Julie Sheehan reciting “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats.

Amy Berkowitz reads a poem from Ish Klein’s new book UNION!

Ish Klein reads “The Phases,” from her new book UNION! to Bernadette.

Kim Addonizio reads “Ex-Boyfriends.”

Officially, there have been four: Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Frost recited The Gift Outright from memory at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. It’s a poem about place as identity, and a nationalism that comes from possession, from staking claims on what belongs to us because we bled for it. It is not a poem that acknowledges anyone who lived upon this land before the European colonists.

Bill Clinton had a poet at each of his inaugurations. Maya Angelou read On the Pulse of Morning, a poem that gathers all of Frost’s forgotten creeds and races and invites them to a “Tree planted by a River/which will not be moved.” It ends:

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning

I like Miller Williams’s Of History and Hope, read at Clinton’s second inauguration, not just because I’m a sucker for messages about what we will leave for our children, but also because it acknowledges a complicated national history that we are a part of whenever we make a pledge or sing an anthem:

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.

I like the thud of reckoning there.

When Elizabeth Alexander read at Barack Obama’s inauguration, she arguably had the largest audience that poetry has ever, or will ever, have. “This is like, poetry goes to Hollywood, poetry makes a movie,” said poet Tony Hoagland. Was I moved or inspired? Not really. I felt like it was a poem for the Joe Plumbers, a revival of the same cliches that drove everyone crazy during debate season: struggle, safety, “something better down the road.”

My favorite inaugural poem is the one that was read the night before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration: The Strength of Fields by James Dickey. In it, Dickey gives us the message of all the poets who had come before him, and all who would come after: we are a nation of many different people; let us be united, let us look each other in the eye. But he does it with unparalleled power, grace, and mystery. The poem concludes:

Lord, let me shake
With purpose.    Wild hope can always spring
From tended strength.    Everything is in that.
That and nothing but kindness.    More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green.    That is where it all has to start:
With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
Than save every sleeping one
And night-walking one

Of us.
My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.


In lieu of the many comments here on writer’s block, I thought I’d contribute a little diddy:

Writer’s Block Sonnet

I stretch around to write a sonnet
The words I choose do come doggone it.

And what I write, I think is cool
Only makes me sound a fool

I dream & dream the day away
And claw my tongue for what to say

Cloudless stains a shining sky
Thoughts imprisoned—a mirrored-eye

But someday a stony brook might sing
Of diamonds & pearl & sea & king

And what I thought was dumb perchance
Pings and pongs to make its stance

So have your gold & have your bling
I’ll keep my looking glass—hear it sing.

Interesting post a couple of days ago at the Ploughshares blog about benefactors. I have mixed feelings about the idea of patronage, especially the support of a single artist by a single wealthy benefactor. Sure, I ask my own blog readers if anyone would like to buy me a mansion, but I’m kidding, and an important facet of my long-term goals for myself as a writer is financial sustainability. There’s no money to be made in poetry. You’ll never have your “big break” as a poet. And I don’t think anyone would argue with me on this point. So why do some poets complain about the days of yore, the days when writers had patrons, when they could compose sonnets all day without having to worry about the cost of bread? Sure, the world needs art. But if the non-artists of the world are forced to find employment in order to support themselves and their habits and families, shouldn’t artists be held to the same standard? Are we so special that someone should just give us money to do what we love? Or are we responsible for finding our own ways to support our passions?


Ambulatory sisters—
sister somnambulists—
sorority of sleep-hikers—
we are crossing a bridge.
We’ve crossed our uncle
& our fiancés will be cross,
but we’ve got a long list,
a lot of items to cross off.
We’ve crossed ourselves
with the sign of the cross
& we are crossing the span
to the island of Valdares.

– from “Brazilian Wedding: Dream No. 3”

Kathleen Rooney is a poet, essayist, wife, editor, and one half of the incredible Gabbert-Rooney creative duo.

12th Street: I love your inventive narrative frameworks. I mean, in a poem like “Brazilian Wedding Dream No. 3,” it’s a wedding framed in a dream and it is not, the narrator tells us, “a western” or “a noir.” “Stop Motion” is a claymation movie. Can you talk a little bit about narrative forms (Christian Hawkey calls it your use of genres) from outside poetry and how they make their way inside yours?

Kathleen Rooney: Thanks! The press that Abby Beckel and I co-edit, Rose Metal Press, focuses on “hybrid genres”—prose poems, novels-in-verse, book-length narrative poems, short short stories and so forth—so it’s probably not a shocker to hear that I’m especially interested in the ways in which genres overlap/blur into/become one another. I like to read and publish work that incorporates more than a single genre, so I’m also drawn to trying to do this in some of my own work.

I approached the writing of Oneiromance as if I were assembling a bunch of imagined scenes and settings—dreams—in my head, like dioramas-in-shoeboxes (or claymation figurines for that matter), and then using words to describe and manipulate these images that I had built. I’m not a visual artist, but I wish that I were sometimes. My sister Beth is a professional photographer (a dream version of her figures prominently in the book, which is, you could say, “based on a true story”), so photography is another “genre” or medium that crept its way into the collection.

And I actually do love both Westerns and noirs, especially because for that basic narrative of a person on a quest—a person who is essentially alone and seeking something, be it physical (a missing person, a cattle thief, a bank robber, etc.) or intangible (a secret, a truth, some information, etc.) and who is faced with all kinds of absurd situations and impossible odds, yet who still forges ahead, doing a number of dire yet silly things. In a way, that’s how the search for romantic love strikes me. I also like works of which it can be said that they “transcend their genre,” which tends to mean that they are not just operating on one level (mystery, sci fi, fantasy, etc.) but rather that they are also “literary” or that they in incorporate layers and shades of other art forms, such as anything ever by Raymond Chandler or the Westerns of John Ford, or “horror” movies like Angel Heart (which, incidentally, is also a noir).

12th Street: You have a new book out! It’s an epithalamion! What inspired you to write one?

KR: I do! It is! Because weddings are crazy-nuts!

I was never the kind of girl who grew up dreaming about her Prince/Princess Charming or fantasized about her wedding dress or plotted what colors her bridesmaids should sport. In fact, I kind of thought in the back of my mind that I might never get married at all, but then I met Martin and all bets were off. It probably has a lot to do with my fairly intense Catholic upbringing, but I’ve always been intrigued by customs and rituals and superstitions and private desires and attractions that can be obsessed about, and with which this obsession can be performed in a spectacularly public fashion. Weddings, particularly ones that are even remotely religious, are sterling examples of this phenomenon.

My feelings about getting hitched—as a feminist, as a woman, as a progressive, as a fallen-away Catholic and on and on—were and remain super complex, and so one of the means to express this complexity and conflictedness was to write a whole ton of poems about the proceedings. Weddings and marriage are obviously a locus of a lot of joy—individual and social—but also of a lot of anxiety, and in this regard, Oneiromance could be read as a prolonged and joyful waking anxiety dream. The mixture of selfishness and self sacrifice—you are mine forever and at the exclusion of all others, you are saying to your beloved, but I am giving myself to you on the same terms—that a wedding and a marriage entails is remarkable, and I felt compelled to remark upon it.

A concern I had as I was writing this book, and that I still have now as it makes its way into the world, is that I want it to be inclusive. But of course a problem there is that the laws of most of this country regarding marriage and the right to wed are extremely, depressingly exclusive. I hope that people will read the book and give it a chance on its own merits in this regard, but I’d also like to take this chance to say: I am aware of the position of great privilege from which I am writing as somebody who happens to be legally permitted to marry the person I love, and I don’t take this privilege lightly, and I don’t think it should be a privilege at all, but a right for everybody.

12th Street: How does place affect your work? Would you consider yourself a Chicago poet? A Midwestern poet?

KR: Place seems to be incredibly important to me, whether I set out for it to be or not. All the poems in Oneiromance except for two have titles like “Brazilian Wedding: Dream no. 1” and “Midwestern Groom: Dream No. 3,” in fact, because it is that important that it be clear where they are happening. People often ask why I wrote my first nonfiction book about Oprah’s Book Club, and there are lots of reasons having to do with “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art and culture and where the twain do or do not meet, but I suspect that an equally huge reason is that I spent most of my formative years growing up in the Chicago area where Oprah is a source of a great deal of complicated hometown pride—the shadow of O loomed over skyline, love it or hate it. (And now, excitingly, another O is looming—Obama ’08!) I adore Chicago—it is my favorite North American city—and feel fortunate to live and work here. That said, I don’t consider myself a Chicago poet per se, mostly because I’ve never really written any poems about Chicago, or in a distinctively Chicago-esque style, whatever that might be. I do want to give a shout out to the super-diverse and supportive and community-minded literary scene that exists here in the city, though, before moving on to the other part of your question, the Midwestern part.

To that part I say yes, I suppose I am a Midwestern poet. I’m not an enormous fan of labels necessarily, or sweeping proclamations of identity, but I think, again, whether I like it or not, my sensibility is that of a Midwesterner. Hopefully not a circumscribed, small-town, Sherwood Anderson–character one, but more of a Weldon Kees-y, F. Scott Fitzgerald-y sort. I guess by this I mean I always find myself feeling pretty ambitious and striving, while at the same time trying to be humble and modest. Also? I love manners and decent behavior and get really irritated and sad when people can’t be bothered to be polite to others. Not to blow that up to too large a degree, but I think (and this relates to my excitement over the impending Obama presidency, too) that we are poised, as a country, for a large-scale revival of civility in our public and personal conversations, and that thrills me.

12th Street: You write essays in addition to poetry. Can you describe your different work habits/approaches to each?

KR: I can try. I like to be working in more than one genre at once both because some ideas seem destined to work better as poems than they do as essays or vice versa, so it’s nice to have that option, and because if I’m not feeling in the mood for one genre I can focus on the other for a while instead. I kind of think I might freak out and die if my creative output were limited only to poetry. While it is true that poetry is vast and that any subject can be addressed in a poem, it is also true that virtually any dish can be prepared in a rice cooker; it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the best way to go about it.

For a while, especially when I was teaching a memoir class and a class on the personal essay, almost everything that I read or did started to feel like it could be, or go into, an essay, so I ended up writing a book of them. Other times things feel more poetic, and other times I’ll be in a mode where I’ll think of a lot of stuff I’d like to include in my collaborations with Elisa Gabbert, who is awesome.

Kathleen Rooney was born in Beckley, West Virginia and raised in the Midwest. Along with Abby Beckel, she is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author of Oneiromance (an epithalamion), winner of the 2007 Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books. A 2003 recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine, Rooney’s own poems, as well as collaborations, have appeared in a variety of journals, as have her essays and criticism. She has taught English and creative writing at Emerson College, Northeastern University, Grub Street, the Boston Center for Adult Education, and Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the writer Martin Seay.

Kristy Bowen is a talented poet, visual artist, and editor, and is dedicated to supporting the work of other women poets and artists.

12th Street: What was your inspiration for dancing girl press?

Kristy Bowen: As far as the name goes, I have this huge poster of a can-can dancer in my apartment, and one day I was lying on my bed, hatching vague plans for a chapbook press, and it occurred to me that might be a fun name. I sort of like the whole notion of “dancing girls”—ballerinas, can-can girls, strippers, burlesque performers—as sexual/erotic object and subject, male gaze vs. reality, a nod to the feminist issues therein. I had been running the online zine, wicked alice, for a few years at that point, publishing writing mostly by women, and decided to join the upswell of small indie presses that was growing at that time. I also saw a huge divide between more traditionally oriented small presses and more experimental ones, but somehow felt that even my own work fell somewhere in the middle—lyric yet innovative, narrative yet not linear. If anything, that description sort of defines our aesthetic.

As for the nuts and bolts of starting it, about six months after coming up with the concept, I decided, spurred by a small press publishing class I was taking at the time, to do a trial run and publish one of my own chaps. I’d been looking over the chapbook selection at Quimby’s bookstore in Wicker Park [in Chicago] and thought, “Hey, I can do this.” All it took was a printer, a big stapler, and some cover stock and I had a book. We published our first official title (by someone other than me) the next fall, and it just grew from there. Granted, we have a better printer these days, a better trimmer, and the studio space now instead of my dining room, but it’s still the same bare-bones operation.

