Virtual Salon #9 with Sara Robinson

Since poetry, like bourbon, has a long shelf life and often a long trajectory of rising to wider attention, I’m including a couple of 2019 authors in this salon series, including Sara M. Robinson. Blurbing her new book, Needville, I wrote, “So many voices smolder in Sara Robinson’s ambitious new collection. Evoking a fictional coal town named Needville, she channels exploited miners; dying canaries; guilty consumers of coal-fueled electricity; and even the voices of mountains themselves. ‘How are poets like geologists?’ one poem asks. Robinson’s answer is to take the long view, probing the mighty forces that shape us. This powerful book treats its subject with precision, compassion, and not a little fire.” (Hey, I think I succeeded with that blurb! They’re micro-reviews themselves and not easy to craft.)

I find this week that it’s also a rewarding book to reread. Different images jumped out at me: a mountain gutted like a deer, “naked creeks with muted pulses,” fatback sizzling and jumping in an old black skillet, a miner discovering a mammoth in a deep vein of ice, and the observation that “we will all turn to carbon & silica one day”–as well as a rash of Rite-Aids, Dollar Stores, Hardees, and peanut butter nabs. Sara has deep roots in Appalachia and her passion for it pervades the book. She also worked for decades in mineral industries, so many poems have a scientific bent, too. Check out the mini-interview below, including Sara’s excellent ideas about cocktails.

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

I would have a new bourbon drink called Black Water, a mixture of Writer’s Tears Irish Whisky and a splash of branch water. I would have grilled cheese sandwiches fashioned in the shape of lunch boxes. And for dessert I would offer Lemon ice cream with spoons in shape of little shovels. All would be served in a diner made from a coal car or rustic cabin/shanty. Main entrance would simulate going into a mine shaft. Lantern lights. Dripping water and iron clinking as background music. Fiddle playing intermittent. 

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am totally frustrated with our government right now and yes I am able to write. I wish I could write more about the pleasures of whisky drinking but the latest news is really interfering with my enjoyment. I keep wanting to come up with whisky cocktail names like “Shelter-in-Place, Shelter Dog, Old Miner Boots, and Hollertini.”  I have written a few poems about the current state of things but mostly I am composing concrete poetry using lines from the daily paper as verse. These I post on FaceBook. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

I would love to start a blog someday, but in meantime, I’m on Facebook and also easily accessible by email. I’m available for group Zoom conversations or FaceTime. Also Needville debuted as a play this year and actually had a real audience (right before the virus shutdown) under the direction of NY Director, Tom Evans. It was videoed and copies of the play are available.

Virtual Salon #8 with Marianne Chan

Marianne Chan’s brilliant debut collection engages a wide array of topics with insight, wit, and brio: not only religion but colonization, copulation, space exploration, and family relations (her mother is a funny and wonderful recurring character). I fell hard for Chan’s work in the process of selecting pieces she had submitted to Shenandoah, and All Heathens expands on the pleasures of those pieces in a satisfying way. As I take notes for these micro-reviews I make notes in the back of each book about zingy lines and titles, and there are too many here to list. One of the most hilariously wicked poems is a retort to “When the Man at the Party Told Me He Wanted to Own a Filipino,” and there are so many great metaphors, too (“the sun was hot yellow tea in a saucer”). A few lines near the beginning of All Heathens crystallize something about the book for me: “my mother keeps telling me/ that I should move my hips when I dance, because I am as stiff/ as a Methodist church in the suburbs…” I’ve never met this author and can’t tell you how she would boogie if this virtual salon ended in a dance party, but her poems are full of oscillations and surprising turns that could constitute poetry’s answer to her mother’s instruction. Words can move, too.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be? Since we’re using our imaginations and I don’t have to worry about going broke, I think I’d opt for all of the food mentioned in my poem “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010”: pancit, dinuguan, pinakbet, caldereta, lumpia, leche flan, bibingka and five Hot-N-Ready pizzas! We shall feast! 

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer? My answer to the first question is that I’m doing okay most of the time, and my answer to the second question is: yes, thank goodness, yes! Despite the worry and sadness I feel about the pandemic, and despite having to focus some energy on virtual book promotion, I’ve been able to write new poems. In fact, I think I need to read and write poems more than ever right now. Other than talking with friends and family, writing has been one of the only things keeping me centered. 

How can your virtual audience find out more? For more info about me, feel free to go to my website: mariannechan.com, or you can read “10 Questions for Marianne Chan” on Poets & Writers: https://www.pw.org/content/ten_questions_for_marianne_chan. Also, if you’re interested in All Heathens, you can order a copy here: https://bookshop.org/books/all-heathens/9781946448521 Thanks for reading!

Virtual Poetry Salon with Tess Taylor

I’ve always liked fierce poems and feminist poems, but it wasn’t that long ago that I noticed how many of the poetry collections I like best are deeply grounded in place. In Tess Taylor’s new collection, Rift Zone, that place is California in a century perched on a fault line. Taylor writes of suburbs that bury violent histories, and also how that violence keeps erupting and threatening to upend today’s polluted prettiness. There’s an apocalyptic Plathian verve to some of Taylor’s similes: “My parents renovated that old home. / It is clean as a lobotomy.” There’s resonant music, too, with some of the poems framed as songs and lullabies, and others just prickling with echoed sound: “The air rings with lost force we call the waves.” I hope you’ll read the book, the interview below, and the poem Taylor links to in the last line. It will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, a physical copy of which I cherish over tea every Sunday morning. Is that another precarious pleasure? How long will our luxuries last?

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

Broken cookies cracked apart by seismic pressure.

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am horribly sad and that some days I cannot even bear it. I would say writing a book of poems about the precarity of our lives in this brutal era only to have the era be too precarious for the poems has been staggering. I would say that beauty and song have a nagging way of sneaking up on me despite my rage and grief. I would say: I am waking up at midnight and keeping a raw insomniac’s journal. I would say I feel unkempt and also deeply alive. I would say “thank you so much for asking.”

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

There is a lot up at www.tess-taylor.com!

A virtual reading here: 
https://www.ptreyesbooks.com/event/virtual-poetry-reading?fbclid=IwAR0oiHkMHdUk8LHonRo3CAWe5unQbxzS07h715aifPM8eK3N-Nf349hcnlU

And:  Here’s a stalwart defense of reading books NOW –  which you may like. 

And:  here’s a poem from the NYT Mag to send you into the weekend. 

Virtual Salon #6 with Elizabeth Savage & Ann E. Michael

Featured at today’s virtual salon are two lovely new chapbooks, a brand new one from blogger-extraordinaire Ann E. Michael and one from late 2019 by Kestrel Poetry Editor Elizabeth Savage. Both are poets whom I’ve admired for ages. If this were a live reading, you’d also immediately perceive that they are exceptionally kind and generous people, too. I’ll begin with Ann’s book but be sure to keep reading for a mini-interview with Elizabeth, below.

I was moved to revisit a landscape in Barefoot Girls that reminds me of my own girlhood in North Jersey. Ann’s slim book powerfully evokes a landscape just south of there, flat and stretching east to Atlantic beaches. Awkward teenagers, “more than one kind of hungry,” are marked by its barrenness; soothe the ache at roller-rinks and rock concerts; cope with assaults and unwanted pregnancies; and, at pool halls, hustle “drunks who think a girl can’t win.” In this stirring chapbook, however, girls persist dauntlessly, just as “the darning needles swoop/ and dart, hungry, busy, rising up/ against whatever holds them down.”

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

1. Alas, warm Schlitz beer (in a can) or Coke, and hoagies, would be thematically perfect–but I can’t bear the thought. And popsicles, choose your fake flavor. My teen years were not gustatory pleasures. We can update it with gelato and thin-crust pizza.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

2. Harried, nibbled to death by work-related technology details, not writing much; reading a lot…and spending as much time in the garden as possible. Pulling weeds can be cathartic!

How can your virtual audience find out more?

3. Check out my webpage’s “My Books” tab at www.annemichael.wordpress.com, or go directly to prolificpress.com (“new books”). For context, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s first three albums, read about the gas crisis of the early 70s, or maybe check out http://www.josephszabophotos.com/ and view Szabo’s photographs of teens in the early 70s.

~

Detail by Elizabeth Savage is just as vivid in conjuring place, although its style is way more elliptical, oscillating between scoured-down lyrics and even smaller shards (perhaps Ann has me thinking about the shells and shell-fragments you pick up on the New Jersey shore). Elizabeth’s locations, however, are the Richmond, Virginia of her girlhood, the West Virginia she inhabits now, and, in glimpses, Pacific beaches. Sensory detail transports: one poem “reeks of peaches” while another manifests “a gridded garter snake” who “basks/ trusting the asphalt when a motorized warmth/ pulses suggestively.” The most salient aspect of this collection, though, is its exploration of edges: seasonal hinges, crusts of earth pushed up by crocuses, a beautician’s shears, and more. I confess I reread these poems while gnawing the ears of a dark chocolate bunny, but Details’ refreshments are better.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

1. Detail is made up of dense, enjambment-driven poems followed by a distillation. Applying this concept to refreshments, the Detail buffet might include some of my cannibal cookies next to tiny Dixie cups of dark chocolate chips and coconut flakes; paella alongside saffron strands; martinis next to glass dishes of green olives; hummus with sea salt and lemon juice sidecars—and all accompanied by cold, bone-dry white wine that comes in a box. Several poems concern Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up, so perhaps ham biscuits accompanied by lard and a tiny statue of J.E.B Stuart should also be made available.   

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

2. I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

3. I love Will Woolfitt’s response to this question, and I think his interpretation of it  fits both my “how” and my “more.” I began the poems in Detail as a way to read Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems, so more is to be found in her poetry. Noah’s Ark is my poetry neighborhood, and I was listening to and thinking through Ingrid Stolzel’s compositions from poetry throughout the years I wrote Detail. Dancing Girl Press published another chap for me that is roughly the inverse experiment, so the poems in Parallax might be of interest. 

The generosity of writers in Crisis

Just a quick note from my hermit’s retreat: I am so impressed by the gallantry of writers, editors, and reading series organizers, so many of whom are ingeniously making the show go on. I wrote last time about hitches in publication pipelines, but for authors who had reached the culmination of years of work and were ready for spring book launches, there’s an extra edge of strangeness in how the world has shut down. You do all this advance work to set up events (unless you have money for a publicist? not me!), and then some are scrapped, some go virtual, and you’re scrambling for find new launch outlets like podcasts, interviews, and web features that might get your name out there. I’m trying to say yes to every offer, but it’s a challenge! Unexpectedly, I’m figuring out how to record mini-audio-readings with a blanket over my head for extra resonance, and how best to prop my laptop on boxes of books I can’t sell to get a flattering angle on Zoom video recordings. Live readings are challenging to get right, but recorded ones are much stranger, since you can’t respond to visual cues from your audience.

Whenever you read this blog, you can check out a recorded 6-minute podcast from The Drum: A Literary Magazine for your Ears, featuring memoirist Alia Volz and me. Thanks to Kirun Kapur for including me!

If you read this by Saturday 4/11, also check out a Zoom reading I’m doing with Destiny Hemphill and Alan King from 7-8pm EST, put together by Ross White as part of the Bull City Press Presents series based in Durham, North Carolina. (I just canceled my hotel reservations; Chris and I had planned to make a fun weekend out of the trip, which would formerly have occurred during my students’ exam week.) If you’d like to join us, info on how is here. We’re each reading for 15 minutes and I’ll be in the middle.

In other news, I did not win a Guggenheim–not that I expected to, but you always feel a little spark of hope–nor was I accepted for a residency that I applied to. I’m somehow not down about those things at all. It’s such a sad, scary time and it’s hard to keep up with my classwork and even find time to check in with distant loved ones. I’m not sure how caregivers are managing this at all, and I watch friends organizing community outreach efforts with an energy I feel entirely unable to muster. I just collapse at the end of my long days at the screen. Again, I feel grateful and amazed about all the ways people ARE coming through for each other. Our federal governments may be dangerously incompetent, but so many others are good, kind, and generous. It’s enough to give a person hope that we’ll weather this.

Dessert for closure: I was just reading/ viewing/ listening to a presentation on punk by my amazing Poetry and Music students, and I went looking for pictures of myself in my commodified punkish teenage outfits. I didn’t find any of the pre-ripped sweatshirts with weird zippers and safety pins, nor the tiny leather miniskirts, but here’s me at 16 or 17 in fishnet stockings bought at Paramus Park Mall, by a Christmas tree no less. I’m pretty sure I was using Dippity Do to mimic David Bowie’s wet look on the cover of Changes Two. You’re welcome.

Looking off cliffs

I’m not processing very well, here at the quiet edge of apocalypse. Sometimes I’m fine, scared, down, or stir-crazy; often I’m busy teaching remotely, being fortunate enough to still have a job; generally I can’t concentrate. New York City has always been the center of the world for me; how will it fare? When will everyone have access to testing, so we know the scope of things? A few steps from now, what will happen?

I wonder, too, what art is in the pipelines now, and to what extent those pipelines are or will be blocked. My novel, Unbecoming, was available for pre-order for a hot second and scheduled for publication on May 1, but now that’s been postponed. My publishers are in Washington State and can’t safely mail out copies, and one of their key distribution warehouses is not accepting shipments anymore. I hope the book is for sale in time for my reading dates this summer, but who knows how much we’ll be traveling and congregating then anyway? One nice augury, anyway: it just earned a star and a lovely review from Publishers Weekly. At least one stranger likes it! That’s more of a relief to me than you might expect. A debut work in any field–who can really judge her own writing, at first venture?

Many have told me that the novel will do better at a later date, anyway; apparently the brilliant Margot Livesey launched a book on 9/11/01, a day of crisis for all kinds of art, and I heard from many people that nobody bought books right after Trump’s election. I am also relieved to focus for longer on the virtual launch of The State She’s In, my fifth poetry collection (also languishing in a locked down warehouse, although copies are available directly from my saintly publisher, at least for now–this has me suspecting that a ton of books from independent presses must be similarly stranded). People have been generous about helping me publicize it over social media and otherwise, although general sadness has put me behind on sending in the recordings people have asked for. Here’s an interview Will Woolfitt posted on his terrific Speaking of Marvels blog. And I’m going to keep paying poetry back by putting up virtual poetry salons, although with the term in gear again, I might be slower.

The picture above is from last Saturday’s drive to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains, where we’re trying to take walks most weekends to watch spring’s advance. It’s beautiful out there in a way that seems bizarre and reassuring in turns. The photo below is of three new anthologies I’m fortunate enough to have a poem in–all of them terrific and all of them coming out, as my own books are, at a pretty difficult moment. Here’s a shout out, then, to Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, edited by Annie Finch; Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habit, Defiance, and Democracy, edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield; and Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood, edited by Margaret Hasse and Athena Kildegaard. The Tables of Contents of all three brim with the names of the writers I admire most, and all bring together immensely powerful and moving work. Having work in them is good company. I’m also proud to have an essay on Millay’s abortions, “The Smell of Tansy through the Dark,” in the latest Massachussetts Review. I’ve talked to several editors of print magazines who were rushing to send off spring issues before their university mail services ground to a halt, and I’m so glad this one made it. I wonder how the publishing landscape may change for them and others. One good thing: Ecotone’s most recent issues, a couple of which I have poems in, are temporarily free online. What a gift to the housebound!

I am writing a bit for National Poetry Month, without confidence that I’m producing anything lasting, although I’m not able to get myself together to mail recent work out. And for Shenandoah, I’m reading the 650 batches of poems that came in during our 2-week March reading period (holy cow). My first read is usually a quick-ish screen to winnow the submissions down to likely top contenders, and I’m only halfway through that; it’s going to take a while. Looking off the edge of this April, though, I feel confident that Shenandoah WILL keep bringing you great art. So many collaborative artistic productions are stalled now, but writing is cheap and lonely, any season. We’re all going to go through weeks of blockage and flow, I guess, but you can’t stop poetry.