Inclined to Riot

Inclined To Riot by KMA Sullivan

Review by Michele Bombardier

Artists and poets have grappled with the relationship between life and art for millennia.  KMA Sullivan, in her collection Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), brings timely and current considerations to this conversation. These poems smolder with passion, longing and fury as the poet considers art and compares it to her experience as a woman,

in a land where peace equals a naked woman
on her knees
milking a goat
where a river of pink babies
is called the source of life
I am not a woman at tea
the same as still life with pear

We don’t need to be told that the art the poet is viewing is by a male artist. We feel it. These poems center defiance to the male gaze and idealization of women across time and in different art forms.

The poems in Inclined to Riot are written without punctuation, no capitalization except “I”, and are mostly in short lines and in first person. The capitalized “I” rightly draws attention to itself, a statement of assertion.  Sullivan uses the steady rhythm of short lines to effectively amplify emotional intensity, as in the poem “here”:

a glass box of broken limbs
face worn away
I can still ride this horse
glow at night
like red light on egyptian blue
I was born to be luminescent
a stampede
here
forced down on one knee
held by my hair
that languid boy
cast a shadow even in relief
even in fragments
mouth open, nostrils flared
I am nomad, moon goddess, carbon smear
if wings sprouted from my face
I would not fly back

Sullivan writes in her post notes that her visits to nearly sixty galleries and art spaces in Europe and the US influenced the poetry in this collection in which they offered a “conversation” with her inner life. Sullivan grew up with an art historian mother and this deep exposure to classical art is reflected in her poems. These are more than ekphrastic poems; Sullivan draws on our collective knowledge of famous art pieces and expands on it as she challenges long-held feminine ideals of virtue, beauty, domesticity. She writes:

the cubists got it right
we are all this fractured form
but we make it down the stairs
with our pieces tumbling
choose among milkmaid and saint
and slotted spoon

I find myself teaching these poems in workshops, especially to show how Sullivan masterfully combines lyrical and narrative poetry with aspects of language poetry, how she layers image upon image to build intensity. As in the poem “armature”, Sullivan writes:

rodin offers joan of arc
her head of sorrow
in ecstasy
among twigs on fire
I refuse to sit for my portrait
become a placeholder
a fragment of a door

Each line packs a powerful punch. Teachers of poetry would benefit from using Inclined to Riot in their armamentarium as a book that uses many craft devises to amplify emotion and power. This book is both timely and timeless with its contemporary and feminist examination of art that has endured.  I am glad for this collection that not only questions our relationship to self and art but are poems of feminist empowerment using a kaleidoscope of images that linger in the mind’s eye.

KMA Sullivan is the author of two poetry collections: Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019) and Necessary Fire, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her poems and essays have appeared in Boston ReviewThe RumpusSouthern Humanities ReviewForklift, OhioThe Nervous Breakdown, The Offingdiode, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residencies in creative nonfiction and poetry at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Summer Literary Seminars and she is the coeditor-in-chief of Vinyl and the publisher at YesYes Books. KMA received an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech; in earlier years she earned degrees in philosophy from Trinity College and Boston College and raised five children with her partner of 35 years. She is the cofounder of YesYes Healing Garden, an acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine in Portland, OR. KMA believes in the power of art and literature to improve the lives they engage.


Title: Inclined to Riot
Author: KMA Sullivan

Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press
ISBN: 978-1-943977-58-1
Library of Congress Number: 2018960662
Publication Date: 05/29/2019
Retail Price: $15.95
5.83 x 8.27” Paperback; 66 Pages
Distributed by Ingram and Sibling Rivalry Press



Michele Bombardier’s debut collection, What We Do was a Washington Book Award finalist. Michele is a Hedgebrook and Mineral School fellow and the founder of Fishplate Poetry, which offers poetry workshops while raising money for medical care for refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in poetry and works as a neurological and developmental specialist SLP. Her work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review and many others.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Michele Bombardier

Michele Bombardier

Michele Bombardier’s debut collection, What We Do was a Washington Book Award finalist. Michele is a Hedgebrook and Mineral School fellow and the founder of Fishplate Poetry, which offers poetry workshops while raising money for medical care for refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in poetry and works as a neurological and developmental specialist SLP. Her work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review and many other journals.

