author biography ; extended biography ; author page

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Open Book : my final two columns, part one:

My nearly-decade's worth of columns for Open Book come to an end! My penultimate column is now up, and features three poets worth paying attention to: Emily Izsak, Sarah MacDonnell and Faizal Deen. Only one more column to go!

Monday, March 20, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Daniela Olszewska



Daniela Olszewska [photo credit: R. Scott Pfledderer] is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: cloudfang : : cakedirt (Horse Less Press, 2012), True Confessions of An Escapee From The Capra Facility For Wayward Girls (Spittoon Press, 2013), and Citizen J (Artifice Books, 2013). With Carol Guess, she is the co-author of How To Feel Confident With Your Special Talents (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and Human-Ghost Hybrid Project (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming 2017).

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book had little to no impact on my life. I think this was a good thing. If my life had changed, I suspect it would have negatively affected my writing processes. My experience is that all the writing I’ve ever done feels the same, but it probably doesn’t look that way from the outside.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have always been interested in poetry, but I started out really wanting to be a fiction writer.  I enrolled in “Fiction Writing Workshop I” as an undergraduate, but I almost flunked out because I couldn’t produce the 20 plus pages a week required by the program. I would work all week, but I was sloth-slow. I would bring in a two paragraph lyrical description of, like, a bat flying across a winter city skyline ib and everyone was like, “Um, this is pretty, but it’s not really a story…” During a midterm review, my fiction workshop instructor politely suggested I sign up for a poetry class next semester because my grade in the fiction workshop was not going to be high enough to allow me to move on to the “Fiction Writing Workshop II.”

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I usually start a new project as soon as I’ve finished the previous one. Almost always, I start with a definitive project in mind. Almost always, about of the way into the process, the writing announces to me that it is going to be something different from what I had intended.

Usually, the first and final drafts are kilometers apart, formatting-wise. Usually, the first and final drafts are only meters apart, content-wise.

Throughout the day, I’ll record lines or phrases in my notebook or smartphone. Ideally, at the end of the day, I go home and incorporate those lines or phrases into my work. Often, the line that was brilliant at 9 am on the CTA doesn’t still feel brilliant at 10 pm post-work and chores. I try not to erase any of my notes, just in case.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I usually start out writing smaller pieces, but my intention is almost always to eventually make a book or chapbook. I don’t like having “loose” poems. I definitely prefer for all of them to have friends and family. Also, I received a BA and an MFA in creative writing, so I have been trained to think and write in terms of book-length projects (which, I don’t think, is a bad thing....).

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For the first, um, eight or so years of my writing life, I loathed doing readings because, like many writers, I am kind of shy and awkward. Also, like many writers, I felt that my writing worked better on the page than in voice. However, over the past few years, I’ve (finally) developed more of a sense of performance and I have (finally) learned how to read in a manner that is relatively entertaining. This is another way of saying that I (finally) learned to take up about ½-¾ of my allotted time, to not spend more than one sentence “setting up” a poem, and to recognize that a live audience usually wants to hear the poems that include references to sex, drugs, or cats.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I like and respect  lit theory and political theory and most kinds of theory. My hope is that this like and respect bleeds into my writing. I think my work deals with a variety of concerns that could be called political, but should really just be called human... My guess is that my work doesn’t answer any questions. My guess is that my work, at best, adds addendums to the questions that are already being asked.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer in the larger culture is just to be a person who writes (duh). I think it’s good that we currently have D-list celebrity writers and professor writers and punk rock writers and recluse writers and all of that. It’s a good thing that there seems to be, like, forty different options, currently, for how to be a writer. I think it is important for everyone in the US to do what they can to resist the current administration, but I don’t think the onus is on writers to resist any more than anyone else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The process of working with an editor or “just” a reader giving feedback has always been essential to me. I find that outside perspectives are necessary for any type of writing I am planning on sharing with people other than myself. Much thanks to everyone who has ever consented to edit or give feedback on my work.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Do whatever you want.” 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?
For the first few years of my poetry life, I was a purist (fascist). Now, it is easier for me to write in different genres.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have never had a routine, even when I was in school and had writing deadlines. Sometimes, I write for hours a day. Sometimes, I go a couple weeks without writing. This works for me, but I also know many, many people who have benefited immensely from keeping to a strict writing schedule.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The writers that are really keeping me excited about writing rn are (in alphabetical order by last name): Aase Berg, Jessica Comola, Olivia Cronk, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Khadijah Queen, and Danielle Pafunda.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Juniper and benign neglect.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m influenced by riot grrl and Soviet Era propaganda posters and my darling Freshman Composition students.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
See No. 12.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Lead a protest/strike.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Proprietress of a ‘90s-themed book, CD, and clothing store.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I am not good at anything else. 

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am trying to write a novel (ha ha ha). It is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic tale of ex-Soviet Bloc figure skaters turned CIA agents. I hope it will turn out as a comedic work.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Morgan Parker, There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé




Another Another Autumn
in New York

When I drink anything
out of a martini glass
I feel untouched by
professional and sexual
rejection. I am a dreamer
with empty hands and
I like the chill.
I will not be attending the party
tonight, because I am
microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines
and watching Wife Swap,
which is designed to get back
at fathers, as westernized media
is often wont to do.
I don’t know
when I got so punk rock
but when I catch
myself in the mirror I
feel stronger. So when
at five in the afternoon
something on my TV says
time is not on your side
I don’t give any
shits at all. Instead I smoke
a joint like I’m
a teenager and eat a whole
box of cupcakes.
Stepping on leaves I get
first-night thrill.
Confuse the meanings
of castle and slum, exotic
and erotic. I bless
the dark, tuck
myself into a canyon
of steel. I breathe
dried honeysuckle
and hope. I live somewhere
imaginary.

I’ve been enjoying the vulnerability and swagger of Brooklyn, New York poet Morgan Parker’s There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé (Tin House Books, 2017), a pop-culture mélange of daring, playful and fiercely smart lyrics. There are elements of Parker’s There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé that are reminiscent of some of the earlier work of Toronto poet Lynn Crosbie (best evidenced through her selected poems, Queen Rat [see my review of such here]), for their shared mix of contemporary pop culture, vulnerability, bravado and first-person flâneuse. As Parker writes to open “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”: “Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped / Like your body I wish was mine but as dark / As something in my mind telling me / I’m not woman enough for these days […]”

I find poems engaging contemporary pop culture, whether this collection or even Sarah Blake’s Kanye West-inspired Mr. West (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015) [see my review of such here] far more compelling than poetry collections centred around historical cultural figures (The Beatles, for example). Where some of those other collections engage with a kind of nostalgia, Parker, through writing Beyoncé, Drake and Michelle Obama (among others), instead engage with more contemporary matters, such as how it is to be black and female in America, circling out into larger issues of the price of fame, negotiating love, sex, friendships and other engagements, composing a larger canvas of studies on how to simply live and be in the world. The openness and vulnerabilities displayed in Parker’s poems are quite striking, even as she plays with familiar tropes in fresh ways, such as her poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl,” riffing off Wallace Stevens’ oft-altered “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (from his 1923 debut collection, Harmonium), that includes: “I am hungry  for myself […]” There is even a riff on Canadian writer Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel (and subsequent miniseries), The Book of Negroes, in her own poem of the same name, that includes: “This book is uncorrected proof. You read it / on your eyelids. You sleep under it. // You give it away. You tear out whole chapters. / You say you read it but you didn’t.” The third poem in her triptych reads:

You see the commercial on BET
while you’re painting your nails.

The women are only crying.
The slave cabins are dull. You’re trying

to text this dude: Negro, please,
why sleep when the world so bad.

For him you would be pumice shined to pearl.
He makes you wanna write your name.

Everybody has an opinion.
You shiver and it is permission.

You are beautiful because you’re funny.
You are alive because you’re a question.

