Dorothy Chan

“Food is probably my favorite thing to write about because it reveals so much about a culture.”

Dorothy Chan

Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017)

Could you share with us a poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites, “III. Chinatown Dogs Carnival”:

Chinatown dogs drool over cake and duck,
watching the dangling ducks from the windows:
the pig-heads hanging and coffee-brown bags
sucking duck fat the way club girls chug drinks

This is a sonnet that’s part of the first section, titled “Jack and Faye.” An earlier version of this poem can also be found in The Great American Poetry Show.

 What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

I love food. Food is probably my favorite thing to write about because it reveals so much about a culture, from early morning dim sum with grandparents (when my grandmother orders her porridge and we always order a sampler platter that consists of har gow, shumai, chrysanthemum jelly, char siu bao, a plain bao, and Chinese ravioli) to eight-course family dinner celebrations that include Hong Kong staples such as abalone, (faux) shark’s fin soup, roasted duck, Cantonese-style lobster, etc. We pay our respects through food. We also bond over food and learn about our heritage through it

In particular, “III. Chinatown Dogs Carnival” is about those childhood trips my parents and I took to both the Philadelphia and NYC Chinatowns. We’d go on a Saturday and once we arrived, our mission was grocery shopping: buying items we couldn’t get in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A huge part of that trip was also lunch: seriously, if you want authentic Chinese food in Chinatown, go to one of those shops with the dangling ducks in the window. Those places not only have a great selection of meats: duck, chicken, pork, etc., but also delicious noodle bowls you can chow down on while you wait for them to prepare your takeout duck.

Fashion and film are other obsessions of mine. I was a lonely kid growing up, so whenever I finished my homework I wouldn’t be hanging out with friends but turning on Turner Classic Movies or watching and reading about my favorite designer brands. To this day, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of my favorite films, and part of the inspiration for my chapbook. I think it’s beautiful how art, film, fashion, and food can collide into family—it’s like you study your family and their heritage and start to appreciate all those cultural points more.

What’s your chapbook about?

Here’s the elevator pitch: Chinatown Sonnets is a guide on “How to Do East Asia the Hip Way,” presented in the most unlikely of new forms: the sonnet. Revolved around one sonnet per page, readers are guided through a millennial version of East Meets West, West imitates East, Paris in China, and numerous other Postmodern offerings. With the backdrop of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, readers are transported from Paris to China and from Hong Kong to Philadelphia. These poems are all about fast food, fast fashion, fast news, and fast culture. But above all, family comes first.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The current first six poems are my oldest pieces. I don’t want to get too sentimental, but I really have fond memories of writing them. This was back in 2011 when I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. I was taking Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s poetry workshop and she challenged us to write a crown of sonnets. I just had so much fun with this challenge—that’s the thing about Lyrae: she’s so great at pushing her students toward even more ambition. Of course, this original crown has been rearranged and revised throughout the years (with the original sonnet 7 completely revamped), but that’s why the collection means so much to me: it’s years of discovering and rediscovering this collection of sonnets.

I distinctly remember drafting that first sonnet, “I. Chinatown From the Movies” because I had just watched Chinatown and I had also just visited Philadelphia’s Chinatown with my parents, and I was thinking about all the romanticizations of Asian culture in western media.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

Oh, the bad boy is definitely “XXI. A Boar Has Escaped the Hong Kong Zoo.” You can read it in the August 2016 issue of Hinchas de Poesia. The poem is just so bizarre. It always makes me laugh.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?

Lyrae and Elizabeth Alexander have this great chapbook from the Sleepy Hollow Chapbook Series, Slapering Hol Press called Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. This includes poems from both writers and then a conversation between Van Clief-Stefanon and Alexander. My favorite Lyrae poem, “The Buffet Dream,” is included in this.

Terrance Hayes’ Who Are The Tribes was the first chapbook I’ve ever read (in Lyrae’s poetry workshop). Read it.

Norman Dubie, who is a poetry dad to me, has this gorgeous chapbook called The Fallen Bird of the Fields.

My other favorites: Ruth Baumann’s Retribution Binary, SJ Sindu’s I Once Met You But You Were Dead, and Caylin Capra-Thomas’ Inside My Electric City. But really, I don’t want to limit this discussion—I’m discovering new chapbooks every day!

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Oh gosh, I could go on and on about how amazing the staff at New Delta Review is. They are so professional and innovative and kind, with a real passion for poetic craft. I love their journal. Phillip Spotswood, their editor, well, anything I say will be an understatement—he’s the most amazing editor. He has made this process so enjoyable! They’ve also got the best art director, Meghan Saas. Meghan’s vast knowledge of all things font and design is so impressive. Basically, with the cover image, I told her my vision of a neon maneki-neko with a city backdrop, and bam!, she makes it come to life. I really admire her creativity in designing the book layout. She’s so talented and patient.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Work hard. Work hard. Work hard. Also understand that writing is not the romanticized profession from the movies. You can spend all day talking about writing and claiming to “be a writer” and bring your typewriter to the café for show, or you can actually draft away, take critique, and continuously revise.

Respect your mentors. They know a lot. They’ve been doing this longer than you have, and you should take their every critique into consideration. Also, take a step back and realize that these legendary writers are dedicating time to you. If that’s not humbling, I don’t know what is. Right now, I am so grateful to have my poetry parents, Barbara Hamby and David Kirby, here at Florida State. Their mentorship and friendship mean the world to me.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I’d love to work in fashion, but I can’t sew. Oh, the irony.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

How do you decorate your writing space?

*

Dorothy Chan’s chapbook, Chinatown Sonnets, is the winner of New Delta Review’s 2016-2017 Annual Chapbook Contest, selected by Douglas Kearney. She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2017 finalist for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, The Journal, Spillway, Little Patuxent Review, The McNeese Review, and Salt Hill Journal. She is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review.

www.dorothypoetry.com

ndrmag.org/chapbooks/2017/04/chinatown-sonnets-by-dorothy-chan/

Eloisa Amezcua

“I liked the idea of giving this chapbook an ending that is also the beginning of an exploration for the reader.”

 Image result for eloisa amezcua    Image result for symptoms teething eloisa

Symptoms of Teething (Paper Nautilus Press, 2017)

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

I think the first poem in the chapbook, “Suppose,” really sets the tone—I wanted to begin with a supposition, with a sense of uncertainty because most of the poems in the book deal with this tension of both longing for something and then not exactly knowing what to do with that thing or with oneself once it’s procured or attained.

Your poem “Yesterday” seems to pay homage to W.S. Merwin. How do your poem and his poem “Yesterday” interact? Or is the poem responding to other poems by Merwin?

