Monday, July 27, 2015

book interview: little spells by jennifer k sweeney

I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?

Little Spells explores the paradoxes of fertility from the circle of self to a larger study on restraint, the creative force, not-being, and bounty making. It is both a personal and an existential meditation, calling upon myths, folklore, fairytales, and natural phenomena to explore the scope of what slim margins all life leans on, what rough spark we depend on every day to keep going. Much has been written on the ‘gates of death’ but perhaps less on what guards the ‘gates of life,’ and this collection is most concerned with threshold, potential, conjuring, from many different entry points to speak more universally about how we become and how we endure a stalled narrative. It is the poetry of dark beginnings, of waiting, being suspended at the crossing; the work of everyday magic, loss, and bounty.

How did you come upon the subject of your book?

I wrote this book during a six year period defined by desire, rootlessness, and deep quiet in my life. I lived in San Francisco and Michigan and then LA’s inland desert, I was very much wanting to have a baby and that had become nearly impossible though through great struggle, it did finally happen. I didn’t want to write about the difficulty of that, didn’t want that to be my narrative, but eventually it did present a certain narrative, and I wrote around it and into it and beyond it. I wrote with directness into the silence of infertility that is often treated cryptically in literature or with blame and lack toward women. I wanted to humanize this and demystify it, but I did not want the reach of the book to be limited to my experience. Drawing on myth, medicine, fairytale, were all ways in and ways leading out of the dark forest. Subject for this book is so personal, and yet through writing, the gravity of that was also transformed.

And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?

“Little Spells” was one of the last poems I wrote for the book. I think many books are led by a tremendous “what’s-at-stake” energy, a guiding force that is so engrained in the poet, she sometimes takes it for granted and doesn’t actually write THAT poem. Finally, this integral missing piece poem tumbled out, the previous flailing titles fell away, and the book landed into place. What I most wanted the title to suggest were the spells that ferry us over the daily crossing by our own personal magic. Mundane, necessary, ordinary, saving magic.

Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.

It was difficult to live this story, and it was difficult to pull myself out of the sustained and blurry grief of it, and locate art, make art that had a lasting impulse. Process involved a great deal of chaff. The circle of self was so tightly coiled; writing was a continual crowbar creaking it open and it was raw, uncomfortable, risky, and essential.

And the most pleasurable?

When I first began writing seriously fifteen years ago, I noticed a tendency in my poems toward the urge for disappearance—something Jane Hirshfield and Sandra Alcosser have also alluded to in their early writing lives (why did I feel like nothing? why was I continually led back to vacancy, disappearance, self-erasure?)—I think many of us have written ourselves out of that adolescent-sprung place into being, perhaps one of the initial impulses behind the act. Conversely, in this third book, I felt the quality of disappearance in my own life as I struggled with the repeated intention: mother, and the repeated answer: not-mother. I felt my 30s drifting past me, my sense of home kept shifting, but this time the poems sent the golden feather down to the well and continually resisted that sway toward plunge and hollow. Was this pleasure? Yes, resistance and willfulness as a kind of pleasure.

What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?

Best: Not writing but applied to writing: living in San Francisco in my 20s, I threw myself into an intense Zen study. The Zen teacher sat across from me one day and said plainly, “Don’t try too hard to be good at Zen,” and left the room. This was somewhat lost on me at the time, dutiful student of everything. But I get it now. Let the effort be natural. Don’t push too much. Live the curious, messy, sensing-feeling poet’s life. Enjoy that.

Worst: Never write about childhood.

Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.

So many! But I would love to swoon about Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford. This is also a book about dark beginnings as she writes about her daughter born prematurely and struggling toward health alongside others in the tenuous and often terrifying NICU.  That fragility and intimacy is positioned against the public as the second half of Blood Lyrics addresses war, violence, and torture. Both subjects seem extraordinarily difficult to write about, yet Katie Ford is so deft, restrained when restrained, fierce when not, the poems are nuanced, surprising, and musical.  To plea for a baby’s life alongside her, then to weep for a people ravaged by violence, these are poems that mean and matter. I so admire this collection, what she accomplishes and how she does it.

What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)

--Can you discuss the process for one of the poems in the book?

