Poetry Night at the Library

The poets (from left): Ray Holmes, me, Dawn Dupler, Jason Vassar, and Julia Gordon-Bramer.

The poets (from left): Ray Holmes, me, Dawn Dupler, Jason Vassar, and Julia Gordon-Bramer.

No better way to spend a rainy Tuesday night than with good poetry and good poets. Lucky us — we had just that back in early April thanks to the St. Charles Public Library. So good to read alongside former UMSL classmates Ray Holmes, Julia Gordon-Bramer, and Jason Vassar! And meeting the lovely Dawn Dupler was a moment of serendipity. I thought I recognized her name when I saw the night’s line-up, and I knew I did once I heard her read her poem “Mainlining Iraq” — a piece that I happily voted in to Issue 26 of Natural Bridge as an assistant editor. I remembered “Mainlining Iraq.”  I remembered our discussion about it around the editorial table, too — how pleased we were to read a poem about war that seemed new despite how tragically familiar war in the Middle East seems now, and how familiar every war seems in light of every other war before. Definitely cool to hear the poem in the writer’s own voice, and to meet the human behind the words.

Many thanks to the St. Charles Public Library for hosting, and to Michael Peeples for inviting me to read!


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Joining the Conversation: DIALOGIST and the Poetry Review

I read an article online recently about impostor syndrome — that creeping feeling that whatever success you’ve experienced isn’t deserved, coupled with the fear that at any moment, the fools who believe in your capabilities will wise up to how utterly incompetent you really are. I didn’t know this phenomenon had a name; I mostly take it for granted as “what it sounds like inside my brain most of the time.” It feels natural for me to sit around waiting for one of my graduate professors to show up at my door asking for my MFA back: “Ms. Grise, I’m afraid your post-grad career fails to live up to our standards, and we’ll need you to return that diploma now. In no way will this affect your massive student debt.”

Lately, I’ve noticed that impostor syndrome really goes for my throat when I’m sitting down to review a poetry collection for DIALOGIST — an online journal whose masthead I’ve been privileged to join this past year. It’s a great publication, and I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to write reviews for its readership — so appreciative, in fact, that I assume the opportunity has to be a fluke. What on earth do you have to say about someone else’s work that’s of any value? says my brain. What qualifies you to evaluate poetry, and why should anyone put any stock in that evaluation when you don’t even have a published book of poetry yourself? Shouldn’t you quit before you’re laughed out of here?

Hmmm. Valid points, I reply, and then I eat too many jelly beans and obsessively refresh Buzzfeed for the next hour or so.

Impostor syndrome is part of the problem behind that kind of thinking, but so, I’ve come to realize, is a false assumption about what it means to review a book. 

If you see reviewing a book as an act of evaluation, then it’s fair to ask of any reviewer what qualifies them to evaluate: what do they know, and how well do they know it? Do we trust both their criteria and their tastes? That’s a smart way to assess an opinion, and people do it all the time; when my hair stylist quit the biz a few months ago, I asked my friend Sara for a recommendation because Sara always has an awesome haircut, so I trust that she knows what I mean when I say “hey, I need a good haircut — know where I could get one?” (She gave me a great recommendation.) Or if I happen to read an argument re: What’s Wrong with Women These Days on returnofkings.com, I remember that I’m reading the opinions of a niche population of mostly misogynist weirdos, and I don’t put much stock in it. So if someone else is looking for a good book of poetry to read and stumbles upon a review of mine, it’s fair for them to ask why they should trust my evaluation. (Why should they trust that I’m qualified to make an assessment about a book beyond how shiny the cover is?)

But I’m not so sure that reviewing a book is an evaluation. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.

Maybe a book review is something more in the spirit of DIALOGIST’s name — an act of conversation. Maybe the task of the reviewer is not to deem a book worthy or unworthy, but simply to bring that book to the greater, ongoing dialogue surrounding poetry. After all, I won’t review a book if it doesn’t tickle my guts in some way; that seems like a wasted opportunity, when there are so many other books that deserve a spot at the table. So the act of choosing a book to review is really the key act of evaluation. Beyond that, a review can do more than say good-or-bad-and-here’s-why. It can share with its readers some part of the experience of reading that book. It can humbly offer a subjective analysis of what that book wants to say and how it says it. It can celebrate the moments where magic happens on the page, and it can lament where things fell short. It can offer that book some visibility, and hopefully introduce it to others. 

So if that’s what a book review is all about, maybe I can worry less about my credentials (and, because this is a two-way street, maybe I can worry less about the credentials of others who bring books to my life). I’m not saying “this book does or does not have value;” I’m saying “hey, I read this, and maybe you ought to, too.” If book reviews are a way for folks to contribute to the dialogue on poetry, I can feel okay about speaking up.

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Two-fer Poetry Weekend

Not this one.

Not whatever this is either (which is in the top 5 Google image search results for “double poetry,” and is also now my desktop background, because WOAH MULLET.)

Rather, we’re talking back-to-back poetry entertainment this weekend in St. Louis:

This Friday, October 11, Whole Foods Town & Country hosts 2nd Friday Notes — a monthly poetry series curated by Dwight Bitokofer featuring two poets and some stellar musical entertainment. This time around, you’ll hear work from myself and Josh Anderson and music from Jan Marra. Josh is great; his work deals with family and relationships in a way that’s both intimate and reflective, and his language has this wonderful subtle music to it. Hearing him read is meditative. The fun begins at 7:00pm.

Then on Saturday, October 12, Words on Purpose rocks Black Bear Bakery with an all-female line-up. I am SO PUMPED to share a stage with Jennifer Tappenden and Kelli Allen — both rock stars in the poetry community. (Jen recently won the RiverFront Times’ Mastermind Award, and Kelli’s work in both poetry and fiction is all over the publishing world.) The reading is free, but if you’re so inclined, you can make a suggested donation of $5 to support St. Louis Bookworks, an organization which gives kids “a safe, supportive place to nurture their creativity and build a sense of commitment and responsibility” by matching them with volunteers who help them write and create a book of their own. Get there at 4:00pm — or a little early so you can snag some baked goodies first!

Words on Purpose 10-12-13 full

And you know, I can’t say for sure that 30 Rock cast members/mulletted Yoko Ono/”reflections” won’t be present at either of these events.

Happy Oc-TWO-ber! (See what I did there?)

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The Next Big Thing

Founder of Architrave Press and Wordsmith Extraordinaire Jen Tappenden tagged me in The Next Big Thing blog hop — a handful of questions for emerging writers that are making their way around the writerly corners of the internet. Be sure to check out her answers. And here are my own!

What is the working title of the book?

Peel Yourself Like Fruit  — a line from the poem “Nerves,” which opens the collection.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Time and circumstance. I’m at a point, having recently finished my MFA, where I feel I have enough work — enough decent work, thanks to the feedback of my writing family — to shape a book, and enough work to reveal the patterns in voice and style and content that help the shaping process along. And I feel ready to put something book-length out there. Maybe. Probably. Maybe. Yes.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry. A mix of narrative and lyric, with perhaps a bit more of the former.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh dear. The book is rather densely-populated, so I fear the production costs of hiring established actors to play most of the key roles would make a movie rendition prohibitively expensive. Or with a cast like that of a Wes Anderson film. If we’re not locked in to having real actors play roles, I think I’d cast the parents from Calvin and Hobbes as my own parents; the resemblance is uncanny.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

“These poems exhibit a hunger to connect with the self and the world as well as a discomfort at the vulnerability which that connection entails — thus, a world view of extreme ambivalence: a tug-of-war between past and present, desire and loss, body and mind, family and self.”

(I love the magic of the em-dash. Did I cheat? I may have cheated.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The oldest poem in the collection dates back to 2005 or 2006, I think, but that’s the date of its birth, not the date it actually felt like a poem. (Ugh, they never feel done.) So from one angle, it’s taken me about 7-8 years to produce enough work that felt book-worthy. From another angle, it took me about 8-9 months to shape that work into a cohesive manuscript.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Probably a sense of discomfort, of dis-ease. Things Amiss tend to snap me awake and out of the daily patterns it’s all-too-easy to sleepwalk through, and often that wakefulness brings with it more input — more stimulation —  than I know what to do with. For me, poetry comes out of that hyper-vigilance as a way to both explore and make manageable that which unsettles me (for better or worse).

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I don’t disown the subjectivity of my work, nor the poems’ personal nature — that inextricable way that, while all writing is fiction, all the poems I write are also in some way a reflection of myself (even when I wish they weren’t). There are readers who are turned off by the bald-faced “I”, but I’d hope that a reader with an interest in finding where subjectivities overlap would have enough in this collection to sink their teeth into.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I hope I can find a small press willing to give my poems a home.

One of my favorite writers who will answer these questions next week: Matthew Haughton, author of the recently-released book of poetry Stand in the Stillness of Woods (from WordTech).

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Yeah but… how?

When poetry is good — I mean like, catch-your-breath or haunt-your-brainhouse good — it sort of takes on a life of its own, independent of the creative force behind it. The poet disappears into the wings, and you’re left unable to take your eyes off the verse at center-stage. An amazing poem just… exists. And we read it, take it into ourselves, make it our own.

But as writers and as astute readers of poetry, we may have the most to gain from peeking behind the curtain of the work that most blows us away. Often the better the poem — the more magic it works on us — the more skill and control and craft the poet exercises behind the scenes. (By way of example, take my experience with a beginners’ yoga workshop this past weekend. I quickly discovered that the easier some pose looked — “ha! that’s basically what I have to do to shave my legs in my tiny shower!” — the more effort went into making it look easy. I am, believe me, now humbled, terribly sore, and pumped about my next class.) You’ll hear from some that examining that craft somehow leeches the magic out of the poem itself, but I disagree. We’re not talking Oz vs. the little man pulling levers and pushing buttons; there’s just as much magic in what the poet does to bring a great poem to life.

And obviously it behooves us to look into that magic — to let it leave us stricken and then ask in awe “yeah but…how?” As writers, we want to know what works so we can try it ourselves. As readers, we want to know how poems come into being so we can appreciate the whole process; understanding the input breeds greater understanding and admiration for the output.

This is one of the reasons I love the format of the interviews with artists in WomenArts Quarterly Journal. They focus on craft, and give readers a peek at exactly how their favorite writers, artists, and musicians do what they do. Granted, there are artists in all disciplines who are better at talking about the “how” than others. There are plenty of artists who focus more on the “what” — because this is simply where their interest lies, or because they have fallen under the spell of their own work and are invested in seeing the magic they create as the product of an un-examinable magic they possess. But on the whole, I find that conscientious artists are eager to talk about how they get from that inspirational-tickle to a final draft, and that such a conversation deepens the relationships between poet, poem, and reader.

I had the chance to dig a little deeper in an interview with Traci Brimhall for WAQ’s latest (and first nationally-distributed!) issue. Traci’s book Our Lady of the Ruins (Norton) won the Barnard Women Poets Prize in 2011, and I encourage you to pick it up; it’s a collection of poems in the voices of female exiles in a post-apocalyptic world that is, as I told Traci in our interview, genuinely frightening. Not a casual read. Not the kind of book that leaves you easily. Check out the interview for Traci’s thoughts on how that book came together, and what it’s like to write what scares you.

WAQ 3.1 cover

Seriously, there’s really fantastic stuff in this issue. (A special shout out to Paige Lewis, whose poem “In Michigan” qualifies as one of those catch-your-breath-ers. I remember reading it as a submission and knowing after one read-through that we had stumbled across something awesome. I’m so glad we got to put it in our pages.)

