A Conversation with Devon Balwit

balwit2

How The Blessed Travel
(Maverick Duck Press, 2017)

MHR: In a few of the poems, we encounter the heart. There is a great tradition of writing about the heart. What does it signify to you poetically and what is your renewed vision of that metaphor, in a poem like, “squatter?” Also, why the male personification of “heart” in that specific poem?

DB: Let me start with addressing your question about male personification. When I was in my teens, twenties, and thirties, my poetry was relentlessly autobiographical and confessional. When I returned to writing in earnest in my fifties, I was bored with my personal narrative. Over the past year and a half, I’ve thrown myself into exploring alien poetic forms, personae, and source material. As a young adult, I would never have written poems that looked as these do on the page—so full of space and so spare. At that time as well, I would probably have chosen a narrator who was more of a mirror image. Now, in contrast, I am much more curious and much freer as a poet. I don’t want to be bound to my gender or to any other aspects of my identity when I write.

Too, Portland, Oregon has a large community of unhoused people. Most are men. Many are veterans. Every day on my walk to work, I watch their ingenuity in surviving in marginal spaces, admiring their scrappiness and savviness. To me, the heart is like that, a crusty survivor.

Finally, the heart figures prominently in my work because it is so damn insistent—it clenches, thunders, hungers, feigns indifference. As “systole/diastole” says, the heart is “membranous” and “cussed.” It wants what it wants and to hell with the rest.

MHR: Your poem, “how the blessed travel,” opens the chapbook. In it are the lines, “there they go/with a sound/like a piccolo” These lines fit wonderfully with the rhythm of the piece itself. How did this auditory image come to you?

DB: This chapbook contains many mobile and birdlike slight poems. They flit about with their hollow bones. The word piccolo is both visually playful on the page and fun to say.  It captured the image of a tiny little holiness hitching a ride on that perfect emblem of the spirit—the singing bird.

 

MHR: “Sitting on the wall,” is a poem of vibrancy and energy. It is as though a veil is lifted from our eyes to see into burgeoning reality. Do you identify as a prescient or visionary poet?

DB: Yes, I do. I feel compelled to write. I wake in the night urgent to begin and often have to fight to stay in bed. My head vibrates all day long with an electricity that’s only released at the keyboard. When I write ekphrastic poems, the story emerges as if whispered, as if the paintings possessed me until I got it right. In the same way that a medium gets caught up in a trance, I disappear into my creative process. I feel most at home there.

“Sitting on the wall” is one of many poems that I have written to deal with my disappointment at rejection. There are days when I receive 5-8 rejection notices. Even though I understand it’s an unavoidable part of the writer’s process, I still feel a welter of sadness, frustration, anger, confusion, isolation, envy, and so on. The way I deal with this is to write more. I imagine scenarios in which someone doesn’t get what they wanted—in love, at work, in the family, and so on. This poem, while ostensibly about a single woman embracing her aloneness at dusk, holds this other pain inside it like a seed.

MHR: In “with the insight of vast differences,” we are brought into a mythic space. The vehicle is not merely a plane, but the poem itself which carries us. In the third section, you make a breathless pronouncement. Can you decode that for us?

DB: My physical world is very small. I live within a couple miles of my work. I spend most days within a couple miles of my home. I walk each day in the same parks. I am largely a creature of habit living on limited means. That said, every day, I find something worth writing about. Every day within the familiar, I locate something new and strange: an encounter, a painting, a quotation in a book, a news story. My poem’s final pronouncement summarizes my life or stands like a legend on my family crest: “we are all of us being born //…into newness //even if the place we have arrived // is the very place from which we only recently departed //”

MHR: Who is the subject of the “Hungry” and how do you know her?

DB: The process of aging in a female body is fraught as, traditionally, women’s bodies have been predominantly sexualized. As a teacher, my physical presence, my sensuality as it were, has been one of many tools to be used in the classroom to attract and maintain attention. Now that I am in my 50s, however, my relationship with my body has changed as has the way others see me in my body. Now I tend to evoke the motherly or grandmotherly. I have entered the crone phase, becoming more like a witch-woman who lives in a shack in the woods and gathers herbs for simples. My identity as a poet superimposes itself on that of the witch, as I collect anything and anyone that I might weave into my craft. The birds and the plants don’t always welcome the crone’s attentions just as my poetic subjects don’t always warm to the analysis they receive at my hand.

