Dread and Grief, Energy and SongNicole Cooley and Cathryn Cofell Discuss the Poetry of Alicia Rebecca Myers
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.
About Cathryn Cofell
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.
About Nicole Cooley
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.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month 2016
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.