Monday, August 31, 2015

“The Bright Particulars of the Situation”: An Interview with Poet Sandra Beasley



By Lisa Hase-Jackson

Because Sandra Beasley’s newest collection of poetry, Count the Waves, arrived within the slim period of time between the end of the spring semester teaching and the beginning of my summer graduating residency, I had to relegate it to a stack of books for later reading. Before doing so, though, I glanced over the dust jacket notes to get a sense of the book’s focus. I was struck by a line in the third paragraph suggesting that the poems in Count the Waves “illuminate how intimacy is lost and gained during our travels.” Since my own travels these past ten years have led me from the Midwest to the Southeast United States by way of New Mexico and South Korea, both gaining and losing friends with each move, I felt certain I would find resonance within the collection’s pages. At least, I reasoned, I had something good to read when I returned home. When Leslie Pietrzyk later approached me about interviewing Beasley, I was happy for the opportunity to get to know the poet behind the poems knowing that the encounter would also enrich my reading of the book.

As is often the case for writers in the summer, Beasley and I had a number of obligations to juggle, but she was eventually able to carve out time to graciously answer my interview questions. I found her responses insightful and enlightening and am happy to share our exchange here.


1.     Titles are often tricky for writers, especially when it comes to entire books or collections. Can you speak to the significance of the title “Let Me Count the Waves” and what connection it has to the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet quoted at the book’s beginning?


The phrase, "Let me count the waves," first appears in I WAS THE JUKEBOX in "Love Poem for Oxidation." In that incarnation, the "waves" literally denote the movement of water. As a child, when I was out bodysurfing with my dad in Florida or North Carolina, you had to "count the waves" in order to catch one big enough to carry your body to shore. By the time the phrase was re-appropriated as a poem title, I was paying attention to secondary connotations: the iterative patterns of "counting" required by a sestina's repetitions, and the "waves" of third- and fourth-wave feminism. That poem is very much about struggling to position myself as a poet versus being a "woman" poet. I was trying to figure out whether that demarcation is trivializing, or productive. 

In choosing what would provide the collection's title, I wanted something with bravado, and in the imperative tone. I also got back to questioning why the phrase "Let me count the waves" had lodged so firmly in my head in the first place: the answer being, a ghost-memory of reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…." back in high school, and perhaps mishearing it to suit my own purposes. When I looked a little more deeply into Browning's life--in which a long-distance love inspired an overturning of everything, flight from an oppressive household, and eventual happiness--I knew I'd found my inspiration point. 

2.     Many of the poems in this collection are titled after specific lines in The Travelers Vade Mecum, which is an important influence in this collection. So many, in fact, that it is a little surprising to find poems that are not overtly related to that compendium. Can you provide some insight into how you decided which poems to include and your method for ordering them? Are the “non-numbered” poems related to those which are numbered?      
 
The Traveler's Vade Mecum series began as the solicitation for a single poem, for an anthology that will be published in 2017 by Red Hen Press. I usually hate prompts, but I loved the exercise as a way of thinking about intimacy over long distances, so I just kept going and ended up with over two dozen poems, most of which are in COUNT THE WAVES. The inspiring book exists, so my titles are a straightforward representation of A. C. Baldwin's lines and the numbers assigned to them. But I didn't want those indexing numbers to control my sequence, so the challenge became to find an internal "order" that respected the individual poems. It's not as simple as saying that the TVM poems are of one world, and the non-TVM poems are of another. About half the poems in the collection speak to a discernible, personal--I stop short of saying "confessional"--narrative, and that category that cuts through both groupings. 

3.     Though they do not announce themselves, there are six varieties of sestina in your collection. Besides an organizing pattern, they share inventive language and common themes, almost as if they are part of a larger organization. What attracts you to the sestina, and what other elements of form are at play in this collection?