Alexis Rhone Fancher & Arya F. Jenkins

America Has No Place for Grief: A Conversation with Alexis Rhone Fancher
by Arya F. Jenkins

Arya F. Jenkins: In State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies (KYSO Press, 2015) and The Dead Kid Poems (KYSO Press, 2019), you write unflinchingly about the loss of your son, an only child, who was only 26 when he died from cancer. Your other collections, Junkie Wife (Moon Tide Press, 2018) and How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and other heart-stab poems (Sybaritic Press, 2014) are brash explorations of female sexuality and power. How, if at all, did writing about sex prepare you for writing about death and loss? And where does the theme of female empowerment, a constant in your work, fit into the process of grief? 

Alexis Rhone Fancher: I’m not sure writing about sex prepared me to write about grief and loss, so much as it emboldened me. I was raised to believe I could do anything, and that my opinion mattered. I have always owned my personhood and my sexuality. Sadly, in today’s increasingly puritanical America, I am still in the minority. I am often called “brazen” when to me, I’m just being honest.

Much like sex, America has no place for grief; we have a “sweep it under the rug” philosophy. Out of sight, out of mind. Thus all the platitudes, the “he’s in a better place” or “he is at peace.” Instead of embracing our loss and experiencing our grief, we ignore it and soldier on, leaving a hollow place inside that can’t be filled, and we don’t know why.  

AFJ: “Death Warrant” in State of Grace is about the callousness of others in the face of your loss. How did you deal with the dismissal of the life of your son by a judge in a court of law? And that of the friend who thought two weeks after the death of your son that you should be “over it,” mentioned in another poem? How does one respond to that? 

ARF: “Death Warrant” and “Over It” are two of my most commented upon poems. Readers are horrified by these two women’s thoughtlessness and cruelty. Both poems quote verbatim what was said to me. The judge’s words brought a gasp from the packed courtroom. I was too shocked to do anything except flee. As I left, a woman caught up with me and put her arms around me, sobbing. Her kindness made the moment bearable. But even now, over 13 years later, I can’t relive that day without tears. It’s the unthinking/unthinkable cruelty, tossed off like it’s nothing..

The judge looked over the warrant.
“He’s in the hospital, you say?”
“Yes, your honor.
Terminal cancer.”
“Good,” she said. She handed the
paperwork back to the bailiff.
“Then he won’t be driving
without a license,
out there endangering others.”

ARF: When P., the woman in “Over It” who, two weeks after my son’s death, asked me if I was “over it yet,” her sheer heartlessness astonished me. I really did want, for just one moment, to trade places, to pretend it was her only child who died, and ask her if she was “over it yet?” Instead, I wrote the poem. 

Two weeks after he died,
a friend asked if I was “over it.”
As if my son’s death was something to get
through, like the flu.

AFJ: In “When I Buried My Son I Became Someone Else” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about coming to terms with mortality. Can you speak more to the final line of a couplet in that poem, “I’ve dumbed down my dreams,” and how grief has dumbed down your dreams?

ARF: Like me, two of my closest friends have lost a child. We call ourselves members of a club that no one wants to belong to. We all agree, once you’ve lost a child, nothing really fazes you. You’ve nothing more to lose. No matter how bad the news, you’ve had worse. And dreams? What dreams? The natural order is forever disturbed. There is no putting it right. 

AFJ: One of the things that stands out for me in The Dead Kid Poems is how the death of a loved one, the lesson of mortality, does not appear to be something we can pass on to familiars, try though we may, so grieving has a double edge and the one grieving a double burden—to bear the first unimaginable loss, and along with that, to accept that others close to her cannot deal either with her pain or the awareness of what it means to lose someone you love. Has that realization become easier for you? 

ARF: When my son became ill, I noticed a curious thing. Friends and family divided into two camps, those who came closer, and those who pulled away. Some family members deserted me, while friends I barely knew showed up for every hospital stay, every set back. The aha! moment was when I realized that it was nothing personal. That people were reacting not to me and my son’s tragedy, but to Death itself. Some caress it, others can’t face it. Better to turn away, pretend it doesn’t exist. From those who stuck around, and shared the grief, I learned that I share best as a poet. And the more personal my poems became, the more readers “got” what I was saying, and often shared back. It’s almost like my openness gives people permission to share their own truths. And that makes my sadness easier to bear. 

AFJ: In “Cruel Choices” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about the need to create a make-believe world—one where your son is married to a “beautiful Iranian model with kind eyes and they live in London with their twin girls who visit every summer”—to coexist alongside the one of terrible realities that, for all the pain they cause, the one grieving must hold onto, as it makes up the true remnants of memory.

