A Ladder Out of a Burning Building: A Conversation with Astrologer and Poet Gala Mukomolova

Poetry Interview Gala

Gala Mukomolova earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in the PENPOETRYPANKVINYL and elsewhere. In 2016 Mukomolova won the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her first chapbook, One Above / One Below is forthcoming from Yes Yes Books. She sat down to chat with Tell Tell about poems that could start religious, astrology and love, and how to feel better. 

Tell Tell: When did you start getting involved in astrology?
Gala Mukomolova: I can't remember when I started loving astrology. I have an Astro.com account that holds the info for natal charts belonging to my first gf in high school. When I was a lesbian growing up in a homophobic home with parents who barely spoke the same language as me, I needed a chart like one needs a ladder out of a burning building. I was looking for some answers or anything that could make sense of what was a pretty devastating time. I was splitting a lot of identities, I needed something to stay true at the core.

 TT: Tell us a bit about transitioning from Galactic Rabbit to Nylon. What’s that been like for you? GM: I want to say right off the bat that writing for NYLON is a true blessing. My editor is an angel in my inbox and the director is a queer empress, I've never felt more valued and supported by a publication. That being said, Galactic Rabbit Love Notes was just that—a labor of love—and labors of love are hard to give up even when the labor wears on you! The truth is I miss writing them and I do hope to write more. I just need to get my bearings in this hell-mouth of a  year. You know, I still get emails from Galactic Rabbit readers and they still hit me right in the heart. That's one of the big losses. 

TT: What is it about astrology and poetry together that really excites you?
GM: Recently, my best friend who is also a visual artist turned to me while picking out a vinyl to play and said, “You know people are really interested in astrology again, and people are treating poetry differently too, with curiosity.” I was caught off  guard because all of a sudden everything felt out of step with modernity. I'm excited about a culture turning inward, about projects that reveal more projects, of questions that lead to more questions (that's the Jew in me). I like that both poetry and astrology seek to give words to a feeling, to give a pattern a fabric to cling to; it's nice when they come together on the same tapestry and inspire resonance. And, there's a little god in both these practices, one that pries your hands open and shows you what you've been carrying this whole time. That's empathy work and the reward is spiritual. When I tell people I write poems or when I tell them I write horoscopes, they give me the same face, a face like capitalism malfunctioning, a face which can't compute my role in this regime. I find that face soothing.

TT: What is your biggest worry right now and how are you working through it? 
GM: My biggest worry? That's a wide net of a question. My biggest worry has something to do with feeling powerful in the world, I think, figuring out where I placed that part of myself that was irreverent and generative and unafraid to take risks. Creative risks and emotional risks. What's working through it? I have a therapist. I read books by trauma and codependency experts, I go for retreats at Zen Buddhist monasteries. I'm gonna crack this whole being a person thing. Or did you mean what am I worried about in the stars? I'm worried that the Solar Eclipse followed by Jupiter in Scorpio is going to see a lot of people into new stages of self discovery prompted by heartbreak and searing grief. I'm worried there are so many vulnerable people amongst us that have already suffered too much. I'm worried about my friends who are people of color. I'm worried about trans women. I'm worried about all these fucking guns and the ghouls who run our country. I deal with that with the work I do and the love I offer others which is no small thing I promise you.

TT: Do you have any poems, lines, or lyrics that you think about more often than the others? What are they?
GM: Well, it changes often. I let writers get in my head, I let them get in my heart. Adrienne Rich has stayed with me for a long time, lots of lines from 21 love poems, this section especially:

or, when away from you I try to create you in words,
am I simply using you, like a river or a war?
And how have I used rivershow have I used wars
to escape writing of the worst thing of all—
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our own freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?

I think about Lucille Clifton’s fox poems all the time and those women walking unafraid through the generous fields.

I carry echoes of Richard Siken’s poems “Wishbone”(if you love me Henry, you don't love me in a way I understand) and “Snow and Dirty Rain.” (In the gold room where everybody gets what they want).

The Stranger song by Leonard Cohen, the apple poem by Yehuda Amichai, I’ve had a single piece  of paper with Anne Sexton’s “Consorting with Angels” on it since I was 16 probably, it’s a crazy poem, it’s the kind of poem that can start its own religion.

And, speaking of Angels, my friend francine j. harris has this amazing poem in her first book, Allegiance, that catalogues the sorrow and grace of ordinary angels. I think about that poem all the time too.

Let me stop before I start recalling the genius of my loved ones, that would be an avalanche.

TT: I often think about your poem Vasilyssa Has No Familiars (published in Vinyl) and the line “because your heart is / the ghost that haunts your family, accept aloneness.” How do you relate to that line now?
GM: Funny you should ask that. As I'm answering this question, I’m on the third leg of a one hour and a half journey to be present for my mother who is having cancer-related surgery even though I have otherwise not been speaking to her. And, I will be sitting in that waiting room with my brother who I recently charged to make a choice regarding my sexuality: either accept it or exit my life. He didn't make a choice which means he made one. But, here we are, illness demands generosity. Ghosts stay ghosts tied to burdens on Earth until those burdens die.

