“Poets should always take public transportation”: An Interview with Maureen Thorson

MetroDCIn her second book of poems, My Resignation, Maureen Thorson immerses us in the story of two people figuring out how to start a new life together. Her poems are finely textured, moving, and often humorous. She has a keen appreciation for the quirky natural detail or odd snippet of conversation that perfectly captures a moment—and her work shows us again and again how those moments add up to our lives. Maureen is also the author of a previous book, Applies to Oranges, as well as a number of chapbooks, and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

Matthew Thorburn: Would you talk about your process for writing the poems in My Resignation and putting this book together?

Maureen Thorson: The poems grew out of little notes and quotations that I jotted down in the months after my husband and I first moved in together. I knew I wanted to make something out of them, but I also wanted to preserve their “present-ness” by not reworking the individual snippets very much. So I ended up typing all the notes into 11×17, four-column sheets, trying to preserve as much as possible the formatting of the original, handwritten notes. Once I had four sheets filled, I printed them out and started drawing circles between bits and pieces that felt emotionally or narratively connected. I refined the poems by adding interstitial stanzas, or remixing bits of separate snippets together. For the final section of the book, which takes place three years after the moving-in period with which most of the poems are concerned, I relied less on this collaging process, but wrote more directly.

It took about five years to put the book together. Many of the first drafts I discarded, or folded together in trying to get a narrative arc that wasn’t forced, and which felt true to the sometimes fractious emotional process of becoming a couple.Continue Reading

“Uninhibited Openness”: An Interview with Dario Robleto, Materialist Poet

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Conceptual artist Dario Robleto has been aptly described as an alchemist, cultural archeologist, and “raconteur in the ancient way.” By his own definition, he is a “materialist poet”—a term that encapsulates his method of creating sculptural responses to lyrical material lists that mediate on the human condition. From black swan vertebrae to stretched audiotape recordings of Sylvia Plath, braided mammoth hair to melted bullet lead, Robleto’s sculptures generate narrative resonance between unconventional and often elaborately altered objects. With emotional honesty and tangible curiosity, his resulting exhibitions launch timely and timeless inquires into war, healing, memory, and the evolutionary relationship between creativity and loss.

Above all, Robleto’s art inspires responsibility for remembrance. His installations cultivate intimacy with history, using sensory particulars to excavate forgotten yet defining threads within the fabric of collective thought. Reaching across the boundaries of various disciplines, Robleto’s work poignantly contends that our understanding of human origins should be as sophisticated as the modern technology we’re now moving toward. In his own words, “The present is the accumulation of the past.”

Robleto has had over 30 solo exhibitions, most recently “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed” at the Menil Collection, and “Setlists for a Setting Sun” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He is currently an Artist Research Fellow at Rice University in Houston, where he lives and works, and was recently named Texas State Artist.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: McPherson & Company

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McPherson & Company began with a simple mission just over 40 years ago. Bruce McPherson was enamored of his friend Jaimy Gordon’s manuscript Shamp of the City-Solo, so when Gordon was unable to find a publisher, he decided to put it out himself. While he didn’t intend to continue in the publishing world, the novel’s success convinced him otherwise.

McPherson has since put out two more of Gordon’s novels, including 2010’s National Book Award Winner Lord of Misrule, as well as more than a hundred fifty award-winning and best-selling titles that expand far beyond the realm of contemporary fiction.

McPherson & Co. now publishes translations, such as Divine Punishment by Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez, which Carlos Fuentes lauded as “the quintessential Central American novel,” and a fantastic line of “Recovered Classics,” republishing authors whose work has been long out of print, including modernist writer Mary Butts and poet and essayist Edward Dahlberg. Plus, there are books on art and culture, belles lettres, and even some esoteric film DVDs of early art “happenings” by Claes Oldenberg.

Almost as impressive as McPherson & Co.’s wide range of offerings is the company’s support of independent bookstores. McPherson carefully manages its distribution, sending titles to independent bookstores weeks before they’re available elsewhere, with the rationale that independent bookstores inevitably support “independent writers from independent publishers,” and deserve McPherson’s support in return.

For Ploughshares readers and authors, McPherson shares how he’s remained independent these four decades, what he looks for in a McPherson title, and where McPherson is headed in the 21st century.

