Interview with Kiriti Sengupta, published in The Statesman March 6th, 2016

Kiriti Sengupta is author of The Freshman’s Welcome; the bestselling trilogy My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps; and recently, The Earthen Flute. The Earthen Flute is a bestselling collection in both India and America in Indian literature. Sengupta works in Calcutta in dentistry and likes to nurture friendships with younger writers. I caught him in a moment of contemplation after his newest book hit the shelves.

Sengupta 

http://www.thestatesman.com/news/8th-day/no-alien-in-america/128046.html

 

What inspires you the most to continue writing?

 

My studies, observations and living! If you want me to elaborate on them, it will take pages, but I would like to state that I study to observe, and I observe to reflect on my studies. I am no way close to what you say as “ideal living,” and I truly look out for holistic living measures. You know, we often talk about “evidence-based-dentistry,” and my life essentially complies with living evidences. Honestly, it is the deviation from the set-rules that keeps me going.

 

Do you set aside a time for writing? Is there a moment in your daily activities when you feel most inspired?

 

Nothing like that. My friends consider me happy-go-lucky kind of a guy! People often say, “You don’t look like a writer, let alone a poet.” I appreciate their views, and unless I feel like pouring out my words I don’t write even an update on Facebook. I don’t enjoy a set time that I can devote to my writing. I am a practicing dental surgeon, I manage a small press as well. I meet authors and poets on and off. And yes, I don’t socialize as it is expected from a family person. I don’t write on a daily basis, but my mind quickly registers the observations, which let me thrive on them.

 

What is your daily life like? Does it get entwined with your poetry?

 

I have a day job, Dustin. As I said before I practice as a dental surgeon, and there are but a few occasions when poetry occurs. Do you remember the poem “Envy” in my latest collection, The Earthen Flute? It got humor, it also bore sarcasm. Above all, “Envy” could be treated as psychosomatic poetry, but readers might consider it weird. Listen to these lines, and I hope you won’t mind:

 

Jealous—

A Dentist can say if you are one

 

Your teeth deviate from
The occlusal table

And thus, lips suffer from bites

 

 

Is there a place for poetry and literature in India’s popular imagination? It seems Americans find it dull and tedious.

 

Poetry is popular only among poets, worldwide! One who appreciates poetry writes poetry. He/she may not be a published poet, but then you need not to write a poem on a paper, or on your cellphone to establish your claim of being a poet. What name would you like to offer to someone who continues to write poetry in his/her mind? There are numerous such people, and they hardly wish to be marked as poet. I’ll love to call them “non-practicing poets.” And poetry essentially thrives on both the practicing and non-practicing group of poets.

India is considered the spiritual capital of the world. We got innumerable sages and monks who had made verses popular in our land. And then, we had Tagore, who made global readers serious about Bengali poetry. Poetry is an extremely important ingredient of Indian culture and philosophy. The corporate India may not be interested in literature or poetry, but they don’t govern our heritage in any capacity.

 

In America, we host “slams”: poetry competitions based on performance. This seems to be the most popular outlet for poetry’s expression. Does India have a specific outlet poetry finds itself in?

 

Honestly, I am not aware of poetry competitions in India. We have a few important literary festivals that happen annually, but I don’t think they dedicate even half of their tenure to poetry. Probably in all major cities we have groups of poets, but then I wonder, if they are, in any way, instrumental in bringing out quality poetry.

 

Tell me about your upcoming collection. Is there a message you wish to convey? Who are you addressing your words to?

 

My newest book of poems is titled The Earthen Flute. Kolkata based Hawakaal Publisher has published and launched it formally on Feb 21 (2016) in Calcutta. My poetry essentially bears messages that I wish to convey to my readers. But I am not the right person to state those messages, for poetry is reader-specific. There are twenty-one poems in this book; short, long and prose-poems. A few of them have appeared in literary journals and blogs. I have added fresh poems as well. There are illustrations that add to the appeal. All in all, The Earthen Flute, I’m pretty sure, is going to be a collector’s edition. Truth-seekers and poetry lovers around the world may find my work worthy! You will be glad to know that my book has been reviewed on The Lake magazine (United Kingdom) even before its release. You may read the complete preview on this link: http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/reviews/february16/

The Millennium Post (English daily published both in Calcutta and New Delhi) said:

 

In this collection of 21 poems, Sengupta talks about how the modern youth is obsessed by what is trendy but ignorant about the wisdom that ancient mythology is laden with. “For example, in a poem titled “Cryptic Idioms,” I talk about how we follow certain yogic postures without even realizing that these were actually part of Sanatan Dharma or Hindu mythology,” Sengupta told Millennium Post.

 

 

Do you feel your poetry is more personal or transcendent? If personal, how does the average reader relate? If transcendent, how do you reach that state?

 

If my poetry is personal or transcendent, critics can answer this best. I don’t write poetry to make it personal or the other way round. I try to convey messages. Some call them “wisdom messages,” others may term my poetry surrealistic! I’m not bothered, you see. I remain conscious when I compose a poem, but poetry essentially arrives without a notice. Let me quote a few lines from a critique:

 

If Sengupta were to follow T.S. Eliot’s dictum that true art should be impersonal, what would that lead to? The clash of opinions still persists — that between the romantic school and the modernist school — Sengupta adheres to the romantic school of thought. It’s the creator’s choice and I guess it’s right for him because if he were to turn impersonal, that would take away the essence of his signature poems, the unique subjective and personal elements. (Page 33, Ketaki Datta and Tania Chakravertty/Rhapsodies and Musings/ Hawakaal Publishers/ July 2015)

 

I can remember a commentary on my trilogy:

Worldly observations become the occasion for explorations of meanings: of the self and its status within the world and within consciousness, and of life’s journey from birth to death … While Sengupta’s poems touch the spirit, and often deal with spiritual matters, they are uniformly grounded in the world around us. (Casey Dorman/ The Statesman/ Jan 31, 2016)

What characterizes a good poet from a bad one? Are there objective criteria? Can habit make a person a poet? What distinguishes a poet from one who writes poetry?

 

These are difficult to answer, Dustin! You have added so many brief questions together. Who is a poet, if I may ask? One may be a famous poet, a popular poet, an esteemed poet, an unknown poet, a non-practicing poet, but they all are poets in the first place. They are neither good, nor are they bad. You love a poet, but then do you love all his/her poems? I mean, all poems that he/she writes? You read a not-so-good poem, written by your beloved poet; how would you rate/grade the poet now? When can a writer claim him/her-self as a poet? I never claim myself as a poet. I write poetry, and if I can be named “poet” is to be ascertained by my readers and reviewers. Don’t go by the dictionary and name a writer “poet” if he/she writes poetry.

 

How do you find the time to write?

 

How do you manage time to eat, Dustin? Aren’t you too occupied to manage even a nap? You are to eat and sleep and write. And I am no exception. Hey, did I answer your question?

 

Do you think the “Muse” is a real being? What purpose does she serve? Who is she? Why does she latch onto certain people?

 

Do you think the “Muse” is a female being? Why do you think so? The “Muse” is only you, if you understand my point. Let me quote a few lines from The Earthen Flute.

 

I’m not a pervert, take a note!

I’m a woman as long as I’m dynamic

I’m a woman unless I’m stilled

Do you think of a woman’s voyage to the heaven? (“Seventh Heaven”)

 

The “Muse” is only your kinetic mind. Your soul keeps wandering to understand the reason(s) of being restless over the years. And it is the “Muse” that allows one to pen down the thoughts of restlessness. You cannot appreciate quietude by keeping mum. You would not be able to celebrate silence if you remain soundless. You have to cultivate the skill of becoming still. Tranquility has its charm when enjoyed in noise. A poet is the blessed soul who struggles for silence and peace, and thus guiding the society in a subtle way towards a harmonious cohabitation with the “Muse.”

 

Do you read a lot? Does reading factor into your writing? What role does reading play for a writer? How much do you read on average?

 

I’m an average reader. Thanks to my lazy eyes that have made me one such. Long poems tire me, extremely long essays exhaust my brain to no end, and fat novels are too repulsive to sit on my desk. Reading influences the psyche, and thus your writing shows the signs of your reading habit. They say it is important to learn, and even more important to unlearn things.

 

Do you ever face adversity for being a writer? Are you humiliated or have you been unfairly criticized?

 

I have my share of negative reviews of my work, but then who I am to justify! I have never paid my reviewers, neither did I influence them in any way. Dustin, why don’t you tell the world about how I managed the notes of appreciation (blurbs) from a few American poets in relation with The Earthen Flute? I was fairly surprised when both Jonathan Moody and Lorna Dee Cervantes wrote on my work, entirely based on the merit or quality of the manuscript.

 

I was bullied in school at times for being bookish and was considered a teacher’s pet, and sometimes teachers themselves thought I was weird. I never fit in to the in-crowd. Years ago, I had a neighbor who believed people who read were ugly and stupid. He insisted that on his trips to the library, he saw only old people or ugly women. It was extremely insulting, but I practiced my usual “Christian forbearance” and was kind until he was evicted from the apartment complex for assaulting me (after a long series of mishaps, the manager was tired of him as well). I think with a head of tough wisdom (not the earthly kind, but philosophical like Ecclesiastes) you are bound to writhe some days. I haven’t had harsh critiques from publishers or reviewers, and most other poets have a favorable attitude toward my writing. This has been a life-long pursuit for me, beginning when I wrote a short story called The Little Red Wagon, written from a child’s imagination. The story was about a young man who loses a wheel off his wagon, and searches for it all day only to find it at the day’s end where he least expects it. I developed a strong sense of the calling at a young age, taking advice from my grandmother on both reading habits and approaches to writing. In your opinion, what is the greatest thing to be proud of as a poet?

 

Honestly, I have no idea. You know, I once asked Bibhas Roy Chowdhury why a poet feels insulted when he/she is referred to as writer. He told me, “Poet is the highest adjective available to a writer.”

 

What other writers you admire? Who is currently on you “to read” list?

 

I have a long list that starts with Tagore and ends with you, Dustin. I would prefer not to take their names, for they are admired on the basis of their poetry. I’m now reading two books: When God Is A Traveller by Arundhathi Subramaniam, and The Daunting Ephemeral.

 

Does writing serve a purpose for non-writers? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said the secret to his success was writing every day. How do you think writing can help those who aren’t writers?

 

Ask a psychotherapist and you will understand how writing helps an individual in his/her day-to-day life. Writing helps in more than one way to combat stress, depression and mental blockage. I must tell you, Dustin, I used to write uncountable love-letters to my girl-friend who is now my wife.

 

What is literacy like in India? What type of literature does the average Indian read?

 

India is no exception, we love to value fiction stories more than any other genre of literature.

 

Finally, is there still a sense of the sacred in India where much of the sacred was born?

 

India is a holy land; the land of spirituality. Even now we have a handful of realized souls, and I am proud to have been associated with a few of those Masters.

 

 

 

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Slam Poetry as Ritual by Melissa Rose, organizer and performance poet

Slam Poetry Rules:

­3 minute time limit­

­Original work only­

­No props/music­

­5 Judges are selected randomly­

 

 

I found my voice on a slam stage when I was 15 years old. Stepping on that wooden platform in Campbell, CA in a theatre packed with cigarette smoking, loud mouthed twenty somethings and way past my curfew I had no idea what a poetry slam was. I just wanted to read aloud the rushed words I had been filling composition notebooks with. To validate my angst and get applause. After I finished my poem and walked back into the darkness with the other spectators, I knew that something changed in me. That when the audience applauded it wasn’t because they liked me, but it was because they understood what I was saying. That they connected with me in a way that was impossible in other contexts. I could express myself in conversation, but onstage, my voice carried a sense of importance.

