Contributors Archives

Maggie Millner

Healing the Phantom Pains Through Poetry: Q&A with Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

I turn to the poems of Noelle Kocot for the same reason I entered corn mazes as a kid: both are pleasurably unpredictable, and both transform everyday places into thrilling twilight zones. Though Kocot’s writing has covered a great deal of formal and conceptual terrain over the course of her seven books, her work has remained whip-smart and darkly playful, consistently carrying off great feats of imagination while orbiting an urgent emotional truth. These hallmarks are present in the restless quatrains of her Levis Poetry Prize-winning first collection, in the unflinching elegies for her late husband in Sunny Wednesday, and, now, in the tersely elliptical poems of Phantom Pains of Madness, released last month from Wave Books. Like its predecessors, Kocot’s latest book fills me with a combination of triumph and incongruous grief, like a kid at the end of a corn maze.

Phantom Pains of Madness is memorable for a few reasons. First, every one of its lines comprises only a single word, so the resulting columns of text appear lean and sinewy, as if pared down from a much larger whole:

What
Is
Left
Only
The
Life
The
Singing
Language
Around
The
Life

Kocot also has a way of writing about cognitive distortions that is more on the mark and profound than that of any other living poet I can think of. The poems in Phantom Pains of Madness mimic the language of the mind in its least rational, most disjunctive states, recounting hallucinatory pangs and visions in all their stinging color. We spoke with Kocot via email about her new book, the role of poetry in destigmatizing mental illness, and cool and hot jazz.

ZYZZYVA: According to the blurb, this collection explores “a break with reality that occurred a decade and a half ago.” You’ve been busy during that decade and a half, publishing six full-length books of poetry and a collection of translations, among other projects. I’m curious about whether Phantom Pains of Madness was incubating during all that time.

Noelle Kocot: Well, I didn’t plan a book; instead, I wrote about 200 of these poems. (Joshua Beckman, poet and editor at Wave Books, made the selections and the order.) It was when I quit smoking cigarettes (ultimately unsuccessfully), hence the title. I felt so crazed and out of my mind when I wrote these poems from the lack of nicotine, which lasted around four months. So yes, definitely it had been incubating for all that time, but quitting smoking was definitely the impetus, because it really was the experience of “phantom pains of madness.” Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Forms of Self-Interrogation: Q&A with ‘Emergency Brake’ Author Ruth Madievsky

5131260In Ruth Madievsky’s Emergency Brake, a body is never just a body. Rather, it is a looted ship, a lit match, a bedtime story, a lamp. In other moments, the body is known only by what it contains: a rope, a salted pretzel, “the sound of a penny thrown in a blender.” Madievsky’s poems put domestic objects to work, personifying and reframing embodied experience like puppets with the poet’s hands inside. And in her fiery first collection, published by Tavern Books as a Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection, her talent for analogy is on full display.

In addition to a metaphor-maker par excellence, Madievsky is a doctoral student in pharmacy and a research assistant in an HIV clinic in Los Angeles. Drug names and medical terms punctuate her lyrics, forcing a dialogue between her romantic and clinical inclinations and suggesting the body’s dangerous propensity for betrayal. And there is danger here: while many pages show the speaker delighting in “the naming of things,” other poems allude to moments of trauma and rage. Still, Madievsky’s speaker is too resilient, too mobile and defiant, to dwell on victimhood; as she writes in “Poem for Spring,” which first appeared in ZYZZYVA (No. 103), “the only violence / we have time for / is the violence of stars.” We spoke with Madievsky on the phone and over email about how she pulls off her aesthetic, thematic, and professional balancing acts.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start with the title. It seems the phrase is lifted from a line in “Halloween” where the speaker describes an escapist tendency:
…how all my life
I’ve been about as carefree as a soft peach
in a pile of broken glass, my hand
always twitching toward the Ativan bottle, always ready
to pull the emergency brake…

This moment comes in the middle of an uncomfortable situation with the speaker’s boss, and I read the “emergency brake” as a kind of deus ex machina: a way to magic oneself out of a threatening setting into somewhere safer. What made you choose this metaphor for the book?

