Tag Archives: poetry

Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

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Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

Today, Grab the Lapels welcomes Jodi Paloni to the Meet the Writer series. I’ve asked Jodi questions about her two very different graduate degrees — one in environmental studies and the other in creative writing — and you read about how poetry may serve a purpose to the poet, but doesn’t have to be published to have meaning. Read more about Jodi Paloni at her website; at the bottom of her site are numerous ways to connect with her on social media.


Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?

Jodi Paloni: I mostly write realistic fiction. I’ve published a collection of short stories and a number of other stories in lit journals on-line and in print, and I’m currently working on a novel, which is hard work, but very exciting. I love to read fiction and find that getting lost in a story provides both solace and wisdom. Novels provide me with an escape like nothing else. I want to make what I love, so I write.

But when I began to write in earnest — to actually put words on paper, look them over, work on them — it was October 2001 and I was writing poetry. My first marriage was unraveling and the Twin Towers had just fallen. The poetry teacher at the school where I taught held a workshop for anyone who wanted to come and process the national tragedy through writing. My oldest daughter had been born on September 11, 1993. She was eight when the towers burned down and troubled that something like that had happened on her birthday. I wrote my first poem about her, in celebration of her coming to be. It’s still my favorite poem of the hundred and fifty or so that I have written since.

But I don’t publish poems. I keep them private, like one would a journal. Some day I’d like to pull all of my poems out and take another look at them, along with the dozen or more I’ve written in the last few years. If I find something I like, I might start sending them out. I think it would be nice to have an artifact, a chapbook or a book, that embodies the work. Poetry, to me, is the distillation of a moment, a feeling, or an experience.

My poems are mostly about the natural world as a mirror into my interior life. In troubling times, writing and reading poetry is a balm, so I tend to turn towards poetry to process emotion. I also turn to poetry when I am moved by beauty. It’s an impulse. Writing fiction is more of a strategic process for me. I get to use the parts of my brain that are both generative and tactical. It’s like figuring out a logic puzzle: the brain expands beyond the boundaries of normal thought, but is also thoughtful about boundaries. I have to say, though, all forms of writing, even writing answers to these questions, is what I want to be doing most of my time.

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GTL: What is a graduate degree in Environmental Communications at Antioch all about? And did that degree affect your time spent in an MFA program at Vermont College?

JP: I haven’t thought about that degree for in a long time, but recently, at an Earth Day brunch, I found myself reflecting on my time at Antioch with great nostalgia. I earned that first masters in 1990 (wow!) almost thirty years ago.

I had gotten my bachelors degree in education in the early eighties, but didn’t love the idea of working in a classroom. I wanted to be outdoors, exploring the natural world, enjoying it and working to advocate for it. After a few years of teaching in environmental jobs, I decided to indulge myself in environmental study. I say indulge because a lot of the classes were held outdoors. I learned how to identify flowers, trees, and birds. I took one class called, Mammals of the Subnivean Zone, a study of the little furry creatures that stay alive all winter underneath the snow. I learned tracking. I saw Snowy Owls. I was in heaven. The communications part of the degree was about writing, and I read wonderful nature essays along the way, but mostly, it was about how to bring ideas we learned to others in the form of advocacy and policy.

In the end, I went back into teaching. I found a wonderful public school in Vermont where both place-based learning and literature was highly valued. I could learn and explore new ideas along with my students. I wrote poetry at night, after my own children were asleep. I dreamed of writing a novel and would sometimes lay awake writing scenes in my head.

I guess all of this it to say, I have two great passions, the outdoor world and stories about regular people. Earning masters degrees in both environmental studies and fiction was really an opportunity to immerse in what I love.

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GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

JP: I wanted to be a stage actress or a famous singer, a Joni Mitchell, a Stevie Nicks, a Carol King. I loved the stories the ballads told, and the rhythms, and I loved to sing. Plays and movies were just another form of the storytelling. Ha! I guess writing fiction allows me to wear the mask of my characters and become what they are on the page, so in a way, that is a form of acting — taking on someone else’s voice, imagining how they would gesture or move across their exterior backdrop. Poetry is akin to song lyrics. It’s musical, all about sound, too. Fantastic! I got to become what I wanted to be when I grew up, just not in the way I might have imagined.

GTL: What inspired you to write They Could Live With Themselves?

JP: They Could Live With Themselves is a collection of linked stories about a small town in New England, based loosely on the small Vermont town where I lived for twenty-five years. My interactions with my neighbors and the landscape inspired me, for sure, and other stories I read, too. I pay attention to certain things­­ — nuances between people in a public place, gestures, objects, and am taken by a particular visual moment.

That visual moment is what I usually begin with — a lanky boy mowing a lawn, three teenage girls glommed together on a park bench, a pregnant woman sitting on a curb. I don’t write any notes or make a conscious effort to sit down and write about what I’ve just seen. The images just get stored in my brain.

I often begin a story when a first line comes to me, and I riff on that. Later, I’ll see something in a story that is a knock-off of an image in real life or one from a daydream. I love the mystery of how it all works. Once I had written a dozen or so stories that took place in the same town and found that characters were popping in and out of each other’s stories, I began to think of the ways I could do this with intention, and plan how the stories could be arrange in a linked form to give a novel-like experience of the read, while maintaining each story as a discrete piece. The stories take place over the course of one year, from May to May, in a small town. Readers can watch the evolution of the community as a character, too. It was fun.

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Jodi’s revision process for her short story collection.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

JP: I have a writing group that traverses place. We use Google Hang Out. We’ve met once a month, almost religiously, for six years. I also am very involved in my local writing community and the statewide alliance in Maine, which is fabulous, very active, and quite generous in spirit. I have to say, most of my friends are writers, or at least avid readers. We talk a lot about our lives as it relates to writing and books. I go to a few writing events a year, a conference or a residency. I’m currently in a poetry group and just joined two new prose groups, probably too many groups, but we’ll see. I do love spending a Sunday afternoon with three other writers discussing the work. Most of my social media connections are with writers as well, so I’m basically surrounded with writers and craft talk, books and publishing news. Works for me!

GTL: If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?

JP: Oh, wow! Great question, a tough one, too. Let’s see. A lot of my characters are pretty sad, and for good reason. I don’t want to be any sadder than I already am in real life, or as sad as some of them. Ha! Oh, dear. But just for one day, right? I like a character named Wren, a lot. She’s a single woman in her forties. Although she has had very sad events in her life, going as far back to a childhood, she seems to be on the mend. She’s figured out that it’s okay for her to be there for others and still find ways to take care of herself, to make peace with the fact that she actually likes living alone, and, I think, though I’m not absolutely sure, she’s about to hook up with someone who could become the great love of her life, a man named Addison, who lives in a fabulous Vermont homestead high on a hill overlooking the valley. Sure, I’ll be Wren for a day. I’ll pick a lovely spring morning when the sun is hot, but there’s still a hint of melting snow. The stream is rushing. Addison’s just said good-bye to his ex-wife, once and for all. Wren and Addison both have the whole day off. 😉

In fact, there are a number of my characters who, by the end of their stories, are about to embark on something better than where they began because they’ve figured out something important about who they are and who they want to become. I’d trade places with almost any of them if I could pick up where their story has just left off.

Giveaway: If you want to read about Wren and Addison and some of the other characters living in Stark Run, Vermont, leave a comment written to Jodi below to be entered into a drawing for a copy of They Could Live With Themselves. Currently, winners are restricted to United States due to the cost of shipping. A winner will be chosen at random at noon on May 5th.

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Fat Girl by Jessie Carty #Poetry #Poems

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*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Fat Girl by Jessie Carty

published by Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011

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Though I don’t often read poetry because it’s not been the focus of my studies, I’ve come to realize that I know more about poetry than I think I do, and that my opinions on it are not worthless. I’m especially a fan of line breaks, clever rhyming (not the Hallmark stuff), and poems that make me want to do something. A fellow faculty member likes to say, “Poems have the power to change the world.” Well, I agree only to that extent when a poem changes my actions. A lot of what I read in college was alphabet soup burped up on paper, and I wasn’t behind that.

Carty’s poems aren’t gastrointestinal afterthoughts, but they don’t meet any of my other criteria for a good poem, either. The first poem, “Woman of Willendoff: The Artifact” threw me off immediately. She’s Willendorf, not Willendoff. This statue is often referred to as the Venus of Willendorf, but Carty writes, “She predated Venus mythology by millennia.”

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Venus of Willendorf. Photo from Wikipedia.

A symbol of fertility, Carty asks how this woman, were she alive, “hold up an infant? Her tiny arms — crossed / over her chest — have no palms.” The focus on this fertile woman wanders to the statue’s hair, which reminds the speaker of “the weaving of baskets.” Strangely, the connection made next is to Easter egg baskets and looking inside “you” like an egg. Who is the focus — the fertile fat woman, or who “you” really is? At best, I  was left wondering what the point was.

The rest of the poems read more like thoughts, perhaps even ones I’ve had myself as a fat woman, with line breaks that don’t end on moments to create anticipation for the next line not to create alliteration, nor rhymes or slant rhymes. Poems included are “The Fat Girl on Grooming,” “Fat Girl’s Wedding Picture,” “Fat Girl on Air Travel,” and “Fat Girl at the Drug Store.” Each poem is very short; the collection is only 45 pages. What this means, though, is each word must have the weight of 20 to make such brevity matter. Instead, the “Fat Girl’s Wedding Picture” notes the bride’s off-white dress, her brown shoes with the low heel, the way she holds her bouquet by her hip. Very much an observation instead of something layered. The image itself, had the photographer considered lighting, tone, a theme, and angles, would be more meaningful.

Mainly, it was the way Carty succumbed to a chicken dinner approach to a fat woman’s body: pick it apart piece by piece.

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a) Separate the parts, b) Name them, c) Criticize

Big thighs are shameful, suggest promiscuity. Breasts inhibit the ability to bend over and trim toenails, are even cumbersome during an autopsy. Clothes are problematic: they’re too small, hard to find, or look just everyone else’s except they don’t because they’re on a fat body.

I’m staunchly against dissecting the fat female body like a frog in biology, and I’m starting to learn that writers, both fat and not, only see the bodies of fat women, and that fat women have brains that match their sad, fat bodies. One poem, entitled “I Love My Biceps,” looked positively at a fat female body. The arms still “sag and jiggle,” but the speaker is proud of them and is reminded of a fat art teacher whose biceps enabled her to sculpt clay like nobody’s business. Since the poem moves into an image of a strong woman working with her hands, I appreciated it more, it still picks one piece of the body and inspects it. Where are more of these moments of strength? Fat is not weakness, but even fat writers are reassuring everyone that it is, and that it’s all fat women think about: a deficit in abundance.

As a result, I don’t recommend Fat Girl by Jessie Carty, though her other poetry collections may be quite different.

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography, though it doesn’t read like a traditional autobiography. The book is broken into sections. First, it reads like the story of her life, but then she moves into chapters about friendship, collecting folktales in the Caribbean, bringing “true Negro dancing” to the the U.S., and what it means to be an individual instead of a member of a race. Hurston died in obscurity in (1891- 1960). As scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes in the afterward:

Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks. Seven years later, she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prize-wining autobiography virtually “disappear” from her readership for three full decades?

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In 1975, Alice Walker (the author best know for The Color Purple) wrote an essay about Hurston, which was published in Ms. magazine. The article launched a Hurston revival, and more people have read Their Eyes Were Watching God between 1975 and today than did between 1937 and 1975.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with a bit about the development of Eatonville, Florida, starting with two Brazilians. For reasons not fully clear to me, black and whites worked together to help black folks create Eatonville, which is sort of attached to Maitland, Florida (the geography is confusing). Hurston explains, “Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town — charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” For this reason, Hurston is not aware of racism to the extent that other black Americans are; not once to my memory does Hurston mention an incident involving race in this book.

Unexpectedly, I visited Eatonville a few weeks ago. I visited my ol’ Granny for spring break, leaving behind the mushy Indiana weather. One day at breakfast, while wearing my “Zora t-shirt,” I began to discuss the writer and explain her hometown. A quick tango with Google revealed we were only about an hour from Eatonville, so we made the trip.

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We didn’t stay too long, but we ate Jamaican lunch at Momz’s, visited the Zora Neale Hurston museum, and tried some key lime cake at Be Back Gordon’s Fish House (don’t you love that name??). Some things had a Maitland address, while others were Eatonville, though all locations were within blocks of each other. Everyone simply calls it Eatonville.

 

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Understanding Eatonville is key to understanding Dust Tracks on a Road. It’s also important to know about “the Dozens,” which Hurston doesn’t explain in detail, but is a game played in black communities that has become part of the culture. I cover “the Dozens” when I teach African American literature. “The Dozens” is cleverly insulting someone, and while the person doing the insulting may not have any formal education, people get creative. When Hurston first goes north, she learns that she is different. Southern children are “raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names.” Here is a great passage that may help you next time someone has it coming:

It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and a mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery!

There is a mean little person in me that loves this list, mainly because I have learned from my own story-driven kinfolks that name-calling is one of the richest places to get inventive. Hurston uses idioms the entire book, making it a rich read.

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Hurston has a book titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (ed. by Alice Walker)

This is an autobiography full of storytelling, because that’s the heartbeat of her community. One time, her “Aunt Cal’line” tripped a lady off the church steps to see if she was wearing underwear; the woman was not, so Aunt Cal’line spit on her naked bits and rubbed the spit in with her foot. One time, Hurston tried to kill her stepmother with an ax. One time, Hurston interviewed one of the last living slaves who came from Africa. He was in his 90s and wondered if his kinfolk in Africa still missed him. Sadly, Hurston’s studies revealed that whole village had been murdered the day he was captured by a rival African village and sold into slavery.

It’s possible that Hurston’s unique upbringing is what makes her one of the most independent thinkers I’ve ever read about. She fits with almost no one from her time. When other blacks in America (and not all are African American, hence I use “black”) are fighting for equality, Hurston sympathizes with the black man who owns a barbershop that served only whites. One day, a black man comes in and demands to be served, but everyone throws him out. If rumor got around that the owner had served another black man, his white clients would not only ruin his business, but he would have to close the 6 other shops he owned. Hurston argues that helping one black man achieve equality wasn’t worth all the jobs the black employees had.

In fact, Hurston took a while to even begin writing a book because she was told “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem.” She argues she doesn’t want to talk about the “Race Problem” and spends an entire chapter explaining why — mainly that she judges folks individually, not as a group. Hurston gives explains the feeling of “hopeless resignation”:

For example, well-mannered Negroes groan out [“My people! My people!] when they board a train or a bus and find other Negroes on there with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing the garbage on the floor. . . . Now, the well-mannered Negro is embarrassed by the crude behavior of the others. They are not friends, and have never seen each other before. So why should he or see be embarrassed?

Hurston goes on to argue that the “well-mannered Negro” feels so badly because people focus on race instead of pointing to the folks dumping the trash on the ground as problematic individuals. I know that this viewpoint will cause a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of race solidarity, but I applaud Hurston for arguing her point carefully. She has an entire chapter entitled “My People! My People!” in which she discusses what she calls race pride, race prejudice, race man, race solidarity, race consciousness, and race. “My people” is always said with an “ermehgerd” sort of tone, as if the person can’t believe how embarrassing other people in their race can be.

Overall, whether you agree with her opinions or not, Hurston brought African dance, music, and stories into the United States. She made it okay for black men and women to write using their own tongues (dialect, idioms, words that live under the words) when many authors thought they had to write in Standard English to be accepted (I wonder if some of those writers thought, “my skinfolks but not my kinfolks — my people!” about Hurston…).

If you love language, you have to read Zora Neale Hurston. If you love independent women, you have to read Hurston. My only regret is that I can’t describe and quote everything I highlighted. I’ll end with a Fun Fact:

This independent lady was a writer and an anthropologist, and it was rumored that when she would hang out with famous poet Langston Hughes in Harlem, she would stop random people and ask if she could measure their skull circumference.

Extra Goody: listen to this five minute interview in which Hurston describes what a zombie is. She met them in Haiti, you know…

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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


Němcová’s own life contained elements of the fairy tale:

her parentage was possibly noble, though she was raised among the household servant class;

she was forced to marry a man she did not love;

unwise decisions brought her personal hardship later in life as well as financial troubles;

and she came to an untimely end.

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What is a biographical collage? Collage is a form that has allowed me to express myself through the years when I hadn’t the words to say what I felt, but of course traditional collage focuses more on image, less on text. Why don’t we see collage writing more often? The beginning of Parker Ervick’s third book reminded me of some potential hurdles: giving the original texts proper credit, obtaining permission to use those texts, and organizing information to make meaning in a creative way. I began with an obsession: track all of the source material while I read and be sure I knew who wrote what. Parker Ervick tells readers in the introduction that we will see footnotes for the fragments from other texts and that the font would be italicized when the sources were primary. But would she note when she cut information out of an original passage and rearranged it? And where would I find her voice?

Of course, I was stupid to begin in such a fashion. It’s like I lacked… imagination.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage is organized beautifully and helpfully. In “Introduction: This Is Not a Biography,” Parker Ervick explains her obsession with Božena Němcová, a Czech fairy tale writer from the 1840s who influenced Kafka. Parker Ervick began visiting Prague in 2003 and has been back many times, seeking not only to find all things Němcová, but her extended family. Due to political and historical factors, Němcová’s writing has remained largely untranslated, and thus unknown to English language readers.

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“To where are they leading the maiden in the white dress?” acrylic, graphite, and collage by Kelcey Parker Ervick

So readers are not confused, the author adds a brief section up front, “A Few Notes on Czech Names,” demonstrating both the complexity of the language and the sexism inherent in it: “–ova was a not-so-subtle way of adding ‘egg’ to a name to feminize it.” Thus, when Božena married Josef Němec, she was Božena Němcová. Readers learn “the proper pronunciation of Božena Němcová is BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah.” Wisely including a note on language and pronunciation gave the book a new layer of meaning and enabled me to feel close to the subject matter; if I can’t pronounce her name, how much affinity can I feel for Božena Němcová?

The collage text itself is broken in to two parts. Part I includes five sections that move through Němcová’s life, from her obscurity to her passions, her loveless marriage to her last days of poverty, illness, and starvation. Each section includes excerpts from Němcová’s writing, primarily her novel, Babička (also known as The Grandmother or Granny); letters Němcová wrote to friends and lovers; images, mostly photos taken by Parker Ervick or collages she created; and scholarly works, chiefly the book Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers. No page in the book is completely filled; these are pieces, excepts.

Readers get to know and fall in love with Němcová. In 1954 she writes, “my favorite fantasy was to enter a convent — Just because I had heard that nuns learn so much.” Often known for her aversion to traditional expectations for Czech women, Němcová surprised and astonished people. The young woman was admirably to the point: “…but you know that to have human feelings is considered a sin. . .. In my belief a beautiful sin has its moral dignity and merit — what is not beautiful about it contains it’s own punishment.”

A biographical collage juxtaposes information in a way that otherwise reads stiffly in an academic text. On the left page, Němcová’s maid recalls how Božena and husband Josef were not right for each other. On the right page, Žofie Podlipská (another Czech writer) admires Mr. Němcová and his opinion of his writer wife. The two first-person accounts almost reminded me of reality TV shows on which participants enter a booth with a camera in order to confess or vent.

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Though unknown to many, the writer made it onto Czech money.

Němcová certainly wields a talented pen. When I can’t let something go, I call it “fixating.” When she can’t let something go, she declaims:

My soul is often as a lake, where a slight wind stirs up waves that cannot be calmed.

One thought chases the other as little clouds in a thunder storm, each more somber than the next, until the whole sky is covered

with heavy clouds.

Part II contains “postcards” (they don’t actually look like real postcards) Parker Ervick wrote to Němcová about her time in Prague, learning Czech, and the conclusion of her own unhappy marriage. The postcards aren’t self-important. Parker Ervick reaches out to Němcová like a best friend or long lost sister. Her time in Prague suggests her life is a fairy tale, both lovely and painful, when she takes long journeys through the woods by foot to find monuments to Němcová and later finds a happy ending.

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Parker Ervick meets relatives: “Na zdravie,” personal photo of author, her cousin Josef, and slivovitz, taken in Okoličné, Slovakia.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage brings back the passion and beautiful language of Parker Ervick’s first book, For Sale by Owner, which I so desperately missed in her second title, Liliane’s Balcony. She keenly examines her identity as it changes: Who is she in Prague? In the U.S.? In her writing? In her marriage? Thanks to the form, each postcard deftly gets where it needs to go, but without losing the pathos.

A deeply intimate and creative endeavor, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage could work beautifully in a classroom or on your bedside nightstand.

A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

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A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, 2013 (48 pages)

A Cute Tombstone includes two pieces, a short poem called “The Hat” and the main story. Before the poem is a beautiful black-and-white picture of a woman in a giant, fluffy black hat with bows on it. The woman herself is quite attractive and put together. In the poem, the hat first represents love, but the hat might disintegrate or be the woman herself (without a head) or be put on a man’s head or the woman’s head (it fits at first but then it doesn’t) until we’re uncertain what the hat means, as if there cannot be love because we don’t know what it means.a cute tombstone 2

Following the poem is the long story “A Cute Tombstone,” preceded by another black-and-white picture of a woman in simple clothes. Her portrait is beautiful, but comes from the era when smiles in pictures were not welcome, so she looks unhappy or mournful instead. In this title story, a Russian woman who moved to the U.S. 11 years prior gets The Hatthe call that her mother has died in Russia. The narrator reflects on the ease of death in the U.S. and that shoppers at Costco can sample nuts, buy Cheerios, or purchase a coffin. Before the mother died, Russia represented crazy, decadent summers of parties and friends for the narrator, but when she returns to make the funeral arrangements, she can’t help but note that everyone winks, the traditions try to overpower the individual’s wants, and there are always smells in the air that are unfamiliar to Americans: fish pies, vodka, raspberry marmalade. In this way, Zabrisky produces the experiences of a Russian through the lens of an American.

American readers see what’s unusual, and the details are enough to make the story’s setting and characters vividly “other.” When the narrator heads to a funeral portrait business to get her mother’s photo enlarged to put next to the closed casket, she notices the displays of others’ funeral portraits: “I imagine their lives: At six, they probably played with German trains and tanks—war souvenirs. At eighteen they were getting married in dresses made from curtains, airy veils and ill-fitted military uniforms—the women pregnant already.”

Zabrisky’s story is smooth and melodious. It’s important to read the punctuation carefully, the words slowly, to get the full poetic effect. A sentence may begin positively and end in a new place. You won’t be lost; she’ll lead you there, but if you read too fast, you’ll find you’re trying to gulp down your specially-made meal.

*Review originally published with some slight changes at TNBBC. Thank you to Zarina Zabrisky and Epic Rites Press for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

#BookReview obliterate the following items from the beginning of time #poetry

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#BookReview obliterate the following items from the beginning of time #poetry

obliterate the following items from the beginning of time by Thais Benoit

Published by NAP magazine, July 2013

More and more the way we encounter “books” surprises me. Thais Benoit’s bitty work (a 35-page chapbook) is a downloadable PDF as opposed to a thing with pages, even pages stapled together and handi-crafted with love. I approach such small works in a PDF more like a Happy Meal representation of the author’s writing than a full meal that showcases the writer’s palate.

Benoit is able to create interesting juxtapositions in a small spaces. She writes:

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The speaker runs from someone lecherous, but as she does, she doesn’t lose the youthful exuberance that compels us to bap flowers as we pass them (especially those hard-to-resist fluffy dandelions). Her speaker is two persons at once.

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Beniot also juxtaposes strength with weakness by stringing together two famous women, one who saves everyone, the other who must be saved: “I’m a handful, forcefully felt / A pint sized Wonder Woman princess peach.” Blurring the differences between Wonder Woman and Princess Peach opens the door for Benoit to say her speaker is complicated and contradictory at times by cleverly conjuring these women of pop culture.

Complex speakers fill the other poems, too. One declares, “I like puzzle people” and later says, “I am a puzzle person.” The speaker defends herself, explains the speed and which her mind races, and still is open to understand another person intimately. She explains who she is: “i prefer to take my time; i like good accidents / and the kind of sunsets caused by pollution.” Benoit adds an unromantic flavor to the sunset by giving it a good dose of reality: the skies are filled with pollution, so this is how we experience sunsets today.

Some of the poems read more like lists without meaningful connections to the reader, like in the poem “things i’ve done as a child.” There is something familiar there, though; Benoit works in the alt-lit genre, typically a boys’ club of lowercase letters; nonsense exclamations about the beauty, and, conversely, meaninglessness of life; and pop culture references (Kanye, dubstep, hashtags). But she’s not so flighty—there is something there that resonates with me in some of Benoit’s stanzas, as opposed to leading me to think “brah, ur funny #LOL” like I usually do when I read alt-lit poems. Here’s an example of a stanza that represents youthfulness pile-driving into adulthood, a flighty speaker who understands consequences:

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This review was originally published at The Next Best Book Club. I received a copy of the obliterate the following from the beginning of time from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Meet the Writer: Joanne C. Hillhouse #writerslife #authorinterview

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I want to thank Joanne for participating in the “Meet the Writer” series. You can read more about Joanne on her blog or Facebook page. Also, check out the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize – a writing programme Joanne C. Hillhouse founded in 2004 in Antigua and Barbuda.

What kinds of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I do a bit of everything; as a freelance writer, you kind of have to be open to taking on different types of writing projects. What I really love, though, is creative writing – fiction and poetry, and especially fiction. Not just the books I’ve written (The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the MoonlightFish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and coming soon Musical Youth) but I just enjoy experimenting within the story writing form, short and long. Much of what I write is character driven and distinctively Caribbean with (I like to believe) universal resonance – because I do believe the stories that are about the human condition can cross over without having to be diluted. I want to keep telling those stories, tell them more. But I also want to continue experimenting, challenging myself. So I’ve tried my hand, within the short story format especially, at everything from noir to fairy tale. And that’s what I wish I could do more of…just new and interesting things. Like fantasy; how cool and what an interesting challenge it would be to create a wholly distinct and totally believable world from scratch. I’d like to try that someday. I hate boxes, labels, limitations, so I just want to keep being creative.

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In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

I’m not sure. I mean, I’m not a product of an MFA programme, but my love affair with literature has been a lifelong one, fed inside and outside of the classroom. At the tertiary level, I’ve done writing and literature courses, though my Bachelors is in Communications, and post-tertiary I’ve done workshops like the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami, the Breadloaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College, and Texas A & M Callaloo Writers workshop at Brown University. And I hope to do more of that kind of thing. But I think more important than “academia,” for me, has been this passion for reading and writing, and growing and being open to the opportunities to be mentored in person or on the page…because I do believe a lot of what I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned from reading…I love to read.

In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?

I wrote a poem once called “Stealing Life,” and that’s it in a nutshell. It’s not a conscious act, most of the time, and it’s not a linear relationship, but life feeds my writing; without life there’s nothing to write, is there?

What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

I’ll let you know when that happens.

What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

At some point, you have to let it go, happy or not; at some point, you’ve done all you can with it. Sometimes that means filing it, never to be seen by the public; and sometimes that means putting it out there and letting it continue on its journey without you. The thing is, though, the act of writing is what makes me happy; I feel so blessed (okay, sometimes cursed, but mostly blessed) that I have this talent and I want to keep growing it. So, when I half-joke about not being happy with what I’ve written, it’s not meant to be falsely humble or overly critical, it’s a reflection of my desire to keep surprising myself. So, in that sense, I’ve been happy with everything, but I’m not satisfied. I do a fairy tale, for instance, and I try it out on the kids, and I take their feedback to heart and I work it out, and I submit it to a contest, and it earns honourable mention…and I’m happy, happy happy happy….but what more could I have done, you know. Or, I do a young adult script and its second for the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction…and I’m happy, happy happy happy…but what more could I have done? I’m very driven…and it’s not about what tier I’m on because I’m still very much a writer on the hustle… it’s about feeling like I heard the character right and told her or his story right; that’s what matters to me, and I’ll fight for that. That someone read something I wrote and was moved by it is what matters to me, and I’ll treasure that…but I’m always about, “What more could I have done?” I’m far from feeling comfortable.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

Until Oh Gad! I had pretty much convinced myself that my family didn’t read my writing, or at least had the grace not to discuss it with me if they did, so that I could pretend they didn’t…that’s changing, and all the uncomfortableness that comes with that, especially when the realism has them, and this applies to friends and family and random strangers, giving me the side eye…the hmmm… though truthfully that type of response goes all the way back to my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend…from my sister telling me how much the tanty character, modelled on our tanty, made her cry, one of my favourite responses to date, and not because I like to make people cry, but because I like when readers have a real moment with what I’ve written… to people asking if the boy’s story was my story, though I’m clearly a girl…so on the one hand, yay, you’ve done your job, but on the other hand, hello, it’s fiction. But I have to say, in my world (Antigua and Barbuda, in the Caribbean), being a writer, wanting to be a writer, it takes a bit of going against the grain, and I have to say both friends and family have been supportive… even when they don’t get me…or understand this journey I’m on.

Reliquary of Debt #poetry #guestblogging #bookreview

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Reliquary of Debt #poetry #guestblogging #bookreview

Reliquary of Debt by Wendy Vardaman

published by Lit Fest Press, 2015

I want to thank publisher Jane Carmen for sending Grab the Lapels a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

*Guest review by Kathline Carr

Mapping a course through Vardaman’s Reliquary of Debt, one has the sense of moving backward and forward in time—through layers of years, hungers, cities, states of wonder and tourist queues—her observations accompanied by personal threads weaving the written tapestry of her experiences. We are reminded of the past’s present as a cultural preoccupation, and the present’s past as family tensions punctuate the narrative.

As if to signal the insignificance of order in the travels of our lives, Vardaman begins with a poem entitled “Postscript”: We were driving our children/crazy, but we didn’t/ know it…(15). Painted frescoes stand shoulder to shoulder until they begin to overlap in the mind: …a mass of ill-defined/ edges, blurred shapes, transparence stacked one/on top another so that this Virgin’s face bleeds through that Eve’s thigh—(59). The exhaustion that familial life can cause blends with oversaturation in the face of so much beauty. They are linked, and her poems suggest the connection with surety, and a wistful humor.

The poems in their varied forms address the relationships and realities that go beyond travelogue and into the psyche of a woman in unfamiliar territory. Though a seasoned traveler, the end of her children’s youth signals, for her, a loss that is at once inevitable and confounding. We are folded into deep curiosities about place and memory, as well as the everyday tourist milieu she often finds herself in: [tourist umbrellas]…never outlast,/ like treaties, the storms for which they’re bought—and why should/ they? (64). The passage of time is reiterated in deftly rendered lines again and again, but none are so effectively presented as the subtleties of the emptying nest’s last sheltering voyages.

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Through the stories imbedded in lush stanzas, we witness ancient pumpkin seeds placed in the delicate hand of the Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella d’Este (47); the perfectly preserved countenance of mummified Saint Zita (97); Carravaggio on the run, selling paintings to bankroll his prison flight (66). In the midst of these scenes, illuminations rise in sharp relief of a son leaving for college: drives away/ without a wave, and I’m left/ with everything that takes his place,/that fills the empty/ room, that sits on the stripped/ bed among the heaps of unbagged trash (69). The undercurrent moving through the work is the poet’s own heart, ready to be dazzled, broken or deserted in turn, with a recklessness empowered by understanding—not just of language and love, but their shortcomings.

Vardaman handles language playfully, with humor and grace, allowing the possibility for awkwardness: she is not afraid to use an emoticon, for instance, in one of a series of Skype poems. With these Skype works, and others, such as “from Mantova, Italy, a Wikiprosepoem” (43-52), she entertains a kind of techno-poetics, combining stream-of-conscious communication with historical fact and a post-modern penchant for experimental form. And the crowning jewel in her experimentation is the giotto, in “GiottO : Jesture : Sleights of Hand : Arena Chapel.” The giotto, Vardaman explains, are stanza units inspired by the painter’s work. She states:

I wanted the form to capture and imitate the way that individual paintings in a fresco cycle stand on their own but connect with other paintings to create a larger story, sometimes playing off pieces painted above, below or across from each other (81).

The architecture of the giotto, structured in a circular pattern, makes the poem an adventure, one you must wander through in different routes. They can be read in any order, to form new and interesting juxtapositions, and this can be said of the book as a whole. The work within invites a lingering, wandering perusal and brings the reader back to their own present with references such as Wes Anderson, Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ½, and Ikea, to name a few. As one of the stanzas in “GiottO” expresses:

Correct

or not, he decides,

there’s room here for all, and God,

mellowing, doesn’t

object (80).

 In the midst of travels, there are tensions, past and present. An argument with her spouse over seeing the Chartres Cathedral smolders; a disagreement regarding asking directions results in many circles in Venice. Then, a reunion with a former lover is referenced in “(Florence. Hotel Cimabue. 10/12/2008)”: The scientist I did not spend/my life with sits—two days after Iceland goes/ bankrupt—across from me, first time in twenty-five years,/ in the lobby of the hotel he’s staying/on the way to Pompeii with daughters who are not mine (89).  

No regrets here, though; we feel her regret, however, in her resistance to graffiti the window ledge in the house where Shakespeare was born, as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats before her were unable to do (29). Though it’s possible—she reveals in glimpses—that regret is not a finite thing. We inherit and pass it on, recipes passed mother to daughter for longer than any memory, like seeds (18). On the site where Shakespeare’s birth occurred, there is a tree: a huge, gnarled tree,/ sprung they say from a shoot of vanished parent (27). So it goes. There is only regret in the life unlived, and clearly Wendy Vardaman’s work expresses the fullness of a lived life, on and off the page.


CARR-photo-1*Kathline Carr is the author of Miraculum Monstrum, forthcoming from Red Hen Press and winner of the 2015 Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize. Carr’s writing and art have appeared in Alexandria Quarterly, CalyxCT Review, Earth’s Daughters and elsewhere; she has exhibited in the Berkshires, NYC, Boston, Toronto, and at artSTRAND Gallery in Provincetown. Carr received her BFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, VT and holds an MFA in Visual Arts from The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. Carr lives in North Adams, Massachusetts with her husband and sometimes-collaborator, figurative painter Jim Peters and daughter Mercedes.

Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview
Lori Horvitz

Lori & Belly

I want to thank Lori for stopping by Grab the Lapels! You can find out more about her at her website. Be sure to friend Lori on Facebook!

What would you like readers to know about your new book, The Girls of Usually?

It’s a collection of interconnected memoir-essays, a coming of age of sorts, although a friend joked about how I never quite came of age. The essays were written over a span of ten years, maybe more. I didn’t set out to write a book, but I kept writing about subjects that obsessed me—identity, connection, and love. I grew up ashamed of being Jewish and idolizing the “shiksa in my living room,” a blonde all-American girl whose photo came in a double frame and was displayed for a decade next to a family photo from a bar mitzvah. This was my world. One reviewer said my writing is “wickedly funny,” yet some stories are wickedly sad. Perhaps funny and sad simultaneously. Among other subjects, I deal with death (my mother’s sudden death in my early twenties, and friends who’ve died of AIDS), getting stuck in a love triangle in the middle of a Communist package tour in dictator-run Romania, dating a German who didn’t think Hitler was so bad, and all while trying to figure out who I am—sexually, ethnically, culturally.

Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

Perhaps readers may get frustrated with my narrator (me), who they could see as repeating similar destructive patterns. Then again, haven’t we all been guilty of making stupid choices? Bad choices make good stories.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

My local community in Asheville (colleagues, friends, the queer community, writers, students) has been amazingly supportive. I did a book launch a few weeks ago at a local café, and two weeks later, I read at Malaprop’s, a great indie bookstore in town. Both readings were standing room only. A number of people came out for both readings. I was humbled and heartened. I sent my father the first few chapters of the book and he read them aloud over the phone. He said, “This is very nice.” My brother who lives on the West Coast ordered a bunch of copies and was the first to post a picture of the book on Facebook.

What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

I felt good about my first published piece in a literary journal—a poem about my poodle getting mauled to death at a parade by a Great Dane when I was seven. I was in my twenties when the poem was published. Every time I read it aloud at a reading, my audience cracked up.

How have you developed creatively since then?

Since the publication of that story, I went back to school for an MFA in creative writing (in poetry) at Brooklyn College, where I worked with Allen Ginsberg and Joan Larkin. Both encouraged me to open up, to not hide behind metaphors and abstractions. I then went on to a PhD program at SUNY Albany, where I studied with language poets and began playing with language, taking more risks with form. For my dissertation, I wrote a novel. I got hired to teach fiction but soon after started writing nonfiction. I sound like Madonna. Always reinventing myself. Or at least my writing.

What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I love live theatre and fantasize about being a playwright. I’ve always been interested in dialogue and getting voices down. Maybe one day I’ll write a musical.

Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?

Everyone could relate to being an outsider, to not fitting in. Much of the book is about my character trying to figure out where she belongs in the world, always feeling like she’s just on the edge, not quite part of the mainstream. Most of us stumble along in similar ways. Maybe a reader hasn’t dated a pathological liar, or felt ashamed of her ethnicity/religion, or maybe she’s never ventured out of the U.S., but aren’t we all living as outsiders in some ways? By the end of the book, my character embraces that edge. Celebrates it. Life is about trial and error. And maybe I’ve experienced more error than trial. I’m hoping the reader can come along for the ride and connect as a vulnerable being in the world. Perhaps even recognize the beauty in bad choices, as painful as they are. And to have the courage to laugh, keep moving, and tell all.

Meet The Writer: Snežana Žabić #interview #writerslife

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Meet The Writer: Snežana Žabić #interview #writerslife

Snezana

I want to thank Snežana for answering my questions! You can read more about her new book, Broken Records. Snežana is a contributor to the Wreckage of Reason II anthology, containing experimental works by 29 women, including yours truly, so be sure to give the collection some love!

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I spent a lot of my early childhood reading picture books and children’s poetry books, and have a very pleasant olfactory memory of the local library. I also remember making my mom write down our favorite children’s nonsense poem on a blank page in the book of poems by Oton Župančič (or maybe France Bevk? Unreliable memory!), which was my first editorial effort. Around at the same time, I wrote my first small rhyming poems. As most people who end up becoming writers, I got caught in the cycle of reading and writing, which becomes a compulsion.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I think I do. It’s nothing I set out to do on purpose, but the fact is that most of my syntax is paratactic, and both my imagery and commentary are sparse. I list a lot, one way or another, and I probably use metonymy more than metaphor. I mix irony and self-deprecation into almost everything. I tend to write fragmentary texts that end up cohering into books. I’ve been told that both my poetry and prose sound the way my speaking voice sounds, which means that, when I write in English, I write with a foreign accent. My native language is Serbo-Croatian, and in both of those languages I tend to be more or less subtly proletarian and feminist. All of the above is very off-putting to some readers.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

The challenge is to find the sweet spot between discipline and spontaneity in your writing habits. Finding time in the first place is an issue. Infant projects that I haven’t completed multiply over the years and nag me. Should I work on them every day a little bit? Become an insomniac? Quit working day jobs so I can finish everything? I can’t, because I need money to get by. On the other hand, I’m convinced that nobody needs to write more than 30-ish books over an entire long life span. In fact, a lot fewer books than that is better. Ten or fewer during one’s whole life. Okay, two or three is optimal. Delete all the tedious stuff.

Broken Records

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

I’m the type of writer who keeps trying new forms and genres, especially those that mesh with my style. I’m not sure if that’s evolution or just another aspect of my life-long compulsion. The area where I do feel I’ve evolved in every sense of the word is as a purely self-taught songwriter and singer/musician. As opposed to writing poems and prose since early childhood, I only picked up a musical instrument as an adult, well into my twenties. I taught myself some chords and began writing songs. I’m not sure why I did that, since I was actually quite scared of performing those songs live or recording them. I had trouble keeping the guitar I had in tune, partly because of my imperfect ear, partly because the guitar was full of holes; it was literally a wounded war survivor. My second guitar was the cheapest I could find in the town of Wilmington, NC, and it had super high action, just like the old guitar. I thought that’s just how guitars were—only much later did I learn that some guitars are quite comfortable to play. With my first two guitars, I had to press those strings like a maniac to get a semi-decent sound out, or so I thought. This all began to change when I moved to Chicago and a friend loaned me his electric guitar and a small amp and I could start, ever so slowly, unpeeling one bad habit after another and gaining better muscle memory when it came to both chording and strumming. Now I play with a lot less tension in my hands, arms, and the rest of my body, and so it all feels much more free and fun. I’ll never be a guitar hero, nor do I want to be, but I write pretty decent songs and am no longer scared to play live or to record.

Is there a specific “achievement” a person must “unlock” before she can call herself a writer?

Not really. If you’re literate and you like to write, you’re a writer. As a human being, you need to communicate, and writing is one of the best tools for that. Most of us are bad writers in the sense that we constantly record the banal—nowadays in the social media, before that in e-mails, and before that through snail mail. Between that and the vaulted position of the brilliant pro who supports herself by writing and selling her books (plus maybe teaching creative writing) is the vast spectrum that most of us who identify as writers occupy.

Do you feel it’s important that the meaning of your work be accessible to the reader? Why or why not?

First of all, I have very few readers, I’m totally aware of that. As far as the accessibility of meaning, it’s important to an extent. I do aim to communicate certain points about how I see the world and how absurd it is.  But on the other hand, I aim to simply bring some pleasure to a reader with my style of writing. I realize that this sounds like the old “teach and delight” creed, but of course those very conservative dead white men were correct to an extent. The question is, teach what and delight how? I guess I aim to teach about subversion and about imagination and I am to delight the readers by surprising them, not by lulling them into complacency. From what I know, my writing preaches to the choir (a very small one at that). Reading publics are splintered and I will probably never be read by those who might fundamentally disagree with me, who might hear something from me they haven’t thought before.