04 November 2015

Tinderbox, Tabloids, and L'Etage

My two newest Silence of the Lambs poems have been published in volume 2, issue 3 of Tinderbox Poetry Journal: "Why do you think he removes their skins, Agent Starling?" and "Look at him, Starling. Tell me what you see." I'm very excited to have these poems out in the reading world! The latter poem will also be included in the new anthology forthcoming from the Literary House Press, Still Life with Poem: 100 Natures Mortes in Verse. For my "still life," I used a movie still of the Buffalo Bill case board in Jack Crawford's office, a frozen composition of crime scene photos and newspaper clippings: 

This week I was lucky enough to meet the amazing Matthea Harvey, goddess of mermaid poems, at the Rose O'Neill Literary House. We talked about the intersection of poetry and visual art and the obsessions that both feed into this collaboration with (different parts of) the self and feed on it. Miniatures. Wildflower names. Mermaids. Silence of the Lambs. Tabloid headlines. Fairy tales. We collect all of these things and recombine them in our work, verbally and visually. And then Matthea read from her newest book, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? It was amazing. What a magical creature. She really is as lovely as you imagine her to be. I'm still fangirling over here.

James Allen Hall, me, Matthea Harvey, and happy students. Photo by the dearest Julie Armstrong.

Now coming up in two weeks, I'll be headed to Philly for a reading celebrating The Book of Scented Things! On Friday, November 20 at 7:00 p.m. at L'Etage night club & cabaret, I will be reading alongside poets and friends James Allen Hall, Jason Schneiderman, and dawn lonsinger. What a fun night that will be. And we would absolutely love for you to join us! Party like a poet, y'all.


25 October 2015

Highlights of Historical [Re]Tell

The Steel Pen Writers' Conference was a lot of fun and over all too quickly. I really enjoyed presenting with my fellow panelists. For anyone who is interested in the subject and couldn't make it to the conference or the panel, here are my presentation notes.

Me, P. Ivan Young, Cat Dixon, Laura Madeline Wiseman, Britny C. Doane

Panel Description:  
Historical [Re]Tell: The Writing & Craft of Telling Retellings of the Historic

“Tell the truth but tell it slant,” writes Emily Dickinson. This panel of poets and writers presents work that engages with the historical past by telling retelling of the historic, tales that offer what wasn’t said but should’ve been, what wasn’t written down but likely happened, whose voices speak that didn’t speak because at the time there wasn’t a platform on which for them to stand. Panelists explore the craft aspect of myths and legends retold from other voices, new perspectives, and counterintuitive stances. Accurate, inaccurate, or close, this panel of authors will explore how facts become transformed into the tales, histories, and family stories that inform how we tell our worlds.  

Lindsay Lusby
With a focus on the retelling of folk and fairy tales

1. What is the process for writing poems based on research and pre-existing texts?  
I think first there has to be a long steeping period. You do your research. You read all the available books and look down other tangential research avenues and you make notes: movies, music, scholarly texts and literary ones. Any retelling is, by definition, in conversation with the story’s previous versions, so it is essential that the writer familiarize herself with as many versions as she can find. And this seeking out of different versions of a story or history will often lead the writer down paths of tangential research that finally bring the writer to her moment of realization:
  • of what specific aspect her retelling will focus on,  
  • of what purpose it will serve in the canon (the body of literature already existing around this story or history),   
  • of how it will find something new and meaningful to say about something that has been told before, often many times before.

2. How does a poet navigate fact and (in)accuracy when writing about the past?
As a poet, I find that my allegiance is less to historical accuracy and fact and more to the integrity of the poem’s emotional truths and language. It is here that the work of research and allowing myself to steep in the results of that research comes to fruition. When the fact of what happened does not match the needs of the poem, I am able to create a new sequence of events from my research into various versions and details of a story, rearranging them in a way that feels true for the poem.  

3. At what points can a writer depart from fact in the service of the story that wants to be (re)told? 
I think the careful departure from fact (or previous versions of a story that are held up as fact) is essential in retelling. In the practice of retelling folk and fairy tales, most cases actually rely on the reader’s knowledge of past versions of a tale in order for these variations to have their intended effect—the new standing in contrast with the old. In these cases, it is this contrast, rather than the specific change itself, that draws out new meaning from an old story.    