Ruth Madievsky: Originally, the book was called Shadowboxing as a nod to the four poems with that title. But “shadowboxing” sounds like exactly what you’d call a first book of poems—it has that simultaneously vague-and-specific vibe. When a friend, the poet Douglas Manuel, suggested I call the book Emergency Brake, a champagne bottle burst open in my head. Though the phrase “emergency brake” appears only once in the book, the motif of emergency brakes—in the form of intimacy, medication, associative thinking, etc.—recurs throughout. I’m taken by how those things can function at times as the emergency brake, at other times the emergency.

Z: There seem to be two prevalent forces acting on the speaker in these poems: one seems distinctly internal, in the form of obsessive, morbid thoughts (especially thoughts having to do with medicine), while the other seems more external, in the form of sexual harassment and gendered violence. There’s a sense of the body being breached but also of it being already contaminated. Can you speak about that tension?

RM: You articulated that much more clearly than I could have. I would add love and eroticism as other primary forces acting both on and within the speaker—it’s not all chemo and sex offender registries, I hope! But yes, you’ve hit on a tension that intrigues me: the ways in which the body enters the world and the world enters the body. Lungs are a core image for me because they’re maybe the best example of the constant exchange between world and body.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews, News | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The lush lives of vandals and debauchers: ‘Four-Legged Girl’ by Diane Seuss

Four-Legged GirlThe dedication page of Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl (88 pages; Graywolf Press) reads: “For my people: the living and the dead.” But in this hypnagogic third collection, the margin between the living and the dead is “glory holed,” penetrated, and ultimately renounced. Seuss’s singular eye sees bodies everywhere, and her psychedelic syntax animates them. Spirea is “the color of entrails;” poppies sport a “testicular fur;” a blouse on the clothesline makes the speaker feel “as if [she]’d been skinned alive.” In these elegies, insensate matter becomes living human flesh.

But the humans with whom Seuss is concerned are always already marginal: punks and addicts, convalescents and outsider artists. The first of the book’s five, vaguely chronological sections deals with the death of the speaker’s father, though his disembodied tumors haunt these pages long after his funeral in “As a child I ate and mourned.” Other recurrent characters include an ex-partner who dies of an overdose—referred to only as “my junkie”—and a two-headed, taxidermied lamb in a museum in the speaker’s hometown: “the precious freak who lives at the heart of me / still.” The book’s final poem is an ode to Myrtle Corbin, the eponymous four-legged girl, born in the late nineteenth century with two pairs of legs, two pelvises, and two sets of working reproductive organs. Seuss’s speaker, who frequently ponders her own body’s difference, with its “titanium leg and…wide caesarian scar,” makes idols of this motley cast of characters.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Teaching Poetry Means ‘Make It Human’: Q&A with Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

This month, West Coast writers are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of California Poets in the Schools, a collective of professional poets who facilitate poetry and performance workshops in schools around the state. Each year, CPITS introduces more than 26,000 students to poetry and performance; each year, these students generate more than 100,000 poems through the program. By exposing children to poetry at a young age, CPITS teachers encourage a conception of poetry as a humane, practical, and social endeavor. They coach students in a skill they will likely use all their lives: that of studying and expressing their experiences and of making something tangible and novel in the process.

