interview w/ scaachi koul

Rumpus: There are more events to be had, in Canada and abroad, but what are some lessons that you’ve learned while touring for this book?

Koul:

1) Teach people how to say your first and last names before they go up to a microphone.
2) Sit up straight at live events.
3) One glass of wine is not enough, three is too many, but weirdly enough, five is perfect.

the one & only! full Q&A over at the rumpus

review: STOMACHS by luna miguel (tr. luis silva)

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 7.14.17

Let’s romanticize purple. Let’s use it when something is so maudlin that it becomes gaudy, to describe a thing that contains copious amounts of weltschmerz. Let’s have this consensus: purple is not the way you (should) want your work to be described. But there are times for sadness and severity and all things bleak, and what do we do then?

Luna Miguel might not have solutions but Stomachs reminds us that melancholy is not always destructive. Translated from the Spanish by Luis Silva and published by Sacramento indie Scrambler Books, Stomachs is Miguel’s first poetry collection available in English. While some covers mean to obfuscate, the design here is blunt—even belligerent, gnarly and grotesque. In a reproduction reminiscent of old-fashioned film, the same image is produced over and over: a naked woman splitting herself open at the abdomen, blood stains trekking toward her navel. It announces that this collection is not for readers seeking cute haikus about cats, or the heartbreak that would rather focus on coffee mugs left in kitchen sinks. This is the ugly kind.

full review here

review: AN ARRANGEMENT OF SKIN by anna journey

Sometimes being a poet means something inside you snaps, but not like a balloon too close to the ceiling. It bends and begs and burrows, and you, flailing like a sad firefly, break all the things you’re not supposed to break, trying to find it. You start with the things that keep you sane, and move outward, until the most feral version of yourself is alone on the phone with a stranger.

You call a stranger because of the shame, or because other lines have been cut. You’ve cut them, with the breaking. Except the phone call isn’t really about the things you’ve done—it’s not about the recitation. It’s asking someone, anyone, if you can still exist apart from your mistakes. Can you see me? Can you hear me?

For Anna Journey, it starts at the University of Houston, during the last year of her PhD program.

full review here

review: TELL ME HOW IT ENDS by valeria luiselli

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3/9/17

Here’s a challenge: tell me a story, without knowing the beginning, middle, or the end. Now, tell it in your second language, or one where the handful of words you know transforms you back into a child. No, let’s say you are a child. Let’s say this conversation will be recorded, and what you say—and how you say it—will determine where you are allowed to live. Let’s say you came alone.

This situation happens every day at the immigration courts in New York City, where novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli volunteers as an interpreter. In her expanded essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Luiselli outlines the intake form for undocumented minors. The procedure, on paper, is simple: Luiselli presents the questions, the children speak, and Luiselli transcribes their answers in English for the lawyers who will fight to secure their legal status.

full review here | order thru coffee house press here

review: IN FULL VELVET by jenny johnson

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 2/3/17 

The trope with invoking the muses is that it is always a request. Whether it is pleading or demanding, pedantic or indignant, the epic tale is something owed. For her debut collection In Full Velvet, poet Jenny Johnson’s address begins with “Thank you,” and it is radical, as if a muse might peer over the edge of her throne and say, “My, those are words I have not heard for some time.”

“Dappled Things” spans eight pages, each with two stanzas. In a meditation too specific to be anything but genuine, Johnson names gratitude for everything that is “still somehow / counter, original, spare, and strange,” like “the alien markings on my girlfriend’s cheek and how / they form a perfect triangle.” She comments on the weirdness of “[generating] a realm / where we can always see, never see” and the optimism that remains relentless despite all: “Where’s Hope? Hope’s a weed, obscene / on my head, springing white hairs.”

When Johnson does ask for something, it is from herself, rather than the universe. With “Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” she employs the oddities of nature to remind her that she is here now, sentient and present:

Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening

Each image has a sense tied to it, perhaps with the hope that conjuring these things can remind what a privilege it is to witness them.

The title poem, as the cover implies, explores the vascular skin that grows on deer antlers during their development. Here, again, is a fascination with the body: “Gut a body and we’re nothing left but pipes whistling in the breeze.” Johnson describes watching a scientist severing the wing of a cassowary (“Because it made me want to turn away”) and quotes a taxidermist giving instructions about deer:

Now we’re going to put a puncture in the tip.
So, we’re not just hitting the one vein.

That’s what we want to see.

It is gruesome but Johnson is reaching for something, trying to understand the oddity of being alive. “Love, we are more than utility, I think,” she writes, and it is both a declaration and a question. “I know my body’s here,” she writes, “when the turkey vulture comes out of the thicket, wings spread wide, smelling all of it.”

However, it would be wrong to categorize this book as a collection of “nature poems,” as it were. “The Bus Ride” is Johnson’s joy of looking at her girlfriend as the light comes through the window, making her glow. “In The Dream” is the transcription of a nightmare that begins with her “alone in a dyke bar.”

In “Souvenirs,” the last stanza is about an ex-girlfriend calling years after a bad breakup. Now living a thousand miles apart, the ex-girlfriend asks Johnson’s permission to build a model of her new home. The ex-girlfriend is a sculptor and wants to use sugar cubes but does not know the measurements. Johnson does the work with grace:

I cannot explain my consent
that evening, alone, at home,
the yellow tape unspooling, I measured closet widths,
calculated the feet between hedges—
I wanted her to craft it perfectly to scale.

If In Full Velvet is a map of Johnson’s mind and memory, it is one worth saving. Johnson is precise with herself, patient with others. These poems celebrate the feeling of spinning in tight circles until all that is left the spiral, rushing from the inside out.

interview w/ sharon olds

This article was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 11/8/16

It’s hard to intimidate me. But give the universe a dare, and it will call your bluff. This past week, I drove Andrés Neuman to the airport and spoke on the phone with Sharon Olds. Can anxiety be measured? In my car, the memory of Neuman digging in his fanny pack for his glasses to help with directions; at the bookstore, hiding behind a case pack of alkaline water in the back office while the line connects Texas to New York.

If there is a living poet canon, Olds has always been on that list for me. Not because she herself demands it, but because the people who read her talk about her work the way I babble about The Swell Season.

Earlier this year, I made a pact with WHISPER HOLLOW author Chris Cander: I would read STAG’S LEAP if she would read MY FEELINGS by Nick Flynn. (We were sold out of SOME ETHER at the time.) Before this, the only poem I’d ever read by Olds was “Crazy,” as part of a poetry anthology assigned in my freshman year poetry workshop.

I read STAG’S LEAP in one night and cried for hours. Months later, when the phone interview with Olds was finalized, I imagined it would be like my fantasy of seeing Amy Hempel read in person. I would stand there in silence then leave afterward without meeting her because I would have nothing good to say. Alas—walking away is more difficult on the telephone.

When she answers, Olds says, “Hello, this is Sharon Olds,” and she is so chipper that all I can do is laugh. “How are you?” she says, and I confess I’m nervous. I’m nervous, and I can’t even see her. Then it’s her turn to laugh at me, and what she says is “Oh, you should see me. I’m sitting here in ten year old pajamas, full of holes.” She says, “I’m just a person, like you,” and I don’t know how to tell her that is exactly the thing that scares me, not her CV. It’s that she is a person I could meet at the grocery store, and not have any idea the talent she contains.

###

For those who don’t know, STAG’S LEAP illustrates the death of a thirty year marriage. Olds shows the marriage and the undoing, from talking about his affair to him telling her that he has since married his (now former) mistress. Olds does not pretend, at any point, even in the epilogue when she sees her ex-husband and he tells her the news and she does not hate him. They agree that it was not the other woman but a slow split at the root, a slow tear until a back broke.

Still, I don’t think I could write another book after that—at least not one that I would want to publish. What else is there to say, after? Olds, though, says that by the time STAG’S LEAP had been published, “half the poems or three quarters of the poems in ODES had already been written.”

ODES, published in September this year (four years after STAG’S LEAP), is just that, odes on everything from her sister to her whiteness, from tampons to the penis. In other words, the opposite of STAG’S LEAP, but is it a joke?

“The way it works for me, which is not the way it works for every poet, is that I don’t write books,” Olds says, “I write poems.” She writes them all in “a grocery store notebook” with a ballpoint pen, wide lines. She writes them all out, one at a time, by hand because ink is “not percussive like hitting piano keys, like typing is,” and “my thumbs are too big to dance on that little screen, on my phone.”

After five years, give or take, she goes through the “collection” she’s created, to see if it is enough or if any threads emerge. During the writing process, she might type some of them up, but not all of them, and even that step is more of a thinking-through. The transition from page to screen is not just transcription, but an editing process.

“Once I type it up, I change it for the better, I hope,” she says. In the case of STAG’S LEAP, she “tried to rewrite each one to get it right.” When arranged in chronological order of events, the poems told a story, and that story became the book.

“I write poems,” she says. “That’s what I do.”

###

We talk for a minute about her teaching, but after that, she wants to know if there’s anything else I’d like to ask about, any subject. And it’s hard because I do have one question, but it’s not one I think is smart or even fair to ask. It’s a question I have for her not as a faux journalist or fellow poet but as a human being. Olds waves her hand at me with her voice and says that I am free to ask her anything; it’s her choice whether or not she would like to answer.

Again, I did not think that this moment would ever materialize so when it does, the words come out like a postcard she might receive from an elementary school student: “Are you still sad?” She pauses for a moment, intrigued that I think of STAG’S LEAP as a sad book, then offers this: “It seems to me that each of us in a lifetime has some real mourning to do.”

Already, she goes on to say, “Children have things to mourn!” but I am so moved by her first answer, this idea that grief is not a punishment but a task that each of us completes, a thing that no one escapes. Somehow, it makes it smaller and larger, at the same time. “Citizens of this country are in a time of fear and mourning,” she says, “and fear of future mourning.”

If STAG’S LEAP has a thesis, it is this: “Sadness and anger are just as important as joy and happiness.” When she says it, it’s so simple, and not a concept that I think anyone would dispute, but Olds wrote it out regardless, in a book that is not meek, maudlin, or morose. It captures a time, this ugly awful time, and paints it as just that: layered. It says, “You are allowed,” the way that Olds says to me now despite the distance between us, in years and miles.

For ODES, Olds says, “There isn’t a test. There isn’t a correct amount of humor to respond to.” Instead, “it’s meant to be a gift.” Not a free one, of course—“that’s how I can afford to pay my rent,” she says—but “what I care about is that you have whatever experience is right for you about the book. We want each other to get whatever each of us can get out of what we give each other in a work of art.”

I was promised fifteen minutes with Olds but she gave me twenty. Before I had even dialed the number, I knew that her other callers slated for her afternoon may well be The New Yorker or The Atlantic, somewhere—someone—more worthy. However, she uses our last minute to ask if there is one more, anything else that I would regret not saying if she were to hang up now, and that kindness and generosity is so pure that I can only say no and thank her for taking the time that she did. She says she is looking forward to meeting me, we say goodbye, and here come the tears.

interview w/ monica youn

This interview was originally posted at BrazosBookstore.com on 10/21/16

There are exceptions to everything but for the most part, living artists are the be all, end all for me. I like the connection and contradiction between a piece of art and the person behind it. The only type of surprise I savor: the one where somewhere in Houston, I am waiting to hear the speaking voice of a writer I don’t know.

The first time I try to call Monica Youn, she asks if we can reschedule. “I’m sort of having a baby crisis,” she says, and at the time, knowing nothing about Youn outside of BLACKACRE, the thing I think is that I am not a mother—meaning yes, of course. That world comes before this other one.

Three days later, I start by asking her to tell me about her book, which is maybe the only question I ask every person I interview. Since the title draws on legal jargon for a hypothetical estate—“Blackacre” is the equivalent to Jane or John Doe as applied to physical property—I suppose I had a mild expectation she would say something about that, or allude to her years as a lawyer.

She starts three times. “It’s not about one thing in particular,” she says. Then she offers the poet version: “Coming to terms with necessity and to what extent the imagination can transform what is given and to what extent the imagination has to come up against the limits of what is possible.”

There is a pause while I finish typing the last thing she says but she takes the moment as though I am standing there with a microphone, eyes big and face shiny. Here is the heart of it: “my own inexperience dealing with infertility and its aftermath, especially the shame that surrounds the concept of infertility.”

This is what it means to talk to a living poet about her work and hearing what it means to her. Because Youn, on paper, is elusive and dense and steeped in structures that I never studied in school. She is, to say it plain, too smart for me. There is no amount of time that I could have studied her meditations on Villon’s fabled hanged man, “Epiphyte,” and cycle of various -acres and found a baby at the bottom of it, unless she told me it was there.

The kaleidoscope of emotion is easier to speak about now that the baby is two, BLACKACRE is out, and she enjoys teaching at Princeton. But it was not always like this, and the book is a physical talisman that represents the five years her and her husband spent trying. “At the same time I was going through this issue with fertility, I was coming to the end of my legal career,” Youn says. “I was coming to an end of a lot of things in my life.”

It is one thing to choose not to produce children; the inability is the ultimate female failure—at least, according to certain stigmas. Youn and her husband, during this process, were “required to deal with a lot of side taboos in the States but also in Korea, where my family is from.” In the end, Youn and her husband decided to use a donor egg, and Youn tells me that the pregnancy itself was a positive experience.

The egg donor process, pregnancy, and writing happened in tandem. “I wanted to get all that darkness out of my system before I became a mother,” Youn says. The memory is still there, of course, and Youn acknowledges that. But better to focus on and try to understand or weave through that before needing to jump headlong into this other thing.

On the top of the questions I never ask is what the writer hopes readers will find in her book, but it seemed like a good question to ask Youn, given that the inspiration for the book and my experience of the book were so different. “You know, after readings, women come up to me and they tell me about their experiences with infertility and they’re always speaking in whispers,” Youn says. “They’re personally ashamed in a way that they wouldn’t be ashamed of another medical issue. And I think part of the reason I wrote this book, even though it was quite difficult to be this public about something this personal, is that I want to sort of start a conversation about that shame and what it’s about, and to try to dismantle it.”

Right away, I think of Lacy Johnson and her memoir THE OTHER SIDE and how it was published at a time when America was beginning to open up conversation about rape and sexual abuse. It went on to be a finalist for an Edgar Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. BLACKACRE has been longlisted for this year’s National Book Award for poetry, following her previous collection IGNATZ, which was an NBA finalist.

“Perhaps [BLACKACRE] would have been different if I wrote it at a different time during the process,” Youn says. “I wrote it when I knew there would be a happy ending.”