Linera Lucas

Linera Lucas won the Crucible Fiction Prize and has had poetry and short stories published in Boomtown Anthology, Change Seven Magazine, Clover, Crucible, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Pindeldyboz, RKVRY, Spillway, The Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber, VerbSap, VoiceCatcher Anthology and elsewhere. She has a BA from Reed College and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, and has taught creative writing at the University of Washington Women’s Center, the Reed College Alumni Writers Workshop, and Hugo House.

A Nation (Imagined)

A Nation (Imagined) by Natasha Kochicheril Moni
winner of the 2018 Floating Bridge Press chapbook contest   

Review by Linera Lucas     

A Nation (Imagined) (Floating Bridge Press, 2018) is a lyric poem about love, grief, nature, and graceful endurance. The format is one long poem bookended by two short poems, and the story is a simple one: a man and a woman love one another, he goes off to war, she stays home, he dies and she continues to think of him. But the way Moni tells this story is anything but simple. Just because a book is short does not mean it is not profound.

The opening poem “And what if everything” makes it clear that this is going to be about death and memory. We are going back in time. First we are in a field of daffodils, and then we are in a minefield. The transition is brief and shocking, as if the reader is the one who is blown up. We start with sex and move to death where,

the pause after love
before love which is
now     You are in a field
of daffodils
– no –                                   
a field of living            mines 

If you bend left, death. If you bend right, memory. This is the prologue, the poem that teaches the reader how to read the rest of the work. Thank you, much appreciated. It’s good to have a guide, even if I’m not quite certain just how much I can trust the poet who is leading me onward. The long poem begins,

Remember the year you forgot to water my jade

and ends with,

Do you remember this?

Next, we are going to have the catalogue of what happened, in poet time, in real time, and in a mix of the two. I feel as if I had been given the chance to open a secret box, to read letters I am not supposed to know about, and I feel a little guilty, but I don’t want to stop reading.

Now the poet writes to her lover, telling him what has happened since he left, how she wishes he would write to her, then I turn the page and she says a letter arrived three years too late, that their tree will be firewood,

 Tomorrow
 our madrona
 becomes a cord
what will keep

                                      (our heat)     

And what will keep their passion alive, now that he is dead? This is a poem about coming to terms with grief, also about not coming to terms with grief. She wants to send him his chickens, tries not to weep, gives him a list of what she saw on her daily walk in the woods. She saved a wildflower from a young girl who wanted to cut and press it.

“They” (the ever present outside world), would like her to do various things, to be more like someone else, to behave in a recognizable manner, but she wants her lover to “enter and with care //   strike the lantern” . . . taste the apricots,

on your favorite plate              your favorite plate

the one                        chipped                       
from too much             loving.              

   

This might be my favorite passage in the whole book.

Then there is the bargain she wants to make at the end of this poem: “unwind your voice / from my inner ear and I will ” not steam open the letter written to him, which started this whole story. What is in that letter? I am not going to find out, and I like that.

And now the final poem, the other bookend, “Letter to a Lover Whose Name Spells Dark Bird.” This is, of course, a letter to Corbin, the dead lover. Corbin is a variation on Corbie, which is another name for crow or raven, birds of intelligence connected with death and messages from the dead. This poem has the kind of bargaining that deep grief brings, past pleading and near madness, but such resigned madness. Here’s how it starts,

Look, when you call – bring the basket

and here’s how it ends,

Meet me and we
will forget our bodies were ever anything but

a little salt, water                                   
waiting to be stirred. 

and in between is,

the year we spent a lifetime
sailing in the boat of our bed.

So that’s the last poem. I have read the story, and have been changed by it. What makes this chapbook so fulfilling is how real the grief and love are, how tender and fierce the poet narrator’s love for her dead Corbin, and then the ending, with the unopened letter. Because at the last, we never really know another person. We can guess at them, follow the clues from how their lives cross ours, but each person contains many mysteries.

Natasha Kochicheril Moni is the author of four poetry collections and a licensed naturopathic doctor in WA State. Her most recent chapbook, A Nation (Imagined), won the 2018 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Natasha’s writing has been featured in over sixty-five publications including Verse, Indiana Review, Entropy, The Rumpus, and the recently released Terrapin Press anthology, A Constellation of Kisses. As a former editor for a literary journal, a panelist for residency and grant award committees, and a chapbook contest judge, Natasha loves supporting fellow writers. She owns and operates Helios Center for Whole Health, PLLC, which offers naturopathic appointments, medical writing, poetry manuscript consultations, and writing and wellness lectures/workshops.

natashamoni.com 
helioswholehealth.com

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).