I have a section-long poem called Still Life With Egg that is a variation on a heroic sonnet crown—a series of fourteen linked sonnets such that the whole is its own “expanded sonnet.” That is where the writing landed but it’s not what I set out to do.  I was led in quietly, a fragmented nudge into egg as both artist and art object. Then came nest, clock, hollow, return, thought, source.  After each one, it wasn’t done with me. This was one of the most harmonious memories I have of writing, calmly sitting with a week off and nowhere to go thinking, well then I will write another, which is to say it was much more like listening, and that is how I know I am really in. First I realized I had written a series of twelve which was cute, my little dozen, but then there was another and finally one more.  They were all about the same brief length, and I began working with form as I revised, and a loose kind of sonnet-shape/sense emerged and then as a whole, “the crown.”  This was one of the first poems I wrote for this manuscript and it ended up being oddly prophetic—what was the fascination with eggs?—when the struggle to conceive one viable egg of my own was waiting for me in the future. I feel as if I have been having the egg dialogue both consciously and unconsciously for about ten years.

Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.


to move backward in time
a slow motion unbraiding

of threads and language
receding toward mother and beyond mother
seed return to cloud, cloud return to sea

tides collapse in gradients of dark
to search blindly in the earth

a downward push toward the question
of water, the numbers fall off the clock

and become a trail of footsteps in the desert
I read all my books backward
until there is only salt in my mouth

I wake up and find the origin
is not where I left it

OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?

Here is the page for Little Spells at New Issues Press with blurb comments, sample poem, bio, and links to buy directly from the press, or from SPD, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

Thank you!

Friday, July 24, 2015

book rec: confluence

If you'd like to send in your own rec, head on over to the submissions page.

It's really incredible how quickly the poems in Sandra Marchetti's Confluence enter and stay with you. When I read "Autumn Damask" for the first time, the lines "Roam the ground where you are / mapped, flat and free, beneath / this sky, this new sea" were with me a lot of a walk I took after. The language and lines themselves are just beautiful. 

These poems are rooted in nature and place. It's interesting when nature is established as a main motif so early in the book; poems that have no overt "nature" imagery take on a profoundly natural and earthy feel. 

I appreciate seeing the non-natural blended and molded into feeling. The overt sonic and formal attention these poems have lend to that feeling of everything bending towards the natural. Early in the book you hear the assonance and slant and end rhymes and associate them with the nature imagery; those same tropes leave some of the same after tastes later in different poems. 
Some poets might associate rhyming as being kind of kitsch, but other than one or two places here and there, these poems rhyme naturally. 

Normally I tend to associate lines heavy with figurative language with less overtly formal poetry, but, as a teacher I had at Iowa used to say, every poem that gets remembered is usually more for its sound and rhythm more than any heavily emotive line or avant-garde poetic "soul." Rhythm and sound are an important and inseparable and natural part of poetry; the sound of poetry is as much a part of poetry's soul as any raw and blunt emotion. 

I thought of Sharon Olds poem “Sex Without Love” while I was reading some of these. After reading The Dead and the Living, a collection I just loved, the line I kept repeating to myself over and over: "How do they come to the / come to the come to the," Marchetti really shows how important sound is to crafting great lines. 

Another thing I really appreciated about these poems was something I noticed in a collection I read a few weeks ago by Cyrus Cassells, which is a heavy presence of notes both as epigraphs and end-notes. This helps so, so much. The note on "Waters of Separation" make that particular poem come alive - I loved it the first time I read it but after reading the note it really takes on a new character - and I wouldn't have recognized the reference to The Last Romances without that final note, and with that, it puts the last several poems in perspective. To quote from my Shakespeare course in Iowa, "The possibility of second chances."

Frank Terry was born in Galesburg, IL in 1988. He graduated from The University of Iowa in 2013 with a bachelors degree in English literature. Frank’s poems have recently appeared in The Rio Grande Review and Rhino Poetry. Frank loves food and music and sports and many other things, too. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

the pleasure of the business card

We have such a small sliver of funding to work with right now that I had to go with one of those slick companies, and said slick company loves to show you these hands holding what your business cards will resemble. Last Saturday at the office, which was hot post-storm, and my brain was foggy after saying good-bye to the family cat, a loss that still finds me whimpering in a ball at the foot of my bed, I was fairly incapable of getting concrete work completed. Read manuscripts? Oh, dear. Suss out lyric essays for the anthology? Hmm.

So I spent a bit of time on the slick website, made some vertical cards, made a list of the beautiful books we have lined up, added on a few coffee mugs, and wrote in the address for our office.

Of course I've been thinking about offices and spaces, how nice it is to be on a separate block from the chaos of the house, even when that chaos follows you like a little black cloud of sorrow. I applied to a writing residency for the very first time ever and while the chances of me even making it to the second round are nearly nil, I joked on my personal Facebook page of how many times I had to aid my children in going to the bathroom, how I couldn't even keep my headphones to myself to block out Peg plus Cat, how it's all noise and ruckus on my dining room table, where most of Tinderbox operations occur, except that thin sliver of time when I can go, overheated, into my little office with the peacock wall and work a bit.

Here's Martha Silano's take on not having a room of one's own in North American Review.

Monday, July 20, 2015

book interview: untying the knot by karen paul holmes

I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?
Untying the Knot by Karen Paul Holmes is a memoir in poetry about loss and healing written with “grace, humor, self-awareness and without a dollop of self-pity.” (poet Thomas Lux)

How did you come upon the subject of your book?
It came upon me! Suddenly. My husband of 30 years told me he’d slept with one of my good friends and was in love with her. Since poetry is my main means of expression, poems (and notes in my journal that became poems) started pouring out of me. Of course, I later edited the heck out of most of them. Many were workshopped too, some with poets like Dorianne Laux and Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate of Great Britain. I wasn’t intending to write a book, but after two years, I had about 60 poems and one day realized I could put them together for a collection. That was a healing moment.

And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?
This one struck like lightening because there’s a poem in the book with the same title, and the poem is actually about knots, and it was just a no-brainer.

Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.
The most difficult thing was actually living the story taking place as I was writing the poems. (But writing was therapeutic for me.) And then once the book was published, I feared the angry phone call (or worse) if my ex and his girlfriend read it. Also, I suddenly felt vulnerable: People reading this book would know intimate things about me. I’d opened my kimono, and even if I closed it back up, all had been exposed.

And the most pleasurable?
Sharing. People relate to the book and tell me so. They buy it for friends going through divorce. Even people who haven’t been divorced, but have been through other losses, relate to the story.  When the poems were fresh, I couldn’t read them out loud, but by the time the book came out, I could. Even though people always seemed to enjoy my readings before, I found that people connected to me even more, probably because I showed my vulnerability, and that always makes one more “human” to audiences.

What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?
A very specific piece of advice I love is to end poems with an image. That single technique often helps a poem’s ending snap into place. I was told (and believe) it leaves readers taking that image beyond the poem and into their own imaginations or memories, where they can linger.

Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.
Without by Donald Hall. He wrote it during his wife’s (poet Jane Kenyon’s) illness and death. It is painfully honest and beautiful. I kept writing “yes!” in the margins, and I rarely write in books.

Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.
I’d love to. This one is toward the end of the story, when I began to more fully comprehend and accept what had happened. I had read Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds and was inspired to write this poem and add it to my manuscript—this was after the publisher had accepted the book, but she agreed to add it.

Has He Landed Safely?

     I worry that the outstretched legs on the hart are bent the wrong way
     as he throws himself off.
          from Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

Not at all a graceful takeoff
his leap threw him into the wild blue
ambiguity of an affair.
I now know he had to do it:
had to explore, sail off the edge
of the world.

I now know he had one limb out
of our marriage for years.
Kept trying to balance
his accounts—in his mind            
he and I did not equal happiness
even though I was the wife he wanted
to show. Smart,
pretty enough, a good mother.
He loved me as much as he could
but I did not fill his coffers.

For two years he resisted the lure
of her but it persisted,
a bee in his palm,
until he couldn’t hold it any longer.
He was barely more than fawn
in the ways of betrayal, antlers
uncalcified. Yet he craved
the danger, needed it
like heroin to addle his pain. 

He had to leap, to deny the gravity
of his action. To land, gashed
in another galaxy.
Does he speak the language?
Can he breathe?

What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
hmmm, you asked good questions. How about, “Has anyone bought the movie rights?” But unfortunately, I’d have to answer no.

OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?
It’s in paperback and Kindle at Amazon. I’d love for people to be inspired to buy it, so thanks for asking and thanks for the interview!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

open reading period: prose

Today, I was having in on a big conversation about reading fees and how detrimental they can be for anyone--people who have exhausted their funds, people who had no funds to begin with, etc. I know I've sunk my fair share into reading fees, and while I stand by my belief that they are an excellent way of sourcing funds for a journal or press, I discovered I simply could not charge a fee for my own reading periods.

I won't lie: we definitely could use the money raised by a reading fee. Which is why there is a donation option: you can either flat-out donate to the press, or you can donate and get a copy of one of our books. This has the bonus of expanding our readership, which is one of the most important things for me and this press. Good books deserve to be read, right?

So from now until the end of August, you can send me your prose manuscripts: personal essays, lyric essays, prose poems, and hybrid works. I'll run a similar reading in the winter for poetry manuscripts. The nitty gritty is that you can simultaneously submit, we will notify as we decide, I will have a team of readers (and will read myself), will not be reading blind, and a few other details, all of which you can find on our Submittable page.