Virtual Salon #13 with Sonia Greenfield

This intense week, I’m featuring a new collection by activist-editor-poet Sonia Greenfield (check out Rise Up Review sometime, too, for brilliant poems of resistance).

Letdown consists of 64 numbered prose poems about pregnancy, birth, raising a special needs child, miscarriage, grief, and recovery. No poems can be assembled into tidy chronologies–they slip and blur, associate and meditate–but the book has a strong emotional arc, through an underworld of pain, to emergence into love and compassion. I love that the book ends in empathy for other parents, but that’s enabled by Greenfield’s own difficult rebirth: “Though I am better now, sometimes I can feel a kite string tied inside cut through me when what I want yanks.”

Maggie Smith gets it right, too, when she calls Greenfield “a master of the prose poem.” Each has a boiled-down lyric intensity. Many investigate the meanings of words, putting the lie to the literary-critical truism that pain short-circuits expression. Poems about diagnostic language, the tone-deaf consolations and blame friends offer, and her sons words are very powerful. Her son is on the autism spectrum and the recurrent description of his “weird energy” could describe the book, too. This collection channels a strong charge of loss and love. As she says, “It takes a while to strip expectations away, to peel off the layers until we’re holding our child’s happiness in the palm of our hand, as pure as the simplest silicate mineral, and say it is enough.” This is a testament to celebrate.

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

We would eat cannoli and Dick’s Burgers (drive-in burger place in Seattle), both of which I craved when I was pregnant. We would eat quesadilla, because that’s my son’s favorite food. We would eat falafel and gelato and zeppoles (in the book), and we’d wash it all down with coconut water and whiskey (also in the book). Then we’d finish up with an Alka-Seltzer, naturally.

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 tell the friend that I had to go back on anti-depressants because of how scattered and unfocused I am, that I feel like a pinball bouncing off the contours of my life. And, no. I haven’t been able to write much– just a couple poems. But things will change, I tell myself. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

If my virtual audience wants to know more, they can visit my website at soniagreenfield.com, and I’m also on all the social media with no fancy names. Just Sonia Greenfield with an @. 

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall

The dark threw its patches down upon me also, Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Nearly as often as he reflects on his own tingling senses, Whitman, it turns out, writes about distance and solitude, sometimes expressing pain about it and reaching for touch across impossible gaps. “It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not,” he insists. We can be together, apart. This violent week has proven again that in my country, unity is a fiction. Some U.S. citizens are protected by police; in overlapping territory, other U.S. citizens are murdered by police. I admire Whitman’s desire to heal damage and division, but I can’t love my country the way he did.

Yet the fellowship of writers in other places, even other times, helps my heart. I wrote last week about feeling rested by the kind intelligence of Ned Balbo’s new book The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, and before that the pleasure of revisiting Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist. Silano also has a powerful poem in the issue of Shenandoah that will debut on June 5th; I’ve been proofreading it and appreciating the authors we’re about to publish. I also have thanks to give to many writers, editors, and event programmers who have recently shown me generosity.

First, here’s to writer and publisher Rose Solari for praising The State She’s In in the Washington Independent Review of Books. First official review and it’s a beauty!

A couple of new pieces about writing as a practice: Massachusetts Review, in conjunction with an essay of mine about Millay they just published, recently put up a “10 Questions” interview about the how and where of research and drafting; in both the interview and the essay itself, I talk about finding camaraderie with dead women poets, in this case wondering how authors I admired bore children or refused to. Next, Celia Lisset Alvarez has started a blog series at Prospectus about writers’ first publications. In “Unbecoming Hubris” I post about daring to write my first novel and some of the comeuppances I experienced before holding the book in my hands. This is a good place, too, to say thank you to my spouse Chris Gavaler for “My Unbecoming Spouse,” a post about book covers and messing with Audubon’s cross fox.

I have a couple of recent poems full of cosmic dread in Sweet. And if you’re in the mood to listen, I have recorded readings here for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival and here for the Social Distance Reading Series hosted by the Vermont School and Green Mountains Review.

My school year has wound down now and I have a lot to catch up on, especially in deferred publicity work for my books–and being sad and worried makes it hard. I’m wondering if my deferred spring 2020 readings should happen in spring 2021, not this fall. As usual, I’m prone to dark crises of confidence, too, but good to know Whitman suffered them before me. The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,/ My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? I feel ya, Walt.

I’ll close with a hopeful poem from my own new collection, one I wrote with the stupidity of U.S. politics in mind. The spell I’m trying to weave won’t soothe anything except maybe a reader’s blood pressure for a minute, but hey, sometimes a moment’s glimmer is the best we’ve got.

State Song

Because I call you, wind strips trees
of little limbs they did not need.
The streambed tilts a muddy ear

and I pour words into its drain, the cup-
shape someone’s heel dug filling up
as if with rain. Because I call us

together, the mountain blushes. A curtain
parts, dissolves into rags of steam. Sun
and clouds pattern fields with roving

spotlights. Because I call you, power
thrums the ground. Now is the hour,
gilded, grand. I call this dazzle ours.

Virtual Salon #12 with Ned Balbo

...the landline's cut & no one's listening 
-Ned Balbo, from "Vortex"

The imaginary book party below is the twelfth in a spontaneously invented series–how did this milestone come so fast? In March, events I’d planned to launch The State She’s In fell apart, which in some ways felt like the very smallest loss in an enormous crisis and in other ways was hard. Through this blog feature, I hoped I could do a small good thing for other writers in my position. I’m having fun with it, but it’s a little crushing that we still need to conduct most of our lives virtually.

Reading Ned Balbo’s sixth collection is a powerful and eerie experience right now because of its mix of isolation and intimacy. The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize and published in December 2019, takes its title from a poem about plants at the Cylburn Arboretum. A companion shows the speaker how leaves recoil at human touch. After they walk away, he wonders about “green fronds unfolding till/ the surface of their sea is calm again”–as if ease can be restored after an interval of shocked separation. Balbo’s title phrase recurs in a poem called “With Magdalene, near Daybreak,” when a resurrected god tells Magdalene, Touch me not. Balbo wonders why Jesus would return only to “order her away” and how she would have felt: “she who’d grieved already,/ shocked, stopped where she stood,/ the world strange, unsteady// though he was radiant…” This book, written well before the novel coronavirus, is about social distance.

Many of the poems in this (paradoxically?) touching collection come from the intimate-yet-distant process of reading other writers; Balbo is also a translator and some of these pieces, especially in the resonant opening sequence including “Vortex,” “began as translations but were transformed along the way,” as he writes in the notes. The book’s middle section focuses on Balbo’s tangled family and I found it, too, intensely moving. Balbo writes often about being raised by his birth mother’s sister, whose story he didn’t learn until his teens. Here he tells of a sister born fifteen months earlier who was raised by their grandmother as a daughter, then later worked in her father’s business–as his “sister.” “There’s just so much/ to carry and keep hidden,” Balbo writes in her voice, “…knowing he exists/ makes me feel more alone…”

I don’t mean to make it sound, though, as if The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is all about ill-omen and the failure to connect. Loss often frames, and makes more meaningful, romantic closeness rescued from ruins, and Ned’s compassionate imagination illuminates the book. You’ll also see from his answers below that he loves cats, music, and a nice Montepulciano.

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

It depends on the poem. For “In Baltimore, 2004,” which takes place in an apartment above Baltimore’s best-known Indian restaurant, I suggest something from their menu for your meal with a friend: Kashmiri naan, two entrées  (chicken korma, for carnivores; benghan bhartha for vegetarians), and rasmalai for dessert (sneak it in from a different Indian restaurant that serves it). And wine—definitely wine. Maybe a Montepulciano.

For “Social Drinking of a Solitary Couple,” one stanza of which is about a long-ago Long Island New Year’s Eve: tall whiskey sours with maraschino cherries (the cherries are a must).

For “Rondeau: ‘Meaningless Sex,’” gin and tonics (or gins and tonic, for you grammar buffs): sipping a few with the right person is what the poem’s about, after all.

Finally, “For the Garden’s Architect,” which takes place partly in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and partly in its aftermath (i.e., Hell), anything and everything you can gobble or guzzle. You’ll be ending up in Hell anyway, so carpe diem, as the poets say.

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?

Fortunately, yes, I’m writing, though the ripple effects of our universal lockdown and general chaos are having their influence. My new poems are marked by plague masks, wild animals running around the spaces we’ve abandoned, corvids of bleak omen (“corvid” is only one letter away from you-know-what), and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine’s 2019 exhibition, “The Value of Sanctuary”—a theme that was more prescient than anyone could have imagined.

As to how I am really, it depends on the day and the time of day. But I’m finding refuge in music, as usual: these days, Roger and Brian Eno’s collaborative ambient album Mixing Colours, Andrew Bird’s Echolocations: River, and Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium, a collaboration with James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and The National’s Bryce Dessner.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website’s collection of on-line links is good for convenient one-stop browsing and is more inclusive than my inexcusably dormant Facebook author’s page. There are also two readings that might pass the time for friends sheltering in place: one that Jane and I gave just about a year ago at the Cross Cultural Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn [poet and essayist Jane Satterfield is Balbo’s partner], and one from a month earlier at the Newburyport Literary Festival where I was paired with the always magnificent January Gill O’Neill.

And since The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is partly a book about family, you can learn more about mine (and meet Wyatt, our trusty polydactyl guardian) at Eileen Tabios’ Poets on Adoption blog.

Virtual Salon #11 with Martha Silano

Dear Mr. Wordsworth,

It turns out there is no tranquility.

When you read any of Martha Silano’s books, all of them fizzing with brio and invention and awe, you want to start a salon just so you can invite her. As Diane Seuss says about Gravity Assist, Silano’s fifth poetry collection is “popping with kinetic energy.” The physics references are sometimes metaphors for rising and falling in mood and body, but they’re not just metaphors: Silano’s worldview is scientific, balancing skepticism with infectious curiosity (am I allowed to use “infectious” as a happy adjective right now?–never mind, I’m sure Martha would tell me to go for broke). I read this book shortly after its 2019 publication then again this week, right after teaching Whitman, and this time I was especially moved by all of Silano’s Whitmanian reaching after connection through study, epistle, and even psychedelic mysticism (“prayer/ is like a bread line, a penny for your/ exploded mind”). There anger and grief here, too, especially about human destruction of the more-than-human world, but this restless, brainy poet often responds to crisis with praise of what continues to amaze. No one can solve all of life’s multitudinous inexplicabilities, but Silano’s asymptotic approaches are always wonderful to observe.

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

First, we would sit down to a plate of antipasti: Genoa salami, calabrese, provolone, garlic-stuffed olives, roasted red bell peppers, Italian bread. For the main course: puttanesca served over linguini, paired with a mixed-green salad with vinaigrette. For dessert: fresh peaches, fresh cream, and squares of dark chocolate. Oh, and plenty of Chianti.

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’m doing better than I would have imagined. At first I was too anxious to write, but once I began drafting a poem a day things got better. I also attribute my wellbeing to going running at a nearby wooded park. Thankfully, my kids pretty much take care of themselves, and I teach online for a living. The California poppies are blooming here in Seattle. If they can be bright and cheery, so can I.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website is marthasilano.net.

Q&A,Tethered Letters: https://tetheredbyletters.com/author-qa-martha-silano/

I have new work up at:

Women’s Voices for Change https://womensvoicesforchange.org/martha-silano-when-i-begin-to-dig.htm

Barren https://barrenmagazine.com/i-bring-you-the-uncertain-music/

dialogist https://dialogist.org/poetry/2020-week-19-martha-silano

The Los Angeles Review http://losangelesreview.org/dear-diary-martha-silano/

Rust + Moth https://rustandmoth.com/work/when-i-realized-everything-had-been-said/

SWWIM https://www.swwim.org/blog/2019/11/15/jean-and-joan-and-a-who-knows-who

The Shore https://www.theshorepoetry.org/martha-silano-pain-is-the-foundation

Thrush   http://www.thrushpoetryjournal.com/january-2019-martha-silano.html

Waxwing http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue17/28_Silano-Instead-of-a-father.php

Reviews of Gravity Assist are up at:

The Rumpus  https://therumpus.net/2020/04/barbara-bermans-national-poetry-month-shout-out/

DMQ Review https://www.dmqreview.com/micro-reviews

The Adroit Journal  https://theadroitjournal.org/2020/02/05/measuring-the-future-a-review-of-martha-silanos-gravity-assist/

My books are available at

Independent Publishing Group (IPG) https://www.ipgbook.com/silano–martha-contributor-487072.php

Steel Toe Books https://steeltoebooks.com/books/3-books/books/57-blue-positive-by-martha-silano-sp-1358827673

Two Sylvias Press http://twosylviaspress.com/martha-silano.html

Rainbows, snakes, and book launches

Among my latest thrills: nearly stepping on a hissing snake; a double rainbow over an empty Main Street; a frisbee arriving by mail; and, oh yeah, publishing my first novel. On launch day for Unbecoming, I was shut in my house responding to student project proposals; my March launch for The State She’s In came at an even more stressful time. Honestly, though, I’ve fumbled through a bunch of book launches now and, pandemic or not, they’re more work than fun–I like giving readings but otherwise the chore list is mighty long. What is fun: finishing a draft that feels right; opening an acceptance or a nice note from a friend or stranger; and, at least on the good days, writing itself. I’m very lucky to be starting a sabbatical this summer, and I hope it will create enough headspace for finding flow again. Any genre, O muse–I’ll be ready for you in a hot sec!

The books and surprising curvy apparitions overshadowed news that would have made me ecstatic on another weekend. I’ve never been to the Sewanee Writers Conference before and I’d been hearing good things about the new director, so I applied in poetry just before it became clear we’d all be sheltering in place for a long while. They’ve postponed till 2021, but I was accepted with a scholarship. It’s such a relief to know I WILL be talking poetry with people in person next year, and that I’ll still have ways to nudge these books into the eyelines of potential readers. Social media helps socially-distanced writers, but it tends to look deserted in July/ August–not a good time for promoting much beyond sunblock.

Which brings me to the big thanks I owe so many good people for how they’ve cheered me on, over various platforms. I’m awed by how kindly authors, editors, and friends are helping each other make the best of a hard time. I’m sending out gratitude, too, to the organizers of two May 2020 conferences that are going virtual. The readings I recorded for both of them go live this week.

The Bridgewater International Poetry Festival will, this Wednesday through Friday, release short recorded readings (under 5 minutes each) by Richard Blanco, Seth Michelson, Lauren Camp, Hedy Habra, Gerry LaFemina, and many other wonderful poets. They’re released on YouTube each day at noon and mine, from The State She’s In, will go up Friday.

The WisCon feminist science fiction & fantasy conference is always held Memorial Day weekend, and this year they’re calling it WisCONline. You have to register for it by May 20th, but the fees are moderate and tiered for financial ability, right down to $0. I’m looking forward to tuning in for a lot of exciting readings, especially from Guest of Honor Rebecca Roanhorse. The schedule is here. I’m in the “Dangerous Women” slot on Saturday 1:00-1:45 Central Time. This will be my first reading from the published novel (although I read a not-final-version excerpt at the Outer Weird symposium in 2019). I’d ask you to wish me luck, but I’m caught in a Zoom-recorded time loop on this one, so wish me a broken leg last week, or something like that?

Becoming Unbecoming

My debut novel launches this Friday, May 15th, 2020. Here’s the story of how the book came to be.

I was in my late forties in 2015, sending my oldest child off to college and feeling glum about the next phase of my life. Hormonal shifts were not helping. On a walk with my spouse, I said something like, It’s not fair that mutant superpowers always come at puberty. Menopause is basically puberty in reverse–I want my superpowers now. He said, That would be a good premise for a novel.

A poet, scholar, and teacher, I thought I’d passed the forking path to novel-writing a long ways back. Chris is a cheerleader, though, and–this is crucial–author of a couple of published novels and many short stories, so he’s a great person to talk to about small, vague story ideas. I’d been fantasizing about another tale I never expected to write: a changeling professor, Dr. Perfect Poet, visits on a faculty exchange program and makes literary triumph look like a breeze. I’d drafted a bad poem about her, in a fit of frustration about my own messy life. (The closest thing I had to a superpower was yelling, Flame on! during a hot flash). As we walked and talked, I realized these two plots could interlock. Chris and I started spinning it out–who this main character might be, with her irritating and uncanny new colleague, and how she might react when weird things started happening.

Even when possible structures appeared in the air, I wasn’t sure I had the will or the stamina to put them on paper. I wrote fiction as a teenager but it always stalled. I’ve never taken a fiction writing class, either, although I’ve been an obsessive novel-reader since childhood. But I was on sabbatical 2015-2016, so I thought maybe I would try to write a short, mediocre novel, told chronologically in a single voice–no pressure, no big ambitions, although I wanted it to be fun to spend time with. Complexity with humor, possibly even hope, plus a world that draws you in quickly and won’t let you go: that’s my sweet spot as a reader. That’s one reason poetry is important to me, by the way. The world can be unrelentingly awful, and I’m ready to stare down that badness in short forms, especially when they deliver the consolations of patterned sound, but you have to live in a novel for days. I need novels to be better than life, or at least absorbingly different.

That fall, my mother came down with a mysterious but devastating illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma. My concentration and schedule were broken into fragments. When, stabilized, she moved back into her home (in Pennsylvania, a six-hour car ride from here) and entered a steady chemo regime, I had time again, but still couldn’t seem to finish the book of essays I was supposed to wrap up. A scene came to me in the shower. I dried off and wrote it down. I finished a chapter. I kept going. For weeks, sentences arrived in my head and I typed them in. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and by late January, I had that short, mediocre draft.

The rest of this origin story is less fun, and not just because it coincides with Trump’s election and presidency (some of my characters saw that coming, by the way, but at least in my conscious mind, I did not). I learned that my draft was considerably more mediocre than I realized and had to put the ms through numerous painful overhauls, fixing everything from clumsy prose and plotting to tricky problems of character I’d been refusing to confront. I queried agents prematurely, earning some requests to see the full ms but never an offer. I revised more, with help from many readers, and eventually received a “revise and resubmit” letter from Aqueduct Press, which specializes in feminist sf. Further excruciating revisions ensued, plenty of them at a rapid pace last fall, as I was teaching full-time and delivering my youngest to college. And here it is. Good early reviews make me hope it’s a decent book now, not god’s gift to literature but engaging and sometimes funny (in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe, whose sf criticism I admire, even said parts were hilarious and evoked the campus novels of David Lodge–whoa). I presume I have plenty of ego blows ahead, but I’m glad I took the risk and followed the spark of impulse.

I’m on sabbatical next year and I have another novel idea, a project that again emerges from a twilight zone between realism and fantasy. I’m not at all sure the drafting process will feel magical again, with characters whispering lines to me. It won’t be a campus novel this time, either, which means much more research. I’ll also work with multiple perspectives–getting more ambitious, basically. It still feels like playing hooky from poetry, knowing I’ll come back to my home genre freshly, having learned a few things.

Virtual Salon #10 with Ruth Dickey

I mark up most of my poetry books–prepare to be shocked–IN PEN. I probably started in grad school, before sticky notes came in all those colors and sizes, and inked notes are more legible when you return to a text to teach or write about it. I recently went back to an old edition of Dickinson’s poems, for example, as I prepare to lead discussions from a newer and better book, Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, and I’m so relieved to see all the glosses and discussion questions I’d inscribed there.

One of the first phrases I underlined in Ruth Dickey’s debut collection, Mud Blooms, occurs on page 5 in “Four-twenty-one,” a poem about a beloved calf Dickey’s parents wouldn’t let her name. It’s the last line: “my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.” The first poem, “Somoto, Nicaragua, #3,” tells you Mud Blooms will be about hunger, but by page 5 you see the book also concerns a longing for connection with the human and more-than-human world, past all the barriers thrown up by difference. Dickey expresses humility about these efforts, especially in her deeply moving poems about working at Miriam’s Kitchen in DC. She orders apples people can’t eat before she knows that “almost everyone who is homeless has dental problems”; “my stupidity galls me,” she adds in an intermittent, abecedarian prose poem sequence called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen.” Sometimes, too, Dickey doubts the worth of her own efforts, because homelessness and hunger are such huge, seemingly intractable problems. There’s so much loss and suffering here, but what impresses you most about the book is its big-heartedness and radical openness. I love this collection and the spirit that shines through it.

I’ve only met Ruth in person once or twice, as I exited and she entered intense work on the AWP Board, but I can also tell from her answers below that she’s a skilled party host, perhaps through her current service as Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. I’m so glad to introduce you to Ruth and her work, in the 10th gathering of this pandemic-inspired virtual salon!

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

The beloved foods that appear in the book – fresh apple cake, strong coffee, and sandwiches (both peanut butter and pimento cheese) – feel not totally sufficient for a celebration. So there would definitely be rosé, and I’d also order us foods I love from places in the poems – gallo pinto with plantains and fresh tortillas, toast with honey and sea salt from Sea Level Bakery in Cannon Beach, and dosas with extra spicy mango pickle from the woman who used to have a shop on R Street NW just off Connecticut Avenue in DC. And as a finale, thick slices of southern layer cakes from Maxie B’s in Greensboro, NC.

  1. 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?

These days I’m stunned and scared and outraged and grateful in equal measures. I’ve been journaling and writing poems that are largely terrible, but it feels helpful to have that space where I’m trying to metabolize and make sense of the world, even if I’m doing it incredibly poorly.  

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

More about my book and some poems are on my website – www.ruthdickey.com– and I am frequently posting about books I love and my dog on Instagram at @ruthdickey206. If you are interested in Mud Blooms, you can order a copy at https://bookshop.org/books/mud-blooms/9780988275577– thanks so much for reading!

Hope, ambition, and other tricky green things

“Let him who is without my poems get assassinated!” Walt Whitman wrote, when the self-published 1855 Leaves of Grass didn’t make much of a splash, despite the three glowing reviews Whitman himself wrote and published anonymously. I’m reading him for a 4-week, all-remote Whitman and Dickinson seminar I’m teaching right now, and bonus: it helps to know that even a famously self-celebratory poet had bad days. Next up: discussion posts plus selfies of students reading “Song of Myself” on the grass or at least next to something green. After that sprawling long poem, I’ll have the pleasure of talking with them about a great cryptic recluse poet, who seems pretty well-suited to this moment. I’m both having fun with the class and anxious about it. It’s really hard to read social cues over Zoom as I usually depend on doing in person, and I suspect some of them are nervous about the queer theory part of the course, which also counts for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. My mantra is that I’m doing my best, and so are they, and we’re lucky to have this interlude of fun reading in a spring that continues to be shaded by sad and worrisome news.

It’s hard to say yet whether April was the worst month for the pandemic in the US, but I’m still glad it’s over! I tried to kick the poetry-writing part of my brain into gear, attempting to write a poem a day and share drafts with a small group of friends. What I wrote was neither great nor daily, but it felt like a productive practice and a way to feel connected across distances. I also devoted time and energy to getting word out about The State She’s In, although time and energy both seemed to be in short supply. (It’s a book about gender and ambition, among other subjects, which is another reason why I’m finding Whitman interesting to reread.) Maybe I’ve set myself up better for May. April’s unpredictability was getting me down so I organized my May class better: M/W for online discussion forums, T/Th for Zoom discussions, and Fridays and weekends, I hope, for poetry revisions, submissions, and publicity.

Any of you poets trying to submit work have probably noticed, too, the rush of editor verdicts lately. I’ve had some acceptances and some rejections (without wanting to assassinate anybody). It probably helps me stay philosophical that another April task was to reject some damn fine poems submitted to Shenandoah (650 subs for 12-15 spots). There was much hair-tearing and teeth-gnashing on my part, truly, so I now mostly see people who reject me not as nepotistic demon kings but as other stressed-out people making hard calls. Spring journal issues are also busting out all over. Thanks to About Place for including my poem “We Could Be” in their “Practices of Hope” issue, which is full of good writing and very well-timed. I’m grateful also to the print journal Cave Wall where the last two poems from The State She’s In were just published: “Invocation” and “No Here Here”–which are also poems of hope, or at least I aspired for them to be, because that’s what I’ve needed most in the past few years and I’ve been guessing others crave the same. Not to deny the bad days–it helps, as I said, to have company in them–but to imagine them gusting through me and not sticking.

More Virtual Salons are coming soon, but in the meantime, consider checking out the ROCKED BY THE WATERS: Poems of Motherhood anthology Facebook Live launch reading, hosted by the English Dept. at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, MN, May 7, Thursday, 7-8 PM, CST. Reading with me will be Kris Bigalk, Teri Cross Davis, Camille Dungy, Rebecca Foust, Hedy Sabbagh Habra, Athena Kildegaard, and others (note that’s 8 pm for friends on the east coast of the US). This book is also well-timed! It’s a wonderful collection, full of literary luminaries and just plain luminous poems speaking to many experiences of mothering and being mothered, the losses as well as love. No matter what you’re able to read, write, or do these days, I hope you’re well and enjoying sparks of optimism once in a while.

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!

Murray Robertson (photography & poems)

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