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.

 

 

An interview with Alessandra Bava

LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS

 

MHR: Your poems are revelations. Do you believe in the Muse as a force of nature or supernature?

AB: I do believe the Muse exists. Whichever form it has, it is there and whenever she kindles my soul I write. I am unable to write unless I am driven to words by the Muse. I am not a writer who writes every day. That’s not how it works for me. I cannot force a single word out of my pen. The spark comes to me unexpectedly and I always write a poem from beginning to end in a sitting. Sometimes I realize that it is almost a trance-like experience. I am driven. Words pour out on the page. I myself am quite fascinated by the process.

MHR: You are a poet and a translator. Where do you think your passion for language(s) come(s) from?

AB: I guess my love for languages comes from two main episodes linked to my childhood. When I was 4 and 5 years old I spent two summers in a Kinderheim in Zug, Switzerland. The Frauleins who ran the place were German-Swiss ladies and the kids who spent their summertime there were from different countries. That was my first experience in a totally international environment. It was a sort of Babel to me and it made me consciously aware that languages were not barriers, that I could learn things in a different language. The second one is connected to the 5 years I spent in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where we relocated when my dad, who was an Engineer, was in charge of the construction of two oil refineries. I attended American schools. And, it was very much a “live or die” experience!  I had no other option than to learn the language. I remember I was quite fast at it. I guess I have always had a penchant for languages. I have learned French in high school and at University. I have a Master Degree in Foreign Languages. Today, translations are my daily bread. Languages have indeed shaped me!

MHR: What do you think are your dominant themes? I sense Love, History, Art, The Body, Womanhood- Woman-heart, and myriad other passions. Have I missed something or would you like to express something more?

AB: Yes, I guess you have captured many of the themes I am obsessed with or my demons. When I speak of demons, I refer to the Ancient Greek daimon, the inspiring force.  Love in all its facets is indeed one of them. Art and History, too.  Given the fact that I live in the Eternal city, I guess this is a sort of inevitable fate. I am the product of my historical past and my eyes and soul are imbued with art whenever I go for a stroll. I’d almost say it’s part of my DNA. The Body is a key element of my writing. Somebody told me my writing is “muscular,” I guess you can tell there is blood, sinews and heart in it! Womanhood is certainly there. Many of my icons are women and I celebrate them in my poetry.  I would always love to express more in my poems. I am attracted by many themes although the ones you have mentioned are possibly the ones I feel a closer bond to.

MHR: Your poem “Les Goddesses” gives very clear professions and pronouncements about female artistic impulse. What did writing this poem teach you that you want to impart to us?

AB: This poem was inspired by a visit to an exhibition on Contemporary Art in NY here in Rome a few summers ago. The video “Les Goddesses” by Moyra Davey was part of this show. I remember sitting in this dark room lit only by the black and white video itself and being literally captured in a vortex of images and recordings. Davey recorded her life on a tape as she walked around the rooms of her home. Her lens capturing frames of her inner life and of the changes in the outside world. Her words encapsulated what she loved most. I was touched by her mentioning Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinean poet I am very fond of, whose work I had discovered just a few months earlier. It seemed a sign. Les Goddesses is a declaration of love to oneself, to being writers/artists, to all the artists that inspire us. I wrote this poem in a sitting—as I do most of the times – the morning after attending the exhibition.

MHR: The body is explored in the poem “Landscape with Muse” and the lovely metaphors are succinctly defined. What inspires you to write the body?

AB: I love that poem. The body I mention in the poem is Helga Testorf’s body, the Muse of painter Andrew Wyeth. The Helga paintings are immensely beautiful and they depict a sensuous woman’s body in many different poses: on a stool, lying on a bed or even in plein air. I found very intriguing how almost nobody was aware of these paintings for a long time. How both Helga and Andrew kept their work secret even to their spouses. How the 45 paintings and innumerable drawings that span a cycle of almost fifteen years were stored at the home of one of Wyeth’s students. Those drawings and paintings are an amazing tribute not just to Helga, but to the woman’s body.  Wyeth candidly admitted that he had to fall in love with the model he was working with and you can tell! Those works simply teem with love.

MHR: Your inspiration for most of these poems are writers and artists to whom you are devoted. How does this devotion to creators sustain you as a writer?

AB: I feel a great bond with writers and artists in general. I guess the reason lies in the mutual need to recount the world via words, lines or color. Whatever the medium we choose, the aim is to depict the inner and the outside world as a present for viewers and readers. Literary works and artworks are gifts to the world. A concentrated expression of sentiments and feelings.

MHR: Do you believe we can channel other voices as poets? I do. In your poem, “Las Dos Fridas” impeccably taps another heart. Can you speak of the process in writing this poem?

AB: I hope to be able to! Frida Kahlo has inspired several of my poems. I turn to her as a sunflower to the sun. I remember distinctly how, maybe 25 years ago, I walked into a bookstore and, in the Art section, I saw a book dedicated to her. I was unaware of her work. The cover depicted a detail of her “The Broken Column” painting. In it, her backbone is a column and her body is pierced by nails as a feminine version of St. Sebastian. That sense of suffering struck a chord in me.  I bought the book and have read almost any book I could find about Frida over the years. Reading her diaries has enabled me to “hear” her voice. This is why I’ve attempted to write this poem in first-person. This poem is inspired by her painting “The Two Fridas,” basically the two versions of her same self. The way she saw herself and the way Diego Rivera liked her. It’s a big painting that I’ve seen “live” here in Rome. It’s a painting that deals with the dissolution of the self, with her divorce from Diego. I have been there myself. I have experienced the end of my marriage and I have had to put together the pieces of me that were left to move forward. I can totally relate to that exposure of one’s heart. This is also why I could quite confidently use the “I” POV in this poem.

MHR: Your poems are homages to artists and writers in “Love & Other Demons.” What does your worldview say to the reader in your best guess of what is in their minds as they read these poems?

AB:  Many of the poems in “Love & Other Demons” are a tribute to writers and poets I love. I hope to be able to convey to the reader this same love as it is, after all, what ignites me to write most of the time. I couldn’t imagine a closer way to touch my heart or to understand the motives of my writing.

MHR: In “Caravaggio-like Love” the form’s suspension is calculated perfectly. How did this poem come to be? Was it lightning fast or a more laborious step-by-step kind of poem?

AB: This poem is inspired by the very physical act of walking barefoot for a while and having dusty feet and then lying on the bed close to my boyfriend John who was asleep. The first thought that came to my mind was my favorite painting by Caravaggio, The Pilgrims’ Madonna, in the Roman church of St. Augustine.  In it, two pilgrims are kneeling in front of Mary who is holding Baby Jesus in her arms. The canvas shows us the dirty feet of the wandering pilgrims as they revere the woman in front of them.  Mary is wearing a crimson red velvet dress; whose color is unparalleled.  This is a love poem for John. That red expresses in a truthful way the passion I feel for him. It was written in one sitting.

MHR: And lastly, do you believe in absolute Truths with a capital “T?” Please elaborate why or why not.

AB: This is a very philosophical question and I could write a whole essay on it! To keep it very short, I will say that I believe I have developed a more Relativist approach over the years.  I find it more and more hard to relate to absolute Truths. Truths are indeed many.

Alessandra Bava

Alessandra Bava is a poet and a translator living in the Eternal city. She is the author of four chapbooks: Guerrilla Blues, Nocturne, They Talk About Death and Diagnosis. Her poems and translations have appeared or are upcoming in magazines such as Gargoyle, Plath Profiles, Tinderbox, Thrush, and Waxwing. She has edited an Anthology of New American Poetry and she keeps working at the biography of a contemporary American poet.

 

 

Buy Love & Other Demons:
https://dulcetshop.myshopify.com/products/love-other-demons-alessandra-bava

MHR and J Bruce Fuller: The Dissenter’s Ground

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J Bruce Fuller’s The Dissenter’s Ground (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017)

 

MHR: Did you envision the chapbook before writing many of the poems or did the poems come and you sensed their cohesion for a collection?

J: This chapbook was written as a complete piece and I wrote it essentially as one long poem, from start to finish. To me, it is a book of questions that had been bothering me for a long while. It is also a love letter of a sort, a love letter to Louisiana, but also a love letter to William Blake.

MHR: “It is that I have no one else to turn to.” Why William Blake?

