I am heading to California tomorrow to read at the Narrative-Making in the Aftermath of War Conference at the UC Santa Barbara Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. Wondering whether the seven and a half hour plane ride will actually be long enough for me to finish all this grading….
Along with the other winners of the 2013 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition, I will be reading at the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival this Sunday. The festival will feature panels and discussions by North Carolina publishers as well as by Fady Joudah and Kathryn Stripling Byer. If you’re in the Cary area, come on out & join us!
Page Walker Arts & History Center
119 Ambassador Loop, Cary, NC 27513
Many thanks to Megan Roberts, author of Matters of Record, for tagging me to participate in Next Big Thing, an expanding blog project of author interviews.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
My older sister Chelsea, to whom the book is dedicated, scared the hell out of me when I was little with these ghost stories about a butcher who had built our house, so I guess the idea was planted then. What surprised me was that as I got older, other people around the little town where I grew up began to elaborate on some of her stories: for instance, when I was waiting tables many years later at the Lumberton 68 Family Restaurant, one of my older regulars asked where I lived, and when I told her, she replied, “Oh, the old slaughterhouse. I looked at that place when it was on the market in the ‘80’s. You know the butcher used to drain the blood in that creek?”
So I guess you could say that the collection is part history and part ghost story, though sometimes it’s hard for me to tell those threads apart.
I should also say that the more I looked into the history of the place, the more bizarre the stories got—so much so that they would not all fit in the chapbook. In the full-length collection, readers can expect, in addition to the butcher poems, some poems about an elephant, Helen McGregor, who died while traveling by foot through the area with the circus in 1832.
What genre does your book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Hmmm, I think I’d pick Winona Ryder to play my sister. Anthony Hopkins would make an excellent butcher, and Natalie Portman could play the ghost of his wife. For the parents, I would pick Kathy Bates and Jeremy Irons.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
These poems were stitched together with human hair and highway lines in haunted landscapes.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The oldest poem in the collection (“Stray”) is from 2007, and the newest (“Dressing the Hog”) is from 2012. So that makes something like six years. I would add, though, that I did not begin to think in terms of “a manuscript” until around 2009, and it took a couple of years more to muster the courage to write the poems that dealt with the theme of incest.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Well, I would say I was initially motivated by my sister’s death and a cathartic impulse, but I don’t think that counts as inspiration exactly. Some individual poems, on the other hand, were definitely inspired by people I know & love (shout out to my ever-supportive husband, Gerard) and by other writers, teachers, mentors, and peers who encouraged me and showed me how it’s done (I’ll save the complete list for a full-length collection, but for now, I’ll just mention a few: many thanks to Dorianne Laux, Michael Colonnese, and Robin Greene, especially).
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I attempted a poem that contains two dirty jokes.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Neither–it is being published by Longleaf Press.
The writers I tag will post their own interviews on March 20, 2013:
1. Kelly Michels, author of Mother and Child with Flowers (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press)
2. Rachel Herrick, author of A Guide to the North American Obeast (Forthcoming from The Institute for Contemporary Art.)
3. Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés, author of Everyday Chica (Longleaf Press)
4. Michael S. Begnal, author of Future Blues (Salmon Poetry)
My chapbook, Blood Creek, is due out from Longleaf Press soon, so I thought I’d share with you all the cover image, which was designed by Michael Duprey, a good friend & very talented graphic artist. For the creek, Mike used satellite imagery he’s been mapping out. I’ll be sending out some promotional postcards soon; if you would like one, please email your address to email@example.com or message me on Facebook. Cheers!
One of the pleasures of the writing life is getting to know the other people who gravitate toward that sphere. Writers are fun. They spend prolonged periods holed up with their creations, and then (with the exception of your Dickinsons and Salingers) they emerge from their caves into the bigger world, usually feeling somewhere between mildly disoriented and bat-shit stir-crazy. Excellent company, by my standards.
Among the other great pleasures are getting to watch a friend’s work evolve, to hear the voice in its varied contexts, and to notice the patina building over time. It’s such a long process that (for me, at least) it’s hard to envision the finished form. So I had no idea how delighted I would be when I opened my mail and found my friend Mike Begnal’s poetry collection, Future Blues, right there in my hands—so many of the loose pages we had pored over a few years ago in workshop all bound up in a beautiful, proper book:
Reading these poems feels a little like watching footage of fish in the deep ocean: their forms have evolved for purposes logical—particular to their terrain—but a little mystic somehow too. The images float by strangely, yet there is a sensibility in the negative space between them as well as between the lines and stanzas:
nothing will be okay
nothing remains pristine for long
stretched out in a dark bed,
the spectacular lights of death
all this terror,
the flying humanoids in the air for real,
the sinister people who want
to come back from the past,
a leafless time
that wind shook.
(“Blues for Tomorrow,” 13-22)
The form and content are raveled together artfully here. The poem’s stanzas hover much like the flying humanoids, in some places vaguely threatening my ability to navigate the current of the page, yet never drowning me in it entirely. Although Begnal steers toward an abstract place, when I arrive, I get the sense that I have been there before, lying sleepless in that room, antagonized by those ghosts. The metaphor triggers an unsettled feeling a little like déjà vu, but the resulting tension is appropriate and complementary to the concept.
These poems not only reckon with the dead, but also commune with them. An informal ode called “Samhain,” for instance, pays tribute to those dead who “are there, in a word or line/you thought was your own,/ and walk among us to/ night” (30-34). In this poem, Begnal is particularly conscientious of the line, as evidenced by the break between “to” and “night,” suggesting both toward our own demise and tonight, as in on Samhain (the Gaelic festival which begat Halloween.)
The central concept is broader in scope, though, and extends to the idea that we invoke the dead by simply speaking, so many of our words weighed down as they are with history. Fittingly, the poem is dedicated to Mongán, a seventh-century Irish chieftain whose namesake is a semi-divine figure from Gaelic literature. Such ghosts rustle through the lines, and in the introductory stanza especially, the rift between words reflects the rift between worlds:
for all the dead who have spoke before
me spoke for all the dead who have before
spoke for all the dead who have before
dead for all who have spoke before the
I trust in language always.
This is a poetry that makes room for its ghosts. The intentionally muddled syntax of the worried line leaves an impression of language as an inheritance, something that (as those of us who teach freshman composition know all too well) sometimes comes in jumbled variations and barely decipherable waves. Just when the syntax pushes my patience toward its limits though, I am soothed and surprised by that single, simple line, “I trust in language always.”
I’m so happy to report that Great River Review took one of my poems for the 2013 Spring/Summer issue. This is a beautiful journal; if y’all don’t already know it, you should check it out!