The sestinas aren't so much different varieties as different stanza arrangements; I've kept the pattern of end words entirely intact, with an approximately ten-syllable line, and always opted to include the envoi. At one point, they were all formatted in the traditional sestets. But my early readers were experiencing visual fatigue. They'd spot the shape of the poem on the page, know "Oh, a sestina," and it would temper their subsequent engagement. I understand the phenomenon, because I do the same thing; you start looking for the tricks of the form, instead of absorbing the content. I changed the stanza breaks as a way of tricking the eye. 

I love sestinas because they channel the energies of two modes I am also drawn to, parallel structure and anaphora, and lexical repetition that approximates rhyme. The "Valentines" build upon the interest in dramatis personae that I raised in I WAS THE JUKEBOX. The best examples of the form, with Miller Williams' "The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina" coming to mind, feel playful and absurdist right up until the moment they break your heart. 


4.     Like many of your poems, “The Wake” incorporates really wonderful details, like “dovebelly brown,” “caress the bend of waists slendered by work,” and (my favorite) “still the silk jutting from his pocket matches / the band on his hat,” all of which lend a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude to this reimagining of Whistler’s life. Each line contributes to the poem’s dimensionality yet maintains a very satisfying pace that leads the reader to the poem’s conclusion. It made me feel as if I gained some insight into Whistler’s experience of the world and especially made me wonder how you were able to create that impression. Do you have a background in art history, or does Whistler hold particular importance for you?

I'm thrilled to have you focus on "The Wake," which is probably the oldest poem in the manuscript, though I did revise before adding it in. The text takes many cues from a Washington, D.C. exhibit on "Whistler and His Circle in Venice," which resulted in a 2003 book of the same name curated by Eric Denker. I had recently been to Venice when I saw the show at the Freer Collection, and the delicate pastels and works on paper made an indelible impression. Whistler is an interesting figure because of his ego, his personal life, and his eye for the possibilities of mass reproduction and distribution; he was the Charles Dickens of the art world. I have always been drawn to ekphrasis and the visual arts. My mother is a painter and a collagist, and my husband is a painter and photographer. In another life, I could have happily worked in a museum to the end of my days. 

5.     The title poem, “Let me Count the Waves,” includes the epigraph “We must not look for poetry in poems” from Donald Revell. While there is more than one way to interpret this aphorism, can you talk a little bit more about where, for you, poems come from?


In fairness to Revell, his suggestion is reasonable: Poems should not be overly self-referential. They should not be smug in their own performance. A poem should not reach for the low-hanging fruit of what has already been deemed "poetic." Read in that light, I can agree with him. But at the other end of the spectrum, and historically, one way upstart voices have tempered the privilege and power of others is through enacting verbal fireworks. So there has to be a place for a showy and brazen. There has to be a place for that which will not be denied.  

For me, most poems begin in the struggle to identify something. I operate from an emotional or philosophical perception, an instinct, without quite knowing what I'm trying to say. The irony is, once I decide what I am trying to say--and the poem is not a mature work until that happens--my craft is to articulate as thoroughly as possible. I thread a needle with what I refer to as the bright particulars of the situation. Bonus points if there is an opportunity for humor. 

6.     This is your third full-length collection of poetry. How did your approach to this book of poetry differ from your approach to your first book?

In assembling a third book, I was aware from the outset that the pile of pages could be a manuscript. That is both a strength and weakness. On one hand, I knew to avoid repeating the same images or stylistic moves, because what provides satisfying closure in one standalone poem will fail when you attempt to use it on three poems in a row. On the other hand, I may have prematurely curtailed some ideas of drafts because they felt too far outside the growing body of work. But overall, this is the biggest and rangiest collection I've ever done. Though the theme of adult love is unapologetically singular, that still leaves a lot of ground to cover.  

7.     What projects are you working on now?

Well, to be fair--an author isn't "done" with a book once it is out in the world! I'll be pursuing whatever combination of readings, classroom visits, and other opportunities that I can find to get the word out about COUNT THE WAVES. 

