“Sweet Wolf #1” by Darren C. Demaree

We’ve named all of the animals
& we’ve put our fingers into the names
of each of them.  We’ve dragged

their names up to our faces
& forced them to meet our made
up world.  Sometimes we are given

kisses.  Sometimes there is
a great warmth.  We know they
are wild.  We know there is danger.

We know if we allow the sweet wolf
into our veins it will become
the alpha inside our own bodies

& yet, what a pool to drown in.
The chemicals of each breed
brings a new threat.

There have been so many Ohioans
eaten from the inside out
that I’ve been forced

to re-think exactly what these drugs
are in our world.  They are wolves.
We’ve been raised by them.

DemareeDarrenC_picDarren C. Demaree is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Many Full Hands Applauding Inelegantly (8th House Publishing, 2016). He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He currently lives in Columbus, OH with his wife and children.

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This entry was posted in Poetry on January 18, 2017

‘Mythmaking, second-hand information, and outright lies’: An Interview with Sarah Sweeney

Sweeney_Sarah_photoNonfiction writer Sarah Sweeney was new to me, but as soon as I read an essay’s opening line of “I never planned to throw my tampon on a stranger’s car,” I knew that her writing was something that I would enjoy immensely. Her most recent collection, Tell Me If You’re Lying, adds up to a modern-day coming-of-age story, and all that entails: music, actors, skipping class, and pulling pranks. Sweeney writes about such topics in a genuine way that isn’t afraid of getting too personal. Rather, her writing speaks for itself and invites the reader along for the ride.

Sarah Sweeney writes both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has also appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, Rattle, The Pinch, and others. We recently emailed about her new book, creating themes, and the dangers of dyeing your own hair.

Nearly all of the essays in this collection have a thread of pop culture through them, though the essays aren’t purely about pop culture. Instead, the essays straddle a thin line between discussing the lightness of pop culture figures—Madonna, Rod Stewart, Adrien Grenier—and deeply telling, personal narratives. What was the experience of writing in this way like? Do you think the pop culture is more characteristic of our time, or does it function as a vessel to tell other details?

I’m obsessed with pop culture, but more specifically, music. At nearly all points during my day—if I can—I’m listening to music. So I have very specific musical attachments and rituals, and I associate periods of my life, places, and people with songs or musicians or albums, especially the classic rock of my parents that more or less defined my childhood.

I’m also very particular about what I listen to while I’m writing because music is definitely a vessel for me, a means to channel a mood or an era and then infuse that into my work.

In writing this book, though, I never set out to write about pop culture, but because pop culture is very much essential to my personal history and identity. Those connections came naturally. I was so pleased to take stock of them all when I looked at the book as a whole. Funny how that happens.

Many of the essays tell one story while hinting at other personal details. For instance, the brief mention of the “troubled teens” workshop while discussing pulling pranks with Evie. Does the larger story take precedence, or do little moments like this reveal information without having to construct an entire narrative around certain life aspects?

I knew I was being a tease with that troubled teens line, and I’m glad it didn’t sail by unnoticed. Without delving into something that ultimately would detract from the larger story of Adrian Grenier and my friendship with Evie, I wanted to make clear that our pranks weren’t one-time occurrences, but rather one of many symptoms of a very particular kind of teenage psychosis stemming from ambition, boredom, parental neglect, and desperation. And showing that school officials had taken note of our behavior underscores that idea without tackling it explicitly.

Hair dyeing comes up in many essays, and I think that’s something we’ve all done in response to something at one point or another. I remember dyeing my hair a particularly unpleasant shade of blonde after a particularly bad breakup. Most of the hair dyeing in the collection, however, results in something unpleasant. Is this poor advertising on behalf of boxed dyes? Or does it capture the essence of a semi-rebellious teen figure?

Both. In college my hair stylist best friend got me a job as a receptionist at her salon where I learned so much about hair coloring. I could go on and on about it, but I’ll just say this: unless you’re going darker, it’s best to avoid those drugstore kits! For many people they’re economical, because salons are so expensive, but you’re playing with fire, in my experience.

But sometimes you’re just that desperate and I was. Hair dyeing became my way of asserting my identity as a young person, making a statement about nonconformity. Standard teen angst. Remember in that first episode of My So Called Life how Angela Chase (Claire Dances) dyes her hair red? I could write 10 more hair-dyeing essays, at least. I had white hair; pink hair; half-blue, half-red hair; lilac hair; green hair. When you’re young and essentially powerless, changing up your appearance can be a pretty satisfying way of claiming something for yourself.

tmiyl

Why did you pick “Tell Me If You’re Lying” as the titular essay?

All the essays have something to do with mythmaking, second-hand information, deception, deducing the truth for oneself, and outright lies. And because my father is an overwhelming presence in these stories, and someone who definitely understood the power of storytelling and self-mythologizing, the essay that most encapsulates him—and the theme—seemed like a no-brainer.

Music comes up again and again, as well as the inclusion of lyrics to several great songs. Were there any other musicians or songs that you wanted to write about that didn’t make it into this collection?

So many. Bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney or The Clash all pretty much gave me life as a kid. One of my freelance jobs is researching and writing liner notes for Light In The Attic Records, and last year I was doing a big project for them and got to connect with an obscure musician named Robb Kunkel. In one afternoon phone call, he basically changed my life and encouraged me to take some big risks—and I was supposed to be interviewing him. A short while later, I learned he was in the hospital, and we had this amazing end of life conversation that was basically the conversation I never got to have with my dad before he passed. So I’m currently trying to write something about Robb, too.

Who are the writers or essayists that inspire you?

I seek out and read a lot of women writers: Roxane Gay, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Melissa Febos are a few of my current favorites. I love Emily Nussbaum’s and Jia Tolentino’s work in The New Yorker (and her prior stuff at Jezebel). I also loved Abigail Ulman’s short story debut Hot Little Hands—talk about troubled girls!—and I am currently trying to ride the Elena Ferrante wave.

In one word, what would you say is the central theme to these essays?

Love.

Do you have any words of wisdom for fellow nonfiction writers?

My advice for nonfiction writers is: Write fearlessly. Write truthfully. Roadblocks are inevitable. Fear is inevitable. Push through that. Maybe you’re worried about hurting someone; maybe you’re worried about exposing yourself. When I was getting my MFA, a lot of fellow students fretted over what their parents would think, what so-and-so’s brother would think. We don’t want to hurt anyone, but the bottom line is this: If you’re serious about your craft and your story is bursting to be told (and the best ones do burst), you owe it to yourself to pursue it. Everything else will fall into place, or it won’t. That’s something you have to reconcile with yourself. (Or a good therapist, which is a highly effective life hack.)

FullSizeRenderAlyssa Cohorn is the Managing Editor of Pine Hills Review and an MFA student at The College of Saint Rose. She writes nonfiction and poetry while avoiding the cold weather of Albany, NY.

 

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This entry was posted in Interviews on January 3, 2017

From “The Good House and the Bad House” by Doe Parker

Parker_Doe_fromthegoodhouseGALLEYING_Page_1 Parker_Doe_fromthegoodhouseGALLEYING_Page_2 Parker_Doe_fromthegoodhouseGALLEYING_Page_3 Parker_Doe_fromthegoodhouseGALLEYING_Page_4 Parker_Doe_fromthegoodhouseGALLEYING_Page_5

Parker_Doe_fromthegoodhouseGALLEYING_Page_6

parker_doe_thumbnailDoe Parker grew up around San Francisco, CA. They’ve been published in the Bay Area Teen Writers Anthology and Habitat Lit Magazine. Doe put together their first chapbook when they were a senior in high school and now attends Columbia College Chicago with a major in poetry. Their work is fed a lot by their photography and their interest in the psychology of place memory. Doe was on the editorial board for issue #29 of Columbia Poetry Review and are staying on as an editor for issue #30 in the fall. Find their photos at parkerphotography.tumblr.com and more poetry at doeparker.tumblr.com.

 

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This entry was posted in Poetry on December 14, 2016

“Poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood”: An Interview with Sage Cohen

Cohen Sage Photo4

Sage Cohen brings the fierceness. I learned this first-hand, when she and I met when we were both greenhorns in Manhattan, studying for M.F.A. in poetry at New York University under the tutelage of heavy-hitter teachers like Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. It was plain to me then that Sage was mindful of what she was doing, both in poetry and in life. She was, in other words, pretty freaking fierce. (As for this writer, that is another story.) In the years since, she’s blossomed as a poet, writing instructor, and author of books focused on helping writers do what they do, first in Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books 2009), then in The Productive Writer: Tips & Tooks to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success (Writer’s Digest Books 2010). In straightforward, empathetic prose, Cohen helps writers tackle the challenges usually faced alone in a dark room. She continues this project with Fierce on The Page: Become the Writer You Were Meant to Be and Succeed on Your Own Terms, just out from Writer’s Digest Books. I had a chance to talk to Sage over email, where from her home in Portland, Oregon, she discussed being fierce, as well as teaching, workshops, and our common ancestral homeland of South Jersey.

This is your third book about writing and the writing process. What motivated you to write this one? 

My first two writing books were how-to’s: one for poets, and one for writers striving to increase productivity. What I discovered in writing those books, and in the decade of blogging about writing along the way, is that I am more interested in exploring possibilities than offering prescriptions. Because there is no one-strategy-fits-all in the writing life. There’s only what works for you.

Maybe five years ago on my blog, I stumbled into writing personal essays, in which I explored various writing themes through the lens of my own life experience. And readers really responded. Eventually, I came to understand that what I was offering people (and what they were seeking me out for) was not advice, but permission. To come closer to who they are, to notice what’s working and what needs recalibration, and to find their own true way forward in service to their craft.

I got so excited about this more intimate and spacious way of accompanying writers that I wrote a proposal in the hopes of writing a book-length treatise exploring this form. And then I sat on the proposal for three years until I had come far enough through divorce and single parenting a very young child to believe I had the stamina to write a book in parallel with my full-time business and life.

Fierce On The PageIt’s plain to me you enjoy motivating writers to write, to go places they haven’t gone, to be fierce. Was there a time you didn’t think of yourself as a fierce writer?

I don’t really think of myself as a fierce writer—more like a writer who practices ferocity. And for me, that means relentless self-responsibility. The truth is, what I think of myself as a writer has never been of much interest to me. What I have devoted myself to as if my life depended on it—and it turns out, it does—is my writing practice. I’m not sure how it happened, but I have always loved and tended my writing, absolutely dedicating to helping it reach its potential, without much concern about who liked it, or what it would do for me. It may be the purest relationship I have. A devotional practice, of sorts. I just want to serve my writing. I just want to help it grow and flourish. I just want to exist in that liminal space where words are taking shape.

What do you get out of teaching that fuels or informs your writing? Or is it a different relationship altogether?

I love being with people. I love watching them wake up to their own possibilities and discoveries. Teaching and lecturing has given me deep insight into what writers are struggling with, hoping for, and moving toward—and this helps me serve them better.

How about readings?

I also have spent a few decades overcoming a terror of public speaking. And putting myself in front of students and audiences as much as possible—as a practice of overcoming this fear—has fortified me as a person and a writer. I know I can count on myself to get up at a podium, even if I’m fairly certain it will kill me, and do it anyway. This is an important thing to know about myself.

What I have learned through this is that writers are seeking permission to be themselves, assurances that they’re welcome in the writing mosh pit, and trust that they have everything they need to do the work they are called to do. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to write and publish books that offer this kind of guidance, along with all the practical and technical stuff.

I love how your advice in FOTP is both nourishing and straight-shooting. You write early on how you “have simply committed to showing up and writing down what wants to come through,” and that that’s the “single most important thing we can do as writers.” At the risk of sounding mystical, how does the writer find what wants to come through?

I think that process is unique for each writer. Here’s how it works for me: I find what wants to come through when I practice paying attention: leaning into discomfort, softening into vulnerability, listening to the conversations of strangers, taking in the natural world. The more curious I am about the world, other humans, and myself, the more “what wants to come through” is revealed to me.

For me, free writing was my way in. I started this foundational practice in my early 20’s, inviting language to move through me without forethought or effort. After many years of writing blind to find that there was an endless supply of language, image, metaphor and insight pouring through me, I came to think of myself of more as a channel, and my writing practice as a kind of cosmic weight lifting. My goal has been to train myself to be agile, strong, and receptive enough to tap into currents of language that I might otherwise not know how to be listening for.  So I could ready myself for writing, whenever it might happen to ask something of me.

Practically speaking, I am never out of arm’s reach from an index card. When a thought, image, or phrase strikes me, I write it down, no matter what else is happening. By being accountable to my own creativity and curiosity in this way, I think I maximize my receptivity to “what wants to come through.”

What are your thoughts on the traditional workshop these days—by traditional I mean a group in the room, copies of a draft, everyone talks about it, marks it up, perhaps the author stays silent. 

I think the value of workshops is largely in the eye of the beholder! What I value most from my own education through traditional workshops is how I’ve learned to evaluate and use (or ignore) feedback. I have also gained valuable insight about my tendencies and vulnerabilities, and I have cultivated skills in thinking and speaking critically about poetry. I take it for granted now, but workshops have really helped me grow up as a writer.

For people like you and I, who have a few decades of writing practice under our belts, I think the value of a workshop becomes highly dependent on who is around the table. I didn’t workshop for years and didn’t miss it. But I did attend lots of readings and gather with many writers in those years and fill my cup that way. These days I have a group of poets I meet with here in Portland intermittently. Because I have great admiration for their work, just clearing three hours to step in and collectively contemplate their poems (plus see my poems reflected through their lenses) is invaluable for me.

Whether it’s a workshop, conference, reading, or lecture, I think there is huge value in writers coming together in person to remember that we are not alone, that we are a part of a larger conversation, and that we can always learn from each other, at any stage of our evolution.

I am especially gratified in those chapters where you talk about being a mother, a co-parent, who has found kindred souls online and in person for support as people and as writers. That didn’t come without a struggle, I’d imagine. As a father, I can’t help but rely on cliché when I encounter expectant writer-slash-parents. Do you have any advice or say anything when speaking with soon-to-be parents who are concerned about their identity as writers?

What comes immediately to mind are the first two years of my son’s life during which neither of us slept more than two hours at a time. I’d sit in the rocker in the middle of the night with my magnificent child in my arms, at the brink of my earthly sanity and patience, and I’d tell myself: This is my poetry practice.

I’d lean in to my discomfort and mine it for the ecstasies of attention. I’d study the exquisite smell of his fuzzy head. I’d notice the arc of warmth where our bodies were now only temporarily joined. And I’d know that there were women all over the world awake with their children, that my son and I were a speck of a wave in the endless ocean of humanity.

What I am saying is, poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood. And in return, motherhood became a potent poetry practice. I didn’t write many poems in my son’s early years. Yet, I would argue that my entire life became a poem—a study of sound and image, a resonance with the exquisite beauty of impermanence. Which is to say, nothing was lost. And so much was gained.

Parenting and poetry are both love practices. They ask of me similar things: to be patient, to show up at the most inconvenient, awkward and downright humiliating times, and to be willing to take myself apart and reassemble myself at a moment’s notice in pursuit of what is true and just and loving and beautiful. I have been seasoned and humbled by marriage, C-section, miscarriage, divorce, single parenting, co-parenting, and finding my way toward a collaborative little blended family. Through all of these incarnations, my identity as a writer stretched, severed, scarred, and grew stronger at its new, more inclusive seams.

I believe that when we love what we are doing and we love the lives we have chosen, there is room enough for everything we want, throughout many fluctuating seasons. What we may compromise in time at the page we gain in wisdom and authority when we return to the page. If that’s how we choose to hold it. And I believe we can all choose to hold it that way.

Lastly: we’re both from South Jersey. Is there anything about our childhood home, the place, that sticks with you in your writing life, now that you’re living in Portland, Oregon, for nearly 14 years? 

Yes! You stick with me. Seriously. Even though we met for the first time in graduate school in New York City a decade post-South-Jersey, the fact that I had a friend with similar roots whose trajectory through the territory of poem paralleled mine was a huge gift—and a kind of welcome I’d never felt before.

South Jersey was a terribly lonely place for me. I didn’t understand who I was, what I needed, or how to get it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t know how people survived the anguish of being people. So I wrote poems secretly—and kept writing them—through which I revealed myself incrementally to myself over the course of a lifetime.

My desire to see clearly, to make sense of feeling and experience and context, and to keep evolving as a person and a student, were nurtured by the generosity and support of my parents, the epic discomforts of adolescence, and my English teacher, Mr. Carr, who dared me to be better than I believed I could be.

I learned when I was pregnant that when butterflies are assisted out of their cocoon, they die. Fighting their way out is what activates their wings and gives them what they need to survive. South Jersey was my cocoon. Fighting my way out of the binding old ideas of self, I came to inherit and inhabit my wings.

I am incredibly grateful for all that shaped me, held me back, and ultimately set me free.

—interview by Daniel Nester

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This entry was posted in Interviews on September 21, 2016

“Apotheosis” by Ainsley Pinkowitz

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

We were born of carbon. The human body is made of it, with carbon surpassed only by oxygen in abundance. We are twenty-two point nine percent carbon.

In all its abundance, carbon is beautifully recycled by the planet, endlessly refreshing its supply. Carbon lives in our bodies for a hundred years at best, but has existed and will exist far longer. We breathe in oxygen and with each breath, give our carbon back into the cycle. The plants take it into their leaves, and we in turn devour the leaves. Of the seven million billion billion carbon atoms in the human body, only four percent were born into us at infancy. As for the rest, ingestion and inhalation assimilate carbon into a full-grown body, borrowing the particles that have been a piece of a billion men before. Then at last, Death and Decay gift us to the earth in whole.

Chemistry chews on our bodies long after the fungi have had their fill. We are rich catalysts, sacks of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Swallowed by the pressure of the earth and pounded to fluids, we are born again as oil after ten million years of purgatory.

When we see the sun again we see it up close. We feel the sun, the intolerable burn of incineration decimating our long chains into tiny gaseous particles escaping the blaze. Perhaps we have been the birth of an ingot of steel, perhaps we have delivered a father home safely to the embrace of his cherry-cheeked daughter. Unleashed by combustion we ascend as carbon dioxide, with front row for the spectacle of daybreak as we settle into our layer of the atmosphere.

Some of us escape our terrestrial confines enraged. We bundle up in deep-earth cracks, our long rest cut short with the greatest insult. We have not become lengthy molecules, carbon-rich gasoline or thick hunks of anthracite coal. Barely decomposed, we are too eager to escape the nighttime of our planet’s core, and bubble still gaseous from vents inside this celestial rock. We build up and pound at the surface for freedom, riled like a lynch mob to demand some unearned justice. Freedom from the ground before any use can come from us, and when we can ascend to the sky given one straight path from here to there we feel we have that right. Our impatience explodes, pressure rocketing out of a still mountain lake and overturning the water, only to find in all that miserable rain a pathetic fallacy, that our dense bodies can fly no further, that all we can do is drive the oxygen away, that all those living in this crater lake were born to be suffocated by our hubris and take our place. The cycle churns, the bodies rot, and we wait in line by vine and sprout in infinite monotony—unless a more glorious opportunity thrusts us from our march.

We circle this planet, and we leave this planet. We are carbon, and our compatriots are elsewhere: in the dusty surface of Mars, scattered in the asteroids that whirr through space, speckling the comets that streak the night sky back home. We are in astronomical nurseries being birthed by massive nuclear furnaces. We are swallowed by stars and disintegrated beyond our atom body only to emerge as a part of one hundred larger bits. By proton we build new elements, new molecules, new meteors, new planets. We do as we did honorably on earth and give ourselves to new life as breath and body.

We are born of carbon; we were born as carbon, with the carbon. Like an infant grown old who can’t remember the start to their life, our unconscious life extends beyond what our parents measured with new steps, words, and smiles. We existed before conception, before our species’ conception, before rock cooled for the first time and the bacterium reigned as sole possessor of life. We existed, and we will exist as long as our elements exist, waiting for the right occasion to form consciousness again.

pinkowitz_ainsleythumbnailAinsley Pinkowitz is a poet and a scientist. She is currently a graduate student of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. She’s a four-time winner of RPI’s McKinney Prize for poetry, and a regular at open mics and poetry slams around New York’s Capital District.

 

 

 

 

 

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This entry was posted in Poetry on September 7, 2016