TT: What are you currently reading? What are you loving? What are you starting at?
GM: Recently, I set up a breakup  book mix for myself: The New Codependency, The Art Lover by Carole Maso, Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Susan Sontag’s second set of journals, and Thich Naht Hanh’s Calming the Fearful Mind. Some of these books I’ve carried for a long time and some are new but I'm just interchanging them on the daily. It’s a sort of “other people have felt this before, some of them have even killed themselves but you don't have to, plus, there's a lot more to you than your suffering—look a mother fucking mountain—so just do your work” kind of experiment.

Poetry and essay wise, I’m really excited about the work my friends are getting published. Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s new essay collection is out, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, and Duriel E. Harris just came out with No Dictionary of a Living Tongue. Rachel Mckibbens’ blud is newly in my clutches. I am inside the moment with these book births and the worlds they cord and drag open behind them.

Otherwise, I genuinely believe everyone should be reading Octavia Butler right now just to, uh, be prepared.

 TT: What playlist have you been enjoying recently? What songs make you cry?
GM: Ive been listening to Kendrick’s latest album a lot and SZA’s too. That helps me move from one spot to another. Lots of shit makes me cry. “Stay Ready” by Jhene Aiko makes me cry.  Just looking at Princess Nokia makes me cry.

 TT: What are men good for?

GM: The sticky gag of old sweat, an explanation I don’t need, raising my heart rate down a midnight street, the refusal to own their complicity.

 TT: What happens when a Taurus and a Scorpio hang out together?
GM: Drugs, liquor, eating meat with their hands, brute loyalty, watching Moonstruck again, matching tattoos, an overwhelmingly joyful amount of sarcasm accented with tenderness, lying flat on the ground and moaning just to do it, sitting in parking lots drinking Starbucks talking about the nature of love or just blasting Heavy D’s “Nuttin’ but Love.”

TT: What’s your favorite sign?
GM: You’re trying to get me in trouble!

TT: What are you waiting for?
GM: To Exhale. My money. A change to come. The world to change.

 TT: If the following poems were signs, what signs would they be?

  “Wait” by Galway Kinnell. Aquarius, post break up, after reading a book on mindfulness.

“The Glass Essays” by Anne Carson Gemini on new anti-depressants trying to figure it out.

“First Love” by Jean Valentine I don't know because this poem is unavailable

Online it seems but “For Love” by Jean is a Sagittarius flirting with an ex.

“A Wreath of Stars: Symsonia, Kentucky, 1914” by Joe Bolton Libra dude considering bisexuality.

“Tear it Down” by Jack Gilbert Scorpio making excuses for an abusive relationship.

“Dreams” by Wislowa Szymborska Capricorn in love with an Aquarius.

“The Stray” by Charles Simic Leo who is drunk and can't figuring out where his friends went or why it's always like this.

“A Love Letter” by Russell Edson A Pisces dude whose pot problem has affected his virility.

“Blood Soup” by Mary Ruefle Taurus with lots of Gemini placements and possibly a Cancer moon who’s not ready to talk about the depth of her grief but needs to at least try and communicate something of its nature.

“It’s no use/dear mother” by Sappho  Virgo feeling guilty for not completing her work to her usual high standard because she’s sprung for some delinquent.

“kitchenette building” by Gwendolyn Brooks Aries after reading a book on semiotics, trying to stoke  a fire in their own brain.

“And Then It Was Less Bleak Because We Said So” by Wendy Xu

Cancer secretly excited about the Holiday season despite social anxiety.

How to Believe in Magic: A Conversation with Jenny Sadre-Orafai

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Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of Malak, Paper, Cotton, Leather, and five chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Cream City Review, Ninth Letter, The Cortland Review, Hotel Amerika, The Pinch, and other journals. Her prose has appeared in Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, South Loop Review, Fourteen Hills, The Collagist, and other journals. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with poet Jenny Sadre-Orafai about her second full-length collection, Malak (Platypus Press, 2017), and what it means to document the supernatural and the suppressed as they manifest in language and less articulable ways.

 

Tim Lynch: I’m really excited to talk with you. I fucking love this book.

Jenny Sadre-Orafai: You’re so nice. Thank you.

TL: It’s very good. So how did the book project start for you?

JS: I think that it was just this idea of documenting all the supernatural that was going on in my life around my grandmother, strange things that I didn’t really piece together until they started happening to me, like poltergeist activity. Just looking at my grandmother and her gift for reading people’s futures from a different viewpoint, because it was so normal to me. It was something that I always knew she did. So it’s just a documenting, and it’s almost a case, proof that the supernatural exists—that people can hallucinate animals, that crystals can help people—and it kind of grew out of that.

TL: Yeah there’s definitely evidence we hear on the supernatural. The book seems very concerned with ghosts in one way or another. This book, in that way, feels like you’re sort of cultivating a space for this absent person. I’m wondering if that is something you’ve been trying to do with your poems as well.