“Yesterday” pays homage to both Merwin and to my dear friend Kyle who introduced me to Merwin’s piece. Kyle and I watched a YouTube clip of Merwin reading his poem aloud, and Kyle proceeded to memorize it for a class we had together during our MFA years at Emerson. The music in Merwin’s reading and the cadence in Kyle’s version stuck with me for months and then one day Kyle said something to me that I immediately wrote down and asked if I could “steal” it—“I’ve been heavy on the good times lately”—I knew that line was my way in to this piece, which borrows its form and music from Merwin’s poem of the same name.

You conclude Symptoms of Teething with “Aubade.” The last three lines, “This morning, / we fabricate each other / into being” seem to end the book with a hopeful tone, a sense of renewal or another chance. What does it mean to you to end the chapbook with these lines?

I think these lines can be read as hopeful or hopeless, and it’s interesting to hear how readers interpret the idea of fabrication. It can seem hopeful that we’re able to start from scratch, to invent or re-invent ourselves (and others) each morning. But it also hints at the flaws in that, at the idea that each day we wake up and construct/re-construct a self to present to the world. I liked the idea of giving this chapbook an ending that is also the beginning of an exploration for the reader.

The title poem “Symptoms of Teething” seems to be outside of time, with the past and present intertwining to evoke the timelessness of struggle. How did you come to write this poem?

I’ve been a teeth-grinder since I can remember. I actually wasn’t aware of it until my family told me they could hear it throughout the house at night when I was 7 or so.

I was beginning to do some research to write a poem about bruxism when my nephew started teething, which is supposed to be one of the most painful experiences in a human’s life (thank goodness for infantile amnesia). This got me thinking about mouths. Without teeth, we’d be unable to chew our food or make ‘TH,’ ‘S,’ ‘V,’ ‘F,’ and more sounds—things we do on a daily basis. Our mouths, our teeth are this source of constant anxiety but also of relief.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I’d love to be a ceramicist or a sculptor. I’d probably make functional pieces—like bowls or bookshelves. I love the idea of making physical objects that have dimension and purpose.

Could you describe your other chapbooks and your forthcoming full-length book?

My forthcoming chapbook Mexicamericana (Porkbelly Press) is an exploration into belonging to two cultures, two languages, at once. My parents are both from border towns in Mexico (San Luis Rio Colorado and Mexicali) and I spent a great deal of my childhood on the road driving down to those towns or with extended family coming up to our house in Arizona. The forthcoming full-length From the Inside Quietly is sort of an amalgamation of the themes explored in my chapbooks—love, longing, family, identity.

*

Eloisa Amezcua is an Arizona native. Her debut collection, From the Inside Quietly, is the inaugural winner of the Shelterbelt Poetry Prize selected by Ada Limón. She is the author of three chapbooks and is the founder and editor of The Shallow Ends: A Journal of Poetry. Author photo by David Emitt Adams.

www.eloisaamezcua.com

“Morning Song”

“Cento”

“Exit”

 

Susan L. Miller

“Writing what you mean is difficult. Writing it with conviction and grace makes it even harder.”

Miller.png

Communion of Saints (Paraclete Press, 2017)

What obsessions led you to write your book?

I converted to Catholicism in my late thirties, and had been reading about the lives of the saints for many years. In RCIA, the class that adult Catholics have to take before baptism, we learned that the communion of saints includes all Christians, whether they are beatified or not.  I started writing these poems by reflecting on people whose lives represented, to me, saintly qualities I admired or wanted to recognize.  They aren’t all Catholic, but I take each of them as models in some respect.

What’s your book about?

It’s about friendship, first and foremost. Also, the holiness lying under the surface of every human being, and the lucky moments we recognize that in each other.  Conscience, forbearance, love, suffering, illness, suicide, interfaith marriage, racial inequality, homosexuality, teaching, and the extraordinary care of a group of NICU nurses for a group of premature infants.  Oh, and a big section of poems about St. Francis of Assisi.

What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

“Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus” cracked something open for me. I had been playing with self-portraits, but thinking of my friend Chayo as the saint she was most devoted to offered a much more engaging and freeing way of writing about the lives of the saints.  Chayo works as a cook for friends of mine in Mexico, and she became very devoted to St. Jude Thaddeus when her son was very ill.  Jude Thaddeus is the patron saint of impossible causes, and Chayo saved her son’s life by giving him one of her own kidneys.  That seemed saintly to me.  So I wrote the poem, and suddenly I saw how I could do this again–I saw many people reflecting the images of the historical saints.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

The title’s from the Apostle’s creed we say at Mass–”I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The book’s arranged in 4 sections: Faith, Hope, Love, and Pax et Bonum (the Franciscan greeting which means “Peace and the greatest good.”)  I tried to group my “saints” according to the themes of the three cardinal virtues… the final section is about St. Francis of Assisi, and a pilgrimage my husband and I took to Assisi in 2010, the year I started the process of entering the Church.

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

The final poem, “The Wolf of Gubbio,” is based on the story about St. Francis taming a wild wolf. I wrote it some time that year that we visited Assisi. The story goes that St. Francis came to Gubbio and a wolf had been killing people in town. Francis spoke to the wolf and it calmed, becoming a cherished member of the community where it had previously attacked people. I tried to imagine what that story looked like from the wolf’s perspective. Much later I realized that I had written the story of my conversion.

There are others that are just as meaningful in different ways. Several poems are about my friend Charles Hirsch, who died in 2013. Charles sponsored my conversion to Catholicism, having studied to be a seminarian in a Franciscan monastery in his teen years. I met him in his fifties, when I was in my twenties. He had left the seminary at 19 when he was seduced by a nun, and later came out as gay and lived an incredibly full life in New York. He and I were close for years, and I miss him every day. Reading the poems about him gives me a little more time with him now.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

There are a few. “The Angel of Conscience” carries on a dialogue with Gwendolyn Brooks, one of my poetic heroes. It rhymes, which almost none of the poems in this collection do. Another is “A Swarm of Flies,” which is an argument with consumerism from a Franciscan perspective.  It’s furious, which almost none of the other poems are.

What were you listening to when you wrote these poems? Did you have any rituals while writing these poems?

