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.

 

 

Informing the Past: Allison Joseph’s “Confessions of a Barefaced Woman”

9781597096096_FC59f376982ce95 (1)

Informing the Past: Allison Joseph’s Confessions of a Barefaced Woman


Reviewed by Tyler Robert Sheldon
Allison Joseph’s new collection Confessions of a Barefaced Woman is a forthright and unabashed examination of the speaker’s personal lives. From past girlhood to her present as an assured and confident woman, this narrator troubles the idea that self-reflection should—or even can—be nostalgic. Impulses here layer upon one another, with later poems informing ones earlier in the collection just as our futures often inform our pasts; a highly aware melding of form and content. The collection opens with the young speaker on a subway, discovering across the aisle how life treats less fortunate individuals: “it isn’t funny on the number six train / when I look up from my chem book, see a man / across the aisle both clothed and exposed, / his pants held up by rope, dirt clumped in his matted hair” (“On the Subway”). The narrator’s careful noting of detail is mirrored by the poem’s attention to sound, with the plosive hints of “up” and “rope” dancing in the background. Such meticulousness is a hallmark of this book and of the characters within, and when the speaker departs the train several stops too early to walk home, that unfortunate detail is noticed immediately.

We learn more in “In the Public Library,” our first glimpse into the speaker’s interests—and her passion for reading. Some details are worth overlooking to escape into books, the narrator confides, such as the library entrance “reeking of piss, booze, its pavement / giving way.” Even when the books are just as frayed, they are so because of other readers who imbue them with their awe and adoration. In the miniature city of writing, the speaker “lean[s] on words and love[s] / all this—broken bindings, smudged print, / fondled pages, my library card.” Sometimes the richness of inner worlds is more than enough. Confessions shows this idea in “Bad Dogs” too, where the narrator must run past yards laced with these growling creatures, “coming home from school, book bag / bouncing on my shoulder, socks / sagging around skinny ankles.” The bookbag is an important detail here, emphasizing what she values most. When a dog bites her arm, the speaker envisions it as a writer would, “one sudden fist of a dog” that results in stitches. Visceral detail is often key to telegraphing emotion, and Joseph’s speaker gives this dog a signifier that for many would inspire fear.

As she grows older, the speaker treats objects with both reverence and resentment, showing the struggle that comes with finding one’s adulthood. “Grown-Up Shoes” epitomizes this conflict, where she buys a pair of dress shoes to feel adult. “How eagerly I’d awaited / your coming,” she remembers, these wondrous shoes meant to emphasize “legs and calves / to make the other girls go home.” Alas, they are not as advertised: they hurt her feet, and “what looked sexy / in photos made my legs / into stalks, feet into boats.” The passage into adulthood does much the same to all of us, and for a while, we too might sit, “toes jammed together, / barely peeking from the hole / at the tip of each sorry shoe.” The lines in this poem are short and narrow, no doubt like these shoes, and thus the poem moves quickly another form-and-content pairing.\

In “Advice on Being a Pesky Little Sister,” the speaker shows that reverence for signifiers of age doesn’t always extend to other people’s property. She advises wryly (or regretfully?), “Sit on your sister’s records, / especially if she’s saved for them / for weeks, shattering favorites first.” Whether from jealousy or the simply working out of siblinghood (familiar to many), she likes to “[f]ilch and crease / her magazines, ones she buys, / hoards away—Cosmo and Glamour.” Fairly innocent in the larger scheme, these actions get attention, all that’s needed when even the wrong kind is enough.

Less wholesome is behavior exhibited by the speaker’s father, who yells at her and at her sister over meals; “Dinner Hour” shows a man who has no time for tenderness. While eating, he would drive home what a “waste we were, how we never / turned off lights when we left / a room, and did we think he / was made of money/” Even when the mother intervenes, it’s clear that the damage has already been done: they will never be able to satisfy this patriarch. This poem is constructed in ten careful quatrains, which is not only aesthetically pleasing but may also double (for the speaker) as a buffer against wild emotions, a single layer of insulation against a chaotic father.

Joseph works with form throughout this collection, notably in “Adolescent Confession,” a sestina that moves so naturally the form is hard to detect when the poem is read aloud. The ending words of each stanza, rearranging throughout, are always vital, and fluidity is never sacrificed for the sake of the form. In the first stanza we learn of a captivating insecurity:

When I was a girl,
I had such bony legs—
a flat body, no breasts.
To compensate, to cheat—
I stuffed my bra, hoping to be hot.
What a pathetic sight.

The struggle undergone by the narrator eventually resolves into adulthood, where she is satisfied with her lot at last: she has matured. But throughout the poem, her overarching worries of inadequacy will be familiar to many readers, regardless of sex or gender. This poem and others humanize the speaker, and as in many other poems, we can see ourselves reflected clearly.

The poem “Some of My Best Friends Are White People” inverts the more common defensive expression, and shows the confidence the speaker has in herself and her choices. She notes, “The audience assumed that my husband had to be black, / because I’m black, and clearly proud to be so . . . / The assumptions go on and on.” Joseph, who is married to the skilled editor and fellow poet Jon Tribble, has surely experienced questioning looks firsthand—but she, like her narrator, rightfully knows both happiness and confidence. As the speaker points out wisely, “monitoring the toll of racism [is] too big a job for just one race.” She is admirably stronger than many other narrators in the world.

In “After Shaving My Head, I Begin to Think Beauty Is Overrated,” the speaker is daring and admirable for defying expectations, but jubilant as well: her scalp is “able now / to pick up frequencies of cold it’s never felt before. With growing older comes both maturity and playfulness, each one an essential part of being a balanced person, and the narrator shows this through her shaven head. Her reasons, simpler than what others assume (“to be able to glide hands over scalp with / nothing impeding the motion”), are not enough for everyone else: “Surely this gesture means something.” Joseph shows that intentionally or otherwise, the personal is always political, and doing what one likes in the face of that fact makes one all the stronger. This poem, a series of enjambed couplets, is also playful in form when contrasted to the book’s other pieces: no other poem is structured this way, making this one stand out in all the right ways. Readers are also given segments of situations here—work, home, classroom—that are brief and quick, just like these short stanzas.

“A History of African-American Hair” is related to that rebellious poem, celebrating the process of styling hair and the labor that goes into doing so. Like “After Shaving…,” this poem is in couplets, a listing of the “knots, snags, / tangles . . . // goopy gels, / greasy lotions, pressing oils and pomades” that the speaker has faced in the past. Joseph’s narrator, in the end, is “glad as any woman can be / that I cut my hair, that the woman in the mirror // now has hair she can touch, / cropped close to scalp, to skin.” Happiness comes with experience, Joseph asserts: it is a fine-tuning of the self into the resonant present.

Toward the end of Confessions, Joseph reflects on what it means to be a poet: the expectations, cliché’s, norms, and behaviors that come along for the ride with that label. In “Daughter, Mother, Sister, Wife,” she muses on each in turn: “When your daughter is a poet, burn all your possessions before you die.” Poets, who have a propensity for turning every day into the studied and sometimes the near-sublime, can be are sharpest critics. The speaker continues, “Burn all / your correspondence; but be warned, / she’ll make something of the cinders.” The inverse is just as unique, as Joseph notes: “When your mother is a poet, / your breakfast may be marmalade . . . / You may not get fed at all.” In these lines, so whimsical and wry on the surface, a deeper discontent—even regret—begins to emerge. The hinted past, delineated here, isn’t all goodness or nostalgia. The hard moments of the narrator’s life make that life both complicated and fascinating, wholly absorbing our attention with each page. In Confessions of a Barefaced Woman, growing up is a medley of complex emotions, each informing the next moment where, when there is darkness, we can glean a little light.

Readers can purchase Confessions of a Barefaced Woman at one of Joseph’s many readings or from Red Hen Press, as well as from regional and national booksellers.

Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press, 2018)

 


Allison Joseph lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where she is Professor of English and  Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University.  She serves as poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review.  Her books and chapbooks include What Keeps Us Here(Ampersand Press), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press), In Every Seam(University of Pittsburgh Press), Worldly Pleasures (Word Tech Communications), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon UP), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press), My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books), Trace Particles (Backbone Press), Little Epiphanies (NightBallet Press), Mercurial(Mayapple Press), Mortal Rewards (White Violet Press), Multitudes (Word Poetry), The Purpose of Hands (Glass Lyre Press), Double Identity (Singing Bone Press) Corporal Muse(Sibling Rivalry Press, forthcoming) and What Once You Loved (Barefoot Muse Press). Her most recent full-length collection, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman was published by Red Hen Press in June 2018. She is the literary partner and wife of poet and editor Jon Tribble. http://www.allisonjosephpoetry.com/


Tyler

Tyler Robert Sheldon is Associate Reviewer and a contributing writer for MockingHeart Review. His newest books are Driving Together (Meadowlark Books, 2018) and Consolation Prize (Finishing Line Press, 2018). He received the 2016 Charles E. Walton Essay Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles ReviewThe Midwest Quarterly, Pleiades, QuiddityThe Dead Mule School of Southern LiteratureTinderbox Poetry Journal, and other venues. Sheldon holds an MA in English from Emporia State University and is an MFA candidate at McNeese State University. He lives in Baton Rouge.

 

New Happenings

Hello, friends of MockingHeart Review.

Since September of 2015, we’ve published the work of 175 poets in eight timely issues. With our new editorial, social media, and writing team, (see our masthead), we’re strategically adding more high-quality, relevant-to-poetry content. This includes interviews on a regular basis, with poets who’ve appeared in MHR, reviews of poetry collections four times a year, Poet-to-Poet conversations, Poet Spotlights, and articles on contemporary poetry, process, and subjects of interest to poets (and other humans).

We are gearing up for this expansion which will roll out August 1st, 2018. So, keep an eye here on the Beats blog, where the new happenings will be shared with you.

