Monthly Archives: February 2016

Review: This Is A Clothespin (Lucas Scheelk) – Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

This Is A Clothespin
Lucas Scheelk
Damaged Goods Press
2016
50 pages
$3.00 (eBook)
$6.00 (Print)

Transgender poets are, arguably, the most underrepresented marginalized writers in the literary community, though, their visibility is increasing. Most of these poets address their identities through personal narrative and, often, experimental forms challenging the mainstream’s aversion to poetry with a “message” and with strong sentiment without a conventional degree of detachment. Some transgender poets, however, are gaining a reputation beyond the borders of their own communities, including, Lee Mokobe, Stephen Paden, Zach Hanlon, and Ryka Aoki. Transgender poet, Trace Peterson, recently designed and taught the first college course on transgender poets and poetry at Hunter College.

Another reason for the increased presence of chapbooks and books by transgender poets is the appearance of literary presses encouraging submissions by this sub-group of writers. Among these outlets is Damaged Goods Press, whose webpage describes its mission as “a micro-press specializing in queer/trans poetry and flash-fiction chapbooks,” celebrating the “beauty and terror of queer life.” The publisher and editor of the press, Caseyrenée Lopez*, has recently issued a book, This Is A Clothespin, by Lucas Scheelk, who describes themselves as a, “white, autistic, trans, mentally ill, queer-identified poet,” conducting research on “autistic coding in modern media”, particularly, the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Based upon an e-mail interview, Scheelk informed me that they have been writing since the age of thirteen and studied creative writing as an undergraduate. Their poems are often presented innovatively, including, the use of white spaces and, similar to a signature of Gertrude Stein’s writing, the use of repetition. For example, several of Scheelk’s pieces are titled, “This Is A Clothespin,” revealing self-consciousness about their self-presentation and their tendency to be stereotyped when in public. Suggesting that Scheelk experiences social anxiety and panic attacks, they write, “To avoid the question, ‘Are you autistic.’ in public, to avoid the answer, ‘Yes, and I can’t breathe.’” Though Scheelk’s poems are intensely personal, and, sometimes, written in a cryptic way, they speak to all readers who are reluctant to reveal themselves or who may have something to hide or who have experienced “imposter syndrome.” Another title poem reveals Scheelk’s youthful angst when they state that their writing derives from “internalization so deep I can tell you in detail each psychological wound….”

Scheelk makes it clear that music and writing are life-saving components of their practice, reporting that they return over and over to Sia’s song, “Chandelier” [“I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier….”]. In several poems, Scheelk seems to speak to their former identity, addressing transformation and finding their true self. The author has a refined ability to share their inner voice, demonstrated, for example, in the poem, “Headline—the long-term effects of harmful narratives against autistic people.” Several of Scheelk’s poems are in the form of letters to anonymous recipients or, perhaps, to everyone or to a former way of being. When telling us that, “Here, on paper, time-travel is possible….”, they announce, “I deserve to live,” expressing the seeds of personal insight and self-care, self-awareness, and the will to survive their pain and “trauma” (Scheelk’s word), as well as, their self-destructive tendencies (“The artifacts of self-harm come from shame.”; “They ask if taking testosterone was causing stress; I respond that it brought me happiness.”). This Is A Clothespin is not without lightness, though, and the poem, “Polar Bear And The Lemon” is reminiscent of a fairy tale.

I feel that I would violate Scheelk’s intimate contract with their audience to reveal all of their secrets. They are worthy of respect, not observance as a spectacle, even though a number of these poems may lead some readers to feel uncomfortable. When considering the poet’s use of repetition, I felt that its purpose was, in part, to say, “I want you to understand them.” Though Scheelk trusts their readers sufficiently to take risks with the darkest details of their experiences, their writing is, like Sia’s persona, provocative and veiled. When reading Scheelk’s poems, I felt, not only, their pain and trauma, but, also, an abiding sense of loneliness; although, not knowing the author, their “voice” may not be that of an isolated writer but, less problematic, a singular and gifted artist. Whatever the case, I hope that they find or belong to a community of supportive comrades who realize that some element of their shared challenges derives from patriarchy and the rigid sexual and behavioral norms represented by its institutions and hierarchical structure. Scheelk informed me that they are currently working on a second volume of poetry, a work that will be eagerly anticipated by their current followers and appreciated by future readers.

*My heartfelt thanks to Editor Lopez for giving me the opportunity to review this book.

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Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, she writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues.

Review: Periscope Heart (Kai Coggin) -Reviewed by Dustin Pickering

Otherworldly Oddity
Periscope Heart, Kai Coggin

 

Periscope Heart is part of the new spectrum of confessional work released in contemporary literature. Swimming With Elephants Publications has done an incredibly professional job with the layout and graphic design. And the content? This collection is the sigh of the Universe after Joan of Arc sweeps her flaming sword across love’s horizon.

We read of Coggin’s philosophy of desire, her mapping of the human body, and the magical realm of learning to love. “The Day I Was Jesus Christ (Total Eclipse of the Heart)” gives the protagonist a new face. She plays Christ in a school play and is surrounded by numerous vices.

 

“That’s when I step off the cross
and to go to her,
my broken young follower,
my torn down, persecuted child,
as if I am Savior,
as if I am Messiah,
Mess i ah,
Mess I am,
Mess of me becoming salvation?”
Who is the persecuted child and does she reflect the protagonist’s actual Self? Coggin convinces herself she is the Savior, and we are all in need of a Savior. She steps outside of her own troubles, becomes Teacher/Rabbi, and holds the young hearts in her arms to shield them from pain. She turns her bright eyes inward and experiences the total eclipse of her heart by recognizing the playacting is perhaps serious. We realize ourselves in the roles we play.

In “This is how to eat your past:”, the poetry becomes a way to uncloak and surrender the story one experiences as initiation into poetic experience.

 

“find the day your daddy drove away after
leaving you and mommy and sister in another country,
first learning the word divorce,
find worrying and fear,
find the day at 13 when you were raped
by the dark hands of a stranger…”

 

The writing ceases to be a conflagration of ideals and images. It becomes pure wings floating on the winds of courage, facing the malice and intentional ill will of others. This collection is a series of confessions advanced after discussions of beauty and desire, and musings on love. Take “Yuanfen” at face value: “Yes,/ this is/ a word/ it has/ rested buried/ between/ my breastplate/ and heart/ since my last/ incarnation, lover…” Coggin is flirting with desire and fate in this piece. She makes the dream of existing come alive, and clarifies why it often fails to hide its dreaminess.

Kai Coggin is a passionate educator, as Sandra Cisneros remarked, and her poetry steps outside the usual curriculum. She invites you, as the title suggests, into her heart to take a peek above waters and out into the unknown. This collection defies categories of mind, and trusts feeling and empathy over all. I cannot speak volumes on it. It is a pure, original, and beautifully simple collection. It will have you dancing in your own mind, looking for that pen you just had in your hand, and wanting to understand that deep grief in your own heart you have attempted to expunge for years with little luck. Coggin has mastered the art of making truth clever, bright and charming, and of using a self-created myth to untie the knots personal history has created. The yarn of the labyrinth can only be untied by its maker, Ariadne. This is part of making the past art: finding that origin, cutting into it no matter how fearsome it is, and recovering the loose strings that made it so mysterious in the first place.

I must confess I felt this book deeply. Without having met the author in person, I have used her poetry as a vehicle to meet her face-to-face, our hearts intertwining and clasping each other like friends in battle against a common enemy. The enemy is fear, in all its forms, and only poets are acclimated to it well enough to know its purposes. The natural consequence of the depth of mystery is fear. We must let go of the denial: some are scared of fear.

Periscope Heart is a conceptual title. You are not let down into the heart—the heart ascends to meet you. Think of the cosmos, the imagination, your first kiss. The heart peeks out of its nest and seeks conversation.

Poets are often lovers, troublemakers, whisperers, heroes, warriors, soulmates, loners. Poetry as an art form reaches out from within. It tells the reader what the truth of the inside is. Art is the rare place where people can pursue honesty about themselves, their world, and their hopes and feelings. This inquiry is knitted with questions regarding aesthetics, motion, virtue. Art is not only a seeking; it is a finding. This collection is a beautiful expression, tender and kind. Its angelic wings will bring the stars to you after a long climb. You can rest now.

If poetry is only a communication of writers between writers, we are failing as artists to make the unknown graspable to the average ear and eye. Periscope Heart does not read like an Auden or early Yeats, full of compounded thought. It is an unveiling of color and the heart’s singing to itself for others to hear.

This is a remarkable performance. You will love this collection.

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Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Houston, Texas. He has been published by Lost Coast Review, Seltzer, di-verse-city 2013 and 2015, and the virgin Muse for Women anthology. He also hosts two separate poetry reading events in south Houston.

A Lie And A Truth: Empathy in Storytelling by Ally Malinenko

When I was in college, a friend told me that she thought I had Borderline Personality Disorder.

I didn’t know what that meant so I looked it up.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships.

