Interview with Widows’ Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus

It was through Holly Zeeb that I first learned of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, an anthology of poetry written by, for, and about women who had lost their life partners. Holly, a fellow student of the PoemWorks workshop and an excellent poet in her own right, was one of the many poets who contributed to the book. Holly lived with cancer for years before succumbing to it in late January 2016. Her literary legacy includes not only her poems in The Widows’ Handbook, but also a chapbook from Finishing Line Press and Eye of the Beholder, a book-length collection in limited run. In addition to — or perhaps because of — her poetry, she left behind a wide circle of friends and fellow writers. They crowded Newtonville Books to grieving friends read her work. I got one of the last seats in the house and found it deeply affecting to hear the finished versions of poems I saw take shape in workshop.

I met Jacqueline Lapidus through entirely different circumstances and only realized her connection to The Widows’ Handbook and to Holly after we had been corresponding for some time. The anthology had been on my reading list for some time, and meeting Jacqueline was the push I needed to crack the book. A slight woman with a mop of curly blonde hair, Jacqueline has a fascinating life story that spans continents and waves of the feminist movement. She was kind enough to talk with me about the societal implications of widowhood, her own experiences with it, and the work involved to create such a comprehensive anthology.

What role did poetry play in the grieving process for yourself and the poets in this collection?

My significant other, with whom I was involved on and off over more than 40 years, died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2004. We’d been together continuously for the past 10 years of his life.  I wrote poems to deal with my own grief, and anger, and frustration, because writing poems is what I do when I have strong feelings. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve always sent my work out in the hope of getting it published. But the poems about widowhood that I submitted to literary magazines were rejected, probably because the editors—mostly young—couldn’t deal with such a painful theme. Then Lise Menn, a college classmate of mine who was also widowed, came to Boston for a conference. We went out to dinner, and while we were waiting for our order, she showed me her widow poems. After reading them, I had this bright idea. I said, “You know, this would be a great topic for an anthology.” And when you have a bright idea, well, you’re the one who has to make it happen. That was how we got started on what became The Widows’ Handbook. I pretty much knew what we’d have to do because I’ve worked in publishing for most of my life. I knew there was a potentially huge readership out there—eight million widows in this country alone!—and I knew that nobody else had done this kind of anthology before.

More experienced poets in The Widows’ Handbook, wrote widow poems because writing poems was what they always did. Lise Menn, my co-editor, wrote her widow poems particularly as a way to communicate her feelings to her therapist, because at first she couldn’t talk about her grief directly. But some of our contributors hadn’t written poetry at all before they were widowed. They started writing, sometimes in the context of therapy or writing groups, as a way of coping.

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Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems

Photograph of poet Annie Finch and her cat Merlin
Annie Finch, author of Spells, and her cat Merlin

Fearless in its lyricism and expansive in its range, Annie Finch’s work spans four decades and encompasses eight books of poetry, a translation, and numerous anthologies, plays, libretti, and books and essays on poetics. The more I researched her, the more I wondered how our paths had never crossed before. Neither the poetry world nor the pagan world is all that large, and the overlap between them—pagans writing poetry with the depth and seriousness she brings to it—is even smaller. “As a Wiccan,” Finch writes in the foreword to Spells: New and Selected Poems, “I write poems as incantations to strengthen our connections to each other, to the passage of time, and to the sacred cycles of nature.” Her celebrations of the turning wheel of the year and her goddess invocations connect us with age-old traditions but root us in the present day with economic and unsentimental language. Consider these lines from “A Seed for Spring Equinox:” Continue reading “Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems”

Interview with Poet Tom Daley, Author of House You Cannot Reach

I first met Tom Daley at a reading at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d moved to Boston a few years before, thrilled at the rich, diverse poetry scene and itching to dive in. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in the years it would take to acclimate to Boston’s notoriously chilly culture, or the way that living with my girlfriend would stifle my ability to write poetry, which requires a self-knowledge and candor incompatible with my struggles to reconcile our difficult relationship.

Photograph of poet Tom Daley
Poet Tom Daley. Photo credit: Devin Altobello

A few months after I moved from Brookline to Cambridge, I began dipping my toe in the literary waters. It was then that I discovered Regie Gibson’s reading series at the Zeitgeist and met Nicole Terez Dutton, who was just about to embark on a graduate program at Brown University. Nicole was one of the featured performers — I particularly remember the persona poems about her black ancestors. Tom Daley, a thin, greying man in tweeds, epitomized the sort of intellectual one might expect to find in Concord, the land of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. He read a poem in praise of Nicole, and the warmth and intensity of the piece stayed with me for more than a decade. I recently reconnected with Tom via Facebook and was thrilled to read his new collection House You Cannot Reach: Poems in the Voice of My Mother and Other Poems, published in 2015 by FutureCycle Press. He took the time to answer some questions about his work and his life.

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Review of Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, Books One and Two of The Expanse

Cover image of Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey*

These books are the inspiration for the new SyFy series The ExpanseA few hundred years in the future, humanity has colonized Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter. Tension among Earthers, Martians, and Belters erupts into all-out war with devastating consequences after unknown forces nuke the ice hauler Canterbury. The five remaining crew members  find themselves at the center of the conflict, driven from one disaster to another on the salvaged Martian warship the Rocinante as they attempt to determine the origins of the attack that killed their crewmates. Meanwhile, a detective on Ceres Station tracks a disappearing heiress and unravels a conspiracy that spans the solar system. The two plot lines converge on Eros, where an alien infection kills the entire population and threatens Earth.

One of the interesting subtexts of these books is the arbitrary nature of human prejudice. In the future, people of different skin colors and national origins freely mix and gender roles have largely disappeared, but it’s no utopia. Instead, the racial fault line falls between Belters and “inner planet” types. Belters’ lives in low gravity cause them to grow taller and skinnier than their counterparts from inside the gravity well and make it impossible for most of them to set foot on Earth or Mars. They’ve even developed their own argot, a mash-up of multiple earth languages plus hand gestures developed over generations of communicating inside space suits. As the Belters struggle for self-rule from the inner planets, these racial divides widen.

Cover image for Caliban's War, by James S.A. Corey
Caliban’s War, by James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War continues in the tradition of Leviathan Wakes, following the adventures of disparate characters whose stories converge over the course of the book. An attack on Ganymede — breadbasket of the Belt — kills an entire platoon of Martian marines, leaving Gunnery Sergeant Roberta “Bobbie” Draper as the sole survivor. In its aftermath, a father searches for his missing daughter as the colony slowly dies around him. James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante soon join in the search.

I’m in love with the crew of the Rocinante, who emerge as an unlikely family after their adventures in Leviathan Wakes: idealist captain James Holden, genius engineer Naomi Nagata, cowboy pilot Alex Kamal, and battle-ready mechanic Amos Burton. Ceres detective Joe Miller lends a touch of noir to the action-oriented story. Chrisjen Avarasala, the potty-mouthed UN power broker in the orange sari, is another favorite. And it’s a joy watching Bobbie Draper, the six-foot double-wide Martian marine in the power armor kick ass up and down the solar system.

This series reminds me of Dune with its grand sweep, but with more hard science and a touch of noir and horror. These stories explore how human curiosity and ingenuity go hand in hand with human fear and aggression. When should you negotiate and when should you fight? Is alien technology inherently evil or do we simply not understand its context? What happens when you try to harness forces you don’t understand? Is it better to release information to everyone or to withhold it until you understand its implications? The book offers no answers but shows the repercussions of different characters’ answers — all while delivering kick-ass action and satisfying character development.

* James S.A. Corey is actually the pen name for writing partners Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland

A much-decorated poet and academic, Lesley Wheeler’s accolades include a Fulbright scholarship, an NEH grant, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, and publication in many prestigious journals, including Poetry and Slate. She teaches English at Washington and Lee University and is an active member of the WOM-PO Listserv, an email discussion group for women poets that’s been around since before blogging and social media overtook online community platforms like Listservs. Her third book of poetry, Radioland, came out in October 2015. In spite of her rise to fame in recent years, Lesley remains a warm and generous correspondent. She took the time to answer some questions about her latest book, the po-biz, and the difference between writing and publishing.

Cover image of Lesley Wheeler's third book of poetry, Radioland
Radioland, Lesley Wheeler’s third book of poetry

You’ve gotten a lot of recognition for your work in the past few years. How have these changes in your career affected your writing?

It’s funny how happiness works—successes don’t warm you for long but difficulties worry you constantly. The life change came with my first two books, Heathen in 2009 and Heterotopia in 2010. Suddenly I felt able to call myself a poet. After the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, people seemed to take my work more seriously. The judge, David Wojahn, is highly respected by other writers, and that made a difference. “Fulbright” is a magic word—as well as representing an amazing opportunity—but I won that for scholarly, not poetic, research. My scholarly credentials remain fancier than my poetic ones and the two networks have surprisingly little overlap. In fact, having a foot in both worlds invites suspicion from both sides.

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Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press

Chapbooks and zines from Porkbelly Press arrive tied in pastry string with a handwritten note from the editors thanking you for supporting small presses. The chapbook I purchased — Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier — evokes a similar handmade detail, both in the object and the poems they contained. I spoke with Porkbelly publisher Nicci Mechler about the press and its creations.

What inspired you to start the press? Is there a story behind the name?

Photograph of Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press
Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press

Porkbelly Press came a year after our literary magazine, Sugared Water. I’d worked on lit mags for years, and produced zines, and my chapbook collection was growing. It seemed a natural progression to try out a chapbook line, to use my book arts and love of lit to craft some beautiful chaps. Porkbelly exists to boost the signal.
We make our home in Cincinnati, Ohio, not too far from the banks of a pretty fantastic river. Back in the days when the fathom was where it’s at, and people yelled stuff like, “by the mark twain!” (even Mark Twain himself), our architecturally-gorgeous (and besotted of beer) little burg ferried out a whole heap pork belly. We were big on pig. You can still see the evidence in 1) the city’s consumption of breakfast sausages (like goetta), and 2) the pig art and statuary all around town.

Naturally, we took that delicious callback to days gone by and smashed it into a press name; pork belly became Porkbelly and a press was born. In the words of one delightful Irishman, our “rather portly winged pig [is] a symbol of hope if I ever saw one.” Well, yes. Hope and bacon. (No bacon is harmed in the production of these chapbooks.) Continue reading “Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press”

Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Image of a woman with long hair and red lipstick wearing a red sleeveless shirt.
Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?

I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.

I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum. Continue reading “Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango”