Wednesday 11 May 2016
Shaindel Beers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing. Her awards include First place Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Poetry Prize, Grand Prize Co-winner Trellis Magazine sestina contest, First place Dylan Days Poetry Competition, and others. She currently serves as English department chair at Blue Mountain Community College, as Poetry Editor for Contrary Magazine, and on the executive board of PAWS, the Pendleton Animal Welfare Shelter. She lives in Pendleton, Oregon, with a zoo of pets and a wild five-year-old son. Her website is here.
JT: You've written two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time and The Children's War and Other Poems (both with Salt Publishing). How far do the collections share similar preoccupations (e.g. time, memory, feminism, violence)? In what ways do they differ? And do you feel that you "progress" and develop as a poet, or is it more complex than that?
SB: This is a really interesting question. I like that you’ve picked out time, memory, feminism, and violence as my themes. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard my work pinpointed that succinctly. Michael Chabon theorizes that all writers are obsessive compulsives, and everyone is writing the same thing over and over, hoping to get it right, so those might very well be my themes for the rest of my life.
I think the way they differ is that A Brief History of Time was my first collection, so a lot of it was written over a long period of time, and I didn’t really have a theme in mind. It was essentially my creative thesis for my MFA, so I just wrote with no plan. If a graduate advisor said, “Try this, write in this person’s style,” I did. I think it ended up being largely autobiographical and having a larger arc as a result.
The Children’s War started out as an obsessive project where I did nothing for a while but look at children’s artwork from war, and then it became a philosophical question – should it be a whole book of just that? Would people read a whole book of just that? Would I be lessening children’s war experiences if I put poems about something else in there? So, in my first book, I had a broad scope and narrowed down, and in my second book, I had a narrow scope then broadened. If you put one on top of the other, it’s an hourglass!
I think the progression is always more complex than that. That’s the journey. Figuring out who we are, seeing how we turn out.
JT: You write short fiction as well as poetry - and I understand that you're also in the process of writing a novel. What do you see as the overlaps or differences between the demands of these genres?
SB: Everyone is writing a novel. At least, that’s how it feels. I actually have a few novel starts where I’ve gotten “stuck” at the same point. I think it takes a lot of guts to write a novel, to keep going with something that big and assuming that people are going to stay with you. I don’t know if I have the confidence for it. I assumed my career would go in a sense like, poetry collection, short story collection, novel. I need a few more short stories to round out a collection, so I think I’m going to stick with that first.
If I ever do finish writing a novel, I’ll probably have to do it in a course or with a novel coach. I’m not sure if I’m disciplined enough to do it on my own. That’s sort of the beauty of poetry. It’s a small, intricate work – like painting a tile. You can have an idea, and you do it, and you might touch it up now and then, but it’s done! You have a little four inch by four inch work of art. I don’t think I’m ready for murals yet.
I think a lot of the pressure to feel like I had to have a novel is gone. I think it was mostly from outside, from people who only know novels, who expect something you wrote to be made into a film and for you to become rich. I think I’m past that now. It helped me to meet Peter Meinke, who is a wonderful poet who is now in his eighties. He has written many, many books of poetry, and I believe two short story collections. I asked him about that because his one short story collection won a Flannery O’Connor award, and I loved it. He told me he’s always writing poems, but he writes maybe one short story a year. That’s just how he works. I might be the same. I guess we’ll see. It’s kind of nice to be still under forty and calming down about these things.
JT: What can poetry achieve which other art forms can't, do you think?
SB: When I was a dance major, I used to get into “trouble” for admiring the other arts more than dance. Dance was so hard for me, and it seemed so easy for everyone else. I spent a lot of time being amazed by everything else – sculpture, music, painting – that I didn’t really appreciate the art that I was working on at the time. I don’t think there is any one particular art that can capture anything that another particular art can’t capture. All of the arts are sisters, and I love when we can collaborate and do them together – poetry and music, dance and sculpture, etc. One of the choreography projects I did when I was in college was that we had to go to a Rodin exhibit and start a choreography piece from the beginning pose of a sculpture. It was amazing to think of negative space in that way – the way a dancer and a sculptor both use them.
I think the goal of all art is to express human emotion – to somehow make it last, to make it more understandable and universal, and there are different ways of doing that. I’m for all of it.
JT: Would you say that your writing is heavily autobiographical or memoiristic in its subject matter? How far is it "confessional" poetry, for example?
SB: This is always a tricky question. I feel like “confessional” poetry was a phrase used to denigrate the writing of female poets. No one calls male poets writing about war “Confessional” poets, even though they’re certainly writing autobiographical, personal work. I’m still figuring myself out. I’m still becoming, so I think I’ll always be a part of my writing in that way.
JT: You teach as well as write. Does this help with the writing? How do you see - in more general terms - the place of the "poet" in contemporary capitalist society?
SB: I think that teaching while writing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m a professor, so I get to talk about writing and books and ideas all day. I teach at an institution that values my creative writing, celebrates my publications, sends me to conferences, and writers’ retreats, but then there is the feeling of always grading or always being behind grading. If I were a person who could hold down a 9-5 job at a bank or something like that, I might get more writing done, but I don’t think I’m that kind of person. I like to spend a lot of time in my head, staring out the window at clouds.
As far as the place of the poet in contemporary capitalist society, I think that the song “Cold Dog Soup” by Guy Clark says it nicely: “Ain’t no money in poetry / That’s what sets the poet free.” I like to ignore the fact that the next line is “I’ve had all the freedom I can stand.” I like to think that as long as I’m not making money as an artist, I’m not beholden to a market. I can do what I want. Would it be nice if poetry made money? Yes, but then, I’d probably lose some freedom.
JT: What are you working on at the moment? What are your medium and long-term aims for your writing?
SB: I’m always working on a bunch of different things. I’m sort of a poster child for adult ADHD, so various things occur to me, and I get obsessed and do them right then, and then sometimes they fall to the wayside. I was working on a sonnet sequence about boxing and domestic violence, somewhat inspired by Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and the amazing article on him in Grantland, “The Boxer and the Batterer” by Louisa Thomas:
I recently finished a long-form essay which is very important to me that I’ve been working on for a long time, and I’m working on a series of circus poems as part of a collaboration with the cellist Jesse Ahmann:
We seem to have the same artistic sensibilities, and I feel very fortunate to be working with him.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Friday 6 May 2016
Kershia Field is a twenty-one-year-old contemporary poet from Leicester currently working on her first poetry collection based on Mental Health and the stigma surrounding it. You can find her poems on her blog kershiadoespoems.blogspot.com. She also blogs at http://itsonlykershia.blogspot.co.uk.
JT: Why do you write poetry? What, for you, is poetry for?
KF: For me, poetry began as a way of venting my feelings in a way that I could understand. I never used to talk all that much about my feelings, it made me feel uncomfortable so poetry became my own private way of letting off steam. It was never meant to be for the public and I never considered it to be anything other than a private thing. Now it's become integrated into everything I do. I see something on the news, I write a poem. I see a stranger, they inspire a poem. It's my way of appreciating the tiny details of life that to so many people seem like nothing.
JT: When did you start writing poetry? Tell us a bit about how you got into it, and why.
KF: I started writing poetry when I was around eleven or twelve. I loved English at school and I loved reading and getting lost in the worlds of other authors. When I was eleven I was entered into a young writers competition where students had to write a 50-word story, and the best ones from the school would be sent off and published in a collection. I wrote my story about deforestation and a small girl whose best friend was a tree. I never thought I'd get in but somehow mine was one of the select few that got chosen and published. It gave me the confidence boost to keep writing. I never wrote anything again publicly for a long time, but in private I had something that I felt I was good at and that was amazing.
JT: You run two very popular blogs: a personal blog and a poetry blog. What is the relationship between the two forms of writing for you? Are they totally separate, or do they overlap in various ways?
KF: My personal blog and my poetry blog arguably do crossover in places; however, I never intended for that to be the case. My personal blog was my way of talking about issues and sharing my experiences with things like Mental Health and University AFTER I had come to terms with the experience and felt I could provide advice and support where I could. I started my poetry blog in 2015 to publish work that I did as part of my creative writing course, since it'd already been graded and if someone else said it was okay then I felt comfortable posting it. I didn't consider putting anything else on there at first, but my personal life took a turn for the worse and I found myself writing more and more poetry as a way of dealing with the change. In the same way that my personal blog was intended to reach out to people, my poetry became something people cold relate to so I took the plunge and started posting and I never looked back.
JT: Talk us through the process of writing a poem: how do you start? How do you conceive the relationship between form and content?
KF: I've never been able to just sit and write a poem about something I don't find interesting, and often the things I find interesting are things that other people wouldn't even notice. So I suppose the first thing I would do is to find something that intrigues me. I don't really have a fixed way of writing poetry, I've never been the kind of person who can sit and follow a strict set of rules when writing, which is why most of my work is free verse. If I do have an idea I jot it down and then I find that word association provides me with a grounding to work from; writing an emotional response to something also helps me get to grips with an idea. Some of my best work has been shortened from longer pieces of emotive prose that I've changed into poetry. Sometimes I'll have an image and if I can't explain it immediately I use a metaphor and that becomes the poem. People have said to me that even though my work is free verse, it still has a distinct style that makes it obvious it's mine and I can sort of see that.
JT: Which other writers and poets have most informed your notions of poetry?
KF: I was fascinated with the work of Angela Carter growing up. I loved the dark, gritty tone to her writing and have always been amazed by how quickly she captivates an audience. Whether you like her work or not, you will almost definitely be drawn in by her style and her story telling and that is something I aspire to be able to do as a writer. I also love the style of Rosemary Tonks; her collection Beduoin of the London Evening holds some of my favourite poems, and I love the way she can romanticise even the bleakest situations. I also love the work of Mitch Albom, who always a new perspective on the simplest of ideas.
JT: Given the emotive nature of your poetry, how do you understand the relationship between emotion and poetry?
KF: A lot of my poetry is based on real experiences, and the smallest of significant moments. It's a means of closure for me: turning something negative into something positive, or writing down something I'm not sure of so that I can understand it better. Everything I write is a little piece of myself that I share with people, so I think for my poetry to be successful, I have to be comfortable with my own emotions. If I'm not, it can frequently sound like jibberish. A lot of people find my work relatable, so I absolutely have to understand myself, what I'm trying to put across and why so that if I am giving mixed images or ideas then it's clear that this was deliberately done.
JT: What are your longer term aims for your poetry and writing?
KF: I'm currently working on putting together a collection of poems related to mental illness, an issue that very close to my heart. I'm hoping to get this published at some point within the next two years. I'm also hoping that one day I can write and publish a collection of poetry in an autobiographical style, sort of like a photo album of moments in my life, but with poetry instead. I'm continuing to update my poetry blog regularly in the hopes that I'll build up a bigger readership and I'm already considering starting a public website where I publish the work and reviews of other people as well as myself.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Thursday 5 May 2016
"& to & such a pretty bird. this is
the first sonnet for the third baby. if
I sound prepared for that, I am not.
let me know you’re all right in there, would you?
Kevin says : I dreamt it was a boy.
my brother says : your favorite presidents
cannot be F D R & Jefferson—
that’s illogical. Emmett says : when I
was pregnant with you, that was a tough week too.
Asher says : seashell, voilà. & the third
(having outgrown a perfect, fragile world)
baby ( bird from brid OE from unknown
origin) 'because he was crying
I like him most of all,' says my son."
(Pattie Mc Carthy, "x y z & &")
Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy’s sixth trade collection is Quiet Book (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2016), a collection focused on domestic patter and patterns, writing on home and children, mothering and everything in-between. Constructed out of three sections—“x y z & &,” “notes for clothespin” and “genre scenes”—the poems in Quiet Book follow McCarthy’s previous poetry books—bk of (h)rs (Apogee Press, 2002), Verso (Apogee Press, 2004), Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (Apogee Press, 2010), Marybones (Apogee Press, 2013) and Nulls (horse less press, 2014) —for their formal invention and innovation, focus on women, mothering and the body, and themes of Medieval artworks and archives, armed with her fierce and fiery intelligence and an evocative musical cadence that sings through every line. As she writes in the short sequence that sits in the centre of the collection, “clothespin”: “the kiss is domestic is / domestic is kiss monumental // breech upon which / so much pinch.”
