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.
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.
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?
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”
In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.
What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?
I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.
I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum. Continue reading “Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango”
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”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Terry Pratchett is one of the most prolific authors of our age. When he died yesterday (March 12, 2015) he left behind a massive oeuvre: more than 70 books, most of them about the Discworld, a flat planet carried on the back of four elephants who themselves stand back of the great turtle A’Tuin as it swims through space.
Victoria 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.
There 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.