J: Since the book came out a lot of people have been asking me this question. I’m not sure why a late 20th-century swamp kid would turn to a pre-Romantic British poet for answers. I have been to Blake’s grave, which was a dissenter’s ground outside of the consecrated burial space used for believers. I have always been interested in that idea, that even in death we can be separated for our beliefs. It seems so foolish to me. But in Blake’s time, religious dissent was much more consequential than it is today.  I have always loved Blake’s work of course, but even I find it strange that he showed up in my work this way. I think the differences in our work and times didn’t matter to me much. What interested me about Blake was his life, his views on religion, and his prophecies.

When I thought about the politics of my region, climate change, the natural disasters we’ve been through across my lifetime, it seemed to me that we too are surrounded by prophecies. There is a new warning about our environment every day, and yet many ignore or refuse to believe them. It dawned on me that in our current political climate, people of religious persuasions refuse to believe these scientific prophecies, just as in Blake’s time people of reason refused to believe his religious ones.
MHR: Do you experience a type of prophecy when writing poems or in the moments before a poem comes to the fore?

J: I wish I could say yes, but at least in the last few years that moment of spark has been more mechanical than prophetic. Either I am more disillusioned now than I was as a young poet, or I have learned so much more about the process of how a poem is created that my process itself has changed. I will say that sometimes I have an idea for a poem that needs to ferment in my mind for a while before I start writing it down. Those moments could be considered a sort of prophecy.
MHR: Do you see yourself using the device of epistolary poems in the future, speaking to other poets or non-poet persons?

J: I do love the epistolary form. I think of all the voices/personas in my poems the epistolary voice I use in The Dissenter’s Ground is the closest to my own real voice. I really was talking to Blake about my fears, and it is a vulnerable place to be. I think we can achieve much in epistolary writing. I love call and response poetry between two poets. I am sure I will continue to use it.

MHR: To what else do you dissent beyond the scope of the chapbook?

J: I mentioned vulnerability, and I think I need to be more vulnerable not just in my poems but in my life as a poet. I have been silent on many issues for too long. I laugh things off and joke around, I rarely say anything political, either online or in daily life. It’s not that I am not thinking about these issues. It’s that I have a fear of disappointing anyone, a fear of causing dissent. I am afraid to use my platform as a poet to speak on issues I am passionate about, and I am ashamed of that because so many poets around the world have had their voices silenced politically. I am very fortunate and often I am very ashamed of it. There is a culture of humility in my upbringing, and there are social and familial repercussions for anyone who tries to rise above their raising. Because of this, it is hard for me to even suggest that I have a platform. But I have a responsibility to tell our story and our situation to those who are unaware of the serious political and environmental problems we face. To speak for others is to dissent in my culture. To acknowledge that we have done this to ourselves is to dissent. It is a betrayal. To get an education is to dissent in my culture. To achieve success. To leave. To return. There is an irreversible cost.

I just got back to California a day ago and shouldn’t even be answering these questions right now, because I am particularly homesick. But I can’t hide behind professionalism out in the world, no more than I can hide behind the status quo back home. To be vulnerable is to dissent in the macho southern culture I was brought up in, but I am realizing that vulnerable is exactly what I have to be.

MHR: Are we doomed to our drowning here in south Louisiana? Can you speak to this to increase awareness for those who aren’t as environmentally conscious about the plight of our coast?

J: It hurts me to say so, but yes, I think we have done irreversible damage. The changes in society needed to reverse it are generations away. I have no faith in the government to reverse course on the thousands of policies that caused it. I hope that eventually, the world at large will come around but for us, it will be too late. Maybe it will happen when New York City starts to flood, or other major economic areas around the world are threatened. But as with many Pacific islands and many low-lying areas across Southeast Asia, we will be lost before it is fixed. This is an economic issue as much as anything else. It is too economically unfeasible to save small populations of wetland fishermen in remote areas that many Americans have never heard of.

Many of Louisiana’s problems, in particular, are man-made. We have built a levee complex on the Mississippi River that stretches for over 2,000 miles. We have tried to control flooding not understanding that floods built the land we live on. We have built canals for logging and the oil industry that introduce salt water from the Gulf of Mexico into brackish and freshwater ecosystems. We have traded meager returns on our oil and natural gas reserves for devastation to our wildlife and fisheries.

And what the outside world must realize is that we didn’t do this because we are stupid hicks that don’t know any better. Louisiana is a poor state with rich resources. That paradox is a result of the fleecing of us by Washington for generations. It has created a culture where we are the ones destroying ourselves for the profit of others. Many in my family work for the same oil and gas industry that is sucking us dry and destroying our environment. When they want to build a pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin we won’t have the national outcry that we saw with the North Dakota Access Pipeline. There will be no hashtags. We will build it ourselves and be grateful to have the work, and that is a direct result of the poverty of this place.

MHR: In our lifetimes, we have not had an unobstructed horizon on the Louisiana coast. Can you relate personal experiences from your youth and another from your adulthood that illuminates your disillusionment that is touched upon in The Dissenter’s Ground?

J: The oil rigs on our horizon have a large role in this book. To me, they are the image of climate change. They are a symbol of beauty in a way, but they are also unnatural, and to me, sublime. I was terrified of them as a child. They are dangerous places and I have known many who have been injured or killed out there. They stand over our coast like monuments, to remind us.

I have lived in many places around the state, and as a child, I spent a lot of time in rural areas where the landscape shaped my view of the world. In my poems, landscape is a major character, if you like, and as a boy, I loved the fields and the marshes and the swamps. The woods loom large in my work as well. The thought of the loss of these places weighs heavy on me, especially because I picked a career that is almost guaranteed to take me away from home for the majority of my adult life. It is a sobering thought to think that the home you grew up in may not exist when you are able to return. I am terrified of being lost from this place forever, and Americans, in particular, would do well to remember that it can happen to us too. The immigration debate in this country comes from a place of incredible privilege, the privilege that most Americans cannot even fathom the idea of being a refugee.

Many of us learned that lesson with Hurricane Katrina, which has turned out to be one of the most life-altering events of my adult life. Many of us scattered and tried to build a new life in other states, states that if you recall, did not want us. They didn’t want our poverty, our crime, our burden on their infrastructure. Those of us who were able to return found military guards with machine guns patrolling the streets. I remember returning to New Orleans with my father and saying to him how much I thought it looked like an occupying force. But America has forgotten that too. Once it left the news cycle it was out of sight out of mind.  We had to pick it all back up again, and I have felt in the last decade that people have forgotten how nasty some people were towards us. I heard talking heads on the news say over and over, Should New Orleans rebuild? Why don’t they just tear it down and start over somewhere else? I heard people say You knew it would happen and chose to live there anyway.  Some thought we deserved it. And I won’t forget it. I am incredibly angry still.

 

MHR: “We will take drowning too far” is a powerful statement and holds mystery in that it goes beyond physical death. How did this line come to you, if you recall?

J: I think I realized that we are culpable in some way and that hurt me. But I also realized that we are a part of a system that makes us culpable, sometimes without us realizing it. These realizations led me to think about culture and memory. There are so many things we have forgotten. Parts of our own history that have been erased or assimilated into some form of new cultural memory. Louisiana voted overwhelmingly for the people who have imposed these destructive policies on us. Louisianans, whites especially, have bought into this narrative that our problems come from somewhere else, someone “other.” But we are forgetting a few things. When America purchased Louisiana they found themselves with a large population of French-speaking Catholics whom they did not want. Assimilation became law. It became illegal to speak French. Our culture was reduced to Mardi Gras beads and drive-thru daiquiris. A show for tourists. And we have forgotten. And the Acadians were brutalized and forced to flee their homes and settle here, to eke out a living on land no one wanted, the same land that is being destroyed now. And the crawfish we learned to live on is now a rite of passage for tourists who think us quaint and backward, who think we are stupid, the same people who profit from our oil, the same people who told us not to rebuild. And we have forgotten.

And now is it our turn to harm those we deem too different from us? To refuse refugees? To abandon equality and human rights? Have we forgotten who we are? Cajuns, Creoles, we too are “other,” and once they have removed all the easy targets America will remember it too, and we will have to face our own reckoning.

And Louisiana, whose land is disappearing faster than anywhere else, we have elected a man who thinks climate change is a hoax. We ourselves believe it. We who have suffered hurricanes and been told by America not to rebuild. We who have suffered floods and been told not to rebuild. We’ve suffered their oil spills, their sinkholes, their pipelines, and gotten nothing for it and still, we have forgotten. Do you think Trump will save us when we drown? Why would Americans act any differently towards us than they have in the past?

We have forgotten who we are. Pourquoi, pourquoi, pourqoui? We are drowning ourselves. Prends garde à toi.
MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. How can someone purchase The Dissenter’s Ground?

J: Directly from the publisher at hyacinthgirlpress.com, or feel free to contact me via my website jbrucefuller.com and I will be happy to send you a signed copy or just chat a while.

Hyacinth Girl Press is a micro-press that publishes up to 6 poetry chapbooks each year. We specialize in handmade books of smaller press runs. We consider ourselves a feminist press and are particularly interested in manuscripts dealing with topics such as radical spiritual experiences, creation/interpretation of myth through a feminist lens, and science.

hyacinthgirlpress.com

FULLER

 

J. Bruce Fuller is a Louisiana native, and is currently a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. His chapbooks include The Dissenter’s (Hyacinth Girl Press 2017), Notes to a Husband (Imaginary Friend Press 2013), Lancelot (Lazy Mouse Press 2013), 28 Blackbirds at the End of the World (Bandersnatch Books 2010), and Flood which is the winner of the 2013 Swan Scythe Chapbook Contest. He is the co-editor of Vision/Verse 2009-2013: An Anthology of Poetry (Yellow Flag Press 2013). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, Pembroke Magazine, The Louisiana Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Louisiana Literature, among others. He is the editor and publisher of Yellow Flag Press. He received an MFA from McNeese and a Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

MHR and Katie Manning on “Tasty Other”

MHR: Many of the poems were sparked by dreams you had. Do you find that writing from dreams liberates your language?

KM: I’m not sure I’d say that it liberates my language, but writing from dreams definitely liberated my form. My tendency is to write in highly structured ways that can feel too tidy, but the shiftiness of dreams forced me to get messy in my writing process.

MHR: Each of the poems resonates the rich aura of pregnancy. Did you find, when writing the book, that the subject of pregnancy could be further explored?

KM: I was really resistant when I started writing pregnancy and baby poems. Fortunately, I realized that I should let myself write rather than fighting against my preoccupation and disruptive physical state. Each pregnancy is so different physically and emotionally, even for the same woman across pregnancies, so I think there will always be more to explore with pregnancy.

MHR: Even the poems that read like fables are grounded in the real world. Do you consider your work in this book “fabulist?”

KM: I have thought of the dream poems as connected to fabulist or speculative writing, and some of the poems do respond to and tweak existing narratives, but then there are many poems in the book that are firmly in the realm of nonfiction.

MHR: You have created a fertile world in which the reader can apprehend the poems even as the poems suggests more mystery beyond the words. Do you think you have succeeded in striking that balance in the open-endedness of the work?

KM: I do feel pretty good about the way this collection seems fairly accessible to non-poets and non-mothers (and I’ve had a couple of men say that reading my poems took them into pregnancy and childbirth in a way they could not otherwise experience). I was hoping to capture the wonder and terror of becoming a mother, and I was hoping to capture some moments of clarity in the midst of the strangeness.

MHR: Many of the poems open chasms of fear that arise from the dangers and “unknowns” of pregnancy.  Did you find that writing these anxieties alleviated some personal fears?

KM: Actually, recording the pregnancy dreams and writing from them made me aware of fears that I hadn’t consciously realized and articulated for myself before. Whether or not writing them alleviated the fears at all, it did at least make me aware of them.

MHR: These poems do not look away. You have some very stark and harrowing images. I commend your bravery. Did you ever think of these poems as charms to ward off misfortunes of pregnancy?

KM: Oh, I hadn’t thought of them as charms, but thank you for seeing that possibility. I was interested in writing about pregnancy and birth in a way that acknowledged the surreal, painful, dark parts and not just the sentimental pastel images that we often associate with baby showers and newborns.

MHR: You use the line “Once upon a time there was a mother” as a device interwoven in the sequencing of the poems.  Do you see these interjections as creating segments, or as places to take a breath?

KM: Originally, those section breaks were a stand-alone poem, first published in PANK as “A Whole Mother Story.” An editor at Sundress Publications suggested that the poem, which takes place entirely in footnotes, might be an interesting organizational device for the book, and I ended up taking that suggestion and using each footnote as a section heading. I think it might be both things that you suggested—those interjected footnotes did create sections of the final manuscript, and they also provide those moments of pause.

MHR: In a couple of poems, we pick up on your time spent in Louisiana. Can you speak to these poems and give us a bit of your impression of Louisiana culture as you experienced it?