4. What are the strategies of other contemporary writers who do similar work on the historical record?
Folk and fairy tales were born of the tradition of continued variation inherent in oral storytelling, each teller making small changes to make the story theirs and passing it on to the next teller to be transformed again. Contemporary writers who retell fairy tales are simply continuing in this historical practice and committing the results to print for preservation. Some of my favorite contemporary writers are retellers of folk and fairy tales: Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Italo Calvino, Kate Bernheimer, Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman. If I had to identify one simple way in which they all approach their retellings, I would say that each of them choose specific details (motifs, plot elements, etc.) of the “original” version or various previous versions that resonate with them personally as both writers and readers and make these details the foundation of their specific retelling. All other story elements simply expand upon that fascination, and they build their new version around it. During this process, the same story elements from the “original” are rearranged to create a fairy tale that is both familiar and strange. 

I approach my retellings in much the same way. As a poet, I often fasten on to particular details and images that fascinate me beyond the story as a whole. And then I take that detail and isolate it from the story, using this single striking image as a kind of colored lens through which to reimagine the fairy tale. In my poem “Girl with no Hands” (which retells the popular Grimm fairy tale “The Maiden Without Hands”), I zoomed in on a moment near the beginning of the tale that struck me as both odd and beautiful and terrifying. When the girl’s father is making his deal with the devil (or wizard, depending on which version you read) in the forest for an effortless wealth that will solve his family’s current problems, the devil’s price is what stands behind his mill. This is where a tragic misunderstanding occurs that eventually leads him to chop off his daughter’s hands. The father thinks the devil is asking for the apple tree behind his mill, but the devil knows that at that very moment, the man’s daughter is back there sweeping. Once I found the language to frame this fascinating moment—that the father has mistaken his daughter for an apple tree—I could create an entire new story around this one conceit, and in doing so, highlight themes present but unexplored in other versions (i.e. daughters as possessions that may be bought and sold, women as inanimate and alien creatures that do not feel physical pain, a kind of conditional love that a father may have for his daughter). As Elizabeth Wanning Harries notes in her book Twice Upon a Time, “Rather than simply retell the story… [the writer] focuses on one central iconic moment, a moment that her readers will certainly remember, but places it in a new context and reads it in a new way.” (Harries 162)

5. How does the influence of the world outside the poet hinder or enrich the truth as it is conveyed in poetry of (re)telling? 
I think, that for the most part, the influence of the outside world is an enriching one for the poetry of retelling. In the case of folk and fairy tales, many retellings are framed in a way that highlights or comments on historical social wrongs that may still be continued in different forms today. Awareness of the outside world provides necessary context in both writing and reading these retellings. Essentially, art is not created in a vaccuum and we are only hindered when we pretend that it can be and that it has no connection to our own social histories. This is one of the social responsibilities of the contemporary writer: telling it slant, but telling the truth.  

07 October 2015

Such big news! The 2015 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Contest

Yesterday I missed one of the most important phone calls I've ever received. When I got back to my office after a short errand and listened to the message, I thought maybe the sinus pressure building up in my head this week was finally causing auditory hallucinations. One of my literary idols, the fantastic Kate Bernheimer, said she was calling to tell me on behalf of the Fairy Tale Review staff that my poem(s) "Forestry (parts 1-3)" had been chosen by Poetry Contest  judge Joyelle McSweeney as that year's winner. I'm still in a bit of shock today, but it's finally beginning to sink in. 

About a month ago, I had similar feelings when I received the e-mail notifying me that I was a finalist for the 2015 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Contest. Then, I was incredibly excited and surprised, but I was sure that that would be the end of this particular road. I truly never thought I'd win, no matter how much I wanted to. It's hard to articulate how much this specific honor means to me. I've kept this journal on a pedestal for about 7 years now, ever since I first learned that it existed. This is also the first time I have won a poetry contest, not to mention the first time I have ever been paid for my poetry. This convergence of important moments into one momentous event is slightly overwhelming and surreal. I am so tremendously grateful to Kate Bernheimer, Joyelle McSweeney, and all of the Fairy Tale Review family for this gift that certainly feels more like magical realism than reality. 

"Forestry (parts 1-3)" will be published in the forthcoming Ochre Issue, due out in March 2016. And here is the list of finalist poems and poets who also deserve a great deal of recognition: 
  • Gabrielle Bates, "Cinderella As Told By Grackles"
  • Sara Fetherolf, "Tough Bird"
  • Milo Gallagher, "Boy Seagull"
  • Laura Grothaus, "Pinocchio Revisited"
  • Chandler Lewis, "Driving to DuBois"
  • Lucien Darjeun Meadows, "Her Body an Aquarium"
  • Tania Pryputniewicz, "My Geppetto"
  • Rebecca Perea-Kane, "The Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg"
  • Broc Russell, "Excommunication" 

You can read the official press release announcing the contest results (including those for the Prose Contest, which I've neglected) here, which also includes some generous words from Joyelle McSweeney about "Forestry":
We meet our heroine in very unfortunate media res"soil-deep in bear trap"but which way will fortune tilt? Lusby's shivery sequence strews a trail of clattery syllables through fairy tale's shadiest, most iconic location.

Thank you for sharing in this amazingly good news with me. And I hope you will all keep an eye out for The Ochre Issue in the spring so we can share in the other pieces of fabulous new fabulism gathered there. Long live the fairy tale!

Some other (slightly) smaller tidbits of news:
  • I also have two other poems forthcoming from North Dakota Quarterly, which were accepted a couple of weeks ago: my last remaining Silence of the Lambs poem ("Do you spook easily, Starling?") and another that pairs well with it ("Interlude (again)").

25 September 2015

Three new poems at Third Point Press!

"Treasure Beach Goat Skull," by Michelle Johnsen. Third Point Press, Issue 2.

My first batch of Silence of the Lambs poems has been published in the second issue of Third Point Press! You can now read "That is rather slippery of you, Agent Starling," "How do we begin to covet, Clarice?" and "Have the lambs stopped screaming?" here. I really like the way poems look on the site but I really love the art they used to pair with them. It's called "Treasure Beach Goat Skull," by TPP art editor Michelle Johnsen, and it is so perfect. Seeing these poems and this art together just make me even happier that we have now officially entered autumn territory and Halloween's a-coming. Cozy and creepy.

Another fun thing about this publication is that one of the poems also happens to be my second-ever perfume poem. Remember The Book of Scented Things, the anthology that I co-edited with the amazing Jehanne Dubrow? Well, it is the prompt that keeps on prompting. A few months ago when I was deep into the writing of this poem series, Jehanne stumbled upon this mention of The Silence of the Lambs on one of her favorite perfume blogs which names the scent Clarice Starling wears: L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci. When she read this, she let me know straight away that I just had to write a perfume poem into my SotL series. And, as usual, she was right. I even bought a bottle of the iconic perfume as "poem research." And while it's not a scent I would wear myself (too powdery and musky and gives me a bit of a headache), it was a great way into a meditation on innocence, decay, and the destructive nature of desire.  

I hope you'll read this new issue from Third Point Press! I can't wait to dig into it tomorrow morning. Happy fall, friends.

09 September 2015

Historical [Re]tell: Panel at the Steel Pen Writers' Conference

On Saturday, October 10, I will be joining writers Laura Madeline Wiseman, Cat Dixon, Britny Doane, and P. Ivan Young at the Steel Pen Writers' Conference in Merrillville, Indiana to present a panel called "Historical [Re]tell: The Writing and Craft of Telling Retellings of the Historic." This is an area of poetry-writing that has been my focus for a long time now, so I'm very proud and excited that Madeline invited to me to be part of this event. Although I don't usually dabble in the historical, my poetic focus has primarily been retellings of folk and fairy tales. I've even branched out recently to other retellings of well-known, more contemporary fictional stories, like The Wizard of Oz and (most recently) The Silence of the Lambs.

To prep for this panel (my first!), I am currently rereading and highlighting the hell out of Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale, by Elizabeth Wanning Harries. Since I'll be talking on the panel about retelling primarily from the fairy-tale perspective, this book is the perfect resource for studying up and organizing my thoughts on the subject. The tradition of retelling has even deeper significance for fairy tales and their tellers because of how closely it is intertwined with the history of these kinds of stories in particular:  
      Like [A.S.] Byatt and [Angela] Carter, many other late-twentieth-century writers have returned to the fairy tale, mined its imagery, questioned its usual pieties. Most of them, consciously or not, have produced versions that do not hark back to the strategies of writers like Perrault and the Grimms; their tales are not ‘distressed’ to seem ancient, timeless, or in some way authentic. Rather, they draw on the ‘other tradition’ of the fairy tale… Writers as different as Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Monique Wittig, Caryl Churchill—writers I could have included here—all have chosen fairy-tale plots and recurring motifs as the ground for variation, experimentation, and transformation. They present their tales as versions of versions, framing them in new ways, transliterating their language and images into new constellations.” (Harries, p. 160-1, emphasis mine)

Today, an interview with panel-leader Laura Madeline Wiseman about "Historical [Re]tell" has been published at Cahoodaloodaling. You can get a sense there of what we'll be talking about on the panel, as well as follow some links to new historical retell poetry by the panelists (including some of mine). Madeline is currently guest-editing this journal's eighteenth issue, which is also themed "Historical [Re]tell." You still have until September 19 to submit!

I am so looking forward to this panel discussion next month. If you are in Indiana or nearby, please consider coming out to the Steel Pen Writers' Conference in Merrillville to support us!

04 September 2015

Forthcoming! Third Point Press

Three more of my Silence of the Lambs poems have found homes at a literary journal! "That is rather slippery of you, Agent Starling," "How do we begin to covet, Clarice?," and "Have the lambs stopped screaming?" have all been accepted for publication in the next issue of Third Point Press. Hurrah!

As of now, five out of my six total SotL poems have been taken by literary journals. It's really great to be back in the world of the actively-published. After taking nearly a year off from submitting poems in order to focus solely on generating new work, I'd almost forgotten the busy, heady rhythm of it all. These acceptances are the best kind of confirmation that I am truly headed down the right path with this new work. 

Now back to the writing desk (er... bed).


11 August 2015

Poem as collage, collage as poem


These Silence of the Lambs poems of mine have always been especially rooted in the visual. Even when the poem series was just an idea, I had imagined the words side-by-side with illustration. But I am not a visual artist and I let this self-knowledge stop me from attempting this parallel path for a while. Thankfully there are poets like Matthea Harvey and Kristy Bowen who show how this line can be crossed by the poet and in tandem with the poem. Matthea, with her mermaid-appliance silhouettes and her photographs of miniatures. Kristy, with her collages combining the mid-century housewife with the carnivalesque with the natural world. Their approaches to their visual art are so intertwined with their poetic styles and subjects that they make the perfect complements to each other.

Because I think collage is, essentially, the predominant principle guiding my creative style (even in writing poetryespecially for this specific poem series), I finally realized that this was the appropriate visual medium for me to use in this particular project. My obsession with strangely-named wildflowers became the base from which I constructed these collages. The juxtaposition of the subtle beauty of these plants that pop up everywhere from backyards and roadsides to woodlands and riverbanks with their morbidly associative names struck the same perfect balance of bleak elegance and gorgeous grotesquerie that I looked for in writing each of my Silence of the Lambs poems.

These are the illustrated texts I chose for this cutting up and mashing together, all books that I had laying around or bought cheaply for just this purpose:
  • The Compleat Farmer: A Compendium of Do-It-Yourself, Tried and True Practices for the Farm, Garden, and Household. The Main Street Press (1975)
  •  Gray’s Anatomy (1901 Edition). Henry Gray, F.R.S. (1974).
  • The MacMillan Wild Flower Book. Clarence Hylander & Edith Farrington Johnston (1954).
  • Webster’s Unified Dictionary and Encyclopedia. H.S. Stuttman Company, Inc. (1961).

Each of the six poems in the Silence of the Lambs sequence is paired with a collage. These collages are not strict illustrations of the poems they are paired with. That feels too boring and repetitive to me, creatively speaking. They start with the same idea and image touchstones as in their corresponding poems, but then they branch off in their own directions. Sometimes they end up in nearly the same place, but they take a different route to get there. 

Do you spook easily, Starling? 
+ hooded skullcap / plate 171

That is rather slippery of you, Agent Starling. 
+ boneset / plate 217

Why do you think he removes their skins, Agent Starling? 
+ birdfoot violet / plate 112 

Look at him, Starling. Tell me what you see. 
+ lady's thumb / plate 45

How do we begin to covet, Clarice? 
+ nightshade & bittersweet / plate 173

Have the lambs stopped screaming? 
+ sheep laurel / plate 136

With the first collage or two, I was cautious. Unsure of my limitations in this medium, I stuck to the paper cut-outs from the texts. By the third collage, I grew more comfortable with superimposing contrasting images on top of each other, combining the botanical and human anatomical. Working on the last few pieces, I began incorporating erasure poetry (which really is just another kind of collage-work) of wildflower descriptions, cut-outs of small design elements from coupon circulars, using needle and thread to imitate blood vessels. This experimental tangent into visual-art-as-complement-to-poetry was not only fun, it was extremely fruitful, producing new pieces that now function as legitimate contributions to a growing poetry manuscript. Huzzah!


I really wanted to include the full scans of each of my finished collages here because I'm so excited about them. But I also wanted to hold them back just in case I decide one day to submit them for consideration for journal/magazine publication outside of the manuscript (in which case, "publishing" them here would likely disqualify them). So as a compromise with myself for myself, I've included a "slice" of each collage here in this post.