30 December 2009

A New Year and New Poems in Print

For the past year and a half I worked on a collection of poems about the stars. The story goes that each constellation was released from the sky for a single evening and landed somewhere in New York City. Each poem tells the story of one constellation and how it adapts to (post)modern life. I named the collection of poems “Digital/Pastoral” to reflect the present setting of these ancient narratives. Some of the poems (stars) are coming out in a variety of journals in print and online.

Five of them can be found in the January issue of Collective Fallout. http://collectivefallout.com/

Two will appear late this month in a brand-new online literary journal called Crash. http://cra.sh/about

Another of the constellation poems will appear in the Spring issue of New Mexico Poetry Review. http://newmexicopoetryreview.com/

And very exciting for me, my poem “Polaris” will be published in a lovely handmade journal from the United Kingdom called FuseLit. There isn’t a set release date for the Tilt issue yet, but rumor has it set for sometime in February. http://www.fuselit.co.uk/

Please take a moment to check out my poems and more importantly, the fantastic journals in which they appear. I feel honored to see nine of my “Digital/Pastoral” poems going to print at the start of 2010. It was a long journey of writing, revising, submitting, receiving rejections (again and again and again) and finally seeing them published.

My work is also forthcoming in a future issue of these great magazines:

Lines + Stars http://www.linesandstars.com/ and
Knockout Literary Magazine http://www.knockoutlit.org/ (from Seattle!)

27 December 2009

Post Holiday Gifts, Rebecca Brown and G.I. Joe

When I was young the day after Christmas was reserved for showing off the gifts that I had been given to my friends and vice versa. Sometimes we were allowed to play with the new toys and sometimes we only got to look.

* * *

I have been reading Rebecca Brown’s collection of short stories Gifts of the Body. The narrator of the interwoven pieces is a home healthcare worker who helps people dying of AIDS. The stories illustrate the early 1990s in which people were still dying quickly. Wonder drugs and cocktail therapies had not yet emerged to extend the lives of the men and women who had contracted the HIV virus.

* * *

I got several gifts this year in order to bring me into the new century. My partner got me a cell phone. I used to brag that I had never owned a mobile phone, that “I didn’t want or need one, thank you.” I could have gotten by without it, but now I like being able to call people regardless of where I am. And texting, yet another way to communicate…

* * *

Each of Brown’s stories are gifts that the body can give: “The Gift of Sweat,” “The Gift of Sight,” “The Gift of Mourning.” Often the stories turn on the title and skew the perspective of the reader toward something unexpected. Gratefully, Brown’s stories aren’t a series of clever gimmicks or tropes. Each is grounded in her stark language and the deft experience of someone who has worked in the home-health field firsthand.

* * *

One of the Catholic Church’s corporal works of mercy is to visit the sick.

* * *

I am always uncertain of what kind of gift to bring someone who is staying in the hospital for more than a few days. I ask them if they need any toiletries, food or things from home. I shy away from plants. Is there a need to give someone in a hospital something that they need to care for?

* * *

When I was eight, I got G.I. Joe walkie-talkie headsets for Christmas. The idea that I could communicate with my friends at a distance without using my hands seemed futuristic. In the days after Christmas I had to share my gift with others in order to use it.

* * *

Sometimes I wonder where the men that I knew are—those who died from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses in the 1990s shortly after I came out. These men, most of them my father’s age or older, served as mentors to me.

* * *

If I put on that headset again, could reach out to them somehow?

23 December 2009

Book Notes on Blind Date with Cavafy by Steve Fellner

Steve Fellner’s poems are funny. Some poems I laughed out loud at, nodding my head in agreement with his observations about human nature. Other poems caused me to curl my lips at their wry invective. Fellner's poems are smart and they know it.

Fellner’s work can intimidate because they require the reader to know a bit about Cavafy, Catullus, Socrates and Li Po. The largest barrier to the average reader of Blind Date with Cavafy is the knowledge base needed to get the joke. This collection of poems was written by an English major with sass.

I admit it, these poems intimidated me. If they were people, each would be better read, wittier and dressed in more expensive clothes than me. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if the poems in Blind Date were telling a joke or making one at my expense. And that’s okay, because Fellner’s cleverness isn’t a one line zinger repeated over and over again.

His poems are original and often surprising. The descriptive language in “Synesthesia,” a poem about a neurological condition that cross-wires the senses, is stunning: …friends begging him / to be ruthless about their new hairdos (The perfect cross / between the smell of burnt tapioca pudding and undercooked / pot roast)…

What I love most about Fellner’s work is that it has opinions. His poems don’t hesitate to tell the reader exactly what they think, but they manage to be loud without shouting. They are solid poems that work on the page without gimmick. Blind Date’s work doesn’t scream, “Look at me! Look at ME!” Instead, they approach the reader with an arched eyebrow and say, “Oh honey, you gotta see this shit to believe it.”

Blind Date with Cavafy was published by Marsh Hawk Press in 2007. This year, a book of poems by Randall Mann has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. The book’s title: Breakfast with Thom Gunn. I can’t help but wonder if Breakfast took its cues from Blind Date and if so, what Fellner’s poems have to say about that.

12 December 2009

New Places to See My Poems In Print

I am pleased to announce that two of my poems are in the Fall 2009 issue of Connections magazine. In fact, my poem "The Four Last Things" is on the homepage for the magazine. Please take a look.

You can check out the magazine and download a free PDF version of it here:


More about the magazine from the website:

"Connections magazine is a regional literary journal published twice a year that features the very best poems, stories, artwork and photography of Southern Maryland. Also included in each issue is featured material from visiting writers. Publication readings take place in December and May each year."

07 December 2009

Finding Poetry on the Roof at Dawn

The weather this week has been very cold and clear. The Pacific Northwest is not known for its sunny winter climate. I have been sitting in the light for a few minutes each day and giving thanks for this small blessing, sun in a season that usually brings abundant rain.

Advent is the season of waiting before Christmas for many Christian denominations that follow a liturgical calendar. The period before Christmas cuts across the bustle and noise of the holidays with its silence and quiet anticipation. I have been rediscovering the canticles or prayers at the beginning of the book of Luke. I haven’t picked up a bible in over a decade and am now struck at how beautiful some of the language can be.

The “Canticle of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79) is a prayer spoken aloud by John the Baptist’s father. The lines, “In the tender compassion of our Lord / The dawn from on high shall break upon us, / to shine on those who dwell in darkness” have stayed with me for days. In my head the words have mixed up and condense themselves into the beautiful image: “The dawn shall break upon us with tenderness and compassion.”

When I woke up this morning the sun had just begun to touch the neighbor’s roof. Inside that brushstroke of light more than twenty starlings gathered to catch the warmth. Their black feathers took on a myriad of tones, each reflecting the sun. Dawn had broken upon them with tenderness and compassion. The roof line, the sun and the birds were all a canticle to morning.

30 November 2009

Writing and Arrival

While earning my undergraduate degree, I was ten years older than most of the students in my classes. I was filled with gratitude to finally know what I wanted to do with my life. I was mature enough to see my dreams through. But I struggled with the fear that I had come to writing too late. I had lost too much time. There would be no catching up.

I hope you know that these fears are ridiculous. Most days I know that they are ridiculous as well until I see an early-twenty-something poet old winning a national book prize. I would like to call this feeling fear, but its jealousy.

If I am going to get honest with myself, I need to face some facts:

1. I couldn't write about the things I am writing about now ten years ago. The view from my early 30s is much different than from my early 20s.

2. In my early 20s I was still in love with the idea of being a painter and was too undisciplined to actually paint or finish my degree.

3. If I am still writing poetry because I want to fame, not only is the line long, but I had better be prepared for heartbreak.

4. Jealousy can only generate so many poems before it will burn me into cinders.

An elderly woman purchasing a sci-fi novel from me confessed that she hadn’t started reading the genre until she was in her mid 50s. She said, “I was going through all sorts of horrible things in my life and needed an escape. I found sci-fi just in time.”

The truth is that I came to writing at the right time. If I had come to it any sooner, I would not have been ready to embrace the grinding work of writing and revising. I could not have handled the initial crush of rejection.

Writing arrived in my life at precise moment it was supposed to and it saved me.

18 November 2009

Found Poems, From Your Own Material?

The wisdom of the Academy of American Poets website defines a found poem as "poems [that] take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems."

The Academy continues with "A pure found poem consists exclusively of..." But let's not go there.

Pilfering through my old notebooks, I am finding work that I don't remember jotting down. Sometimes I can't even read my own handwriting. I nod my head at poems I remember the drafts for and wince at some of the lines I had forgotten. But found poems got me wondering if you can create found poems from your own work.

Does making poems out of your old poems just become recycling, editing or revising? To celebrate old notebooks coming to light, I wanted to post some raw material.

Lucia Perillo says that writing poetry is a narcissistic act. Does creating new poems from my old poems make me completely self obsessed?

Here are some of the unedited lines from my past. Do with them as you will.

"They took us through a traveling tour ten miles up the road. Offered us coffee too hot to drink in a lobby too uncomfortable to sit in. Wicker furniture. Rattan. Cheap decor lit with a gas fireplace. Smell of dairy cattle and frying hamburgers."


"Know your directions before you go. For there is nothing on the horizon to help you keep your bearings. And the women here with blue eyeliner under each stare, proud in their forms, wear bright dresses over their curves to protest the flatness of this place."

15 November 2009

Your Loss is My Gain (Poetry)

I wanted to note two new books of poems that I picked up at the bookstore where I work. We buy used books and the used buyers alert me if we get a glut of poetry. It is rare for anyone to sell us a large quantity of poetry, but on Saturday someone did.

Here are the two books that I picked up:

How Some People Like Their Eggs
by Sean Lovelace
Rose Metal Press, August 2009
ISBN: 9780978984878

by Brane Mozetic
A Midsummer Night's Press, December 2008
ISBN: 9780979420832

09 November 2009

Poetry: Nice Work If You Can Get It

I stumbled across a collection of essays at work by Thomas Lynch called “Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.” Lynch, a poet, also works as an undertaker. He writes about how one trade informs the other.

Nancy Peacock the award-winning author is another writer who had a nonliterary job to pay the bills. She cleaned houses. Peacock wrote a book about her experiences called “A Broom of Her Own.” It took an honest look at what it takes to be writer in the face of hard economic realities.

These two authors are successful in literary circles, but they also hold jobs that are a far cry from what most consider the lofty world of literary success. Writing, like many of the other arts, does not often pay well enough to live on. This is why most artists, even writers, are described as "starving."

The literary world is filled with well-known authors who had other professions. John Rechy, author of “City of Night” and “Numbers” earned his literary fame writing about his career as a male hustler. While the poet Richard Hugo worked at Boeing for years until his first book was published. He spent many years working on airplanes and poems at the same time.

In creative writing classes one may hear the term "working poet" but instructors don't frequently mention that poets often be working full-time jobs unrelated to poetry or even writing. So what does it take? What does it take to make it as a writer? It takes and extraordinary amount of time and dedication. A writer must generate new work, revise it, and then send it out into the world. And when a writer's hard work is rejected (again and again) he or she must be willing to send it out all over again.

The longer I write and seek to put my work into print, the more I realize that writing is not only about craft. Writing is also equal parts patience and endurance.

04 November 2009

Is Your Blog Eating Your Blog?

The past two weeks have kept me moving. Graduate school applications, academic resumes, writing statements, Form A and Form B burned up a good amount of time and energy. Between working full-time and panicking about my academic future, I haven’t felt up to doing much writing…Excluding the essays and letters that I’ve been agonizing over, Does this sentence make me look like I should be relegated to the unfunded pile?

During the time that I’ve been “forced” to write, I’ve also considered the direction in which I want to grow my blog. In the original vision, I dreamed of a blog that would both showcase some of my writing that had gone to print, but was not available online and give me room to explore and comment on a wide range of writing. But rarely does the vision match the practice.

What happened: instead I used my blog to re-circulate reviews and interviews that I had written previously. I used the blog to post new book reviews and a few musings on poetry. Because so much of my writing has been queer focused, I became locked in an unintentional LGBT trajectory.

I love writing about queer authors and queer literature, but when I started out, I didn’t intend for the blog to become homocentric. Then the guilt set in. Why NOT have an exclusively queer blog? Why NOT promote LGBT authors and artists? Why NOT increase queer art visibility on the Web? I had no good argument against doing these things.

During the two weeks in which I hammered out forms and formulas, I found some reasons NOT to keep this blog exclusive to the LGBT writing world. The most important is that I do not limit my own life and literature consumption to some queer-only zone. Truth be told, I haven’t been reading any queer authors in the past three weeks. I was derailed rereading A Country Called Home by Kim Barnes and Radio Crackling, Radio Gone by Lisa Olstein. I started and completed Jackalope Dreams by Mary Clearman Blew and 30 Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius by Paul Mariani. Some of these books were better than others, but not one of them was written by a LGBT author nor dealt with queer themes. But I want to talk about some of these books on my blog, especially a poet as brilliant as Lisa Olstein.

So where does this leave Literary Magpie? Rather than use the excuse of blog-fatigue or that the demands of life grew too great, I will just admit that I am not perfect. I am inconsistent and mercurial. I start running in one direction and then something catches my eye and I start running in another direction. (My reading list should have told you that much.)

For the next few weeks expect a shake-up. I am going to blog about all kinds of authors and writing. I may even delve into the dreaded world of poetry prompts. Or I might just repost snippets of what I’m reading to share with the rest of you.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of different things that inform me as a writer and I don’t want to put blinders on this blog (or my life) just to make things “fit.”

28 October 2009

An Interview with author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of two novels, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008) and Pulling Taffy (Suspect Thoughts 2003). Sycamore is the editor of four nonfiction anthologies, most recently Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Seal 2007) and an expanded second edition of That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull 2008). She lives in San Francisco, CA.

This interview was conducted in September 2008

Jory Mickelson: Tell us more about yourself.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore:
I grew up in an upper class Jewish family and was the typical overachiever student. In order to learn what I wanted to learn—that is unlearn my background, privilege masking itself as violence, I came to San Francisco when I was nineteen. I became immersed in finding and creating the kinds of cultures I write about. I learned the truths behind the myths of higher education, the idea of career, and the values of assimilation.

JM: When did you start writing?

I started writing as a child. Writing is the one way that I have to process my life, to cope. I started by writing elaborate escape fantasies. In my late teens, I mostly wrote poetry and became interested in language poetry…how to take everything you think and reduce it into five words, the concentration on the placement of words on the page, distilling my experience into something tiny. I became obsessed with form.

I then started writing prose, stories about sex work. I always believed in experimentation. I felt like I articulated and experience I didn’t see translated on any interesting level in print. This is where writing became about simultaneously articulating and processing my life and the lives of those around me. From this point, I began writing political essays. Not many people doing direct action (activism) write about it.

JM: You also edit anthologies?

I learned a lot about writing by editing anthologies. It taught me how to think of an idea and to put the idea out there, seeing how people relate to it. The goal is not to create consensus, but to gather as many voices as possible.

My first publication was in an anthology, Queerview Mirror. Anthologies are more like what literary magazines are supposed to be. They allow a space for writers who don’t have a career or connection already. It is a place to find publication, usually around a specific idea.

JM: Has having several books published affected your writing?

Being published was exciting, but it did not change my confidence in my work. I have always been confident in my writing. I was excited that other people had access to my work and that I was able to see how they responded to it.

I have six books that have been published and in some ways, I am still an outsider to mainstream, commercial publishing. I think the big tragedy in publishing is the current obsession with niche marketing. This limits the kind of work that is allowed to been seen in the world.

There are formulas to what supposedly sells. An agent told me that my newest book needed more narrative structure and closure or that I should call it a memoire. The agent believed that this would allow my book to become a hot marketing item. I resisted this. I have been lucky enough and persistent enough to publish my work on my own terms.

JM: What are your views on queer literature and publishing?

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a lot of nonconventional literature being published. Kathy Acker and Paris Schulman were considered edgy. Now corporate publishing wouldn’t pick up these writers. It seems that everything needs to be clearly delineated, such as gay white men who write funny memoires. People are uncomfortable with things that don’t fit. Even small presses suffer from this. Is it a lesbian book? Is it a gay men’s book? It always comes down to marketing. Trans(gender) is trendy now. There are memoires by several trans people. What about a book about being a trans person who doesn’t want to go through the entire transition? A theme like this would not be embraced by the publishing industry.

