Interview with Widows' Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus

It was through Holly Zeeb that I first learned of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, an anthology of poetry written by, for, and about women who had lost their life partners. Holly, a fellow student of the PoemWorks workshop and an excellent poet in her own right, was one of the many poets who contributed to the book. Holly lived with cancer for years before succumbing to it in late January 2016. Her literary legacy includes not only her poems in The Widows’ Handbook, but also a chapbook from Finishing Line Press and Eye of the Beholder, a book-length collection in limited run. In addition to — or perhaps because of — her poetry, she left behind a wide circle of friends and fellow writers. They crowded Newtonville Books to grieving friends read her work. I got one of the last seats in the house and found it deeply affecting to hear the finished versions of poems I saw take shape in workshop.

I met Jacqueline Lapidus through entirely different circumstances and only realized her connection to The Widows’ Handbook and to Holly after we had been corresponding for some time. The anthology had been on my reading list for some time, and meeting Jacqueline was the push I needed to crack the book. A slight woman with a mop of curly blonde hair, Jacqueline has a fascinating life story that spans continents and waves of the feminist movement. She was kind enough to talk with me about the societal implications of widowhood, her own experiences with it, and the work involved to create such a comprehensive anthology.

What role did poetry play in the grieving process for yourself and the poets in this collection?

My significant other, with whom I was involved on and off over more than 40 years, died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2004. We’d been together continuously for the past 10 years of his life.  I wrote poems to deal with my own grief, and anger, and frustration, because writing poems is what I do when I have strong feelings. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve always sent my work out in the hope of getting it published. But the poems about widowhood that I submitted to literary magazines were rejected, probably because the editors—mostly young—couldn’t deal with such a painful theme. Then Lise Menn, a college classmate of mine who was also widowed, came to Boston for a conference. We went out to dinner, and while we were waiting for our order, she showed me her widow poems. After reading them, I had this bright idea. I said, “You know, this would be a great topic for an anthology.” And when you have a bright idea, well, you’re the one who has to make it happen. That was how we got started on what became The Widows’ Handbook. I pretty much knew what we’d have to do because I’ve worked in publishing for most of my life. I knew there was a potentially huge readership out there—eight million widows in this country alone!—and I knew that nobody else had done this kind of anthology before.

More experienced poets in The Widows’ Handbook, wrote widow poems because writing poems was what they always did. Lise Menn, my co-editor, wrote her widow poems particularly as a way to communicate her feelings to her therapist, because at first she couldn’t talk about her grief directly. But some of our contributors hadn’t written poetry at all before they were widowed. They started writing, sometimes in the context of therapy or writing groups, as a way of coping.

Continue reading “Interview with Widows' Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus”

Mohja Kahf: The Marvelous Women

Below is a good example of why editors are important at every step of the publishing process.

All women speak two languages:
the language of men
and the language of silent suffering.
Some women speak a third,
the language of queens.
They are marvelous
and they are my friends.

My friends give me poetry.
If it were not for them
I’d be a seamstress out of work.
They send me their dresses
and I sew together poems,
enormous sails for ocean journeys.

Her gorgeous paean to her marvelous friends continues, until just at…

Come with me, come with poetry
Jump on this wild chariot, hurry–

…the page numbers skip from 52 to 21. I flip through the entire edition — lent to me by a man who attended one of my 2009 salons, then moved away before I could return it — and find pages 21 to 52 repeated twice, then a skip to page 85. I wanted to get on that wild chariot, dammit!

Pages 52 through 85 forever lost in this edition, suspended in limbo, caught in the aether. Someone in the comments below has provided the missing text. I’ve removed the rest of the lines above because I don’t want to be accused of stealing her work — please check out Kahf’s book Emails from Scheherezad for the full text. I’m sure the mistake has been corrected.

Finding this flaw, I think of three things in quick succession: the importance of editors, how poetry and writing is a group effort in some way, even as it is a solitary act. And how mistakes must have happened even before 1995, before the advent of the Internets and e-books and e-readers and the growing respectability of self-publishing. And how social media and the Internet have simultaneously connected us and isolated us. And I want to know the end of the poem.

The poet is Mohja Kahf, the name of the poem “The Marvelous Women,” the name of the book E-Mails from Scheherazad, the publisher University Press of Florida. I suppose I might find the full text through a simple Google search, might even be able to contact the poet (her bio, circa 2002, places her at the University of Arkansas). But part of me revels in the mystery, the hovering moment of a poem cut off before its conclusion.

Katie Peterson, Sore Throat, Inspiration, the Cycle of Percussion

The Boston Review has been sending me messages on Facebook every day for National Poetry Month (or NaPoWriMo, as the more intarweb-geek among us have been calling it). My initial reaction was just “too much poetry.” It felt like work, especially since I have a very complicated relationship with writers’ community in general. I’ve also been known to focus on the negative instead of the positive. And there was a song about that.

So I was reminded that reading other poets — and looking at art in general — can instigate a cycle of percussion that John Updike once described in a story we read when I was studying 11th grade English with Mr. McWilliams. Updike’s story went something like this: the pianist hits the key, which causes the hammer to hit the string, which sends out a sound wave that travels through the air to hit the eardrum of a listener, which causes a whirl of percussion in the listener’s brain, resulting in the pen hitting the paper, perhaps resulting in a poem or a story that inspires a musician to write down some music, which a pianist then plays…

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I do find the work of others inspiring, in spite of myriad disappointments and roiling resentments. I forget, sometimes, that I could be one of those poets with the long list of publications after their name, if I just did the work–the very very hard work–of putting pen to paper, and revising, and editing, and researching publications, and sending out submissions, and exposing oneself to criticism and rejection but also to acclaim and acceptance.

Katie Peterson says something similar, slightly macabre, about percussion, and memory, and reminders, and tangents, and hopelessness, and returns:

Sick in bed with a sore throat
I can’t get out of my mind
the image of the cat
harpsichord from the 18th century‚
soothing a prince with laughter.

Full poem here: http://bostonreview.net/NPM/katie_peterson.php

National Poetry Month for the Lazy and Persistent

It seems that some writers can just up and form close friendships — whole schools, even — with other writers. I wish this were more often the case with me. If it were, perhaps I’d already be published and successful and happily ever after by now. I alternate between blaming all writers everywhere and blaming myself. But maybe, as with most things, it’s not a black-and-white proposition. And maybe– just maybe — casting blame is not really all that productive. Perhaps I get my gold star just by persisting — in reaching out, making connections, and nurturing writerly friendships — in spite of failures and disappointments.

And now that I think about it, I have had a number of successes. There’s the small group that grew out of connections made at Poetry@Prose which has been meeting regularly. I’m a part of it, but not the owner of it. None of us are. We just keep showing up and plodding away with our careful little poems, shining them, polishing them, picking out the gems and nurturing each other’s work with praise and gentle, gentle suggestions.

Alas, not all interactions go so well. Writers can be a prickly, solitary lot. I know this because I am a writer. About a week ago, I got an email from a poet whom I admire a great deal. She and I also met through Poetry@Prose, but we’ve had much greater difficulty following through on a mutual desire to collaborate — or even to meet up in person. This email asked if I would like to engage in some mutual support around National Poetry Month. (That’s April, the cruellest month, in case you weren’t keeping track.) Being the technically apt person that I am, I saw that she bcc’d me, which implied I wasn’t the only one she’d invited. I replied with a hearty yes, and since the bcc implied it wasn’t a private party, I cc’d the two other members of my writing group, recommending them as kind and generous fellow writers. She replied that she wasn’t up to emailing drafts out to strangers — a sentiment I can certainly understand and identify with. And then the whole email chain just sort of went… downhill.

A quick phone conversation probably could have sorted out the whole thing. But for a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. And so two well-intentioned writers found themselves smack up against the limitations of written expression. Both of us fell away from the interaction exhausted and disappointed. I can only hope it hasn’t completely poisoned what tenuous connection exists.

One benefit of the whole thing, however, is that it’s gotten me thinking about National Poetry Month (or NaPoWriMo for the more abbreviation- and internet-enabled among us) before the month actually starts. Back in November (aka NaNoWriMo) I attempted a poem-a-day writing challenge that crashed and burned in the ruins of, well, what usually happens in November. But I’d like to try it again. And I’d like to do it lazy and simple — an approach that doesn’t come naturally to me. I’d love, of course, to do it with a group of supportive fellow poets but I’m not sure such a group exists — at least not for me, at this particular dot on the timeline. So I’m going to try my hand at a haiku a day for the month of April. In the spirit of lazy and simple, I’m going to post these haiku only Monday through Friday, and only for the month of April. Feedback is welcome, as long as it’s positive or in the form of haiku itself.

Five Things to Be Grateful for Today

  1. Got to see Marge Piercy read in person at the Longfellow House yesterday. I told her that The Moon is Always Female is still my favorite book of hers, and she recommended What Are Big Girls Made Of?. She also knew how to spell my name correctly. And she signed my copy of one of her latest volumes of poetry.
  2. The sun is shining and the relative humidity is low. I’m going outside for a walk while I still can.
  3. Got a call from one of my business owners at 9:30 AM. I had a mouth full of yogurt when she called, but at least I was on my way into the office, which is more than can be said for more days than I’d care to admit in the last year or so. After 7 hours working on something I expected to be able to fix in about 30 minutes, I’ve got the changes ready for release.
  4. Today is the 20th anniversary of the ADA. Thanks, the the first George Bush for signing that. And thanks, Bill Clinton, for signing the FMLA. Without those two pieces of legislation — and an employer big enough and honorable enough to care about adhering to employment law — I’d probably be out of a job right now.
  5. There was a big rally on the Common today to celebrate. I was hoping to go, but I have surgery scheduled on Friday. I’m grateful for the health insurance that makes the procedure possible, and all the love and support I’ve gotten from friends and family around this and the other health issues that have been KICKING MY ASS in the past couple of years.

Return of the Prodigal

Facebook has ruined my blogging habit. But there’s more than that going on, of course. I find myself for the first time in years actually submitting my work for review by other publishers. Since self-publishing (without the stigma of its print predecessor) was what first lured me down the path that eventually led to a career in web development, this is a pretty major shift.

When I say that Facebook ruined my blogging habit, I mean it it more ways than one. Facebook, Twitter, and the whole social media phenomenon, made it easier to push out short blasts of speech — snippets that might have formerly gone into the stew of a whole blog post prior. But even more than that is the sense that the Intartubes are a much more crowded place than they used to be. It was easy to sound a barbaric yawp over the empty moorlands of the Web in 1995. The actual chances of it being heard by someone I knew in real life were pretty limited; I was lonely anyhow and needed to find kindred souls — and for some reason, while there were fewer souls on the Web back then, more of them were kindred. And finally, I was in my early 20s with a lot less to lose.

The older one gets, the more twisted and tangled and just… long one’s story becomes, the more one wishes to exercise some control over which portions of it are available to the general public.

All that leads up to less blogging in the public sphere and more writing on paper.

I feel as though I’ve finally begun to make some headway in my recovery as a writer as well. It’s been years in the making and it’s been a slow and unsteady process, but it’s happening. And I’m beginning to see how it dovetails with the other types of healing I’ve had to do. There’s a bit about that here (Facebook link). Perhaps more about that later. Many thanks to Ren Jender, Toni Amato, Jen Hemenway, and Debbie Shore for the parts they’ve all played in this ongoing journey. There are others, but those are the names that come to mind right now.

And it’s time to stop this particular bit of writing and move on to other things.

Feed the Hungry Heart on Feb. 22

Reasons you should come to Feeding the Hungry Heart at Prose on Feb. 22 at 7pm:

1) It’s all about the food. $15 gets you a vegetarian buffet of fresh, local food that will rock your socks off. Prose is one of the best restaurants in Boston, and $15 is an amazing deal. Dinner at Prose usually runs more like $40 a person

2) It’s all about the writing. Our featured readers will rock the socks off of anyone who still has them on after sampling the buffet.

3) It’s all about the community. Reaching Productions creates spaces that celebrate and support artists no matter what their level of experience. If you sign up for the open mic, you can expect people to applaud you. And that applause will rock your socks off.

4) It’s all about me! I’m organizing this event solo. As the date gets closer, I get the “what if I throw a party and nobody comes?” jitters. Be a pal and show up just for me. And for the food, writing, and community.

RSVP on Facebook by clicking this link

Or, comment below.

DIY Poetry, Micropresses, Kristy Bowen

In the past couple of months, I finally got hip to a phenomenon that’s been blooming in the poetry world: micropresses. While I was busy doing things like developing my own small business, filing quarterly taxes, and shivering in my shared flat in Cambridge, a whole new flock of poets were flipping a big middle finger at the poetry establishment and publishing their own damn books.

Some folks are publishing in print, some are publishing in electronic form. It’s bizarre: the very thing that first motivated me to learn web development, back in the dark ages of Textpad + FTP + $150 domain names and annual webhosting fees, has apparently caught the attention of a whole slew of indy poets. I can’t help but feel simultaneously like a dinosaur and an early pioneer.

My own career as a poet has been full of twists and turns. I suppose I’m not unique in this way. Most writers–and poets in particular–are solitary creatures. I’m no exception. There’s a part of me that’s very comfortable with being on the edge of things. But in the past decade or so, that alienation turned to bitterness. I never found my niche in the Boston writers’ community. I never stopped writing, but I did stop reading; my own work and others’.

Just in case you think I’ve always had my head up my butt, I would like to point out that I used to run the circuit of open mics. I must have read at every venue in the mid-Hudson Valley and made some great friends that way. I was a featured reader at the sketchy poetry night at the Cosmic Bean in Hartford, until I realized that the guy running the series just wanted to get into my pants. Oh, and the owner’s sleazy comments about how great it was to hear my poem about a girl sleeping between my breasts: priceless. I’ve read in queer settings and straight settings. I’ve read in private homes, in bars, in the basements of churches, in bookstores. I was on the editorial board of my college’s first student-run literary magazine and later served as the managing editor. I sat in a candle-lit attic room with a bunch of beatniks. I was responsible for the creation of the literary section of Chronogram, based in New Paltz, NY. I’ve worked professionally as a writer and copy editor. I’ve designed shit in Quark and Pagemaker and Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve shopped around for printers and chosen Pantone colors. I know the pros and cons of digital versus offset versus letterpress printing. I know how to do this. I just got tired of it.

A confluence of events has led to a renaissance of my interest in poetry. There’s a cycle of percussion that happens with creativity; someone else’s creative expression inspires your own. And something like that has been happening for me since January. I’ve been sort of lurking around the edges of these micropresses and the online communities that surround them. I’m a bit afraid of making myself known to others, afraid that I’ll make some faux pas that will alienate me from this new community (or these new communities) I’ve just discovered. I’m easing into it, commenting on blogs, posting a lot more poetry on my own. I attended an open mic in February. I’m mulling over how to start my own press, what I want to call it, how I want to design the books, how to print them. I’ve realized I have enough material for at least three chapbooks of my own. And I’m also acutely aware of something else: that poetry is a gift economy.

This realization is like a light bulb going off. I finally get it. I was never destined to win the nobel prize or live in the groves of academe. I was supposed to live my life, and to write. I was supposed to make a contribution to a different sort of world. A world of people who live outside the rarefied atmosphere of the literary establishment, but who still care about words. Hells, if William Carlos Williams could be a doctor and Wallace Stevens could be an insurance executive and still kick ass with their poetry, why the hell can’t I be a web developer and do the same?

A lot of things that annoyed me about the literary establishment appear to exist in this other DIY community of poets, but I’ll get into that later. I feel like I need to create actual relationships and enter the community itself before I start trashing it. I need to do more research. And perhaps instead of bitching about things, I should just roll up my sleeves and pitch in. After 24 years of writing poetry, I finally get that it’s about making a contribution, not waiting for applause and a laurel wreath. You really do write because you have no other option. You write because of the fire in the belly. You write because the muse grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you if you don’t.

One book that really blew me away recently was Brief History of Girl as Match, by Kristy Bowen. Brief history of how I found this book:

1. Aaron Tieger sends me the link to the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative. I add it to my RSS aggregator.

2. DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative posts an announcement about the Dusie Kolletiv chapbook exchange

3. I click randomly and find this.

Bowen’s work really speaks to me, as a woman, a sexual being, in a world that gives us conflicting messages about what constitutes a good girl, a powerful woman, a feminist.

notes to self on the female body:

1. girls who like to be tied up make terrible feminists. Also Mailer.

2. When dancing, do an awkward shuffle to the left, then vague hand
movements resembling the mating sway of swans. When he dips you,
meet the eyes of other men indifferently. Hold, then release.

3. dishabille: adjective. 1.a. archaic : negligee. b: the state of being
dressed
in a casual or careless style 2: a deliberately careless or casual manner.

4. French doors do not, under most circumstances, induce the female
orgasm.

5. ligature: noun. 1 a: something that is used to bind; specifically : a
filament (as a thread) used in surgery b: something that unites or connects
: 2: the action of binding or tying

6. Also thigh highs. Soap operas.

With a light touch, Bowen manages to convey the simultaneous desire to be an empowered feminist and a sexual being, both a subject and an object of sexual desire. She evokes this dichotomy through random association, through choosing words that associate and elide with each other on various levels: the level of meaning, the level of sound, and the level of connotation. That do thigh highs and soap operas have to do with the female body? Or Normal Mailer’s work? Nothing. Everything.

I greatly admire this ability to evoke meaning — to say something without saying everything. As Aaron Tieger put it, “work that invites some kind of participation from the reader in order to complete the experience of the poem.” It’s something I strive for in my own work, which I do not consider minimalist. It’s a constant tension: saying enough to make my meaning clear, but not so much that I’m banging the reader over the head with it.

Bowen always has an ability to slide her language into surprising directions, to the same sort of disorienting effect as Sexton’s work. For instance, from autobiography:

In which I am carnelian, carnal. All carnage all the time.
In which I am curator to a museum of clarinets.
[…]
In which I am Anne Boleyn or a B-movie bride.
In which my hands are like a box with two birds.

Bowen runs Dancing Girl Press, founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets through chapbooks, journals, and anthologies. Atelier Women Writers’ Studio in Chicago is the home of Dancing Girl Press.