 

I find that people gravitate to poetry slam and connect with it for different reasons. I’ve seen audience members watch poetry shows for years before deciding to step on the stage and take some limelight for themselves. To make their own voices heard. That’s part of the magic of the art form. Anyone can do it. Everyone’s voice is valid. Everyone has the opportunity to say what needs to be said. Despite the judging, slam has crafted its own space in the literary world uniquely; with poets who can perform just as well as they can write. Poets, who can connect with an audience emotionally through their authenticity. Slam blends theatre, literature and activism into a real­world real time experience of short performance art. The judging is just a side piece to the main course. A gimmick to keep the audience coming back. Poetry Slam is about storytelling and reflection. Slam poets have a wonderful ability to hold a mirror up to society and force it to see itself.

 

In my 15 years in the slam poetry scene I have seen the art form grow and change with the times. Slam poetry has gone from coast to coast and beyond the United States; changing and evolving depending on the local culture and its needs. In recent years, the scene has changed again with the popularity of Youtube and for the first time, people who have never been to a poetry slam in person can finally see what all of the fuss is about. From the comforts of one’s computer screen, slam poets and slam poetry has been offered a platform where the audience stretches far beyond the confines of a crowded bar or theatre… to the millions. Websites such as Everyday Feminism and Upworthy regularly feature slam poetry as a way to convey information about important current events, social insights, and powerful personal stories.

 

I’ve had a hard time convincing others that Slam Poetry is considered a valuable form of literary art , let alone a form of literary art anyone had even heard about. 10 years ago when I  described myself as a slam poet, I was dismissed by other writers and academics who found the art form “too theatrical”, or didn’t understand the art form at all. To this day, the term “slam poetry” is still easily defined by outsiders, but not fully understood. In his article “Slam Poetry Does Not Exist”, Chris Gilpin brings to light that in recent years the term “slam poetry” itself has become it’s own genre of poetry in the minds of the mainstream:

“The negative impacts of adopting the term slam poet are far ­reaching. The idea of a singular, formulaic genre called slam poetry creates an artificial barrier for those who would like to share their work at a slam because it gives the impression that they are writing the wrong kind of poetry if it doesn’t sound like everyone else’s.”

 

Gilpin notes that with more exposure, “slam poetry” is now used as a way to describe a singular style of performance poems, making the culture and scene more visible, but less accessible as a result. The constrictions of what people expect “slam poems” to sound like in the contemporary scene make it more difficult for poets who don’t “fit that mold” to feel like it is a place and a space for their voices . Gilpin himself mentions how some of his students don’t think they can even participate in a slam because their poems don’t “sound” like slam poems. Simply put: what a slam poem is is always open to interpretation. As long as the poet and the poem fit the requirements of the rules, it is a “slam” poem and they are a “slam” poet. Slam’s strength as an art form may be its ability to challenge molds. From the start, Slam Poetry and the world of literary writing have butted heads. Some slam poems might resonate well on paper, but Slam is something that has to be experienced to truly understand. It is, much like live theatre, an experiential art form.

 

While many of the poems written for slam can translate well to the page and visa versa, the live performance, the poet’s voice and body language add a dimension to the poem itself that cannot be felt as strongly on paper. This is why traditionally, most slam poets in the American slam scene memorize their work instead of reading off paper. While no props or costumes are allowed on stage, there is no rule against utilizing microphones, mic stands or using other innovative performance techniques such as back flips and walking through the audience in order to make the message of the poem more effective.

 

Good poems, like many other art forms, evoke a strong emotional reaction from the audience. I’ve experienced poems that have caused just as much anger and outrage as they have caused healing and dialogue. Slam poetry in the United States tackles a multitude of subjects. Technically, nothing is off limits, but in general, the art form in the USA pays close attention to current events, social awareness, and self-reflection. Poets may use the platform to tell a story, or voice an opinion, or to simply have a few minutes on stage to engage with an audience. Not everyone uses the slam art form for therapeutic reasons. Some (like myself) do and have used it this way. As the child of an abusive and addicted household, I found that expressing the aftermath of those experiences not only helped me process them objectively, but by performing those pieces in front of others I had the opportunity to engage in a cathartic experience and truly be at peace with what I had gone through. Audiences going into a poetry slam might identify with a poet or the story they are telling and find catharsis through experiencing that with the poet together, forming a strong human connection. This act itself can be a healing event for an entire community. Storytelling itself is a powerful tool for social and personal change. Caren S. Neile explains this power in her essay “The Gate of Heaven”:

“If we consider that a storytelling audience is, as noted earlier, a co­creator, sharing ownership of the storytelling event, we see that the audience is an active­­and essential­­participant in the storytelling ritual….A storyteller requires an audience to complete the ritual”

 

Academic research has proven that writing is therapeutic, but other disciplines such as Drama Therapy has shown that performance is just as powerful in processing events and trauma. We as communicative creatures can blend both into 3 minutes of power, declaration and ritual through the poetry slam experience. Whether you are on stage or observing the poets who are, you are participating in the experience. Slam is in fact a ritual. The details might be a bit different depending on where you are, but the same structure proves that this is more than just a “show”. Slam poets are spellcasting. A good slam poet can make you feel exactly how they want you to feel. They can communicate their message in a way that stays with you. That changes you. That makes you think differently. The true power of the art form is the poet’s willingness to be vulnerable, and the clear focused moment when a message is communicated with truth and authenticity.

 

 

About the author:

Melissa Rose has been performing her poetry in the United States and Europe since 2001. She is currently the Executive Director of SIREN, a non profit organization that uses spoken word to empower teen girls.

