They Become Stars: History as Poetry

They Become Stars by Liz Marlow was the Slapering Hol Press’s 2019 Chapbook winner.

A Conversation with Deborah Kahan Kolb

When I first held Liz Marlow’s chapbook They Become Stars (Slapering Hol Press, 2020) in my hands, I was struck by the beauty of this finely crafted book. It’s a work of art to be carefully read and absorbed. The haunting photos, on the cover and throughout the slim volume, demand to be noticed, as Marlow’s poems about one of history’s darkest eras demand space in the reader’s heart and mind.

I reached out to the author to ask her about her inspiration and process for this work.

Deborah Kahan Kolb: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. How would you describe your experience working with the editors of Slapering Hol Press as they shepherded your chapbook into being?

Liz Marlow: Thank you! I had an incredible experience working with the editors of Slapering Hol Press. They believed in my chapbook and provided solid suggestions for revision but gave me the creative license to revise as much as I wanted. However, I found that all of their suggestions and questions helped elevate my work in one way or another. Even if I thought that one of the editors might have misunderstood a line, I took it to heart and saw that the entire line or stanza was weak and needed to be revised. Even though the chapbook was published over a year ago, I have applied their general suggestions (such as playing more with enjambment and connecting images more thematically) to poems that I have recently drafted. I honestly could not have imagined a better experience.

DKK: Your work touches me deeply, not only because of its evident merit but because the subject speaks to me personally, as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Many Holocaust poems I’ve come across treat the topic in overarching, all-encompassing terms. Yet you manage to individualize the general atrocities, even to the point of making this brutal time in history accessible, in a way, by detailing specific places, names, and dates. What inspired you to delve into the particular historical figure of Chaim Rumkowski?

LM: My great-grandparents’ brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins did not have the means to come to the United States before World War II. As far as we know, all of those family members perished in the Holocaust, because my great-grandparents stopped receiving mail from family members in Europe shortly after Germany invaded Poland. I wanted to piece together what happened to them. As I researched towns in which I know for certain my family lived and potential ghettos where they might have been deported, I stumbled upon Chaim Rumkowski: Judenrat Chairman of the Łódź Ghetto. What drew me first to him was the fact that he was both a victim of Nazi exploitation and a sexual predator. Some historians believe that had the war ended a year before it did, he would have been considered a hero for how many Jews he saved, because the Łódź Ghetto was the last that the Nazis liquidated due to him establishing more than a hundred factories inside the ghetto for Nazi supplies. As arguably the most powerful Judenrat Chairman in Nazi Germany, there is no way of knowing exactly how many women and children he sexually molested. Therefore, as I read about him, I wanted to give those powerless children a voice in my work. My goal was to get as specific as I could so that a reader could not walk away without remembering what happened to these children. I wanted these dead children to regain power. Even though he was an extreme personality, there were many extreme situations during the Holocaust, and over two hundred thousand Jews were sent to the Łódź Ghetto throughout World War II. Since he was Judenrat Chairman of the ghetto from its establishment in October 1939 until its liquidation in August 1944, his influence and power affected all of those people.  Additionally, even though these poems are detailed with specific dates, the experiences are universal in many ways in how some people in power exploit the powerless and in how some individuals will do whatever it takes to survive difficult situations while others give up.

DKK: Throughout the collection, but especially for speakers Miriam and Shayna, you use strong, colorful images of candy and fruit: “green gummy bears,” “tart apples,” the colors and flavors of “candy pebbles” in “Miriam Arrives at Chaim Rumkowski’s Orphanage”; and “plump/like plums” and “overripe cherries” in “Shayna Sees Chaim Rumkowski for the First Time.” Can you describe the connection of these images to the work as a whole?

LM: Because most people who have read about the Holocaust remember images of Muselmänner—starving humans reduced to skin and bones, I thought that the juxtaposition of starvation with descriptions of types of food that Jews had little or no access to in the ghetto world (such as fruit), would emphasize that hunger. In my mind, a person like Shayna, in her hunger, would be obsessed with food and see it everywhere—even in people’s faces. Additionally, Chaim Rumkowski was known for sexually exploiting women and children in the ghetto and in the orphanage where he worked before the war. To me, that was an extra layer of horror during an already horrific time for Jews. As I read about him, what struck me the most was the fact that he had control over who received the limited special food items (such as candy and fruit) and used that control specifically for the exploitation of children. Therefore, I was drawn towards using candy throughout the chapbook to highlight that exploitation.

DKK: Music—its sound and texture, its instruments, its connection to memory—is another powerful vehicle that drives many of your poems. How do you use music to convey ideas as they relate to the sounds of the Holocaust?

LM: It was extremely important to me that music be a driving force in the chapbook, because I had based the character, Miriam, on a real young musician Holocaust victim who loved music and played extremely well for how young she was up until Rumkowski molested her. Because she haunted me while I wrote the chapbook, there were times that I tried to imagine how she would describe the world around her. For example, even though the child that Miriam was based on had already died (via a Nazi guard) when the Vel d’Hiv roundup took place, I had her in mind when I wrote the “sound” section of “Vel d’Hiv Roundup of 7,000 Jews Detained in a Cycling Arena.”

DKK: The ghostly photographs included in the book add an element of otherworldliness to a collection rooted in the specifics of the young victims’ lived realities, their suffering and terror. What do the photos of these children express and how do they add texture to your poems?

LM: Lynn Butler created the double exposure photographs used for the cover and pages in the chapbook, which include a Jewish orphanage in France where all but three of forty children died in Auschwitz, overlaid with those child victims. Because the first three poems of the chapbook take place in a Jewish orphanage in Łódź, I thought of Lynn Butler’s work as photopoetry to accompany my poems. Since the photos of the children are negatives, they are ghostly. Even though her photos are from a different orphanage than the one I wrote about, they are appropriate to me because out of over 10,000 known school children from the Łódź Ghetto, there were only 27 known survivors. Miriam is a ghost. Shayna is a ghost. The children dancing on the cover of my chapbook are ghosts. I tried to do what Lynn Butler did with her photos—put faces to child victims from the Holocaust. Lynn Butler’s photos of the children were originally included in The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy by Serge Klarsfeld. I am extremely grateful that she worked with Serge Klarsfeld and the editors at Slapering Hol Press so that those photos could be included in my chapbook.  

DKK: Tell us about the Stars in the title of your book. I suspect there’s more to the title than the obvious connection to the yellow “Jude” stars of Nazi Germany.

LM: The title came from a poem that was originally published in Wilderness House Literary Review. This poem was included as an introductory poem in earlier drafts of They Become Stars, but I ended up taking it out, because its form did not fit with the rest of the chapbook.