Here’s some of the signs:

  • Extreme reactions—including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions—to abandonment, whether real or perceived
  • A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
  • Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few day
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom

 

Needless to say, she was wrong. But the term borderline stuck with me. Borderline like something on the edge, open to interpretation.

Over the years I have come to think of it as empathy to a fault. Radical empathy. I can quite easily put myself in someone else’s shoes. The problem is, I never seem to give them their shoes back. I made a habit of collecting other people’s stories and twisting them together with my own.

I would pick up pain or happiness or fear or anger and eventually it would become a part of me. Even if I didn’t own the root of those feelings to begin with.

I’ve been thinking about how this serves in creativity.

Since the publication of This Is Sarah, the number one question I get is, Is it true? And I understand that. I wrote a book about the aftermath of the disappearance of a teenage girl, told through the interlaced experiences of her sister, Claire and her boyfriend, Colin. It is a story about the stages of grief and the eventual acceptance process of those left behind.

So when I’m asked Is it true?  I recognize that people want to know if I am Claire, Sarah’s sister. Or Colin, Sarah’s boyfriend.

But I am not Sarah or Colin or Claire. Thankfully no one I know has been kidnapped. No one had vanished.

Inevitably the next question was, how did you know so much about what it would feel like?

Or something to that effect. They are fishing out the possibility that I am a giant imposter.

And they would be right. I am, to a degree, a giant imposter, as is everyone who writes fiction. But the real answer to how do you know so much about what it would feel like is much simpler.

Because I had grieved. Because I had lost people. And grief, regardless of how it lands at our door, is universal.

Personally, I thought that was a pretty good answer. And yet more often than not they were disappointed.

As if my “making it up” rendered it emotionally untrue.

A lie.

I had deceived them and I was an imposter.

They wanted the story itself to be real. It didn’t matter that the emotions were. It didn’t matter that the pain and the anger and the fear were. It didn’t matter that some people, like Colin, shut down in the face of death. That other people, like Claire, refused to. None of that mattered as much as wanting it to be true.

Empathizing wasn’t enough.

John Green wrote a book called The Fault In Our Stars. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s pretty famous. He dedicated the book to Esther Earl. Esther was a young girl that died of cancer, and the author of “This Star Won’t Go Out.

Mr. Green met Ms. Earl at a Harry Potter convention. He was moved by her story and he credits her with being part of the inspiration for his character Hazel. The book was published in 2012, after her death.

In a goodreads interview John said the following:

I could never have written this if I hadn’t known Esther. She introduced me to a lot of the ideas in the book, especially hope in a world that is indifferent to individuals, and empathy. She redefined the process of dying young for me.

Walking out of the hospital in 2000, I knew I wanted to write a story about sick kids, but I was so angry, so furious with the world that these terrible things could happen, and they weren’t even rare or uncommon, and I think in the end for the first ten years or so I never could write it because I was just too angry, and I wasn’t able to capture the complexity of the world. I wanted the book to be funny. I wanted the book to be unsentimental. After meeting Esther, I felt very differently about whether a short life could be a rich life.

But a lot of people have interpreted that to mean that John’s main character is Esther.

As if a story about death – the most universal thing of all – wasn’t as powerful if there wasn’t one specific life behind it.

Gayle Forman, also pretty famous, wrote a book called If I Stay. It is the story of Mia, a girl who narrates her story from a hospital bed after losing her entire family in a car crash. Except Mia is in a coma.

Gayle wrote a piece for the New York Times about how that car full of people were her friends. Except for Gayle, no one lived.

Mia, the cellist, was fiction, but the accident, and Mia’s family — her punk-rocker turned 1950s throwback of a father, her strong-willed mother and her adorable little brother — were resurrected from the ashes of my loss. A loss that no longer had the power to sucker punch but instead had become part of me, like a scar, or maybe a smile line.

The power in stories lies in their universality; that we can see ourselves in the people that populate them and can recognize the emotions that fuel them, be it love, sadness, heartbreak, fear, joy, misery or loneliness.

The greatest tool a writer has is to be able to absorb that emotion, to hold it bare in her hands and live with it. Stories are stitched together by the needle sharp power of empathy. They’re a lie and a truth all rolled up into one.

And if they’re good, then they make us remember what it means to be human.
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Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry collections The Wanting Bone and How To Be An American (Six Gallery Press) as well as the novel This Is Sarah (Bookfish Books). Better Luck Next Year, a poetry collection is forthcoming from Low Ghost Books. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets @allymalinenko mostly about Doctor Who and David Bowie.

