Margo Taft Stever reading with George Kalogeris and Crystal Williams at the Chapter & Verse Reading Series.
stPioneer Valley Productions Third Annual Festival of American Poets, Co Sponsored by the Amherst College English Department, CavanKerry poet Sara Sousa will be reading with poets Roz Zimmerman, Joel Lewis, Stephanie Strickland, and Susan M. Schultz at the Third Annual Festival of American Poets sponsored by Pioneer Valley Productions.
Fayerweather Hall (Pruyne Lecture Hall) Amherst College. Amherst, Massachusetts.
Sarah Sousa reads at Stockbridge Coffee and Tea, 6 Elm Street, Stockbridge, MA
Part 3: Strokes of Good Fortune
Then as if all my collective saints, angels, and muses had heard my pleas and harangues and either concurred or together conspired to silence me, my dream became a possibility! The product of both an enormous stroke of good luck that took the form of an inheritance my husband, Alan received quite unexpectedly and most of all, his enormous generosity to me, I now had the start up capital to start my press. I was delirious. The first thing I did was call Molly and the second was to call my friends Karen Chase, Howard Levy, and Peggy Penn to tell them that I would be honored to publish their books. We were all elated.
I hit the ground running. I had to learn everything. Immediately! I decided to do it in tandem with the most capable person I knew who miraculously was looking for part-time work. Florenz Eisman (then Greenberg) was a former creative writing student of mine who, in addition to having a great gift for writing, had worked for several years as a vice president for a public relations firm. She, in the course of her career had done just about everything—from secretarial work, to research, to writing. She knew her way around people, business, and most importantly, books. Even computers!
Our Press Needed a Name
This was the first of many not-so-simple decisions we had to make. Surprisingly, in all of my dreaming, I had never come up with a name. That took considerable thought.
Remarkably at major points in my life—when life seemed to be clearing a path for me and success was in the wings, a woman in my life died. Or so it seemed. When I was given my husband, son, and Ph.D, it was my good friend Janice; when I was given my press, it was my mother. My love for Janice however was pure; my love for my mother was anything but. A driven and possessive woman, my mother was far more interested in my intellectual and social successes rather than my writing success. Her great pride was in the fact that I was a psychologist and a professional woman. It was “nice” that I wrote poems. During her illness, however, she developed a marked and seemingly earnest interest in my writing.
During her last visit to my home in East Hampton, she (and my father!) read my poems. In our family room I had a basket where I kept all of the journals that my published work was published in. I cautioned both of my parents that my work was brimming with profanity and what they’d consider obscenity, and that they violated all of Mom’s prescriptions about voicing personal family matters in public. They were undeterred as they handed poems back and forth to each other. Mom, did you read this one? Dad, look at this one.
My mother who could hardly see twisted the pages high into the light to read every poem. Remarkably, no one died. Not them. Not me. Rather than be horrified, they were interested in what the poems had to say. My father reminded me that he’d been a laborer all his life so he’d heard those words before. Nor was he surprised by all the raging that went on in the poems. They asked me questions, particularly about events recorded in the poems. They did not argue; they did not chastise; most importantly they did not judge.
It Was a Miracle of Sorts
These poems had been there in the same spot during scores of previous visits and they showed no interest in reading them, but this time they were ready. I don’t know what prompted that openness, but I know the three of us were grateful. This was an intimacy that we had never known. For years, I had kept much of myself from their view. They knew only facts about my life; I kept what mattered safe inside; I had strayed from their version of good and wholesome and I long since saw any value in exposing either them or me to the worlds that separated us. They did not need to know; I did not need to confess. Yet on this weekend, this Saturday afternoon in November— I like to think it was even Thanksgiving weekend, as we always spent it together—we were ready. The gift of that closeness served us well during my mother’s illness.
My parents have always amazed me in their ability to grow as human beings as they aged. My father’s steps were always steady and involved with virtually no regression. He held fast to what was important to him, namely his Catholicism and the Church as supreme authority, but he was open to influence about everything else. All his life, he loved to learn. The world of people and nature were magical places for him and he reveled in each story or creation.
My mother was more complicated. Her growth did not come until her cancer. Prior to that she was of one mind about most things and that mind was always hers. You couldn’t convince her of anything and she was unpredictable—completely open one day and then refusing to talk the next. If she let you in, perhaps revealing some confidence, she would quickly shut you out. After revealing a devastating account of her mother’s death when she was a very young child, she was furious when I referred to it later on. She was enraged that I had taken this secret wound from her. I had violated her. She refused to speak to me. I stayed away from her for long stretches of time.
Miraculously, however, when she got sick, she shut the door on all that anger and resentment; it was simply over. She had other places to go. Kinder, happier places in which to live. It was as if she were reborn, but this time without the darkness. With her own mother seemingly close and whole, she began forming the bedrock of love that we all count on to carry us into adulthood, trusting that the world will care for and love us. She finally knew she was blessed. She finally believed she was loved. She was grateful and said so for every kindness or attention. Being close to her was effortless. She invited it; we all accepted.
And she lost no time. She wanted to know everything about each of us. In my case, my writing—what was I writing? Was I writing? I should be writing. I should tell my story. She gave me Reader’s Digest large print books that included autobiographies of strong women. Write your story, she said. People will read it; you tell the truth. Her support was palpable and unwavering. I told her that I had been writing the memoir of my young self as a 12 year old girl. She wanted to read it; I read it to her during hospital visits; I sat by her bed for hours everyday writing while she slept.
There was no greater gift I could have received than to be close to my mother when she was dying. It had always saddened me that such distance was necessary, but my sanity required it. Though she longed for closeness on one level, she destroyed it on every other. To face a parent’s death with coldness between you is a barren, painfully lonely land. To be able to go with her and face it together was a blessing. She talked to me of cooking for Dad, teaching him to cook, her concerns for the grandchildren, what she felt, what she wanted, what she worried about. I was able to give to her for the first time since I was a child.
Shortly after she died, the money miraculously arrived for the birth of the press. A friend suggested I name it for her. I liked the tribute and was relieved and very pleased that rather than cut her out as I had in the past, I now wanted to include her in this major event in my life. But to name it after her alone would be incomplete. There was more I wanted to say with that name and I didn’t want to exclude my father. I settled on CavanKerry—the two counties in Ireland where they were born—my father, Cavan; my mother, Kerry. Though CavanKerry would not be an “Irish” press, it was from that land—those two lands—that my own writing grew.
Care to cool off by the pool, in front of the fan, or in an air conditioned library? Consider seeing everything the authors of CavanKerry Press have been doing despite the summer heat.
Part 2: Start Your Own Press
For years, I dreamed of starting my own press that would bring out the work of all these gifted writers along with my own and get our shows on the road. Despite my initial success in contests, interest in my work diminished as my fascination with the poem as a visual life in space increased. Once I abandoned the more traditional long line that started and returned to the left margin for a form that flowed from the emotional logic of the voice and used the whole page as canvas to bring this voice to life on the page, I was ‘out there’ on my own. Clearly, the more inventive I became, the more I reduced my already slim chances of winning a competition. I had stepped over the line. Journal editors remarked on the interesting form that would be a ‘typesetting nightmare’ to publish. Others found it too distracting. With each submission I offered to have the poem typeset myself if it interested the journal editors. (Those who accepted my poems did not ask me to do that.) Clearly, if I was ever to see my poems collected in a book, I would have to publish my own.
