Betsy Andrews to Read at IUSB This Wednesday!!

 

Mark your calendars! Betsy Andrews will be reading this Wednesday—October 1, 2014—at Indiana University South Bend, hosted by 42 Miles Press and the English Department.

Betsy Andrews_IUSB ReadingBetsy Andrews_The Bottom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Betsy’s poems are powerful and passionately-driven. They are urgent and accelerate the reader forward through their pages, their images, their truths, to a consensus of central issue and potential solution. They are largely ecological and political in their focus. New Jersey is a book-length poem that focuses on the New Jersey Turnpike, while The Bottom focuses on the anticipated environmental impact of Bush’s re-election. Her next book-length poem will focus on the air element and the many creatures involved (birds, planes, etc.), and she plans for subsequent poems to focus on the remaining elements, earth and fire. Her poems—and her reading!—should not be missed.

Her reading will take place at 7:30pm on the third floor of Wiekamp Hall (on the Bridge)—again, on Wednesday, October 1—and the reading is free and open to the public! Please also stick around after for a brief Q&A, small reception, and book signing.

Also, if you are interested in reading more about Betsy’s work, click here for a link to my review of The Bottom, and click here for my interview with Betsy about her writing life, research habits, influences and what she’s working on now.

 

BETSY ANDREWS is the author of The Bottom (42 Miles Press), winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Prize, and New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the Brittingham Prize. Her chapbooks include She-Devil (Sardines Press), In Trouble (Boog Press), and Supercollider, a collaboration with the artist Peter Fox. She is also executive editor of Saveur magazine.

 

 

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The Bottom: An Interview with Betsy Andrews

 

Betsy Andrews_The BottomClick here to view my review of The Bottom.

Betsy Andrews’ book-length poem, The Bottom, was published by 42 Miles Press in 2014 and received the 2013 42 Miles Poetry Prize. Sections of this poem appeared in such places as Kadar Koli, BoogCity, Stone Canoe and The Laurel Review, as well as Poets for Living Waters. In the following interview, I discuss with Betsy her thoughts on her writing and research life, the process behind The Bottom, and what she is working on now. I found her responses to questions about her favorite writers, and the influences for this book, and her overall process to be extremely compelling. I really feel I’ve learned a great deal from her, from reading her work and thinking of how her process applies to that work. I hope you find her thoughts here to be as rich and original as I did.

MLT: Hi Betsy! Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview! There have been a few questions that have been stirring around in my mind about craft and the realization of this book, ever since I first read The Bottom.

BA: Thanks, McKenzie. It’s a pleasure to speak with you about my book.

MLT: Just to jump right in, what type of environment do you need to write?

BA: Well, first we have to define what “to write” means. My work is very research-based. As I hope the “Tributaries” section in the back of the book shows, I do a ton of reading and note taking, scavenging facts and quotes and language from a huge range of sources—everything from the Oxford English Dictionary to the New York Times (the entire paper is fair game, even the Sports section) to Barbara Walker’s Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets to books on Marine Biology, ocean myths, sea shanties, you name it—and I always say I am writing, even when I am just in the reading and research phase, because that work is so inextricably a part of what I do. That research I can kind of do anywhere: at my kitchen table, in my home office, on the subway, in the library. Writing also happens anywhere in small nuggets in the notes app on my iPhone: on the beach, the street, the couch, whatever. But the actual creation of lines across the page, and those lines building into something that turns into a page in the book, well, that has to happen in quiet solitude. Sometimes it’s at home, but more often it’s on a writing residency, either a formal one or a self-made one, when I have a decent chunk of time (say, at least two weeks) and no other distractions except for nature, hopefully, and I can just really make a poem. I am fortunate to be able to do that about once a year, but no more than that. So it takes a long time for me to make a book.

MLT: Who are some of your favorite writers?

BA: Walt Whitman, of course. I adore his omnivorousness, his passion and mysticism, his earthy materialism and sexuality, his hearty appetites and joy and, also, sorrow at everything, his long lines, the way he made my city, New York City, come alive. I also love George Oppen for his staccato lines but also his materialism that results in a sort of mysticism, and the way he made my city come alive. Same for Frank O’Hara. I adore Elizabeth Bishop. I think that, perhaps, no other poet has had the power of description that she had. I can never get her “Fish” out of my mind. I love Czeslaw Milosz for his moral and spiritual consciousness, for the way he used irony in support of that. I have always been a big fan of Amy Gerstler; I just really dig her modern myth-making. I thought about her writing when I was working the mermaids into The Bottom. She has this awesome poem called “Siren” that I think was really an inspiration, though I didn’t quite understand that at the time. And, of course, Carolyn Forché, who was my teacher when I was studying for my MFA at George Mason University. She was my teacher, my mentor, and she’s my dear friend. Her work on poetry as witness has shaped who I am as a poet, and her book, The Angel of History, blows my mind, although basically everything she does in her life blows my mind. I feel similarly about Anne Waldman, though I never studied with her. Among my peers, I love the work of so many poets: Jen Coleman, Brenda Coultas, Marcella Durand, Julie Patton, Juliana Spahr, Lila Zemborain. I could go on and on. And those are just the poets. I haven’t mentioned the science writers, novelists, journalists…

MLT: What was your inspiration for this collection—writers, places, events, songs, etc.?

BA: Well, there are many layers of narrative interweaving in this book. First and foremost, there’s the story of the dessimation of the oceans. After my first book, New Jersey, which is a book-length anti-war meditation on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was after George W. Bush was re-elected, and I thought, “My gosh, what’s next?” I figured it would be the environment, a wholesale flushing of nature down the tubes. So, as a scuba diver, my thoughts went to the ocean, and I started The Bottom. At that point, I had decided that I was going to write a series of book-length poems engaging the elements: earth (which was New Jersey, the road trip book, the land-based book), water, air, and when I’m older, fire. I was on residency at Djerassi, east of Half Moon Bay in northern California, and I spent a lot of time walking on the beach. There were so many dead seals and sea lions on the shore, the victims of tangling in fishing nets, and also of complications from domoic acid toxicity, which comes from agricultural run-off. I became a supporter of the Marine Mammal Center, in Sausalito, California, which rescues and rehabilitates injured and distressed marine mammals. And I read marine conservation biologist Callum Roberts’ The Unnatural History of the Sea. And I went sailing with my partner and kid and my partner’s dad, which I try to do annually, to the Channel Islands. And all of those things became the foundation upon which the ocean story was built, upon which I layered so much other research and thought. There was also a love story—the story of my relationship with my partner, Jeanne Baron. And an elegy, not only to the seas, but also to my dog, Tai, who had died. My grandmother makes an appearance, poets from Anne Sexton to Yeats get riffed on, there’s astrophysics in it, etc. etc.

MLT: How long did you work on this poem?

BA: Six years.

MLT: Book-length poems have always fascinated me. What did your process look like for this poem? How did your process differ in writing a book-length poem, rather than a collection of poems?

BA: You know, I sort of decided to write book-length poems because I wasn’t exactly sure how to put a collection together, truth be told. The book-length poem, where the strands of narrative and consciousness and experience and emotion and meaning interweave to create one long, complicated braid just felt right to me, natural and organic. The collection of individual poems always has felt like a much more uncertain and less-organic project. So the book-length poem for me feels easier in a way. And I love the way I can pace a long poem, with characters coming in and out, and various stories intersecting. It’s really fun. And, afterwards, when I re-read it, I discover all these things that I myself didn’t even know were there. It’s a great and mysterious process for which I always say “I never know where I’m going, but I always know where I am,” which is just another way of saying how important craft is. I start by researching and musing and hearing snippets of conversation and whatever. I collect. I collect and collect, and I end up with hundreds of pages of notes. And then I start to squeeze those notes, condensing them down and down, grabbing bits of language and riffing on that language and changing it. I use the OED and a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary as much as I use source material, because those tools help with discoveries, too. It’s really fun, actually. And then I write page by page. Usually I have the beginning and the end written first, and then I go on a crazy voyage in between on my way to my final destination. I construct each individual page of the poem as a complete work in and of itself. But through the construction of each page, themes and characters and narratives emerge. And those come up over and again. But what drives the poem forward is music, for me. I sang as a kid. I still sing for myself and my family now, pick up my ukelele and sing. And I hear the poem in my head. I hear the language. It sings itself in my head. So rhyme and rhythm are so, so important, especially in this book that is about the sea and so should, of course, have sea songs in it. It should have sailor songs and siren songs and whale songs and gull songs. Then when I have all those pages, I start to order and re-order them. But, in actuality, the final book is very nearly the order I wrote the pages in anyway.

MLT: I also noticed many instances of isolation in this poem—emphasis placed on one single conscience, one jellyfish, etc. This reminded me of the sheer vastness of our oceans, but also presented an irony of how busy some areas of our oceans are. Was this use of isolation intentional? What was your thought process in isolating these personas?

BA: I think you pretty much said it. Though the mermaids are never isolated. They are always the mermaids, a plurality. They are, in that sense, all women, and they represent the way women are endangered in a world where nature is endangered, but also the way we are empowered in our connection to nature. In terms of the other creatures and their isolation, I have mentioned the Marine Mammal Center. What I like about their work, though I also support many advocacy groups doing great work for the oceans, is that the Center recognizes that the endangerment of animals entails the suffering of individuals. I think if we realize that it’s individuals we’re harming, maybe we will be more in touch with our empathy and, therefore, our need to act more responsibly.

MLT: What are you working on now? Anything new we should be on the lookout for (publications, etc.)?

BA: I’m working on the next book in the series, which is about the air. There are a few short poems about birds, which have come out of my initial thoughts and research, coming out this month in White Wall Review.

MLT: What do some of your new poems focus on? How do you think your next collection might compare thematically to this one? Might we expect another book-length poem at some point?

BA: Yep, it’s a book-length poem about the air. So it will include everything from birds and bees to drones and bombs and spaceships. But I’m not sure about the form yet. There was something about the sea that elicited very long, rolling, wavy lines and singsong rhymes and actual singing. I’m not sure what will happen with air.

MLT: Thank you again, Betsy, for taking the time to discuss The Bottom! I can certainly say that I love this poem and can’t wait to see where you go next.

BA: Thanks a million! That means so much to me.

 

Below, Betsy has shared her poem, “Prospect,” which is a few years old and originally appeared in Canarium, out of Columbia University. She explained that the poem was “a bird poem [and is] a taste of things to come.” Enjoy!

 

PROSPECT

 

It starts with a duck.
A white duck
dumped on the cracked macadam after Easter
in the greensward, the forward-seeming, the open-extensive aspect,
the park. A snug room constructed of
dragonflies and damselflies, a stab at transporting moments.
It’s a bat box, a curio, the paddock for the calving of next year’s army,
their drawknives, their spokeshaves, their adzes and axes, their plumage;
the king is installed, a nestling, beard-tongued and blue-headed,
his chuck-chuck call, his maxims. Reinforced
with rods and cement to compose a rural geography,
he’s lush and naturalistic. He gleams his tiny gleaming.
He gleams he gleams he gleams.
The army slides its red ears on. The army is fiercely nostalgic.
The windows of the houses are beset with lamps, the windows of the houses
              are mirrors
in which vireos, finches, warblers, thrushes, chickadees, flickers and
              sparrows and doves
are bayoneted by light, the warp and woof of the mobbing existence,
the warp and woof of nostalgia.

A cursory exploration of the duck:
a white duck dumped on the macadam
a white duck rushing full-tilt.
The little lordling, the yellow-legged king, in his beautiful flute-like
              impatience,
fences the bedraggled middle of the decade, orders up heavy machinery.
The sharp-shinned kinglet improves upon nature;
he knocks it about in his splendid dish. The army gets trapped among
              skyscrapers,
dazzled. The army sinks into the records.
The white duck, an orphan of baskets, paddles park air with her wide-lobed
              feet,
the white duck approaches for meaning.
The king has the humble valleys disrobed, the king conquers the wind caves.
The army, stockyard dummies the lot, reaches a crumpled appearance of
              repose.
Nobody says a word. They stare. All at once, the flashcubes are popping.

Months pass.
Four thousand tadpoles grow up and croak.
The lake is a giant bathtub in which the white duck discovers “to float.”
The tenacious earth clings to its dogwoods and yews.
The king is x-rayed for bullets pell-mell.
Time is not kind to the gatehouse.
There is a certain sylvan beauty to the trees
as the weight of their own limbs pulls them asunder.
The king cuts the weather to ribbons. He sighs. The army will winter over.
Arguably an eyesore, the shapeless stump of the Sybil
arches her drab brown brow. Have you considered the prospect,
she asks plain-spoken, that your duck might be a goose?

A white goose. Or a white duck
interpreted artificially, sleeping in the moonlight upon a park bench,
a vagrant, a tin-cup philosopher.
The king coughs an enchanting cough. The army pounces upon it.
Whole families take to lunching on graveyard grasses, grazing like common
              sheep,
while the duck tucks one knee up
so as to occupy the smallest of spaces.
On the orbital and radial roadways, in the viaducts and tunnels and
              aerodromes,
at the docks, in the rail stations, bus depots, promenades, the king arrives,
he squints his eyes,
decreeing allegorical landscapes.
The dictionary is announced to the world.

 

BETSY ANDREWS is the author of The Bottom (42 Miles Press), winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Prize, and New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the Brittingham Prize. Her chapbooks include She-Devil (Sardines Press), In Trouble (Boog Press), and Supercollider, a collaboration with the artist Peter Fox. She is also executive editor of Saveur magazine.

 

 


Rhododendron

 

I am unsure as to where this flower ends
or where it began. The small connecting limbs, hidden behind

the round series of heads, the seeding
centers, their odd tears around the edges

like teeth.

There is something oddly promising
about these flowers—you see, they have appeared

in my poems before. As children, as wind, even
a voice—never

as themselves,

in all their fierceness, in all their beauty. I love them
like I love so many things that are hidden

out-of-doors. Under all that sun, behind
another root system, in the neighbor’s

backyard. Sometimes I spy them in stranger places—

a vacant
frying pan, pieces shredded

in a bird’s nest. You could bring them to me
and I would plant them.

You could bring them to me

and I would be happy. In the quiet way that these flowers
are beautiful.

Bring them. I promise—
like wind.

 

 


We Could Do Better, You and I: Ecology, Design and Poetry: Reading Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom

 

Betsy Andrews_The BottomClick here to view my interview with Betsy Andrews.

When I first began reading Betsy Andrews’ book-length poem, The Bottom, I was reminded of an incident that occurred nearly two years ago now. In October of 2012, an article appeared on Slate.com regarding a large, startlingly-blue eye that had washed up on a Florida beach. Its size and opulence could not immediately be placed with any one undersea creature; and its dismemberment, washed up, created a stir. I remember when the article first appeared, there was a buzz of conversation: a guessing game of potential creatures and legends, not to mention the calendrical proximity to Halloween. But though these exchanges were entertaining, if not thought-provoking at times, I couldn’t help but think of isolation.

You see, when I think of the ocean, I visualize that deep blue, waves crashing, a tan beach—yes—but I also see a lot of open space: room for the sunlight to cut through, for the shadow of ships overhead, and the occasional creature—a shock of color and contrast. An eye, perhaps. I couldn’t tell you what led me to this visualization, or why it’s the first image to come to mind when I think of great expanses of water, but it is. I can imagine, too, the reefs and the wreckage and the pollution, etc., but I’m plagued with this concept of isolation. It’s hardly the conceptual journey you would expect after the mind-numbing push of Finding Nemo and “Under the Sea,” which embrace the fun, color and activity of undersea life… but I think what I see delves deeper, somehow; I end up in a place where I can see the beauty and the power, in all that richness, and perhaps a hint of what’s become of it.

For me, this is largely where The Bottom comes in. Ecopoetic and political (as I feel there can be a division between these two schools), it first emphasizes the problem and specific connection to nature, or the ocean, and, second, points us toward a solution—a wish, even. This poem took me back to the works of Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, Lorine Niedecker and, particularly, Eva Saulitis, each of whom have thrived in developing that connection between nature and their personal selves, their physicality and their lifestyles, through their works. Through the engine of this poem, the speaker challenges us to look at the role we’ve taken in the cycle of the ocean, presents to us a personal wish and tests our perceptions of what the ocean is, all of which may construe our understanding of the human condition.

Throughout this entire poem, there are suggestions of our influence and involvement in the natural world, from the dumping of a Tide bottle to references to Alice in Wonderland to absolute demolition for the construction of yet another Burger King. These references are feisty and poignantly-inserted into these otherwise-snappy and quickly-moving sections. One after the next, we move from images of a single jellyfish riding a Tide bottle to a mermaid killed on collision to a small whale caught in a Brooklyn waterway. These images are striking, painful and brutally honest; Andrews does not spare us with sentimentality but, rather, of a more scientific mind, presents hard image as fact. In each of these sections, isolated on their own page, given their own white space, these creatures and their tragedies return us again and again to the isolation performed by nature, by pollution and human involvement.

This is where the wish—the call to action—comes in. Being one of her strong suits, Andrews employs the art of repetition as a calling from the main speaker to an other, as portrayed through “you and I” and “my love” throughout the course of the poem. Being placed within such a scientific, factual and political poem, this move, at first, startles. However, as the first connection between the speaker and this other is achieved on the very first page, we, as readers, are given an opportunity to emotionally connect not only out of logic, but empathy. Here is how the first section (the first page) of the poem ends:

My wish is: We are on the shore, we are looking out at the water.
You are lying beside me, curled.
The sun is coming up. I am turning you over
I am going to see your face
The sun is coming up, I am turning you over
I am going to be able to see your face

Not only does this passage achieve a connection between these two personas, but it also provides an emotional longing that stands throughout the poem, and it performs Andrews’ subtlety. The ending punctuation disappears when the certainty, when the present-tense, is no longer in the speaker’s possession; so, too, the variance of the third-to-last and final lines, which may represent the difference between potential outcomes and the hope for potential outcomes. While these may appear to be small achievements, they represent an opening-up: a scope of what is come in this larger project of calling for action, calling for connection (between human and human, and human and creature), and calling for an end to isolation or disparity. By pointing out the difference between what could be and wanting what could be, Andrews calls into question the very center of political poetry: the difference between an action that will cause change and an action that only could.

Finally, we reach this point (which really began with the inclusion of the D.H. Lawrence epigraph) of interpreting what the ocean really is—which becomes the question, why we should care about it. I save this particular aspect of my review for now, because I think this question ties everything together. Lawrence describes the ocean to a baby tortoise as a “huge vast inanimate,” which had my mind reeling for a large portion of the poem. Stemming from my own personal visualizations of the ocean, I have a difficult time seeing it as an inanimate (though, yes, I understand it is the creatures that live within the ocean that are animate, rather than the whole body itself); because of all that occurs within it, because of it, and because of what happens to it (pollution, etc.), I have difficulty seeing this body as an inanimate one, as opposed to large, feeling and living. And I think this idea is one that the speaker similarly contests, given the natural protectiveness that occurs throughout this poem—toward individual creatures and the larger ecosystem alike. Perhaps, too, this relates back to the speaker’s “you and I” sentiment that occurs throughout; not only could the other be a person (connecting, again, to our human condition) but also the ocean itself (developing a connection between the human and nature). Yes, this takes us back to the ecopoetic edge of The Bottom, relating man to nature, but (again) there’s also this empathetic connection that we’re able to develop, by perceiving the “you” as human, as ocean, as living.

What’s so beautiful about all three of these themes is not only how Andrews achieves to tie them together into one poem, but her techniques in doing so—and how those techniques greatly mirror that of the ocean itself. Andrews has a beyond-admirable understanding repetition, rhythm and humor that, when thrown against such a large issue as harming our oceans, is striking and impressive. Haunting, even. The repetition of images (say, the mermaids and the shipwrecks), the repetition of the relationship (the “you and I” and “my love”), the continued vastness and isolation—each of these create an echo, a thread, an arch, that keeps us moving along, connected, over the course of this book-length poem. Add in, too, Andrews’ use of rhythm and rhyme (both direct and slant), as well as revision of phrases (such as the third-to-last and final lines on the first page) that keep us coming and going, that throw us into a rhythm that could easily be connected to the ebb and flow of the ocean itself, its breathing, the waves. Finally, while this poem is extremely unrelenting, extremely brutal and challenging, the humor contained not only sharpens that brutality but can almost give us split-seconds of reprieve, allowing us to judge ourselves and laugh at ourselves when we realize the absurdity of “Have It Your Way” when compared to the complexity, beauty and importance of an ocean. The combination, here, of taking us back to previously-stated lines and images, to revising a line, to propelling us forward through rhythm, to complicating our understanding of the situation through a combination of harshness and perhaps even harsher humor, it leaves us off-balance, ebbing, which very well may be the whole point: we should be thrown off by the depth of our involvement in what’s happening to our oceans, our planet. And maybe we should be even more thrown off by what it’ll take to correct it.

What Betsy Andrews has created here is stunning. Her gathering and mastery of information, her understanding of this wide and complex creature, is compelling, enriching and (dare I say it) enviable. She reminds us of the ocean’s power but also its weakness, its dependence on our actions. She teaches us about its dichotomy. While this world is, in fact, beautiful and full of wonder and reasons for celebration, it contains darkness, too—some of which stems from the truths of survival and others from our blunders as human beings. Like all of nature, our respect should be a combination of our love for its beauty and understanding of its harshness. Unrelenting, powerful and musical, Andrews reminds us of this duality of this mysterious space, the light and dark of its reach. Like a wide, startlingly blue eye, we may lose sight of its origins, its connectivity… but Andrews largely earns that connection back, through her creation of a speaker and their connection to an other (whether human or ocean), and through her mastery of language, which represents those many nuances, movements, emotions, and breaths of these wide bodies of water of which we so easily take advantage.

 

BETSY ANDREWS is the author of The Bottom (42 Miles Press, 2014), winner of the 42 Miles Press Poetry Prize, and New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), which was awarded the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Her chapbooks include She-Devil (Sardines Press, 2003), In Trouble (Boog Press, 2004), and Supercollider (2006), a collaboration with the artist Peter Fox. Her writing has appeared widely in publications ranging from Fence, Stone Canoe, and Phoebe to the Yemeni newspaper Culture. She is a graduate of the MFA program in poetry at George Mason University. Betsy is also the executive editor of Saveur magazine. She has taught numerous courses on poetry and creative writing as well as food writing.

 

 


Reading Betsy Andrews

 

to sound like itself is what water wants, to look like itself, to feel wet
walloped by cinderblock, spars and bottles, the wanting-locked water lay down
the wanting-locked water stank without lustre, it stank without lustre and we
cut it with knives, we cut it with scissors, the wanting-locked water, we cut it
with radars, we ginned it, the wanting-locked water was ginned and engine,
we engine and cinch-lipped and quicksilvered water; the water was baited
with nixies and bogles, it was looted of moon, it was piss-and-shit crooked;
the water engaged in protective reactions—it limped, it wore bright orange
              pants
the wanting-locked water was orange with panting, it was orange and panting,
it stank. “I want a clean cup,” interrupted the Hatter: “let’s all move one place
              on.”
One place on, the octopus burrowed into a crevice of the Duotex blow-up boat,
by the recessed valve between the self-bailing floor and the thermobonded
buoyancy tube, the octopus burrowed, slender and orange, the wonderpus
burrowed, thinking, “this is coral, it’s rock crack, it’s shell”; its slot-box eyes
clanging like bells on hillocks, its ginger arms stroking; the sun beat down, the
stories were told of the last of the last of the last Martian race,
with bodies like mazes and three beating hearts; the day went on day,
the sun turned away, the octopus turned a Duotex grey, and, finally,
from the captain’s fingers it slipped, dipping its quill in its damning pot and
scribbling rage at the lot of us on the illuminated page of the ocean, fuck you
in the name of the tide pools and shrimp haunts; to eat is what the octopus
              wants,
its excitable beak, its gifted locomotion, what the octopus wants is to live

 

the mermaids raise their hands; they would like to ask a question
they are unfamiliar with microphones, and the flotational devices of the press
              pool
but they recognize a wave when they see one—
they can mimic the speed of sound in air;
when called on, the mermaids manage their mouths into the shape of “What is
              that?”
it’s a riddle twice as inflated as Texas; it’s six times the weight of the plankton
              seas
it’s a teaser rendered in styrene with the acronym PCB
it’s albatross innards decoded as omen; it’s a starfish-crossed pleas
it’s a whopper, and the flack leaves the bait on the hook
the mermaids listen up: audible distortions and the deafening roar of “No
              comment,”
which the mermaids jot in their books
but even if the stowaways are thrown to the squids
the commodores can’t keep a lid on the story; it’s leaked
in the driftwood, in the rookery, in the dory in the belly of the catch;
the coda is, “It’s trash”
it’s sorrow dog’s chew toy, and worse—
it’s the skeleton ship’s cargo, it’s clamshelled desires and seventy brands of
              thirst
Water bottles everywhere, far, far too much to drink

 

sea fairy, sea wizard, water-horse, sea-bean
picked clean on long conveyor belts and sorted by shape and size
how completely the meat is scooped from the shell; the world’s fell
form the skies past the satellite that guides ships beyond reason
in the season of bone-sad tides; are they wise, the drowned,
who’ve found stillness while the rest of us flail? the Northern Passage,
the Artic’s third rail: fried fish and a polar bear rug,
our collective shrug as lethal as a blast pressure wound,
evidence forgotten as soon as it’s archived; just the rats remember
that this spit of concrete between the highway and the street was once a
              wetland;
they scratch at the cracks here, hoping for water, and the daughters of the
              sinkholes,
the cloud-covered mermaids, sit down with soot in their fins

 

It’s a planet made of ink on the arm of a sailor tricking in the head
where the slim wrist of morning is cuffed to the sink
to the bottom. The sea-dogs howl foul weather at the skies.
Whence the sea-dogs rise, there must be a kind of day,
for every dog has one; there must be some bed
where sleeping dogs lie and wake up without fleas.
When we’ve managed to pirate every molecule of the seas,
and replaced them with replicas rendered in plastic,
there, where the tail wags the sea-dog something fantastic,
will they witness our bathtub-ring finish, from space?
The face—if it’s face—turns to the observable; a purl of blue,
a dusky scratch, a naked singularity cast in a font 10 million years gone;
still, the unmistakable signature of the presence of absence;
past the moon named Egg and the moon named Eggshell,
a crack in the well of the night, hydromantic and, perhaps,
just bright enough for you to find us
humble telescope,
find us

 

*

 

all from Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom (42 Miles Press, 2014)—pages 16, 20, 42 and 52

 

 


Interrobang: An Interview with Jessica Piazza

 

Jessica Piazza_InterrobangClick here to view my review of Interrobang.

Jessica Piazza’s first full-length collection, Interrobang, was published by Red Hen Press in September 2013 and was the recipient of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize. Poems in this collection appeared in such places as 42 Opus, Anti-, Indiana Review, The New Orleans Review, No Tell Motel, The Offending Adam and Rattle. In the following interview, I discuss with Jessica her thoughts on her personal writing habits, the process behind Interrobang, and what she is working on now.

MLT: Hi Jessica! Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview! There have been a few questions that have been stirring around in my mind about craft and the realization of this book, ever since I first read Interrobang.

JP: Hi McKenzie! Thanks for reading Interrobang and reviewing it in the first place. Happy to answer any questions you have.

MLT: Just to jump right in, what type of environment do you need to write?

JP: I worry less about my external environment than my internal environment. Meaning, I can write anywhere when I get the bug. The issue for me is finding a project to obsess about so I can really dig in!

MLT: Who are some of your favorite writers?

JP: Wow. The big question, right? Too big, maybe. As for poetry, I can say Millay, Eliot, Shakespeare. I can go contemporary and say Siken, Donnelly, Kalytiak Davis. I could name my startlingly talented friends: Essbaum, Lindenberg, Cantwell, Johnson, Rivkin, O’Neill, Todd and more. And I could go nuts naming fiction writers, too. But the truth is, my favorite writer is whichever writer I’m reading at the moment who is moving me. I have a terrible, horrible memory, and while I remember loving authors I have a really hard time remembering individual books and poems. So I’ve learned to really embrace the wonderful things I have in front of me at any given moment, and try to be inspired as often as possible.

MLT: What was your inspiration for this collection—writers, places, events, songs, etc.?

JP: My inspiration for Interrobang was my own issues with anxiety, first and foremost. The collection started with the phobias because I was exploring issues of fear and how far those fears dig into a person’s psyche and life. The philias angle came about organically when I realized how much love/lust and fear are connected. I wrote my first phobia poem after having a panic attack while trying to spelunk for the first time. Sigh. That wasn’t meant to be.

As far as my form and language, I had a ton of inspirations. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for sure—in sound if not content. Through both her work and her friendship, Jill Alexander Essbaum taught me not to be afraid of being myself in my writing, even if that’s over the top.

I usually don’t write to music, but PJ Harvey’s Stories from the city, stories from the sea definitely inspired me in this collection, too.

MLT: How long did you work on this collection?

JP: Hard question to answer, actually! I figured out the actual form I wanted the collection to take about six years ago, when I wrote the first poem that actually took a phobia as its title. (That was “Eremophpobia,” if anyone’s curious!) But some of the poems in here are revisions of poems originally written more than a decade ago. And some I wrote right before I started sending the book out. So it’s been a long haul!

MLT: I have a small background in Psychology and so was extremely fascinated by the use of the Phobia and the Philia. How did you start that project? Did you write a few poems and realized there was a larger project to be had, or did you always know this was going to be a larger project?

JP: As I said, my own anxiety was definitely a springboard. As soon as I started exploring lists of phobias and philias I knew I would be using them as inspiration somehow. However, when I started writing poems using those lists I figured the project would be a chapbook at most. I didn’t think I could sustain the conceit over a whole book, but boy was I wrong. I got deeper and deeper into it and I couldn’t make myself stop. I went back to old poems I wasn’t quite happy with and realized they were all coming from this similar place that fit exactly into the phobia/philia motif, and revised accordingly. It all just came together and became sort of behemoth.

MLT: Another point of interest to me was the use of the sonnet form. Did these poems begin as sonnets, or did they evolve into the form? How did you decide to structure this collection (which is filled with contemporary, psychologically-driven ideas) with a more traditional design?

JP: When I began writing the poems using the phobia/philia conceit, yes, those were sonnets. (As I said, some were later revised into sonnets when I knew they would work for the book.) But I find sonnets very soothing. In fact, it’s potentially annoying for me to say this but they come easily to me; far easier than free verse. I knew I was excited about this phobia and philia conceit and I knew that I had so much internal energy building about the project and so much to say in every piece. I really thought that the sonnet form would be perfect for this—it was a way to contain the vastness and vitality of the theme. A few of the poems truly didn’t feel like sonnets to me, though, so I searched for other forms that felt more approprioate. I have a tanka in there, for example, and a poem in terza rima and some Sapphic verse. And heresyphilia—love of radical deviation—is a prose poem for obvious reasons!

MLT: I’ve always been fascinated by how writers order their poems, and their personal process in making those decisions. How did you order your poems, or decide on where to place the “non”-phobia-and-philia poems?

JP: Ordering poems was a dilemma for me in this book. Well, except for the three mini sonnet crowns—I knew those would go in the beginning, middle and end of the book, and I knew their order because it felt like they created a little narrative: the woman in the fucked-up relationship, the woman trying to find herself and walk away and the woman who was learning to celebrate herself despite what others thought. I think those created a little mini-collection that spoke to, but was not directly part of, the phobia and philia project. It was the phobias and philias themselves that were hard to place because I don’t think they tell a story, but instead work as little snapshots into deeper and more complex (and ultimately not necessarily connected) lives. So I’ll be honest—I winged it. I tried to mix up poems in the two sections so each had some family-themed ones, some romantic relationship ones and some more general or contemplative poems, but all in all it was pretty random. Except the very first poem in the book, that is. “Melophobia: fear of music.” In a collection that relies so much on sound and voice, I felt like that had to come first. And the last phobia/philia poem, “Kakorrhaphiophobia: fear of failure,” ended the collection for a similar reason: very few of us leave a project satisfied that it will find its true place in the world. So I ended on that note.

MLT: What are you working on now? Anything new we should be on the lookout for (publications, etc.)? What do some of your new poems focus on? How do you think your next collection might compare thematically to this one?

JP: Thank you for asking, and yes! I have a chapbook available for order now from Black Lawrence Press called This is not a sky. It’s all ekphrastic poems that consider very famous paintings. I think some of the writing in there is my best work ever. They aren’t formal poems, either, though they use soundplay and the conventions of form in specific and, I think, explosive ways. Like Interrobang, This is not a sky has an obsessive edge, and it delves into desire and fear and death. (I can’t seem to get away from those in my work!) It’s available here.

I also have a book of erasure poems coming out at some point with Red Hen Press called Obliterations. It’s co-written with Heather Aimee O’Neill, and we did side-by-side erasures of New York Times articles. It was a really fun project, and especially so because the results weren’t at all like the poems I write without the constraints of the erasure form. In the end, it was pretty amazing to see how one article can yield two such very different poems each time!

MLT: Wow! These new projects sounds incredible! I know I’ll certainly be on the lookout for them. And thank you again, Jessica, for taking the time to discuss Interrobang. I can certainly say that I love this collection and can’t wait to see where these next projects take you.

 

JESSICA PIAZZA is the author of two full-length poetry collections published by Red Hen Press: Interrobang (winner of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize) and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O’Neill, forthcoming), as well as This is not a sky (a chapbook from Black Lawrence Press). She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and is currently a contributing editor for The Offending Adam and a screener for the National Poetry Series. Her commitment to fostering writing communities wherever she lives led her to co-found Bat City Review in Austin, TX, Gold Line Press in Los Angeles, and Speakeasy Poetry Series in New York City. She currently teaches for the Writing Program at USC and the online MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. You can learn more at www.jessicapiazza.com.

 

 


Transforming Her Power, Her Beauty, Her Image: Reading Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem

 

Rebecca Hains_The Princess ProblemIt’s September, and in a matter of weeks, my first daughter will be born. In a rush of summer cleaning and nesting, reading parenting books and planning-planning-planning, I have also found myself searching for books to begin my daughter’s library, as well as books and resources that may assist in raising my daughter in the best way possible in the midst of today’s expectations. I wish I only meant researching the best schools and starting a college fund; but, unfortunately, what I’m researching extends into far more personal territory: how my daughter will potentially measure her self-worth . . . and even how she may measure others’.

Dr. Rebecca Hains, author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years, offers a thorough and insightful text which presents research surrounding the princess mentality that has infiltrated our culture; the pleasures and problems this mentality presents; and how we as parents, guardians, and mentors can teach our children to better navigate and overcome the shortcomings of this mentality, without completely dismissing the fun of princessdom.

The book is systematically divided into two parts. The first focuses on Dr. Hains’ research methods surrounding the princess problem, as well as background and summative information in support of why this mentality is problematic and how we can begin thinking of correcting it. The second part breaks the princess problem down into subcategories, unpacks their meaning and role within the problem, and presents subcategory-specific solutions.

I was drawn to this text originally for a variety of reasons—being a declared feminist, having a background in Gender and Women’s Studies and Psychology, being a soon-to-be-mother (of a daughter, no less), and having my particular background as an onlooker (to friends raising their daughters)—but I was also interested in what it could teach me about what I did not experience as a child. While I have certainly witnessed the princess obsession that now appears to enslave childhood, I was not in the least way interested in dolls, Barbie or princesses; in fact, whenever I was given one, or given a gift that was glaringly pink, it often would remain in its original package or stored away on some unreachable shelf in my bedroom. Instead, I played with dinosaurs. And Hot Wheels cars. And more dinosaurs (Jurassic Park was huge when I was little and was the first movie I ever saw in theatres, so that ended up being more of my obsession). I guess I saw dolls and their equivalents as boring; there wasn’t all that much to do with them but dress and undress them, and playing dress-up was a hassle, not a joy. I wanted to run around outside, roll in the mud, and come back inside to scatter my cars and dinosaurs all over the room. I wanted to play with blocks and build things in kindergarten with the boys. And I wasn’t interested in all the mean things the girls said or the jewelry they played with at recess; I wanted and found kindness, comradery, and a healthy level of competition running around with the boys instead.

Perhaps “obviously” this led to problems in my relationships with other girls and my willingness to confide in them later on; dealing with boys was so much easier. What’s interesting, though, is that this all so largely stems from those earlier desires: I chose to play with dinosaurs and cars instead of dolls and clothing, which impacted who I played with and how I played, which led to potentially-different relationship and gender development. I witnessed a glaring princess obsession in other girls (though, I did not note it as a “princess obsession” at the time but, rather, noted their excessive pink clothes, jewelry, make-up and fascination with boys) and also made note of how those girls were treated differently than the girls who were more like me. Looking back, there was a hierarchy to navigate. By living outside of the princess obsession, I was able to progress in ways dissimilar from the other girls, focusing far less on appearance and romantic relations with boys (I didn’t fantasize about getting married until my husband proposed, and I didn’t worry about my appearance until midway through high school), though I did feel like an outcast and was largely shunned by those around me for being different, and still feel this shunning in other settings to this day.

I bring this up, because so much of this seems to correlate with the princess problem and our culture’s princess mentality. The subcategories of the princess problem include a fixation on romance and physical (outward) beauty, a lack of realistic gender and racial diversity and representation, as well as the overwhelming obstacle that is childhood marketing (toys, clothing, snacks, etc.). When considered from a psychological and sociological standpoint, this combination of shortcomings may dictate to young girls who they should be (in the sense of appearance and beauty), what they should do (by way of career) and who they should have relations with (emphasizing, often, popularity and romantic relationships of limited means). To look at this from a broader standpoint, much of what is presented by this princess mentality attempts to teach our girls what it means to be a girl, what she should value, and how she should measure others’ success as individuals and members of our society. Looking back on the girls who I grew up with and their behavior, I can see how their involvement with princesses and other-girl specified items (as well as how they were raised to view themselves as princesses, or were encouraged to view themselves as ‘of a higher variety’) might have influenced them, their behavior and their decisions. If less time had been spent on fairy tales, make-up and valuing outwardly-assets, as opposed to developing deeper and more meaningful relationships, these girls potentially would have been much more open-minded about who they could and would interact with, which very well may have impacted their later personalities and decisions.

I’m really not here to demonize girlie toys, make-up, princesses, or the color pink; nor do I feel that this is the goal of The Princess Problem. Though playing dress-up and wearing make-up and playing with dolls were not my first choices of entertainment, I have had enough friends over the years, watched enough family members get ready for going out and have babysat enough children to understand the appeal of these activities. I will even go so far as to say that I can see their merits, despite their potential limitations. Like many other things that we present to our children—perhaps questionable television, or video games, or even just spending too much time indoors—there are ways of striking a balance. I believe, as Dr. Hains does, that allowing our children to be exposed (at least somewhat) to the princess mentality not only presents us with teachable moments, in which we may teach our daughters (and sons) greater critical thinking skills, as well as methods of further navigating the media, but we can also fixate more so on those areas of princessdom that are actually of higher quality—as love, generosity, and giving of the self should not be viewed as negative attributes, assuming these are given willingly and for the right reasons, and to the right people (which could easily be discussed, and even debated, in some of our princess films).

This relates specifically to Dr. Hains’ central idea and solution against the negative aspects of princess mentality—that is, our ability to better-navigate, critique and use the media, our pop culture, and even the deviations between the values presented by the princess mentality and our current cultural ideals. Dr. Hains refers to parents, guardians and mentors as “pop culture coaches,” who are able to look at the stories and films presented to our children, as well as the items sold to our children (and what they suggest about a child’s ideal behavior), and the values and goals that are suggested by these products—and teach our children how to look at all of these things with a critical eye, question their merit, and adjust their acceptance of the products and their messages based on the values and perspectives preserved in their own home. These are abilities that can only strengthen our children’s later critical thinking skills, and it gives them the opportunity to begin questioning moral ambiguity, as well as seeing the “gray” in what the media often tries to present as “black and white”. In addition to her unpacking of the subcategories of the princess problem in Part 2, Dr. Hains also unpacks potential solutions for each of these subs (for girls and boys), and she also has a variety of tools and resources available on her website, which include parent-child discussion guides for each of the Disney princess films, as well as pop culture coaching tips for beyond the princess problem, which includes other areas of media-fixation.

Being a soon-to-be mother and having the academic background that I have, I cannot recommend this book and its supplemental resources enough. There are obviously potential social and psychological problems that can arise from presenting princess stories (and their equivalents) to our children; but because of the overwhelming presence of princesses in our culture, our children will be exposed to these stories whether or not we are the ones who share them: in their schools, when with friends, by their friends’ parents, etc. So in the long run, then, it seems to me that it would be better to somewhat-expose my children to these ideas, but only alongside the appropriate critical thinking skills. I do not mind the idea of my children enjoying a story if they can also point out its specific merits, why they like it, and where it might fall short. If they have a clear understanding of how beauty is over-emphasized, how gender and race need better and more-frequent representation, and that being a princess is not everything, then that opens the door to sharing with them the actual merits of these stories: overwhelming love, a positive relationship with nature (that’s always been my favorite part about princess tales—wanting to sing with birds and clean my home with a whole herd of forest friends), having confidence in personal beauty (though, again, striking that balance!), as well as love and respect that are at times awarded and valued between the princess and supporting characters. I love this idea of being able to share this large aspect of our culture with my daughter, while also seeing her as able to move beyond it and find empowerment despite her involvement with it—measuring her success in actual successes, rather than in beauty and popularity and the like. That, to me, is beautiful: that possible middle-ground of embracing something so large from our culture, but also challenging it and moving beyond its limitations.

 

DR. REBECCA HAINS is a children’s media culture expert. She is a professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University in Salem, Mass., where she is affiliated with the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies. Her research focuses on girls, women, and media. She is the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years (Sourcebooks, 2014) and Growing Up with Girl Power: Girlhood on Screen and in Everyday Life (Peter Lang Press, 2012). She has published essays in various scholarly anthologies and peer-reviewed journals, including Popular Communications and The International Journal of Girlhood Studies. She is currently working on an anthology called Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Imaginations and Identities (co-edited with Miriam Forman-Brunell).

 

 


[Spoilers] It was Awesome!: The First Edition of Playground Ink

 

I am always so impressed at how talented my friends are. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first edition of WMU’s new student organization of playwrights, actors, directors, and other theatre artists, Playground Ink, has been running its first set of plays for the past two weeks, with the final of four shows produced today. WMU Playwriting MFA-candidates Cara Beth Heath and Jeremy Llorence presented new one-act plays, which I’ve included synopses (no spoilers) for below.

Cara Beth’s one-act play, “On Age, Aimlessness, and USB Ports,” emphasizes our over-involvement with, and extreme reliance on, the technology we use—particularly, our smartphones (for those of us who use one). The play centers on the very well put-together Alison, who is trying to plan a (very lovely) lecture, the frazzled undergraduate student Sage, who is trying to use Google Maps to find a building on campus . . . and Sage’s smartphone, who apparently can do next to anything but load Google Maps today—and who also tremendously enjoys launching into song in response to, really, any key words (just think about the potential there for a minute, okay?). Through hilarious antics of cueing music, changing languages, and seeming to have a mind of her own (as our smartphones sometimes seem to), Sage’s Phone reminds us of the side-splitting results of our over-involvement with technology, while Alison challenges us to rely more heavily on our own abilities, our minds, and leave technology for the harder stuff. Though light and comical, this was a very smart, very well-written, even poetic-in-places, play.

Then, to following up with a more somber tone, Jeremy’s one-act play, “This Place is Death,” explores drug addiction and getting clean. Using this as a foundation, his characters then muddle through the difference between drug administration for the purpose of fulfilling addiction and the administration of “medication” (still drugs) to cure addiction. Through the always-beautiful split-scene technique, we watch as Tank moves between being administered a brand-new, not-yet-FDA-approved medication that is supposed to cure him of addiction without any of the nasty withdrawal side-effects and his existence on the streets with his similarly-addicted friend, Cliff. As the play continues, we are reminded of the importance of motivation and how having an agenda can later destroy our careers, our families, our goals, even our lives as a whole. A dark play, to say the least, but one that is extremely thought-provoking and feeling and leaves us wondering about the differences between drugs and medication, who is administering them and why, and what implications that may carry for us personally.

Both of these plays were spot-on, intelligent and thought-provoking; and it was such a beautiful day to see them done. I absolutely cannot wait until the next edition (coming at the end of September)!

Again, if you’re interested in getting involved, please read the program information I’ve included below this nifty image gallery; it includes a little info about the organization, who to contact to get involved, and where you can get more information!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

And here is the info from the program, in case you can’t read the picture!

PLAYGROUND INK

 

ON AGE, AIMLESSNESS, AND USB PORTS

Written by Cara Beth Heath
Directed by Alex Langmesser

Dramaturg—Nick Thorton
Alison—Marissa Harrington
Sage—Sarah West
Sage’s Phone—Emily Mckay

 

THIS PLACE IS DEATH

Written by Jeremy Llorence
Directed by Phil Vasquez

Allison—Anica Garcia-DeGraff
Tank—Micah Hazel
Jasmine—Sarah West
Cliff—Aaron Rutherford

 

Special thanks to Steve Feffer

 

Playground Ink is a Registered Student Organization dedicated to collaboration between WMU writers and theatre artists. If you would like to get involved, please send an email to jeremy.j.llorence@wmich.edu and caroline.e.heath@wmich.edu. You may also check us out on Facebook.

 

 


“Failing” in the August 2014 Poetry Postcard Challenge: My Writing Process

 

The rules of a Writing Challenge are never all that difficult: “Do [this] for [a certain number of days], and hold yourself accountable.”

“If you are able to complete the challenge, reward yourself in self-appreciation, cookies, sending your work out, or other such pleasantries.”

“If you are unable to meet the requirements of the challenge, or miss a few days, don’t feel bad. These challenges are difficult, as is bringing ourselves to write on a daily basis (as most of these challenges require). Consider where you went wrong, and improve these areas for future challenges.”

Seems easy. Straight-forward. Simple.

However, how do we really measure whether or not we’ve successfully completed a challenge, or failed? Is it really as black-and-white as “if you’ve fulfilled all the requirements, you’ve won”? Or should we break this down further into “Well, I didn’t really like what I wrote during the challenge, but I at least pushed myself to complete the challenge!” and / or “No, I didn’t write every. single. day., but I loved what I wrote and intend to revise it and am genuinely happy with my performance!” How do we measure success?

I think what it may come down to is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic values—the difference between personal gains and the appearance of gains, or success. If one chooses to complete a writing challenge to fulfill the appearance of writing on a daily basis, then the entire focus will be on the quantity: whether or not the writer manages to write a poem per day, and post them. However, if one chooses to complete a writing challenge to learn something (whether about writing poems, or their writing process, or to reflect on a larger project, etc), then fulfilling the requirements of the challenge consistently become more of a “bonus,” rather than a requirement. The appearance of writing regularly and writing well, as opposed to the learning process and personal gains of writing, goes out the window.

I’m not trying to be deceitful and dance around the fact that I didn’t “complete” the challenge. I didn’t complete the challenge. There was one day that I missed fairly early on, and I simply had other things to do in the last few days of August. But I had fun, and I wrote poems that I want to revise and that I feel (for the most part, with just a few exceptions) that these could be strong, future contenders for my first full-length manuscript. These poems also got me thinking about other writing projects I could get myself into, and they really centered me as far as what I want my full-length manuscript to be, which earlier in the summer had been undecided. Even if there are not thirty-one poems to present here, they taught me a lot, and I don’t regret them—and I don’t regret the few that didn’t make it to the page for a challenge’s sake (which is certainly not to minimize the importance and place of a writing challenge, but only to suggest that there are times when breaking the rules are better than fulfilling requirements).

August was quite the month, and the Poetry Postcard Fest was quite the challenge; I imagine I’ll probably do it again next year and will aim to actually write a poem on a daily basis—but in the hopes that I will learn as much, and feel as confident about, those poems as I have felt about these.

 

August 2014 Postcard Project

 

 


The Surrealist and Bodily Nature of Grief: Reading Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating

 

Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating Even when you read regularly, it takes time to find something truly great; but every once in a while, there will be a book, a poem, a story, that truly turns you on your heel, holds you in place, and keeps you loving, recommending and discussing that piece for months. Though first described to me as “a great summer read” and “something good to take to the beach,” Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating was precisely that piece I needed to improve my summer—and not just by giving me a book to read under an umbrella next to the waves.

Sia Dane’s personal story, at first glance, may appear to be a simple one: a woman well-defined and independent in her writing life and her marriage to her husband, Jack, and then grief-stricken and unable to write upon his disappearance one year before the opening of the novel. This, in and of itself, may suggest a straight-forward story of grief, whether or not beautifully-written. Even with the addition of a strange man on the beach, who Sia discovers early in the morning, would support this story-arch, perhaps with the inclusion of a romantic turn (which would fulfill that “take it to the beach” mantra). However, even if this is how Sia Dane’s story begins, it is hardly conclusive or summative, and we end in a very different place than we might have guessed.

What is so beautiful, haunting, and even bewildering, about this novel is the way in which Bair O’Keeffe can first introduce us to a story we think we know, and twist it into something symbolic, surreal and highly-bodily, which immediately removes The Art of Floating from the common “beach read” section and propels it to the realm of literary fiction—and presents it as a gorgeous example of literary fiction, at that.

When I was first introduced to this title, I did the unthinkable thing—something that I am very guilty of doing on a regular basis, despite my extreme dislike for spoilers: I read the back cover. And I knew, deep in my gut (perhaps in the same place where Sia finds her flopping fish), that this book was different. In the first line of the synopsis, it summarizes, “When her beloved husband, Jackson, disappeared without a trace, popular novelist Sia Dane stopped writing, closed down her house, stuffed her heart into a cage, and started floating.” I read that line over and over, gushing with excitement, at the sheer potential of the novel being refreshing and different. When the book arrived at my home, I wanted so badly to break the reading order of books I had “scheduled” before this one, but I held my ground, clenched my teeth, and waited until it was Bair O’Keeffe’s turn—and, boy, was it worth the wait.

It was more than I could have bargained for, expected, or dreamed of. The events detailed on the back cover do indeed happen, for real, within the context of this novel. This reality is created and made acceptable—made beautiful and strange and heart-felt—within the first several pages of the book, when Sia discovers the man on the beach (who she names “Toad”) and feels a literal wave of his sadness enter her body—as well as a large, flopping fish in her stomach, which she feels move whenever she feels empathy for another person. Obviously, this is outside the operational realm of our bodies and the abilities of them; but that, in the end, is what makes these surreal moves so beautiful and true, when we are given that image that is, at once, strange and capable of retelling those emotions that we otherwise feel are beyond the reach of description. In their surreal nature, they apply truth.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s novel, The Art of Floating, is too entirely beautiful to reduce to “a great summer read” or “something good to take to the beach.” Though I did read this over the summer, and while the book did make an appearance at a water park, it was not read in that time or place out of simplicity or lack of expectation. Rather, reading that back cover pushed my expectations to a higher level, where I wanted strangeness and originality and literary-ness to thrive. And it did. This is one of the most gorgeous and emotionally-demanding novels that I have read in years, and it tackles the duality of the lost and found with renewed fervor and poignancy I haven’t seen in fiction—“women’s” or not—for quite some time. Not only does this novel require that you open yourself to a wide range of emotions, but it demands you to open your mind to the unusual physicality of these emotions, their shift in physics, even; and it even projects into you those emotions you’re seeing and feeling on the page—the frustration and need for patience with the Dogcatcher and the therapist, the split between being happy and appalled by Jilly, the love and pain felt for Jackson and Toad . . . and the possibilities, the range of emotions and reactions, continue.

When it really comes down to it, this is such a deep and well-thought-out examination of how we grieve and love and relate to one another. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect this much from one novel, to want a book to meet so many demands, effectively, between a pair of covers—but I feel it’s all been done here; and I know when I read it again, I’ll feel the same way . . . and the surprises will keep coming.

 

KRISTIN BAIR O’KEEFFE is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin/Berkley, April 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Baltimore Review, The Christian Science Monitor,HYPERtext, and Bluestem. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. In late 2010, after nearly five years in Shanghai, China, she repatriated to the United States and now lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter.