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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Three Questions

The talented Jenn Monroe at Extract(s), one part of Daily Dose of Lit, asks me three questions here. Read what I have to say about titles, chaos, and the visceral nature of completion.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Interview with Karen Paul Holmes

Today I'm pleased to share this interview with Karen Paul Holmes, whose first book Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014) addresses the entire cycle of divorce, from first becoming aware of it as an option, to healing in its aftermath. All this done without slipping into cliche! Enjoy the interview.

JG: Although your book Untying the Knot is about so much more than divorce, the dissolution of a marriage is unmistakably at its center. Your poem “Suddenly, Old-Fashioned Words Apply to Me” highlights (among many other things) your awareness that infidelity and divorce are as commonplace as they are devastating. What did you do in your poems to keep the subject from becoming commonplace, or did you aim for poems that are universal, or both (and if so, what’s the difference between commonplace and universal)?

KPH: First of all, thanks for this interview, Jessica. You’ve asked such well-thought-out questions! I’d say, first and foremost, I wrote the poems for myself – they were an effort to explore what I was feeling – to get all that stuff out of my brain and heart. But in subsequently revising the poems, I also welcomed the distraction from pain: the focus on how to make each poem a “good” one – well crafted, interesting, clear, not commonplace. Making good poems was important to me even if no one ever read them, but I suppose in the back of my head, I also hoped they’d be poems others would get something out of – a good story, an aha moment, a “yes, I’ve been there” and perhaps even a little healing. With 50% of Americans divorced and others having experienced the loss of a partner, the story is automatically familiar, and in that regard, commonplace. And grief is universal – all grief has the same characteristics. Knowing someone has gone through something similar somehow helps us cope. An overall goal of the book was to share my story of devastation and survival in order to connect with people who’d experienced loss and also to give hope to those currently going through it.

JG: A number of your poems reference composers and even specific pieces of music, such as Brahms,Mahler and Prokofiev in “Prelude” and the William Tell Overture in  “Teaching Mozart in Stone Mountain Prison,” so it wasn’t surprising to learn that you have an MA in music history from the University of Michigan. How does your musicality affect the narrative drive of your poems? Is there a tension between those two impulses, or do they complement one another?

KPH: I find that referencing music does different kinds of work in my poetry: Sometimes it references a particular sound (e.g., the blaring of a trumpet), an emotion or mood (peace, excitement, etc.), and sometimes it’s a metaphor for any number of things. For example, the last line of “Prelude” references the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: "to burst forth into my own Ode to Joy" stands for a joyful coming into my own. So, I’d say all those devices help to drive the narrative. Also, the language of music – terms, composers’ names, names of pieces—adds another element to a poem’s diction. I hope that my ear for music (I played French Horn, which requires a good ear) helps me create interesting sound and rhythm in my work. I also have fun exploring synesthesia.

JG: Is there any poem in the book that you think hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved? If so, please tell us about why it is important to you. 

KPH:  Spoiler alert! This poem is near the end of the book, where I begin to heal. I got a kick out of writing it. You know how sometimes a song just speaks to you? Well, all the songs in my Zumba class were speaking to me, even though they were completely foreign to me –rap, hip-hop, and Latin pop. Each time I went, I’d try to remember the lyrics so I could put them all in a poem. I’d giggle just thinking about it.  My original draft had actual quotes but due to copyright issues, my publisher wanted me to paraphrase the lyrics so I did.

     —divorce therapy

A week ago, I didn’t know Lady Gaga
from Lady Godiva.
Now I’m stumbling through
a fusion of Latin, hip-hop, belly and pop
while Gaga rocks her lyrics right at me:
She still loves her Judas too.
After three Zumba classes I’m keeping up—
salsa, samba, and the Kumbia Kings:
Fuego! The roof’s burnin’ but we don’t care.
Bollywood, calypso, soca, reggaeton
(faster now; heart rate up!)
Step on the gasolina: My baby likes gasolina!
(or something like that).
I’m told some of the words are dirty—luckily
(or un), I don’t know Spanish, Arabic, Hindi
and can’t catch half the English.
Panting, we take it down a notch to the lyric
I’m lookin’ for a Jack who’s not a ripper.
Then: right foot cha cha cha
left foot cha cha cha
turn turn turn turn
             step right
step left
swim, monkey, frugue, pony.
Our 20-ish teacher calls this one “the ’80s”
but I recall go-go boots in sixth grade, 1966.
Now it’s, “Bring out your inner Beyoncé!”
for Single Ladies, the only song I knew before.
More mambo, tango and a peppy meringue rap:
the guy has passion in his pants
and likes to flaunt it.
Miraculously, I can now shimmy.
Mirrors line one wall.
That’s me smilin’, sweatin’, hot
pink tank, black tights—
like the last song says,
I’m groovin’ my rock moves
and I don’t need

JG: You have a background in marketing communications for financial companies among others, which is a somewhat unusual path for a poet. How has this background influenced your poems and/or your writing practice, either positively or negatively? And which came first, the poetry or the career?

KPH: The poetry came in 8th grade, although I didn’t pursue it seriously until six years ago. I’ve always had a thing about precision – I don’t like waste. That’s what I love about poetry. Every word counts. And that’s why I’m pretty good at writing ad copy and headlines (which also employ creativity and wordplay), or any text that has word limits – brochures, web sites, articles for business magazines, etc.  I recently had to write a 30-second video script for a client. She and the big wigs at her company loved the first draft, and she even said, “Karen, being a poet comes in handy.” 

I thought I had the dream job – being able to write for a living. But when I started focusing my free time on poetry, I found it was what really fed my spirit. Yes, I enjoy the business writing and can lose myself in a project, but poetry is my soul-work. And my hosting of a critique group and an open mic also gives me a very satisfying opportunity to be of service to others.

JG: There is a lot of wordplay in your poems, such as “Beyond My Ken” to pun on ‘ken’ as both knowledge and the name of the errant husband (and perhaps knowledge that the husband has become errant), and Mrs. X and Mrs. Why as the names of the lover and wife. What was the impulse in using such wryly humorous touches in a book on divorce? Was it for the benefit of the reader or the poet, or both?

KPH: I’d have to say both. As in my answer to your first question, exploring different ways of crafting a poem was a lovely distraction for me in my grief. Even though I didn’t set out to write a book, I remember thinking, “No one wants to read poem after poem that are complete downers.” Mrs. Why was written within days of my husband announcing he was in love with someone else. I actually had the funny dream in the poem. When the idea of a Mrs. X and Mrs. Why popped into my head, I had to explore it. It was definitely therapeutic to write. And who knows where the “Beyond My Ken” poem came from? (I actually have never thought of that one as humorous though).  I guess because I like language, I like the challenge of a play on words – it’s easy to become cliché though, and so that had to be avoided.

It’s human nature to find humor in unlikely places—there’s even laughter at a funeral.  As I put the book together, I kept it in chronological order of the story, and I tried to scatter just enough humor and also enough variety in style (short, long, abstract, prose-like narrative, etc.) and emotion (fear, anger, forgiveness, etc.) to keep the book interesting.

JG: What kinds of poems are you writing, post-publication of  Untying the Knot?  Are they different thematically or stylistically from what you’ve written in the past? Although you didn’t begin Untying the Knot with the intention of writing a ‘project book,’ is your new work intended to be such a project?

KPH: I try hard not to mention divorce in my new poems, but it sometimes sneaks in. I asked a poet friend if I seemed too obsessed with the subject, and he said, “Poets are always obsessed by something.” And in a workshop with Dorianne Laux, she said it will always pop up in my work.  I just wrote a poem about wisteria, and without my intending it, the wisteria became the other woman twisting her fingers, strangling everything in sight. Oh my! I’m not sure I even like that poem! I’m working on two manuscripts that you could call project books (a term I recently learned). One is focused on my family and growing up in the melding of two cultures: Macedonian (my dad) and Australian (my mom). The other contains poems about woman—fictional and real—tentatively titled Brünnhilde Speaks (after my poem about the Wagnerian heroine).

JG: After readers finish your book, what would you suggest they read next?

KPH: If they are helped by reading other people’s stories of loss and healing, then I’d suggest Donald Hall’s “Without,” about the illness and death of his wife (poet Jane Kenyon), and “Stag’s Leap” by Sharon Olds, who ends her story of divorce with graceful words of acceptance and forgiveness: I freed him, he freed me. These books demonstrate that poetry can make even ugly things beautiful.

Thank you again, Jessica. I enjoyed this time with you. 

Likewise, Karen!

And for the rest of you, Karen's book is available here!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

P&W Sighting

Look--a page from this month's Poets & Writers, and what do I see in the upper right corner? Mendeleev's Mandala! Yay!

And Jeannine Hall Gailey's The Robot Scientist's Daughter is on the bottom left, next to Devon Moore's Apology of a Woman Who Is Told She Is Going to Hell. (This photo is courtesy of Devon, too--I don't have my copy yet.)

Yay for Mayapple Press & its authors!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey

I'm starting a new feature to this blog: an occasional interview with a poet. To begin, I've
interviewed Jeannine Hall Gailey about her new book The Robot Scientist's Daughter (Mayapple Press, 2015). Mayapple also published my most recent book, but I had e-met Jeannine previously when she was the judge who chose my chapbook for the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition about a decade ago. So I'm pleased to have her as guest here today.

I'd also like to invite other poets who'd like to be interviewed to contact me via my website.

Okay, now on with today's interview!

JG: Your book book has as its launching point your childhood experiences growing up in Tennessee in the shadow of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the nuclear research being done there. On top of that, you did quite a bit of research to contextualize scientific facts and political issues that you likely weren’t fully aware of when you were growing up. Consequently, there’s a lot of information and explication that you had to embed in your poems without being obvious about it, without sacrificing poetic diction, imagery, etc. What were some of the techniques you used to achieve this?

JHG: Good question! This was tricky. I noticed some of the poems were heavy with prose-y, scientific language, so to mitigate that, I tried to embed some of the information in more purposefully lyrical poems and in some of the more conversational autobiographical poems. Some of it probably still reads a little, you know…it’s hard to put “Oak Ridge National Laboratories” in a book so many times and still have it read like poetry! But some of poems, I feel I was able to get a more seamless combination of the scientific and the lyrical. But it was a problem I was very conscious of from the beginning. I wavered between splitting the poems into stanza-fied verse and prose poems for a long time. A prose poem may not succeed if it is too prose-y.

JG: A good number of poems are entitled “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter” followed by a word or phrase in brackets. What does this repetition achieve? How did you decide on the words or phrases to include in the brackets?

JHG: I wanted to get the idea across that there was a recurring character, who was not me, in the book, and the titles were how I wanted to do that. I was probably influenced in this by Marvin Bell’s Dead Man Poems and Matthea Harvey’s repeated titles in Modern Life. Creating that character allowed me a certain flight of fancy the strictly autobiographical poems and scientific poems did not.

The bracketed words were sometimes just fun (like a personality test I took that gave me the response, “Director” as my career choice, which I misread as “Dictator” and ended up putting in a bracket) and references to in-jokes like “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [villainess]” which references my first book.

JG: The artwork on the cover is stunning. Please tell us about it.

JHG: Yes, this book’s cover art was quite a bit more difficult to find than my other books, simply because the subject matter was more complex, and I didn’t want something too simplistic on the cover. There was a lot of wonderful art with robots, and a lot of wonderful art with little girls; I almost used a vintage postcard that said “Welcome to Oak Ridge!” with a split image of oak tree forests and cheerful-looking scientists in lab coats, and that would have been lovely but conveyed something different. I found symbolist painter Masaaki Sasamoto’s work online, and I tracked down his web site where his contact info and everything else was in Japanese, so I had my little brother (who can read and speak Japanese) help me translate his contact info and wrote to him. We wrote back and forth using Google translate! He was very gracious and offered a choice of many different images from a fantastic series of little girl dolls with robotic innards, and all of them were beautiful. I chose one called “Cocoro” which means roughly (according to my little brother, who tipped me off to the fact that it is also the name of a famous Japanese novel) “what comes out of the heart,” which is especially great in its literal and metaphorical sense because in the picture we chose for the cover, the little girl’s heart is exposed as mechanical. My publisher, Judith Kerman from Mayapple Press, then used her graphic design skills to take elements from Masaaki’s art that were also in the poems, like gears and butterflies, and include them in a beautiful border used all the way around the book cover.

JG: Is there any poem in the book that you think hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved? If so, please tell us about why it is important to you. 

JHG: There is a poem I almost always read when I do readings for the book called “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [medical wonder]” that blends quite a bit of my real life medical experiences with the fantastical, and I think it’s probably key to understanding the book. It was originally published in “The Cortland Review” in 2010. It’s all about the hope that science offers, and sometimes, promises falsely.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [medical wonder]

was a bit confused. She started down a road
to medical wonder, sat under the machine’s lights,
but then tiptoed off on a paper trail,
looking for an island of cranes. She made a thousand
wishes, still she shed a blue glow
and everyone said how sickly. Her nails
made of plastic and paper maché, her heart’s
thump-thump three times fast. Her one kidney
curled inside her ribs, her blood trying to escape.
“Father” she screamed but he couldn’t save her.

The robot scientist’s daughter knew
what she had to do. With her own two hands
she built a new body, one that worked better
this time, silver and shiny and smooth
as mirrored glass. After all she’d been trained,
it was no less than was expected. She crawled inside
and adjusted the fit. This time, there will be no
stopping her. The curves are all impenetrable
and the precision of each drum-kit-beat keeps her in line.
She’s a soldier, a savior, a ship to bear prisoners into space.

JG: The image that stood out to me the most in the book was when the father brings the Geiger counter to the daughter making a snowman in order to show her that it was not safe to eat the snow. Which image from your Tennessee childhood haunts you the most?

JHG: It reappears throughout the book, but it was going back with my husband to show him where I had lived as a child, and seeing the wonderful woods, the garden my mother worked so hard to keep up, everything just flattened and covered with concrete, completely barren. All the daffodils, hundreds-of-years-old oak trees, rock formations, violets, rose gardens, lilacs, spirea, forsythia, rhododendrons – not a bit of it left.

Another was a wildlife encounter that strangely enough, appeared more in my second book, She Returns to the Floating World, than this one; I was on the edge of a field by the woods, some distance from my parents, as a young child, and a red fox came up to me and put her face up towards me. She stood motionless a long time, and then trotted off. I think now, because of the size of the fox, that it was probably not full grown, but a kit. Anyway, a pretty outstanding experience for a kid of six or seven.

JG: This book blends autobiography, fiction, pop culture, and scientific fact in a way that mimics what the experience of growing up in a community shrouded in secrets must have been. Was that one of the purposes of blending the edges of these sources, to recreate the fuzzy edges of you experienced in a community in which everyone is warned to keep secrets? If so, how did you achieve that effect? If not, what was your intention in blending imagery from such disparate sources?

JHG: I think the fact that even now, it’s hard to get a complete story out of people who worked (or work) at Oak Ridge, from the government sources, etc., mean that some of the story will always be blurred, or at least out of focus. There’s at least a fifty year redaction period on all paperwork,even unimportant paperwork, coming out of ORNL. That means by the time what was going on when I was a child comes out, I’ll be an older woman, and probably won’t have all my memories of my childhood intact. (I have neural lesions, the cause of which has not been found, that do affect my memory more and more as I get older.)

There’s also something very dark, untrusting, in the tone, that results from knowing your phone lines are tapped, that government agents could be watching you, even when you’re a small child.The true stories that make up the histories of America’s “secret cities” – for instance, of the purposeful poisoning of American citizens at Hanford of the “Green Run” to test the effects of radiation.

JG: After readers finish your book, what would you suggest they read next?

JHG: I think if you are interested in the historical aspects of this book, you would probably enjoy former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken’s splendid work on growing up and working at Hanford, Plume. If you’re interested in the playful exploration of robots and their inner lives, look up Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life. And if you haven’t read any of my other books, the book that I recommend reading after this one would probably be She Returns to the Floating World, which explores Japanese folklore and history but contains shades of the same ecological concern that this one had. (Originally published by Kitsune Books, it has been re-released through Two Sylvias Press with new tremendous illustrations by my friend, artist Michaela Eaves.)

The Robot Scientist's Daughter is available here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tishman & Tweetspeak

Thanks to editor extraordinaire Maura Snell, I have two new poems in the recent The Tishman Review, along with work by Dan Jacoby and Shevaun Brannigan. Check it out.

Also, in a fun surprise, L L Barkat at Every Day Poems (from Tweetspeak) has reprinted a poem from The Insomniac's Weather Report.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Neat on the Net: Heat Wave

It's stiflingly humid here. But here are three interesting things from the net:

1) Oprah on how to beat the lags and dips in your daily rhythm (called utradian rhythms). In all this heat, we can all use tips on how to maximize our energy by listening to our body.

2) Here is an excerpt from Li-Young Lee's talk at Poets & Writers Live: Agents & Editors in Chicago on June 20, 2015. On abundance and scarcity. On what two (make that three) things a poet must study. A new (as yet untitled) poem.

3) My friend poet Erin Malone sent me this picture from the Poets House newsletter. Do you see what I see? Eeeeee! It's Mendeleev's Mandala, on the upper left shelf! (And featured in the picture is poet Jan Clausen with her new book Veiled Spill: A Sequence--that's what the picture is really about.)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Summer Reading Suggestions

Looking for a summer reading suggestion? How about Dave Zobel's The Science of  TV's the Big Bang Theory: Explanations Even Penny Would Understand? Zobel explains the scientific principles featured in conversations on the #1 most popular scripted television show.

And if that isn't a reason to read it, how about this? There's a poem in it, and it's by me. How did that happen, you wonder? Well, I'm a Caltech alum. Really. I have a degree from there. Really. See page 91-2, where you can read the poem "In Praise of Imperfect Love" from The Insomniac's Weather Report. Really.

And if that book isn't entirely up your alley, how about Tracy Slater's The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World. This one's about an academic from Boston who falls in love with a Japanese salaryman and ends up moving to Osaka to marry him. Not only is this book written by a charming narrator, but it also includes information on coping with infertility in a foreign country.

Guess what? I'm in this book too. Really. Tracy is one of my closest friends in Japan. But that doesn't mean I'm recommending her book solely out of loyalty. If you don't believe me, believe Barnes & Noble who named The Good Shufu a Discover Great New Writers for Summer 2015 pick! Really.