Interview with Mary Biddinger, Series Editor for the Akron Series in Poetry

In truth, I had never put much thought into the Akron Series in Poetry in the past, partially due to my own ignorance, and partially due to aesthetics.  However, lately, I’ve been more interested in the Series, edited by Mary Biddinger relatively recently beginning in 2008.  I love what Mary says about her aesthetic tastes: “I love poems with teeth.”  So do I, and I like writing poems with teeth–fearless ugly and beautiful poems on the messy human condition, that aren’t afraid to use their sharp fangs.

I don’t know Mary, but she seems intelligent, witty, and just really nice.  I’m glad I had the chance to interview her.

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Women in Trouble: The Green Shore

The Green Shore
Natalie Bakopoulos
Simon & Schuster, June 2012
368 pages

In 1970, when feminists in the U.S. declared “the personal is the political,” Greece was three years into a brutal military junta, where public protest was harshly silenced with arrest, torture, or exile to remote island prisons.  Yet despite the fundamental differences between American and Greek dissent during these turbulent years, “the personal is the political” is the defining theme of Natalie Bakopoulos’s debut novel, The Green Shore.

Bakopoulos traces the lives of a middle-class Greek family living under the junta, and though the stakes are perhaps too low in this quiet novel for it to qualify as a “saga,” The Green Shore explores the breadth and intimacy of the bond between the personal and the political. Under the dictatorship, each member of the family—widowed matriarch Eleni; her brother, a compelling dissident-poet; and her three teenaged children—feels a charge when their ordinary lives collide with high political drama.

The intersecting relationships in The Green Shore are sharply drawn, and Bakopoulos thoughtfully describes the messy resentments and hurts of a typical family. Told in turns from the perspective of each of its members, the personal choices the characters face are meticulously considered—whether to flee the country or stay and resist; whether to pursue an affair with a handsome radical or stay with a stable conservative. In one perplexing scene, we can discern Bakopoulos’s own struggle in deciding what will become of her characters: when Sophie, the eldest daughter, discovers she is pregnant, “she quietly went to the clinic…and took care of it. . . .She felt a small amount of numbness and a whole lot of relief.” One page later, though, Sophie is still pregnant, and the book concludes as she goes into labor.

Beyond the family, tourists are everywhere in the Greece of The Green Shore, and the novel is valuable more for what it reveals about the experience of U.S.-born descendants of Greeks—like Bakopoulos herself—than it does about Greeks living in Greece. When the family’s only son, grown and with a child of his own, returns to Greece after a long absence, he brings along his daughter for her first visit to her ancestral country. In the book’s strongest passage, Eleni laments that her granddaughter, born and raised in Detroit, “would have the same one-sided generic view of Greece that anyone, anywhere could conjure.”

The reigning junta, however, is not as well defined as any of the individual characters: though Bakopoulos is wise to sketch the dictatorship obliquely, lurking as it did at the ends of the family’s lives, the rare glimpses we get of it fall flat. In conversation, for example, often our only encounter with the regime, characters will call it “stupid” or “full of fanatical idiots.” These schoolyard taunts are hardly the language of terror, though, and are decidedly below Bakopoulos’s talents. Indeed, while, Bakopoulos delivers a richly personalized portrait of life during the junta, in this aptly titled novel, Greece is observed only from the shore.


Michael Klein on his poem, “Cartography”

Michael Kleins poem, “Cartography,” appears in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “Cartography” opens with these lines:

I’m dumb about the world. To me, it always looks haunted,
impoverished—especially in snow, which returns it to black and

Here, Michael Klein describes the inspiration for his poem:

What morality, what world view, exists inside a relationship that is happening in the same time of a world that is anything but moral? It’s a huge dilemma or question to capture in a poem, but something I’ve always thought about whenever I enter an intimate relationship with someone. How are we a microcosm of the world in which we live and how do we attempt, or not attempt to resist that world and forge a kind of paradise?

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From Bennington to Book Tour: A Life-of-Letters Q&A

Last weekend I had the privilege to travel up to Bennington College, where I spoke on a Life of Letters panel with friend (and fellow Ploughshares contributor/guest blogger) Megan Mayhew Bergman. Megan and I are both alums of Bennington’s low-residency MFA program; I graduated in 2009, Megan in 2010. We sat down in the Symposium conference room (modeled after the U.N.) in the gorgeous new CAPA facility and talked with current students about our shared experience of publishing a story collection—Megan’s already out in the world, mine still on the way. Our hope was that the conversation would be both encouraging and instructive. I’m happy to share the highlights of our talk with Ploughshares readers!

