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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Blog Tour Bonanza Begins! Up today: Michele Battiste

Michele Battiste, author of the recently released Ink for an Odd Cartography, (when I first saw it, I had immediate cover envy, but let's not go around judging books by their covers . . .) hails from a place where "To hope for a piece of sausage on Sunday was hubristic."  Maybe that explains why one of her poems starts off  "I don't believe much in luck unless it's bad and self-generated." And yet, there is enough hope between these two covers to cram a cellar with all order of mortadella and wienerschitzel. 

Jim Daniels states "These poems are driven by some super high-octane duende. They spin and spill all over the place with a controlled recklessness and a sustained energy. She's ready to take flight at the smallest provocation, wings oiled up, in tune with the mad universe," and I couldn't agree more. Albert Goldbarth praises her "rollercoastering sensibility," calling her a "brazen-21st-century-chick." Now, that's my kind of gal.

In truth, however, when I asked Michele what her favorite amusement park ride was, she replied  "Then (and now), I loved (love) the swings.  I think it's the closest thing we can come to flying.  It's such a peaceful, windy ride." After reading her poem "Like a Sine Curve," where the speaker confesses "I am not whale skin / I am the water that moves with the muscle," I'm not a bit surprised she would prefer the swings to the bumper cars,the ferris wheel, or even the rollercoaster.

Speaking of amusement parks, cotton candy trumped red licorice every time. "No contest," insists Michele. 

And now, without further adieu, here's what Michele had to say when I interviewed  her about  Ink for an Odd Cartography,  its inception, subject matter, and inspiration . . .

Your new book, Ink for an Odd Cartography, is, among other things, a love story – a celebration of falling and staying in love against all odds, with all of romantic love’s inherent risks. How did you go about assembling the book? Did you have a plan before you began writing, or did it evolve in a more organic way?

The current version of the book evolved over a couple of years.  The original version, which I completed somewhere near the end of 2004, was focused even more on people wrangling with their attraction to one another, the choices they make as they negotiate relationships.  But I never set out to write a collection of poems so steeped in courtship and mating and their consequences.  I actually considered myself more a poet of place and thought that I was, above all else, capturing the influences of landscape and geography.  I often set out to write a poem about a neighborhood, a city, a plot of land, but the personal relationships just crept in.  I guess I have a hard time separating the space a person inhabits from the space between that person and the other.  

The first version of the book was titled A Flawed Topography (Not the best title, I think.  I'm glad it never found its way to print) because I figured my poems examined the relationships between people and their environments.  I chose the poems that went into the collection based on the "place" they represented for me.  As I spent more and more time with the collection, I realized that the book was more about the interactions between people, less about the places where those interactions happen, and I began to pull and replace and shuffle poems to emphasize physicality, which I thought was closer in theme to geography than intention was.

More than anything, it’s the voice of your poems that pulls me in and keeps me reading. It’s seductive, a little breathless, as if your speaker is trying to cram in every image and experience into each excited inhalation. Could you share about your writing and editing process with regard to voice?

I am smitten with narrative.  No matter how unfashionable and unsophisticated it may be considered at times, I remain faithful to narrative.  The poem's story is paramount to me, and character development is a large part of the story in a poem.  I want readers to "get" my speakers, to believe they understand the speakers' motives and struggles, to guess at their histories and influences, to judge them.  Yet there is no room in a poem for an explication of the speaker, so I have to depend on voice to do the work.  For a poem to be successful, I need a clear idea of the speaker.  I need to know her mood, her energy level, the clarity of her thought process, her level of self-involvement, her need to convince, her mental quirks and vulnerabilities and morality and strengths.  And I have to hear her speak.  My background is in performance poetry, and while not all my poems are successful as spoken pieces, and while I now rarely write for performance,  I work very hard to capture the spoken quality of my speakers' voices.

Naughty bridges, raw fish, naked neighbors, “a warning, shoulder, a camisole strap”: these, along with sine curves and elemental physics, inhabit your poems. It’s a risky world your speaker lives in, yet there’s great hope and buoyancy in these poems. Author Rebecca Solnit argues that “to hope is to gamble . . . to hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.” How do hope and risk figure into your creative spirit, and in regards to the crafting of this book?

I was raised to believe that hope itself is a risk.  My mother is old-school Hungarian.  She spent the first eleven years of her life ('45-'56) living in a foreign-occupied country where the use of domestic terrorism, secret police, economic sanctions, threat of expulsion to Siberia and work camps kept the citizens frightened of their neighbors, secretive, and, well, hopeless.  My grandfather wouldn't/couldn't/didn't join the communist party, and so they were very poor.  To hope for a piece of sausage on Sunday was hubristic.  When she came with her parents and sister to this country, the first years were a struggle.  She grew up, and I grew up, believing that life is difficult and full of disappointment, and to expect differently, to hope for better, is to set yourself for a big fall.  That may seem harsh and maybe stultifying, but in fact, I think it has had the opposite affect on me.  I find it freeing creatively.  Rejection and other disappointments rarely affect me negatively, as they are what I expect.  I mean, of course I may have a good cry now and again because of a missed fellowship or residency, but it doesn't change how I perceive my writing, and it doesn't keep me from submitting and applying and working.  

And risk is only scary when you are afraid of loss.  The vast potential for loss is part of every action, so I can't really get my head around the idea of risk.  I think about the risks my grandfather took when he participated in the Hungarian Revolution (he hoped for a better Hungary), the risk he and his family took sneaking across the border to Austria after the uprising failed (they hoped for a better life).  What have I risked in comparison by writing, by creating a writer's life?  My mother would probably say a lot.  My mother would probably say that I've also suffered a lot of loss as a result.  But she also told me that suffering and loss are a part of life, the price I pay for hope.  So I pay it in the same spirit as paying a highway toll.  And I drive on through, and I continue to hope.

Place plays a major role in your book. It definitely adds to the poems to have the Arkansas River, Wichita, and other specific geographical locations described. How do you decide which places need to be in a poem, and what makes you decide to leave out specifics? 

Place is my prompt and my muse.  If place isn't explicitly mentioned in a poem, it is still there as an influence.  I usually only write about places where I've lived, however, and then it takes me a while to just let the place inform the poetry instead of writing a poem about the place.  If a place is too new to me, I spend more time trying to document it than exploring its role and influence in the lives of the people who live there (I initially typed "love there."  Maybe I should have left it).  Some places naturally lend themselves to great poems.  Wichita was one of those places.  So was San Francisco.  The too muchness of New York is very hard for me to get a handle on, and I find the poems riffing on NYC aren't the best.  

Once place has entered a poem (or served as a catalyst for a poem), I try very hard to understand its relationship to whatever issue it is that I'm grappling with, and that guides me in my choices of what details to include.  There's a great literary journal out of the Geography Department at the University of Arizona.  It's called you are here: the journal of creative geography.  At the back of each issue, they list all the places that are mentioned in the pages, and they also give the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates for each place. They really get it.

Girl meets boy is one of the most revisited stories out there, and yet you manage to successfully take on a subject that most writing instructors would discourage against writing about.  How do you write about love without falling into the moon/June syndrome? How do you make it new?

I think it's new because, in my mind, I don't write about love.  I write about attraction, interaction, choice, and commitment (or lack thereof).  I'm fascinated by the physicality of interaction, from body language at first encounters to sex.  I'm not so much interested in the actual people as I am in the space between the two people, where all the interaction takes place, where things can go drastically wrong or just a little bit wrong.  Something always goes a little bit wrong.  And then people choose.  They choose to continue or not.  They choose to love or not.  Maybe this is not a very romantic view of love, but I think it is.  That I choose to love my husband every morning is much more romantic than the idea that I can't help myself.

Missing-the-lover-who’s-away poems are full of potential for lapsing into cliché, and yet your poem sequence on that very subject is delightfully fresh. How did you pull this off? Are there any models out there for poems on the same topic that you referred to as models?  (I’m thinking of Anne Sexton’s  poem sequence on the same subject).

You're right on.  Sexton's Love Poems is a big influence.  "I burn the way money burns."  Wow.  But really, no other conscious models.  Maybe Ovid's Heroides, which I may have been reading when I wrote the sequence.  The impetus for the series was my boyfriend (at the time) leaving for some work in London.  I thought it would be a cool project to document how the space between us changed day to day, so I decided to write a poem every day that he was gone.  That was so boring.  A total failure at first.  Then, when I was thinking about giving up the project, I met the man who became my husband.  So the project became really interesting again.  The space between me and my (at the time) boyfriend became chaotic and fractured. That's not to say that the series is completely autobiographical, but it is based on truth.

Who are you reading these days? What poets did you grow up on? Whose work do you admire most and why?

In high school, the poets I read were varied.  My approach was scattershot.  I remember reading a lot of Langston Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Lyn Lyfshin.  No one I knew read poetry, so my interests were mostly self-guided.  My 10th grade English teacher tried to get me interested in Walt Whitman, but I thought he just went on and on!  As I got older, Gertrude Stein became a big influence (funny for an narrative poet, right?).  I thought she was a magician with language.  Currently, I just finished Leslie McIlroy's Liquid Like This.  She's an incredibly sensual poet, and each of her poems sets me on sensory overload in a just-got-a-therapeutic-massage kind of way.  I also haven't yet put away Peter Markus' Bob, or Man on Boat, which is ostensibly a novel, but I think the work transcends labeling.  I'm waiting to receive Albert Goldbarth's To Be Read in 500 Years.  

I believe Goldbarth is the greatest living American poet.  Reading 
Popular Culture was a wake-up call for me - I didn't know poetry could DO that - and I spent many many months trying to write like him.  I went to Wichita to study with him.  His vast knowledge, his humor, the veracity of his speakers, his unapologetic discursiveness - all of it, all of it - amazing.  Jeanine Hathaway and Kelly Cherry, both of whom I've studied with, have also been quieter, less chaotic, influences.  Their work slows me down, asks much of me as a reader, focuses on the single gesture.  They're a great counter to Goldbarth's influence.

What are you working on now?

I just finished the first draft of a book-length series of linked, narrative poems about life in post-WWII Budapest during the Soviet occupation.  Surprise, surprise.

Thanks for your time, Michele. I look forward to reading your next book!

Michele Battiste lives in New York City where she teaches poetry for Gotham Writers' Workshops and raises money for Helen Keller International, a global nonprofit that fights blindness and malnutrition.  Her next book, Slow the Appetite Down, will be released this summer by Spire Press.  In the fall, she's moving to Boulder, CO with her husband and son to pursue a Ph.D. in English Literature. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

And the list is in!

The Top 100 Poetry Blogs

Congrats to Diane Lockward (Blogalicious), Edward Byrne (One Poet's Notes) Sandra Beasley (Chicks Dig Poetry), Jill Dybka (Poetry Hut Blog), and Deb Ager (32 poemsfor making the cut! These are all  sites I read and admire religiously, so it's good to see them getting their much-deserved place in the spotlight. 

I appreciate when lists such as these appear  because I get to learn about sites I had no idea existed. One such site is Patrick Martin's Poetry Resource, with its Publishers of  Poetry and Poetry Around the World links. And how did I not know about C. Dale Young's Avoiding the Muse? And check this out: Just One Poem

I've already bookmarked this list for future reference, and I encourage you to do the same!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Other Bio/Other Resume


[This draft is turning into a poem, so I thought I better remove it just in case.]

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Emily D., Part 2

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.

The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.

My son asked me the other day, what's a prophet? I wasn't sure if he was asking about profit or prophet, but I went with prophet, as in seer, as in predictor of the future. 

