Sunday, January 19, 2020

From Volume 40: "The Voyager" by Holly Day


The Voyager
by Holly Day


The tiny boat floats down the river, bobbing inconsequential
in the pull of the tide. Its little paper sail flutters in the thin breeze
a piece of folded newspaper advertising newborn collie puppies for sale on one side
a half-sheet of recent obituaries on the other. I can almost see

my grandmother’s small, black-and-white photograph from the shore
where I stand, my tiny daughter’s warm hand in mine
watching our little boat as it’s swept away, perhaps
as far as the ocean. My daughter chatters excitedly
about the exotic places our boat might see, far-away places
my grandmother never got to visit, but talked of often.

I imagine it’s her on the boat, and not just her picture
a thin, pale woman, mouth set permanently in a thin, determined line
leaning over the railing of a real ship, eyes forever
fixed on the delights of the horizon.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

From Volume 40: "A Dream of Grass Blowing East" by Joyce Schmid



A Dream of Grass Blowing East
by Joyce Schmid


          It is only a dream of the grass blowing
          East against the source of the sun
          In an hour before the sun’s going down
                                                 Robert Duncan


If we had permission to return,
where would we go, when five o’clock
comes round in winter and the sun

is just a smear of shimmering pastel
exactly where the mountains
touch the sky? Would we abandon

all the rust-and-umber shadows
covering the grass for nighttime,
and the sailboats turning back

to shore? Would we exchange
our soft and fading colors
for a long-ago fiord

in foreign blues and greens?
or for white-water fountains
built for tsars

or for the orange, red, and purple
leaves of liquidambar
on the day we met?

How would we find again
the future that we are,
the path that takes us home?



