Memoir Class in November/December 2021

I’ll be teaching a generative memoir class in Roslindale this November and December. At $100 for the entire six-week session, it’s very reasonably priced. 

Class description:

Join writer and teacher Frances Donovan for a mining expedition into your lived experience.  Both new and seasoned writers will enjoy a variety of exercises designed to get the creative juices flowing. Using all five senses, we will find bright gems of vivid memory, laying the foundation for longer work or simply enjoying the act of creation. Sign up here.

Gloria Mindock Talks About the Cervena Barva Press Reading Series

Gloria Mindock has been a fixture of the Boston literary scene for decades. In addition to running Cervena Barva Press and The Lost Bookshelf, she offers multiple reading series throughout the year. An accomplished poet in her own right, she is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ash from Glass Lyre Press. Gloria’s poetry has been translated into 10 languages, and has appeared in numerous literary journals including Poet Lore, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Nixes Mate Review. Among other accolades for her service to the poetry community, she was the Poet Laureate of Somerville, MA in 2017 and 2018.

Gloria took the time to speak with me about the readings she offers at the Cervena Barva’s space at Arts at the Armory in Somerville. Since the pandemic began, she has moved her series online.

Does your series happen on a regular schedule, such as the second Tuesday of the month? If so, what is it?

I started out having the Cervena Barva Press reading series on Wednesdays but since I have my own space (Arts at the Armory, Basement B8), I am flexible and schedule readings when the readers are available. It is wonderful to not depend on other places for scheduling.

Before I had my own space, I had the series at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square. I loved having it there. It was such a beautiful space and easy for people to get to. John Wronoski and his staff were the best! The gallery is no longer there.

How did this reading series come about?

I wanted to give my authors a place to read as well as other writers in the community and the world.

Did you develop it on your own, or do you collaborate with others?

I developed it on my own. Renuka Raghavan designs the reading flyers and all the event flyers for me.

Are you affiliated with any organization such as a journal, a press, a school, or a bookstore?

I have had many interns from Lesley University and other colleges such as Simmons, Emerson, Connecticut College, and Bennington. They have been a big help with Cervena Barva Press and The Lost Bookshelf.

What makes your reading series different from others?

I do not compare my reading series to others. I think we all have our own personal vision of what we want our series to be. I love attending other reading series and try to be supportive of them. We have an amazing community here in the area. I have readers who are fiction writers as well as poets. Last year for our 15th anniversary, I had 57 readings for July and August with only a few nights off. It was so much fun! Writers read from our community and many of my authors took part.

You can watch videos of many of our readings and events on YouTube. R. J. Jeffreys set up the Cervena Barva Press channel does everything on YouTube for us. I am so grateful.

Every other year, we have a series called, “Cervena Barva Press Reads All Over the World.”

Many of my authors schedule readings where they are from and invite others to read with them.

This happens from October through December.

Who comes to your series?

Mostly other writers attend the readings. Translations are my favorite to publish. Since the pandemic, readings have been virtual, and it has made it easier for having international readings. R. J. Jeffreys has been my co-host for the virtual readings.

What upcoming featured poets are you really excited about?

I am excited about anyone who reads for my series. I am in the process of scheduling for the summer, fall, and next year. Usually, the schedule is packed but I decided to slow down and concentrate more on my writing, and launching my new book, Ash, published by Glass Lyre Press.

One writer I am excited about is Paul Sohar. His new book, In Sun’s Shadow, is incredible. I look forward to having him join our series.

Can you describe your venue? Is it wheelchair accessible?

Yes, we are wheelchair accessible. There is an elevator on the main level which will take you to the basement. The venue is cozy. Everyone is surrounded by books with chairs in the middle. I have the overhead lights off and have a lamp and stringed lights on to make the readings feel more intimate.

What can your guests expect when they arrive? Things like a cover charge, lines, or other helpful tips.

In my studio space, there is a charge of $5.00 to attend events. Since I pay rent, I needed to do this. Cervena Barva Press is not a non-profit organization so there is no funding.

If a person cannot pay, they are never turned away.

At every event, I serve white and red wine, bottled water, cheese and crackers, and other snacks. I try to make each event special.

Renuka Raghavan, Karen Friedland, and William J. Kelle have helped me with the readings in the Armory, collecting the money at the door, setting up the room, breaking it down afterward, and whatever else needs to be done. They are incredible. They all are part of the press and help me with so many things.

How does it work now that the series is online? 

I do not charge anything for the online readings. Zoom has been a great experience.  It is easy to have writers from all over the world be a part of the series. I love bringing different readers to the series that normally could not travel here.

Are you aiming for a particular aesthetic or vibe with your featured poets?

I am open to all types of work providing it is good. I look forward to hosting more international readers.

