Monday, August 31, 2015

book interview: a world less perfect for dying in by ralph pennel

May as well start here. I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?

What do Elvis, Jesus, and Edward Hopper have in common? How do you light the soul on fire without, too, igniting the flesh? A World Less Perfect for Dying In answers these questions and more! The works here exam the liminal through the immutable, give lyric to form, give spirit permission to aspire to will. These poems, in exploration of themes of loss, faith—both lost and regained—death, isolation, and love, examine the ways in which our lives are but the brief imaginings of others, and the hope we still dare to breathe into those imaginings that they might one day come true.

How did you come upon the subject of your book?

As is the case with many other first books of poetry, the themes and subjects emerged organically, for the most part. By that I mean that I didn’t sit down consciously one day to “write this book” per say (though, in a way, by composing these poems, it was a conscious decision). The place I started working from was a suite of “urban pastorals” I had written a few years back. I wanted initially to expand on this notion, but the more time I spent working directly with this conceit in mind the less the works held together. Other ideas and themes emerged prominently and had to be moved from the periphery to the center. This meant adding and subtracting from the collection in order to get the right feel for the work as a whole. Once the poems began speaking to each other in ways that elevated the individual works collectively it became evident to me through that conversation what book I was really working on. This is all, of course, a much different process than I am executing now with the next manuscript . . . so far.

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?

The title of the manuscript came as both a strike of lightning and something extraordinarily elusive, actually. It was elusive in the sense that I had tried out several titles before it, which didn’t seem to work. But, maybe that’s not quite right. They worked with the way I had the poems arranged, but I felt like the wrong themes and tone were being exposed within those arrangements. It wasn’t until I made a few good decisions about how to create a greater sense of tension in the way the poems were speaking to each other that the title emerged. Actually, two possible options emerged. When the two titles emerged, it was as a lightning strike. I abandoned the first one that came to me, as I figured it might lead the reader in the wrong direction, toward assuming the “I” in these works is meant to be confessional and not lyrical, as I work consciously to expose what is emotionally true through what seems experientially true as seamlessly as possible. The title I abandoned became, instead, the title of the first section of the book. Coincidentally, this is usually not how titles reveal themselves to me. I often know the title of an individual piece before I begin to write or within the first few composed lines of a new poem. So, this was a slightly different type of engagement than what I have been accustomed to when working on individual pieces.

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

Letting certain poems go regardless of my affinity for them for the sake of the success of the manuscript. It was difficult at times to be completely honest with myself about the fact that some pieces just weren’t speaking well enough to the other poems to stay. We have to be able to kill our darlings, right? At least, that’s what I keep telling my students. But, it’s true. We aren’t very often our own best audience, often too close to the material to make the right choices concerning content.

And the most pleasurable?

When I came back to the book after my publisher sent me the first round of proofs. It had been a while since I had looked at the manuscript at all, exhausted by the process of getting the book accepted for publication in the first place. I had spent so much of the last two years arranging, rearranging, revising and composing new pieces that I couldn’t really see the book anymore. Or the individual pieces, for the most part. That first time through the proofs felt really good. I had gained enough distance from the work again to see it with fresh eyes. It was a huge relief.

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

I’ll go with worst. Oddly enough, however, often the worst of the worst advice evolved into the best. But that has more to do with me as a person than the advice itself. One of my undergraduate professors had this uncanny knack for exacting the truth in a particularly poignant and damaging manner (she was eventually let go by the school, unsurprisingly). On more than one occasion, in an attempt to do harm, she actually made it clear to me what decisions I needed to make to move forward as a poet. One moment during a meeting with her in her office—where she was clearly reading my poem for the first time though this was a weekly arrangement she had with all members for the class and this was a task she should have accomplished before I was sitting in a chair at her desk with her—she made an attempt to belittle me by showing me how I was failing as a poet in general as a way to talk about the poem she had just read for the first time. And, admittedly, the poem may not have been that good. I don’t remember the poem. However, (though I was initially crushed to the point of considering becoming a math major), I realized that in her attempt to stamp the life out of me, she inadvertently led me to see where I was succeeding, and I, therefore, knew exactly where to focus the majority of my energy in becoming a more successful poet. So, in the long run, I am thankful for the interaction, but she was wrong and dead wrong to treat me, and everyone in the program, as recklessly as she did.

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

Pinion, by Claudia Emerson. Someone in my writing group recommended it and let me borrow her copy. She thought that it might help me make some critical choices regarding voice and organization with the new manuscript that I am currently working on. And she was right. The pieces come from different voices. The voices are true and emotionally authentic. And Emerson’s voice is so powerful in a quiet, purposeful way that is simultaneously public and private. I am glad to be spending time with the book in general and would recommend it to anyone, but I am also grateful to have the chance to study, for my own artistic purposes, the kinds of choices (and tough choices, I am sure) that Emerson made regarding the types of risks she knew this book had to take.

