Thursday, February 28, 2019

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Tali Voron on The Soap Box

The Soap Box is a publication dedicated to providing an accessible platform that publishes the work of emerging and established writers.

Our mission is to create a community for writers and artists, where the creative process is supported and nurtured. We understand the many barriers that can prevent writers from getting published. We make it our mission to ensure that regardless of socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or geographical location, The Soap Box remains an accessible medium for all writers within our community. Through our social media channels we feature works of our writers on a weekly basis, and guarantee that submitting to our anthologies remains free. At The Soap Box, we make it our mission to ensure that all voices, whether new or experienced, have a place to be heard.

Tali Voron is driven by her passion for creative writing, love of people, and the desire to make the publishing industry a more accessible space. She completed her Bachelor of Arts, Honours at the University of Toronto in English literature, Education, and Psychology. She is currently pursuing an MA in the Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University. In her spare time, Tali pens down prose on her blog, drinks copious amounts of coffee, fawns over any place with a patio or fairy lights, binge watches whatever is on Netflix, laughs, spends time with her friends and family, and enjoys [making] terrible puns.

1 – When did The Soap Box 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?

I founded The Soap Box in April of 2016. I was in the second year of my undergrad, studying English Literature at the University of Toronto, and had the crazy idea of starting a press. Being a writer myself I understood the difficulty of getting published as a new voice; I wanted to create a space specifically for emerging writers. I was incredibly fortunate as things fell into place quite quickly. By the summer of 2016 we had built a core team of talented and driven individuals who shared the same vision of creating an accessible space for emerging writers to have their work published. Our primary focus has been on publishing poetry and short stories in the form of annual anthologies and poetry chapbooks, as well as creating a community of writers in Toronto, and globally, through our social media platforms.

I wouldn’t say that our goals have shifted, but they have certainly expanded. In 2018 we accomplished more than we ever have. We published four titles, hosted two launch parties, and co-hosted From Pen to Published, a publishing fair, with the 11th Floor Writers. The fair was a day long event for emerging writers and individuals interested in a career in publishing, which included a networking session with industry professionals, a series of keynote speakers, craft workshops, and a book launch for Voices From the 11th Floor, an anthology by the 11th Floor Writers that we published. By virtue of the number of events we hosted last year, we have made engaging with our writing community and creating a physical space for people to come together a priority, in addition to the titles that we release.

I have learned a lot throughout my time with The Soap Box. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that everything comes down to people, community, and relationships. When we work with our writers, we want to make the experience personal. We get to know the individuals we are working with and ensure that we are always supporting and nurturing their voices. I’ve been working with my team for almost three years now, and as time goes on we keep getting closer; as our bonds as a collective strengthen, so does our work. We love what we do and we are happy to be doing it together. Needless to say, none of our work would be possible without all of the supportive individuals we have met along the way. It seems like our press has taken on a life of its own, as every step of the way we have crossed paths with the right people at the right time.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

This question was partially answered above, but it really came down to my desire to create an easily accessible space for emerging writers to have their work published. Although we publish established writers as well, we take great pride in being able to showcase and support new voices. We strive to remove barriers in two key ways: submitting to our anthologies is always free and the selection process for submissions is always completely blind. As we are an entirely self-funded press, we work to make ourselves increasingly more accessible to our writers as we grow each year.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

Support your writers, stay true to their work, and always do something new.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?

We focus on emerging writers and pride ourselves in our accessibility to new talent.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?

I’ve found that the best way is through events and launches or any place where books can be marketed to a reader in person.

6 – How involved of an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?

It depends on the piece I’m working with. Some works require very few edits while others need more in depth revisions. For me, the goal is always to preserve the voice of the writer and the intention behind the piece while bringing it to its best possible form.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?

We distribute our books on our website and at our book launches and other events. Many of our titles can also be purchased at Knife Fork Book in Toronto. Our print runs depend on the title, but the first printing is usually 50-75 copies.

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?

Our team has six editors - one of whom is also our resident cover artist, two layout designers, a web designer, a social media and marketing coordinator, and myself as the founder and editor-in-chief. We take on a number of projects throughout the year, which understandably require a lot of time and energy to bring to life. Having a larger team means that we have a variety of different perspectives, insights, and skillsets to work with and ensures that every project a team member takes on is one that they are passionate about.

So far I have only experienced the benefits of working with a team. I will say that the biggest struggle we’ve had is coordinating a time when everyone is available to meet. Although, these days it seems that can’t be helped.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?

I have to admit that my own writing has taken a back seat since I started The Soap Box. I’m okay with that - for now. I am constantly inspired by the writing that is submitted to us; it holds me to a higher standard and I’m grateful for that.

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?

Interesting question. I’ve been asked this quite often actually. Many people assume that I would submit my own writing to our anthologies or chapbook open calls. That doesn’t seem right to me. As the editor-in-chief, I would never want to take space away from another writer. With that said, I don’t have an opinion on what other writers who are also publishers do. People should do what works for them. Who am I to judge?

11 – How do you see The Soap Box evolving?

I see us continuing to grow. With each year we become more established and find ourselves being able to take on more. To us, this means hosting more events to bring our writing community together, taking on new and exciting projects, and finding more ways to meaningfully connect with our community, all while continuing to publish our annual anthologies and other titles.

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?

My proudest accomplishment so far was organizing and co-hosting From Pen to Published last November. It was a massive undertaking - we had over 200 people attend the event, and there were so many moving parts that had to be put in place. Hosting the event made me feel like we were carrying out our mission of making writing and publishing accessible. At a very low cost to participants, we created a day long event that brought emerging writers and individuals interested in publishing with industry professionals together. The high level of participant engagement in addition to the positive feedback we received reflected that there is a need, and desire for, what we’re doing. The whole experience was incredibly rewarding.

Needless to say, I am also proud of the books we put out. Every title we have released is one that I love and firmly believe deserves to be read and have a place on a book shelf. My frustration goes hand in hand with what I think gets overlooked about our publications: it can be hard to sell emerging writers. Readers often like to read who, or what, they know. It’s such a shame though. New voices have so much to offer and they deserve to be discovered. We’re doing what we can to make that happen by constantly working on how we can get our books into the hands of a larger audience and we’ll get there, one book at a time.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

Hmm, we didn’t really model ourselves after anyone knowingly. As my team and I were new to publishing, we figured things out as we went along. Being self-funded has simultaneously been freeing and restricting. On one hand we don’t have stringent guidelines and structures that we must abide by. At the same time, funding is always on our mind. We just do what works and do everything we can to ensure that we can continue to do what we love. So far so good.

14 – How does The Soap Box work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see The Soap Box in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
The way that we work to engage with our community has been answered in several responses.

I have been inspired by the incredible work of a number of indie presses and journals. Blank Spaces Magazine, Anstruther Press, KFB, White Wall Review, and Metatron Press are just a few of the presses I’ve turned to in the past as a source of inspiration. I believe the dialogue comes through the ability of each press to bring something new and unique to the literary scene in order to allow writers to find a space that they can contribute to and thrive in.

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?

We’ve held book launches for all of our anthologies and in December we had a launch for our 2018 Chapbook series. Launches and readings are incredibly important as they allow us to connect with our community in person, as well as provide our writers with a space where they can share their work with an audience. It’s exciting for our writers to engage with readers, sign books, and see first hand the impact that their words have.

As I mentioned, last year we hosted a publishing fair which was the largest event we’ve hosted so far. We are planning to host another publishing fair again in the fall of 2019. We also have several other events planned for this year that will be announced on our website and social media platforms as soon as they’re scheduled.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

The internet is integral to everything we do. We use Instagram to engage directly with our community and also feature the work burgeoning poets weekly. All of our events and open calls are advertised and widely spread across our social media platforms. Our website is important as it is one of the primary distribution channels for our books.

17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

We do take submissions. In fact, most of the material we publish gets to us through open calls. We are currently accepting submissions of poetry or short stories until February 15th for our fourth anthology on the theme “light.” We aren’t looking for writing that is expected, censored, or emotionless.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.

Not Quite a Hurricane
is a poetry chapbook by Erin Suurkoivu. It is powerful, poignant, and filled with evocative imagery. Erin has a way of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, while still making it feel inherently familiar and instantly relatable. This chapbook was the third and final installment of our 2018 chapbook series, making for the perfect way to end off our year.

Voices From the 11th Floor
is a collection of poetry, short stories, and personal essays by the 11th Floor Writers, a Toronto-based writing group. This anthology is incredibly special as it highlights the voices of twelve unique writers of diverse backgrounds, all in different stages of their writing careers. We have brought together various genres and styles to create a collection that we believe holds something for every reader.

Lion’s Tooth on Migrating Chests is a poetry chapbook by Vaishali Paliwal. Lion’s Tooth is unlike anything we have published. The collection is striking. Vaishali’s poetry is raw and passionate as she writes about her family history, culture, and migration in a remarkable way. She tells a story, and personal history, that is important to learn and a gift to read.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Ali Whitelock

Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer living on the south coast of Sydney with her French chain-smoking husband. Her debut poetry collection, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ has just been released by Wakefield Press, Adelaide and her memoir,Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell’ was launched to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK in 2010. Her poems have appeared in The Moth Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine, The Tahoma Literary Review, The American Journal of Poetry, The Galway Review, The BangorGutter Magazine, NorthWords Now, The Poets’ Republic, The Red Room Company, Beautiful Losers Magazine, Backstory Journal, Other Terrain Journal, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Canberra Times, Bareknuckle Poet, The Bangor Literary Journal, The Glasgow Review of Books, Neighbourhood Paper, The Burning House, The Ekphrastic Review, The Hunter Writers’ Centre ‘Grieve’ Volume 6 Anthology, Poethead, and upcoming in The University of Wisconsin’s Forty Voices Strong: An Anthology of Contemporary Scottish Poetry. She is currently working on her second poetry collection, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ and her second memoir, ‘andy’s snack van tour of scotland’. 

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It didn’t. My greatest desire and wildest dream ten years ago was that I’d get a publishing contract for my memoir, ‘poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell.’  And one day that dream came true. I still remember the day I signed the contract, which don’t get me wrong, was a momentous day. But that night after the signing, I was back in my little house, sitting in my chair looking around my lounge room at my sagging couch, my old Tibetan sideboard, my lovely Yamaha piano, my empty wine bottle in the––in my opinion, charming––70’s crocheted poodle cover, and nothing had changed. Somehow I’d always imagined signing a book contract be accompanied by flashing lights, excessive tolling of local church bells and breaking news alerts on all the major channels. Instead, I made a mediocre meal that night, had a glass of average red, went to bed, got up the next morning, threw a load of bath towels into the washing machine and life went on. So the recognition of ones work is wonderful and it’s a huge honour to be published––but it becomes apparent the more you write, that actually, the most important aspect of all of it, is the act of writing itself.

How does your most recent work compare to your previous?

Well, this latest book, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ is poetry, the previous was memoir, so there is some difference there––my memoir being more concerned with narrative than metaphor for example. But I think the more I write these days, the more I see that the writing of memoir and the writing of poetry are really coming from the same place. And I see now that it’s possible to make prose as rich and musical as poetry.

How does it feel different?

Poetry feels different because, for me, it is less concerned with narrative than it is with good metaphor. Also what I love about poetry and what makes it different to memoir is that a poem doesn’t have to tell an ENTIRE story. It can be a single moment within a story/within an experience. So when I’m writing poetry, I’m trying to distill the emotion from my experience, I’m trying to boil the story down––I’m trying to reduce it like cream in a pan on a low blue flame until I can hold the kernel of the emotion in the palm of my hand.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I stumbled on poetry really, in a second hand book store in the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular that day and for no apparent reason my eyes fell on this book called, ‘Eight American Poets’. I had never been attracted to poetry in my life––ever.  In fact, I was one of those people who’d always said they hated poetry, because my only exposure to poetry prior to that had been the boring kind we got forced fed in school. But that day in the bookshop, as I flicked through ‘Eight American Poets’ I stopped dead when I got to John Berryman’s ‘Life, friends, is boring…’ My mind was blown ––wide fucking open. I didn’t know poetry could be this. I absolutely devoured that book that same day, (after purchasing it of course)–– John Berryman for entrée, Anne Sexton for main, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath for desert.

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 have a couple of lines in a poem of mine which says, ‘and they will ask you how long it takes you to write a poem/and you will tell them one week/or fifty two, it depends.’ So, the ideas for my poems go down on the page pretty quickly, however this is only the first stage. Typically a poem springs from a random line that will occur to me, and that line will be borne out of something absurd, something funny, something sad, or something at odds with the status quo. I will then build a poem around that line. Thereafter comes a great deal of thinking, tweaking, sculpting and moulding. The line might end up anywhere within the poem, or sometimes the line will become the title of the poem itself, (examples of lines that inspired poems and became titles in my current collection include, ‘please do not pee in the sink’ ‘duty free fags’ a lake full of fucking swans’ ‘on making a chocolate cake and not fucking up what’s left of your relationship’ ‘the time it takes to boil an egg’ ‘my friend’s vagina’). Very, VERY occasionally a poem will come quickly and fully formed, but mostly it’s a process over several days, weeks or months. I also try not to be fixated on how I think the poem should end, or what I think the poem NEEDS to say. If you can stay out of your own way while you’re writing the poem, if you can avoid trying to direct the flow of that river in the direction you THINK it should go, then the poem often brings about some fabulous surprises. Lately, when I finish a poem (if a poem is ever finished - they say a poem is really only finished once the poet is dead), there is a sadness, a grief almost because the process of writing the poems has become more important to me––more so than the actual finished poem itself.

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?

As I mention above, my poems usually start with a random line which can appear out of nowhere With my first book, I never sat down with the intention of writing a book. It was borne out of a series of short pieces that I then decided to stitch together into a cohesive series of chapters. My poetry collection grew out of a series of poems, however this time, I did sit down to work every day with the intention of producing enough work to form a collection.

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 see public readings as part of my creative process––but I do love doing them. It’s a huge buzz to get instant feedback and reaction to you work, especially when we often have to wait six months (or more) to hear back from editors on whether our poetry submission to their magazine has been successful or not.

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 know lots of writers who are concerned with social justice, the rights of women, and other very worthwhile causes. My writing doesn’t have any ‘concerns’ specifically. If I see something which bothers me, for example, a story I heard from a friend yesterday, about a young homeless man being prevented from entering the Salvation Army Charity Store in a Sydney suburb because he wasn’t wearing a shirt. I feel so fucking angry and sad about that, that it will find its way into a poem.

My work tends to focus on the ordinariness of us humans, our foibles. If anything I hold a mirror up to myself and I hope my work says something like, ‘none of us are perfect’ and ‘we’re all in this mess together’. In these times of perfect Instagram moments, where everyone looks AMAZING and is living their BEST LIFE, I like calling myself on some of the shitty things about myself, the things I’m least proud of. I like commenting on the nitty gritty of life and death––the less Instagrammable moments no one’s really talking about.

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?

Wow, the role of the writer. I don’t see myself as having any ‘role’ in larger culture. That terrifying idea makes it sound like I might have some sort of importance or noble purpose - neither of which I have. I love to write. It feeds me. It makes me dig deep into myself. If there is any point to my writing, it’s to peel back the layers of myself and write as honestly as I can about what’s important to me. And somehow that work will speak (or not) to others.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It depends on the editor, but I have been so very lucky to have worked with amazing editor, (Julia Beaven), at my publishing house––Wakefield Press. Before we started work on the edits of my first book, I remember Julia very clearly saying, ‘Okay, so this is when you really start to become a writer’ and she was right. I listened to everything she said, and learned so much, it was incredible. She was patient and MOST IMPORTANTLY, she loved my work and understood my voice, style, humour––I’d say that’s a pretty important aspect to a successful writer/editor relationship. Julia got what I was trying to say (even if at times I didn’t really know what I was trying to say myself). The chemistry between us worked. I think working with an outside editor is invaluable, the greatest gift you can give yourself as a writer.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

1. Show up at your desk every day and allow yourself to write shit.

2. ‘A writer is someone who has to tolerate himself long enough to get something down on
     the page.’ David Rakoff.

3. If you look at a line and hope, ‘maybe I’ll get away with it’ you’re totally not getting
     away with it.

4. Maybe my favourite line ever: ‘Writing is like pulling teeth - from my dick.’ David Rakoff.

5. Take away the mystique. You’re not creating art––it’s work.

6. Don’t wait for the muse.

7. Sharon Olds: ‘I write as much crap as anybody else.’ Talk about being handed permission to
    write crap.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?

I had a gap between the publishing of my memoir and discovering poetry, so for me it feels as though the two genres are quite different art forms. If memoir is like oil painting, then poetry is like sculpture. Both of them are art, but for me each requires something a bit different of the heart and the self. Poetry asks me to dig deeper into myself. It pushes me to find the most unique imagery, the most unusual metaphor. If I’m going to say something, I want it to be as original as I can possibly make it. I never felt that same need or craving when I was writing prose. However, I was a very different writer then and maybe now my prose would automatically demand the same depth from me.

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?

If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone who’s starting out writing, it’s this: GET A ROUTINE, (in saying that, I can hear at least twenty poets yelling back, ‘Hey Ali, I don’t have a routine and I manage just fine, thank you very much!’ ). But routine, for me, is everything. This is what I’m talking about when I say ‘show up’. I mean sit down at your desk, every fucking day, whether you feel like it or not. Do not wait for the muse––she might never come. So I sit down at my desk every morning and I push my pen. I don’t wait for inspiration––for me, the act of inspiration comes from the actual process of writing, the actual pressing of the metaphorical nib onto the page (although there are also occasions when the muse does suddenly show completely unannounced). I am a morning writer––so typically I’m at my desk from 8am till around 12 every day. Important to note: sometimes the writing goes ok, occasionally it’s wonderful, often it’s shitty––but it’s good to remember that, ‘ok’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘shitty’ writing is still WRITING. It’s all part of it. Writing is not just about the juicy bits. Ernest Hemingway says, ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit….’  So there you go, you heard it from Ernest first––embrace your ninety pages of shit.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Sometime I go for a walk. I find that shakes things up, or at least moves them around. Lately I read that creatively, ‘output directly relates to input’. I love this. Now sometimes if I’m stalled, I’ll think  have I been to the movies lately? Visited the art gallery? Gotten lost in a good book?  If the answer to those questions is ‘no’ too many times, then I know it’s time to fill myself up on other people’s art. Something else I would add to that is––even if I’m stalled, I’ll keep on pushing through, I’ll keep on aiming for Ernest’s ‘ninety pages of shit.’ Because even if you’re ‘stalled’ you can still write shit, right?

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Nice question. That spray-on fake snow that smells of pine cones we used to spray into the corners of our window panes as kids to make it look as though snow had drifted up there. The same spray-on snow that, 12 days after Christmas, you can’t scrape off. Other fragrances: the citrusy scent of christmas clementines; the husk of a greenhouse tomato; square sausages (Scottish delicacy) sizzling in a frying pan; chips caked in artery clogging salt, liberally doused in malt vinegar.

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?

Yes! All the small stuff influences my work: overheard conversations on the bus, in cafes, in the art gallery, in shops, seeing someone’s washing dry on the line on a windy day, a dog tied up outside a pub, being behind someone in the supermarket checkout and marvelling at the contents of their trolley. I agree books can come from books, but art in all its forms can and does come from ordinary places. My work is grounded in the ordinary. The domestic. The familial. Certainly music can influence me too––if I’m stuck, I might stick on an Eagles song that my father loved and that will spark a memory and out comes another poem.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

One of my favourite poets is American poet James Tate––for his slightly odd, slightly left of centre, hilarious yet profound take on seemingly ordinary things. I love James’s work not only as inspiration for my own at times, but just for the absolute pleasure of reading when I’m not writing. Although even when we’re not bashing away on the keys of the laptop, we’re still writing. A lot of writing is thinking. Then I love Charles Bukowski for his ‘fuck you’ attitude and this quote of his on writing, ‘[Writing is like] grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk and tearing them down, down, down.’  This quote set me free as a writer in more ways that I can imagine. It left me feeling free to say whatever I wanted, however I wanted, regardless of consequence. I love and regularly read the astonishing work of poets Brentley Frazer, Bill Moran, Ben Lerner …as well as collections of poetry which are lyrical and deeply moving––Anne Casey, Magi Gibson, Mark Tredinnick, Edward O’Dwyer, I could go on …

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Spend a winter writing in a wind swept cottage on an Outer Hebridean Island with my brother Andrew (an extraordinary musician and photographer), enough firewood, printer ink, paper, electricity and red wine to get us through till spring.

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?

