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.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Sea Was Never Far


A review and interview with poet, Marion Starling Boyer

                                                                                                           by Barbara Sabol


80 pages

released May, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-59948-737-3


On a personal note: It has been quite the pleasure to meet Marion, a recently transplanted Ohioan, through this year's Literary Festival sponsored by Lit Youngstown, and via readings in our lit-rich Northeast Ohio area. What a delight to review her latest book, THE SEA WAS NEVER FAR.

The English coastal towns of Norfolk and Yarmouth serve as windswept, textured backdrop for the animated lyric documentary of The Sea Was Never Far, Marion Boyer's second poetry book. In both cinematic-like sweep and particular detail, the poet portrays the lives of those in the two main trades in the North Sea coastal towns, circa late 1800's to present: the herring fishery and the millers; this latter the poet's direct ancestors. The reader is privy to stories and memories of this rough North Sea coastal life via persona poems: we are charmed by the vignettes of cook deckie, beatster, herring girl, cooper, fisherman; by the thatchers, marshmen, cutters, mill dressers, and basket weavers, in speech lines alive with the distinctive dialect of the area.

A central figure in this host of townspeople is the poet's grandmother, Fanny Starling. The collection serves as a kind of reclamation project, wherein the poet amends the family tree, and honors her people, living and gone. The two prelude poems, "A Murmuration" and "The Investigation of Annie's Account" set the stage for Fanny's journey, from birth to her young life "given over as foundling:"

                        My grandmother Fanny was raised with a flock
                        of white pinafore girls, their hair cut like boys,
                        in London's St Pancras Home for Foundlings

                        They rose and retired at six, prayed, studied,
                        ate together, and were trained for service.

What the poet discovers in her journey to Norfolk and in a trove of archival records was this truth about her grandmother's identity as an illegitimate babe whose name was changed from Alice to Fanny at the baptismal font, and who, like her disgraced and disowned mother Annie, worked as a servant, until she immigrated to Canada. She left England to follow her love, Davey, sent there by his parents in hopes of separating him from "that woman―Fanny//. . .Four years older, no people."

The voices in these poems are wide-ranging and brimming with narrative drama. The reader is drawn into coastal time and place via voices whose rhythms are audible, whose tales, couched in cadenced vernacular, credible. Herring girls, who "salt, gut, sort. . .Make, pack stack the barrels" ("Barrels") figure among the book's remarkable characters. In "The Herring Girls, Great Yarmouth" a Red Cross nurse recounts tending to a herring girl in prose that pulls us
right to the scene:
                        . . .
                        . . .She says nothing but all her body
                        cries Quick, and quick! Get it out! The scale
                        in her eye is a misery common as salt sores
                        . . .
                        I sit her down and spread her lids, my face so close
                        on hers, her eyebrow lends me a mustache.
                        With my tongue I feel for the fish scale in her eye
                        and flick it out. Up she gets, wipes her face,
                        too impatient for me to rebind her cloots, the cloth
                        strips unraveling from her fingers. Ta! she calls
                        . . .

Likewise, in every poem, the diction rings true to the telling. In "Thomas, Home Fishing" Thomas speaks of his friend, Shrimp Watson, "The best-heartedest fellow/I know. . ." says Thomas and shares a story: 
                        . . .

                        Shrimp hates the cold. On the boat,
                        when we go below, he'll park his stern

                        on the fiddley. I got a warm sit now,
                        Tom, he'll say, roasting his arse

                        on the grate above the engine room.
                        He's on that like mustard.

Thomas's is but one voice that recurs through the collection. Our introduction to Thomas in the poem "Thomas Warren" illustrates the adroit speech line, sonic play and use of diction that fleshes out the poems' figures:

                        THOMAS WARREN

                        Mum was a rind of a woman.

                        If she spoke when Dad flogged me
                        he'd chuck a bucket of water at her
                        and lock her out.

                        There are worse things and better.

                        I signed on for the fishing at twelve.
                        It was the sea or jail for me.

                        Dad was a coalie for the steam drifters.
                        Drunk, he stepped off the pier carrying
                        a sack from the coal lorry.

                        Hauled him from the harbor dead as a mitten.

Fitting then that the book's closing lines should be in the voice of Thomas, out at sea: ". . .there's nothing on shore seems sizable/enough to worry about."

