Sunday, December 31, 2023

Gale Marie Thompson, Mountain Amnesia: Poems


A Rank, Bleak Devotion

That violence lies in writing is not so far
from the truth. This is the animal I knew before

I started, whose neck I wished to rub my own against.
She brings the word mercy into the field.

Her mouth staggers over the counting, the one
and one and one of bodies soaked in oil. In the blue

of gathered facts it feels the same: splattered
mouth, bloody bulb of the sign. I keep practicing

the problem, To get back at, to get back at, the letters
written on a field of dark paper, disorder.

I make lists. I peel onions beneath my skin
and push them out of me. I wake up

in the morning and realize that a sex dream
can also be a sexual assault dream. Mercy, healing

these are words I’ve never used in a poem before.
Can I write into her, she whose own wool

touches mine? A blunter way to say: am I a body
who depends on other bodies? I make lists.

A loved posture can also be a speech act.
This is how it begins. What will seep will seep.

Having deeply enjoyed North Georgia poet Gale Marie Thompson’s second full-length collection, Helen or My Hunger (Portland OR: YesYes Books, 2020) [see my review of such here], I was very excited to see her latest: Mountain Amnesia: Poems (Fort Collins CO: The Center for Literary Publishing, 2023), winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry. As final judge Felicia Zamora writes of the collection: “Mountain Amnesia stretches thin the fibrous tissues of grief that inhabit the body, mind, and ether of existence from burrowing traumas. These lamentations expose the weight of abuse, longing and loss, unanswered prayers, and an inescapable natural law: ‘this I know: that even evil men die.’” There’s such an unflinching sharpness to these poems, and Thompson’s is a fierce and precise first-person lyric of violence, dark survival and a weighted grief. “In the time it took to produce / this sentence,” she writes, to open the poem “Turnover,” “the spinal // shadow of my house has leaned / its wet angle over the yard // so completely, a massacre / so small—yet loved, like // the family lick of the herd— [.]” In this third full-length collection, Thompson continues her engagement through densely-packed lyrics that explore dark paths, dark threads: a thread I’ve increasingly seen across American poetry these past few years, whether exploring titles by YesYes Books generally (including recent titles by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach [see my review here], Alycia Pirmohamed [see my review here] and Allison Blevins [see my review here]), or titles such as Jenny Molberg’s The Court of No Record (Louisiana State University Press, 2023) [see my review of such here] and Claire Schwartz’s Civil Service (Minneapolis MN: Graywolf Press, 2022) [see my review of such here]. “There must be an aphorism here / about thunder and discipline,” she writes, as part of “The Law of Jocasta,” the poem Felicia Zamora quotes from as part of her blurb, “how its roll and hone engraves / from inside. Even Queen Elizabeth / once remade herself a virgin / in this soggy, pink light. Because / this I know: that even evil men die. / It’s constitutional. It’s the law.”

Set as a quartet of numbered groupings of poems, Thompson’s poems don’t merely examine, but simultaneously dismantle and reassemble; one might describe the poems in this collection as as exploring the dark shadows of human experience. “March killed so much this year / just like every year. I hear that death exists,” she writes, as part of the poem “No Witness,” “I hear it and I hear it, / but I keep my mouth away from the wind, / I keep its noises muddied in the woods.” It is a book of survival mechanisms, witness and deep grief, and composing these pieces as a way to push through to the other end, or at least, as close as might be possible. As part of her December 2021 ’12 or 20 questions’ interview, she describes her then-work-in-progress, a manuscript she responds via email is an earlier iteration of Mountain Amnesia:

I’ve been working on this manuscript called Dummy Prayer for a number of years now, and new poems come in each year and change its face a bit more each time. During the pandemic I’ve been hiking and reading in the mountains around where I live, and even before the pandemic I was living a pretty isolated life here in North Georgia. Over the last few years, I’ve had a few friends pass away unexpectedly, as well as some other losses and oblivions and changes that (like always) have affected my relationship with the world. So, all of that together means that my poems are very much influenced by the messiness of nature in Appalachia, along with the messiness of loneliness and grief, of a longing for connection. In these poems, nature is constantly working on its own disappearance. The rotting plants and animal bones and organic matter are housed in the same world as the ramps and bellflowers on the verge of opening. All this to say, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how we connect with each other, or, to quote Adrienne Rich, “the grit of human arrangements and relationships: how we are with each other.” The frictions in communicating public and private experiences to each other. And so I was thinking about these arrangements, how we keep each other alive, and that’s a huge part of Dummy Prayer.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Brandon Reid

Brandon Reid [photo credit: Kevin Cruz] holds a B.Ed. from UBC, with a specialization in Indigenous education, and a journalism diploma from Langara College. His work has been published in the Barely South Review, The Richmond Review and The Province. He is a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, with a mix of Indigenous and English ancestry. He resides in Richmond, BC, where he works as a TTOC. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking, playing music and listening to comedy podcasts.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I stopped worrying about what happened to me, as I no longer had to protect myself to finish the book; I don’t sleep as much, now. I still take care of myself, of course (from time to time), but I no longer feel I have a duty to fulfill. The book also gave me confidence I didn’t have before. I would be hesitant to call myself a writer, but now I’m proud to do so. I have a published book out, that’s quite the accomplishment.

Beautiful Beautiful is my debut novel, although I self-published a book called Angel Hair Pasta on Amazon before. It was about a female chef working in LA and Seattle. It almost made me a toonie. I still enjoy that book—it has satisfying sections of modernist first-person writing—but Beautiful Beautiful is a much more thorough, meaningful work.

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

When I was six or so, my friend and I had a competition who could make the better character/fighter. I came up with a multi-headed dragon that could only be staggered by firing a fireball from the sun into its chest—wasn’t clear how it could ever be defeated. We drew our characters, and then created backstories for them. I continued creating characters, and I’d usually act out their stories by myself in the park or living room. Then one day, a relative bought me a journal, so I tried writing down these oral stories I was telling myself. They hardly went anywhere, but that was the genesis. I drew and wrote a lot in school, too, during lessons, to keep myself occupied. I’d burn through several drawing books a year, as most teachers were kind and encouraging enough to bestow as many as I requested.

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?

It really depends. Generally, I try and let ideas blossom for a few weeks before starting, even if I’m eager to use new premises. Words flow easily while I’m inspired, and incubation can generate inspiration. It’s not like an ice-cream cone, where you have to lick it all at once. I force myself to meet a word count, once I’ve begun writing a manuscript. I write at least 2,000 words a day, which takes approximately 2 to 3 hours. Some manuscripts require more research or thought, like I wrote a lot of sci-fi, which involved constant googling and conversing with ChatGPT about existentialism, aliens or space technology. Sci-fi requires lots of details.

            My first drafts are usually completely different than the finished works. My words aren’t precious to me, so I like sacrificing them for something better. To be honest, I don’t think the manuscripts always get better; the first drafts are like sketches, which have their appeal, opposed to the meticulous final-drafts. It’s like Bob Dylan versus the Beatles: the former preferred minimal takes, usually, while the latter would sometimes perform dozens of takes, especially in the later years. Beautiful Beautiful was linear in the beginning, then I utilized in medias res later, shifting parts around. Stephen King said try and write the first draft in three months, so I aim for that, then lend myself as much time required in the editing process.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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’m only concerned with writing books at this point, so that’s my initial intention. I think of certain scenes, like a storyboard, and then I work from the beginning until the end in one constant flow. I don’t plan a lot of it, I just add scenes that make sense—one after the other, shifting from positive to negative—progressing until the end. I may have a clear idea of where I’d like to end up, but I usually can’t predict the result. It’s like decoding a movie in my head: I’ll write a scene, then the fog will clear, and the best way forward is revealed.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I think they aid the creative process in the same way teaching does, in that I gauge the reactions of the audience, and realize what works and what doesn’t. That being said, I recognize reading aloud is different than reading quietly. I enjoy sharing pieces intentionally crafted to be spoken, but I don’t necessarily desire to read my books to people—it’s a different experience, auditory instead of visual, that sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t.

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?