Review: A Clock of Human Bones (Matthew Borczon) – Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

A Clock of Human Bones
Matthew Borczon
Yellow Chair Press
2015
$10.00
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

Until recently, war has been a man’s game, inspiring poetry since Homer’s Iliad documented the 10-year Trojan War in Ancient Greece (about 1,200 years B.C.). Homer’s epic poem told the story of battles between King Agamemnon and the warrior, Achilles, fighting in and around the city, Troy, a site located in what is now Turkey. In the West, poems about war are particularly common among British (e.g., Alfred Lord Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, W.H. Auden) and American (e.g., William Meredith, Robert Lowell, Muriel Ruckeyser) writers who often idealized their country’s and their countrymen’s roles in battle. In his poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” American, Randall Jarrell, wrote, “This is how it’s done:/this is war./…Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can:/I find no fault in this just man./” The Viet Nam war seemed to change America’s perception of “war” and “warrior,” as expressed by Yusef Komyankaa in his poem, “Tu Do Street,” “We fought/the brothers of these women/we now run to hold in our arms./” Soldiers and war are humanized, their foibles exposed, including, the pain that they experience and cause others.

Matthew Borczon’s book, A Clock of Human Bones, won Yellow Chair Review‘s 2015 inaugural Chapbook Competition judged by poet, Kai Coggin. Borczon presents a raw, compelling, record of his experiences in 2010 as a Navy medic in Afghanistan, as well as, the personal aftermaths of his deployment. Coggin stated that she chose the book because, “His work stood apart from the pack, I just knew…this is the one. This book will stay with me for a long time.” Borczon’s poems do not disappoint the reader. They are, at once, personal narrative written in experimental style and expressions of psychological realism offered, for the most part, without overbearing sentiment and emotion. As a revelatory token to the reader, Borczon shares that he suffers the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, e.g., the poem, “Dreamed Too Often,” pg 18), an illness described with candor and without self-pity.

The form of these poems is minimalist, almost a series of fragments woven by each poem’s dominant theme. Borczon usually eliminates the conventions of punctuation, capitalization, and lineal conventions, producing a conversational tone and feel to the pieces (“this war/scrubbed clean/with bleach/and lye soap/sterilized daily/this aint no/killing floor/the klling/happens/beyond the/flight line/of the/helicopters/here/is just/where they/come to/die./” (“No Killing Floor,” pg 2). Clearly, writing the book served as catharsis for the author, whose economy of style and thought compresses the process of trauma over time and space. Borczon allows himself to be vulnerable to his reader, exposing his fear and loss, as well as, his own detachment and his comrades’ cruelty. The linguistic and emotional compression of the poems in A Clock of Human Bones reflects the need to truncate responses under stressful conditions that do not permit the luxury of extended reflection. Thus, writing about a dead child, “/all/I remember/is the/exact color/of the/towel/I wrapped/its body/in./” (“Hazel,” pg 4—note the depersonalized, “its” instead of “his” or “her”). Borczon’s poems masterfully integrate form, function, and substance.

Even though the themes in this book are personal, particular, and, often, foreign, the reader can identify with many of them because they express experiences common to all of us. In “Night Terror 1” (pg 16), for example, the poet recounts, “/I have/not found/your body/parts yet/but I/will keep/looking/for them/year after/year in/my dreams/,” highlighting memories of loss and reconciliation, human universals. Borczon tells us that, during his time in Afghanistan, dreaming was “repressed,” perhaps explaining the explosion of night terrors once he returned home (“What Do I Want,” pg. 28).

Except for the poem, “Foliage,” on pg 5 (“We once/walked across/the whole/base just/to see/some live/grass./”), the intense nature of the pieces under review is not relieved by joy or hope or color (except the color, red—of blood). One wishes to be informed that Borczon is healing, that he no longer has night terrors, that his darkness is now light. The poet, Michael C. Peterson, has described his own writing process as one in which he takes his writing to the point where it almost breaks. Many of the poems in A Clock of Human Bones “break” under the weight of their author’s continuing sadness, a characteristic that often gave me a jarring feeling. On the other hand, by the last poem, Borczon suggests that he is charting a course ahead, that living is more than an act of soldierly duty. One looks forward to reading more of his exquisite poems when Borczon is further away from the edge (/I want/the ghosts/of the/dead soldiers/to carry/the ghosts/of the/wounded/far enough/away so/I can’t hear/their scream/” (“What Do I Want,” pg 28). In the meantime, Borczon will attract a large and deserved following. I, like Coggin, will remember these poems “for a long time.”

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Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, Clara writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues.

