“To blossom or diverge or dissipate or redirect”: An Interview with Brian Clements

ClementsBrianphotoTo some, prose poetry may seem foreign and hard to pin down. The form walks the murky waters between reading surrealist poetry. To make matters more confusing, there is no consensus on exactly what defines the form. But Brian Clements’ new collection helps to clarify matters. A Book of Common Rituals relates readers to day-to-day activities they are sure to understand: working, eating, and sleeping among those. I still find myself flipping through its pages, hoping to absorb some of its magic.

Brian Clements seems to be something of an enigma, albeit a prolific one. He’s published nine poetry collections, founded Firewheel Editions press and the prose poetry journal Sentence, and coordinates the low-residency MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. Clements’ poems seem to document our everyday routine in the morning, afternoon, and evening. I corresponded with Clements through email, what he calls a “digital space.” In an essay written for American Poetry Review, he explains that “there is no studio” with the invention of the Internet, and how his writing—including the answering of these questions—can be done from various locations. From these different locales, we discussed prose poetry, appropriation, and how to join the literary community.

I’ve often felt like an outsider to prose poetry, maybe because of how differently it can appear on the page from writer to writer. To me, ‘prose’ makes me think of long chunky pieces of text, and I have a hard time translating that into a poetic idea.

I do not think of prose poetry as a “form.” There are no “rules” for the prose poem as there are for sonnets, villanelles, etc. I think of prose poetry as simply a subgenre of poetry, just as free verse and verse are subgenres of poetry. As Michael Benedikt put it, the prose poem can use every device available to free verse except the line break. That’s really the only thing absent in prose poetry that you’ll find in free verse. Where free verse uses the tension between line and sentence, the prose poem must rely upon the sentence itself as the unit of progression and find other sources of tension.

I always find it fascinating that despite the fact that “prose poetry” and “free verse” have been around for pretty much exactly the same amount of time (more than 150 years), most people are shocked to find out that there is such a thing as “prose poetry.” “How is that possible?” they demand—“Poetry cannot be prose!” Yet they are perfectly willing to accept that “verse” can be “free.” Why? I am convinced it is because much early free verse was adaptable to ways of teaching poetry as literature using New Critical methodologies, while prose poetry, on the surface, seemed not to be adaptable in that way. Prose poetry, for a long time, also was the province of rebellious troublemakers like Rimbaud and the Surrealists and Gertrude Stein, whereas free verse pretty quickly made it into the mainstream on the heels of Eliot, Williams, Marianne Moore, and Stevens.

In colloquial usage, “verse” has come to be synonymous with “poetry.” Technically, of course, verse refers to language that features regularly measurable patterns, whether of syllables, of beats, or both. But, also colloquially, when folks refer to something—say an athletic move or the design of an automobile—as “poetic,” they mean nothing having to do with regularity or measurability; they usually mean something like “graceful” or “beautiful.” Not all poems, of course, are graceful, beautiful, or in verse.

So, then, there are no real measures for what makes a poem a poem?

This talk all begs the question that there is something common to all poetry, that there is a definition of poetry that satisfies all examples. I tend to think that there probably is no such definition and that “poetry” is a culturally contextual discourse. There are indicators in prose poems that invite readers to think of the texts as poems—foregrounding of sound and music of the language, parataxis and associative logic, figuration, strategies of closure, for some non-ubiquitous examples—as well as the contexts in which prose poems are experienced—literary journals, poetry readings, volumes of poems, poetry classes, anthologies, etc.—that offer the claim “this thing is a poem.” Readers are welcome to accept or reject that invitation or claim as they see fit, but to argue that these things cannot possibly be poems is to deny that genre is fluid and changing. One might as well argue that lyric poetry is only that which is performed to the accompaniment of a lyre.

So my advice, then, is to think liberally about genre, not to worry so much about whether a text is or isn’t a poem, and write in the way that seems best for the goals you want to accomplish with the effect you want to create. Of course, one can’t possibly know what effects are available without experimentation.

In A Book of Common Rituals, you write commands, such as the “Ritual for Beginning” which tells the reader to “Pull the drapes or close the blinds. Shut off the light.” I can see myself following the rituals for drinking coffee or doing my office work. Are the rituals in the book meant to apply to the reader? Do your rituals apply to one specific type of person?

My hope is that while reading or listening to the poems, the reader/listener will imagine herself performing the ritual, or, at least, will imagine someone else performing the ritual.