Not listening–I need the voice in my own head to be unimpeded–but I was reading a lot: G. K. Chesterton and The Little Flowers of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure’s Life of Francis. I was also reading the Canticle of the Creatures, St. Francis’s beautiful poem to our sisters and brothers in the universe: water, fire, wind, sun, moon, death.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

“Portrait of Greta as St. Elizabeth” was the last poem I wrote. I revised the manuscript and proofread it many times before I turned it in–I worry that I drove the Sisters at Paraclete a little crazy. During the final edits, a photograph by Graciela Iturbide reminded me of the story of my broken baby Jesus statue, which my friend Greta helped me get repaired the week my daughter was born. My daughter came two months early, so Greta picked up the statue for me and brought it to the hospital, just before I was due to present it at church to be blessed, on Feb 2nd. It turned out I was released from the hospital on that day, so I brought Jesus home instead of my daughter, who remained in the hospital for almost six weeks, total. I remembered the story of St. Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who was pregnant with John the Baptist when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, and the two babies and Greta and I seemed somehow to fit into that story, too. In a weird coincidence, my book came out on Feb. 1st of this year–so that final poem ushered in another birth, another blessing.

Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?

I do often read out loud as/ after I write. I never read the whole manuscript that way, though. There are several poems I can’t read in public without crying. So far I’ve avoided those in readings.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

I had a terrific time working with the Sisters and with my editor, Mark Burrows. He made some suggestions about order, but he never asked for specific revisions of the poems–he trusted me completely. I did have a lot of input about the cover of the book, and the design team listened carefully to my requests. They came up with something very striking, I think. And they were very patient and flexible as I suggested photograph after photograph from Mexican photographers–Graciela Iturbide and Lola Alvarez Bravo, especially–which all turned out to be too expensive to use.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?

In general, I wish readers would ask me more about the book. Usually when I read for undergraduates, they ask me questions about being a writer in general. I think the question that I wish for most is the one that makes me see the work in a different way.  Understandably, I can’t formulate that question myself. I hope someone will.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

My former classmate and good friend L.B. Thompson published a chapbook called Tendered Notes: Poems of Love and Money with Center for Book Arts many years ago. L.B. is a genius and those are poems I could never possibly write myself–clever and thoughtful and punning, but deeply invested in the currency of our lives and deaths. One of those poems has a refrain of “Timor Mortis Conturbat Me,” which comes from a medieval poem. I wish I had the elegance and erudition L.B. exhibits. Another lovely book is A Length of Night Work by Greg McDonald, an extraordinary poet who worked as a carpenter for the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority. His metaphors and images burn off all the dross, and the poems are impossibly radiant for it.

What might these chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

Probably that I am a better reader than I am a writer.

What are you working on now?

I’ve written some blogs in the past month for my press, mainly about the poems in the book and how they came to be. I’ve relished the freedom of writing in prose. It’s still challenging, but I have so much room to say things–and I’m Southern, so I do tend to go on. I’m also thinking a lot about the frankly terrifying state of politics in our country now–my brain’s working on that all day. Oh, and I’m raising my daughter to be a kind and curious person, which is a lot of work, too.

What is your favorite piece you’ve written? Why?

I don’t have a favorite. I do like some of them very much. In this project, it’s difficult to separate affection for the poem from affection for the person it’s about. I have two poems about my friend Jess Arndt, who just published her first book, Large Animals. I’m really fond of both of them, in part because they wrote themselves after separate (brilliant) hangout sessions. Jess lives in Los Angeles, so those poems make me feel a little more like I’m with her. I’m fond of my poem on Flannery O’Connor, dedicated to my friend Katie Shonk, who also writes fiction. Katie and I share an obsession with O’Connor, as does Jess (and half the free world of writers.) I love the poem I wrote about Trent Pomplun, one of my best friends since my late teens, and a Catholic theologian. I am also fond of the poem I wrote for my husband; after being together for ten years, I found I still had a lot to say about why I love and admire him.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I would probably choose photography. I had a terrific photography teacher in high school, Janet Moore-Coll, who was ABD with a literature degree and whose sense of humor and delight in the visual image really inspired me. I take dozens of photos every day, after shifting from my old Nikon film camera to a cell phone camera. (Sometimes I accidentally call my cell phone my camera; it gets used that way more often.) I used to sing a lot when I was young, but it’s a hard life following that muse. I like the freedom I have to be at home or travel or spend time with my family, or sleep on a regular schedule. That musician life isn’t for me, but luckily you can sing anywhere, without an audience, and it’s just as fun.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Ambition for a career is vanity–in the “Ecclesiastes” sense of vanity. As in, your life’s work will be in vain if what you want most is recognition. Your ambitions should be for the writing–for it to say what you want most to communicate. Anyone can pick up a set of gimmicks if they study them, but really writing what you mean is difficult. Writing it with conviction and grace makes it even harder.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

My priests and nuns. Mark Doty and Marie Ponsot, Greg Orr and Rita Dove, Anthony Hecht and Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks and Gerard Manley Hopkins. All of them were teachers of mine, the first four in the classroom, the last four on the page. Eliot Weinberger, who’s a genius. I met him and told him he was one of my personal heroes. He laughed at me, but he talked to me for quite a while. Like him, I’m inspired by Mexico–I’ve traveled more extensively there than I have in the States. I have a whole manuscript of poems about being an outsider/traveler in Mexico and how that inspired my conversion. My family and my friends inspire me so much, too. I’ve really enjoyed writing this book about them; in the States, we don’t say enough about friendship. This book is a series of love poems to my friends.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Who wants to trade books?

*

Susan L. Miller has been published in Image, Commonweal, Sewanee Theological Review, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Meridian, Iowa Review, and other journals. Her poems have been included in the anthologies St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints and Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, and Spirituality. She has twice won Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg awards for poetry. She teaches at Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn.

https://www.facebook.com/millersaints/

three poems at Image

Diptych with Mary Magdalene”

“A Vision”

 

 

 

 

DeMisty D. Bellinger

“Our obsession with pop culture or people’s obsession with celebrities inspired me to start writing the poems of Rubbing Elbows.”

elbowsRubbing Elbows (Finishing Line Press, 2017)

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

Conversations with Whitney over Colas

Talk about the gaucheness of hotel bathtubs.
Do not mention hotel bathtubs.
Say nothing of hotels.
Expound on the importance of family and children, but
refrain from using the word “future.”
Make eye contact and make her laugh.
Do not smoke in front of her.
Do not smack your teeth in front of her.
Do not mention men who go freely before
cameras and boast around her. Do not
talk of men. Do not talk of awards or the coolness
of bathtubs, the porcelain ungiven, the water
hot as blood, the bubbles
dissipating before the bath is
over.

Why did you choose this poem?

That this poem exists at all shocks me. It works so hard at not admitting anything. I was not a big fan of Whitney Houston, but I loved her voice and was always floored whenever I saw a televised performance. I expected her to grow old and regal, to be ushered out on stage when she’s nearing eighty and made to perform. But I didn’t want to talk about her music or glory. I wanted to show that she was really every woman in that she was still subject to misogyny.

Her death felt like a robbery. I wanted to talk candidly about her death in as few words as possible, walking around it while still addressing it head-on.

