The Virginia Project

Poet and writer Tina Barry recently curated a collaborative art and written word show titled “The Virginia Project” that held its debut in High Falls, New York. The project centers around Marc Chagall’s partner, Virginia Haggard, and their daughter, Jean McNeil, who lived in High Falls for two years. Tina discovered they had lived within blocks of her home when she moved to High Falls herself in 2015. Intrigued, she began researching the story of how they came to live there and the relationships between Chagall, Haggard, and McNeil.  What Tina learned inspired her original poetry and, subsequently, to collaborate with visual artists to create The Virginia Project. Artists who participated include Leslie Bender, Barbara Danin, Jenny Lee Fowler, Jaime Caul, Trish Classe Cianakis, Wendy Hollender, Heige Kim, Ingrid Keppler Lisowski, Kate McGloughlin, Giselle Potter, Adie Russell, Amy Talluto, Anique Sara Taylor, and Lori van Houten. The exhibit debuted at The Wired Gallery in High Falls October 27, 2018, and will open at the galleries in Long Island University the week of January 21, 2019.

MHR’s Charlotte Hamrick recently spoke to Tina about the project.

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How did you discover the story of Chagall and Haggard in High Falls?

 

In 2014, when my husband and I bought a house in the hamlet of High Falls, NY, I started doing some research about the town and learned that Marc Chagall had lived there from 1946-1948. There was a lot of information about Chagall, but very little about his partner Virginia Haggard, and Haggard’s five-year-old daughter Jean McNeil. I did some digging and found that Haggard, who was 30 years younger than Chagall, was much more than the “maid” or “mistress” she was often referred to in writing about the couple.

 

Haggard, the daughter of an English diplomat, was an unconventional, outspoken woman, who was passionate about art. She was well-educated, spoke several languages, and was an aspiring artist. She married a man her parents despised, and wouldn’t take their financial assistance when her husband’s mental health declined.

She went to work for Chagall as a housekeeper to bring in some money. She was never his mistress. Chagall’s wife died shortly before he met Haggard. I wanted to give Haggard and McNeil voices in their history with Chagall, so the women tell their stories. I now have 60 poems and prose poems, flash and letters. 15 of the pieces appeared in The Virginia Project.

Detail of Lori van Houten’s piece, “White Flannel” white flannel

 

 Was it difficult to find information about Virginia and her accomplishments?

 

Haggard is sometimes mentioned in articles and books about Chagall; in some accounts, she’s left out completely. Journalists and historians seem to have had little interest in Haggard, besides looking pretty in photos, and that she was the mother of Chagall’s only son David.

 

As I researched, I discovered Haggard’s memoir My Life With Chagall: Seven Years of Plenty With the Master as Told by the Woman Who Shared Them. I use a few of the anecdotes and characters as jumping off points, but my work in this series is fiction; most of the writing is imagined.

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Why did you decide to focus your poetry on the mother-daughter relationship instead of Chagall and Haggards?

 

Well, the mother-daughter relationship is important to the story. As a child, Jean McNeil had no agency. She watched her father’s mental health decline, was witness to the budding love affair between Chagall and Haggard, and then folded into this new family unit. It was a tough, unsettling time for McNeil, and Chagall was focused on Haggard, not this sensitive child who didn’t have a say in what came next. But, the writing in the series is as much about the adults’ relationship as it is about the mother and daughter.

 

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How many artists participated and what are some of the mediums they used?

 

Finding, meeting and collaborating with the artists was one of the great joys of the project. I chose 14 women artists whose work resonated with me. For The Virginia Project, each of the artists interpreted a different piece of writing. I wanted a mix of styles and mediums, so my words and Haggard’s and McNeil’s lives were looked at and expressed from different angles. A few of the artists work conceptually. Two are illustrators. I have two artists who create cut-paper pieces. A few landscape painters. The artists use paint, clay, wasp nests, fabric, paper, oils and acrylics, photos. I had an idea of what their interpretations would look like, yet I was surprised again and again by what they created. It’s been exhilarating.

Tina graciously provided an example of her poetry and the corresponding cut-paper artwork by Jenny Lee Fowler, below.

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Shadow Pictures

Dad used to hold his hands up and make shadow pictures on the wall   He did a rabbit and a dog   Now he only holds his hands up so we don’t see him crying   Dad sits on his chair and rocks like it is a rocking chair but it is not a rocking chair   It goes skritch  skritch   skritch  skritch  Dad is a baby now   Sometimes I ask him  Will you take me to the park  No sound comes out but his lips move like mine did when he was teaching me words   Dad would point and say tree  Then I would say tree  Then he would point and say squirrel   Then I would say squirrel

 

 

 


tina barry
Tina Barry

Tina Barry is a former artist and textile designer. Her writing has appeared in several anthologies including The Best Short Fiction 2016 (Queens Ferry Press), Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse (Lost Horse Press, 2018), and Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology (World Split Open Press, 2018). Her poetry and short fiction can be found in numerous literary magazines including Drunken Boat, Connotation Press, and Blue Fifth Notebook. Tina has two Pushcart Prize nominations and several Best of the Net nods. Tina is the author of Mall Flower: Poems and Short Fiction (Big Table Publishing, 2016). She is a teaching artist at The Poetry Barn and Gemini Ink. The Virginia Project is her first effort at curating and her first collaboration.

Then Freedom: Melinda Palacio’s “Bird Forgiveness”

bird forgiveness

Then Freedom: Melinda Palacio’s Bird Forgiveness

3: A Taos Press, 2018

Reviewed by Tyler Robert Sheldon

 

Melinda Palacio’s new work Bird Forgiveness is a testament to living with great care, both personal and global. The collection, which is circular in its structure (opening with a bird and closing with a moment of flight), is certainly deeply personal, but it is also highly ecocritical in its talk of what we are doing to the environment around us—and how we can hope to preserve or even improve it, via our place therein. Palacio’s book opens with a prescient tercet epigraph: “If birds were larger than we are, / how would the world arrange itself, / who would woman this garden?” Here the idea of stewardship is immediately evoked, as is the need for respecting the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

 

In “Caged Bird Cries,” the opening poem, we meet Lola, and this white cockatoo is very much like us in a few notable ways. Though she “lives in a cage that looks like a house with a picket fence,” she is a jealous bird: “admire [the smaller birds’] colors, win Lola’s bird / wrath. She raises hell, her yellow crown, and cries, “Look at me, look at Lola, me, Lola.” This bird speaks in Spanish and in expletives, reminding us that while we are not alone, we should set a good example for other animals that may end up too much like us.

All the same, we are also shaped by a subjective world that we in turn bend to our liking. “Of Cork and Feathers” shows the defenses people put up around themselves: “She named her home the bird house / but kept no birds.” This label is symbolic—a metaphor—as the poem explains. “The motif of cork and feathers meant / more than flying away, flitting from city to city, / taking up residence in warmer climes.” This unnamed character explores the world, maintaining a small space of constancy to return to, to ward against the altering winter outside. This understandable impulse is common for many people and sheds light on our need to preserve a part of the world for ourselves.

Later in the collection, “Year of the Rooster” reveals an irreconcilable difference sprouted from differing cultures. The narrator’s husband’s family enjoys robin soup, something the narrator cannot accept for herself. The poem’s ending lines sum up this difficulty with gracious elegance: “A beautiful jumble of Chinese and Mexican never had a chance / to be, to exist, to refuse a bowl of hot soup, still life with robin.” Here the robin is a microcosm, a metonym for the world: it is not be consumed, but to be nurtured, and to do less is anathema to the narrator’s perspective. Still later, in “Nothing Up Her Sleeves,” a magician’s assistant learns the art of making a canary disappear, eventually getting it right most of the time—and she learns that she doesn’t even need Max, her partner, to make a name for herself. We discover this toward the poem’s end:

When the audience applauds,
she realizes she never needed . . .
his towering shadow; she
leaves his worn size nine shoes
at the last train station.

Even though this poem evinces a different sort of separation for radically different reasons, the root cause is somewhat related to “Rooster” in that, eventually, perhaps we are sometimes too alike in our experiences—mastery through extremes, whether they be culinary or magical. To preserve ourselves within the world, these two poems seem to suggest, we must embrace these without compromise.

Still later in Bird Forgiveness, “Sea of Love Revisited” provides an excellent lens through which to view our world. Toward the poem’s end, the narrator (in the water practicing yoga) is reminded of just how wise our feathered companions truly are: “When angry words prevail because the pitch rings louder / and not truer, I recall the wisdom of birds,” she muses. “I leave a trail of breadcrumbs / for any who dare hear the tremolo of my voice unhinged.” Reciprocating in this way—both thanking the birds for their wisdom, their forgiveness, as well as leading them to her—is a fitting action for a narrator who seems so in harmony with them. As Palacio points out, the world is full of interconnection, and to preserve it and help it grow, we must respect and cherish all who live within it. And when it is time to go, Palacio’s narrator hopes, may it be as lovely and noble as the life that precedes that time. “When She Calls” provides as beautiful an image as could be striven for: “Death bright as lemon meringue pie and quickly gone / into a happy belly is what I wish for you,” she affirms. Life in the world and what comes after, as interconnected as this book’s iridescent poems, are more exquisite than we might dare to hope. In Bird Forgiveness, that life and that world spread their wings to welcome us.

Readers can purchase Bird Forgiveness at one of Palacio’s many readings or from 3: A Taos Press, as well as from regional and national booksellers.

 

melinda

Pushcart Prize Nominations

MockingHeart Review is proud to announce its nominations for The Pushcart Prize!

Donney Rose
“Etymology of at the end of the day”
https://mockingheartreview.com/volume-3-issue-3/donney-rose/

Hedy Habra
“Or Weren’t We Always Told To Remove Our Makeup at Night?”
https://mockingheartreview.com/volume-3-issue-3/hedy-habra/

Meggie Royer
“How to Live Without Fear”
https://mockingheartreview.com/…/vol-3-issue-1/meggie-royer/

Megan Burns
“50 PRAYER”
https://mockingheartreview.com/a…/vol-3-issue-1/megan-burns/

Anne Elezabeth Pluto
“Wake”
https://mockingheartreview.com/…/volu…/anne-elezabeth-pluto/

Cati Porter
“Match”
https://mockingheartreview.com/volume-3-issue-3/cati-porter/

Poet 2 Poet: Sarah Bigham and Bill Yarrow

Sarah’s questions for Bill                                                                                  

SGB: Your Facebook cover photo features both a building and a statue (which also appears on one of your book covers). What are those two items, where are they, and what significance do they have to you?

BY: I like geometry. I like symmetry. The building is the Yarrow Hotel in Harbin, China. I was amused by its name, and I liked the way it was lit and framed. The image appealed to me aesthetically. My profile image is the face of a telamon (or atlas) that appears on a building on the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, Russia. I visited St. Petersburg with a college friend in 2008 and I snapped that picture, which became the cover image of my book Blasphemer seven years later. A telamon is a male version of a caryatid. Why is it my profile image on Facebook? Our real faces keep changing, so rather than constantly updating my picture, I went with an avatar that had a personal connection for me.

SGB: How have your education in the field of English and your career in academia contributed to your experiences as a writer? Has either of those backgrounds impeded your writing in any way or presented challenges?

 BY: My education and teaching career have forced me to read a lot of books. I’ve found that quite helpful in my own writing.

SGB: You are a prolific author with an impressive list of publications, including books. What advice do you have for me or other writers who have a poetry manuscript and are hoping to find a publisher?

 BY: Send out your work! Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Sooner or later, you’ll find the publisher right for you. But don’t ignore rejection. Take it seriously. Keep tweaking, revising, or recrafting your manuscript. A manuscript can always be improved. There’s no rush to publish. My first book came out when I was 60. Shakespeare said, “The ripeness is all.” Let your work ripen. Try to publish before it rots.

SGB: Your book from 2016 is called The Vig of Love. A previous book is titled The Lice of Christ. How do you develop your clever book titles? Do you ever ask friends, family, or colleagues for feedback on possible titles? 

BY: I always ask for feedback but I don’t always listen to the advice I’m given.

SGB: Do you participate in writing groups? Do you have a writing partner? Do you seek out readers for work that you plan to submit for publication? Or do you prefer a more solitary approach to your craft? 

BY: Writing groups are fun socially, but the only worthwhile ones I’ve found are the ones in which the participants are completely honest with each other. That honesty is hard to find. I don’t go to a writing group looking for praise. I look for honest critique. The majority of people (especially writers) are afraid to be honest. Emerson said, “Politeness ruins conversation.” I think the same can be said for most writing groups. “Politeness ruins writing groups.” Say what you really think and express what you truly feel. If I trust your taste and judgment, I’ll listen attentively.

A writing partner? I’ve collaborated on many projects, but I don’t have and have never had a writing partner.

Do I seek out readers before publication? Generally, no. I let editors be those readers.

SGB: How have current events impacted your work as a poet? Are there political realities, movements, world happenings, or other issues that have influenced your thought processes? 

BY: Everything that happens in the world, in your career, and in your personal life influences your thought processes. How could it not? I make no separation.

SGB: What is the role (if any) of memory in your writing?

BY: Part of what you think is what you remember. Part of what you feel is what you remember. Thinking + feeling = writing. Writing is what you know in your head and in your bones. To revise Stevens slightly: “I know, too, / That memory is involved / In what I know.”

SGB: Do you make a conscious effort to incorporate diverse perspectives in your work as a writer, teacher, and creative person? In what ways do you introduce your students to writing, themes, and information that may be out of their comfort zone? 

BY: Yes, I do. Everything a person has never heard of is out of his or her comfort zone, so I make a point of introducing my students to authors, books, artworks, films, and ideas they have never heard of.

SGB: “Poets Who Thrum” is one of my favorite pieces of your work! I love the way it sounds and repeats and incorporates words you created along with unusual words and constantly moving images. Tell me about your process for writing that poem and how long it took you to hone it into its final format.

 BY: Thanks! I don’t know how long it took exactly. It did go through several revisions. I didn’t make up any of the words in the poem. They are all real, albeit unusual, words.

SGB: “End of Shift” has a great descriptor—”velveteen candle baths.” I love that concept even though I have absolutely no idea what it actually means. I admire the way you put words together into poems that convey a real sense of something, even if readers are not able to describe what that something is. Some of the people who have read my poetry are adamant that they want to know exactly what it means. My response typically is that it means whatever you want it to mean. My mother, however, requires more specific answers! What do you hope people will get from reading your poetry? What, if any, details do you provide to readers about the meaning you ascribe to a poem?

BY: I don’t think poems mean whatever people want them to mean. I think meaning is contained in and constrained by structure, pattern, syntax, rhythm, allusion, figuration, denotation and connotation of words, etc. I do understand, however, people wanting to find their own significance in poems. E. D. Hirsch draws that important distinction between “meaning” and “significance” in Validity in Interpretation, an important book for readers and writers. I hope people get enjoyment from reading my poems—the enjoyment might be a delight in sound, language, image, movement, feeling, or idea or something else. I do think clarity in poems is a virtue. I always try to be as clear as I can be in my writing. People sometimes confuse clarity with simplicity. The great writers, however profound, however complex, were always clear.

You mention your mother requiring more specific answers as to meaning. That makes me smile. My mother was like that too. Perhaps all mothers of writers are like that! I think, despite asking about a poem’s meaning, mothers are really just looking for two answers from their offspring writer. “Don’t worry, Mom—I’m fine!” and “No, the poem is not about you.”

SGB: You often read your poems in public. I have always been reluctant to do the same because my poems, to me, are more than just words and I fear that my voice reading them will not convey their impact in the same way as a reader’s internal voice. Has that ever been a concern for you? What motivates you to read and share your work verbally? What suggestions do you have for writers planning to do a poetry reading?

BY: For me, poems are just words. That’s what a poem is—words. You are the best reader of your poems—you know how the poem is meant to sound. Don’t be afraid to perform your work. I use “perform” intentionally. A reading is a performance. There is an audience and you are the performer. Don’t read in a singsong voice. Don’t read mechanically or in a monotone. Don’t pause at the end of every line—read according to the grammar of the lines. There is emotion in every poem. Read with emotion!

Rehearse reading your poems aloud. Practice before a mirror. Mark the words where you stumble or misread. Never read a poem you just wrote. If you plan to read something emotional, practice reading it over and over until you can read it without becoming emotional in front of the audience. There’s nothing more uncomfortable for an audience member than to sit silently before a poet who is blubbering or weeping on the stage. Read from paper with your poems double or triple spaced in large print. Do not read from a book or a phone. Stand up straight. Take a moment before you start talking. Get your mouth right next to the microphone. Don’t explain. Don’t say what the poem is “about.” If you have to explain something, do so briefly. No one cares where you were when you wrote the poem. Just read the poem! If your poem is in parts, do not identify the parts. Read it as one poem. Avoid reading long, long poems. Have mercy on your audience. Entertain them! If you were an audience member, what kind of poems would you want to hear? Not poems about death! Not poems about suicide! Your best poem is not necessarily the best poem to read in public. Choose your poems carefully and order your reading. Don’t stumble and shuffle through a sheaf of pages. Know what you are going to do in advance. Don’t apologize for anything! Start strong and end strong.

SGB: In one previous interview you mentioned that your choice for a Nobel Prize in literature would have been Oliver Sacks. What made you select him? I am also a Sacks fan. His 2015 book Gratitude was particularly powerful. I found much solace in this slim volume during my own health journey and shared it with a friend going through his own medical challenges.

 BY: Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature for good writing. So did Bertrand Russell. So did Bob Dylan. Oliver Sacks wrote well. In my opinion, good writing should be acknowledged and rewarded.

SGB: Your hybrid work, Pointed Music, combines your poetry with music by Ray Fahrner. How did this project develop? Did you already know Ray? What was it about his musical style that spoke to you? I listened/watched “Whiplash Marriage” on YouTube and was mesmerized by the morphing colors. How did you create those?

 BY: I’ve been friends with Dr. Raymond Fahrner since 1963. We were in school together and stayed close friends through college and after. Ray listened to a recording of one of my poems and set the recording to music. I loved what he did. He started doing more and more, all in different musical styles and with different musical instruments, all those choices related in some way to the individual poem. As he would finish a musical piece, I would create a videopoem using his audio and public domain images and film clips. In 2015, we put together 38 musical pieces (about an hour’s worth of music) into a CD. The morphing colors? Home video of fireworks with a movie filter.

SGB: I see that you have also created film experiments. Are you drawn to working with more than one artistic medium/genre at a time? How do these various approaches impact one another?

BY: Everything impacts everything else. I teach film and am interested in it. It bleeds into literature and theater and music and art and architecture and writing. No one genre or form of art is completely separate for me. All separations are artificial and arbitrary anyway. Everything is and should be hybrid. The film experiments are videos I made of two movies running simultaneously side by side for comparison’s sake. They are housed at Vimeo.

SGB: Have you spent any time writing in other genres? If so, did you enjoy it? What brings you consistently back to poetry?

BY: Some of my poems come out in paragraphs. I’m drawn to aphorisms of various sizes. I write critical essays occasionally. I don’t know that I ever “leave” poetry, but what brings me back is concision.

SGB: The Apnea Poems were written while you were suffering from severe sleep apnea. Did you receive effective treatment for this condition? Do you use a CPAP machine at night? I use one for a REM disorder, not apnea, but it took a long time for me to get used to the contraption and I wrote a poem about it. Did your poetry process, output, or style change in any way after being treated for apnea?

 BY: Well, what I termed retrospectively “The Apnea Poems” were poems that were just poems when I wrote and published them, but which now strike me as being related to that condition so I grouped them and published them as a free ebook on Smashwords last year. About twenty years ago, my left lung spontaneously collapsed, so I wasn’t a candidate for a CPAP machine. I use an oral device to treat the apnea. After treatment, I did see a change in my writing but I’m not sure it would be visible to a casual reader. The circumstances surrounding the writing of a poem may be interesting, but they have no real bearing on the success of the poem as a poem. Poems swim or sink on their own merits or demerits. Pope wrote an essay subtitled “The Art of Sinking in Poetry.” I’d like to see an essay called “The Art of Swimming in Poetry.”

Bill, as a relatively new-to-the-scene author, I truly valued the opportunity to participate in Clare’s poet to poet exchange. You have been widely published, actively participate in readings, do a variety of interviews, and use an impressive range of social media platforms. I applaud the time you put into “marketing,” for lack of a better word, and I have much to learn from your methods! You have given me great advice, and I am feeling more empowered to do a poetry reading. I see our pairing as fortuitous, as we have quite different styles and I always grow from interactions with people who approach the world (and writing) from alternative perspectives. I also appreciate the time you took in reviewing my work. I am honored that an established author with such impressive credentials was interested in learning more about me and my creations. You embody lifelong learning, something I aspire to model for my students. Thank you!

 

Bill’s questions for Sarah                                                                                  

BY: Sarah, your family history and also your medical history have played a very important role in your life. Could you tell us about the relationship of the personal to your work?

SGB: To me, everything is personal. My worldview is almost entirely sculpted via emotions, and how I feel drives nearly everything I do. I was lucky to grow up in a stable, supportive family and have enjoyed 18 years of happiness with my spouse. My relationships with them, and the other people I have interacted with in some way throughout my life, inform much of my written work. I have been unlucky with my health and have now been given numerous diagnoses, but still have mysterious symptoms. Surviving the physical pain I have endured due to those conditions, and their treatments, has been extraordinarily difficult. I tend to write and paint about things that have deeply affected me.

 BY: You began writing and painting in 2015. What impelled you to start those creative endeavors at that time?

SGB: I did a lot of creative writing as a young person, but then focused solely on academic writing along with reading of all kinds. My mother always thought I would be a writer, so when I first had work published, she was more excited than anyone else. (She and my wife are also the first people to read my work after it has been accepted for publication.) I took an art class in college, something I hoped would be fun. All I needed to do was earn a D because we had the option to take two classes on a pass/fall basis before we graduated. The instructor looked like Charles Manson and he never gave us grades of any kind. I was terrified of him and of failing the course. I did, however, develop a fascination with watercolor and I ultimately passed the class. Through multiple years, several moves, and a career shift, I kept all of my watercolors, brushes, and supplies in a box that I stored in the basement. When my health conditions worsened and the pain was at an all-time high, I would pace the house until the early morning hours because I was in too much pain to sleep. It occurred to me one evening that I could try doing something to distract myself, so I started writing. I wrote the first creative writing piece I had done in over 20 years, entered a writing contest, and won. I had returned to painting just prior to becoming ill and found myself picking up my watercolor brushes more frequently. I keep vampire hours, so much of my best work is completed long after my friends, family, and neighbors are asleep!

 BY: When you paint, you use “dissolved medications and supplements as watercolors” in some of your paintings. In others, you have used “concentrated wine, kitchen spices, plants, and even cat hair.” That is fascinating to me! Please tell us more about what’s behind your choices of materials that go into your paintings.

SGB: I am not a trained artist which could be seen as a liability, but it also frees me from any preset notions about technique or approach. Other than the college art course, I have had no artistic instruction except for a wild experimental watercolor class held in a warehouse. I signed up for the class while I was on sabbatical. I thought it would be a great way to mentally disconnect from the research I was doing at the time. The class was composed entirely of professional artists. And me. We met in a warehouse once a week and basically got to do whatever we wanted. I started to feel like a “real” artist when the others in the class took my work very seriously and complimented me on my creativity, composition, etc. (I had  absolutely no idea what I was doing, but loved every moment!) I think that because I have not had formal art instruction and have worked almost entirely alone, I feel free to try anything that occurs to me. Throughout my medical journey, I have taken innumerable prescriptions and over-the-counter products, many of which did not work or are no longer prescribed. It occurred to me as I was gathering bottles of pills and droppers of tinctures to take to a medication disposal drop-off point that these items could be good sources of pigment. My wife is a chemistry professor and her description of evaporating things in lab experiments made me think that evaporated wine could be an interesting substance to use for art. I love to garden, so it seemed quite natural to bring plants inside to incorporate into my art. (One of my favorite techniques for painting at the moment is to use flower petals to make patterns on wet watercolor paper.) We have three cats and I am always surrounded by cat hair. As I was picking up clumps of it, it dawned on me that the texture could be fantastic for a painting – and it was.

 BY: You write, “My current writing is influenced, in large part, by my experiences as a ‘healthcare consumer’ with complex medical conditions that are not visible to those around me'” and you hope that your work will  “inspire empathy and compassion for those living with chronic pain.” That’s a noble ambition. What responses have you gotten to the work you have published so far?

SGB: This has been the most rewarding part of my artistic journey. I have heard from people through my website, at art exhibits, via email or social media, and in person that my work has helped them. People in pain often have trouble explaining their pain, and I have been thanked repeatedly for accurately describing pain through words or visuals. Some people have told me that they have printed out my poems or essays and taken them to their medical providers to say, “This is how I feel, this is what my pain is like.” Others have shared their own experiences with terrible pain and their sense of being abandoned by the healthcare system, and have thanked me for creating awareness about those living with invisible conditions like chronic pain. Healthcare providers have thanked me for describing patient perspectives they had never before considered. Friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances have expressed deep appreciation for my work and told me that they never realized how awful it must be to live with some of the conditions I have. Multiple people have reached out to me for advice about locating chronic pain treatment for themselves or loved ones, or just to share their own stories, relieved to find someone who will understand. One man simply cried and hugged me. I understood his suffering.

BY: I love the artworks you have posted on your website. Is inspiring empathy and compassion also your motive in producing your art? I ask because though I find your art very beautiful, I also find it unnerving. I would describe it as hauntingly, disconcertingly biological. I feel like I’m being shown something invisible to the naked human eye. It takes me very close to something almost too intimate for words. To me, your art seems an expression of roiled life at the cellular level. It has an intensely personal yet, at the same time, an almost clinical aestheticism to it. Is it an expression of your living with chronic pain? Without explaining the “meaning” of individual paintings, could you talk specifically about the emotion that went into the creation of these powerful watercolors?

SGB: Thank you! I really like your description of “roiled life” because that is exactly what I am feeling when painting a number of pieces. The life that I knew has been ripped away. I have a new one now, one that I am trying hard to appreciate, but some days that is very hard to do. I tend to feel the worst when I first wake up. If I paint soon after I wake or in the early morning hours before going to bed, I am most likely channeling my inner anguish. I have pain throughout my body, but the worst area is in the pelvis, a part of the body people may never want to discuss in public, yet it is a situation millions of people endure. Many of my paintings are a way of screaming about this private pain. Other paintings reflect the much happier parts of my life and are inspired by things such as my backyard garden or the view from my childhood bedroom window, a scene I love to this day.

 BY: I love the wit of your recent poem “Exiting higher education or What I learned about professors before becoming one myself.” What idiosyncrasies would your students point out about you as a professor? Speaking of being a professor, you are not an English professor but work in the social sciences department teaching psychology and education classes in your college. Please tell us how your teaching has influenced (or has not influenced) your writing and your art.

SGB: This is a great question! My students would probably say that I talk a lot about my family, my friends, my cats, and new things I did or learned since the last class meeting; that I am a bookworm who always brings in books to share with them; that I write all over their papers in green (never red) pen; that I laugh a lot; that I ask many questions and really want to know about their lives; that I am terribly clumsy; and that I repeatedly say we need more peace, love, and understanding in the world.

I am an education professor at Frederick Community College where I teach classes such as Schools & Society, Educational Psychology, and Human Growth & Development. I love my job and adore my students. I write a lot about people, and especially enjoy writing about those with whom I connect. My students have inspired many of my pieces, especially my favorite essay, Where Smart Lives. I am not a trained writer so I was nervous to share my work publicly at first, especially with my English department colleagues. However, it has certainly been to my benefit that my department shares a building with English. Colleagues in both departments have been very supportive of my writing and have encouraged me to celebrate my successes.

BY: You teach in Frederick, Maryland. Are you from Maryland? If not, how did you wind up there? I’m from Philadelphia, but I spent every summer until I was 26 in Ocean City, Maryland, where my dad had a penny arcade on the boardwalk. Please tell us about where you spent your childhood and how that influenced your writing and your art.

SGB: I read about the Ocean City arcade in one of your interviews! That sounds like a wonderful tradition, spending the summer in the same place every year. I grew up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and spent all of my summers there, with the exception of family vacations. A favorite spot was (and still is) Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. My parents continue to live in the same house where I grew up with my siblings, and from the back of my parents’ property, you can see the Peace Light memorial as well as one of the (many) battlefields in the area. I went to college in Virginia, headed to Upstate New York for graduate school where I earned a master’s degree, but left my first doctoral program in a state of disillusionment. I went on a magnificent cross-country adventure with a great friend from grad school and then returned home to Gettysburg to regroup. My sister and her husband lived in Frederick and were expecting their first child. I was determined to move to Frederick so I could be an active part of the baby’s life. I found a job and moved to Frederick right before Emma was born. It has been such a joy to be an aunt. My siblings’ children all call us “The Aunties” and we love them dearly. My family has always been my anchor and deeply influences my work.

BY: Your three poems in the recent issue of Cura are very different in tone and form from the other poems you have published. Please tell us about your writing influences (who are the writers, particularly poets, who have inspired you?) and what you see as your evolution as a writer, not just in subject matter but also in form.

SGB: My mother-in-law, Phyllis, passed away earlier this year and her death impacted the poetry you mention in Cura. For years, she and I would talk on the phone every Friday. I called it “Fridays with Phyllis.” She was a kind, funny, loving person and I am so happy that we were able to be true friends. I loved her dearly.

