Chapbook Review: Cecilia Woloch’s Earth

Cecilia Woloch
Earth
Two Sylvias Press, 2015
46 pages, $9.90

In Earth, winner of the 2014 Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize, Cecilia Woloch focuses on the major movements of life—across continents, between childhood and adulthood, and from life to death—in compelling poems that allow each transition its full measure of significance in a network of shifting pieces.

What I appreciate most about these poems is that they are not in a rush. Woloch develops each character, each family, and each natural setting to a fully-populated sense of self before reaching closure, and this strategy offers a particularly strong assertion of the pleasure of memory and meditation. In the elegiac “Harry and Pearl: A Villanelle,” for instance, the speaker entwines a couple in a dance-like repetition, attaching them to each other while tracing their habits of footwear into the afterlife. This surprising attention to the minute detail of family memory persists throughout the poems, which offer a balance of rich, symbolic imagery paired with rippling personal observation; trees, stones, and rivers serve as metaphors for transition and efforts at establishing a sense of home, while a mother bears “the wren’s / plain strength.”

These acts of noticing are often grounded in the position of the speaker within the family—often as a child, but always as a descendant examining the changing states of those around her. The connection and dissolution of the immigrant family predicates an interesting sense of being everywhere and not simultaneously; Woloch writes, “Once I was only a child in my sleep; then I awoke and was everywhere.” The interest in childhood also offers an optimism that feels simple and true, despite an atmosphere of persistent loss: “I walked around when I was small and spit my name into my hands. I wanted everything to shine.”

The poems are dense with the pleasures of alliteration and repetition—“streetcars slur” and the father appears a man “with his shadow in his shadow.” In many cases, these repetitions feel daring—their matter is often the imagery of the everyday, and yet the reader is challenged to allow each successive echo to be as joyful as the first (it is). In these poems, it is possible to exist and remain both within language and memory, yet to evade being transfixed by that location; one is able, also, to be present in a concrete location with a body and still not truly be present in the minds of others—“This is America, Teta. You’re dead,/ and our dying means nothing here.” Against the consistent struggle of location, the speaker turns again and again to the relative stability of her natural surroundings, both real and imagined—what if the role of grandmother is inhabited by a tree? Dreams prove an especially fertile ground for aligning the living and the dead.

The poems in Earth work to create a world that offers no particular resolution, but is at peace with the sense of movement, with the repetition of image, language, and character—where despite loss and upheaval, there is comfort in the act of narrative and the linked warmth of sound and image. Perhaps Woloch puts it best, in describing the final settlement within the narratives themselves: there is “no home but the story I’ve lived toward.”

***

Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Arts & Letters, Blackbird, and Pleiades. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Poet Barton Smock on Trauma, Feminism, & Self Publishing

Sarah Marcus: You are one of my unsung poet heroes! The first time we read together in Cleveland, Ohio I felt like I was being punched in the face (in a good way) by your subtle yet incredibly direct address of violence in your work. One of my favorite collections of yours is The Blood You Don’t See Is Fake. On many levels this work and many of your other books seem to be a chronicle of abuse, especially the ways in which we process or don’t process these memories and our experience of each moment as informed by trauma, past or present. Please tell us about your writing process. What messages do you hope to convey to your reader? Do you have any advice for people who are attempting to write about trauma narratives?

Barton Smock: I write in the hopes that Barton Smock, author, disappears. When I visit that thought, it is no secret there that an abuse, a trauma, an event can tattoo one to the world in spirit while, on the other side of public knowledge, the abuser does not think in specifics, and has a very broad, indistinct, sense of self. Writing is my way of saying this is my hologram’s prayer mat. I address the past to relocate it, to toss it ahead, to have it in front of me so I can confirm with it a later date. I think here of the man who died painlessly two days after being placed by god or by belief into another kind of pain. I want to be that man. Words change meaning over time. One person’s chronicle is another’s repetition. Mantra. Process is purge. But the purge needs an assigned symbol, I’ve found, for it to be written and touchable in the reading. I try to be careful with what I use. My mother. Yours. Both sides of conveyance should make one gentler. If I were to give advice in regards to trauma narratives, I guess I’d say remove yourself in the manner of an abuser. But don’t disappear.

SM: How does being a feminist inform your perspective and your work? Do you think our literary community has a responsibility to promote inclusive feminism?

BS: Too often in speaking aloud, in talking to oneself, in writing…one gets hung up on the word and not the context. I like to think of my informant as a religious individual in much the same way as I like to think of my kids as godless. Feminism informs my work because it is part of my transition from word to context. I don’t know everything. I was young, once. I was old. There’s a reason I look at my daughter and worry and look at my sons and don’t. And, yes, I do think any community that values the individual must promote inclusive feminism. As in, must promote community. It doesn’t seem to me a leap. Feminism isn’t monster, isn’t closet. And responsibility isn’t how cute the sleeping child is. It’s so hard to be awake, I know, but if community is to exist, to be nourished and to nourish, then we must at least clean the hand we eat from if we want it to become the hand we feed with.

SM: Your work is mostly self-published. How did you go about making that decision? Are there any important lessons you’ve learned in this process?

BS: I began self-publishing in 2011 mostly as an exercise, as a way to order the hundreds of poems I feared I would lose to word documents. The exercise allowed me to follow more thematically that which I’d let wander. At the time, I was working two jobs, and my youngest son had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disorder, and time spent submitting wasn’t something I felt I could clock. Self-publishing gave me a way to come to a standstill. Now, it’s mostly ritual…though I do try to tweak the ceremony here and there. If I’m doing a reading, I’ll put together a short book of the poems I plan to give a voice and then order ten or so copies of the book to bring to the reading as a giveaway. I know it’s not selfless, but self-publishing has taught me to foster the social anxiety I belong to.

SM: What are you working on now, and what can we expect to see from you in the future? For someone who is new to your work, where would you suggest that they start?

BS: I am currently working on a longer book of poems, tentatively titled Spirit Nerve, but some of the poems I had for it are tied up in chapbook competition submissions, so I may need to revisit the theme of said book or abandon it altogether. For someone new to my work, I would suggest checking out the title you mentioned, The Blood You Don’t See Is Fake. It’s a better representation of when I was both word and context, form and fragment. My most recent title, Misreckon (December 2014), is also, I think, both return and disappearance. All titles of mine on Lulu include a preview of each book in its entirety. I do this so that if someone says, yes, I know they mean it. Also, I write daily at kingsoftrain.wordpress.com.

IMG_1439 Barton Smock lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares his wife and four children with themselves. His most recent work, self-published like all his work, is titled Misreckon and is available at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/acolyteroad

(Micro)Chapbook (Micro)Review: Jonterri Gadson’s Interruptions

Jonterri Gadson
Interruptions
MIEL, 2014
Dimensions: 10cm square (cover), 9cm square (text)
Binding: staple
12 pages, €5.00

Jonterri Gadson’s Interruptions is the second book in MIEL’s microseries of tiny books—at 10x10cm, about the size of a coaster. What Gadson achieves in this miniature space, however, is quite remarkable; MIEL’s goal of publishing “difficult, interesting, intelligent, deeply felt” work is clearly realized here in three poems that press the brevity of life sharply against bodily experience.

Interruptions is guided by a significant re-framing of what it means to mother, in which physical power is limited by the needs of “each unrelenting mouth” and acts of mothering are complex and thick. Gadson doesn’t romanticize the physical demands of this relationship: the bodies of children have an instinct for destruction and an evolutionary need to consume, “asses that sit on grocery store eggs” and “hands that sever worms.” Still, the speaker addresses them on the grounds of their shared circumstance, the impossibility of responding to impermanence. Gadson writes:

          Children,
   what are we, if not interruptions? Our bodies

          impermanent tattoos on the air’s broad back. Nothing
             to stop us
   from believing even the space after a colon is meant for us.

The poems drive toward a raw empathy for the “interruptions” and toward a new consideration of what it means to sacrifice the body, in which choice does not negate the significance of pain. The long excerpt “Everything Else Requires My Approval” imagines a response to a son’s suicide with lucidity. As the speaker weighs the probability of the specifics, phone calls and notifications, she conveys the urgency of loss with the very human inquiries of the un-lost: where would he have gotten a gun? Would the rational brain be able to process this experience in the moment? The poem’s progression from process to halt is both formally interesting and emotionally resonant, reminiscent of the directness of Natalie Diaz’s poems on addiction.

What if, Gadson posits, we are not only brief, but helpless? What does a mother do, “having been instructed to call his bluff and watch”? The poems in Interruptions raise the best sort of unanswerable questions, and Gadson’s gift is in depicting the complexity of motherhood with a clarity that leaves them unanswered.

***

Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Arts & Letters, Blackbird, and Pleiades. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Contest Closed

Thanks to everyone who submitted work to our 2015 poetry chapbook contest and the inaugural prose chapbook contest! We are so grateful for the opportunity to read your work, and we’re excited to see such a range of interesting work in this batch.

We’ll share information about contest results later this summer, both here on our website and by email to all entrants.

Contest Deadline Extended

We’ve excited to announce that our contest deadlines will be extended for a few more days! Submissions for our prose and poetry chapbook contests, judged by Amber Sparks and Natalie Diaz, respectively, will now remain open until Friday, May 22 at 11:59 pm EST.

We look forward to reading your work! Visit our Guidelines page for more information; when you’re ready to go, you can submit your work here.

Cynthia Marie Hoffman on Writing Paper Doll Fetus, Feminism, Motherhood, & Place

Sarah Marcus: Firstly, your newest collection, Paper Doll Fetus, from Persea Books is absolutely stunning, strange, and gorgeous in all of the right ways. You give voice to the unborn and you examine the intimacies and intricacies of grief in all of its complexity and messiness. This work is layered, politically aware, and filled with beautiful and uncomfortable imagery. Can you tell us more about this project? What inspired you? What do you hope your reader takes away from these poems?

Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Thank you. The poems came about initially years ago as I was watching the documentary The Business of Being Born, which touches on the use of twilight sleep during childbirth. I saw black and white pictures of women with ridiculous padded bandages wrapped around their heads, looking like Q-tips, and I knew I would write about it. Women were strapped down in the delivery room to prevent them from flailing and injuring themselves or the nurses in the state of panic the drugs could induce. Sometimes, they were buckled into straight jackets.

We look back at these pictures now and think how horrible it was, how these women were abused, but it’s important to remember that women were demanding “painless babies” as a feminist right, just at the time they were also demanding the equal right to vote. Of course, women might not have signed up for twilight sleep in droves if they were fully aware of—or could remember—the way they were treated in the delivery room. But it was the best medicine had to offer at the time. The fact that we no longer use twilight sleep (and instead use the far more humane epidural) has as much to do with advances in medicine as it does advances in feminism.

The first poem I wrote for Paper Doll Fetus was “The Lamb’s-Wool Strap Speaks from the Gurney, 1915,” and it is spoken in the voice of a strap that was used to restrain a woman during a twilight sleep birth. The strap, having once been a lamb, remembers the unimpeded birth of lambs in its previous life and how the newborn lambs were free to bond immediately with their mothers. By contrast, the woman who gave birth in the amnesiac state induced by the drugs was made to forget the birth experience. The baby, when it was suddenly presented to her as much as a day or two later, was a surprise. In the poem, the mother asks, “Is it mine?” This is what troubled me the most—not that childbirth should be natural, but that the early moments of bonding were stripped away.

At first I had big plans for this topic, but in the end, I wrote only two poems about twilight sleep. The rest of the book is about many other miraculous and terrifying experiences of birth and medicine over the past several hundred years.

I hope that readers will take away from the book an appreciation of the tenuousness of life’s early beginnings. So many things can and have gone wrong. Babies are born with their legs fused, women die from ruptured ectopic pregnancies, fetuses are wrapped in calcium and turned to stone inside their mother’s bodies. But somehow, through a series of miracles, the rest of us are born and survive.
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Interview: Ariana D. Den Bleyker on ELJ Publications, Poetry, Emerging Writers, & Mental Illness Awareness

Nicole Rollender: You founded your own press, ELJ Publications, so you could focus on publishing collections and chapbooks of poetry and fiction from new and emerging writers. Can you tell us about the history of the press? What kind of poetry and fiction do you publish, and as an editor, what do you look for in a manuscript or collection?

Ariana D. Den Bleyker: We aim to be a press for every writer. We offer two journals, one specializing in the work of emerging writers and the other specializing in edgy material, several serials/series focusing on different themes and genres, four contests, and a broad range of single author titles filled with manuscripts ranging from mini-collections (chapbooks) to full collections to novellas – anything a writer can dream and write, we want to read and have a chance to publish. ELJ looks for a work that speaks to us on a personal level, work that begs us for its attention like a little child pulling on our sleeves. It has to be tight and thematic with a definite arc. It has to be powerful.

Emerge Literary Journal was founded to provide new and emerging writers foundations for their work, their words. When I founded the journal in 2011, I thirsted for outstanding, fresh writing from never before published voices and other emerging writers with some publications under their belt with a few established writers in between because I, too, was a new writer. It’s fair to say it’s hard to get published if you’ve never been published before. That’s why this Henry David Thoreau quote resonated with me: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

So, always having been a fan of Thoreau, I knew if I had a lot of castles, other beginning writers must too, and I wanted to establish a journal that would be the foundation, perhaps the first credit, that could get a writer (at the time) started in their publishing careers. I wanted to make a difference for new writers. In 2013, I carried that sentiment over to the press’ first chapbook contest, and the press was born from there.
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