Saturday, October 22, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Zach Savich

Zach Savich [photo credit: Lisa Wells] was born in Michigan in 1982 and grew up in Olympia, Washington. He received degrees from the Universities of Washington, Iowa, and Massachusetts. His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's Open Award, and other honors. His fifth collection of poetry, The Orchard Green and Every Color, was published by Omnidawn in 2016. He is also the author of Diving Makes the Water Deep, a memoir about cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press's Open Prose Series.

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 was published in 2009 by the University of Iowa Press. I’d been writing poetry seriously since 2001, submitting manuscripts since 2006. I got the call and was in a daze for a week. I remember driving fifteen hours to a job, totally blissed. Understand I was a person who had made a lot of decisions, some of which I wouldn’t advise, in order to try to write poems; I was probably too fixated on publishing a book as a kind of proof, a justification that the relationships I’d failed at, the leases I’d broken, the jobs I’d quit—all that led somewhere. Where did it lead? I met many people I’m glad to call friends. I got to leave those poems behind and write new ones.

The main difference now: it was useful for me to believe (and I probably still do) that a first book should show one’s learning, many types of poem tried. For over a decade, I tried to read and write as variously as I could. That was also a way of covering my ass, and matched ideas that were current at the time about hybridity, experiment. Now I don’t want more ideas about poetry, more fluency, more formal ability, more proof of accomplishment, but more time.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I first wrote prose: heavy praise to small town public libraries and their fiction shelves. But my interests were poetic; the best story I ever wrote started, “For a dime, a yard sale book.” I walked around for weeks repeating that sentence, for the rhythm, its shuffle and stomp.

Then a teacher read some Hopkins and I stared at his mouth like it was the source, like how could we stomach language that was less. Then I realized that poetry might be an interest that let me stay interested in many things, and (in contrast with philosophy, which I thought I was interested in), allow types of unknowing, emotional and astonished reasoning, away from insufficiently conventional phrases and ideas, a way for language to find itself or us.

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?
Yes, it starts with making notes, as one does when reading—to be marginalia to many things. At some point the notes start to stick together, and at some point some of them stick together less than others, and I begin to revise: from collage to compost. The poems in my latest book, The Orchard Green and Every Color, are often composed of distinct statements with a semi-proverbial tinge. I think that style can slacken unproductively if it starts to seem merely notational, so I try to revise to convey/enhance a notational sense, of momentary perception, while also cutting a lot. Leading to kind of hyper-realism, but with a hush? The writings of George Oppen and Lisa Robertson helped me think about this.

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?
Yes, as mentioned above, it comes from notes. You walk and remark on things to a friend, or to a phrase. For books, I tend to have a title first, one that serves as a kind of tuning fork, and then I fit or adapt or construct material to preserve the tone and meaning that seem hovering in the phrase. I do think of many things in terms of books—friends are familiar with my advice to extend an essay, to try to make something into a book. That unit’s meaning means more than its status as literary artifact, clearly. Maybe I’m a person who loves reading books but “works” to write poems that let me look up from them, or feel like I have. That way of staring while turning a phrase around.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Health has prevented me from giving or attending many readings in recent years. This has made me more aware of all the readings I attended or gave that could have been different—when I would have rather talked to a friend who was in the crowd, and didn’t get to, or when we all mostly wanted to have a party, or to say hello and then get back to a babysitter, or when I was too self-conscious about the reputation of the university I happened to be reading at or who was there or wishing I had already written the next poems that I was sure would be better. Or was blown away by the first poem and should have gone for a walk to think about it. I suppose I’ve always liked most reading aloud with friends—others’ work, more than my own—in kitchens and campgrounds, when it also feels fine to put down the poems at any time. I like hearing my students read. I like when a reading becomes—officially or not—more of a discussion. I remember where we went after the readings, more than anything I said. This one time at Al’s in Seattle, or on that roof in Lincoln, swearing I had once been a roofer.

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?
Can I say my theoretical concerns are life and death? I hesitate to say that I’ve been, say, “dancing around an overtly terminal state,” because I’d rather be wrong, and aren’t we all dying, and Keats alive is better than Shelley’s “Adonais,” all the sentiment of the imminently (eminently? immanently?) mortal scribbler. And I’m lucky, in a way, to be able to think about this state, with healthcare and friends and a supportive job and a house I like, with relative ability, relative time. But it drives my questions, which I suppose are more acute versions of ones that anyone has: how to be past certain things but not beyond Things; how to “appreciate moments” while not romanticizing diminished capacity, the frayed receptors that still slightly light from time to time, which once interwove, beamed, met others; the limits of language/ability/will/resolve; how little “understanding” or “wisdom” changes things; courage, folly, empathy; how to at once give in and insist. To be astonished each day (no choice but to be), by what can be lost or found again or lost again and how much.

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?
I think there’s value in the continual insistence on what literature is especially good at exploring, and which many aspects of culture tell us we should ignore: mixed emotions, experiences with multiple or unclear “meanings,” intuitions that don’t fit conventional narratives or phrases, absurdity, desire, transport, candor.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love it. And I find the dedication/friendship/intelligence of my editors to be one of the most heartening parts of my life—I don’t mean their commitment to my work, except as it’s part of a larger commitment. Rusty Morrison at Omnidawn spoke with me for hours about an early version of The Orchard Green and Every Color, helping me not just revise the manuscript (into something very different than she initially accepted) but understand where to go next with my writing. Carrie Olivia Adams and Janaka Stucky at Black Ocean have at once supported the wildness of some poetry I felt unsure about and made it more precise; when I was in one period of bad health, Janaka offered to drive several hours and edit with me in person, an especially beautiful generosity that I think is indicative of the spirit of the press and of so many poets. The editors I mentioned are all poets whom I admire; it’s a gift, to have their eyes on time on my work, when I also hope they have time for their own.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“This way is north, unless this is.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I sometimes write reviews. I favor a critical style that is more journalistic than academic. I’m disappointed when I read critical prose, especially about poetry, that focuses on books I’ve read and discusses critics I’m familiar with in a style that conveys mostly (I can grumpily feel) the sociology of the academy, of types of discourse that gain authority by all they leave out or argue away—I’m eager to say that I feel equally grumpy about anti-academic postures. For a long time I felt like it was a responsibility to try to review new books of poetry—especially poetry that some people wish to consider “difficult” because it doesn’t tell a little story of little feelings in little words—in a clear style, with reference (maybe too much) to poets some readers might be familiar with. More recently I’ve felt that responsibility in other ways: I wrote a review of Keith Waldrop’s Selected Poems, for example, because I’ve loved his work for years, but I felt aware that the book wouldn’t get too many reviews, and maybe I could write one as someone who has read a bit both in the experimental lineages his work is often associated with and in some poetry from the mid-century that might at first glance seem separate from his. The appeal, I guess, is in how critical prose can make an appeal: to affirm that what we do in poetry matters, and can be discussed in terms that are comprehensible to interested readers who haven’t already signed on to the scene or downloaded this season’s favored jargon, while also advancing those thoughts through the types of flight and recklessness and intuition that poetry loves.

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?
Illness is redundant, a sorry excuse for an excuse, but it’s true: in recent years I organize my days and energy around small tasks. I cook elaborate things that take a long time. I respond to work emails and read student poems and papers. I hold and stare at stones and shells and bits of wood. I read newspapers and listen to news programs on the radio. I sometimes find some notes I have taken and sometimes get excited about what they start to suggest. I try to stay calm. I say this wishing I had more time to think or read or think or read better about this state, but it’s a part of it, that you can’t.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I listen. I cook elaborate things that take a long time, I read newspapers, etc…

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Tidal muck.

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 lucky to teach in an art school, where my colleagues and students work in many media, and my courses include ones on collaborative practice, so I’m frequently finding sustenance in other arts and in the conversations artists in other fields have about questions like these. In recent years I’ve been especially glad to work with composer Jacob Cooper on several projects; his work, which is wonderfully atmospheric and playful and surprising and precise, has helped me think about how contemporary poetry can offer comparable experiences. His recent album, Silver Threads, features collaborations with poets including me and Tarfia Faizullah and Dora Malech and others. It’s out from Nonesuch Records.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I want to mention some books by friends whose work has run through mine, and my mind, for years, excellent books, the pleasure of feeling floored with respect for people you’ve known through many situations, a syllabus and seminar to be near: Andy Stallings (To the Heart of the World), Melissa Dickey (Dragons), David Bartone (Practice on Mountains), Hilary Plum (Watchfires). The poets I never tire of, who I can read when I’m sick of reading and poetry (that is: when I need poetry the most), include Oppen, Hopkins, Niedecker, Schuyler, Rosmarie Waldrop. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Cervantes and Dante, think about them daily. I’ve come to love the late books of James Tate in recent months, think he really perfected some things in his last years.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write one more book.

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?
This is what I’ve wanted.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I grew up in a house with books, in a place that was removed from some things and had a lot of some other things, with parents who were very creative and would have liked to do more with the arts, and I always took language very seriously, as though it were real.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ivan Vladislavic’s Double Negative (novel; fans of Sebald will love it) and Portrait with Keys (nonfiction, of Johannesburg). Just read them. I haven’t felt like such a fan in a while.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Brining a thing I mean to sear.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Kaia Sand, A Tale of Magicians who Puffed Up Money that Lost its Puff

the president probably talks to someone every day
sometimes his lips are moving, but our volume’s too low
sometimes his voice is a tenth the volume of mine
sometimes his voice trembles inside my ten voices
sometimes his ten words devalue the currency
sometimes we promise
sometimes someone looks into someone’s eyes for truth
sometimes we think we see it
in someone’s ten coughs, tuberculosis is passed from cot to cot
sometimes ten walls separate me from two people making one decision (“The President Probably Talks”)

Portland, Oregon poet and activist Kaia Sand’s latest is A Tale of Magicians who Puffed Up Money that Lost its Puff (Kāne’ohe HI: Tinfish Press, 2016), a collection constructed as a kind of collage of formal considerations, from sequences built out of incredibly dense stand-alone lines, protest songs and more expansive theatrical scrips to shorter, more traditional lyrics, all of which work to explore a variety of political and social concerns, from oil spills, the lottery, American politics, the mortgage crisis and the abuses of the big banks, to poverty, nuclear stockpiling and looming environmental disasters. Sand’s poems document as much as they resist, working to reinforce the strength of the community against systematic abuses far too often built into the structures of those systems created to protect. “Where is anonymity within a public document—,” she writes, in the second poem of her “Air the Fire A Triptych.” In the third and final poem, she writes: “In the bright threat of attention / the surefire glare of recognition / you became a public person / mindful of those who live / downriver and downwind / from the malice of power [.]” The politics of her writing is clearly overt, sharing a social and political element of what the poem can accomplish alongside an increasing list of poets up and down the Pacific, from Stephen Collis, Christine Leclerc and Cecily Nicholson to Juliana Spahr and David Lau, among so many others. At the end of the collection, she includes extensive notes, her “Notes on the Lives of Some Poems Thus Far,” offering that “A poem might be read as though it has a ‘long biography,’ accruing meaning through shifting contexts, Peter Middleton suggests in his book Distant Reading; I have taken this notion to heart as a writer with an interest in recasting poems. The following notes attend to the publication histories of the poems as well as performance, material, and social histories. In some cases, I include brief political contexts, with the hope that some poems might carry contexts forward, like burrs caught in fur. I document various iterations of these poems on my website:

“Beware the fury of the financier,” she writes, to open the final poem in the collection, “Beware the Fury,” “rote fury, puffy money, bankers who bank / on diverted attention. Divested / power.” In the five-poem “Deep Water Horizon Ledger,” for example, she writes of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on increasingly blackened pages, opening with the poem “At Least Five Gallons Per Second” to “At Least Twenty Gallons Per Second,” etcetera, writing that “In the time it takes me to say this, at least 160 gallons of oil will have gushed out / of the Deepwater Horizon site. / And now 200 / And now 240 / And now 280 / And now 320 gallons of oil [.]” Her notes explain further, writing that “During the months of May & June 2010, I performed this poem on a walk I led in North Portland as well as at a poetry reading in Director Park in downtown Portland, and it was published on PoMotion Poetry and Poets for Living Water. The poem served as breaking news, my up-to-the-minute (more or less) accounting of the oil spill. Pocket Notes (Fall 2012) published the notes I jotted toward the poem’s postscript.” What makes her collection so engaging is the way she plays with form even through such serious subject matter, and how she documents while also managing to uphold the immediacy, even urgency, of a series of events that have not simply unfolded, but continue to unfold. Hers is a series of documents on the constantly-changing world as it currently stands, right there on the precipice.

Magician taps wand against mortgage.

and who knew who owned what anymore.

And really, who knows who owns what anymore, now that the banks are trying to grab back those millions of houses. The banks have to grab them whole, not doors to some houses and shutters to others, but since that’s how they owned them, or sold them through those collatorized debt obligations, it’s all rather confusing. And now the paperwork is fluttering, fortune cookie flimsy, and some banks hired some people to sign names rapid-fire to papers foreclosing on the houses, without reading all the words and the phrases, and it’s all rather dodgy and shoddy and shammy.

Really, stay tuned to that story, which is still being written,

Thursday, October 20, 2016

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Peter Vanderberg on Ghostbird Press

Peter Vanderberg is the founding editor of Ghostbird Press.  He served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from CUNY Queens College.  His work has appeared in several journals including Mud Season Review, CURA and LUMINA, and his chapbook Crossing Pleasant Lake has recently been published by Red Bird Press.  He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.

Ghostbird Press is a small chapbook press that publishes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, translation and cross-genre works, actively seeking new and underrepresented voices.  Our books are each a collaboration of both writing and visual art.  The words aren't illustrated, the images aren't explained.  Word and image coexist to increase your chances of epiphany.

Please check out our books at  If you are a writer yourself, send us your work.  With any luck, one day we will meet at a reading or launch party or backyard BBQ.

1 – When did Ghostbird Press first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
Ghostbird Press began in 2011 after my grandfather's passing.  Starting a small press was something I had thought of since attending the CUNY Chapbook Festival in 2006 while at CUNY Queens College for my MFA.  I was so inspired by all the small publishers there, making things, often with their own hands, that would bring writing to life in the real, physical world.  I loved writing, but I also loved the idea of making things, of doing the work of publishing.  My grandfather had started his own business after World War II and his work ethic has always been a guide for me.  After he died it just seemed like the time to get going with my own small venture.

The goals for the press haven't changed much.  I have reigned in my expectations a bit as I continue to balance Family - Writing - Teaching - Publishing.  But I still read submissions and work with authors that I love and publish 3 - 4 chapbooks a year.  One change:  we just put out our first comic book, so now that's happening.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
Again, it was really the CUNY Chapbook Fest that made it seem possible for me to try publishing.  The small press editors and publishers there exuded an energy and optimism that was infectious.  I fell in love with the idea of engaging with literature on that very real and personal level, while also building the community that grows from a small press through events and of course books.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
I believe small presses are in a unique position to try new things regardless of market / industry norms.  Of course we should be aware of the industry and its workings, but I love that I can sign an author that is totally unknown, who is writing very different, risky stuff, and I don't really worry about the profit margin.  The questions is simply: do I believe in this work?  I also think small presses, maybe all presses, have a responsibility to seek underrepresented voices and stories.  For example, I'm actively seeking an American Indian writer.  I want to read those poems, stories, perspectives.  I don't see enough of that.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Ghostbird Press is committed to the visual arts as well as the literary.  Each book we publish has an original cover and several internal images that are made by a single artist.  My main artists are my two brothers James and Paul, I have a certain commitment to them, but I am open to others and we did produce a book by a writer whose wife did the cover and internal art (eco-logic of the word lamb, Roger Sedarat). 