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Sophie Klahr on her poem, “50 Ways”

Sophie Klahr‘s poem, “50 Ways,” appears in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “50 Ways” opens with these lines:

I can turn the space of him over in my hands. See if it comes apart, if it’s permeable. Does it keep time, shrink, dissolve on flesh. Does it bounce. Can I back that thing up. Can I see if it stands, if it cuts correctly. If it can clothe me.

Here, Sophie Klahr describes her process:

I started writing this poem in the third afternoon of a solo three-day drive, after listening to Anne Carson’s “Cassandra Float Can,” on repeat, and recalling Carson’s idea about edges from her book “Eros the Bittersweet.”  The title “50 Ways” refers to Paul Simon’s 1975 hit song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” however, unlike the song, the speaker in this poem offers no sweet winking advice—this is a snapshot of a fragmented interior.

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5 for Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips

When the poet Alan Dugan was alive, there used to be a reading every summer in Wellfleet at the local library where members of his workshop would read their poems to, mostly, locals.  It was a generous thing of Alan to do, and also something rare – seeing poets sharing their work in obstensibly the early phase of their careers – assuming those summer writers were going to stick with poetry.  Marie Howe and I went one summer in the barely nineties – I forget the years, as I forget many years – exact years – and listened to each poet read his work or her work and after someone named Carl Phillips (to my knowledge he had never published a poem at this point) got up and read, Marie and I looked at each other and said, “wow … that was the real thing”.  And Carl was the real thing, even then, in his summer of Alan Dugan. He has, after all these years, continued being that real thing – a poet who has written many books of poems in an astonishingly short period of time.  We talked about his new book “Double Shadow”, a Lambda Literary Award finalist and winner of this year’s LA Times Book Prize.

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Kelle Groom on her essay, “How to Live with Uncertainty”

Kelle Groom‘s essay, “How to Live with Uncertainty,” appears in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “‘How to Live with Uncertainty” opens with these lines:

The motel over the bridge could be demolished as early as spring, and a dollar store there overlooking the river and what I saw—a woman propped between two men. Her body looked stiffly drunk or drugged the way she was hustled upright with the posture of a fence. Held up by the men, like posts on either side. Heavy, older. She walked as if there was something unmended inside her.

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Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Tarfia Faizullah and the Unpublished Manuscript

The work of getting a manuscript published, that rejection and frustration, begins to feel at times like self abuse. Writing is a lonely adventure, but most of us feel driven to it; quitting is inconceivable. Submitting work, though, is more like managing a business, and most poets I know are not business managers, so it’s easy for us to get bogged down in the nays.

Maybe in addition to writing workshops, we should join rejection workshops to be reminded that we’re not alone. Because we’re not alone.

In lieu of a rejection workshop I offer you the camaraderie of Tarfia Faizullah.

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Monica Ferrell on her poem, “Days of Oakland”

Monica Ferrell‘s poem, “Days of Oakland,” appears in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “Days of Oakland” opens with these lines:

Now and then, you heard the copters
Flying in search of inmates who’d escaped.
Mostly, though, it was quiet. At night, outside,
The cats would fight and fuck and knock shit down,

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Anatomy Courses, and an Interview with Blake Butler

Anatomy Courses
Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick
Lazy Fascist Press, January 2012
132 pages

Anatomy Courses by Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick is twisted in the best possible sense: linguistically. Butler and Kilpatrick’s work of fiction consists of 62 short sections, mostly one or two pages long, that interlock and move toward a visceral, incantatory conclusion. Each section exhibits a kind of torque, a piling on of non sequitur and contradiction—, as in “Our pyramid had 17,000 sides, which made it not a pyramid.” Sentences prize sound but don’t always parse: “I honed my flap to expel enamel.” The work concerns itself with absence, with layers, with language and its connections to the body, while slipping through such aphoristic nuggets as “A pore is a hole also” and “I am tired of this voice and yet I speak.” Blake was recently kind enough to answer a series of questions via email, concerning Anatomy Courses and some of the territory it explores.

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