This is a poetry collection that holds a great deal of wisdom and lively energy (and one that is clearly improved through live performance), and was an absolute delight to read. One can only imagine (and hope) that Beyoncé herself was equally charmed.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Stephanie Kaylor interviews Kenyatta JP Garcia

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the twenty-third interview is now online: Stephanie Kaylor interviews Albany, New York poet Kenyatta JP Garcia. Other interviews from my tenure include: an interview with poet, curator and art critic Gil McElroy, conducted by Ottawa poet Roland Prevostan interview with Toronto poet Jacqueline Valencia, conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Drew Shannon and Nathan Page, also conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Ann Tweedy conducted by Mary Kasimoran interview with Katherine Osborne, conducted by Niina Pollarian interview with Catch Business, conducted by Jon-Michael Franka conversation between Vanesa Pacheco and T.A. Noonan, "On Translation and Erasure," existing as an extension of Jessica Smith's The Women in Visual Poetry: The Bechdel Test, produced via Essay PressFive questions for Sara Uribe and John Pluecker about Antígona González by David Buuck (translated by John Pluecker),"overflow: poetry, performance, technology, ancestry": kaie kellough in correspondence with Eric Schmaltz, and Mary Kasimor's interview with George FarrahBrad Casey interviewed byEmilie LafleurDavid Buuck interviews John Chávez about Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing and an interview with Abraham Adams by Ben FamaTender and Tough: Letters as Questions as Letters: Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela and Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Kristjana Gunnars’ interview with Thistledown Press author Anne Campbell, Timothy Dyke’s interview with Hawai’i poet Jaimie Gusman and Hailey Higdon's interview with Joanne Kyger.


Further interviews I've conducted myself over at Queen Mob's Teahouse includeGeoffrey YoungClaire Freeman-Fawcett on Spread LetterStephanie Bolster on Three Bloody WordsClaire Farley on CanthiusDale Smith on Slow Poetry in AmericaAllison GreenMeredith QuartermainAndy WeaverN.W Lea and Rachel Loden.

If you are interested in sending a pitch for an interview my way, check out my "about submissions" write-up at Queen Mob's; you can contact me via rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com




Friday, March 17, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sarah Marcus-Donnelly



Sarah Marcus is the author of They Were Bears (2017, Sundress Publications), Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight  (2016, GTK Press), and the chapbooks  BACKCOUNTRY (2013and Every Bird, To You (2013). Her other work can be found at NPR’s ProsodyThe Huffington PostMcSweeney’sCimarron ReviewSporkThe EstablishmentCosmopolitan.com, and Marie Claire.com SA, among others. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press, a spirited VIDA: Women in Literary Arts volunteer, and the Series Editor for As It Ought To Be’s High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, BACKCOUNTRY (Finishing Line Press, 2013) followed a tumultuous relationship and felt raw and maybe even reckless sometimes, but most importantly, its publication gave me the confidence I needed to continue writing after my MFA program. Soon after, I published another chap, and three years later, my first full-length, Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight came out with GTK Press in 2016. Nothing Good is a journey through surviving sexual assault and how that type of violent trauma gets coded within us. Certainly all of my projects have themes in common: trauma, loving people we shouldn’t, survival, the wilderness, drug addiction, and bears, but with each book my narrator grew more confident and assertive and insightful. The relationships between my narrator and self, her lovers and family, and nature grew more complex and nuanced, I think.  I feel as though my next book, They Were Bears, out with Sundress Publications in February 2017, is the most cohesive of these collections. Rachel Eliza Griffiths writes, “They Were Bears gives us a world that is intimate, complicated, and lush in its raw, brutal meditation upon the complexities of Nature, both within and beyond our grasp as both human beings and animals. These poems by Sarah Marcus channel what the world demands of us, and our bodies as we are guided through a startling cartography of desire, trauma, and memory that is both refuge and wilderness. Marcus writes, ‘I want to say that there are places I have to go, and you have to follow me…through all this orange light, every version of the color red, we betray ourselves for miles.’ With stunning craft and intuition, Marcus places her lyric power against the beautiful, terrifying bones in us where words often feel broken and impossible. Her poems expand through their stark and luminous discoveries to reveal a natural and psychic world too complex to ignore. Marcus gives us sacred breath in which to claim that world when she writes, ‘We inscribe the rocks/with our names, wanting a sign,/want the sky to say:/This is mainland. Solid ground./The place you’ve been looking for.'”

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Maybe I came to poetry first because I get bored easily. The fun of poetry is resisting closure. When I write fiction and nonfiction, I never feel quite “finished” with the story. With poetry, even the first line wants to be complete. Poetry has always felt more accessible to me, even as a child.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Initially, poems tend to come quickly. They are usually quite flawed in this form. It takes many drafts to let the poem say what it means in the simplest way possible. Other projects tend to require endless disconnected notes or long inner-monologues while I’m driving and unable to write anything down.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’ve never started with a book length project in mind. This is way too overwhelming a prospect. Sometimes I feel like I’m just writing the same damn poem over and over again, so it all ends up being connected in the end.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t think they impact the process itself. For me, readings are a lovely way to connect to other readers and writers. They exist for the sake of community and support. I enjoy reading very much, especially when I am paired with writers who hold very different aesthetics. This is how I’ve come to know and appreciate many of my peers.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am constantly struggling with the ideas of survival and revival. I guess the question is what’s the point of it all? Why are we here in this unforgiving landscape where other people are so close and yet so far away? I like thinking about all the ways we attempt communication with others and with a Higher Power and all of our miscommunications and good intentions. I am always questioning what it means to be a woman and who gets to decide. Who dictates experience? Can people recover? Is life just a series of moments that we might miss if we’re not paying enough attention?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers should be advocates for inclusivity, diversity, and justice. The act of writing is a political action. We are responsible for cultivating and creating safe, open spaces for people to experience free thought and art.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Most things that are essential are difficult. I worked closely with an editor on They Were Bears. At first, I was pretty overwhelmed by the amount of feedback I received, but after stepping back, I was able to process each new perspective and question. I am so grateful for Sara Henning’s thoughtful and insightful edits and ideas. My book is absolutely better because of her guidance. It also helps when your editor is incredibly patient, professional, and kind. So, I feel very lucky.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Use your experience to empathize with others. “Every difficulty in your life builds up your mental library of what it's like to go through hard times. And every mistake enables you to empathize with others who also make mistakes. And every time you become frustrated or angry, you gain a better understanding of others who feel this way.

Make note of all your worries and your fears. Make note of your uncomfortable or embarrassing moments. These -- together with every injury, illness, and wound -- help you to become more sensitive to the suffering of others.” From Rabbi Pliskin's book, Kindness.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Somehow I find poetry and nonfiction to be more fluid. My poetry, though certainly fictionalized, often takes on a confessional tone and so I find it fairly easy to write personal essays or profiles. I have a much harder time with fiction. I am always so impressed with writers whose imaginations allow so many intersecting narratives to flawlessly come together. On the other hand, it could be argued that even vignette, memoir, or confessional work is always to an extent fictionalized depending on the owner of memory.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
What is a routine?

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve been turning to Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, which is excellent and motivating in every way.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Autumn.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
So much of my writing is centered on surviving and being wholly present in the wilderness. I am influenced by backcountry hiking and camping and by the act of trying to return to a simpler, more connected way. I’m not sure it’s possible to not be influenced by music. It’s a part of everything we do—human made or the sounds of nature—we are infused with music.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many writers are important to me: Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Pam Houston, Louise Gluck, and countless others. The writers that have helped me simplify my life are Cheryl Strayed, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a memoir. Hike in Alaska.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Something in advocacy or social justice. I was a Rape Crisis Counselor and Victim Advocate in college, and it was one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had. I currently work in urban education. I am always interested in finding ways to support underserved communities. In another life, I could’ve been a wilderness survival skills instructor.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It never felt like a choice. I just always had to. I can’t not write even when my focus should perhaps be elsewhere. I minored in Middle East and Islamic studies as an undergrad and my first job out of college was doing communications and PR for a political nonprofit. Before I graduated, one of my favorite Creative Writing Professors pulled me aside and said, “Never forget that you are a poet.” I had no idea what he meant at the time. I thought it was a strange and intense thing to say. I get it now. I carry that voice with me still.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am in the middle of teaching The Alchemist. It gets better and better each time I read it. Also, if you haven’t watched the documentary MissRepresentation yet, you should.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Various personal essays and poems. I’m always working on letting go of other people’s expectations and being my most compassionate self.