ARF: I wrote “Cruel Choices” during a moment of envy–my husband’s two daughters were both in town and he and they were out together every night. I have no relationship with my step-daughters. It’s a mutual decision. That particular night I created a world where life was fair, and each of us had one child. My husband’s “cruel” choice as to which one to keep. I imagined what life might have been like if my son hadn’t died, if his girlfriend had chosen to keep those babies, if they’d moved to London. . . . If if if. A person could drown in them. Writing my truth means to dive into those memories, and remain there as long as possible. I can’t stay down too long; it’s a bad neighborhood. The trick is to open the portal just enough, then remember to shoot back up.

AFJ: The terrible binds placed on you by grief—can you speak more to that? 

ARF: Terrible, yes, but necessary if I’m to get to what matters. Grief rips some people apart. I watched my maternal grandmother will herself to die when my mother was dying. “It is unnatural for a mother to outlive her children,” I remember her saying. I was 20, and didn’t understand until my own son was dying and her words came back to me. But unlike my grandmother, grief made me stronger. I chose life. I chose to honor my son and his memory by writing State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, and The Dead Kid Poems. I wanted to hold his place on the earth. 

Poet and photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher has work published in over 200 literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Rattle, Hobart, Verse Daily, The MacGuffin, Plume, Tinderbox, Diode, Nashville Review, Rust + Moth, Nasty Women Poets, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, among others. Her photographs have been published worldwide. Her books include: How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen & other heart stab poems, Enter Here, and the autobiographical, Junkie Wife. Her chapbook, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies was released in 2015, and its companion, The Dead Kid Poems, published in May, 2019. EROTIC, a volume of her new and selected erotica, will be published in 2020 by New York Quarterly. A nominee of multiple Pushcart Prizes, Best Small Fictions, Best Micro-fiction, and Best of the Net awards, Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly.

The Dead Kid Poems was reviewed at The Poetry Cafe, by Sarah Stockton

Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American poet and writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and zines, most recently, IO Literary Journal, Rag-Queen Periodical, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Poetry is forthcoming in Poetica Review. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011), Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite Press, 2018) is available here: www.aryafjenkins.com.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Birkenstock Blues

Birkenstock Blues by Jefferson Carter

Review by Frank Jude Boccio

In 2019 Presa Press (Rockford, MI) published Jefferson Carter’s eleventh book of poetry entitled Birkenstock Blues. I don’t know the background and why he did it, but Carter was moved to buy back his rights and self-publish the volume this year with a much better cover and with three additional poems. It just goes to show you that sometimes, indeed, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!

Up front, I must disclose I know Carter. He was a regular in my Sunday Mindfulness Yoga class and I – and some of my teachings – have been alluded to in several poems found in his previous volumes, Get Serious: New & Selected Poems (Chax Press, 2013) and in Diphtheria Festival (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016), which has a cover blurb from me: “The poet Carter reminds me of is Billy Collins, but a mordant, twisted, even punk Collins.” And the poems found in Birkenstock Blues certainly bear that out. Tucson, Arizona’s previous mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, says “[Carter] has long captured life’s subtleties with humor, irony, and a touch of charming cynicism that brings home truths we recognize with a knowing wink.” Anyone who has known a cynic – or harbors an inner cynic – knows that within the heart of any cynic abides a romantic nursing their wounds – or a cocktail. Or both.

Case in point: the opening three poems all paint a picture of his marriage, the deep love and respect hiding in plain sight behind the dry and — there’s that word again — mordant wit. In “Life Partner,” Carter tells us how, “for convenience” he and “the woman formerly known as” his wife have numbered their arguments. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship understands how couples recycle the same arguments again and again. And as all good art does, the universal is made explicit through the personal: “Number 5, you left / hair in the sink again.” “Number 13, you don’t listen to me.” Carter’s honest riposte to that one is “But I do. I just don’t agree.” How can you read this and not find the affectionate warmth of the familiar? The conclusion to this poem – as in many of his others – ends with a jolt that evokes the mic drop of a punch line or a slap across the face. It’s in this way that Carter reveals the subtleties and truths of the mundanity of daily life.

Carter also writes honestly and revealingly about aging, which is refreshing in our youth-obsessed culture. In “Fugly,” the poem that refers to the Birkenstocks of the book’s title, he shares the time-honored ritual of a man used to being dressed by his wife, only here it’s the costume of an “old hipster doll” with:

Straw fedora, brand-name t-shirts
from the thrift store, Bermuda shorts,
black dress socks & scuffed wingtips.

I read that description and almost spilled my bourbon, laughing at the image provoked in my mind’s eye. Then he drops the lines:

I don’t mind, playing child to your mother,
finally getting why old men sometimes
call their wives Mother.

Those lines evoke earlier eras fraught with the mashup of the tenderness and creepiness of that dynamic.

Another thing I appreciate about Carter’s poetry is how quick and penetrating he is to see and hear possibilities in places of mis-cue, mis-hearing and misunderstanding. The title of his chapbook, Diphtheria Festival, was the result of his googling Dipthera festiva, a black and white moth. Google responded, “Did you mean Diphtheria Festival?” Just now, writing that, I laughed yet again! But Carter uses something like that to create a truly wonderful poem, making art from happenstance. And he does it again in Birkenstock Blues in the poem “Advocate” which begins:

I’ve misread her job title:
conservation advocate, not
conversation advocate. How we talk!

And so opens a meditation on the environment, a major concern for Carter as he has long advocated and volunteered for Sky Island Alliance, a locally based environmental organization here in Tucson, Arizona.

This concern is also front and center in Carter’s poem, “The Book Of Extinctions,” (inspired by Extinct Species of the World, Jean Christophe Balouet, New Holland Publishers Ltd., 1990) which includes this quote from that book,

more than 100 species
a day will have disappeared by the end
of the century.

I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll say that for a short poem of only 15 lines, the ending once again draws a breath and creates a deep pang in the heart with an image that has deep resonance. I love it!

I could go on but I won’t, other than to say that Jefferson Carter mines a special kind of art in his poetry. There’s nothing pretentious about his work. And neither is there anything trite. He writes a kind of poetry that captures real moments of life, snapshots of small particularities that shed light on the human condition. He’s a yogi and a bad seed curmudgeon, and in that mix is a small, not grandiose, creative treasure I value very much.

Title: Birkenstock Blues
Author: Jefferson Carter
First Edition: Presa Press, Rockford, MI, 2019

Second Revised Edition: Jeffersoncarterverse.org, 2020

Jefferson Carter has poems in such journals as Barrow Street, Cream City Review, and Rattle.  Chax Press published Get Serious: New and Selected Poems, chosen as a Southwest Best Book of 2013 by the Tucson/Pima County Public Library.  In 2019, Presa Press released his eleventh collection, Birkenstock Blues. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Connie.  He’s a passionate supporter of Sky Island Alliance, a regionally-based environmental organization. 

Frank Jude Boccio, author of Mindfulness Yoga, is an ordained zen Buddhist dharma teacher and creator of an approach to yoga postural practice based upon the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness. His writing has appeared in many yoga and Buddhist journals and anthologies. This is his first poetry review to be published outside of Goodreads! http://www.mindfulnessyoga.net

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Reconstructed Happiness

Reconstructed Happiness, a Microchap by Trish Hopkinson
& a Shout-out to the Origami Poems Project

Review by Risa Denenberg

Sister poet Trish Hopkinson sent me a PDF of her very tiny chapbook (called a microchap), Reconstructed Happiness (Origami Poems Project, 2020). You know Trish from her Daily Digest posts that arrive in your inbox, chock-full of information vital to poets; and if you don’t, you should the join the other 16,000 people who do.

I want to tell you about Trish’s book, but first I have to give a shout-out to the Origami Poems Project, whose motto is: Helping the world, one Free microchap at a time!.

The project was established in 2009 and seeks to publish free e-versions of microchap books that you self-assemble, using origami technique. This is brilliant. Learn to fold! (Another motto of this group.) At the website you’ll find this explanation: A microchap presents poems on a single sheet of paper. The paper folds origami-style into palm-sized booklets containing 6 pages of text. Below is a view of the folded microchap printed on Landscape setting:

These little books are designed and published in PDF form, with full-color covers, and with folding directions included. Submissions are free through Submittable, and will re-open in September. They graciously accept donations to keep the “always free” spirit alive.


Back to Trish Hopkinson’s microchap, with the sheepish admission that I didn’t fold it correctly, but I loved it anyway. Reconstructed Happiness enfolds three poems. In “My Matter,” the word matter is bisected into its concrete meaning (as in, “anything that has mass and volume”) and its use in the abstract-concrete sense (bear with me here) of to be relevant or important, sometimes referred to as “material.” The poem reaches for the concept of “we are stardust,” in many forms: dust, pollen, “a dove’s blurred wing,” or dirt “caked beneath toenails.” It ends with string theory:

Pressure peels
threads from my skin, unravels

Into streams of floating string.

The title poem is an “erasure in reverse of Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting.”” It is an anaphora of “I am’s” that includes “I am my typewriter” (of course), along with “I am anarchy.”

The final poem in this series is “Offspring.” I read it as an ode, but it may be interpreted in a number of ways, as a good poem often can be. These lines drew me in, 

My tendrils pull me taut
tether me heavy to the dirt

where I can’t pull free
from root or worm.

You can download Trish’s microchap (and many others) and try your hand at origami. If you decide to submit your work, read their instructions carefully first. Not every chapbook earns the right to be a microchap!

Trish Hopkinson is a poet, blogger, and advocate for the literary arts. You can find her online at SelfishPoet.com and provisionally in Utah, where she runs the regional poetry group Rock Canyon Poets and folds poems to fill Poemball machines for Provo Poetry. Her poetry has been published in several lit mags and journals, including Tinderbox, Glass Poetry Press, and The Penn Review; her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017, and her most recent e-chapbook Almost Famous was published by Yavanika Press in 2019. Hopkinson will happily answer to labels such as atheist, feminist, and empty nester; and enjoys traveling, live music, and craft beer.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Burgi Zenhaeusern & Nancy Naomi Carlson

Hiding behind the Quotidian: a conversation with Burgi Zenhaeusern
by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020)–a smartly written exploration of what hides behind the quotidian–is Burgi Zenhaeusern’s debut chapbook, winner of the Harriss Poetry Prize. Ordinary animals and things become imbued with an undercurrent of violence, like the checkout plastic bag that longs “to choke something / along the creek” and the great blue heron with a “graceful dagger” beak. In Zenhaeusern’s universe, we learn to be wary, like the deer in Rock Creek Park with:

. . . a vague
sense of danger
that lets you hesitate
there on the side
of the road like
dusk gathering shape.

I was curious about the background of Behind Normalcy, so I reached out to the author to have a conversation through email.


Nancy Naomi Carlson: First of all, congratulations on the publication of Behind Normalcy! What does this publication mean to you vis-à-vis how you view yourself and your writing career?

Burgi Zenhaeusern: Thank you very much, Nancy Naomi! The gratification of being able to hold a book of my own is still sinking in, after many months. And I mean holding as in holding the object of my efforts, as if I had been kneading dough for a long time, and now my hands are tired, but satisfied—a sense of accomplishment and validation after all. Though I have been writing intermittently for very long, I didn’t come to poetry until about fifteen years ago, in my mid-forties. I had finally relearned to take my aspirations at least as seriously as I had been taking everybody else’s. In that sense, the chapbook is a culmination and an immense boost to continue no matter what. Especially as, with my late start, age has become a real factor, both in terms of working time left (I’m rather slow) and in how unfavorably age is perceived, even more so in the absence of a formal career (writing or otherwise). I was fortunate enough to have the choice not to pursue a salaried career. It is a whole other debate how good an idea that was, and one I periodically have to settle with myself. But it is without question what I wanted, even fought for.

NNC: Let’s talk about the title. How did this title come to you? Were there other titles you considered?

BZ: The title didn’t change from submission to publication. For a while, I thought I might reconsider. Then I forgot. By now, it has come to represent this book. I like the idea of taking a title from a fragment within the manuscript, sending the reader on a treasure hunt of sorts, which is what I did. The phrase “behind normalcy” appears in the poem “aubade/s,” which can be read in vertical columns as well as horizontally. It appears in the first such column: “behind normalcy a dark June day fattening.” Quite ominous. I felt ominous when I wrote that poem, still do for that matter. For the book I wanted a less definite phrase. And I’m happy with the choice, considering how nicely it corresponds with the cover, my photographer friend Alan Sirulnikoff’s image. Gregg Wilhelm at CityLit Press did a beautiful design job integrating it, heightening the suggestiveness of both title and image. And like so much of what has been written before the pandemic, “behind normalcy” has gotten an additional ring to it.

NNC: From what you’ve said, I know you didn’t write this book overnight. How long would you say this book was in the making?