Sunday, December 22, 2019

From Volume 40: "Widow Mingle" by Ben Gitkind



Widow Mingle
by Ben Gitkind


Seven college boys move into the carriage house at the end of August. I watch from my bay window as they punch the code to the door. They carry in televisions, microwaves, and cases of beer.
            My cell phone vibrates. It’s my mother. She wishes me a happy birthday and says my gift is in the mail. I ask about the humidity in Florida and her hip. She says, “How’s the plantation?” It’s a bad joke. She never liked the size of my house, or my dead husband, or the fact that we need landscapers and maids. Had the money been mine, her feelings might have been different. Mom and I used to plot my escape from the confines of our two-bedroom apartment. I was supposed to become a doctor.
            I hang up and then call a pizza place. I order seven large pizzas for the boys in the carriage house. I realize that’s probably too much and call the pizza place back. The line’s now busy. So I just wait in the bay window, anxious to see the food arrive, and fiddle with the dating app on my phone.
            The app is for widows. I enjoy the messages I receive from the men, mostly. I respond to someone named Jeremy. His interests are skiing, books, and politics. I say that, Yes, I’d like to get a drink sometime. And then I wait on a response.
            The food arrives at the carriage house. The boys all come out and lounge in the grass, pizza boxes spread around them. Napkins flutter away in the breeze. They drink cans of beer and arm wrestle. It’s almost dark when two of them cross the expansive lawn and approach my house.
            I quickly assess myself in the mirror. Athleisurely unkempt. A small impulse to apply eyeliner makes me laugh, and I don’t.
            They are so happy, standing in my doorway, smelling of light beer. They thank me for the pizza and say their names are Curtis and Steve. They promise me tickets to their next game. I don’t have the heart to say that I get free admission because of my husband’s history of donations to the school. (We went once, long ago, and it was fine.) There’s an awkward lull in the conversation. I tell them that a new washer and dryer will be arriving at the carriage house tomorrow. They say I’m the greatest landlady of all time.
            I take an Ambien and try to fall asleep in the glow of a muted television. I can’t. Sleep was a casualty of my husband’s passing. I try to use it as evidence of a love between us. We did sacrifice for each other. I dropped out of medical school. He left his first wife. My mother harbors deep suspicions of men with multiple marriages. She likes that my father failed to find another woman to take him in.
            About my marriage, my mother often asked, “Why you?” I never had the heart to share my suspicions. I believe my husband enjoyed the stories of my impoverished youth. The markings of my poverty—bad teeth, alcoholic genes, Boston accent—they did something for him. Distinct from the immaculate breeding of his first wife. Strange, I know, but she hurt him, and so I was the follow-up.
            I open WidowMingle on my phone and respond to a man named Javier with interests in wine, wonder, and the Great Outdoors. He looks beautiful in a familiar way. Tell me more about your vineyard, I write. I’m curious. He messages right back to say he can tell me all about it: Tomorrow night, Scala’s at seven? I don’t respond.
            In the morning, I find that I did respond, confirming these plans with Javier. Embarrassing to not remember, but I’ve sent far more embarrassing Ambien messages before.
            A positive memory of my husband: We used to garden together before lunch. This was in the months between his retirement and passing. A habit nearly formed. Now I only have the landscapers for company. They trim the hedges and groom the acres of grass. I garden. The Ambien must be in my system still, because I make the mistake of watering first and weeding second, which leaves me on my hands and knees in dirt that’s turned to mud. I’m filthy in minutes. I slop up and down the rows. The landscapers smile at me, and I tip the wide brim of my hat with a sopping glove.
            Glenda, my maid, emerges from the house. She tells me the delivery men abandoned the new washer and dryer at our front door instead of the carriage house. One of the landscapers offers to help me, but I wave him off.
            When my husband retired, the gardening was so good for us. He would look at me, incredulous, interested, and say things like, “Who are you?” It was a good question, and one I would have asked him every year prior, but now, given the chance, I didn’t need to. He was the man purchasing trowels and rakes and edgers. He was the man telling the landscapers to leave the garden to us. He bought me a tractor for my birthday.
            Seemed like we were just starting something, and then: a heart attack at the dinner table. Horrible in its particularities.
            Chair upended.
            Marinara sauce smeared on his elbow.
            Wine trembling in his glass even as he stopped moving on the floor.
            I drive the tractor out from the garage, pull it around the house, and leave it idling by the washer and dryer. I arrange a tarp, and try to tip them onto it. I fail. A landscaper approaches and I tell him, “No, thank you.” Then I put my back to each machine, brace my feet, and push hard. They fall sideways onto the tarp. They don’t sound like they break.
            I rope the edges of the tarp to the tractor and put it in gear. I leave a wake of flattened grass.
            I’m triumphant as I cross the lawn and near the carriage house. The Ambien has left my system. The boys are out now, erecting a volleyball net, and they wave at me. I hold a muddy fist in the air. They applaud. If my husband could see me now….
            “Can we get you a drink?” one of the boys says. I think it is Curtis, from the night before.
            “Can we give you a tour?” another boy says. His tone is seductive. The other boys laugh, and my skin flushes. I feel attractive.
            “We’re hitting the town tonight,” says the boy who might be Curtis. “Maybe you’ll join us?”
            I leave them with the two huge units and drive away, the empty tarp a fluttering cape behind me.
            I arrive late at Scala’s that night, and when Javier stands to greet me, I recognize him: one of my landscapers.
            We both take out our phones and measure the WidowMingle profile pictures against the person sitting across from us. Javier’s picture matches the man across from me perfectly. Mine, less so. It’s an old picture.
            I expect Javier to flee on the grounds of professionalism, but he just turns to the waiter and orders a bottle of wine. I like this. He is a beautiful man.
            “Your wife?” I ask. This is how WidowMingle dates usually start.
            “Cancer,” he says. “Faster even than the doctors thought it would be.”
            “My husband died of a heart attack,” I say.
            “I know,” Javier says. And that’s right, I know he knows, because I remember how the landscapers stopped lifting their equipment into their trailer to watch as my husband was lifted into the ambulance.
            When the wine arrives, Javier says, “My wife and I, we visited this winery in California on our honeymoon. It is very good.”
            The second bottle we order is even better, and we stop talking about the dead, and begin talking about my flowers.
            “You have the gift, you know? They spring to life for you. It is so wonderful to see,” Javier says.
            “But you,” I say. “With a vineyard. What a waste to have you mowing my lawn.” He shrugs.
            “My mother and father tend to the grapes. Keeps them busy. I bring home the money,” he says. I want to ask him if we pay him well, because I have no idea. I don’t, though, and instead try to put my hand on his. I spill wine into my pasta.
            Javier seems disappointed when I insist on paying for the meal. His Uber arrives and he is hesitant to leave me. I tell him my Uber is not far behind. He kisses me on the cheek and leaves. I walk a block, find my car, and decide I’ll listen to the radio until I’m sober enough to drive. For some reason, I wish I had told Javier about dropping out of medical school. I want him to know me. I nod off, and when I wake up, it is past midnight. I drive away from downtown with my foot heavy on the pedal.
            I nearly hit the boys when I come around a dark curve in the road. I stop just past them and count six approaching in the red glow of my brake lights. There’s not an ounce of suspicion or fear about them as they near my vehicle. Just merry waves and boozy swagger. I lower my window and offer them a ride. Upon recognizing me, they applaud for the second time that day.
            Curtis sits on the lap of an even larger boy in the passenger seat, and four more press shoulders in the back. They want to tell me all about their night.
            “And the bowling alley was BYOB–”
            “So we brought in as much as we could carry–”
            “But then they tried to card Tommy when he passed out in the bathroom–”
            “So we had to try and finish the beers before they walked him out–”
            “But I wasn’t even passed out, it was a diversion–
            “And so that’s how we all got bowling shoes–”
            “But I don’t think we can ever go back–”
            The boys pile out in front of the carriage house, and Curtis reaches back to offer me his hand, and I take it, and then he plants a sloppy kiss on my knuckles while the other boys hoot.
            “Seriously. Thank you,” Curtis says.
            “Bedtime, boys,” is all I can think to respond with. They laugh and begin tossing cardboard into the fire pit.
            I sit in my bay window and watch them drink dozens more beers around the fire. One of them strums an acoustic guitar and they all limp through Sweet Home Alabama.
            I am still a bit drunk, I realize, and also getting itchy from what might be poison ivy on my shins. There’s a set of new gardening tools on the kitchen counter, and I select the forked tines. I use it to scratch through the fabric of my tights, but then I remove them, and it feels even better to draw the tool across my bare skin.
            The boys continue singing far outside my window, and tiger stripes of red scratched skin show on my shins, and then my thighs. I sigh and remember trying to conceive. My husband admitted to the vasectomy after we’d been married for five years. I press the handle between my legs and think about Javier and his hands and red wine.
            It is still dark when I wake to the sound of my living room window squeaking. It lifts, and then so does the screen, and a leg appears, followed by the rest of a drunk boy.
            It is Curtis, and he is very sick from drinking. He cries on my living room floor. He thinks he might be dying. I help him into the bathroom, and he vomits into the toilet intermittently for an hour. I sit on the edge of the tub, and he falls asleep with his head on the toilet seat. His stomach appears to be empty, and I manage to walk him to the living room couch. I cover him with a sheet, and then worry that he might actually be dead, because he’s so pale and still. But the snoring starts, and it’s loud enough for me to hear from my bedroom, where I collapse just as daylight is appearing outside my window. No Ambien needed.
