Thursday, January 9, 2020

Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse
By Valerie Nieman
Press 53, 2018
ISBN 978-1-941209-89-9
78 pages

Review of Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse
by Rosemary Royston

I’ve had the chance to meet Valerie Nieman on a couple occasions, as we both live in write in Southern Appalachia and have crossed paths at various conferences and readings. I was delighted to have the opportunity to review The Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse. Two of the dominant temperaments working so well together in Nieman’s collection, as Gregory Orr so aptly described them, are story and imagination. The title lets the reader know she is about to embark on a life of a woman known as a “Leopard Lady,” and curiosity alone lures the reader to want to know why someone would have such a moniker. While the setting is clearly in Southern Appalachia, the final poem, “Ghost Riders (Coney Island Museum, 1980)” is the clue to what triggered Nieman’s imagination to conjure this collection of poems that are in the voices of two characters: the Leopard Lady (Book I) and the Professor (Book II), both of whom find themselves in the same traveling carnival. While the setting is certainly non-traditional, the themes are universal, and sound, diction, and image bring these poems to life. 

We are first introduced to the Leopard Lady in the opening poem where she is not yet named. What we learn, though, is that she is orphaned at birth – her “red-haired mother died” during childbirth and she sees her father “only in that mirror” that she holds up, her “skin as brown as a nut.” A mixed race child in the South in the mid-1930s, she is given over to the Gaston family (“grown old as Abraham n Sarah”), named Dinah, and sent out to earn money by helping to make sorghum. While the Gaston family proclaims to be a godly family, their true nature is revealed in “No More Haints” on how they see Dinah’s purpose in their family,

            The Gastons would send me out for wages,
            learning and earning they said, and they leaned on the latter,
            once I had grammar enough to read the Good Book,
and a body strong enough for chopping and toting.

However, the manual labor grows old and Dinah, who has since become pregnant and been sent to a root-worker for bitters to drink to purge her body of a fetus, finds herself jumping off a boxcar and starting a new life with a traveling carnival, honing her natural gift of second sight and learning to read palms. “The Hunt” offers in its final stanza a description of palmistry,
                        The hand is a forest
                        cut through with paths.
                        Along them runs a soul
                        like deer to water.

Dinah moves in and out of towns with the carnival and in and out of roles within the sideshow. And while her lifestyle is very different than that of most readers or the “rubes” who attend the shows, there are universal themes that are inescapable. No matter where she goes, Dinah is marked by the color of her skin. Her options are limited in society due to her mixed race, and once her palm-reader mentor, Mrs. Elderia, passes away, Dinah takes her place. But her name “ain’t strong,” according to the lot manager. It needs to match her dark skin so it should be Egyptian. Offered up are “Queen? Oracle? Sibyl?” and it is the Sibyl that Dinah takes as her palm-reading persona. This additional self is no different that the many selves the reader takes on in daily life, and Dinah’s personas grow as she does. In fact, we learn the etymology of her final name, The Leopard Lady, in “The Leopard Lady at the Market,” where she ponders over the two people who created her: a Black father and an Irish mother who is,
                        …working to get out, though,
                        showing herself.
                        That white woman what left me
                        is taking me back,
                        inch by inch.

While never explicitly named, Dinah likely suffers from vitiligo, where the pigmentation of her darker skin fades, turning white, leaving her spotted, hence her next carnie act as the Leopard Lady. But before she reveals her changing pigmentation to the carnival goers, she continues to tell fortunes, using her second sight, often spooking the farm boys who enter her tent. “The Leopard Lady Finds Lost Things” is a prime example of the power of diction that works throughout this collection, as the reader can both hear and see this scene, “So the wicker chair crick-cracks. One sets an overbig hand / on the crystal; a streak of sweat shows and gone.” // “It’s my watch, he says, I lost it but he got another question / under his skin like a warble-grub about to burst.” This farm boy, who has lost his watch making love to his girl at Alder Branch, “gapes like a catfish” when the Leopard Lady (now also called Lady Panthera due to her changing skin) tells him that, “Time secretly moves. / Bends the alder branch. / Seek under stone over sand.”

When it comes to lovers, Dinah chooses to ignore signs that are right in front of her, signs that she should easily see, and she loses the man she loved the most – Shelby, who always called her by her given name, “And so I broke my heart / and shoemaker’s children go barefoot.” It is this loss of Shelby that leads the reader into Book II: The Reveal, which opens with “The Ballyhoo,” where it is claimed that the Leopard Lady, “

Abandoned by her lover, she called on black arts
of voodoo, summoning Erzulie of the heart,
unholy Mambo Madam of love and vengeance,
to trade her suffering for a beast’s indifference.”

However, Petey, who was the previous spiel-giver of the inside show, left the carnival “high and dry in Shinnston,” and was soon replaced by a pale, book learned man named Jonathan, who is introduced in “Arrivals” and who becomes an equal voice in the second half of The Leopard Lady. A friendship and a platonic love grows between Jonathan aka The Professor and The Leopard Lady. While Dinah has read the Bible and Shakespeare, Jonathan has read these and more and they often discuss Bible verses and views, with Dinah holding her ground and not feeling any less than, even without the benefit of Jonathan’s formal education.  Jonathan’s ability to preach, which he is wise enough not to share, allows him to give an impromptu and very successful spiel for how Alfredo the Amazing Frog Boy came to be in “ The Professor: A Voice to Speak” – his “homiletics class/ had given [him] the gift to winnow out / ideas from the air with a sieve of words.” It is this speech that gets Jonathan hired to be the inside man for the carnie show.

Another universal theme that crops up in this collection is that of a class system. Whether we are in traditional society where race, gender, and economic status dictate a bias, there’s also a class system in the carnival. As captured in “Fearfully, Wonderfully,” those “shaped by God’s thumb” or the “born freaks” are at the top of the class system. Because Jonathan comes from outside and has an education, it is not until his own weakness is made visible to his colleagues that he gains their respect. In “The Professor: Abracadabra” he magically becomes one of them once the “spectacular scar” from his heart defect is revealed when he passes out:
                        …Their eyes are softer, now
                        that they have seen the scar. I am no more
                        the one who has the words, the Inside Man,
                        but one of them, stricken and marked.

This acceptance of Jonathan by his carnie brothers and sisters is the type of acceptance we all yearn for, as we all wish to belong to community. In the carnie system and in these poems we find acceptance no matter what our born defects or our self-inflicted mutations may be. It is easy to understand the appeal of traveling with a group of people who accept one another no matter the oddities.

Images are prevalent in Nieman’s poems. From the leopard spots on Dinah’s skin, the Professor’s scar, crows, and root working, one that stands out and ties together both the spiritual nature of the poems that runs through the collection and the limitations of women is found in “The Professor: Fairy Stones.” The poem turns on the image of a stone that the Professor keeps in his pocket. Once spotting it and asking what it is, Dinah “strokes its quartered arms / with nothing less than humble reverence.” The cross-shaped stone has two evolution stories, one scientific, the other more mysterious. Either it was formed from molten rock or, it was formed when “woodland sprites / cried at the news of Jesus’s death, their tears / freezing as crosses.” The fairy stone was a gift to the Professor from his Aunt Edwina, who wished “to be a priest herself,” yet, like Dinah, being a woman severely limited her options, with Dinah’s options being even more restrictive due to the mixed color of her skin. The collection is rife with Bible verses, allusions, and traditions from Southern Appalachia of making bitters, using yarbs, to the “gift of prophecy.” As superstitions go in the region, a bird flies under the carnival tent in “See You Down the Road,” predicting a death the next day, which happens to be that of Jonathan. Prior to passing away, Jonathan has given Dinah his fairy stone in “Gift” and tells her of the Buddhist theory of life as a wheel in “The Professor Tells about the Wheel,” where Dinah ponders, secure in her Christianity,
I know my soul is sealed
                        and glory-bound,
                        but I would surely like
                        off this earthly wheel
                        of sadness.

It is in Jonathan’s passing that he is able to liberate the Leopard Lady. Leaving her his savings, she merges into both her carnie persona and her true self as Madame Dinah, having the means to purchase a home and earn a living as “Madame Dinah, Palmist and Seer.” It is a sad irony that it takes Jonathan’s death to liberate Dinah, but The Leopard Lady is finally free to live on her own and support herself through her gifts, secure both financially and spiritually.

The final poem, “Ghost Riders (Coney Island Museum, 1980),” let’s the reader know where Nieman found the source for these poems and characters, and it also reminds the reader of the essence of Carl Sandburg’s “Cool Tombs,” where death is the great equalizer. In its final stanza, Nieman so beautifully shows the harsh reality of the ending of the cycle of life:

                        Down at the edge of the beach
                        sand and salt keep gnawing
                        at the other. We are none of us more
                        than a handful of spit and dust.
                        We live and then we are melted into air.

Rosemary Royston, author of Splitting the Soil (Finishing Line Press, 2014), resides in northeast Georgia with her family. Her poetry has been published in journals such as Split Rock Review, Southern Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, Poetry South, KUDZU, NANO Fiction, and *82 Review. She’s a lecturer and VP for Planning and Research at Young Harris College, where she teaches the occasional creative writing course.

Monday, December 9, 2019

mcmxciv by Nate Logan and JJ Rowan

Last year, my friend Nate Logan had a collaborative chapbook published, along with JJ Rowan. I got the chance to interview the both of them. Below is a micro-review of the chapbook, followed by the interview.

—Nancy Chen Long
[This post was originally published on my blog].

*          *          *

by Nate Logan and JJ Rowan
Shirt Pocket Press, 2018


i’m having numeral anxiety to
which the internet is a bad
bandaid. the administration
claims i is in my toolbag but
they could just as easily buy
that info from aol. seven times
i’ve been a healthy scratch.
here’s something taped on
my skin to simulate healthcare.
here’s a good example of a
bad example. there’s where i
kicked the asphalt to tell you
my bucket list had a hole
in the bottom the size of a zero

“xxi,” © Nate Logan and JJ Rowan mcmxciv (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018)

mcmxciv is a collaborative chapbook of contemporary sonnets by Nate Logan and JJ Rowan. If the sonnet form is a box as some say, the sonnets in mcmxciv demonstrate that it’s a flexible one: The poems in Logan and Rowan’s sequence make use of the basic fourteen-line structure of the sonnet and most poems can be said to have a volta. However, the poets also freely play with meter and there is no standardized rhyme scheme. Most, but not all, follow sentence syntax and punctuation. Indeed, on the page, the sonnets in mcmxiv resemble a box—each poem is a single block of fourteen lines without any stanza breaks and all of the poems are in lower case.

As one who has a keen interest in math and numbers, I was delighted to find that numbers / numbering is prominently featured in mcmxiv. The title of the chapbook itself is a number, the Roman-numeral equivalent of 1994. [Aside: And some of the poems feel as if they take place in the year 1994, with the mention of AOL and answering machines. The first poem puts us there as well, “standing in line / at a ferris wheel in 1994.”] Returning to numbers: The titles of the poems are also Roman numerals, although they are not in numerical order and there are gaps in the numbers. For example, the collection begins with “x”, but there are no poems “i”  – “viii”. In some poems, numbers are directly named, such as the mention of the year in the first poem. In addition to actual numbers, things and activities related to numbers make their way into the poems, for example “try counting / to learn about failure. try numbering pages / to learn about sex” from the poem “xv.”

My favorite use of numbers is in the last two lines of the last poem “xxiii,” which begins with “entered your figure in the search / bar” and proceeds through various things that had been entered, which in itself is interesting, since, as the last poem, it is exiting. As the poem iterates through the various ways of entering, an error occurs (“invalid. error. error. entered / a column as a row. claimed entry.”) The last two lines of the poem come after that declaration of an error and consist of a series of binary numbers that translate into (computer) ASCII codes that in turn translate into letters that spell the word french. For me, ‘french’ here takes on multiple meanings. It suggests that the one and zeroes might as well be another language. Secondly, if the last two lines are the speaker replying to the computer in its native machine language, then the last two lines suggest that the speaker is swearing at computer, as in “pardon my French.” Or the last two lines could simply be a memory dump by the computer that gives the illusion of making sense by spelling a random, potentially human-recogizable word.

In mcmxciv, the authors create a world that hints at  hyperreality and technoculture, a world in which simulation and reality blur, but one that is at the same time intimate and personal. The theme of simulation and stand-ins can be seen in the first poem, “x.” There’s a building used for an activity that becomes a stand-in for the actual human activity (“the hockey rink that doubles as actual hockey”), a person-as-icon-or-cursor on a computer screen (“see you blinking on the page”), a phone call that does not occur, but if it had, the speaker knows s/he would not have been speaking to a person, but to a machine instead (“another hour / almost call to your answering machine.”) References to technology are peppered throughout these sonnets. For example, in addition to “internet,” “aol,” “answering machine,” “cell service,” and “search bar” already mentioned, in “xli,” the speaker demonstrates “bravery by tearing a pixel / wishbone from the night sky.” That simulated experience and technology pushes against the personal and conjures an impersonal, almost lonely space. Then we have those many numbers and acts of numbering and calculating that introduce even more distance to the personal. Amid this swirl of numbers and technology, the speaker says “i saw you across the / room / disembodied.” And I do experience the speaker as disembodied, existing in a seeming virtual, simulated world. However, even in the face of all of these numbers and all of this technology, the voice in the poems is intimate. The poems are like monologues or notes to a friend or lover, of a person sharing private thoughts, for example “unless you’re a fuck-up like me” (“xlviii”), “it’s june but i’m tired / of being brave” (“xxii”), “i try not to want or be” (“xxxvii.”)

In “To Sonnet, to Son-net, Tuscon Net,” Sina Queyras writes “It’s a challenge to make [the sonnet] lively, to not feel you’ve handed yourself over and let its history have its way with you: are you writing the sonnet, or is the sonnet writing you?” In mcmxciv, Logan and Rowan have not handed themselves over—they have made the form their own. Their sonnet sequence creates a fluid, asynchronous, stream-of-consciousness world that uses structure sparingly. Rigidly following form, syntax, and capitalization, as well as the use of numbers, are all ways of imposing structure and order. Logan and Rowan’s choices in applying the sonnet form, coupled with the lack of punctuation, the way they use fragmentation and numbers, all work towards releasing the need to be in total control, instead embracing fluidity and spontaneity, an appreciation for surprise. In this chapbook of fourteen fourteen-lined poems, Logan and Rowan create an intimate world through the voice of a disembodied speaker, a sense of logic and wholeness rooted in the unexpected. In one slender sequence, they share with us a world where you can feel the air “falling tenderly against / technology’s faux-romantic whir.”

*          *          *

Nate Logan was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. He's the author of Inside the Golden Days of Missing You (Magic Helicopter Press, Fall 2018). He's editor and publisher of Spooky Girlfriend Press.

JJ Rowan is a poet and dancer living in Southern Oregon. Her previous chapbooks include so-called weather (Locofo Chaps, 2017) and the selected jesus (Shirt Pocket Press, 2015). Her VisPo recently appeared in Dream Pop Journal #2.

An Interview with Nate Logan and JJ Rowan

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook mcmxciv.

Nate: mcmxciv (1994) is a collaborative chapbook of sonnets written over a distance of 2,000 miles. 

JJ: *Over* 2,000 miles! ;) The fine folks at Shirt Pocket Press recently published it.

How did you decide on the title. The poems are numeric numbers as well, and out of order. Could you say a bit about the poems titles?

N: JJ chose the title. I remember she specifically asked me how to write “1994” in Roman numerals. As far as the poem titles, it wasn’t clever at all. We started our collaboration by giving Roman numeral titles to the poems in the order we wrote them.

J: I remember having a lot of very minor Roman numeral anxiety. I could never quite get them right and asked Nate to check them a lot of the time. I am pretty sure our book is from 1994.

N: Haha. This is true, but it’s also funny because once we were in the 20s, I looked up the Roman numeral equivalent for every poem I had to start. I definitely didn’t know off the top of my head.

J: And I was weirdly stubborn about figuring them out off the top of my head. 

N: I was more worried about how I was going to follow JJ’s great lines when it was my turn with whichever poem we were working on.

I struggle with sonnets and admire that your wrote a chapbook of them. Are sonnets a form you normally write? If so, what draws you to it? If not, what did you like about writing them? What did you find difficult? Some writers insist a sonnet must follow the rules for a known type of sonnet, e.g. Shakespearean, others say it’s a sonnet if the poet says it is. To you, what makes a sonnet a sonnet?

N: I wouldn’t say I normally write sonnets, but right now I do usually write shorter poems. I think we chose to write sonnets because it was easier to devise a scheme on how we would be writing them together, as opposed to another form or having no form at all. What was particularly challenging and fun was to follow JJ’s lines in a way that kept the poems together. These aren’t really my poems, or hers. This is a third voice somewhere between us. And as far as what makes a sonnet, I say 14 lines. The rest can be played with.

J: I absolutely struggle with sonnets. I write long messy things -- I feel like sonnets are the opposite of that. Nate, the form was your idea, right?

N: I think maybe I suggested it first, yeah.

J: It ended up being a great scaffolding for collaboration. The definition we were working with was 14 lines and we mostly stayed within a certain shape. I expected, actually, to have trouble with the form but I ended up really comfortable in it. For me, I think writing them with Nate was key -- I’m not sure I’d write sonnets on my own.

One way that I experience these poems is as call-and-response pieces. What was your writing process for these poems?

J: Nate got into this a bit in the last question -- every poem is from this place between the two of us, this third voice. I like that idea of call-and-response. I’d say every poem is the call and the response. It’s definitely a conversation of sorts.

N: Yes, these are definitely conversations. The nuts and bolts answer to this question is this: JJ - 4 lines, me - 4 lines, JJ - 4 lines, me - 2 lines, 4 lines of the next poem, and so on.

J: So we’d alternate who started and finished each sonnet, which was really the most control either of us had at any given time. And we were always taking cues from each other, and sometimes fucking with those cues, setting out on unexpected paths.

Writing can be such a solitary experience. In addition, for some writers, their personal artistic vision would not be able to tolerate the cooperation and mutual concessions that collaboration can require. How did the original idea for your collaboration come about? How did you find the experience rewarding? Difficult? 

N: I approached JJ originally and asked if she’d be interested in writing together. I wanted to do something to break me a little from that solitary experience. And it was rewarding exactly for that reason: JJ’s influence helped give me a booster shot I was looking for.

J: Well, I’m laughing at myself right now because I keep thinking collaboration was my idea. I love collaborating -- it’s not always easy (and not everyone is the right partner) but when it works it’s amazing. Nate suggested this when I’d been writing solo for a while and really needed it, too. It has been extremely rewarding for me. We’re very different writers on our own and I think it made the work more interesting. Sometimes I’d finish my lines with a clear idea of where the sonnet was going and then Nate would take it somewhere else. I loved that.

N: It could’ve been JJ’s idea! We can go back in the archive and see. I also think the excitement of not knowing where a sonnet was going kept me on my toes. Any “idea” I had was silly because I had no control, really.

J: I looked :) It was you! Good job!

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates?

N: This is a really good question, Nancy, and even after some days of thinking about it, I’m not quite sure how to answer.

J: For me, this question feels more personal coming from a collaborative space than it would if I was writing alone, I think. In the last question you mentioned writing as “a solitary experience” -- and I don’t think that idea necessarily goes away in collaboration. I feel like a world this chapbook creates (maybe there is more than one?) is the space where that third voice lives, especially when that voice is made up of two voices who are in reality quite far away from each other. I think that world is a sprawling space trying to make itself smaller or closer. I can’t seem to separate the idea of distance from everything else going on in the poems. I feel like Nate and I were, inside of the sonnets and in general, often talking about miles.

N: While I don’t have a concrete answer, I think distance has something to do with the world here. Almost like a mile scale on a map. An inch will represent lots of miles, but it’s also an inch. Maybe this chapbook is that inch? Does this even make sense?

J: Yessss, that.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

N: For me, “xiii.” JJ started this poem and I would’ve been happy to stall and not add to it.

J: Ohh, I adore that one. And I’m wicked glad you didn’t stall forever! Some of the sonnets feel like we’re standing next to them and some feel like we’re standing inside of them. I think we might live in that one. For me, and this is a really hard question, it’s “x.” Maybe that’s why I was so enamored of “mcmxciv.” as a title for the collection. A lot of the sonnets I know immediately who began and who ended -- if I really sit with it I can figure this one out, but it’s not immediately apparent and I love that. It’s a very clear third voice to me. I know that’s not really a back story.

N: Haha, I just wanted to linger in those lines for a while. Like JJ says, I really like those places where I don’t remember who wrote what, too. I think that’s where a lot of the magic lays. But even places where I know who wrote what, it’s fun to see what both of us came up with in response to each other. I don’t think I could fully do that when we were writing them.

What else would you like readers to know about you or your chapbook?

N: All the best lines are JJ’s :)

J: No! Not true. I kind of can’t believe we got this far in the interview without saying anything about being a Capricorn and a Virgo. That seems important. Also! The full sonnet sequence is actually 100 sonnets. We got a little obsessed :)

N: And also! Our fiftieth and one-hundredth sonnet are double sonnets! Maybe they will be out there in the world in the future.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

N: I’m not sure I’d say non-poetry writing helps me, but I’ve had songs inspire my writing and I do listen to music when I write, which seems to be a thing not a lot of poets do. 

J: Reading my horoscope! For real. I’m pretty obsessive about Chani Nicholas and Gala Mukomolova (Galactic Rabbit). I think what actually helps me write poetry the most, though, is movement. I have a fairly obsessive dance practice and that has become an essential part of my writing practice.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

J: I know it isn’t for everyone, but I would absolutely recommend collaboration. It doesn’t have to be anything more than a practice or an exercise, but I think it’s a really great way to learn more about your solo writing practice and shake up your routine.

N: I would say resist the urge to compare yourself to others. There are so many small presses today, there’s probably more than one out there that would love to showcase your work. Be as organic as you can.

If you have any other chapbooks or books, please tell us a bit about them.

J: Ok, I really want to take this opportunity to yell: Nate’s first book is coming out from Magic Helicopter!!!

N: JJ is too kind! Yes, my first book is scheduled to be released this fall. Last year, I had an anti-T___p chapbook published by Locofo Chaps as part of their series of political chapbooks. I know JJ has at least one other chapbook out there, right?

J: Yep. I also had chapbook in that series from Locofo (there were a ton of us!). Previous to that I had a solo chapbook with Shirt Pocket.

N: I’m starting a petition to get JJ a full-length collection. Her work is so great and deserves the breadth of a collection!

J: See, we’re sort of each other’s superfan.

What are you working on now?

N: I’m just doing my sacrilege once a week writing routine (I know, I know).

J: Though Nate and I wrote our sonnets in a shared space online, I have a pretty staunch write-by-hand practice. I do this daily for the most part. I recently finished a poem sequence of shorter poems (which our sonnet practice influenced for sure) and am in the middle of a long prose poem sequence. And we’ll be sending more sonnets out into the world, I hope.

N: Yes! More sonnets out into the world. And who knows? We may get the itch to write some more together.

J: That could definitely happen.

Nancy Chen Long is the author of Wider than the Sky (Diode Editions, 2020), which was selected for the Diode Editions Book Award, and Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), winner of the Tampa Review Poetry Prize. She is the grateful recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing fellowship and a writer residency at Ox-Bow School of the Arts. Her work was selected as the winner of the 2019 Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award and featured in Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Indiana Humanities. You’ll find her recent work in Copper Nickel, Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Smartish Pace, The Adroit Journal, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. She  works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.