2015 Contest Judges: Natalie Diaz and Amber Sparks

Dear friends,

We’re delighted to announce the judges for this year’s poetry chapbook contest and our inaugural prose chapbook contest: Natalie Diaz and Amber Sparks. Contest submissions will be open from March 1 through May 15, 2015; you can view the contest guidelines here.

NDiazphotocredit_RobertoWestbrookPoetry Judge: Natalie Diaz
Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press. Her second book will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016. She is a 2012 Lannan Literary Fellow and a 2012 Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow. In 2104, she was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship, as well as the Holmes National Poetry Prize and a Hodder Fellowship, both from Princeton University, a Civatella Ranieri Foundation Residency, and a US Artists Ford Fellowship. Diaz teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Rez MFA program and lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she directs the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program, working with the last remaining speakers at Fort Mojave to teach and revitalize the Mojave language.

Amber Headshot B&WProse Judge: Amber Sparks
Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish) of the hybrid novella The Desert Places. Her second short story collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories, will be published by Liveright in 2016. You can follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle, or at ambernoellesparks.com.


An Interview with Melissa Studdard

Sarah Marcus: Cate Marvin wrote of your stunning debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press), “In so many ways the poems in this book read like paintings, touching and absorbing the light of the known world while fingering the soul until it lifts, trembling.” Which is exactly how these poems made me feel, but I also had the sense that the “known world” was also somehow secret. The poem “In Another Dimension, We Are Making Love” ends with: “Everything we need to remember/ can fit on a scrap of paper/ smaller than your hand.” Which feels so impossible and so true! Can you tell us about this collection and your process of poem-painting?

Melissa Studdard: Of course you’re right—it’s impossible but true. What’s known touches the boundaries of secrecy, and what’s secret is also subconsciously known. That paradox, that interplay, is part of what thrills me about poetry. We can get right up to the edge of something and feel it deeply and still not fully figure it out, and that ambiguity is not only okay; it’s pleasurable. I like your phrase “poem-painting” in this context too, because in the dream-logic of poetic composition, ideas and concepts are often nestled inside images and metaphors. Therefore, we must paint poems in order to unpack the images.

In my process, a poem usually starts with a phrase or image rather than an idea. The process of writing the poem instructs me as to what it’s about. I rarely know before I begin. I’m usually just struck by something—a fist of leaves unfolding, a plastic Jesus hanging from a rearview mirror, the instant between a smile and when the smile fades—and I write until I know why the image ignited me. I often do that part of the writing with pen and paper, and then, when I figure out why I’m writing, I move to the computer so I can edit more easily as I go along.

And thanks to both you and Cate for the kind words about I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast! As I’m sure you can tell from the collection, I love art and ekphrastic poetry. Many of the poems are responses to art and enact a hunger for it and a desire to eat it and everything else that the cosmos contains. So, fundamentally, the collection is about an appetite for beauty and art and love and sex and life and divinity and even suffering and death. And of course, food. We cannot forget food.

SM: You are also the author of a best­selling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah and a companion journal, My Yehidah (both on All Things That Matter Press). I think that this work is especially important because it is so empowering for young women. Can you tell us more about this book, your inspiration for the main character, and the awesome companion journal?

MS: Six Weeks to Yehidah is the story of ten-year-old Annalise, who, after being caught in a flash flood, finds herself thrust into a metaphysical dreamscape. She meets one challenge after another as she encounters underwater cities, cloud kingdoms, magic labyrinths, and an eclectic assortment of eccentric characters. It was critical to me that Annalise model empowerment not by putting others down or beating them in the traditional sense but by accessing the wisdom and independence within herself. Rather than looking outward or to others, she looks inward for solutions to all manner of problems, ranging from her own to other people’s to bigger societal issues and issues inherent in the human condition.

In many ways the tale is allegorical, and Annalise herself is largely archetypal—the Everygirl next door. In that sense, she’s a fusion of the traits of many people, but some of her more unique characteristics, the ones that aren’t universal, such as her musical and linguistic talents, are based very loosely on my daughter. In fact, the poem Annalise recites in the first chapter was written by my daughter when she was just nine. While all the other kids were drawing and coloring, she wrote it with crayon on the paper tablecloth in a restaurant, and, smitten, I took it home to include in the book.

My Yehidah is a journal and workbook I designed with the wonderful visual artist Cheryl Kelley to help kids recognize that they possess the same internal resources as Annalise and to help them tap into those resources through drawing, writing, and reflecting.

SM: As a host for Tiferet Talk Radio and The Tiferet Talk Interviews, you have had the opportunity to interview notable writers and spiritual leaders who have shared their thoughts on writing, tolerance, and the world we live in today. How did you get involved with this project? How does this series influence your writing and your perspective as a feminist?

MS: I started with Tiferet as an editor, and after a few months, the publisher told me she wanted to launch a talk show and she hoped I would host it. I’d never done anything like that before, and I have no idea what made her think I could pull it off. But I’m glad she had faith in me! It’s been a great experience and a tremendous gift to my writing. The Tiferet Talk guests have shared such insights regarding the magic and craft of writing—and the wonder and sorrow and exhilaration of being human—that conducting the interviews regularly holds me in a constant state of creative awakening. And, of course, that translates into greater depth and meaning in my own life and writing.

When Ed Hirsch was on the show, he spoke of the magical, irrational element in poetry, and how the poet, like a priest or shaman, performs the vital function of bringing information back from the unconscious realm to the material world. He talked about how dangerous it feels to venture into that territory, and I felt this huge relief in knowing that the process of entering into unconscious territory feels so imperative and yet so dangerous to other people too. So, what I’m saying is that one of the most important things the show has done for my writing is simply to make me braver.

Now, about feminism—that’s an interesting question. Because Tiferet is a spiritual journal, I think what has influenced me most is the realization that Tiferet’s hope for a better, more peaceful, more tolerant world can best be met by both men and women embracing, enacting, and—yes—asserting, a lot more of the values and traits that have been traditionally thought of as feminine. As well, through Tiferet’s emphasis on tolerance, and through watching my girlfriend’s activism regarding issues that don’t directly impact her, I’ve come to realize how important it is for feminists to act as allies to other marginalized groups and to learn from and accept support from them as well. Great change can happen if we are open enough to take up causes that are not our own—because the truth is that all the causes are our own. Whether we are black or white, canine, equine, or human, we are all made of the guts of stars. We all breathe and live and long. We are all kin.

SM: Your work embodies inclusivity, and as feminists we often discuss the vitalness of this practice, but I’m wondering as a writer, what value do you see in fostering exclusivity within our writing community?

MS: So, at first this is going to sound like it contradicts what I just said, but it doesn’t. We may all be kin, but we’re individuals too, and not everyone acts like kin. Having exclusive relationships within the larger whole is natural and appropriate, especially now, when there is still so much work to be done. I particularly think it’s a good idea when we’re talking about creating and maintaining safe spaces for people within marginalized groups to come together to support one another. In the same way that Ed pointed out that the poet brings information back from the unconscious realm to the material world, these groups can engage in meaningful dialogue and planning and then bring the fruits of their conversations back to the world. As long as any groups of people are oppressing any other groups of people, exclusivity among the oppressed will be a vital means to restoring balance. If our writing community and society at large ever evolve beyond oppression, we can re-think exclusivity. For now, however, I think it’s important for the members of any group to remember that in addition to advocating fiercely for each other, they are part of a larger organism, and they are ultimately working for the health of the whole.

SM: What are you working on, and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

MS: I’m completely obsessed (in the best way) with a series of poems I’m working on about a couple that finds an abandoned girl on the side of the road. She’s mythic and mysterious and terrifying and innocent all at the same time, and I can’t quit thinking about her or them or what they all mean to each other. I think it’s growing into a book.

Usually, I work on poetry and fiction simultaneously, but right now I’m wholly driven by poetry—and I like to be a good passenger for the muse.

