Monday, April 15, 2019

Interview with Kwoya Fagin Maples about Mend

I am an aching shell but her touch says I am worth tenderness.
- from "My Mother Bathes Me after I Give Birth" by Kwoya Fagin Maples


Kwoya Fagin Maples is a writer from Charleston, S.C. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow. She is the author of Mend (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). In addition to a chapbook publication by Finishing Line Press entitled Something of Yours (2010), her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, Pluck!, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Southern Women’s Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Her most recent poetry collection, Mend, was finalist for the AWP Prize. Mend tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. This work received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Maples teaches Creative Writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and directs a three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film.

from the University Press of Kentucky

In the 19th century, James Marion Sims performed experimental surgery on enslaved women.

In Mend: Poems, Kwoya Fagin Maples gives voice to the enslaved women named in Sims' autobiography: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. In poems exploring imagined memories and experiences relayed from hospital beds, the speakers challenge Sims’s lies, mourn their trampled dignity, name their suffering in spirit, and speak of their bodies as “bruised fruit.” At the same time, they are more than his victims, and the poems celebrate their humanity, their feelings, their memories, and their selves. A finalist for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, this debut collection illuminates a complex and disturbing chapter of the African American experience.

Reviews of Mend:
 *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Kwoya Fagin Maples and I met when we did a reading together, along with Kate B. Gaskin, at Desert Island Supply Co. in Birmingham, AL. She gave a powerful reading from her manuscript Mend before it was published and I am delighted to be able to interview her about now that it has been introduced into the world.

—Nancy Chen Long


ELEGY FOR A STILLBORN by Kwoya Fagin Maples
from Mend

          To the One Who Carries Him Away

All of my children have died or wandered away.
           —Molly Ammonds, Alabama Slave Narratives


Here are the milk and songs from my breast.
Here is his cover sewed from calico scrap
and dyed with peachtree.
Take it for nights when he is cold.

Here is the sheet I stole soap for
and washed in secret,
to catch him when he came.
It was to give him a clean start.

Take the old dresser drawer I meant for a cradle.
You will need pins from the washwoman
and this wrap from my hips—
You can carry him against your back.

Take the knife from under my bed
that they used to cut the pain.
I did not make a basket of medicines
I did not want to mark him sick.

But here is pine-top tea, and elderbrush.
Here are mullen leaves for when he cuts teeth.
Here is his corn husk doll.
And take the place I prepared for him near the fire:

the quilt folded in half, then again,
so he would rest against something soft.
Take the room full of times
my hand crossed over my belly,

a prayer on my lips.

© Kwoya Fagin Maples, Mend (Univ of Kentucky Press, 2018), used with permission of University Press of Kentucky

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Please tell us how you decided on the title for the book.

KFM: The title is related to my purpose for the collection. I wrote Mend in tribute to the women who suffered under Sims’ hands. This book is an effort to bring to light this injustice, to elevate and reverence these women’s story, and to continue conversations regarding the current medical treatment of black mothers’ bodies. (Due to persistent medical biases, black mothers are still 3 to 4 more times likely to die after childbirth. In 2019.) This book was written to counter the previous inaccurate and harmful portrayal of this history. It was written to invalidate perceptions that people have of black women and our ability to bear pain. Mend is my attempt as a writer, a child of my ancestors and a mother, to fix something.


Poems in Mend are written in the voices of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, three of the slave women on whom James Marion Sims experimented. 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. Have you ever started a persona poem and had the poem take a turn away from persona to the personal? 

KFM: I’d certainly agree with Chu. My attempts to purely portray individual voices in persona are sincere, but ultimately the voices I create are influenced by my own. There is no way to cleanly separate the poet from the voice of the speaker. My aim with Mend was to be as accurate as possible based on research. I made an attempt to let go of the writer and editor within me to allow what the women could have said and how they would have said it take the lead. Here’s a small example that was indicative of a greater struggle: there’s a line from the poem, “Prayer Meeting,” wherein the speaker meets a guy she is attracted to. She describes him as having, “the straightest string of pearls for teeth.” It almost makes me laugh to think about how difficult it was for me to not edit that line. All of my training as a writer makes this line uncomfortable because I see it as a pat and expected. However, this description for teeth could have been familiar to the speaker. I was also trying to create the impression of the story being shared during conversation. While writing Mend, word choice, vernacular and syntax were a struggle. Voice was constantly in question. My biggest question: how do I allow these women to speak their story with authenticity without making the writing appear less poetic? How does an enslaved woman—who may have never made it past the end of her captor’s land—speak? What made the final decision was my initial desire—which was to write a book in tribute to the women of this story. To set aside “the editor,” more often than not. I also decided that if the writing was too heavy with vernacular, it could be too big of a distraction to the reader.

“The Door” was the first poem I wrote for the collection. It is written in my own voice. Without knowing it was the first poem I’d written for Mend, my editor chose it to be the prefatory poem of the book. After that first poem, I decided I would not write towards this collection until after I’d spent time reading about it. A year later, after research, all of the poems came in persona. I’d spent a significant period of time reading slave narratives and those voices significantly impacted Mend and the way the voices of the women were portrayed on the page. After truly considering the story, I knew I’d have to write in the voices of the women if I wanted to convey their humanity. They’d already been portrayed as extras in their own lives by Sims. After the experimentation in Mt. Meigs, Sims wrote an autobiography entitled Story of My Life, and only briefly referenced the women. For contrast, quotes from Sim’s autobiography are included in the book. The voices of Mend serve as a direct refutation of his story.


The second section of the book contains poems about your research travels to Mt. Meigs, Alabama, where James Marion Sims lived and conducted his experiments. I imagine that was not an easy trip to make. Please tell us a little about your experience there.

KFM: What made that trip hardest was getting there. At the time I had young twin babies who’d been born premature. They required so much of my energy and time. Becoming a mother while I wrote Mend impacted the book considerably. This impact was rewarding but it also was increasingly difficult for me to get things done. I had to learn to do both things simultaneously— writing and being a mom. Mt. Meigs is about an hour and a half away from Birmingham, but it took me awhile before I was able to get there. Now it seems so funny that I titled a poem, “I Can’t Seem to Get to Mt. Meigs.”

Once I arrived in Mt. Meigs, I found hardly no one there knew the story. When I went to the library I met a local historian of Mt. Meigs and she told me that she’d heard of Sims. She said that he operated on an African American woman and saved her life. I was startled at how distilled and inaccurate the story had become over the years. From at least eleven women to one. For the operation being essential to save a life. It was hard to believe.


The sonnet corona “What Yields”, in which Anarcha addresses James Marion Sims, is unflinching. Please share a bit about the writing of it and about the sense of harvest or plantation that threads through the sequence, beginning with the title.

KFM: In this section of the book I handled voice differently than anywhere else in the work. “What Yields” is an eleven-sectioned sonnet corona and there is one speaker, Anarcha—the woman who endured the most surgeries (beginning when she was 17 years old.) Sims conducted his first experiment on her and she was also the one he claimed to have “healed” by the end of his experimentation in Mt. Meigs. In every other part of the book the voices are not overtly resistant. However, in “What Yields,” Anarcha confronts Sims. The language, voice, and syntax is markedly different here. Anarcha is assertive and direct in her resistance. She clearly expresses her disgust and anger towards Sims and references the ideologies that allowed him to consider her unworthy of human consideration.

The title of the poem, “What Yields,” is based on a concept found in Harriet Washington’s book, Medical Apartheid. In her book, Washington uncovers several cases of exploitative medical experimentation on black bodies throughout history. During slavery, Sims was not the only doctor who utilized enslaved bodies for experimentation without their consent. He was one among many doctors who profited and built their family’s wealth on the backs of enslaved people. Washington says that these doctors were usually not plantation owners who oversaw crop production. Instead, they profited from what she terms as “medical plantations.” The medical discoveries they made in the name of scientific advancement contributed to their career advancement and wealth. While writing the poem, I considered the idea of the medical plantation in connection with the story of Mend. Sims is now known as the father of gynecology and obstetrics. He developed the speculum which is still used today. After that four year period in Mt. Meigs, Sims published his findings, moved to New York and became well-known and admired by his peers. He opened a hospital, traveled to Europe where he examined and aided a member of the monarchy, and finally established wealth for his family. Sims’ “medical plantation,” in Mt. Meigs yielded greatly, indeed.

I wanted the poem to occur in an arc, so the narrative builds towards harvest. Anarcha refers to herself and the women as “rotting fruit yet our bodies yield.”


What is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you? Why is it important to you? How did it come to be?

KFM: One of my favorite poems in the book is “I’ve Got Life.” In the poem, the speaker considers what she still possesses in spite of what happened to her, and she wields a subtle resistance—by watching. Who’s to say what she’ll do with the details she collects? The poem is celebratory and almost joyful, but then it ends with a threat. I think this kind of dichotomy appears a lot in the collection. The impulse for joy and survival is often combined with darker emotion or imagery. But then that’s life—the human experience is complex, and it would have been no different then. I also like this poem because it serves a break for the reader. It’s also an opportunity to highlight the speaker’s resilience.

I’ve Got Life

What I've got
is calves and heels to carry me
and this heart that only God can stop.

I've got these fingers
to snap in time

I've got this behind for sitting
so I don't sit on my spine.

I've got these shoulders only I can shrug,
breasts that letdown when I get the feeling,
and a bird neck that carries my head and all my blood—

These lips only move if I tell them to, if I want them to.
There is so much my body can still do.
Plus, I've got these eyes for watching you.

© Kwoya Fagin Maples, Mend (Univ of Kentucky Press, 2018), used with permission of University Press of Kentucky


As your first full-length manuscript, when Mend was published, were there things you thought would happen, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

KFM: Something unexpected that happened during the publication process of Mend that I could never have anticipated: I organized a protest. Sims has statues dedicated to him in New York, S.C., and Alabama. Months following a 2017 NY protest that went viral on social media, Sims’ monument was removed from its Central Park location. Still months later, the mayor of Columbia, S.C. stated that of all the statues at the S.C. statehouse, the Sims monument should be removed. After I read his statement, I immediately began making calls. Finally, I got in touch with a current MFA student at USC, Joy Priest, and she and I planned a protest on the statehouse grounds. It was indeed poetry as protest. All day and throughout the evening USC students and local activists read poems by women writers in protest, directly in front of the Sims’ monument. It gained media coverage and I was proud when a participant shared that it was the most peaceful protest that she’d ever attended. I’d attended protests in the past but I’d never organized one. The story of Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the unnamed women has impacted me in ways beyond what I could have ever imagined.


You, Kate Gaskin, and I read together at Desert Island Supply Company in Birmingham, and I was so moved by your reading. You’ve given a number of readings since then. What has the audience response been in general? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

KFM: The audience response has been varied. Some people have said they feel disturbed and saddened with the reality of the story. Mend has particularly moved mothers in audiences. There are several poems descriptive of nursing or losing children. “My Mother Bathes Me after I Give Birth,” a poem written in my own voice shares my personal experience with childbirth. I suppose if there’s any emotional reaction from audiences that I prefer, it’s to that poem. Childbirth can be emotional traumatic and I suppose it’s validating when I can share my story and know another woman understands completely. Lastly, I have a couple of poems in the collection that are humorous—regarding my trip to Mt. Meigs for research. It’s always nice to feel the audience loosen up and laugh. I let them know it’s intended to be funny and that it’s okay to laugh.


When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you?

KFM:  I became interested in poetry when I was about 14. I’ve always been an avid reader. Maya Angelou was the first contemporary black poet I read. I’d read several of her autobiographies so I felt like I knew her. When I read her poetry it was accessible because I’d began with her prose. I suppose at first I read her poetry like it was a translation of her narratives. I was thrilled to find this mysterious way of writing in what I thought was a secret code within the English language—with ideas hiding in plain sight that had yet to be discovered. The idea of it was intoxicating. I already loved language and I was secretive teenager (laughing here). It was a perfect fit. I began writing poems by mimicking her writing style and using similar themes. After I read all of her books of poetry, I kept going and it took off from there. Later, in undergraduate, Abraham Smith became my mentor. He went above and beyond—did more than he had to. I took my first poetry workshop with him, and even after the workshop was over, he offered to read our poems. Every week I submitted a poem to his box in the main office of the English Department, and every week he’d respond with notes and tiny stars on my poems. He was what Maya Angelou would call my rainbow in the clouds—a person who invested in me and made all the difference.


Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

KFM:  Read. Read widely. Spend time thinking about the ways in which the writing you encounter is successful. No literary organization, journal or prize should decide the future of your writing. Seek community. Go to open mics and readings. Participate in local workshops. Be respectful of feedback on your work. Be generously and lavishly patient—with yourself.

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Find Kwoya Fagin Maples online
- Author website: https://kwoyafaginmaples.com/

Purchase her book Mend

All poems printed or quoted in this post © Kwoya Fagin Maples, Mend (Univ of Kentucky Press, 2018), used with permission of University Press of Kentucky.

Nancy Chen Long is the author of 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 Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Smartish Pace, The Adroit Journal, Tar River Poetry, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She  works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Interview with Francesca Bell on her poetry book Bright Stain


Francesca Bell is an American poet and translator. Her work appears widely in journals such as New Ohio Review, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, and Prairie Schooner. She lives with her family in Novato, California. Red Hen Press will publish her first collection, Bright Stain, in May, 2019.



Bright Stain (Red Hen Press, 2019) is not a book for the faint of heart. In Bell’s debut work, the reader will need to brace herself not only in regard to subject matter, but also to Bell’s deft lines, images, and unexpected narratives. Through her well-crafted poems, the reader hears from a variety of personas, from the prison-worker, the rapist, to the victim of an abusive Catholic priest. However, most predominant is the voice of a female speaker who transforms from puberty into raw, joyful sexual abandon, to a mother who embraces her aging and wonderfully sensual body.

The body is a living thing in this collection, and both its joys and its ugly parts are on display; nothing is held back. Woven throughout the poems is the packed image of the snake—a snake whose “generous jaw and steady squeeze” free a frozen mouse “into the great, gliding goodness of snake,” to snakes found in a worship service, to the snake shedding its skin, not unlike a woman “who slips from / the stockings between / her and pleasure.” Playing underneath Bell’s poems is a repositioning of what is holy and what is not through the mix of the erotic and the ugly, the reverent and the profane, always asking the reader to look again. I’m both drawn to and in turn wide-eyed at Bell’s poems. The collection is best summed up by the ending of the first stanza in “Woman Singing in Church,” “we are pummeled by it, laid open / on the blade of its loveliness.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Bell after reading Bright Stain, and below are her responses.

—Rosemary Royston


RR: I clearly remember the first poem of yours that I read, “I Long to Hold the Poetry Editor’s Penis in My Hand.”  I related, I laughed aloud, thought how bold then logged onto Facebook to see if you were there so I could friend you. In one of our earlier email exchanges, you shared how you were having trouble finding a press, as your work is, well, bold! Tell me how long it took you to find a home for your collection  how you stayed true and did not dilute your work  and share any advice to other writers on the process.

FB: I’m so glad that you asked this question. It took me a long time to find a home for my collection. I circulated a different version of this book for five years. It had several titles, including this one, and it contained some of the same poems. It was a finalist or semi-finalist several times in some big contests and came very close to being accepted during the open submission period at a top press. Because of these near-successes, I didn’t change the manuscript much for those five years. By the time five years had passed, I had a second manuscript put together, but I was bone-weary from five years of failure and decided to scrap them both and start over. I printed both manuscripts out and literally threw the poems all over the floor until they were completely mixed together, and then I started to pull together something new. Kate Gale at Red Hen Press is the only person I sent this new manuscript, and five months later, she accepted it. That was a little over two years ago. From the time I first submitted a full-length manuscript to the moment when I hold my finished book in my hands, almost eight and half years will have passed.

On three occasions, I received feedback from presses where I had submitted my manuscript, and all three times two things were criticized (sometimes sharply): my subject matter and my tone. One press suggested that they would like to work with me if I would heavily revise the manuscript to address my subject matter and my tone. These three critiques served to stiffen my resolve immensely. They helped me come to terms with what it is about my poems that makes them my poems. I think that a writer has to beware the danger of revising herself right out of her work. My weird, dark subject matter and my bold, harsh tone are the traces of DNA that I leave in the world when I write. What I bring to the literary table is my willingness to look at and write starkly about things that make other people uncomfortable. Not everyone likes it, but that is my gift.

My advice to writers on the process of trying to place a book is first of all to manage your expectations. You are playing what for almost everyone is a long game. There are some people who fit very well into the current styles and trends in poetry, and their books are sometimes quickly snapped up. But there are many more people who, like me, need to settle in for a years-long campaign. Second, I advise people to learn to recognize what in your work is inherently yours and to mercilessly stand by it. Third, I wish that I had known, when I was drowning in manuscript rejections, that someday I would be filled with gratitude and relief that no one accepted my book during those five years I submitted it. Because I ended up with exactly the right press and exactly the right editor at what feels like exactly the right time. It may take you several years, as it did me, to find the press and the editor that feel like home, that literally change your life.


RR: In “In Plain Sight,” the speaker states, “I believe in brazenness,” and while there is always a separation between the speaker and the poet, I believe it would be safe to say that you, too, feel the same way, due to the subject matter and themes within this collection. Talk about what inspired you to write the poems that specifically mix both the erotic and the ugly, the reverent and the profane and/or poems whose speaker is not one with which the reader will feel sympathy toward.

FB: Ever since I was a child, I have been very interested in the concept of opposites like goodness and badness, characteristics we assign to people singularly, as if a person can be wholly one thing or another. I believe that if you are human, you have the capacity for goodness, but you also have the capacity for badness. In spades. One thing I enjoy about writing persona poems is that it allows me the opportunity to explore human darkness intimately. I believe that one cannot understand what it is to be human without looking at the darkness and violence and hatred and fear every human carries inside them.


RR: As I reflected on your poems (i.e. “In Due Time”) and who your literary ancestors are, I immediately thought of Robert Browning, specifically his dramatic monologue, “Porphyria’s Lover,” where the speaker strangles his lover with her own hair. I also think of Anais Nin (and her no-holds-barred diaries), although not a poet, and the poems on motherhood by Beth Ann Fennelly. You, Nin, Fennelly, all dive deeply through your work into what it is to be a woman in this world, specifically in both sexual and sensual ways. Who would you say your literary ancestors are and why?

FB: I had never read “Porphyria’s Lover.” My God, what an astonishing poem!

My literary ancestors (most still living) are Anne Sexton, Marguerite Duras, Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, and Len Roberts. These are writers I return to again and again, writers whose work has felt like a granting of permission to me.


RR: I have to ask this, do you have pet snakes? Snakes are a common image in your collection from the opening and closing poems, to being metaphors for much more. Talk about this juxtaposition of the serpent  a harbinger of evil in Christianity, but far from evil in your collection.

FB: I am not currently living with any snakes, but my son, who is grown now, is crazy for reptiles. While he was growing up, we shared our home with too many creatures to list, but here’s a sampling: anacondas, false water cobras, ball pythons, a Dumeril’s boa, beaded lizards, a carpet python, a blue-tongued skink, a 4-foot long Argentinian lizard called a tegu, multiple cockroach colonies, and various kinds of tarantulas. I was a very active and enthusiastic participant in (almost) all of this husbandry. One of the most moving experiences of my life was watching my son’s ball python incubate her clutch of eggs.

I believe that our human tendency to associate snakes with evil likely stems from a deep-seated, survival-enhancing fear of envenomation. Humans and our ancestors have co-evolved with snakes for millions of years, and those who were vigilant enough to avoid a deadly or maiming bite would have produced more offspring. So, although I have a fascination and fondness for snakes, I can certainly understand people’s almost inherent fear of them. What fascinates me about the Christian notion of snakes being evil is how closely it is tied to the Christian notion of women being evil and particularly of women being the source of sexual evil, whether a woman is herself sexual or whether she is to blame for inspiring sexuality in a man.

In my poetry, I concern myself often with badness, both real and perceived. Hunger is often feared and perceived as badness, particularly sexual appetite, particularly female sexual appetite. Snakes, with their ability to swallow whole prey of astonishing girth, make a fantastic symbol of great, frightening appetite. But they also make a fantastic symbol of joyous, freeing appetite.


RR: Concerning form, your poems have no fluff, utilize alliteration and imagery in compelling ways, and are sparse yet full of details, often in narrative form. Tell me about your revision process  how one of your poems looks early on, and how it arrives at its final iteration.

FB: My poems tend to look on the page, early on, similar to how they look when finished. Not that I don’t revise—I revise quite a bit. But I tend to start by thinking about something for a long time, then riffing on it in one or more free writes in my notebook before I ever sit down to make an actual draft of a poem. By the time I am drafting, the form of a poem seems to be already pretty clear. I adjust and alter, but I rarely make a huge formatting change from what takes shape as I finally write my draft. As to content, my revision process and actually my writing process rely heavily on me reading things out loud over and over and then adjusting what seems to snag me. I adjust for clarity and specificity of meaning, for sound, for what I think of as turning the volume up on tension and drama. When I write a poem, I am trying to find a way to craft the poem in order for it to have the greatest and most powerful access possible to readers’ emotions.


Rosemary R. Royston lives with her family in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian mountains. She holds a AB in English from UGA, and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Split Rock Review, Southern Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, STILL, KUDZU, *82 Review, and other journals. She is the author of the chapbook, Splitting the Soil (Finishing Line Press), and a county representative for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. She teaches poetry courses in both the college setting and in the continuing learning setting. Her review and interviews here focus on poetry that is grounded in nature, the grit of life, and often the experiences of women (with a slight bias towards the narrative). Previous book reviews have been published in Prairie Schooner, Appalachian Heritage, and STILL.

Friday, February 15, 2019





Interview with Tom Clausen, Haiku Poet
                                                                                                      by Barry George

Tom Clausen is one of the most original and respected contemporary poets writing haiku in English. The author of numerous books, including Growing Late and Homework (Snapshot Press) and most recently Laughing to Myself  (Free Food Press), he has long been a regular contributor to the leading English-language haiku journals. His work has appeared in various anthologies; most notably, Norton's The Haiku Anthology. He is a member of the Route 9 Haiku group, four upstate New York poets who publish the journal Dim Sum. He is also an accomplished writer of tanka. In addition, he curates the daily online haiku feature of the Mann Library at Cornell University, where he worked for 35 years before retiring in 2013. A life-long resident of Ithaca, New York, Tom, along with his wife, Berta, have two grown children and their two dogs, one cat, and a finch. An avid walker, biker, and photographer, he enjoys "simply going about observing and documenting moments, beauty, and wabi sabi all around us."

I first met Tom at a haiku conference held in Kingston, Ontario, in the late 1990s. Already an established haiku poet at that time, he kindly responded to my subsequent correspondence, and has been most generous with advice and encouragement through the years. Considering his long experience with the form, I was interested in learning his thoughts about haiku today, as he writes it and as it is being written by other poets outside Japan.

The following are his thoughts in response to the questions I posed. Unless otherwise attributed, all poems and photographs are by Tom Clausen.

When did you start writing haiku, and what poets—or perhaps other authors or editors—influenced you in becoming a haiku poet?

TC: In 1987 I picked up a copy of a local free paper, The Ithaca Times, and read a profile about a local naturalist, Ruth Yarrow. The profile focused on her interest in haiku and included several of her haiku. I can remember reading this feature several times and feeling as if I was having a '"satori" moment each time! I was not feeling enlightened in the sense of a spiritual breakthrough, but actually in a way it was. Ruth's haiku were so entirely direct, succinct, intimate, and resonant to me that I was immediately aware that she was able to say something meaningful with just a few well-chosen words. This really got my attention and impressed me as being a genuinely humble and admirable form of poetry. One of her haiku to this day stands out for me as perhaps the most poignant and powerful little poem I have ever read:

after the garden party    the garden 

Six words, and yet it spoke volumes to me and contained an understanding of humanity that has always felt both haunting and rewarding. What this poem suggests to me is that in a gathering of people in a garden, the garden is not really itself until "after" the party is over. I've also felt that a subtext is how much more of the garden we might observe and receive if we were there, part of the party, but lingered after the party was over and everyone had left. To be in a garden by oneself versus with a whole group of people is such a different experience, and intuitively it is when we are alone with nature that we are most aware and open to the nuances and relationships possible.