BZ: In some aspects, it was written over the last decade, as the successor to abandoned manuscript attempts. It’s actually a much condensed version of The Pilferer, my latest full-length manuscript. In another aspect, all my life? I’ve been writing with breaks for very long. As a child I used to draw stories about elves and fairies, and the like—half drawn, half written. I wish I were as prolific and confident now as I was back then. By the time I came to the US from Switzerland, I had begun a novel, dropped it, began another, dropped that one too, and eventually stopped writing. It took realizing that I didn’t have to write in German and prose to find my way back to writing and a sense of vocation. Shifting from German to English shifted my writing from prose to poetry. My journey as a writer is very much a linguistic one as well. And then again, Behind Normalcy began with emigrating to join my husband over twenty-five years ago. Most of my poems echo my life since then, how I’ve come to call the US home. They explore becoming/being White (growing up in Switzerland I didn’t know I was White, everyone in my world was White at that time), unfettered self-identification, the privilege of being welcomed.

NNC: I’m struck with the richness of sound found in these poems, like this particular line about the great blue heron: “lunge after lunge against an ever urging need.” How does sound fit into your writing process?

BZ: Oh, I love sound. And rhythm and phrasing for that matter! Thank you for remarking on this line! It took years to write, the whole poem did. There was precision, absolute focus, and fluidity in the heron’s hunt. Any beauty originated in that alone, nothing else. Hunger is not a metaphor. I knew that from the start, but couldn’t convey it for the longest time. Usually, with sound I proceed intuitively, unless it’s jarring or draws too much attention to itself like an unintended rhyme for example. I don’t usually write in rhymes. I work with echoes. But I don’t plan them. I’m more attuned to rhythm and phrasing. As soon as a poem begins to take shape I read it out loud, make changes until I can read it without stumbling. And if I like it I might just go on reciting it for sheer joy. Until the next day happens, and the next. It all has to do with breathing. I used to play the recorder quite seriously, briefly considered becoming a musician even. A wind instrument teaches you to breathe and how to manipulate breathing for the sake of phrasing. That is how I revise and how I read, my own writing and others’.

NNC: Some would classify some of these poems as “experimental” in terms of form and syntax? Can you talk more about this experimental tendency?

BZ: I do enjoy playing with a text’s potential. Though form for me is rarely a poem’s original stimulus, nor a goal by itself. I just play around until I find a fit, and sometimes the answer is an object poem. It was the poet Molly Spencer who first noted this tendency and encouraged me to explore it. I’m very grateful to her for that! The other eye-opener was watching and hearing Tyehimba Jess read from his work, Olio, at the fantastic Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. What he does in Olio is simply amazing! I still remember how liberated I felt after his reading. I also like how the idea of play engages the reader differently. With explicitly interactive texts, the weight and importance of input from writer and reader is nearly the same. I mean it quite literally when I tell the reader “you are a poem’s lungs.”

NNC: Who are some of your literary influences? Any Swiss writers?

BZ: Since my focus had been on fiction for so long, ever since I’ve started writing poetry I’ve been trying to catch up with reading it, which includes the more traditional canon. But, my fascination is with what is being published now in the English speaking world. I’m pretty much out of touch with the Swiss and German literary scenes. As a writer I very much live and work where I am. Also, influence for me is usually temporary. It all flows into one big pool of wonders and possibilities. I’m inspired by so many writers. And the more I read the better my inner ear becomes. And my English language ear cannot get enough practice, believe me! I compare influence to dancing along others on the dance-floor. No matter the style, if they’re good, their dancing goes into my step.

NNC: Do you think your Swiss background has influenced your writing?

BZ: Difficult to say. I mean a lot of it has more to do with being a foreigner than with being Swiss per se. Cultural aspects come to mind, meaning that for a lot of things I lack contextual fluency: I came here with another country’s memory and consciousness. Google is my go-to place. A dictionary definition is a helpful crutch. But, so much of a word’s aliveness comes from its use, from growing up with it. And then there is the question of what sort of English is my English. Am I parroting, appropriating? Lots of pitfalls along the way. On many levels I felt I had to be reassembled when I started out in the US, similar to my pomegranate poem in Behind Normalcy. Ultimately, some part of me has never fully crossed. It hovers above the two worlds like a tree branching across the ocean. Foreignness—its outer manifestation in my accent—is a potential and a difficulty. I try to harness it. The question is finding my specific place in this web I now call home and speak from it.

NNC: You’re also a translator. How does the process of writing your own poems compare with the process of translating a poem?

BZ: Translation is a rare, always enriching foray from my usual practice of writing poems. When I translate, I’m in two languages at once, at least at first, something that doesn’t happen when I write my own poems. And I’m forced to step outside of myself, following another poet’s lead, like accompanying a soloist, if only in the sense of making a poem in another poet’s voice. I see translation as an ultimate act of reading. I don’t think my approach for translating a poem versus writing my own overlaps. The processes set out from opposing directions. It’s only during last revisions and fine-tuning that I use the same strategies for both, to improve flow for example: when the translated poem has been lifted into its target language completely, and I don’t have to constantly go back and forth to compare patterns, line-breaks, etc. I’ve never translated my poetry, nor written any in German, and the idea doesn’t appeal to me. And until it does, I won’t. But I love reading translated work of others, especially when I can follow the original.