Does your series include an open mic? If so, is there anything poets should know before signing up for it?

I do not have an open mic at my series.

If someone would like to be considered as a featured poet for your series, how should they go about inquiring?

Email me at editor@cervenabarvapress.com.  I would love a sample of work. It is ok to send a bio but that does not determine who I ask. I am more interested in the writing than how many books you have published or publications.

Do you have a mailing list or other way people can learn about your future readings? How can people sign up?

I have a mailing list. If anyone wishes to be on it, please email me and I will add you to our list.

At readings, I have a sign-up sheet. I have not done this with Zoom but in the future, they can put their email in chat.

A Poetic Variety Show: Talking with Steven Cramer, Author of Listen

Steven Cramer taught one of the first seminars I took at the Lesley low-residency MFA program, and I later learned that he founded the program itself back in 2003. Like most of the Lesley faculty, his bio is studded with accolades: six books of poetry, a page on the Poetry Foundation website, prizes from the New England Poetry Club and the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and bylines in major publications like Poetry, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. But perhaps more importantly, he’s a sensitive soul with a deep and comprehensive knowledge of literature. When I was writing a craft essay on Dickinson, I went searching for interpretations of a particularly obscure line, and an interview with him was the only relevant result.

His newest book Listen (Mad Hat Press) came out in 2020 amidst all the chaos and isolation of the pandemic. Fortunately, Zoom readings have in many ways made poetry even more accessible than before. And writers often prefer to communicate using the written word. Steven and I corresponded via email for a few weeks, with prodigious results. We discussed the ways that poetry collections come together, the pros and cons of printed page versus screens, and white space as a craft element. And, as I do with every poet I interview, I asked about his individual writing practice, the ways he manages the writing life, and what he might tell poets at the beginning of their careers.

Frances Donovan: Tell me about your new collection.

Photograph of poet Steven Cramer
Poet Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer: Listen was a peculiar collection to assemble.  My previous book, Clangings, arrived in a kind of white, interruptive heat between 2010 and its publication in 2012.  By the time I’d written enough poetry for Listen, some candidates for inclusion in the book dated as far back as 2004, and others came of age as recently as two years ago.  How did these poems talk to each other, if they did?

I was never much good at organizing my own books. I always asked my friends for help.  I had poems that wrestled—sometimes rather covertly—with three years of depression; those had to go together.  I had poems that cast imaginative attention on my different clans—children (tweenish in 2004; by 2019 in no way children); a thirty-plus year marriage; the absences and presences of my diminishing family of origin; and reading, a subject I embrace without apology. With crucial assistance I came up with a first section that starts very dark, goes darker, and then begins to lift its gaze before the second section turns to the erotic life and two of its inevitable outcomes—offspring and death!  A number of poems that grapple with the social world’s impingements on the personal had accumulated for a third section. Finally, there’s a group that, by and large, honors writers I love, through adaptation or homage. I think that last suite completes the upward arc from Listen’s first section. 

Some poetry collections are very consistent, poem by poem, in form and tone.  Except for my one “project book,” Clangings, I have strived for stylistic diversity.  Philip Larkin tells an interviewer somewhere that he thinks of his collections as poetic variety shows: start with the opera singer, then bring out the yodeling dogs, then the plate-spinner, then the comedian, and so on.  I love that, and aspire to it. My own Cavalcade of Stars would have to include the Beatles’ American debut on Ed Sullivan, February 9, 1964.

Frances Donovan: Tell me more about your writing practice today.

Steven Cramer: “Practice” is a good word, no?  In writing, practice never quite makes perfect.  I teach part-time now, so I have more moments to write, or at least more time to fret about writing.  In a sense, I “write” all the time, if taking random notes—on my phone as often as on paper these days—and persistently wishing on a poem in my head counts as writing.  But I almost never generate a first draft in one sitting.  I used to, and would like to more often.  Instead, a first draft of something worth working on tends to assemble itself when I abduct some fragments, often spawned at different times, and put them together and ask them to dance.  When they dance, I try to join in; when they don’t, I go make a very big sandwich.  After a Microsoft Word folder labeled “Drafts and Fragments” grew too big to search files fruitfully anymore, I started a new one, labeled “New Drafts and Fragments.”

Frances Donovan: Has your writing practice changed over time? If so, how so?

Steven Cramer: Yes; I used to write long-hand as an aging teen; then I moved to a Selectric in college and graduate school; then, if I remember correctly, I skipped the short-lived advent of the word processor and went right to a desktop computer, and then to a laptop.  Somewhere along that continuum, my living room couch began to sub for my desk.

A less glib response involves a change in attitude.  I continue to hate not writing, and never enjoy my silences; but I think I don’t hate my non-writing self quite so much anymore.  With maybe twenty years left if I’m lucky, the portions of those years I’ll devote to writing and reading poems feel like meals yet to be enjoyed.   In all things remaining to me—poetry among the most central, but not exclusively so—I hope to amble, not sprint, through those years.

Frances Donovan: Do you find that you’re doing everything on the computer these days?

Steven Cramer: Just about.  I don’t even print out drafts much anymore.  I do save versions of poems-in-progress with numbered suffixes added to their filenames, to help me distinguish earlier incarnations from later ones.  And as I said, my phone’s becoming more and more my sketch pad.  Last Christmas I received—as I always do—a handsome little notebook in my stocking.  For the first time I thought: what will I do with this? 

When I teach, I comment electronically on all student manuscripts, but I still print them out for workshop discussion—in larger and larger fonts, I’ve found, dispiritingly.  Track changes and comment boxes have lifted a heavy weight, since I’ve always detested my handwriting.  Inscribing or even just signing a book for someone provokes the same anxiety I feel when asked to calculate a tip.  What’s your writing drill?

Frances Donovan: I compose prose on the computer, but I find that I need to do my poetry free-writes in longhand. Likewise, I prefer to print out a piece I’m working on, so I can edit and write marginalia. Has the computer changed the format of the poetry you write? For instance, I know some people make extensive use of white space in their poems.

Steven Cramer: I’m pretty much a flush-left, ragged-right kind of poet—when the poem’s in verse—although some months ago I did create (can’t say I “wrote”) a number of “self-erasures”—texts made by electronically whiting out passages from incomplete drafts of my own.  Performing the erasure operation on myself had a kind of bracingly masochistic feel to it.  They hide out in a folder I haven’t opened in months.

White space denotes a visual experience, so I find it a problematic term to apply to poetry, which is fundamentally a verbal and auditory art form.  Of course, a poem first presents its look on the page to readers—if they’re reading it, not listening to it—but that look doesn’t change whether or not the poem is read.   I don’t get the point of simply looking at a poem (except perhaps to estimate the time it may take to read).

A very moving deployment of indentation and dropped lines (my preferred terminology) happens in Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.”

Has an ashtray ever performed a more poignant walk-on? 

Frances Donovan: That’s a lovely poem by Frank O’Hara. I’ve also done a self-erasure poem! It appeared in Fire Poetry Journal. I got the idea from a poem of Lesley Wheeler’s in Cold Mountain ReviewUse of white space isn’t to every reader’s taste, but I find it can be very effective.

Steven Cramer: Oh, me too, but as I said I think it’s misguided—or at least limiting—to treat white space in poems as simply a visual effect.  In O’Hara’s poem, the lines indent and break eccentrically to convey the speaker’s shifting emotional states, and thereby they also orchestrate readers’ responses to those states.  I could spend the next seven hundred and thirty-three words praising the poem’s expert syncopations of tone. I’ll stick with our ashtray, which is among the last things one expects, on first reading, to follow the gentle imperative “put out your hand,” so the dropped, indented line to position the word not only reinforces our surprise, it also suggests that our blazing, loving, afire, tender, writhing, screaming speaker does his own double-take: “I said that?”  And we say, “of course you said that; where else did you think all your ‘blazing’ and ‘afire love’ would end up?”  O’Hara was a master of spontaneous craftsmanship.

Frances Donovan: You mentioned commenting on student manuscripts. How does your teaching life relate to your writing life? Some poets seem to find teaching draining, while others find it inspiring.

Steven Cramer: I came to teaching comparatively late, having spent the second half of my twenties, after graduating from Iowa, as your basic publishing workhorse.  After a stint earning cracker crumbs at David R. Godine, I got divorced and made a living wage of crackers as Managing Editor at a long-kaput social science subsidiary of Harper & Row, Ballinger Publishing Company.  Lord, their books were deadening—most memorable title:  Industrial Solid Waste—but after my stint there, I damn well know my serial commas; why we have long-term goals while our goals are long term; and where to stick a semicolon.

For roughly thirteen of the thirty-eight years I’ve been teaching, I’ve wandered from classroom to classroom as a Nomadic Adjunct.  May I use arrows to signify my careening career as a teacher?  If I may, it goes like this:  M.I.T. → Boston University → Tufts University → Bennington College → Boston University → M.I.T. → Queens University → Lesley University, where I’ve worked since 2003.  From those years of teaching the art of reading and writing—founding and directing the Lesley MFA program required a hybrid administrator/teacher—I have two firm beliefs about teaching:  it’s a job like any other, and it’s a job like no other. 

Cover image for Steven Cramer's book of poetry LISTEN

Teaching can drain quite differently than a more conventionally stupefying job (like Ballinger’s) can drain; it uses an imaginative muscle that at least resembles the muscle one puts into writing.  Thinking hard and helpfully about other people’s poems can leave little energy to think about one’s own.  And since pondering someone else’s poems gives pleasure (usually), teaching can seduce as well as interrupt or derail.  On the other hand, isn’t teaching one of the noble professions, right up there with curing diseases, combatting poverty and injustice, or listening and talking to people in healing ways? I’m very fortunate now to teach only those graduate students who are “preselected” to want to learn something by working with me. I hope never to have to grade a poem again, but even when my teaching involved, in part, a kind of implicit “pitch” to persuade some students that writing and literature matter, the glories outnumbered the downers.

As for inspiration, I’ll risk candor and admit that teaching graduate creative writing workshops doesn’t often result in student work—good as it can become—that motivates growth in my own writing.  With some dazzling exceptions, even my most experienced and devoted students—devoted, I hope, to poetry, not to me—tend to explore territories of vision and style that I’ve already encountered, although hardly surveyed completely.  This doesn’t mean I don’t learn and benefit in other ways—the enthusiasm of shared discovery; the tonic reminder that my aesthetic viewpoints are as subjective, even myopic, as anyone else’s; and perhaps most important, the constantly self-renewing appreciation that every work of art in progress, no matter how inchoate or halting, has a human being behind it; and in front of it, a potential future.

However (and it’s a big one) teaching the creative reading of great poetry—in English from Henry VIII’s reign to the real thing copyrighted 2021; in translation even further back and farther afield—has excited my own poetry in ways I can describe and in ways I can’t.  I taught the English Renaissance sonnet for at least two semesters before the fourteen sonnets in Goodbye to the Orchard happened to me. I will reread Emily Dickinson at any time, with any takers; and while I still haven’t finished my homage to Dickinson that I started in 2019, every word I commit to my laptop screen strives to at least approximate the spirit of the standards she held herself to: “a Word made Flesh is seldom/And tremblingly partook.”

Frances Donovan: So you find reading the classics really inspires your own poetry. Interesting. Do you get similar inspiration from reading contemporary poetry? I’ve found books like Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec both inspiring and sort of… “look upon my works and despair.”

Steven Cramer: If I understand the import of your quoting Shelley, I’ll take that bait first.  The human penchant to admire others at one’s own expense—the imposter syndrome, the zero-sum game of homage—hobbles and misshapes so ubiquitously, you’d think “they” (whoever they are) would have found a cure—just the way “they” didn’t for male-pattern baldness.  People who make things for aesthetic purposes—maybe all people—hear at least one of two voices: 1) you’ll never know whether your stuff is any good; 2) your stuff is no good.  The first voice is tolerable, maybe even benign, since its truth has a kind of healthy disinterest about long-term value.  The second voice comes hissing hot from hell.  It’s useful to recall that Ozymandias’s taunt—inarguably on Voice #2’s team—issues from a heap of ruins in a desert.

Modern and contemporary poetry inspires me all the time.  I hope to never stop learning from poets younger than myself, although I can’t claim—can anyone?—to be well-read in my art.  During my six years as Staff Editor for The Atlantic Monthly, I knew the poems of many books before they were books.  When I taught nearly everything at Bennington for five years, I earned my private PhD in literature.  Best not to name specific living poets I admire, or don’t; better not to name those currently reigning monarchs I feel are less dressed than some believe. 

I’m not great at taking aerial views, but I do sense a prevalence of affectation in a good deal of new poetry.  I don’t mean (just) an absence of humor, or (just) unrewarding obscurity—I quite love many poems I don’t really get—but rather an allergy in a lot of poems I read to self-examination, and a fetish for received ideas recycled as illumination.  Louise Glück calls it “ersatz thought”—in her essay titled Ersatz Thought!—and I think I know whom she has in mind, but I ain’t telling.  I’d like to write an essay titled “Against Pretension,” but such an essay would have to name names.  When I wrote reviews for Poetry, I named names.  I’m not fully proud that I did so.

One last comment on this subject.  After nearly fifty years of writing poems, I’d like to believe that if I write a good one, its style sounds like my style.  Not me; my style.  Many—too many—have heard me say that a finished poem no longer belongs to its poet.

Frances Donovan: Are there other ways besides reading poetry that help you refill your creative well?

Steven Cramer: Yes, but those ways seem to me quite haphazard, even covert.  I’ve had no sustaining hobbies.  My wife tells me I made omelets avidly for about a  year, which I don’t remember.  I do little other than write, read, teach, and try to live as peacefully and honestly as I can.  (Which reminds me of a great sentence I read recently:  “Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.”  I find that to be a patently true statement, although I imagine some other feel otherwise.) Often, I’ve written well on vacation, back when we had vacations—not fueled by anything specific in the location; just something about sitting somewhere different.  I go through phases when I devour nonfiction on a particular subject—consciousness, evolution, the Third Reich, the death of the universe, the Beatles.  Those subjects have found their way into my poetry.  Paradoxically, perhaps, silence—not writing—seems to restore some of my creative reservoir.  I don’t like that form of revivification—nor am I likeable during those periods—but I may have turned a corner recently—from tolerating silence to embracing it.  Okay, not embracing—maybe an elbow bump.

Frances Donovan: How do you think popular perceptions of poetry as an art form have changed over the course of your career?

Steven Cramer: Seems to me the rub here is the word “popular.”  A poet whose name I forget—that’s telling in itself—remarked years ago that only one poet since Tennyson has achieved true fame:  Allen Ginsberg.  I might have added Sylvia Plath to make a duet, but in the last undergraduate creative writing course I’m likely to teach in my lifetime, blank stares met the invocation of her name.  I’m not sure that twenty undergraduates constitute a representative sample to assess a public figure’s popularity—and I didn’t try out Ginsberg—but certainly college students have better antennae for popularity than I do. 

Restricting the control group to people who read poetry for pleasure, I’d start with that notion of pleasure. I’m on the thin ice of hunches here, but I sense a decline in the perception of poetry as a site where reading seriously rewards pleasure.  I hear many say that they read for self-affirmation, inspiration for their own writing, out of curiosity about a freshly “popular” poet, and even out of a sense of duty.  None of those strike me as bad reasons for reading poetry, if any bad reasons for reading exist.  But my favorite off-rhyme—as many who know me have heard too often—is labor/pleasure.  Poetry needn’t always please by virtue of a reader’s hard labor, but paying attention—at least for distractible me—always involves sitting still, and I know of no poetry that rewards distraction.

I submit for consideration these two perceptions of poetry as an art form:  1) a poet I respect recently asked (rhetorically) a group of other poets: what’s the use of literature?  I assumed the question presupposed that such a use existed, and could be identified.  2) In her essay on reading, “Disinterestedness,” Louise Glück (hey, she was my teacher, after all) posits this ideal of the reading self at its most receptive: it suspends opinion and response. . .attempting, instead, neutrality, attentiveness.  I vote for Viewpoint #2, knowing fully that such an ideal—like all ideals—proves impossible almost all the time.

Frances Donovan: In my experience, the life of a publishing poet involves three different kinds of effort: generative work, which requires the spirit of play, intuition, and the unconscious; revision, which requires analytical thinking (and a touch of intuition); and the po-biz, the business of poetry, which requires organizational skills and emotional intelligence. How do you balance (or juggle) these three kinds of work?

Steven Cramer: You’ve categorized these three efforts crisply and persuasively, and they pretty much hold true for me.  More and more, however, I’ve found that the border between generative work and revision is at best a sometimes useful fabrication.  For me, rewriting a poem-in-process involves just as much intuition as the first draft.  I’ve traded in the word “revision” for “completion,”since that feels closer to what I do—which, as I described earlier, feels like assembling a Lego model without instructions.   In some ways, I guess this process resembles the opposite of erasure.  I’m a helpless quoter, and so can’t suppress two.  Heather McHugh said, “compose for clarity; revise for strangeness.” With some exceptions, I do precisely the reverse. And this is the first sentence in Edward A. Snow’s sublime book, A Study of Vermeer

According to Klee [Snow’s a quoter too!] there is a crucial moment in the creative process when the free inspiration of the artist must cede to the obligation to be true to the thing being created. He described it as the moment when the painting acquired a face. “Now it looks at me,” he would declare.

That still makes my neck hairs tingle.

The business of finding an audience for one’s poetry does indeed demand organizational skills, which forsake me as often as not.  I’d need an explanation of emotional intelligence, at least in this context, to understand how it pertains to po-biz (surely one of the uglier coinages in English, no?).  Put as simply as I know how, given the opportunity—or uncovering an opportunity themselves—poets need to raise their hands and say, “I’m a poet too,” whether or not they get called on.

Frances Donovan: Is it necessary to have an MFA to succeed in the po-biz?

Steven Cramer: Gosh, I hope not.  Because I devoted twelve years to directing an MFA program, I could go on and on and on contemplating every major word in the question, but I might like myself less afterward.

Frances Donovan: What advice would you give to a poet just starting to send out work or find a publisher?

Steven Cramer: From a practical perspective, whatever advice I have probably shows my age.  I think “publication” still means that a gatekeeper is involved—that is, someone other than the poet, who might have said no, said yes.  Self-publication only applies to the most reductive meaning of the word: the work goes public.  If you assent to that distinction, then show your work to anyone who might find it interesting.  With so many resources online now, seeking publication, while unspeakably boring, takes time but little effort.  I may be wrong, but I haven’t found any evidence that the process is “rigged”—as it may have been a few decades ago.  It does seem to me that some elements of editorial decision making have become collectivized, as with Poetry.  Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, unless the impulse not to offend misshapes aesthetic judgment.  But I hope that individual editors—whose deep experience as readers substantiate their necessarily subjective choices, for or against—don’t go extinct.  I don’t know if they’ve become an endangered species.

I do have one two-pronged piece of advice concerning the psychology of seeking publication: just because a deeply experienced editor turns down your work, that doesn’t mean the work is bad; just because a deeply experienced editor accepts your work, that doesn’t mean the work is good.  Whether we’ve ultimately written good or bad work, we’re not invited to that debate, if indeed our work lasts long enough to be argued over; and anyway, by that time, we’ll be earth.

Steven Cramer’s latest book Listen is available from Mad Hat Press and Porter Square Books.

The Braid, by Carla Drysdale

First, my cry, then yours, split the sky
above that Brooklyn hospital
as you, limbs curled and purple
slid out of my body
after a prolonged and irreversible journey.
Pain, then
absence of pain.

The midwife held you up,
newborn body, alive in this world.
You peed an arc of urine
sparkling over the bed
and over her.

The champagne cork popped.
We all drank to life.
You suckled on a nipple.
Your lips still rimmed
with watery blood from that
other life inside.

We lay together, suspended,
holding on to each other.
Tough braid of blue and red
still binding us
cut for the first and last time.

From All Born Perfect, by Carla Drysdale. Published by Kelsay Books. This poem first appeared in the chapbook Inheritance from Finishing Line Press. Republished with permission of the poet.

Cucumber Psalm, by Lisa Bellamy

Flourish, unwashed, unpeeled, bouncy boys;
grow, citizen-workers, clothed in good dirt—
dearest ones, I place my hope in you—
your green is king, in my garden. Chopped, you are cukes,
(my Wisconsin mamma loschen)—fluted, celebrated,
bobbing in vinegar and dill; tastiest brine.
Emperor Tiberius, whom Pliny the Elder called
the gloomiest of men, enjoyed cucumbers every night
with dinner—yes, an attempt to self-medicate depressions—
but was his gloom depression or prophetic vision?
Caligula succeeded Tiberius. Today, the sky is blue—
so what. I cannot stop worrying about the republic.
When a Roman woman wanted a child, she tied
cucumbers about her waist; what, you ask,
do I want? Regime change. I want a sister or three,
subversive, fomenting coffee klatch, chatter,
plots against fascists over our Gurkensalat,
lopped, swished with sour cream—dearest cukes,
delight, nourish, fortify me—I want insurrection.

by Lisa Bellamy. Originally published in Salamander No. 50, Spring/Summer 2020. Reprinted with permission of the poet.

Dispatches from an MFA: Final Semester, First Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program at Lesley University. In the final semester, I studied with poet Erin Belieu. We spent the semester working on my MFA thesis, which became the basis for the manuscript I began shopping in 2019. Graduating students are also responsible for teaching a seminar at their final residency. This is the cover letter to the first packet of the semester.

Dear Erin:

This month I’ve felt like I’m thrashing around in a very shallow pond. At one point I shouted, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” My partner Mark laughed and said, “It sounds like grad school.”

In spite of my angst, I have been making progress. The manuscript has gone through a number of iterations. I’ve put in way too much and whittled it down. I spent a lot of time researching the stories of Rapunzel and Snow White. I read the stories from The Complete Grimm’s Fairytales, and also The Poets Grimm (there are an awful lot of poems about Cinderella in there). I did some online research and found a great exploration of the Rapunzel story by Terri Windling, which gave me some historical context. The Windling article led me to a YA novel by Donna Jo Napoli called Zel that retells the story in great detail from the perspective of the witch, Rapunzel, and the “prince” (in this case a minor nobleman). She doesn’t innovate very much from the original, but it certainly drove home the story in a more concrete way. I also downloaded and printed out lots of different photos and drawings of Rapunzel and Snow White and pasted them next to my desk.

I’ve been trying to figure out what draws me to these two characters in particular. What about their stories is compelling to me, and how do I want to re-tell them? In the case of Snow White, I’m drawn to the elements of her story that have to do with unpaid physical and emotional labor. In my version, I see her as having an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. And her ingestion of the pills (red-and-white, like her) is the beginning of a voyage into the underworld that mirrors Inanna’s. I started the Void poems in my first semester and they’ve gone through a number of iterations. Snow White is a recent addition. Please tell me if she feels pasted on.

Rapunzel’s story resonates with me in that it has to do with the sturm un drang surrounding a young girl’s budding sexuality and the necessary differentiation from a mother figure. I’m also interested reimaging the character of the witch with more nurance. I realize the setting of the Rapunzel poems is inconsistent: in the first, we’re clearly in some medieval setting, and in the later ones in a modern one. All of them need work.

Part of what makes this manuscript so challenging is that I arrived at the princess poems late in the course of my MFA. I only began writing them in the third semester. You may notice that the more finished poems (I hope we agree on what those are) don’t deal with the same themes. Prior to this series, I’d been writing more about race, class, and sexuality, and the speaker of the poems was more closely allied to myself. The princess poems delve a lot deeper. The ones that explore and try to explode the archetype (“Dirt Princess.” “Fox New Princess,” “Xena, Warrior Princess,” “Buttercup, Warrior Princess”) are more public and cerebral, and that’s why I discarded some of the less successful ones. But the deeper I go, the more troubling the subject matter becomes to write about, and the more I feel the need to differentiate between me the poet and the characters in the poems. This is why retelling the Rapunzel and Snow White stories has become so important to me. The little princess poems go even deeper. I’m aware that most of the poems in these series don’t stand very well on their own and would like to do all I can to polish them up so they do. Your suggestion of how to rewrite one of my poems in workshop bore great fruit.

These are the poems I’d like to begin working on:

• the map to the inner world (p. 6)
• Snow White Tries Becoming a Prince (p. 8)
• Fat Snow White (p. 9)
• What Snow White Swallows (p. 10) – This is the rewrite you suggested. I think it’s almost there.
• The Rapunzel poems (pp. 15-20)
• The little princess poems (pp. 21-26)
• homing princess 1 and 2 (pp. 27-28)
• St. John’s Towers 1 and 2 (pp. 31-32)
• The Wedding China (p. 33)
• The rest of the princess poems (pp.37-45)

According to my notes, there’s nothing for the graduating seminar due in the first packet. I did want to begin discussing it though. There are so many poets graduating next residency, I wanted to do something that would appeal across genres. Specifically, I was thinking about the use of white space and how it affects pacing and tone. Texts to include “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Hemingway, an excerpt from Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins, “to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” by Ross Gay, “The Bandleader Calls it the Angel Position,” by Gabi Calvocoressi, “The Window is One-Sided It Does Not Admit,” by Rachel Zucker, “Poetry Machines,” by Cate Marvin. I welcome your feedback on both the topic and the preliminary reading list.

All my best,

Frances

When Was My Anger Conceived? by Jennifer Martelli

The summer of assassinations?

By the man-made lake? A hole
so shallow and muddy, all the men
held hands, formed a human net and
walked toward each other to the center
to feel for some kid who might have
gone under–there,

on its shore, in the Kodak, me,
in my little terry cloth bikini,
all round as the moon stomach.
I’d worn a Batman mask attached

by a thin rubber band all summer,
my hands fisted, the nails bit crescents
in my palms.

The summer of my menarche? I stood

against the lazy Susan in the kitchen and
watched the President resign on the small TV:
I cried because of the cramps and blood,
the garter belt biting me. My mother said
we’d never see this again and she was wrong:

even married to my father,
she couldn’t predict the depth
of a man’s rage.

A year after my abortion?

The clinic three stops down
from my dorm, three quick stops
on the Green Line, and no one shot
there yet but escorts needed, one pink
set of rosaries flung at my face.

That year, the year of Ferraro, my aunt said she wouldn’t vote
for anything

that menstruated, could get pregnant,
could bear a child.

– Jennifer Martelli, from In the Year of Ferraro, published by Nixes Mate, 2020. Republished with permission of the poet.

Buy Jenn’s chapbook at:

Please consider supporting small presses and local bookstores.

See all of Jenn’s publications on her website.

Read an interview with Jenn at Broadsided Press (where you can download broadsides and spread poetry in the streets).

Read an interview with Jenn at The Rumpus

Slower Than Turtles, Slower Than Bees

How do I tell the turtle that I am slower than he? — Pablo Neruda, from The Book of Questions

Vaster than empires and more slow – Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

I would spend the whole day dreaming, nestled in my comfy chair, the wind making music from the wind chimes, the sun making its slow round in the window. Once, after the hospital, my husband took us to a cabin in the woods built by hippies out of old houses, and I nestled on the couch and watched the sun make it slow round over the cathedral windows, while Mark brought me oatmeal, and tea, and sandwiches. He took his snowshoes out and came back smelling of woods and winter, but I sat there and watched the window change, watched the shadows of the trees bend from one side to another and was happy.

After days and days in the comfy chair I stop being able to put on my shoes. The door develops a sort of static at its edges, an invisible field made of vertigo and fear. In summer I can venture barefoot onto the porch to sit in the sun and watch the bees and butterflies — and once a hummingbird moth — in the flowers, but the concrete tears at my tender soles, and the complicated laces of my walking shoes unravel in my hands.

Sometimes I force the laces tied, force myself outside, take those dizzying steps off the porch and trudge through the neighborhood — curiously light and not-quite-there. Now, in this our first infected winter, I have to remember my mask, and in the cold my own breath condenses clammy and chilled against my mouth and nose. Curiously light and not-quite-there, stunned at the lack of catastrophe that follows me down the sidewalk, I cross Poplar Street and pad down the footpath carpeted in wood chips to the tiny piece of conservation land my neighbor has turned into a garden. In the infected summer of 2020, she wangled a mountain of free wood chips from a tree company, and a host of donated plants from Needham, and Dover. The lot had had its beauty before, but in the summer of the plague she and her wife shoveled and dug and rolled wheelbarrows until it became something more. She’s placed educational signs: “Why let the nettle grow?,” “Why a bug house?,” “Why the rotten apples?” (which she harvested from our apple tree and rolled downhill to make good soil). Why a fairy house?

Why the buds that came last spring as doctors named the marks of COVID in the lungs “ground glass?” Why the cherry blossoms in my driveway, as millions lost their jobs and the lucky ones confined themselves to laptops, and pajamas, and InstaCart. Why a madman in the White House, driving his minions to storm the Capitol? Why the Q-Anon believers, rife for recruitment now to the Proud Boys and the Hammerskins, the Aryan Resistance and the Boogaloo. Why the virus that still rides the waves of humans’ breaths into our lungs, into our vessels, into, into, into.

Today the sun has turned to clouds and I’ve fed myself and dressed myself and done my work, and I have yet to tie my shoes and go outside. Will I? Or will I do ten jumping jacks and call it a day, nestle in my comfy chair and read my Mary Russel novels, safe in my home, lazing with my cats?

On Marriage Equality and Why I’m No Longer a Catholic

I’m happy for LGBTQ+ Catholics that Pope Francis said that monogamous, same-sex families are kinda sorta okay. Since the initial story broke, it turns out that he was endorsing civil unions while vehemently fighting gay marriage. Now that we have full marriage equality in the USA–for now, anyway–it still feels like too little too late. I was happy being a Catholic until I read the Baltimore Catechism during Confirmation classes, and until I realized exactly how conditional the Church’s “unconditional” love really was. It still pains me to think of the Franciscan Friars who treated me with such love and caring as a little girl, versus how they would have viewed my “lifestyle choices,” if I’d been brave (or stupid) enough to tell them about them. It makes me bitter to think that they’d approve my marriage to a cis man but would have condemned the other relationships I’ve been in. Those particular Friars are mostly gone now, and their political views were more conservative than many other Catholics. Those were the ones I grew up with, though.

I know there are LGBTQ Catholics out there, and I’m glad that they’re working to change the system from within. I just couldn’t reconcile myself with the Church’s basic theology (original sin, the sacraments, transubstantiation), let alone its positions on social issues near and dear to my heart. Yes, Catholics continue to do a tremendous amount to help the most vulnerable communities across the globe. Yes, they provide real spiritual succor to many, many people, including my husband, my mother, and my family in California. I’ll always have a deep grief for having to leave the Church. I’ve tried to go back to services but always end up crying in the middle of them. But it’s also a relief to have left an institution so completely out of step with my own view of the world, my concept of Divinity, and the life of the spirit.

Continue reading “On Marriage Equality and Why I’m No Longer a Catholic”

Corners, by Enzo Silon Surin

My conversation with Enzo Silon Surin appeared in the The Rumpus in August. Here’s one of the poems from his book When My Body Was a Clinched Fist, out now from Black Lawrence Press.

Here’s a poem from the book.

Corners

Outside Papi’s Bodega, young boy in
summer’s native garb—white tank-top,

doorag’s a smooth blue crown garnishing
the stubbles of a week-old fade—regulates

a stereo knob while sitting shotgun
in a chromed-wheel Escalade—the ghost

of Tupac Shakur magnified in a subwoofer
like an opus—as long as

music’s kept all’s good where we come
from. If only a glare didn’t easily stumble—

if only manhood wasn’t tenured with black
powder in metal capsules, brown boys, free

to chase arcade mortality, wouldn’t have to
warily long for a ghetto’s heaven or if grief,

inherited each day they step into the a.m.,
would follow them into an afterlife.

But corners often treble the soul, a cold hope
in the fold & on Winthrop and Thorndale

the sidewalk pleats, stumbles a man in hooded sweatshirt
and blood-sodden jeans, fresh breaths

breaching his lungs—if only keeping eyes off
the karma and on the prize was what made this

world go ’round, it would be what was always
wanted—any landscape better than what’s here

—where on most nights, a native glare renders
a chamber empty as winter flower boxes.

From When My Body Was a Clinched Fist. Black Lawrence Press, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the poet.