Interview with Ryan Guth, author of Body and Soul (Lummox Press, 2015)

What led to the creation of this book? What inspired the idea?

 

It really began as a series of conversations with my primary source, an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, whom I have agreed to keep anonymous. But the stories I heard in those conversations are themselves the inspiration and the foundation of my book. I have fictionalized where necessary for my own artistic purposes (and to protect my source’s identity), but my ultimate goal has been simply to express the emotional and psychological truth of those experiences.

 

Is there a purpose for the mingling of playacting and poetry in the book?

 

You know, my publisher asked me the same question. It’s probably the most demanding aspect of the book, from a reader’s point of view, so I appreciate the opportunity to explain what I was after. My character Cassandra, as an abuse survivor, suffers in adult life from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This condition manifests as a splitting-off of “alter” personalities whose purpose is to help carry the emotional load, the burden of remembering and responding to physical and emotional trauma. Thus, she has an unusually complicated relationship both to present reality and to her own past. She often has trouble understanding or articulating her own motivations, and sometimes detaches completely, imagining herself from an external point of view as if through a camera.

The piece titled “Part of the Show” illustrates several of these DID symptoms. It’s presented as a parody of cheap, sensational true-crime TV shows — the ones that feature supposed documentary footage or re-enactments, interspersed with “after-the-fact” interviews. The piece focusses on an episode from Cassandra’s days as a home-care nurse many years earlier. One of her patients, “Andrew,” is a would-be painter who’s had no success or recognition for his (admittedly mediocre) work. He’s also dying of AIDS. At the same time, Cassandra is being pursued by a modelling agency, the owner of which sponsors an annual art show featuring local talent. That owner has a sexual interest in her as well, which she uses as a bargaining tool to get her patient some exhibit space in the show. She genuinely wants to give Andrew some validation of his artistic ambitions before he dies, but she’s also presenting him to make a statement of her own, to shock the pretentious high-society crowd attending the exhibit. So poor Andrew ends up being part of two different “shows” – Cassandra’s as well as the owner’s. As she recalls this incident, she wants very much to believe she did the right thing for the right reasons, but worries that she only subjected him to gratuitous humiliation. Her self-doubts are presented in the voice of the modelling agency owner; however – as the “host” of the TV show points out – his character is only “a simulation, based on Cassandra’s own recollections.” In other words, the entire TV program is simply one of Cassandra’s dissociative episodes. She can’t bring herself to question her own actions, so she creates a version of the agency owner in her mind to ask those questions for her, and she further distances herself from the memory by framing it in the TV-show format. Within the premise of that “show,” Cassandra and the owner are never in the same location or the same camera shot, so she’s never put in the position of having to respond to her accuser.

 

Then there’s the long closet-drama, “Truth be Told,” which forms the climax and denouement of the book. “NO REVEALING THE ENDING!,” you said – so I’ll try to avoid spoilers. This piece dramatizes the surfacing of yet another repressed sex-abuse memory, this one tangled up with a drug-murder that her father was involved in when she was a child. After studying police and court records for the murder case, the adult Cassandra becomes convinced that some testimony she remembers giving about the abuse incident may have been deliberately expunged as part of a plea bargain. This possibility is so emotionally debilitating that she creates two additional alters, “manifesting as a pair of police detectives,” to relive the investigation and re-examine it for her.

 

What spurred the idea for the Southwestern myths in Body and Soul? Were they intended to shape the plot, or symbolize an implied thought?

O'Keefe

More the latter, I’d say. Take the short poem “La Loba” – it’s inserted into the narrative sequence at a point where Cassandra has physically returned to the scenes of several scarifying memories, in order to confront and memorialize them (the “FOUR STONES” sequence). In the midst of this emotionally draining effort, she happens to recall the wolf-woman legend. Perhaps she sees herself “knitting new muscle, / new skin and fur,” like the bones in the poem. Perhaps she herself is trying “to Become.” It’s also no accident that the figure of La Loba in my poem looks and acts a lot like Georgia O’Keeffe – another southwestern symbol of life-affirming female strength.  I think of that poem, at that particular point in the book, as a kind of pep-talk Cassandra is giving herself.
“La Llorona” works in much the same way, but reflects a darker patch in Cassandra’s life. She’s deep in addiction, deep in debt to her dealer and sleeping around, so her husband has left the state with their son to get away from her chaos. At this low point, she imagines herself as a new incarnation of “La Llorona” — the weeping woman, outcast and self-punished for killing her children.

Llorona

 

 

The book blurs the boundaries of fact and fantasy. Other than this lack of distinction giving shape to the protagonist’s personalities, is there a higher symbolism you are trying to achieve? Is Cassandra perhaps reflecting a deeper religious truth?

 

Cassandra’s devotion to a “divine strong female presence” does sometime takes the form of identifying herself with that goddess figure, as in “Aretalogy” or “All Like Poetic and Shit.” For the most part, though, I see that fact/fiction blend more as an expression of her DID… although it could be symbolic as well, now that you mention it. The disintegration of a single personality into separate alters is obviously a self-destructive act, but at the same time it’s an imaginative coping mechanism, a way of trying to manage the emotional load of traumatic memories. Ironically, the disorder could be a symbol of the sufferer’s desire to survive and overcome.

Speaking of symbols, someone at a reading asked me about the name “Cassandra” — was it a nod to the Greek myth about the prophetess whose warnings weren’t believed? “Absolutely,” I replied. Then I went home and looked her up, because actually I’d chosen that name purely for sound and rhythm. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of the mythical Cassandra, but sometimes the Universe gives you one for free.

 

How did James Joyce figure into the book’s creation and structure?