I'd been reading this Emily D. poem for the last few days, and thinking how it seemed she could see into the future--either that or it's a great coincidence that her use of slant rhyme and her choice of subject matter feel eerily contemporary from this vantage point 130 years in the future. 

It was right around five years ago that the Abu Ghraib photos first appeared. I was living off the grid (no electricity) in a remote section of wilderness in southern Oregon with my husband and son, far away from a TV or a newsstand, but we did own a crank-up radio, and sometimes in the late afternoon, if we titled the antenna just so, we could catch a bit of NPR on a Northern CA radio station. 

The initial reports tried their best to cover up the fact that torture was sanctioned by the highest in command; instead, as you recall, we were told that these were the actions of a few renegade frat-boy types getting their jollies out, going a little too far with their antics, then posing for the camera with thumbs-up goofiness. 

But then the truth started coming out, and now we know that these pictures were more about business as usual, in fact, business as expected; this was how prisoners were supposed to be treated. This wasn't just a bunch of dumb kids playing around; this was official, top-down military policy. 

What does any of this have to do with the Dickinson poem, you ask? I know that when I read this poem in high school and college, I was told that it was about God being out to lunch (distant, unreliable, unable to stop beautiful, innocent things from being killed), but now I see something more here than nature beheading a happy flower. Now I sense much more going on in this poem than a study of how nature spares not the young, beautiful, or innocent. 

"Apparently" is an interesting word to begin a poem. It sets a conversational tone. It's not necessarily true or not true, what follows this word. It is perhaps the case, or perhaps not, that there is no surprise when a happy flower is beheaded by frost. We can decide later for ourselves. In fact, maybe the flower WAS surprised. In fact, maybe most citizens were outraged about Abu Ghraib, but only a few spoke up. 

Also: it's a play at accidental power. The frost is playing at being powerful, and this power is accidental. How so? Well, the frost didn't, perhaps, even know it had the power to kill. Or in another universe, where perhaps flowers are sturdier, the frost couldn't harm a flower. Or, on this earth, power sometimes falls into the wrong hands, into the hands of people who will misuse it. Or the power is given to someone by accident (by a few votes, because the country could not continue without a winner in the election, because a bunch of kids end up fighting our wars).  

And that's that. The deed is done, or in this case the flower is beheaded, and nothing is changed. The sun doesn't stop rising or setting. It just does what God set it in motion to do (if you believe in a Creator): measure off another day. But who or what does the sun represent? And who feels all smug in his belief in God? The sun is the witness to the crime. The sun is those who witness a criminal act and do nothing to stop it. The sun is humanity, or, better, yet, the status quo, those in command and in power, who continue to feel smug that God is on their side. 

No, no, no! I'm not saying ED foresaw the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Not anything close. What I am doing here is using Abu Ghraib to talk about things Dickinson knew about in her own time: those in power do what they will, the masses stay quiet, and the powerful continue to feel that what they are doing is right by God. Abu Gharaib is just one example of that. 

Am I way off base here? Please tell me if I am, because I am obsessed with this poem's ambiguous power. The words accidental and play will not leave me alone. And, of course, apparently, which reminds me of Auden's "The Unknown Citizen": Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: / Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard."


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Every Mom is a Mom of the Year!

Click & Smile: Mom of the Year Award

Over here at BP we're all about impromptu changes in schedules if it has anything to do with humor, so even though I said my next post would be my first in a monthly series of Blog Tours, I just couldn't let another Mother's Day go by without a drum roll/red-carpet tribute to the moms who keep it all together while reading Grump for the 90th time, reminding about hand-washing, whipping up an impromptu dinner of curried tofu (and doing all the dishes after), and, on the way home from work, picking up a dozen floating candles for the preschool prom, dropping off the overdue DVDs at the video store, and remembering to pick up cards for the even bigger heroes: the grandmothers. 

Happy Mother's Day, all you awesome ladies out there!

Monday, May 4, 2009

First Anniversary of BP!

It's the 365th day of Blue Positive, the blog. In looking things over, it occurs to me there's a reason why I don't always get papers turned back to students as soon as I/they would like. 

That said, I hope that my "you have to read this!"es, noticings, and updates about the writing life have entertained, encouraged, motivated, amused, or enlightened you in the past year. Or done whatever blog posts are supposed to do. 

Interviewer: So, having blogged for a year, what do you have to say about it? 

Martha: Blogging is fun. My purpose is not to slander, slam, ask "why is so-and-so getting so much attention? is he/she/it really worthy of all that attention?" Instead, I'm aiming to be less about poet bashing, and also less about self-promo, and more about disseminating this and that about other poets and writers (and craft ideas and cricket behavior, too, of course). Next year I will be augmenting what's available here to include monthly blog tour interviews.

Interviewer: But what would Elizabeth Bishop say about blogging?

Martha: She would probably think it was horse manure with a twist of lime, but she also had issues with her creative output and preferred writing letters, did she not?  Maybe if there'd have been blogging back then she would not have written Write it! in a poem cuz she'd already written it in her blog, but that is not very likely, is it? She probably still would have written Write it! in a poem and written more chatty stuff on her blog (called Exiled in Brazil), at least that's my opinion, and maybe increased her poetic output, cuz she wouldn't have had to spend so much time writing letters to individual poets (but you can always post a comment if you disagree). 

Anyhoo, with that I'm dedicating this anniversary moment to Emily Dickinson. May her impulse "to dwell in possibility" inspire us all as we strive to put our best words in the best order.

I dwell in Possibility--

A fairer House than Prose--

More numerous of Windows--

Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--

Impregnable of Eye--

And for an Everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--

For Occupation--This--

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise--

Thanks for all your support, dear readers! 

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Oh, gosh. Where to begin? 

Kim Addonizio's Ordinary Genius: a lot of my learning these days is remembering, but I am so grateful to Addonizio for helping me to recall American sentences, a poem I started years ago that begins with a riddle question, and that "there is a lot of uncertainty in any creative act." 

But that's not to say I'm only remembering. Oh, no. I am also learning about the pain-body, the need for cracks, that Blake's "The Tyger" is basically one long unanswered question (I hadn't noticed). 

Addonizio is no ordinary genius; she is one smart cookie, and I love her straightforward style. She is a generous woman to share enough prompts to last me into old age.  If I were teaching creative writing, this is the one I'd use. No other comes close. 

Okay, what else?

Trying to read Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, which is smart and self-critical and very well-written, but I keep having to put it down . . . 

because I am reading the new issues of Mid-American Review, Willow Springs, and 32 Poems. Go online, read what's there for the taking, subscribe, and you'll see why it's hard to stay away from these amazingly good magazines.

I am also enjoying my copy of Free Lunch, with its beautiful cupcake cover. Hats off to Ron 
Offen for keeping his little magazine chugging along for 20 years! This issue's got quite an impressive line-up (Collins, Wagoner, Duhamel, Harper Webb, Rutsala). 

You all know about Offen and Free Lunch, right? If you send this guy some poems, he will comment on them, probably reject them, but in his reply he just might deem you worthy of a free, lifetime subscription to his sweet mag. How amazing is that? My dad used to say "Maggie, nothing's free," but in point of fact he was wrong. Free Lunch is free to anyone writing half-way decent poetry. 

Dandelions and stinging nettles are free (and delicious) too, but that's another story. 

Another high point of the last few week's was meeting with a visual artist to embark on a book-making (very small press) collaboration. I am so excited. Details to follow. 

OH! Important announcement!

Starting in the next couple of weeks, I am going to begin featuring a poet each month, someone (usually) with a new book who has agreed to let me interview them and showcase their work as part of my Blog Tour Bonanza. 

That all for now, folks. The next post will celebrate the first anniversary of Blue Positive, the Blog; the one after that will feature the first Bonanza poet. Till then, fear not the swine.