We Are Made of Woven Memory Circles

Raki Kopernik’s book of prose poetry The Memory House covers a lot of territory — both literally and figuratively.

In four sections, the poet tells the story of three generations across three continents, contrasting kibbutz and urban life, communal living with single-family homes, dating, love and family dynamics. The poet’s voice inhabits grandparents, parents, and her own memories, with wishes for family and future. Throughout these particular and personal stories, there is a thread that opens up the individual story to make a wider, humanistic claim. It begins with the two-page preface to the book but has its clearest articulation on page 22. In the middle of narrating her family’s emigration to Israel, these lines: “Three quarters of a century later, in 2016, Syrian refugees on illegal boats, same, trying to escape into Europe. Same thing. Same.”

In the spirit of disclosure, I direct the press that published Kopernik’s book — we’re an embedded press at my university, and our students worked with the manuscript to learn editing, book layout, and the ins and outs of taking a manuscript to finished book. Our art students designed the cover (beautifully articulated ears of wheat) and created original artwork for the interior pages. Working with the students, they pointed out a number of things that inspired them about Kopernik’s book — how her forms invited them in, somewhere between storytelling and the poetry they were used to; how her long lines and details allowed them to picture the scenes she described, the fields of wheat and sunflowers, the groves of fruit trees; her sudden bursts of humor; the way food and taste threaded throughout every moment — cucumbers, butter, pears, and chocolate.

What I notice each time I re-read the book is how the poet’s voice and memories are bound up with her mother’s. Section One begins with her mother, “My mother lived on a moshav,” and tells how that came to be through the stories of the previous generation: an old British airport hangar, but before that a grandmother in a prison camp in Palestine, and before that both grandparents’ arrival by boat, and before that Romania. In the midst of these early pages, these primal stories, the poet tells us her mother’s first memory, “a dog barking behind a screened door, its mouth full of sharp teeth and drool, its legs taller than her three-year-old self.” Kopernik then makes the all-encompassing move, “her memory could have been any year, any country.” What child doesn’t have some terrifying memory lodged somewhere, what child doesn’t remember some beast at the door? It is the twining of these — these small anywhere-moments with the larger stories of families making and re-making, migrating & moving — that accomplishes the large and small of The Memory House. Two pages later, we are granted the title line, after more moments that refract the mother’s memories through the poet-daughter’s voice: “Our memories tangle into a single memory house.”

“Three quarters of a century later, in 2016, Syrian refugees on illegal boats, same, trying to escape into Europe. Same thing. Same.”

Because Kopernik’s book can be read as narrative or as a traditional poetry book, I don’t want to give away the ending — there are moments of resolution there, even if not in the mode of plot reveals. There are four sections overall: the first tells the story of the parents, growing up and meeting, emigrating to America; in the second, we encounter the poet herself, visiting Israel for summer vacations, staying back on the kibbutz with her maternal grandparents; the third tells the story of the paternal grandparents; in the last section, we find out the spare story of what happened when the parents arrived in America, how the poet’s family began.

In telling her mother’s story, Kopernik lingers on her mother’s dreams and desires — to stay on the kibbutz, to be surrounded by family, to begin a family of her own. When she falls in love with the man she will marry and start a family with, she resists him after he leaves for America. There are images of the mother-to-be, her care for her siblings, her developing instincts learned alongside the communal values of the kibbutz. She tells the story of her mother plucking a stinger from her brother’s face, giving him her precious squares of chocolate. She tells how the young woman pretended to mother her younger brother, seven years separating them. How she wanted four children. How even if she didn’t like the food served in the bet yeladim, she “knew not to complain about food.” In this inhabiting of her mother’s memories, Kopernik’s voice rises, moving up and up to survey not only her own family’s story but encompass the stories of others, to demonstrate one way to inhabit the past — through memory, through experience, through language.

In Section Two, when the poet visits her parents’ homeland, she writes:

Sometimes the Midwest smells like the Middle East in the heat of summer.

The smell of, nothing matters but this moment.

You might not think of the Middle East like that if you only know it from the news.

Experience has more dimensions than media. You don’t know the whole thing unless you can feel it on your skin, through the holes in your face.

“Everyone wants the sweet middle. The core. What they think is the soul.”

But she’s told us all this before. We just didn’t have the stories yet — about Uncle Chocolate, who always brought chocolate. About the kibbutz pool, playing with the children, about the time a shallow dive left blood in the water. About how “puberty ruined everything.” About the rarity of pears — the sweetness of compote. In story after story, so many circling around meals, and food, and taste, there are the pleasures of sweetness — offered as gifts, made with love, created and cooked alongside family and the extended family created by the kibbutz. And there is the sweetness that is recognized because the thing offered is rare, or precious, not easy to find or keep — like the store called Kol Bo, which means “everything in it,” but the name is a misnomer. The daughter-poet, the American daughter-poet, points this out — her voice wry and laced with nostalgia.

The preface to the collection begins with a description of how there were no gardens, only dust, “the water sparse.” Prickly pears imported from Mexico, a fruit with “a tender heart at the barely visible center.” Kopernik makes the connection quickly, the heart of the cactus like Israel: “everyone wants the sweet middle. The core. What they think is the soul.” She names a literal place, she names an imagined place. She introduces a memory-place, peopled with loved ones and secondhand stories. Then she tells us, “borders are imaginary lines made up by people.”

Purchase The Memory House

About the Author

Raki is a Jewish, queer, experimental fiction and poetry writer. She is the author of The Other Body chapbook (Dancing Girl Press), The Memory House (The Muriel Press 2019), and The Things You Left (forthcoming Unsolicited Press 2020). Her work has been published in New Flash Fiction Review, Blue Lyra Review, El Balazo, Duende, and others. It has also been shortlisted and nominated for several awards, including the Pushcart Prize for fiction. She lives in Minneapolis.

Top photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Poetry Month Feature

The Matador Review, an online literature and art quarterly, launched in January 2016 and is physically based in Chicago, Illinois. Their purpose is “to promote ‘alternative work’ from both art and literature,” and they regularly publish poetry, fiction, flash, nonfiction, and art features. In seeking work from both emerging and established artists, publishing interviews, and continuing to promote the work of their contributors through the Matador blog, The Matador Review seeks to be a “cultural conservationist for the alternative world.”

Perusing the The Matador Review, its literature and imagery, is a sensory pleasure – there are the voices and bodies we inhabit. Sutures are evident, as are scars.

For this National Poetry Month, we invite you to explore The Matador Review and discover it for yourself: the Spring issue is available now.

The Matador Review would particularly like to signal boost torrin a. greathouse and her poems “When My Brother Makes a Joke About Trans Panic” and “Definitions for Body as Prison Metaphor.”

torrin a. greathouse is a genderqueer trans womxn & cripple-punk from Southern California. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Black Napkin Press. She is a Best of Net, Best New Poets, & Pushcart Prize nominee, and the author of one chapbook,Therǝ is a Case That I Ɐm (Damaged Goods Press, 2017). When they are not writing, their hobbies include pursuing a bachelor’s degree, awkwardly drinking coffee at parties, & trying to find some goddamn size 13 heels. torrin was recently given a shoutoutby Kaveh Akbar in The Paris Review‘s Poetry Rx column, and readers can read much more of their work at https://tagreathousepoetry.wixsite.com/home.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

Maybe you have lines living in you. Maybe you’ve been walking around like the speaker in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”: “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.” Maybe you’ve been inspired by Isobel O’Hare’s erasures, and have an urge to address some things. Maybe you’ve woken up in the spiked night, with a line swimming out of the deep. Maybe you have a story to tell. Or, maybe you memorized Jericho Brown’s “Colosseum” and have been repeating to yourself: “I cannot locate the origin / Of slaughter, but I know / How my own feels, that I live with it / And sometimes use it / To get the living done . . .”

These poetic efforts have touched me in the last few months, in that strange trigonometry of language, chance, and seeking, that we readers and writers do. Brown’s lines resonated with me, brought me low, and offered something – if not quite comfort, then a kind of recognition.

Intimacy and Poetry

[Greg Allendorf Two-Person Table in the Back Corner of the Coffee Shop, Next to the Fireplace Chat]

I invited fellow fiction writer Liz Jacobs to cozy up to the virtual fireplace with me and chat about Greg Allendorf’s excellent collection, Fair Day in an Ancient Town, for poetry month.

Roan Parrish: We both write fiction that’s invested in love and relationships, and are both poetry enthusiasts (though not experts). As such, I found myself thinking a lot about the role of love and romance when I was reading these poems. I wonder what your thoughts are about how poetry might give us a different language for telling love stories, or a different approach to expressing intimacy?

Liz Jacobs: I think it’s definitely a very different approach. I mean, in romantic, say, fiction, we have to build a story. That’s sort of a simplistic first difference, but poetic structure doesn’t need an arc, not really. I think it just needs a thread. And it creates a sort of … snapshot of a moment, and can certainly tell a story, but that isn’t a must, and it isn’t what we look for in poetry.

Roan: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I think a lot when I read poetry is how it allows you to burrow into a moment. To really explore and sense everything about that moment. And, for me, often that’s a more … not accurate but useful way to approach romance or romantic feelings. As you say, in fiction, we tend to curate, arrange, place moments in an order that has a teleology, but (of course) feelings don’t actually work that way. I mean, duh, fiction. So, poems seem to have this mode of parallelism with romantic feeling that can open things up in really beautiful ways.

Liz: Yes. And even though, in real life, we are living out our own stories, romantic moments tend to bounce around, and not really have a complete storyline. And what poetry is able to capture is that fleeting sense of it. I really loved “Embellishment upon a Memory of You Eating Blueberries in Your Car” because it does tell a story of sorts—a memory, I suppose—but more than anything else, it captures that sense of loss. The way it zooms out from scene to scene and grabs you. I especially loved the line,

Oranges grow violet molds and stink.

Diagrams curl yellow on the walls.

—”Embellishment upon a Memory of You Eating Blueberries in Your Car” by Greg Allendorf

That’s something you can absolutely put into fiction, but in this poem, it floats in a sublime sort of way. At least to me.

Roan: I agree, and I think that the poem just before it—”We Will Become One In Luxor”—has a similar storytelling mode, though rather than a memory it’s a dream, or a fantasy. It tells the story by imagining a setting for the love that will be. Calling it into being in this place, and then populating it, plotting it, giving it a story. And, of course, neither of us (I don’t think) would ever say that there needs to be any kind of dividebetween fiction and poetry, but it does seem that a poem like this is able to use story in a very different mode. A mode that imagines an entire love affair in one page. The way it’s able to make love that might last a lifetime condensed, or to effortlessly dilate one moment into an entire poem … these are things that I think are most deftly done in poetry.

Liz: Yes, exactly. As I was writing the above, I realized I was accidentally drawing an imaginary line between poetry and prose, something I didn’t necessarily want to do. I loved that poem, too—it was intense and evocative and I sort of wanted to burrow into it for a while because of that. I think what I really loved about this entire collection is how vivid it was. So many gorgeous images and turns of phrase. I tend to read in a micro sort of way, I think—I notice phrases or snippets before I can see the whole picture. I mean, that could be how everyone reads, but with “Luxor” I felt this line so much:

I will see you there in Luxor with your jaw

and earlobes.

–”We Will Become One in Luxor” by Greg Allendorf

It’s so simple and packs so much.

Roan: That line, and others like it that manage to render something so particular though they reference something so general, is something that this collection did so well for me. Like, yup, we’ve all got earlobes and jaws (er, mostly), but just by naming those body parts in the context of other particularities in the collection, brings something universal to such a personal level. Poems often operate on a kind of associative logic that also governs, for me, the way I feel in love or when I’m crushed out on someone. The way everything I see reminds me of them, makes me think of them. So I see the bend of a tree branch and I think THEIR JAW! And it doesn’t need to be something specific that my thoughts latch onto, necessarily, because it’s run through the filter of THIS PERSON. It draws the general and the universal quite close, and writes the tiny and the personal onto the whole world.

Liz: Yes! Yes, exactly that. I think it can be quite challenging in prose to recreate that sense of it. With poetry, you can pull words together in a different way, and Allendorf has a really light hand when it comes to that. His words are so evocative.

And what I really enjoyed about this collection, too, is that it was very much my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. The lover described in this collection is not at all idealized. He is, apparently, not very smart, has an off-putting fake tan … But he is loved by the narrator, or at least the narrator is enamored of him. And that puts such a human lens on it. It also invites the reader to think that they can be loved despite/for their own flaws, because nobody is flawless. Sometimes poetry can be used to … de-flaw, sort of shave off those peccadilloes and round somebody out until they have no definable edge, but this really dove into them, and was a pleasure to read (and made me laugh quite a bit, too).

Roan: I appreciated that too! Allendorf isn’t mean-spirited, either, and he holds up his own participation in the exaltation/unexeptionalization (is this a word? It should be) of the lover from the beginning of the collection. The opening line, “I did the love and dressed for my scant part / in the love,” announces from the start that he’s aware of the way loving is part participation in something less perfect, less romanticized, than paeans often suggest. He’s complicit in the affair that’s about to take place in the poems to follow—complicit in the loving, but also in the flaws of loving.

The next line is “As I escape my cheap / dress shirt, crystal flies embellish me.” The costume of the lover is as ornamented as the ideas of love, and he’s super up front about its paste.

Liz: Yes, absolutely. The “we” in “Good Shepherds” is also suggestive of that—that complicity on the part of each lover, and then the “I” at the end is separated from “he” and they are decoupled.

In “Catamount,” the couplet was so striking:

I hate couplets, I hate couples, hate

the tension our avulsion can create

–”Catamount” by Greg Allendorf

Amusing, yes, but also that sense of being pulled into something you can’t control. I guess we could look at it as the other side of being complicit in love.

Roan: I’m so glad you bring up “Catamount”; I was delighted by that line! It also feels like this very striking way of imagining what love can become when we enshrine it: a beautiful wild thing, “Once-feared, now dry and glass-eyed and open- / faced on an oak plaque in my rich den.” This idea that we render something living pure ornament when we attempt to capture it, hold it still.

And it’s such a fitting thing for a writer to meditate on, because that’s what the poem is doing, essentially: attempting to find a way for language to gallop at the speed of love. “I shine you with Armor All and pace / behind the blackened window flanked with lace.” The struggle of doing more than just pointing at love and screaming into the void of the white page, “LOOK! IT’S LOVE!” I mean, I’m not going all language is dead things splayed out on the page or anything, but it’s certainly something I think all writing contends with. And, for me, it’s the beauty of the words themselves that is able to tip the scales to the side of art as being meaningful in that struggle.

Liz: Yes. Language is a living thing, but it is interesting to think how it guides us in our everyday life versus in the purposeful creation of art, for instance. (See how I decided that life can be art, too? *scuffs toes*)

Roan: Yes, we must believe this, no?  As we’ve started to get at, Fair Day in an Ancient Town has legs in both the ancient and the modern, the exalted and the banal, the formal and the formless, and all of these modes are used to characterize the beloved. In this, it reminded me a bit of Mark Wunderlich’s work, which I also love. I wonder what effect this mixture has on the way the collection frames love?

Fair Day Broadside. Photograph courtesy Laurels & Stars Photography.
Fair Day Broadside. Photograph courtesy Laurels & Stars Photography.

Liz: I’m an incredibly visual person, so I got a little thrill about turning to pages 18 and 19 and seeing a poem that looks like a cape or a waterfall. That really tickled me. I love that it goes from couplets to more dense forms. There was even a sneaky sonnet, which I adored.

Roan: Me too! I’m no scholar of contemporary poetry, so clearly this is quite broad strokes, but while for a time modern poetry was asserting itself against formal poetry by turning away from established forms entirely, more recently folks have been reclaiming form in ways that are making it quite relevant again. And in a collection that combines the modern and the less modern, that use of forms and their disruption felt particularly potent to me. And with regard to romance, there’s something rather capital-R Romantic in the way the use of form in a contemporary poem can kind of enshrine the beloved—place them inside something historically recognizable so they signify as somehow loftier than they might without it, as you mentioned in the line from Sonnet 130, above.

Liz: I am also (clearly) not a poetry scholar, but I really enjoyed the old and the new feel of it, as well. It felt playful and inclusive in a way that speaks of—and I may be totally off here—a deeper understanding of poetry, or maybe a sense of … hmm. A sense of really enjoying poetry, in its many forms.

Roan: Yep, agree. And I found myself also actively romanticizing the beloved here as a result of it, as if his association with Ancient Thingz made him somehow … more exaltable? Even though, as we’ve been saying, that’s not what these poems are after. It was almost like wandering through the Las Vegas version of ancient-ness: “there’s the pyramids, and there is Pompeii, and oh look, there’s the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and, at its center, the beloved! Only, he’s … not so perfect at all, is he?” I think maybe I found that particularly with “Luxor,” which we mentioned above, because (I learned, when I googled it to, er, double check that I was right it was in Egypt) the Luxor is also a hotel in Vegas.

Liz: Oooh, I didn’t know that! That is delightful. It’s very much a mixture of the exalted and the banal, as you say. It made the poetry relatable to the modern reader (me) who often finds herself in exaltedly banal situations and frames of mind. (Insert tongue-out smiley here.)

Roan: You too, huh?  Yeah, I got the feeling that Allendorf was wielding all the tools of form, rhythm, and reference with rather a wink, though the content feels sincere.

Liz: Yes, it feels very genuine and real. Something (else) I really loved about it is his use of language. There’s no found language here, words and phrases are not expected, but fresh and different. Some were simpler than others, but also were so evocative and intriguing to me. I bookmarked this stanza specifically because it seems … simple but very original to me (in “Choking”):

Even smiling glow-most won’t erase

the unsubstantial pain I’ve felt that tests

the wisdom and sheer acreage of my chest.

–”Choking” by Greg Allendorf

I think it’s “acreage of my chest” that really jumped out at me. It paints a beautiful everyday picture that contains so much underneath.

Roan: And that fits so well for me with the tone of the whole collection. The—as we’ve noted—combination of the banal and the beautiful (wow, new soap opera!). To wrap up, I’ll be quite on the nose and quote the last line of the last poem in the collection, because bookends:

My day was an elegy always; my day had its charms.

–”My Day Went” by Greg Allendorf

He ends on an acknowledgement of what you mentioned above: the way that sometimes we experience everyday things as poetry just as sometimes poetry can be an encomium to the everyday.

Well, friend, I could nerd out about poetry with you all day every day (especially about this collection, which (in case I didn’t make clear) I adored), but I sense we should let folks get on with their lives and with watching your and my new favorite soap opera, The Banal and the Beautiful, credit: Greg Allendorf. Thanks for chatting, Liz!

Liz: Thank you for having me! I will nerd out with you any day (and that’s a threat, by the way.) Now we just need to pitch the soap opera idea to the Soap Opera gods.

Roan: Oh, I wondered how those things ended up on the air. Mystery solved, and to all a good night.

Roan Parrish is currently wandering between Philadelphia and New Orleans. When not writing, she can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, meandering through whatever city she’s in while listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. She loves bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and self-tattooing. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

Liz Jacobs has lived in many places and has no idea how to respond to simple questions like “where are you from?” She has planted roots in Boston with her wife and hopes of a dog, and is doing too many things at once but enjoying the hell out of it. She reads voraciously, writes as much as possible, and has recently begun doing a truly alarming number of online puzzles while watching TV. She also spends a fair bit of time shouting at clouds on the Internet.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

Dread and Grief, Energy and Song

We invited accomplished poets Cathryn Cofell and Nicole Cooley to read Alicia Rebecca Myers’s poetry chapbook My Seaborgium and share in a discussion about it. Today, we are excited to present to you the result — a lively and insightful conversation about Myers’s collection, and a welcome contribution to our celebration of National Poetry Month.

My Seaborgium is available for purchase in both print and ebook editions wherever books are sold, or in ebook and a signed, numbered fine first edition directly from Brain Mill Press.

NC: I’m so excited to talk about this chapbook by Alicia Rebecca Myers and have been thinking of what drew me to the book, what interested me even before I read the poems.

It’s the title.

First the unfamiliar—to me—word drawn from the language of science, and then the use of the possessive, “the my,” to circumscribe it. The way the word is defined in the book’s introduction also intrigued me; “seaborgium” is “a synthetic element” named in 1974 with “no practical uses” “except perhaps to mark for us a before and after.” The phrase feels playful and loving and teasing and sharp-edged all at once.

And this is reflected in the book, as In “Lullaby” at the end of the chapbook, when the speaker calls her child, “My Seaborgium / My little radish bugaboo, my / pillowfoot jeweler.” I love the way the language of science and fairy tale and slang converge here.

What drew you to this book?

CC: The title was a definite draw for me, too, for many of the same reasons. I have to admit, I assumed it was made up, had looked it up before opening the book, which pulled me in all the more. So much weight to describe an element of so little weight. Playful and sharp-edged, yes, but where you felt love, it called out for me a sadness, the idea of a life so short it’s called “a half-life.”

So yes, this was a brilliant choice for the title, for pulling us both into the book so headily.

There was a second draw for me, and that was Kiki Petrosino’s blurb of the book on the Brain Mill press website—“an attempt to account for the beauty that emerges from our moments of greatest grief”—and the description of Myers’s poems as “songs of loss and growth, motherhood and viscera.” I was connected back again to the before and after of seaborgium, but also to my own story, a story so many women share and have tried to share in verse that it can border on cliché.

Blissfully, cliché is the last thing in this book! You referenced a poem at the end of the book, but I turn to the front, to “Hostess,” the foreword poem.

If what happens after we die is the same as

what happened before then what

must count is the middle. Like the cream filling

in a Twinkie how did I get here?

–”Hostess” by Alicia Rebecca Myers

What a wonderful blend of quirk and and query, heady yet playful.

There are many wonderful poems in here, but this was a fast favorite. How about for you? Could you choose a favorite?

NC: I very much liked the series of poems focused on “weeks” so I think I will choose the prose poem “15 Weeks” (as much I love the sonnets). Throughout this book, I admired the variety of forms Myers employed, and “15 Weeks” reflects this formal play and variation. I have to quote my absolute favorite moment in this poem:

I repeatedly wake at 3am, what Grandma Walker called the convict hour, when escaped men would break into your shotgun house to kill you.

–”15 Weeks” by Alicia Rebecca Myers

This kind of vernacular language, and the reference to family, underscores the wonderful groundedness of this collection. As a counterpoint—or opposite actually—to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “dark night of the soul,” which occurs at 3 A.M., this image brings us back to a real American landscape, a gendered one, and traces a female lineage of fear at the same time the image has an edge of humor and irony. I admired all the work this single line of the poem was able to do.

CC: Oh yes, yes! I may have to change my choice of best poem, a happy problem in a book with so many delicious options. I hadn’t thought of the Fitzgerald counterpoint, but yes again, this poem speaks strongly to me for these same reasons.

I do believe this middle section of the book—Water/Wait—is the strongest. It’s a short half-life of its own, between the before and the after, and the clever use of form and structure (as you suggested with the sonnets) buffets a ricochet of words and images. Within each poem, the yin and yang, “to be both drift and manifold” as in the poem “24 Weeks,” or “dually as wave and particle” in “33/34 Weeks.” This poem, in particular, describes vividly that duality that comes of being both woman and mother—to be fiercely independent yet so dependent on a life that is so dependent on you. “Pain tolerance isn’t the same as pain threshold” is a line from this poem that stayed with me long after the initial read, perhaps serving as the centrifugal force from which the rest of the book spins.

NC: I really like that phrase—the “centrifugal force from which the rest of the book spins.” The structure of My Seaborgium seems to do exactly that, in my mind, to both move forward in a linear progression but also to spin, to radiate outward. The last line of the book—“Every day is a day I can return to”—speaks to that, I think.

To me, this movement echoes the experience of loss, birth, and mothering in such an accurate way. As well as the movement from inside to outside, which is such a strong motif in many of the poems.

I admire the way the book refuses an easy teleology, from loss to a birth, which is a more familiar narrative, and the way the poems complicate experience.

CC: So true, and so hard to do! I mentioned my fear of cliché earlier; some might suggest any book with a central theme of birth and motherhood is automatically cliché (believe me, I’ve written one myself, know this is true). Then you look at her author photo—sweet young mom with adorable baby perched on her knee—it’s hard not to say a little “uh-oh” in the back of your throat before opening the book. So here I circle back again, to that wonderfully weird title and the first line of that cream-center poem, about death. And the first poem after that, about killing the geese. Not your typical mommy-and-me book.

In the foreword, Petrosino talks about our individual helplessness as a central theme of the book. While this was metaphorically themed throughout, surrounded the narrator, I never got the sense that the narrator herself felt helpless; did you?

NC: I never felt the speaker was helpless either—that’s interesting. Though I think a large part of mothering is feeling helpless (perhaps that’s another conversation!). The book seems to me to be full of women who are quite the opposite of helpless.

But danger is everywhere in this book, from the “Harmer’s Market” (I love that linguistic play) to the “convict hour” we talked about earlier to the dangers inherent in the body, the way our bodies may or may not betray us. I think, finally, this is my favorite element of My Seaborgium, how it manages to be both playful and dark, how the poems juxtapose both joy and terror.

CC: I was thinking about those same themes – playful and dark – when I just re-read “The Last Travel Agent.” One thing I like to do with a book I love (aka wish I’d written) is to see where the poems within have been published. This poem appeared in 2015 “Best New Poets”—a fantastic, well-earned acknowledgment of her talent—and I do believe it’s this rare gift of juxtaposition that got her there and in the other fine presses where her work has previously appeared.

This poem—heck, this whole chapbook—is brimming with words that describe dread and grief but in a voice that is full of energy and song, almost (sometimes) taunting and laughter. I’m amazed at her ability to do this. And yes, a little envious.

Bravo to Meyers, and to Brain Mill Press for publishing such a fine, fine book.

Cathryn Cofell, Appleton, has birthed Sister Satellite (Cowfeather Press), six chapbooks, and Lip, a CD blending her poetry with the music of Obvious Dog. She believes the arts are crucial for positive health and advocates for an abundance of it, as a member of the WI Poet Laureate Commission and WI Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, and as a volunteer with the Fox Cities Book Festival, the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, and the Appleton Poetry Rocks Reading Series.

Nicole Cooley has published five books, most recently Breach (LSU Press) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books), both in 2010. Her work has appeared most recently in The Rumpus, Drunken Boat and Tinderbox. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College—CUNY.

Website

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

Beats, Rhymes, and Spoken Word

In high school, I hated hip-hop. As a budding black poet, I felt like I was expected to like it by association, but I couldn’t. The songs I was exposed to only talked about sex or a new dance craze—they seemed empty, and I couldn’t connect with them.

I didn’t get into hip-hop until I was in college, when I discovered Angel Haze while browsing a site that featured independent hip-hop artists. Her raw, relatable song “Smile N Hearts” was the one that got me. My favorite part was the interlude: the beat stops, but Haze is still speaking. For a few moments, the hip-hop song turns into spoken word as Haze speaks beautiful verses filled with introspection and imagery.

Soon I was not only downloading Angel Haze’s hip-hop songs but also some of her spoken word. Hearing her recite poetry against a beautiful piano track was deeply moving. Together, her tracks showed me the value of the human voice and how it can be used to get people to listen to you. They also taught me that hip-hop isn’t as monolithic as the radio makes it seem, and that my experiences have a place in the genre as much as anyone else’s.

I started listening to her music as I wrote poetry. Gradually, it became easier to write introspective poems without censoring myself. I was also inspired to try spoken word by recording my voice with a mic and a voice recorder program on my laptop. I traded my spoken word recordings with a friend via email.

Angel Haze opened the door for more discoveries. In the summer of 2014, I was an editorial intern for the black women’s news site For Harriet. During the internship, I discovered an article written by a black indie female hip-hop artist named Sammus. Sammus turned out to be one of several MCs of color involved in nerdcore, a subgenre of hip-hop that features songs influenced by video games and other forms of pop culture.

Black nerdcore rappers such as Sammus, Mega Ran, and Skyblew showed me a side of hip-hop that was fun and creative, but also serious when it needed to be. I realized that if hip-hop didn’t always have to be serious and kept in a box, then maybe my poetry didn’t have to be either. Eventually, I decided to experiment and write “Song of The Black Nerd,” a pop-culture-filled poem about my experiences. The poem was later featured in an article I wrote for the pop culture site Black Girl Nerds.

Spoken word also became a stronger influence on my poetry. One day, I was searching for poetry-related films when I came across Slam, a 1998 independent film starring the now legendary spoken word hip-hop artist Saul Williams. After getting it for my birthday, I watched in awe as I saw how the worlds of hip-hop and spoken word could intersect and become tools for personal freedom.

One particular part of the film resonated with me. In this scene, Saul Williams’s character, Ray, is in a prison yard about to confront a group of guys who want to beat him up over beef between them and his cellmate, Hopha. When he does confront them, he recites a poem he wrote prior to entering the prison yard. No blows are struck by the guys who have it in for him, because they are enraptured by his words. When Ray is finished, he walks away without comment, with no harm done to him.

This scene, as well as the entire film, showed me how it is possible to reach someone through spoken word. It affirmed that the human voice can be a weapon as powerful as a gun.

Slam and spoken word artists like Jessica Care Moore inspired me to read one of my published poems to the public during my final semester of college. I used my voice in a way that was similar to the spoken word artists I had watched. I spoke with emotion, attitude, and varied inflections in order to get my poem to reach my audience. Afterward, I got a lot of positive feedback from other poets, the people who published my poem, and members of the audience. Some enjoyed my reading so much that they asked me to sign copies of the magazine where my poem was published.

Despite a bad first impression, hip-hop and its sibling, spoken word, have become amazing muses for my poetry. They have taught me to value my personal experiences and my voice. By literally giving a voice to the voiceless, they have helped me speak up and express myself.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

Mothering the Sexy

Sixteen years ago, I moved from the warm bosom of my frigid family homestead in Oswego, New York, to Manhattan and produced my first off off-Broadway play. It required the kind of impenetrable naiveté and unflinching courage found in kids and crazy people.

I penned the play, Carnival Girls, while in college. It was a piece I described as “multi-genre and non-linear.” Basically a hodge-podge of highlights from my writing portfolio that spanned four years as a coed studying creative writing.

Ever since my grandmother, smoking a cigarette and sipping black coffee, told me the stories of the mascaraed hootchie kootchie girls, I was obsessed with the women who worked the sexy, seedy small-town carnival circuit. So much so that today, I have a thriving NYC-based theatre company as well as a book series that bears the same name: The Carnival Girls.

An all-female theatre company, Carnival Girls Productions creates, produces, and promotes original theatrical work by and about women. Our mission is quite simple: great roles for women = great entertainment for all. And the same belief holds true for the first book in my series, Sadie of the Sideshow.

But ironically, or perhaps not, it all truly began in dingy strip club turned off-Broadway theatre across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal ten blocks from Times Square. There, I held an open casting call for female “actors, dancers, magicians, musicians, contortionists and comediennes” ages eighteen to twenty-eight. This is where my impenetrable naiveté got poked.

Hundreds of young women showed up to audition for my mildly entertaining, entirely non-paying theatrical hodge-podge. And 95 percent of these performers? Fiercely, brilliantly, achingly talented. I never truly knew what a muse was until I arrived Manhattan and had two hundred of them staring back at me, equally wide-eyed and hungry as their playwright turned producer.

And so began the task of writing new parts for the production. Because despite not having material for her, how could I turn away the ashen-faced Russian girl with the blunt black bangs and the Mona Lisa grin? Or the crop-topped and bejeweled Israeli dancer who not only could break dance but break hearts with a mere twitch of her hip? Or the African American actress whose command of the stage whilst wearing fishnets and devouring a bagel had me near tears? Mama, I wasn’t in Oz(wego) anymore. And was so very grateful for it.

My imagination went wild with the possibilities for performance. I saw clowns and con artists. Strippers and sword swallowers. Mystics and money makers. A cruel carnival barker in a corset, top hat, and brandishing a riding crop! Every artist who took the stage, I asked the same question: if you could be any kind of carnival girl, who would you be? I expected answers that were as interesting and diverse as the artists themselves. My naiveté got rammed again.

The “hot” one. The “sexy” one. The “slut.” This is how every single one of the young women responded. (Except for the one who said she wanted to be a hamster. I still have no idea what that means or how she envisioned that in a carnival world, but I’m not convinced it wasn’t sexual either.)

My twofold takeaway from this unintended social experiment was, one, young women had a very skewed (though not entirely inaccurate) view of what it meant to be a carnival worker. And, two, we were all woefully sexually repressed and craved a safe place to bear our beauty and booties.

It was just like the whole Halloween costume conundrum that our culture has been tortured and titillated by for decades. The one night a year where every and any woman could crank up their boobs, stuff their feet into stilettos, and strut out in public without fear of being judged a whore or harlot. And if a performer could do this on stage under the auspices of art? Well, damn, the hotness just got cooler.

Fast-forward fourteen years later, when an editor-friend called me with a scintillating writing opportunity. She was working for a publishing upstart that was soliciting submissions of erotic fiction for their catalogue. My friend thought of me and the modest carny girl empire that I spent the last decade building, complete with over a dozen plays and branded panties. I was advised, “Think 50 Shades but good.”Suddenly, I was the actor on the stage. I was the one given the green light to stand up and strip down. And not that I ever needed permission, but it was a kick being asked. Certainly a motivation to explore another side of my creative self, flex a kinky muscle or two. And as an artist, isn’t that my responsibility? To go where I’ve never gone before? If not for my audience, then for myself?

But there was a hitch. A sticky, curly-blond-locked one named Luke, my toddler. Who at the time was just two years old.

I spent over a decade living single in Manhattan during the height of Sex and the City (which I didn’t watch because, unlike my fellow writer Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t afford cable). Those were the days of writing all night and sleeping all morning. Eating cereal for dinner and drinking mimosas for brunch. Making out with strangers. Spending whatever little extra cash I had on costume jewelry, concert tickets, and copies of bootleg screenplays sold on street corners. I was so very naughty.

If there was ever a time for me to discover my inner Anais Nin, it would have been then. But not now. Not in the suburbs. Not when the majority of bodily fluids I had the pleasure of being around came from my drooling, puking, and pooping son.But while my decade of debauchery was long gone, I had earned a plethora of delicious memories from which to derive inspiration. And the wisdom to know that opportunities, particularly the real fun ones, are often fleeting.

So as a new mom now living in New Jersey, learning how to maneuver jug-handles and coordinate writing sessions with naptimes, I embarked on a new journey as an erotica writer. And it came with a couple of self-imposed caveats.

First, feverish loins and trembling thighs aside, I’d write novel that my grown-up boy would be proud of. Or at least not embarrassed by. And it wasn’t the first time that I considered the perspective of my little man as a big man. In my early twenties, well before Luke was on this planet and had sucked the jolly from my joombas, I was asked to pose for Playboy. I declined. Because I knew I wanted to be a mom someday. And not a mom with a past history of porny-pics.It was essential to me that my novel not just have steamy scenes but a real storyline and great writing. It needed to be as good as, if not better than, any of my pathos-infused play scripts. Because I had something to prove now, not just to me and my readers but to my son. Before motherhood and Manhattan, this woman was a writer. Mediocrity or pulp fiction weren’t options.  

Second, I’d create a story that would contribute to the world that I wished for Luke and God-willing his siblings. Enter carny girl Sadie Valentine: a strong, sexy female protagonist with full autonomy, in charge of her life and body. And her male counterpart, Cole Snyder, who admires her intelligence, enjoys her tenacity, and, yes, lusts after her curves.

It’s a cause I’ve championed for almost two decades as a playwright; better, more diverse roles for women. My mission couldn’t and wouldn’t stop because the sex suddenly got explicit. Because it wasn’t just wounded women in need of rescuing who enjoyed the gymnastics of the flesh. But all the rest of us.   

Finally, I wasn’t going to be a cliché. And this began with not seeing myself as cliché. Despite all the signs that pointed to cliché-dom. Suburban stay-at-home mom, underwashed and overdressed in wooly flannel pajamas, writing a bodice-ripper while her woefully neglected kid eats Oreos, watches Blues Clues, and decorates the walls in crayon art.

Because all fantasy aside, I bet most erotica writers worked in atmospheres that looked more like mine than they did the lustful pages of their paperbacks. And this wasn’t comforting to me, but I wasn’t going to let it discourage me either. The reality was I had written some of my darkest, most intense plays while nursing and humming lullabies. Paradox was everywhere, not just in mommy-porn.     

The result? A kick-ass novel with fun, interesting characters set against the backdrop of the American sideshow. With a bit of magic and boom boom mixed in. I even used my real name on the cover. I’d be damned if anyone else got credit for it, including my saucy childhood alter ego Belinda Lavantia.

Back in my big-city-living days, my favorite part of riding the subway was seeing what everyone was reading. The myriad of newspapers printed on various colors of faded paper stock. Cinderblock-sized hardcovers propped up on breasts and bellies. Worn paperbacks folded into palms. I would imagine one of them was mine. Long gone was the dream of having an author card in the card catalog; a book on the Q train was the next best thing.

But then ebooks exploded onto the scene, and suddenly nothing could be seen. No titles and no covers. Readers hid their treasure and pleasure from spying eyes. Unafraid of being caught and judged, this is when most women caught up on their fiction de amour. Like the actors on the stage, like the revelers on Halloween, like the wife surfing the web for slow-cooker recipes, they too had cravings.

And if this mom’s fancy art could embrace their desire, nurture their fantasies, help satiate a hunger while whetting a palette (and maybe something else), then my job was done. And done damn well.

A novelist, blogger and multi-award winning playwright, Christie is the founder and artistic director of the NYC-based theatre company Carnival Girls Productions. She makes her home on the Jersey Shore with her husband, Greg, son, Luke, and dog, Cleo.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.