I think that publishers should begin by instead of asking, “Will this sell?” they should find something that inspires them and then figure out how to make it sell.

JM: What writers have influenced your own work?

David Wojnarowicz’s Close to Knives is the first book that ever expressed my own sense of rage at the world, and also hope in the same world. The writing is explosive, elegant and hallucinatory. It is a deeply political work at the same time.

Lissa McLaughlin’s Troubled by His Complexion is written in the second person. She uses narrative, but not in a linear manner. It freed me. It allowed me to break away from any set style of writing.

Rebecca Brown creates a world that you have to enter into. You ask yourself, “Where am I?” Her writing overlaps between what is felt and what really happens. Her work is much messier than conventional prose. Emotion and reality are on par with one another. These are just a few of the authors how have influenced me.

JM: What is your role as a writer in the world?

I feel that being a writer means that I process the world around me and articulate myself in the world. At its most primal, writing is about survival. On a second level, a lot of my writing is editing. As an editor, my role is to put others work out there on their own terms. I always want to interject critical voices onto ideas that remain silent or are being erased: queer assimilation, sex abuse and sex work to name a few. Writing for me comes down to survival, critique, accountability and instigation.

19 October 2009

Meat Pies, Mountain Men and Mining: An Interview with Jeff Mann

Jeff Mann grew up in Covington, Virginia, and Hinton, West Virginia, receiving degrees in English and forestry from West Virginia University. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Spoon River Poetry Review, Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Laurel Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, Crab Orchard Review, West Branch, Bloom, Appalachian Heritage, Best Gay Erotica, Best Gay Poetry, and Best Gay Stories. He has published three award-winning poetry chapbooks, Bliss, Mountain Fireflies, and Flint Shards from Sussex; two full-length books of poetry, Bones Washed with Wine and On the Tongue; a collection of personal essays, Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear; a novella, Devoured, included in Masters of Midnight: Erotic Tales of the Vampire; a book of poetry and memoir, Loving Mountains, Loving Men; and a volume of short fiction, A History of Barbed Wire, which won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

This interview was conducted in March 2009.

Jory Mickelson: When did you start writing or consider yourself a writer?

Jeff Mann: I attended West Virginia University and graduated with an English literature degree and an outdoor recreation degree. I ran across a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath my senior year of college. After I graduated, I moved home and worked odd jobs. I read more about Plath and the criticism of her work. I decided I wanted to be a poet. I contacted an undergraduate professor I respected and talked to him about getting a Master’s degree in English. There was no Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at WVU in 1984. I got my Master’s in English.

JM: You currently teach creative writing at Virginia Tech, what prompted you to become a teacher?

Why teach? I ask myself that quite a bit. (Laughs.) In graduate school, it’s what you had to do to get your tuition waived. Teaching didn’t interest me, but I didn’t know how else to make a living. It was also a way to talk about writing and literature and get paid for it. I have been teaching ever since graduate school.

After all this practice, I have gotten pretty good at teaching. I got an certificate of teaching excellence award from Virginia Tech. I have reached a point in my life where it isn’t about my own dreams anymore. Teaching is about helping other people. I have a strong sense of myself as a teacher now. It is a privilege to be part of the creative process for my MFA students. I get to contribute to the next wave of writers who will come after me.

I have taught many kinds of creative writing—poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction. I used to teach a GLBT literature class off and on. I am currently trying to make it a permanent course here at Virginia Tech.

JM: Your work expresses a deep love for Appalachia. Would you call yourself a regional writer or a writer of place?

I realize that my insistence on being frank about my sexuality and about living where I live has limited me in some ways. Being a regional writer or a gay writer allows some authors to dismiss me, to not consider me a serious writer. LGBT writers and regional writers are constantly dismissed.

A lot of details in my fiction are from Appalachia. Much of my nonfiction and my memoir have been about being queer in Appalachia. My poetry tends to be more universal. I want it to transcend, geographical region and sexual orientation.

I would say that the sense I get from the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) and some of my MFA students are that queer and regional writing aren’t worth paying attention to. I have a large ego, like all writers and Southern men. I am easily offended. (Laughs.)

JM: You are one of the few writers that I know who talks about both your love of place and the environmental degradation of it. Annick Smith does this in her book In This We Are Native. Can you tell me more about that?

It is hard not to talk about environmental degradation in Appalachia. Mountain top removal is a very heated topic here. Mining companies have destroyed Central Appalachia with coal mining. Central Appalachia is what gets written about most of the time—the poverty, the coalfields, and the uneducated hillbilly stereotype. I don’t live in Central Appalachia, but I feel passionately about this.

The economy is failing, the coal is running out, and the new method of mining is blowing up the tops of mountains with tons of dynamite. The mining companies take what little coal there is and ruin the environment in the process. A few years ago, I attended a tour of mountain top removal for West Virginia writers.

Ann Pancake has written a novel on this topic, I think it’s called, Strange as This Weather Has Been. You are probably familiar with her; I think she lives out in your part of the country too.

JM: She does live in the Pacific Northwest. Another topic that comes up frequently in your work is food, why food?

I am always about to be on a diet. I love food. I am a daddy bear and that sounds better than “slightly overweight, graying, middle-aged man.” (Laughs.) My writing deals with physical pleasure, the senses and the body. My work is sensual, whether I am writing about sex, alcohol, nature or food. That is part of it.

I come from a family where preparing and serving food was about how you care. It is also a masculine role for me. In my family men cook as often as women. My father won’t say “I love you,” he will make you a batch of biscuits instead. Food is about family traditions, kinship and heritage. So many of the dishes I eat or ate growing up are related to the fruits of Appalachia and the South. There are also the English, Scottish, Irish and German traditions to consider. I think about my ancestors and the food that has been passed down by them. I grew up eating all sorts of pot pies. When I was in England, there were all kinds of different meat pies. There is a direct food connection there. It gets passed on.

JM: Tell me something about your approach to writing, your technique if you will.

I am old fashioned in a certain sense. I am interested in poetry that deals frankly with real human issues and emotions. Poetry just isn’t about language play or intellectual ideas for me. I am not an elitist. Although my poetry is multilayered, you can take away something from it after the first reading.

Robert Frost and Nathanial Hawthorne are my models. You can get something from the first reading of a Frost poem, but every time you come back to it there are other layers, other meanings to explore. It isn’t confusing or impenetrable.

I write in a free verse style, but I am concerned about sound devices and rhythm. I don’t mean just rhyme, but there is assonance, alliteration, etc. I have a pretty good ear. I have been playing around with some formal verse recently.

JM: What would you say is the hardest challenge about being a writer in Appalachia or a queer writer in a rural area?

Just to keep writing. That is hard enough for most writers to do. Even though we writers think our work is fascinating, the world meets us with a resounding “I don’t give a shit.” The mainstream gay community has little interest in small town or rural queer experience. It is hard to get published as a queer or regional author. There are limitations.

Then I think, “What the hell else would I do?” If I were not to write, what would I do with myself? Just being a teacher isn’t sufficient for me. A friend of mine Irene McKinney, the Poet Laureate of West Virginia, said that when she was young she felt all sorts of painful passions and if she didn’t express them, she would explode. As an older person now, in her seventies, she says she writes because her whole self-definition is wrapped up in being a writer. I have to agree with her on that.

The greatest challenge is to keep on writing when the rest of the world doesn’t give a shit. Just continuing to write is saying, “Fuck you.”

JM: Do you have any last words for our readers?

William Faulkner, after The Sound and the Fury was published, wrote a commentary on it. He said of the black characters: "They endured." When I hear that phrase, it gets me shaking.

To LGBT writers, I say keep going. Be stubborn and ornery. Endure. As I know from my own writing niche as a queer mountain man, there is an audience out there for my work. It may be small, but people are hungry for it. That is who I am writing for.

Update! New places to see my poems!

Two of my poems were just published in the amazingly beautiful November issue of Oranges & Sardines. I am on page 38 and 39.

The new issue is now online:

More information on O&S:

Available in print soon from amazon.com:

07 October 2009

Book Notes on American Romances by Rebecca Brown

Paperback, 162 pages
From City Lights Publisher
June 2009
ISBN: 9780872864986

The first thing I noticed about American Romances was the blurb on the back covers by Thurston Moore, guitarist for Sonic Youth. So when I opened the book and saw quotes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, I was surprised. For me, there was no connection between a “noise band” and the author of the Scarlet Letter. And this is how many of Rebecca Brown’s wonderful essays unfolded as I read them: startling connections between disparate elements, musings on cinematic characters and imagined encounters with historical figures.