Exits

cities’ stale facades crumble
like stacks of crackers
roaches, rats got into
everyone
exits

on never-ending roads
made of death
marches
cattle cars
gas
vans

each pebble forming roads
represents a lost man
woman child stars
become them
as they
become
stars

I wanted readers to make connections to celebrity, since I am sure that a large part of why Chaim Rumkowski did what he did was to survive the war and be praised as a hero for saving so many lives due to the choices he made (or rather, the choices that Nazis encouraged him to make). He wanted the power and status that people associate with celebrity—this is why he rode through the ghetto in a horse-drawn carriage while other inhabitants were crawling and starving to death. Another reason for Stars was the obvious association with celestial bodies: 6,000,000 people who wore yellow stars died. That is such a large number that is like looking up at the sky in the desert and trying to count the stars.

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview. I am extremely grateful for you giving They Become Stars such a close read and coming up with such insightful questions.


Liz Marlow’s debut chapbook, They Become Stars, was the winner of the 2019 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition and was published in 2020. Additionally, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, The Rumpus, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband and two children. Find more at lizmarlow.com


Title: They Become Stars
Author: Liz Marlow
Publisher: Slapering Hol Press, 2020
Price: $15


Deborah Kahan Kolb is the author of Escape of Light and Windows and a Looking Glass, a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest (Finishing Line Press). Much of her work is informed by the unique experiences and challenges of growing up in the insular world of Hasidic Judaism. Deborah is a two-time recipient, for poetry and fiction, of the Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award, and her work has been selected as a finalist for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Deborah is the producer of the award-winning short film Write Me, adapted from her poems. Her writing is published in 3Elements Review, Lunch TicketMom Egg Review, PRISMRise Up Review, The New Verse NewsVerse Daily, and others. Deborah is currently at work on a novel of linked short stories. For more, please visit deborahkahankolb.com.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Postcards from the Lilac City

Postcards from the Lilac City, by Mary Ellen Talley

Review by Sylvia Byrne Pollack

Mary Ellen Talley and I have attended many of the same workshops over the past decade, and I was already familiar with her work when I learned of the publication of her chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City (Finishing Line Press, 2021).  I’ve heard her describe this chapbook as “nostalgia-based,” but if nostalgia/memory is the seed from which this collection of poems sprouted and thrived, then I say keep on tending this tree. The fruit is delicious.

I also was drawn to this book because my mother loved lilacs. When I was growing up in Western New York, we drove to Rochester, NY each spring to the Lilac Festival in Highland Park. That park was the source of the lilacs that now flourish in Talley’s birthplace of Spokane!

Postcards from the Lilac City is an homage to place and era. However, it is not limited to Spokane, WA, known officially as The Lilac City, or to Talley’s school years. There’s a wide range of topics, from eating yak butter while traveling to baking shamrock cookies for the family.

The book is prefaced with a poem describing Pan’s infatuation with the wood nymph, Syringa, whose name is the genus name for lilacs. Three sections follow: “Bike Riding Before Helmets,” “Spokane Postcards,” and “After Vietnam.”

“Bike Riding Before Helmets” focuses on the poet’s early life. In “End of the Trolley Park,” we encounter the carousel where her parents first met. Strong sounds and dense details such as “two Chinese dragon benches / breathe fire” enhance the visual effects. They pick up the reader, carry us to another time, but by the end of the first section of the poem “The stallions are sleeping” and “The cemeteries are full / of riders.” The rebirth of the carousel in 1975, is told in declarative voice, rich with physical and emotional details, “as memories glisten spinning counterclockwise.”

The memories are mixed. For example, there is the contrast of a bomb shelter vs. the protection provided by the presence of the Poor Clare Monastery in “faith in the lilac city” –with the all lowercase title adding an ironic twist. A sometimes-troubled relationship with her father resolves into understanding in “As I Pursue You”:

what I most recall is your steady hand
grasping the back of my bicycle

and running beside me until I could not fall.

Talley uses various poetic forms—even a duplex. In a Jericho Brown-inspired poem, “Duplex: We Had a Real Fred and Ethel in the Lilac City,” we meet Talley’s parents, the real Fred and Ethel, to whom the book is dedicated.

The final two poems recounting the speaker’s childhood relive teenage years. A Stone Man on a festival float brims with not-so-latent adolescent sexuality. My favorite of this group is “Butterfly” which captures teenage brio in the speaker’s casual description of herself:

I, in my herringbone pleated skirt,
blue anklets and white Peter Pan collar,
history and French books tossed in the back seat.

The poem includes the maneuvers required to start her hand-me-down car: opening the hood, flipping up the butterfly hinge, getting into the car to turn on the ignition, getting back out to flip down the butterfly, then idling in PARK while listening to the radio and watching her classmates head off to the bus. She then has an hour to spend with her boyfriend under a lilac (where else?) before picking up her mother. So much of a teenage life is captured in 34 lines.

The poems in “Spokane Postcards” contain the eponymous postcard poems. The first stanza of each is a description of place, the postcard image, followed by a message, generally from Mary Ellen but sometimes from her grandma. They have the feel of a flipped over haibun.  The descriptions include place, season and senses. The messages use the casual voice of postcards to family and friends.

“Shadle Park” extends the teenage romancing of “Butterfly” with brief declarative and imperative lines: “Kiss the space between his teeth.” And, later, skin evokes the omnipresent lilacs:

pull petal soft sheer layers
from burnt skin.
Drop it all on an ant hill.

Probably the funniest line in the book is in the poem “Wandemere” in a message to a friend about experiences while traveling in Asia: “I am still so Spokane.”

The final section, “After Vietnam,” includes poems of marriage and maturity.  In “The Things We Carry,” memorable lines, such as “you and I carried desire / like youth’s cranking jump rope” are juxtaposed with dense descriptive passages. Later in “Fabric of Worry,” we find Talley’s judicious use of white space.

An homage to Gertrude Stein, “Occupation of Lilacs,” overwhelms the senses with the sight and smell of lilacs, in true Stein fashion. The lilting “Prism” delights with its nursery rhyme rhythms and nonsense, e.g., “Old onions cry out once pumpkin seeds twinkle.”

The poem, “Since you ask how do we love a sibling (enough)” uses a clever device. Lines are divided into two columns and lines in the right hand column in each stanza begin successively with H,E,L,I,X. The poem further explores and pulls together family stories we heard about earlier in the book. It is a moving tribute to family and the DNA ties that bind.

In the final poem, Talley considers “the movie of my life” in a taut, beautiful series of images of a tapestry,

ripped
in those years of hanging
beside a stone staircase.

There is much to savor in this eclectic collection of poems. Talley takes us on a carousel ride through time and space and in her quiet voice returns us a little more grounded, more appreciative of family, more aware of the beauty that leavens life.


Mary Ellen Talley was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, the Lilac City, and then migrated to Seattle where she and her husband raised their two children. She earned degrees at the University of Washington and worked for many years as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in Seattle area public schools. Her poems have been published in numerous journals including Raven Chronicles, Banshee, What Rough Beast, Flatbush Review, and Ekphrastic Review, as well as in six anthologies, among which are All We Can Hold and Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace. Her poetry has received two Pushcart Nominations. She reviews for several journals including Compulsive Reader and Asheville Poetry Review.



Title: Postcards from the Lilac City
Author: Mary Ellen Talley
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Price: $14.99
ISBN: 978-1-64662-317-4



Sylvia Byrne Pollack, a scientist turned poet, has published in Floating Bridge ReviewCrab Creek Review and Clover, among other print and online journals. A two-time Pushcart nominee, she won the 2013 Mason’s Road Literary Award, was a 2019 Jack Straw Writer and will be a 2021 Mineral School Resident. Her debut full-length collection Risking It is published by Red Mountain Press (2021.)



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Call My Name

Call My Name, by Heather Wyatt

Review by Diane Elayne Dees

It’s hard to ignore a chapbook that includes a poem whose first line is: “I saw my ass on the news last night.” Heather Wyatt’s Call My Name (The Poetry Box, 2019) is filled with such detailed observations, often delivered with skillfully detached humor, and always presented with rich and precise imagery.

In “File Footage,” the above-referenced poem, Wyatt writes:

Almost like a heart, it bobbled,
a teeter totter unaware of the camera.
This isn’t good. I said to myself.
I put down the cookie dough.
I predicted this would happen one day.

Call My Name is part memoir, in that the author sometimes takes us back to her childhood and some of the important characters who shaped it. It is also a collection of her keen observations of everyday events and objects—things that make up a major part of our lives, but which we may tend to ignore. Wyatt pays close attention to them, and reminds us that they have meaning, even if we have sometimes been unable to find the words to convey that meaning. In “Nostalgic Scroll,” she runs through a list of sensory memories:

miniature teapot I begged my mother for after Aunt
          Frances died
yellow crocheted purse from Great-Grandmother Maude
fallen hair from Barbie on Salon day
sand dunes perched on the coast of North Carolina
          littered with kites donning images of
          superheroes
sixteenth century forts, lighthouses bigger than life
          and miles of white beaches in St. Augustine

And in “Full of Grace,” she laments the unfortunate existence of a neglected statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Made of stone,
she stands prim,
high, cream
stone against
the brick wall,
nailed
to a black
L bracket
looking over
the leather
teal sofas,
and the television that never stops running
the news ticker.

I lived in New Orleans for much of my life, so I was immediately drawn to “After My Second Hurricane,” in which Wyatt perfectly captures the city’s sometimes shocking ambience:

The streets of New Orleans smell
like old trash filled
with aged, Creole spices. . .
. . . Purple and gold beads
were flying at my head.

The author’s childhood memories include finding her grandfather’s golf bag in the attic, digging “to China” in the red mud of her yard, eating canned ravioli and watching The Price is Right at her grandparents’ house, and losing control of her crutches and falling down twice at her great-grandmother’s funeral. In every case, these memories are enhanced by Wyatt’s keen use of imagery and her attention to detail, as they are in the poem, “The Price is Right”:

Grandpa would
pluck the strings
on his guitar
until he heard
creaking floor boards
that meant Grandma
was coming to tell
him to stop.

I spent every
summer this way,
reclining, looking
at the wood paneling
on the walls.

One of the most poignant poems in the collection is “A Caged Bird,” in which the author describes a sick bird:

Your curled beak and nails
grasp at the wires—
you squawk when you can
catch your breath,
The latch that keeps you caged
comes unhinged and the door opens.

You don’t leave.

Even more affecting is the haunting title poem, “Call My Name,” which is the first poem in the chapbook. In “Call My Name,” Wyatt describes the failing mental and physical health of her aunt, who is in a nursing home. But the poem is really about the author’s reaction to witnessing the demise of her family member:

This is not the first
or last poem I will write
about you.
This time I am trying
to decide what I want
from your house
that you can’t fit
in your tiny room.
How can I choose
what I want
to take with me?

We haven’t even had
a funeral for you.

The poet describes the patient’s condition in painful and startling detail, such as in this passage:

The closet is your refrigerator
and you are on the kitchen floor
and you are in the fabrics department
and you are working.
You fold the same stiff, sterile sheet
for hours and look desperately
at the oxygen machine to give
you a price for the discounted fabric.

Wyatt’s poetry is spare and focused, transporting the reader directly to the scene, and all of the emotions and sensations surrounding it. Call My Name is evocative, emotive and and often humorous. Heather Wyatt closely observes everything, including herself, in this beautifully written collection. The result is poetry that nudges our memories, validates our feelings about events large and small, and calls us to be observers of our own experiences.



Heather Wyatt is a teacher and writer by day and food TV junkie by night. Her first book, My Life Without Ranch, from 50/50 Press features that love of food, but also explores the dangerous relationship we can all have with it. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and has a slight obsession with her two dogs. She both graduated from and instructs English at the University of Alabama.

She received her MFA from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky in poetry. Several of her poems have been featured in a number of journals including Number One, Puff Puff Prose Poetry , The Binnacle, ETA, Writers Tribe Review and many others. Her short story “A Penny Saved” was published in Perspectives Magazine in 2018. Her essay “Self-Defense” is in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, September 2018 and her essay, “Hot AF” is in the magazine Robot Butt.

Follow her on Twitter @heathermwyatt or visit her website at heathermwyatt.com for more information.


Title: Call My Name
Author: Heather Wyatt
Publisher : The Poetry Box ( 2019)
Paperback : 40 pages
13 : 978-1948461283


Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. Diane is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming chapbooks, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died, and The Last Time I Saw You. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana, also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Fossils on a Red Flag

Fossils on a Red Flag by Amelia Diaz Ettinger

Review by Nancy Knowles

The US military has made a habit of using beautiful islands for target practice while also destroying animal life, fragile ecosystems, livelihoods, cultures, and even people. Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, is one example, about which Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner has evocatively written. Culebra, in Puerto Rico, is another.

Inspired by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Amelia Diaz Ettinger wrote her chapbook Fossils on a Red Flag (Finishing Line Press, 2021) about the Culebra Island Naval Defensive Sea Area and Naval Airspace Reservation. The Navy reserve was created in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for training purposes. Culebra is an archipelago of 11.6 square miles with a population, according to the government website, of 1,868 people. The chapbook begins with the Executive Order 8684, establishing the naval reserve, and presents nineteen poems that move through time from 1941 to 2017, when deadly Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Diaz Ettinger writes from her own experiences visiting Culebra for scientific study as a teenager in the 1970’s and from her vantage point today as a retired educator and an expatriate Puerto Rican now living in Oregon.

Echoing the protests of the culebrenses that took place in the early 1970s and resulted in the discontinuation of the Navy’s use of Culebra, Diaz Ettinger’s collection decries the extensive damage to the environment. She uses the motif of half-life, the scientific term that identifies the time it takes for a substance to decay to half its potency, to probe how long it will take for the archipelago to recover from being used as a bombing range. Among the damages done to the archipelago were destruction of bird and turtle nesting sites, destruction of coral reefs, radiation contamination of land and seafood due to leaching from munitions, and the threat of unexploded munitions. In the poem, “1968*half life,” Diaz Ettinger brings the reader right into the destruction of bird life:

They were parents here, and aunts
and siblings.
They knew and fed each other’s chicks.
//
The inferno that followed
charred the anxious waiting families
sitting peacefully at their nests.

The poem “*1970 half life” starts with the epigraph “I have my orders. / We will blow up some / more on Monday.” The poem depicts the detonation of missiles lodged in coral, a bombing that resulted in native fishermen’s loss of livelihood:

Two hundred feet from the explosion
the coral was sliced as by a divine indifferent knife,
white spots already spread, where life had been blasted.
The shore filled with the glassy eyes of fish.

Diaz Ettinger’s collection also depicts the culebrenses in protest against the US military. The poem, “Claro Feliciano, a citizen of Culebra” describes how this 74-year-old man experiences the “ghost” of the Navy’s radiation poisoning in the cells of his body. It is like “skeletal fingers,” or like “fishbones / that turned to steel.” In “*1970 half life,” the culebrenses, in response, stand outside the naval base within range of “sharpshooters / poised on the occupied hill” and sound “Seventy conchs strong / singing / with the willingness of a hurricane.”

The collection reflects the history of Puerto Rico as a colonial landscape—site of displaced native populations and imported African slaves, colonized by the Spanish, won as a US territory as a spoil of war, disenfranchised in US politics, routinely mistreated and ignored by the US government, and now essentially bankrupt. On behalf of this population, Diaz Ettinger’s work demands that Americans notice the pattern of destruction, both ecological and sociological, to American lands and to fellow American citizens.

A third strand in the collection is Diaz Ettinger’s own life experience in this landscape. She recalls herself as a teen oblivious to the politics of life on Culebra. In “Queen Conch I,” she arrives as a scientist studying “birds and turtles,” “wrapped in loud youth.” A highlight of the collection is “Cebu Poem: Loggerheads and Leatherbacks,” which depicts a youthful love affair among the science crew:

Once in the Caribbean brine,
away from the prying eyes of my father,
lost in the blue with the smell of fish-bones on our skin
I gave myself to you, soft as the inside of a mollusk.

The young people are oblivious to the destruction around them, this time other young people stealing protected eggs. The contrast between the lovers and the destroyers speaks to the irony of attempting to protect rare species in this devastating context. Here, even young love fails:

Plundered nests before the sun entered those waters,
under the fading eye of Yucayu,
just as you left without saying adios
leaving me alone on sand, ocean, and new discovered fire.

Fossils on a Red Flag ends with a poem, “Dedication: After Hurricane Maria,” that depicts the poet looking at Puerto Rico and Culebran politics from the vantage point of years and of the Continental US. Her mourning for the people and places of her childhood is palpable in “baskets of loss.” In this poem, she calls readers to “Witness!” With this command, we are instructed to notice destruction and cruelty. We should take action in helping those who are suffering, and to have sympathy–also for the poet, safe in Oregon, watching with grief the desolation of her home.

In the poems of Diaz Ettinger, as well as those by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, the personal is political and so is the poetry. Diaz Ettinger’s chapbook is art that both delights us and motivates us to live better.


Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Amelia Diaz Ettinger has written poems that reflect the struggle with identity often found in immigrants. She began writing poetry at age three by dictating her poems out loud to her uncles who wrote them down for her. She has continued writing poems and short stories throughout her life. Her writing took a back seat while she raised two wonderful human beings and worked as a high school teacher. Now retired, she has renewed her writing with fervor. She has published three books of poetry: SPEAKING AT A TIME (redbat books, 2015), LEARNING TO LOVE A WESTERN SKY (Airlie Press, 2020), and FOSSILS ON A RED FLAG (Finishing Line Press, 2021). She currently resides in Summerville, Oregon with her husband Chip, her dog Oso and seven unnamed chickens.


Title: Fossils on a Red Flag
Author: Amelia Diaz ettinger
Publisher : Finishing Line Press (February 19, 2021)
ISBN-10 : 1646624424 ISBN-13 : 978-1646624423
Price: $14.99


The daughter of two architects, Nancy Knowles began her career in education as a school model, posing as an eager student in publicity photos for her parents’ business, which focused on designing K-8 schools. In addition to earning degrees from UCLA, Humboldt State University, and the University of Connecticut, she worked in business management in the entertainment industry and taught English at a summer camp in Japan. She has taught literature and writing at the college level for almost 30 years.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

3arabi Song

3arabi Song by Zeina Hashem Beck


Review and Interview
by Issam Zineh

Zeina Hashem Beck’s 3arabi Song is a collection of 17 poems of deep intimacy.  The individual poems come together as an exploration of grief and joy.  There is a tremendous sense of place and our relationship to it: longing, homecoming, comfort, exile, return.  There is a specific version of discovery in this work.  It is not quite sudden revelation.  It is more closely what song often reveals as completely understood truth, if not yet articulated until that exact moment of utterance. 

The collection opens with “You Fixed It,” a kind of ode that introduces key themes which appear throughout the remainder of the book.  These issues—familial intimacy; private and collective sorrow; a distinct and simultaneously equivocal sense of identity (for example, in terms of relationship to one’s country); a very particular kind of steadfastness; the power of music to sustain (and subvert)—are only some of the vast richness that gets treatment throughout this engaging book. 

These ideas are quietly but fully on display as the poem lists the ways in which the unnamed “you” overcomes the most existential of difficulties (often disguised as the domestic and the mundane).  It is no accident that the first challenge is fundamentally one of orientation:

And if the compass broke you fixed it, fastened
the pencil to it with a rubber band

The struggles of daily living accrue, and it is in the how of this accumulation where Hashem Beck’s genius lies—the musical coexistence of beauty and struggle brought to bear on the page (and through the spoken word).  The poem’s ending is the point of departure for everything that comes in later poems:

and if your sorrow hardened you fixed it
by dipping it in sea water, and if your country
hardened, if your country hardened you fixed it by dipping it in song.

3arabi Song not only rewards through its language and imagery, but in its poetic forms.  The collection’s five ghazals skillfully contend with ancestry and remembrance (“Ghazal: The Dead”), displacement (“Ghazal: This Hijra,” “Ghazal: Back Home”), and personal and national identity (“This Country: Ghazal for Abdel Halim Hafez,” “Ghazal: Samira Tawfiq Sings a Love Poem”).  Hashem Beck beautifully memorializes the renowned Arabic singer and actress Sabah (“…Not mourning with a ‘u’.” Yes, the thing that shines.”) in “Pantoum for Sabbouha,” one of several poems in which she pays tribute to divas of the Arab world, including Fairuz, Umm Kulthum, and others:

I imitated the walk, the hands
back then, the way she dared to say batata.
‘I had no fear of age, of death,’
she could’ve said in an interview, ‘No fear of men.’

3arabi Song is enhanced by, but not beholden to, the traditional forms.  Perhaps two of the most interesting poems in the collection in terms of both content and structure are “Listen” and “Naming Things.”  In “Listen,” we find ourselves part of a family dealing in real-time with the possibility their son and brother has been killed by an explosion at the local mosque.  The imagery is stunning:

It explodes,
the mosque, this Friday,
the laundry, the domes of
boys’ arms, the sumac … The Chiclets in the street.