KF: McPherson has had an amazing run since its inception as Treacle Press in 1974. It’s almost a given at this point that every year a McPherson title will win national recognition, whether it’s an Independent Publisher IPPY award, a Pen Center or National Book Award, or inclusion on any number of “best of” lists. What editorial decisions regarding manuscripts do you think contribute to this level of excellence?

BM: It may sound pretentious to say that I simply publish books that seem to me important and worth sharing. But as an independent publisher, without directors and shareholders, I’m free to take risks that others perhaps can’t. I go for the best I can find (or who find me), and throw everything I’ve got behind the books I choose to do. It’s not really all that hard these days to find material of the highest quality. The Big Six still publish excellent books, of course, but seem to have relinquished entire provinces of literature to smaller publishers. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet and become friends with writers not only from around the country, but from around the world. Add to this that it’s not uncommon for my authors to point their friends in my direction. Sadly, the front list is very small, three or four books a year. I can’t begin to take on all the books I’d like to publish, and it’s painful having to disappoint authors whose work I revere. At the Book Expo America the other day, a Canadian publisher said he thought we’re living in a golden age of literary publishing. I believe him; the difficulty comes with convincing the reading public.Continue Reading

“So that the poem is an act of discovery”: An Interview with Brian Komei Dempster

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Brian Komei Dempster received the 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry for his debut collection, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013), which examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. Through their interwoven narratives, his poems show us how the past never ends: it shapes and is in constant dialogue with our present lives, as our family histories are written into, and rewritten by, the lives of subsequent generations. Brian also edited From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps (Kearny Street Workshop, 2001) and Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement  (Heyday, 2011). A professor of rhetoric and language and a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San Francisco, he also serves as Director of Administration for the M.A. program in Asia Pacific Studies. Next month he will serve as a fellow at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry.

Matthew Thorburn: Your poems combine historical narratives, your family’s stories, and your own experiences, which gives your work a wonderful texture and density—while also illustrating how these narratives are always intertwined with and complicated by one another. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you and how you weave these different threads together?

Brian Komei Dempster: A poem starts for me with an image, a scene, a phrase in my head. I must keep my pen moving and rational mind out of the way so that the poem is an act of discovery rather than a predictable journey. Sometimes I make surprising connections between events.

For example, “Transaction” started as a poem about the narrator’s mother receiving her redress check for her wartime incarceration in Topaz prison camp. As I wrote, this vignette intertwined with others: the narrator’s exploration of sexuality at a strip club; Detroit autoworkers blaming Vincent Chin for the loss of their jobs. In revision, I found it exciting to jump cut between the three narrative strands. Moving between historical injustices suffered by his family, his role perpetuating female commodification, and details surrounding Chin’s racially charged murder, the speaker shows the exclusionary and inclusionary nature of race and gender, money and power.Continue Reading

“You start out in difficulty”: An Interview with Dan Albergotti

Field_of_Light_by_Bruce_Munro_(12642954763)Dan Albergotti is the author of two books of poems, The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008) and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), as well as a limited-edition chapbook, The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, he is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. Dan’s poems harness inventive (and sometimes invented) formal strategies to give shape to and amplify a deeply human, deeply American voice: like your dearest, oldest friend hunkered beside you at the bar who just happens to speak in couplets.

Matthew Thorburn: Throughout Millennial Teeth one finds sonnets like “December 25, 2005,” written in a very taut syllabic, rhyming form in which each line expands by two syllables, up to 14 syllables, then back down to two syllables for the last line. How did this form come about?

Dan Albergotti: That’s a form I invented about ten years ago, and a good friend has christened it the Albergonnet (a silly name, I know, but I’ve embraced it). When I first imagined it, I thought the tight rhyme at the beginning and end would make the form unwieldy. The rhyme scheme is couplet, so the Albergonnet demands that the writer establish a sound for the initial rhyme in the second syllable of the poem and then provide the rhyme for it only four syllables later. At the end, the last rhyme occurs only two syllables apart. So opening and closing the poem is formally a pretty stiff challenge, so much so that when I sat down to write the first one I thought it would necessarily be a failure.

I was really surprised when it turned out not to be. Then I wrote another, then another, then another, and the results kept improving. I had just been playing around with the elements of form, imagining something that seemed absurd in the abstract, but I think along the way I stumbled onto a possibly durable invention.Continue Reading

“She did not let go until her story had been told”: An Interview with Sandy Longhorn

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Sandy Longhorn is the author of three collections of poems, Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press, 2013) and The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (Trio House, 2015). She teaches at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-edits Heron Tree, “a journal of online poetry, bound annually.” I first found out about Sandy’s poems by way of her blog, Myself the Only Kangaroo among the Beauty (the title comes from Emily Dickinson), where she writes candidly about the daily struggles and little victories that come with being a poet in the world. Her poems are carefully structured and quietly moving, un-ostentatious and often unforgettable. We caught up via email for this conversation late last year.

MATTHEW THORBURN: The poems in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths create and inhabit their own world, right from the first poem, “Disclaimer,” in which “the Author” is “painting the sunlight” and “coaxing things out of the ground.” Did you have a sense of where these poems take place right from the beginning, or did it come into focus as you were writing?

SANDY LONGHORN: This book, my second, is closely linked to my first, Blood Almanac. In the year after Blood Almanac came into the world thanks to Anhinga Press, I didn’t write much at all. When I did return to writing poetry, I found myself writing poems that continued the trajectory of being set firmly in the Midwest. Although I haven’t lived there in over 15 years, that landscape is at the essence of my voice. At the time I was writing the oldest poems in The Girlhood Book, I was also reading diaries of women who had lived in Iowa at various points in history. In each of them, weather was a central factor of the entries. I began to imitate that on my blog, and weather became an even bigger focus of “place” for book two. In short, yes, the sense of place was paramount from the beginning.Continue Reading

Conquistador: A Tiny Interview with Rafael Acosta

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It’s no secret that Mexican letters are making a comeback. Though it should be said Mexican writers have never left the building. They’ve been around: working, translating, publishing in plain sight as the rest of the western world goes on lamenting boom writer after boom writer’s death. In the meanwhile, a new, millennial generation of writers has emerged on the heels of the now well-established Mexican literati comprised of the older statesmen and women of Mexican letters, which include names like Jorge Volpe, Mario Bellatin, Carmen Boullosa, and Elena Poniatowska among others. And while so many readers and critics focus on the cerebral, neck-up literature (with a capital “L”) that so many argue can only come from Mexico City, I’m finding myself drawn toward the literature coming from the epicenter of the contemporary Mexican moment itself: the great Mexican north. Ground zero of much of the drug wars in Mexico, yes, but also home to some of the best writers and writing happening today. Rafael Acosta is one of these writers and he’s the real deal. I interviewed Rafael Acosta who originally hails from Piedras Negras on the Texas-Mexico border. We talked about his new novel, Conquistador (Tierra Adentro Press), basketball, and the contemporary drug war in Mexico.Continue Reading

“An Essay Needs to be about Exploring”: An Interview with Angela Pelster

4645778215_ce3994b9b0_oAngela Pelster is the author of Limber (Sarabande Books, 2014), for which she won the Great Lakes College Association New Writer Award. This book was first described to me as a “collection of essays about trees,” which is like saying Moby Dick is a book about a whale. Trees may serve as a starting point, or ending point, but her essays roam widely through history, nature, science and the quirky details of our daily lives. Pelster writes from the crossroads of essay, poem, memoir, fable, short story, meditation and prayer—which sounds like a dangerous intersection, but makes Limber a fascinating, compelling book. Pelster is also the author of a children’s novel, The Curious Adventures of India Sophia (River Books, 2005), which received the Golden Eagle Children’s Choice Award. She lives with her family in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.

The last few sentences in “Mango” describe how I imagine an essay might start for you: “I collect the signs like a doctor tapping on a patient’s body, looking into ears, pressing on a spine, drawing blood from the unseen places. It is difficult to know… when the world will bend and let slide a little secret from its corner.” How does an essay start for you?

Beginning an essay is always a bit of a mystery to me, and so also always a little terrifying since I never know if I will be able to do it again. But one thing that is consistent in each beginning is the uncertainty about what the essay is really trying to say. I can’t write about a subject if I already know what I think about it, or even where I want to get to emotionally in the writing; it needs to be discovered as I go. I always tell my students that if they know what they want their essay to be about, if they feel there is a point they need to make, then they’re writing the wrong essay. An essay needs to be about exploring, about figuring things out; it needs to be about asking a genuine question and sincerely seeking an answer. If any of the essays in Limber work, it’s because they were born out of a real uncertainty.