In Brown’s opening essay “Hawthorne,” she weaves the author’s life with that of Brian Wilson, one of the Beach Boys. (He grew up in a California suburb called Hawthorne.) Brown takes details from both of the men’s lives and builds surprising parallel narratives. “Brian wrote a string of hits. He was a native genius, American music’s answer to the sophisticated pop of the British Invasion.” And a paragraph later, “Nathaniel’s books were a string of hits, much-read and well-reviewed. He was revered at a time his countrymen were trying to create a particularly American Culture…distinct from the English and European models they’d been handed.”

Another essay “A Child of Her Time,” examines the truth of memory against the factual truth. Brown weaves her own personal history in and out of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And then there are the footnotes. Footnote 2 to this essay offers a commentary that undermines the point she makes in the body. Footnote 4 becomes its own essay examining the characters of Hawthorne’s corpus, offering yet another theme to run along-side the author’s own childhood.

Brown uses footnotes liberally and with great skill, but not in any traditional way. The footnotes in American Romances create complex dialogues between the main essay and the additional information. Footnotes are used as exposition, as side trips through history or to create contrary voices.

My favorite essay in the collection is “Invisible,” which gives the cinematic history of the Invisible Man and/or Woman. Footnote 5 is longer than the entire essay. In fact, the real story of “Invisible” is told through the footnotes. To read the meaning in full is to peel back the surface layer and delve into the hidden commentary put at the end.

American Romances
is 162 pages of startling turns, subversion and literary sleight of hand. Brown manages to confound and delight without an ounce of arrogance or elitism. Rather, these essays are a kind of nonfiction chutes and ladders. One cannot predict where these essays will arrive, but the ride is enjoyable.

03 October 2009

Oh the Horror: An Interview with poet Chad Helder

Chad Helder is the Stoker Award-winning editor of Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet (Dark Scribe Press 2008), an anthology of queer horror fiction, which he co-edited with Vince Liaguno. Helder's first book of poetry, Pop-Up Book of Death, will be published by Queer Mojo Press, an imprint of Rebel Satori. He is currently working on a new collection of horror poetry for Dark Scribe Press. He is also the creator and writer of Bartholomew of the Scissors (Bluewater 2008), a comic book miniseries with art by Daniel Crosier. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Jory Mickelson: You recently won a Bram Stoker award for your anthology Unspeakable Horror, tell me more about that.

Chad Helder:
The Stoker award was for category “Superior Achievement in an Anthology.” I co-edited it with Vince, the founder of Dark Scribe Press. It was the press’ first book. That was pretty exciting.

In June, I attended the Horror Writer’s Association convention in Burbank, CA and they had the awards ceremony there. There was a big dinner in a ballroom. It was very Emmy-esque. Our presenter was Ellen Datlow, probably the world’s greatest anthologist. It was a huge honor.

JM: Are you editing anything now? You have worked on several different projects in the past.

I am not editing anymore; I am just writing poetry. The submission period for Unspeakable Horror started in the fall of 2007 and ended in May of 2008. I was reading 35 stories a month for it. We managed to but the book together by December 2008. That was it for me editing. I am not writing comic books right now either. I am working on a collection of horror poetry for Dark Scribe Press and have about 60 pages of poems. I need to get going on it if I am going to meet my deadline.

JM: Can you define horror poetry?

Horror poetry is poetry that uses subtexts and borrowed images from the horror genre. My stuff tends to be very surreal and postmodern, in the sense that it consciously borrows from horror movies. My poems want to be horror movies. I also use my dreams as a source for my poems. I dream about monsters from the horror genre.

I think that you have to be careful. If you Google “horror poetry” you will find a lot of stuff on the Internet. A lot of it can be really bad. The same thing happens if you search for love poetry online. When poetry is awesome, it is awesome, no matter what the genre or theme is. Sylvia Plath wrote a poem with vampire overtones. I really love Plath.

JM: Your poems can blur the lines between poetry and prose. How do you differentiate your work from being flash fiction, prose poetry or something else?

Sometimes my poems are on the line between flash fiction and prose poems. More often than not though, my poems look like poems on the page. There is also an extra focus on language—metaphor and figurative language. The line between the two genres is a fun one to play with. I like narrative poems that straddle the line between the two.

JM: You have some experience with self publishing. Can you tell me how self publishing and having others publish your work compare?

Pop-Up Book of Death is being published by Queer Mojo Press. Originally, I had printed up some copies of an earlier version of that manuscript in order to have an event at Village Books in Bellingham. I sold about 30 copies of the book. I revised and expanded the book and signed a contract in March for it. Now Pop-Up is going through the paces. Publication is underway, but I don’t know the month it is coming out yet.

I think that it is cool and fun to self publish. There is a lot of work you have to do to self publish successfully. There is a lot to be said for working with small presses too. I know how to write poetry, but I don’t know how to be a publisher. Let publishers do it, work with a small press. Publishers do a lot: cover design, marketing, having printed copies for an event. I am a poet; I don’t know how to design a book cover.

I am not a big fan of desperately hunting for a publisher. I am a bigger believer in networking. That is how you meet a publisher, not by culling 500 rejection slips. I have a very specialized market: gay + horror + poetry. I am thrilled I found a publisher for my work, but it was through the connections I made, the people I got to know. That said, I think that the prejudice against self publishing is ridiculous. Bad work gets self published, but so does a lot of good work.

JM: Are you still involved with writing comics?

At this point, that appears to be over. I am not writing for Bluewater anymore. Bartholomew of the Scissors started as a novel. I had put all of this work into a novel and it wasn’t coming together. I met Darren Davis from Bluewater and then I wrote up a pitch and delivered it to him. I had to learn how to write a comic script. The end product turned out pretty close to the visual images of writing a poem. There was a focus on the visual and is some ways it comics and poems are similar.

I wrote four issues and then Darren had to find an artist interested in drawing the comics. Daniel Crosier was an artist doing wood burning on wood planks. He said that he wanted to draw the entire series. And he did. I think that Bartholomew is the only comic ever done that way—burned into wood. It looks really creepy and there are also a lot of fire themes in the story. It ended up working well.

It was going to be published as a trade paperback, but I think that got canceled. I also wrote for Vincent Price Presents. I did seven horror stories and the reviews were both good and bad. I was writing under the banner of Vincent Price and I think that Vincent Price fans wanted something very specific. I wanted to write my weird horror stories and I did.

JM: Did you read comics as a child? Did you work on horror comics because of Tales from the Crypt or similar works?

Not at all. I started reading comics in my 30s. I never read them as a kid, but I love them now. I didn’t get into poetry at all until my third year of college. I wanted to be a writer because I read Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. When I started writing poetry though, even my first poem had horror themes in it.
When I was younger I was very scared of horror. I would have to turn the TV off if a horror movie was on. For me personally, the whole reason that I am into horror is because I am gay. I had a really rough time with the closet and internalized homophobia. It manifested itself in a psychic or dream world of vampires, monsters and dread. I think that there is a strong connection between the 1980s vampire movies and a fear of gay men.

JM: What are you working on now?

I am working on finishing up the new collection of horror poetry for Dark Scribe press. I hope it is well received by both the gay community and horror readers. I play with the issues of gay identity and horror in the poems. It is a delicate balance because I don’t want to fall into using the stereotype of being gay as other or gay as monstrous. Hopefully the poems overturn the stereotypes in interesting ways and then go beyond that into something very unexpected. I am also going to be reading some of my poems for the October Chuckanut Radio Hour in Bellingham.

If you would like to hear Chad read from his work, he will be appearing on the Chuckanut Radio Hour on October 13th at 6:30pm at the Leopold Crystal Ballroom. Tickets are available at Village Books or www.brownpapertickets.com You can also visit Chad’s website Unspeakable Horror at http://unspeakablehorror.com/

30 September 2009

Line by Line the Poem Comes Together

When I was seven or eight, I wanted drawing lessons. Both of my parents, art teachers, were not eager to pay for me to learn how to draw. My father said that he would teach me. He set to work helping me draw dinosaurs from illustrations in a book. These weren't children's drawings; they were adult renderings of dinosaur anatomy.

