Sunday, July 29, 2018

Interview with Kelly Ford About Her Chapbook The Witness

[trigger warning: child abuse]

The Witness
Author: Kelly Fordon
PublisherKattywompus Press

Publication date: 2016

The Witness #2

The Witness is just like you and me.
Most days he doesn’t feel like saying
anything antagonistic. Most days
he’s happy with toast and tea, a little
bit of television, a stroll, but every
now and then The Witness is struck
down mid-jaunt. Every now and then,
The Witness tumbles down the stairs.
The water in the shower comes out
scalding hot. The Witness’s hair
falls out in clumps. The Witness
can’t remember his name, he can’t
even get out of bed. Shake it
off? There is nothing he would like
more. If you run into The Witness
at a dinner party, he will not bring
it up. He’ll listen to your suburban saga
politely. He’s been known to suck
down a shot of vodka, a snort or two.
In other words, he could be you.
If you had witnessed it. If you
were on your merry way one day
when you were very small and everyone
around you was very very tall.
The Witness can not talk about this
like a normal person, which is why
they sometimes lock him up,
they keep him under observation.
Like a faucet that’s lost a clot,
he can’t seem to make the images stop.

originally appeared in Mudlark

*   *   *   *   *

Prior to writing fiction and poetry, Kelly Fordon worked at the NPR member station in Detroit and for National Geographic magazine. Her fiction, poetry and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Review, The Florida Review, Flashquake, The Kenyon Review (KRO), The Montreal Review, Rattle, Red Wheelbarrow, The Windsor Review and various other journals. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, On The Street Where We Live, which won the 2011 Standing Rock Chapbook Contest, Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt, which was published by Kattywompus Press in May 2013 and The Witness, released by Kattywompus Press in January 2016. Her short story collection, Garden for the Blind, was published by Wayne State University Press in April 2015 and has been chosen as a Michigan Notable Book. She works for the Inside Out Literary Arts in Detroit as a writer-in-residence.

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*   *   *   *   *
[This interview was first published on Nancy Chen Long's blog.]

Interview conducted by Nancy Chen Long. 

Please tell us a little bit about The Witness.

KF: This book was written in response to my personal experiences as well as the 10,000 pages of testimony provided by survivor’s of sexual abuse at the SNAP  network ( , as well as the Center for Constitutional Rights (

As the title suggests, these poems, written in response to the testimony of those abused by Catholic priests, bear a lyrical witness. Please tell us a bit about your process of creating poetry out of another person’s story or testimony. In her essay “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art” (Poetry, May 2011), Carolyn Forché wrote “In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation.” Is that the case for you?

KF: Generally speaking I would think twice about co-opting another person’s experience, even if I felt I was doing it with the best intentions. In this case, I am very close to the material because I was raised in the Catholic Church and I was an altar girl. However, this chapbook is not about “me” in particular or my personal experiences, and I don’t want my personal experiences to cloud anyone’s reading of this work. Anyone who wants to read about the genesis for these poems should refer to the website and the Center for Constitutional Rights website.

You also mentioned that a good number of the poems are written in the voice of a “witness,” and it got me to thinking about persona poems. In a March 2015 Girls Write Now post “Challenges & Rewards In Persona Poetry: A Mentee-Mentor Perspective,” Cindy Chu, in an interview with Katie Zanecchia, writes: 
At its core, persona poetry forces poets to better identify themselves in order to take on another’s perspective. After all, how do you become someone else without defining who you are, in addition to who they are? While poets construct poems from the view of their chosen characters, the resulting poetry is their own. Whether through use of vocabulary, syntax, or punctuation, poets shape others’ voices into wholly unique works of art. Therefore, persona poetry says as much about the poet as it does her subject. The way that personas are presented on paper provides great insight into poets’ sense of self. 
 Did you find the above true for you? Please tell us a bit about voice and persona in your poems.

KF: I wrote an earlier chapbook called On the Street Where We Live which includes persona poems in the voices of imagined women on “my” street. They were not, in reality, the women I knew, but an amalgamation of all of our experiences—divorce, abuse, loss, career aspirations, motherhood, etc. In those poems I had the sense that I was writing someone else’s story and trying to ascertain what it felt like to be going through the experience of domestic abuse or estrangement etc.