Since its inception, the organization, which began as the Pegasus Project at San Francisco State, has served half a million students, brought programs to schools in twenty-nine counties, and garnered an impressive list of volunteers. One such teacher is Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of California since 2012, who led his first writing workshop as a CPITS volunteer in the early 1970s. Since then, in addition to writing more than twenty books for children and adults, Herrera has led numerous poetry and arts programs, from El Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego to the Soledad Correctional Facility to the University of Iowa. (He currently holds a professorship at the University of California, Riverside, where he was appointed the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in 2005.) In honor of CPITS’ semi-centennial, we spoke with Herrera, a past ZYZZYVA contributor (issues No. 13 and No. 89), via email about his experiences teaching poetry.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Examining Daily Life with the Care of Ozu: ‘Talkativeness’ by Michael Earl Craig

TalkativenessLike films, the poems in Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness (104 pages; Wave Books) juxtapose pedestrian settings with dreamlike events. And like films, these poems appeal mostly to the visual sensibility, with spare, declarative language that gets out of the way of their delicately rendered imagery. There are abrupt “cutaways” between unrelated scenes—particularly in such associative pieces as “I Am Examining A Small Crumb” and “Quarter to Five”—and narrative pauses during which the poet fixates on some peripheral animal or prop, like a cinematographer racking the focus of a shot. Film figures explicitly into many of these poems; while Craig’s domestic dystopias resemble those of Lynch and Hitchcock, the poet also invokes Bergman, Herzog, and Chaplin by name.

The book’s most prominent cinematic figure is Akira Kurosawa; the filmmaker is the subject of two poems, and Craig takes his epigraph (“No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant”) from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a seventeenth-century samurai whose writings on bushido were among Kurosawa’s major artistic influences. Yet it is an earlier Japanese director—and another significant influence on Kurosawa—whose films these poems most resemble: Yasujirō Ozu, known for his use of the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is positioned only two or three feet off the ground, and narrative ellipsis, or the omission of key events within a sequence. The effect of these devices is to implicate the audience in the telling of the story; the viewer feels both that she is kneeling beside the characters and that she is privy to an extraordinary, unarticulated subtext that colors the ordinary lives and events of the present scene. Stillness, in these films, seems to allude to meteoric motion; quietude seems like the conspicuous absence of clamor. Talkativeness, too, is a close-up glimpse of a world in which every commonplace object gestures toward the bizarre, and every domestic setting feels full of outlandish potential.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beauty and Violence of a Family and of a Nation: Q&A with Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen

“We took shelter from where / why,” writes Sasha Steensen in the opening lines House of Deer (Fence Books; 88 pages). Like most of the others, this poem, “Domestication and the Chase,” visits the rural Ohio where Steensen’s back-to-the-land parents raised her, proposing along the way new definitions of family, wildness, and the lyric form.

Threading through personal and national memories, Steensen navigates the charged spaces between mother- and daughterhood, fairytale and anecdote, human and animal, and nostalgia and radical disenchantment. If coming of age in 1970s America disabused the poet of her childhood idealism, this book charts its revival; culling her memories and family history for moments of striking tenderness and awe, Steensen weaves her personal narratives with our national history, offering tales grounded in a particular place and time but also expansive, mythic, and familiar. We spoke to her via email about her book.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by discussing your writing process as you worked on House of Deer. Did you consult family members or conduct any research on 1970s America?

Sasha Steensen: Much of it, as you can imagine, was taken from memory. In the writing process, I became interested in the fissures inevitable in memory work, as well as the attempt to both re-present and, occasionally, bridge these fissures via storytelling. Storytelling is central to family cohesion, especially for the child who is completely reliant on stories to make sense of her earliest years. It is just as central, perhaps even more so, when the family is struggling with its identity and its viability, and so I was interested both in the ways I (re)told the stories I had heard from my parents, as well as how, when prompted, they would retell these same stories. With this in mind, I did interview them, and I shuffled through family photos and newspaper articles. I had a few Garrettsville Gazettes on hand, but mostly I did non-textual, anecdotal research for this book.

I did read a few books on the Back-to-the-Land movement, but they seemed so staid when compared to my actual childhood, so that research really did not make it into the book. Arielle Greenberg recommended Melissa Coleman’s This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, which is quite beautiful, but I didn’t read that book until I was done with House of Deer. I did re-familiarize myself with some of the history of the early 1970s, but mostly because I wanted to think about the way these national stories, like our familial stories, change shape and significance over time.

