A Tinderbox Is a Thing Readily Ignited

A Review by C. Kubasta

I met Molly Sutton Kiefer in April of 2014. We were both reading at the Reader’s Loft bookstore in Green Bay, Wisconsin – a friend had recommended this place to me as a wonderful independent bookstore, with cats.

April in northern Wisconsin is changeable: outside, the graying skies promised late evening sleet, but inside (with much thanks to Molly, a former local who rallied her friends and family) the store was packed with poetry listeners, the cats wefted around our feet as we read, and we warmed ourselves in the glow of old-fashioned desk lamps and the peculiar glow of peculiar-looking lines. After the reading, Molly told me about her new project, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which she hoped would be a place for hybrid work — poems that didn’t quite fit with traditional notions of poetry. She’d noticed the shapes of my poems on the page and asked me to send her some work — it was the first time a stranger had solicited my work.

Since then, Tinderbox has been publishing poetry, reviews, and essays that speak to these hybrid forms, and speak to poets like me who often find our strange poems don’t easily fit with the aesthetics of more conventional journals. More recently, the Tinderboxers have added another endeavor: Tinderbox Editions, a small press for poetry and literary prose. Both the journal and the press are located in Red Wing, Minnesota, and have become a part of the lively literary scene of the land of one thousand lakes. Milkweed, Graywolf, and Coffee House Press are well-known publishers in the Twin Cities, and Tinderbox augments this literary landscape in a number of ways.

Located about an hour outside of the cities, Red Wing is also home to Red Dragonfly Press and hosts a summer celebration of the arts at the Anderson Center. Last July, Molly curated the readings of several poets, including Heid Erdrich, Katherine Rauk, and Athena Kildegaard — in my correspondence with Molly, she shared this “lovely tidbit”: Molly met Chris Burawa (the director of the Anderson Center) through the preschool their children attend; she gives his homemade carrot cake a rave review. This year’s Summer Celebration of the Arts was held July 8, featuring poetry and fiction readings with Leslie Adrienne Miller, Mona Power, and Danit Brown. Tinderbox has recently joined the space at the Red Wing Incubator, sharing creative energies as they overlook Barn Bluff.

After the reading in Green Bay that night, it did indeed sleet. Highway 41 was closed — the thin covering of ice was completely invisible, and created some of the more treacherous driving I’d seen. The frontage roads were no better, so I crossed to the east and wefted my own way through country lanes and the edges of suburbs. I’m a bit of Luddite, so had no GPS or cell phone, but I kept Lake Winnebago to the left of me and tracked steadily south. The side roads were rutted and pocked, covered in places with branched shade. The slicked sheen found less purchase. I made my slow way home in the wavered light of the moon.

In a certain light, I willfully misread the title of Katherine Rauk’s poetry collection Buried Choirs. There’s a choir in my head that repeats those lines from Sonnet 73: “Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” There were no birds that night home from Green Bay, but the boughs did shake against the cold, and the sound of “bare ruined choirs” is buried in the back of the throat: a perfect swallowing.

The speaker’s voice in Rauk’s book rings with sounds and punning. The forms range from little rectangles of justified prose to spare couplets of simple language. The poems themselves oscillate from teacher-poems (invoking and mocking the mistakes of email, the ridiculousness of self-assessment, the mechanics errors of rough drafts) to intimations of loss to poems littered with imagery of childhood, often inverted to the strange and unsettling.

The birds are there too. In “The Price,” the speaker laments she “will never learn what love is / eating out of your hand.” The verb “think” and its variations build up, so the poem becomes a puzzle: the speaker thinking of the beloved not thinking of her, as she thinks of things — things like Thursdays, or “doorframes / stacked one up against / another’s emptiness.” The poem itself becomes this image of doorframes, spaces piled over spaces, with “some / kind of wind blowing through.” Rauk’s poems are often like this: a piling up of simple images, in simple language that becomes too complex to sort through simply. These deceptive poems require re-reading; the reader searches for the “I,” the source of the poem to hold onto and grasp.

There are also strange moments of humor paired with cleanly expressed loss, as in the poem titled “Instructions On How To Open A Gift That May Or May Not Be A Sausage.” The poem begins by referring to the mustard seed, and the Sermon on the Mount, which in Rauk’s poem becomes the “Sermon on the Meat.” But soon the poem points out that “the mustard plant is actually a weed, a subversive gift that is difficult to ungive.” And immediately after, the next sentence tells us: “Like the gift of love, which once opened cannot be returned to its original package, no matter what your ex-husband says.” From there, the prose poem returns to a pun or two, but we’ve been reminded that this is no joke — this is humor to save us from pain. Only a little funny, more than a little forced.

It is near the end of the second section that the collection reaches its apogee, its fullest emotional resonance, in the two poems “Summer Romance” and “Determination.” The first reminds us, “No less / beautiful for not being / true is the story / we tell ourselves / over and over / again about death.” The second reminds us of summer storms in prairie towns: “Sometimes we are given / lightning. Sometimes / the quiet heat / of a padlocked barn.” Both of these poems speak to the way we interpret images, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Both of these poems set up the third section of the book, which provides some resolution for the speaker, for us, and for this group of slow-burn poems with their central image of seeds – the Buried Choirs of the title.

Tinderbox Poetry Review and Tinderbox Editions continues to publish exciting work through the journal and the press. Of their work, Molly writes:

I’ve realized that I have a strong interest in promoting literary works that I felt were difficult, challenging, compelling, and ignited a spark inside me as a reader. Tinderbox wants to be a home for voices who need to be heard, whose works have an urgency in this world, and we also want to do what we do out of a sense of literary citizenship, which means that, for instance, [Kelly Hansen Maher’s book] Tremolo launched at Stillwater Prison, where Kelly taught, and we’ve given workshops in communities that might not have otherwise had this access.

She also promises exciting books in the works and the near future, including more poetry, an anthology of lyric essays, a poetic novel, and more. I highly recommend checking out the journal – free and accessible online – or buying a subscription to Tinderbox Editions.

Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.