We’re very excited and hope you are, too.

We especially support the work of poets and writers who invest themselves in community “passion projects” that serve children and adults. Who doesn’t need the life-affirming literary arts to address cultural, political, economic, social, educational, and environmental issues? Interacting in positive ways in our communities through our artistic skills inspires so many. Hey, we’re poets. We’re in the Inspiration Business

And don’t forget, submissions open July 1st.  Access the guidelines from the menu above. 

Thank you for your interest and support of MockingHeart Review.

Clare L. Martin
Editor in Chief, Founder of MHR

An interview with Amber Edmonson

lostbirds(1)

MHR: First, l I want to congratulate you on Lost Birds of the Iron Range. The collection is exquisite and the poems are pristine. Can you give us some of the backstories of birds/mines which work to structure the poems?

AE: Thank you so much! This collection started as a love letter to the wild landscape of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I live. The area has a history of mining and logging that drew large numbers of European immigrants to the area in the 1800s, so the book is also a love letter to migration: the places we are from and the places we go, the things we bring with us, and what we leave behind. And that’s what I imagine the mythological birds to be—the objects of both the old and new lands, one always ceding to the other as cultures arrive and change and merge.

MHR: Can you speak to the imagined historical time that these poems would take place? What land encompasses the Iron Range as you envision it?

AE: The real-life Iron Range spans much of the Upper Peninsula and all along Lake Superior. In the U. P., the peak of modern mining was the mid-1800s, which is when I imagine much of my book’s history to occur. This is the time of the birds and the young woman whose journey we follow.  I have also included poems from the perspective of The Historian and the Historian’s Apprentice, who are from the present, looking back on the past and speculating.

MHR: What are your ideas of why poets are attracted to writing about birds? Do you believe myth plays a part in this? How were you drawn to write these poems?

AE: Oh gosh, birds are so common but also so otherworldly, aren’t they? I know “poets writing about birds” is a cliché, but I also think cultures have been exploring the idea of birds for millennia, so I doubt any of us are giving up soon! (When Nicci Mechler at Porkbelly Press sent me my acceptance for this book, she noted that it was one of several bird collections she had received. Eek!) I hadn’t intended to write a collection initially. It was just one poem (I forget which one, or if that one even made it into the final draft), but after the first poem, they just started flowing, each one inspiring the next.

MHR: Were any of these poems inspired by dreams?

AE: Only the waking dream of living in this place! I am answering these questions half a mile down the road from a place literally called The Yooper Tourist Trap, which boasts a giant chainsaw out front, as tall as a house. The chainsaw’s name is Big Gus. And then there are the ethereally beautiful stretches of wilderness: waterfalls and winding trails through cedars and the untamable shore of Lake Superior. And then there’s the way the wilderness is interrupted by the eerie, terraced mines on the horizon. So, none of the poems were inspired by actual dreams, but there’s something very surreal about living here.

MHR: There is a line in “The Historian’s Apprentice Shares a Secret,” that reads “what is written removed from what is true.” What guides you to remove language to uphold structure and sense in a poem?

AE: Oh, that’s a great question! I often find that I tend toward too many words when my core words aren’t quite right—when they aren’t “what is true.” If my noun is off, or my verb, then I try to nudge them into the right direction with adjectives and adverbs and metaphors. Lately, my goal has been to cut away all of that, to cut down to the barest essence of what I am trying to say. My poems have gotten very small lately, something closer to silence.

MHR: Birds seem to take on mystical qualities in these poems. Did this liberate your language and enable you to be visionary while grounding the work in the various narratives? Did you find that the mystery of birds allowed for the poems to transcend the mundane?

AE: It really did. A few years ago, I read an essay by poet Fleda Brown where she lamented that her poems often stayed too close to the shore, and I wanted to use these poems as an opportunity to explore the more “out-there” waters for myself. The poems let me take more mundane elements—the scent of cardamom found in traditional Finnish bread, for example, or the mending of clothes—and couple them with these mythological birds. It was such a freeing exercise.
MHR: You have two poems, “Motherland I” and “Motherland II” What is the journey to which you allude?

AE: These poems follow a young woman as she leaves Finland with her husband so he can work in the Upper Peninsula’s copper mines. Those were some of the last poems I wrote for the collection (I think I originally had twenty-seven before paring it down for Porkbelly’s micro-chapbook contest), and I hope they helped to ground the themes of migration and home with the experience of one specific character.

MHR: How can someone purchase your chapbook?

AE: Lost Birds of the Iron Range is available through Porkbelly Press: https://porkbellypress.com/catalog/micro-chapbooks/2017-series/edmondson/

MHR: Thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions.

 

Edmondson

Amber Edmondson is a poet and book artist who lives in Michigan’s
Upper Peninsula. Her work has appeared in publications such as Diode
Poetry Journal
, Menacing Hedge, and MockingHeart Review. She is the
author of two chapbooks: Darling Girl (dancing girl press 2016) and
Lost Birds of the Iron Range (Porkbelly Press 2017).