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

from “Planning Our Departure”

You roll away from me, hand dropping
against the box spring,

as if to usher this bed into motion, into
one last feat of greatness though nothing on it stirs.

While we lie here, storm clouds
settle in above us,

rain gathers in their sagging bellies, felled cotton seed
invades every grassless patch of ground below.

I half expect to find this bed covered too,
mistake loose down against my pillow

for some ambitious seed that made it through
the screen beside this bed, seeking some higher,

safer place to land, who knows what falling is,
how it ends where no light reaches and never has.

Not even in the highest noonday sun when
the shadows are but charcoal blemishes no bigger than a sigh.

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

I guess influences? The voices where I always seem to find inspiration most often (though I’m always looking for books and authors to add to the list—Natasha Trethewey, for instance, is a relatively new addition, in fact) are Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Larry Levis, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Brenda Hillman, Carolyn Forche, and Lisel Mueller. And, on a different day, if you asked, depending on the kind of work I’m doing, I may also throw Yusef Komunyakaa and Mark Doty onto the list.

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

You can buy the book directly from the publisher (which is, of course, best for the publisher and author) at .

The book is also available on Amazon or on SPD The book can also be found on the shelves at Porter Square Books, in Cambridge, MA.

Monday, August 17, 2015

book interview: bone of my bone by nicole rollender

I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?
That’s a good question to start with because I actually recently wrote a few sentences about what my chapbook Bone of My Bone is about:  Through the half-lit poems in Bone of My Bone runs a troubling line of questioning – what’s beyond this life? – as the narrator contends with death on a very visceral level: “The hip is something/ no longer examined in the light.” In these poems’ rooms, which are like the ruins of a cathedral open to a night sky, the haunted narrator explores the real ways that we take which is ours, both in this life and in the next. There’s a chance to seize at “what is also the divine: There is no saint/without a past.”

How did you come upon the subject of your book?
I was raised in the Catholic tradition and was taught to pray throughout the day – and if you forget, every breath or every heartbeat can be a prayer if you desire. One day, I was reading Blackbird and came upon Malachi Black’s poem, “Quarantine,” a crown of sonnets that follow the 10 movements (Lauds, Prime, Terce and so on) in the Christian monastic prayer known as the canonical hours. These movements follow the passage of one day, so Lauds is a predawn prayer, None is the afternoon prayer, Vespers is sundown’s and so forth. Black calls “Quarantine” a poem “to the possibility of God.”

Black’s poem struck a familiar chord: one of the books that has stayed with me for years is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. It’s wonderful, thinking of the 23-year-old Rilke writing intense love poems to God, incantations coming to him in “an inner dictation,” as he described it. He had visited a monastery in Russia and was moved by the Christian practice of praying throughout the day. It’s a departure from a God of fear (as is Black’s poem) – and I love Rilke’s self-discovery in these poems: “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” And, there’s a deep, contemplative peace between stanzas.

But, you know, I don’t really experience a lot of peace in my daily life, as probably is true of most of us. And poet Anne Carson said something that makes sense of this disquiet. I’m paraphrasing here, but Carson described the feeling as walking through your life with an inkling of what’s also running alongside you on the other side, the flame of God, the afterlife, the darkness or light. So that sense of mortality, of an internal straining toward something – St. Augustine of Hippo said that our hearts won’t rest till they rest in God, so is that what it is?

I often feel an internal crying out, a sense of loneliness. So I wanted to portray that journey in this chapbook – call it carpe diem, call it searching, whatever it is you need to feel full. But this struggle happens among the quotidian, and that’s where the book is rooted. As in, you’re taking a walk with your kids and you have this feeling wave over you, that we’re together here so short a time, and yet the beyond, eternity, is endless and unknown. Where do we root?

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?

I wrote the title poem “Bone of My Bone” when I felt un-rooted. So the poem started with me considering maternal lineage, how I can follow my grandmother, who’s now dead, back to her birth more than a century ago. The poem begins:

I’m my own land, unmanageable. There’s a cross
            road where my hands and lips intersect

with an illumined city’s open windows …

I chose Bone of My Bone as the chapbook title because we originate from someone else and we also put part of ourselves forward, whether it’s through our children, our art, our stories. I wanted the chapbook to be about searching for roots, for somewhere to call home.

Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.
My son, my second child, was born nine weeks premature. I woke up at 5 a.m. to find that my water had broken, so we took this eerie, awful drive to the hospital with my daughter chattering in the backseat. I didn’t feel him move for more than half the trip, and I kept thinking we had lost him. It was surreal and terrifying. Several of the poems in the chapbook are concerned with this – what if I lose a child I had never met?

On the drive, I finally felt a flutter in my gut. He wasn’t gone. My son spent time in the NICU, though, before he finally came home. So writing those poems with the cast of how do I look toward God in this struggle was painful. Here is a part of “Driving to the Hospital After My Water Breaks Nine Weeks Early”: “Hold me, Lord / his face as he dies / his winds shake me / shake me through / my body doesn’t move / while his waters / shake through me.”

And the most pleasurable?
I remember December 19 of last year, reading Bone of My Bone in the evening before I sent it in to Blood Pudding Press’ 2015 Chapbook Contest, and feeling like it was done, that it captured for me the idea of carpe diem – and also of the struggle of being an embodied spirit that’s straining toward your God. When BPP Publisher Juliet Cook sent out the announcement that I was one of the three winners, I was elated – I felt so happy this chapbook had resonated with the press. And then, recently, just before I resent the copy-edited manuscript to BPP for layout, I again felt like it was a complete little collection whose poems spoke to the concerns I was addressing. I feel hopeful that others may read it and find a bit of their own struggle – and maybe some movement toward answers.

What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?
The best? Imitate, and then don’t imitate. You probably remember an early writing class where the teacher read you a poem or two, say by Emily Dickinson, and then said, “Write a poem as if you’re Emily Dickinson.” And then you clumsily (or maybe not so clumsily) wrote a poem after Emily. And that advice is good, when you’re a starting writer, to find poets you like and to try out their styles or how they construct a poem. I wrote some pretty awful poems while trying to imitate some good poems – Jon Anderson, Lyn Emmanuel and Jane Hirschfield among them. When I guest-edit or read from a journal, I sometimes come across these types of imitative poems, that of course, give homage to the poet in the title, the first line or an epigraph. But most times, these poems are at best imitative. The other side of this advice is to stop imitating. At some point, your voice arrives. You write a good poem, and then another. They get accepted at some good journals. And people tell you that they can recognize your work. So when that happens, start trusting that voice and honing it. Of course, read other poets voraciously, but don’t rely on that crutch of imitation. Jump into your own abyss.

Here’s the worst: When I was in graduate school, at one of my end-of-year conference with my poetry professor, a widely published older male poet, he told me that except for one very talented woman in our class, he didn’t expect anyone else to publish books. He was right – in the short term. This woman poet in her late 20s did go on to win a large poetry prize for her first book and then publish a second book relatively quickly. However, what I’m seeing now is that many of the people I wrote with back then are really coming into their own as poets in their 30s, publishing their first chapbooks or books in that decade. The point is that developing a voice can sometimes take longer for one writer than for another. It’s a very real thing, writing out all the bad poetry before you can start to create good art. I published my first chapbook at age 27, and now in my mid-30s, have three chapbooks coming out and a full-length collection later this year. So persevere and keep writing, right? Because the best work is to come.

Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.
Oh, I’m so glad to mention a poetry book that I love right now. Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s gorgeous poetry book, Paper Doll Fetus (Perseus) is a collection of haunting poems about pregnancy and motherhood, and the history of obstetrics, from medieval midwives to early doctors who were pioneering the field. There’s an unusual cast of characters who speak in this collection, like a deformed ovarian cyst apologizing to the woman in which it grows, or a phantom pregnancy speaking to a nun who wanted a child. Since so much of my work does center on pregnancy and motherhood, themes that also figure in this manuscript, and the role this act of creation within the body plays for women in different time periods, I was happy to encounter this book now. I have a review posted on, if you want to learn more.

Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.
Sure. This short poem is part of the Christian daily movement of prayers. I wrote all of the prayer poems in the sequence, but only selected certain ones to appear in Bone of My Bone. They still do reflect the passage of a day, or of the way an individual searches continually for a God – and is that God a loving deity, or a cruel one?


Question: If you can’t enter yourself, what makes you think you can enter heaven?

Answer:  There are wolves within me, creatures I’m afraid to name.

Answer: I’ve spread blood on my mouth’s lintel. Death can’t enter this way.

Answer: I hang skulls in the trees. They clink in the wind, death’s sturdy music.

Answer: The resurrection plays over again every night. The stone letting you in and out of the tomb.

What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
How about: What does your poetry attempt to do? I’m stealing this spot-on line from poet Amber Rambharose: “A mentor of mine told me that a successful poem is ‘someone in trouble singing.’” When I write, it comes from a place of chaos, a place of many whirling and disturbing things. Many disparate things. And I try to make music, a song, from the chaos, joining together the grotesque and the gorgeous. The visceral and the sublime. The dead and the living.

OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?
You can purchase Bone of My Bone from Blood Pudding Press. This chapbook was one of three winning manuscripts in Blood Pudding Press’ 2015 Chapbook Contest.

Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe JournalRadar PoetrySalt Hill JournalTHRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. She is the author of the chapbooks Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at
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Monday, August 10, 2015

book interview: mendeleev's mandala by jessica goodfellow

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

Where would a Buddhist monk, Iphigenia, and Isaac Newton cross paths? Why would Sarai of the Old Testament write a letter to 17th-century mathematician Leibniz? What do Wilbur Wright, Remus, Romulus, and Wittgenstein have in common with a fortune teller? What does Schrรถdinger’s cat know about the blues? Kilroy was where? For the answer to these and other questions, read my book.

How did you come upon the subject of your book?

I was raised in a religious family, but was encouraged to study analytical subjects in school. To balance those influences—trying to be appropriately loyal to both—as a young person I developed a bifurcated worldview as a sort of coping mechanism. One of the tasks of my adulthood has been to try to make a cohesive story for myself without having to jettison too much of my varied and competing experiences.  This book is part of that doomed project.

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?

The book title is also the title of a poem in the collection. I selected it mainly because I love the sound. But it also happens to embody the theme of the book, the balancing of different worldviews. A traditional mandala strives to represent the entirety of the universe in a single picture, while Mendeleev’s periodic table is an organized list of all the known elements in the universe—making it a sort of mandala based on science, on reason.

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

Identifying the themes of this book was difficult. My other book and chapbook were theme-based by design from the get-go, whereas with this book I discovered the themes midway through the writing process (or more like two-thirds of the way through). It was hard writing from poem to poem, trusting that my unconscious mind had some design I couldn’t access, rather than proceeding as part of a cohesively conceived project. But the book may be (hopefully is) richer for it.

And the most pleasurable?

The most pleasurable part of this book’s journey was when Motionpoems selected a poem from the book, “Crows, Reckoning,” to be made into a short film by L.A.-based studio COMMANDR, under directors Edward Chase Masterson and Alex Hanson. It was thrilling to see their interpretation, which added layers of meaning rather than portraying exactly what I had written (much like a successful Japanese haiga, which is a combination of a haiku and visual art, and which is considered most successful when the two elements do not directly represent the same imagery, but go deeper or add to the other). You can see that short film here:

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

Someone once told me that my writing was too eclectic, that I varied my style too much from poem to poem. A bit of a dilettante, she called me (though kindly). I have to respectfully disagree. While my use of form may vary widely (and even push the boundaries of what is considered poetry), it always serves the theme of the poem. Always. I don’t make choices about form gratuitously. And there is an underlying sensibility that does unite my work, even when I allow voice and tone to vary between poems. The variation and the experimentation are not there without a purpose. I know that, for many people, not having a distinct voice is considered a tell of immaturity, and that may be true in some cases. But it’s not always true: sometimes the unifying voice is there, though disguised in service of the poem.

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

Earlier this year I read artist and writer Karen Green’s Bough Down, a book chronicling grief after a husband’s suicide, through small (visual) collages and written fragments that taken together approach a lyric essay. The smallness of each piece mimics an interior world that has been devastated, shredded to a manageably-sized scrap that still isn’t manageable. This book deviates from normal forms to recreate an experience, which is what form is supposed to do, crushingly.

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

Burning Aunt Hisako                 (originally published in diode)
Afterward we sifted through her ashes
with long chopsticks—one bamboo
and one willow, for this life and the next.
The furnace-keeper lifted bone by bone.
“Her ankle bone,” he tendered. “Her left thumb.”
A plate-shaped bone he named “her face,”
just before he smashed it into pieces 
small enough to drop inside a dull bronze urn.
“What are we looking for?” I whispered
as we sifted. “From her throat, a bone
that’s said to hold a seated Buddha.”
From Adam’s rib to this, does at least one bone
from every body belong to someone else? Never
mind—what use are their own bone Buddhas now,
to Aunt Hisako smoldering on her slab,
to my mother’s father sealed beneath a hard 
and glittering snow? Bits of mica, memory 
of fireflies—my own hand on my own throat—
of what use is this thirst for things 
resembling other things, this endless trying
to wring milk from a two-headed cow.

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

I like to be asked about the cover of my book. I wanted something that both resembled a traditional mandala and also appeared somewhat scientific. I looked at so many images of various arrangements of the periodic table of elements (to reference Mendeleev, whose table is the one we use today), including circular ones (to mimic a mandala), but they weren’t quite right.
Then I stumbled across Nikon’s competition for photography of microscopic images, and I found a world that was both mandala-like yet with a scientific edge, and I knew I could find what I needed. (Check it out—so many stunning images!  
Eventually I settled on an image of a diatom (a microscopic single-celled algae with certain characteristics) that can be found in the public domain. My publisher tinted it purple and rotated it for the cover, and I had my mandala that evoked both ancient wisdom and modern science.

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

Buying directly from the publisher is the best to way support the press and get most of your money into the hands of people who support poetry. So here’s a link to that:

However, people don’t always find direct buying convenient. So here are links to online retailers who also carry Mendeleev’s Mandala: