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.

 

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

 


Poetic Advice from a Mother to a Mother-to-Be: Reading Molly Sutton Kiefer’s Nestuary

 

Molly Sutton Kiefer_NestuaryThe past thirty-five weeks have not been easy. The actual progression of pregnancy, and the preparations needed for the child once she is born, should be viewed (in my opinion, at least) as two distinct acts that happen to be occurring at the same time. First, there are the physical and emotional demands of the pregnancy itself: the bodily changes, the exhaustion, and the things they don’t necessarily warn you about (such as the trialed attempts at becoming pregnant, prenatal depression and pregnancy gingivitis). Then, there’s the endless list of preparations: creating a nursery, baby-proofing the home, finding places for all of the new baby-things, and the absolute emotional severity of nesting. This is hardly an exhaustive list of these two “acts,” but I hope it can be assumed that a journey such as this one is difficult and requires support from many, many people, even when that means turning to writers for solace and advice—and I don’t just mean the editor of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. When I first came across Molly Sutton Kiefer’s Nestuary, and read from Arielle Greenberg’s review— “Nestuary is a compelling document of the alchemical nature of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and becoming a mother. . .These ‘little needle songs’ of violence, love, illness and power are. . .sung urgently and out of order, as they should be”—I knew this was a must-read. This concept of pregnancy being perpetually “[urgent] and out of order”, as well as involving “violence, love, illness, and power”, screamed of truth to me, and I was confident that, in reading Kiefer’s lyric essay, I might find community.

After reading Nestuary, I can tell you, this expectation was beyond-true.

Molly Sutton Kiefer’s lyric essay, Nestuary, is divided into three distinct sections: the first, attempting to become pregnant; the second, discovering one is pregnant and going through the pregnancy and birth; and the third, reflecting on the birth, the early years of child-rearing and becoming pregnant again. There are certainly overlaps between these sections, as well as acts of hindsight, as Greenberg suggested, though this is the relative arch of the piece, taking us through the attempt, the pregnancy, and the motherhood. I found myself becoming more and more emotionally-twined into this piece, as so many of the occurrences related to my own: the difficulties involved in becoming pregnant in the first place, and then many of the hardships that can occur (physically and emotionally) throughout the arch of the pregnancy, as well as even (out of anticipation) how some of her mothering experiences either calm or fuel my own anxieties and excitement at finally holding and raising my child.

However, even for women who have a very different pregnancy from Kiefer, or view breastfeeding and motherhood differently, there is still plenty of room for relating to her experiences and opinions, as the larger themes of the essay relate to the beauty and hardships involved in any pregnancy, the launching into the unknown of the childbirth and beginnings of motherhood. These are concepts that, no matter how difficult or easy-going the pregnancy or the act of becoming pregnant may be, every mother will face: questions and expectations of her role as mother, questions about the baby; the list goes on. This significant shift in societal and domestic role as mother is, without a doubt, glaring in Kiefer’s essay, as we all have to make a quick and full transition during the course of our pregnancy and, suddenly, at the arrival of our children.

In a matter of ninety-seven pages, Kiefer takes us through her harrowing journey of pregnancy attempts and going through pregnancy, as well as the after-life of raising a child and bearing another. Its language waxes poetic for much of the piece (which I love and feel should be freely pursued in the context of this form); but it also functions beautifully as a lyric essay, as it contains, both, a personal narrative and research of some of the older myths surrounding pregnancy and birth. Revealing and lovely, hopeful and brutally-honest, Nestuary becomes a story and an informant for any to-be mother as it unravels socially-accepted beliefs (new and old) and presents a very-personal, very-individualistic story of one woman’s journey through pregnancy and the early years of child-rearing. The further I waded into the complexities of this tale, of the myths, of the specifics, the more I knew that I needed to keep reading, that I had found a common-ground with another writer, and that, all-in-all, these fears and perceived short-comings throughout my own pregnancy were okay. They were normal, and could be learned from, and will be grown from. Reading a parenting guide or a series of articles online about the importance of raising a child this way, or the educational implications of that, will not tell you so much about the hard stuff, or the truth behind all of the “beauty” of pregnancy and motherhood, or the emotional hardships of all of these changes. As a new mother, you’re expected to simply know these things, to move forward gracefully; and there are unwritten social implications for those women who struggle to do so. An essay like Nestuary teaches you, informs you, and comforts you that this simply isn’t the case, that this isn’t easy, and that you won’t be perfect—and that’s okay. After thirty-five weeks, I needed to hear that. Before my daughter is born, I need to hear that. And while I am raising her, and learning the ropes, I’ll need to remember that. Molly Sutton Kiefer created a safe environment for a new, excited, and worried mother like me, laying all the truths out for me to see, rather than covering them up in baby powder and make-up and beautiful after-birth photographs hung throughout a house. She offered that community I needed, and I expect, between this essay and her continued endeavors, that she’ll be providing this same service to many women, and that I’ll continue to recommend her work. From one writer to another.

 

MOLLY SUTTON KIEFER is the author of the poetry chapbooks, City of Bears (dancing girl press, 2013) and The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake (Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press, 2010). She is poetry editor for Midway Journal and runs Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts | An Interview Project. She lives in Minnesota with her family. You can see more about Nestuary here.

 

 


The Phobia, the Philia, and the Altered Persona: Reading Jessica Piazza’s Interrobang

 

Jessica Piazza_InterrobangClick here to view my follow-up interview with Jessica Piazza!

Jessica Piazza’s debut full-length poetry collection, Interrobang, is all at once lovely, inquisitive and complex. I found myself startled by the constant alteration of the persona; the interjection of the phobia and the philia as a backdrop for the persona’s transformation; and Piazza’s mastery of the sonnet form, employed in most of these poems. It was a pleasant deviation by way of theme and form.

Before fully launching into my review of Interrobang, I’d like to share one of my favorite poems from the collection, “The Prolific,” which I will then return to throughout my discussion of the collection.

 

THE PROLIFIC

 

The red, the blue, the streak of orange stripe—
they’re everywhere; so, too, are sound and scent
and still, if all were still the air would pipe
its tactile breath nonstop like bakeries’ bent
street fans wafting out exhaust of bread at us
each morning, as we passed on 23rd.
He’d tell me less is more. I’d say: I’ve heard.
But I’d want more; felt there was more of less
for me those days than more of more. The swirl
of world went on, but at the center of
this narcissistic universe: one girl,
dead-stopped. Red cup. Blue shirt. I moved
my hand through orange streaks of hair—a shift
in space that couldn’t rift. My eye bereft.

In space that cannot rift, the eye’s bereft
of stimuli. A boy was here, but left
an empty seat. I can’t just stare at space
that once was filled and not perceive the trace
of stirring lingering. That boy. We walked
down 23rd a lot, and talked, and smoked
and looked at all there was to see, the more
of street urbanity. We walked the floor
of gum coating the ground, built toss by toss;
the buildings that had sacrificed their gloss
to sheets of smog. It calmed me: a world built
of what’s beneath it, never done, the silt
foot-pounded down by countless hurried feet.
He couldn’t love it. It was not complete.

He couldn’t love me—I was not complete
the way his wishful eye completed me,
subtracting toward an ideal sum. I’d see
myself lost part by part: white neck, large feet,
wild hair—erased—a disappearing hand
pressed lightly to transparent collarbones.
He wished for tides, forgot they caused sea stones
to wane and yield. But glass worn down to sand,
if not beautiful, is also not
as delicate. I couldn’t disappear
beneath his blink. Instead I found the spot
on 23rd where, when the sun struck clear
glass buildings, streets appeared to multiply.
Then a thousand of me walked away.

A thousand other men could walk away
from me a thousand times, and yet I’d pay
them hardly any mind. The only one
who matters is the one I left. He’s gone
the way a flash of bright light goes: still there
in afterimages, a shadow where
a statue stood. But 23rd Street’s full
of immigrants who see this way: the pull
of memory placing a tree where raised
wires ought to be; a river where the paved
roads actually run. And if they can erase
a city with nostalgia’s sight—replace
the truth with things they loved—I wonder what
my own imperfect eye could substitute.

My own imperfect eye is destitute
when faced with all there is to see. He’d said:
just close them, then. I said: I can’t—minute
details I missed would haunt me when I did.
But now I do. I walk down 23rd
Street blind, a movie played on loop
beneath my lids. A vast, prolific world
swells all around me, kaleidoscope
of sound and scent redoubling, but I
know nothing of it, only see in flash-
backs. Empty seat. Raised cup, a grip belied
by see-through hands. Unfinished buildings slashed
by vivid streaks of sun; a city wiped
too clean of reds, of blues, of orange stripes.

 

This poem is stunning, in the way so many of Piazza’s poems are stunning—they are imagistic, rhythmic, and (perhaps most importantly) internally aware of the changes that inhabit their space, and that inhabit the larger arch of the collection. Because of this, there is an implied conversation that occurs between these poems, drawing attention to the discrepancies that are projected onto the persona or the situation that surrounds her. These discrepancies have very little to do with unreliability or lack of attention to detail; rather, they reflect the impermanence of our humanly situations, as well as the potential falseness of our memories. Much of this collection operates around the complex concept of transformation, which opens doors to, both, longing and our own limitations.

Piazza’s poems are complex and require great and consistent effort to gain access. For instance, the first five lines of this poem operated strictly as a series of images for me—until I reached the sixth line, “each morning, as we passed on 23rd.” The simplicity of this detail, placing the persona and this male other on 23rd Street, recast that previous series of images as memories of landmarks along that stretch. This sort of shift in access to images and information is a constant, both in this poem and many others; it represents an opening up that occurs between the persona and the reader, particularly in a poem such as this one, when the final line of one sonnet is revised as the first line in the next, displaying some new truth to the story developed across the “Profilic” series.

What became the most daring and the most telling to me, however, were the lines:

                   . . . And if they can erase
a city with nostalgia’s sight—replace
the truth with things they loved—I wonder what
my own imperfect eye could substitute.

This final sentiment in the second-to-last sonnet—“I wonder what / my own imperfect eye could substitute”—seems to function as the central question in this poem, regarding the impermanence of our surroundings, the unreliability of memory, and even the concept of substitution, which may or may not work in our favor. When looking at all of these concepts, it can all be pared down to memory. What’s fascinating about memory as the central concept, here, is how the memory transforms how we view the world, and our relationship to it, and how it is always evolving:

                   . . . We walked the floor
of gum coating the ground, built toss by toss;
                   . . . It calmed me: a world built
of what’s beneath it, never done, the silt
foot-pounded down by countless hurried feet.

Though these lines are in reference to the Street itself, it also suggests something greater about memory: how our memory is hardly one large map of instances, but rather is a complex layering of references, reminders and transformed understanding. This idea relates to the larger connection, as well, and the instances in which one image transfigures into another—“a tree where raised / wires ought to be”—or is transposed onto another—“still there / in afterimages, a shadow where / a statue stood.” Both of these possibilities (though one relates specifically to the falseness of memory and the other to the afterimage, or transposing, of memory) further emphasize the impermanence of our surroundings and the longevity of memory, however untrue or changing.

Perhaps this suggests something about longing, as well. Often, in these poems, I find the use of memory and the transformation of an image, to relate specifically to a wanting back in, looking for a door that will allow us back into a shared space with a person or object, in the hope that they are the same as we left them. In the second-to-last sonnet, the persona reflects on the absence of one particular man over all others, and these reflections are recast into a meditational longing for what once was there, in the same place and in the same condition. This is a desire I believe we all experience at one time or another—a longing to return to something, or to have that something returned to us, in the here-and-now, somehow unchanged and lacking the memory of ever having been absent. A longing for a lack of change, even. However, we are constantly reminded as readers of this impossibility, due to the constant-flux that occurs in the persona, in the landscape, and in other accompanying figures. We are challenged to understand the demands of change; when one thing changes, it changes everything else, however minimally; and there is no way to regain that object in an unchanged state while remaining in our present. We have to choose; we can’t have both.

Though I have focused primarily on “The Prolific,” these sentiments of change, memory and the inclusion of the phobia and philia run deep throughout this collection. I found myself challenged—threatened, even—by the shifts imposed upon the persona and the longing that is so inherent to these poems. This collection threw me back into my own depths, my own grief and fears, and left me cycling-in-place in a way very reflective of the persona: living in the present but longing for things of the past, somehow pairing them together in my mind and losing the realities of what used to be, creating instead an ideology. Perhaps that is why the role of Phobia and the Philia became so important, so remarkable, to me; they not only worked to categorize feelings around loss and longing, but they also represented the positive-negative complication of memory. Sometimes they even functioned as a direct opposition to what is expected—dreading the good memories of something lost, and thriving on the negative, giving us reason to lessen our affection for the lost. Sometimes that’s just how grief works.

Jessica Piazza’s Interrobang is a truly-stunning collection that is, at its deepest, heartfelt and frightening to the core, in the way it opens us up and searches through our most-secret parts, our memories, our emotions. It is an emotionally-challenging collection that is imagistic and rhythmic, and it is highly unforgettable. This is a collection I’ll be thinking about for quite some time, especially as I return to some of those old, harder memories and try to transform them into something new, a poem, a piece, somewhere. The longer I think about it, the more I feel this collection expects that from me, as it will expect from others.

 

JESSICA PIAZZA was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and now lives in Los Angeles, where she has completed a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. Her chapbook, This is not a sky, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2014. You can view more about Interrobang here.

 

 


Mark Your Calendars! Playground, Ink: New to the Theatre & Playwriting Scene

 

In the two years I have lived in the Kalamazoo area, while attending Western Michigan University’s MFA program in Poetry, I have been impressed with the level of involvement that is available in the arts—from poetry and fiction readings, to playwriting productions, to plays, to community events, and more.

That being said, there is always room for improvement! Second and third year Playwriting MFA candidates, Jeremy Llorence and Cara Beth Heath, worked diligently this past academic year to establish a greater connection between WMU’s English Department and WMU’s Theatre Department, to offer playwriting students more chances to see their work put on its feet, and to offer acting students more opportunities to work directly with playwrights.

The result of all their hard work is Playground, Ink, a student organization of playwrights, actors, directors, and other theatre artists, established at WMU. Their goal is to produce several student playwrights’ work per month, including short plays and full-length readings. There will also be a final performance each year to showcase the work of those playwriting MFA and/or PhD candidates who are graduating.

The first show will take place in the upcoming two weeks, featuring original ten-minute plays by Cara Beth Heath and Jeremy Llorence, at the following times:

Thursday, 8/28/14, at 11:00pm
Saturday, 8/30/14, at 2:00pm
Thursday, 9/04/14, at 11:00pm
Saturday, 9/06/14, at 2:00pm

These shows will take place in the amphitheater by Dunbar Hall on Western Michigan University’s campus, and the event is FREE and open to the public.

Please come out and show your love, appreciation and support of the theatrical arts. Bring some friends or family members or your significant other! Playground, Ink, is looking to create the largest events possible; and that means great writing, a well-developed production, and a large audience. Looking forward to seeing you there!

STAY TUNED: Once I’ve attended, I will have a follow-up post about this opening event, as well as more information about how you can become more involved in this new organization!!

 

 


Anticipating Her Arrival

 

I have asked my husband, What do you think she will look like? He frowns, and I know there is no answer. Not right now. All I know is beauty: crows bursting from a field, a candle flame, a gust of wind after rainfall. These things are beautiful, imprinted somewhere in her face, her hands. Somehow, I know they will be, like the stars.

 

August 2014_Poem 21_Anticipating Her Arrival

 

August 21, 2014, MLT

 

 


Due Date

 

The act is violent, the tearing open, the skin. I imagine bird claws, the talons, a wind breaking open between two buildings. The mouth, agape. And the arrival. Two shadows.

 

August 2014_Poem 20_Due Date

 

August 20, 2014, MLT