Sunday, April 29, 2012

Foxy Lady Jeannine Hall Gailey Talks about She Returns to the Floating World

Jeannine Hall Gailey is the Seattle-area author of Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011) which is an Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal finalist for 2012. Her upcoming collaborative book of poetry and art, Unexplained Fevers, is forthcoming from Kitsune Books in 2013. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in journals like The Iowa Review, The Seattle Review, and Prairie Schooner. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and currently teaches part-time at the MFA program at National University. Her web site is

I first encountered Jeannine Hall Gailey’s work while searching for poetry that would appeal to my students. They were at the height of the Twilight obsession, and I thought if I could find poems with younger themes, it might open a window for them into this world they were so wary of. I posted the question on the Wom-po listserv, and Jeannine herself said her first book, Becoming the Villainess, “does have poems about Buffy, evil Snow Queens, villainesses of all sorts...teenagers seem to dig it (though I wrote it with a slightly older audience in mind...).” Who was this Gailey person? I did a quick Google and found “The Night I Realize I Won’t Be Able to Have Children,” in Blood Lotus. So began my love affair with Jeannine Hall Gailey.

She was right about Villainess, by the way. Everyone I’ve ever told about this book (and they’ve been many) has loved it, and students who “don’t like poetry” like Jeannine’s poems. When she contacted me about reviewing her second book, She Returns to the Floating World, I immediately accepted, even though I had sworn off reviewing forever in a stupid attempt at “concentrating on my own work” that I’ve since quite obviously given up. I was floored by the book, which collects poems about Japanese traditional mythology and popular culture in an intensely personal context centered on the myth of the
kitsune, the fox-become-woman of Japanese myth. In the traditional tale, the fox falls in love with a human male, and in She Returns, she is the central character in poems exploring themes of marriage, maternity, womanhood, and womanhood’s relationship to the environment. The review appears in the current issue of the Southern Humanities Review, and, as a companion piece, I asked Jeannine if she would answer some questions:

Q: She Returns begins with a rather lengthy set of acknowledgments in which you list seven “books and sources . . . invaluable to my research.” I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t necessarily think of research and poetry as easy partners. Could you comment on the kind of research that you did, and why, and how it fed into the poetry?

A: Well, I’m the kind of person who likes to look stuff up for fun, which can really start an avalanche effect. For instance, Hayao Miyazaki mentioned in a couple of interviews that the story for one of his first movies, one of my favorites, called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, was based on a Japanese traditional tale called “The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars.” The discovery of this charming tale, along with the discovery, quite by coincidence, of a fabulous resource, Hayao Kawai’s The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan – which I picked up just for fun at a used bookstore – they both kind of pushed me to start reading Japanese folk tale collections, criticism, and even start exploring Japanese short fiction, like Osamu Dazai, who is now among my favorite writers of all time. So it sort of built on itself.  I really wrote the first poems in the book from watching Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, which are almost large visual poems in themselves, and then, as I read all these other books, the voices started up in my head – the fox-wife, the crane wife, all these transforming women – and the big sister/little brother trope in Japanese folk tales was equally fascinating to me. The idea of the female savior – which reappears quite often in anime and in Japanese folk tales – just seemed so liberating in the face of much pop culture “victim/sex object/villainess” stereotyping in Western culture. Of course, then, listening to Japanese pop bands, reading contemporary Japanese poetry, and learning more about the history and culture of Japan – these all seemed like natural ventures after I started up the project.

Let me point out I read probably twenty-five or thirty books of research for Becoming the Villainess, too – books of feminist fairy tale and comic book criticism, researching older and varying versions of fairy tales across different languages and cultures, so, um, it could be just a thing I do when I write.

Q: You learned Japanese. You researched. You wrote a 128-page book, lengthy for a poem collection these days. How long did this project take, and what was it like to get through such a complex endeavor?

A: I think the book from start to finish took about six years.

I wish I could say that I knew enough Japanese now to even have a regular conversation of the street – but no, I am still a stuttering idiot who can barely introduce herself in Japanese! I can recognize words in conversation, and I think Kanji is so beautiful I just want to learn more of it for aesthetic reasons – but I still can’t say I’m at all fluent in the language.

All of the books I read along the way so enriched my whole life, and the people I got to make friends with during the process of writing the book – my little brother’s Japanese professor, Dr. Ayako Ogawa, was quite helpful in reading early drafts of the book and helping me research Japanese terms and stories, even sending the book around to her family to get their input – and Roland Kelts, who I ended up meeting in person last year after corresponding for some time – and I ended up seeing Hayao Miyazaki in person in Berkeley CA, which was a dream for me. So really it was wonderful to get to meet and work with wonderful people who were so much more knowledgeable than I am! Even now, this last year, I’ve made new friends online in Japan who are working with translating some of my poems, and I never would have made those connections without the book. So the process was really something that changed me as I wrote.