            The next morning is strange. It’s late. Curtis is gone, and he left no note of thank you or apology, which disappoints me. There’s a lingering smell of bile in the living room, so I open all of the windows. I apply hydrocortisone to the poison ivy on my shins. Glenda arrives at noon and brings me the mail.
            My birthday gift from my mother has arrived. A large padded envelope containing a singing card (It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah) and a book about finding God in widowhood. Ugh. This is a thing now, apparently: My mother found God in Florida.
            In addition to the gift, the first fall edition of the college’s student newspaper has arrived.
            The front-page spread shows a hulking white house with beautiful flowers, and I admire them for a moment before realizing that they are my flowers and it is my house. Above the image, the headline: College Donor’s House Built By Slaves, and below: Ashby Learning Center’s Namesake, Laurence Ashby, Lived in Slave-Built House. In the article, mention of my husband’s multi-million dollar donations to the school, the subsequent construction of the learning center that bears his name, and archival documents from the college library tracing his lineage to slave owners. Student activists on campus are calling for the learning center to be renamed.
            Glenda informs me of the arrival of a mound of mulch. I usually garden in the lingering coolness of morning, but my slow start leaves me in brutal sunlight. The mulch is brown, heavy, and dank, and I spread it in my flower beds. I fight dehydration until my vision begins to waver, and I rise from my flowers to see the protestors standing at the edge of my property.
            It’s a small group, and I can’t make out the exact words they’ve positioned in blocky fonts on their signs. I’m glad it’s a Saturday, and that Javier and his crew will not be returning until Monday. If he had seen this, I might have died of embarrassment.
            When I drink water in the kitchen, I find a message from Javier on my phone. He says that last night was lovely, and that he will be bringing me a gift on Monday. My pulse increases, and I feel dizzy and light.
            On Sunday, I garden with a larger audience of protestors. They are not so quiet this time, and chant about dirty money. Their words lodge in my head, and I repeat them as I work. I manage to spread the last of the mulch in my garden, all the way up to the edge of the house. I water the flowers with the hose. A rainbow hangs in the mist before me. Curtis and two other boys approach me.
            “We can take care of them, you know,” Curtis says.
            “I don’t know who they think they’re yelling at,” one of the others says.
            I manage to get rid of the boys, telling them to enjoy their weekend, to do their homework. I rather like them. I figure things will die down on Monday when the students are in class and the adults are at work.
            But things do not die down. My poison ivy is also spreading, and my Ambien may have reacted weirdly with some steroids I took to fight the rash, because I sleep hard until noon, and wake to find a massive crowd lining my property.
            The boys must be skipping class, because I can see them through the bay window, talking to reporters. I wonder if they’ve turned on me. But no, they haven’t, because they are red-faced, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the sea of protestors.
            I decide I’ll garden anyways, because what else can I do? I try, but it is incredibly hot. So much so that patches of mulch are smoking. I suppose I’m trying to distract myself from Javier, who is on my property and trimming the hedges.
            He approaches me. I offer him a glass of water up in the kitchen. We both tromp dirt through the foyer, and this feels like the right thing to do. He doesn’t mention the protestors, but instead proffers a bottle of wine.
            “From my vineyard,” he explains. I hold the bottle in my hands, and then I move to kiss him on the cheek, but he leans in and kisses me on the lips. He is salty with sweat and so am I.
            I pull away and reach for something, anything, to say. “I think I’ll just talk to the reporters,” I let out. Javier shrugs.
            “I always thought your husband was a good man,” he says. It’s my turn to shrug. We tromp more mud through the house, exit, and approach the crowd.
            Microphones in our faces. Cameras trained.
            “Will you continue to work for the family in light of recent events?” Directed at Javier, but also at me. I’m proud to be mistaken for a landscaper.
            “Is the wife home? Will she comment?” Again, directed at both of us.
            “She is home, but says she will not comment,” I say.
            A reporter: “Is there a chance you will go on strike?”
            “We are figuring that out now,” I say.
            “She is a widow,” Javier says, not looking at me. “The blood is not on her hands.”
            “But, if that’s true, why won’t she come out?” This is shouted by a protester, but not at us, at the house, so we turn to face it. The flowers, the house, waver mirage-like in the heat. But it’s not just the heat, there’s also the smoking mulch. The crowd chants. The heat increases. Then there is cheering, because a flame shows among the flowers, rising through the smoke. The mulch is on fire.
            It’s a ludicrous vision to behold: the bright white of my husband’s hulking house, embroidered by flowers and flames.
            I hold Javier’s hand to prevent him from phoning the fire department. The crowd continues to chant, and maybe I join them. The house might be catching now. I imagine a widow, deep in Ambien slumber, whose dreams race to explain why her body is turning to ash.