My father showed me that a drawing is made up of small lines that all work together to bring together a picture. He broke down some highly complex pictures, drawing a line or a squiggle and having me repeat it on my own page. I learned how to look at a detail, to mimic it and connect it to other small pieces. I didn't realize at the time how important this lesson would be for writing.

For several years, I wanted to be a painter. I viewed the world through a visual screen, always looking at how small pieces related to one another. When I turned to writing as my primary means of expression, I found that I wrote with my eye. Much of my work comes down to one clear image (or sensation) falling into another. In poetry, I use this technique to carry the reader through the narrative of the poem, one small line at a time.

There are moments in my own life when I remember the small lines I drew on that sheet of paper. A curve becomes the jaw of a long dead plesiosaur fighting another for a squid. The moon shines down on me and I remember the way a bend of light catches in a Fiesta ware bowel. There is no escaping the visual image in my writing or memory.

These small lines connect together, sometimes in startling ways, across decades to form a greater picture. They collect themselves in the pale shell of my skull and come out as words on a page and the thin veil of memory behind my eyes. Poetry and life are made of small lines.

27 September 2009

Activisms, Assimilation and Beyond: An Interview with Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown’s twelfth book, American Romances, a collection of gonzo “essays,” was released by City Lights in June, 2009. Brown’s other titles include The Last Time I Saw You, The End of Youth, The Dogs, The Terrible (all with City Lights), Excerpts From a Family Medical Dictionary (Granta and U of Wisconsin) and The Gifts of the Body (HarperCollins). A frequent collaborator, she has written numerous texts for dance; a play, The Toaster; and Woman in Ill Fitting Wig, a book length collaboration with painter Nancy Kiefer. Her work has been translated into Japanese, German, Italian, Norwegian and Dutch. She recently co-edited, with Mary Jane Knecht, Looking Together: Writers on Art (University of Washington Press), an anthology of writers’ responses to work at the Frye Art Museum. She lives in Seattle and teaches at the low residency MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont and elsewhere. Her work is included in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, The Penguin Book of Lesbian short Stories and lots of other places.

Jory Mickelson: Tell me how your newest book American Romances came together.

Rebecca Brown:
I am calling them essays. They are part fantasy, speculation, silliness and research. I’ve done journalism off and on. Writing nonfiction is also something I have done for a number of years, which is one source. I also did a series of lectures with the Seattle Opera and that turned out both literary and campy. I enjoyed those. A third source for the collection was that I was a teacher for twenty five years where I taught Hawthorne, Stein, etc. I have all of this stuff to work with from teaching.

In The Last Time I Saw You, I wrote about aspects of E. M. Forrester, his fantasy love life and my own affairs, which were coded. Writing American Romances followed a similar pattern.

With this kind of writing I get the pleasure of engaging literary and historical figures. I get to write toward or away from other people. Essays also allow me to indulge my pop culture obsessions. I can say that watching all of these Western movies isn’t a waste of time because I am going to write an essay about it.

JM: You have been writing for more than two decades. In that time, how has your work changed?

One constant in my work is that I have always been very careful aesthetically. I am constantly revising my work. Writing is always hard for me. It always comes slowly. Another constant is that my work is emotionally engaging. At least I hope it is!

The differences? I think that my first book of stories Evolution of Darkness, (published in England in 1984 and in the U.S. in 1992) was written with a very clear “I” directed to “You.” It was a very direct, emotional address. I still do those things, but it used to only be from that “how could you do this to me” place. Recently my writing examines how I have been complicit in my own fate, the “how could I have done this to myself?” It is less about the “I” and more about the “I and others.”

I now write about the pressures on the figure of American masculinity—not just about my dad.
There is a whole history of queer people finding one another in odd places, not just my own relationships. I am writing toward other people now. I hope that I am reaching out and making connection with something larger than myself or my life.

JM: In your essay “Invisible” your footnote becomes its own essay. Can you tell me about your extensive use of footnotes in American Romances?

This is the first time that I used deliberate footnotes throughout a collection of essays. The essay “Invisible” is shorter than the footnotes it uses. The real story is hidden. The footnotes become the real story.

People think that they can skip over them, just like queer people’s lives are often skipped over. Our story and the important story of “Invisible” are in the footnotes.

JM: Footnote 4 in “Invisible” talks about progress and forgetfulness. I have thought a lot about what progress means to queer culture. I get the impression that many younger queer people think that there was the Stonewall Riots and now we are fighting for gay marriage. That’s it. That is our history.

I think the passage you mean is:
“Maybe this kind of forgetting is not that different form girls today saying ‘I’m not a feminist, I just want to be a lawyer,’ unaware that a generation ago not many girls were able to go to law school. Is this progress, when things change so much you forget they ever were different?”

Maybe that is what progress really is, when one’s oppression is lifted to the degree to where it no longer happens. Is that progress or is that fucking terrifying?

Is a young girl thinking that she is not a feminist, just a lawyer similar to straight college students naively thinking that we are all okay and all the same? Does that just cover things up? Is it better to have it out in the open and be called a dyke or a fucking faggot instead?

I remember being the first out lesbian in the state arts commission. There were tons of closeted lesbians on the art commission at the time. The question you have to ask yourself over time is are you going to be bitter about it or is it progress that there are out lesbians all over the place now, that being a lesbian is no big deal.

Does victory mean that you have forgotten your history? It is fucked up. But I don’t want to sound like very generation before me though, “In my day…”

JM: How do you think that queer literature has changed in the past three decades?

I think that there is more hope now. We are in a really exciting era now, full of experimentation. It used to be all straightforward, social realist stuff, “Become a lesbian and you will be a good person.” I think we are getting past that now. We know that it was propaganda, like Communist literature.

Don’t get me wrong, every movement needs to go through that stage. But now we can have writing that doesn’t fit into any one category. There is a lot more aesthetic experimentation.
One trend I don’t like is the, “I don’t think of myself as a queer writer” thing. I think there is a strong feeling that writers don’t want to be ghettoized anymore. That somehow gayness doesn’t matter, but it does.

All writers write from their perspective. Our writing comes from our center, just like our sexuality. It isn’t progress to say that we are all in a melting pot. That’s just dangerous.

I think that there is more interesting experimentation going on these days as queer literature matures. Brian Teare a gay poet from San Francisco for one. Another is Kathleen Bryson and her book, Girl on a Stick. That book is fucking wild.

There is also a lot more stuff from transsexuals, and I don’t mean the gender theory crap, but people writing from their own experiences. Kari Edwards wrote poetry and prose, between forms. It is both politically aware and aesthetically daring. She couldn’t exist forty years ago. Her poetry engages people. It comes directly from her queerness. There is no getting around that.

JM: What do you find discouraging about current queer culture?

Some of the assimilationist stuff. We aren’t all exactly alike. I think “that is easy for you to say” and roll my eyes. I don’t like the taming of queer culture. As if because everyone loves Ellen DeGeneres, everyone loves lesbians, problem solved. Why don’t we get a little bit more out there maybe?

I mean I love the fact that there is an out lesbian talk show host that everyone likes. But that is like saying that if everyone likes Colin Powell, that racism is over.

If we have Ellen on TV then there are no problems with lesbian visibility. We know that isn’t true. I think that this kind of thinking or solution is a band aid that allows the problem to grow worse. On one hand, who would have ever thought that there would be an out lesbian talk show host to begin with? But I don’t want things to stop there.

JM: What are you working on currently?

Writing continues to be very hard. I started a personal essay about someone I knew in the 70s thinking that it would be easy, but it has been absolutely hellacious. In the past few years I have been collaborating with visual artists. I did that anthology for the Frye Museum. I would like to do more of that.

I never know what’s next. It is like those useless questions on grant applications, “What are you going to do with this grant money?” I always want to say, “I don’t fucking know. I am going to live off the money while I write!”

If you would like to see Rebecca read some of her new work you can catch her at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle on Friday, October 23rd, 2009, 7:30 PM.

23 September 2009

Book Notes on Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess

Paperback, 80 pages
Published by Rosemetal Press, October 2008
ISBN: 9780978984854

Reading Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess is akin to remembering your dream. The pieces of the story are fragmentary. There is a struggle to weave a narrative thread between them and more often than not, the dream can be interpreted any number of ways depending on how it’s hemmed.

Tinderbox Lawn is a collection of prose poems that function in a similar way. Each poem looks like a paragraph, a block of compact text on the page. The poem--its spacing and line breaks--have been compressed. Because of this condensation, the images, language, and musicality have been refined as well. These poems are muscled. Each poem functions as a stand-alone piece of work, but there is also a narrative--often fragmentary, that joins the poems into a singing whole.

Is there a plot with this start and stop method? Definitely, but not one that most readers of prose and novels expect. The storyline of Tinderbox Lawn functions like a strobe light, focusing the reader’s attention to highly illuminated points of the narrative. Guess’s poems tell the story of two women falling in and out of love against the backdrops of Seattle and Bellingham. True to locale, the Green River Killer, the politics of the war in Iraq, and even strippers make appearances among the poems.

Tinderbox Lawn’s poems aren’t shy. There are no names for the characters except for the voice of the speaker, the lyric “I,” who addresses the reader as “you.” This device creates a continuous intimacy between the author and the reader. “In another incarnation you’re sitting on a dock, dangling / your legs over the edge. You’re new, and in this chapter / I’m new too…” Guess consistently draws the reader into the tapestry of her poems with a conspiratorial voice, startling images, and sometimes, explosive violence.

The musical quality of Tinderbox Lawn’s language is joyous. Many of these poems demand to be read aloud. Guess’s poems dance with sound, both jarring and sonorous.

Guess's collection is an example of prose poetry at its best: highly textured, compact, and sharp. But, the work will not please every reader. Those looking for straightforward poems or prose may find themselves flummoxed. Guess’s work demands that the reader collaborate in the reading process, requiring him or her to fill in some gaps. The pacing can also leave the reader occasionally out of breath from trying to keep up.

Taking each poem individually or collectively as a novel in fragments, the reader of Tinderbox Lawn is rewarded for their effort. Guess’s work sets a high standard for any prose poetry to come.

19 September 2009

The Secret of Interpreting a Poem Correctly

When most people are asked to give an opinion about poetry they shrivel up like time lapsed apples. The first response out of a person’s puckered mouth usually goes, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” or “I am not much of a poetry person.”

When did we become so fearful of poetry? How did poetry become the intellectual property of stern educators and academics locked away in their dim-lit offices? Usually, we were told how to interpret a poem and graded on it. We weren’t allowed to voice what we felt and thought. We were told that these kind of “subjective” answers were wrong. The truth? Every response to a poem is valid.

If you’re fortunate you’ve encountered poems you love. You might never admit it in public, or push a book of poems under the TV Guide when someone enters the living room, but you might like a bit of verse now and then. Admit it; you know one off-color limerick.

Even if you are not a “poetry person”, you have a good idea of what you like and dislike. Lima Beans? Heavy Metal? That orangey color of the new car next to you in traffic? We have preferences and this applies to literature as well. The only way we are going to know if we like poems are by reading them, even if we do so in secrecy.

Ask yourself the following questions after you read a poem. There are no right or wrong answers. Really. Toss them out entirely—I don’t care as long as you start thinking about poetry. These are only suggestions to help you start forming your own opinions.

There are only two rules to remember: (I lied about there being no musts.)

  • Go with your gut feeling about something.
  • Think about why you feel the way you do. See if you can figure out why you like a thing or not. Can you find just where in the poem you were confused or elated?

Here are three questions to help you take a closer look at poems:

1. What do you like, if anything, about the poem? What stays with you after you read it? Are there images, lines or sounds that really stick?

2. What don’t you like about the poem? Is there a description, a line or an awkward place in the poem? Take a few moments and see if you can answer how or why it rubs you the wrong way. It may be nothing more than the way two words sound together.

3. At what point does your mind begin to wander? Do you get distracted or bored with any area of the poem? Is there a line, portion stanza your eye and brain want to skip over?

This is the secret to interpreting poetry. In the “professional world” there are all sorts of terms and technical language that go with poems. You don’t need to know them in order to give very insightful and useful feedback. Many people who write poetry tear their hair out trying to get straight answers out of people who are looking at their poems. Friends or workshop participants can get vague, worry about hurt feelings or get hung up in technical language. I think the narrative arc of the poem gets lost before the dénouement. That isn’t of much use to the writer. A clearer way to look at a poem and give feedback might go like this:

“Near the bottom of the poem, the line that starts with ‘and give her back the toast…’ I don’t think that this is a good place to tell us about why he stole the toast from her. A moment ago, the guy who stole the toast was being chased around the table…now you sort of drift off into explanations. Why not stick to more description about the toast chase. I want to know what he is doing with the toast. Is he holding it over the garbage disposal? The toast you were describing has disappeared…”

This is valid feedback. It's your honest opinion. You have identified what you didn’t like about the poem. It got awkward and you've located exactly where it happened in the poem. You can even ask the poet what he or she was trying to do. Perhaps the poet wanted the toast to vanish. More likely, he or she was so carried up in writing about the toast that their attention wavered and they didn’t make things clear. Don’t be afraid to point things out and to ask questions when reviewing a poem; it may save breakfast!

16 September 2009

Book Notes on Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz

Paperback, 288 pages
Published by Vintage, May 1991
ISBN: 9780679732273

One of the perks of interviewing LGBTQ authors is that they love books as much as I do. Even better, they love books that I didn’t know existed. When asked about favorite books, author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore said that Wojnarowicz’s work was “the first book that ever expressed my own sense of rage at the world, and also hope at the same world.” With a recommendation like that, I had read it.

I've been trying to write about Close to the Knives for months, but didn’t know what to say. My first attempt ended up as a series of poems, the oral histories of dead friends preserved in verse. After reading Wojnarowicz’s essays, I was scared that I might forget what I need to remember. His work has no easy definition: part memoir, part social commentary on America during the AIDS crisis, part hallucinatory fiction and also a radical vision of what being queer might mean. Oh, and the prose is stunning in both senses—glamorous and a hard electric shock.

Close to the Knives paints a portrait of America under siege by AIDS and the Regan administration. “I feel that I’m caught in the invisible arms of government in a country slowly dying beyond our grasp…” He could have been writing about a post-9/11 America.

Wojnarowicz never fails to tell the reader hard emotional truth about culture and class, “Some of us are born with the crosshairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls. Sometimes it’s a matter of thought, sometimes activity, but most times its color.” This book isn’t just a series of impassion essays about the evils of big government and homogenized culture; it delves into the personal (actual and imagined) history of Wojnarowicz’s life. It gets gritty, convoluted and joyful by turns.

Wojnarowicz is a master craftsman of language. He turns out sentence after beautiful sentence, “…small sparks of airplanes in the late blue and yellow and these black pills stirring like small bees in my stomach.”

He also has a deft hand for capturing a sense of place, whether that be driving through a Southwestern desert or a having video booth sex in NYC with strangers. His descriptive prose is exacting brushstrokes on the page, “Outside the windows the river light turned from blues to grays to flashes of rain.”

Close to the Knives resonates as much today as it did nearly twenty years ago. I keep coming back to this book even though I finished it months ago. Passages like “American’s can’t deal with death unless they own it. If they own it, they celebrate it, like in the air force base museum to the atomic bomb” wake me up to the fact that monolithic-America is still alive and hungry.

In a post-Bush America with increasing visibility for queer and transgendered people, we feel safer. Some of Wojnarowicz’s ideas about fringe and outsider culture may be hard to grasp for people coming up and coming out in a same-sex marriage world, but in this “post-queer” world I think that Close to the Knives becomes essential reading. Wojnarowicz will not fail to upset you, get you angry or move you to tears.

11 September 2009

I Say Poetry and Then Your Eyes Glaze Over

Maybe poetry went wrong for you in high school. Perhaps an English teacher decided to start unraveling Shakespeare like the Da Vinci Code, until it resembled a complicated algebra problem…hexameter. No, I mean iambic!

Somewhere in being taught how to dissect a poem to reveal its “meaning” poetry became nebulous—a dangerous sea for amateurs to navigate alone. I admit it; I felt the same way for a long time. Even though I like poetry now, it can still be murky, confusing or just plain weird.