… The sea, still. The children, the figs almost bursting.

Additionally, the power of the poem generates in no small part from its form.  Centered on the page, the poem’s two sections appear as two hourglasses stacked upon one another, each mirroring the other, each section narrowing to a point and expanding again.  The composition excellently serves as visual metaphor for the pinpoint focus that can occur during the instant of tragedy, while symbolizing the disintegration of time and the vacillation and alternative realities we create during times of trauma to avoid acceptance.

In “Naming Things (for refugees, September 2015),” Hashem Beck deals with the issue of our times, the “our” being at minimum the global diaspora, a population that continues to grow predominantly due to ravages of endless war and the climate crisis.  Formally, this long poem centered on the refugee crisis connects its stanzas through repetition.  Lyrical power and drama are amplified by this approach (below are the first and last lines of the initial stanzas):

Angels—
we saw them on the railway,

[. . .] on their wings.


Wings—

[. . .] about our cat


Cats—

[ . . .] refuge refuse bins

Country—

It also uses English, written Arabic, transliterated Arabic, and “Arabizi”, which reinforces the inextricable relationship between the multiple cultures and sensibilities in these poems:

My hips—
are heavy
are child-bearing
child-killing
are lover
do not fit those
train windows
these fences
this escape this

Ra7eel
so much in my 3arabi depends
on ra7eel on

3awda
a5 ya baba

And while not radically experimental in form, “Naming Things” is innovative in how it brings together formal elements and languages to create an unrelenting litany of harmony and disruption that undergirds the subject matter. 

As I read and re-read 3arabi Song, I found it to be so many things simultaneously.  I wondered about the collection’s origin story, its idiosyncrasies, its original reception, and its relevance several years after publication.  I had a chance to sit down with Zeina Hashem Beck virtually to exchange on some of these questions.

Please click here to read the conversation between Zeina Hashem Beck and Issam Zineh . . .

Title: 3Arabi Song
Author: Zeina Hashem Beck
2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner
Cover art by Yazan Hallwani
ISBN: 978-1-931307-30-

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her second full-length collection is Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017).  She’s also the author of two chapbooks.  Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets, Poetry, Southeast Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere.  She lives in Dubai. www.zeinahashembeck.com

Issam Zineh is a Los Angeles-born, Palestinian-American poet and scientist.  He is author of the forthcoming chapbook “The Moment of Greatest Alienation” (Ethel Press, Spring 2021).  His poems appear or are forthcoming in Clockhouse, Fjords Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist), Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere.  He also reviews for The Poetry Café (https://thepoetrycafe.online).  Find him on Twitter @izineh.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Zeina Hashem Beck and Issam Zineh

In a Day and a Night: Review of 3arabi Song and a Conversation with Zeina Hashem Beck

Read Issam Zineh’s Review of 3arabi Song here:

“As I read and re-read 3arabi Song, I found it to be so many things simultaneously.  I wondered about the collection’s origin story, its idiosyncrasies, its original reception, and its relevance several years after publication.  I had a chance to sit down with Zeina Hashem Beck virtually to exchange on some of these questions.” —Issam Zineh

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Issam Zineh: 3arabi Song is a work of deep relevance.  There is an authority that derives from lived experience.  Can you talk about your experience in originally putting this collection together? 

Zeina Hashem Beck: Most of these poems came to me after August 2013, when two mosques exploded in my hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, and my cousin was shot on the street.  He didn’t survive.  I was also watching what was happening in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  So first came some poems of grief, but I didn’t want the collection to be just about that.  I find a lot of joy in Arabic music, and back then I listened to it as a kind of balm, and that’s how the music poems originated.

IZ: One of the noteworthy aspects of this collection is that there are multiple points of entry for the reader.  I feel like you might have very different relationships with these poems depending on, for example, whether or not you grew up with Arabic culture.  Can you comment on this generally – how you think the work might be deferentially experienced based on the presence or absence of cultural points of reference the reader brings to the poems?

ZHB: This wasn’t really something I thought about as I wrote 3arabi Song—I just followed the poems which came in waves, if I recall correctly.  I simply needed to write these poems, so I wrote.  Once I was closer to publication, I chose to include a “Notes” section in the end, to give a little bit of context to some of the pieces, as well as explain some words/expressions in Arabic for the reader who might not be familiar with the culture.  I assume this was helpful, but I wonder now whether this was necessary; I think readers should be able to experience the poems regardless, and that they should also be able to google to know more.  I’ve certainly done this for poems where the context or some references weren’t familiar to me.

Regarding reception, yes, I imagine the poems would resonate differently with different audiences.  An Arab audience at a poetry reading, for example, would smile and nod in recognition, though this doesn’t mean that an audience not familiar with Arab culture wouldn’t be able to tap into the language of the poems.

IZ: There are aspects of these poems that seem like they have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  On the one hand, this book feels very local.  It seems very particular to the “Arab experience”, to maybe even the expatriate or immigrant experience.  On the other hand, it was selected from over 1700 manuscripts [editor’s note: 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner] , so it clearly has a universality to it.  Can you talk about this balance between the “local” and the “global”?  Did you have a sense that despite the specificity of the subject matter, the poems would appeal to a broad readership and resonance?

ZHB: As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t thinking about all this at the time of writing.  I believe that when poems come from a true place, they resonate.  Also, I’m not a big fan of universality because it usually means white; do people consider Paris, for example, a more “universal” city than Tripoli?  And if so, then what assumptions lie under this?  The universal is in the local.

IZ: And even then, it strikes me we have a problem of translation.  I find Arabic figures of speech in particular nearly impossible to translate.  There is gravity, drama, soulfulness, multiplicity to the language that is challenging to precisely capture in another language.  And yet you do this in remarkable ways through context and poem notes.  Talk about this linguistic challenge.  Did you find it a challenge at all?

ZHB: A poem is always about some kind of translation for me, and I don’t see that as a problem, but rather a searching.  And I’ve always existed between languages, so I was writing was felt real to me.  

IZ: There is a video of you reading “Naming Things” during the Split This Rock Poetry Festival (2016), which completely opened this poem up for me, and by extension the entire collection.  Specifically, there’s a kind of sacredness and implicit spirituality even in the common dialogue of the people that I think in some ways I took for granted growing up in an Arabic-speaking household.  Then in hearing you perform, this really sort of unleashed the divine lexicon of Arabic expression.  Can you talk about the importance of the spoken word in these poems?  Do you think they gain something in particular from being read aloud?

ZHB: I don’t believe in divine languages.  If I were to think of Arabic as divine, I wouldn’t be able to work with it.  As for performing poetry, this is something I genuinely enjoy doing as a way of sharing and connecting.  I also start reading a poem out loud the minute I start writing it, because I like to fill the room around me with the sounds of it. Reading it out loud is writing it.  

IZ: I’m thinking of how even in conversational Arabic, there is common reference to the divine even in completely secular conversations.  For example, the customary response to “How are you?” being “Thank God”.  It strikes me that there is something built into the language that lends itself to certain explorations.  You mentioned you have “always existed between languages.”  Can you say more about how this has shaped your poetics?

ZHB: My mother language is Arabic, then comes French, then English at the age of 12.  And even within the Arabic, there’s the spoken Lebanese dialect and the official Modern Standard Arabic (which was what we learnt at school, what we read in books, and even what we heard on TV in Arabic cartoons at the time).  So to a certain extent, there’s always more than one language in my head and my sentences, and that’s not uncommon in Lebanon.  English definitely became the language that’s easiest for me in terms of writing, and that’s probably because my university education was in English, though I think the spirit of my poems lies in how I personally use English and at times 3arabize it.

I keep wavering between almost-regret and oh-well when I think that I don’t write in Arabic, and I’ve recently been thinking about audience. Perhaps what’s important is the language of poetry, no matter what tool you’re using to reach it.

IZ: Some of the greatest musical icons of the Arab world show up in this book (Umm Kulthuum, Fairuz, Samira Tawfiq).  These names are very familiar from my childhood and, I suspect, the childhoods of many but not all (perhaps not even most) of your readers.  Can you talk about this construct and what you were hoping to accomplish by coming at the themes of this work from the angle of Arabic music?

ZHB: Arabic music gave me joy in a difficult time, and I found myself writing these tributes to singers I love.  I don’t recall the first one I wrote, but it might have been the Umm Kulthum one. After that, I decided to continue with these tributes more deliberately, considering the singers’ lives, what their music invokes in me, and the current political moment.  There’s always been a close relationship between poetry and music as art forms for me: they both sing, and they both have the capacity to move us almost immediately.

IZ: I came to engage with this remarkable collection reluctantly.  I carried it with me throughout my house for days, assuring myself I would start reading it “today” – until today became a series of past events.  In hindsight, I was nervous about what I would be asked to contend with.  What would this work reveal about me – about my relationship to culture, to country, to family?  Can you talk a bit about these themes in your work?

ZHB: Grief and joy. Loss and music. Exile and home.

I appreciate you describing what you went through before you started reading, and struggling with these thoughts can be a good interrogation.

IZ: Earlier this year, I came across an article in which Aarushi Punia contemplates the role of memory in Palestinian literature.  Among its many functions, she writes of memory as “an act of protest and resistance.”  She asserts that literature, then, “extends the resistive act of remembering and creates a sense of community through the narration of memory.” “Remembering,” she writes, “is an ethical act.”  It is against this backdrop – memory (and by extension “song” as arguably the most poetic and defiant form of memory) as the difference between cultural (sometimes literal) life and death – that I entered 3arabi Song.  A lot has happened in the world since the 2016 debut of 3arabi Song.  Can you talk a bit about what you see as the role poetry has to play in this particular moment with respect to resistance, and even perhaps self-preservation?

ZHB: Memory is indeed important in 3arabi Song, but I would argue that in the case of Palestinian literature, it’s even more important.  As a Lebanese, when I write about Tripoli, my hometown, I’m writing to remember my childhood and perhaps to mourn and celebrate certain events.  But I can and I do go back to my Tripoli every year, whereas Palestinians are either incapable of going back to their stolen land or living under apartheid.  Here, writing/remembering becomes even more of an act of survival and resistance, as Punia mentions, because there are forces literally conspiring to erase you. Many of the poems in 3arabi Song go beyond Lebanon, of course, so I understand where your analysis comes from, and I was certainly writing for Syria, Palestine, and Iraq to remember and resist.

As for the role of poetry, yes, I believe, in my heart of hearts, that poetry is subversive just by asking you to slow down and reconsider, reimagine. However, I’m afraid you’re catching me at a time where I’m struggling to tap into poetry. This has to do with what’s been happening in Lebanon for the past few months (a revolution started in October 2019, a major economic crisis now, attempts to crack down on free speech); I found myself overwhelmed by the news and unable to process anything through poems. I feel a little bit estranged, though I know that I’d eventually return.

IZ: Shortly after we initially connected, controversy emerged around the publisher of 3arabi Song which raised, among many issues, questions about reconciling the art itself and the platform that makes that art accessible.  Would you care to comment?

ZHB: I thought a lot about whether or not to comment on this here.  Shortly after you’d asked me for an interview, I learnt things about Rattle that don’t align with my values.  I canceled a reading that was scheduled with the magazine and decided not to submit to it anymore.  I wondered whether I should refrain from talking about my own chapbook.  I wondered whether I should talk about it and not mention this at all: why shift the energy in this space that’s meant to celebrate my work, which shouldn’t be associated with Rattle’s moral failures?  Weren’t many literary institutions problematic?  I’m proud of my poems and shouldn’t be doing such mental labor (especially as an Arab woman living abroad) because of an editor’s decisions that I wasn’t aware of until recently.  I also struggled with the fact that 3arabi Song was well-supported by Rattle when it was released.  But what does it mean, when a magazine supports your work and the work of people you admire while at the same time gives space to pieces you find harmful?  When it praises a poem written “for” a gay man from the perspective of the Pulse shooter, for example?  I was angry I had to spend so much time troubled by this instead of writing poems or being with my kids or trying to process the goddamn collapse happening in my home country.  Sadly, it seems this is a luxury that writers from marginalized communities writing in this language (or perhaps any official language) do not have.  I’m not interested in idealizing or demonizing, but I ultimately decided to mention this so that other poets who don’t know, who perhaps like me come to poetry from outside the academia and the US, could consider, learn more, and decide.

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her second full-length collection is Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017).  She’s also the author of two chapbooks.  Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets, Poetry, Southeast Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere.  She lives in Dubai. www.zeinahashembeck.com

Issam Zineh is a Los Angeles-born, Palestinian-American poet and scientist.  He is author of the forthcoming chapbook “The Moment of Greatest Alienation” (Ethel Press, Spring 2021).  His poems appear or are forthcoming in Clockhouse, Fjords Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist), Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere.  He also reviews for The Poetry Café (https://thepoetrycafe.online).  Find him on Twitter @izineh.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Teaching While Black

Teaching While Black, by Matthew E. Henry

Review by Risa Denenberg

We teachers of color can feel so torn, so defeated, so at a loss to reach some of our children and parents that we sometimes forget why we decided to teach in the first place […].
Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City —Pamela Lewis

After reading Matthew E. Henry’s poetry chapbook, Teaching While Black, I came across a number of articles and essays by Black educators regarding the experiences, longings, and burdens they confront working in public education in America. The problems are vast, exacerbated by poverty, racism and cultural ignorance; by undervaluing and underpaying educators; by underfunding public schools and diverting educational dollars to private schools; by abandoning arts education; and by being forced to “teach to the test” rather than being freed to teach students how to think and problem-solve for themselves. In the quote above by Pamela Lewis, she answers the question of “why we decided to teach” with these words,

[ . . . ] to uplift the people of our communities, to make students who feel invisible feel visible again, and to give them the confidence they need in order to want to achieve.

While Lewis is advocating on behalf of children of color in classrooms in New York City, she also speaks for teachers’ highest aspirations for all students in classrooms everywhere.

Henry is an educator with such aspirations, who also feels deeply the frustrations incumbent upon being a Black teacher working in schools with a majority of white educators and students. God bless him for that, and even more so, for the frank, humorous, and compassionate poems in his memorable chapbook, Teaching While Black.

The preface poem, “my third grade teacher,” places the daily experience of a Black child front and center. This is where invisibility begins, Henry tells us, as a teacher “explained skin” to him by stating that his face “lacked / the ability to bruise or blush.”

Growing from child to teacher in the classroom, Henry wonders how it is possible that he has “only been called “nigger” once by a student—at least / in my presence—and that under his breath.”  He wonders facetiously “if I’m doing something wrong” if “I may need to make them more / uncomfortable with my skin.” The poem ends with this musing:

so it was surprising, struck me as odd,
that it only happened when I told a while boy to put his phone away—
the straw that broke his fragile back. deferred his dreams.

The second section of the book is mainly devoted to a dissection of sexism by a compassionate and knowing witness of the pervasive sexual abuse experienced by girls. Overheard in the classroom, someone says: “I don’t understand why a woman would wait / 36 years to say something.”

In “little red,” Henry portrays how futile are parents’ warnings, and simultaneously, how this works to stifle girls’ curiosity without protecting them. We can only nod and sigh, as “little red,”

rides through her hood
her mama’s words in mind:
keep to familiar, well-lit roads
and don’t talk to strangers,
wolves wear any disguise that fits—
a badge, a stiff white collar.

While teaching Roethke’s “Waltz” to his class, exploring the tension between two possible views of the drunk papa, Henry notices a student who is silent in the classroom. He reports,

Katherine’s stillness split my heart.

Later she explained her stepfather’s demand
of a demon’s dowry: how she nightly endured
his endless gropes and gasps, in a silence
which left her sister untouched.

The poems in Teaching While Black are brim-full of compassion for students’ palpable tragedies, despite their often ignorant and arrogant ways. One girl recounts how she mops up after her drunk mama in “happy birthday for Ashley,” while another girl’s “cotton sleeves conceal hash marks of silence” in “show, don’t tell.” A boy,

finds
his father’s body
just where the old man left it
note pinned to the coat
hung limp around his shoulders,
final spasms timed
for an after school arrival

In the final section, there are more harrowing narratives including the time “the school resource officer […] almost shot me in my class.”  The final poem in the chapbook, resets the clock from teacher back to childhood, in “when asked what I learned in in elementary school being bussed from Mattapan to Wellesley.” Among the lessons learned, Henry recounts:

what they think is appropriate: to treat Black hair
like a pregnant woman’s belly,

//

how to be a chameleon: to code-switch;
to bite my tongue instead of theirs;
to make excuses for them

 //

to endure the cultural appropriation of slang.

I applaud Henry’s humanity, his decision and dedication to teaching; and his ability to write about these experiences so forcefully and with so much grace.

TEACHING WHILE BLACK
Matthew E. Henry
Mainstreet Rag Publishing Company, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-59948-785-4
52 pages
Price $13

PURCHASE HERE!

Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is a multiple Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated poet and short story writer. His works have appeared in various publications including The Anglican Theological Review, Kweli Journal, Poetry East, The Radical Teacher, Rhino, Spillway, and 3Elements Literary Review. MEH received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. An educator who has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels, he will most likely die in a classroom. This is his first collection of poetry.

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).

FRANCINE WITTE

Interview with Arya F. Jenkins

Francine Witte has published four poetry chapbooks, among many other accomplishments. The Poetry Cafe introduces Witte in conversation with poet and writer Arya F. Jenkins, who joins our guest reviewers with this interview.

I’ve always thought that it’s the small details that connect the writer to the reader. –Francine Witte

Arya F. Jenkins: You write poetry, flash and fiction. As a poet, you have authored several poetry chapbooks and a couple of full-length poetry collections. How did you come to be a poet?

Francine Witte: I started writing poetry in second grade. Rewriting song lyrics. And then when I was about 13, I started writing poetry for real. It was about playing with words and expressing ideas. I’ve always enjoyed language and writing.

AFJ: Your ability to write about lost love, grief, and aging with such particularity and universality is a rare gift. Are you sometimes surprised at the level of honesty and truth your poems are able to plumb?

FW: I’ve always thought that it’s the small details that connect the writer to the reader. Everyone has experienced love, grief, and on some level, the discomfort of getting older (I never have felt as old as the day I turned 20, by the way.) It’s the focus of a tiny detail that either makes the reader say, “yes, that happened to me,” or “oh yes, I can see what you mean.” Finding these small moments is actually one of the most fun parts of writing for me.

AFJ: Are your chapbooks held together by certain themes? If so, what are they?

FW: My chapbooks seem to be unintentionally themed as a result of what I was writing about at that particular time. For example, in First Rain, I have a good amount of the poems focusing on child/parent relationships, while Only, Not Only, deals more with a grown narrator who has been hurt by romantic love. And the theme of Not All Fires Burn the Same, is really more or less a collection of mother/daughter, love gone wrong and environment.

AFJ:  How has your relationship to the big themes of love and loss in your writing changed over the years? Have you abandoned any topics? If so, which? And why?

I’m still pretty focused on love and loss. I don’t see that changing.

FW: I’m still pretty focused on love and loss. I don’t see that changing. I am also fascinated by the theme of people and their history on this planet. I’ve always been interested in weather and the natural world. In Theory of Flesh, I find myself looking back to cave people and thinking that they were the same as us in terms of their basic emotional makeup.

AFJ: I am intrigued by your deconstruction of “self” in some of your poems. In your collection, The Theory of Flesh, the narrator asks who the poet is and how she can be distinguished from the other selves that inhabit her daily life? Does this focus have precedence in your chapbooks?

FW: I think you are referring to my poem “How Many Me’s are There?” which talks about the different people we are in different situations. It asks the question of the me’s occurring at the same time in a person’s life. But there are also different me’s that span time. There’s childhood me, grown-up me, married me, etc. I do think my chapbooks reflect these different times in the speaker’s life.

AFJ: Lately I’ve encountered artists and poets who revere animals, the dog especially, and have done beautiful justice to them in their work. Some of the poems in your full-length collection, The Theory of Flesh examine links between the animal and human kingdoms. What do animals have to teach humans? How do they “speak to” what is higher in us?

FW: Animals seem to live in the moment. They go on instinct and need. They don’t seem to have hidden agendas. They love the person who feeds them. They are grateful for that. Simple. That’s what we can learn from them.

They speak to the need in us to be needed, to care for someone else. That part, the part that cares beyond our own comfort, really is our higher self.

AFJ: Do you feel you have any obligations as a poet? If so, to what or whom?

