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.

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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.

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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 clich├ęs. 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.

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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.

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