JS: Yeah, I like that idea. I also think there’s something there, for an absent person, but also for a person who didn’t have the English language. You know, she and I didn’t really talk all that much. Her English was really limited, so our bond was even more based on this psychic connection, this spiritual connection. So I think it’s also for someone who I didn’t really know. I was trying to understand her maybe through writing the poems. I also think that the poems, honestly, are a political act. I mean, I’m Iranian and Mexican, and a woman, and so I think that part of it was a form of protest in a way, saying that this history, my history, matters.

TL: Yeah, the book opens and closes with direct speech, and each instance feels like a way of speaking so much of that into the world.

And part of what affected me with this book too is, well, I just lost my grandfather in December, so I’m still learning how to cultivate that space. There’s that next-to-last section in “Origin,” this line: “She’ll come back for the nest.” The raw quartz. There’s this sense of desperation in trying to get the dead back, which you’re pointing to in that relationship, something deeply connective here beyond language. I know that’s not exactly a question. I’m just trying to show my appreciation.

JS: Oh, well, thank you, and I’m sorry for your loss.

TL: Thank you.

But like I said, this book begins and ends with direct speech, and I won’t spoil the ending but I can’t imagine it ending any other way. So what, can I ask, is your personal relationship to languages, either in the practical daily way of speaking them or in relation to poetry, as far as the strange avoidance of sense poetry has?

JS: Well, I know bad words in Farsi, and I know numbers, and I know parts of my face. But that’s all. So then there’s that breakdown. I think the irony is in that section that you point out about me trying to lure my grandmother back, with shiny objects, with jewels or with crystal or whatever, because she really liked jewelry. This is maybe off topic, but I was told I was a healer, and the one message I get across the board is, “You don’t own it, you don’t believe that you are, and you have to just embody it and own it.” And so I think that anxiety of, “Did I really inherit her gift? Are all these things flickering around me and all these weird things happening because I’m like her?”—I’m trying to use language to communicate with her, and, ironically, we don’t speak the same language. So, I’m looking for this reassurance, even just in daily life, that I’m doing what I should be doing.

But the way I work mostly when I’m writing a poem, it’s very much like I’m taking notes. I don’t write every day or anything, and then it all just comes out. I think it’s maybe a spoiled way of writing, but I’ve just accepted that that’s how I work. So a lot of times the language is just dictated by whatever comes out as I’m listening.

TL: It sounds like you’re just taking what you’re given, which sort of relates too to that sense of, when you can see what’s coming what do you do with that. There’s that one moment, the last section of “Origin” about the tire, just listening to what you’re given too. So, how do you relate to being able to see. . . farther? It seems like that’s sort of conflated with seeing the truth, and it seems to exist between things.

JS: Well, that tire thing was one of the only times it really happened to me. That was really freaky; I mostly set electronics off. I’ve had my rear view mirrors on both sides combust and blow off my car; both times I was upset. It’s like telekinesis-type stuff, like Carrie. And that middle part, “Origin,” was actually an essay that was published in Los Angeles Review, and I parsed it out. I was so tired of people not believing, I was like, “I’m just going to write down everything that’s ever happened to me and that I’ve witnessed, and this will be how to believe in magic.” So those things, they don’t scare me.

The other day, I was in the living room with my husband and we were watching TV, and I was writing a poem and wanted to put an angel in it, so I was like, “Raphael’s an angel, right,” and he said, “What? No! That’s like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.” So I Googled it and was like, “No, here he is, he’s an angel.” So we had the TV on the news, the channel we always watch, and I’ve never seen this weather person before, and they go, “Alright, thank you, Raphael,” and I was like, “Mmmhmm.” I feel like things like that happen and it’s always the universe or the angels or whoever—it doesn’t scare me; it just makes me feel like that happened to give me reassurance.

TL: People will talk about the power of language and whatever, but it sounds like your relationship with the power of language is quite literal.

JS: Yeah. This woman came, she reads people’s auras, and she had these silver plates. You put your hands on them—they have little handprints on them—and then she takes a Polaroid, and around you are all these colors, and she’s able to kind of discern what’s going on. She looked at me and said, “Wow, you talk to your angels, don’t you?” And I was like, “What, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And she says, “Well you always read the ticker across the screen, and you look for words. And you look at license tags and you look for words there,” and I didn’t realize that I do that, but I do. So I think I’m constantly communicating with something bigger than me in these strange ways.

TL: I’m thinking too about—there’s so much in this book about the possibilities of language, either in terms of the supernatural, or there’s the one poem, “Lucy Let People See,” where you and the taxi driver are talking about people who were strangers to either of you, but the way in which you related to them, respectively, brings you two closer. What do you think are the possibilities of speech in terms of grief? In terms of processing it, or how you relate to the world, or to that missing person now?

JS: To be honest, Tim, something that’s on my mind, with Weinstein—this last section of the last poem, and there’s another poem about the guy and the plaster, “Lifecasting”—there’s this way of working through assault and abuse, which is partly grief for me, and working through silence. It’s strange. I hadn’t really sat down to read the book completely since it came out, but those parts were super-raw when I was re-reading it before you called. So I feel like there are certain things that one can do, that I certainly do, in poetry that I can’t be public about, that I can’t quite articulate yet.