Wow, those are great questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. I would say I’m equally concerned with the theoretical as I am the plot. This is evidenced by the title Beautiful Beautiful itself, as I strive to uncover the aesthetics of words and literature. I’m constantly thinking about why I write, the higher meaning. To me, Redbird is a songbird, singing the words. You can read into the differences between Indigenous and Western storytelling with Beautiful Beautiful. You may also apply a feminist reading using the internal logic of the tarot, that water and earth represent femininity. Or perhaps one may enjoy reading Raven as the archetypal raven. There were many lenses I applied to the book. Of course, there’s plenty of cheese, as well.

            There are so many questions I try answering through writing: what’s the difference between depicting dialogue and communing with spirits? How can I better articulate the thought chains of my mind? Does this work better to reach into the reader? Stuff like that. My writing is me capturing epiphanies I have along the way—about myself, about others, about life. I hope that makes it exciting for the reader.

            One current question I’m fascinated with, is what can a human do that an AI won’t be able to? I heard AI will develop to the point it will be able to produce literature of any kind upon request. “I want a sequel to The Return of the King,” you’ll say, and your wish will be granted. What, then, will set humans apart from AI? It’s something I’m constantly thinking about, how to stay ahead of the robot, basically.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

To bring book clubs together. I think most popular books help establish a community or tackle pressing issues. I don’t read many contemporary books. They’re often too focused on plot for my liking. I enjoy reading books I either hardly comprehend or that are inventive with language. It’s a viable function, for a writer to appeal to the masses, but I realize most of my literary influences died penniless or lacked popularity in their times.

            I think it’s fair some writers excel at marketing and business, but I’m interested in writers who convey a mind-set not yet found in literature, above all else. The writer is one who documents their experience reaching into the realm of spirit so all may behold a glimpse, because even that is insufficient to describe the vision I have of what writing is. Sometimes it’s easy to explain what is seen, other times, simplicity only mars the glory of that sight unfolding. Writers fall somewhere along that gradient, and they’re all equally writers.

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

It’s a difficult question. As I said earlier, some of my first drafts are interesting and enjoyable. The editor is someone who hones the work so it’s accessible for readers. In that sense, they’re essential; I wouldn’t expect Angel Hair Pasta to be found on bookshelves. I view working with an editor as a collaboration, and I really enjoy that element of the process. If it’s difficult, it’s only difficult because we both set a standard that I ultimately have to reach, so I have to push myself which I wouldn’t say is easy or lovely, it’s hard work that requires dedication and focus. I feel all the better for it, however.

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

A teacher gave me an appropriate grade for a mediocre piece of writing I submitted, then at the end of their comments, they wrote, “Keep writing!” That’s all it took to encourage me to keep at it.

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

Writing for journalism was easy, it was interviewing people while seeming credible that was difficult. Journalism is a fantastic foundation for writers, as it teaches you to make a word count, respect deadlines, write concisely, edit thoroughly, handle information accurately, format well, and accurately record dialogue. There’s a rich tradition of journalists who learned the essentials then branched out creatively. Hunter S. Thompson is a classic example; he really blurred the line between each. The appeal for me is, there’s only so many ways I can objectively write about a situation before getting bored and seeking the alternative means of expression fiction offers.

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 wake up, put on headphones, listen to Spotify for an hour or two, get up, make my bed, adore the sun, brush my teeth, get an espresso, check the web, pray, meditate, exercise, stretch, adore the sun for noon, make myself a cappuccino, hopefully sit down to some fresh fruit and madeleines supplemented with vitamins, then, generally speaking, I’m in peak writing-form. That all goes out the window if I must head out to work.

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

Usually, music or reading other books. Inspiration can come from anywhere, though. Could be something I read online, something someone said to me—usually comes out of thin air. I force myself to meet my word-count, regardless, otherwise I don’t bother. Sometimes it’s good to sit around, waiting for inspiration, but if I’m immersed in writing, I trudge on, even while uninspired by what I’m writing, as I know I can improve it in the edit. Craft endures while inspiration falters.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Smoldering sage smoke.

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?

As a polymath, I’m a strong believer all my experiences affect my writing. Cooking allows me to better capture the senses affected while cooking, which helps me translate them to the page. It’s true, reading books helps writers learn the craft, but you get to a certain point—where you develop your voice, your ability and your style—that you don’t necessarily need to be an avid reader. John Lennon said something similar, in that he didn’t listen to popular music, as it was all variations of music he heard growing up.

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

I don’t know if I’d consider them important to me, more so integrated into my consciousness—probably the same thing. You know, James Joyce is my biggest influence. Aleister Crowley restored my faith. Moby Dick was a profound novel for me. Most writers that influenced me have passed.

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

I’d like to travel across Canada, perhaps by train. I feel that’s a true Canadian experience.  

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?

I’d try being a musician. I’ve played various instruments throughout my life: guitar, piano, drums, saxophone. I wrote many songs in my 20s, and performed them with a friend, but I didn’t really desire to play for anyone but us.

I promised myself, in high school, that if I was still single and had nothing going on by 23, I’d drop everything and join the army. I wound up quitting my job, at 23, to write over 3,000 words a day by hand, every day, for a year. I suppose I fatigued myself manifesting various partners through writing, instead.

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

I just found myself alone, a lot, so I manifested my own worlds of companions. Writing is the ultimate solitary act, after all. Perhaps I made a shell of sorts. Writing got me through many troubling times, as did playing music. Writing satisfies me more than anything else, so I keep doing it. It sort of avoids definition beyond that.  

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

I recently finished Dante’s Paradiso, of all things. It was fun, following the rhythm, but it was an archaic version that was difficult to comprehend, which I state too often I enjoy.

I don’t watch many films. I used to. I watched Titanic a few months back. Go ahead and laugh if you want. I’m pretty sappy.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a novel about Raven, from Beautiful Beautiful, utilizing my experience in the culinary industry.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;


Friday, December 29, 2023

erica lewis, mahogany


baby, baby

kiss my lips
ain’t no harm
to moan
and change
of rhythm
gave you my life
to my white blood
some faraway
six-foot hole
inside my chest
cobalt ribs
as intimate
the truth is
i see you
i see you
and god grew
tired of us
on the ghost
of the truth

The latest from San Francisco poet erica lewis (and the first of her works I’ve seen, although I did realize I published some of her work in an issue of G U E S T [a journal of guest editors] a while back) is the full-length collection mahogany (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2023). mahogany describes itself as the third in lewis’ “box set” trilogy, following collections the precipice of jupiter (P-Queue/Queue Books, 2009) and camera obscura (BlazeVox [Books], 2010), both of which were composed alongside artist Mark Stephen Finein, as well as murmur in the inventory (Shearsman, 2013), daryl hall is my boyfriend (Barrelhouse, 2015) and mary wants to be a superwoman (Third Man Books, 2017), the latter two being the first two collections of this now-completed trio. Citing this collection as one composed to bear witness, her “project notes” at the end of the collection offers that mahogany “was written during the years I care gave for my mother, Mary. Her long illness was the best and worst time in my life. For five years I shuffled between San Francisco and Cincinnati, six months by six months.” Threading their shared appreciation of Diana Ross, she offers that, much like the first two collections in this trilogy, “mahogany uses the music of a (once popular) pop artist that I grew up listening to. Each poem takes its title from a line of a Diana Ross and The Supremes song or a song from Diana’s successful solo career—the poems are not ‘about’ the actual songs, but what is triggered when listening to or thinking about the music. I’m thinking about what happens when you take something like a pop song and turn it in on itself, give it a different frame of reference, juxtapose the work against itself, against other pop music, and bring it into the present.”

There is something compelling in the way lewis composes her rhythmic suite of lyrics set across sound and nuance, echoes and repetitions, chants of song and intimate spaces. The poems write from the space of care and slow loss, grief and appreciation; the poems write of witness, providing a space through which her mother remains, intact and vibrant. “the day has passed / and gone inside,” the poem “i’m here” begins, “i want to have / something to say / about my own destiny / there used to be / a voice in my head / telling me everything / was going to be okay [.]” lewis composes long lyric first-person threads, each of which run down the page from her Diana Ross title-prompt, wrapping her mother in arms and care and loss. The heartbreak and care across this collection is palpable, deep and intimate. “do you / love yourself,” the poem “i don’t want to live” begins, “we must travel / in the direction . of our fear / and now the frontier is gone [.]”