I am not a student of poetry or literature, and have never felt constrained by form. I go by feel. I know that doesn’t work for everyone. In junior high I did a report on Ogden Nash, so I would say that he was my first favorite poet. Currently, I am a big fan of Natasha Trethewey. I had a chance to attend one of her readings and meet her briefly. I loved that opportunity and found her to be as genuine as her poetry. Several years ago she worked with PBS to do a series called Where Poetry Lives and I use videos from that project in my classes to show the impact of poetry on students, people living with dementia, etc. Kwame Alexander is another favorite. His book Crossover, while written for young people, is incredibly compelling for adults as well. I marvel at his ability to create an entire book from a poem. It is one of the many books I pass around in my education classes and encourage future teachers to read and ultimately share with their own students.

 BY: Sarah, you include in your poem “The wood that separates us from the wind” some very specific details. You write, “In the home I share with a spouse and a trio of felines, tiny notches are unevenly scattered across the upper portion of the solid wood door that came with the house.” The speaker tells us her childhood house is “1.3 miles from the hospital” where she was born. The door in her childhood home “features one long, scarring crack—the product of an epic adolescent door slamming.” I want to ask you about the importance of details in writing. I also want to ask you how important it is to you (as a writer) that the details are factually accurate. For me, every poem intuits a speaker who is different from the author. For me, poems may begin in autobiographical experience, but they never stay there. For me, I change details when necessary to make sure the poem works “as a poem.” In this poem for example, maybe I really lived two and a half miles from the hospital where I was born. I might change that to 1.3 miles in the poem because the adolescent who cracked the door by slamming it was thirteen years old when that happened. I like those kinds of connections. My own writing really took off when I no longer felt “chained to facts” when I wrote, but for many years I did feel chained to facts. I felt I had to be scrupulously accurate when I described something from real life. How do you feel about this? What is your take on what I call “the importance of lying in poetry”?

SGB: I like that concept – lying in poetry! I should probably do it more often. While I don’t feel chained to facts, I do feel compelled to share details. I love details, but I realize not everyone does. I was telling a family member a story one time while we were in the car. I don’t remember what it was about or where we were going, but I do remember happily rambling on as I conveyed details and side tangents and how I felt about all of the moving parts to the story. My family member then banged on the steering wheel in exasperation and snapped, “Just get to the point!” Since then, I have tried to be conscious of my propensity to focus on and relate every single detail. My wife is very patient and spends part of each day listening to what she calls my “stories” which are basically a regurgitation of what happened that day, along with many of my thoughts and reactions. I am not succinct. It is a failing. Talking too much and spending too much money on books are probably my biggest vices. I include essential truths in my nonfiction poetry and prose, but I do change some details so that any people involved who do not come across as good eggs are not easily identifiable.

 BY: What is your favorite poem of all the ones you have written? Why is it your favorite?

SGB: It changes based on how I feel at any particular moment! “Loved beis one that often tops my personal list, because it is about my spirit cat. I have always shared a home with cats (with the exception of my time in college dorms) and even though I am mildly allergic to them, I cannot imagine being without them. My wife and I adopt what are sometimes called “less adoptable” or “harder to home” cats who might be seen as somewhat broken. I am a little broken myself, so it’s a good fit. Another favorite poem is “Of creativity lost and found” because it encompasses my feelings on returning to creative expression.

 BY: Please tell a little about the essays and short stories you have published. What do you see as the connection between your prose pieces and your poems?

SGB: I have a very active imagination and a deep memory bank. My wife says I live in my head and not my body. She is right. (She often is.) I have been that way for most of my life, but even more so in recent years, given my chronic pain situation. It is much easier to get through the day while composing stories and poems and essays in my head! I have so many ideas about what to write – I keep a long list that I add to each day. I mentally access a particular thought, concept, or memory and then feel my way through it. Sometimes it clearly is a piece of fiction. Other times it is an essay or a poem. Or it starts out as one and then morphs into something else entirely. So I see the writing as all very connected, at least in my mind. The painting is a different story because I am able to be very physically active as I paint – throwing and spritzing and dolloping. With writing, I type away on my ergonomic keyboard at my standing desk – it’s the same physical routine no matter what I am writing.

 BY: My favorite poem of yours is “Seven Days a Mother.” It is beautiful and affecting, simple and complex, precise and mysterious. It mixes the past, the present, and the future in a marvelous and moving way. I don’t have a question. I just wanted to tell you that. If you want to say anything about it, please do.

SGB: Thank you so much! That poem is a good example of how my “process” often works. I have been asked about my process, and I do not really have one. A poem or essay or painting essentially comes to me, and I am compelled to complete it. It has been marinating inside and then emerges. I hone it a bit until I know in my bones that it is done (or at least done for now). And then I release it into the world. I love when a poem happens that way.

 BY: Please tell us about the S. G. Bigham Benefit LLC.

SGB: Here in Maryland there is a great concept called a benefit LLC which is essentially a business that is committed to public benefit and positive outcomes for society and/or the environment. I have never had a dream of owning a business (I much prefer teaching), but when I was about to start having art shows and potentially selling my paintings, I knew that I needed a business structure of some kind. I have long been involved in community service and feel it is important for all of us to give back in some way, so a benefit LLC was a perfect fit for me. My benefit LLC gives a portion of proceeds from art sales to non-profit organizations that have helped me and many others living with chronic pain. My great-grandfather, Samuel Gray Bigham, had a store called S. G. Bigham’s Hardware. He and I have the same initials. He died before I was born, but his son, Franklin, lived two blocks from our house while I was growing up. Daddy Frank, as we all called him, was a major figure in my life. I love the historical connection of the names.

 BY: What question didn’t I ask you that you wished I had asked? Please answer it.

SGB: You have asked great questions! They really made me think and reflect. One additional question could be what plans I have for the future in terms of creative endeavors. My answer is that I have a complete poetry book manuscript as well as a complete manuscript of essays that I have been shopping around. If any agents or publishers are reading this and have interest in my work, I’d love to hear from them! I also have some pretty nifty artwork to include, should there be a need for visuals. J

Sarah, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you and your work. Keep writing and painting! You have a wonderful career in writing and painting ahead of you!