Apart from the almost chewy diction, the poet draws on our every sense in very tangible and visual language, best exemplified by the beautiful poem, "The Basket Maker in Norfolk Broads." Here, a narrative about Robert, the marshman, in the voice of his lover. In effectively parsed fragments, we see, feel and smell "Fens. A great flatness. Old swamped peat pits. Wetland ponds, water/meadows. Mudflats gleam. Sunlight glances, glares." Then our auditory sense responds to the long lines and lush sibilants that invoke a sense of ease, of time standing still in a hushed, sweet quiet: "Wind hisses through thickets of alder and willow/stirs the rushes. Shh. Shh. . .Water percolates in the quiet. . .We've come deep/and away from the sedge cutters' notice. Far off we hear the swish of their scythes."

There is a dynamic cohesiveness, voice to voice, poem to poem, in the The Sea Was Never Far, as if the figures were mesh of fishing net or willow reeds bound in a basket. Yet each unique. The collection is bookended by the figure of Fanny, opening with her coming into the world as a foundling in "A Murmuration" and in the penultimate poem, "I'm Stealing a Clutch of Stones," which figures both poet and her grandmother, Fanny. Here, as in the first poem, the poet speaks in her own voice, with both authorial distance and with empathy, the boundary between the two a powerful tension. 

The poet recounts both her own and Fanny's separate but intimately linked journeys. Boyer steps out of persona mode and into her own compelling voice at the end of the collection:  ". . .I've flown across the world/to step inside that house; to walk this shingle where she//must have come and felt the wind. . ." Fanny's arduous journey to Toronto, to Davey, in "the Saxonia's steerage" is conveyed in all its imagined awful detail. The closing couplet ends with an enticing implied ellipsis: ". . .I think of her trudging to Davey's door,/unprepared for snow, for all that might follow her knock." And the reader is left wanting the story to go on.


I was entirely captivated by the characters in this book, their voices, the particular vocabulary and idioms of the Norfolk area. Remarkable that you created this dynamic slice of life in an English coastal area. Its people and history come alive through the poems in THE SEA WAS NEVER FAR. Thank you for this stunning collection!

The poems take on an deeper dimension, in that this book is about your family, your ancestry, your people. This personal connection to the poems is where I'd like to begin our conversation.

What was the trigger event that inspired you to write the book?

I had a “Finding Your Roots” moment when a friend of mine offered me access to her account. On a whim, I entered my paternal father’s name and, surprise! up popped a photo of my grandfather posted by someone in England. The photo had been taken before he had emigrated  to Canada as a young man.  I was able to contact Peter and Ann, who posted the photo, and discovered Peter’s grandmother was a sister to my grandfather. That connection opened a doorway for me into learning why my grandparents didn’t like to speak of England and never returned.
As it unfolded, Peter and Ann helped me discover a secret that my grandmother had kept her entire life -- that she had been born illegitimate and was raised in London’s St. Pancras foundling home.

 So, you had no knowledge about your grandmother’s history before you started the collection?

No!  None of us in the family had any idea!  Including her two children, my father and my aunt who are dead, but it was important to me to find out about her history as there is a rare blood disorder in our family and I wanted to know the source, which we knew genetically had to be my grandmother’s father. Of course, he turned out to be the shadowy man who caused my grandmother’s illegitimate birth.
Two of my Canadian cousins and I decided to track the story down first-hand and we flew to London to meet Peter and Ann and to visit the London Archives and to see the Foundling Home museum. We also connected with relatives in the Norfolk area where our family has lived for generations back as far as I could discover. We held in our hands the actual documents which recorded my great-grandmother’s appeal for her infant to be taken in by the foundling home. We saw the sparse records describing my grandmother’s life in the foundling home where she was raised to be a domestic servant.
Peter and Ann took us to Norfolk to see the farmland and broadlands where my people lived and worked and continue to do so. We ate in the Nelson Head Pub which our great-grandfather managed in 1908 after the mill went bankrupt. We visited churchyard graves, spent the night in a mill converted into a deluxe B & B. I met distant cousins who grow reed for thatchers, who were fishermen and served in the merchant marine, who continue to farm in the same area my grandfather knew.