 

He’s all over Body and Soul. The “play” sections, which we discussed earlier, are directly inspired by Joyce’s use of dramatic form in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses, and for exactly the same purpose – dramatizing psychological states, “exteriorizing the interior,” you might say. The short piece “Recessional,” at the end of Part III, was actually conceived as a continuation of Joyce’s novel, which ends with Molly Bloom thinking about (among many other things) making eggs for her husband’s breakfast the next morning. Ulysses takes place on June 16; my “Recessional” is dated June 17 – which, as it happens, was the actual date of the incident described in the piece. Did I mention that the Universe sometimes gives you one for free?

 

Joyce’s so-called “mythic method” – infusing a naturalistic character with mythological overtones – is also behind my borrowings from southwestern lore, which we’ve already talked about.

james-joyce

Aside from Body and Soul, I would like to ask about your educational background.

 

My M.A. is from West Chester University, where I studied with poet Chris Buckley. At the University of Cincinnati I studied with Andrew Hudgins and Don Bogen, and my creative doctoral dissertation was the basis of my first book, Home Truths (Alsop Review Press, 2006).

 

Do you think an education in Creative Writing is useful for writers? Can it be harmful? Some criticize writing courses as “hammering originality out” or making the student like the teacher. What is your take on this?

 Pinkfloydhammers_preview_featured

I’ve had both harmful and useful experiences, fortunately in that order. As an 18-year-old college freshman, I was told by a bullying professor that “nobody writes about mountains and lovers anymore.” When I disagreed, he advised me to do two things: give up writing, and leave his program. The second piece of advice was pretty good, so I guess he wasn’t a total loss.

 

My graduate instructors, on the other hand, were fine teachers as well as acclaimed poets – gifted with the ability to understand or intuit what their students wanted to accomplish in a given piece, and even to explain those intentions — sometimes better than we ourselves were able to articulate them. And they understood the trap of what Hudgins himself referred to as “the workshop poem” – that is, the stereotypically careful, correct little piece that makes no missteps because it takes no chances. We were actually discussing a draft of mine at the time, and I took it as a compliment that he thought my piece didn’t fit the stereotype.

I understand you conducted intense research to write this book. What did you learn from it? How did the research factor into the creation of Cassandra and her story?

 

In terms of the book itself, research mostly served to give me additional insight into the experiences and responses described by my source. There is one passage in the book, however, which is based solely on research. In the second introductory poem, “Too Pretty,” Cassandra feels a brief (and very uncomfortable) moment of sexual desire when thinking about her grandfather, who has just died. I’d read that abuse survivors sometimes feel such sexual attraction to their abusers, but I found the possibility so hard to credit that I followed up on it with a clinical psychologist who works with abuse victims. He corroborated what my written sources told me, so that passage stayed in the book even though it was not part the material my source provided.

 

In terms of informing my own life, I suppose the most important thing I learned was to trust a survivor’s story. It’s very hard – nearly impossible in many cases – to get to the full truth of what happened. The abuser lies, the abuser orders the victim to lie, other family members are carefully manipulated into assisting with the cover-up, so memory distortions and gaps get a good firm hold. All of that teaches the survivors not to trust their own remembering. To work through all of that for the sake of whatever truth CAN be established, and then to have that truth dismissed or disbelieved, can feel like a wholesale negation of the survivor’s desire to heal. Terribly, sometimes irreparably, damaging.

What advice can you offer to writers who want to break from the small time?

 piles-of-money

I’m never sure what “small time” means, or if folks who write poetry ever manage to “break” from it these days. If you want attention for your work in your own lifetime, you have to promote it pretty mercilessly – before, during, and after any publication — which can take time and energy away from the work itself. Posterity, on the other hand, only cares about the quality of the materials and the workmanship. You have to decide which is more important to you, and learn to live with the consequences. I’ll let you know if I get there.

 

How did you establish a connection with Lummox Press?

 

Lummox Press was listed in both “Duotrope” and the Poets and Writers database of publishers — both of which I heartily recommend to any writers — so I figured the cross-listing was a good recommendation in itself. I corresponded with the owner, Rd Armstrong, for a couple of years before I submitted a query. I also bought and read several of their titles, and had several poems from the book published in their journal. Over time, I developed a pretty clear idea of the kind of work they publish, and it seemed to be generally in line with what I was trying to do in Body and Soul.

 

How long did it take the book to be released after it was accepted by Lummox Press? Were there any obstacles you faced once the book was in their hands?

 

About two years from acceptance to release, which is pretty typical for small presses. The first year was just waiting for my turn – they try to put out 10-12 books a year, and sometimes there’s a backlog. The second year was taken up with editing, design, and proofreading. Not to mention the chore of securing permissions for the few short quotations that appear in the book. There were originally several dozen of these, mostly from the world of popular music, but the process was so tedious and time-consuming that I cut most of them. Note to self: NEVER use pop-song quotes again!

 

What sparked your interest in writing? What do you feel is the highest reward for writing a book?

 

I was reading by myself at the age of three, and started writing at five. It’s much more than an interest, or an urge to express myself, or to contribute to the Canon of Literature. Writing really is how I make sense of the world, and I don’t know how functional I’d be without it. I think eyesight would be much easier to give up.

Highest reward? Feeling the words and phrases finally click into place, usually after 15-20 drafts of a piece, over a period of years. Which is probably why I think in terms of books and sequences; if one piece isn’t going well, I can turn to another part of the project and still feel like I’m making progress that day. Now that Body and Soul is actually in print, I find that gaining the interest of attentive readers such as yourself is also highly gratifying.

 

Do you imagine Cassandra ever got the answers she sought?

 

Your question tells me that the conclusion is doing what I intended it to – i.e., implying that there won’t ever be any final, objective confirmation of her own memories. She’s fully examined and exhausted the available evidence, and the answer seems to be that there IS no answer. It’s even possible that more incidents and abusers will resurface; remember, she thought that was over with at the end of Part III. But at the end of Part IV we see her just beginning to understand – and even to make peace with — that lack of certainty. Whatever questions remain, she’s sober, she has her “Ted,” and in that final image she’s making a place in her own adult life to care for the frightened, friendless child she remembers being.

