Choo-Choo!

I took this photo on my last major Amtrak trip during the summer of 2017. I’m pretty sure it’s the Portland, Oregon Amtrak station, but feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m mis-remembering.

It’s been several years since I’ve kept up with my website in any kind of meaningful way, but since so much has changed for me in the last year–and since I’m about to embark on yet another epic train trip (this time to try and decide upon a new place to call home)–I thought this would be an opportune time to begin chronicling my journeys again. Recently, I was laid off from my job as an English professor at a small, private, liberal arts institution in the Southeast. I had deep roots there. In addition to being my employer for the last eleven years, it was my undergraduate alma mater. I love teaching and know I will miss my students dearly, but I also feel like my layoff may have been just the push out the door I needed. A variety of factors like declining enrollments and other difficulties posed by the pandemic have made this a dire time for many in academia. Having been a contingent, yearly-contract faculty member, I was one of the first to go when cuts were being made. In fact, seven out of the ten professors in my department were laid off, as well as a few non-tenure-track professors in other departments. We called ourselves the Monday Massacre Club on account of the Monday afternoon email we all received informing us of our impending termination. When I first finished skimming that email, I felt an unexpected, somewhat perverse wave of exhilaration at the realization I would no longer have a job tying me to my current home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I could move, finally: something I had wanted to do for a long time. Granted, I spent the majority of the next day crying on the couch; after all, I loved teaching, and even though Fayetteville has never quite felt like home, my sisters, nieces, and nephew are all nearby. Being here has enabled me to be close to them. But even in the midst of the shock, financial anxiety, and disappointment, I felt an undeniable sense of possibility. Plus the layoff wouldn’t be official until the end of the spring semester, so I was fortunate in the sense that I had some time to plan.

One of my deepest sources of disappointment upon hearing the news was the fact that I’d recently made some significant professional strides that my layoff threatened to undo: after a decade of teaching first-year composition almost exclusively, I’d finally been given creative writing classes, and I’d also taken over Longleaf Press, a literary nonprofit that had been founded in the 90’s by Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese, my undergraduate mentors, who later became my friends and colleagues. Michael and Robin retired from the university in the spring of 2020, when the reality of the pandemic was setting in, and in October, I hosted a virtual poetry reading in their honor. A little over a month later, when I found out about my layoff, I had just begun working on my first publication as editor-in-chief, a beautiful poetry collection by Crystal Simone Smith entitled Down to Earth. Since the press had operated under the umbrella of the university’s nonprofit status since its inception, I didn’t know what would become of it once I lost my job.

There were some minor technical difficulties early on (trickster energy, as Sandy Yannone called it), so the event actually begins about five minutes into the recording.

My connection to the press began in 2007, when I worked as an undergraduate intern on the publication of Roger Weingarten‘s Premature Elegy by Firelight, so my attachment to Longleaf was longstanding and deep. I wanted to preserve my mentors’ legacy and felt it would be a disservice to all of the authors whose work we had published over the years if I were to let the press fold or hand it off to someone who didn’t know it as well as I did or care about it as much. So I figured it was worth a shot: I asked to take the press with me when I left the university, and to my delight and surprise, the administration agreed.

For the last several months, I have been working to not just preserve but expand the press, and one of the lovely, unexpected blessings to come out of all of this is that it has given me a chance to work again alongside Mike and Robin, as well as Roger, and another poet named George Rawlins, whose fantastic collection, Cheapside Afterlife, is forthcoming from Longleaf. We’re re-incorporating as an independent nonprofit and re-envisioning the possibilities now that we’re transitioning away from the university and going out on our own. Whereas we previously operated as a regional publisher of authors in the Southeast, we’re now opening submissions for our full-length poetry book contest to anyone writing in English. We’re also hoping to house the press eventually within a community-integrated arts center of some kind, and toward that aim, I’m looking for an arts-oriented town or city to which to relocate.

I found out a few days ago that Amtrak was running a sale on 30-day rail passes for $299, so to those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve decided to scout out possible locations by train. I just bought the pass and will be planning out my route during the next couple of weeks.

The last time I took a trip like this was in 2017, when I spent a summer backpacking solo via Amtrak and Couchsurfing my way cross-country to and from a residency at Willapa Bay AIR. I’ve often wished I had blogged about that trip, so I’ve decided to do so this time around. Stay tuned to hear updates about my trip and the press. Long live Longleaf!

Next Big Thing

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.

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What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry

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)

Michael S. Begnal’s Future Blues

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

me

I trust in language always.

(1-6)

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.”

Here is a blog …

Aside

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Here is a blog post I wrote earlier this month but didn’t get to post until now. There’s no wireless here at the Anderson Center.

I have been neglecting this blog and my writing in general for several months now, but today, I am in the top of an old water tower that has been converted into a writing studio. At the beginning of June, I arrived for a residency at the Anderson Center for the Arts in Red Wing, Minnesota. The Center was originally used as a working farm and research laboratory for experiments on everything from cereal to robotic arms that were used to handle uranium, but now it functions as a thriving artists’ community: home to Red Dragonfly Press, many painting and printmaking studios, and to me and four other residents for the next month.  We are staying in a lovely old house with hand-painted ceilings, dark wood trim, and lots of great little book nooks & places to write.  

On a jog along the Cannon Valley Trail this morning, I heard a lovely whoosh—something like damp sheets flapping on a laundry line—and glanced over to see a blue heron taking off downstream. Summer is just beginning here, and I feel the way that I always feel when I go someplace new: I want to know the names of things. Out of the window right now, I can see the pointy tops of pine trees, a variety that we don’t have in North Carolina. I’ve seen something like them in Maine though. What are they called?   

While here, I am hoping to finish the book of poetry that I have been working on for the last five years. I have a plan. I have inventoried all of my poems. There are 46, but of the 46, around half are flops that have some vaguely redeeming qualities. I am going to take a pair of scissors, cut out the salvageable lines—like harvesting organs, I think—and see if I can collage them into some little Frankenstein poems.

And then there are the ideas for new poems that I have been meaning to get to. During the academic year, I don’t usually have much mental energy left for my own writing, so I keep a running list in my phone of the ideas that I get. I like to think of it like putting them in an incubator. Currently, there are 29. And even if I don’t get to all of them this month, I think I have a decent shot of finally finishing this thing before the summer’s end. It’s a good feeling!

http://superstitionreview.asu.edu/n8/

Many Thanks to Patricia Colleen Murphy and everybody else at The Superstition Review for another fabulous issue! I’m thrilled to have a couple of poems alongside those by Dorianne Laux, Sherman Alexie, and several other talented souls! Superstition Review