In this new chapbook, I was overtaken by the witness; I felt completely merged with the witness, and the voice materialized out of that rage. I hired Laura Van Prooyan as a manuscript consultant (she is excellent by the way!) and she said “Did you mean to mention the white robes and the penitent’s belt so many times?”

I did.

If I had been writing the poems with my poet hat on I would have looked for different images, but it is true to this witness that the white robe and the penitent’s belt come up over and over again. The witness is obsessed and the repetition is organic to the voice.

What difficulties or challenges did you encounter in writing some of the poems? Have you given a public reading of the work? What was the audience response? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

KF: I have not had a problem publishing the poems. Both William Slaughter at Mudlark and Sammy Greenspan at Kattywompus Press have been very supportive. I have only read the poems once at a conference in Windsor. Several people who were affected by the scandal came up to me afterwards, including Mary Ann Mulhern, a former nun and poet, who published When Angels Weep, a poetry collection about the Father Charles Sylvester sexual-abuse case in Canada.

That being said, I feel tentative about presenting this work in public and if/when I do readings, I always begin with a content warning in order to allow people to leave the room if they need to—it can be very hard to hear. It’s also difficult to broach this material with my Catholic friends and family some of whom may see these poems as an attack on the church. There’s nothing I can do about that, unfortunately.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

KF: I like "The Victim’s Testimony." It’s one of the more graphic poems, but it illustrates how I feel about the whole debacle—angry, frustrated, violated, and dismissed. The image of the filing cabinet door closing on all of the 10,000 pages of victim testimony (some estimates are now at over 100,000 victims worldwide) felt like an apt metaphor.

The Victim’s Testimony

I’m stuck in this file cabinet.
Who wants to finger me?

My words are onion paper thin.
Easily crumpled, easily tossed.

In French class I say,
“S'il vous plaît ne faites pas ça.”

Shower me with holy water
and I scream like Asmodeus.

The first robe is always white
but the outer one changes

like his performance. It was purple
that day to remind us of our sins.

As if I could forget.
As if God could. The light

above my box is always red,
which means stop, a word

I use more than any other.

(published in The New Poet and Mudlark)

Please discuss the choice for a chapbook. For example, why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for your poems rather than a book-length manuscript or a section in a book? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook? How long did it take to write this chapbook (or, alternatively, how did you know it was time to stop writing)?

KF: I wrote these poems in a very short period of time when I was immersed in reading the SNAP testimony. When I was finished, I had around twenty poems. I have published with Kattywompus before and so I naturally sent the work to Sammy. She said yes right away and I was happy they found a home and an advocate. I am still working on the full-length collection, but I have had to take some breaks along the way because the material is hard to face day in and day out. There have been periods when I can’t do it and then I come back to it a month or two later.

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

KF: I would like the survivors who have given testimony to know that they have made a real difference in people’s lives. I for one, will keep advocating. The film Spotlight highlights how many people were complicit in the cover-up—no one wanted to challenge the Catholic Church, even though there were children’s lives at stake. How scary is that? Hopefully now people realize silence is reprehensible.

What are you working on now?

KF: I’m working on a full-length poetry collection and a novel.

Nancy Chen Long is a National Endowment of the Arts creative-writing fellow and author of Light Into Bodies (Tampa University Press, 2017), which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. You'll find her recent and forthcoming work in Third Coast, The Adroit Journal, Third Coast, The Southern Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She  works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