NNC: What role does family play in your writing?

BZ: My writing has been largely autobiographical so far. In that sense family has provided important source material: the relationships, memories, and in my case motherhood. Family is stories, the ones I tell myself and how their telling changes over time. Family means rootedness for me, my origins, and what I make of them. Nothing is static, and hence everything is continually worth coming back to. Who knows where it goes. I suspect I’ll always write something or other about motherhood though. To watch my kid discover life and me learning alongside him is a never ending source of wonder.

NNC: What are some of your future writing projects?

BZ: While I hope to continue (after all, questions of place and Whiteness remain as relevant as ever) I’m no longer sure about how. Though I don’t have existential worries right now, I feel profoundly interrupted. The paradigm has shifted. Meanwhile, I’m still sending out The Pilferer, reading as much as I can, and writing the occasional review. My latest project began before the pandemic. It picks up threads from my previous work, including Behind Normalcy, and it implies some research. But for now, new poems are down to a trickle and the project lies dormant. I hope to pick it up soon.

BZ: Thank you again, Nancy Naomi, for your questions. I’ve greatly enjoyed trying to answer them.

Burgi Zenhaeusern is the author of Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Harriss Poetry Prize. Her work appears in various online and print journals. She volunteers for a local reading series and lives in Chevy Chase, MD. Find more at burgizenhaeusern.com

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, essayist, and editor, has authored 10 titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length collection of poetry, was named “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times. A recipient of two NEA literature translation fellowships, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. www.nancynaomicarlson.com

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Mary Ellen Talley

Mary Ellen Talley

Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her forthcoming chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” will be published by Finishing Line Press.

Jackpot

Jackpot, Jeanne Morel

Review and Interview by Mary Ellen Talley

Jeanne Morel’s second chapbook, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press, 2020), travels within a map of language and place. With mentions of North America, Parisian fountains, and the Mekong River in the rainy season in the first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” I knew I was in for an exploration of semantics and quotidian nostalgia.

For instance, which meaning of “pluperfect” is Morel addressing? If birthday parties are pluperfect, are such annual celebrations a grammatical reference to the past perfect tense, or should we choose the other meaning—that such celebrations are more than perfect? Morel presents an ambiguous choice. In several poems, Morel lists options for possible word meanings for readers to ponder. Many poems, adjacent or elsewhere, resonate with one another and it was fun to find and return to recurring details.

Morel does not plunge head-on into serious topics; she jumps in and out to surprise and delight, then moves onward. With sardonic vernacular, the first poem informs: “Upstream is where the shit begins.” The poem ends tongue-in-cheek:

Lordy, what an outfit
                        If you wear that, no one will take you seriously
                                    Not this Christmas

Not the day after that either
                        & out of the sky dropped a billion butterflies!
            Shimmering like olive trees, only orange and purple –

Take this to the boss
                        and best of luck

This chapbook’s thirty pages of inventive grammar in experimental free verse include the incidental as well as the substantive. We come across maps, rats, insects, Winnie-the-Pooh, planets, storage containers, and ice cubes, as well as politics, planets, nuclear bomb testing, astronomy, geometry, logic, and bits of colloquialisms. A bartender shows up as insects crawl over the fence in “Longer than the Wrong Road,”

The saloon doors slap behind me.
Butterflies flood the 
underworld. Where do you come

in?

In a recent conversation, Jeanne shared that “Many of my poems involve movement – and/or lack of movement. Many, like the first poem, collage multiple locations and times. I’m intrigued by what Kwame Dawes calls ‘the tension between the here and the there’ […] and the collage of memories.”

Morel is not a poet of abstract language, metaphor, or message. “I don’t think about images,” she said. “I think of gathering […] I follow sound. I don’t write into ideas or messages.”

Morel’s poems are not linear. Her lines hop, skip, and jump thematically but also remain circular as threads return and reverberate throughout. The box-contained poem “Splintering Tiny Soup Bowls Up Into the Sky,” opens up “Grounded in a place you can’t see,” like nested “Russian dolls comet-ing / across the sky.” As Morel goes about her poetic gatherings, she weaves in tidbits of information, such as “Prussian Blue, the color invented by / accident.”