In all seriousness, I have harboured (for many years) a terrorising desire to be a stand up comedian. Luckily it’s now too late, PLUS I’m too lazy to start any such terrifying new thing now. For those people with the glass half full, it’s never too late. My glass is two thirds empty. It’s totally too late.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Prior to starting to write, the reality of how I was spending my life struck me hard one day. I used to work in a cafe––and on this particular Tuesday, as I carried two bowls of pumpkin soup to a table, I became earth shatteringly aware that  OMG I CARRY BOWLS OF SOUP TO TABLES FOR A LIVING. That was a, let’s say, pivotal moment for me. Until that moment I’d always assumed that one day I’d be an internationally acclaimed [insert dream position here]. After the soup realisation, I started enrolling in community college courses trying to find an artistic ‘thing’ that spoke to me––that one amazing thing I could impress people at parties with; that one magical thing that would suddenly render me windswept and interesting, as Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly would say. So I tried Photography for Beginners, Oil Painting for Beginners, Yoga for Beginners, the list goes on––and I was crap at all of them. The only thing left on the community college curriculum I hadn’t tried was Creative Writing for Beginners. I enrolled. That six week course was the best gift I ever gave myself and that first week’s homework formed the first chapter of my first book.

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

Last great book:

Last great film:

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently putting the finishing touches to the manuscript of my latest poetry collection, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ and I’m also working (loosely, given it’s prose!) on my second memoir, ‘andy’s snack van tour of scotland’ which is about returning to Scotland after a long period of absence and reconnecting with my roots, the landscape, the food, the culture, the weather and the Scottish sense of humour, while doing a road trip through the highlands with my brother Andrew, who is the funniest guy on the planet (and nothing short of insane).

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Kiki Petrosino, Witch Wife

Study Abroad

No chance you’re pregnant the English doctor asked. No chance you repeated slowly, then added No chance. That was the summer all Tuscan girls wore green cargo pants & orange camisoles. It looked one way, shopping at Esselunga, & another in the piazza with your tumbler full of strawberry liqueur & the first blue stars catapulting over the Arno. The doctor resembled a townhouse, his hair peaked narrowly in the middle. Your fingers, in their closed fists, made a subtle heat exclusive to your experience. You took the green-yellow pills, thinly coated with sweetness & punched into a paper card. Weeks later, you let your companion take you into the woods by the beach. In his family’s summer house, you broke some old chairs to feed the fire, & then stem of your body unspooled in every room. Then you slipped your long feet into the green sandals you hadn’t realized were python leather until the scales had already kinked & dulled. You will never have another pair like that. Not real python.

I’m intrigued by Louisville, Kentucky poet Kiki Petrosino’s latest, the collection Witch Wife (Louisville KY/Brooklyn NY: Sarabande Books, 2017), a book that follows her two previous collections (also published by Sarabande Books): Fort Red Border (2009) and Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) [see my pathetically short review of such here]. Dedicated to her two grandmothers, Witch Wife is an album of ghosts, examining her own influences, history and experiences. Her poems unearth a moment and then focus its full gaze upon it, pulling the memory apart and composing incredibly precise poems that use the details of those memories as both intense study and jumping-off point. “My exes shall rise up from their Mazdas,” she writes, to open the poem “Afterlife,” “& adorn themselves in denim.” Part of what is so compelling about this collection, apart from the lyric density of the poems, is the variety in form she plays with, moving from the more traditional lyric of line breaks and stanzas to prose poems, a structural play that becomes more obvious in a recent interview with her in The Iowa Review, conducted by Sam Leon:

This third book is sort of my meditation on poetic form, whereas the first book certainly was about introducing myself to whatever reading audience is going to be there for poetry and introducing my themes and concerns. I still adopt quite a few forms in that first book, but many of them were occasional forms. So in that first book, I had like ten poems that were called “Valentine” that were all this form I created that was this title and a big sort of address that reminded me of a valentine address. Maybe it was referring to the rhetorical surface of the poem. But in Witch Wife I have nineteen villanelles or villanelle versions. I have a pantoum, I have a sestina in there. So I’ve been looking at traditional forms and thinking about my relationship, my ethos with those forms. I also think that this book is a very personal book, since we’re talking about where I am personally, emotionally, and language-wise.

I’m impressed with how Petrosino utilizes the details of her own history, her ghosts, to explore, but it is her language—rich, vibrant and incredibly compact—that propels her poems into magnificence: “I keep time traveling / back to the noon of my birth.” she writes, in the poem “Contagion”: “Worse than a war zone/ that Sunday, that night, when I wept in the War / of myself. That’s the first war I knew. It was worse / than a war.”