Continue reading

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Elegy and a Testament to a Culture: Joan Naviyuk Kane’s ‘Hyperboreal’

Hyperboreal“I could make passage / A thousand obscure, / Contradictory ways,” claims Joan Naviyuk Kane in “Mother Tongues,” a poem from the collection, Hyperboreal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 65 pages), winner of AWP’s Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. In five precise, prosodic quatrains, the poem navigates vast and difficult territory, memorializing both the poet’s mother and her mother’s native tongue, the King Island dialect of Inupiaq. An Inupiaq/Inuit, and among the last living speakers of the King Island dialect, Kane contends with biological, cultural, and political threats to her ancestral community, including climate change, language death, and the diaspora prompted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ forcible relocation of King Island residents in the mid-twentieth century. Yet as a mother and a daughter, an educator and an artist, Kane brings to these subjects a singular, sonorous voice and a lyric sensibility as alternatingly austere and lush as the land of her ancestral home.

“Mother Tongues,” like many of these poems, is studded with Inuit words: “Mother, / Aakaa; Woman, / Aġnaq.” Occasionally, these terms remain un-translated, as in “Time and Time Again” and “Nunaqtigiit.” While these entries may not offer most readers much in the way of semantics, Kane’s periodic refusal to translate testifies to the irreducibility of these messages, and to the impossibility of paraphrase from a language suffused with the knowledge of its own endangerment. As Spivak would have it, one cannot make widely legible an experience whose illegibility to dominant culture is among its fundamental experiential features. Or, in Kane’s own words, “The sky of my mind against which self- / betrayal in its sudden burn / fails to describe the world.”

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Claiming Her Origin and Her Life Apart From It: Gillian Conoley’s ‘Peace’

PeaceThe poems in Gillian Conoley’s Peace (Omnidawn, 112 pages) are characteristically spacious, speculative, full of breath and light. Drawing on a range of registers—the geographic and technologic, emotional and workaday—Conoley explores several categories of peace, broadly construed: the peace of armistice, of reflection, of liberation, of death. In her sparse, inventive lyric mode, Conoley weaves personal and political threads into an incantatory not-quite-narrative whose power lies in the gravid spaces between juxtaposed images and thoughts. It is in the emergent rhythms of “each euphoriant ephemery” that Peace finds its logic—and, perhaps, its peace.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

All That Woe Out There: Rob Fitterman’s ‘No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself.’

No Wait Yep“I am a genius of sadness,” reads a line from Robert Fitterman’s book-length poem, No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. (Ugly Duckling Presse, 80 pages). “I am a prism / through which sadness could be / Divided into its infinite spectrums.”

It’s as good a description as any of the book’s central premise: the appropriation of public articulations of loneliness and angst from blog posts, song lyrics, and ads, and the collaging of these excerpts, without context, in a relentless, eighty-page masterwork of Weltschmerz. Invariably first-person and homogenously histrionic, quotations give rise to an emergent “I” that is at once collective and personal. Mediated via Fitterman’s own curatorial bias, the speaker is simultaneously an individual and a univocal multitude, posting his pathos for all to see but incapable of finding succor in the near verbatim posts of others. Yet by applying to the passages an idiosyncratic, masculine affect, Fitterman makes the whole pastiche read like the work of one sad narcissist.

The book’s form borrows from James Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem,” a sixty-page epistolary poem that resembles a chapter of Ulysses: self-absorbed, associative, and lyrically beautiful, with a deictic duration far shorter than the time it takes to actually read. Like those of “The Morning of the Poem,” Fitterman’s lines increase gradually in length, with every other line indented, so that by the end, the poem has morphed into a monolithic paragraph without my even noticing. I am reminded of other authors in addition to Schuyler; Harold Jaffe’s found-text collection Anti-Twitter comes to mind, as does Ariana Reines’ Cœur de Lion, another book whose disarming candor makes me put it down intermittently to catch my breath and whisper “TMI.”