But in terms of new directions, I have a proposal for a nonfiction project, which I'll convert to a long essay if it does not find a publisher. I am writing poems commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance, in anticipation of an October gathering in my beloved town of Oxford, Mississippi. I'm also in my second year of teaching with the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program, and I am really appreciating the opportunity to mentor in both poetry and memoir, not to mention the appeal of getting to know a new town with visits twice a year. And meanwhile, I'm settling into a new neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with my husband. Life is busy, but it is the best kind of busy.


~Buy Count the Waves on Amazon or through an independent bookseller.



*****

ABOUT LISA HASE-JACKSON

Lisa Hase-Jackson holds an MFA from the Converse College Low-Residency program and teaches poetry and English Composition at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. Her current projects include an anthology of poems celebrating New Mexico’s 2012 centennial and a manuscript of her own poetry. Her work has appeared in Midwest Quarterly, Kansas City Voices, Pilgrimage, Jasper/Fall Lines and elsewhere. She is the Review Editor for South 85 Journal and keeps a poetry blog at ZingaraPoet.net.




Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Report from the Field: Joanne M. Lazar Glenn on HippoCamp CNF Conference


By Joanne M. Lozar Glenn

Gave myself a treat this month: I attended the inaugural HippoCamp writers conference on creative nonfiction in Lancaster, Pa. What a great job conference organizer Donna Talarico-Beerman and her team did in creating a positive and generous atmosphere in which to encounter and interact with other writers. Below, some nuggets from my notes. 

On craft:
Don't think: What's the point I want to make? Think cinema. Think, what's the story that will lead to that point?--Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction (journal)

 Collage essay is best used not to tell a story but to bring a bunch of ideas or touchpoints together. It pays attention to prosody rather than narrative.--Sarah Einstein, author, Mot: A Memoir 

I did not think about audience. I thought about how could I write a story that would make the audience feel as if they had lived that story. -- Amy Jo Burns, author, Cinderland 

To make your nonfiction more poetic, pay attention to harmony, beat, cadence, word sound and length, punctuation, assonance, and alliteration. --Viannah Duncan, poet and editor 

What is a flash memoir? A slice [of life], and then a smaller slice. -- Jenna McGuiggan, founder, The Word Cellar 

Lots of times writers have two stories written together. Determine the dominant vs. the supporting story line. -- Curtis Smith, essayist

On the business of writing:
Don't have cookie-cutter content across all social media. --Gale Martin, novelist and director of marcomm at Harcum College (Pa.) 

Submit a proposal [for your nonfiction book] because it shows you've really thought it through. --Nicole Frail, editor, Skyhorse Press 

Treat Twitter and Instagram as extensions of your brand ... but understand the distinction between public work and personal persona. --D. Watkins, author and Salon columnist 

Keep calm, write more. There is no one model, only your model. --Jane Friedman, writer and instructor, online writing and publishing, University of Virginia

On literary citizenship:
Put other stories before your own. Where can you help another writer get something s/he wants? -- Jennifer Hill, poet, playwright, arts educator, performer, Paper Kits Press and PA Council on the Arts 

Your success as a writer is not the same as your success as a human being.--Amy Jo Burns, author, Cinderland

 
Then consider giving yourself a gift and get on their mailing list for 2016.

*****

ABOUT JOANNE M. LOZAR GLENN


Joanne M. Lozar Glenn is an independent writer, editor, and educator based in Alexandria, Va., whose essays and poems have appeared in print and online literary magazines. She is a coauthor of the forthcoming Memoir Your Way: How to Use Quilts, Recipes, Scrapbooks, Writing, and More to Tell Your Story (Skyhorse Press, 2016) and leads destination writing retreats at the beach and in the mountains.  

Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Writers Write Newsletter.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Risking It All: An Interview with Julianna Baggott about HARRIET WOLF’S SEVENTH BOOK OF WONDERS


By Sara Kuhl

Julianna Baggott’s newest novel, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, is the kind of book that makes you look at your schedule for the day and figure out if you can get away with calling in sick.  (My advice is to call in sick. Work will always be there.)

Harriet captured me on the first page and Julianna’s unfurling of Harriet’s story along with those of her daughter, Eleanor, and her daughters, Ruthie and Tilton, are told with unique voices, divine details and characters that border on the magical.

Harriet is a writer whose six previous “Wonder” novels have drawn legions of fans, and rumors that a seventh novel exists persist even long after Harriet’s death. Readers are anxious for yet one more story from Harriet. But Harriet tells her story, in first person, to her daughter and granddaughters and you, the fortunate reader.  Along the way you’ll meet Harriet’s lov,e Eppitt, a villain, a mobster and a lion that rides in a motorcycle sidecar. This is a story will capture your imagine and your heart.

Julianna was gracious enough to respond to my questions on the afternoon prior to the book’s release on August 18.  Here are her responses:

Q -- At the risk of sounding like one of Harriet Wolf’s fans, I must tell you that it has been years since I’ve cried while reading a book. The love stories in this novel are filled with such intense loss. Even the mother and child love stories are shrouded in grief. And despite the suffering by all characters, the novel remains hopeful. Could you discuss how you found that balance between the deep emotional tug of this story without it becoming mawkish.

A -- I’ll risk too much emotion, mawkishness, sentimentality, nostalgia. I’ll risk all of it because I’m not interested in the stinginess of the novelists who don’t risk it at all, who fail for a lack of emotion, for stoicism in hopes of creating something more, what? Restrained? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the characters. I love the richness of a well-rendered emotionally bottled character. I’m talking about the writer. Life doesn’t feel very restrained in its manhandling of us so I won’t be restrained in my depiction of it.

Q -- I understand it took you eighteen years to write this novel but you obviously produced other works during that time. Were there extended periods that you left Harriet, Eleanor, Ruth and Tilton alone? And what was your process for turning to their stories?

A -- Yes. There were long stretches when I didn’t work on the book. But there were also vastly different versions that I abandoned. At one point, Eppitt was the main character. I went pretty far along with that draft. When I found Tilton, in this form – there’s an earlier screenplay version where she’s male – this draft took shape and I dug in and didn’t let up.

Q -- Your novel covers basically the entire 20th century. In that span of time, language changed, social norms altered, technology advanced and yet the story takes the reader seamlessly from era to another. What sort of research did you do to create the voices of Harriet and the others? And how did you make sure the language would remain engaging to the reader, but also true to the time period?

A -- Harriet’s sweeping timeline required a lot of research, which I love. Much of it I did pre-internet or pre-what we now think of as the internet; it was that long ago. I went to what was once The Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children and walked the grounds, as Harriet did with one of my kids in tow. I interviewed a couple who witnessed the plane crash over Elkton, Maryland when pregnant with my son who’s now eighteen. So, yes. A lot of research.  But language is about getting into character, much like an actor’s work. Once you drop in, you’re in. There’s no confusing Harriet for Eleanor, for me.

Q -- Tilton has a magical, almost fairy-like quality about her. As a reader I ached for her. She appears to have been sealed in childhood, even though her story is told from the perspective of a twenty-one-year-old. How did Tilton come to be?  

A -- Tilton comes from me – not in the particulars but in some emotional way. I was the youngest, left by my older siblings, and overprotected by my mother. I see the world in poetic terms – though not to the extent that Tilton does, and of course, I’m nothing like her, having made my own life. Still, my world can seem very small and yet also lush in its small details.

Q -- The Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children is pivotal to the story. In Chapter Four, Harriet writes, “But now the task at hand. How to make real the Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children itself? The galling notion of it might be so outdated that no one can believe it ever existed. You might think I’m being fictitious. Fair enough.”  What was your process for making this outdated place come alive?