Q: In the dedication, you credit your little brother with turning you on to Japanese language and culture, but poems like “Code III,” show a personal involvement with gaming culture in particular. Can you talk more about what it’s like, as a girl, as a woman now, to participate in worlds usually dominated by boys and men?

A: I grew up with three brothers, and I learned to program my first computer game when I was around seven (I made an alien stick out its tongue, and another where a maze exploded when you took a wrong turn – all in TRS-80-ready BASIC!) My father never acted like technology was something just for boys, my mother played early video games with me like “Zork!” and we were all encouraged to play with the computers and robots that went for tours in the house while my dad worked with them. So I’ve always felt pretty much at ease around techies, who, for the most part, have been men. At AT&T at one of my first jobs, I had this wonderful brilliant engineer friend from Ghana who was happy to show me all sorts of stuff – how to be a network administrator, a little bit about Unix and Java – and I never felt that I was treated differently at my jobs because I was female (except for being asked out on the occasional date!) That doesn’t mean I wasn’t appalled by occasional stuff – guys discussing the code for making breasts bounce in a certain volleyball video game comes to mind – and I’ve been a little disappointed sometimes in Geek culture for not embracing more females as something besides the sex objects – I remember feeling so sorry for the “booth babes” when I went to Comdex one year in Vegas because none of the men would make actual eye contact with them or acknowledge them as human beings. On the other hand, I’m totally happy to see more women at the bigger cons like WonderCon and ComicCon, and Seattle is hosting a new phenomenon called Geek Girl Con, which was fabulous last year. So I think Geek culture may not always be so male-dominated – at least I hope so!

I also think not being the sturdiest human physically has contributed – necessarily – to finding things to do when I was sick, stuck indoors, recovering from whatever…and video gaming, books, movies, these are all part of the process of staying sane when you’re not able to “go outside and play.”

My little brother definitely deserves the credit for helping educate me about a wide variety of anime series – he also is the one who showed me which comic books were cool in the eighties, and which ones had great writers – and when he started studying Japanese in college and visiting Japan it was a wonderful chance for me to tag along in learning. He’s three years younger than me, and seems to have a wonderful sixth sense about the “next big thing” in the culture – he told me Nirvana and Pearl Jam, for instance, would be huge, even when no one knew who they were. So, I’ve learned to pay attention to him whenever he recommends a band or a movie. 

Q: Beyond the personal, can you say how you see the relationship between Japanese and American culture now, how it is evolving?

A: I really loved talking to Roland Kelts about this, author of Japanamerica, a book that was published a couple of years ago, that talks directly about the give-and-take of cultural flow between the two countries from WWII till today, especially as it pertains to pop culture. I certainly think that things like anime and manga have influenced the popular culture, especially of young people – I just think of the crowds of kids (and adults) at things like SakuraCon here in Seattle. For me, personally, I think it’s a shame the folk tales of Japan aren’t more widely read here – the fairy tales of Japan have unique qualities that I think would be a wonderful addition to the children’s cannon of tales. I hope my book sort of helps popularize some of the not-as-well-known tales like “Big Sister, Little Brother” or “The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars.” Some of the stories weren’t widely available in English when I was doing my research, but since the publication of the book, Osamu Dazai’s wonderful collection of folk tales has come out in English translation – it’s called “Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu.”

Q: The common thread between Villainess and She Returns is your wonderful ability to write persona poems. In Villainess, however, the territory is Western: fairy tales, myth, popular culture figures from comics and television. What did the switch to a Japanese cultural vantage point enable you to do?

A: I think the mood of the books is much different. I think I wrote Becoming the Villainess and She Returns to the Floating World in very different spaces, and I started them almost a decade apart; while Villainess is kind of brash and funny, She Returns is a more serious, meditative, melancholy book; definitely the notion of “aware” or “softly despairing sorrow” that characterizes so much Japanese literary art rang true with me when I started writing the book. The idea of separation – relationships that move apart for whatever reasons – and the idea of alienation from the body – were both things I was struggling with when I wrote many of the poems in the second book.

Interestingly, my third book, the upcoming Unexplained Fevers, returned to a lighter tone and to some of the Western fairy tale heroines I sort of passed over in the first book – the characters who were trapped in glass boxes, towers, coffins, etc. And then a fourth manuscript is all about my childhood in Oak Ridge and my father’s work with robots and kind of goes off in a sci-fi direction. So, you know, I get interested in different subject matter, then I write kind of single-mindedly about it for a few years, that’s how my books get written. I definitely write poems in “books” and then just weed out the weaker poems later.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to be on your blog, Celia!

And thank you, Jeannine, for taking the time to answer these questions, but most of all for sharing your passionate interests and interesting passions through your work.

Read some of Jeannine’s poems online:

“When Red Becomes the Wolf”
“Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon”
“The Husband Tries to Write to the Disappearing Wife”
“Sleeping Beauty Loves the Needle”

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Couplets Blog Tour: Week Four Roundup

126 posts! Start at the top, and work your way down:

  • 22 April 2012: 3 Questions for Heather Kamins (at Miriam Sagan's Miriam's Well: Poetry, Land Art, and Beyond)

  • 22 April 2012: Inquiring Minds and Other Clichés — David W. Landrum (at Christine Klocek-Lim's November Sky Poetry).

  • 22 April 2012: Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour — Angie Werren (at T.A. Smith/Yousei Hime's Shiteki Na Usagi)

  • 22 April 2012: Yousei Hime (at Angie Werren's feathers: micropoetry (and tinyprose))

  • 23 April 2012: Guest Post by Carol Berg (at The Wordsmith's Forge: The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette)

  • 23 April 2012: Couplets: Interview with Iris Jamahl Dunkle (at Francis Scudellari's Caught In The Stream)

  • 23 April 2012: Guest Post by Stella Pierides (at Sabra Wineteer's The Bloomin' Blog)

  • 23 April 2012: Featured "Couplets" Poet: Julene Tripp Weaver (at Christina Nguyen's A wish for the sky...)

  • 23 April 2012: Margaret Dornaus (at Angie Werren's feathers: micropoetry (and tinyprose))

  • 24 April 2012: Macbeth and Probabiliby (Michael Round at JoAnne Growney's Intersections — Poetry with Mathematics)

  • 24 April 2012: Exploring the blueshift on the Couplets blog tour (review of Blueshifting at Sherry Chandler's blog)

  • 24 April 2012: Inquiring Minds and Other Clichés — Catherine Rogers (at Christine Klocek-Lim's November Sky Poetry)

  • 24 April 2012: Fiona Robyn (at Angie Werren's feathers: micropoetry (and tinyprose))

  • 25 April 2012: Inquiring Minds and Other Clichés — Timothy Green (at Christine Klocek-Lim's November Sky Poetry)

  • 25 April 2012: balance and flexibility: Molly Peacock part one (at Joanne Merriam)

  • 25 April 2012: Couplets: Crossing Genres with Iris Dunkle (at Wendy Brown-Baez's Wendy's Muse)

  • 25 April 2012: Fiona Robyn (at Angie Werren's feathers: micropoetry (and tinyprose))

  • 26 April 2012: Kathy Uyen Nguyen (at Angie Werren's feathers: micropoetry (and tinyprose))

  • 26 April 2012: Couplets: My life as a poet (Anne Higgins at Sue Burke's Mount Orégano)

  • 26 April 2012: Inquiring Minds and Other Clichés — Lizzy Swane (at Christine Klocek-Lim's November Sky Poetry)

  • 26 April 2012: NaPoMonth Guest: Mary Alexandra Agner (at Stella Pierides: Literature, Art, Culture, Society)

  • 27 April 2012: elbow grease and enthusiasm: Molly Peacock part two (at Joanne Merriam)

  • 27 April 2012: Couplets Blog Tour: Carol Berg Hosts Pat Valdata (at Carol Berg's Ophelia Unraveling)

  • 27 April 2012: Poetry with Math -- BRIDGES 2012, Limericks (John Ciardi at JoAnne Growney's Intersections -- Poetry with Mathematics)

  • 27 April 2012: Couplets Poetry Tour & Sharing Your Story (Lisa Cihlar at Michele Fischer's Finding Your Voice)

  • 27 April 2012: Stella Pierides (at Angie Werren's feathers: micropoetry (and tinyprose))

  • 28 April 2012: Inquiring Minds and Other Clichés — Stephen Bunch (at Christine Klocek-Lim's November Sky Poetry)

  • 28 April 2012: Weaving Words, an interview with Ned Haggard (at Wendy Brown-Baez's (Wendy's Muse)

  • 28 April 2012: Couplets Blog Tour: Celia Lisset Alvarez on Poetry & Politics (at Sunslick Starfish: chronicling the amazing ideas and adventures of Ching-In Chen: Writer & Community Organizer)

  • 28 April 2012: From Nature's Patient Hands: For Couplets, Elizabeth Barrette (at Wendy Babiak's What I Meant to Say)

  • 28 April 2012: Marty Smith (at Angie Werren's feathers: micropoetry (and tinyprose))
  • Couplets Blog Tour: On Poetry and Politics

    My last stop on the Couplets Blog Tour is Ching-In Chen's Sunslick Starfish, where I've written about one of my favorite subjects: poetry and politics. Check out this post and other posts from the Couplets Blog Tour at the Upper Rubber Boot Books website. My thanks one more time to Ching-In Chen, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Pat Valdata, Anne Higgins, and, of course, Joanne Merriam for this wonderful tour--what a great way to celebrate National Poetry Month!

    Friday, April 20, 2012

    Couplets Blog Tour: Opening the Dream Cabinet with Guest Ann Fisher-Wirth

    My guest today is Ann Fisher-Wirth, whose fourth book of poems, Dream Cabinet, has just been published by Wings Press. Her other books of poems are Carta Marina, Blue Window, and Five Terraces.  Also she has published three chapbooks: The Trinket Poems, Walking Wu-Wei’s Scroll, and Slide Shows.  She is coediting Ecopoetry: A Contemporary American Anthology, forthcoming from Trinity University Press in 2013.  Her poems appear widely and have received numerous awards, including a Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, the Rita Dove Poetry Award, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Award, two Mississippi Arts Commission fellowships, and twelve Pushcart nominations including a Special Mention. She has had senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden.  She teaches at the University of Mississippi, where she also directs the minor in Environmental Studies. And she teaches yoga at Southern Star Yoga Studio and Blue Laurel Yoga in Oxford, MS.

    For today's post, I present a short review of Ann's latest book, Dream Cabinet, and ask her some questions about the role of the poet, of the reader, of form, and of her passion for the environment.

    Opening the Dream Cabinet 
    In an interview for Very Like a Whale, when asked about the role of the poet in the world, British poet Tony Williams said, “It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters.” Ann Fisher-Wirth’s new collection from Wings Press, Dream Cabinet, is an extended meditation on this very dichotomy, this push-and-pull the poet feels between the world inside and that outside. The poems, ranging from formally experimental environmental meditations to intimate lyrical narratives, are fueled by the simultaneous desires to both make sense of the world and acknowledge its senselessness. In the title poem, the speaker is moved by the changing seasons of the Swedish landscape to wish “to know this place in the fullness of its seasons. / And watch the light on water, day after day, / empty out my everlasting self-regard.” It is a wish the collection fulfills, moving from poems that struggle to define experience to poems that, finally, acknowledge “nothing needs / to happen” in order for us to claim our places in this world.

    The collection begins with poems capturing moments that resist definition while at the same time desiring it. The opening poem, “Slow Rain, October,” features a quotation from Williams Carlos Williams, “Minds like beds always made up.” Enjoying the possibilities of “div[ing] into an unmade bed and sleep[ing],” the speaker turns her vision towards the “sixty years of family” represented in the photographs nearby, and relishes the “Sweetness of not making the bed today, / not making the body today, not making / the life today.” It’s easy to see why Fisher-Wirth chose to begin the collection with this quiet poem. It holds all the collection’s themes inside: family, especially their comings and goings; nature present but inscrutable in its “cloak and foggy stars”; and the poet herself, attempting to make sense of it all yet deriving more pleasure in the telling than the told, in the unmade bed.

    Subsequent poems pick up on this theme but take it into darker territories. A memory of a lazy afternoon in Athens is shadowed by the earlier memory of the shattered family that preceded it:

    When I speak of that time my tongue

    grows thick and I think of the family I broke
    to be with you; years later my daughter told me

    her father said to her, You will have to be
    the mommy now.

    Other poems, such as the powerful “Answers I Did Not Give to the Annulment Questionnaire,” explore the boundaries of remembrance, the difference between change and destruction, between the passage of time and death. Faced with annulment papers after twenty-two years of divorce, the speaker travels through the lifetime of memories encompassing fourteen years of marriage, and challenges the readers of the document to “Make to nothing now the path that led / to the house next to the chicken farm / in Upland, California” where the family once lived. This is a poem that explores the value of experience even in the face of failure, that simultaneously wishes the “Fathers” to whom it is addressed to “Make to nothing my self-hatred” and “explain that, Fathers, / to the children of this marriage.”

    The environmental poems also speak to the theme of broken vs. annulled. “BP,” a formally complex poem arranged partly from quotations, presents a stark look at the disastrous oil spill, with animals large and small struggling through the oil muck. Even in its agony, however, the gulf is teeming in its “filthy iridescence,” and the “flames [that] roll over the waters” are alive with ominous intent as they “lick the legs of our chairs / where we sit sipping coffee.” Like the ever-changing landscape of Sweden, the natural world of Dream Cabinet has its peaks and valleys, transforming but never disappearing. Like families that dissolve and coalesce into new families, Fisher-Wirth’s natural world is a place that holds “no vow,” that is a soft rain one minute and a terrifying tornado the next. “There’s nothing to be done,” writes Fisher-Wirth, and she revels in it:

    others have written of blackberries,
    but these are my fingers gently twisting
    the tender knobbly fruit from the hull,
    this is my hour and cherishing, I breathe
    blackberry into every cell of my body.
    Bees love me. They come to buzz
    and hover around my crimson fingers.
    In this stained, thorn-pricked
    meditation, nothing needs
    to happen.

    What is the role of the poet in such a world? This is one of the questions I asked Ann Fisher-Wirth:

    Q: In “Credo,” you write, “And the artist, what is she? The one whose hands are empty.” Could you say more about how you perceive the role of the poet?

    A: Recently a friend who read Dream Cabinet pointed out what she felt to be an interesting conflict. On the one hand many of its poems grow from personal experience, from engagement with four generations of my family and with history, politics, the environment. They strongly bear the marks of my personal identity; they are autobiographical free verse grounded in lyric and to some extent narrative. Yet on the other hand “Credo” expresses a conception of poetry as coming from a kind of relinquishment, an emptying of the known self, a listening and channeling, so that language comes through but not exactly from oneself. I think, though, that what appears to be a conflict is just two sides of the same thing. Existence expresses itself through us, shaped as we are shaped. Sometimes, the shaping will be of “things that happened to the writer,” and we call that autobiography. Sometimes, the shaping will hew more closely to dream, fantasy, meditative states, the free play of the imagination. Even so, the poet is (in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s beautiful phrase) “Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.” We speak the language, yet the language speaks us.

    The role of the poet is to serve the poem. Sometimes this happens in one way, sometimes in another. Along the way, the poem cannot help but reflect the nature of the poet’s engagement with all aspects of his or her world—including the desire to empty the self out and, as much as possible while one is still alive, become one with the world. I have practiced and taught yoga for a long time, and I think of this desire as akin to what happens in meditation or Savasana.

    Q: Many of the poems in Dream Cabinet seem to resist resolution, to travel through the murky waters of experience without a map. How do you perceive the role of the reader, then?

    A: It’s funny, I always think of my poems as abundantly clear, even too clear—so your statement that many of the poems in Dream Cabinet seem to resist resolution delights me. Experience doesn’t have a map; instead, experience has its plenteous and as you say murky self. Poetry—like all literature—thrives on questions, complexities, conflicts, ambiguities. It is a journey, a means of exploration. And I suppose I’d want a reader to take the trip, to “learn to love the questions themselves,” as Rilke advises in Letters to a Young Poet. I think contemporary American culture is way too addicted to answers, solutions, game plans, for complicated reasons that probably have much to do with confusion and fear. Once, long ago, in a time of great trouble I asked someone, “What is the meaning of life?” I was looking for some clear-cut statement of purpose, a map that would chart my despair. He replied, “The meaning of life is life.” It was exactly the right answer. And while poetry cannot resolve life’s complexities, cannot do away with murkiness or suffering, it definitely offers us life more abundant.

    Q: I was particularly impressed by “BP,” in which you not only incorporated quotations from a government document and a news article, but also did so in a very formally interesting way. I was equally taken by more traditional poems, like “Thirty Years.” How do you think about form so differently, especially in relation to content?

    A: I am glad you liked “BP”! That poem was a challenge for me to write, because whereas I am intensely involved with environmental issues both in my teaching and as a citizen, and whereas I live in Mississippi, I don’t live close to the Gulf of Mexico and so did not see the destruction caused by the BP oil disaster with my own eyes. Yet Jonathan Skinner, who was co-editing a special issue of Interim magazine focusing on the disaster, invited me to contribute and I really wanted to. So I leaned on what I did have: a Nation article by Naomi Klein, the Congressional report a year after the disaster, various images in the press, and a digital photograph taken by Gara Gillentine, with whom I collaborated on the piece. I decided to run the found text in one jagged column across the page from my own jagged column of language, and to use the found text to address the large environmental implications of the event, and my own language to address the beauty and suffering of the nonhuman creatures—pelicans, dragonflies—caught in the web of our greed. So, the poem is in three sections: first, the Nation text and my poem about dragonflies; second, the Congressional report excerpts and my poem about pelicans; third, two contrasting voices—both mine—the first of which expresses our lack of interest in what does not impact us directly (“What does that have to do with me”) and the second of which expresses a warning: it does have to do with me, for literally and metaphorically, the waters are rising around us all.

    Different poems present different challenges, and I like to experiment with a wide variety of ways of writing free verse. Many of the poems in my first, second, and fourth books are fairly traditional free verse lyrics or lyric/narratives. My chapbook Slide Shows is a sequence of nineteen short-line poems, each of which is only ten lines long. My third book, Carta Marina, is a book-length poem in three parts, each of which has multiple dated sections, and the sections are in all sorts of free-verse forms; formally, it’s the most experimental thing I’ve done. Some longer sequences in Dream Cabinet, like the poem “Answers I Did Not Give to the Annulment Questionnaire” or the title poem “Dream Cabinet,” are in short sections some of which utilize open field composition. I also love to write prose poems; in fact the manuscript I am working on now, “First, Earth,” is all prose poems.

    Q: Dream Cabinet seems obsessed with the passage of time, both on a personal and a global scale. What can you tell us about your own relationship to environmentalism and how it has evolved over the years?

    A: It’s true, I am obsessed with time—particularly with the passage of time. I guess that’s inevitable if one is as drawn to autobiography as I am, and also pretty common as people grow older. I was born right after World War II, only because my father lived through the war. I was a teenager living in Berkeley during the Civil Rights era and the first part of the Vietnam War. Growing up in Berkeley, I became aware of politics at a fairly young age—of civil rights and environmental justice issues, in particular, because of a guy I dated who was much involved with Cesar Chavez. Then as a graduate student, young mother, and eventually Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, I became very interested in second wave feminism, women writers, and feminist theory.

    My focus on environmental issues grew gradually, and I can think of four main sources for it. First, when I married my second husband, Peter Wirth, we moved to live in the guesthouse of a 600-acre farm south of Charlottesville, and I realized that what I’d always thought of as my passion for the natural world was actually a fact: I really, truly did love nature. Second, as I became aware of the dire state of the environment, I realized that, for me, that was the most important issue of all; if we destroy the planet for human life, nothing else is going to matter. Third, at around that time I became involved with the nascent Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, which has now become an international 1000-member group known as ASLE. This has been a major professional investment for me; it has had many results, among which is my directing the Environmental Studies Minor at the University of Mississippi. And fourth, as I have continued in my study of Eastern thought, combined with my study of environmental literature and my practice of yoga, my awareness of the other-than-human world and forms of life has grown. The bodhisattva consents to remain in the cycles of birth and death until all beings attain enlightenment—not just all human beings. That, to me, is a supremely beautiful concept. The idea of extending compassion to all living beings opens up one’s awareness immeasurably, and though I can’t say I fully live with that compassion, it inspires me.

    Thanks for passing on that inspiration, Ann, and thanks to Joanne Merriam of Upper Rubber Boot Books, coordinator of the Couplets Blog Tour, for providing me with the opportunity to get to know Ann and her work. If you want to keep up with the Couplets tour, check the updated list of posts here.
    Read more poems from Dream Cabinet:

    "Sweetgum Country"

    "Cicadas, Summer" and "Disorder and Early Sorrow"


    Saturday, April 14, 2012

    Couplets Blog Tour: Week Two

    Wonderful new posts all around this week, if I do say so myself! Happy reading:

    Thursday, April 12, 2012

    Couplets Blog Tour: "Why Getting Small Details Right Matters," by Pat Valdata

    My thanks today to my guest, Pat Valdata, for this post. Pat is both a poet and a novelist, and, when I told her this blog was geared primarily toward beginning writers, she immediately came up with the idea of sharing her thoughts on verisimilitude, the art of using details to create the illusion of reality. Read Pat's full bio and my review of her latest book, Inherent Vice, in my last post, here.

    Why Getting Small Details Right Matters
    by Pat Valdata
    I am reading a book in which one character is an entomologist, and in one scene, he talks about a wasp who stings him, referring to the wasp several times as “he.” This bothered me enough that I looked wasps up on the Internet, and as I suspected, only female wasps have stingers, what National Geographic describes as “modified egg-laying organs.”

    I would expect any trained entomologist to use the correct pronoun, wouldn’t you? A small point, maybe, but when I read that passage, the inaccuracy took me right out the story. I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, but what I always look for is a strong narrative, compelling characters, and vivid settings, all of which combine to draw me deep into the story, where I can disappear happily for hours. I love visualizing fictional worlds in my mind, and I especially enjoy writers who help me enter their world and stay there.
    That’s why getting all the details right matters so much. The technical term is verisimilitude, and it’s an important feature of almost all fiction, with the possible exception of surrealism. Even fantasy stories create their own kind of verisimilitude: Think of all that backstory J.R.R. Tolkien provided in the appendices to the Lord of the Rings. Once we accept the places and characters he presents to us, we expect the details to support that world. Imagine being halfway through the story and coming upon a Hobbit who wore shoes, or a kind-hearted Orc. It would feel wrong, and in my case, would jolt me back to my own reality.

    I want my own readers to immerse themselves in my books, so I spend a lot of time on small details that give the story that sense of intimacy and being there that I so enjoy when I read. When I wrote The Other Sister, which takes place between 1904 and 1956, I spent months on research to make sure that I got small details right: which port an immigrant couple from Hungary might use to leave Europe for America; which movies would be playing in the early 1920s; what a Victrola cost. I tried to be careful with dialogue, to avoid anachronisms (none of my characters said “Awesome,” for example). And as I described a location as it was transformed from rural to suburban, I found out when the country lane might have become a paved street, and made sure I never “unpaved” it by mistake later in the book.

    Of course, you don’t have to get the tiniest details right in an early draft, when it’s more important to move the action along and develop your characters. But during revision, keep an eye out for the kind of slip that will make a reader put down your story and start fact-checking instead.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2012

    Couplets Blog Tour: Pat Valdata's Inherent Vice

    My guest this week is Pat Valdata, author of Inherent Vice. Valdata received an MFA in writing from Goddard College. Inherent Vice (Pecan Grove Press) is her newest book, a full-length poetry collection published in March 2011. Her earlier chapbook, Looking for Bivalve (2002), was a finalist in Pecan Grove's chapbook competition. Valdata has twice received Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist grants for her poetry. She has also written two novels: Crosswind (Wind Canyon Books, 1997) and The Other Sister (Plain View Press, 2008), which won a gold medal from the Árpád Academy in 2009. She is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC).
    In this post, I review Pat's Inherent Vice. In the next post, Pat writes about the importance of verisimilitude.

    Inherent Vice

    Pat Valdata’s debut full-length collection of poetry, Inherent Vice, is based on the eponymous concept borrowed from the art of restoration: “the quality of a material or an object to self-destruct or to be unusually difficult to maintain.” The tightly woven collection, in other words, explores the idea of the fragility of life, of how little it takes to set in motion the process of destruction.  Unlike artists in the vanitas tradition (“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” Ecclesiastes 1:2), however, which focuses on the emptiness of earthly pleasures, Valdata’s poems embrace the transitory nature of her subjects and find value in experience, even when tinged with death. With empathy and humor, the collection meditates on the value of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness in light of inescapable entropy.

    The opening poem, for example, is a quirky look at Dickinson’s fly: “Say the last thing that you heard was really the buzz of a fly,” the poem begins. What if this fly could speak to you? What would it say? In Dickinson’s poem, the fly is mute, a meaningless drone to end the mechanical existence of the body when “the windows failed.” In Valdata’s poem, the fly is full of life, recently enjoying “the fleeting and narrow fame of a paper printed in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine.” It tells the dying ear “its life story, the growing pains of pupation, the wet emergence into adulthood, the joy of that first takeoff, knowing you had beaten gravity’s glum illusion: you need never land.” Even this dumb fly, Valdata implies, has mastered the art of life enjoyment in its brief existence. Though limited in its ability, it is immortalized by painters and poets. Is this “secret the fly whispers” a “sleep-deprived lie,” what we tell ourselves about our own mortality in order to keep going?

    There is a dark way and a light way to read Inherent Vice. A poem such as “Fear,” for example, in which the speaker “crouch[es] in the kitchen, close / to the butcher knife,” waiting for the police to arrive before a burglar makes it into the house, is easy to read as dark. It is the inevitable consequence of mortality, to live in fear. The poems that follow it, “Bomb Scare” and “As Luck Would Have it,” poeticize the blissful ignorance that led to the unforeseen horror of the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. There are poems about Katrina, about “baby soldiers” in Baghdad. In “1930 Census,” there are “nothing but names when we look back.” These are all poems from the first part of the three-part collection, however, and the section ends on a more hopeful note, with poems such as “Advice from the Beach,” in which the beach, who has been “grind[ing] rock to stone / to pebble to grain” for eons, advises: “Trust the process.”

    The next section of the collection is ballsier. Adversity and death become “street characters” who endure despite defeat, like Lot’s wife, who defiantly says, “So, I looked back.” So what, she seems to say:

    So. I looked back.
    Saw it destroyed, that village
    where my daughters were offered,
    could no longer live with the lout who
    would give their virgin bodies to the mob.

    So I looked back.
    At night, desert creatures
    caress me with hot tongues.

    Here is where the collection, like Lot’s wife, takes a defiant, hopeful turn. The last poem, “Frankengourd,” metaphorizes the human condition:

    The only question, really, is whether the thing is beautiful.
    Clawed by cats, its scars sewn with sea grass, someone clearly

    Are we monstrous in our broken places? Not quite:

    Like any crafted object, it is more than the sum of its parts,
    not merely dry, not just a vessel, but something almost monstrous:

    In the final section of the book, the poems become tender. In “Her Husband Performs Home Maintenance,” Valdata writes, “How good of him to labor through the night, / To solder on, and by his training goaded, / Protect us from disasters yet to come.” We know that there is no such thing as protection from disaster, but we can marvel at the human willingness to try, “to labor through the night,” even knowing the futility of that effort.

    The end of the collection is bittersweet. In “What Life Is, Sometimes,” Valdata writes,

    We are sharp as a finger snap,
    Swift as a centipede,
    And even if we live to be ninety:
    Ephemeral as a dandelion seed.

    In the last poem of the collection, “Hawk Mountain, September,” a mother watches as her young son plays precariously among rocks, “as if she can give him traction with her eyes, deny / what she already knows, that all things grow up and leave.”

    It’s not poetry’s job to provide us with the answers to life’s hardest questions; its job is to help us frame those questions, and show us the materials from which to form our own partial answers. Valdata takes that task on with simple elegance in this collection, in poems that find humor in darkness and tenderness in danger. These aren’t lullabies of hope or proclamations of doom; they are still lifes, studies in color and shape that can only be momentarily captured. “Refractory,” a poem from the middle of the collection, encapsulates this theme most clearly. The speaker awakens to a morning rain so beautiful, it “polishes wet leaves bright as pumpkins.” She thinks:

    today, for twenty minutes the whole forest
    flames, a fraction of a rainbow, refraction’s
    shortest story. You wish that you could paint

    the air. Noif you had time for an easel,
    brush and tube, you’d splash a garish canvas,
    like lurid, late-night television seascapes.
    It is a curse to be an artist at heart! Hope fades
    like the light, and instead you draw the shades,
    shutting out the leaves, the rain, the light. Monet.

    Saturday, April 7, 2012

    Couplets Blog Tour: The First Week

    Hey everybody--wanted to update you on all the Couplets Blog Tour posts so far. Below are links to all the participating blogs this week.

    Thursday, April 5, 2012

    Couplets Blog Tour: Poetry of the Urban Pastoral

    The Couplets Blog Tour has me posting on Anne Higgins's wonderful blog today, Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky. Go check out her blog, and see what a city girl like me has to say about "Poetry, Gardening, Birding, and other reflections on life."

    Sunday, April 1, 2012

    The 2012 Big Poetry Giveaway

    It's that time of year again! It's National Poetry Month, and that means it's time for The Big Poetry Giveaway! This is my second year participating in the event, created and arranged by Kelli Russell Agodon at The Book of Kells. What's the big idea? Poets everywhere are giving poetry books away for free!

    Yep: FREE!

    In this exciting campaign, meant to promote the poetry we love during National Poetry Month, participating poets are giving away a book of their own and one of a poet they admire. All you have to do is leave a comment below by midnight, April 30, with your name and contact information (at least an email address), and I will choose two winners at the end of the month to receive the free books via random number generator. That's it! I will send the book to you absolutely free, including shipping, anywhere in the world you may be.

    Here are the books I'm giving away:

    The Stones

    This chapbook of poems came out almost at the same time as Shapeshifting, which I gave away last year. The collection is a little bit different, however; more Miami poems, and the Lois Lane poems everyone seems to like so much.

    Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros

    This is one of my favorite books of poetry of all time, and contains one of my favorite poems of all time, the title poem. I have a pretty big reason for making it one of the giveaways this year, however. Cisneros is one of the authors the students in Arizona will not be reading this year after the scandalous and shameful "confiscation" of books following the termination of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American studies department. And no wonder; the assholes of the world should be afraid of a woman who writes like . . . well, you'll just have to imagine, since I received a message from her agent asking me to remove the four stanzas of the poem I had quoted. Whatever. Sometimes the whole world becomes Arizona.
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