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What It Means to Be Alive and Dying at the Same Time: Jack Mueller’s ‘Amor Fati’

Amor FatiAmor Fati, a thick volume of new and selected poems from Beat affiliate and once San Francisco fixture Jack Mueller, truly lives up to its name (Lithic Press; 177 pages). “Love of fate,” as the title translates, appears in these pages in many forms: as contemplative acceptance, surly fatalism, awed joy. One moment pondering the nature of death, the next exuberantly describing a bird, Mueller vacillates between optimism and resignation as he moves between the registers of philosophical abstraction and concrete observation. Distinctly the work of an older writer, Amor Fati tackles almost exclusively cosmic questions—about mortality, love, and our relationship to language.

While the more lucid, imagistic poems are generally Amor Fati’s most memorable, the majority of the book consists in abstract, existential declaratives. “We live, love, marry, suffer / and more,” one poem reads, while another comprises only the sentence “There is no science / but the science of poetry.” Mueller explores logic and physics, tautology and eroticism, with the tenor of someone who has thought long and hard enough about these subjects to have finally arrived at something true—something like consensus between his various and often inharmonious selves. (“I am, by condition, complex,” he writes, affecting Whitman, “I argue tomorrow and today comes / like a small surprise.”) Even when his subject is moral or linguistic relativism—which is often—Mueller speaks with authority: “I am not myself / nor am I something / other.”

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Lone Survivor Bears Witness to Atrocity: Jessica Bozek’s ‘The Tales’

the_tales_jessica_bozek_front_coverThe Tales by Jessica Bozek (Les Figues Press, 78 pages) consists mostly of prose poems from a variety of first-person narrators, all on the subject of a fictional genocide known as “Operation Sleep.” Inspired largely by the literature of witness, on which she based a seminar at Boston University called Reading Disaster, Bozek tells the grim story of a land whose citizens die en masse upon a visitation from a soldier who hails from a powerful nation and is fluent in the local tongue. When the soldier speaks, the people of the land sink into the earth—except one, known as the Lone Survivor, who alone remains to tell the tale. Poly-vocal and formally hybrid, The Tales combines the language of contemporary politics with that of age-old myths, post-colonial thought, and heartbreaking testimony, to construct a parallel world that is at once strange and strikingly familiar.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

We Want What Language Won’t Do: Dean Rader’s ‘Landscape Portrait Figure Form’

Landscape Portrait Figure FormThere’s a little room adjacent to the Djerassi Gallery of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in which, during the Paul Klee at SFMOMA exhibit in 2011, several of Klee’s small drawings and sketches hung. While the main gallery—spread with bright, prismatic paintings on large canvases—was overwhelming, the little annex was quieter and still, its pictures more thoughtful and muted. It was a place to ponder and absorb the dazzling content and heady theory of Klee’s works, a place for the emergent patterns of thought and art to coalesce and make themselves known.

Dean Rader’s new chapbook, Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn Publishing, 46 pages), is a lot like that little room: it’s small, reflective, and haunted by Paul Klee. As we learn from the Notes, a few of the book’s poems were inspired by that very exhibit at SFMOMA, and several are ekphrases based on particular paintings: Ad Marginem, Angelus Nous, Man in Love. Klee’s writings feature as prominently as his visual art; the chapbook’s title refers to concepts from Klee’s lectures on modern art and pictorial studies, which, according to Rader, “sound very much like poetic theory.” Even those poems not based on particular works of art employ painterly terminology and visual schematics to contribute to an ongoing dialogue between literary and graphic media. There are self-portraits, sequences, triptychs, and choose-your-own-adventure poems, whose sharp, uncanny imagery punctuates abstracter philosophical musings. There’s an elegy for Adrienne Rich and a poem starring Frog and Toad. There’s even a poem written as a Wikipedia article, which ZYZZYVA published last year along with several other poems from the collection.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments