Poetry Summer Reading List Book #5: The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison

Book: The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison 
Poet: Maggie Smith
Publisher/Date: Tupelo Press, 2015
Why I bought the book: I read Maggie Smith’s poem “The Fortune Teller to the Woodsman” back in January. I don’t remember how I found my way to the poem, but I loved it immediately and started following her on Twitter. In following her I realized her second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, was coming out shortly  (including “The Fortune Teller to the Woodsman).  All of this  coincided with AWP,  so it was perfect timing to meet Maggie and buy her book. Have I mentioned I love the internet?

What I admire about this collection: I really admire the way that way The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison works as a collection of poems. I like the way Maggie uses apologues throughout the book to tie poems and ideas together. I wasn’t familiar with the term “apologue” before reading this book, so it was fascinating to learn about them while reading these beaunnamedutiful poems.

I also really respond to the content of this collection. I love folk tales and fairy tales and I use them a lot in my intro creative writing class as prompts. Often I ask my students to reimagine a fairy tale; to make it their own or to reveal a new angle on a story that an audience might already have read. I like how the poems in The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison feel fresh and new but also personal. There’s a careful, thoughtful poignancy in many of these poems. Each time you read one of these poems, something new pops up. It’s a brilliant read.

Favorite lines: “It is blacker there than in the gut. From far off, her life/rings like a thrown voice. Let it not be a fable for others” (3). “It’s an installation: Wrens pinned like brooches/to the trees, singing, their eyes like glass beads” (5). “Listen/as bird songs repeat, records skipping:/ Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. Each persistent melody chips away at the air, shaving/the sky into tissue-thin curls that float/down like leaves” (9). “Ultimately, all revisions of her life collapse into one…” (28). “Swans floated like votives” and ” feathers like wicks” (30).

Favorite poems: “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison,” “Last Night on Earth,” “First Son,” “The Shepherd’s Horn” & “Ohio.”

Links: While reading A Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I was reminded of other poems about folk/fairy tales that I’ve used in my classes before. Two that came to mind were “Gretel in Darkness” by Louise Gluck and “Cinderella” by Anne Sexton.

Previous: A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning

Next: The Last Two Seconds by Mary Jo Bang 

Poetry Summer Reading List Book #1: The Octopus Game

Book: The Octopus Game

Poet: Nicky Beer

Publisher/Date: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015

Why I bought the book: I met Nicky Beer while I was working on my MFA at Murray State University. In fact, if I remember correctly, I think she shared a poem or two from this manuscript during one of the residencies I attended toward the end of my degree. Nicky is brilliant and kind and she was also at AWP this year, so I got to see her again, which was delightful.

What I admire about this collection: There is so much to admire in Octopus Game, but I think what I like best about all of these poems is they way Nicky uses language to craft thick, layered images that feel like paintings. When I read these poems I feel like I’m reading art. The poems are ornate, weighty and beautiful. I’m not ashamed to say that I had to look up many words while reading these poems. Just a sample: polygot, mesalliance, chromaphores, epicenes, penury, labella, petioles, diastoles, cicatrix & guywires. So I should also thank Nicky for inadvertently making me smarter. I also appreciate that while Nicky’s poetry is meticulously executed and extremely intelligent, it is also accessible and humorous. It may seem somewhaunnamedt limited, but when I read poetry collections I often wonder if there are poems I could share with my students and these are poems they would love to read.

Favorite lines: “Today, love will be like starlight:/when it arrives, whatever it comes from will have already collapsed,” “Black Hole Itinerary” & “A poem like being born/behind a dead bird’s heart,/eating your way into the light,” Oblation.”

I could just list the entire book, but that’s silly, so just take my word for it and buy it so you can immerse yourself in all the gorgeousness.

Favorite poems: ” Octopus Vulgaris,” “Boys in Dresses,”Pescados De Pesadillas,”Nature Film, Directed by Martin Scorsese,” & “Harvard Med Field Trip.”

Again, I loved the whole book. See above.

Links: When I read Octopus Game I was reminded of the poem “Cephalata” by Anna George Meeks in her chapbook Engraved. I’m also a big fan of nature documentaries. I have been since I was five years old sitting on my grandfather’s lap and watching Nature on PBS. Recently, I’ve revisited two of my favorite nature documentary series Life & Planet Earth, and while reading Octopus Game I was reminded of this clip:

As a new mother, I’d also mention watching this clip while feeding a screaming newborn gives it a whole new meaning.

Next: Confluence by Sandra Marchetti

Discussing writing and werewolves at Ivy Tech

My good friend and talented writer, Sam Snoek-Brown came to visit my classes yesterday and later gave a reading from his debut novel, Hagridden. Thanks, Sam!

Samuel Snoek-Brown

Today I had the great privilege to visit not one but two creative writing classes taught by my grad school friend, the wonderful poet Brianna Pike. I’ve always loved Bri’s approach to teaching writing as much as I love her poetry (and folks, she’s a hell of a poet!), so I knew I was in for a good time. But what neither of us realized — because Bri had set her syllabus up several weeks ago, and long before we’d finalized my visit — was how easily I slotted into her lessons today.

The classes were addressing setting. Hagridden is heavily dependent on setting, and setting is a subject I’ve written on before. Bri also mentioned the importance of research, including interviews with locals and actual boots-on-the-ground field research, to get a setting right. And, of course, I’ve done all that too. But then it gets weird: the story…

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Several months ago I wrote a post about Natalie Giarratano’s debut poetry collection, Leaving Clean. Natalie and I attended the University of North Texas together where we were both working on a Masters Degree. Today, I have the pleasure of writing about another talented writer and friend from my days in Denton, Sam Snoek-Brown.

Sam’s debut novel, Hagridden, came out this summer and I just finished it last weekend. It is a gritty, gripping tale of two women attempting to survive in the Louisiana bayou at the end of the Civil War. There is much to admire in this novel, but what brought me into the story immediately was the characterization of the two women. As is probably true of most women who are avid readers and writers themselves, I am hungry for strong, complex depictions of women in fiction and this novel does not disappoint. From the opening scene where these two protagonists work together to dispatch some soldiers who are unlucky enough to come across them in the swamp, I am awed, intrigued and terrified.

Survival is the primary focus of these two women at the start but as outside forces begin to intrude on the small world they’ve carved out for themselves, that idea of survival begins to shift. It is the dynamic between these two women combined with this theme of survival that creates a series of powerful and damaging conflicts throughout the novel. These two women are carefully sculpted and their motivations are complex. As the younger woman begins to pull away from her older companioimagesn, I felt both triumph in her attempt to move beyond mere survival but also pangs of sympathy for the older mother who has lost her child, her husband, her companion and soon, her mind. It is not difficult to see why holding onto the younger woman is important, but in a starkly vulnerable moment when she rocks her daughter-in-law like a child, we see just how deep her desperation goes.

Once of my favorite passages in the novel is when the older woman is wounded and the description that follows:

The woman woke in the morning with her cheek bright red and a yellow stain like spilled iodine seeping down the skin of her neck from under the blood-crusted rag.

The woman’s neck cords strained like a banjo wire and she bared her gritted teeth as she peeled at the rag, little tears in the scabbing and the rag alike, and when it came away it left fine hairs of cotton stuck in the wound and the two inch cleft seeped a blood gooey and black like tar. (43) 

I’ve never been to the Louisiana bayou but I imagine it to be much like the language that fills the pages of Hagridden, dark, deep and dense.

Hagridden is book grounded in history and myth and the women of the novel spend much of their time examining both through a variety of different lenses. The world they live in is born of violence, but there are also moments of humanity that remind the reader that these characters are indeed human beings who are capable of compassion, and even more importantly, love.

Order your copy of Hagridden here.

Every Kiss A War

When you’re a poet sending out work into the universe, it can seem like the literary world is very, very large. But then something happens that reminds you that indeed it is a small world. A small world full of generous, talented writers.

A few weeks ago I was online researching some places to send my poems and I came across Mojave River Press & Review. I was impressed with their site and decided to send some poems. Around the same time I discovered Mojave online, my friend and author, Sam Snoek-Brown put a post up on Facebook about a collection of short stories called Every Kiss A War by Leesa Cross-Smith. Who published Every Kiss A War? Mojave River Press. About two days later, I’m back online and I notice some people I follow on Twitter talking about Whiskey Paper. Whiskey Paper is an online publication that publishes flash fiction. Who runs Whiskey Paper? Leesa Cross-Smith.

At this point, this whole thing is starting to sound like six degrees of Kevin Bacon. So what’s the point?