DEAR ALL,: A Love Letter to the World


        DEAR ALL,

        by Maggie Anderson

        Published September, 2017
        by Four Way Books

        ISBN: 9781935536970

        88 pages


reviewed by Barbara Sabol

What a delight to closely read and explore the poems in Maggie Anderson’s fifth and much-anticipated collection, DEAR ALL. Maggie has long been an anchoring presence in the Northeast Ohio poetry community, as founding director of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University,  community ambassador, mentor. Now a Kent State Professor Emerita of English, living in North Carolina, Maggie’s influence is still deeply felt in this corner of Ohio, and most certainly with this reader. I first encountered Maggie as curator and host of the Wick Poetry Reading Series, and had the terrific fortune to be part of her poetry workshop at Chautauqua Institute’s writing festival in 2005―a goad to my own path in poetry.
This collection begins with an open-armed invitation from the title poem; “Dear All,” an epistolary poem addressed to all of the “You’s” closely or remotely or almost encountered. And the reader gladly walks through the door which the poem throws opens, takes a comfortable seat and attends to the work of a seasoned poet. In this first of three sections, the poems’ focus is the evolving self in familial and societal orbits; the tone elegiac, reflective. A reliable “I” carries through this section, the speaker/poet claiming the lead in these narratives. The following poem, “Biography” is just that: in a dreamlike brushstroke, from the time of birth through salient life events. One of the striking features of this piece, and many of the other poems in the collection, is the juxtaposition of  the specific, palpable―a thingness―against abstraction, such as
                        . . .
                        Family arrives on the train in the rain
                                     carrying leather grips and hatboxes.
                        The self blooms,
                                    a chrysalis of sorrow.

Here and throughout, there exists a kind of seesawing of sharp focus and subconscious impression which infuses the work with that delicious sensation of strangeness.  In that same poem:

                        I eat rice from a red lacquer bowl,
                                    Green tea singes my tongue.
                        The riderless horse leads the procession
                                    Fever carries me out of my body.

The elegiac poems are stunning. Mother, father, the war poems, the griefs that define our perspective. Here, in its entirety, is “At Fifty,” one of our most gorgeously moving motherloss poems:

                        At Fifty

                       My mother died at fifty of
                       a beautiful word, leukemia.
                       Nine years earlier
                       in autumn, she gave birth to me
                       when the maples in the park
                       began to turn as they do now.
                       I don’t know how to walk here,
                       in the shifting space no meanings fill.
                       I have outlived her.
                       I enter this foreshortened field,
                       wildly unmothered still.  

Poems of personal loss mingle with collective grief, as enacted by the war poems that dominate the second section of the book. The poet’s engagement with universal loss through images that shake the reader awake to atrocity is evident here. “This is the least I can do―/to remember the war in my books,” the poet states in the last two lines of “Beautiful War.”
These poems deliver a soft gut punch: references to the holocaust, Civil War, unceasing turmoil in the Mideast are contextualized in the speaker’s reflections, her memories, at times a lucid dreaming state when our deepest truths bubble to the surface. For example, in “The Sleep Writer,” a fragmented form mimics the blending of  real and subconscious images in that half-awake state: “Lovely afternoon. The firing squad./Bottles lined up in the sun./Dahlias. Men in uniform. Daffodils.” 
A blending of multi-sensory images of nightmare/surfacing to wakefulness also weave through “Asleep still, I rise:”
            . . .
            Muffle of chopper blades
            Then sharper           red sky, white sand
            Choked engines         flash and chemical singe

In contrast is the calm of the sleep walker’s immediate environment: “. . .a sweet breeze from the opened window/inside the safe rooms of the house.” 

The speaker, here and throughout, expresses a profound empathy with the oppressed, the target, whether human or four-legged animal. In “Cleaning the Guns,” she states, “but really it was the helplessness/I couldn’t get around. The deer absolutely still, alert,/one shot & death. I couldn’t do that.”  

War as an internalized struggle is depicted in the poet’s father poems, most strikingly  in “Note from My Father.” The figure of the father in these poems is a literate and worldly man who chafes against the aphasia that has stolen his language. In a startling image rendered the more poignant by the daughter’s struggle to decipher his message is a description of her father’s efforts at speech, “to say something he thought was clever:” 

He stuttered and stabbed at words.
Like a horse trapped in a forest,
he lifted his head and threw it back,
snorted and cleared his throat.” 

The poems of loss and battles of one kind or another are counterbalanced by the wit of a handful of poems infused with a more musing tone. In the third section, for example, the speaker in “In Real Life" explores the other lives “I seem to have imagined myself into:”

                        In real life, I am planning a new career. I imagine
                        for myself a small congregation of gay Episcopalians
                        somewhere in the Midwest, in a town not know for
                        tolerance, but respectful, even a bit in awe of
                        anything that passes for style. I am their priest,
                        their good shepherd, and all my flock play
                        musical instruments and give amusing dinner parties. 

In another poem in that last section, “Waiting for Jane Austen in Walnut Creek, Ohio, at the end of the twentieth century,” time and situations are blithely bent to allow poet and Jane to exchange centuries and circumstance:

                        . . .Then I was the one in the eighteenth century,
                        in the General Store, examining racks of buttons and spools
                        of thread beside the rakes and ropes as thick as thighs.
                        Jane was tearing down the highway at 65 m.p.h., a wild Beast
                        in her worn leather covers and braid of a bookmark,
                        her apparatus of happiness fully intact. 

The work in this final section of the book ranges in style and subject, and abounds with vivid description. In “The Thing We Can’t Forget,” perseveration “chokes the imagination/like kudzu. . .” and the lushness of the natural world is made otherworldly in “A Blessing,” which opens with “Translucent braid gelled to silver at first light,/the valley’s work, the white, the shining.” And in “The Map,” a metaphor for blossoming tree blunts the hard edge of a singular pain of a parent’s dying:
                       . . .  
                        I wish I could tell him that this week the tiny
                        spoons of the dogwood blossoms turned
                        and drew music up from the drenched ground, 

The breadth of the mind’s associative workings is suggested via abstract yet accessible imagery and startling simile in the poem, “In the Rubble of the World.” Fractured lineation further animates the cascading succession of  surreal impressions in this powerful piece: 
                        . . .
                                    Sun and the wicked noises
                                                march through the air of the brain:
                        the wounded are never clean―
                                                like aubergines
                                                            cut open and left to absorb the atmosphere
                                                the layered opening of dying roses on a wide table
                                                                  green leaves backlit against the flames
                                                            lint clotted in the heavy drape

The book’s closing poem, “And then I arrive at the powerful green hill,” enacts the gesture of letting go all the bitter and sad things laid out in the preceding poems:
                    . . .
                    I have brought everything I've left undone--
                    letters and resolutions, almost loves,
                                 hard grudges--to give to the wind that takes them up,
                                     tosses them down, down until
                    my hands are empty and I am as thin and light as a girl.

This poem beautifully bookends “Biography,” at the start of the book, which begins, “Born, I was born./In sweat and tears I lay on a flowered blanket/. . .My mind is clear as polished glass.” 
The great strength of these personal poems, aside from their technical mastery, is the intensely private made public: most readers have experienced significant loss at some age, have felt undone by the great tragedies in our lifetimes, have pondered the workings of the body, the mind, relative to life’s larger questions; these poems offer words for those profound emotions and perceptions. We are moved by the poet’s disarming vulnerability laid bare in poems like “Ordinary Morning,” where the pain of grief and that of one exiled is without boundary: 
                        . . .
                        I can imagine hunger, quavery
                        Emptiness of nothing to eat and not knowing when.
                        Cut off, amputated in a cold basement with no news, 
                        Sharp static, a green transistor radio

                        O mother and father I prematurely grieved,
                        Where are you now that I need to lose you?
                        . . .                         

Of the myriad lyric qualities in DEAR ALL―the tangible detail underlying clear descriptive narrative, the range of style and forms, the deep bow to influential poets―is the clear and authentic voice of Maggie Anderson. The poet’s voice is straightforward, unembellished, genuine. There is a wonderful story teller’s element in this  compelling collection, which settles us in our reading chair, to listen, to ponder, to imagine. Anderson’s lyric voice is one that is authentic, plain-spoken, so as to be nearly audible; a voice that resonates well after the poems are read. The poet writes to her readers via the book’s title, invites us into her image- and language-rich world. And for this reader, who has long-admired Maggie Anderson’s work, the invitation is most welcome.

Maggie Anderson is the author of four previous books of poetry: Windfall: New and Selected Poems, A Space Filled with Moving, Cold Comfort, and Years that Answer. She has co-edited several thematic anthologies, including A Gathering of Poets, a collection of poems read at the 20th anniversary commemoration of the shootings at Kent State University in 1970, as well as Learning by Heart: Contemporary American Poetry about School and After the Bell: Contemporary American Prose about School. Her awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, fellowships from the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia councils on the arts, and the Ohioana Library Award for contributions to the literary arts in Ohio. The founding director of the Wick Poetry Center and of the Wick Poetry Series of the Kent State University Press, Anderson is a professor emerita of English at Kent State University and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

                                                                                           reviewed by Barbara Sabol