Bad Anatomy

Bad Anatomy by Hannah Cohen

Review by Siân Killingsworth

In Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018), over the course of twenty poems, Hannah Cohen opens a window for readers into a world of isolation, regret, and danger at the edge of the speaker’s self-destructive tendencies. Using a broad variety of poetic arrangements ranging from ragged free verse to restrained couplets to ghazal, Cohen allows herself to run wild with form. Wildness seems to be an underlying drive of this book, as poem after poem incorporates images of monsters, monstrosities, defiant wrongness, and a celebration of imperfection.

Cohen’s poems pull the reader into an already-running engine, a monologue in media res. Readers witness and listen to a speaker who reveals her deepest feelings and worst fears about herself as she recognizes their movements. This speaker is an unreliable narrator who confesses to drinking, making questionable and self-destructive decisions, and laments her own body’s betrayal.

The title poem, “Bad Anatomy,” appears early on and encapsulates the problems the speaker is grappling with. She feels not herself in her body, instead she feels that the “universe keeps me / betting against my conception,” and further admits she’s “unable / to divine the good.” As the poem ends, she claims defiantly that she doesn’t “need help / to empty my chest of its hope.”

The desolation and despair the speaker feels is the water this book is moored in, and the sense of bodily wrong pervades. In one of my favorite poems, the speaker morphs into a monster in “Self-Portrait as Grendel,” revealing,

I myself am half-hell
and half morning

/ / /

A new head, a different name,
but still my skin.

Cohen uses her speaker’s confessions to provide a context for a larger malaise. The book itself becomes a lament on the instability and inconstancy of a life, the missed opportunities due to the speaker’s struggles with pain, isolation, and depression. This speaker is willing to bare it all: to pull back the veil to show the feeling of being on the brink of something even more serious.

But before readers dive too deeply into the pit of despair with Cohen, she pulls us back with humor. A delicate stream of sarcasm or sometimes false bravado sparkles through the book, reinforcing the authenticity of this speaker; it is as if she were in your living room or at the other end of a phone. Witness this skillful play in her poem “Like Someone Driving Away from her Problems,”

even god doesn’t believe
in the rusty jesus-saves
signs can’t save her

The poem “Superficial” is where we really dig into the idea of bad anatomy. Here, the body has gone wrong and seems to be a stand-in for the speaker’s battered and distorted psyche. Opening with the horrified discovery of a specific type of birth defect, the speaker compares herself to babies “born with their intestines / outside their little baby bellies.” This gruesome image of bodies turned inside out serves up a metaphor for the speaker’s sense of self. Her own discomfort with her gut instincts and feelings are out for display, in contrast to the physical way surgery would be used to correct a birth defect. The intent of the poet seems to be to reveal the guts and gore and make us sit with the discomfort of existence.

In a gesture appropriate for this book, the final poem “Body as an Alberto Giacometti Sculpture,” refers to the stretched-out, abstracted human figures created by the sculptor (1901-1966), which are widely recognized as representing alienation, loneliness, and existential dread. This slim poem trails down one page and trickles onto the next with a blunt directive to the reader to see this alienation, the pose held by the speaker so that we may bear witness to it, this “beautiful arrangement / of flesh that isn’t love.”


I thought it would be clarifying to include an interview with the poet herself. Cohen was gracious enough to answer my questions, in this email exchange:

Siân Killingsworth: When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

Hanna Cohen: Like most writers, I started writing at a young age. I loved writing and illustrating my own stories and sharing my “books” with family members. As I got older, my writing interests shifted from writing stories to poems. I read Poe and Keats and Yeats. I wrote tons of garbage angsty poems as a teen. I still write garbage angsty poems—they’re just (hopefully) better written. I’ve written nonfiction (and am attempting to write fiction) but I primarily think of myself as a poet first.

SK: Where do your poems most often come from— do you use prompts? Do you overhear conversations and springboard off those? An image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

HC: It’s a mishmash of all the above! Sometimes I’ll hear a weird sentence out in public and write it down, so I don’t forget it. I mostly write based on how I’m feeling. There are certain themes I keep coming back to (identity, family, Judaism, depression, etc.) but I also like to write nonsense for the sake of generating lines of material. I don’t use prompts a whole lot since I don’t like forcing myself to write.