I saw that you’re in recovery, and congratulations for that. I’m in recovery for disordered eating. When I think about all the forgiveness that you have to do in recovery, and I think about all the things that you have to confront in order to get well, or recover, it’s the things that I thought I had forgiven, things that I thought I had released or was able to let go of that are the very things that are why I’m kind of in relapse right now. I guess I just wanted to say that because I’m feeling a lot of grief in that way, grief for those who have been assaulted and abused.

In the book, there’s grief for my grandmother and the conversations we couldn’t have because of language. It’s more of that than a grieving of her. I have this really strange thing with death; I don’t really process it; I don’t really feel much. It’s a different kind of sadness. I think a sadness of also not really knowing her.

TL: A lot of this book too is reclaiming, or plainly claiming, the self. That idea of thinking you’ve processed, and thinking you’ve gotten through all of this, then realizing that it’s still there. That’s a really big thing for recovery that I’m still finding out too. And I’ve been in my own situations where my body too has been made to feel estranged from myself, and in that way, yeah, you think you process everything, and then somebody says or does something or you uncover something in your own language that tips you off to realize that it’s still there. Not to say that it’s something abysmal or hopeless or anything, just that all of this is true and real, which like you said, is part of the book too, saying what no one would normally believe is real.

JS: Absolutely. It always surprises me—I think it’s a lot of ego involved—when something rattles me, even though I feel like I’m really self-aware. Like writers, especially poets maybe, are super-self-aware. I mean, that’s our job. So, for something to unearth, for me to be so floored by something—I don’t know. “Markers,” ends with “First no.” It’s my way of writing around abuse and assault because I can’t hit it head-on yet. So much of it for me was suppressed and it was just all there suddenly. Like, “What? Where did this come from?” And you see how all these aggressions against your body accumulate over the years and the effect they have on you.

TL: Exactly, it’s just suppressed. You don’t know what’s there. And in that way I guess it’s sort of reading your own past too.

JS: Yeah.

TL: Yeah.

Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t get to talk about?

JS: No, I’m just very honored that you asked, and I’m grateful that you read the book and did such a close reading.

TL: Oh, well, thank you for writing it. And thank you for being so open. This has been really enjoyable and insightful just as a plain conversation too.

JS: Likewise.

 

Tim Lynch has poems forthcoming or published with Yes, Poetry, Occulum, tenderness, yea, Connotation Press, and more. He has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ & conducts interviews for Tell Tell Poetry. He would be delighted to meet you on Twitter & Instagram @timlynchthatsit.

 

 

How Shall I Live Now: Interview with Kaveh Akbar

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Kaveh Akbar is the founding editor of Divedapper. His poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, APR, Tin House, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. He is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James, 2017) and the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry). The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille MEdwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with Kaveh Akbar about his debut collection of poems, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” focusing on the life and daily work of a writer in recovery, and the different gratitudes of inhabiting that particular life.

Tim Lynch: Ok, so the way I come into this book—well, I myself am in recovery.

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, thank you for your sobriety!

T: Thank you so much for that! And in terms of that recovery aspect, the book helped to clarify my own experiences. I mean, as I was walking around reading it, I found myself writing my own little fragments at the bottom of the pages. And you’ve talked before about bringing all of yourself to a poem, so I’m wondering what the process of writing these was like? In what ways did they show you to yourself?

K: Oh, that’s fantastic! I love that, the idea of poems generating more poems!

So much of writing these poems was a kind of self-love, or even a gesture towards the possibility of self-love, learning to love and live with my new self, who I didn’t really know at all when I started writing these poems. You know, I started writing the earliest poems in the book just in the very, very early stages of recovery, and the book kind of moves chronologically from the late stages of addiction into early recovery into sort of middle recovery. So the poem was really a place where I could go and try to make sense of anything, you know—make sense of the fact that I was given this second shot at life. There’s that line in the poem “Against Dying,” “how shall I live now / in the unexpected present,” and I think that’s the fundamental question of the book. You know, my disease was such that at the late stages, it’s not hyperbolic to say that I was dying. My body was giving up. And so for that to have been halted in its tracks, when for millions of people, it doesn’t get halted, it just keeps going and leads to the one inevitable end that it can lead to—trying to make sense of that. It’s almost a kind of survivor’s guilt.

T: You mention that passage from “Against Dying,” and it reminds me of that point at which we become aware of how entirely different we are from who we were. We become driven; we begin to love what we do. In what ways have you experienced this specific notion of happy strangeness, either in writing this book or with any successes you’ve had with poetry, with Divedapper or otherwise?

K: Yeah I don’t have to tell you, the process of going from addiction to even relatively mundane recovery is total whiplash, total astonishing bewilderment. Like people are looking you in the eye and not clutching their purses when we cross them on the street. Even that alone is a total shock. So to go from a bottom as is described in the early parts of the book into a life now, four and half years later, where I’m teaching at a university and have many people who depend on me every day in various ways, and people ask me questions as though I’m a real human being who’s capable of answering things—there are no words to describe how strange it is. Because the person I was still lives in my brain, and the fundamental condition that had me that way still lives in my brain. You know, my self-will directed life, if I let it, would take me right back to that place.

T: Right. And to sort of bridge that notion into writing, most writers, I think, struggle with trusting their own judgement, whether understanding when a poem is done or just understanding oneself as a writer in general. Was there a point in your writing life where you understood that this was worthwhile, that you could make a life of this as you have?

K: I live a fairly monastic life that doesn’t require a lot of upkeep. I have a cat to support, but in terms of what I require on a daily basis, if I have money for books and simple food, I’m more or less taken care of. That is to say, the prospect of making a life in poetry never seemed that daunting to me because it doesn’t take a lot to maintain the life that I have now. I guess I was never all that anxious about the practical side of things. I’ve had, since I was a teenager, a real clarity about poetry being the thing that I want to do, and I’ve never really doubted that. I’ve certainly gotten distracted, but I never really doubted that one way or another I would end up writing poems as the meat of my days. There was a time I was driving forklifts at a Subaru factory, and I’ve worked in a million kitchens, but even through all those times, if you asked me what I did I’d tell you I was a poet.

T: So that’s pretty much been your defining backbone throughout everything?

K: Yeah, even when I was in the throes of addiction, people would ask me what I was into and I’d say that I was a poet. Even when I wasn’t really writing I would tell people, with an absolutely chilling lack of irony, that I was living the poems I wasn’t writing, and I would really believe that.

T: Even so, I think it’s something to admire, from anyone struggling with something daily, to have that foundational strength, and that you’re making that strength out of the poems.

K: Right.

T: Ok, so—someone asked you before what your favorite poem was, and you said it was your acknowledgements.

K: (laughs)

T: I thought that was beautiful! And in some ways, you’re at the forefront of this poetry community: People go to your Twitter page as sort of an anthology, and you’re always so gracious to everyone, always boosting work. So how does it feel to be so largely a part of this community that is so large?

K: Yeah, I’m still kind of learning. I would say that anyone who writes poetry is part of something enormous and large, and anyone who writes poetry is a hero to me for that. We’re participating in a conversation that precedes us by millennia, and assuming that the men who run the world are able to keep their thumbs off the nuclear button, it’s also something that will outlive the last person who forgets our name by millennia. So, to participate in that conversation is the highest honor in the world to me, and it’s the hugest thing in the world too; it’s an enormous conversation that is infinitely larger than any one of us or any one poem. So it is my great foundational gratitude that I get to be some tiny little blip in that story.

T: Right. And there’s something I’ve found with gratitude for myself too—sometimes I have to allow it, and sometimes I have to really cultivate and pursue it. Is that something that you find yourself?

K: Oh absolutely, I think that’s a really beautifully phrased question. I think, especially right now, where we find ourselves as citizens of a country that is regressing at such a rapid rate, it’s very easy to feel downtrodden or low when you look at the news or even the weather report and you see how the earth is trying to defend itself against us. It’s really easy to lose hope. It is more work now than it was two years ago for me to stay oriented toward gratitude, and it is work; it’s always been work. But that is the orientation upon which my continued existence is contingent. There is no meaningful, substantive life for me that is unmoored from gratitude.

T: That’s sort of echoed for me in the last line of “Despite their size children are easy to remember they watch you”: “just say yes and step into the consequence.” The simplicity of that yes. Understanding gratitude and then understanding the work that comes from it, I think, is essential to this book.

K: Absolutely, absolutely, I think that’s a really insightful connection.

T: So to take it down to the poems, you’ve talked about “tonal cohesion” before, this idea that the poems are all orbiting around the same thing, and having read the book, that makes total sense. There are images that echo, and poems that foil and clarify growth—I’m thinking specifically right now of “No is a complete sentence” and “God.” Could you talk about your construction of the book, how you saw it as these varied perspectives?

K: Well, hopefully, there is a kind of narrative arc to the book that goes from, like we talked about, late addiction into early recovery into middle recovery. That was my ambition for the arrangement of the poems, but I also do think that there are certain obsessions of the poems that reverberate productively. You try to think about how you can create harmonious reverberations as opposed to dissonant reverberations, which is to say, you’re trying to sing an octave above the song or an octave below the song, not a third of an octave—you want to hit that exact right frequency. And I’m thinking a lot about the various and sundry forms that are in the book, the ways that they return and don’t return, and the kinds of cadences that that builds.

A really perceptive review that I read of the book said something like, reading the poems in order isn’t even necessarily the best way to read them, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I do hope that if you sit down and read the poems in order that there’s something fruitful there that elevates them above the experience of just reading them hodgepodge.

T: There is definitely that narrative, and one of the things that goes through the poems too is this idea of naming. What does the naming mean to you in the poems or otherwise?

K: Obviously naming is really, really important to the book; it’s evoked in the title of the book. I’m very, very interested in the ways that naming something does and does not give it power. The kinds of force that naming something accrues, and the kinds of potential it unlocks. But then also the impetus of naming: language is a big concern of the book. I more or less lost my first language, and so the countless poems in the book that orbit around naming, and calling things things, and taxonomy, they’re interested in those ideas.

T: Right, and then what do you do with the names once you have them? And related to that in my mind, I really want to go back to that notion of “how shall I live now,” and this sense of gratitude. So—what do you do with gratitude besides feel grateful?

K: Oh, that’s interesting. I love the succinctness of that. I would say that ideally, if you are able to orient yourself toward gratitude, the logical next step is to push it outward, to share the gratitude with other people. That can mean bringing gratitude into other people’s lives which typically happens through some kind of service. If you hoard all your gratitude to yourself, it’s like holding a candy bar in your mouth for a week—you’re gonna get cavities. Or maybe a better metaphor is, if you keep a candle burning in your house, it’ll eventually just melt itself, but you can light a million other candles from that single candle.

T: That’s beautiful. Perfect. Ok, last thing — I have a Philly workshop group and they all say hello, so I have to shoutout Shevaun Brannigan, Alan Beyersdorf, Dave Muir, Nomi Stone, Daniel Brian Jones, Irène Mathieu, and Raena Shirali!

K: Oh, yeah, beautiful, beautiful, hello to all of them! Give them all my e-hugs! I love so many of the people you just mentioned so much.

T: Beautiful. This one actually comes from Irène, and also because we all want to know: What was baby Kaveh like? Like on a particular Saturday in 1999, what would baby Kaveh be doing?

K: Hahaha! A particular Saturday in 1999. That’s a good question. Well, Simpsons reruns only came on during the weekdays, so it wouldn’t have been on a Saturday night. I would likely have a plate of cookies in my room and a stack of library books. My mom used to do this thing where she would go to the library every week and just get a random stack of books. It would be like, a biography of Louis Pasteur, and a novel about dog sledding, and a book on the velociraptor. Just this completely disparate array of books, and she would just bring home a stack of fifteen or twenty every week and just leave it in my room, and I would just read whichever ones I wanted and put those on the stack and she would take those ones back the next week, leave the ones that I still wanted, and come home with a new stack. She did this every single week, and so for the longest time growing up, what I did for the meat of my time was just lie in bed in my room with a plate of snacks and some soda and just read all day. I had a Super Nintendo I was pretty into, but my parents were pretty strict about only letting me play for an hour a day on the weekends and not at all during the week, so the thing that I could consistently do to entertain myself was to just read through these giant-ass stacks of books that she would always have around the house.

If you wanna know what baby baby Kaveh was like, apparently I was a complete terror. My brother was this perfect child who slept eight hours a night and never cried, and apparently I just would dart out of the house any time the door opened and head straight for oncoming traffic. There’s this famous anecdote in my family of me trying to jump off this huge rickety bridge in Iran, and my dad catching me at the last second.

T: Yup. That one’s a poet.

K: Hahahaha. Yeah, I should’ve known.

T: And that actually kind of connects back, these stacks of disparate books. I mean, there’s so much of the world in your book. It makes perfect sense that you spent so much time consuming the world in that way.

K: Yeah, yeah, it’s a very hungry book that just wants to put everything in its mouth, from language to people to food to narcotics to places. I think it just wants every part of the world in its mouth.

T: And I think it does it beautifully. I think it really shows—particularly for anyone in some kind of recovery—it shows that the world is still there.

K: Yeah! Yeah, that’s beautiful. And this was really, really wonderful. I’m always grateful to talk about poems and I’m always grateful to talk about recovery, and this was the nice middle of that venn diagram, so my gratitude is orders of magnitude greater than what I had even anticipated.

T: Grateful to be a part of that.

 

Tim Lynch has poems published or forthcoming with tenderness, yea, Connotation Press, Mead, and more. He was awarded a 2015 Piper Global Writing Residency in Southeast Asia and has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where he is an MFA candidate. He conducts interviews for Tell Tell Poetry.

Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

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J. Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas. His work appears widely and includes the chapbooks Highway or Belief (2013 Button Poetry Prize), Ascension, (2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize), and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County (2015 Tree Light Books Prize). His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize, named a finalist for the National Poetry Series and Writers’ League of Texas Book Award, and received the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class. He teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member and is a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he earned his MFA. Brownlee currently lives in Austin and is at work on Diamond Kings, a novel and A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, a second full-length poetry collection. Both manuscripts are rooted in rural Texas.

Tell Tell digs into the nitty gritty with Scott about his experience publishing with a small press, specifically Orison Books—the challenges getting there, the joys of being there, and pulling your head from the sand to celebrate the people beside you.

 

Tell Tell: So, Scott, can you describe the process, I mean, putting together the manuscript, then sending it out, and finally publishing with Orison?

J. Scott Brownlee: I started putting together poems I thought would be a book, oh, probably three or four years before it actually got picked up. I was pretty confident at first that I knew what I was doing. I had an idea for the order to put the poems in, structured it, gave it a title I thought was good, and started sending it out immediately. In hindsight, I probably should’ve worked on individual poems a bit more, but, you know, if you don’t start it, you’re never going to have it. You gotta start somewhere, so I think that first step is putting the poems on the ground, seeing how they go together, how they don’t.

But basically, I put together this book, sent it out, it got rejected a lot—oh gosh, probably more’n a hundred times over a couple years. And you enter the contests, and every once in a while what happens in that landscape is if you’ve got something that’s potentially a book, eventually you’ll hit some sort of semi-finalist, or you’ll get a little note from somebody, but it’s mostly No’s. I think you can focus on publishing individual poems as you’re building your book, and that gives you a sense of how competitive it’ll be in a bigger contest—because if you can publish in big journals then chances are your book’ll probably stand up against others’.

So I sent it out the first year and it didn’t do that well, but it got a semi-finalist so I thought, “Oh cool! There must something here!” So I kept editing it, working on it, went to grad school, got a lot of support from mentor poets to make the individual poems better. And then when I sent it out in grad school I’d get a little closer, a finalist here, finalist there, and I thought, “Oh yeah, it’s going to happen really soon, anytime!” It was still a year and a half before anything good happened. I remember a point where I was actually doing worse in the contests with what I thought was a better book—instead of getting finalist I was getting semi-finalist in the same contests and I thought, “Uh oh, what’s wrong here, am I getting worse?” And that’s where some of it is just random, like the readers, and the ranking of the manuscripts. I cast a wide net in the beginning, but over the years I’ve narrowed it down to which presses aesthetically are a good fit and which ones clearly are not. I’ve learned not to waste my time and money sending to something that’s not going to align.

Right, so how do you go about reading for the aesthetics of a press?

Well, if you know one or two of their poets you can just read their stuff online to get a sense of what’s going on. I’m a narrative poet, so if it’s language poetry and experimental, and it’s about some sort of idea as opposed to an experience, you know, I could try to fit that square peg into a round hole all day but I probably wouldn’t have any luck.

Orison was a brand new press. It was the first year they’d done that prize, so I think Luke [Hankins, Editor] was kinda combing for people that would be a good fit, because in the early stages of the press you have to be the ambassador. So he wrote to me and said, “I like your poems. I think you should think about sending it.” So I got that feedback, and thought, “Well, ok, this press is taking an interest,” and I saw the judge, C. Dale Young, and he’s a good editor. If I won that I’d get both of those people to work with.

I did win, and after that it was kinda working with the press to change the book—and I thought it was pretty done. But there are so many ways to order a book of poems, and C. Dale Young was really helpful. We had a couple calls and he took a few more looks and I reordered it from some of his recommendations, and I even wrote a few more poems. It kind of opened up the book for me. It gets to a point where you don’t know what to do with it anymore, and that’s where an editor comes in. And they’d both been editors for a bit, so I trusted to try out what they had in mind, and they certainly gave me that privilege where if I didn’t like something I’d go back to my ideas, so that made me open to changing.

So Luke reached out to you directly?

Yeah, I think that’s pretty common. If I’m an editor and I start a new press of rural writing, I’m going to first figure out who all’s doing that writing, right. And then I’m going to have to generate their interest, so I’m sure he probably queried people that were doing the same kind of writing. It wasn’t a promise of publication at all. I’ve actually never gotten that offer from anyone and have only published through contests. One thing that’s kinda interesting too is you think, “Oh the judge wouldn’t like my poems if their poems aren’t the same,” but I have a chapbook that’s on Button Poetry, and Rachel McKibbens, a really good slam poet—and page poet—was the judge. I didn’t think in a million years that she would like my poems and she loved them. But I think there’s a line too. A Mary Ruefle or Jorie Graham would never pick my poems because mine are so far away from what they’re trying to do. But I’ll still take a risk on some others if I like the press and feel like they would represent what I’m trying to do.

Orison is based in Asheville, NC. Being a narrative poet, and more specifically a poet of place, did that have any influence when you were sending out your manuscript?

It certainly helped. I had actually lived in Carolina for two years, and I knew some people and had some mentors there, so when it came time to actually do some outreach for the book and set up readings and things it was pretty easy. Luke set up one in Asheville and then from there I was able to set up one in Greensboro, one in Raleigh. If the press was in, say, Wyoming, I might’ve gone there for the launch, but I don’t think we would’ve been able to stack like we did. So Carolina was where I had supporters and a readership, and the other place was Texas. I was living in Philadelphia at the time we launched it, so I did a little bit on the East Coast too, but mostly I just did Texas and Carolina because I’m writing this Southern poem and it’s just going to be an easier sell in those parts of the country.