 Did you come away from your travels to Norfolk and writing these poems with a new or altered sense of identity?

The trip affected me deeply.  While in Norfolk I couldn’t get over how some many voices echoed my grandfather’s particular way of speaking. It was subtle, more cadence and sense of humor than accent, but it was all around me. And, of course, I came away with such a full heart knowing that my grandmother had felt such shame. Once Ann asked if it was too sad knowing her hard life.  I told Ann that somehow my grandmother had been shown kindness, because my grandmother was kindness itself. 

      Clearly a great deal of research went into the writing of this wonderful book. How did you cull and funnel all of that information to these 47 poems? And on that note, with so much place and person data to work with, how did you know when to call the book done?

When I began, I decided to simply write a few poems and see if they could be strong enough narratives to appeal to someone outside the family. I wrote a few and my critique group affirmed they were interesting, so I set a goal of doubling their number. And when they jelled, I doubled the number again hoping for a chapbook.
Then, research led to more research and I was flooded with information about the herring industry’s boom and bust, how rhubarb is grown in the dark, how the best reed in the world for thatch is grown in Norfolk, how a mill’s machinery operates.  It was all fascinating information but, finally, it came down to the voices for me. And that meant persona poems.
I fell in love with the vocabulary of the region.  I wrote entire poems to find an opportunity to use a phrase like “dead as a mitten” or “the sails are asleep.”  It took a year and a half of writing.  I created an expanding list of ideas, such as “write about the basket weaver…need one for the herring girls…” and when the list was exhausted, I decided I was done.

Please talk about your research. How did you find and gather the great amount of local character information, lore and all those rich details about the fishing and mill industries in Norfolk and Yarmouth?

Firstly, I had actual people, my people, to talk with face to face and I listened carefully.
One was “Toady,” or Brian Rudd, a dear distant relative who knows all the ins and outs of the herring industry. I had Peter Starling, who took us through the broads on his boat, walked us around the Starling farm, sang sea shanties, and shared stories and photos of the farm, the war, the mill and the family members, like Austic who rode the windmill blades on a dare. 
I collected books on all these subjects. One is a book 157-page glossary of fishing terms and superstitions.  I wrote to Jonathan Neville who has a website database compiling information and photographs for over 1,000 miles in Norfolk and their histories.  And I read newspaper accounts of shipwrecks, and interviews of fishermen and coopers and beatsters. I found a fine old book written by a miller’s son I poured over his diagrams of mill machinery.

        When writing about past events, there is always the issue of historical veracity. How much filling in of the blanks did the poems need, and how did you balance fact and invention is the poems?

The voices in this book are mostly those of real people. I invented a few to round out the full picture.
My grandmother’s history is important to me, even though it is spotty. The archival information indicates that even the investigation into how Fanny’s mother became pregnant is ambiguous. In the book I keep that ambiguity unresolved. The one thing I know for fact, that my father never knew about his mother, and Fanny never knew for herself was her birth name, which is Alice Southgate. The foundling home re-baptized her Fanny.
My grandfather was loath to speak about his life in England, so after talking with every family member I could, calling upon the sketchy memories of the elder English relatives and a very few letters, I decided to give myself some leeway in guesswork. It was my decision to write his story showing his parents attempt to block his romance with Fanny, who was my grandmother. This was hinted at in one letter and I believe it created an animosity that kept him silent about his parents and England.
Thomas Warren, Alfie and Nora, Robert and his wife, are pulled from my imagination but their work and concerns are real. The other people in the book are all real. Toady, Jello, Duffy, Dumps, Teapot, Mute, Old Ben, Georgina, Austic, all the others, and of course, Alpheus, my great-grandfather.

You chose the persona form for the lion’s share of these poems, and were really able to inhabit the figures in the book. How did you locate the voice and temperament of each of these very different characters?

I appreciate that compliment. My biggest challenge was how to handle the Norfolk dialect as it is distinctive and pronounced.  I couldn’t accurately write in the voices of some of my characters as it would be hard to understand without footnotes but select phrases and colorful vocabulary words allowed me to establish voice, as long as I could make the context elucidate meaning.  I wanted to avoid a glossary at the end for words such as “beatster,”and “cloots” so hopefully the context makes their meaning clear.

The cover is beautiful, and a perfect complement to the book’s content. Please tell us about the cover art.

Thank you so much for mentioning the cover!  I am proud of it.  The painting on the cover is an encaustic piece painted by my niece, Sarah Starling, who is an artist living in Denver.  Her magnificent work can be seen at  I was grateful Main Street Rag’s editor, M. Scott Douglass was open to using her work for the cover and it was especially important for me to have a Starling family member’s art on the cover of this collection.

Please talk about your writing habit. Are you a poet with a scheduled writing time, or write as the muse dictates? Both?

I would like to tell you that I am disciplined and sit each day routinely tapping away on a schedule but that is not my habit.  I find that I write in intense long periods, by which I mean obsessed months at a time, and then long months will go by and I want to write but find there is nothing in my brain to write about. I do not like those months.
I have little patience for writers who moan about the work of writing.  I like its challenges, from getting down the first draft to all the layers and phases of revision. I enjoy the deep immersion into writing, writing until I forget that I should have eaten that day and that my dog and husband are wandering forlornly, clearing their throats hinting that a it would be great to have me present for a while. 
When I want to write and haven’t an idea, I am cranky.  Having a big ongoing project, like The Sea Was Never Far helps as I can exit and re-enter the work as I imagine a novelist gets back into the story by writing the next scene.

Can you tell us about your next writing project?

I am exploring an obsession.  I am compelled by the story of the Antarctic explorers who were the support team for Shackleton’s 1915 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton’s heroic and epic story of survival has been told and retold many, many times and his incredible story has eclipsed the valiant and equally epic story of his men on the other side of the continent who were charged with laying the food depots for the Antarctic crossing.  I hope to do justice to their story but also weave through, as a counterpoint, the voice of Antarctica herself. 

Marion Starling Boyer, professor emeritus for Kalamazoo Valley Community College, has published three poetry books: The Clock of the Long Now (Mayapple Press, 2009), nominated for a Pushcart and Lenore Marshall Award, and two chapbooks, Green (Finishing Line Press, 2003) and Composing the Rain (Grayson Books, 2014). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Born in Ontario, Canada, Boyer calls the Great Lakes region home. While she has lived most of her life in Michigan she now resides in a small town near Cleveland.

Barbara Sabol is the author of the poetry collection, Solitary Spin (Main Street Rag Publishing), and two chapbooks, The Distance Between Blues (Finishing Line Press) and Original Ruse (Accents Publishing.) Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies. Barbara’s awards include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council and the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize. Barbara is a speech therapist who lives in Akron, OH with her husband and wonder dogs.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

What? Poetry can have a social life?

Chris Green

The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race and Radical Modernism by Chris Green

Chris Green sees his work at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, which he has directed since July 2012, as the most important he has yet undertaken. He is a professor, poet, activist, and administrator who love and serves Appalachia with all its many cultures and people, as well as all the many peoples of the United States and the world. He grew up in Lexington, Ky., and attended the University of Kentucky (UK) where Appalachian Studies and creative writing answered his need to write poetry, know the world, and fight for justice. He went on to earn his MA in English from Appalachian State University, and his MFA in Poetry and MS in secondary education at Indiana University, where he studied the wily ways of poetry and post-colonialism.

After working as a poet in the community, he completed his PhD on multicultural American poetry at UK. He moved to Huntington, W.Va., where for a decade where he professed English, Appalachia, and world change. While there, his monograph, The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race, and Radical Modernism, won the 2009 Weatherford Award for the best non-fiction book about Appalachia. Chris also co-edited Radicalism in the South Since Reconstruction, a collection of scholarly essays, and edited Coal: A Poetry Anthology, a collection of 98 poets designed for non-academic readers, a book that one reviewer concluded was “significant and lasting contribution to Appalachian literature, and maybe more importantly, to the literature of a world coming to terms with how our resources and the ways we use them transform our lives.”

His is the author of the book of poetry is called Rushlight.

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Review and Interview by Melva Sue Priddy


The series Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics published Chris Green’s book as one of the first three books published in 2009, and his book became a winner of the 2009 Weatherford Award for Best Non-Fiction Book about Appalachia.

I’m just now finding this book. Why so late?

I attended the 42nd annual Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School, which happens in July every summer. A week long residency in Knott County, writers have been gathering at the forks of Troublesome Creek to explore the intricacies of fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, poetry, song, publishing, and to fellowship. It is a community of supportive writers, without competition. For more info, see Appalachian Writers Workshop. While the Appalachian Writers Workshop began in 1978, the Hindman Settlement School’s history of supporting Appalachian writers started many decades earlier. This year, Chris Green gave the Appalachian Literature lecture each afternoon. Chris is Berea College’s Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center; Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies; and Department Chair of Appalachian Studies. He brought his passion into each lecture. The fourth lecture, based on his book, covered a lot of ground in a very short time.

Before listening to the lecture, and then reading this book, I’d never questioned how publishers chose the books they would publish. Call me naive, but I was unaware of the underlying motives of publishers, presses, and the people in the business. I thought one could be a better fit with some presses or journals, but I had no idea really. This was an eye opener for me.

In The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race and Radical Modernism, Chris Green looks specifically at the people in the Appalachian areas who became known as “Anglo-Saxons,” the development of presses in New York, and the agendas of the founders of those presses, and then the writing and publishing of four “first books” of poetry: Jesse Stuart’s Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (E. P. Dutton, 1934); James Still’s Hounds on the Mountain (Viking, 1937); Muriel Rukeyser’s U. S. 1 (Covici-Friede, 1938); and Don West’s Clods of Southern Earth (Boni & Gaer, 1946). Heads up: This is a scholarly book, well researched and explained for those delving into it’s pages. I was interested in the book for it’s contents and writers discussed but also because of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, and recent studies in Whiteness and the hidden biases of having grown up white.

“Part I Appalachia, Race, and Pluralism” looks at the myth of white Anglo-Saxon progenitors, how and why that was cultivated, when in fact many ethic peoples lived in Appalachia. Before coal was discovered by the big mining companies, and wanting that coal was the deciding factor, immigrants from England were just one of many cultures living in the mountains, which included: Native Americans, Jews, Blacks, Southerners, Italians, Irish, Scots and new immigrants. After the Civil War, people where anxious to read about unknown pockets of ethnic groups living all across the United States. While local color tended to stereotype groups of people living in the mountains to better fit into a white middle-class world view, seldom was one race or ethnic group more important or less important than another. Pluralism and equality were more evident in the mountains than local color writing witnessed.

“Part II The Social Life of Poetry” is divided into four parts, taking one poet at a time, their influences and development as writers, and exploring how each author developed his/her style as they interacted with presses, their points of view, and audiences. Green builds on his discussion as he includes each consecutive poet. For me, the book unfolds as a mystery and the second part is the most interesting, but I could not have understood its significance without reading "Part I.” Before reading The Social Life, I was familiar with all four authors: I studied Stuart in elementary classes, as most Kentucky students did in the 1950s and 1960s; I found Still when I attended Berea Collage, and I taught his poems, short stories and the novel River of Earth to secondary English classes (Still even visited my classrooms one day); Rukeyser showed up in anthologies and feminist writing in college; and West was the one I was least familiar with because his politics had kept him out of most class studies when I was in school. American education has made many mistakes in an effort to melt the pot of pluralism; we are finding our way back to those mistakes, though this isn’t the topic of this review / interview, but it’s worth saying aloud. All four poets are worth reading and studying.

I learned that all three men, Stuart, Still and West, attended Lincoln Memorial University and then Vanderbilt; they knew each other and kept in contact after college and they championed each other's work. All were from working class white families. Stuart and West had roots in what became known as the Appalachian area, while Still was from Alabama and considered a transplant as he lived his adult life in Knott County, Kentucky. Stuart is considered the first major writer from the mountains to win national acclaim. In contrast, Muriel Rukeyser’s Jewish family was considered middle class; she grew up in New York, attended Vassar for two years, took classes at Columbia University, but she had to drop out when her father’s concrete business went bankrupt. Of the four poets, Rukeyser and West were more politically motivated, attempting social change with their writing. I was unfamiliar with Rukeyser’s and West’s earliest works.

All four poets had different audiences and approaches to exposing those outside the mountains to Appalachian culture. Stuart wrote about his life experiences to an audience of his own people as well as people interested in mountain culture. His first book of some 700 “sonnets” were accessible, although considered a bit stereotyped today (…“he knew how to spin a tale that his readers were hungry to believe”). Still wrote in a more polished way, geared to educated people outside the mountains about the people he knew in the mountains; few if any people in Knott County read Still’s first book when published. Rukeyser, herself an outsider, used her journalistic background to address an “ideal audience [of] educated urbanites” with poetry of witness about inhumane treatment of people; she wanted her readers to see themselves as complicit and motivate action. She wrote “Book of the Dead,” the first section of U. S. 1, after her investigation of the Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, deaths of over 800 miners (most of whom were African American) from silicosis between 1930 and 1936. West, likewise, wanted his audience to move toward political action; trained as a preacher of Social Gospel, he “mobilized all his skills as a poet (and an activist and organizer) to help create a society where the working and lower classes could join together across categories of work, race, gender, or locality to struggle for political, social, and economic rights.”

All four poets, liberal leaning in varying degrees, found publication through New York liberal presses run by Jewish men largely educated at Harvard. That presses were in NY didn’t surprise me. What I didn’t know was that the presses all promoted something about American’s citizenry, and Chris Green helped me sort that out: “They were all mobilizing associations with mountain whites, and three were promoting a vision of America with many cultures; Jesse Stuart’s publisher promoted [the popular] Western Europe.”

There is so much complexity in this work, which happens anytime you stir human beings into the mess we really are. The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race and Radical Modernism is worth reading and studying.

—Melva Sue Priddy

How did you choose these four poets, and how long did you work on The Social Life?

CG: I chose them because they were the first poets publishing about Appalachia with truly national presses. I first met & read James Still and discovered Don West when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky around ’88 to ’90. In 2001 (or thereabouts), I wrote an essay about Don West and Muriel Rukeyser, the later of whom I read in graduate school, and compared their books and audiences. When it came time for my dissertation, I expanded and included Still. Near the end (in 2004), I realized I had to include Stuart, but my dissertation chair told me to do that later. I wish I had included one other poet—Louise McNeill—whose first book came out around the same time and was part of yet another readership/perspective, but publishers already wanted me to drastically cut down my word count.

You make note several times in writing The Social Life that all along there were people who resisted cultural homogenization, starting with your introduction. You also state that “‘Appalachia’ is a discursive construct.” I find this to be so interesting in light of what is happening in our world today. Obviously, the coal companies wanting cheap access to mine the mountains were a big part of making the mountain folk look dangerous and off balance. What were other influences?

CG: Oh so many! The then coastal elite’s reaction to the “back woods” people who were the pioneers; after the Civil War, people in the deep south felt betrayed by the mountains and people in the North thought of mountains as being southern—a real catch 22; then after the tremendous damage caused by the Civil War and the fight over scarce resources that the country needed for the industrial revolution resulted in feuding, it was the new role of education and the managerial class, which those in central Appalachia had limited access. The list goes on and on and on.

You state that although the popular image most readers held of miners was of a white miner covered in black coal dust, “…in 1931 black miners—mostly from the South—represented 22 percent of all miners in the state, with immigrants constituting another 17 percent.” That’s 39 percent of miners who were not Anglo-Saxon. Why was that perception so different from the actual?

CG: Media representations were operating under the pressure of assumptions about who lived in central Appalachia, coming from legends of the feuds and the cultivated, essentialist mythology of Anglo-ancestory, which I [discuss more] in the first chapter.

You comment in The Social Life on the absence of of Appalachians from studies of race history and the role of whiteness until the last twenty years or so. How would inclusion have moved both studies of race and whiteness further along?

CG: It would widen the sense of who is on the same side, of who needs to stand together, and of who has been (and often continues to be) the victims of the devilish dynamics of American capitalist ideology. The issue would turn from “Whites vs. All others” into an issues of class and power.

You state several times that poetry wasn’t making money for publishers in the 1930s, that presses took risks in publishing an unknown writer. Has much changed? Can you say something about how national publishers choose poetry to print today?

CG: Not much has changed. Presses have to have authors who sell and financial support (from donors, government, and foundations) in order to do worthy work as a press, because anyone can bring out a book, but most small presses are not capable of marketing them, even if they do a good job creating the book (which all too many do not).

National publishers do things for one reason: profit. However, obviously, there is not much profit from most poetry. What poetry adds is cultural capital, which can then be converted to a set of associations lending a press prestige and respect, hence increasing profit. There are some houses with national reputations who serve masters other than profit, but they are few and most of them can’t dare to risk their resources in poetry.

You state of Still: “Through his familiarity with Hindman and the Atlantic, Still reproduced conventions that allowed middle-class readers to recognize his work as authentic then validating those institutions [and that he] became part of a reinforcing circuit of discursive production regarding middle-class Anglo-idenity.” Do you think Still was aware of this at the time of his first publication? How did this influence readers’ awareness of race and class in the minds of non-Appalachian people?

CG: Still held the Atlantic as THE model of good literature, and later became aware of venues with different aesthetics and audiences. Was he aware of its specific audience? Perhaps not overtly, but implicitly, reinforced by virtue of his college study. His growing awareness was amplified in comparison with his friends (Don West and Jesse Stuart).

Writing about West and the causes he championed, you state, “The New York Times Book Review demonstrates that the world of readers who valued poetry in the North was not necessarily cognizant of the complex, oppressive political realities in the South. Nor could they hear poetry as Southerners did.” Can you say more about how Southerners heard poetry; and has that changed over time?

CG: The Southerners who read West’s books were deeply familiar with the nearly debilitating complexity of race relations, but they also saw, knew, and lived paths forward. They knew there were many parts of the South against which poets from the Fugitives specifically denied and that the Agrarians decontextualized in their moves toward white racial domination. In short, people who read that book knew what the score was: and the people who were reading it were not in colleges.

The way Southerners—and the nation—have heard poetry since was through the deaf and dumb practices of the new criticism which became all the rage in higher education for the next fifty years (and still lives today), but with the generational rise of southern African American poets (such as Margaret Walk, Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Nikki Finney) as well as with the rise of Appalachian poetry, Southerners are more likely to see themselves.

West published Crab-Grass in 1931, years before Clods was published. Why did West’s publishers promote his second poetry book as his “first” book?

CG: Clods of Southern Earth [1946] was definitely promoted as his first, and it was West’s first publication with a truly national press. Saying it was his first book gained cultural capital in two ways: first, for many, working-class people outside the cultural establishment, that this was a first book made it feel more accessible; second, for some in the cultural establishment, such a long collection might gain credence for seemingly having come out of the blue as it did.

If I’m not mistaken, part of West’s popularity (of Clods) was due to his publishers promoting paper backs and book of the month clubs, and West’s dispersal of his book free, hundreds at a time, plus his image as one of the working class. I was touched by stories of how, long after distribution, sharecroppers and other working class people still had their copies of Clods. What can you say about renewed interest in West’s work, today, long after the FBI considered him and his work dangerous because of his connection to Communism?

CG: The core issues that West fought for—the equality of all people’s and their repression for profit is now a view more widely held. The great danger we face now is the rise of white fascism, driven by the destruction of the working classes wealth by the very white capitalists who stand to profit from racial conflict. Thus, my colleague is bringing West’s Clods of Southern Earth out again but now accompanied by a truly multicultural group of contemporary poets. The work of coalition building across ethnic and racial difference is easily fragmented because we rally more quickly to the defense of people we identify with while people, whose seeming difference is rooted in the ground of this nation’s most base, crass, and violent exploitation, is easy to rekindle and amplify.

Rukeyser wrote poetry of witness. What would you say to poetry writers today who are interested in poetry of witness?

CG: Go where things to which you are close are happening. Dare to know people and become close; dare to help and to stand in the way of bulldozers. Dare to throw your assumptions aside and listen. Then write. And read those poems to your friends. Publish them on broadsides, in newspapers. Stand with other poets of witness and bring your friends, your issues, your people, your causes together. For if we can’t stand together, if we are forced apart because of a false essentialism and defensiveness, then the game is over.

I learned so much reading this book. Chris, what did you learn, in the process of researching and writing, that most surprised you?

CG: That it all made so much sense. That poetry was so deeply a part of the social sphere and that it was so shaped by (and shaped) issues of race and whiteness. That coalitions of blacks and white in the South were fighting together against the evils of racism long before the 1960s. That my work as someone who loves poems let me see the deep beauty and integrity of each poets’ poems.

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.