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
To be honest I'm still trying to figure that out.  I use social media, but I'm not really into Facebook.  I do love twitter for some reason.  My favorite way is through events.  Each year we host a launch party for several authors.  I love how that builds the community because folks come out for one author, but they meet the others as well.  Going to readings and book fairs is great too, because again, you actually shake hands with people, hand them a book, converse about art and writing.  There's nothing better for me.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I prefer not to touch the writer's work.  At most, if I think something is amiss, I'll just ask why a certain decision was made and as long as there is intent there, I go with it.  Working the internal art into the manuscript is a more involved process because I want the writer to be happy with their book so we discuss image choice and placement more in depth.  I'm a writer as well as a publisher and every word and punctuation mark of my own work has a reason behind it.  I'd hate to have my work accepted on condition so I don't do that to my authors either. 

7 – How do your books and broadsides get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
We distribute through our website sales and some local book stores.  Of course readings and events as well.  We use print on demand services so I'll usually print out 50 initial copies for the author's copies and our own events, but the books do not go out of print.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
Nope.  I'm the guy.  Just me.  Again, I work with the artist and author, but final decisions are made by me.  I'm a despot. 

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I can't say as it has changed my writing in any real way, but it has helped me to be more confident in submitting to journals and small presses.  I have an inside perspective into how the publishing world works, so I feel less intimidated by other small presses.  I' also less depressed by rejections - I don't take them personally anymore.  It still disappoints me to be turned away by a press I admire and want to work with, but I know they are receiving many many submissions and that mine just isn't right at that moment.  I hope those writers that I don't accept know that.  I'm also less begrudging of submission fees.  They are so essential to keeping a small press alive.  I think of fees as my donation to a worthy cause. 

10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
I have mixed feelings.  The first book I put out was a collaboration between myself and my brother James and I treated it as a kind of experiment to see if I really wanted to try publishing.  I loved making that book and am very proud of it, but I'm not sure I would put out my own work through Ghostbird again anytime soon.  I very well might do so in the future though.  I guess my feeling is that it's fine as long as it isn't the prime focus of the press. 

11– How do you see Ghostbird Press evolving?
I have a dream of taking on a partner, but I have zero budget for that right now.  I'd like to partner with another institution, maybe a museum or university.  And some day I'd like to develop a reading series for our authors beyond the launch party. 

12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
I'm very proud of the writers we have published - their work is all brilliant.  I love how the visual art converses with the written word.  My biggest frustration right now is that I'm having a tough time getting our books reviewed.  I'd like to see what they think.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
One of the first chapbook presses that I admired was Flying Guillotine Press.  Their books are hand made genius.  I've always admired H-NGM-N press.  I think Nate Pritts is doing great work over there.  And I love all the strange little publications that Greying Ghost puts out.  I'm certainly in awe of larger literary presses: BOA editions, Alice James, Tupelo, Copper Canyon, but I love the little guys too, the ones that are making books solely for the love.

14– How does Ghostbird Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Ghostbird Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
We are still a young press, but I see us in dialogue with the local NYC chapbook scene.  Specifically, there is a growing and vibrant literary movement in Queens which I'd love to be more engaged with.  Queens keeps it real in so many ways and I see that in the writers groups and publications that come out of Queens.  I'm a Queens College MFA alum too, so I'm always looking for ways to be a part of that amazing community. 

On the other hand I do feel like there are presses and journals beyond NYC that I feel a kindred spirit with - Mud Season Review in Burlington VT is so cool, and H-NGM-N is, I believe, physically located in upstate NY.  I admire many small presses but I'm not sure I would assume to be in conversation with them.  Wouldn't they need to talk back for a conversation to unfold?

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
As mentioned, we host an annual book launch and that is my favorite way to engage with the public.  I think public events are the best way for people to get to know us and to create real relationships with venues, writers and readers.  I love the internets as much as the next guy, but I prefer to shake hands with people. 

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
Our website is our prime means of outreach - it's our storefront, though I'd love to have an actual storefront someday...add that to the dreams list above.  The internet is really essential to all aspects of the press from receiving and replying to submissions, to editorial work, to the proof process and's all on the web.  If they turn off that internet switch, I guess I'll put up a table and sign on my front lawn on nice days.  That could actually be fun.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
We are always open for submissions.  We are not looking for bad poetry.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Resplendent Slug by Kimiko Hahn, is a collection of poems inspired by natural biology, particularly animals that glow.  But Kimiko Hahn has such a talent for weaving the strange and very real world of science with the stranger and arguably more real worlds of being a woman, a mother and a lover.  her work is full of loss and passion and the striking beauty that only she can communicate.  The drawings that accompany these poems blur the lines between the real and the abstract and in so doing, illuminate the text. 

Eco-Logic of the word lamb by Roger Sedarat is a translation / imitation of Virgil's Eclogues.  Roger Sedarat does not attempt another verse translation here, rather, he offers his Eco-Logic: born of the Eclogues, but every bit as grounded in contemporary experience / culture as Virgil's text was over 2,000 years ago.  Janette Afsharian's images are powerful and symbolic as tarot cards and their interplay with the text deepens the reader's experience. 

For My Son, A Kind Of Prayer by Richard Jeffrey Newman takes for its inspiration the totality of fatherhood.  All of the anguish, fear, strength, passion and vulnerability of being a husband and father are expressed here in such honest and beautiful ways.  I gave this book to my own father for Father's Day last year, so it has my endorsement as publisher, father and son. 

They are all so special I can't even count the ways - please get a copy for yourself and see what's so great about them!

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Melissa Dickey, Dragons

the toddler chews a pacifier as a joke
hides his face as a joke

he does not yet read
or understand the sadness of others

when you saw your old friend and she spoke so thickly
you thought maybe her teeth were falling out

as her mother’s had
but she was just hiding her braces

I’ve stopped smiling, she said
the toys play samples

of Beethoven as if that
helps but he doesn’t care

he’ll dance to anything
for now (“Notational Domestic”)

Western Massachusetts poet and trained birth doula Melissa Dickey’s second poetry title, after The Lily Will (Rescue Press, 2011), is Dragons (Rescue Press, 2016), a book focused on her immediate domestic, including the birth of her child and those first few weeks that turn into months that turn into years. Perhaps it is my own shift over the past few years, but I’m heartened to see that writing on the ‘domestic’ is being taken more seriously these days, by writers and readers both. Dickey’s poems exist in a long line of incredibly powerful work by poets (who are also mothers) composing on the miraculous, mundane and dark elements of household and children, such as Rachel Zucker (another poet also trained as a doula), Alice Notley, Hoa Nguyen, Bernadette Mayer, Pattie McCarthy and Julie Carr (there are also plenty of male poets writing similar works), as Dickey writes to open the first section, “Daybook”:

For the first two years I didn’t tell her that I loved her. As if saying made it a thing to be questioned, evaluated—to say nothing was better. (The day she was born, they put the needle in her spine.)

Or, further on, the entirety of the short poem “The Day,” that reads:

A mother, again.
Newborn sleepy scent,
jello limbs. Blood
in the trash I
hide. Strange interior
muscles mark me.

Wonderfully small and charming, Dickey’s poems articulate moments over longer, extended narratives, from the short lyric poem to the lyric fragment accumulating into sequences, and her sequences move delicately from moment to moment, point to point. Given her short, staccato lines, her use of the poetic “Daybook” (the title of one of her poem/sections) as well as attentiveness to the domestic, her work is reminiscent of the late American poet Robert Creeley, a poet who deeply articulated the small moments of the immediate over his entire career.. There is such a physicality to her poems; an immediacy and an intimacy and a precision that requires slowness, even a deep attention. Hers is an attentiveness to moments so often passed over, unspoken or otherwise unexplored, for what can’t help but be, at first, an incredibly powerful and foreign space:

Closed my skirt with a butterfly pin, hung shoes on the clothesline. Lemon tree. Mortar, brick. In the photo, a goat’s teats dangle, bell collar around the neck. Why does pregnancy look so pathetic. And this man, a tree the way he stands. Basil grown from dusty ground. The wall that seems to ripple, bulge. How much am I censored, how much predetermined. What kind of what is hanging, how. (“Daybook”)