The Story Behind “The Damage”

Today, one of my dreams came true, and I say that without exaggeration: a piece of mine, from Inch magazine, is featured today on Poetry Daily.  I found out about this a while ago but didn’t really believe it was actually happening until I saw it today, and I’ve had to look at it again and again to make sure that I’m not just dreaming.  I mean, I’m not, right?  You can see it too?

Here's a picture of the beheaded cherub.  I miss it, still.

Here’s a picture of the beheaded cherub. I miss it, still.

I thought I’d write a short blog entry about the piece, since I’m always curious about the poems that pop up on Poetry Daily and, well, like, everywhere that poems tend to pop up.  I won’t tell the whole story behind it because a.) I already did that, and b.) then where will the mystery be?  Suffice it to say that the story behind this involves a huge move, which is a new beginning, and a huge break-up, which is, of course, an ending.  Besides the relationship, a few things were broken during or missing after the move: a couch cushion, my bicycle, and the head of a cherub on this terrible and beautiful planter my grandmother had used as storage for cotton balls.  It was a strange time, a time when beginnings were muddled with endings, and I could hardly tell the difference between the two anymore.

Flash to September of 2012, over a year later.  A friend and I had just finished a stint on The Grind (explained beautifully here by Grind founder Ross White) and were following it up with a submissions grind.  We promised each other that we’d send out at least one piece a day.  One Saturday, I was poking around for places to submit short essays and I came across Press 53, (which, as it turns out, published a remarkable collection by fellow Grinder and all-around amazing poet and person, Shivani Mehta — Useful Information for the Soon-to-be- Beheaded) and then Press 53’s Tumblr, with their weekly 53-word story prompt.  The prompt for that week was to write a 53-word story about moving.  I read the prompt and the rules and then promptly shut down my computer and headed to Hobby Lobby for some emergency crafting supplies (the emergency, as always with Hobby Lobby, was just that it was Saturday, and they’re closed on Sundays, which always sends me into a crafting/quilting/crocheting tail-spin — what if I need very fine glitters on a Sunday?  It happens more often than one would think).  As I wandered around trying to figure out why there were so giant zebra-striped flowers, I found that my mind was working on a poem.  When I got home, I wrote it: and word count showed me that it was, miraculously, 55 words.  I cut two, and submitted it.  Boom.

Of course, the micro-essay (though I guess now I should probably call it a prose poem) was rejected.  I revised and sent to another magazine.  Rejected.  Repeat.  Rejected.  Then, I saw a call-for-work for an all-micro-essay issue of Inch, one of my favorite magazines, and I sent to that.  Miraculously, it was accepted — and so began the road to Poetry Daily.  I’m especially happy that this is the poem that made it, since Inch is a journal I really love and a journal that shines light on oft-ignored micro-forms, and since they were willing to give this triply-rejected piece a fourth chance.

Sometimes, I’ll end up with a poem or essay that just feels like a gift.  It feels like a well-made thing, though I don’t feel like its maker.  This poem/essay was just such a thing: I hadn’t intended to write about this part of my move — ever, really — and I didn’t set out to focus on the beheaded cherub.  But there it was, and then it was on the page, called into being by forces which didn’t seem entirely under my control.

I suppose, when I think about it, it does make sense that I wrote this poem at this time.  It was a time when everything seemed to be changing, again.  My relationships changed, my friendships changed, my health changed and therefore my body changed, and therefore my world and the way I lived in it changed.  I didn’t make a move, but the world around me moved.  It was a time of muddled beginnings and endings, and I again couldn’t tell which was which.  It was the beginning of a moment of great change, from which I am only now starting to emerge, to look around, and to assess what was damaged beyond repair and what remains.

And this, I suppose, is the greater gift, the greater dream come true: to have a poem that acts like a lens and focuses on what damage is, and what beginning and ending, for me at least, really means.

Sometimes things are exciting …

… and when things are exciting, dear denizens of the Blogosphere, I like to share them with you.  One of the best things about the Internet, besides the seemingly endless and ever-regenerating number of photographs of cats wearing fruit on their heads and of sloths Photoshopped into the middle of the Crab Nebula, is that the Internet gives us the ability to share in IRL experiences we wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend IRL.  For people like

This is a photograph of me reading.  I'm taking off my reading glasses but it looks like I'm doing something dramatic and meaningful. In fact, forget the part about the reading glasses.  This is a picture of me doing something dramatic and meaningful.