Originally produced as a chapbook in 2015 through Ahshata Press, “x y z & &” is a suite of thirty-three poems that explore and extend her work in collage and accumulation, stitching together scattered notes on parenting, language, nursing, childbirth and babies. McCarthy magnificently articulates the anxiety, distraction, exhaustion and bliss of parenting small children, as she writes: “I had four hours in a row alone / to work & I looked at photos of them / & remembered the limitless mistakes / it was possible to make with the piano.” And the structure of untitled poems composed as a suite also means it is possible to begin on any page, and read in either direction. In a 2014 interview at Touch the Donkey, she briefly discussed the suite:
"I have a chapbook called ‘x y z &&’ coming out in the fall (Ahsahta Press)—it’s a sonnet sequence I wrote after my third child was born (I wrote a sonnet sequence after each child was born). One of the epigraphs is from Anselm Berrigan’s poem 'Looking through a slant of light': 'Sending his mother to the typewriter / To type a poem that would embarrass him / Years later.' That’s my preemptive action on this front.
"There are things related to the children that I do not write about because they are invasions of privacy, sure. It was harder when they were infants/toddlers because it doesn’t seem as though they have privacy when they are so little – it doesn’t feel like I have privacy during that phase either.
"Obviously, I think they are brilliant & funny & clever—it would be impossible to resist them getting in the text."
The third section, “genre scenes,” explores the depictions of women in a variety of domestic situations and labours throughout Medieval artwork. A selection of fifteen pieces appearing previously as fifteen genre scenes (eth press, 2014), the twenty-four poems that make up “genre scenes” study historical depictions such as “woman nursing an infant with a child feeding a dog,” “& child, with apple tree & bread & doll” and “a woman scraping parnsips, with a child standing by,” that riffs off Nicholas Maes’ 1655 painting “A Woman Scraping Parsnips, with a Child Standing by Her,” as she writes:
"bring the knife toward the body toward the body
watch now watch me bring the knife toward
plane the woody surface a sharp parallel knife
keywords food people vegetables child woman young
vegetable kid person adult female lady two people two
two two persons indoor domestic scene scenes homely inside
indoors interior interiors vertical preparing sitting sit sits seated
domestic parsnips parsnip scraping basket knife house home
tags woman child cap basket knife jug skirt apron ewer bodice some things
women do with their hands working by a window
the girl is beautifully grumpy & learning something
boil the parsnips until tender
boil the eggs very hard"
In a recent interview conducted by Christy Davids for The Conversant (posted December 2015), McCarthy writes:
"So—with Quiet Book and thinking about the domestic—the poems in 'genre scenes,' I mean I didn’t know very much at all about seventieth century Dutch painting, but I was a little bit in love with the idea of writing about those paintings while I was writing these poems about being pregnant and giving birth and having a newborn. Genre paintings—you know in the ranking of the French Academy of Fine Arts—it’s the middling genre, right. It’s: history paintings, and portraiture, and then genre paintings and the domestic—and they are small and not serious. So there was something perhaps perversely attractive to me about these paintings of people plucking ducks and deboning fish and nursing babies, and doing all this work inside the house. While I was writing these poems, I kept thinking about how we are sort of instructed not to take that seriously—‘mommy poems.’"
There have been quite a stretch of poets writing on and around the domestic in intriguing ways over the past few years, allowing the small and smaller details of home and children as material for more language-centred writing, from Canadian poet Margaret Christakos to American poets such as Dan Thomas-Glass, Julie Carr, Rachel Zucker, Chris Martin and Farid Matuk, whose chapbook My Daughter La Chola (2013) also appeared with Ahsahta Press. Given that home and children are so much a part of the days of certain writers, it seems almost impossible to not wonder why more poets don’t include such details in their own work. As McCarthy herself says in the interview, it was important to write “mommy poems” in such a way, despite knowing that the genre itself repeatedly gets a bad rap (despite so much evidence to the contrary). McCarthy provides material beyond the ends of the standard alphabet and into every parents’ movement into new and unfamiliar territory, writing the confusion, exploration and small and large discoveries beautifully, including two poems on the sometimes exhaustive and all-encompassing stretches of nursing: “milk fever cluster feeding witching hour / cluster feeding milk fever witching hour / witching hour milk fever cluster feeding / witching hour cluster feeding milk fever.” (“x y z & &”). Anyone with a small child or two, who is also interested in the language of great poetry, should be reading this. Or should I say: everyone.
"suppose the clothespin spring-
loaded for clouds see
also & see
weathering its backbends
bellies attractive domestic
monument I want to walk
around & around & around it until
William Penn fits in its pinch
genre : common
artifacts & its significance (if
any) is unknown
the gaze of the clothespin
falls on itself"
(Pattie McCarthy, “notes for clothespin")
About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com