SK: Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?

HC: It’s hard to say who exactly influenced me, but the most obvious answers would be Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Lowell. Nowadays, I find myself reading Jewish poets such as Rosebud Ben-Oni, Rachel Mennies, and Erika Meitner. Though his writing style isn’t exactly seen in my work, William Butler Yeats continues to be a poet I return to.

SK: What are you reading now?

HC: I just finished The Book of Joan by Lydia Yuknavitch a few weeks ago, which was all parts amazing, slightly off-setting, and powerful. I had purchased the novel a year ago, so I’m happy I finally read it. The most recent poetry collection I read was Lauren Milici’s Final Girl and Emily O’Neill’s You Can’t Pick Your Own Genre double feature collection.

SK: Tell us a little bit about your collection: What’s the significance of the title? Are there overarching themes? What was the process of assembling it? Was is a project book?

HC: Bad Anatomy takes its title from a poem within the chapbook. I wish I could say I had a thorough process but really, I chose the title because it sounded cool. The book doesn’t have a true narrative but rather an emotional landscape of depression, isolation, lots of self-deprecating humor and even flashes of hope. There are other subjects present (drinking, body images, etc.) but those are the more immediate themes.

When it came to arranging these poems, it was important to have words and feelings “echo” each other. What’s on the surface of the poem versus the interior, and so on. I’m forever thankful to the poets who offered insights and edits into the order of the poems—crafting a collection really isn’t a solitary job.

Most of the poems in this chapbook were written during my time in graduate school. However, those poems didn’t make the cut into my thesis due to the different subject matter. When I learned that Glass Poetry Press was having an open reading period for chapbooks, I basically took those twenty-odd poems and compiled them into a chapbook. The rest is history.

SK: Tell us briefly how your poetry has changed since you began writing.

HC: I think I’ve become more particular about the weight of words, and where to place them within a poem. I’m also challenging myself to write poems about subjects that I hadn’t considered, trying on new forms, and allowing myself space to NOT write. Since I work a day job, writing time is far more precious than when I was in school.

 SK: What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

HC: If you can’t think of a title for your poem, just start the title as “Poem After/About/On [Insert Subject Here]”. It’s simple and direct. My newest poem, “Poem After Reading the Chapter in Stephen King’s It Where the Word “Kike” Appears Six Times” (forthcoming in Cherry Tree), is an example of this.

SK: What a great suggestion! I’ll try this in some of my newer poems. Sometimes I struggle with titles because I don’t want to be too obscure. This will do the trick, I think.


Hannah Cohen received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Virginia. She is the author of Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She is a former contributing editor for Platypus Press and currently co-edits the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Cherry Tree, The Rumpus, Berfrois, Entropy, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for Best of the Net 2018 and has received Pushcart Prize nominations.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).

Carry On (elegies)

Carry On (elegies), by Adam Deutsch

Review by Lennart Lundh

“Carry On,” the front cover says, coupling those two words with “(elegies),” and that’s a double-edged phrase, the title poem being about carry-on luggage. Adam Deutsch’s chapbook of twenty-five poems is double-edged throughout. On first reading, it’s very author-personal and self-referential, as elegies often will be, but a later, careful oral reading makes the poems reader-personal, universally affective, and quite rewarding.

It quickly becomes obvious that none of the poems are elegies in the confined, traditional sense. Even “Great Aunt, Winter, & Sun” (p. 15), while written “for Marilyn Adler,” makes little reference to the deceased, and is more about the graveside ceremony that will “never really fill the hole” felt by the family. The bulk are, however, clearly about some form of loss, the sense of loss, or the aftermath of loss.

“The Roads Will Be Closed” (p. 5) swings from a classroom non-incident to the Cold War of the Fifties that now can only haunt but not harm:


I was schooled, too,
and my parents,
their sisters and brothers,
looking at the bomb shelter signs
beside the basement doors.

           

Individually spoken, but perfect for the universal impact of today’s world, “Packing Heat” (p. 6) concerns itself with the loss of principles, saying of a job offer after a year’s unemployment, “I must wrestle down / genuine objection to wearing a gun.”

“What Cuts through the Woods” (p. 8) speaks of urban sprawl’s impact on community, saying, “We all drink from the same well.” in a foreshadowing of the title poem. “Carry On” (p. 20), with the accent on the first syllable rather than the cover’s suggested last, re-emphasizes the “we” to make its lines resonate with truly shared loss:

We’re exiles of an old country’s
long gone century, erased analog tape.

We’re plowing through this life
in our longings so mighty, a bird swoops
up ahead and is creamed by the bumper.

At the physical center of the book’s thirty-seven pages, a pair of poems bring us to the two sides of our elegies and rememberings. “The Center for Personal Growth is Next Door to Cremation Services” (p. 16) describes those who refuse to let loved ones go, ending a short list with the recognition that, “We’re of a people / who keep absence / near. Handy / as duct tape.” This sets the stage for “Strangers, Autumn, & Gray” (p. 18), with its dedication “for those in the City of Ithaca Cemetery.” It speaks, in twelve lines, of those who have let go:

A whole other mass, back in their ground,

/ / /

. . . the monuments
abraded smooth, generations’
worth of runoff, drizzle, and pour.

There are, of course, other things than death to be found here. We’re treated to small, but serious, observations. “Golden Hill” (p. 34) says of preparing food, “Every beet I cut / looks like a heart / on fire in a Mexican / art piece.” and later points to “a flower dealer / watching a woodpecker / with priorities in order.” In “Our Advances Are Not Unique” (p. 24), the subject is how “A sugar maple’s arms built a chest / around the block’s telephone wires . . .”, and the closing “Returning” (p. 37) leaves us with “An incredibly mysterious current event: a garage / door is wide open, waiting for anything.”

We often think of elegies in terms of someone else’s physical death. Deutsch’s work comes to remind us that parts of each and all of us are dying every moment, often unnoticed until later. There isn’t always time or reason to mourn or feel melancholy, not until the speed of life slows, or an absence catches us by surprise. The message, as well as the poems which convey it, are well worth the reader’s consideration.

 [BUY IT!]

Adam Deutsch is the publisher at Cooper Dillon Books, and has work recently or forthcoming in Poetry International, Thrush, The Cossack Review, Ping Pong, and Typo, and has a chapbook called Carry On (Elegies). He teaches in the English Department at Grossmont College and lives in San Diego, CA. He can be found at adamdeutsch.com

 

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).

Siân Killingsworth

Meet Guest Reviewer: Siân Killingsworth

Siân Killingsworth’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Stonecoast ReviewGlass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist),Columbia Poetry Review, Mom Egg Review, Ekphrastic Review, Oakland Review, and Mudfish. She has an MFA in poetry from the New School, where she served on the staff of Lit. She is a current board member of the Marin Poetry Center.


Read more about her at www.sianessa.com.

She May Be a Saint

She May Be a Saint, by Sarah Nichols

Review by Siân Killingsworth

Sarah Nichols’ micro chapbook She May Be a Saint (Porkbelly Press, 2019) is an enigmatic exploration of a chimeric speaker, recounting the disintegration of a former identity and the darkly lyrical creation of a new self.

This book is composed of seventeen centos—short poems created entirely from lines and phrases selected from works of Sylvia Plath and C.D. Wright. It seems to me that Nichols chose these two poets’ works because the source poems are densely packed with images that are easy to pluck from a poem and repurpose. Only a few of the lines are recognizable because Nichols so expertly weaves them into a new, unique series of portraits. Admittedly, I have not read a lot of Wright, so her voice seems to me wholly subsumed in this creation, while Plath is still distantly identifiable – but perhaps only because she and her work have been so mainstreamed into contemporary consciousness via movies, anthologies, stories and the ubiquity of her most famous poems.

These poems are brief, with short lines comprised of few words. As a collection, She May Be a Saint is incredibly tight, as each poem builds on those preceding it in a lyric narrative that has a clear, multifaceted arc. It begins with the revelation of a self. The self goes on to describe her creation and we understand that it is in fact a re-creation in response to an unnamed trauma. In employing the voices of these other poets, Nichols creates an unsentimental speaker who describes a unique experience.

The speaker, “an unidentified woman,” opens in the first poem, “Once I Was” by inviting the reader to,

            Call me the
            Duchess of nothing 

To self-identify in this way, the speaker permits readers to acknowledge some measure of her stature and its simultaneous absence. A prominent member of European royalty, a duchess (or duke) ranks immediately below the monarch, yet to style oneself “the Duchess of nothing” is to suggest the meaninglessness of such a title and also to herald the imminent revelations of her dominion found in the poems that follow.

The religious elements of saints are jettisoned in favor of a more pagan supernaturality. The title is taken from Plath’s poem “Poem for a Birthday: Maenad,” and appears in “Once I Was,” signaling to us that this poem and the series that follows focus on re/birth and a watery spirit concealing (and revealing) her rage. In “Neat,” the water spirit is named again: the “undine-like maiden” is the blood running through veins.

Self-erasure is a thread that runs through the book. This Duchess notes “old happenings, / erased,’ and through the book makes oblique and overt references to her body being “a // coil, / blasted.” The speaker erases herself in order to create herself anew. Female saints of the past are known to have starved themselves, often to death, in the name of their religion, and their religious life was often founded in lieu of marriage. This physical diminishment has long been regarded as a form of self-effacement, and these acts were subsequently rewarded with sainthood after death. So, the Duchess, in a roundabout way, is the titular saint by way of self-negation.

Beginning in roughly the Middle Ages, some Catholic girls and women fasted to the point of developing anorexia mirabilis, a condition of self-induced starvation that often led to death. Their intention was to leverage physical suffering to get closer to God. Notable sufferers include Catherine of Siena and Saint Wilgefortis, both of whom took vows of chastity, abstained from food, and prayed for ugliness in order to avoid arranged marriage. Lack of food regularly led to these proto saints seeing visions and hearing voices, phenomena that led to a transformation from mortal to saint. In She May Be a Saint, the voices of others have been reshaped to speak for her – both Wright and Plath are manipulated and effaced so the Duchess’ own voice may come forth.

Many of the poems in She May Be a Saint refer to language, words, writing, ink, and carbon– a word with multiple meaning, calling to mind to the carbon of typewriter ribbon, carbon as replicated pages of print, the carbon graphite “lead” inside a pencil, and finally, carbon as the basic element of life. The Duchess replicates herself through telling, writing. She “drafted a / fictitious life.” Perhaps this is exactly what we’re reading: a juxtaposition of language, experience, erasure, rebirth. The opening poem again lays down the framework for this notion:

I poke
at the
carbon of it,

an end to the
writing.

Words to rid me
of

me.

As an opening statement, this powerful self-negation sets the stage for the Duchess to recount the traumas of the body, its difficult recuperation, and the novelty of a created identity with which to begin anew. About halfway through the chapbook, in “Invisible Wounds,” the Duchess reveals that she suffered an unnamed trauma twenty years in the past that forced her into “dormancy.” This is perhaps the reason for her original self-effacement. Rather than taking readers through therapeutic dissertation (as some poets do) that allows her to work through the trauma, the Duchess prefers to eliminate it and claim a new life entirely.

Since the speaker’s identity evolves continuously through the course of these portraits, it can be somewhat difficult to pin down because of this flux. We are witness to her body’s disintegration, its pain and the lessening of pain via drugs, we learn in “The Mask Increases” how her “bones soften,” yet all the while, she reveals, “I think I have been healing.” She “inhabit[s] a doll’s body” and later, in the poem “Other Bodies” seems to acquire a new body, which she calls “My new instrument.” With slightly eerie nod to gothic horror, the Duchess pulls back the veil on her wounds, tenderness, fear, resignation, and (spoiler!) a hint of threat at the end.

Nichols’ micro chap is spare and concise, but each poem is crisp, brimming with electricity and mystery. As a reader, I was left feeling somewhat breathless, as one might feel after watching a psychological thriller. The Duchess’ self-immolation and regeneration is a gift to readers, letting us closely observe and feel the transformation from a wounded spirit to a powerful one full of potential and intent.

Sarah Nichols lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the author of eight chapbooks, including This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl, 2018) and Dreamland for Keeps (Porkbelly Press, 2018.) Her poems and essays have also appeared in Five:2: One, Otis Nebula, The Fourth River, and FreezeRay.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).

Café of Unintelligible Desire

Café of Unintelligible Desire, by Julia Caroline Knowlton

Review and Interview by Jeri Frederickson

Julia Caroline Knowlton’s Café of Unintelligible Desire (Alice Greene & Co., 2018), draws you in like the gentle beauty of a side street café. You might find you’ve spent hours there over a cup of tea, having the entire range of human emotions swirl around you in this charming and delicate place. Knowlton begins the collection with a poem titled “Invitation,” and dares us to:

Tell me what is more sacred—blood
or wet ink? Tell & I will
press your voice into the wind.

I was drawn in by this “Invitation” and the lyricism of her words. Café of Unintelligible Desire fills me with a sense of affirmation and calm, as if Knowlton was reaching across a café table and speaking to me honestly, with commanding clarity. Her poems show how the most complex events and relationships in our lives often go unspoken, and yet, those are the events and relationships that often shape our lives the most. In the title poem, Knowlton writes,

. . .  Lately in the café
we realize we owe each other nothing,
only two irises & twenty tiny crescents.
            Outside, it is quite a different story. 

Knowlton holds our attention with lyrical words that give meaning to the events and people in our own lives. Then she releases us from any obligation to continue holding onto those events or relationships and to continue living our lives.

In “Bad Mother,” Knowlton begins,

I gaslit you twice. Once at the fancy pool
when I told you that the chardonnay
in my Coke can wasn’t really chardonnay.
            Your furrowed brow after tasting it,
wet strands of hair striping your face,
            adorable swimsuit with blue Hawaiian flowers.

The frank openness of the speaker stands in direct opposition to the deceptive events in the poem. As someone who frequently wishes for the power to read minds, I love that Knowlton gives her readers this power throughout the collection. We get to see what is underneath the narratives we knew weren’t quite what they seemed on the surface, and this honesty brings about a catharsis.

*****************************************

Julia Caroline Knowlton is a poet to look for at readings and in print. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Knowlton read her work. Her poems flow just as beautifully in a public reading as on the page. A new full length collection of poems, One Clean Feather, is available for pre-order now at Finishing Line Press.

I was able to ask Knowlton a few questions regarding The Café of Unintelligible Desire:

Jeri: The chapbook opens with the quote from Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au Voyage, “Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté; / Luxe, calme et volupté.” What is your preferred English translation of this passage, and what can you share with us about it?

Julia: The best translation I can offer is “There, everything is order and beauty; / Luxury, calm, and sensuality.”  I could write quite a lot about this epigraph, since it sums up Baudelaire’s entire poetics.  His poem is an invitation for the reader to leave (flee?) reality and go to a more comforting place of beauty.  It was also a love letter to one of his beloveds. For Baudelaire, the space of the poem is an ideal, almost sublime place.  The complication, though, is that although we may access an ideal poetic space through reading and writing and contemplation, we have to live our everyday lives in the broken space of reality.

Jeri: Your writing seems to remove all that is unnecessary, revealing only what must be said. And yet, the words themselves are so full that I don’t wish for more lines or more words in any of the poems. How did these poems come about? Did you go through many drafts to get to the sleek versions or did some of them come out as they appear in the chapbook?

Julia: I was greatly influenced by the Parnassian school of French poetry when I did my PhD in French literature back in the 1990s.  That school developed in the 19th century, and its main aesthetic was restraint and precision. The poet Théophile Gautier urged poets to approach the poem like a sculpture that would be sculpted out of the “block of marble” that is language.  I care very much about the economy of word and image, and I am, indeed, relentless in my own work about stripping away every single word that is not crucial to the poem.  As far as revisions, most of my poems only go through two or three versions.  They are already pretty spare when they “hit the page” for the first time.  The titular poem, “Café of Unintelligible Desire,” however, went through dozens of revisions, interestingly.  I wrestled with that one for two years.

Jeri: “Café of Unintelligible Desire,” is possibly my favorite poem in this collection. Somehow, as your reader, I get to feel smart and playful and my heart breaks and is made stronger all in these twelve lines. How did this poem come to be the title of the chapbook? Can you tell us about the “we”?

Julia: Great question!  I recently shared the story of this poem at two readings I gave this summer.  The poem was “inspired,” if I can say that, from a bad date!  I met a man for coffee in a café where I go frequently to read and revise and grade papers. This was about four years ago.  It went badly; it was obvious that there was no potential connection, despite the attempt.  Leaving the setting, I thought about how complicated intimacy is for most of us—we want it, but it is elusive, or fragile, or fleeting.  This applies to emotional intimacy (friends, family) as well as romantic intimacy.  A thunderstorm rose up in the sky as I left.  That is evoked in the last lines of the poem, to contrast the interior of the café with the outdoors. 

Jeri: Throughout the chapbook, Mary Shea’s illustrations serve as almost an epilogue to some of your poems. How did the pairing of poems and illustrations come about? How does this add to your own experience of reading the chapbook? 

Julia: Another great question!  My wonderful editor in Ann Arbor, Jill Peek, solicited the cover art. The story of the cover art is memorable.  Mary Shea had produced her painting, a study of Bonnard, but was dissatisfied with it.  Consequently, she tore it into pieces.  After she read my manuscript, including my poem entitled “La Femme de Bonnard,” she pieced & taped it back together!  She told my editor: “ruining it saved it.”  I love that statement: sometimes we have to “ruin” something in our creative process in order to move forward.  Sometimes we have to break down some kind of form in order to create new form.  Regarding her illustrations, my editor gave her the freedom to create what she wanted to create for the interior illustrations.

Jeri: Finally, based on the poems in this chapbook, I’d love to know, do you write in cafes? What is your favorite time and place to write?

Julia: I do not compose new poems in cafés, because I need to be alone to compose.  However, I do revise in cafés.  I like the “beehive” of activity in my favorite café—the scent of coffee and pastries, music, people working and talking.  I grade papers for my teaching job and read and revise poems in my favorite café, which is located near Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, where I teach.

 

 

Julia Caroline Knowlton is Professor of French at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. She holds MA and PhD degrees in French Literature and an MFA from Antioch in Los Angeles. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets College Prize, her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Raw Art Review and The Roanoke Review.  She is the author of the memoir Body Story and the poetry chapbook Café of Unintelligible Desire.  Julia was a finalist in the 2018 NYC Center for Book Arts chapbook contest and a 2019 nominee for Georgia Author of the Year.  Her first full-length collection of poems, One Clean Feather, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press.  She is available for interviews and readings: juliacarolinefr@gmail.com 

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).

Word Hot

Word Hot, by Mary Meriam

Review by Jeri Frederickson

I wish my younger self could read Mary Meriam’s Word Hot. Anyone who needs to nurture their younger or inner selves should read this chapbook and draw in the courageous yearning for a body, for love, and for a muse. I keep coming back to Meriam’s hypnotizing sense of the body, the beauty and depth of nature, and her courage to reach out for a muse who will stay.

Living in an urban setting, I often long for nature. Meriam weaves nature throughout this chapbook like a love letter to those of us pining for the woods and the moon. The poem, “Cave In” brings us nature as a muse and a lover:

The forest sighs for succulent romance.
The moonlight jiggles in a modern dance.
The waiting window holds the weary tree.
The midnight branches tap. Come back to me.

Meriam plays with words like a lover might play with the lines on my hands. When I read Meriam’s poems, I am connected to that feeling of delight, of exploring something special and new.

Several of the poems in Word Hot are sonnets. While some of us first encountered Shakespearean sonnets in boring high school classrooms, Meriam blows the dust off my recollection of this form, and funnels the depth of a human soul into her sonnets. In “Thoughts,” she begins with:

Some thoughts are too unbearable to think,
but still they rock me nightly, tidal waves
of worry, thoughts that knock me off the brink,
drown me, and bury me in shapeless caves.
Some thoughts are faces I once knew, and some
remember voices, visions, trouble, thunder,
and some thoughts dwell on what I have become.

We connect with Meriam’s speaker in these poems because we identify with how hard and private it is to think thoughts that “are too unbearable.” Meriam wields the rhymes in her poems with an ease that allows her reader to relax, even in the midst of “tidal waves,” as she guides us. In another sonnet, “Country Music,” Meriam writes:

choosing which way I walk away from home,
kicking the leaves, as if my incomplete
existence could be saved without you near,
as if a wish could make a muse appear.

Meriam writes with the heartbeat rhythm of a sonnet and fills these rhythms with a sense of questioning and craving for something the speaker is not able to have. That sense of questioning or lacking is a human feeling that we all cope with, and Meriam’s writing makes this part of our common humanity a courageous and worthwhile experience.

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I wanted to find out more about how these breathtaking sonnets were born
and how Meriam approaches writing about the body and nature. I had the honor of being able to ask these questions in an interview.

Jeri: Word Hot was published in 2013, and now, in 2019, I’m hoping you can talk a bit about this bridge of six years. How does Word Hot continue to push your writing now? Are similar poetic forms, ideas, people, or places informing your writing today?