Also, I love reading this poem aloud to audiences. I think we all loved Houston. She was, in many ways, a daughter of America.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks?

Some of these are old:

There’s this little, tiny chapbook called i want to die by Walter Mackey published by Plain Wrap Press. That press is no longer in existence. There was some controversy and I believe that led to their demise, but I did like the simplicity of Mackey’s book. It came out when alt lit seemed to be a growing community. Then that scene died—or maybe it hasn’t died, but my awareness of that scene is gone. It was not very friendly towards women.

I like Adam Peterson’s The Flasher. That’s from another dead press. That, too, was seemingly simple. It beautifully crosses genre lines and had this hardboiled pulp feel, if that makes sense.

Unrest by Chloe Yelena Miller will always be one of my favorite chapbooks. Honest poems written gorgeously. Who could want more?

This is not an exhaustive list for me. It’s not even a noticeable percentage of my list. There are many more, including Laura Madeline Wiseman’s Stranger Still, and I like Phillip B. Williams’ work a lot, but I’ll stop there.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

Our obsession with pop culture or people’s obsession with celebrities inspired me to start writing the poems of Rubbing Elbows. Also, my own desire to spend time with the people society reveres. Don’t you imagine talking to your favorite stars? Don’t you wonder what you’d say to Jimi Hendrix if you met him on the street (I know he’s dead, but still!)? I’ve met some famous people in passing and never really had a conversation with any of them, but I do sometimes wonder what they’d think about issues that are important to me, such as racism and sexism, and how these issues intersect with celebrity culture or their own specific celeb persona because no matter who we are, we will continue to be affected by these phenomena.

What’s your chapbook about?

Rubbing Elbows indulges in celebrity obsession. These poems manifest fantasies about stars living and dead—some, like Clara Schumann, long dead. Some of the poems are innocuous, but many enter into challenging social issues via pop culture.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

“A Treatise on My Ignorance, in which I Wallow Happily, Blissfully.” It is kind of an outlier in the chapbook in that it’s not about any celebrities. It’s about neighbors who I did not like! I realized, in writing the poem, that I did not like them, which really bothered me at the time. I don’t like not liking people! In that poem, instead succumbing to my anger and dislike, I decided to make them into beautiful people.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

Titles are the hardest thing ever. I couldn’t think of a title to save my life. I wrote the title of the chapbook, then wrote a poem with the title of the chapbook. That’s strange, right? Ultimately, I thought the book was full of poems where the speaker gets to rub elbows with famous people, so I decided to call it Rubbing Elbows.

I tried many different arrangements of the poems before landing on one that worked. I tried doing it in order of publication, I tried to do it by the dates of the celebrity, then I decided to start with a poem that I thought was rather strong and end that way, too. This is not to say that the rest of the poems are not worthy of starting a conversation, but that those two poems are bookends. The first acts as a legend of reading the works that follow (these are fantastical pieces that include real life concerns) and the end shows how to incorporate fantasy into reality.

There are four poems that do not directly address celebrity culture and they come at the end of the chapbook. The last poem is an homage to the lives lost at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

“The Unrequited Love Story of Mary Mallon” was first a short story that did not work. I wrote the story while in grad school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and revised it and revised it. Then, I forgot about it for eight years or so. I remembered the idea of the story and thought that maybe I could make it work now, so I tried. I read it to my husband and he had too many questions about plot, which told me that it still wasn’t working.

So, I wrote it as a poem I read it to my husband and he only had one question. Awesome! So I revised it a couple of times and he dug it, so yay!

This is the first time that something did not work for me in one genre, but worked in another genre. I now want to go back to all my shelved stories and poems and try them again in other genres!

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“The House That Has Eight Grandkids.” It is literal, it is autobiographical, and it has nothing to do with celebrities.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?

I like writing ekphrasis poems when I can’t think of what to write right away because they get me out of my own head. Ekphrasis also invites the broad use of imagination and although the work is visual, if the work is good, it may encourage a poet to consider all five senses.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

Did you omit any poems? Why?

I wrote a poem about Anthony Kiedis. It just wasn’t working yet. But now, it’s fine.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel about an erstwhile abusive woman who is trying to make amends for her life and identify herself instead of having the world around her create her identity.

I am also writing two cycles of poems that are kind of intertwining. One is about capitalism in a neoliberal world. Sounds thrilling, right? Really, it works! Some of those poems have been placed, such as “Big Men in the North,” which found a spot in Boston Accent Lit. That poem is about two business men who emigrated from West Africa and who try to hold on to their traditions. That one was inspired by a friend who raises goats and had a family from West Africa come to buy a goat for a celebration. It was also inspired by a drawing from the artist Cosmo Whyte, where two men in business suits are killing a goat.

The other cycle I’m working on is kind of a neo-slave narrative focusing on escape. This one focuses on a woman working her way north away from slavery.

I started these two cycles after November 8 of last year. How many pieces of art of all kinds began after November 8 of last year? One thing that day did is encourage many of us to make!

Eventually, I hope to somehow collate these two cycles into a bigger work.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I’m okay at music! I play a couple of instruments already, though I am definitely an amateur. I play viola in a community orchestra and in a quartet, and I play piano on my own. I am not a great musician and I wouldn’t even say that I’m good. I’m much better, I think, at listening and commenting on music.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Doesn’t everyone say read? I say that, too: Read everything. Books, of course, but also the back of your cereal boxes, billboards, and instructions that no one reads. Listen more. Experience often. And, of course, write. Writing is an art, so treat it as such. Just like musicians, you have to practice. Try writing once a day (this is not always possible, I know). I don’t care how long or what you write, just practice writing.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Why a chapbook? Why not a full-length collection? Or is this leading to something bigger?

*

DeMisty D. Bellinger teaches creative writing, women’s studies, and African-American studies at Fitchburg State University. Her writing has appeared in many places, including The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, and Forklift, Ohio. She enjoyed a full month fellowship at Vermont Studio Center and received her MFA from Southampton College and Ph.D. from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. DeMisty lives in Massachusetts with her husband and twin daughters.

demistybellinger.com

Kate Partridge

“I often just cut a piece of writing into its smallest fragments and rearrange it on the floor until it makes sense.”

Partridge

Guide to Urban Reindeer (Essay Press, 2017)

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal excerpt from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

*

At 10th and I, Star the Reindeer can see the Park Strip from her enclosure. (She is on my running route, not because it is convenient.)

Star has an array of punching and sharpening objects suspended from the roof like meats in a smokehouse: PVC pipe, ribbed tubing, an orange bag.

In summer she feeds at the trough. In winter I find her standing stock still, watching her breath congeal in the air.

*

Why did you choose this excerpt?

Guide to Urban Reindeer is a record of my encounters with the city of Anchorage when I moved there in 2013. The project uses an archive of photos from the construction of the Alaska Railroad in the 1910s to explore vision, sound, and life in the contemporary circumpolar North.

I chose this excerpt, in part, because it’s about a reindeer who was my neighbor. I almost always notice animals in a space first, whether it’s a chicken running across a street or a gigantic moose. More broadly, though, I think this excerpt is a sort of establishing shot into the way the chapbook investigates the scenes that exist within the city, and particularly within this Northern city, where the wilderness and harshness of Alaska are sometimes foregrounded in startling ways. I’m also interested in the role of eco-tourism in the city, and how I was always a sort of outsider in the space even as it became familiar.

What’s your chapbook about?

I spent a summer working as a caretaker in a little train depot building that has been turned into a museum in the town of McCarthy, Alaska, on a route of the railroad that has long since closed but once led to a copper mine.  Spending time with the artifacts of the railroad and the mine sparked an interest in the history of railroads and railroad workers in Alaska, which was not a subject that I had ever considered as interesting. When I got back to Anchorage, where I lived at the time, I began looking at photos from the construction of the Alaska Railroad, and I was fortunate to have received a grant through the Polar Lab Initiative at the Anchorage Museum which allowed me to devote time to the project.

I focused on looking at a set of photos commissioned by the Department of the Interior that show the railroad coming through the creek bed that would later become Anchorage. I lived in an apartment very close to the original townsite in a neighborhood called South Addition, and I was interested in representing the experience of movement in that community—including my fascination with its most famous resident, Star the Reindeer, who lived just a few blocks away and whom I highly recommend following on Facebook. I talk about starting my own garden in Alaska and some of the experimental agricultural practices that new arrivals in Alaska tried out, without much knowledge of existing practices of interacting with the land.

For me, writing is often the way in which I experience a new place by working with its language and tracking my own inquiry, so Guide to Urban Reindeer follows my research into many of my questions, like why the carrots in Alaska are sweet and how the quietness of the Alaskan landscape affects people. I also just follow whatever is giving me delight, like learning about my neighbor reindeer’s recreation habits.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

One chapbook I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’ve worked on this project, because it has an extended intertextual relationship with one other source, is Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout, a very deeply funny reading of Proust. I also think of Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, which was formational for me in thinking about the relationship between experimental film and techniques like montage in documentary poetic approaches. I recently read C.D. Wright’s 40 Watts, which was a lovely reminder of her spectacular precision.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I think that one might say that these three are major formal influences for me, both in their use of collage or intertextuality and their hybridity. I’ve been interested in writers who use fractured forms since I began reading poetry, and I think that these writers represent a range of approaches to that idea—archival work, revisionist reading, and extended meditations on place. There are elements of all three in my work.

Does the chapbook’s form have an impact on the politics of the pieces that appear inside it?

Short documentary forms (which is how I would describe this work) have interesting formal connections with the history of leftist politics and aesthetics in the U.S.; I’m interested in this history from a critical standpoint, for example in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, which many contemporary documentary poets point to as a foundational text.

For me, in the process of producing textual interpretations of this series of photos from the construction of the Alaska Railroad, there are very obvious ethical obligations to discuss class, race, and gender. I am invested, in part, in discussing labor because of my own family’s history working in steel mills in Eastern Ohio; it is hard for me to look at photos of abandoned mines along Alaska railroad routes without thinking, also, of the shuttered mills around the land where my parents grew up and which has always felt like a second home to me. So I’m interested in trains metaphorically, and in histories of railroads and settler colonialism, but also in the personal impacts of industry and resource extraction on communities.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

I love archives, and I find that focusing a series of fragments on a salient historical moment is one of the most generative ways for me to write. I became really interested in the Alaska Railroad kind of accidentally through my summer caretaking job. I like trains as much as the next guy, and I’ve ridden lots of Amtrak trains growing up on the East Coast, but to this day I cannot tell you anything about trains from a mechanical angle. To some extent, I left this untouched intentionally because I wanted the poems to be about disrupting the symbols of linear movement, not the logistics.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I often work in loosely braided lyric forms, so the choice to organize this work as a collection of numbered fragments felt organic to me. I’m also working with lots of disjointed bits of text and description from the archive, so the form mirrors the received form of that material to an extent. Two things that were new for me in the arrangement of this work were the decisions to include some of the railroad photos, which I came to in conversation with the fabulous editors of Essay Press, and to use numbered sections. The conceit of linear order operates, I think, as a signal of exactly what I want this manuscript to undercut—any notion of a fixed historical narrative that exists in a singular form. Instead, I wanted the language of description and narrative to be closely connected to photography, and to operate through quick shifts across a broad chronological frame from the 1910s to 2014, so the essay has a loosely braided structure.

I am particularly bad at titling things, which I will fess up to right away, so I ran many potential titles past other writerly friends whom I trust to brutally reject most of my title ideas. I wanted the title to respond to the convention of Alaskan nature writing while also turning it on its head, as this manuscript has a great deal to do with the failures and missteps of inquiry.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

Because this chapbook is one component of a book-length project, I was working on it while also shaping the entire collection’s trajectory. I spent four months just looking at photos in the archive, taking notes, and making sketches, and then I engaged in a series of sorting attempts that helped me to figure out which photos and threads I wanted to pair together into sections. I was, at the same time, writing about moving to Anchorage, and so pieces of that writing got woven into my thinking about the railroad, too. I often just cut a piece of writing into its smallest fragments and rearrange it on the floor until it makes sense. I’m a very tactile writer, and I prefer to do almost everything by hand, from color-coding to re-ordering.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Essay Press was absolutely spectacular to collaborate with on this project, and I am particularly indebted to Aimee Harrison and Maria Anderson, who edit the Groundloop Series. They were so hands-on at every level of production, from providing suggestions for revisions, editing, and formatting to providing drafts of cover art (which they generously let me see many iterations of). I wasn’t sure initially, despite the chapbook’s title, that a reindeer needed to be on the cover, and we looked at some options for using archival photos—but ultimately, I think the reindeer and the bright colors really exemplify the spirit of the thing and its untamedness.

If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

I have written one other chapbook, Intended American Dictionary, which came out in 2016 from MIEL Books. I am very proud of that project, which is also archival in nature but more formally profuse. I visited the Library of Congress and wrote from fragments in Walt Whitman’s notebook archive there; I was particularly thinking about Whitman’s interest in the pseudoscience of phrenology and romantic partnerships.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on finishing up the full hybrid manuscript that Guide to Urban Reindeer is a component of, which is called Northern Ledger. My first collection of poems, Ends of the Earth, is out this year from the University of Alaska Press, so I’ve been finalizing elements of its production, which is also exciting!