The rest of my writing practice is probably pretty standard. I despair for awhile that I’ll never write again. I write a few terrible sentences. Then I finally write a nice sentence inside some terrible paragraphs, and I’m off. I find I need to have something, anything, on the screen, before I sit down to actually start a new essay. I’ll type whatever nonsense comes to mind, press enter a few times, and then put my cursor above it in order to have the illusion of a safety net of words beneath me. And then, of course, once it’s all down I revise, revise, revise.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Ampersand Books

imgresFounded by Jason Cook, Ampersand Books is the epitome of publishing in the twenty-first century—brash, fresh, and aggressive. Ampersand, and its imprint Bloody Fine Chapbooks, have moved at a breakneck pace on a shoestring budget to produce a list of books thick with dark wordplay and wry humor. From the haunting (and haunted) poetry chapbook Ear to the Wall by Carrie Causey, to the clever collection When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother by Melissa Broder, to Roberto Montes’ funny and frightening I Don’t Know Do You (just named one of the “best, most original poetry books of the year” by NPR), Ampersand hit the ground running in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. For Ploughshares, Jason Cook divulges a secret or two of Ampersand’s success and what he sees as Ampersand’s place in the literary landscape of the future.

Kate Flaherty: Ampersand’s manuscript submission process—where you only consider manuscripts from authors whose work has appeared in your magazine, Ampersand Review—seems supremely practical. What were the grounds for this process? Does it make Ampersand’s inbox slightly more manageable?

Jason Cook: The inspiration for that process is, essentially, laziness. I knew that if I wound up in a staring match with a stack of unread manuscripts, I’d almost immediately surrender and go play on Facebook for 3 hours. Engaging in a conversation with a writer whose poem or story you just published is a whole different thing than reading yet another query letter, and usually you can give a “nay” or “maybay” before seeing it.

I think it also makes writers feel a little more comfortable about pitching me books that don’t exist yet. I don’t think many indie publishers do that, but I’m having fun shaping these books as they emerge.

KF: While distinctive from one another, Ampersand titles share a certain air of cynicism tinged with nostalgia for a world that never was. Ampersand’s fiction titles are particularly melancholy—for example the wistful snapshots that make up Joseph Riippi’s The Orange Suitcase or the exhausting psychological paralysis of Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens. Explain this Ampersand worldview.

JC: Since the editorial staff is composed of exactly me, I guess that’s just what I like. I like books with a broken heart, but with enough self-awareness to wonder whether it matters.Continue Reading

“Bringing the Poem Back to the Actual”: An Interview with David J. Daniels

rural-jurorDavid J. Daniels writes poems that sneak up on you. Smart and worldly, emotional and funny, they convey a sense of life-as-it’s-lived: culture both high and low, our strivings and failings, the countless ways we let each other down and hold each other up. Because of the immediacy of voice and freshness of language, you might not realize at first that his poems also often rhyme and come to life in sophisticated formal structures. David’s first book, Clean, received the Four Way Books Intro Prize and was recently named a finalist for the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency, both from Seven Kitchens Press. He teaches at the University of Denver.

Matthew Thorburn: Two poems in Clean have postscripts – “Public Indecency” is followed by “The Casserole: a Postscript” and “Letter to Curtis, Dead at Twenty-Four” is followed by “Postscript to Curtis.” I love the idea of a poem having a sequel. Could you talk about how these poems came to be? Did you finish a poem and then feel there really was more to say?

David J. Daniels: Thom Gunn has two adjacent poems in his collection Boss Cupid, “In the Post Office” and “Postscript: The Panel.” The first is an elegy, delivered in second person to the dead, and the second begins fairly directly in prose form: “Reciprocation from the dead. Having finished the post office poem, I decide to take a look at the stained-glass panel it refers to, which Charlie made I would say two years before he died.” There’s a lot I’ve learned from Thom Gunn – his attention to rhyme and syllabics, his mix of high and low dictions, his use of asides – and these poems have lingered with me, the latter providing a commentary and new mode of interior inquiry into the former. I love that! Continue Reading