Mary: A muse is an inspirational goddess, and Word Hot seems to be invoking a muse, particularly one named Lillian Faderman. I’d been reading her books for the first time. I was, and still am, very grateful and tremendously moved by her work. I’ve always felt that I was too much: too sad, in too much pain, too intense, too needy, too lesbian. But Lillian’s books made me feel accepted, strong, brave, loved. I felt for the first time that there was a lesbian culture I could belong to, and it was alive in her books. I hoped to make poems that were just as alive. The muse is invoked at the beginning of epics, and Word Hot is the beginning of my own little epic, The Lillian Trilogy.  

Jeri: As a reader, I was drawn into the way you explore the beauty of the body and of nature. How did you set about weaving flora, stone, weather, etc. through this chapbook at the same time you were weaving the body, especially the body of a female muse or lover, through your poems?

Mary: I write intuitively, so exploring and weaving for me is about the nuts and bolts of reading, listening, looking, feeling, waiting, hoping, trying, failing, workshopping. Since I live in a wilderness of forest, mountains, lake, I’m very in touch with nature in my body of work.

Jeri: Some of your poems reach out to a person or idea and wish for a change or a specific response. Where do you wish a reader will choose to read Word Hot? If you could give your reader a place, what would that place look or feel like?

Mary: An island. A grassy cliff over the ocean. A group of girls and women in loose tunics and baggy pants who have just finished dancing, and are now sprawled around, each with Word Hot in hand. When it starts getting dark, they run to a living room and read the poems out loud. (Actually this sounds like where I went to college, Bennington.)

Jeri: “To Lillian” is beautiful. Tension holds this poem together, but it comes off so effortless on the page. In a poem like this, do you allow yourself to explore where the poem is going and discover what you want to say, or do you know when you’re writing what the map is for the poem? 

Mary: Thanks. I love writing in received forms, like this sonnet, partly because they are a map. It’s a pleasure and relief to be given a rhyme scheme, along with a set number of lines and feet. Then I follow my nose to see where it takes me. The first line draws me in. The search for rhymes opens new doors. Iambic pentameter keeps my syntax in line. The metrical heartbeat listens to my heartbeat. I’m dancing in a place I’ve danced in many times before, so I know the moves. I enter a trance and the lines appear from some deep place. I wait till I hear the truest words in my mind, then write them down. After handwriting the first draft, I type it, then scan it and make revisions. Sometimes the poem feels finished quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t work, so I set it aside and wait. It could be years before I understand the poem, so I never throw away first drafts. I wrote some free verse poems around 1979 that I couldn’t accept or understand until 2019. I thank myself for saving the first drafts of those poems for 40 years. I’ve been periodically reading and wondering about the poems all these years, and finally feel so happy with them that they’ll be in my next book. 

Jeri: “So Close” includes quotes from both Mary Sidney and Shakespeare. How did you come to use these lines in this poem? 

Mary: In 2004, I saw a tiny mention in Newsweek about Robin Williams’ work on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Williams’ book, Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? is full of compelling arguments that Mary Sidney is the true author. The two quotes sound “so close” to my ear, it’s hard to believe they were written by two different poets. That tiny mention had a gigantic effect on me. Something broke open, and I suddenly felt free of the oppressive canon that had dominated my education. I began to write a lot of sonnets, studying Shakespeare’s along the way. In contrast to many others, my scansion of the Sonnets found almost entirely strict iambic pentameter. I workshopped my formal poems at the online forum Eratosphere, where experienced formalists kicked my butt, as it were, when my form was off. The upshot of Shakespeare and Eratosphere is that for many years, most of my poems were strictly metrical with very few substitutions. Now I move in and out of form as the spirit moves me. 

Mary Meriam co-founded Headmistress Press and edits the Lavender Review: Lesbian Poetry and Art. She is the author of My Girl’s Green Jacket (2018) and The Lillian Trilogy (2015), both from Headmistress Press. Poems appear recently in Poetry, Prelude, and Subtropics.

Review by Jeri Frederickson

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).

Jeri Frederickson

Meet Guest Reviewer: Jeri Frederickson

Jeri is a writer and freelance editor finishing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Antioch University. Her poetry has most recently appeared in print in Thought Collection and Vines Leavesand online at Thank you for swallowing. She is the editor of online magazine Awakened Voices. She is also a freelance theater director and an ensemble member of Irish Theatre of Chicago where she has served as the Literary Manager and Associate Artistic Director. She currently fosters healing through the arts in Chicago as the Creative Director of literary, movement, and visual arts at a Chicago nonprofit organization for survivors of sexual violence. Instagram: @lifeplayedonstage