REVIEW: THE LAWLESS RIVER (SHAUN TURNER) – REVIEWED BY AMY STRAUSS FRIEDMAN

The Lawless River
Shaun Turner
Red Bird Chapbooks
2016
$12.00

“Everything Blooms,” the title of one of the stories in Shaun Turner’s new chapbook The Lawless River, is also an inadvertent commentary on the writing in this richly textured, exquisite fiction collection about growth, destruction, and renewal in small town America. Turner’s prose begs to be devoured, as he casts the eastern Kentucky foothills and the Rockcastle River as characters both beautiful and brutal, their harvests and creatures as alive as Turner’s human protagonists. The Lawless River lifts us out of ourselves and throws us headlong into the marrow of Kentucky life, with its courageous and damaged inhabitants in whose dreams we invest and whose tragedies we mourn. Here pumpkins, pickup trucks, cornfields, and campers reflect all of our truths. When Turner is done with us, we are all from Kentucky.

I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with the author, who speaks of his stories’ origins and the ways in which the chapbook format has captured his message:

Your chapbook represents life in Kentucky through beautifully woven, gritty, familial stories. What made you choose this approach?

Storytelling and close familial ties are definitely a part of Appalachia. And I’m a firm believer that my writing usually comes from a seed planted by Appalachia. The Rockcastle River turns and twists through fifty-odd miles of forested Appalachian foothills. The now-wide fields sit only on the ridges. In 1750, the river was originally named the Lawless River, and so that name inspired me.

This collection came from a series of focused edits to both new and previously-published work that ended up bound by eastern Kentucky: A definitely-gritty version of country life.

How much of your upbringing and experiences are reflected in these works of fiction?

Growing up in eastern Kentucky, storytelling is always and has always been a part of my family and regional cultures. Or more truly, people used to (and still do!) catch up by telling stories: about people we knew, about the times we were apart, about genealogy, our most far-flung and distant pasts made close.

But none of mine or my family’s experience is directly fictionalized in this work, though many of the stories do have some kernel in real life. Those small details may not be very obvious to the reader: for example, in “Everything Blooms,” in which a girl with city dreams meets a several-hundreds-pound pumpkin. That story came from an old friend’s exaggeration that his uncle grew pumpkins up to his knees. And it turned to an aspiring model interacting with her uncle and this miracle pumpkin that could somehow save them all.

Which story did you write first, and how did that story inform the others?

The last story, “Zion,” was, no-joke, the first piece of anything that I’d ever written, so in this collection, the last comes first.

That story definitely comes from a place of emotional truth for me, especially after the death of my grandfather, and that informs everything I do.

I love that you’ve written a chapbook of fiction! There’s something so satisfying about reading an entire collection of stories in one sitting. How do you see the chapbook format as advantageous in writing fiction?

Well thank you! And it’s really thanks to publishers like Red Bird Chapbooks that more and more fiction chapbooks are being seen and read.

I am a great fan of the chapbook as a piece of art, as an artifact. Red Bird Chapbooks‘ publication manager and book designer Dana Hoeschen, designs and crafts each chapbook beautifully and very personally, and it was a pleasure working with Evan Kingston, fiction editor, and editor-in-chief Sarah Hayes.

As form for fiction, chapbooks are a consumable and friendly face in which one can feel comfortable taking 5 or 10 minutes to finish a couple stories. The chapbook is the perfect home for impactful stories at one’s fingertips without the time commitment of a longer work.

Talk a bit about Krista Graham’s artwork on the cover of your chapbook. Did you ask her to paint the eastern Kentucky foothills, or did you see her work and it matched the images you’d created in your stories?

Krista Graham is a young artist who works in multiple mediums, this time in watercolor. She painted this image from her own experience traveling in the mountains, and graciously let me use the image as the cover for this piece. I felt that her piece of art matched the feeling of the hills in flux, the fall colors that are so fleeting but well-loved, and I thought it fit the book so well, and felt that Dana Hoeschen designed a lovely book to fit it.

Which books or chapbooks have influenced your writing?

I’ve always been very inspired by Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. At the time, I reread Ron Rash’s fine collection of stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay and Bo Ball’s classic Appalachian Patterns. But mostly, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction: material about steamboating the Cumberlands, and always the Foxfire series of southern Appalachian folkways.
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Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the chapbook Gathered Bones Are Known To Wander (forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks). She is a regular contributor to the newspaper Newcity, and her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, Burningword, Typehouse, Menacing Hedge, Rogue Agent and elsewhere. Amy lives in Chicago and teaches English at Harper College.