Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems

Detail of the cover of Spells: New and Selected Poems, by Annie Finch
Photograph of poet Annie Finch and her cat Merlin
Annie Finch, author of Spells, and her cat Merlin

Fearless in its lyricism and expansive in its range, Annie Finch’s work spans four decades and encompasses eight books of poetry, a translation, and numerous anthologies, plays, libretti, and books and essays on poetics. The more I researched her, the more I wondered how our paths had never crossed before. Neither the poetry world nor the pagan world is all that large, and the overlap between them—pagans writing poetry with the depth and seriousness she brings to it—is even smaller. “As a Wiccan,” Finch writes in the foreword to Spells: New and Selected Poems, “I write poems as incantations to strengthen our connections to each other, to the passage of time, and to the sacred cycles of nature.” Her celebrations of the turning wheel of the year and her goddess invocations connect us with age-old traditions but root us in the present day with economic and unsentimental language. Consider these lines from “A Seed for Spring Equinox:” Continue reading “Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems”

Interview with Poet Tom Daley, Author of House You Cannot Reach

Photograph of Tom Daley's Book House You Cannon Reach, displayed on a desktop with other items

I first met Tom Daley at a reading at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d moved to Boston a few years before, thrilled at the rich, diverse poetry scene and itching to dive in. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in the years it would take to acclimate to Boston’s notoriously chilly culture, or the way that living with my girlfriend would stifle my ability to write poetry, which requires a self-knowledge and candor incompatible with my struggles to reconcile our difficult relationship.

Photograph of poet Tom Daley
Poet Tom Daley. Photo credit: Devin Altobello

A few months after I moved from Brookline to Cambridge, I began dipping my toe in the literary waters. It was then that I discovered Regie Gibson’s reading series at the Zeitgeist and met Nicole Terez Dutton, who was just about to embark on a graduate program at Brown University. Nicole was one of the featured performers — I particularly remember the persona poems about her black ancestors. Tom Daley, a thin, greying man in tweeds, epitomized the sort of intellectual one might expect to find in Concord, the land of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. He read a poem in praise of Nicole, and the warmth and intensity of the piece stayed with me for more than a decade. I recently reconnected with Tom via Facebook and was thrilled to read his new collection House You Cannot Reach: Poems in the Voice of My Mother and Other Poems, published in 2015 by FutureCycle Press. He took the time to answer some questions about his work and his life.

Continue reading “Interview with Poet Tom Daley, Author of House You Cannot Reach”

Review of Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War, Books One and Two of The Expanse

Cover image of Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey*

These books are the inspiration for the new SyFy series The ExpanseA few hundred years in the future, humanity has colonized Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter. Tension among Earthers, Martians, and Belters erupts into all-out war with devastating consequences after unknown forces nuke the ice hauler Canterbury. The five remaining crew members  find themselves at the center of the conflict, driven from one disaster to another on the salvaged Martian warship the Rocinante as they attempt to determine the origins of the attack that killed their crewmates. Meanwhile, a detective on Ceres Station tracks a disappearing heiress and unravels a conspiracy that spans the solar system. The two plot lines converge on Eros, where an alien infection kills the entire population and threatens Earth.

One of the interesting subtexts of these books is the arbitrary nature of human prejudice. In the future, people of different skin colors and national origins freely mix and gender roles have largely disappeared, but it’s no utopia. Instead, the racial fault line falls between Belters and “inner planet” types. Belters’ lives in low gravity cause them to grow taller and skinnier than their counterparts from inside the gravity well and make it impossible for most of them to set foot on Earth or Mars. They’ve even developed their own argot, a mash-up of multiple earth languages plus hand gestures developed over generations of communicating inside space suits. As the Belters struggle for self-rule from the inner planets, these racial divides widen.

Cover image for Caliban's War, by James S.A. Corey
Caliban’s War, by James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War continues in the tradition of Leviathan Wakes, following the adventures of disparate characters whose stories converge over the course of the book. An attack on Ganymede — breadbasket of the Belt — kills an entire platoon of Martian marines, leaving Gunnery Sergeant Roberta “Bobbie” Draper as the sole survivor. In its aftermath, a father searches for his missing daughter as the colony slowly dies around him. James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante soon join in the search.

I’m in love with the crew of the Rocinante, who emerge as an unlikely family after their adventures in Leviathan Wakes: idealist captain James Holden, genius engineer Naomi Nagata, cowboy pilot Alex Kamal, and battle-ready mechanic Amos Burton. Ceres detective Joe Miller lends a touch of noir to the action-oriented story. Chrisjen Avarasala, the potty-mouthed UN power broker in the orange sari, is another favorite. And it’s a joy watching Bobbie Draper, the six-foot double-wide Martian marine in the power armor kick ass up and down the solar system.

This series reminds me of Dune with its grand sweep, but with more hard science and a touch of noir and horror. These stories explore how human curiosity and ingenuity go hand in hand with human fear and aggression. When should you negotiate and when should you fight? Is alien technology inherently evil or do we simply not understand its context? What happens when you try to harness forces you don’t understand? Is it better to release information to everyone or to withhold it until you understand its implications? The book offers no answers but shows the repercussions of different characters’ answers — all while delivering kick-ass action and satisfying character development.

* James S.A. Corey is actually the pen name for writing partners Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Interview with Tawnysha Green, Author of A House Made of Stars

Cover image for A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene
A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

A mother wakes her two little girls in the middle of the night and hustles them into the bathroom where they lock the door and hide in the tub. Outside, heavy thuds reverberate. “We’re practicing for an earthquake,” she tells her daughters. And just as Californians go about their lives on unstable ground, so does the family in Tawnysha Greene’s A House Made of Stars. Greene uses spare, concise language to tell their story with devastating clarity. In spite of its oppressive atmosphere—or perhaps because of it—the novel includes moments of sublime beauty. Greene took a few moments to talk with me about her book.

The narrator of your novel is a young girl of about 10 years old. Why did you choose to tell the story through her voice instead of an adult character?

I chose to make the narrator of A House Made of Stars a young girl because in doing so, I could use a simpler, more honest mode of storytelling. There are so many issues addressed in this book—poverty, illness, abuse—and I wanted to convey these issues in the most direct way possible. Children are far more honest than many adult narrators and can be acutely aware of their surroundings, so I decided that I needed a younger protagonist if I wanted this same kind of directness in my narrative. Continue reading “Interview with Tawnysha Green, Author of A House Made of Stars”

Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her

Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy
Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

Alexandra Delancey’s novellas Always Her and Me and Her chronicle the love story between newly-out Elise and ultra-cool tomboy Jack. I caught up with Alexandra recently to talk with her about her characters, her craft, and the business of publishing in the age of e-books.

Your characters are well-drawn and idiosyncratic, especially some of the more minor ones like Tatiana, Christie, and Alyssa. How did your own experience of the lesbian scene inform these characters?
That’s really nice to hear. I didn’t base any of them on individual people that I know, but I wanted to reflect the experience of being in your early twenties and being gay, or thinking that you might be gay, and the insecurities and preconceptions that sometimes accompany it. I spent my twenties discovering the lesbian scenes of several countries, and they all have their own norms and cliques. They can be frustrating at times, but they’re a lot of fun too. What I’ve always loved about the scene is that it gives you an opportunity to meet a much broader cross section of people than you otherwise might, so I tried to make my characters diverse in order to reflect that.

Tell me more about how the characters of Jack and Elise evolved.
I like writing tomboyish characters. Continue reading “Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her”

Review of Lesbian Romance Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy
Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

In the new romance Always Her, Alexandra Delancey does an excellent job of evoking the angst and drama of the college lesbian scene. While I don’t necessarily agree with the identity politics of the characters, they do ring true for their milieu. Jack is that elusive object of lesbian desire: the cool butch who tends bar and had led a charmed life free of homophobia. Elise is the perfect wish fulfillment for every dyke who’s ever loved a straight girl: blonde-haired, shy, sweet, and only newly come to terms with her sexuality. The novella does a great job of building tension between the two to the final sex scene, which is most definitely a one-handed read.

Continue reading “Review of Lesbian Romance Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy”

Persephone, to Demeter, by Shawn Fawson

This poem comes from a collection put out by Dancing Girl Press in 2008 called “Billet-doux” (Love letters), which comes like a box of letters and postcards, each poem printed differently on a different missive. It must have taken the press a great deal of effort to produce these by hand. The format wouldn’t mean much, however, if the poetry itself weren’t high quality. I have many collections of poetry, and this is by far one of my favorite.

The myth of Persephone and Demeter has a great deal of personal significance for me. I appreciate the bare quality of this poem, and the hope offered at its end.

Persephone, to Demeter

I gather
handfuls of asphodels,
but their white edges
waste into air. I should be
thankful roots taste buttery
sweet and a feeling triggers–
your hair shaking out blue
sky, fingers pulling down knotted
threads of white birds
You seem
tiny then: stalks thicken with
shade distorting the light,
a shatter of wings where breast
and earth meet. But you are
careful, the rolling cart stands
upright on the precipice. Farmers
steady the harrow; smoke toils
on the horizon.
Each spring
I walk into daylight and offer
you this bouquet, this earth stripped
from my side making you radiant.

– Shawn Fawson
Billet Doux, Dancing Girl Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Book Review: Amazon Burning by Victoria Griffiths

amazon-burning-coverVictoria Griffith’s debut novel Amazon Burning follows the exploits of Emma Cohen, a journalism student who leaves New York under a cloud of suspicion. She arrives in Brazil to shadow her father, bureau chief for the Guardian newspaper. Ill at ease with upper-class Rio society, she jumps at the chance to accompany her father while he reports on the murder of an environmental activist in the Amazon rainforest.

On the way they meet up with the impossibly handsome and charming photographer Jimmy Feldman — a Brazilian-born son of expat parents. While Emma’s father is off reporting, Emma and Jimmy embark on their own investigation, attempting to navigate a web of corruption involving local officials, miners, rancher, smugglers, and other parties who stand to profit from the destruction of the rain forest.

One part eco-thriller, one part “new adult” romance, Griffith’s novel offers readers a close-up view of modern life in Brazil. Her vivid descriptions of the Amazon and the Yanomami who live in it are far more compelling than the love story between Emma and her hunky photographer. And the account of Emma’s troubles in New York seemed rather overwrought and improbable. Aside from these few false notes though, the book is well worth a read.

This review originally appeared on Gender Focus.

Review of Mark of Voodoo, by Sharon Caulder

Cover image of Mark of Voodoo by Sharon CaulderThere are a lot of books on the market about pagan and neo-pagan traditions like Wicca and Asatruar. There’s a smaller number of books about Afro-Carribean syncretic religions like Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble. This is the only book I’ve come across that is the personal story of a voodoo priestess’s own reclamation of her heritage. It’s fascinating for a variety of reasons. Caulder’s personal story is wrenching and compelling, her description of her trip to Benin to rediscover her Voodoo roots is fascinating as travel writing and cultural comparison, and her account of the cultural differences between African Americans and native Africans is eye-opening. It’s also a good foil to the many myths and misconceptions that surround a religious tradition that, like any religion, has the potential for both good and evil.

Review of The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin

Image of a book cover for The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuinArguably my favorite book, unarguably my favorite author, The Dispossessed tells the story of a brilliant physicist born and raised in a colony established on Anarres, the barren red moon of Urras, a blue planet that bears a striking resemblance to late-19th-century Earth. LeGuin’s Hainish cycle often explores socio-political issues at play in our own society, and this book is no exception. The Dispossessed describes what might have happened if a group of anarcho-communists (Odonians) had been able to establish and develop a society in isolation from the hierarchical, capitalist world that rejected it. I appreciate LeGuin’s evenhanded presentation of each world: the egalitarianism and austerity of Anarres, and the lush abundance and injustice of Urras.

Shevek leaves Urras because his work as a physicist isn’t considered “central” by Odionian society, but he struggles to maintain his ideals and his identity on a planet that grants him luxury and wealth while forcing others to live in hardship and poverty. As Shevek travels between the two worlds, his journey sheds light on the wonders and flaws of each.

On Anarres, it is an insult of the highest order to call someone a profiteer. In her 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, LeGuin used the word “profiteers” to refer to the increasingly money-focused publishing industry. Anyone who’s read The Dispossessed will recognize the philosophy of the Odonians in the following excerpt from that speech:

“We need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

View the full speech via this link, or embedded below:

[A previous version of this review was posted on November 3, 2009 on Goodreads]