In 1957 the linguist Noam Chomsky introduced the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” He wanted to illustrate even though a sentence can be grammatically correct, it can fail to make sense. He called this a “category mistake,” but I say the sentence was a poetic success.

If we can set aside our need for intellectual clarity (meaning) and our fear of not being able to hear how many metrical feet are in a line, maybe we can learn to enjoy poetry for its own sake, colorless greens and all.

My favorite poems open me to new possibilities and shock me with their exciting use of language. Poetry when it is good lifts me out of myself, if only for a moment. Let me leave you with a poem by Ted Kooser from his book Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

Jan 26

overcast, cold and still

A hundred yards ahead

a coyote crosses the road at a lope,

stops on a rise, looks back,

runs on. It is less like

the shape of an animal running

than the shape of something flying.

When I get to the place where I saw it,

no tracks in the snow.

09 September 2009

An Interview with Jeremy Halinen

Jeremy Halinen is a poet and the co-editor and co-founder of Knockout Literary Magazine (knockoutlit.org). Some of his recent poems appear in Arroyo Literary Review; Best Gay Poetry 2008; Dos Passos Review; Pontoon: an anthology of Washington State Poets, Number Ten; Quarter After Eight; and Rio Grande Review. Halinen holds an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University. He resides in Seattle.

This interview was conducted in December 2008.

Jory Mickelson: Tell me a bit more about yourself and your writing history.

Jeremy Halinen: I started writing when I was eight or ten years old. I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in college. I majored in music, but traveled and studied in Italy and Lithuania. I was very fortunate to study under the daughter of Ezra Pound for a semester. I graduated with a B.A. in 2003 and then got my M.F.A. in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 2005. I now work as a legal assistant, write poems, and am the co-editor of Knockout.

JM: Why do you write poetry?

JH: To me [poetry] is what gets at the root of things. It is rooted in the human voice and vocal expression. It is one of the earliest forms of the arts. I enjoy writing fiction and plays, but poetry is the only thing that sustains my attention. I do write fiction once and a while, although they are usually shorter pieces.

JM: What do you mean that poetry is rooted in the human voice?

JH: Poetry differs when it is printed on the page vs. when it is spoken aloud. I push my own poetry to work on the page. I push it hard to bridge the gap between read and read aloud. But, I do like how you can place a poem on the page (using the blank space as part of the poem).

JM: Is poetry relevant today?

Poetry in the world does more than here in the United States. I would say that poetry is a bigger part of the lives of people in poorer countries. Poetry isn’t a mass media. People’s lives in those countries are not so intertwined with television and radio. They have more time to think and communicate. It does seem like poetry is gaining in popularity though. There are more poetry books printed every year, but who knows if they are being read. I would say that poetry is as relevant as anything else is. More relevant than television, but poetry is not financially relevant.

JM: What would you say to people who don’t read poetry?

No one should be force-fed. Poetry isn’t like those geese that are force fed to make foie gras. There is a trend towards animating poems, online, and I am hoping that this reaches a wider audience. People’s exposure to poetry is limited. It really doesn’t bother me if people don’t read poetry. I think that for a poet to be read widely, he or she has to be very conscious of contemporary life—speak in a voice that people can understand.

JM: Who are some poets that you read and admire?

I read Nathan Whiting; he lives in Brooklyn and is a former marathon runner. He is in his mid-to-late 60’s now. I like Tony Hoagland, Robinson Jeffers, and Mark Doty. I know I am forgetting some people. There is a list around here somewhere of poets that I have read and come back to…

JM: Where do you think queer literature is right now and where is it headed?

Queer lit is growing tremendously. There is a larger audience for it. The queer writing community has really come together and I think the Internet has helped that. There are a few queer literary conferences around the country. I went to Saints and Sinners last year in New Orleans, it was great to be around so many queer people who are passionate about writing. The literature of queer people is very diverse now; there isn’t one specific genre.

In the 1980’s there was a focus on coming out literature. I don’t think writers have to do that anymore. We are finally taking a broader look at the world and our own lives. I think that work can be edgier now. That is not to say that earlier writers weren’t edgy, but there is an opportunity now with such a diverse market to be more experimental.

I would like to see more funding for queer literature. I want to see funding for writing, poetry. Maybe with Obama in office there will be a little trickle down. That would be nice.

JM: You are also an editor?

That started a long time ago. I have always been editing. I was home schooled and my father taught me how to write. I was an editor for my high school paper and in college, I edited literary journals, like Willow Springs at Eastern. Now I am the co-editor of Knockout. One of my favorite things about writing poems is the revision process.

JM: How did Knockout come about?

Brett Ortler and I wanted to start a literary magazine for quite a while. We were working together at Willow Springs at Eastern. We each had one vote out of 30 for which poems went into Willow Springs. (Laughs) We wanted more say in what made it into the magazine. I originally wanted a magazine that was all queer, but Brett wanted a 50-50 split. I came around to the 50-50 idea. We are the first magazine to do this split between gay and straight writers that I know of. We started in February of 2007 and the first issue came out in late 2007.

There are only two of us working on it, so the process is slow. My sister does the design work. We are lucky to have someone with a degree in graphic design to lay out the magazine, not many magazines have that. Still, it takes us a long time to put out an issue. We don’t have 30 people on staff like where I used to work.

JM: What are you hoping to do in the future?

JH: I am considering getting a Ph.D. in creative writing. I feel like my poetry is developing the way I want it to, but an advanced degree can lead to an academic career. I am pursuing a Stegner Fellowship, a two-year creative writing fellowship at Stanford. I also completed my first full-length collection of about 45 to 50 poems. I sent it out to several book contests and small presses. I am also working on a second book of poems.

JM: Do you have any last words for our readers?

JH: For queer poets, please submit to Knockout Literary Magazine. Check Knockout’s website at http://www.knockoutlit.org/

Jeremy was recently featured on the Joe Milford Poetry Show. You can hear another interview with him at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/Joe-Milford-Show/2009/08/15/Joe-Milford-Hosts-Jeremy-Halinen

02 September 2009

Books Notes on Sea Swallow Me by Craig Laurance Gidney

Paperback, 204 pages
Published by Lethe Press, November 2008
ISBN: 9781590210666

Visiting one of my favorite gay bookstores, Lambda Rising in Washington D.C., I picked up a copy of Sea Swallow Me and Other Stories. Here I am again, telling you about my travels and the books that I buy.

Gidney’s collection of short stories run the gambit from the young Rimbaud riding the train into Paris in “Strange Alphabets” to falling for an allegorical figure at a dance club in D.C. in “Etiolate.” Every story in this collection stands apart from the others in its imagination. It is rare for me to find an author who can handle such disparate settings and characters well. I was as immersed in the plantation era “The Safety of Thorns” as much as I was by the medieval Japanese monastery in “A Bird of Ice.”

I am particularly fond of Gidney’s use of several different kinds of myth and fable. These fantastical stories are populated by African Diaspora gods, creatures from Japanese myth, historical figures and even the embodiment of longing. Like the human characters in Sea Swallow Me’s stories, the imaginative ones are compelling and flawed. In “The Safety of Thorns,” it appears that a Green Man or Jack in the green is as lost and confused as the mortals he reveals himself too.

Sometimes there is no need for a mythical villain. My two favorite stories in Sea Swallow Me allow the characters to project their own problems into the realm of fantasy. “Circus-Boy Without a Safety Net” is a wonderful take on the coming out story, opens with the fantastic first lines, “Lucifer came to him in drag. He was disguised as Lena Horne.” Gidney’s two-page wonder, “Magpie Sisters” conflates Vonda’s kleptomania with the bird in the story’s title.

Gidney has some weak moments in this collection as well. “Strange Alphabets” while lovely in its conception lagged in its execution. I was interested in how the story would end, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wade through the entire piece. It could have been shortened without ill effect. “Her Spirit Hovering” attempted to address the figure of the overbearing mother with humor. His story becomes more of a worn-out joke than a strong piece of fiction.

Again and again, Sea Swallow Me surprised me with its fresh eye and fertile imagination. Gidney’s language can be sharp and haunting. He takes his readers for a ride through strange and dark landscapes. Although the ride is enjoyable, be sure that you keep your windows rolled up and the doors locked.

31 August 2009

More Good News

Five of my prose poems will be published in the January 2010 issue of Collective Fallout.