I took all of this as a sign and ordered Every Kiss A War and man, am I glad I did.

photo-1Every Kiss A War is a collection of twenty-seven stories that focus primarily on relationships and how they are constantly evolving. The characters are flawed and beautiful and I was in love with each and every one of them, even the ones I didn’t like very much. These are real men and women who live in the real world made up of cowboy boots, red lipstick, and wine in mason jars. The details are so thick and vivid, that each story makes me feel like I’m standing inside a bright, colorful painting and I could reach out and touch the brushstrokes. Reading these stories is a visceral experience.

Some of my favorite pieces of fiction contain characters that are layered and with each action, the author peels back another layer, so that my impression of the character changes in a paragraph or even a few sentences. This transformation keeps me on my toes as a reader, especially when it happens in a short story because it happens so quickly. My favorite example of this in Every Kiss A War, occurs in the story “Hem.”

At first, the speaker, Mitchell, struck me as just a sad, pathetic guy who was hung up on his ex-girlfriend. The fact that he sat outside her apartment, waiting for her light to go out, pushed the creep factor up considerably. But when his ex, Bethany, shows up at the bar where he’s playing a gig and proceeds to tell him “You’re right. Like he is a fucking really great dress. And you weren’t for me. You were like…a hem of a really great dress.” Well, I’m not ashamed to say that in that moment, I paused and whispered “bitch” under my breath.

Mitchell, I’m all yours.

It also occurs to me that later, when Mitchell and Merit, his friend from work, are in his house, arranging his books by color, and he confides “…Bethany told me I was the hem of a dress and not the whole dress last night. And that shit can crush a person, y’know?” that like, Mitchell, I am near tears. And by the end, when Merit takes his hand, and Mitchell tells her “she’s more beautiful than the mountains…” I’m a mess.

Every Kiss A War is full of lines that I admire not only as a lover of fiction, but also as a poet. A few examples:

From “What the Fireworks Are For,” “How sometimes your body couldn’t tell the difference between not loving someone enough and loving someone too much.”

From “Like Light,” “And tonight you feel small. You feel okay but you feel like nothing. Like you could float away. Like glitter or ash. Like light.”

And from the title story, “…Sometimes we take bloody knives, carve our initials into thick, tall trees that haven’t been planted yet. His heart is a heavy, loaded gun he hands over to me, lets me spin on my finger. Wait don’t shoot. The overgrown garden of what we don’t say, fecund in our hothouse mouths. Every kiss a war.”

I have a habit of writing down lines or sections of stories I like. The best way I can describe how beautiful this collection is is to say that after the third story, I stopped copying down lines because a). my hand hurt and b). it was slowing me down in my reading.

You can and should purchase Every Kiss A War here.

What I’m Reading

This quote from Stephen King came across my Twitter feed the other day, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I’ve seen this quote many times and it got me to thinking about what I am currently reading. Recently I’ve tried to let go of my habit of finishing one book before starting another. While this is a good habit in the respect that it keeps me specifically focused on one text, it also limits the amount of books I  can read during the course of a semester or even a year. While it can be confusing to read several books at one time, I tend to have a wide variety of tastes in terms of books, so it isn’t proving to be a problem at the moment. Mr. King would be happy with the fact that out of the four books I’m reading right now, his work occupies two slots:

1. 11/22/63, Stephen King
2. Dr. Sleep, Stephen King
3. The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Fire to Fire: New & Selected Poems, Mark Doty 

In addition to these four, I also have Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward lined up and ready to go. These books are in addition to the articles and blog posts I read on the internet and the copies of The New Yorker & The Atlantic that come in the mail. Admittedly, I’m currently involved in a complicated relationship with my subscription to The New Yorker. I love the articles but at the end of the month, I usually find myself buried in issues and I hate when that happens. 

I know it is important to read work that interests you, work that you love and work that you don’t love because you learn from all three. In addition to trying to read multiple books at the same time, I’m also trying to get over the fact that if I start a book and don’t like it, I don’t necessarily have to finish it.  This happens often with book club selections that I’m less than enthralled with, but then I feel obligated to finish because we will eventually discuss the book in a group setting. I continue to feel this way, despite the fact that many of the people in said book club don’t ever finish the book, so I should probably get over it.

I do run into the problem of reading for “leisure” during the academic year. It isn’t a lack desire, but more an issue of stamina. I teach writing courses, which means I spend a lot of time reading the essays, poems, stories, plays and research papers of my students. It is interesting work but it is also labor intensive. Sometimes I just don’t have the brain power to pick up a novel or poetry collection after an afternoon of reading composition essays, but I also think I know what Mr. King would say to that complaint: “Suck it up.” 

I’m trying. 

Swamplandia! & Wild

One of my goals this summer was to read more books and I think so far I’ve been doing pretty well. In the past two weeks I’ve read two books, Swamplandia! & Wild. I actually finished Swamplandia! first, but I’ve been mulling it over for about a week.

Swamplandia! is by Karen Russell and I found the book on The New York Time’s Best Seller List. I usually go to this list when I’m looking for good books, because to be honest, it rarely fails me. You can talk all you want about pretension and liberals and all that noise, but the people at The NY Times can pick books. I chose Swamplandia! from the list for a couple of reasons:

1. It has a killer title, right?
2. It was a story about a family and that family contained two sisters.
3. There was an alligator on the cover.

I realize that the last admission might make me sound trite. I’m an English Professor. I know. I’m supposed to pick books based on their literary merit, good reviews and lyrical prose. Yeah, yeah. Well, this time I picked a book based on a cool title and kick ass cover and you know what? I was not disappointed.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family told from the point of view of Ava Bigtree, the youngest member of the family.  At the opening of the novel, we learn that the Bigtree family runs a gator park in the Florida Everglades called Swamplandia! We also learn that the family matriarch and star of the show, Hilola Bigtree, has died of cancer leaving her husband Chief, oldest son Kiwi, daughter Osceola and Ava to fend for themselves. What follows is winding narrative of a family splitting apart and coming back together.

The characters in this novel are complicated and fascinating. Ava’s desire to take her mother’s place and save the bankrupt Swamplandia! is the storyline that comes to the forefront, but what we come to find out is that Ava isn’t trying to save the park. She’s trying to save her family.

The details in this novel are rich and fantastical, but they’re also believable. Kiwi, disgusted with his father’s refusal to accept the family’s dire financial situation, leaves home and gets a job at “The World of Darkness” a competing tourist attraction. Osceola becomes obsessed with ghosts and the occult and eventually gets herself involved romantically with a dead sailor named Louis. Yes, he’s dead. Ava puts all her hope in a mutant baby gator and the Chief simply disappears on a “business trip” to the mainland.

This brings me to what I liked best about this book, the thin line between fantasy and reality that all of the characters walk. There is Kiwi’s fantasy that he will save enough money working at “The World of Darkness” to save Swamplandia! There is Osceloa’s fantasy that she will find love in the arms of a ghost. There is the Chief’s fantasy that he can save his family and his business by disappearing to the mainland for a summer and working in a casino and finally, there is Ava’s fantasy that she will save Swamplandia! and become a famous gator wrestler like her mother. 

The reality? It’s a lot uglier but it is tinged with the love and hope that all the characters have. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the final chapters of the book (I won’t give them away here) but I’ve decided that the ending works well. This was the classic tale of a journey and what is true about all journeys is that sooner or later, they have to end.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed is also a story about a journey and while I didn’t do this on purpose, there are definitely some overlapping themes in both Swamplandia! and Wild.

Wild is nonfiction book covering the author’s trek across the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For those of you who don’t anything about the PCT (which I didn’t before I started reading this book) this is no walk in the park. Strayed (the story of her last name is covered in the book) started her hike in Mojave, CA and ended it at The Bridge of Gods in Oregon. This is the map that Strayed included in the opening of the book.

Coincidentally, this story also begins with the loss of Strayed’s mother, Bobbi, to lung cancer.  Admittedly, there were points in this book where I felt like there was not one more sad, unfortunate or self-destructive thing that could happen to this woman (and this was before she started her hike on the PCT) and I’m sure some people would find this a burden. However, if you read previous posts from me concerning memoir and nonfiction, you know that I love stories about people rising above adversity and I’m not turned off my hardship, no matter how terrible the author suffers. This book made me cry, it made me sigh, and it made me laugh. It is essentially a journey through grief and if you’ve ever grieved deeply, you’ll feel a certain kinship with Strayed. You will also feel admiration.

I picked up Wild because I heard the second half of an interview with Strayed on NPR and I was intrigued. I came into the interview when she was reading the prologue of the book, which begins like this:

The trees were tall, but I was taller standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen in those trees, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled into it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge.

My first thought was (because I had missed half the interview) how the hell did she hike with one boot? Then I heard her continue:

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing. Useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine theft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and silver fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.

My second thought: She did what?

I knew I had to read the book. You should read it too.

The Tiger’s Wife

In July of 2009 I posted about Tea Obreht’s short story The Tiger’s Wife. It appeared in The New Yorker’s Summer Fiction issue, so it seems only appropriate that in the summer of 2012 I am now posting about Obreht’s novel of the same name.

This is part of my original post:

The way that The Tiger’s Wife weaves a folk story into the larger conflict of war is also very impressive. For instance, in the opening of the piece when the tiger is still trapped in the citadel, the description is starkly genuine “The tiger did not know that they were bombs. He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of fighter plans passing overhead and the missiles falling, the bears bellowing in another part of the fortress , and the sudden silence of the birds.” Then later, ” When a stray bomb hit the south wall of the citadel, sending up clouds of smoke and ash, and shattering bits of rubble into his skin, his heart should have stopped. The toxic iridescent air; the feeling of his fur folding back like paper in the heat…”

This passage exemplifies two of the best aspects of Obreht’s novel: the interweaving of several different stories into one fluid, lyric narrative and the absolutely gorgeous language that Obreht uses to tell that story.

It was really enjoyable to see how the story of The Tiger’s Wife developed into a full length novel. The folklore that Obreht uses to give important information about characters and setting, is imaginative and compelling. I found myself completely caught up in the story of the tiger’s wife, The Deathless Man and the gypsies digging away in the vineyard in hopes of settling a restless corpse.

 This is a novel of loss. It is set against the backdrop of war and the protagonist is a doctor who finds herself struggling with the loss of her beloved grandfather. It is a poignant story and full of impeccable, tiny stories that make the characters rich and complex. What is remarkable is how skillfully Obreht links all these stories and details together so that, as a reader, you feel satisfied but at the same time there is still a little bit of mystery. I think this is no clearer then at the close of the book:

…He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain. Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger’s wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that tight note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore.

Summer, summer, summer time…

I took a bit of a hiatus last week from the blog world to dedicate all of my attention to the end of the semester. Today at 9:00 AM I submitted grades and put up my out of office email message. I’m on break until June 4th.

I’ve got several blog posts milling around in my head. Despite the pile of grading I found myself under at the end of April, I still managed to read three books, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Prodigal Summer and The Shining. I also discovered the joy of checking books out of the library via my new Kindle Fire (yes, I won it!).  These posts will be up and coming soon.

Today I’m cleaning my house, signing up for yoga classes for the summer, going grocery shopping, going for a long walk and maybe mowing the grass (that last one depends on how brave I feel).

Stay tuned.

Peonies from my garden.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Last night I finished reading the latest pick of the faculty book club that I belong to a school. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a very interesting book and I learned a lot about the medical industry that I did not know.

The book is about the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells became famous. Henrietta’s cells (HeLa cells) are used all over the world in medical research. Research done using her cells created the vaccine for polio and her cells have been used in research for cancer and AIDS. The books is crafted in a way that shows the separate stories of Henrietta and her cells and how those stories eventually converge and the havoc that it wreaks on her surviving relatives.

The book was written by Rebecca Skloot, who incidentally was at AWP this past weekend, and she began when she was just a student. She became interested in HeLa cells and how no one seemed to know anything about the woman from which these cells came from. Skloot’s research is dense and complicated but she does a good job of breaking the science down, making it accessible to a wide audience.

However, it is the personal narrative that Skloot constructs that will draw you into the book right away. It is a heartbreaking narrative that raises important questions about privacy, morality, poverty, education and health care. I think it is important book for people to read not only because Henrietta and her family deserve to have their story told, but also because people need to be aware of what the current laws are regarding human tissue. As Skloot says in her afterword, “When I tell people the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells, their first question is usually Wasn’t it illegal for doctors to take Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge? Don’t doctors have to tell you when they use your cells in research? The answer is no–not in 1951, and not in 2009 when this book went to press.”

All books are meant to educate the audience in some way shape or form. This book opened my eyes to a lot of different issues occurring in the medical community and I think we owe it to Henrietta and all people like her to listen to her story.

Rebecca Skloot set up a scholarship fund for descendents of Henrietta Lacks. Donations can be made at www.HenriettaLacksFoundation.org.

Image of stained HeLa cells courtesy GE Healthcare (by way of Henrietta Lacks) via CC  
On May 29, 2010, there was finally a headstone erected at Henrietta’s gravesite. 
Henrietta and Day Lacks, circa1945. Courtesy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.