, but I also wanted to expand on the ideas of home and place to the those “other-locations” you mention (superstores, mini-markets, churches, press conferences, customer helplines) that have become our current and shared cultural landmarks. And when you walk the same fields and woods every day you are confronted by how time is stacked up in layers in a place, like tree rings and soil, so writing about place and home naturally becomes writing about time. That’s been given as an argument for art: It’s a means to stop time. Or a means to enter a single moment and that feels like stopping time.   

I love sectioning a book because I think a reader needs a place to rest between poems. I know I do. The way a bench is situated on a walking path to allow a moment to consider the view or tie your shoes or just sit. In A Cartography of Home, the first section begins with concrete considerations of home and habitation, and then those ideas ripple outward in the second and third sections, returning to the concrete and actual by the end. The way a walk works when the mind loosens and makes wider associations between the fixed points of beginning and end.

Some of these poems were begun years ago—I am a constant reviser— and some came into being as part of the process. In general, I’m slow to put a manuscript together; it takes me a while to understand around what center of gravity the poems are orbiting. The title poem came together after many revisions and a recognition that people are places too—until they are no longer here—because here is a place. “Navigational Notes” was among the last poems I wrote for this book so it grew out of the endeavor. It grew directly from the Rene Char quote “how do we bring the ship near to its longing,” and how home is a longed-for place. I loved including that imagined landscape as part of the mapping of home. By the end of work on this collection, like all obsessions, everything I wrote was attached to time and place and home.

Karen: Thanks for that great answer! I’m a northerner who moved south, and your ideas of place and time resonate with me. I also sensed in the middle sections of Cartography the “ripple outward” you mention, and that really did work for me as a reader. And “Navigational Notes” definitely got dog-eared on my first read!

This book and How to Wear This Body were both published by Terrapin Books. (And by the way, both have such compelling covers!) You’ve had two other full-length books and a chapbook published with other publishers. Of your 2013 book, the wonderful Laure-Anne Bosselaar wrote, “Hayden Saunier is a poet of wit, irony, and a huge generosity of heart.” I happily find that to be so true of your work today, too. Why did you choose to publish a second book with Terrapin? Tell us about timing, especially considering the pandemic.

Hayden: Yes, Laure-Anne is a treasure. I’ve been fortunate with book prizes and excellent publishers and working on How to Wear This Body with Diane at Terrapin was a continuation of this great good luck. As for the timing of Cartography, it was a gift that my focus on this manuscript during the first months of lockdown coincided with Terrapin’s decision to launch the Redux series. I’ve learned to recognize luck when I see it! I didn’t trouble myself worrying about the timing of publication with the pandemic and the dearth of readings. I just didn’t. Poems find their way in the world all by themselves, I think.

And thank you for the compliments on the cover images. An extra pleasure working on these two books with Terrapin has been that when we couldn’t quite settle on a cover image for either, I created my own. I’m not a visual artist but I know how to look for inspiration, so full disclosure: the multimedia artist Cecilia Paredes inspired the coat image and Rosamund Purcell’s photographs inspired the nest. The experience of creating and photographing the coat and the nest informed both books as much as the books informed the images. That’s been another way the process of working on this book has been layered from beginning to end.

Karen: It’s very cool that you’ve got the skills to create images that exactly work for your books. You’re also an actress and therefore, of course, an excellent poetry reader. In your work, I can tell you take such care with word selection and sound. When I’ve edited one of my poems to a certain point, I often record myself (or read it to my husband) so I can listen to the sounds and line breaks and feel the poem in my mouth. Do you do something similar? How much does your acting background influence the way you write? What are some actor’s tips you can give to poets who are about to do a reading?

Hayden: I am always speaking a poem as I write—it’s natural to me. I love to read aloud and I love the sound and vibration of words in my mouth and head and chest. My favorite moments as an actor have been the times—which are very rare—when all aspects of a play come together with the sound and the meaning of someone’s brilliant words in your body—it’s transportive. Poetry is the essence of that, and it was through theatre that I came to poetry. It’s so much cheaper to produce—no lights, no costumes, no crew! And best of all, you don’t have to wait for someone to give you a job. But I miss the collaboration of theatre and the discoveries one makes when minds and imaginations knock against one another and work together to create a whole world. As for reading tips, I try to let the images and rhythms of the poems tell their stories. And no “poet voice.”

Karen: So true about poetry! And speaking of collaboration, I’d love to know more about the program you founded called No River Twice ( Your website calls it “an interactive poetry performance group in which the audience interacts with a group of accomplished poets to determine the direction of each performance from beginning to end, poem by poem, co-creating a reading that is never the same twice.” What else can you tell us?

Hayden: No River Twice is so much fun. We’re a group of poets who do readings from our books but what we read is determined by audience interaction—so we never know where we are going to start or end or what we are reading along the way. We follow the images or ideas in poems like stepping stones across a river and make a cento poem from the connecting lines—a collective poem of the reading. It’s surprising and wide-open and encourages us all to listen to poems in whatever way we like and be playful in whatever way we respond to it. It’s never even remotely the same twice. The idea is to connect without judgement to other voices and finding deep human community there. Another reason for poetry.

Sample poem from A Cartography of Home:


A Cartography of Home

My mother was a place. She was the where
from which I rose. Once on my feet, I touched

my forehead to her knee, then thigh, then hip,
waist, shoulder as I grew into my own wild country,

borderless, then bordered, bound

by terrors, terra incognita and salt seas.

I took my compass rose from her, my cardinal points,
embodiments of wind and names of cloud,

but every symbol in the legend now

belongs to me—rivers, topographic lines and shading,

back roads, city streets, highway lanes that end
abruptly at the broken edge of cliffs

where dragons snorting fire

ride curls of figured waves in unknown seas.

Monsters mark the desert blanks on her charts too.
Before she died, I folded myself back

to pocket-size, my children tucked inside

like inset maps and I lay my head down on her lap.

My mother stroked my hair

the way her mother had stroked hers,

and hers before hers, on and on, and we
remained like that—not long—but long enough

to make an atlas of us, perfect bound,
while she was still a place and so was I.

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Hayden Saunier is the author of five poetry collections, most recently A Cartography of Home (Terrapin Books, 2021). Other collections include How to Wear This Body (Terrapin Books, 2017) Tips for Domestic Travel (Black Lawrence Press, 2009) a St. Lawrence Award Finalist, Say Luck (Big Pencil Press, 2013), winner of the 2013 Gell Poetry Prize, and Field Trip to the Underworld (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012) winner of the Keystone Chapbook Award. Her work has been published in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review, featured on Poetry Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and Verse Daily and has been awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize and the Rattle Poetry Prize. She is the founder and director of No River Twice, an interactive, audience-driven poetry performance group.

Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). Her poems have been featured on The Writer's Almanac, The Slowdown, and Verse Daily. Her publications include Diode, Valparaiso Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, Pedestal, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She’s the current “Poet Laura” for Tweetspeak Poetry. Holmes founded and hosts the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and a monthly reading with open mic in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has an MA in musicology from the University of Michigan, was VP-Communications for a global financial company, and has led workshops in business communications, creative writing, and poetry.

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