Sunday, December 15, 2019

From Volume 39: "Absence Makes the Heart" by John Sibley Williams



Absence Makes the Heart
by John Sibley Williams

My son has not yet found a reason to love
or hate the silence following us around
the house. All he knows: something
palpable is missing, not yet profound, not
yet painting nightmares over his sleep,
just a steady lack of arms where arms
should be. The hundred nightingales
trapped in my chest are chattering all at
once. I don’t know which to speak from,
if any voice is true, & if I’d recognize
it. My face tries to shift confidently
among the faces he expects to see over
his cradle at night. I press his ear to the
floorboards’ groans & say this is the house
settling beneath us. I say memory is simply
an attempt to record what matters. Then I
say nothing really matters anymore. & the
birds hush. & the house. & he is finding
his reason; I hope it’s love, & I hate that I
have loved so much.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

An Interview with John Sibley Williams

John Sibley Williams is the author of five poetry collections including As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), and Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019). He is also the recipient of many awards including the Laux/Millar Prize, Wabash Prize, Philip Booth Award, Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, The 46er Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry. His poem “Absence Makes the Heart” was published in Volume 39 of The Worcester Review. This collection contains themes of collective grief and guilt, as well as the role of language in our society and understanding what is sacred. This interview took place in fall 2019.


DAVINA TOMLIN: What do you think makes this particular book of poetry different from your previous books in terms of theme and format?

JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS: Well, thematically, I think we all write about what haunts us, what keeps us up at night, what questions we just can’t find answers for. So, in that regard, many of my books explore the same larger human concerns, be they personal or cultural. The themes are interconnected, are threads that together form a single tapestry. Be it national prejudice or fears of how I’m raising my children, our bloody history or the search for self when the self just keeps vanishing into the communal. Certain poems may push one or another theme more to the forefront, often based on our current political climate or internal changes that have reprioritized my daily life, but in the end, I recognize pretty clear thematic threads running from my early chapbooks all the way to Skin Memory.

But format is a different matter. I am terrified of growing stagnate, of writing in a manner I’m already comfortable with. So my previous collection, As One Fire Consumes Another, entirely consists of short, newspaper column-like prose poems. Skin Memory is an amalgam of that format, traditional prose poems, narrative free verse, and more experimental free verse. And I am currently experimenting with mixing short, staccato lines with page-width ones to see if that format might yield a new perspective.  

TOMLIN: When do you decide to create a collection of poems like this, when do you know that you have a “book”? How do you organize and edit poems to create a collection?

WILLIAMS: I wish I had some mystical answer here, but honestly I just write and write and at some point I realize I have a hundred or more poems and should probably see if I can carve a collection out of them. Sometimes I can’t, because the poems I’ve written are too disparate to come together under one banner or because they’re just not up to scratch. But when the connective tissue does emerge, it’s such a thrilling sensation.

When organizing a potential collection, I print out all the poems I’m considering for inclusion and take notes in red ink on the top of each. I briefly reference the themes and images in the poems, and I judge them on a 1-3 scale (in which a 1 means it definitely deserves inclusion and 3 means it will likely fall to the cutting room floor; 2 being a maybe). Then, based on those little notes, I categorize them in piles and try to find a workable order that will read smoothly. A collection should flow like a river, so I may follow a poem that ends in a night image with a poem that begins with light. The biggest issue I encounter is how to break up poems with different structures. Should there be one section of free verse, another with prose poetry? Should those structures be mixed and the sections be based on themes? I just play with a collection until it feels intuitively right. But even that can be elusive. Skin Memory endured seven full rewrites and restructures over the course of almost three years before it found publication.

TOMLIN: Why do you choose certain formats for certain poems (newspaper column vs. couplets etc.)? In your previous book “As One Fire Consumes Another” all the poems had the same format, what changed in this book? For you, does the structure create the poem or vice versa?

WILLIAMS: Normally, the structure tends to emerge during my writing process. Be it traditional prose poetry or white-space-heavy experimental free verse (and everything in between), I let the poem find its format instead of deciding on it beforehand. Usually, the act of reading lines aloud while I write them—where I naturally pause and inflect, how much breathing room images demand, the speed and flow of the lines leaving my mouth—is enough to dictate form. And, as you noticed in Skin Memory, those forms can be rather diverse. I have a bit of everything in there. As One Fire Consumes Another, however, was a different beast; it was a personal experiment to see if I could create a set form consistently used across multiple poems that enjoyed the best aspects of free verse and prose poetry. I wanted the narrative flow and inherent conceptual linkage associated with the latter and the frequent, tense line breaks of the former. I found that happy medium in that newspaper column form you noted in Fire. And the poems in that book feel like newspaper clippings, in a way, so the structure melded with the content. But this approach isn’t common for me. Usually the poem dictates its own structure.

TOMLIN: You often make references to other writers and historical moments (Jules Verne, “Perfect Storm, Massachusetts 1991”) in your poems. This seems to ground the reader and the poem, when do you think this is necessary, how do you use this as a tool?

WILLIAMS: Grounding is exactly right! Some poems require a bit of context to fully understand or appreciate them. For example, I referenced the Perfect Storm in one poem to create a sense of place and an intimacy; the reader recognizes this strange little story does exist in the tangible world, that it’s not wholly imagined, that the author directly experienced it. That kind of grounding allowed me to explore the idea of “storm” in a broader sense without losing a sense of reality. My hope for the Hekla poem is that the reference to Jules Verne provided a historical context for my own experiences when visiting that gorgeous place of potential death. Such references can also work as anchors for a reader to cling to when a poem makes unexpected moves into the highly metaphorical or ambiguous. As a reader, I feel I can trust a conceptual poem more if I have an anchor or two to keep me weighted to reality.

TOMLIN: At times in this collection you seem to appreciate human’s constant attempt to make marks in the world and at times disparage it, when do you think this urge is destructive/productive? It seems in the final section to be humans attempts at mark-making which spark collective grief (“After-Bruise,” “Sanctum,” and “Before, and the Birds After”)

WILLIAMS: That’s such a weighted question, but my feelings about it, complicated and guilt-ridden as they are, are quite straightforward. I don’t think we can celebrate human achievement without recognizing the human suffering behind it. We cannot discuss the creation of our railway system, which links us all and helped birth, well, half the country, without acknowledging forced labor and indigenous massacres. Europeans would not have birthed (read: conquered) this country without genocide. Consumerism provides us with nearly unlimited choice while fracturing society into haves and have-nots. Human history is a history of great advancements born on the bloody shoulders of “the other”. So, yes, I feel we have as much to celebrate as mourn. They seem to go hand-in-hand. In terms of the past, all we can do is act as honest witnesses, ensuring the complicated, contradictory truths of our nature aren’t rewritten or erased. In the final section of Skin Memory, I think you’re right, I’m trying to move beyond witness and see if there are other ways of progress without that corresponding pain.

TOMLIN: In this instance, where do you see the role of poets not from indigenous communities or immigrant communities in dealing with issues like “forced labor and indigenous massacres?” How do navigate what is and is not your story to tell?
WILLIAMS: This could not be a more crucial question. Privilege comes in so many forms, most invisible until you shine a light on them and see their hazy edges. Gender, sexuality, race, religion, socio-economic status, family status, and even these have gradations. They all combine to give us a cultural advantage or disadvantage and exploring my own advantages and how they contrast against those born or raised without them is a central theme of my work.
In terms of how to discuss it, I feel it all comes down to a mixture of self-awareness and empathy. It’s a balancing act between witness and action. All of us whose privilege allows us the space to write freely, who aren’t judged by superficial qualities, who needn’t fear police or politicians or bosses who could withhold that one paycheck that makes our children go hungry, we need to investigate how we got where we are and what we can do to expose such inequities.
The question is how. How does one explore privilege from the inside out? Often met by controversy, some privileged poets have chosen to adopt another’s voice, to attempt the persona poem. I feel confident that these attempts are well-intentioned. However, I don’t feel that’s my place. If I have not suffered as so many others have, who am I to speak in their voice? Instead, I write about privilege in two ways, by discussing my own safe white lineage and by writing about others (instead of writing from another’s point of view). And when writing about others, I don’t hide the fact that my perspective is inherently tinged by privilege. That’s what I mean by combining self-awareness and empathy.
TOMLIN: I was particularly interested in “Before, and the Birds After” which, as do some of your other poems in this collection, references violence in schools, I saw it  an effective way of processing national tragedy without verging on the preachy, where do you see the line between political statements and poetry, how do you advise aspiring poets to find a balance?

WILLIAMS: I never set out with a given theme or larger political meaning and maybe that helps lean me away from didacticism. I usually begin a poem with a series of images. Then I try to create a world for these images to inhabit. How are they connected? What mood do they convey? And as I fashion that world, the themes (often cultural and political ones) organically emerge. From an empty silo: hunger, class issues, and a family falling apart. From a tire swing: the horrors that once hung from that same tree. From a gut-shot doe dragging itself into a tree’s calm shade: a son trying so damn hard not to be like his father. I try not to overthink it, lest the themes feel forced. Instead, the images themselves seem to birth their own grander meanings. While editing a poem, however, I do insist more heavily on connecting any loose threads. Now that the themes have surfaced, I revisit each image to ensure it’s the most evocative way of expressing those themes. Would a sycamore be more haunting than an alder? Should I vanish the bridge I’d placed over that overflowing river; does the bridge imply a degree of safety that doesn’t fit the poem’s vulnerability?

If I were to give advice on avoiding preachiness, I suppose it would be this: is your intent to scream your opinion into an echo chamber or do you want the reader to experience emotions that lead them toward your opinion? As in politics, poetry, to me, should never hammer people over the heads with their “point”. Should poetry even have a “point”? Isn’t the world too nuanced and contradictory for that? All we can do is witness and explore. So let your poem speak for itself. Find subtler ways of weaving in politics. Hurt us; don’t tell us to hurt.

TOMLIN: Another theme in this collection (especially the first section) is the way in which language creates human understanding, and its limits (an example of this is the line “no center. No past tense. No word that means the same translated back to its native silence,” from “Hekla, Revised”) why do you think you were interested in this theme for this work, and where do you see the “play” of poetry fitting into this idea?

WILLIAMS: Celebrating language while recognizing its limitations (and in some instances its disenfranchisement of individuals and cultures) is the main focus of my first collection, Controlled Hallucinations, and it does seem to carry through in all my work. I guess I’m enthralled by the simplest of dilemmas: using language to explore, question, and doubt language. Its power is evident. Rhetoric defines civilizations, molds philosophies, and has been used to empower and deprive, equally. We define ourselves by words, which both place us in arbitrary little boxes and, ironically, separate us from other animals. Yet, in the end, words are simply constructs, symbols that mean whatever we want them to mean. And we interpret them based on our own backgrounds, experiences, and prejudices. There’s a sense that language is limitless (in application and political power). There’s a sense that it’s actually rather absurd, that gesture is the only true language. In a way, that’s what I mean by “No word that means the same translated back to its native silence.” I also mean it to grieve how conquering countries erase native languages. And what remains of older languages becomes irrevocably changed, their meanings permanently altered.

TOMLIN: What’s next for you?

WILLIAMS: I rarely work on a specific project. I tend to simply write and see what happens. So, I’m writing new poems, yes, but not with a given aim. I am also a professional poetry editor and run various literary workshops, which keeps me both busy and inspired, and I am about to begin my teaching residency with Writers in the Schools (a nonprofit program through Literary Arts here in Portland that places professional writers in local high schools).  In addition to this, I’m a father of twin toddlers and am touring to support my two new books, so personal writing time has taken a temporary backseat to other (creative and personal) responsibilities.


Sunday, November 17, 2019

From Volume 40: "I Thought I Heard the Ocean" by Deborah Keenan



I Thought I Heard the Ocean
by Deborah Keenan

But I always think that, landlocked, and precisely in the middle of my country.
I always think that, and not because of beloved wind brushing through
The prairie grasses, not because the tame lakes make their six inch waves.

I thought I heard the ocean once when I was a little girl. But what I heard
Was dangerous, nothing like the beautiful ocean. Then I heard sea birds
And they whispered the ocean to me, which was kind, but not really true.

I thought I heard the ocean every day, so I married it, lifted conch shells
To my ears, let the birch and linden, the maple and oak be my ocean,
Let the wind be my ocean in my trees, let the ocean be my life.

Let my life be all about the ocean and that was a good way to live,
The salt in the air, the sand under my feet, the only horizon lines
My eyes could see, with the occasional boat breaking the line.

Monday, September 2, 2019

A Glimpse of Our Next Cover!


Local artist Gary Hoare's Dynamic Helix will be the cover art for Volume 40.