In a way, my interest in poetry had been gradually moving towards the brevity of haiku for a couple years before I read the article about Ruth. I had taken a poetry class where my submitted poems were routinely returned to me with significant sections of the poem crossed out in red with comments like "redundant," "overly-wordy," "excessive," "unclear," and "repetitive." Others in the class had similar feedback on their poems, and I remember one friend in the class actually commented to me that perhaps we were headed toward writing haiku! I do not imagine  that the professor's intent was to steer the class toward haiku, but recall thinking that the snippets of my poems that were left after the cross outs might be like haiku.

Within a day of reading about Ruth Yarrow and her haiku, I started seeking out books at our library and bookstores about haiku. I was fortunate to find a copy of Cor van den Heuvel's Haiku Anthology and Bill Higginson's Haiku Handbook. Both proved to be invaluable sources of information with a marvelous variety of inspired haiku that became touchstones for me, and to this day serve as the examples of what is best possible in haiku. Within a week, I had subscribed to several haiku journals, including Modern HaikuFrogpond, and Wind Chimes. Within a month, I was submitting my first attempts at haiku and soon was receiving my first gentle rejections. I cannot even remember how long it was until I received an acceptance, but it was one haiku selected for Modern Haiku, and Bob Spiess, the editor, sent me a crisp one dollar bill. At the time he paid one dollar per haiku, and when I reached 50 published haiku, I sent him the $50 back as a thank you. The other editors, and the breadth of poets who were published in those days, were all incredibly welcoming, friendly, and best of all, wrote terrific and very memorable haiku. 

There were numerous poets whose haiku in the late '80s and early '90s provided great examples of the brilliance possible in haiku. Reading the haiku of these poets is entirely rewarding and serves to show what is possible in the haiku form. Every one of these poets and the editors I have had the good fortune to interact with at the beginning certainly inspired my interest, and led to my vow to myself that I hoped and planned to try to write haiku for the rest of my life. 

In the popular mind, haiku is often thought to be a nature poem of seventeen syllables. Yet most haiku poets in North America, Europe, and elsewhere outside Japan do not observe the strict 5-7-5 sound-syllable count that is better suited to the Japanese language, and they don’t always write about “nature.” What do you see as the defining qualities or most important values of contemporary haiku as you write it?

TC: Defining haiku has been a somewhat elusive prospect even for those steeped in the history, tradition, and definitions that have been established. The long-held identifying quality of it being a "nature poem" gets complicated when some would include humanity as part of nature, so that human affairs should be included in what is considered "nature."
The growth in popularity of haiku inevitably opens the sense of haiku to more diverse interpretations and definitions. I tend to go back to the definitions that I encountered when I began learning about and trying to write haiku. Some of those defining qualities included: being direct, immediate, concrete, in the now, showing rather than telling, simple straightforward language, a one-breath poem usually written in one, two, or three lines with usually less than 17 syllables, and a little poem of keen observation of relationship and connection.

A wonderful quality of haiku that I believe is recognizable whenever one begins to read contemporary haiku journals, collections, and anthologies is the great variety of ways in which haiku are written and how different the ways that they work can be. Personally I very much enjoy scouting out haiku that speak to me and that show me something I want to see and feel, whether it be a relationship, a juxtaposition, an intuitive feeling, a message or a hint at something transcendent, even if fleeting in nature. In my opinion, there is no formula or absolute defining quality for what  makes a haiku work for everyone or anyone. The best-loved haiku often have qualities that are both unique yet universal. That duality is certainly a desirable quality! There is a long-held association of haiku as being a poem with an "aha" moment of understanding or recognition. When we read a haiku that we like or love, there is usually a strong sense of being able to participate with the writer in the moment they have shared. This act of participation is an important quality of haiku and one that is not always easy to capture.

There can also be a definition of what qualities are not considered haiku. For instance, haiku are typically not a soapbox for opinion, metaphors, or telling a reader what to think. Haiku generally do not espouse rhyme, nor are they a statement or a sentence. One axiom that I remember reading in several places or hearing poets share is: "Learn the rules and then break them." This in itself suggests there are rules, yet poets who are well-regarded no doubt have written "haiku" that do not fit the rules.

To summarize, I would say that the values of haiku I most adhere to in my own attempts would be brevity, concision, clarity, directness, and observation that shares something I hope will be of interest and enable the reader to experience something that I witnessed and felt. 



I know that you write haiku about the natural world, and you also write about what might be called the domestic world—home, family, pets, work, going about one’s daily rounds. Are there any differences in the way you regard or experience writing about these two realms?

TC: These two haiku illustrate for me the key dynamic at work in writing haiku about nature: 

when I have sat long enough 
the red dragonfly
    comes to the wheatgrass 


               - Laurie Stoelting

on a mountain trail
alone—
but never alone 

               - Margaret Molarsky 

When we are out in nature, the ideal way to be out there and able to see and "receive" is to simply stand still and look, listen, and be patient enough to let things reveal themselves to you. It matters less where in nature you are than the reality that almost anywhere will be a place that will have beauty, nuance, and insight available to you if you take time to notice what is there. The near infinity of natural forms, shapes, designs, and inter-relationships is always now and always everywhere.  
It is a common human perception that we are alone and that loneliness stems from being without other humans to keep us company. A major part of where haiku arrive from is the recognition and understanding that in this life we are able to have a near infinite range of relationships and feelings for the breadth of life forms, as well as plants and literally everything. Having a haiku heart is to be entirely attentive, aware, and able to develop these myriad relationships, and to let them expand your consciousness and sense of belonging and connection to this incredible world we live in. 

Since 1988 I have always carried a small pocket notebook to record notes for little poems  and sometimes, when lucky, for when the little poem "writes" itself! I have learned that it is genuine good fortune to be open, ready, and disciplined enough to record things I observe as they happen. When I do not note things right away, it is more likely than not that "they" vanish into some netherland of lost thoughts fairly quickly. I always regret those lost poems, and each time I lose one, it helps me re-establish in my mind the importance of taking the time to write things as soon as possible after experiencing them! My writing habit has consistently been to write from direct personal experiences, whether it be in nature, at home, or on the job during the many years I was working. Rarely do I sit down and try to write a haiku. I need the haiku to reveal itself by virtue of something touching my senses or sensibility in a way that inspires documenting it. 

When writing little poems out in the natural world, I find that it is best to be by myself, to be extra-sensory aware of what is going on around me without the distraction of company and conversation.  

The little poems I write about family, friends, co-workers, strangers, and in social settings usually arrive because something insightful happens. When daily life presents an aspect of humanity that is humorous, insightful, satirical, haunting, truthful, or in some way worth sharing for levity and understanding, I tend to want to capture it if possible. These poems most often  jump out in my heart and mind as a moment that deserves recording. When I am bothered by something, that is another way in which I may want to write about it as a form of catharsis and transcendence. 

I will close with two of my little poems that illustrate the quality of senryu, which are haiku-like poems that typically touch on human foibles and the irony of the human condition. I have found long ago that there is no one other than myself more deserving of being critically examined and given some self-deprecating attention!

my wife admits
she is not perfect
but is glad I am

before sleep
laughing to myself
at myself 




Eastern thought is an inherent aspect of traditional haiku; for example, the haiku masters, especially Basho and Issa, were much influenced by Buddhist as well as Confucian ideas. Are there any particular philosophies or schools of thought that have significantly influenced your haiku?

TC: Personally, the most influential and sustaining aspect of haiku has been the poets that comprise the haiku community and the inspiring haiku that have become my favorites. Since I first began reading and trying to write haiku, I've enjoyed searching the journals and anthologies for those haiku that jump out and illuminate a place, a relationship, a sense, a moment, or a feeling. Going back to the masters, Basho, Buson, Shiki and Issa, and on to those who have created indelible collections of haiku today, I feel genuine gratitude for each and every one of these haiku. They are a lasting source of happiness and celebration that keeps me going! 

My interest in haiku developed simultaneously with an interest in Zen Buddhism and the writings of Alan Watts, Brother David Steindl, the Dalai Lama, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Mary Oliver, and R. H. Blyth, to name a few. At the time I discovered haiku I was attending a weekly zazen sitting at the Ithaca Zen Center with my wife, Berta. We would go every Sunday and sit silently for three 45-minute sessions, and a brief walking meditation in the woods between each sitting. Sitting there following the breath, listening to the silence, with occasional crows cawing and wind soughing in the trees, made for a great chance to let the "silt" in the mind settle out and begin to see what an empty mind might be....

morning zazen
marriage counseling 
ourselves

There was a natural connection for me between haiku and meditation. I felt haiku was spiritual poetry with a devotional sense that was about just "what is" and is in the "always now." Haiku being poetry of the present tense appealed to me especially at this time in my life when I was drawn to celebrate the myriad "news" stories that were available to find in everyday nature, but not found in the other news that was "fit to print"! It was a great relief to recognize that within this world/universe there are parallel worlds/universes! 

For more than twenty years you have selected and edited the Mann Library's Daily Haiku at Cornell University, which showcases the work of a different contemporary haiku poet each month. What has motivated you to initiate and maintain this project, and are there ways in which doing this has affected your own path as a haiku poet?

TC: The Daily Haiku feature at Mann Library had a very simple beginning when I casually started taping a piece of paper with a haiku on it in our old dingy stacks elevator. It was an attempt to share my new-found joy in haiku, and was also posted in hopes that it provided a space for anyone to write something. When the library underwent a major renovation, the new building had an elevator that was quite upscale and not at all a decor in which a taped piece of paper would have fit. I assumed the daily haiku feature had run its course, and was quite surprised when our director, Janet McCue, informed me that she intended to retain the haiku feature, but have it as part of the online home page! It was her generosity of spirit and belief in my love of haiku that initiated this feature. It has been a great honor and pleasure to be able to share haiku with library staff, patrons, and whoever might discover the site online. 

When Janet retired, I was unsure whether the new director, Mary Ochs, would want to retain the haiku feature, and again was surprised when she assured me that, yes, it was still appreciated, and that it would be continued. When they revised the Mann Library home page, I was grateful to see, once again, that the haiku was still included. It has run for such a long time now, almost 20 years online, that I have become quite attached to the feature, but also understand that it could end at any time. In essence, I have viewed this feature as a great gift and chance to celebrate haiku with many who may not be familiar with the form. Although it is called The Mann Library Daily Haiku, I have posted some little poems that do not fit the tradition or definitions that are recognized by most in the haiku community. I have regretted any misconceptions that this may have created for some readers, but have always hoped that each reader will figure out for themselves what is a haiku and what isn't, or just enjoy whatever I post whether it fits their sense of haiku or not. Although I am not an editor, I enjoy making the selections and trying to share poets and their poems that will be of interest to others. Being the curator has truly strengthened my interest in reading haiku and becoming familiar with the range of poets writing haiku today. 




Over the past few decades we’ve come to realize, with far greater urgency, that the way most humans live poses a threat not only to our own survival but also to the well-being and survival of the rest of life on the planet. I’m interested to know if you think the prospect of global warming and climate change influences your haiku or your thinking about the significance of haiku in today's world.

TC: Despite the somewhat awful impacts that humanity has on nature, it is also some solace to see the resilience of nature and its ability to heal itself rather miraculously. 

bumper sticker
on the car ahead of me:
"Nature bats last" 

Global warming and climate change are genuine and very sobering concerns, and I believe haiku will  be informed by this reality ever more. I have not written poems that directly touch on climate change, but have generally written about our place in the universe and the sense of wonder that comes with that!   

end of the trail...
the world
without humans

despite
the development
deer path

in a hollow
at the base of the trunk
a seedling 

I do think haiku present realities that illuminate the existence of parallel worlds that are all seamlessly connected. The wonderful and myriad microcosms that go on undeterred by the affairs of humans is an incredible testament to the tenacity of life forms and gives me hope that our world will survive despite us. To witness this currency of non-human life and to tune into the layers of living that exist around us is a daily reminder that we have a privileged place in this world, being able to observe, appreciate, and share in haiku, our witness. I can't help but imagine those who read and write haiku are likely to become ever more sensitive to this world that we are all passengers on. We are, in a sense, news reporters from both the heart and the edges of this planet and its human consciousness. It is expected and natural that our precarious and fleeting place on this planet enter into our haiku.
  



What do you find yourself writing about mostly right now, and are you working on any particular writing projects or collections?

TC: My writing continues to be about whatever moves me in a moment and without any conscious gravitation to certain subjects. I have tended to write while out walking or riding my bicycle, and am on the "lookout" for whatever might be worthy of taking a photo or making some notes. At this time I do not have any plans for a new book collection, but am part of the Route 9 Haiku group that publishes a collection of our poems twice a year called Upstate Dim Sum. This is easily my most sustaining connection within the haiku community and truly keeps me inspired and writing. The group meets almost monthly with the expectation that each of the four of us in the group—John Stevenson, Hilary Tann, Yu Chang, and myself —will present sixteen new little poems to each other. I regularly share my photos and poems on Facebook with friends, along with quotes, poems, and photography that I have found and hope others will enjoy.

What advice would you give to someone who is drawn to haiku and would like to learn and develop as a haiku poet?

TC: Read widely. Get outdoors. Walk widely. The more you read, the more you will read...the more you write, the more you will write...the more you walk, the more you will walk. So much of life is patience, practice, habit, ritual, routine, and believing in your own being as a miracle, and your experiences as precious and worthy of your writing. Read to find what you love. When you find haiku you love, you will have the beginning sense of what qualities make the poem appealing to you.

The best antidote to feeling you do not know what to write about or where to start is to pick up any anthology or journal and read the variety of published poems. It is almost a guarantee that it will get you going! Always carry a pocket notebook and pen or pencil, and be prepared to take the time to record notes about what you see for possible later work in shaping them into a little poem. When writing haiku, it is certainly advised to whittle the poem to the fewest and most essential words possible. The ruin of many haiku is excess and trying to say too much.

Before I discovered haiku, I had been trying to write longer poems and remember reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, which has wonderful advice for anyone aspiring to write or create. I highly recommend reading that collection of letters, any of Mary Oliver's luminous poetry, reading Rumi, Hafiz, and whoever you find who speaks to you and inspires you to keep on keeping on!

***********

alone in the waiting room
      checking the plant
             for reality


heavy rain—
lilac blooms smush
against the window


cold autumn wind
in all the cracks
eyes of barn cats


snow filling
our tracks into the woods
by heart


old diary
rebuilt memories
of who I was


stifling a yawn
in the company
of myself


just oatmeal
the waitress says:

"enjoy"


autumn path...
my thoughts
lose their place


on the horizon
just enough cloud
to hold some sunset


night train—
part of myself reflected
in thought


calling
for the lost cat...
wind chimes


standing here
at this window, remembering mother
standing here

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




*


Barry George's haiku and tanka have been published in more than 50 journals and twelve languages.His poems appear in such anthologies as A New Resonance 2: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku; The New Haiku; Haiku 21; Streetlights: Poetry of Urban Life in Modern English Tanka; Kamesan's Haiku Anthology on War, Violence, and Human Rights Violation; and Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems. An AWP Intro Poets Award recipient and Pushcart nominee, he has won numerous international Japanese short-form competitions, including First Prize in the Haiku Society of America's Gerald R. Brady Contest. He is the author of Wrecking Ball and Other Urban Haiku and The One That Flies Back, a chapbook of tanka. His main interests are haiku and tanka, along with other poetry exploring our relationship with nature and the Earth.







Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Are We Not All Animals?: A Review of Gabrielle Calvocoressi's Rocket Fantastic



Rocket Fantastic
by Gabrielle Calvocoressi

By the Numbers:

Persea Books
Hardback, 2017
Paperback 2018
ISBN 978-0-89255-485-0
92 pages










(reviewed by Melva Sue Priddy)

In an effort to be braver in my own writing, I’ve been reading poets who have been brave in theirs. One such poet is Gabrielle Calvocoressi. I’ll be honest, Rocket Fantastic was my introduction to Calvocoressi’s work. Its 92 pages are peopled by deer, falcon, bobcat, fox, horse, grubs, bandleader, hermit, cowboy, dowager, brother, father, sister, lovers, etc. Sometimes one people/animal becomes another, or it’s difficult to tell them apart. And these people find both pleasure and grief in their world. The poet explores tenderness, violence, eroticism, the lyrical and the mundane to bring us to new understandings about, especially, gender and its possibilities.

So, how is Calvocoressi brave? For starters her poems are democratic: every one gets to speak. Every one, also, is allowed to express their gender as on a continuum rather than as binary. In order to blur the distinction between genders, Calvocoressi uses a symbol (the musical segno, denoted by intake of breath when reading), for one character, and makes new use of the word “whose” to resist our usual bent to identify gender. I found an interview online in which Calvocoressi addresses this better than I can. Liz von Klemperer, at full-stop.net, talks with Calvocoressi:

(LvK) The Bandleader is a complicated figure, as whose is intimate but distant. Whose is compared to a Stag, which is not only a male deer but also a term for someone who comes to a social gathering without a partner. At the same time, whose is the narrator’s lover. How did this character come about? How did whose develop?
(GC) I love that you ask about “whose” because nobody has done that yet! And I think that’s been just as important to me as the symbol. In some ways maybe more. So thank you!
Whose most approximates my own feeling of identifying my sex and/or my gender. For me (and I do want to always say this only me speaking for myself…I am an enemy to those who force any manner of identification on bodies other than their own) “whose” is a word and idea that is inherently a question. It connotes looking and searching. But looking or searching for a specific person, so the clarity of the individual with the openness of a question.
I was just looking at the definition and saw this:
Old English hwæs, genitive of hwā ‘who’ and hwæt ‘what.’
Yes. And so like the sound I make when I breathe the symbol. And containing the WHO and the WHAT. Which I think is the closest thing to my poetics and my self. [See full interview—it’s fascinating.]

Calvocoressi’s poetry contains some violent lines, and there isn’t a world without violence, nature is often brutal and we see that in Calvocoressi’s book of poems, but I’ll let you explore those poems on your own. She (I’d use a non-gender pronoun but not sure what would be appropriate) also gives us some memorable lines. “She Ties My Bow Tie” is stunning. It begins: “What you thought was the sound of the deer drinking/at the base of the ravine was not their soft tongues/entering the water but my Love tying my bow tie.” And “It’s easy to mistake her wrists/for the necks of deer.” Just lovely. In a prose poem, "[Out here it’s okay to be nothing. Want nothing. You feel]," Calvocoressi’s speaking character says, “Have you ever had a person say It’s okay, softly to you in the darkness? Keep your eyes shut and say it to yourself and imagine. It’s okay.” What wisdom and tenderness.

It’s striking how Calvocoressi interweaves animal life, nature (malevolent and/or pleasant) and what it means to be human (positive and less positive traits). In “The Sun Got All Over Everything,” Calvocoressi shows how a beautiful day can distract us from our plans, and she touches on truth. Of the sun she writes, “It made a mess of a day/that was supposed to be the worst/and lured me outside so I forgot her [mother’s] death entirely.” The speaker continues: “I wrote: Grieve. Because we are all so busy/aren’t we?” Grief, I believe, is one of the most difficult emotions to hold, deal with and explore, as the character witnesses.

The poem “Who Holds The Stag’s Head Gets to Speak” is a direct address to God. Calvocoressi’s vivid images allow readers see the death as something we can relate to with humor and irony. A stag has been taken and draped over the top of a car. The speaker states,

       When they take him down in the darkness
       he looks like any body. Could you [God] rest the muscle of your breath
       against his neck so he won’t sag? So the man thinks he’s alive
       and quakes in the awful company of the risen.

       You are the Blue Lord I prayed for when I was hunted.
       You came to me through the branches. I could hear you
       in the upper room where I had hidden in the cupboard.

One of many rings of truth in this book is in the middle of “Praise House: The New Economy,” a poem written after Ross Gay’s praise poem. “I admit it:/this body’s not enough for me.” Indeed, most of us desire more life than what this one, often times limited, body can give us.

After searching the internet for an angle into Calvocoressi’s book that hadn’t been taken, I settled on the poem “The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad” because I relate to one of the subjects in the poem, struggling with seasonal affective disorder. It may be sad to consider, “Got No Chance,” but Calvocoressi uses exaggeration, humor and irony to make fun of our propensity to dislike bad luck and winter’s cold darkness. The poem in full:

The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad

In the face of the azalea breaking open
or in the case of the face being broken
open. He’s got no chance. None at all.

Take your average person at the start
of spring. Winter’s gone on forever.
Dear God you’re sick of every patch of ice:

you fell at the top of the hill and punched
the ground until your knuckles bled
right through your gloves. Who cares

what kind of child you looked like?
The economy of winter’d worn you down.
You couldn’t stand a single moment more,

not one. You’d tried: Optimistic as a dachshund
you made your way to work, the clouds
like mashed potatoes on a plate!

You didn’t let the market get you down.
Let it dip. Let it crash into the gullies (so you said).
In the face of empty bank accounts

you bought the world a sandwich.
The last apple in the larder. Fool.
What did the fox whisper

when you walked into the darkness?
They’ll eat your heart for breakfast.
Did you think it was a dream.

"The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad," © Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (Persea 2018)

I enjoy the leap of one image, the azalea breaking open, to another, the face being broken open, which startles. Isn’t that the way of luck for a person who has no chance. We are all “the average person” and luck is democratic, especially bad luck. Webster’s dictionary defines ‘luck’ as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity.” And we find plenty of both in this book of poems. While it isn’t funny to be the one to fall at the top of the hill and punch “the ground until your knuckles bled / right through your gloves,” it is often slapstick funny to laugh at the other person who falls. Or to laugh at ourselves in a later retelling.

“Optimistic as a dachshund” is too humorous to overlook. Being optimistic has its rewards, but it often doesn’t get one through something as bleak as the short days and long darknesses of winter. Those of us with SAD know it’s no laughing matter. But we’ll laugh when we can.

The fox who speaks in the last stanza is one of many who appear in this book. In “Praise House” Calvocoressi praises

                                              All the animals
          that talk to me. That I finally let them
          talk to me. The blessing of waking
          early enough to watch the fox
          bathe itself.

Foxes with varying temperaments show up in eleven pages of this book. In Native American stories, the symbolism of the fox falls into two camps (similar to ‘luck’): In mainly Northern tribes the fox is a wise, noble messenger, while mainly Plains tribes view the fox as a trickster playing pranks, luring one into trouble. In the last stanza of “The Good Guy’s Got No Chance, It’s Sad,” the fox who speaks brings nature’s brutal inclination into not just the winter but also to the optimist. Nobody cares what you looked like as a child! Good looks, cute looks, they no longer matter and never mattered to bad luck. What did you think, spending money you didn’t have, after the decline in the stock market, on a sandwich to feed the world!

       "What did the fox whisper

       when you walked into the darkness?
       They’ll eat your heart for breakfast.
       Did you think it was a dream."

This fox may not have lured us into the darkness, but it knows our fate if we read it as merely a dream. We are so often lured into reading the surreal parts of Calvocoressi’s poems as dreamlike, and they are in the way people and animals morph into and out of each other. But she also shows us how animal-like human beings are, and how intimate and forgiving life/gender/love can be. I read a non-fiction book recently that shed more light on Calvocoressi’s poems. In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger proposes that humans are still trying to live in community, as humans did for thousands of years, until modern life separated clans, tribes, and families into single family dwellings. That we are not still living in community as we once did, he is saying, is the very thing that creates much of the grief and hardships we have. Giving Calvocoressi a close reading reveals a world where humans and animals coexist, not in paradise but in a real world with greater understanding of our possibilities and responsibilities if we are to be fully human and open to all our possibilities. This book, Rocket Fantastic, is worth every read you can give it.


Melva Sue Priddy, a native Kentuckian, earned degrees in English/Education from Berea College and The University of Kentucky, before earning an MFA. Her poems witness survivance and growth, bringing to light truths that arise out of felt experience. In addition to poems, she creates gardens, quilts, and some rustic woodwork. Her poetry can be found in ABZ, Accents Publishing’s LexPoMo, Blood Lotus, The Louisville Review, Poet Lore, Motif Anthologies, The Single Hound, and Still.