A -- As I mentioned, I visited and, while there, photocopied the 1911 report. That gave me many details to work with and helped me recreate that way of growing up.

Q -- Willa Cather spoke to her characters each day.  Cather said that while she was writing “The Song of the Lark,” she felt as if Thea was always on her shoulder.  Did you carry on conversations with Harriet and Eppitt and all the others? And now that the novel is published, do you miss the interactions with the world you created?

A -- By the time a book actually comes out, my attachments are with new characters, which is actually a good protective device. I have to go public, allow them to be criticized, which isn’t their fault, but how I’ve failed them. It’s not easy, but hardest if you’re still with them. I try to divorce myself as early as I can. Tough to do sometimes.

Q -- Did you worry that the back and forth of the novel in time and place and character would be confusing to the reader, and that the foreshadowing of events and details might be lost? For instance, the reader knows that Harriet gave up public appearances early in her writing career, yet the reader doesn’t understand why that detail mattered until the second to last chapter.

My relationship isn’t with the individual reader. That’s too complicated. Some readers hold all details, see everything coming, and others are easily confused and caught off-guard by twists. My relationship is only with one reader per book. If I’m true to that reader – imagined or real – I’ve done my work.

That said, I was very worried that four first-person narratives were going to overwhelm and confuse the reader – which “I” is speaking now? The italics of Harriet’s sections and the very different way of speaking used by Tilton make them distinctive enough. I worried about Eleanor and Ruthie then and went back into the early pages of each, putting in little phrases and ways of speaking that were their own.

Q -- Harriet and Eppitt’s love story is haunting and beautiful and sad.  The reader knows this will be the case on page five. “You can’t have love without knowing sorrow; you can’t have miracles without desperation.” How did the story of Harriet and Eppitt develop? Was there a time when you tried to write their story with a happier conclusion or did you know from the start that their love story would be tragic and filled with missed opportunities?

A -- They have some really joyful years. I don’t know that anyone can ask for more. (No, I didn’t know the sum total of their relationship when I set out to write it.)

Q -- Pacts between the characters are vital to this novel. What is it about this idea of creating pacts that so intrigued you?

A -- Maybe it’s kind of Catholic of me. I’m not sure, but I love a good vow. We’d taken our four kids and our niece to Ireland. It seemed important that they make a pact to return one day – the five of them, plus as many other cousins as possible. So they all signed a pact. I like those kinds of things.

Q -- Eleanor is one tough woman. The idea of a mother telling her children a bedtime story each night that involves a plane crash and dismembered limbs is bizarre, and funny.  As a reader I never left the fictive dream. How did you strike that balance of developing memorable characters that are believable?

A -- My mother told me very vivid and disturbing family stories when I was little. She was bored – the older kids had grown up and left the nest – and she’d keep me home to play cards and do some banking. And she’d hand down the family lore – dark twisted Southern gothic stuff.  Most of it I’ve never written about. (Some of it is in THE MADAM, based on the life of my grandmother raised in a house of prostitution.) But the idea of stories – how a family can be defined by its own sacred mythology – is thematically central to HARRIET WOLF’S SEVENTH BOOK OF WONDERS, and it’s something that I believe in, that stories are transformative. This belief sustains me as a writer.


More about Julianna Baggott: http://juliannabaggott.com/

****

ABOUT SARA KUHL



Sara Kuhl is a recent fiction graduate from the Converse College low-residency MFA program. (A program she highly recommends for its brilliant faculty and excellent students.) Her personal goal is to introduce Willa Cather into as many literary discussions as possible. By day, she serves as the director of University Marketing and Media Relations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. 


Harriet Wolf

Monday, August 17, 2015

Do You Need an MFA? (part 10,273)

People often ask me if they need an MFA to be a successful (defined as you please) writer. There is no one answer, which is why I like this piece by Lisa Hase-Jackson, one of the Converse MFA grads, offering thoughts about her journey to her poetry MFA.

...In the workshops I facilitated, I could perceive that my poems, unlike those of my MFA holding friends, lacked the kind of complexity and iridescence I longed for. The practical knowledge I was gaining, though worthwhile, differed from that which is available through a formal program, and the time I was committing to community involvement, I realized, could be better organized if I had a course of study to follow. Simultaneously, my applications for full-time teaching jobs and writing residencies were consistently passed over for candidates holding terminal degrees.... 


Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Literary Weekend in DC

 Looking to immerse yourself in the literary life in DC? Here’s an excellent guide to all things bookish in the city’s present and past, as posted on The Literary Hub:  

…2:00 PM, Capitol Hill Books: While still enjoying the capitol part of the Capitol city, head to this charming and rambling used bookstore. You can get lost in the stacks, but a knowledgeable bookseller will likely rescue you with good humor after you find yourself holding dozens of mysteries and wondering why you would ever leave this cozy place….


Friday, August 14, 2015

Doubleback Books Seeking Submissions of Out-of-Print Books for Reprint

I love this call for submissions, seeking for reprint small press books that have gone out of print:

Sundress Publications is now accepting submissions to be published through Doubleback Books. We believe that out of print should not mean out of mind. Although other publishers rescue works that have fallen into the public domain from obscurity, few reprint books from small, independent presses that have folded during the twenty-first century and (often through no fault of their own) left new, exciting books to go out of print before their time.  
 
If you are the author of a book that has recently gone out of print because the press closed, we want to read it. If you are the former editor of a recently closed press with books you believe deserve to return to print, we want to read them. If we love them, we want to give the world another chance to love them, too.  
 
Submission Guidelines 
 
Authors of works that have gone out of print due to the closure of the original press may submit full-length or short books, including novels, novellas, chapbooks, short story collections, poetry collections, essay collections, and memoirs. We will read manuscripts of any literary genre: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, none of the above, some of the above, or all of the above. Editors may also submit out-of-print manuscripts their presses published before closing. To be eligible, works must have been both published and out of print by no earlier than 2000.  
 
To submit, you may send your manuscript(s) in .PDF or .DOC format via email to doublebackATsundresspublicationsDOTcom. Simply include a brief cover letter in the body of the email telling us a little bit about your work and yourself.  

Accepted manuscripts will be turned into downloadable e-books available for free on the Sundress Publications website! Previous titles include Karyna McGlynn's Alabama Steve and Jehanne Dubrow's The Hardship Post.   

Along with your manuscript, please include the name of the manuscript's original publisher, as well as the name and contact information of the publisher's former editor-in-chief, if available. Be sure to note the genre of the manuscript in your cover letter.  
 


Monday, August 3, 2015

Tips on Writing Tics

I love this piece in the Washington Independent Review of Books by Tara Laskowski about writing tics, which offers helpful suggestions about how (and when) to focus your attention on them and work to eliminate them from your work:

Seven of the 13 stories in the original version of my manuscript Bystanders had characters named Jack.
 

And, I’ll humbly suggest that if you have writing tics (which we ALL do), you might look at the piece I wrote about ferreting them out that appeared in Snopes, the Shenandoah blog:

The reason I’m opposed to writing tics—with the exception of my fascination with characters eating—is that the tic is the familiar. It’s the first word/phrase/image our brain comes up with, so surely it’s the least interesting. It’s too easy. What would we discover if we forced ourselves to keep thinking? These tics of ours are bland and comfortable. While vigorous writing can appear easy on the page, I want my work to create discomfort in the reader and the writer. I want angles in my words and images, not soft, smooth edges. Or, to retreat into imagery I’m comfortable with: there’s only so much vanilla pudding a reader can spoon down before hoping for a plate of fiery, New Mexican red chile enchiladas.




Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.