Regarding poets important to her, Morel said, “I go to Marvin Bell for inspiration. He said art is a way of life, not a career. He advised students to read poets who don’t write the way they do. Some of my favorite poets are Richard Hugo and Philip Levine, even though my poetry isn’t anything like theirs.”

Several poems touch upon serious concerns, such as the U.S. nuclear testing in 1962 in “A-Bombs Over Nevada” or the reactions of an Iraq War veteran in “Given the Conditions.” Morel’s touch is light while offering information, insight, and juxtaposition. For example, she mixes “lullaby sun” with the  “slung fences” of the WWII internment camp in the sonically lovely poem, “Purple Over Tule Lake.”

Although these poems are not personal, the reader may infer snippets about the speaker/poet with her references to a student visiting during office hours, yellow roses outside a kitchen window, or the presence of a cat. In “An Unsuitable Home for a Cat,” Morel refers to the serious issue of nuclear waste at Hanford, Washington:

Richland wives in glasses
including Marge

Oh, don’t worry

about that – my mother in
law cracked

when I fretted
about radiation wafting

over after Fukushima

My buddy cat black
dances

In “The Next Day I Was Almost Done with Dinner When a Student Came & Pulled Up a Chair,” Morel writes,

Sounds like a circus spectacle – a jester jostling for power in the aisle
of the commuter bus. The medium is the message; the freeway the periphery; the bleats a form of saccharine.

In “Map,” Morel parses lists of words for parts of speech and idioms. She also throws in an assignment, as “Write a letter to a relative explaining the verb – to map. Mail it / to the president .” Assignments likely come naturally to her. Although she has been involved in refugee and resettlement work, she presently teaches as an adjunct professor at Seattle Central College and Bellevue College in Washington state. When asked about the impact of her teaching, Morel said, “My writing helps my teaching. It feeds my teaching.”

Few of Morel’s poems stay within the justified left. The margins meander in sentences or phrases, sometimes ending a short line with an article, which tends to create a pause. In more conventional poems, I might find this distracting, but distraction is part of experimental poetry, as it is in life. She also uses numbers, dashes, bullets, brackets, slashes, & ampersands and employs random segues, spare punctuation and semantic word play, often eschewing capitals or periods. An example of this is found in “Nobody Cares What Color My Coat is.” The poem begins with image and map:

I wrap myself in an alphabet for stormy
weather

& head across the pass     map-less & w/o a hat
and yet some days I can’t

leave the house unless I’m dressed     in blue jeans, a black t-shirt,
You have too many consonants & vowels in your name

[the real estate woman smirked

Morel addresses issues of our current situation in “Crawl City,”

When you are obsessed is no
time for pleasantries

the television of all night
convenience shops

a monitor monitoring our every move
above the cash register

while rats race labyrinths
/ in the space between

your hairline and your fine plucked
brows

This chapbook is a tall refreshing glass of water. Or perhaps a glass of wine? The title poem (also the last poem), “Jackpot,” presents “salmon, sagebrush // & Syrah.” There’s honest humor: “The only major / state of grace ka-ching / ka-ching.”

I noticed the circular juxtaposition with the first and last poems. The first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” begins with ascent,

Why did the balloon float over the fence? /
wind – helium & a string let loose –
All the fences in North America are at right angles with one another.

Then “Jackpot,” ends with descent:

Perchance
your lucky

number–drop a deep
blue blossom
on the carpet swirl/ watch
it fall
a stranger

Morel seems to be telling us that life is both a gamble and a roller coaster. She presents numbers and mathematics which give us odds that are less than we might predict. Perhaps we’re just in it for the ride. Sometimes we hit the “Jackpot!”

Jeanne Morel is the author of two chapbooks, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press) and That Crossing Is Not Automatic (Tarpaulin Sky Press). She holds an MFA from Pacific University and has been nominated for a Pushcart in both poetry and fiction. Her poetry has been published in great weather for MEDIAPhantom Drift, Dunes Review, and other journals. She lives in Seattle where she teaches writing and is a gallery guide at the Frye Art Museum.

Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her forthcoming chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” will be published by Finishing Line Press.

Title: Jackpot
Author: Jeanne Morel
Publisher: Bottlecap Press
Purchase at Bottlecap Press: $10


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, essayist, and editor, has authored 10 titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length collection of poetry, was named “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times. A recipient of two NEA literature translation fellowships, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. www.nancynaomicarlson.com

Nancy Naomi Carlson