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Are there a lot of cases of sexual abuse forgotten by victims, only to be remembered in later years?

 

First, let me say that I’m nobody’s expert on this subject. My sense of it is that the repression of memories isn’t universal, at least not to the total extent of Cassandra’s case. But erased memories are far from uncommon.

 

Will Cassandra make another appearance in a newer work?

 

The arrangement between my source and me ended with the completion of Body and Soul. We are no longer in contact.

 

Do you have plans for another book?

 

Oh yes! Another “mixed-genre novel,” tentatively titled Livings. Time: 1845-1850. Place: an isolated industrial village in the north of England. Characters: the famous Bronte family of writers, four highly gifted, highly-strung adult siblings who for various reasons have failed to establish themselves in the outside world and now find themselves back in their childhood home with their father, an elderly Anglican pastor. One of the siblings is something of a theologian, one is an eloquent and inspiring feminist, one a pagan nature mystic, and one is a drunk-slash-opium addict. Imagine the possibilities!

 

 

Ryan Guth’s book Body and Soul is available here: http://www.lummoxpress.com/lc/body-and-soul/

 

 

Interview with Alina Stefanescu, Romanian-Alabamian poet

1) You have mentioned you are interested in Darwinian theory. What role does this interest play in your latest writing?

 

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My first chapbook— Objects In Vases— came together as a series of poems partly in response to what I sensed in the surrounding culture. Intelligent friends who swore Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I was amazed, incredulous, and disturbed by the extent to which self-help has a become a siphon for limited thinking and conformism.

Socialization, the process by which we learn and internalize cultural norms, fascinates me. Pop ev-psych has picked up where Freud left off. It explains our deepest sentiments through reference to animal instinct, a standardized emotional repertoire, boilerplate stuff. Ev psych does not help me understand anyone I have ever met. Instead, it sheds light on our culture as well as vulnerability to naturalistic fallacies.

Humans differ from other mammals in the extensive helplessness of infants and children. This period of socialization accounts for cultural similarities— our constructions of masculinities and femininities, our notions of success and failure, our early acquiescence to competitive status seeking— as well as differences among cultures.

2) Tell me about your recent poetic efforts. You attempt a comparison between those things we hold sacred (flags, ritual, taboo) as being like a vase we can’t touch. What inspired this metaphor?

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I was born in Romania. In 1980, my parents defected from Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship. Raised in Alabama, I straddled two cultures– the rich, warm, effusive Romanian language of home and the pragmatic, success-driven, somewhat prudish (or reticent) environment of American southern life.

Growing up a hyphenated American alienated me from a slip-on identity— school peers were at pains to remind me that I was not born here, that I could never be like them, no matter what I did to prove the opposite. For example, a guy in my history class announced that Alina could never be president of the USA even though she was a naturalized citizen. This insignificant detail amounts to different levels of citizenship for Americans. I think even convicted felons can be elected president as long as they were “born here”. Being born somewhere else means you can play at democracy within certain limits— and as long as you know your place. A

But being a perpetual non-native liberated me as well. Freed me to see the parts of self worn as convention and culture. Freed me to observe the differences between what was good in Romania and what was good in Alabama. Freed me to acknowledge alternate versions of piety or wisdom. I became a collector of cliches and superstitions. I learned to admire the objects in vases, and to understand the object OF vases. What they preserve. Identity.

3) Have you thought about your obsession with the vase? What makes it central enough to you to use it as poetic device?

As a female, you get stuck with vases. I have a collection of anonymous vases in the kitchen, many of which came free with flower deliveries. One day it struck me that I didn’t use vases correctly— my vases were not burgeoning with tulips like Martha Stewart’s. Instead, my vases held colored pencils, paintbrushes, knickknacks, and the occasional drink. This simple image of an everyday container which bears our Sunday best— the way we want to be perceived by others— fascinated me. This relationship between the poems and what they “contained”— assumptions, implications, associations, and again, socializations— was intriguing.

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4) What cultural differences are there between Romania and the American South? Which do you prefer and why? Is there something you prefer about each region?

As a “Romanian-Alabamian”, I am guilty of loving both. Perhaps, to some extent, I am a traitor for refusing to choose between the two. To honor one land first. Better a happy, enchanted traitor than a human who silences half her heart.

Romanian and Southern culture share an affinity for hospitality, warmth, and ritual— a life driven by meals, extended family, and long porch conversations. On the other hand, Romanian culture, especially in Transylvania and Wallachia, has developed over thousands of years so it has many traditions, rituals, and legends that Alabama hasn’t had time to develop. Unless you count civil war reenactments. I leave the civil war reenactments to skilled writers like George Saunders, whose CivilWarLand In Bad Decline is a must-read for fiction writer considering the American South.

5) How does being both an immigrant and a stranger in America reflect in your poetry? 

Children learn who they are from their surrounding culture. A little girl learns fairly early that she needs breasts for boys. Most of media we see portrays breasts for the purpose of attracting males rather than nursing infants. In the same vein, boys are instructed in the fine art of catcalls and meat-market comparisons by billboards which show men watching women with beer in their hands. As if men lack human substance or creativity.

When my son was just learning to read, I had to answer lots of questions about our billboard landscape. On a drive, he saw billboard for breast implants— “Mom, why would women have their breasts cut open to stick stuff inside their skin?” He was horrified. I tried to give a neutral explanation about how females do it to feel “good” about themselves— like getting hair extensions or a perm— but he wasn’t having it.

“No woman cuts off her breasts for herself,” he insisted. His ongoing questions and horror forced me to see the world afresh— like an alien anthropologist from Mars, to paraphrase Walker Percy. My conclusions: “Whoa, this is one crazy culture in which part of the population is driven by self-loathing while the other part is driven by false notions of entitlement.”

The sacred things in Alabama— the things we I could not touch— did not include a human body or a individual life. Most were symbolic objects— images that don’t bleed, perhaps icons. For a few of the poems, including “Strong Female Voices”, I adopted a different voice— the voice of a woman standing near the table warning her kids not to touch the vase. Not to break it. To preserve the vase from damage or harm requires us to place the vase out of reach. To forestall any form of interaction with it. To render it holy and untouchable.

Playing with that voice (voices, really), the vase is a form of power. A way of being held captive. Among strangers, in a crowd, I am beheld as a homeschooling mother of three. They behold me as such. I am not free to act very far outside the limited scope of what is beholden to a homeschooling mom. Men in power don’t perceive the homeschooling mother of three as a threat. Like the girl in the Pixies song, she’s “tame”, harmless. In this sense, I am safer than a young black man when it comes to police but I am more “vulnerable “than a young black man by virtue of being female. Beheld as needing protection. Beheld as an object to violate.

Authority, like power, provides us with control but also the ability to injure. A form of responsibility in the gaze of the powerful— in how they see us. William Gass has a great insight in his essay on Robert Walser. He says: “The power that others possess is something that, like a great outcropping of rock, may fall upon you; but it also makes a shade under which you may find shelter.”

We find shelter in the vases. We hide behind the power projected by others. We offer a Nuremberg defense for the horrors done in our name. We put the popular vases on the table to conform, to be a part of things, to participate. We value them. And we tell ourselves it’s “natural” because it’s what everyone does.

Then we view the vase. Participate in the viewing. Tell the kids not to touch.

6) Did visiting Romania create a surge in poetic outpourings? Did you feel more at home there, more rooted in its culture?

1989 changed my life. I visited Romania for the first time since my parents defected in 1980. It was incredible— I met my extended family, and discovered the world was bigger than Tuscaloosa. Being “weird” was no longer a negative– I was happy to be the weird. The world was weird and fascinating and amazing.

7) What journals have you been published in? Do you see any points of similarity between the journals you have been accepted by?

Lacking an MFA, I know very little about the practices of writing as they play out in publishing. I make mistake upon mistake and learn a little more from each. I think the journals which have published my writing are fairly diverse, ranging from the Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (the eeel) to Cider Press Review, so I don’t see any points of similarity apart from the honor of their acceptance.

There’s a special place in my divided, disloyal heart for a few editors who really encouraged, engaged, and prodded me way beyond the realm of reasonable expectation. Among them: Christina Collins from Lockjaw (which is one of the greatest journals out there); Erin Dorney and Matthew Kabik of Third Point Press, who nominated one of my poems for a Best of the Net last year, Travis Sharp, Tracey Gregory, and the staff of Small Po[r]tions Journal who published some fairly challenging poems (I’ll be reading at their offsite come AWP); Roxanna Bennett from Matrix who was kind and generous following my mother’s sudden death last year; Luke Hankins of Orison Press who is a beautiful human being and diligent editor— and, of course, Amanda Mays of Anchor & Plume Press , whom I can never thank enough. I haven’t even touched upon the fiction editors and the fiction journals yet….

Honestly, I do not know how editors juggle the reading, writing, meetings, logistics, correspondence of editing with their daily lives, which often include jobs, families, friends, cats, and writing. Anytime an editor takes the time to talk to me is a gift— something for which I am grateful as opposed to something I expect. Have I mentioned how editors (and readers and assistant editors and layout designers) blow my mind?

8) What rewards do poets experience? What most validates your life as a poet?

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Sometimes the costs are easier to count than the rewards. Writing demands a lot from one’s family— a lot depends on my spouse, for example, who accepts my constant distraction, my absent presence at the table. If he expected me to cook dinner or read bedtime stories to the kids, there would be no writing. So I am grateful (and often mystified) by his sacrifice— his agreement to share a bed with a human who is infatuated by a story or a poem, a cloud of words in her head. Everyone is different, but writing does not validate me as a person. Writing is an obsession, an infatuation, a room without walls or limits. It’s a way of relating to one’s self and to the world that defies expectation. What reward do you get when you surrender to the voice calling from beneath the window? Maybe it’s a ride. An impossible terrifying marvelous ride. A tangle and an exquisite torment.

9) Do you have favorite poets? Are there any widely respected Romanian poets?

So many— so many poets who inspire and excite and infuriate and instruct me. Currently, I am devouring everything by Mark Yakich— he has such an incredible ear for language, such a mind for meaning and unmeaning, turns ploughshares into swords under the table. Also William H. Gass’ On Being Blue— not “poetry”, per se, but extremely poetic, paradigm-rattling prose. Gass inspires me to write like no one else. Mary Oliver for grief, Wendell Berry for reverence, Mary Ruefle for life, Adrienne Rich for resurrection. I’ve also enjoyed a recent collection by Alison Prine.

As for Romanian poets, it was Nichita Stanescu who first left my at the foot a line begging for more. Rilke, Rimbaud, and Stahescu got me through high school. Contemporary Romanian poets to watch include Mircea Cartarescu and Maria Calciu, whose words evoke objects and places as if lit from within— I keep looking for the plug or the cord or the trick. Also Stella Radulescu whose delicate, sparse poems render each word somehow holy— I love her dance with the ineffable. One of my dreams is to bring the work of Constantin Virgil Banescu to American audiences. He died much too young with that beautiful voice— he could write a poem on a cafe napkin which sounded thoroughly workshopped. He literally spoke poetry. I translated a couple of Banescu’s poems for jmww journal (http://jmwwjournal.com/Stefanescu1.html) and translation is a challenging journey— a dialogue between a language and a grave— much more difficult than writing one’s own poetry. How to honor his voice and erase my own?