 ###

 

Bill Yarrow
Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and an editor at Blue Fifth Review, is the author of Against PromptsThe Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and five chapbooks. He has been nominated eight times for a Pushcart Prize. More about Bill at https://billyarrow.wordpress.com/

 

Sarah Bigham

Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and near-constant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. A Pushcart nominee, Sarah’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.

An Interview with Sam Rasnake

MHR‘s Contributing Writer/Social Media Associate Charlotte Hamrick interviews MHR poet, Sam Rasnake.

 

I first “met” Sam Rasnake in the online writing forum Fictionaut. I was new to the site and a little intimidated by sharing my poetry with a group of strangers who weren’t strangers to each other. Sam was one of the first commenters of my work. His comments were always supportive and kind and he was (is) always willing to help me out when I was stuck or unsure of a piece. His own work is a beauty to behold. Sensitive, lyrical, intensely interesting. I’m so happy to be in a position to interview him for MockingHeart Review. Heartfelt thanks to Sam for sharing his time and thoughts.

~Charlotte Hamrick

 

What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write down your own thoughts?

I had a fantastic high school English teacher who turned me on to the deep wells of Bob Dylan, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Her class discussions made me try writing in a creative way. She showed me how to want to be a writer.

Do you remember your first poem? What was it about?

I began writing poetry in high school – showing them to no one. I kept them in a Japanese puzzle box. The first one was “Time,” a sonnet-like piece about – wait for it – dying.

Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?

Poetry has always been my focus in writing – and reading. Over the years, I dabbled in fiction, but the works seemed to morph into prose poems.

When my Father died in 2012, I stopped writing. Actually, I stopped writing about six months before he died when bone cancer began to impact the quality of his life in an extreme way – and I didn’t attempt to write for about a year after he passed. I was teaching college fall of 2013, and a creative writing class in non-fiction helped jump-start my work. I made myself do the class assignments with the students. We were using Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French writer, philosopher, and creator of the personal essay, as the basis for our works. His “Of” pieces served as models for our “On” works – the subjects ranging from objects to abstractions to family to dreams… from the mundane to the universal to the personal. Writing began to feel comfortable to me again, and the words began to flow. I wrote many successful pieces that term. Nearly all have now been published in various journals. I thanked the students for their help – and gave a nod to Montaigne, one of the most important writers I’ve ever read.

Lately, I’ve been writing flash fiction as well as poetry.

I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?

I’ve always approached poetry from the Stanley Kunitz method. I had always written this way, but he articulated the method that closely resembled my own. The poet waits for the poem. This requires patience. In other words, I don’t choose the poem – the poem chooses me. I don’t decide my topics. I let the topics find me. I need to be overwhelmed by a subject or focus, and that does happen. Over the years, I’ve learned how to recognize the feeling of a poem coming my way. And it does begin with a feeling and not a thought.

As the years disappear from me, I find that I writer fewer drafts. I seldom write every day though I’m constantly reading the works of others – poetry, fiction, non-fiction. My poems now tend to come to me in a more complete or finished way. With some – probably the better ones – no words or phrasings are changed. The best ones arrive whole. For this reason, I have few stranded lines or incomplete poems. I should add, however, that I also have fewer finished works. I consider a finished work to be a published work – or at least what I consider publishable.

When I’m ready to begin writing a poem, I go to my journal and write what I’m hearing in my head. A poem is finished when I go to the computer. I seldom edit from a keyboard. The work is, for the most part, already finished.

Some writers advise writing every day, to actually force yourself, that it’s good practice. What do you think about that p.o.v.?

As a writer, I can’t be forced or coaxed. Subjects or topics are the same way. For this reason, I’m more comfortable in a writing group than I am in a writers’ workshop. I either do or do not write.

I do believe that a good writer – or a bad one for that matter – should be reading, and I do that.

Even though I may not be writing, I’m constantly flipping through my journal – I’m on #28 now. A Moleskine notebook, lined pages, with a soft cover is perfect. I’m halfway through 28. The first entry begins with a “finished poem” – “Some Kind of Compass” – printed from my computer, then taped onto the journal’s pages. I’ve included images as well. The poem is an ekphrastic piece based on the film Degalog, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ten-hour masterpiece. The date of my entry is 11 January 2017. The draft of the poem is found in the closing pages of journal #27. I’d been asked by Didi Menendez, editor of Poets Artists magazine, to submit a piece for a themed issue – the male muse. The poem’s subject came to me instantly and was finished quickly – with few changes. Apparently, I wanted to tinker with one stanza before submission, and I did that on 1/13. The poem is submitted on 1/14. My next entry in journal #28 – after a couple of pages of random thoughts or comments about “Some Kind of Compass,” my favorite music recordings, and the poetry of Paul Celan (I must have been reading his works at the time) – is on 22 February. My point is that I don’t write daily in my journal – or maybe I should say I don’t plan on writing daily. Sometimes it happens to be daily, but that is the exception. Normally, days will go by without an entry. On occasion, weeks or even months will pass. I write when I write.

Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?

My green chair beside the fireplace is my spot. I love to write there. The window to my left faces the mountains that begin the Cherokee National Forest and the glass doors to my right lead to the trees on the hill behind my house.

Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a poem and how did it turn out?

My cousin worked at a funeral home, and years ago I had to see him at work for some reason – I don’t remember why. He was called away briefly, leaving me alone in the embalming room. A poem began nudging me at once – filling my head with images of Hammer horror films. I didn’t have a pen or paper, but I began writing the poem – “The Dead”. It turned out well. The piece was published and nominated for a Pushcart.

Are there any recurrent themes in your poems? If so, why do you think that is?

My response is more mode than theme, but it does connect with theme. For many years, I’ve been working in an ekphrastic mode, writing pieces that connect to literature, art (in its many forms), music, and cinema. The creative arts have always been important to me. This, no doubt may be due to one of my earliest memories: my Father’s college textbook – Art History of the Western World.

As for a recurring theme, I’m not certain, but my best guess would be loss. For example, my favorite filmmakers – Krzysztof Kieślowski, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles – are focused on the theme of loss, and I respond to their works because of it.

Do you have any favorite words?

Highway, window, door, path, road, stream, river, line…

Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?

Read more – as often as possible. Reading can help a writer find the way into a work. Also, listen to music. View works of art. Watch films. Travel. Soak up the world. Let the world – the individual’s world – find a way to your own work, and let that work reflect the self. The “self” has a unique voice, and for the poem to be exceptional, that voice must be present in the lines. Voice – one that is true – takes an enormous amount of patience to find, but it is what sets the work apart from the numbing, uninspired dullness that language can have. Poetry should inspire, should change us, should serve as a map that leads to a personal truth. My poetry doesn’t have to be for everyone, but it does have to connect with me. For this reason, I do not write for an audience. That’s not to say I don’t want an audience; I do. But, that’s not the reason I write.

There is a burgeoning poetry community online and new lit journals popping up all the time. Some people think it’s just so much “look at me” noise and unworthy of notice while others celebrate more open and diverse opportunities for poets to share their work.  What do you think?

Today, there are more poetic opportunities than ever. We have more access to venues, more access to a myriad of voices. I do celebrate writers, and enjoy, learn from, grow with their works. I read many journals these days – mostly online, and my circle of writer friends continues to grow.

I find it impossible to name one poet who is my favorite – I have several. Who are some of your favorite poets and/or poems?

My favorite poets – the poets I’ve read the most – are Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges, William Stafford, Yosa Buson, Natasha Trethewey, William Blake, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Wisława Szymborska, Jack Gilbert, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jane Hirshfield, Lucille Clifton, Han-Shan, Paul Celan, James Wright, Anne Carson, Jack Gilbert, Joy Harjo, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Lynda Hull, Larry Levis, Yusef Komunyakaa…

If I had to pick one poet: Elizabeth Bishop – one book: Geography III – and one poem: “Crusoe in England”. A remarkable writer.

 

sam rasnake

Sam Rasnake‘s works have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He has served as a judge for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, University of California, Berkeley, and as a musician recorded has recorded with Radio On, the Show Yourself sessions (Aftermath Records). His most recent book is Cinéma Vérité (A-Minor Press, 2013).

I Show Up–A Poet’s Life Feature

I Show Up

By Karla Linn Merrifield

 

Show up, show up, I remind myself, a constant mantra.

 

That’s my number-one priority as a poet. I show up with pen and journal in hand…at my laptop keyboard…with an ear tuned to a turn of phrase during dinner conversation, newscasts, my tour guide’s explanation of tide pool biota…and with an eye out for a significant detail on the horizon of misted mountains or by my feet on a rainforest trail. I show up, in the present, attentive to the moment, open to the potential for a word or an image to reveal a path toward a poem. I show up; imagination takes over.

 

In this poet’s life, the whereness of showing up frequently takes on great significance as I have long been a “vagabond poet” as my blog readers know. I’ve tripped over poems in Antarctica (The Ice Decides, Finishing Line Press); I’ve netted them on the Amazon River (Attaining Canopy, FootHills Publishing). By way of example, here’s the title poem for the former book:

 

The Ice Decides

 

The ice decides
where I can go.
The ice divides
life from death,
safe passage from abyss.
But it is the light
on the ice that defines
beauty, terror, silence,
the blue awe of Antarctica.

 

Show up, poems happen. One rare day Sheshat, the Egyptian goddess of writing spoke to me on the site where Percy Bysshe Shelley once stood and where he began to conceive “Ozymandias”— “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!/ Nothing beside remains.” That place, his poem, urged me on. I took my turn to write.

 

And, today as I write this I’m floating on a small ship anchored in British Columbia, Canada, offshore of SGang Gwaay (formerly Anthony Island) on the exposed southwest coast of Gwaii Haanas (Queen Charlotte Islands), a native World Heritage Site, a sacred site of weathered totem poles, ones upright yet and ones fallen. I show up where the Haida population was decimated by epidemics introduced when Europeans make contact with them in the 1800s. Each house post, mortuary pole, and longhouse beam ravaged by time and tide seemed to hold a poem in its cedar heart. I showed up, stood before them, began to write.

 

 

After Kay Llnagaay

 

There are no fools
……………among totem poles
…………………….trickster raven assuredly
supernatural beings—monsters—
……………glance up………scan down
…………………….atop the full capricious moon
mounting cedar
…………..rooted on Earth
……………………..centering shine on sea shine
owl…….orca
…………beaver…….bear
………………….otter…….fox
and Foam Woman
…………..many-breasted
///////////////////////feeding imagination
here…. eever 
…………….t
o all carvers
…………………….of holy totems

 

If you are a fellow poet reading this, you probably know you need not travel farther afield then your own breakfast table to show up, to find your poem’s genesis as Billy Collins did in “Cheerios.” He showed up in a Chicago restaurant and found his poem when “a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.”

 

And, if you are a reader of poetry, you need only open a book, turn a page, and we will sweep you away to where—and how and why—we showed up to imagine the exotic and the quotidian alike. I promise.

 

 

KLM Author Photo 2, Athabaskan Fractal

Karla Linn Merrifield, a nine-time Pushcart-Prize nominee, and National Park Artist-in-Residence, has had 700+ poems appear in dozens of journals and anthologies. She has 13 books to her credit, the newest of which is Psyche’s Scroll, a book-length poem, published by The Poetry Box Select in June 2018. Forthcoming in June 2019 is her full-length book Athabaskan Fractal: Poems of the Far North, from Cirque Press. Her Godwit:  Poems of Canada (FootHills Publishing) received the Eiseman Award for Poetry. She is assistant editor and poetry book reviewer for The Centrifugal Eye. She is a member of Just Poets (Rochester, NY), the Florida State Poetry Society, the New Mexico Poetry Society, and The Author’s Guild. Visit her blog, Vagabond Poet Redux, at http://karlalinn.blogspot.com. Google her name to learn more; Tweet @LinnMerrifiel; https://www.facebook.com/karlalinn.merrifield.