FW: My obligation as a poet is to give the reader or listener a great experience for having taken the time to read or listen to my poem. I need to say something that the reader has never heard in a way they have never heard it. I have to create something, make them feel something, or at least make their few minutes of reading worthwhile. That’s my obligation.

AFJ:  What if anything would you like to impart to those poets new to poetry who would like to publish a chapbook?

When putting together a chapbook, or any book, make sure
every poem is a 10.

FW: I would tell all poets to become your own best editor and listen to that voice that tells you a line or a stanza isn’t as good as it could be, or to take it out, etc.

When putting together a chapbook, or any book, make sure every poem is a 10 (at least in your opinion.)  There is no room for filler even if it’s on theme. I think the quality of the poems is more important than any superimposed connective tissue.

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh from Kelsay Books. Her flash fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologized in the most recent New Micro (W.W. Norton) Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind has just been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, and her full-length collection of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This was recently published by Blue Light Press. She lives in New York City.

The Magic in the Streets (Owl Creek Press, 1994) first prize contest winner
First Rain (Pecan Grove Press, 2009) First prize contest winner
Only, Not Only (Finishing Line Press, 2012)
Not All Fires Burn the Same (Slipstream Press, 2016) first prize contest winner



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.
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).

A Nation (Imagined)

  10/14/19

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).

FOOTNOTE

Footnote, by Trish Hopkinson

Trish Hopkinson is a force in the poetry community with her almost-daily publication of an all-things-poetry blog that informs poets where, how, and why to submit poems; conducts interviews with editors of no-submission-fee journals; and publishes guest blogs addressing all aspects of writing, reading, submitting and publishing poetry. I’ve followed this blog avidly and very much appreciated her recent interview introducing The Poetry Café.

With such a footprint in the world of poetry, I was curious to read Hopkinson’s work. Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017 with the subtitle of “A Chapbook of Response Poems.” Each of the twenty poems in Footnote has either a footnote or a dedication (some as ‘for,’ others as ‘after‘), inscribed beneath the poem. Each poem embraces the spirit of its annotation, at times using found lines, erasures, or the style of another writer. While visually each poem has the familiar appearance of lines and stanzas on the page, they each possess a quirky—somewhat experimental—writing style.  An example of a poem I particularly enjoyed was, “And Finished Knowing – Then –,” footnoted with a nod to Emily Dickinson, of course, but with Hopkinson’s sly imprint,

I conjured a childbirth, in the air,
and nurses all askew
stood standing – standing – till the dream
seemed real enough to chew.

I wondered how the poems in the book came together. At an interview at The Literary Librarian, Hopkinson explained the book’s origins:

“In 2015, after teaching a community poetry writing workshop on response poetry, I realized I had quite a few response poems of my own. So in this case, the collection was a surprise waiting for me in already completed work.”

These days we find a wealth of ‘Response Poems’ that foment resistance to injustice and oppression. Hopkinson’s responses come from a different tradition—emotional and spiritual responses to other artists that have affected, influenced, and secured a solid foothold in her psyche and writing. Footnote is in essence a work of conversations. Her dedications include an artist (Everett Ruess), a musician (Janice Joplin), a filmmaker (David Lynch), and a writer (James Joyce), but are mostly poets (Baraka, Paz, Rilke, Ai, Neruda, Dickinson, Plath, Rumi, Poe, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg). As a reader, I always find myself wanting to know the poet through the poems. We get a nuanced taste of Hopkinson from her choices. While a first person voice is mostly absent in these pages, the poems are strong evidence of her appetites.  

I was intrigued by Hopkinson’s use of syntax and voice. Compared with conventional sentence structure (subject … verb … adjective … noun), these poems often lack a subject. Not only are there few ‘I’ pronouns, there are relatively few pronouns of any sort, as here in the first stanza of “A Way In,”

As involved and still
as looking inward. Loudly
closing all the shutters at once.

“A Way In” reflects a speaker with a deep and full inner life, one that gazes internally for sustenance—a true introvert. The reality is a closed room where,

Sunlight will edge between cracks
& in warm strips of faith, of truth.

There are glorious murals of lilies
on the wainscot
in the dollhouse. The dolls
sit still all day.

The speaker remarks that she is satisfied with Pausing,

in this moment, staying still,
waiting to pass this old age, the
mortal pain of body; sloughed off . . .

How to describe this voice—muffled, ghost-like, echoing? Several of the poems offer hints of the speaker’s mind in response to the iconic artists she bows to. These range from “A Way In” with its atmosphere of stillness, to “We all got a secret side,” which tells us, It’s even stranger underneath, to “From Her to Eternity,” where she says, I am a mere abstraction. Yet, there is a confessional tone in her poem, “Waiting Around,” which starts with these lines:

It so happens, I am tired of being a woman.

And ends with this stanza,

I wait. I hold still in my form-fitting camouflage.
I put on my strong suit and war paint lipstick
and I gamble on what’s expected.
And what to become. And how
to behave: mother, wife, brave.

There is darkness in many of the poems in Footnote, a darkness that is not, however, nihilistic. I find both craft and courage in these poems. The reaching outward to connect. The love of language and art. The need to find sustenance in art, writing, music and film. Like most of us, the poet herself might feel like a footnote at times, but rather than giving in to being stuck in a predictable role, she becomes immersed in communicating with artists of enormous power. And in the process of those larger conversations, occurring in the dark cerebral places where we know ourselves best, she becomes a peer in the conversation.

In “Broken Hearts Buried Here” with its footnote, “found in Ulysses,” Hopkinson’s contributions to the conversation are broad, and very much her own, as in these lines,  

Lots of them lying around—lungs and livers and old rusty pumps,
A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood
every day, every mortal day, a fresh batch courting death


like stuffed birds buried in a kitchen matchbox.
Consumptive girls with little sparrow’s breasts,
baldheaded business men, men with beards, old women, children.


The cemetery is a treacherous place.
The soil fat with corpse manure, bones, flesh, nails,

Finally in the last poem, “Footnote to a Footnote” with its own footnote, “after Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” Hopkinson blesses the panoply of what is most holy to her,

Bookshelves are holy.
   Missing dust covers are holy,
   magicians & black & white T.V. shows,
   Penn Jillette theories & Andy Griffith justice,
  Uncle Walt songs & Ginsberg poems—holy, holy, holy.

[BUY FOOTNOTE!!]

Trish Hopkinson has always loved words—in fact, her mother tells everyone she was born with a pen in her hand. She has been published in several anthologies and journals, including Stirring, Pretty Owl Poetry, and The Penn Review; and her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017. Hopkinson is co-founder of a regional poetry group, Rock Canyon Poets, and Editor-in-Chief of the group’s annual poetry anthology entitled Orogeny. She also co-founded Provo Poetry and is currently the Literary Arts Coordinator for the Utah Arts Festival. You can follow Hopkinson on her blog where she shares information on how to write, publish, and participate in the greater poetry community at https://trishhopkinson.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).