10) Sometimes each country has a unique style of poetic expression, as if the national life creates a distinct temper to the poem. Do you feel your travels and return have effects on your writing? Did the American South teach you anything about humanity, the search for truth, or the nature of beauty? What makes Romanian poetry distinctly Romanian?

I read Romanian poetry the way a child reads the wallpaper from his crib. So much dolor, a persistence of longing that I bring to page but which also, I think, exists independently of my reading. American poetry is diverse, and I don’t want to go on record saying it isn’t about longing but certainly the themes of our poetics include novelty, change, and motion. For me, Romanian poetry conveys the past within the present— words are rich with connotation, very sensual and evocative.

One Romanian word haunts me (a word often referenced by the Romanian literary community in exile), a word for which there is no American translation. The word “dor”, a happy but thwarted longing, a rich canvas of soil, a backdrop for traditional folk music and culture. In Romania, children memorize poems as a general practice. When my parents defected, they had $200 in their pockets and a landscape of remembered poems in their heads. At Romanian get-togethers or extended-family dinners, there was always a person who got tipsy enough to start reciting a poem. I remember hiding in the doorframe watching my grandfather recite “Luceafarul” with his hands clasped behind his back. I remember others at the table crying. This was normal and not unusual.

There is a respect for poetry in Romania that lacks its counterpart here. Seriously, can you imagine what would happen to a southern male who stood up and recited a 100-line poem a frat party or a backyard BBQ? He would lose his hard-won “manliness”. There’s no similar taboo against poetry in Romania. Recently, I recorded my father reading a few Romanian poems I’d selected— his voice broke, the tears came, it was more beautiful and true than I can convey. My kids watched from the couch, eyes wide. I am so grateful for that moment in which they witnessed a reticent Professor of Metallurgical Engineering give himself to the words he was reading. Poetry is for any heart that can handle feeling it.

11) Please tell me about your collection Objects in Vases. What is the source of this metaphor? What are you striving to express? Do you feel the collection said what you wanted, the way you wanted? Were there road bumps in the process? How long did it take to complete the work?

It took about a year for the poems to come together. If I’m allowed to indulge a little abstraction, I might get closer to the concrete stoop of this thing. A poem is like a vase. The vase is there, an object, perceived by the poet. So the reader sees what the poet has constructed. What the poem permits. Some poets are more permissive than others.

To read poetry is to witness an act of perception. To see an act of seeing rather than the object itself. I think this is one reason for the evangelical Protestant’s disinterest in poetry. It is not literal enough for their taste. If you mention Rilke’s love poems to God, the remark is met with confusion— why would anyone write love poems to God? It sounds cheesy, right?

A love poem to God is a painting of God, one person’s enamored perception. Despite their Wednesday night choreographies of scriptural exegesis, despite their continuous focus on textual interpretation, Protestants prefer the object to the perception.

I kept running into a question which implied its own answer: What can I learn from a poem except how another person sees the world?

If what you want is “objective”, then Protestants and science fetishists line up together against the poetic.

What do I want? I want to live in a world of subjects.

12) Do you think love is a powerful inspiration for poetry? 

Love is both the pulse and slit wrist. I can’t imagine writing my way through through a world without the mysteries of love. I can’t imagine preferring the safe standing-ground of security to the self-reckoning enabled by fear. I have fallen so many times but not one of these falls (or the resulting scars) is regrettable. As a human, you learn from the sore places. As a writer, the scars are a seam through which poetry emerges. So love is paramount— love is the penultimate precipice.

13) What advice do you have for poets who wish to write their own collection? How do you think collecting your poems should be approached?

The only advice I have is to write. To write and write and write and when you can’t write another word then read and read and read. Let it happen.

Maybe an example would help. I’ll take a poem from Objects In Vases. “Oscar Dees, No Apologetics Please” was provoked by reading interviews given by a family of Atmore prison wardens. These interviews kept me up at night as I tried to understand Oscar Dees’ perspective. I could hear his voice. I could him justifying the invisible racisms and misogynies. So there’s a voice in my head. And it’s a scary voice. I take a few notes and read the interviews again. And again. Until I feel ready to hear Oscar Dees.

In my experience, both life and study, ignorance and error are the primary sources of so much evil. Ignorance and error are the panties of bad behavior.

Western civilization operates under the assumption that we are responsible for our behavior. This behavior arises from our beliefs and what we know of the world. It is no strain in logic to say we are responsible for the beliefs which underly (and propagate) our actions.

Belief comes from what we put in, what we consume— books, media, friendships, social groups, ideas, conventions, religion, politics, etc. A person who reads Ann Coulter cannot help becoming hateful. She does not choose the hateful thought which flows naturally from the steady diet of Coulter. But she chooses to consume that first word— to find herself attracted to the anger and hatred. To be excited and incited. We are not innocent of the trash we put in our minds if these minds control bodies which can own and use deadly weapons.

Write about what you read. Let the bad stuff drive you crazy. Read the other side of the story. And— if you can’t find the other side of the story— then it’s your job to write it.

14) Finally, does the electronic age seem like the death of manual, tangible art? Will ebooks replace the physical editions? Will bookstores lose their revenue and close? Is the book something of the past, or something fading away? Do you think books will regain their popularity? How can poets promote books effectively?

I don’t think ebooks will replace physical books but who knows? Shit happens. Maybe the world will be a better place as a result. The written word, whether digital or paper, satisfies a deep, visceral human need. As long as we remain homo sapiens sapiens, there will be stories. I look forward to changes in literary mediums. I look forward to archives everywhere. The saddest moment in my life came when I realized I had read every published book by Rainer Maria Rilke. There was no new Rilke for me— I’d devoured him too quickly. I’m willing to engage any medium that offers me unread Rilke. And that’s my hope— that there will be more words and extended access. A world of words everywhere.

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