Other friends were coming to the same conclusion about their own books. Either bite the bullet and risk castigation by the literary elite for self-publishing or abandon the work to the bottom of a dusty file cabinet. Neither solution was attractive: inviting public criticism or disappearing. Of the two, I chose the first; the latter was unthinkable. I would give myself one more year to find a way to start my own press, but if unsuccessful, I’d publish my book myself despite the fact that my preference was always to publish other work beside my own. The dilemma was more than personal; it was and still is universal.
I had no training or experience with publishing but that seemed very surmountable. I knew the books I wanted to print. I had a clear vision of what books should look like. I had ideas. Lots of ideas. Which I shared freely with anyone who would listen– Alan, my husband, Molly Peacock, my mentor, my friends, other poets, other mentors. I talked and talked…and talked. Interestingly enough, especially given my complete lack of confidence during the first three-quarters of my writing life, I had full confidence that I could create this dream press of mine. I had come through a Ph.D. program with a concentration in research, and those skills taught me a bit about how to explore more than human behavior. I would follow the same logic to learn about publishing. What I didn’t have was money. More than a minor problem.
I continued to talk. I continued to dream.
My mission became all the more urgent as I heard more and more stories about friends without publishers—in some cases after three or four books (maybe all with different presses). It had always been my assumption that once you found a publisher for your first book, your problems were solved—you could count on them to publish subsequent work (provided of course that the art remained at the highest level.) Discovering that one cannot assume one has a home with a publisher at least until one has published several books and developed a significant name in the literary community, was devastating. Publishers for the most part only supported poets whose careers were already made.
My concerns were broadening, crystallizing. Given the paucity of publishing venues for poetry, the absence of opportunities for first book publication (other than those supported by fee for entry competitions), an apparent bias against older writers, as well as one against psychological and emotionally daring work, I dreamed of a press established, first, to provide publishing opportunities for gifted writers under-recognized or rejected by the literary mainstream, and secondly, to create a community of and for writers: a home where writers could share their art and the products of that art with each other and with the greater community of readers. My childhood living in a small blue-collar community which took on each other’s burdens as their own as well as my early years at The Frost Place Center for Poetry and Arts in Franconia, New Hampshire formed the bedrock of my commitment to a community of writers. A community of writers and a community or readers: I wanted to do my part to make that happen.
Along the way it became clear that to sell poetry, publishers needed to expand its audience. Since marketing and selling books will only be as successful as is the product/literature desirable, the way to sell poetry is to increase both its availability and relevance to general audiences. But poetry isn’t discovered in book stores. One doesn’t happen on a great book of contemporary poetry displayed on front tables; these are reserved for Stephen King, John Grisham and self-help. Poetry tends to be hidden on back shelves and must be searched out. But only by those who know it’s there—poetry enthusiasts, not the general reader.
Poetry can often overwhelm and intimidate the general reader; in fact, many believe they aren’t smart enough to understand it, that it’s more intelligent and more important than they are. It stands apart from them—several steps above them. It makes them feel small.
I knew first- hand how intimidating poetry can be based on the way it was taught to me in college (it was never part of my grade or high school curriculum)—day after day dissecting word after word after word of The Wasteland. Alas, that experience was a wasteland for me and turned me away from poetry for many years. Not surprisingly, readers like me, diminished by the arcane ways that poetry was presented would not turn to it for pleasure or solace as those who love it do. It follows that to sell books of poetry, publishing’s challenge would be to create a readership that cares about it and believes it cares about them. Fortunately for me, many years later, having experienced the endless bliss one finds in the simple but profound brilliance of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman, I returned to poetry and fell very deeply in love.
In my subsequent fantasies of my dream press, I vowed that it would increase poetry’s relevance to a general readership by publishing fine art that centered on real people living real lives and written in fine but accessible language. Ours would be a poetry of heart and emotion rather than exclusively intellect and ideas. Our challenge (and that of the broader literary/publishing community), would also include bringing that poetry to its readers rather than waiting for the audience to come to it. That would require an outreach program that brought the poems and poets to people where they live— in their homes, community centers, offices, hospitals, prisons, schools, geriatric centers, shelters. I was dreaming. I was planning. I was ready. Where would the money come from?
Part 1: No Room at The Inn
I’ve often thought of poetry as the orphan child of publishing. Commercial publishers have all but abandoned it. Other than the most visible and prestigious poetry virtuosos whose connection to a particular press give it a kind of pedigree— an aesthetic imprimatur— commercial presses do not publish poetry. There are reasons for this rather depressing state of affairs. Publishers cannot publish what they cannot sell. The audience for poetry is extremely small and is comprised mostly of writers, academics, and/or what might be considered an artistic elite. It would follow then that, since the audience is so limited, so also are the opportunities for writers of poetry seeking publishers.
To make matters worse, despite the fact that a writer may have as many as 30 or 4O poems published in literary journals, until you’ve published your first book, you are regarded as unpublished and are therefore ineligible for further awards, virtually stuck professionally. Without a book, you cannot teach. In some cases, you cannot even read your work since readings often take place in universities and book stores. Universities pay honoraria, but only to writers with published books; book stores tend to invite only published writers to read because they will sell books. Some poets turn to self-publishing for a solution, only to find it’s frowned on by the literary community. This, despite the fact that Virginia Wolfe and Walt Whitman, among many others like them, self-published. Sadly, the publishing community cannot help these new voices and rejects them when they try to help themselves.
The very noble task of keeping poetry alive then has been assumed by small independent presses. Bless them! Fortunately for all of us who write it, there are more and more cropping up every year. But alas, there are still too few to resolve the dilemma of the rudderless poet. The number of books that can be published by these underfunded small presses in a given year is a small fraction of the talent waiting in the wings for a vehicle to bring their work to their potential readers. Not surprisingly, the few available opportunities are offered to the more experienced, more widely published poets. The unfortunate result is that, other than a few occasional bows in the direction of a new talent, the majority of small presses do not print first books. Certainly not first books of poetry. They can’t afford to.
Except through contests.
Contests have become small press publishing’s very welcome resolution to the isolation of new poets. But the situation remains critical. Other than self-publishing, virtually the only way to get a book published as a new poet is to win a competition. But this means you have to be the one in a possible 2000 entrants to win one of a maximum of 15-20 first book competitions, so most new talent goes undiscovered. New poets are on their own, and the overwhelming proportion remain unpublished.
Regrettably but predictably, like their commercial older, bigger siblings, small presses too are constricted by the lack of funds, even more so since small presses that focus on poetry and literary prose do not have the popular best seller that their larger brethren count on to pay the bills. They must rely on other sources of income beyond sales. Most, therefore, are established as not–for-profit organizations that qualify for public support, such as grants and tax-deductible donations. But there too they encounter ceilings.
Small presses must live frugally. Most are founded, organized and managed by volunteers who work endless hours for little or no money. They love poetry and want to do their share to bring more of it—particularly contemporary poetry—into the world. Beyond grants and donations, most independent small presses help defray the enormous costs of giving birth to books by conducting the annual competitions mentioned above, which bring in substantial funds, making many more books possible and provide wonderful opportunities for the gifted, ‘unpublished’ writer who is the winner.
But contests have their downsides. Besides fueling the envy/competition (one winner versus hundreds, perhaps thousands of losers) that so many of us writers and artists battle with, contests require entry fees—many quite substantial. Since they are the only viable route to publication, more and more ‘unpublished’ writers spend countless dollars they often do not have entering multiple contests annually. For a fortunate few, there are letters announcing that they’ve been chosen as finalists; in the end, however, the likelihood of winning is miniscule.
The problem is even greater for an older writer. Readers for these contests are often young graduate students in creative writing programs. Their preferences in subject matter and writing style are often very different from that of their older sibs. As a result, publishing joins many other arts/professions which shy away from middle aged and senior writers—particularly those producing daring, unconventional work.
Along the way, this became my story too. I had started writing poetry when I was already 42 years old, but was now approaching 60 with no book. Sure, I’d received lots of encouraging letters from enthusiastic small press editors and contest judges telling me my book was in the running, a finalist even! Like so many others, I’d wait several months before the letter would finally come from the Academy or from Pitt… Each time, no shout of Congratulations! Instead, reaffirmations of how publishable my work is, how fine… but….
In the beginning you can’t believe it; you got here, all the way to this amazingly delicious place that says, yes! You belong here…in fact you’re right up there at the top with the best of them…. Unquestionably your book will be scooped up by another publisher, the editor reassures you; they see it time and time again; your book will find a home. And you tell everyone you know…
But then it happens again. And again… And all you want is to get your first book out there where people will read it—you imagine it beautifully placed in an artful collection. There’ll be a picture and ‘blurbs’ from people saying congratulations and calls for readings and getting to work on the second one. And you’re ready. The work is ready. But “We’re sorry…”
Too many of my friends, friends I got my MA with, friends I workshopped poems with, taught with, read with… all the same story, all this talent, all this art, all this disappointment/rejection. It was becoming increasingly clear that the likelihood of any of us winning became smaller with each year. Publishers seemed to pass over former finalists for the newest talent. Eventually we stopped entering… Some set manuscripts aside; others like me just continued to write more poems and finished second and sometimes third books and dreamed of finding them a home.
My Water Bottle
Croix de Bouquet, Haiti
The real thing he pulled was greater than the water bottle
turned toy—bottle cap wheels attached to a string—
as it followed behind him across the cracked cement.
In it had been rivers and rain. The strong force of a waterfall.
A stream winding through certain bodies. Another child came running out
the door asking to play with it. I watched the string exchange hands,
loop a finger as the children outran it and their creation rolled,
wobbled, tipped forward on its neck.
The speckled wings fluttered and rose, even as I hid somewhere
in my childhood basement, my mother shouting from the kitchen
to pick up all my toys scattered from their boxes,
toys I held in the darkness of night, clutched close in whispers.
The child without any stood beside me, followed me around,
stayed near, waited until my last sip and my bottle was empty.
He tapped it lightly and my heart burst. It took time
for me to understand. What did I not offer?
The water bottle my fingers gripped in heat so extreme
each knuckle swelled, my breath grew slow, my head pounded,
walking was difficult, thinking, how far can I make it
with nothing to pull along? I’ve nothing,
nothing behind me. No bottle turned toy,
no container empty enough to transform
into a caterpillar’s sixteen bouncing legs,
waiting to grow the wings to support it in air.
In a matter of moments, I could shed my old skin,
pupating my greediness over what I did not offer,
though the boy did not consider me greedy. He waited
so patiently for me to hold the bottle to my lips
and drink the very last drop, having waited under rubble,
himself a survivor, overwintering in ash.
He sat next to me on the cracked cement steps,
leading to the collapsed second floor.
Water could not sustain him. He required nectar
sweet between leaves. It was all over the news.
The water was contaminated. Peacekeepers defecated in water,
bringing cholera to the Artibonite River.
The world’s carelessness now set afloat.
I know. I was ready to discard my bottle,
set it on its journey of decomposition,
strip it of its corporeal form. My bottle,
held in the hands of so many people who will never
drink from it, those who delivered it from earth,
mined it, heated it, spun it a long while to become the axis
on which the day moves, wholly imaginary.
A boy waiting with a string in his hand.
Apart from the 2010 Haiti earthquake which caused an unprecedented natural disaster, the population suffered a man-made disaster when waste from a UN base leaked into the rivers and introduced a cholera epidemic. When I wrote “My Water Bottle” I wanted to depict the resilience of the people I’d met in Haiti. While Haiti is a victim of poverty and corruption, (according to a July 17, 2018 Miami Herald article, 80 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day), it is a place of beauty where everyday people engage in great acts of courage.
Since 2013, I’ve been traveling to Haiti as the leader of a Drexel University creative writing study abroad trip. On the trip we attend workshops at PEN Haiti and meet with renown Haitian writers, poets, artists and musician activists whose life and work cannot avoid representing change. Haitian literature has been compared to Russian literature before the Revolution, because it is that gorgeous, that rich, that filled with foment and despair. One great example is Marie Vieux Chauvet’s masterpiece Love Anger Madness. The early pages depict one of the main characters touching herself in her bed while she hears through her open window the screams of political prisoners who are being tortured in the nearby jail. These two actions are juxtaposed in a way that is uniquely Haitian and characterizes much of Haitian life and consequently its literature. Forrest Gander’s words in his new book, Be With, “the political begins in intimacy,” resonate here.
Besides meeting Haitian artists, our study abroad group fundraises for Love Orphanage, where we engage with the children for days at a time. Love Orphanage’s director Gabriel Fedelus is a father to eighteen children who were orphaned after the earthquake. Unlike the US, Haiti’s governmental agencies do not fund its orphanages. All assistance is received from overseas. The children lack basic needs such as soap and toothpaste not to mention medicine and meat. Needless to say, the children don’t own toys or games. Every penny that the orphanage receives goes toward sustaining the children’s basic needs. I was particularly awakened to this fact when I returned to the orphanage the following morning after one of the children, a six-year-old boy named Olson, asked me for my water bottle, to see he had constructed a pull-toy out of it. I could not help comparing his childhood to mine with its many toys. Are toys a kind of armor or shield against the imagination or do they give root to imaginative impulses? I think of Rilke’s idea of how necessary it is to be bored for the real imagination to grow.
Love Orphanage accepts donations at http://www.loveorphanage.org
No donation is too small.
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—After Rodin’s The Cathedral
I watch my daughter imitate
the pose of Rodin’s Cathedral.
Her arms curved in slow gyration.
It is her way of understating
the dark bronze, how two arms
can captivate the imagination
in their dizzying swirl,
find balance between
light and shadows. In truth,
the hands are both right hands
turning in on themselves, an architecture
almost sacred, serpentine, yet protective
of the space within, of what the
bronze cannot hold. My daughter bends
uncomfortably away from me, resistant, as if
her whole body is questioning
what it means to be a girl.
for the first time—what is there
and what is not from the hollow
her hands make, all the empty angles
that never touch,
the almost-grasp of the intimate.
Her wrists slight and glistening
with summer’s patina,
her fingertips conjure her being
body and soul
closing and opening
at the same time.
A few years ago, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem hosted an expansive exhibit of sculptor Auguste Rodin. My daughter and I fell in love with his sculpture, The Cathedral. We were enthralled. And while she moved on, there was something intimate about two hands almost-grasping. It seemed to be the perfect metaphor for us as she enters her teenage years and we enter a new phase of our relationship.
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A strand of algae leaves its rubbery
translucent swatch on my skin. My first impulse
is to peel it off lest a horror
movie version of contagion unfold
and my skin turn zombie green—telltale alien,
more slime than flesh, attracting gnats, pinhead skitters
moving so rapidly all is flux.
My second impulse is to keep it as a totem
of subterranean life, a scrap chiseled
from things that are meant to sink. Deep is form,
like a snail that burrows into silt, shell
growing out of sludgy cravings.
A life-in-death feel. The croaks frogs make
drowning in natural desire. Believe me,
diving into this mosh pit, I do not
float softly through water.
Pond life is too shallow. No flotsam or jetsam,
sneakers, ice-hockey gloves, Chinese message
in a bottle. Even the dam’s stopped up,
no bigger than an oversized sink filled
nightly with dishes. No reputable
oceanographer will chart its depth—
another thing I’ll never know
about myself. Territorial and fiercely defensive,
rock bottom will not be reached.
To be essential something must be both deep
and wide. Eyes with skies in them. Upswept
lashes and brows. A western monsoon.
Dreams that stretch over many nights to mimic
the feel of sea-foam on ankles,
down to the cellular properties of summer.
Eva Hesse escaped Nazi Germany as a five-year-old, separated from her parents and placed on the kindertransport to London. They eventually reunited and immigrated to the US. Although “My Oceanography” is rooted in my experience, the inspiration for this poem is certainly my preoccupation with Hesse. Alienation, fragmentation and absurdity are recurrent themes in her work.
Similar to so many people, I suffer from not feeling like I belong anywhere—a combination of of my particular background and psyche and the general human experience. Although I did not set out to write this poem in a way that would capture Hesse’s immigrant experience, (one to which I can find connections as the granddaughter of refugees and immigrants who fled pogroms in Eastern Europe), once I assembled the book I began to see how the poems are saturated with this history. For me, writing is a largely subconscious, intuitive process. I immerse myself in a project, often for years, (this time, in Hesse) and it entirely takes over my being. You could say it’s like method acting! I’m hard to be around because it’s all I can talk about.
The neuropsychologist Alice Flaherty discusses creativity in terms of irrepressibility in her book The Midnight Disease. She says that writers often experience extreme feelings of empathy when they think that everything relates to their project, so much so that they might believe that the universe is bestowing upon them gifts or signs. She gives the example of a flock of geese flying up after she lost twin daughters and how she believed the geese were a sign for her to finish writing her book instead of giving herself over to her grief. An irrefutable network of coincidence and connection guides me through all my projects. In fact, I would say that the mania of feeling like everything I say or do is forwarding a particular work, brings it into existence. I often walk around the ponds where “My Oceanography” is set, but on this particular day a strand of algae stuck to my skin.
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You are the start of the week
or the end of it, and according
to The Beatles you creep in
like a nun. You’re the second
full day the kids have been
away with their father, the second
full day of an empty house.
Sunday, I’ve missed you. I’ve been
sitting in the backyard with a glass
of Pinot waiting for your arrival.
Did you know the first sweet 100s
are turning red in the garden,
but the lettuce has grown
too bitter to eat. I am looking
up at the bluest sky I have ever seen,
cerulean blue, a heaven sky
no one would believe I was under.
You are my witness. No day
is promised. You are absolution.
You are my unwritten to-do list,
my dishes in the sink, my brownie
breakfast, my braless day.
Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you planned, so it’s important to stop and breathe. No day is promised. We must appreciate the small moments—even when the kids are away, even when I am alone. It is in my moments of melancholy that I find gratitude.
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the uniform and ball
are white but Jackie is
Harlem separate drinking fountains
at the back
of a southern bus
my world is on fire
my world is Sunday
Jackie in his uniform
White enough to be America
but now Jackie shines
like Louis Armstrong
like a preacher
in the church
he’s the rock
the hidin’ place
the uniform and the ball
and Jackie Robinson Negro
My father labored
in the mine his
hands blacker than
face as black
coal his hands
a fair skinned
worked at home
read the Bible
and prayed &
For five days in late June, I trekked to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to attend The Frost Place’s Seminar on Teaching and Poetry, thanks to the generous scholarship provided by CavanKerry Press. It has been one of the best professional development experiences I have ever attended. Not only did I learn new methods for engaging students with poetry, but I also met with like-minded teachers who truly embody the heart and soul of teaching and learning. Both Dawn and Kerrin nurtured a supportive learning environment and encouraged us to continue to use poetry in our classrooms and in our own writing practice. The guest poets and teachers Diana and Joaquin inspired us with their philosophy and methods on teaching and showed the compatibility between developing our own work and developing our students’ work. Overall, my time spent at The Frost Place rekindled my creative spirit and my commitment to showing students how poetry can enrich our lives. Thanks again Frost Place and CavanKerry!
A gray hoodie will not protect my son
from rain, from the New England cold.
I see the partial eclipse of his face
as his head sinks into the half-dark
and shades his eyes. Even in our
quiet suburb with its unlocked doors,
I fear for his safety—the darkest child
on our street in the empire of blocks.
Sometimes I don’t know who he is anymore
traveling the back roads between boy and man.
He strides a deep stride, pounds a basketball
into wet pavement. Will he take his shot
or is he waiting for the open-mouthed
orange rim to take a chance on him? I sing
his name to the night, ask for safe passage
from this borrowed body into the next
and wonder who could mistake him
for anything but good.
When I wrote this poem, I was thinking of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. My son is at the age where he must be responsible for his own safety. We’ve had “the talk” quite a bit. The world is changing rapidly. Our preconceived notions of civility are being challenged daily. This poem is mother’s wish for “safe passage” as her son moves between worlds.
This poem and many others were triggered by the exhibition “Eva Hesse Sculpture,” May 12-September 17, 2006, The Jewish Museum, New York. “Ringaround Arosie” “Ishtar,” “Hang-Up,” “Chain Polymers” “Ink Wash on Cardboard” “Just Before” “Contingent” “Laocoon” “Up the Down Road” “Eighter from Decatur” and “Oomamabooma” are titles of works by Eva Hesse. Some of the poems describe objects in Hesse’s work and others imagine Hesse’s life experiences—particularly her marriage at a young age to another artist and their early divorce, as againt the background of her historical experience. These poems are to quote Berryman, “essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me)…who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about (herself) in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.” Lucy Lippard’s Eva Hesse, Da Capo Press, 1992, provided useful information along the way. Lastly, this book is in memory of sculptor Brian Wagner who first introduced me to the work of Eva Hesse and lent me all his Eva books that I never had the chance to return.
You targeted me and forced my extinction,
drew circles around the parts of my body
where you dared to aim: my neck, my wrists,
my breasts. How could I escape your asteroid
come hurtling? Too much of my history
is etched in stone. Like lichen or mica,
you subsumed even my shadow
and sealed over the crevices
where I roamed. You drove long stretches of highway
and read my desires in strip mining,
my sins exposed, determining
where to dig into the sediment’s
repository of old arguments.
Jaw hardened, fist banging down,
you did not say wait or anything else
that broke into words of love,
because you wanted to render
a bee’s hover and extract my DNA,
your artist’s eye trained on the darkest nights,
nothing but a chisel to pick away,
standing on top of that airless promontory,
bending over the rift to find a trace.
Measure my primitive atmosphere.
Preserve my dusky voice under glass.
– Harriet Levin
A few years ago, I was privileged to read at the Something Old, Something New (Jersey) 350th birthday celebration at the Hoboken Historical Museum. Curated by CavanKerry poets, Teresa Carson and Danny Shot, the program included several contemporary poets reading the work of one of New Jersey’s great poetry masters—William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg to name a few.
I was delighted to be assigned Whitman. He’s my personal Great. I’m hard pressed to say what I love more about him—his wildly generous soul or his wildly generous poems. It’s often said that Whitman’s greatest gift to us is his creation of a grand mythical figure whose voice he sings. Loudly and openly. He is Everyman. He is every cell in every body. He is the God Man—and he challenges us to the same.
When I think of all we have inherited from him—and the list is long, the most important to me as a poet and person, is that he gives us permission. Permission as writers, permissions as people. To glory in who we are. Unadulterated, unmasked, unadorned. And we revel in this counsel. As writers we want to be creative, honest, imaginative and original, but we have barriers to that freedom. We also want to attract readers and praise; we want to be good poets, but we’re often held back by what we perceive of as the unseemliness of our experience, our feelings and our motives. We think we have to turn away from who we are in order to create selves that are worthy of this elevated art. Regrettably, we believe poetry is holier than we are, so we must make ourselves worthy to write it.
Whitman debunks that. Poetry is not better than him; it is him. It is his bowels, his brain, his bicycle, his Brooklyn Bridge, his lilacs, wounded soldiers, lovers, trees. Not that he wasn’t as greedy for recognition as the rest of us, but he refuses to relinquish originality –by writing ‘inside’ the lines –to get it. Likewise, he doesn’t aspire to be worthy. He is worthy. While we often think of humility as a desirable trait in the person or poet, Whitman is anything but. Yes, he was vulnerable and often vacillated between approval and rejection of his more successful contemporaries (Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow…) and wanted at least to be counted among them–if not seen as their superior–but he was also steadfast in his commitment to his universe and subject matter–the whole world of what it is to be human. The whole world of what it was to be Whitman.
He takes on sex, heterosexual and homosexual, and writes proudly and abundantly of its pleasures capturing them in the most exquisite language and line. He elaborates on the wildly feral magic of love and wrote generously of it. He glories in the organs of the body as much as the lilies of the field. For him, there is no subject that isn’t appropriate fodder for poetry. In terms of craft, he blows out the more traditional poetry line, stretching it to the end of the page and then some—one wonders how far he’d have carried it if he were not bound by something as trite as paper size. He refuses to allow himself or his readers to take a back seat to life—he’s audacious, grandiose, honest, narcissistic, courageous, hedonistic, spiritual and compassionate without apology; in fact, he glories in his greatness—the greatness we all share as humans. He calls on us to be courageous—to break out of convention, to give ourselves over to our imaginations and our bodies –both so ready to create for us provided we keep dogma and judgment away. As did he. Having known him, my poems have never been the same—the nuns would definitely disapprove. Whitman is our mentor, our Everyman Poet challenging us to strip naked each time we sit down to write —be as big as we are, as raw as we are and can be. I happily bow to his wisdom.
Wherever you are, Walt, I trust you’re having one hilarious, outrageous, glorious day! Happy Birthday, Dear Friend, thanks for all the gifts.
You Are Not Grass
The last wild passenger pigeon was named
Buttons because the mother of the boy who shot it,
stuffed the bird and sewed black buttons for eyes.
People with Ekbom Syndrome imagine
they’re infested with mites.
It’s possible the entire Buttons [Read more…]
From Camden come, rise from the dust
fly to Zuccotti Park with your shaggy beard
and your old school hat come see what’s happened
to your home and your beloved democracy.
Let’s grab a beer or eight at McSorley’s
your old haunt, where 19th-century dirt clings
to chandeliers, let’s reminisce and plan
our trek through New York’s teeming streets
before we saunter to the Bowery or the Nuyorican
where exclaimers and exhorters still sling verse
of hope and despair to hungry crowds who
still believe in the power of the word.
We need your sweeping vision, Walt,
to offer our children more than low expectations
of life sat in front of screens or held in gadgets
that promise expression, but offer convention.
Let us not see America through rose-colored
blinders, but as it is, an unfinished kaleidoscopic
cacophony created by imperfect human hands,
beautiful in complexion, ghastly in reflection.
This new century has been cruel and unusual,
the ideology of greed consuming itself in a spasm
of defeat engineered by merchants of fear
and postmillennial prophets of doom.
We need to recognize healthcare
and education as basic human rights,
we need to restore the dignity of work
as well as the dignity of leisure from work.
We need to get off our flabby asses
to dance as if nobody is watching, to howl
to stir shit up, to worry the rich
with a real threat of class warfare.
We need to take back our democracy, from the masters of Wall Street,
banks too big to fail, insurance deniers, education profiteers,
from closet racists, and self-appointed homophobes,
the unholy trinity of greed, corruption, and cruelty.
Walt, give me the courage to not be scared
to offend, to tell the truth which is:
most Republicans are heartless bastards
more willing to sink our elected head of state
to protect the interests of the moneyed
than do what’s right for the greater good.
They are the party that has impeded progress
and sucked the joy out of any forward movement
for all my 54 years and they’ve only gotten more sour,
they scare me with their fascist posturing
while most Democrats are frightened
as usual to betray the welfare of the rich
(Historians of the future will laugh at us).
Yet, we’ve come so far in so many ways,
call it evolutionary progress if you will
though there’s so much work left undone.
We need a revolutionary spirit to unfold.
It’s time for us to dream big again
of democratic vistas and barbaric yawps
of space travel and scientific discovery
where we protect our glorious habitat
and build structures worthy of our dreams.
Imagine America based on empathy and equality
where we lend a hand to those in need
unembarrassed to embrace our ideals.
Walt, we’re here, citizen poets for change
across the United States and we believe,
we believe, call us dreamers, call us fools,
call us the dispossessed, your children lost,
our hopes on hold, left no choice but to stand
our backs against the corporate wall
ready to fight for what we’re owed,
for what we’ve worked, promises bought and sold.
Let your spirit rise, old Walt Whitman
take us with you to another place and time
remind us what is good about ourselves
basic decency that’s been forgotten
May your words guide our daydreams of deliverance
let the hijacked past tumble away
let the dismal present state be but a blip
may the undecided future begin today
let us become undisguised and naked
let us walk the open road . . .
Fore more of Danny’s fabulous work…
On the east side
Of the clearing
At the ox-bow
On the Sandy
There’s a fir tree
Growing up from
What remains of
An old maple
In the flesh of
That toppled thing).
Take this on faith,
You’d bleed for proof —
A bramble wreath
Obscures the seam.
Those trees with leaves,
All the hardwoods
Of this valley,
Those we watch turn
And drop their limbs
And sometimes fall,
Those we consult
And lie below
On self and time,
Those with soft skins
For us to score
With our titles
So we might see
So we might learn
Our lives amount
To only scars
So we might guess
So we might know
Those trees with leaves,
All the hardwoods
Of this valley:
Those trees wear crowns.
I imagine you on a May morning
breezing into his study, breathless
from your sprint across the fields.
The great man of letters—your father’s friend,
your friend—neither sighs nor hesitates
as he sets his quill pen on its stand,
pushes back his rocker from the writing table.
Abandoning his Remarkable Men,
his craggy features soften into a field of wildflowers–
smile bright and humble as homely coltsfoot,
eyes fond as the forget-me-nots you tie
in bundles, leave beside his door.
He never mentions these bouquets.
That would wilt the tender green between you.
Rather, he escorts you round his library,
introducing you to his dear friends–
Shakespeare, Carlyle, Wordsworth–
guiding you to Goethe’s Correspondence
with a Child, penned by a woman.
I loved him, too, at fifteen when I met him
on the page—fell for his elegance
of word and syntax, his way of gently
courting my understanding. I dreamed
of his seeing some spark of genius in me
invisible to boys I slow-danced with
at sock hops, their scratchy cheeks smelling
of sweat and Clearasil, their sloppy kisses
recorded in small poems in my journal.
Now I watch you leave his study,
the borrowed correspondence in your hand.
You pause to press the book’s skin to your face,
then read your way home to your own
white desk, your pen, your pages.
For more of Judith’s work: https://cavankerrypress.org/product/practicing-the-world/
Among the women in tank tops, backs arched, slow pacing,
Among the young men riding small wobbling bikes against traffic,
Among the rows of row homes, standing like beggars waiting for money,
Waiting furiously while they fall into gravity,
There must be some comfort.
A cat on the house-dressed lap of the woman at the window, purring,
A child born clean who can live on the milk of her mother,
on donated diapers, and sleep on the bed pushed to the wall.
But little comfort compared to what could be,
Compared to what is, six miles down Admiral Wilson Boulevard,
Where children learn Latin and spurt when their talent’s seen,
Where they play and fall asleep in quiet rooms lined with books,
Where they learn in book-filled rooms, not falling asleep,
Where they are never quoted in the paper as wanting to be
a doctor or lawyer when they grow up,
Because that’s not impossible, not surprising, not poignant.
On a street where half the houses are empty skulls,
The girls don’t see doctors until they are mothers,
And babies lick lead when they taste their fingers
or play in the dirt of the lot next door.
I sing the schools of Camden,
Where the pages of the books are softened and browned,
Where the facts in the books are no longer true,
Where the maps are the waterspots high on the ceiling,
Where the teachers are afraid, live elsewhere, leave early.
I sing the children who outnumber this city
Because they are the quickest, cheapest form of hope.
I sing the songs they might have written
if they’d been born one town over.
And on the Boulevard, I sing
More than billboards of girls with eyepatches
promising to dance on couches,
More than women at bus stops, where they can’t be arrested,
Waiting for men to use their tight-dressed curves,
More than men who walk the bridge from Philly,
without gloves or socks, in search of warm meals.
I sing day care, a movie theater and no discount liquor,
A supermarket, a bank that lends, no go-go,
And a fence down the median, so five more each year
Can live instead of dying for the cheaper sixpack.
For more of Tina’s work: https://cavankerrypress.org/product/abloom-awry/
The more I talk to people who’ve lost loved ones, the more apparent it becomes that—despite our beliefs about the afterlife—many of us watch for messages from our departed beloveds, signs that they not only continue to exist in some form, but also that they continue to love us. After my mother’s death, my husband Bruce called me to the window whenever he saw a cardinal—the bird Mom said visited her whenever she needed cheering. “Jude, your Mom’s here,” he’d call, and I’d come running to greet her. So it was only natural that I would hope that, after Bruce’s death, he would return to me, however briefly, via the natural world and its creatures.
Ever since the first snow
following your death
deer have been appearing
in our yard around the time
we’d return to the fire
to drink martinis.
When the first pair emerged
in their dusky coats, one gazed
so long into my eyes
I almost believed I’d entered
the dream I’ve been craving —
the one where you return
in a disguise I see right through.
In our early days I said you seemed deer-like
with your fawn-dark eyes, delicate wrists.
What about my study biceps?
you asked, flexing. Each night I enter sleep,
ears perked for your laughter
or for the soft crush of hooves on snow.
I drift back to the earliest days
of deer and human,
through hunger and wonder,
to the magic of sudden apparition
under the opal moon’s hypnosis.
Back to the ancient belief
that a deer’s luminous leap
could leave this world
and land in the next.
This afternoon when I found an antler
in the snow-dazed garden
I didn’t recognize it.
Rib-length, it was pronged
the way I pictured your bones
when pain pierced you from within.
Self Portrait with Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea
My mother named me
little old lady. Named me:
I lived in a different century.
I was born rural
in a city of mills.
My mother named me
place of unreachable hills.
A temperance movement of one,
I was sober
as spring water. I was old
then I was older.
My mother named me
I was her easy pregnancy, asleep
by eight, awake when convenient.
I held the fetal position
like a moral obligation:
her ribs were unmolested
as a Victorian birdcage. They pried
my soft bones like ancient pottery
from between my mother’s hips
while she slept. An orphaned monkey,
a baby of the ‘70s,
I sucked the bright orange nipple
of a sterilized glass bottle, held
by some other woman
while my mother came-to. She named me
Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea;
names I wear like tarnished jewelry
pinned to the inside
of my bra for safekeeping.
They take turns speaking
through my mouth, choose
my handbags, prefer flat shoes.
They embody the word habit,
placing a napkin atop my glass
of water, one beneath to absorb the sweat,
carry a magnifying glass
to read menus. With them
I’m always the youngest in the room.
And nothing changes. They name me not-yet-
born, but predict a natural birth.
do you believe us?
does it help you to believe in us?
The inspiration for this poem came in a recollection from my mother. Despite the fact that Sarah was one of the most popular girl’s names the year I was born, some female relatives complained that my mother had given me an old lady’s name. In her defense, my mother explained that from the moment I was born I looked and acted like a little old lady. The truth of this anecdote, however, runs deeper and is what I explore in the poem. My grandmothers, Rose and Lillianne, are included in the title. Rose was the one who pinned her jewelry to her bra for safekeeping and Lillianne was the family historian, tirelessly researching genealogy old-school before the internet opened up so many records to the hobbyist. I inherited my grandmother’s passion for history, family history in particular, and this poem is, in part, an homage to my female lineage on both sides. As the first poem in See the Wolf, it establishes the interconnectedness of the women in the collection and the fact that, even when these women are being victimized, they have more power as a collective organism than they would as individuals.
As the oldest child of a single mother who was the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I think I accepted the ‘little adult’ characterization early. Being my mother’s easy, mature, and predictable child was something I could do to make her happy. My temperament was already well-suited to the role and I further cultivated it into a talent. So, the poem is a bit of ruthless self-reflection in that way. Some ghost of Sylvia Plath’s “The Disquieting Muses” haunts the poem for me as there’s a kind of sad inheritance being transmitted. Ultimately, though, this poem and the ideas behind it give me solace. I like to imagine carrying my female lineage around, for better or worse, allowing them to speak through me, relying on their wisdom and strength. There’s something very comforting in containing that collective ‘old lady’ energy.
Purchase See the Wolf here: https://cavankerrypress.org/product/sarah-sousa/
It is difficult to write about my poems because I’ve always believed that the poem should speak for itself. Then again, I’m not one to turn away from a challenge and this is a challenge indeed. Winter Clouds in Hoboken (p. 6) began as a haiku and grew from there:
Seagulls peck French fries
off a white Mercedes Benz
on Washington Street
While I am proud of myself for writing a haiku, there is something inherently unsatisfying (to me) about haiku. The spirit of this poem was influenced by my friend Jack Wiler’s “The Hoboken Poem.” I too wanted to write a Hoboken poem, but it didn’t come to me for years. Then I wrote the simple haiku, and thought okay, what is it that differentiates us in Hoboken, in New Jersey, from New York? As a Jersey poet, I must admit that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to New York poets. Part of this comes from the fact that we are easily dismissed by New Yorkers as “Jersey Poets” with all the implied connotations that come with the epithet. Even a cursory glance at the names of poets from the Garden State will show that we can hold our own with the literary heavy hitters of any place. “Winter Clouds” is an attempt to bring a touch of Hoboken street life to the world.
Winter Clouds in Hoboken
are different than New York City clouds
occasionally cumulus, lately ominous,
biblical in fact. New Jersey is not a place but
a state of mind according to my Brooklyn students,
the last frontier between irrelevance and extinction.
Everything you think it is, and more.
New Jersey is whole lotta place(s). My place is Hoboken
where neighbors share home-brewed coffee
the morning after Sandy flooded basements
in apocalyptic power surge, then darkness.
Where brass bands carrying statues fire cannons
in honor of obscure Italian saints though the midday streets.
Graffitied walls proclaim PK Kid is alive, Viva!
Not art to be sold in galleries across the river.
Where an empty parking space is a conversation starter
and a drunk girl cries next to a smashed cell phone
on my stoop two weeks before Saint Patrick’s Day,
a pool of green puddled at her feet.
Where we pretend we invented baseball
where everyone’s grandma dated Sinatra.
Where the poets drink like poets
and are ignored like poets.
Where the ends justify the ends
and happy hours last all night.7
Seagulls peck French fries
off a white Mercedes Benz
on Washington Street
The clouds are different
here. They just are.
Grab your pre-order copy today!
The Whole Mess… Almost
– Gregory Corso
I ran up six flights of stairs
to my small furnished room
opened the window
and began throwing out
those things most important in life
First to go, Truth, squealing like a fink:
‘Don’t! I’ll tell awful things about you!’
‘Oh yeah! Well, I’ve nothing to hide… OUT!’
Then went God, glowering & whimpering in amazement:
‘It’s not my fault! I’m not the cause of it all!’ ‘OUT!’
Then Love, cooing bribes: ‘You’ll never know impotency!
All the girls on Vogue covers, all yours!’
I pushed her fat ass out and screamed:
‘You always end up a bummer!’
I picked up Faith Hope Charity
all three clinging together:
‘Without us you’ll surely die!’
‘With you I’m going nuts! Goodbye!’
The Beauty… ah, Beauty–
As I led her to the window
I told her: ‘You I loved the best in life
…but you’re a killer; Beauty kills!’
Not really meaning to drop her
I immediately ran downstairs
getting there just in time to catch her
‘You saved me!’ she cried
I put her down and told her: ‘Move on.’
Went back up those six flights
went to the money
there was no money to throw out.
The only thing left in the room was Death
hiding beneath the kitchen sink:
‘I’m not real!’ It cried
‘I’m just a rumor spread by life…’
Laughing I threw it out, kitchen sink and all
and suddenly realized Humor
was all that was left–
All I could do with Humor was to say:
‘Out the window with the window!’
I originally was going to choose “Marriage,” the Gregory Corso poem that made me fall in love with poetry in the first place, but it was a bit too long for this space. “The Whole Mess … Almost” serves as an Ars Poetica for Corso, listing the ingredients that he likes to incorporate in his poetry. Of all the Beats, Corso is my favorite, no small thing considering how deeply influenced I am by the gang. I had the privilege of being friends with him, and I can report that in our relationship he was kind, patient, and generous, something that can’t be said by many who knew him. Most importantly, what I admire about his poetry in general, and this poem in particular is his mid-twentieth century romanticism, sense of humor, simplicity of title, and surreally imaginative wordplay. After all, in these difficult times, all that’s left is humor.
— Danny Shot
NA: I love how you open, Gloved Against Blood, with a quote from Proust, “For we are our loom,” and then write about your life and your ancestor’s lives, both as if they were images on a tapestry as well as the creators of the tapestry. How did this book begin? What was the first poem you wrote for it?
CV: The book began with the poem “How a Community of Women.” Although at the time I wrote this poem I had no idea that it was the beginning of Gloved Against Blood. I thought it was a stand-alone poem inspired by my mother’s family history. As my mother aged she started sharing with me stories of her early life. I realize now, in hindsight, that this preoccupation with her past and her lineage actually marked the onset of her memory issues. During one of my visits to Florida to see my parents, my mother and I happened to go out to dinner alone (a rarity). At that dinner I received an email from Sou’wester accepting “How a Community of Women” for publication. She was so moved to know that this poem that honored her history was going to be in print. It was a sign to me (and a green light) to explore this territory in greater depth and to document it in the best way I knew how – through poetry.
NA: That’s so interesting! Your mother was a little like Penelope then, weaving her story for you as her mind unwove her past? Can we post that poem here?
CV: Yes, it was important to me to bring Penelope into the book. Not only related to my mother’s memories but also because of the focus on needlework. I was interested in the juxtaposition of the precision of needlework with the fact that it naturally wants to, and will, unravel over time.
How a Community of Women
Resolved, That we will not go back into the mills to work
unless our wages are continued…as they have been.
Resolved, That none of us will go back, unless they receive us all as one.
Resolved, That if any have not money enough to carry them home,
they shall be supplied.
—Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1834
How my French Canadian great-grandmother and great-great-aunts
toiled thirteen hours a day in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.
How weak the light when they left the boardinghouse each morning.
How screaming starlings flash mobbed them along the way. How they
sucked thread through the eye of their foot-long wooden shuttles
that fed the cotton to the looms. How they called that quick motion
of their lips “the kiss of death.” How they could not converse over
the cacophonic, clickety-click, clickety-clack of five-hundred howling
looms. How they walked back in ear-ringing darkness, had dinner,
then took up their needlework—crochet, crewel, cross-stitch, knitting,
mending, quilting, darning—close work, women’s work. My mother
taught me, her mother taught her, her mother taught her.
NA: It’s such a great metaphor! In the poem, “Triptych,” in which you reference Penelope, you talk about the mill your great-grandmother worked in. What was it like seeing it, or, as I imagine it, visiting your great-grandmother’s past? I am assuming you actually saw it? You wrote:
I’ve seen the steps she climbed each morning to begin another day
in the mill. They spiral like a beaded periwinkle
toward a far-off rectangle
CV: I visited the Boott Cotton Mills complex, which is part of the Lowell National Historical Park, while writing the poems for this collection. My great-grandmother (Mémé) worked there as a young woman before she married, but I have no details about her time there. All I know is that she left Quebec for a job in the mills and the one tangible thing that remains of Mémé’s life is her thimble that was passed to my grandmother, my mother and then me. Eventually it will be my daughter’s. My visits to the mills helped me imagine what it was like for her, to feel more connected to her and to put her time there as a young, hopeful immigrant into some kind of context with the rest of her life which was hard. For me it was important that the book reach beyond family history. I wanted to honor the mill girls, to tell their narratives and to weave a female story. My visits to the mills felt similar to visiting a memorial, almost reverential in a non-religious way. The idea that all those lives that toiled there—their hard work, best intentions, dreams and even just the mundane dailiness of it all—could be completely lost while the brick and mortar mill survived. And for some reason, those stairs spiraling up into the mill, affected me more than the looms themselves.
NA: For me, one of the most powerful poems in your book is “Lowell Cloth Narratives” in which you link the narratives of ex-slaves who picked the cotton to that of the women who wove the cotton. I wondered if you could say a few words about that poem? How you found those narratives?
CV: When I was doing research for the book I learned that the Lowell mills not only bought Southern cotton to fuel the mills but that they also produced Lowell cloth (a generic term for cheap, course cotton) which was sold to Southern plantations for the purpose of clothing enslaved African Americans. Many of the mill girls were abolitionists and yet their livelihood depended on slavery and they were charged with making the very cloth that the slaves wore to pick the cotton that fed the mills. The irony of this information was just so impactful for me—it took the top of my head off and haunted me. It became very important to me to include this in the book although initially I wasn’t sure how to present it. I Googled Lowell cloth and among the sites I found was one from the University of Massachusetts Lowell which included references to Lowell cloth found in 39 different Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the WPA in the 1930s. I studied these narratives and selected three to use in this hybrid poem that pairs the words of the interviewees (in italics) with what I imagined the mill girls might have wanted to share about their experience and the cognitive dissonance they must have felt by being anti-slavery on the one hand but dependent on it on the other.
NA: Could we post a section from that poem? Maybe the opening stanza?
Lowell Cloth Narratives
Based on Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Lowell cloth was a “generic” term for cheap, course cotton cloth, produced originally in the textile mills of Waltham, later Lowell.
State: Arkansas Interviewee: Bear, Dina
I was born in slavery time—a world away
we wove we wove away. I was born in the field
under a tree. Thirteen hours a day we toiled
cotton into cloth. People wore home-made
what I mean homespun and lowell clothes.
It snowed in our lungs and every window
shut. My dresses was called mother
hubbards. We passed abolitionist poems
from loom to loom. I was too young
to remember anything about slavery—
blood and sweat blood and sweat. I went
barefoot until I was a young missie. We
signed the petitions. Folk did not know
how we was made.
NA: I love the layers of this book: your personal history, your family history, and American history woven together. You’ve created a masterpiece with this book. I imagine it was a huge challenge, bringing those pieces together in your poems?
CV: Yes, it was definitely a challenge! Bringing all the layers together ended up being more of an organic process that evolved over time as I immersed myself in research on the mills and worked on the poems. Interestingly, I never thought of myself as a history buff and yet it was local history that ended up providing the lens and conduit for me to write about personal and family history in a way that, I hoped, would be universal. Throughout the process I learned that I needed to stay open to where the book wanted to go versus where I might have envisioned it going. For example, when I learned about Lowell cloth I had to write that poem and I had to find a way to layer it into the book. I also figured out that I had to be patient with myself. Some poems needed to sit on the sidelines for a while until I was able to connect them with the others. At the same time, there were poems that I ultimately had to leave out because they introduced yet another layer that I felt didn’t serve the whole.
NA: So tell me about your writing process? And maybe–how it evolved while working on this book?
CV: My writing process is somewhat deliberate because I have a demanding un-poetic corporate job and I’ve learned that I need to make a place for poetry everyday in order to keep it in the forefront. This doesn’t mean I write everyday, but I make sure that each day I read, revise, write, attend a reading or workshop etc. I feel an urgency to stay focused because I’m making up for lost time. Shortly after completing my MFA, I married, had two children and took the corporate job I hold today—I put poetry on a back burner for twenty years. I’m a terrible multitasker!
My writing process did evolve as part of writing Gloved Against Blood because it required that I spend a good deal of time researching and reading source material. I found that I had to study the material closely, frequently re-reading it in order to find the content that spoke to me in a way that allowed me to enter it and write from it. While this was at times tedious, the historic content functioned almost like poetry prompts and provided rich scaffolding to build from.
I typically don’t write on the computer, but in a notebook, often in bed or on the couch. I travel for my job and I’ve also discovered that I can write on planes. It’s like being in a cocoon. I always revise on the computer.
NA: When did you know the title of the book? And how did you know you that the book was finished? Ready to send out into the world?
CV: I guess you could say that I had a false start on both the title and when I thought the book was finished. Initially, the book was titled Thimbleful. Under that title and with most of the poems that ended up in the book I sent it out into the world. It was the Runner Up in one contest and made the Finalist and Semi-Finalist lists in other contests. I pulled it back and decided to do a manuscript consultation with the wonderful poet and editor, Susan Rich. As part of that process I revised some poems, removed other poems, wrote a couple new poems, reordered the manuscript and chose a different title. What I realized in working with Susan was that I was so close to the manuscript that I wasn’t able to see it from an editor’s perspective. While it was hard to take a step back and trust someone with my work, it was the right decision for me.
NA: I love that title, too! I am also a Susan Rich fan. I think poetry is, at its best, a kind of community. Who else has influenced you or helped you as a poet?
CV: I love so many poets, but Emily Dickinson, Rilke and James Wright are the ones who have influenced me the most. I don’t read them often now, but they were monumental for me when I was a young poet. Mostly now, I read current journals and new books – there are so many wonderful poets out there that I am learning from everyday. Like you, I also feel that poetry, at its best, is a kind of community and I am very lucky to have a strong poetry community. This wasn’t always the case. During the years when I was more focused on my family and career than poetry I wasn’t aware of the vibrant poetry community in my area (Boston’s North Shore) and felt somewhat isolated. Once my children were in college and I turned my attention back to poetry I happened to meet January Gill O’Neil at a local coffee shop. I recognized her from a feature on debut poets that I’d read in Poets and Writers. She told me about the Salem Writer’s Group – an open group for all genres run by J.D. Scrimgeour. I started attending the twice a month workshops and met the many writers who have now become close friends. We share work regularly inside and outside of workshop, attend readings and retreats together etc. I also reconnected with a close friend from grad school and we’ve been exchanging and critiquing each others work via email for several years now. Finally, I want to say that social media, for all its pros and cons, can also be an important community for poetry and writing as long as you have realistic expectations. I like it for the exposure and connection it fosters with a diverse group of other writers and their work that I might not otherwise cross paths with. All in all I would be lost without my poetry community.
A faculty member at the college where I loved to be with students once emailed me the following: “You use too many exclamation points.” What’s the deal with the fear of enthusiasm? Seems to me it’s more essential than ever what with the damper dropped over the world by 45. So many parts of our lives deserve and need our enthusiasm. Our dogs let us know that all day: when we respond to them without delight, warmth, affection their ears droop. Cosmic signal, I’d say.
I emailed this snotty response: “You use too many periods.”
I have read editorialized essays where the complaint is Americans use the word “love” so much that it becomes meaningless, that it should be reserved only for those few people one truly loves. I say we can never use it enough. Many a tradition all but demands that we love and love and love, be it ice cream, an enemy, ones beloved.
My new year’s resolution? To use way too many exclamation points! I love exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
He Brings Home Everything
Under the house there’s room for a cat.
The porch is piled with clocks, bicycles,
broken windows, toasters, magazines.
The kitchen has minarets and steeples and
towers of old tins, cereal boxes, the top
one always with a face: Hopalong Cassidy,
Willie Mays, Daffy Duck. Every shelf
holds a montage of mugs, match boxes,
old platters, coffee pots, an entanglement
of whisks, forks, ladles, and spoons.
A hornet’s nest dangles from the ceiling fan
hanging next to a mobile of fish bones.
The bathtub overflows with children’s books.
Four years ago, he closed the door on two
full bedrooms. In his own room: puppets,
trains, kites, stuffed and wooden animals,
pop-up books, soldiers, clowns, snow
globes, penny banks, tin cars and trucks.
There is a rowboat covering a leak in the roof.
In her introduction to Carolyn Kizer: Perspectives in Her Life and Work (CavanKerry Press 2001), Maxine Kumn wrote:
Carolyn Kizer was a feminist before the word came into vogue. Her famous poem “Pro Femina” legitimized a new generation of women writers’ attention to the undisclosed facts of their lives…
Read “Pro Femina” at the Poetry Foundation’s website