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. 

Heard at AWP 2018

The meaning of life: I don’t know and I don’t care. Bells don’t ask questions…When you’re old you have fewer questions about the nitty-gritty of poems. There are bigger fish to fry. Dying fish.               -Mary Ruefle in “Hell’s Bells,” a talk on tone

You cannot trust the sea.           -Ishion Hutchinson, plenary reading

On the days after the election, I had nothing to say, nothing to write.    -Virgil Suárez, plenary reading

Was was what we were.         -Diane Seuss, panel on persona poetry

African-American writers and other writers of the African diaspora–we don’t feel the sovereignty to write in the personal I, much of the time.   –Vievee Francis, panel on persona poetry

As soon as I put the I on the page I am abstracting myself. I can never be on the page…even the notion we can pin down a dialect seems kind of offensive to me.                   -Gregory Pardlo, panel on persona poetry

Forgive me, but you have such amazingly thick hair! Sorry, that was inappropriate.            -very nice editor (with thinning hair) to me, in the bookfair, when I bent down to pull out a business card

Above are some high points from a conference filled with literary geniuses. I can also give you the most awesome Q&A reply ever, useful for all kinds of occasions, courtesy of Mary Ruefle: “That is such a beautiful question I won’t spoil it with an answer.” You’re welcome.

There were low points, too, involving aching feet and feeling cosmically inconsequential, despite my super-elite board-member chartreuse lanyard (preserved in the picture below, since next year I’ll wear civilian colors again). I always find AWP exhausting but paradoxically nourishing, too, both because of literary riches and the presence of friends I rarely see. I was moved especially this year by how many women, old friends and strangers, touched my arm and said kind words, in low voices, about my Claudia Emerson essay, “Women Stay Put.” Sometimes you ring a bell and the sound seems to vanish; other times it resonates back to you. I’m so grateful when the tone returns.

I’ll be working to keep the good vibrations going as I fly back to Virginia today. To echo Diane Seuss and Ann E. Michael: is is what I’ll endeavor to be.

 

 

Distraction and vegetables

I have been misbehaving again. Instead of finishing  a draft of my critical book this month–it’s close to done–I seem to have shelved it temporarily in favor of writing fiction, a genre I haven’t done much with since college. Ten thousand words last week alone, so the project is thundering along, and I’m having SO much fun. I guess that’s good?–it fits my rule of productive procrastination, anyway. If I can’t work on what I’m supposed to, I just work on something, and things seem to get done on the end. Plus, experiments are generally worth making; even if the project withers, you learn by the attempt.

In the meantime, Radioland was just accepted to the Virginia Festival of the Book–it looks like I’ll read there on Thursday March 17th, but I’ll add the details (and some other upcoming things) to my events page when they’re confirmed. And I am THRILLED to see the first two reviews available online:

Both reviews are insightful and generous, but it’s interesting to reflect on their differences. Writing for a NZ magazine, Cresswell stresses the book’s Aotearoan content, but also the theme of dislocation. I see that place has become a big subject for me, but often in a perverse way, as I write about imaginary, damaged, or vanished locations, so I’m gratified to read her thoughts on the subject. Michaels, on the other hand, cocks her very good ear to themes of distance and intimacy, especially as they arise in parent-child relationships. Since I started writing about voice and medium in my scholarship a decade ago, I’ve been obsessed with them. Communication was the original organizing theme of the collection–although poems do take on a will of their own after a while. A poetry book is a broadcast that too often goes just one way, out into an unresponding world amid a blizzard of other signals. It’s wonderful when listeners out there in radioland actually beam their responses back!

I’ll be doing the same soon. Sometime around the turn of the year I’ll put up some thoughts about 2015 reading. I’ve taken on way too many commitments lately in wild sabbaticalesque enthusiasm–I’ll have various columns and reviews to cross-post in coming months–but I do think there’s a kind of writerly karma involved in buying, reading, and talking about books that move or help or entertain you, just as you hope others will do for you.

However, I also need to dial down the static enough to enjoy my family and the holidays. I haven’t been exactly centered, oscillating between light and dark moods as I am between writing projects. I’m tuning in to political outrage, too, and then overcompensating by shutting out most media for days, horrified by the headlines, afraid if I open my own mouth I’ll just start yelling. This can be a weird, hard time of year and I send good vibes out to the many, many folks having a rougher time than I am.

So, lest I give publicity to the forces that just enrage me, I’ll just say: merry cauliflower to you, beets on earth, and I hope you get some time with a good book soon.

cauli

Writing process blog tour plus AWP detox

Maybe, like me, you’re recovering from the AWP and thinking about focusing on writing again, rather than publishing, networking, and collecting bookfair swag. An annual post-AWP occasion for hard work is April, National Poetry Month in the U.S., when some disciplined souls adopt a poem-a-day regimen. I tried it first in 2012 and shocked myself by producing spring floods of poems, many of them keepers; I tried it again in 2013 and found my brain much more resistant, even though I spent part of the time at an artist’s colony—I was just in a headspace for revision, I think, not generation. This time I may use April to work on a long poem, one segment per day. If a big project is on your mind, you might like to follow some of the links below and consider various writers’ perspectives on process.

Thanks to Jeannine Hall Gailey for tapping me for this blog tour. Jeannine, a superheroic poet if there ever was one, recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington and is the author of three books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers. She has been featured in The Year’s Best Horror and Verse Daily, and her work has appeared in journals like The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. I met her non-virtual self for the first time at the AWP and the evening was a delight—she’s as warm, funny, and open as her poems, and I would have loved to spend more time with her talking about the writing life. One day…

Here are her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

1)     What am I working on?

I have a new poetry ms, Radioland, under submission. Who knows if the title will survive the process, but like the one-word titles of my first two full-length collections, Heathen and Heterotopia, “radioland” gestures at an imaginary place. In this case it’s not the wild heath where the unchurched live, or the other-place of my mother’s childhood Liverpool, but the sustaining idea of a communal audience, their heads bent towards receivers in dimly lit rooms across a wide broadcast range. Some of the poems were written during a Fulbright in New Zealand, where I felt decidedly distanced from U.S. feedback circuits—and impressed with the reasonable size of the NZ poetry world, its possible comprehensibility. U.S. publishing feels so vast by comparison—so big that outside of little coteries, no one can possess a sense of common enterprise (the AWP convention certainly dramatizes this). Radioland connects to those preoccupations, but the word’s antiqueness also suggests my father’s life, a recurrent subject in the collection. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925 and died in Philadelphia in 2012, and communication channels were never clear between us. Radioland is where he lives now, in the afterlife of memory and uncanny dreams.

My prose project, one-third drafted, is Taking Poetry Personally, described here.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Like many writers, I’m trying to produce the kind of stuff, in poetry and prose, that I’d like to read but can’t find enough of. In poetry, I crave transport to vivid alternate worlds—sometimes speculative, sometimes just faintly strange. I want the stakes to be high, each poem conveying the author’s urgency. I admire formal intelligence, whether that means deploying received forms or not, and a sense that deep reading is hovering unobtrusively behind the words. I also like kindness and humor in poems, as I do in people. Are my poems all that? I don’t know, honestly. I just know what I’m trying for and probably attaining only sometimes, in fragments.

Taking Poetry Personally is definitely a beast with an unusual number of heads: criticism, memoir, storytelling, theory, anthology. Here I’m trying to restore or reveal the stakes behind the strange behaviors of scholars: why is reading and teaching poetry so important to me?

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Poetry: can’t help it. Criticism: missionary zeal. All of it: to learn about poetry, other people, and myself by following wherever language leads.

4)     How does your writing process work?

When I’m writing critical prose I’m a prima donna: I carve out big blocks of time, write for hours a day, and guard my attention jealously. I find it difficult to carry all those threads around in my head. Putting together a poetry collection is like that, too: I need to think hard in a sustained way.

I write and revise shorter pieces—poems and blog posts—with desperation, whenever the impulse and a half-hour coincide. Any time of day is fine, but I’m generally not a coffee-shop writer; I prefer to close the door on any possibility of interaction. Sometimes, though, I’ll take what I can get. I’ve drafted a lot of lines during quiet patches in my office hours, some in cafes and on planes, and a few on scraps of paper while leaning on my son’s toybox. The associative thinking of poems and blogs, rather than the linear arguments of essays, is just more congenial, easier. I also need to write poems, which changes the game. If I needed to do scholarly writing, I suspect nothing would stop me squeezing time in at every opportunity.

Next week, look for further entries in the Writing Process Blog Tour by the two bloggers I’ve tagged. I don’t know either personally but I like the literary intelligence, a sort of questing quality, I see in their posts.

Ann E. Michael’s most recent collection, Water-Rites, was published by Brick Road Poetry Press in 2012. A poet, essayist, educator, librettist, and occasional radio commentator, she lives in eastern Pennsylvania where she is writing coordinator at DeSales University. Her blog at www.annemichael.wordpress.com  reflects her multidisciplinary approach to literature, art, science, and philosophy.

Joseph Harker is a twentysomething linguist-poet lately of New York City, where you can find him riding the subways to and fro devouring the works of Kay Ryan (this week). He is a textbook Libra in just about every way. His work has appeared in web/print journals such as Assaracus, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Hobble Creek Review, and qarrtsiluni, but are equally likely to find him at his blog, http://namingconstellations.wordpress.com. Please wipe your feet.