01 April 2010

Flinch of Song by Jennifer Militello

Flinch of Song by Jennifer Militello
Reviewed by Christina Cook

Flinch of Song
Tupelo Press
Perfect binding, 60 pages
ISBN 978-1-932195-76-7
Link to Purchase

Winner of Tupelo’s 2009 First Book Award, Jennifer Militello’s Flinch of Song simply astounds. More than a collection of poems, the book is an orchestral piece where the elaborate musicality of language coaxes meaning into its fragile existence. As such, the logical structure of the meaning that ghosts through each of Militello’s poems is exotic and elusive, while at the same time familiar and plainly visible. It is seen always slant, always indirectly, as if embedded in the reader’s peripheral vision. We can get only so far into these poems by relying on narrative structure or strictly logical development of a given theme. But if we open our minds to the musicality and resonant imagery in the language, our imaginations, dreams, and desires will take us the rest of the way in. Suddenly the poem will present itself to us fully: a jinn revealed in the space between sight and blindness, comprehension and imagination. The poem Militello wrote always yields to the poem we read, creating a text layered with our own personal meaning. Indeed, the poem “Instructions to a Portraitist” reads like a guide on how the reader should, in essence, create the poems in this collection:
. . . Look half at me, half at
the long grass color the sky is beginning to have,
beauty’s poisonous reptile sleeping in your hand.
If I wear a gemstone, make its thousands laugh.
Don’t think. You must reshape me as the fabrics
grow weak. Otherwise, I come out colorless
and afraid. Add to me a long stretch of wetlands
and the dying off of birds. Invent me teeth to
bite with, scars to leave, the places you would maim
already in my eyes as atmospheres the edges
whisper, profiles I have let swan. . .
Because of its title and first-person speaker, the poem asserts itself as depicting a person being painted. However, the only two mentions of body parts (eyes and teeth) are embedded in such chimerical language, that the visual picture never assembles into a realistic depiction of a person, bringing Picasso’s last self-portrait to mind. As with abstract painting, Militello’s poems are only half comprised of the ostensible subject. The other half is comprised of a vision of the world in which the subject is situated. The subject, then, is actually an intersection of itself and its context, and in this poem, as with many others in the collection, the context is comprised of both interior and exterior landscapes. The subject of the portrait/poem essentially becomes the inseparability of a given self and its world, and the reader cannot gaze on the self—indeed him or herself—without gazing on the world.

Similarly, the gaze of the reader is deflected away from the ostensible subject in the poem “Resignation:”
How nudity looks on the laundry line and
on the body. How there is dust, though not the kind
the wind kicks up. Once, the stars would eat
holes through our hunger; we were lilies then,
with both the stringbean root and each serene lake.
We could cross our arms over the sarcophagi
of our bodies. We could prepare for faithlessness.
Now every white shirt is surrender; the ash
of last daylight leaves artifacts forgotten.
The poem is driven by the image of clothes drying on a laundry line. However, this is never actually stated. In fact, the very words “laundry line” are disclosed with all the grammatical impotence of an adjectival aside, tucked way in a prepositional phrase. The image is created more in our minds than in the words supplied, and it is such a common image that we can quickly bring it to mind with no more than the skeletal smattering of words. The poem continues its development accordingly: “How nudity looks. . . /on the body,” and “stringbean root” give us the feeling of vulnerability and fragility. “[D]ust, though not the kind/the winds kicks up” and “serene lake” give a sad, quiet, image of neglect. “Lilies” invoke martyrdom. And “sarcophagi” and “the ash/of last daylight:” ultimate resignation of life to dust. The speaker does not present these images in the logical chronology I have spelled out, nor does she make sense of them for us: that is work we do, intuitively, based on our common human experience.

Such human commonality is expressed throughout the book. In keeping with Militello’s elliptical style, I will offer snippets taken from a few poems to illustrate this, and present them with ample white space to be fully absorbed, as they are presented in the poems themselves (Such innovative poetry demands nontraditional ways to critique it):

“Add to me a long stretch of wetlands/and the dying off of birds”
          -from “Instructions to a Portraitist,” quoted above
“I want to sleep under the jawline/of a town of balconies, to dream as//the desert in my elbow expands to my wrist.”
          -from “History of the Always Pain”
“Last night I wore a shift of stars, buttoned/at the sleeve.”
          -from “After Days Not Found”

In these and other moments, we see the speaker’s body as an open site of complete inclusion, but Militello’s speakers stop short of asserting with Whitmanesque confidence that their bodies contain multitudes. “Add to me,” “I want to sleep under. . . to dream as,” “I wore a shift of”: The speakers in these poems go no further than to invite the world into themselves, but the reader completes the scene: these poems read as if the speakers’ bodies truly do encompass the multitudes. 

Not only are the speakers’ bodies all-encompassing, but so too are their movements, every one of their lived moments. For example, in “There’s No Such Thing as a Typical Day,” we hear,
Waking is when you realize some man is dying
or about to be hung. His moments become lakes
of constellation, more darkness between
than stars I see from the back of my underfed horse.
Simply being awake institutes an intimate connection with the suffering of others whom the speaker doesn’t even know. It is enough to know that there is suffering in this world, experienced by someone at every moment. And the poem suggests that only when you realize this can you be said to be fully, truly awake. The perfect balance Militello maintains between abstraction and concreteness is what makes this poem work so well: describing an unknown man’s suffering as “lakes of constellation” is concretely anchored in time and place by “the stars I see from the back of my underfed horse.” 

All but a few of the poems in the collection are in couplets and tercets, and the traditional stanzaic form has the effect of making the reader always feel on familiar ground, however far Militello’s resolutely elliptical language takes us from the hold of logical reasoning and narrative structure. The result of this form and content pairing is that the world of her language becomes our new familiar. Each time I finished a reading of Flinch of Song, I sat back and asked, how did she do that? Each of her poems is a self-contained experience, and they are collectively held together by the musical power of language. Its cadences, pacing, sound symbolism, and imagery lead the beguiled reader into interior spaces which are previously unknown and at the same time strangely familiar. I look forward to discovering what her next collection of poems will reveal about what I didn’t realize I already knew.

An interview with Ned Balbo

by Lori A. May
Ned Balbo was awarded the 2010 Donald Justice Prize, selected by A.E. Stallings, for The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (forthcoming from Story Line Press/WCU Poetry Center). His previous collections include Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize and ForeWord Book of the Year Award) and Galileo’s Banquet (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 1998, Towson University Prize). He has also published a poetry chapbook, Something Must Happen (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Awarded three Maryland Arts Council grants, the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award, and the John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize, he has also published "My Father's Music," an essay on adoptive identity and ethnicity, in Creative Nonfiction's anthology of Italian-American prose, Our Roots Are Deep with Passion (Other Press, 2006). A native of Long Island, New York, he teaches at Loyola University Maryland and lives in Baltimore with his wife, poet-essayist Jane Satterfield, and her daughter Catherine.
Lori A. May: Congratulations on receiving the 2010 Donald Justice Poetry Prize for your manuscript The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems. Can you tell us a little about this experience?
Ned Balbo: Thanks very much, Lori. I found out I’d won the prize less than a month ago, so the experience is still very much in progress--so far, it's been great! A.E. Stallings, the judge, is the author of two collections, Archaic Smile and Hapax, both defined by depth of feeling and amazing formal fluency. The week after I received the news, we e-mailed back and forth to cut some poems and decide on a better sequence for the book. It's not drastically different but a bit leaner and better focused. Alicia's counsel and support were extremely helpful.
In this prize-winning collection, you’ve used a number of forms including blank verse, sonnets, pantoums, and more. How did you arrive at such an eclectic collection of forms?
Well, I’d written songs and poems in meter as a kid and teenager, so an interest in form was always there. In college, I wrote mostly free verse but also discovered Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar alum and presiding spirit on campus—I even got to see her read in the spring of ’79. "The Prodigal," written in two sonnet stanzas, was a revelation, and the sestina originally titled "Early Sorrow" seemed beautiful, mysterious, and perfect. It would take years for me to write a decent sestina.
Later, in grad school at Johns Hopkins, I took a forms course with David St. John. His openness to all poetic schools and respect for both formal and free verse remain an inspiration. And it was under his guidance that I first attempted the forms you mention.
The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems plays on modern mythology. How has pop culture played a role in your work as a poet?
I’m from a blue-collar family—my adoptive father was a plumber and my adoptive mother a housewife—so there was no distinction at home between high and low culture.  I read comics as a kid, watched old horror movies and Star Trek on TV, listened to the Beatles, and learned to play guitar—pretty typical boys’ pursuits during the '60s. My second book, Lives of the Sleepers, includes pop culture in the form of poems based on Hitchcock movies, and even the sacred objects of working-class Catholics that fill the book—scapulars, prayer cards, saints’ legends—reflect a pop culture element (though other poems in that collection connect to literature or myth: Dante, Petrarch, the Seven Sleepers legend, Orpheus and Eurydice, et al.)
I think popular art is as deeply a part of our cultural heritage as the literature or high art we discover later, and it touches us profoundly: our first exposure to the arts takes place in childhood, and the icons and images of pop culture become enmeshed with memory. And, as we see in the cases of Poe or Hitchcock, the distinction between high and low isn’t absolute.
In contrast to the pop culture weaved throughout The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems, your chapbook Something Must Happen takes readers through historical events and back to the future. What can you tell us about the process of working on Something Must Happen?
I think that history and pop culture are closely related. The “Times Square Post Cards” sequence draws literally from historical post cards sold to commemorate Times Square—a humble art form with a mercenary motive—and “The Woods,” which takes places in the ’60s, includes toys of the era as well as the remnants of ’30s fashions discovered in storage—as if the old clothes had been abandoned by Times Square's former denizens.
I wrote most of the poems for Something Must Happen in the spring of 2008. I was very interested in how time catches and transforms us, even as it transforms our world, so you’re absolutely right that it’s a time-conscious, history-based collection. (Maybe just reaching your late forties gets you thinking about time.)
Something Must Happen is published with Finishing Line Press. Care to tell us why you are drawn to the chapbook form? What advantages do you find in working toward a defined, compact collection?
I’d read and admired other chapbooks—offhand, I think of the beautiful, limited-edition chapbooks produced by Aralia Press—and thought it a good format for a small group of poems that connect thematically. I didn’t realize how dedicated Finishing Line editors Leah and Kevin Maines were until production was under way. They work hard to spread the word about their authors.
The main challenge I found lay in leaving poems out: I’d written much else that year and had to see the chapbook as a snapshot of a given moment, a particular thread, as opposed to a broader exploration.
Finally, since this is the April issue of Poets’ Quarterly, what does National Poetry Month mean to you and how will you be celebrating?
For Jane and me, National Poetry Month began a little early. This past weekend, we attended the opening celebration for the Women Poets Timeline Project in Washington, D.C. where, with host and project originator Kim Bridgford, we got to hear readings by Annie Finch, Rhina Espaillat, Molly Peacock, and Terri Witek: amazing women whose work encompasses a range of poetic traditions. That's what National Poetry Month is for: to acknowledge the art form's possibilities and awaken audiences to poetry's profound transformational power.
We haven’t planned out April yet, but I do know I’ll spend more time rereading the poems of Donald Justice: his work is so restrained yet powerful, and also highly conscious of time. My favorite right now is "Bus Stop," which begins: "Lights are burning/In quiet rooms/Where lives go on/Resembling ours." The poem conveys both solitude and longing, a resignation that can’t conceal the speaker's desire to connect. Given such subtlety of voice and clarity of imagery, it's no wonder that he influenced several generations of poets.  

An interview with Robert Fanning

by Jill Crammond Wickham
Jill Crammond Wickham: How did the Prophet “announce his entrance” to you? Was it, as it is in the collection’s first poem, “The Prophet at the Dry Cleaners,” with a “dull rattle of bells”? Do you remember when you “met” him? How many poems had you written about him before you realized he was here to stay?
Robert Fanning: The Prophet came to me a handful of years ago while I was sitting beside my brother Mike's swimming pool at his 4th of July barbecue. Kids splashing in the pool, bright sunlight, soda, grill smoke and freedom and Go USA--and there I was, feeling cynical and disturbed about the world, the environment, the wars. That afternoon I had this strange image of a man in a black suit standing on the diving board shouting to the swimmers, who didn't heed him. It was a fleeting image; I didn't know what it meant. A couple weeks later, or so, it became the poem "The Prophet's Lament at Spring Break," the first poem in the collection. That's when I met the Prophet. That was such an unusual poem for me--it felt different. Not long afterward, I had the idea that I might write another poem about the Prophet. So I did. Then another. A few poems in, I knew that this strange man with his black suit was going to take me along for a ride, though I had no idea where we were going or what we'd find.
Have you ever stopped and listened, as the question is posed on your website (www.robertfanning.com), “to the mad ramblings of any street corner prophet?”
Yes, definitely. I'm sometimes too leery to get too close, though--which is important when you consider the Prophet in my book--who goes unnoticed and unheard. I usually walk by--but stop somewhere nearby and listen. I do remember as an undergrad at the University of Michigan some doomsday preachers shouting things at crowds of students, and I've encountered them in cities and other crowds. An earlier poem, "Seaside Carnival, Late in the World" features these doomsday prophets (a poem in my first collection, The Seed Thieves) who I'd been struck by seeing on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey. I'm totally fascinated by these people and yes, I do stop to listen--but avoid engaging with them. I don't need to be told that I'm going to Hell. But the idea of a person standing in the middle of a crowd of people: rousing them, inciting them, breaking them out of their shells--no matter what their message: that urgency and passion--it's fascinating in a world where we grow ever more inward and disconnected and cyber-residential.
Does the Prophet follow you around, still? 
He stands outside the window, looking in at me. Sometimes he knocks lightly, but usually he just stares at me. He wants me to write another book about him.
It would be great if poetry collections, like novels, could be made into movies. In fact, as I was reading, each poem presented itself as a mini-movie, or a “short.” If American Prophet were made into a movie, who would you want to play the Prophet?
It is a very cinematographic collection to me, so I'm glad to hear you say that--and I often consider my poems as "small films," as I sometimes call them. I've considered in passing the idea of actually making small films to accompany some of the poems--but I just don't have the time or resources, unfortunately. I think that would be a wonderful idea: a book of poems becoming a film. Great idea! Let's get Hollywood behind this! As for the actor, I've never thought about that. He's a rather enigmatic, shadowy character in some ways--but also endearing and something of a bumbler, an ordinary man. So I'll leave that up to the casting agent! But I'll tell you some I might audition: Adrien Brody, Joaquin Phoenix, John Malkovich, Johnny Depp, Daniel Day-Lewis. Bud Cort about 10 years after Harold and Maude would've been perfect.  And hell, while we're at it, let's come up with a Director: David Lynch or Tim Burton.
At what point in writing “Prophet poems” did you realize a collection was forming?
Well, to some degree when I wrote the first few poems. I started thinking manuscript at that point--though I really had no idea how many I'd write, or if the idea would lose its energy. I entertained the possibility that it might even be a chapbook, and I put together a chapbook and sent it out, though that wasn't satisfying. I wanted it to be a full-length book.
How did you put the manuscript together? Considering all the poems have a single character as their focus, was it easier or more difficult to arrange the sequence?
First of all, as I would do with any manuscript--whether for a focused, thematic book like this one, or a diverse collection--I simply wrote and wrote--as many poems as I could, not worrying about sequencing or arrangement until much later. I think there's already an inherent danger in knowing you're working on a book too early on, or thinking too much about it. Then you become a cattle herder. So I just wanted to let the poems happen, let their various movements and turns happen. Much later on, when I felt I had enough poems to really start imagining a sequence, I spread the dozens of poems on the floor and began moving them around like puzzle pieces. And this was definitely easier with a themed collection than with a group of poems on various topics, as I'm used to.
What began to emerge in this process were a few different arrangements--some poems featured the Prophet trying to address a crowd of people, such as The Prophet at Elvisfest, The Prophet in Flight, The Prophet in the Superstore, and many others. Another series of poems featured him alone in a landscape, such as The Prophet in the Heartland and The Prophet at the Industrial Complex. Later, I began to notice that as the narrative arc continues, the Prophet is trying to gain higher ground--climbing up on high voltage towers and billboards. I loved that--so I began to write a few more poems toward that movement. And the same goes for the introduction of a megaphone, an idea that begins with the poem The Prophet's New Voice. Toward the end of the book, he carries a megaphone on his travels. So, as with the shaping of any collection, it's part intuition, part faith, part conscious making, and part madness.
In his understated manner, the Prophet is a powerful, captivating character. Is American Prophet more your book or the Prophet’s book?
It's both of ours, of course, but definitely more his book. I had to fight the urge to make it more my book. I kept wanting to get into his head, to know more about him, to make him do some grand thing or to really have the book be contained or epiphanic, as I have a tendency to do with my poems. He won in the end--by just wandering, by not being heard or seen, by being misunderstood, and yes, very understated. And I'm glad for that--his book ended up being better than my book would have been.
Would you consider American Prophet to be more of a collection that sends a message or one that presents a series of cultural observations? Or perhaps both? What was your intention?
I think it's definitely both, though my intention was never very clear. The book was really a wandering, a gut sense. I feel like by having the Prophet to travel with, I was able to write about many different scenes and cultural contexts that I may not have been able to write about as easily without him. Many of these landscapes, the superstore, the casino, the city, the Midwestern fields, the strip mall--they all fascinate me and move me--this nation is so various yet homogeneous, so absurd and breathtaking. I love these landscapes. I love driving in this country, through farms and cities. I love all of it. But I don't know that you can write a book that just wanders around taking snapshots of these American worlds. That's been done and done perfectly and can't be done again, and it is called Leaves of Grass. There's some aspect of my book that is almost a minimalist version of Whitman's grandiose and epic American wandering, I realized afterward. This Prophet is a nobody, a searcher without a voice, a lost soul wondering why we "his people" aren't listening, aren't watching. So if the book has a message, it might be that there is no one or no message capable of bringing us together, or that the message is now inaudible or irrelevant.
Though there are clearly religious overtones to the collection, they are not presented in a heavy-handed manner. Can you discuss the secular versus non-secular aspects of the book?
Anytime you're calling a character the Prophet: yes, you've got religion swimming around in the current. But I definitely wanted to wrestle the subject of religion out of the spotlight. This guy's message is not about Christ or Allah or any nameable God. And though he is in many ways a doomsayer, he also sees hope; his is more of a secular call to prayer, and I perfectly recognize the contradictory nature of that. Perhaps he is more of an anti-Prophet, in that he hasn't been blessed as other prophets were, with a flaming tongue, with a divine message. The guy watches Star Trek and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, fer Chrissake. He Googles Native American spirituality and reads the Farmer's Almanac. He's kind of a loveable numbskull. He's not a priest or an evangelist--though he may look like one, skulking around and shouting at crowds in his black suit. In fact, he looks for God's face on the side of a barn, he sees the evangelists gathering at a huge convention--he knows on some level that those folks aren't looking for what he's looking for. So, yes, religion is a large undercurrent, among many--but the book isn't about religion. The secular and non-secular are intertwined and superimposed in the collection, as they are in our nation of superstore cathedrals.
Do you have any religious training?
I once was an altar boy. Does that count?
What is your favorite poem in American Prophet?
It's hard to pick one because I like poems for different reasons. I like the inherent humor in a lot of the poems, like The Prophet at Elvisfest, the self-deprecation of The Prophet at the Poetry Reading and a few politically charged poems that address the "War on Terror" (The Prophet in the War Zone and The Prophet and the Seabird Dream).
What inspires you? In your daily life, where might you find a poem?
It's really impossible to predict and hard to discuss where inspiration comes from. For me the sources are just about anywhere: from something I read in a book, or some strange news segment on the TV. I'm drawn to things that pique my interest, that spark emotion in me. If I'm tickled or disturbed or moved by something, then I'm moved to write, and hopefully will then move a reader.  I like things that have an emotional complexity to them--that suggest a maelstrom of feeling. For instance, I have a recent poem called "A Deer in the Target," inspired by a news clip I saw of a deer running wild in a Target department store. Other recent subjects: a poem to my twin who died in utero, a poem about a Buddhist temple overrun by Red Fire Ants, a poem about encountering family members on Facebook. I love things that seem funny, absurd, and somehow sad all at the same time. Most recently, I've been writing poems of a personal nature. In the past, I've consciously avoided those poems--now I embrace this impulse: to write about my life. I'm lucky enough to have a wonderful family; my wife and children amaze me and startle me. Recent deaths in my family--having lost a brother and sister--have also shaken me to my core. The challenge is to make these very personal experiences as intense and moving for strangers, for readers. Departing from American Prophet, my next collection will be quite a wide spectrum of subject matter and tones, I think. I like that in a poetry book.
Could you give us a glimpse of your writing process? Do you have a daily writing practice?
Daily I lament not writing daily. I try to accept that I just don't have time in my life right now to do so. With a new teaching career and two young children, there just aren't enough hours in the day. On good days I'll sneak a few lines in or a stanza. More importantly, I collect ideas, jot down the sparks. When I get the time, hopefully in the summer, I'll start some fires. I try to do a lot of poetry readings, which are a great impetus to finish up some new drafts. When I have a reading on the horizon, my productivity level increases. As for process: hammer, chisel and saw. 
When is a poem finished? How do you polish your language to get such gorgeous lines as:
…the Prophet witnesses through his porthole:
first the sundown’s crimson dousing desert mesas,
then the dark sea pooling in canyons, night’s flood
spilling into heartland farms where streetlights
shimmer few and far between.  Through shredded sails
of cirrus a blood red moon rises… 
(from “The Prophet in Flight”)

Thank you for saying you like those lines. I often use the metaphor of sculpture, an easy thing to liken my process to, as my wife is a sculptor. Along those lines, the early drafts are wet clay, the outburst of initial feeling and language; middle drafts are the mold making process--the setting of stanzas, arranging lines. Editing and revising are when I make a lot of syntactical adjustments and focus even more consciously on the sound of the language, and make tweaks to the meter--a sort of fine tuning time--listening to a new engine. The patina, the last phase, involves reading the poem many times aloud; I'll often add new poems to readings, so that I can hear how they're working, feel how they're working on the page. As for when it is finished? When it resists change. When it feels solid. When I've lived with it a long time. When it feels like slough.
Who are your major poetic influences? 
This is difficult to determine in that I believe my writing is an accretion of nearly every poet whose work I've admired, and that is far too many to list. I studied with a wide array of poets at Sarah Lawrence, including Tom Lux and Marie Howe, who all inspired me in different ways: I'm inspired by dozens of contemporary poets who write with clarity and music. I often return to my loves: Roethke, Plath, Thomas. I'm particularly drawn to mid-20th Century poets, whose strong formal work carried over into mid/late-career free verse that I find to be deeply infused with musicality.
What are you currently reading?
I'm teaching a Graduate Seminar in Contemporary Poetry, and created a reading list consisting of some books I haven't had a chance to read, including Gabrielle Calvocoressi's Apocalyptic Swing, Matthew Dickman's All-American Poem, and others. I'm also reading a fine collection of essays on poetics that includes many of the great manifestos and ideas of last century's poets.
You are an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. Are you involved in the literary community outside academia? If so, in what ways, and how does this further your goals as a poet?
Prior to my academic life, I've been deeply involved in literary communities in Detroit and around Michigan--and remain so. I worked for 8 years as a writer-in-residence and Managing Director at InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a tremendous organization that sends poets and writers into the Detroit Public Schools. Though I've always felt poetry could be a vehicle for social change--it was at InsideOut that I truly witnessed, daily, poetry's capacity to affect change in individuals and communities. In fact, I'm working on creating a literary community in Mt. Pleasant, having created in my first year there, the Wellspring Literary Series, which brings regional writers to Mt. Pleasant to read with CMU students. Poetry, to me, is private only in composition, but it is an art that is incredibly necessary and valuable to the community. It brings people together; it makes us question our lives in the world. I bring this ethic to my students as well. We visit a local senior center to conduct writing activities; we create "poetry marathons" where we read poems all-day long on campus to passers-by. This is a living and ever-evolving art--it wants to engage with the world, not to be cooped up only in a musty library or sitting on a professor's desk, though it loves those places, too. As a professor, I want to bring my love of the living art to my students--to make them realize that this is an out-of-doors-art, a wondering and wandering art, an art that resists capture.
What advice do you give to your students about the poetic life?
Luckily, so far my students seem drawn to this art by a pure love for it--without ulterior motives like fame or money. If they ever seem drawn by those--I quickly tell them to look elsewhere. Most poets, I remind them, even so-called famous ones, still need day jobs. The "poetic life" is one of dedication to the craft: to eating as many poems as you can a day, to trying to write the best poems you can as often as possible. If you love something so much, you might be lucky enough to get good at it. If you get really good at it, you might be lucky enough to publish some poems, maybe even a book. I always remind my students to focus on the roots--the making, the hard-work of making poems--and not the leaves--those small tribulations of a published poem or a book or praise--those things wither away. Just go down into your cave and write. Come up into the air occasionally. But love the cave.
What are you currently working on?
I'm working on what will hopefully become my next collection of poems, which isn't one with a focused theme. It's untitled as of yet, though I'm starting to think of titles, so I must have that book itch. The poems are all over the spectrum thematically; they're accumulating and gathering energy--I just need to write more; I'm not quite at the point to assemble a manuscript. I think there's a new urgency in my poetic voice that may have been informed by the chaos of my life recently, and maybe even by the writing of American Prophet, which took me into unfamiliar psychic terrain. I hope the book will be done soon, of course, but what's most important is that the roots grow strong, that it's ready to sprout when it's ready.
Any future plans for the Prophet?
He wants more. Like his character itself, he's still burning with something to say. I don't get the sense he's ready to hang up his black suit for good. He's out there waiting for me now. I'm keeping my ear to the ground.

An interview with Kate Durbin: Part I

by Jill Crammond Wickham
Part II is here, in the Winter 2011 issue of Poets' Quarterly.
Editor’s note: this interview was conducted with Kate in February 2010 so be sure to visit her website for more recent news.
Jill Crammond Wickham: The Ravenous Audience is like no other book of poetry I’ve read. “The words howled at me,” as the speaker in “Learning to Read,” says,  “…first with pleasure, then fear, as I began to realize this wasn’t a television I could turn off…”  How did you put the collection together? In writing the poems, when did you begin to realize they were working together to create a greater whole?
Kate Durbin: I started writing these poems in grad school, without the intention of showing them to anyone. I was getting my MFA in fiction at the time. I wrote the Breillat poems first, as a series of exercises. I did this because Breillat’s work spoke to me in a way that graduate school did not. Workshop was going poorly for me—I wasn’t connecting with most of the advice that was being given, nor the motivations most of the people there held for creating literature in the first place. For me, art is meant to throw a monkey wrench into the institutions that are destroying us. Art is meant to provoke and disturb us out of complacency. Also, art is a deeply spiritual thing, even though I lost my religious faith while writing this book.
I tried to workshop a few of the poems, but they didn’t go over. Nobody knew what to make of them, so it was decided that I was just trying to be “shocking.” And I was, but not in the sense that they thought I was. I was trying to shock myself back into making art, because all those awful stories I’d been prescriptively and obediently writing were not art, they were toilet paper.
However, it didn’t take me long on my own to realize that the poems I was writing belonged together. They all came from a very desperate, hidden place, and so I vomited them up and then artfully constructed them into monsters. An enormous amount of thought went into it, and of course research, but it was all born from passion.
You divided the collection, film-like, into four scenes. Silent film star Clara Bow, movie star Marilyn Monroe and the films of Catherine Breillat are an integral part of The Ravenous Audience. Can you talk about your interest in film and how it impacts your poetry?
The consciousness of the gaze when we read about film was something I wanted to exploit. Adding this awareness to the poems changes the way the poems are read; the reader then applies that consciousness of their own gaze—in the Lacanian sense, and also somewhat the Male Gaze—to their reading of the book, so that the reading of the book, unlike the watching films, is a self-aware activity. Critic Patricia McCormick, who coined the term cinesexuality, explains how “[s]pectatorship is an event which cannot be witnessed.” The reader cannot read these poems the blind way they would read a film, but nor could they read them in the way they would read a book of poems [which also has it’s own blindnesses]. For the book to accuse in the ways I wanted it to accuse, it had to possess some tension regarding “genre” so that the reader would take it on it’s own terms.
I’m fascinated by this concept of cinesexuality, whereby cinema has the ability to produce intense pleasure in a viewer, to create desire in “excess of the meaning of images and their deferral to established sexualities.” This concept—or something akin to it—is one I explore in Clara Bow’s silent film poem, and also in Marilyn Monroe’s interview poem. For me, it relates back to the idea of the ravenous audience or the peanut-crunching crowd that Plath refers to in her poem “Lady Lazarus.” Essentially, cinesexuality gets to the heart of why the peanut crunching crowd is so dangerous. It reveals why they have this strong desire  [need] for cinema, and for the screen siren. It tells us why our culture is so obsessed with movie stars and why we pay them the big bucks. Because they are ciphers for our desires we don’t want to name and claim.  And the price for being a cipher, especially if you are a woman, is very high. My poem “Romance,” based on Catherine Breillat’s film, can be read this way. The woman becomes a Christ figure/S&M victim; she surrenders [or is forced into surrendering, it is intentionally left vague] her image up so we can be born, violently, in the theater. Marilyn makes the same sacrifice in her interview poem. There is something so beautifully generous in this gesture, but also deeply disturbing. We leave the theater with blood on our hands if we have refused to own our desires that have sprung to life [pun intentional] on the silver screen.
Instead of a persona poem, you give Marilyn Monroe a voice through an interview poem. How did “Our Marilyn(s): Interview” come about? What inspired your decision to explore Monroe in this fashion?
I’m glad that you noted this is not a persona poem. Even though my text is full of so-called persona poems, none are really persona poems, because this notion of persona insists on a fixed identity and these women are pulling against their various fixed cultural identities [though not totally successfully, and that is intentional]. Also, they are all performing; the entire book is a film divided into scenes, as you pointed out in your earlier question. None of this is “the real story.”
I didn’t want to turn these women into dolls and put them behind glass in my museum; everyone has already done that. Everyone has his or her own Marilyn fuck doll, which is why the poem is called Our Marilyn(s). Even I do—I am not exempt, and the poem calls attention to this self-implication, with the shift at the end, after the butterflies are cued.
I’ve talked a bit about why I chose the interview form in particular for this poem in a previous interview. (http://akashicbooks.blogspot.com/2009/10/ravenous-audience-by-kate-durbin.html)
You have a very playful approach to form. Line spacing, word placement…each poem has its own unique appearance on the page. I’m thinking of the formatting of such poems as “Statues of Women: All the Same,” “Write Her Theater,” “Doll Dress,” and “Live Bear.” What dictates a certain poem’s layout? Do the poems, in a sense, “tell you” how they want to appear?      
I wish it were as simple as them telling me how they want to appear, but often they are very coy with me.
As I worked on the poems I started to see how each poem had individuality and how each form seemed to represent the unique experience of each woman in the book. So the forms became outfits in a sense, which is something I’ve talked about in other interviews. And sometimes the woman needed to change outfits, so the form of the poem would change—maybe she felt that the reader was seeing her as a dominatrix, when she was a nurse too. She, too, did not want to suffocate under my arbitrary rules. This also relates back to what I was saying about self-awareness. To keep the reader self-aware, so that he or she could not fall into the poem blindly, I had to keep switching forms.
Also, I want to add that I don’t think my forms are particularly boundary breaking, and I also don’t think that these women’s experiences are “new.” Women’s victimization, either at the hands of others or of herself, is one of the oldest stories in the book, and one of the stories I am most tired of yet I cannot deny its repetition in the world. This is why I think the various forms start to feel arbitrary—like, you can change the dressing but you cannot change the wound. Though I don’t believe that, actually. I’m more of the mind that the dressing is the wound is the balm for the wound.
Scattered among the famous/infamous women, Jesus makes a few appearances. Where does He fit in to your aesthetic?
One way to read the text is as a mystical odyssey from childhood unto death. Jesus is a beatific figure that pops in and out to beckon the reader along. As I mentioned previously, I lost my religion as I wrote this book, so I was trying to regurgitate my relationship to this figure who had always been really pivotal to me (who still is pivotal to me) much in the same way that I was trying to regurgitate these iconic female figures who narratives I had ingested as a child. In losing my religion the only thing that brought me lasting sadness was losing Jesus, since he had really been my secret boyfriend forever.
But I bravely vomited up Jesus just as I did the women. It was important to me, even as he is very “mystical” in the text, to make him as visceral and grotesque as the women. What I didn’t expect was for this new Jesus to be so fashionable—he’s a real rock star. He’s a very materialistic Jesus—first he is felt, then polyester. Also, he’s a slut.
In many ways, from your subject matter to your costumes, you are as dramatic, as iconic as the women you write about. How would you describe your persona?
That’s kind of you to say. It’s important to me to be bold. However, I am also a very anxious person—I actually have an anxiety disorder.
And yet—beneath the anxiety that has so much to do with how I was raised, in the Christian church and in a family where I was taught to turn myself inside out, to make other people more important than myself, to self-castrate—I am fiercely independent and brave and not afraid to fail. I know one of the things that makes me stand out, and makes my work stand out, is that I chase after my own artistic vision. It took balls to publish The Ravenous Audience—the book has alienated family members, and lost me some of my Christian friends (I had one “friend” walk out in the middle of my book launch). All of that for a book that might not even be quantifiably “good,” that might not change anyone’s life but mine. On top of that, it takes guts to dress the way I do, especially when other poets don’t dress up.
Recently I started a critical writings and arts journal about Lady Gaga called Gaga Stigmata (www.gagajournal.blogspot.com), because I find her work to be decisive to this moment in pop cultural history. I have already gotten hate mail from intellectuals with superiority complexes, who think that pop stars shouldn’t be critically engaged with, except to dismiss. I love hate mail. I started a feminist club at my conservative Evangelical Christian University when I was nineteen and I got loads of hate mail. Hate mail means you’re touching the nerve.
I don’t know that I would call any aspect of myself a persona, per se, though I would say that I am all about channeling iconic women and their strengths (both in poems and in costumes), as well as their weaknesses, because it is in weakness where we learn the most. I am also all about performing the person you want to be in the world, however messy or abject that performance might look on a given day.
From the “costumes” page of your website, it looks like whenever you read, you are sporting a different costume (my favorite is the butterfly hood). Why costumes? What do you feel they add to your poetry?
The costumes go with the poems I choose for particular readings, as well as with the venue and audience. I call them fashion performances, and they are meant to provoke. The poems themselves alter in conjunction with the costumes—they are “read” differently by the audience. Sometimes I add elements of performance beyond that, but those elements are always closely linked to the dress, whether they are gestures or altering the costume somehow. For example, at a reading I did recently I had someone pin blood roses to my tights as I read my poem "New Creature," which is about a woman who flees naked into the forest after her father violates her. In the forest she has a transformative experience.
Your question is making me think of Alexander McQueen, who was accused of creating clothes for women that were too cruel, too bizarre. He said: “I want people to be afraid of the woman I dress.” When I read in costume, I want people to be afraid of this creature standing before them, as people cowered before angels in the Bible. I want there to be as visceral a reaction to the woman speaking as there is to the poetry being spoken.
I see a beautiful connection between fashion and poetry; both are artifice, both are ways of expressing our becoming. Together they have even more power than they do alone. When I was a baby one of the shows I loved to watch was Wheel of Fortune (one of my first words, consequently, was “Banna” for “Vanna White”). I love the glittering words and the glittering dresses Vanna wore. As I grew older my parents discouraged my interest in fashion, while my interest in writing was encouraged (though my interest in romance and horror and teen magazines was not). This same attitude was carried into graduate school—not that people in my MFA program didn’t like my clothes, but even now people have trouble seeing the relationship between what I am wearing and what I am saying, when really they are the same thing in two different languages.
By the powers that be, poetry is seen as a pure, high art, and fashion taints the purity of poetry. This is part of the reason I dress the way that I do, now—to mess with the institution of poetry, which frankly disgusts me because it has alienated so many from loving the art form. It would be different if I were parading down the streets in black paint with the Baroness von Elsa. At that time, poets didn’t have such a deep (pocket) investment in the donning the cloak of the academy. Christ said by their fruits you will know them, and I say by their costumes you will know who owns them.
Have you had any theater experience?
Absolutely none! I have horrible performance anxiety, actually. But I just incorporate that into my readings now. I would like to induce anxiety in my listeners. Even better if they would vomit, but that has never happened.
Are you, as the blurb on the back of The Ravenous Audience suggests, “intent on upsetting the reader and [yourself]”?
By upset I mean that in the most literal way, the way that you would upset a bench someone is sitting on by turning it over.
I think the only way to truly upset the reader’s bench is to upset your own bench. You are the primary reader of your own work. Artists are not preachers or politicians with an institutional agenda; they are prophets. Prophets receive messages that upset. In the Bible prophets are always moaning at God because He tells them some message of death and destruction that they really don’t want to pass along. And they become very depressed about it.
I had no idea what The Ravenous Audience would become as I wrote it. And as I followed the trail of crumbs into the dark, I lost my religious faith, alienated certain people in my life, and went through many dark nights of the soul in the St. John of the Cross sense. My bench, suffice to say, was totally upset. I’m so glad it was! For it was a bench constructed by my parents and our fucked up culture and the church. I don’t want that bench to be my foundation. I’ll take the grit of earth, facedown, any day. 

An Interview with January Gill O’Neil

by Jessie Carty
January Gill O’Neil is the author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press, December 2009). Her poems and articles have appeared in The MOM Egg, Crab Creek Review, Ouroboros Review, Drunken Boat, Crab Orchard Review, Callaloo, Babel Fruit, Edible Phoenix, Literary Mama, Field, and Cave Canem anthologies II and IV. In 2009, January was awarded a Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant. She is featured in the Poets & Writers January/February 2010 Inspiration issue as one of their 12 debut poets. A Cave Canem fellow, she is a senior writer/editor at Babson College, runs the popular Poet Mom blog, and lives with her two children in Beverly, MA.
Jessie Carty: I first wanted to congratulate you on the publication of your debut collection of poetry Underlife, which I read and reviewed on my blog earlier this year. With writers having to do so much of their own marketing, have you prepared the “elevator” version of how to describe your book?
January Gill O’Neil: Thanks Jessie!
Underlife is about the unsaid. It’s about those things that remain on the tips of our tongues but is never said out loud. It deals with issues of race and culture, as well as being a woman, wife, mother, and careerist—and how these aspects intersect. 
When did you know you were ready to put together a collection of poetry?
When I needed a large binder clip to hold my poems together, I knew it was time to start thinking giving these random poems some order.
The word that kept coming to me when I read your book was fearless. For me, this means you really got into the grit of life and didn’t seem to avoid any topics. Are there any topics you find particularly hard to write? Especially when you know they are going to be published? Any examples from the book?
Poems about my father were particularly tough. My dad and I have a great relationship, but writing about drinking (“Drinking” and “Poem for My Father.”) is tough subject matter. He’s not that person anymore. Yet, the subject mater was worthy of exploration. It’s one thing to write a few poems on one subject over the course of a few years. It’s another to put them together and realize you have a theme—something I never really saw until I put together the collection. 
That being said, I don’t feel there are any topics that are off limits.

A coworker says,We’re thinking about doing a happy hour.
Wanna join us?

And you recall the night you found her father
slumped over in the kitchen chair . . .
But you go anyway because
It’s Friday and your job sucks,
And drinking invites camaraderie.
Besides the “tough” topics, you also hold a mirror up to the minutia of daily life. You give new words to the seemingly unimportant. My favorite example of this is the poem “Always There’s Something”. Do you think you write from specific small images/moments or do you compose with a theme/subject already in mind?
The story is in the details. Life happens in the day-to-day moments we spend in between the big events.
Usually, I start from scratch, meaning I don’t have much more than details in mind. I carry around a notebook so I can jot down ideas whenever they occur. There’s nothing worse than being on the train thinking you have the world’s greatest poem in your head and no paper to write it down. But I like to use snippets of conversation, misheard phrases, and words not used in regular speech. For example, I use the phrase “Nice gams!” in the poem, “What Mommy Wants.” When was the last time you heard anyone use the word gams?
Is there any particular bit of advice you like to give to other poets? I always feel like I say my favorite tip too much – READ!
Reading is great advice. Also, I recommend connecting with other poets often, either in person or virtually. I like participating in workshops because I like having my work critiqued by people I trust.
Whenever possible, read your poems out loud, and have someone else read them back to you. It helps you find the weak spots in your work that may not be readily seen.
How did you go about setting up readings and talks. Did you have to do this or did your publisher assist you?
Most of the readings I’ve set up myself, but it’s certainly been easier since Underlife was published. I send queries, or someone contacts me through word of mouth. I’m very grateful that people are interested in my work.
Besides the actual act of writing, how do you stay involved with other writers?
Can’t say enough about writing communities—in person and virtual. Back in 2006, when I was working full time raising a toddler and an infant, I started the Poet Mom blog as a way of reaching out to other writers. But it was the feedback on my poems that kept me going. I started posting my work, reading poems by contemporary, global poets. It’s interesting to see how writers in this digital age are influenced by technology and immediacy and intimacy it brings.
I also work with a local writers’ group in Salem, MA. My work is stronger when I can get constructive feedback from people I trust. My poetry is better because I am connected to communities of writers who believe in and draw strength from working with words.
I know you are also connected with Cave Canem. Can you tell us a little bit about Cave Canem and your experience there?
Cave Canem is a writers’ group for African American poets. I participated in two retreats and found the experience to be extremely rewarding. More than 270 poets have gone through the program. The most valuable part of the experience has been the friendships and connections that have lasted through the years.
As a full-time worker, mom, blogger and poet are there any tricks you can give other writers on how to balance it all?
Don’t sleep.
I don’t believe in balance, but I try to do only those things that bring me joy. Meaning, I don’t do things that are time sucks.
When I find time to write, I try to focus just on the writing and not submissions or blogging. Those are distractions and can be done when the kids are around. But when I have a few moments, I write in short spurts whenever the mood strikes me. I may not get a poem every time, but at least I keep the creative juices flowing.
Always keep pen and paper handy.

Voices by Lucille Clifton

BOA Editions
Soft cover, 64 pages
ISBN 978-1-934414-12-5

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Mary Jane Lupton
The celebrated African American poet Lucille Clifton died at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on February 13, 2010. When I had last talked to Clifton during a telephone interview in October of 2005, she mentioned that she was working on a volume of poetry tentatively titled Colored Women. Among her subjects were Sally Hemings, Aunt Jemima, and Pocahontas, whose Indian name was Mataoka.
A few of these women from the past do appear in Clifton’s final volume, titled not Colored Women but Voices. As in all of her poetry, characters from history and popular culture are transformed in Voices by Clifton’s personal, uncapitalized “i.”
My favorite among them is “cream of wheat,” a poem about the infamous, boxed breakfast food advertised by a black servant named “Rastus.” We learn that at night Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus wander freely through the aisles of grocery stores--homeless, nameless, identified only by their kerchiefs, their chef’s hats, and their happy black faces.
i read in an old paper
i was called rastus
but no mother ever
gave that to her son….
“cream of wheat” is a poem in “hearing,” the first section of Voices.
In “hearing” Clifton presents several animal poems, including “raccoon prayer,” “horse prayer,” and “dog’s god.” These poems are reminiscent of her magical fox sequence, published in The Terrible Stories in 1996. They also resemble the animal poems of contemporary Native American poets James Welch, Leslie Silko, and Joy Harjo. Like traditional and modern Indian poets, Clifton often chants in cycles as she prays for the wounded earth and its threatened inhabitants.
In her 1987 volume Next, the warrior Crazy Horse (Tashunka Witco) is featured in a sequence of four poems. In Voices she again revives his spirit, concluding her tribute to the famous Sioux with the familiar chant, “it is a good day / to die.” “hearing” is rich with Indian names like “Father of What Runs and Swims,” “mataoka,” and “witko: aka crazy horse.” The section ends with the mournful autobiographical poem “sorrows,” which is reproduced on the back cover.  
In section two, “being heard,” one finds images that have become familiar to readers of Clifton’s poetry. There are two poems about her father’s abuse of her mother, expressed in the language of the kitchen:
this is what I know
some womens days
are spooned out
in the kitchen of their lives
In one untitled poem she alludes to her father’s “probing fingers,” but she is not nearly as specific about Samuel Sayles’ sexual violations as she had been in Next and in her 2004 book, Mercy, where she claims that she is grateful that her father did not “replace his fingers with his thing.”
The third section of Voices, “ten oxherding pictures,” is more strenuous than the earlier two. It is a series of philosophical meditations that recalls the spiritual quest of Guatama Buddha, a theme which Clifton had explored in “california lessons” (Next, 1987).
She tells us in a note following the sequence that “ten oxherding pictures” is based on an “allegorical series composed as a training guide for Chinese Buddhist monks.” She had never seen the pictures but only their titles before she wrote the ten poems; but, if one is to rely on the internet, she had evidently published an earlier version of the oxherding poems in the Winter1999 issue of Callaloo (volume 22, number 1).
Some background seems necessary in preparing the reader for the complexity of Clifton’s series. Wikipedia relates the ten stages of the “Ox Herding Pictures” to the ten stages of the progress towards enlightenment and wisdom in Zen Buddhism. As is her custom, Clifton personalizes the philosophical abstractions. Like the monks many centuries before her, she must struggle to catch and tame the bull or ox.
“6th picture
                      coming back on the ox’s back”
i mount the ox
and we shamble
on toward the city together
“7th picture   
                      the ox forgotten   leaving the man
i have been arriving
fifty years       parents
children lovers
have walked with me
eating me like cake
and I am a good baker….
In “ten oxherding pictures” hands are a dominant motif. Lucille Clifton was born with six fingers on each hand, as was her mother. At the beginning of the series, when the journey begins, the Zen poet believes that her hands belong to the ox. When the ox, the symbol of enlightenment, summons her in the second poem, it is through these hands. Hands appear in all but two of the “pictures” (the 3rd and the 8th). In the tenth “picture,” the monk who is Lucille arrives at the gates of the city, and “the hands begin to move.”
The series ends in a three-line thought entitled “end of meditation’:
what is ox
ox is
To read Lucille Clifton is to apply all of one’s concentration and yet to be looking for her autobiographical data and even her humor, as in the pun on “buffalo,” the city where she grew up but also an American ox (“second picture / seeing the traces.”)
Other themes in the third section illuminate the voices Clifton hears, voices who summon her on her journey to wisdom as her dead mother’s voice had called to her in the poem “the death of thelma sayles” (Next 51). In Zen tradition, Clifton hears voices who echo the sound of silence. These themes of voices, wisdom, the hands, the ox, and silence help to enlighten the title of this short but brilliant collection and to fuse its separate parts.
With Clifton’s death in February of 2010, her voice is physically silenced. But the spirit of Lucille, whose name means light, shall shine indefinitely, for she was a “good baker” of poems.