More to come regarding poetry to start your year off right…

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Poetic Adventures in Letterpress


That’s Eric Woods, owner and founder of Firecracker Press, letter-pressing a lovely broadside of an excerpt from a poem of mine… while I read from that poem. In that sense, the City-Wide Open Studios reading I did alongside Amy Genova at Firecracker on July 28th was like an eclipse, where everything lined up just-so — the words aloud, the words on the page, the words rattling around in other peoples’ brains — and the result was pretty cool. The press gave off these inky smells and clunky rhythms that made a great backdrop for the reading, and the design work that the Firecracker interns did on the broadside is really incredible. Tim (my partner-in-crime), snagged photos of the rough mock-up, the press, and the broadside itself so you can see the project in its varying stages:

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(That ink! That INK! That juicy red color is, I learned, called “Bordeaux,” and by God, I can’t decide whether I want to eat it or roll around in it or both.)

Click on the image below for a closer look at the finished product, which you can purchase at Firecracker (on Cherokee St. in St. Louis) if you’re so inclined:

The excerpt is from a poem of mine called “In Need of Going,” and I think Jill Bieker (who works at Firecracker and oversees this reading series) did well choosing lines that still resonate without the larger context of the poem from which they were pulled. Hopefully this poem in its entirety will find a published home soon so I can share it with you!

If your mouth waters at letterpress, you ought to check out Architrave — an independent press, founded by St. Louis’s own Jen Tappenden, that prints letterpress poems for purchase individually or as an edition of ten. What’s cool about each broadside, in addition to its ability to make tangible an art form that’s typically isolated from the physical world, is that it comes with an insert containing two editorial blurbs — one which gives the reader a door into the poem (what is it trying to do? how is it asking to be read?) and another offering a bit of information about the way in which the poem is in dialogue with the broadside’s design. Architrave Press works hard to invite readers to engage with poetry, and I like that. Plus, Jen does beautiful work. If you’re a writer of poetry yourself, consider sending Architrave your work.

Happy poem-ing, friends!

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POP! POP! BANG! Or: Firecracker noises as an apt expression of my excitement

What are you doing this weekend? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you.

You’re going to get your art on, because Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is having its City-Wide Open Studios shindig Saturday and Sunday from 10am – 4pm. If you stop by CAM or hit up their website, you can get a map of the studios which artists have oh-so-kindly opened to the public all over the city, and then you can make the rounds for a self-guided tour of cool spaces where creative people make art happen. There are some guided tours you can join, or you can just bop around for free.

One of the establishments that should definitely be on your route is Firecracker Press, a graphic design studio/letterpress print shop that does really distinctive design work that, if you’re in St. Louis, you see all the time — whether you know it’s Firecracker or not.

Here’s the meat-tastic print I have hanging over my kitchen table. Seriously, who’s going to turn down bacon?

If you come to Firecracker at 2pm on Saturday, you’ll not only get to see the inner-workings of a letterpress studio with all its yummy ink smells and printing contraptions, but you’ll get to hear some poetry read by myself and Amy Genova (here’s her poem “The Poet’s Call to Worship” in The Tipton Poetry Journal). And! There’s an “and!” While we’re reading, the folks at Firecracker will be printing letterpress cards with poem excerpts on them for all the attendees to take home. So it’s like, you get to hear poems, watch talented artists and antique machinery at work, and then leave with two beautifully-crafted artifacts as mementos.

And, tangentially related to bacon, there’s a City-Wide Open Studios BBQ at CAM on Sunday at 4:00 with food from Pappy’s, beer from Schlafly, and ice cream from Serendipity. That’s pretty much everything delicious in St. Louis, so come by and celebrate.

So yeah — there’s your weekend! Art, poetry, BBQ. DONE AND DONE.


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