Martha Collins’s Race Trilogy

Cover art for three books of poems by Martha Collins: Admit One (in red), White Papers, and Blue Front

I first came across Martha Collins’s work at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’d spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth, discomforting, in a way that frank talk about sex is not. To confess the sins of one’s ancestors and acknowledge the privilege of one’s whiteness seems the biggest taboo in our day and age.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem circling around and around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Continue reading “Martha Collins’s Race Trilogy”

Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson

Close-up from the cover of Wendy Mnookin's Dinner with Emerson
Photograph of poet Wendy Mnookin
Poet Wendy Mnookin, author of Dinner with Emerson

Poet Wendy Mnookin and I travel in similar orbits in the Boston poetry scene, but our paths have never intersected in person. I was happy to be able to speak with her via email about her most recent book Dinner with EmersonA veteran poet with five books to her name, Mnookin has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, Grub Street, and at workshops around the country. Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, a book prize from the New England Poetry Club, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. We spoke about the difference between tone and voice, the choices she made while compiling each of her manuscripts, and the relationship between her teaching and her writing practice.

What first brought you to poetry?

I have always been a reader, and, in my own way, a writer, mostly scribbling in journals. By the time my third child started kindergarten and I could see blocks of free time appearing in my life, I took a plunge into more dedicated writing and signed up for a poetry course at the Radcliffe Seminars Program. Ruth Whitman was teaching the course and I fell in love–with the reading, the discussion, and most of all, with the regular writing. I took courses there for several years and then attended the low-residency program at Vermont College, where I got my MFA. Although I don’t think courses are necessary for someone starting out in poetry, the structure helped me explore, build confidence, and establish a network of other writers who were serious about their work.

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Interview with Poet Carla Drysdale, Author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Cover of Little Venus by Carla Drysdale

Carla Drysdale’s work explores difficult subjects such as childhood abuse and sexual exploitation with tight, lyrical nuance. Little Venus, Drysdale’s first book of poetry, came out in 2009 from Canadian publisher Tightrope Books. As often happens when poets create a persona, Drysdale’s Little Venus tells truths and makes assertions far bolder than another speaker might be able to.

Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance
Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Paris Press, Cleaver Magazine, and PRISM. Her poem, “New Year’s Eve” was set to music by American Pulitzer-prize winning composer David Del Tredici. Her many accolades include writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and La Porte Peinte in Noyers-Sur-Serein, France, as well as PRISM International’s Earle Birney poetry prize for her poem “Inheritance.” Finishing Line Press released her chapbook of the same name in early 2016.

A statuesque woman with a mass of curly auburn hair, she took some time out from her busy schedule as a communications consultant and mother of two to speak with me about her poetry.

What first brought you to poetry?

Poetry first came to me, I suspect, in my pre-verbal state, in lullabies sung by my mother, grandmother, and babysitters, as well as radio jingles and birdsong. My maternal grandmother was fond of reciting everything from Shakespeare to her own variation on Fuzzy-Wuzzy –- I learned from her how to play with language as a toddler. The King James version of the Holy Bible was tremendously important to me as a pre-teen and younger teen. The first time poetry actually stabbed me Continue reading “Interview with Poet Carla Drysdale, Author of Little Venus and Inheritance”

How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott

Veteran poet Penelope Schott’s latest offering,  How I Became an Historian, traces a spiral from innocence into an abusive marriage, and out again into wisdom and forgiveness. Three slug poems serve as markers on this switchback trail. In “Pestering the Slug,” the first poem of the book, she recounts something almost all of us remember: the small child’s delight in harassing bugs. “I briefly understood / the unblameable charm of evil,” she writes.

That evil coalesces but also turns to remorse in “Glory is Reached by Many Routes,” when the speaker spends “a whole morning trying / to press a brown slug through a wire sieve / and all afternoon apologizing to the slug.” That remorse turns to redemption in “Keeper.” Here, the speaker keeps the slug for a week, feeding it

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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.

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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.

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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 Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland

Photograph of poet Lesley Wheeler

A much-decorated poet and academic, Lesley Wheeler’s accolades include a Fulbright scholarship, an NEH grant, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, and publication in many prestigious journals, including Poetry and Slate. She teaches English at Washington and Lee University and is an active member of the WOM-PO Listserv, an email discussion group for women poets that’s been around since before blogging and social media overtook online community platforms like Listservs. Her third book of poetry, Radioland, came out in October 2015. In spite of her rise to fame in recent years, Lesley remains a warm and generous correspondent. She took the time to answer some questions about her latest book, the po-biz, and the difference between writing and publishing.

Cover image of Lesley Wheeler's third book of poetry, Radioland
Radioland, Lesley Wheeler’s third book of poetry

You’ve gotten a lot of recognition for your work in the past few years. How have these changes in your career affected your writing?

It’s funny how happiness works—successes don’t warm you for long but difficulties worry you constantly. The life change came with my first two books, Heathen in 2009 and Heterotopia in 2010. Suddenly I felt able to call myself a poet. After the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, people seemed to take my work more seriously. The judge, David Wojahn, is highly respected by other writers, and that made a difference. “Fulbright” is a magic word—as well as representing an amazing opportunity—but I won that for scholarly, not poetic, research. My scholarly credentials remain fancier than my poetic ones and the two networks have surprisingly little overlap. In fact, having a foot in both worlds invites suspicion from both sides.

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Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press

Line drawing of a pig with wings against a blue background

Chapbooks and zines from Porkbelly Press arrive tied in pastry string with a handwritten note from the editors thanking you for supporting small presses. The chapbook I purchased — Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier — evokes a similar handmade detail, both in the object and the poems they contained. I spoke with Porkbelly publisher Nicci Mechler about the press and its creations.

What inspired you to start the press? Is there a story behind the name?

Photograph of Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press
Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press

Porkbelly Press came a year after our literary magazine, Sugared Water. I’d worked on lit mags for years, and produced zines, and my chapbook collection was growing. It seemed a natural progression to try out a chapbook line, to use my book arts and love of lit to craft some beautiful chaps. Porkbelly exists to boost the signal.
We make our home in Cincinnati, Ohio, not too far from the banks of a pretty fantastic river. Back in the days when the fathom was where it’s at, and people yelled stuff like, “by the mark twain!” (even Mark Twain himself), our architecturally-gorgeous (and besotted of beer) little burg ferried out a whole heap pork belly. We were big on pig. You can still see the evidence in 1) the city’s consumption of breakfast sausages (like goetta), and 2) the pig art and statuary all around town.

Naturally, we took that delicious callback to days gone by and smashed it into a press name; pork belly became Porkbelly and a press was born. In the words of one delightful Irishman, our “rather portly winged pig [is] a symbol of hope if I ever saw one.” Well, yes. Hope and bacon. (No bacon is harmed in the production of these chapbooks.) Continue reading “Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press”