You really have to do some kind of tour, but you get to structure it on your own, I think, if you’re working with a smaller press. Luke definitely helped. He set me up with a few festivals I didn’t know the context for, sent out the books to a lot of post-publication contests. A lot of the on the ground readings, especially in smaller towns, it’s really up to you. If we had a bigger press we’d have some more help but you’re kinda on your own so you use your network. You have other poets, you know, you sleep on their couch this time, and when their book comes out they sleep on yours, and you kinda use that back-and-forth. You do that guerrilla tour and people say, “Oh you’re so popular, you did this tour!” And I would tell them, “No, I’m not popular at all—honestly I just emailed a lot of people.” It didn’t magically happen. Maybe it could magically happen if you have a big enough social media presence, but I never had that, so you have to knock on some doors. And most independent bookstores are happy to have you. They’re going to sell a couple books and they don’t have to pay you anything, so everybody wins.

Could you talk about the differences of experience in working with a small press versus a large publishing house?

Yeah, I think one big one, Orison, when we started that year, we only put out my book and one other book, so you get a little more time with a small press. Obviously you’re not getting as much PR exposure as you would if you were with Copper Canyon or something, but I think the difference would be that, particularly in the press’ infancy, the press has a lot at stake in your book. If your book doesn’t do well, neither does the press, so it’s very mutually beneficial. And with the bigger houses usually you get a marketing team around you that’ll help with galleys and stuff. They have the funds to send them out for reviews and to generate that hype. Luke was really good though. He sent out about two hundred copies, so we got a lot of coverage for the book.

Another thing is that a big house will put out eight or ten books of poetry a year. Where, yeah, you’re going to get the editor’s full attention, but you’re also going to get it divided by eight. And also probably going to work less with one person and more with a team. Some people are going to do one part of the process, and then there are others, whereas with us—it was me, Luke, C. Dale Young with some editing stuff, and the designer, and that was it. But yeah, I mean, the big presses in poetry are still small. I think that’s important to emphasize. And I think you just need to know if they’re going to stick it out or if they’re just doing this for fun because they started a press, and I think from talking to editors you can usually figure that out pretty fast.

But Luke’s still doing it, and the press actually did a lot better after my book. Yehoshua November’s book Two Worlds Exist was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and Jordan Rice’s book Constellarium was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, which is the prize for the best first book in the country. So right away, the press exploded, and one part is, I think, Luke understands the market. He actually did hire a guy who would do marketing for us on Twitter and help me get readings, you know—he got coverage in a local newspaper in Texas, and that was really cool and wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Usually you’ll get that at a larger press, but Luke had a vision for that market strategy, which I think is good to ask before you sign a contract, like, “What’s the plan for outreach? Are we going to send it out to contests after publication? Am I going to pay the submission fees for that as the author?” And what we agreed was that I would pay the submission fees and Luke would provide the books, so he gave me thirty books. We got a lot of coverage as a result, and I think that’s part of the reason the other books at that press did so well.

So what happens, then, after your book comes out?

Well, I have to say, after your first book comes out, it’s a sort of flatline. At first it’s like, “Your book! Your book,” and you win a prize. I won this Texas prize and I was just, “Aw, this is great!” Went to the Texas Book Festival, felt like a real author, taught at this really cool festival. And then, you know, six months later, you’re kinda yesterday’s news, and it’s back to the drawing board and lots of rejections. I mean, I think it’s good to know it’s not “the grass is greener.” Yeah, you’ve got the book, it exists, if you die your poems exist outside of you, that’s good. But you’re back at square one with the submissions process.

I think the main thing though is to continue to write. You can professionalize the hell out of poems, and that can lead you to publishing maybe 50% more in the short term. But in the long term, if you’re not consistently writing, you’re not going to have the material to go back and edit to professionalize in the first place.

How has working with Orison changed you as a writer, whether in writing poems or in the way you live as a person? Or has it?

Yeah, I would say so. I would say it’s a little less anxiety having something out in the world. First books, people think, “Oh I could’ve done better.” I actually really like mine. I feel like I put a lot into it. But it makes you understand that you’re part of this larger community, and that it’s not just about the next prodigy or whatever. It’s a team effort. You know, when the book would do well we would celebrate, but also when someone else’s on the press did well we would celebrate. As an author, you can really dig your head in the sand and think it’s really just about you and your book and your future, but then you get a little community where you can root for everybody.

Going in, I wasn’t really sure because it’s this press about the life of the spirit and I was like, “Well is everyone really religious in a particular way?” I came to find it’s not about religion per se at all. It’s more just about writing that engages questions around the idea of the spirit. There are people of faith who are associated with the press, certainly, but it’s artists who are open to supporting other people regardless of perspective. They’re a press that has really emphasized LGBT writers, you know, Jordan Rice’s book that came out right after mine. She’s a trans woman, and so it was really cool to be part of this community that is really inclusive. Like Jordan and I did a reading together when her book came out that was really fun, and none of that would’ve happened if I had buried my head in the sand and said, “Oh I have to win the APR/Honickman or the Yale Younger,” and just wait forever, you know—if I hadn’t sent it in and took a risk on this book, going with this press. So I think that was a lucky decision, and one for which I will always be grateful.