This is a photograph of me reading. I’m taking off my reading glasses but it looks like I’m doing something dramatic and meaningful. In fact, forget the part about the reading glasses. This is a picture of me doing something dramatic and meaningful.

myself, whose bodies periodically refuse to work and who are, let’s face it, always like two and a half at the most seconds away from dressing all in white and living in somebody’s attic (because really, what’s the fun if it’s your own attic?), this is the definition of a blessing, a word that can so often feel insincere and general gives me a queasy case of agita, but which, in this case, absolutely applies.

Another part of The Great Blessing of the Internets (ugh, there’s the agita again) is that it allows people whose bodies periodically refuse to work, perhaps because they’re never much more than two and a half seconds away from Emily Dickinsoning up some unsuspecting nuclear family’s attic, to share with others the times they make appearances In Real Life.  Such is the case with my reading in the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series, which you can hear here.

The first reading in the recording isn’t mine, it’s Kate Greenstreet‘s.  If you listen to it, you’ll see why my knees were positively shaking because, seriously, how do you follow that?  You’ll also see why I’d ordered a copy of Young Tambling, her newest collection from Ahsahta Press, before I’d even left the building that evening.  I’ve been hungrily devouring the poems and people, this is one of Those Books — by that, I mean this is a life-changing book, the kind of book that leaves a reader wowed and restless and with a completely new way to look at poetry, books, art, life, everything.  That’s because, in many ways, the book isn’t really a book.  I mean, yes, it is a series of pages with words printed on them sewn together and bound.  But it doesn’t solely exist in that form, in that bound structure.  Greenstreet’s reading shows this: she re-orders the text and the text slips seamlessly into a new narrative, a new sequence of development.  Each re-ordering creates a new story, a new series of images, a new work of art.  Like she writes in the end of the collection, next to an insanely amazing oh my God seriously photograph of this book in a different incarnation, as pages of

This is a photograph of Kate Greenstreet's Young Tambling. It's been Instagrammed because its unfiltered awesomeness would make the Interwebs EXPLODE, and then where would Al Gore, astronaut sloths, and fruit-hatted cats be?

This is a photograph of Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling. It’s been Instagrammed because its unfiltered awesomeness would make the Interwebs EXPLODE, and then where would Al Gore, astronaut sloths, and fruit-hatted cats be?

typeset and photographs arranged (and, presumably, re-arranged) on the wall:

Although I was thinking in two-page spreads, at some point I realized that I wasn’t actually (physically) making a book.  I was making a

big rectangular piece of temporary art.

Which is SO RIDICULOUSLY INSANELY AMAZING OH MY GOD I CANNOT EVEN TALK ABOUT IT.  It’s like she’s created a work of code-based electronic poetry without the code.  Which, seriously.  AMAZING.

And there are MORE EXCITING THINGS, the first of which has to do with my actually leaving the house and going to another location, specifically Boston, where I will be talking about writing and working and how those things go together at AWP 2013 (HOLLAH).  I’ll be moderating a panel on the academic job market with three lovely friends and colleagues, Hannah De La Cruz Abrams (you should totally read her book, The Man Who Danced with Dolls, which is so beautiful I can’t even talk about it and is one of the few books I immediately read again after finishing), Sarah Domet (author of 90 Days to Your Novel) and Jared Yates Sexton (author of An End to All Things).  The panel’s called Navigating the Track: The Writer and the Nontenured Position.  It’s at noon on Saturday in Room 104 and should be pretty awesome.  You can find more information about it on the AWP Website, here.  Keep scrolling ’til you find it.  I’ll also be a’signing books at the Toadlily Press Table in the Bookfair on Friday at 11:30 am.  Come and find me and say hello!  I will probably desperately need some coffee too, so if you’d like to bring some my way, that would be great.

And, last but certainly not least, if you want to read about piranhas and writing teachers and taxidermy and trash cans, you can check out my post on Creative Sweet, the Creative Writing area Blog from Georgia Southern University’s own Department of Writing and Linguistics.  While you’re there, you should also read the absolutely perfect post from Laura Valeri about what it’s like to teach creative writing at GSU, or anywhere, really.  And our student intern, Christine Lengel, has done an amazing job with posts herself, including this post about what it’s like to study creative writing at GSU, or anywhere, really.  And you should totally just subscribe to the whole Blog, since there will be news about our amazing students doing amazing things as well as other amazing posts from the other amazing folks who teach here.

See?  EXCITING THINGS.  And God bless Al Gore for inventing the Interwebs so we can all share in them.

Malificae, Or Why Josh Groban Should Probably Marry Me.

Preface: it feels strange posting this, in the midst of everything that’s going on.  It feels like self-promotion, which feels wrong.  At the same time, it’s a post about something good, very good.  It’s about a dream coming true.  It’s about a dream I’d started to worry would never come true coming true — and so I’m posting this, because the world could use some positivity in it at the moment.

I was honored and humbled when the magnificent and talented Ivy Alvarez tagged me in this self-interview blog thing, where we talk about our latest books (you should check out Ivy’s post about her second book, Disturbance, and then you should also order and read her first book, Mortal, which is hella good, too).  I was especially excited because this seemed like the perfect way to make an announcement I haven’t yet made on this blog, which is this:

YES, THAT IS ACTUALLY A BOOK COVER FOR A BOOK I ACTUALLY WROTE THAT IS ACTUALLY GOING TO BE PUBLISHED.

YES, THAT IS ACTUALLY A BOOK COVER FOR A BOOK I ACTUALLY WROTE THAT IS ACTUALLY GOING TO BE PUBLISHED.

I’m beyond excited, thrilled, honored, humbled, nervous, nauseous, and excited again to announce that my first full-length collection of poetry, Maleficae, is forthcoming from GenPop Books.  And it’s so forthcoming that if you follow that link to GenPop Books’ website, you’ll actually find a place where you can actually PRE-ORDER THE BOOK.  THAT I WROTE.

I KNOW, RIGHT?

It still seems surreal and unbelievable, but I’m so very proud to be publishing this book, and working with this press — especially now, when we need more than ever to take a look at ourselves and our society and think long and hard about what’s going on, because it’s beginning to look an awful lot like things looked before and during the witch trials in early modern Europe.  Which is what this book is about.

And now, the questions:

What is the title of your book?
Maleficae. That’s Latin, which is another language. It essentially translates as “evil-doers,” and was the Church’s term for witches.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Maleficae follows one woman as she’s made the village’s hero then demonized, tried, and executed as a witch when things went wrong — a story typical in the European witch trials.

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a book-length sequence of poems that work together to tell the story of the woman who, like so many others, was condemned and killed for witch-craft — and the story of the forces which worked to condemn her.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Here’s the story I tell to sound impressive:

The idea for this book came from my investigation of religious documents and historical records of the witch trials, and how many similarities I noticed between the forces acting to demonize the “different,” condemn them as “other,” and limit women’s rights in early modern Europe and the forces acting in our country today.

Here’s the real story:

In May of 2006, I had extensive reconstructive surgery on my jaw.  It sucked.  A lot.  The recovery time also sucked a lot, particularly because it was very, very long.  I started running out of reading material pretty quickly, so when my mom came home from Wal-Mart with a copy of The Da Vinci Code, I greedily grabbed it and started reading.  I was fascinated by the idea that the Church had essentially obscured the position of women in the Church, and I was especially terrified by the brief description of the witch trials and the text which served as the Church’s handbook for trying and executing witches: the Malleus Maleficarum.  I ordered a copy of it and started to read, and soon began writing these very strange poems that didn’t even seem to come from me.  I didn’t exactly know what was going on, so I kept researching and reading and note-taking and writing these very strange poems, until I realized I was writing a book.  Then I kept following the path until it finally became clear.  Or, at least, clearer.

Please forget the second story now.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Oh, man.  Well, as mentioned above, I started in May of 2006.  At the time, I was working at Auburn University, which was very lucky — they have an amazing library with even more amazing librarians who helped me find the books that could help me.  I read everything about the trials I could and took compulsive notes, even though I wasn’t sure what would end up in the poems or even if there were going to be more poems.  I researched everything, from the physics of burning at the stake to the kinds of plants that were in Bavaria at that point in time.  And I wrote — mostly messy prose blocks in my notebooks.  I didn’t figure out how the poems needed to lay on the page until May of 2007, when it suddenly came to me in a rush while I was in Austria for a very dear friend’s wedding.  I finished a very skeletal draft in the summer of 2008 and sent it to one of my best readers, who wrote back with the best advice ever: to tell the story and to really get to the heart of things, I had to write in the voice of the persecutor.  For about three weeks, I wrote and wrote and wrote, and finally had a draft by the end of that summer.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? 

I think there are really no words to express the terror of the witch trials and the mixture of rage and fear and twisted logic that caused them — but I think we have to try to find words for this kind of experience to keep it from happening again.  As I was writing and reading, I kept coming across news of frighteningly similar forces in my own country: women being denied birth control, even as a treatment for endometriosis.  It seemed in a way that I was compelled to write these poems to make the story come out of the history books and to light.  Most of all, I felt for the women, those millions of women, whose voices were silenced.  I wanted to find a way to allow them to speak.  I knew that I may not succeed, but I also knew that I had to try.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Malificae will be published by GenPop Books in 2013.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

Oh, goodness. Well, I’m not sure I can really ever come close to comparing to any of these works, but I do know what books inspired me and what I read in the process of writing these poems (besides infinity books about history and scans of documents from the trials): D.A. Powell’s Cocktails, Louise Gluck’s Averno, Laura Jensen’s Bad Boats, Raymond McDaniel’s Murder (a violet), Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine, and Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This question? Totally boss.  I’d cast Jennifer Lawrence as the witch and Alan Rickman as the priest.  I would also cast Josh Groban as somebody because he is Josh Groban and I would like to meet him.  Also my mom says I should marry him, and that would totally happen if I cast him in a movie based on a book-length series of historically inspired semi-experimental poems.  Right?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s a book that examines not just the facts of history but the ideas behind the facts, and how we relate to those ideas.  It’s a book that explores what we’ve learned and what we’ve failed to learn, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.  And it’s a book about differences, about how we need to learn to listen to them and to treat each other with the kindness and dignity every human being deserves.

At this point, I’m supposed to tag five other writers.  I’m trying, y’all, but have run into snags, so I’ll probably edit this later to include them.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Classes are canceled at Georgetown College today, and I’m snowed in with two very clingy feline friends.  Though I am learning to never utter dangerous predictive sentences such as “there is no possible way that this winter can be as bad as last winter,” I’m taking the brief, white-clad respite to catch up on writing, reading, and class preparation.  I admit that most of my time has been spent reading and re-reading (and re-re-reading, ad infinitum) the instructions for the NEA grant application (one year, I will finally begin grant applications early), I’ve been breezing around the Internet and looking at articles filed under “Read Later.”

The first is this chilling article about a professor who opened fire on other professors, which presents some terrifying news from my home state and also makes a terrifying statement about the state of academia today.  It’s an incredibly frightening thing, and my heart goes out to the faculty and students of UAH.

Then, there is this article about the first autobiography of Emily Dickinson since 1974.  As the article particularly addresses the myth-making surrounding the figure of Dickinson, I can’t wait to read it.

The following articles aren’t poetry-related, but I’m obsessing over them nonetheless.  The first is an article from the New Scientist which discusses the apparently very possible possibility that we are actually living inside of a giant hologram.  I’m particularly fascinated by this because I spent most of my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence reading about gravity waves, and it was through the search for gravity waves that they received the data suggesting our hologram-like state.  Hopefully, this search will also soon reveal data making it much easier to take out the trash in eleventy billion inches of snow.  The second is an article about leaked documents revealing the nightmarishly Mean Girls-esque rules for a sorority at Cornell.  I admit that I was once about as anti-sorority as one could be, thinking they were bastions of pre-feminist thought which perpetuated stereotypes and the kind of middle school behavior which shouldn’t even exist in middle school; however, after seeing the sororities at Georgetown, and especially how kind the sorority sisters are to their fellow students, where they’re fellow sisters or not, I’ve very much softened my opinion.  This article brought back the rage.  Perhaps this is because I like to wear “gross plastic shizzzzz” as jewelry.

Last but not least, a bit of self-promotion: Toadlily Press published my first chapbook, and Matthew Nienow recently started work on a Toadlily blog.  He’s done a remarkably beautiful job with it, and I’ve had a wonderful time catching up with my fellow Toadlily authors, from Nienow himself, who offers an account of how uniquely supportive the Toadlily experience is, to an article by Emily Carr, a UNCW classmate of mine and a phenomenal poet, about the metaphorical and actual meanings of meat.  You can also check out this entry about my witch poem project, which contains a recording of me reading one of the poems!

On the eighth day of Christmas, Emma writes a book review . . .

(Quick note: the title of this post is a slant rhyme, in honor of Emily Dickinson and in honor of the fact that I couldn’t think of a rhyme.)

I’ve spent much of the past several weeks writing a book review for Diann Blakely’s Cities of the Flesh and the Dead.  This has taken me a while because it is, in part, a very emotional experience: I had Diann as a teacher at the Sewanee

This is, apparently, how I'm writing my book reviews these days.

Young Writer’s Conference, which was a life-changing event.  Diann was one of the toughest teachers I’ve ever had, and also one of the absolute best.  She seemed to know exactly how to jolt me from the expected, from my usual patterns of language, and from writing poems that contained, well, to misquote her, a lot of pretty language, but not much else.  In Diann’s class, I learned how to write with body, soul, and heart, and how to read, and how to love poetry as much as life, and how loving poetry can be life.  My writing style changed, and I went from writing poems targeted towards getting a gentle critique to writing poems that, if not perfect, at least came from a place of great emotional and spiritual meaning.  She seems to have changed me once again, as, in writing this review, I’ve realized how important reviewing is to me.

I fully admit it: I did not want to review books.  In my graduate forms of poetry class, this was one of the assignments, and I did an absolutely dreadful job reviewing some very beautiful books, including Stephanie Strickland’s V:WaveSon.Nets/Losing Luna (click the link for the Web version of this poem, a breath-taking and brain-melting glimpse into the future of poetry as well as the possibilities of online verse and, well, verse, period).  Though I was upset about my performance at the time, I’m now incredibly grateful for it both because I learned about the art of the review and because I learned how truly dreadful I was at this art, and could, with time, figure out how to be better.  I wrote my first review — I fully admit this, too — because someone told me that it was an easy way to get a publication.  Though the review did result in a publication, it was in no way easy; it was a huge challenge, and I was instantly hooked.  This is largely because the knowledge that one is writing a review makes one read and think about a book differently: as a book, which is an art in and of itself.  It’s rare that we get to experience poems in a collection.  For one, it’s incredibly difficult (Lord have mercy, it’s incredibly difficult) to get a book published, so what one usually experiences of contemporary poetry is the poem in isolation, in company not planned by the writer, in journals.  For two, the anthology has become so incredibly popular, even in creative writing classes, that one very rarely encounters a full collection until they’re in graduate school.  I admit that I am a part of this problem: I’ve only ever taught two full collections, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Anne Sexton’s All My Pretty Ones, which are far from contemporary.  I also fully admit personal laziness when it comes to reading collections: there are times when I’m reading a book of poems and come across a poem that doesn’t seem to fit.  I think, Huh, that one really doesn’t seem to fit, and I flip on.

Of course, the poem usually does fit, but it may take a great deal of time in figuring out how and why.  Reviewing poetry forces me to think of the poems as a book, structured and built as the writer wants them to be presented — an act which, in itself, holds a great deal of meaning.  Often, when I review a book, it feels more like putting a puzzle together, which may perhaps explain why it takes me so darn long to write each review.  I read the book, I take notes, I re-read the book and my notes, and I try to piece together not just what each poem means in isolation but what the book means as a whole.  Sometimes I succeed.  Sometimes I don’t.  Regardless, I learn a great deal about the art in a way that I usually don’t think about the art.  It’s undeniable that the poetry world has been trending towards the narrative collection, or, at least, the themed collection.  Sometimes, the poems can’t really be read in isolation and must be taken into consideration as part of a larger narrative, as in Raymond McDaniel’s stunning Murder (a violet),  and sometimes the poems can be read individually, but a large part of their power depends upon the overarcing narrative, as in Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet.  Sometimes, there’s a theme which carries the book aloft, as in D.A. Powell’s Chronic (which is particularly awesome because it contains a fold-out poem), and sometimes there’s a theme which, once discovered, greatly illuminates each piece, as in Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine.  Book-making is part of the art, and a part that we — or, at least, I — too often ignore.

Plus, review are  just good business.  By “business” here, I’m thinking more in terms of us, as writers, working together rather than against each other.  We have to fight each other for publications, for book awards, for acceptance to Breadloaf, for waiterships at Breadloaf — by reviewing fellow poets’ work, we are recognizing that we are all together in this, and that this is important.  Poetry is, without a doubt, not a profitable profession; at times, it can also not be a very pleasurable one.  By writing the review, we learn again why we came to poetry, and we share that with the world.  And let’s face it: books of poetry are not often bought, much less read — anyone who’s been to a bookstore lately could tell you that.  When people think of poetry, they think of Maya Angelou (I would rather not anger Dr. Angelou or Oprah, and thus I merely link to this SNL skit, which says everything and anything I could ever say).  They think of Jewel and Alicia Keys (no comment there, either).  They think of Tupac (who, I think, should really be appreciated for his rap lyrics rather than his poetry) and Jeff Tweedy (I love Wilco, don’t get me wrong, but seriously, man) and Charles Bukowski (once, a friend and I made a pact to never let each other date anyone who loved Bukowski.  It’s the best promise I’ve ever made to anyone).  Anything we can do to get the word out about others is a very, very good thing.  We’re all part of this struggle — it’s our duty to help each other up the hill.