KM: I lived in southern Louisiana for three years for graduate school, and I had a wonderful time there. It sometimes felt like we’d gone to another country entirely because the culture is so distinct. We fell in love with the food and the many, many festivals, and I was fascinated by the pervasiveness of Catholicism even in secular realms; when we went to an omelet festival, a priest blessed the giant pan before the cooking began. One of the poems that is especially rooted in Louisiana is “Mother Mary Comes to Be,” a multi-part poem inspired by a life-sized statue of Mary in someone’s front yard down the street from where we lived. In the poem, I explore my fascination with Mary as both virgin and mother (an impossible standard for women, incidentally), and I had a good time imagining Mary at Mardi Gras.

MHR: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

KM: My pleasure! Thank you for asking.

 

Katie (25)Katie Manning is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review and an Associate Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, and her first full-length poetry collection, Tasty Other, is the 2016 winner of the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. She has received The Nassau Review Author Award for Poetry, and her writing has been published in Fairy Tale Review, New Letters, Poet Lore, So to Speak, Verse Daily, and many other journals and anthologies. Find her online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.

An interview with Catherine Arra

MHR: The unifying theme of the poems in Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press, 2015) is loving which through the elements of your craft makes loving elemental. Each piece, imbued with passion, or a dispassionate understanding of love and its complexities is finely wrought. In “He Says” I sense the woman’s power is choice. Her choosing to open herself, or not.  Can you speak to the woman’s power as exemplified in this poem?

Catherine Arra: I believe that everyone’s power is in the ability to understand intent, one’s own intent as well as that of others, and to choose accordingly. In “He Says,” we have a relationship that is stalled. The mating dance, courtship teases and coupling are complete. The sex is great. It’s time for the couple to go deeper into relationship or walk away. The woman is aware of her desire or intent to go deeper. She is also aware of her partner’s ambivalence or intent to keep things as they are between them. She knows he loves her, she understands his fear and her power; however, she will not use her power to hurt him but to challenge them both to grow.

In this poem, I wanted to articulate intent by what “he says.”

MHR: In “One of the Girls” you deftly draw an imaginative narrative that likens otherworldliness into a poem that is very much rooted in the world. What was the emotional impetus for this poem?

CA: The emotional impetus for this poem was a growing annoyance with sloppiness or entitled negligence in relationship. The man in the poem needs to clean out his closet literally and figuratively. He doesn’t see the ghosts of his past relationships or how they haunt the present. He is unaware of the irresolution in himself and between himself and past partners. The woman does; she intuits and mediates between past and present. She once again understands intent.

I feel poetry comes from an otherworldliness. The poet hears, discovers and gives voice to the narrative, or often to silence. She traverses and connects worlds seen or unseen, the past and present, the living and the dead.

MHR: “Premature Snow” is a personification of nature. Most of the poems in “Loving from the Backbone” display nature prominently. How does nature inspire you?

CA: Well first, I’ve never been a fan of winter, though the season has taught me how to hibernate, renew and how to have faith. Nature inspires me in all ways; it holds, moves and continually teaches me. I see myself, all mankind, all creatures as a part of one wondrous, divine organism. In nature I find endless metaphor.

MHR: There is a line in the poem “Sustenance” that reads “the recipe for life on earth.” It seems a fitting phrase to encompass the urgings of these poems.  These poems give vital life lessons without being didactic. It’s as though a grace-filled voice whispers to us, “This is the way.” Do you agree or disagree?

I agree, though my intent in writing is never to instruct but to share or show. For me, poetry is a practice like yoga, of breathing and allowing life to move through me, of seeing, appreciating and assimilating what is. The “recipe for life on earth” or “love that lasts” or a poem that works is a delicate combination that may be a form of grace or prayer.

MHR: There is a languidness in the voice of the poems that shines in a quiet contentment, but in a poem like “Blind Passage,” there is a power surge. Can you speak to this?

CA: “…a languidness in the voice that shines in quiet contentment” What a lovely, poetic comment Clare.

I agree that the voice in many of the poems is sated and serene. The “power surge” you sense in “Blind Passage” is perhaps the strength of vulnerability. To love openly, instinctively, without fearful manipulation and intellectual interference is to love from the backbone. I used the quote from D.H. Lawrence to link the poem to Lawrence’s sustained literary message for mankind to stay connected to the natural world, to his instinctual nature and to understand that sex in the head is not sex at all.

MHR: In the title poem, “Loving from the Backbone,” What gave you the imaginative spark to write of the condition of human love related to reptilian life?

CA: The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the human brain. It controls the body’s vital functions: heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature and balance. Our sense of smell, hunger, thirst and our hard-wired instinct to mate are rooted in the reptilian brain, which is located in the brainstem and the cerebellum providing a direct connection to the spine that governs all movement. For me, loving from the backbone is to love instinctively, organically, in union with emotion and intellect. It is to love fully and consciously from the oldest, deepest parts of our being.

MHR: These poems are sensual and earthy. When you write about the body it is with a deft and careful hand, as though you are creating brushstrokes for a painting. Do you practice any other art forms or exercise other creative skills? If so, how do you see the interconnectedness with your poetry?

CA: I enjoy photography and can say that I practice the art of seeing. I often think visually and have a strong visual memory. I nearly became a professional photographer before I decided to become a teacher. I imagine poems with vivid imagery or an unexpected emotional sweep to be like photographs; I see photographs as poems and stories. I also practice yoga and try to live astutely and fully in and through my body. I believe that the challenging work of the artist is to come through the body, to allow the divine in and through, to give it voice and form in everything we do: writing, painting, cooking, gardening, caregiving, working, living, loving, dying. Perhaps this is the art of being a good vessel.

MHR: I read an article recently that stated that what men, heterosexual men, really want is “safe harbor” in a woman. Would you agree with that in your understanding?

CA: I think we all want safe harbor in relationship no matter our gender or sexual preference. We all want to submit to love and to be loved. Relationship requires courage and tenderness. I play with this idea in the poems, “Submission” and “The Gospel of Skies” wherein it appears that the woman submits to the male sex drive and her partner’s need for safe harbor, but in truth, he submits to her. They go together into the mystery, naked and unashamed. What they create together is safe harbor for both, “where they lie side by side in the gravity of breathing.”

Thank you, Clare, for your deeply intuitive reading of Loving from the Backbone and for taking the time to interview me.

 

catherine-arra

Catherine Arra is the author of Slamming & Splitting (Red Ochre Press 2014), Loving from the Backbone (Flutter Press 2015) and forthcoming in 2017, Tales of Intrigue & Plumage (FutureCycle Press). Recent poetry and prose have been published in The Timberline Review, Peacock Journal, Flash Frontier, MockingHeart Review and Sugared Water. A former English and writing teacher, Arra now teaches part time and facilitates a local writers’ group in upstate New York. Find her at www.catherinearra.com

An interview with Bill Yarrow

MHR: The title The Vig of Love is taken from the title of a poem within the collection. Can you explain the title as you understand it and as it suggests the other poems?

 

BY: Vig, from “vigorish,” is the interest on a loanshark’s loan. Love is a debt, a loan you’ll never repay. The poems in this volume are about the different kinds of interest we owe on the impossible loan that is love. P.S. The Muse is also a loanshark.

 

MHR: In the title poem, the idea of risk is linked with love. Can you illuminate this idea as it pertains to many of the other poems that also delve into the nature of love in this light?

 

BY: The poem suggests love is a roulette bet. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. But if we really love someone, we need to invest everything we have. We need to “put down all we’re worth.” The debt idea is made explicit in the poem “A Debt No Honest Man Can Pay” which begins the volume. The betting idea is made explicit in the poem “Wanna Bet?” which opens the last section of the book.

 

MHR: Do you see yourself as a contemporary absurdist? Do you see yourself as a truth seeker with a capital T? Does truth exist? If not, what responsibilities must a 21st century poet fulfill?

 

BY: I see myself as someone who writes poems. Nothing more.

 

Yes, specific truth exists, and general truths exist. Does Capital T Truth exist? No. Not for me.

 

The responsibility of a poet? To write well.

 

MHR: You have a couple of poems, that use bullet points to present statements of “truth” that are slant and wry.  What principles link these poems? What are their thematic unifiers?

 

BY: These “poems” (I’m not sure what they really are) consist of aphorisms or admonitions about love, pleasure, desire, passion, addiction, obsession. Read them with Samuel Johnson’s caveat: “In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness.” The title “Asbestos Candlestick” references the poem “The Exit Towards Fire.” The title “Sticky, Indifferent” comes from a phrase in “Liz@Phil,” a poem in Blasphemer

 

before ten years had passed
their loneliness had hardened

into indifferent sticky rapture
and permanent part-time jobs

 

MHR: As a poet rooted in the human condition, does man have a chance? And if so, does poetry?

 

BY: If we are human, we are “rooted in the human condition.” Poets are no different from anyone else. Everything has a chance—man, woman, humanity, poetry, goodness, beauty, ugliness, evil…. How much of a chance? That depends on the individual. And on the individual depends the world. As Emerson said, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” The future is the collective us.

 

MHR: Do you think your poems speak intimately to the reader or does the speaker hold the reader at a distance to instruct? Do you see yourself as a storyteller or a visionary/oracle?

 

BY: Every one of my poems intuits a speaker. Every speaker is different. None is me. That is, none is wholly me. My poems all tell stories. I don’t think any sane person ever sees himself or herself as an oracle.

 

MHR: There is an exacting sharpness in the language, and throughout we are treated to unexpected word collisions. Do you, as a poet, strive to make the unfamiliar familiar in your language?

 

BY: Thank you, Clare. I love that phrase “word collisions.” That’s an excellent phrase to describe a lot of what I do in my poems. In Pointed Sentences, my first book, there’s a poem called “Whiplash Marriage.” That title describes my approach and a lot of my work. I’m still smashing sound atoms, still officiating at whiplash marriages of non-consenting words.

 

I don’t strive to make the unfamiliar familiar exactly. I do solicit the unfamiliar and invite it into my poems. I strive to make the unfamiliar immediate and necessary, accessible and inevitable.

 

MHR: In the heart of the collection there seems to be a silent hope, which counters the difficulties of answerless questions in many of the poems. I think the balance is finely struck.  Do you sense a light in the darkness?

 

BY: I appreciate your comment about balance. Darkness is only darkness because there is light. Light is only light by virtue of there being darkness. As Blake said, “Opposition is true friendship.” No, there is no light in the darkness, but there is always the potential for light in the darkness. And vice versa.

 

MHR: I am immediately taken by the economy of words and clever turns of phrases, even though these poems embody so much more in their cumulative effect. Can you share with us some of your process in facing a blank page?

 

BY: Thank you, Clare, for that characterization of the poems in this book.

I seldom write on a literal blank page. Mostly, I write on a computer screen. I mention this because the size of a piece of paper sometimes affects or even dictates the length of a poem’s lines. If you are writing in a pocket notebook, you are likely writing in shorter lines than if you are writing in an oversized folio notebook. The reason is because, as you stare at the tiny notebook page, you are thinking in shorter lines, or thinking in longer lines if you are looking at a menu-sized blank journal.

The computer screen for me is neutral. It allows me to experiment with short lines, medium-sized lines, long lines, boxy poems, shaped poems, sprawling poems, prose poems, etc. I can immediately see what something looks like without having to rewrite it in a different form or shape. I can also save all the approaches to or versions of a poem.

 

My process? I play around. I play around with what things sound like, what things look like, how meaning changes with words in juxtaposition with each other, how meaning changes in a line ending or a line beginning. I’m a sculptor playing with the clay of words, sometimes piling bits on bits, sometimes scraping away dross to get at the essential form.

 

Sometimes, I begin with an event (“The Secret of Belief”) or a place (“Ajloun Castle”) or a person (John Dillinger / “Noir vs Noir”) or a memory (“The Ogontz Branch”). Sometimes, I begin with a word (“Babble”) or a phrase (“A Debt No Honest Man Can Pay”) or a text (“The Red Wheelbarrow” in “Carlos!”). Sometimes, I begin with a feeling (“Tierra del Fuego”) or a concept (“The Man Whose Wife Lived in His Neck”) or a pun (“Libby, Lottie, and Carlotta”).

 

Sometimes, the poem just emerges.

 

For me though, a beginning is just a beginning. I almost never end where I start.

 

 

Bill Yarrow

 

Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and an editor at the online journal Blue Fifth Review, is the author of The Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and four chapbooks. His work also appears in the anthologies Aeolian Harp, Volume One; This is Poetry: Volume Two: The Midwest Poets; and Beginnings: How 14 Poets Got Their Start. He has been nominated eight times for a Pushcart Prize. More information about Bill can be found on his website: https://billyarrow.wordpress.com/