MHR: “Luminescence” evokes a deep sensuality. This is repeated effectively in “wild(er)ness.” Does nature lend itself to you for sensual or sexual sensations?

DB: Without a doubt, nature evokes the sensual, and in all seasons: the almost indecent fecundity and horniness, the storms, the maturation, and ripeness. Seeds and blooms mimic genitalia. Nature is profligate and insistent. Too, the natural world can express heartlessness and indifference as do we when consumed by our own hungers.

MHR: You’ve drawn so much out of the natural world. What do you find to be key that prompts you to knit a poem out of dream and dark as in “To the Dark Boundary?”

DB: This poem came to me in the liminal moment between sleep and wakefulness. I was taken by the image of my feet having independent agency from the rest of me as they are, instead, always my servants. I found it charming to follow them for once and go where they wanted to go, to have the dusty, gnarled, stinky part of me in the lead. My feet seemed so much less self-conscious than I usually am—perhaps precisely because they were liberated from my overly-analytical brain.

MHR: “Dutiful” seems to speak of the poet’s curse and blessing to create from experience.   Can you explain your understanding of this poem? Am I off the mark?

DB: Off the mark would be too strong. I’m always delighted to see what people receive from my work. I much prefer being offered an interpretation that is slightly askew to my intentions than just the comment “I don’t get it”(or radio silence) and a pause in which I am expected to explain it.

I love that you saw the poet’s project in this poem. It is that and so much more. As a mother, I have an on-going sense of being pendant on others, a duty to watch out for and encourage. As a teacher, I also have a set of obligations to entertain yet instruct, to hold the large space of the class while making room for all the individual egos within it. As a wife, I have obligations to my spouse. As a daughter, I have yet others to my parents. As a poet, I have a duty to my craft and to my voice. All these roles with their attendant sacrifices are often underappreciated by their recipients. Thus, it falls to me to encourage myself. “What I’m doing seems to be working.” I could abandon my various posts, “I imagine letting go…I could follow as if by plan.” But I can’t. “Steeled by duty,” I carry on. For better or for worse, these are my identities. At the end of the day, it is up to me to garland my own head and say, “well done.”

MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Devon.

DB: My pleasure!

Devon Balwit

Devon Balwit is a teacher/poet living in Portland, OR. She has four chapbooks—How the Blessed Travel (Maverick Duck Press), Forms Most Marvelous (forthcoming with dancing girl press), In Front of the Elements, and Where You Were Going Never Was (both forthcoming with Grey Borders Books). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Non-Binary Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Almagre Review, The Stillwater Review, The Tule Review, Red Earth Review, The Free State Review, Front Porch, Cease Cows, Concis, and Eunoia Review.

Advertisements

MHR Interviews Karen Corinne Herceg

Out From Calaboose Cover - Website (1)

MHR: Sensuality is palpable throughout the collection. I am drawn to ask you about “Toulon, 1971.” So much is unsaid of the Spanish lover, and yet we are clear about who he is to the speaker. Can you speak to the idea of capturing a scene/moment/character indirectly rather than by explication?

 

KCH: First, Clare, I want to thank you and MockingHeart Review for publishing my work and for the opportunity of this interview. I think the best writing never explains but engages us through stories that allow us to reach our own insights. Initiation into sex, first love, loss, rejection and the entire spectrum of human sentiments and interactions are, obviously, universal. But it is the specificity of individual experience that allows us to relate on common ground. Most of our stories are amazingly similar. It is authentic emotion in singular instances that allows us to relate to these shared experiences in new, revelatory ways. This is the essential beauty of creative expression.

 

MHR: Do you study Eastern philosophy? I am thinking the poem, “April Note,” in the second section, which is titled “In the Silence of Snow.” In this section, you are able to capture the “tableau” of seasons with a Zen-eye.  Do you feel observation of nature and the seasons affects the poetic mind’s inclination towards contemplative poems?

 

KCH: I see nature as incredibly interactive not as pastoral and impassive as it is often portrayed in poetry. We are an integral part of the natural landscape whether we honor, respect and work within it or whether we try to subjugate and abuse it. I have great reverence for its power. I’ve studied various spiritual paths and, perhaps, there’s a Zen-like influence in my approach. I seek to capture the less expected or pedestrian responses to the natural environment, the nuances that we miss in a busy, noisy world.

 

MHR: I am deeply impressed with your economy of line and the precision of your line breaks.  They are clean almost like breathing. Do you read poems aloud as you are drafting and revising?

 

KCH: Thank you, Clare. That’s lovely. Yes, I do read aloud continually. It is critical to the appropriate rhythm. Ideally, a poem is read and heard. The poet has to be mindful of both aspects—it should work optimally at all levels. I believe one misplaced comma can make a big difference. I learn much about my poems when I hear others read them. Inevitably they will stumble in places where I hesitate myself and am most uncomfortable. It shows me something is off. There must be proper flow. I also review videos of my readings. Often the perceptions we have while reading are quite different when we see them more objectively as an observer.
MHR: Themes that you explore are love, contemporary life, consumerism, history, landscapes and our impact on them. Would you add to this list?

 

KCH: Yes, most definitely. I would say wounds and healing. We are all wounded in various ways. Forgiveness is often misunderstood. It is an organic process that evolves once we face transgressions head on, holding others and ourselves responsible and working through the pain. It is not about absolving people. We are all angry, although it’s not an acceptable form of expression and is confused with violence—that is not acceptable or necessary if one processes anger properly. Acknowledging we are all perpetrators and victims to one extent or another allows for compassion that is more genuine than forgiveness. There is no secret ingredient, magic thought process or sacred ritual that achieves this; only hard work and brutal honesty about others and ourselves. People confuse peace and truth. If you seek peace you cannot always accept truth because you compromise. If you always strive for truth, your peace will grow from that. As the saying goes, we are only as sick as our secrets. This is why I write as honestly as I can about working through maternal incest and childhood abuse and how abuses such as these can permeate all of our relationships and interactions in life.

 

MHR: I sense in your style that you are adept at making poems fold in on themselves. Can you give us insight into your poem-writing process? You can speak of craft, language, and poetic vision.

 

KCH: I believe the poem should startle, create an “aha” moment, even a twist at the end. It should lead us away from conditioned responses. Further, if it creates an epiphany or catharsis of some kind, that’s a great bonus. Poems that just describe or dictate are not enlightening. We want to take the familiar and make it fresh. After all, we go to a poem to discover some new insight about the world and ourselves. Craft is, of course, essential. Choice of form, finding the right language, and correct structure. “Poetic vision” sounds so elevated but, actually, it’s true. Often lines pop into my head, in dreams, upon waking or through observations. In truth, the best work is not conjured or forced but comes through us as a vessel. You can call it the muse, the divine, God, but it all amounts to the same thing. There is a universal, communal force we can tap into if we are open and available to it.

 

MHR: How was the sequencing determined in this collection? What made you decide to divide the book into segments?

 

KCH: Initially there were no segments. These developed organically as I began to organize how I would sequence the poems in the book. Some were more relevant to relationships, some to political, social and ecological concerns, some to personal healing and others to resolutions. But I see them as all connected in one sense or another. The epigraphs and quotes I included were discovered along the way and just felt appropriate.

MHR: Some of the poems seem confessional. How do you balance the personal when made public in your poems? Do you think it is necessary for the poet to designate the speaker as “I” in poems for a personal processing of the emotional impetus that sparked them?

 

KCH: In a sense, some of the poems in Out From Calaboose are confessional in their details and references. Using “I” as the speaker is not essential to the point or impact of a poem. However, I find that using the personal references creates a greater connection with my audience. People will come up to me and say they were immensely touched by my personal revelations and it sparked reactions based on their own experiences, even though those situations may not be exactly the same. The most important element is the genuine emotion behind the words. In the poem “A Thin Season” I pay homage to a teenager beheaded by terrorists for listening to pop tunes in his father’s grocery store. A true story. It’s not my story but properly told it can stir our emotions and create an empathetic heart.

 

MHR: What are some highlights of your process? Do you prescribe times to write or do you write on the go? Both?

 

KCH: I would say both, although I do a lot of my work in the morning hours when I’m alone at my desk before the household gets moving. The most critical aspect of writing is to authentically recreate from real life experiences at a very visceral level. It’s also important to write consistently. If there’s a block, do some journaling about the block! There’s much to be said for discipline, for showing up, as they say. Then review, edit, rewrite and do it all again and again. It is also important to work in community with other writers and poets. Read, read, read as much as possible and listen to others. It’s not only informative but sparks inspiration. Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of reviews and am so pleased to be published by the American Book Review, Compulsive Reader and others. I also befriend the media, social and local, and have gotten newspaper, magazine and radio interviews. We need to build a solid, genuine platform and then ask! I work hard to keep my website exciting and updated.

 

MHR: How many years was this book in the making? Can you tell me about the Nirala Series?

 

KCH: In all, the poems cover three decades. I published individual pieces during that time, as noted in the acknowledgments. But the time had to be right to pull it all together. It’s wonderful that there are so many opportunities to publish in today’s world. But it’s a slippery slope regarding quality. I’d rather put out one book occasionally than many I feel are less than what I expect from myself. A representative from Nirala, the wonderful poet Yuyutsu Sharma, met me at a book launch for a poet they had just published, whose work I had edited. I read during the event and he approached me afterward. From there I forwarded a manuscript that was accepted, and we worked on it for over six months to bring it to fruition. Nirala is wonderful to work with and did a beautiful job on the book. They’re global publishers based in New Delhi, India but have a large series of authors from around the world. I also had the input of bestselling author Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who made editing suggestions. We share similar backgrounds and family dynamics, and I greatly appreciate her input and friendship. Poet Roberta Gould, who just published her eleventh book of poems and is a great friend, wrote the Foreword. And I was blessed to receive many great blurbs and reviews. Robert Milby, just named Poet Laureate of Orange County, NY where I reside, is another great friend and has been instrumental in supporting me with readings and events. I also host a monthly poetry salon in my home that focuses on strong feedback and critical analysis of our work.

 

MHR: You have a poem titled, “Out from Calaboose.” Why did you choose this as the title of the collection?

 

KCH: A calaboose is a small, local jail that, to me, represents self-imprisonment from wounds we carry with us that require healing. So much work I’ve done over the years has led me to the door of my calaboose. But stepping over that threshold is a daily process, moment by moment, and we must remain ever vigilant. The poems are an impetus to that vigilance.

 

Out from Calaboose can be purchased via Amazon or at Karen’s website: www.karencorinneherceg.com

Karen Herceg

Karen Corinne Herceg graduated from Columbia University and has graduate credits in editing, revision, and psychology.  A recipient of N.Y. State grants, she has featured at major venues such as The New York Public Library, The Queens Museum, The Provincetown Playhouse, St. John’s University, Binghamton Community Poets, Calling All Poets Series and many others with such renowned poets as Pulitzer Prize winners John Ashbery and Philip Schultz and poet William Packard, founder of The New York Quarterly.

 

Her first volume of poems was Inner Sanctions. Nirala Publications released her second book, Out From Calaboose: New Poems, in November 2016. She publishes poetry, prose, essays and reviews in a variety of magazines and literary journals here and abroad including the prestigious American Book Review. Her work is read on various radio broadcasts. Karen has been working with Khalilah Ali, writing her memoirs as the former wife of the legendary Muhammad Ali.

 

Karen is listed with Poets & Writers and is a member of The Academy of American Poets, PEN America, The Poetry Society of America, The Woodstock Poetry Society and CAPS. Her website is: www.karencorinneherceg.com and you can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Conversation with Anne Elezabeth Pluto

BenignProtection_Pluto
MHR: Your chapbook, Benign Protection, (Cervena Barva Press), is dedicated to your deceased parents. How were these poems beneficial to your grief process?

AEP: Writing the poems was the grieving process.  My father died at 91 in 2004; my mother at 92 in 2012.  When I was a teenager my mother and I made a pact; whoever died first would let the other know what death was like.  I imagined that she would appear to me in a dream shortly after her death; she didn’t.  The poems became the dream.

 

MHR: The chapbook opens with the poem” The River Styx.” On this journey you set upon, we are with you. You take us into myriad griefs. Can you tell us about the process of sequencing which lends itself very well to the reading experience of these poems?

AEP: The first part of the book is about my mother – the second part about my father. I wanted to play with their life-times and insert those poems into the liturgical calendar, but make the movement circular and not linear.  The reader crosses over in the first poem – into the memory of life in Brooklyn – then into the Virgin Birth – and the journey into Christmas/Epiphany/Lent/Easter – leaving that for the secular – back to memory – lost family members (“Matryushka” is for my maternal great-grandmother – whose name is long forgotten) and leads to the supreme dream – “I have been to Samarqand.”  “Fog,” the last poem is the reprise – it is gentle – we cross over in the first poem; we roll over with the world in the last one.

 

MHR: The poem “Without Form” is a poet’s eye, looking always to the unknowable. Can you speak to the mystery and mysticism in which you ground the dish, plate, brush, house, and kitchen so well? Maybe a few words of how the ordinary is essential when writing the extraordinary.

AEP: The ordinary is always extraordinary.  I wrote the poem a few months after my mother died – it was summer – it was very hot – I was alone in my house looking at items I had taken from her apartment – things she had touched, used, loved.  My house is haunted.  The ghosts were noisy that day.  It was a perfect storm.

 

MHR: We embrace the experience of your longing in a poem like “East 16th Street.” The business of the aftermath of death is its own heartache. Can you speak to the way you weave the “necessary business” experience into a poem, which holds emotional impact?

AEP: I like to play with line breaks – read the poems out loud to see how they move – this poem came easier than others.  I was in Brooklyn – staying with friends who live 2 blocks away from East 16th Street.  I walked to the supermarket – bought some item my mother would have had and then walked back down East 16th Street – hoping to see her ghost.  It was a powerful moment – spring – beautiful fragrant April – no one was walking there but me.  I wanted to capture that experience of profound aloneness in the poem.

 

MHR: Seasons and religious seasons are knitted into the shape of the book. Are you personally oriented by these seasons?

AEP: Yes – I live in New England where we have 4 seasons – the religious seasons naturally follow.

 

MHR: Your family’s complex Russian culture is deftly described throughout. Can you speak to some of the held beliefs about death in your personal heritage and upbringing that many readers may not be familiar with, limited to the scope of this book?

AEP: I have to answer this outside of the church.  My parents were spiritual – they believed in God – were Orthodox Christians – but they did not attend church.  My mother was allergic to perfume and the Russian Orthodox Church uses incense in their service.  My father had escaped death several times during WW II – he believed God had spared his life.  My father also believed that after he died, my mother needed to wait 7 years (as she was 7 years younger) before she died so they would be the same age when they met again.  She died 2 months after her 92nd birthday.  I wouldn’t be surprised if their ghosts were living in apt. 2E.  They believed in a deep rich life of the soul – the eternal Easter.

 

MHR: On a personal note, do you have a sense, a prescience perhaps, that envisions your departed beloveds?

AEP: Yes, and that prescience ties into the life of the soul, but sometimes I think my parents have come back as my two parakeets, Fin and Gertrude, and their cage is apartment 2E.  We laugh about that in my house.

 

MHR: What is the period that these poems were written? Can you speak about how the chapbook came to be?

AEP: From 2012 – 2015; there were more, but I edited them out to make the book tighter.  I sent them to Gloria Mindock and was very happy when she agreed to publish them.

 

MHR: Thank you for indulging our questions. How can someone buy your chapbook?

AEP: Thank you! I have copies available. Readers can contact me at: aepluto@gmail.com
Or, from:
Cervena Barva Press
http://www.thelostbookshelf.com/p.html

 

Anne Pluto
Anne Elezabeth Pluto
is Professor of Literature and Theatre at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she is the artistic director and one of the founders of the Oxford Street Players, the university’s Shakespeare troupe. She is an alumna of Shakespeare & Company, and has been a member of the Worcester Shakespeare Company since 2011. She was a member of the Boston small press scene in the late 1980s and is one of the founders and editors at Nixes Mate Review.  Her chapbook, The Frog Princess, was published by White Pine Press (1985), her eBook Lubbock Electric, by Argotist ebooks (2012), and her chapbook Benign Protection by Cervana Barva Press (2016). Recent publications include: The Buffalo Evening News, Unlikely Stories: Episode IV, Mat Hat Lit, Pirene’s Fountain, The Enchanting Verses Literary Review, Mockingheart Review, Yellow Chair Review, Levure Litteraire – numero 12, The Naugatuck River Review, and Tuesday, An Art Project.