To find out more about Collective Fallout, you can visit them at: http://collectivefallout.com/

20 August 2009

An Interview with Emanuel Xavier

Emanuel Xavier is an American poet, spoken word artist, author, editor, literary events curator, and actor born and raised in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. He is one of the most significant voices to emerge from the neo-Nuyorican poetry movement using political, sexual and religious themes throughout his work. His background is Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian. He has been featured on television on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO, In The Life on PBS He performs regularly throughout the United States as a spoken word artist and internationally in cities such as Buenos Aires (Argentina), Guayaquil (Ecuador), and Ghent (Belgium).

This interview was conducted in June 2009.

Jory Mickelson: From the outset, some of my readers might not know the difference between standard poetry and spoken word. Could you tell us more about that since you distinguish yourself as both a poet and spoken word artist in your bio? Would you say that spoken word differs from performance poetry or is it the same thing?

Emanuel Xavier: Performance poetry involves poems that are specifically written to be performed aloud with or without music but always using theatrical elements and has been around since the Beat generation. Spoken word evolved in the United States in the late ‘80’s with poetry slams where poets face off in cabaret-style duals but it was a popular competitive event in India for centuries. Spoken word is a broad term that covers everything from the reading of a children’s book to a monologue. Both performance poetry and spoken word poetry usually involves work that is more political and has a tone of protest, which appeals more to high school and college students. They are both different poetic styles than say Shakespeare but I could easily imagine Walt Whitman sitting in the audience at a poetry slam. Whether you choose music or metaphors, it is all about expressing yourself creatively. I suppose I am listed as both a traditional poet and a spoken word artist because I write for both the page and the stage.

JM: In 1997, spoken word must have felt more ephemeral than it does today with the internet, YouTube and digital media. What do you feel that digital media has done for spoken word? Where do you think technology will take the arts in the future?

EM: Digital media has done a lot for spoken word poetry. In order to get our work out there as spoken word artists, we no longer just depend on bookings and gigs to reach an audience. Besides print publications, people around the world could watch us perform one of our poems on YouTube or read one of them on the internet. I think the future holds exciting possibilities for being able to reach the masses.

JM: You self published your first book of poetry, Pier Queen , in 1997. Would you say that self-publishing was a good thing for you? Would you recommend that other poets and spoken word artists self publish, or should they seek more traditional publishing outlets for their work?

EM: I really enjoyed self-publishing my first book because I learned a lot about the business. I am sort of a control freak by nature so it was a great way of getting my foot in the door. I would absolutely encourage it for the experience but, at the end of the day, it is ideal to seek a publisher. It is nice as artists to be able to focus on our art and leave all that boring stuff like distribution and such to the professionals. Self-publishing has its rewards and it is a great way to start but, unless you are looking to go into the publishing industry, collaborating with others to put a book out is also a great experience. It is hard enough trying to write a poem or a novel without having to think about getting the ISBN number or getting it on bookshelves.

JM: Your first novel, Christ Like was first published back in 1999. Can you tell me a bit about how you went about writing it? Some of Mikey’s life seems to mirror your own. Would you say that this book is largely autobiographical or something else?

EM: I started writing the novel when I was 25 years old. At that point, I realized I would either crash and burn or do something with my life. I packed my bags and went down to South America during the Fall. My uncle owned a beach house in Salinas in Ecuador and it was off-season. I was in complete isolation for several weeks. I was either going to go mad or emerge with a rough draft manuscript. I was determined to write this book and leave something behind so that a quarter century of the insanity of my life had not been in vain. In the tenth anniversary revised edition which just came out, in the introduction, I admit that the few changes which had been made make this more of an autobiography but it still warrants the title of a fiction novel.

JM: How did it feel to be nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for your first book?

EM: It was an interesting time. I was dealing with some harsh negative reviews setting me up against established writers who were also college professors and I had just found out Painted Leaf Press, which published the original, was filing for bankruptcy, and going out of business. The book was pretty much dead on arrival and so I did not get to truly appreciate the fact it was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Even if it was in a small category, the fact that the queer literary community was validating my humble beginnings as an author should have been something to celebrate. Unfortunately, my history preceded me and I was still doubting whether I could actually make this transition or not. It is always easier to believe the negative things people say about you than the positive things.

JM: Christ Like is being reissued after ten years. What was it like to revisit your novel a decade later? What kind of revisions did you make? Was there anything that surprised you during the process?

EM: I was surprised at how much editing it needed and still I did not perfect it. I tried not to mess with it too much even if it meant it would remain amateurish because the writing reflects the main character and this was his story so it needed to be genuine. I went crazy with the footnotes probably because I wanted to reach a wider audience who was not familiar with much of the slang that appears throughout the book. It was difficult to go back to this novel because there were so many bad memories attached but I was finally able to appreciate what others liked about it and, most importantly, I was able to laugh at how silly the main character and I were.

JM: I am finishing a degree in English and I was shocked by the fact that several younger, heterosexual college students did not know who Matthew Shepard was. I know his murder happened nearly 11 years ago now, but it still seems current to me. We are still trying to pass a national hate crimes law named after him. Is our current culture more accepting of queer people, but more ignorant about queer history? Am I just being an old queen?

EM: I could understand high school students but college students? Seriously? It is not you at all. It is totally them. I think current culture has come a long way, but there is still a long journey ahead of us. That is why it is important for us to document our histories and tell our stories. In one of my poems, “Children of Magdalene,” I write:

This prejudice is the pain that clouds my eyes and knots my spine
the scars on the back of my headen
graved by those who reach out open arms
bloodied with hypocrisy, lost dreams, and intangible mantras
those who haunt our daily prayerswith the sounds of oppression
to silence our shepherds with death
because death equals dreams never to be heard of again
and our prophets get no maps to salvation

But the wind will not inherit the echoes of our souls
we will not leave our canvas with unfinished colors
or remain the uninvited children of a lesser God
we will ground our bare feet with toes in soil
listen for the wind chimes in the insanity of life
light candles for our brothers and sisters
from the West Side Highway piers of New York City
to the farm lands of Laramie, Wyoming
to the Castro Streets of San Francisco
and feel the closest we can to heaven
because true love has no boundaries
and our angels have wings too

JM: How do you feel that queer culture has changed in the past decade?

EM: There has been a lot of progress but we still have to fight for the same basic rights everyone else gets to enjoy. It is ridiculous that we have to fight for a piece of paper that grants us the same rights of marriage because the church gets involved. Many foreign countries and Massachusetts have had gay marriages for years and they have not burnt to the ground. Nobody can force any priest to marry them, even heterosexual couples. In addition, the whole “What’s next? People marrying animals?” has been reduced to an eye-roll for anyone with half a brain. Ten years ago, these arguments may have been considered but today the smell of equality is in the air.

JM: What about the queer arts and literature? What have you seen happen in the past ten years with queer writing and publishing?

EM: Well, unless you are fortunate enough to be Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris, both of whom I love, it is still pretty much the same. Ten years ago, many small presses and queer bookstores were going belly up thanks to the economy and, funny enough, that is where we are today. There is more opportunity to sell with online purchases and Kindle but there are fewer spaces for queer authors to gather comfortably and enjoy book signings and readings with their audiences.

JM: You have edited two collections of poetry, Bullets & Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry and Mariposas: A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry . What is it like editing an anthology vs. putting together a collection of your own work? How has your experience as an editor shaped your own writing?

EM: Both were poetry anthologies so they were much easier to publish than putting out my own collections. You do not mess with another poets work. Either you like it or you don’t. If you do, you might make simple corrections but you don’t go through it with a red pen. Everything, including the line breaks, is crucial to a poet so, if you choose to publish it in an anthology, you make sure their voice is being heard load and clear. Putting together your own collection is different because it’s your work and you could edit and make changes as you see fit. You are also piecing the book together so that there is a flow. Both are exciting and I look forward to doing more of each.

JM: I know that you are doing readings for your new book and signings, but what else are you working on at the moment?

EM: I have a new poetry collection coming out before the end of the year. I also have to revisit some spoken word/music collaborations recorded a few months ago and go back into the studio
to complete that project. I am also curating a literary series at El Museo Del Barrio this fall.

JM: Is there anything else you would like to say?

EM: Yeah, this has been a long interview and you’ve really made me think! (Laughter) I’m just glad I’m still around and hope someone out there finds some inspiration in any of this.


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