*

Kate Partridge is the author of the poetry collection Ends of the Earth (University of Alaska Press, 2017) and the hybrid chapbooks Guide to Urban Reindeer (Essay Press, 2017) and Intended American Dictionary (MIEL Books, 2016). Her poems and lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, and Passages North. She is a Graduate School Fellow at the University of Southern California, where she is pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing.

katepartridge19.wixsite.com/kate-partridge

C.A. LaRue

“…the compact presentation [of a chapbook] gives the feeling that you’ve plucked a tiny treasure out of an oyster shell (which you then devour like a contraband comic during P.E.).”

Men & Beasts (Dancing Girl Press, 2017)

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? 

Since much of this chapbook is centered around my Tlingit roots, which specifically is Raven Yéil moiety, Seagull T’akdeintaan clan, there are many Alaskan settings, often lightly dusted with New Orleans details, such as in the opening poem:

The Old Norwegian

Santa walks down a pier in Ketchikan,
his blue eyes, red-rimmed behind wiry
glasses, his scruffy white poof pulled

back in a bun, the rest tucked under a
hat that looks like it survives on jazz
drifting from Bourbon, he plucks herring

from his beard, his fat fingers brush the
caribou kissing his collar: this is the perfect
shirt to stretch over a belly, light, but his

ankles still jingle under the heft, his dancing
feet scar the planks layered in frosting, his
white rubber boots punctuate the way to his

house: the door there is green & the ginger-
bread red, all of it decorated with lights that
twinkle like salt in the sun

Why did you choose this poem? 

Since Alaska and New Orleans are both strange beasts, full of  fantastical creatures, it just works. And it really gives you the flavor of the chapbook as a whole.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing? 

I am really, really into small press poetry, which anyone who reads my blog (bonesparkblog.wordpress.com) will tell you. I do a lot of reviews, so many things come through my hands, and not just saying this because they publish me, but I have found consistently good chaps from Dancing Girl Press.  One I have loved almost to death is Molly Sutton Kiefer’s City of Bears. Some of the other small presses I stalk are Mouthfeel Press, Red Hen, Tupelo Press, Unicorn Press, Emma Press, Happenstance, Lavender Ink, Black Lawrence, and Negative Capability Press.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I tend to read mostly women, and particularly women of color. I try to pick up everything by a Native American (NDN) writer, male or female.  I also find myself reading a lot of poets out of Ireland and Scotland, as well as the American South. These two regions are inextricably linked in my mind.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

Yes and no, the small format can feel like a political broadside, or one of those tripe government pamphlets they pass out at Indian Health. This idea works well with poems like “You’ll Go Down in History,” which addresses government hypocrisy in light of radioactive contamination and other atrocities that negatively impacted the NDN population in Alaska, while supposedly benefiting the nation as a whole. On the other hand, the compact presentation gives the feeling that you’ve plucked a tiny treasure out of an oyster shell (which you then devour like a contraband comic during P.E.). So, it’s a yin and yang situation, I guess.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

Being a woman of mixed Native and Irish heritage in the Deep South. Lots of threads to pluck at there.

What’s your chapbook about?

Personal, political and cultural landscapes, which in my case means everything is laced with water and beasts, both of the man and animal kind

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

That would be “Food & Politics,” in which I am chronicling the epic meat and potatoes (Irish mother) vs. fish, fish, fish (Tlingit father) vs. red beans/po-boys (Louisiana-dwelling kids) dinner time battle.  Whatever the menu—usually some kind of smörgåsbord that favored my father–the topic of “greens” would send the table into these crazy political discussions that tended to end in some foul tasting warning about the history of governments. I wanted to bring the good and the bad of this sense of the overpowering influence of my father into all the pieces, but still make them my own.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I ran across Dorianne Laux’s collection The Book of Men,  and I thought hmmh, something like that title and her arrangement as portraits of strange creatures would work for mine.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

“The Bearded Lady” is about an American history teacher I once had, an otherwise very feminine, very dignified gal, who sported a serious mustache and whiskers. Best damn history teacher ever, but she sure made the hipster facial hair decorating craze look bland. I will never forget the bearded lady reading the beloved poems of Abraham Lincoln.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“Goldilocks Discovers Manifest Destiny” is only a misfit in its Oregon Trail setting. Still has men being beasts. And bears.  Bears feature in several poems, as they are one of the Tlingit sub-clans.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

I actually wrote the concluding poem “Winter” specifically as a way to close off the dialogue.  That image of  “deer hung like wet sneakers over the beams”  felt like this chapter that I was exploring was done.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I write poetry everyday, sometimes at lunch, sometimes at bedtime.  1 or 2 out of 5 are good enough to keep, or at least there’s something salvageable I can keep working with the next day. When I have a large pool, I group them into themes. At some point, I pare down those piles. I find that doing my painting earlier in the day really helps open me up creatively for writing later on.  To get going on the actual writing,  I like to use prompts. You’ll find many on the bonespark blog under the National Poetry Month daily roundups.  I also have and use Scott Wiggerman’s Wingbeats books, Kelli Russell Agodon’s The Daily Poet, and Diane Lockward’s Crafty Poet series, which have fantastic prompts.  Diane has a nifty newsletter, too, with exercises and notes on craft. Do sign up for that.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like?

Kristy Bowen is a fellow artist/poet. I love her work and she really gets mine.  We went back and forth with each other on the cover, and less so the text, until we were both happy.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

Why yes, that is a Tlingit tribal mask the girl on the cover is wearing and yes, those are claw marks through the sun.  Isn’t is fantastic?

On a more serious note, back to the influences question. Key influences:  Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Claudia Emerson, Marge Piercy, Eavan Boland, Dorianne Laux, Denise Duhamel, Anne Sexton. Really into Joan Kane, Layli Long Soldier, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Vievee Francis, and Terrance Hayes right now too.

What are you working on now?

Besides slowly growing my poetry, I am rotating between expanding a novella set in 1960s rural Mississippi and marching through Book Two of a trilogy set in the Carolinas during the American Revolution. Both feature young women trying to keep the various “factions” in their lives from tearing each other apart. One is an atypical Southern belle and the other is a mixed race Cherokee.  I drew from my mother’s family tree for each.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I need painting and poetry to keep me alive.  Fiction is a fun by-product, but no less valuable.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Read everything, especially outside your interests. Lots of good work is free on the net, find journals, learn your tastes. Then give yourself permission to write really bad, total crap. You will get better. The Writing Excuses podcast is also a helpful tool.

What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?

What color Octopus would you be?  It’s somewhat of a trick question.

*

C.A. LaRue is a writer/artist working out of New Orleans. She studied creative writing at Hollins University and holds a B.S. from the University of New Orleans. She is a registered member of the Tlingit Nation of Alaska (Raven Yéil moiety, Seagull T’akdeintaan clan), but also has Irish and Cherokee roots. Men & Beasts draws heavily on an NDN (Native American) perspective and is centered around natural, political and personal landscapes.

Find her at bonesparkblog.wordpress.com or on Twitter @bonesparkblog.

 

 

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

“I feel the strong pull to speak while I can about the power and beauty of this world we are lucky enough to inhabit for awhile.”

Angela Alaimo O_Donnell

Still Pilgrim (Paraclete Press, 2017)

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or one that invites the reader into the world of the book?

To Be a Pilgrim

To be a pilgrim is to ring the stones
with the clean music of your best black heels,
each click a lucky strike that sparks a fire
to see by, that lights up the long and level road
you walk with no map, no stick, no wheels
to relieve you when your feet ache and tire.

To be a pilgrim own what you own,
stuff it in your clutch, lug it in your tote,
all the heavy history you’d like to lose
nestled up against your dead mother’s shoes.
To be a pilgrim you must be a killer
of myth, a new invention of desire.
Every pilgrim is a truth-teller.
Every pilgrim is a liar.

Why did you choose this poem?

This is the first poem of the collection and serves as the prologue to the 57 sonnets that follow, detailing the various stops along the Still Pilgrim’s journey. The poem offers the reader a lens through which to see the pilgrimage he or she is embarking on alongside the fictional character at the center of the narrative. It offers a rough and ready description of the key things one needs to set out on a pilgrimage–good shoes, a bag containing your past, and an attitude.

What obsessions led you to write your book?

Several obsessions coalesce in this book.

The first is Herman Melville. The phrase “Still Pilgrim” actually came to me when I was visiting Melville’s grave one day at Woodlawn Cemetery located in the Bronx. A lifelong devotee of his work, I was troubled to find this restless soul who spent a good portion of his life in search of adventure on the high seas buried in the only one of the five boroughs of his native NYC that is not an island. Far from water, he is now become a landlubber, grounded for eternity. So I wrote a poem, “St. Melville,” which begins by addressing him, “Is this what you were called to, still pilgrim / to lie beneath six small feet of earth?” The paradox of that phrase immediately struck me: pilgrimage implies movement towards a destination: can one be “still” and “still” be on pilgrimage? Is it possible we are “still” making progress in our lives towards becoming who we are supposed to become, even at those times when we are stuck and seem not to be moving at all? This, in fact, is the central question Still Pilgrim asks.

The second obsession is The Sonnet. I love writing sonnets, as I find the form to require great compression and discipline, yet at the same time it has an almost infinite elasticity. A good sonnet says what it has to say–like a great love affair, it is brief and intense–and there is an afterburn. It is capable of accommodating a broad range of subjects and tonalities, ranging along the spectrum from the sacred to the profane. I also found the form to be perfect as a means of conveying the Still Pilgrim’s journey in that the form consists of 14 lines–the same number of lines that are in The Stations of the Cross. So, in a sense, the journey of the Pilgrim–like our own journey–enacts the Via Crucis, a path that leads to death, yes, but also, in keeping with the Christian mythos, ultimately, to life.

The third obsession is my identity as a helpless Catholic. There are many elements in these poems that inevitably demonstrate the fact that my imagination has been shaped by my Italian-American Catholic formation. The poems are deeply incarnational, focused on the body and the physicality of being, on sacramental moments that reveal connections between the human and the divine. They are poems that explore the human love of ritual, the strong pull of the communal, and our deep sense of the ongoing relationships we share with one another even after death. The poems are obsessed with the need to look clearly at the broken world and to find ways in which that brokenness can be redeemed–by faith, by art, by love.

What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest piece in the book is “The Still Pilgrim Makes Dinner.”

The Still Pilgrim Makes Dinner

It’s Mother’s Day and I have no mother.
She left and took my daughterhood.
It’s hard to lose us both, recover.
A double grief. A day to brood.

I dredge the chops. Fry them in oil.
I slice the onion, wet as tears.
I wear my sackcloth apron, soiled
by meals I’ve made for thirty years.

For ashes, flour upon my head.
For prayers, the rise of scented smoke.
My mother, who is five years dead,
lives in this meat, these eggs I broke,
this dish she taught me how to make,
this wine I drink, this bread I break.

I actually wrote this poem before I had the idea of collecting it as part of a series. It records the experience I had of making dinner one particular Mother’s Day, and realizing as I was making my way through the familiar ritual of preparing pork chops that the dish I was preparing was my mother’s recipe. I become suddenly aware of the deep significance of each item of food on my countertop. Each thing had to be chopped or ground or crushed–and in the case of the pig, slaughtered–in order to be transformed into food for my family. All of this brokenness would lead to a meal–a meal that would, in turn, satisfy our hunger and heal our own brokenness evident in our need for food.

I also was struck that as I was making the dish, I was not alone. She was there with me, as I made it–and she always is, whether I am aware of it or not. This is what it means to belong to the Communion of Saints. The dead don’t really leave us–they just show up in different forms. Our relationship to our beloveds does not end with death–it simply changes.

This poem did catalyze the book, in some ways. The pilgrim (myself, in this case) pauses in the midst of her activity–making a meal she has made 100 times–and suddenly understands it in a new light. This is what the book is about–the epiphanies and revelations that come to us during the pauses in the journey.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?

As I mentioned earlier, I have to thank Melville for the title of the book. I also had some encouragement from The Psalmist who wrote, channeling God, “Be STILL, and know that I am God.” T.S. Eliot also helped, as his lines from “Ash Wednesday” have long haunted me, “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit STILL.”

Stillness is a theological virtue, a state we should cultivate–yet even as we are “still” (as in motionless) we are “still” (as in continually) on pilgrimage. The paradox of the title captures the paradox of our existence and of the poems.

As for the arrangement, I chose the sonnet for the reasons mentioned above–I love the way the 14-line structure echoes the 14 station journey to the cross. To further underscore or body forth the power of the number 14, I designed the book to be four sets of 14 sonnets, for a total of 56. I then added a prologue and epilogue poem to provide an introduction and conclusion. My hope is that this symmetry suggests there is a providential order and beauty to the Still Pilgrim’s journey–as there is in all of our lives–even if we are not capable of seeing it.

Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

“The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis” is a poem that is especially meaningful to me. It is a simple narrative, uncharacteristically understated, that recounts the events of the day I was told by my grown son’s physician that he has MS. The poem does not go into great detail. It does not reveal a lot of emotion. It tries to accomplish a very hard and a simple thing—to convey the deep interior grief of a mother who is confronted with a sure sign of her child’s physical vulnerability and mortality. Every parent knows, intellectually, that his or her child is going to get sick and die–but we find ways to fend off that terrible knowledge on a day to day basis. This was a day when that knowledge presented itself to me full flush and real, and I suddenly knew a new kind of grief.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“The Still Pilgrim Hears a Story on the Feast of St. Sinatra.” Most of the other poems have companion poems or correlative poems in the collection, but not this one. It’s the account of a story the Pilgrim hears told by another pilgrim–who, himself, is telling the story of his mother’s pilgrimage–and the single source of connection in all of these people and pilgrimages is Sinatra, whom we all love (or loved).

In addition, the poem harkens back to a previous collection of my poems, Saint Sinatra, a book that explores the elements of sainthood evident in artists of the beautiful, of whom Frank was undeniably one. That book proposes the idea that if there is room for Sinatra in the Communion of Saints, there is room for all of us. This little poem in this book has him canonized, a process that took place in the intervening 6 years (at least in my imagination). So the poem is a tender joke, alluding to the Sinatra project.

What were you listening to when you wrote these poems? Did you have any rituals while writing these poems?

Not really. Because I compose out loud, I need silence when I write. I can’t hear my own rhythms when I am listening to someone else’s.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?

The final poem I wrote for the book was actually the first poem, “To Be a Pilgrim.” It’s the only poem that doesn’t have “Still Pilgrim” in the title. When I wrote it, I did not intend for it to be the prologue, but as soon as it was finished, I knew it had to be the introductory poem, and I knew I was finished.

Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?

The most significant thing about the revision process for this book is that I wrote many more Still Pilgrim poems than I needed for the collection. I sat down, counted them up, and found I had about 150 sonnets for a book that I knew was going to contain only 58 poems (for the reasons cited above). Thus began the hard, slow process of weeding out the ones that didn’t fit, for one reason or another, and finding the “Golden 58” which were somehow and for some reason the keepers. Granted, some of the poems I eliminated because they were weaker than others, but most of them were reasonably well made. (The junk had already been jettisoned.) So quality was not the determining factor. It would have been much easier had this been the case.

What I realized during that process is that there are many, many possible versions of Still Pilgrim. I’m reasonably satisfied with the one that is out there in the world–but I’m also very conscious that the book is just the tip of the iceberg of the Still Pilgrim project–or a snapshot, to use another metaphor. This also made me realize that this is likely true for many collections of poems by other writers that are out there, and it got me to thinking about the many different possible versions there might be of books I’ve come to love.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?

The editorial process has been graceful and gracious. The people at Paraclete Press are very devoted to what they do and are very considerate of their writers. From the submission, through acceptance, through the timing of the book’s publication, through the design for the jacket, through the advertising and sending out of books to readers and editors, all culminating in the book’s arrival on my doorstep, a beautiful artifact to hold and be-hold, the process was smooth and easy and delightful. I could never ask or hope for a better collection of human beings to work with.

As for the cover image of the book, after much searching and pondering, my eye lit on Edward Hopper’s “Morning Sun,” and I knew it was the perfect visual representation of the spirit of Still Pilgrim.  I love the vulnerability of the figure, who is only partially clothed, the skin of her thigh showing.  Her feet–always a powerful symbol of pilgrimage–appear naked, vulnerable, used.  These are not pretty feet, they are athlete’s feet—they have done a lot of walking and will do a lot more.  The painting captures an intimate moment, as the woman awakens in her solitary bed and looks out at the day breaking over the landscape.  The world she ponders outside her window is not pristine or pretty—it is a city, an industrialized, ruined world.  Her expression and attitude toward that broken world is ambiguous—at times she seems to me to be meditative, almost prayerful, her gaze compassionate and concerned.  At other times, her expression strikes me as one of desolation and alienation—this is not a world she chooses to be part of but one she must endure.  Both of these possibilities (along with many others) capture the range of tonalities and emotions expressed in the poems.

Once I decided on the image, I called the Columbus Museum of Art, and they generously gave permission (in exchange for a small fee) for me to use the image, and then I let my editors at Paraclete know.  We had been engaged in a collaborative search and had not yet come up with a suitable cover image, so they were delighted at the idea.  The design team immediately went to work and created a beautiful cover, choosing the perfect fonts, then delicately shading Hopper’s lovely colors (shades of green and gray, touches of smoky blue) inside the lettering so both word and image seem to be of a piece.  When they were finished, we were all amazed, I think, at the power and beauty of the cover.  Of all the covers of my books (this is my 10th), this one is my favorite—at least for the moment!

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a collection of sonnets that channel the voice of Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose work I have been obsessed with for years. Each poem begins with an epigraph taken from O’Connor’s letters, essays, or stories, and then imagines her expanding on the idea expressed in the outtake, digging a little deeper, exploring some of the nuances of her statement. As O’Connor readers know, Flannery says the darnedest things, and it is great fun to try to look through her eyes and try on her persona for a while. I definitely see the world differently as a result. I’ve written about 50 of these poems, and the tentative title for the collection is Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Read. Everything.

Find the writers that speak to you and challenge you.

Write every day.

Find a community of writers to share your work with. You don’t have to do this alone.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

I wish I had been told as a young writer to seek out the friend- and fellowship of other writers. I spent many years working in a solitary state. My writing really began to grow, I think, when I found writing friends, engaged in informal workshopping with them, met up with them at conferences, and discovered the vibrant writing communities that make one’s pilgrimage as a writer a joy.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?

So many people helped me in the writing of this book–friends and family members who read early drafts, the editors who published them in journals and (finally) in book form, people who showed up at readings and responded to the poems. This gave me the confidence to believe that the idea was worth pursuing, that the poems spoke to people.

What inspires me is the work of my friends and of poets and writers whom I admire. They stir me, they move me, they challenge me, they call me to keep up with them. I feel blessed by this gift of language we’ve been given and I feel the strong pull to speak while I can about the power and beauty of this world we are lucky enough to inhabit for awhile. I think of Czeslaw Milosz’s powerful statement of what it feels like to be a poet in his wonderful poem, “Blacksmith Shop”:

I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.

*

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell teaches at Fordham University and is Associate Director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Her fifth collection of poems, Still Pilgrim, was recently released by Paraclete Press. Previous publications include two chapbooks; four collections of poems, Moving House, Saint Sinatra, Waking My Mother, and Lovers’ Almanac; a memoir, Mortal Blessings, and a critical biography, Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith. O’Donnell’s work has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web prizes, and her biography and memoir have won awards from the Catholic Press Association.

angelaalaimoodonnell.com

www.christiancentury.org/contributor/angela-odonnell