The rituals are divided on the page: on the left, the poem, and on the right, either text or an image that, in some way, corresponds. Sometimes these are abstract, “Tree Ritual I,I” for example, faces a Johnny Appleseed-themed crossword puzzle. Are these pairings meant to tell two different kinds of daily rituals?

I wanted to play with the possibility in the book that the effects of poems don’t have to end at the last line. This phenomenon actually can be seen in many books in the use of repeated lines or refrains in multiple poems or other kinds of reflections or conversation among the poems. I like some poems that have neat closure, but I think I am more interested in poems that open up or blossom or diverge or dissipate or redirect. So I saw the accompanying texts and images as ways to do those things, with the hope that the texts and images would help to make the poems something a little more, with tendrils that move out beyond the imaginative world of the poems in into the political, physical, religious, commercial world outside the text. So the accompanying texts and images can be both amplifications of and commentary on the poems.

In an interview with Cheryl Pallant, you described yourself as “all for interesting ways ofClementsBook_pic using appropriation; all of our language … is borrowed from elsewhere.” Is this where the idea of borrowing recipes or news clips on business transactions came from for A Book of Common Rituals? Do you begin with appropriation and then write about it, or are you more interested in writing something and then pairing it with another piece for contrast?

Our identities are composed of collections of experience (“I contain multitudes.”). We are constantly collecting memories, words, phrases, sensations, embarrassments, failures, images, desires, calculations, and so on. We don’t “create” any of this material—our brains collect, synthesize, re-arrange. I think the same way about writing—all writers are collectors and re-arrangers. I wanted to play with those facts in this collection and wanted to feel free to wander beyond the borders of what would be considered “poetry” or even “prose poetry,” so that the poems were just among the many things being collected and presented. In some cases, the ritual poems came first and I selected accompanying material later, and in other cases the material inspired the poems.

In the 2009 anthology An Introduction to the Prose Poem, you wrote “prose poets tend to look for wide varieties of cultural discourse as models for their poems.” I can see all of the different cultural influences in A Book of Common Rituals through the very distinct cultural activities that become rituals, from the ways we eat to the ways we dance. Can you discuss this discourse and its importance a little further?

The poet and critic Jonathan Holden wrote a book, back in the 80s, I think, that had an argument I didn’t buy entirely, but I liked part of it. If I remember it correctly, he argued that postmodernity in American poetry was founded on the borrowing of cultural forms—the confession, the grocery list, the editorial, the letter, the newspaper article, the joke, etc. I’m not sure I buy that it’s a hallmark of postmodernism or even that what Holden calls postmodernism is what I call postmodernism, but there is no doubt that this borrowing of cultural forms that Holden saw was active in American poetry. I simply used that paradigm as a way of organizing An Introduction to the Prose Poem because it was a useful way to get at a number of tendencies in prose poetry that were illustrative to students interested in exploring prose poetry and trying their own hands at writing prose poems. You mentioned in one of your first questions that you had a hard time working your way into the idea of prose poetry, and I think a lot of students have that problem because it’s a proposition that is simply contrary to their (mis)educations about poetry. So one of the functions of the anthology is to help students overcome that obstacle by providing some easily relatable types of prose poems—many of which happen to be borrowed cultural forms: the anecdote, aphorism, fable, rant, essay, letters, postcards, and scripts, for example.

So does this idea come through in A Book of Common Rituals?

I’m playing on the idea of ritual in general as the cultural form borrowed, and religious ritual in particular. All religions have rituals, and the purpose of ritual is to mark or create some kind of transformation—from childhood to adulthood, from individual to part of a married couple, from unordained to ordained, etc. I wanted to explore the ways that poems can be personally transformative, so I both take that as the subject of many of the poems and try to find ways in the poems to enact small moments of transformation.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem has been described by N2 Poetry as helping to demystify the genre by explaining “what makes a prose poem a poem rather than simply short prose.” This is a common misconception, at the very least for me. What compels you to celebrate prose poetry as opposed to other forms?

Well, as I mentioned before, there was a time when I was writing prose poems, as a kind of obsession, I suppose. Around that time, an important journal called The Prose Poem: an International Journal (which was run by Peter Johnson and named after the very influential and important anthology edited by Michael Benedikt, The Prose Poem: an International Anthology) ceased publication. It was an opportune time to start a new journal on the heels of The Prose Poem, so that’s when I launched Sentence. After several years of editing Sentence, writing about prose poems, and teaching the prose poem in writing courses, it occurred to me that there wasn’t an anthology on the market that was designed as a classroom tool for students interested in the prose poem; so that’s how An Introduction to the Prose Poem was conceived. It’s intended to be a model of possibilities in the subgenre, as opposed to a canon-making project.

Many prose poems that I have read are inspired by the surreal. One of the most well-known that comes to mind is Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” which is less about supermarkets and more about an imagined conversation with Walt Whitman. Does the surreal come easily to prose poetry because the form lends itself to it, or is it completely up to the writer? How do you balance the surreal and the everyday in your poetry?

The surreal/Surrealist tendency in prose poetry probably is a matter of tradition. Poets such as Max Jacob, Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, and Antonin Artaud were adapters of the prose poem to the absurdist tradition, following in the path of Rimbaud. Ginsberg’s poem brings a little bit of Surrealist silliness to his celebratory, Whitmanic voice. It’s a fun poem, as are many surrealist poems and many prose poems. Fun seems to be an important part of the prose poetry tradition, though certainly not all prose poems grow on the “fun” branch.

I don’t think the prose poem is any more open to the surreal or absurdism than any other form of writing, though. One thing the prose poem can do is put all of the language in the poem on an even level so that there are no hierarchies of attention (line breaks, spacing, beginnings of lines), and the poet can slip in little surprises unexpectedly.

As a current MFA student, I still feel as though I must break into the literary community, and with differing opinions on the usefulness of MFAs, this can sometimes seem like a hindrance. How does an MFA student connect with the writing community as a whole?

One of the things that I discovered in Dallas, where I helped to found a nonprofit literary center called The Writer’s Garret, as editor and publisher of Sentence and Firewheel Editions, and as Coordinator of the MFA program here at Western Connecticut State, is that it is probably more efficient to build a community among writers and readers than it is to try to break into a pre-existing community. Of course, the publishing world is a pre-existing community, and that’s the community that many of us want to enter most.

However, building other, smaller communities—starting literary journals, starting a small press, starting a reading series out in the community, starting a writer’s group, offering literary programming to the public, submitting work to literary journals and presses, attending conferences and book festivals, reading widely among multiple literary journals so that you know what is being done now—is a good way to become what it is in vogue now to call a “literary citizen.” Rarely does anyone everyone make it into the “published” club without first building that citizenship.

—interview by Alyssa Cohorn

This entry was posted in Interviews on May 5, 2016

“What I am is a militant translator”: An Interview Mitchell Abidor


Emmanuel Bove’s harrowing 1932 novella, A Raskolnikoff, was released to the American public late this year. With Mitchell Abidor’s stunning translation—for which he has won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant— comes a new hope for one of literature’s forgotten sons.

Abidor is the right translator for the job. A contributing writer at Jewish Currents and a translator of French, Portuguese, and Italian for the Marxist Internet Archive, Abidor has translated hundreds of texts and published numerous collections from a myriad of radical political writers, from 17th Century France to Revolutionary Russia. Abidor’s most recent translation, however, is a departure from the radical political essays. Emmanuel Bove (1898-1945) was a prolific French writer who published over thirty books in his lifetime and garnered praise from Albert Camus, John Ashbery, and Samuel Beckett. Abidor’s translation of A Raskolnikoff, which Bove wrote in 1932 as “a continuation” of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is a logical extension of his other works in translation as well as an optimistic new phase for the literary legacy of Emmanuel Bove. I reached out to Abidor by phone to hear his take on Bove’s legacy, the state of revolutionary writers and their works, and the art of translation. He spoke to me just days after returning from Vienna, from the dining room table of his home in Brooklyn, surrounded by books—Cortazar, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Bove, Borges, Beckett, Philip Roth, Jean-Patrick Manchette—and “watched by framed portraits of Kafka, Robert Bresson, Ataturk, Eva Peron, Joseph Roth, Jean Jaures, and my favorite baseball player when I was ten years old, Roman Mejias of the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros) as well as a 1962 team picture of the Colts and a still from the greatest film ever made, La Jetee.”  

BoveBookCoverWhen and how did you discover Emmanuel Bove?

That is a really good story! I’m sure you’ve never heard of Emmanuel Bove before right? He really is quite a writer. Thirty-some years ago, I went to see a film by the great German director, Wim Wenders called Reverse Angle. It is a series of films, like film essays. In one of them, he’s reading Mes Amis (My Friends, 1924), which is really Bove’s best novel. And he talks about how Peter Handke, the great Austrian writer who’s his friend, told him about Bove. And just the way he described Bove in the film, I said “You know what? The next time I’m in France, I need to pick up something by Bove.” And that was what happened. I picked up Mes Amis, and it was one of the greatest books I ever read. I couldn’t believe how brilliant it was. And it was also fascinating because Bove had been completely forgotten for decades.

Because he had been forgotten, was it difficult to find his work?

No. Because what had happened was, in the late ’70s, there was a guy named Raymond Cousse who rediscovered Bove’s books and they were starting to be republished. It was only in the late ’70s/early ’80s that Bove made a comeback. And so every time I went to France, a couple more books had come out over the course of that year, and I just bought everything that I could. So that was how I discovered Bove. And nothing was available in English for a few years so I would always tell people “when these books come out, you’ve got to get them.”  Now most of his books are available in English, or a lot of them, anyway.

Brian Evenson writes in his introduction that the works of Bove have undergone a sort of Melvillian revival in France. What do you imagine the reasons are behind this revival? Have Bove’s novels somehow become more relevant in the eyes of readers? 

Once you get people to push a writer to bring him back, it really helps. Raymond Cousse worked hard and convinced publishers to bring his stuff back. But what’s also been a huge help for Bove is the fact that Peter Handke, the Austrian writer who translated Bove into German, is one of the most respected writers in the whole world. So when you have somebody like Handke on your side, it’s a big help. And then once he comes back, once people start reading him, his best novel comes back first.

Which was My Friends?

My Friends, right. And once that happens, then this one comes out and then that one. And so you build up a head of steam. So that’s why now, at this point, books can come out of stuff that has never been published because he has an established audience.

This particular novella that you’ve translated, A Raskolnikoff, was written by Bove as a sort of sequel to—or, as Bove says, “a continuation” of—Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment. How exactly does Bove’s novella function as a continuation of Crime and Punishment, given their difference in time and place?

One of the reasons I love A Raskolnikoff is because I thought it could be the title to for almost every one of Bove’s novels. Because so many of his novels are about young people just kind of lost, living in shabby apartments. All of his main characters, in all of his books that matter, are all Raskolnikoff.

The sensibility of Crime and Punishment can be transported anywhere. Raskolnikoff could be American, could be French, could be anybody. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He considers himself better than what he’s doing. He’s unhappy. At some point in our lives, we’re all Raskolnikoff’s. I know I was.

You won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant for your translation of A Raskolnikoff. How important are grants for translators and are there many of them available?

Donald Breckenridge, the managing editor of Red Dust, knows people at the French Cultural Service in New York and thought to apply for the grant, which exclusively covers the translator’s fees. This works both for the publisher and the translator, since the grant, $2000, is a good one if you’re doing a book for a small house, which normally can only afford a fraction of that. There are a number of grants out there, but the competition is fierce, and granting agencies are hard to figure. For example, it’s all but impossible to get grants for translations of the great Victor Serge, because he was of Russian heritage and was born and grew up in Brussels. So though he lived for a time in Paris and wrote some of the most important French novels of the middle of the 20th century, he wasn’t French, so they won’t help.

In your biography page of the Marxist Internet Archive, you say: “My MIA work revolves primarily around translations from the French, Portuguese and Italian, in all of which I’m self-taught.” Where and when did you inherit your interest in translation, and in all these languages?

I specifically taught myself all of these languages. I’m not bragging, but I’m just really good at languages. I think back to some of the things that I said in French early on when I first taught myself French and I was living in Paris—I couldn’t speak a word of the language, not one word. But somehow, instinctively, I knew what to say. I knew how to construct the sentences, I even knew how to work out idiomatic expressions. And so if you’re good at languages, you’re good at languages. I can see English through these other languages somehow.

French is also one of the languages you taught yourself?

I learned French at the movies. It’s a story I tell everyone, and it’s absolutely true. I learned it going to the movies. I was a film major in college. So I used to see four films a day. And I loved French cinema.

When you go about translating something, do you just sit down with the book and go though it line-by-line? How does that work?

That’s the way to do it. I never studied translation. I just picked it up as I went along. So I do a first draft where I just get all the words on the page. And I don’t worry about style. I just make sure I have everything there. I have a framework. And then I do a second draft where I make sure that I have all the words. And I compare it to the text again, and fix it up so it reads a little bit better. And then I do a third and a fourth draft where I ignore the original because I know I have everything in the original. I just make sure it reads like good English.

In fact, the book that I’m working on now is a collaborative effort. I’m working on it with a young guy in London, and it’s clearly his first time translating. And he’s making all the same mistakes that I made when I first started translating, which is sticking too closely to the original. French—the sentence structure is completely different, and their vocabulary, they have fewer words than we do. So if you stick too closely to the French, it doesn’t read very well in English. I always thought that Bove would be really easy to translate. And it was easier than most, but it was still a challenge because you have to express the style. Just the mere fact that it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s got no style.

Most of the translations you do are not necessarily novels. Did your method change with A Raskolnikoff? Did you feel you had more room to be creative?

I’ve now translated a bunch of non-fiction—political stuff, histories, the novel, and some poetry. And it may sound kind of trite, but the challenges of all of them are so completely different. For example, when I translate the writings of some anarchist bomb throwers of the late 19th Century, clearly they’re not great stylists. So it’s just a matter of getting the ideas across so they sound well in English. With Bove, the challenge was to not make it sound stilted because his style is so simple and direct. And you also don’t want it to sound impoverished. Because they have fewer words in French than we have in English. And you don’t want to just take the first definition of a word, which is not really what a novelist would be thinking when they write it.

As a translator, your body of work—which includes the collections: Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908–1938 (PM Press, 2015); and A Socialist History of the French Revolution (Pluto Press, 2015), along with countless others— seems to focus extensively on the works of progressive revolutionaries throughout Europe, from as early as the 17th century. Could you comment on these various writers? Who are they, what sort of things are they writing about, and why is it important that we read and study these writings today?

I have a theory about this. I’m notoriously misanthropic. Despite my being on the left, I really don’t like people, and I really don’t like the human race, which is why Raskolnikoff is perfect for me. So I was sitting with a friend, and he says, “You know, I don’t see you as the kind of guy standing on street corners, handing out leaflets or marching in demonstrations or organizing the working class.” I said, “No, I do the translations that inspire other people to do the work that I’m too lazy to do.” What I am is a militant translator. And I told this story to a friend of mine in London. She so loved it that when I saw her again three days later, she handed me 500 business cards that said “Mitchell Abidor: Militant Translator.” And that’s what I am.

Here’s the reason why it’s important that we read all of these writers: when I was growing up as a Leftist, there were all kinds of people I wanted to read but I couldn’t because I couldn’t read any of these other languages. So once I got the ability—I taught myself all these languages—I wanted to first read them myself. And then I figured, if I had always wanted to read writings by these people, there must be other people who wanted to read them and can’t either. And that’s why I do the translations. It’s my way of giving voice to these people who have no voice in English. They’re the ventriloquists and I’m the dummy.

It’s all part of a revolutionary tradition. People know the names of these writers, but they don’t know really anything about them. I’m not a big fan of interpretation. So what I try to do in all of my books is present the raw document. Let the readers make their own decisions. That’s why most all of my books are anthologies. So rather than be a slave of somebody else’s interpretation, I’ll just give you what they said and you decide. Then, if you read the interpretations, you can see if they’re right or not.

Is your translation of A Raskolnikoff meant to supplement these more explicitly political writings or is it meant to be separate from or peripheral to your other work?

That’s a great question. And here’s what it is: it resonates with the other side of me. Somewhere within me is that same miserable wretch that I was at twenty. I’ve never shaken him. And actually all of my favorite writers all speak to that really cynical misanthropic me that’s still within me. That’s what A Raskolnikoff is: it’s me expressing that other side of me that doesn’t believe that politics make any difference, that thinks that people stink. So actually there’s no connection between the two except that the one is the mirror image of the other.

interview by Josh Bovee

This entry was posted in Interviews on April 27, 2016

“Titanic Built for Two” by Sarah Sorenson

I am building an imaginary Titanic and yes, I am using zero research. I am imagining everything. This is how I self-help myself. You already know me. And this project is my recovery from you. Oh, my love. This is for you. I’m serious, zero research. You are the methodical one. I am the spontaneous flutter of just being present. Besides, the truth isn’t the point. I know, you just shuddered at that. But, this is about feelings. Yes, I saw you frown just now with discomfort. I can promise you one thing only from here on out: this will be uncomfortable. I would hold your hand, but I am learning boundaries.

Remember how in the movie Leo and Kate were super in love and he held her up by the front of the boat in the pointy corner and she spread out her arms and looked like an angel hood ornament? Yup. And then the whole thing just sank and failed and all of their love was irrelevant? I feel like all love is a ship, a big dazzling miracle—buoyant and filled with life, floating under the sunshine—and it’s supposed to carry you to the other side. It’s supposed to ride you out gloriously until death. But sometimes you hit some glacial ice or some other terrible thing happens like pirates or cannonballs. Then, there you are and the fucker is going down and you can only bail out so much water with your stupid little tin bucket. You are stuck flailing and worrying, but you know the ship is a goner and you just hope like hell that you both manage spots in those rescue boats that will drag you across the ocean in opposite directions and to separate continents where you will live in miserable, unhappy safety until you acclimate and live in complacent, deadening routine.

I love you. Keep reading.

The crew band has to keep playing music while they drown. Or was that the Edmund Fitzgerald? Maybe that is just every shipwreck. If I was the band, I would have said, “Fuck you. I am devoting this time to shitting my pants and crying.” Who would the crew band be in this metaphor? Maybe just all of the songs that we both loved that are now ruined forever? And they play on a loop so that they torment us while we are forced to recognize the futility of our situation? Ah, okay. So then, the band is not playing to comfort us, the band is playing to add chaos and pain. Those bow-tied bastards. Probably some jerk with a tuba just going blug-blug, blug-blug while a half-drunk saxophonist makes some long-winded soft, jazz solo. Wait, I think I just said these were songs that we liked and no one would like that. Moving on.

I’m building the ship figures—that’s you and me. I’m using some sort of child’s crafting putty that I found in the dollar section of the craft store. Yours has lots of long, pretty hair that keeps breaking off and I keep gluing it back on with Elmer’s. I have to admit, she doesn’t really look much like you. To be fair, my lady figure didn’t turn out any better and it is bizarrely large shouldered and hot neon pink. I tried to make them clasp hands and they won’t do that either. In short, if anyone were to find these, they would look as generic and childish as if any elementary school student fashioned them. You and me, the orange and pink putty ladies. I gave yours small feet, but those fell off too.

Our Titanic is made of card stock paper. I am still drawing on porthole windows with sad, screaming faces of agony behind them. In the bottom are scraps of paper reading all of the things I wish I could say to you but just really can’t and shouldn’t and won’t because I am determined to leave your life so that we don’t hurt each other anymore.

Are you really there? Are you really reading this because these are the things that I wrote and you just shouldn’t even know, except that I still want you to know. I wrote:

You brought me to all of my extremes

Your voice and its criticisms haunts me

I still believe that you are the most beautiful woman who has ever lived

I love you forever

When you held me I felt loved

I wanted to be with you for all time and eternity too if that’s real

You have been my world

I know we both did our best and we failed

Why didn’t you choose kindness?

I am dropping our figures into the boat, these distorted little weirdoes that don’t look like us are riding a paper ship bound for a river that will drown all my efforts.

I am putting it all together in my imaginary Titanic. My heart is pounding now because this is going into a real river where real people might see it and where, if I am as unlucky as I feel, even you might see it. And I’m going to set it down in all of its metaphorical glory and let it go the way that I am supposed let go of you. I’m going to place it out there in its meticulous efforts, let it fail, and walk away.

I can’t keep it because it’s a journey, not a possession. I can’t keep it because it’s already gone.

Remember Leo painting Kate topless and it was supposed to be all sexy and stuff? Remember how it was a big whoopty deal? Well, it wasn’t. Because there was more sex in just the way you could look at me, more fire in the heat of your whisper in my ear. I’m just saying. But I guess that’s done happening now so I should probably stop mentioning it, especially to people other than you. Sometimes I have mentioned it. I’m just saying.

But fuck it, because here we go to the river with some fake clay figures in a little paper boat. Here we go with a few shreds of paper and a few busted words to tell the universe about the volumes and volumes of words that I flounder through and rearrange all in an effort to say that I love you more completely than anything singly or cumulatively in the entirety of time or space and yet you and I will not work because we somehow can’t. The shockingly bright fucking fireworks of all of my deepest happiness and the razor that same light of my previous happiness now fires into brain is the source of some medical research worthy migraines.

Here is your lady figure in orange. Here is my lady figure in pink. They will not hold hands. Here is a boat made of paper and filled with shreds I’ve coated in words. It’s a real imaginary Titanic replica diorama thingy and I did zero research because I already know what terror and pain and joy feel like and because this is my self-help help-myself project and I can’t do it wrong. I can only do it.

So I place our little love boat in the water and it is gliding so sweetly. And I am turning fast and walking because I know the ending. I know, I know, I know. I know the ending and it doesn’t get easier by watching. It is not my possession, but it was our miracle. And miracles fail too.

SorensenS_photoSarah Sorensen has most recently been published in Whiskey Island, In Stereo, Dirty Chai, Cactus Heart, Embodied Effigies, Your Impossible Voice, Gone Lawn, and Monkeybicycle. She holds an M.A. in English from Central Michigan University.

This entry was posted in Fiction on April 20, 2016

“I don’t believe in rules or steps”: An Interview with Lavinia Greenlaw


Lavinia Greenlaw is a celebrated and highly accomplished author, winner of numerous awards in poetry, most recently the Whitbread Poetry Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize, her books include the poetry collection Minsk, The Casual Perfect, and the memoir The Importance of Music to Girls. Her newest, A Double Sorrow, revisits Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and offers a unique extrapolation of those tragic lovers’ actions. Set against the backdrop of the siege of Troy, Troilus is punished by the God of Love and is condemned to suffer an irresolute love for Criseyde, whom resides with the Greeks. When their plans to elope run afoul, Troilus realizes his love for Criseyde is doomed and is later killed in battle.

The poem is as complex as it is beautifully written, all the while using a corrupted form of Chaucer’s seven-line stanza. While remaining loyal to Chaucer’s tale, Greenlaw liberates the original form by providing the inner thoughts and perspectives of four characters: Troilus, Criseyde, Pandarus, and an unnamed narrator. Greenlaw is not restricted by Chaucer’s rime royal stanza form; rather, she moves beyond it to offer her reader a truth that remains unobstructed by the confines of Chaucer’s form. The result is a powerful, new perspective of the tale, one that augments the original in a way that lends itself to understanding the psychological motivations of not merely these two lovers, but of any two lovers.

I spoke with Greenlaw about A Double Sorrow. What follows comes from our email interview as we both sat and wrote the ‘dark-grey walls’ of our writing spaces.

You’ve published five collections of poetry as well as several other works ranging from short stories to novels. Is there a genre you prefer to write in?

I am primarily a poet. It’s where I started and where I end up. The other things come out of writing stuff that doesn’t fit the poetry mould, perhaps. What I mean is I didn’t decide to write a novel. I started writing something that was clearly not a poem and turned out to be fiction. I’m increasingly writing across or between forms and genres, trying to listen to the formal clues given in whatever first arises.

You have an MA in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Art. What pushed you towards writing? 

I have written since I could write—poems, stories, plays. Studying art history was a way of extending my thinking about perception, which is my fundamental preoccupation: the imperative to fix images, to map and measure ourselves and the world. Seventeenth-century northern Europe fascinates me. It was the start of empiricism, the artistic study of the natural world, the use of telescopes and microscopes.

GreenlawLaviniaBookA Double Sorrow is certainly concerned with exploring multiple perspectives. Did your academic study affect the writing of your collection?

My studies have helped me to formulate what it is I write about and to extend my thinking into the historical. A Dutch painter could climb no higher than a church tower but they produced  amazing panoramas from a bird’s-eye point of view as well as intricate studies of insects. There was an unanchoring of vision, a freshening of perception, that really speaks to me as a subject.

What does the corrupted form you chose to write in add to the piece? Why stray away from Chaucer’s form? How did this influence your writing and extrapolation of the original text?

If I had rhymed the stanzas as neatly as Chaucer, they would sound rather bland and unwieldy to the contemporary ear. I needed to bring in some tension and to have them resist expectation so they would have some of Chaucer’s rough edges and friction and the feel of wet paint rather than carved stone. The form and tone I found for A Double Sorrow is heightened, essential and timeless—like dance steps rather than a dance. This seemed apt to me in terms of this being everyone’s story.

Some titles of A Double Sorrow seem to inform the reader of an action occurring in the stanza such as “She Lets Him Sink Softly into Her Heart,” while other titles seem to fit into the poetry as a separate line, like “There is Work to be Done.” Was there some overall design to having the titles perform different jobs?

I just wanted the titles to be active rather than passively descriptive or summative. Their function depended on what I thought the stanza needed. Some required a cue, others a frame, others a sub-title or the casting of a particular light.

Is the poem intended to be read like a story? It is rather fluid, but appears as if it could also be read non-linearly as separate vignettes.

I was hoping it would work as both.

Sometimes in A Double Sorrow you present the reader with an inner thought in the form of parenthetical text, such as (why no child?) in “Slub.” Are those examples of some of the “walls” in your text that the characters are confined by?

That’s an interesting observation. Yes, one kind of wall in this is the wall we build in ourselves—for those questions and answers we need to conceal.

What is it about the enduring appeal of Troilus and Criseyde?

The way it has been tossed from one poet to another down the centuries, always changing and yet also becoming something essential; what it has to say about feeling—that we never feel one thing at a time, and argument—that we have several reasons for doing or saying what we do.

While it appears as though a knowledge of Chaucer’s text would be helpful for a reader, it does not appear to be entirely necessary. Is this an attempt to bring Chaucer to a wider audience?

I just wanted to write a book that anyone could read without needing to have read Chaucer. I kept my lanugage clean and provided the titles and an introduction to give a way in. I would like it to be read as casually and familiarly as any other love story.

Like a novel, the collection seems to gain a large amount of momentum during the climax of the story—does this reflect Chaucer’s retelling/translation, or is it something you did intentionally?

I follow Chaucer, in that everything I say you can find in the original. But I edited him down severely and conflate a hundred lines into seven or three words into several lines. The rhythm and dramatic trajectory are a truncated version of his.

What projects are you currently working on?

Fiction about love in middle age, poems about my father’s death from Alzheimer’s, writing on the problem of seeing and not seeing further. They are deeply interconnected books but I wish they’d arisen one at a time.

Was this collection a singular, focused effort or were you working on other pieces of writing in between?

No, I happily stayed in its world for a few years. It’s a particular delight to enter such a masterpiece rather than just a world you’re building from scratch.

Your website, laviniagreenlaw.org, gave me a very professional biography, but I’d like to know more about you as a person: What inspires you? What’s a typical day of writing entail? Do you have any other interests besides writing? Pets? Family?

I’m inspired by myopia, migraine, weather, absentmindedness, light, sea, sky, photography, architecture, film, music, any thing about to take shape, including an observation, any pattern about to form. A typical day involves waking up, making a pot of tea, and not talking to anyone. There is family and pets—both necessary forms of interruption.

What’s your writing space look like?

A dark-grey wall.

What types of classes do you teach?

At the moment, I’m a visiting professor at King’s College London. I’m teaching seminars in how fiction works. I don’t believe in rules or steps, just natural laws which operate differently every time.

—interview by Rob Stoddard

This entry was posted in Interviews on April 13, 2016

“The Person Seated Across the Aisle” by Kelsey May

I just wanted a migraine pill and a cup of cocoa.
Instead, I overheard someone talking about the liquor store about ten blocks from my house.
“Don’t even bother,” he said.
“It’s so overpriced.”
Inside, I nodded, never having been in the store,
just aware of how things in our neighborhood were often overpriced,
how the closest superstore was a good five miles away, a two hour round trip by bus,
how I probably should have made the trip three days previous since grilled cheese was
getting fairly tiring …
The kid’s tone changed:
“Plus, the cashier was missing like eight teeth.”
The curly-haired girl seated next to him giggled.
The bus turned a corner.
I leaned forward in my worn seat.
“I’m not supporting crack addicts with my money!”
A grimace tightened its grip on my features,
but my mouth stayed shut, like a bus door. Like a brand new bottle of gin.

May Kelsey Photo

Kelsey May is a poet from Michigan and Washington, D.C. She enjoys wearing overalls and ice skating. Her work has also appeared in The Maine Review, Voices, and Mouse Tales Press and is forthcoming in Be About It. She is also a member of the poetry collective the Diatribe, and works with students and adults using poetry as a means for healing, understanding, and sharing personal stories.

This entry was posted in Poetry on April 6, 2016