Thanks for asking, Sarah. And thanks for this lovely interview.

cosmos-webMelissa Studdard’s debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, was recently released by Saint Julian Press. She is also the author of the best­selling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah; its companion journal, My Yehidah (both on All Things That Matter Press); and The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and two Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards.

“Ungentle and In-between”: An Interview with TC Tolbert on Gephyromania

Gephyromania_webWith his poetry collection, Gephyromania, recently chosen for Entropy’s Best of 2014 Poetry list, TC Tolbert is on fire. But he doesn’t use that fire to burn any bridges. He uses it to create them.

According to TC Tolbert’s website, Tolbert “is a genderqueer, feminist poet and teacher committed to social justice. S/he believes in working across communities—building bridges wherever possible” (http://www.tctolbert.com/about.html).

Gephyromania (which is defined as an addiction to or obsession with bridges) explores that “bridge” between the self and the self, and between the self and the other. This book speaks on a lot of topics—gender, queerness, bodies, families, relationships, sex, love, representations, identity, and transitional spaces. The vulnerability and raw honesty will reach out and touch you, a bridge of letters and words.

The aesthetically intriguing format of Tolbert’s book beckons the reader into a different consciousness. It brings up themes that are inside the book itself, such as pushing boundaries, subverting expectation, and existing in a space not properly recognized by society. Content-wise as well as structurally, Tolbert’s poetry confronts the reader with their assumptions of normality.

Chelsey Burden: Can you speak to why the title Gephyromania resounded with you?

TC Tolbert: In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it/hear it and that title is the epitome of this practice of scavenging/combing/holding my ear to the ground and taking the whole world (or as much as I can hold) in. Maybe it’s not so much scavenging as it is a practice of collaborating. I find that the more I walk through the world and allow the points of connection to reveal themselves to me, they do. Sometimes I feel like I do very little work or have very little control over any of it (which is probably a good thing!).

I found a Reverse Dictionary at a thrift store and tossed it in my bathroom years ago and one day I was poking through it and came across a list of different types of obsessions and in that list was this word—Gephyromania—an addiction to, or an obsession with, bridges. And the thing was, I had been writing these poems for years in a notebook in which I had written the word “bridge” across the cover – at that time I was transitioning with many things (love, gender, physical location) and thinking of the bridge of a song as a way to get to a new sound/or at least a break in the rhythm but I didn’t know I was obsessed until I saw the word and it told me.

CB: What I love about this book is that certain lines are incredibly, almost unsettlingly personal. Yet, they strike something deep within me. For instance, a line that hit me was “Now that you’re dead, I can tell you. I ended up with your hand-towels.” Or the line “As of October 21, 2006, I will officially become a new kind of man./ You won’t forgive me for taking me away from you.” (For the record, you are one of the bravest people that I know.) How do you work up the courage to be so exposed and vulnerable?

TT: Hmmm. Thank you for saying that.

At some point I was taught, like many people, that vulnerability is shameful or, at best, cliché. This is not only a cultural message but one we perpetuate in poetry and it’s one I struggle with. I mean, on the one hand, I don’t want to read someone’s diary and I don’t want to publish my own. Strict confession often ignores the language it uses to reveal itself and that doesn’t interest me. I like to write into an admission. In other words, I don’t know how I feel until I hear what I say. In that way, I’m reading myself while I’m writing myself. That’s probably less courage and more necessity. I also really like being lost and then the way the world collects itself. Being alive as an act of discovery.

I’m also interested in those moments when the specificity of a line tears right through the fabric of our separateness. I’m infinitely interested in connection. And sometimes I think the most connected we can be are in moments of disconnection. So, that moment when a person leaves (takes themselves away – a thing you don’t have to be trans to have experienced) highlights the tether between the two almost more than when they were together. It’s stunning to me.

When one person is naked, everyone remembers they have a body.

CB: The cover picture of Gephyromnia is one of the more intriguing ones I’ve seen! What sparked that idea?

Tomiko Jones, the photographer and subject of the image (it’s a self portrait), was in the MFA program in photography at UA while I was in the MFA poetry program there, so I fell in love with her and her work about 10 years ago. But I didn’t really have a specific cover image in mind when I was trading ideas with the designer and publisher. They just asked what kinds of images I liked and I immediately thought of this series of Tomiko’s where she is peeing in public places. This image comes from that series but I hadn’t seen this one before. Much like the title, this image just made perfect sense when I saw it even though I didn’t know exactly what I needed.

CB: Do you write with a certain audience in mind?

TT: I try not to. I mean, when I create installations of my work (what some might think of as “readings,” I call installations because they are ephemeral and collaborative and incorporate some element of improvisation), I very much take into consideration audience and physical space. But when I’m writing (creating the work on the page), I hear voices but those are voices that I want to inhabit/embody/write toward and into. They aren’t really an audience. They are more like a chorus I want to join or collaborate with.

CB: I was blown away by the line “Even the mirrors have become bars we lean against.” Can you talk about this line? Do you see an intrinsic connection between identity and poetry?

TT: In the early 70’s, gay and bisexual men began using a hanky code to signal to other men what they were into (SM, fisting, oral, anal, etc), what they were looking for (tonight I want someone to hold me, or would anyone be willing to piss in my mouth?), and how they identify (bottom, top, or switch). This is known as flagging. Not only a way to clarify and communicate desire, but a public acknowledgment of a possibly dangerous combination of attraction and identity hidden in plain sight (queerness was, and often still is, met with social and individual violence). As a trans and queer writer, I say. And then: this is different, I think, than a writer who happens to be trans or queer. I am particularly interested in flagging and how this relates to language, audience, and accessibility. Can the subversive still be subversive if it passes into the realm of widely legible? How do we share the obscured, public confession? How are intimacy, desire, and connection wielded in common space? What passes as a body? What is the desire of form? What does it mean to be out?

Pema Chodron says, Everything that human beings feel, we feel. We can become extremely wise and sensitive to all of humanity and the whole universe simply by knowing ourselves, just as we are. How passing, for me, can be both a protection from violence and can perpetuate violence. A necessity and necessarily enigmatic. I write to experiment with passing, with being a self I can know, with flagging, with turning on.

CB: Can you speak on what your experience has been like regarding the presence of family members in many of your poems?

TT: Incorporating/using/working with the words, ideas, or experiences of family members is complex. I mean, part of that is that they aren’t writers and so if I take a liberty with something, shift the “truth” of an experience for the language that I think will get closer to the “truth” of the poem, then that can feel threatening or confusing to them. But it’s also been a tremendous way to integrate my family into my work. They (my family) made me as much as I’ve made me therefore their voices make my voice.

CB: You queer the English language in a variety of ways. Nouns are verbs, verbs are adjectives, and sometimes the word can be read multiple ways, eluding definition without losing meaning. Sometimes your syntax is off-kilter and unexpected. The reader is encouraged to really think about what is being said and how it is being communicated. Sometimes there is a difference between what a word usually represents, and what a word means within your poem. Can you discuss this ambiguous space you create?

TT: Well, honestly, I think you just discussed it better than I could! I would just add that I want a reader who is willing to collaborate with me to create meaning in the poem. An active reader. In this book I wanted that to be more explicit b/c I think it just reveals what readers do anyway – make meaning as much as the author does. CA Conrad points out that a thousand different readers of the same poem actually create a thousand different poems. And this is similar, to me, to how gender (or any identity) is a collaborative project of writing ourselves through acts and symbols that, at their core, have no meaning but which we have predetermined long before we know their context. I like thinking about the power of context.

CB: I’ve noticed repeating imagery of mouths, of brains, of erasure, and of repetition itself. Can you speak on why any of these elements continually return to you?

TT: I think the answer is as simple (and possibly as uninteresting) as lived experience. I am in a body with a mouth and brains and I’ve been taught (so many of us have been taught) to separate body and mind. I reject that segregation while also being seduced by it.

And life is nothing if not repetitive. A few hours pass and I have to eat again. I have to piss. I have to drink. I have to shit. I have to sleep. And so, what does all of this repetition prevent us from doing/thinking/feeling? Or, what does it give us the opportunity to do/think/feel that we wouldn’t have access to if we didn’t have to keep doing them, again and again.

Also, I was walking with my friend and fellow poet, Jen Hofer, through LA this morning and we were looking at graffiti (or, more specifically at the ways the state tries to cover up graffiti) and we couldn’t turn away from the fact that whiteness (and all of its implications) is used to cover up color. Or, as Jen said, “what we don’t have to say is more important than what you do have to say.” Erasure is everywhere. A force to be reckoned with.

CB: Throughout the book are equations, derivatives, symmetries and binaries. Do you remember what led you to incorporate this mathematical imagery?

TT: I’m a gleaner. I mean, I’m absolutely in love with the world. I don’t know shit about math and so I can get caught up in the magic of it. The language and the ideas. I took a statistics class (for fun – I was out of school and teaching at the community college so I could take classes at a discounted rate) around the time I was working on this, so that informed how I was thinking but not so much that any of it is accurate. I mean, I don’t know if I use those terms correctly. I just like playing with them. Imagining I know something about a thing I don’t know.

CB: I was first introduced to your work through your chapbook Territories of Folding. The book itself is put together and (literally) unfolds in a unique way. In much of your work, I’ve noticed that you play with structure and layout, using a mix of horizontal and vertical pages, stanza variations, white space, and different font sizes. Can you talk about your structure?

TT: In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Button says: The significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are different people in different places and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be. I look at my house, my relationships, the things I’m writing, the way I’m writing, my body. These are synonyms. And I wonder how non-trans people (and other trans people) experience these things. Is your body an architecture? Is your name? What are you constructing now? Can you visit it, and therefore, can you leave?

I think of the textual body as a gendered body. My trans(gender) body is an unreliable text. The narrative is ruptured. Trust may be built or it may be broken. The veneer of coherence and safety completely gives way. Surrender and struggle with constraint.

As a body in a person, as a poet, as these lines in this order – white skin and male passing privilege, breasts I used to bind but no longer want to, soft belly, hips that could easily carry children but never will, facial hair that refuses my jaw while absolutely flourishing on the underside of my chin – I’m continually interested in the architecture we find ourselves in. At what point does construction become didactic? What is the space between container and constraint? What happens when we try, and is it possible, to subtract formula from form?

CB: You have done so much amazing work, especially with queer and trans communities. You’re co-editor of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics. You’re creator and director of Made for Flight, “a youth empowerment project that utilizes creative writing and kite building to create a living memorial commemorating transgender people who were murdered.” Would you like to speak on your experience with the relationship between poetry, trans and queer communities, and these projects?  

TT: In addiction and recovery communities, you will often hear this phrase: “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” And I believe this is pretty damn true. What I’m getting at here is that I don’t think of my poetry as separate from my activism. And my activism isn’t separate from my poetry and neither of these is separate from my life. I do all of these things from a place of fierce love and admiration. I fuck up a lot but I work like hell. I’m a Capricorn and just like any old goat, I’ll climb the most precarious places and not really think much about it. I like the focus it gives me. Also, like a goat, I like to climb sort of by myself but always near my family.

CB: I love that you incorporate the riddle “less than three.” Thank you for this interview and for all the amazing things you do with words. Less than three! <3

TT: EXACTLY. <3!!!


Chelsey Burden is originally from Kingman, Arizona. She is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University, where she also received her Bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies/Sociology. She works on Thin Air Magazine as well as at the Flagstaff Public Library.

TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he’s just a human in love with humans doing human things. The author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press 2014), Conditions/Conditioning (a collaborative chapbook with Jen Hofer, New Lights Press 2014) I: Not He: Not I (Pity Milk chapbook 2014), Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (co-editor with Trace Peterson, Nightboat Books 2013), spirare (Belladonna* chaplet 2012), and territories of folding (Kore Press chapbook 2011), his favorite thing in the world is Compositional Improvisation (which is another way of saying being alive). S/he is Assistant Director of Casa Libre, faculty in the low residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades, and lecturer at University of Arizona. S/he spends his summers leading wilderness trips for Outward Bound. Thanks to Movement Salon and the Architects, TC keeps showing up and paying attention. Gloria Anzaldúa said, Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks. John Cage said, it’s lighter than you think. www.tctolbert.com

Spring is Coming! (eventually)

And with it, the GGP editors have some exciting announcements, including:

  • an off-site reading at AWP 2015 Minneapolis
  • the judges for 2015 our poetry and prose chapbook contests

Check back here soon for AWP and contest details, and in the meantime, get caught up with all of the current GGP titles by visiting our store.

Feminist Resources Spotlight on Belladonna* featuring HR Hegnauer

Belladonna* is a feminist avant-garde collective, founded in 1999 by Rachel Levitsky. This week, Gazing Grain editor Kathy Goodkin spoke with Belladonna* member HR Hegnauer about the collective’s work, and the role of radical conversation.

Kathy Goodkin: For you, what is the most important part of Belladonna’s mission?

HR Hegnauer: I love the Belladonna* mission! Below is our mission statement, and while it is all important, that first line jumps out for me. It’s about promoting women writers who are bold and who take risks. It can be difficult for writers like this to find a home in publishing, and Belladonna* is very good at promoting and facilitating the space to support their work. In my experience with Belladonna*, this is how the conversation builds over time — by allowing radical work and thoughts to exist in a supportive framework.

Belladonna’s mission is to promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language. Belladonna* has featured over 225 writers of wildly diverse age and origin, writers who work in conversation and collaboration, in and between multiple forms, languages, and critical fields. As performance and as printed text, the work collects, gathers over time and space, forming a conversation about the feminist avant-garde, what it is and how it comes to be. Belladonna* is committed to building publication and literary community between women writers who write off-center—poetry and prose that is political and critical, that is situational rather than plot-driven, that is inter-subjective or performative or witnessing rather than personally revelatory, that reaches across the boundaries and binaries of literary genre and artistic fields, and that questions the gender binary.

KG: I love what you say about the way Belladonna’s supportive framework foments radical conversation. Are you thinking of any particular writers or books? What are some projects Belladonna has published that made a big impression on you in this regard?

HRH: Well, I could easily say “all of our books!” But I’m also thinking of our most recent book: Theory, A Sunday. This book comes directly out of conversations, and was originally published in French in 1988. It was written through meetings and conversations that took place on Sundays (hence the name) in Montreal among Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret, Gail Scott, Louise Cotnoir, and Louise Dupré. Essentially, the book is a collection of their feminist theories. They talk about political and intellectual struggles of the time, and then juxtapose this against a short work of fiction.

Going back into earlier years of Belladonna*, I love the book Mauve Sea Orchids by Lila Zemborain. It came out in 2007 as a bi-lingual edition (Spanish & English), and in fact, this was the first book I got to work on and design as a freelancer. Lila’s writing is stunningly beautiful; it’s gorgeous and luminous. A book like this makes me remember that one way to be radical is to be beautiful and to speak of beauty as a thing that truly does exist. And furthermore, its existence is vital. I remember how Lila writes about the “loveglands” as if it is an actual part of our human biology. She has this great line: “Loveglands would not be like pillows but more like bread rolls releasing their baking aroma when heated in one’s own body.”

But beyond publishing books, Belladonna* really does exist in space physically. Its reading series is a core part of the structure, and how Belladonna* originally began 16 years ago now. For each reading, we publish a chaplet of the reader’s work; we’re at #171 in that series right now. These readings are a way that the structure supports the long-term conversation, and after many of the readings, there will often be a discussion or Q&A of some sort. Thus, “the conversation” doesn’t just happen one concrete time; but rather, it happens over decades.

Find Belladonna* online at http://www.belladonnaseries.org/ 

An Interview with Kristina Marie Darling

Kate Partridge: Both the Preface and the Epilogue of your new book,  Fortress, are artful erasures of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which contextualizes the text within a discussion of not only pain, but the bodily manifestations of emotion. I’m particularly taken by these lines: “when she falls in love/ physical pain does not simply resist language/ but actively destroys it.” Why did you select this process of erasure, and this text, to frame the book?

Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question. I started working on the erasure parts of the book after I had just undergone a great disappointment in my life. I was surprised by how I could sense this pain, this melancholy in every bone of my body. I became very interested in the ways that emotional pain and physical pain intersect, blur into one another. For obvious reasons, I was drawn to Scarry’s book, and erasure seemed like an appropriate form for expressing grief. Language, and the narratives that we use to lend unity to our experience of the world, becomes fragmented, disconnected, incongruous. I also inspired by procedural erasures like Yedda Morrison’s Darkness (in which people are erased from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os (in which religion is erased from Milton’s Paradise Lost). With that in mind, I tried to erase suffering from the book. What was left? The “small blue thread,” “the fragile arc,” “hands placed on a piano recovering a song as though it were another form of breathing.”

KP: In an interview with Justin Bigos of The American Literary Review, you describe the balance between associative logic and reader expectation that comes into play when working with formal elements readers associate with other genres, such as footnotes and appendices. Fortress utilizes footnotes throughout Books 1, 2, and 3; can you elaborate on why you chose this form and how it interacts with the process of association?

KMD: I’m drawn to footnotes because they allow me to create a text that is driven by associative dream-like logic, one that has many voices within it, a text that finds beauty in this fragmentation of voice and reason. But at the same time, footnotes offer a way of giving these fragments a sense of structure. In many ways, the form offers an opportunity to build a narrative arc from the remnants of voice, logic, and other texts one has encountered. For me, this balance between fragmentation and structure is crucial. All too often, gorgeously fractured texts fail to create a sense of momentum, a progression, because they are almost too airy, too fragmentary. Additionally, the footnotes allow the reader to encounter this fragmentation in the guise of structure, allowing one to surprise the reader, and hopefully expand their sense of what is possible within a literary text.

KP: It’s hard to imagine, looking at the way you’ve laid out the poems, that the concept of white space is not significant to this work. The book itself is wider than usual (a square), and the major forms also rely heavily on breaks and absences. How do you see the white space interacting with the text of the poems and the book as an object?

KMD: I’m very interested in white space as a means by which to convey grief. In her book Black Sun, Kristeva writes that the melancholic subject, the individual who has suffered loss, also suffers a loss of language. Words lose their meaning, and the connection between signifier and signified becomes altogether tenuous. For me, erasure and white space are a creative way of engaging Kristeva’s argument, exploring its implications for the creation of narrative. I hope that my use of white space not only mirrors and enacts the melancholia that Kristeva describes, but also suggests that narrative can reemerge from these fragments of language that we are left with after grief, however spare and ordinary.

KP: The poems draw on a number of motifs that readers will have existing relationships with, especially as they relate to myth: gardening, the fortress, opiates. The danger of this, of course, is the confusion of familiarity with banality, yet the book clearly seeks to resist the standard interpretations of these symbols and re-contextualize them within a new love. What do you hope to gain by referring so overtly to existing literary traditions, and what is your purpose in recovering them?

KMD: As I worked on Fortress, I was very much intrigued by Romantic poetry, particularly the landscapes that are depicted: desiccated fields, dead poppies, iron gates, and so on. Yet these gothic pastorals frequently appear in work by fairly canonical male poets (Keats, Shelley, etc.). I wanted to create a feminist interpretation of this landscape, to explore what it would mean for a female protagonist to inhabit it, to see a female character navigate it. I suppose you could say that Fortress is an attempt to feminize a landscape that has been coded as male by the literature that we have inherited. Continue reading

Chapbook Review: Sarah Certa’s Juliet (I)

Sarah Certa
Juliet (I)
H_NGM_N, 2014
portable document format, free

If you haven’t had a chance to check out H_NGM_N’s digital chapbook series, may I heartily recommend that you do so. The press is publishing 6 chaps per year in free, downloadable pdf format, which is an amazing opportunity to read fresh work regularly.

The most recent release (Dec. 2014) is a new chap by H_NGM_N’s Associate Poetry Editor Sarah Certa, who has a full length collection, NOTHING TO DO WITH ME (University of Hell Press), due out at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis. Juliet (I) offers a truly enjoyable introduction to Certa’s work as a manuscript that takes advantage of the chapbook form with a series of emotionally-dense poems.

The poems inhabit the space between stunning rhythmic momentum and an obsession with its eventual halt—not only of the lines, the sentence, and the poems, but of the speaker. At times, the end stop appears sudden, as in a soldier’s death, but the speaker’s greatest strength as an observer is the ability to layer that harshness with an awareness of other malignant factors building. In fact, the speaker relishes the constant presence of deterioration—of bodies, of relationships, of the appearance of relationships—with the eye of someone who is astonished by the beauty of the entropy and deeply wounded by it. In the first poem of Act I, the speaker lists her thoughts on the first day of spring:

a dozen other heads, a skull stuffed with lilacs, a mouth that won’t stop drooling, a soldier

whose body looks like it’s been turned inside out because God

doesn’t have his own body to play with.

Or something like that. It’s true, I’m starting

to question some things. Like, how many piles

of bones is too many? How many beautiful people

weren’t born today? But still, you’re right, that sun.

This particular combination of delight in the universe and the speaker’s desire for death will remind many of Sexton. Yet Certa has made the subject of depression, and the way it may present death as a constant choice, into wholly her own investigation of the way “[her] bones are laced too tight.” The failing relationship at the center of the manuscript is interesting, yet the relationship of the speaker to her own body and the concept of remaining within it takes on precedence. She repeatedly asserts “this is me” while, without acknowledgement, therapists offer their opinions: “They keep telling me I’m too high-functioning/ for a full-blown diagnosis.” This is the contradiction that takes on the most pain—one for which there is no explanation or release, in which the state of humanity may simply be to pain from awareness of mortality.

The constant revision and re-assertion of the self becomes evident, too, in the poems’ form; Certa’s stichic poems present an initial impression of stability, but the swift variations in line length and abrupt enjambments disallow that possibility. Certa experiments with moments of static—anaphora, end-stopped declarative statements—but all in the service of creating contrast with the driving movement. My favorite feature of these poems is Certa’s musical balance between the long, imaginative, wild sentence and the quick colloquialism. This balance of release and reflection, of boundlessness and restraint, creates the moments of intimacy that reveal most about the speaker’s need to reconcile grief and sincerity; they are as surprising to the reader as to the speaker herself, the revelation suddenly manifest in words. Certa writes:

It’s the thirteenth day of spring and all the snow

is dirtier than it was yesterday. My teeth

are one day older and the sky

has another thousand molecules of cancer moving through it,

but my eyes have been dry,

and that feels really nice, in bed eating Oreos

like a normal person, my feet getting warm as my brain

softens and slips away from itself

like a moon, a sailboat, all the pretty things

we don’t know how to hold

The metaphors that the speaker finds enjoyment in—birds, breath—form a current of desire for unrestricted movement, for a life driven by pleasure in fluidity. The speaker is aware of each of her own pleasure in tasks like braiding and baking as muted, and yet they offer a small hope and a great source of dark humor:

I draw window

to jump out of

but none of them are real

so I have a lot of bruises

from banging into walls.

Against this prognosis of a quick or lingering death, Certa turns back, in the Epilogue, to the Shakespearean heroine and the “happy” dagger. Despite the progression of the spring into a season of full bloom, the poems leave us with two impossibilities: the revision of Juliet’s fate, and of the speaker’s—in this case, bound not by the literary canon but by her own knowledge of futility. It is a conclusion that seems both effortless and deeply challenging in its resistance to a resolution about the value of a life in pain:

Spring is almost over and I

can’t decide if I want to feel important.


Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared in the Colorado Review, Carolina Quarterly, Rhino, Better, Bloom, and Verse Daily. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage, coordinates the Crosscurrents Reading Series, and serves as a Count Coordinator for VIDA.