12th Street: You’ve written about Joseph Cornell (At the Hotel Andromeda); you’ve published Maggie Ginestra’s Deep in the Safe House: Ten Poems After Henry Darger; you run an online shop, Dulcet, that sells beautiful vintage accessories and ephemera; and your studio is across the street from the Art Institute! How do the visual arts inform/invade your work as a writer and editor? Do you think of what you do as little individual projects, or does everything fall under an umbrella of ART?

KB: I think these days, especially since I’ve been wearing so many hats, everything does sort of get lumped in under “art” since I’m in the midst of a lot of visually oriented projects that also involve written work—altered books, some collages with poetry, etc.…I’m also interested in the whole “art” vs. “craft” issue, how we experience each differently or how they appeal to different parts of the brain. Even things that aren’t traditionally considered high art, like fashion and jewelry-making. And this, as well, is all wrapped up in gender considerations, the things which were once dismissed as women’s art forms, like textiles and embroidery, vs. more historically male arts like sculpture and architecture.

I initially started to make some tentative forays into visual art and book arts about five years ago, which has also gone hand in hand with designing a lot of our chapbook covers, so it’s sort of a self-education in that respect. Because I like making things with my hands whenever I need a break from working with my head and writing, I love working with more tactile elements like paper, beads, wire, and fabric. And those things, in turn, give us a little extra cash when it comes to paying for the studio space, so it works out very well. And since I work at Columbia College, where I am surrounded by people in just about every art form, as well as the studio space, where my neighbors are composers and painters, it all sort of filters in….

12th Street: What have you been reading?

KB: On the bus over the last week or so, I’ve been reading non-fiction: Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry by Susan Barash, which has a lot to say about relationships between women, both personal and professional, in terms of destructive competition. Poetry-wise, I just finished Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life and Sun Yung Shin’s Skirt Full of Black. Otherwise, we’re in the thick of reading for next season’s dancing girl line-up, so it’s been a lot of manuscripts. I’m looking forward to getting my hands very shortly on Kathleen Rooney’s Oneiromance: An Epithalmion and Rebecca Loudon’s Cadaver Dogs.

12th Street: You began your online zine wicked alice in 2001, which is really early for an online journal! How has the world of Internet publishing changed since you entered, and to what do you attribute your staying power?

KB: There seems to be so many journals sprouting up out there, which is exciting, yet so many die out after a couple of issues. In 2001, when we started publishing, blogs and things like Myspace and Facebook were barely in their infancy, and people weren’t quite as connected to each other as they are now. When I first started submitting work when I was 19 (1993), you were pretty much sending poems out into the great unknown to a mailing address and a faceless editor. Now, the literary world is much smaller. People blog. Editors are accessible with the click of a button; you can even submit work with the click of a button. I’ve seen a lot of online magazines sort of dissolve when the people working on them decide they just don’t want to work on them anymore, and/or someone moves on to other projects. Some journals seem like a good idea for a few issues, then the editors sort of let them fall by the wayside, or decide they don’t want to work with each other anymore. We’ve probably survived this long only because I’m a total control freak so there’s no one to fight with.

12th Street: I’m from Chicago. I love Chicago. From what I gather, you, too, love Chicago. Can you talk about what role place plays in your writing? And what it’s like to be a part of the Chicago literary scene? Would you say there’s a certain Chicago style of poetics happening right now—even, specifically, among Chicago’s women poets?

KB: A few years ago, someone noted the ridiculously frequent occurrence of the color blue in my work, an almost obsessive occurrence, and I realized it was the lake’s influence—a constant, everyday [presence], right there on my bus ride down Lake Shore Drive, in all its various shades and temperaments. It’s sort of a touchstone of sorts, and it apparently invades my poems even subconsciously, as well as the more visual things I create. I also find myself obsessed with city history and architecture, which figures into a lot of my poems, especially a couple of years ago when I was working on a series based on Resurrection Mary and local urban legend. What’s crazy is I find most of my poems taking place in the more rural setting of my childhood, and less in the current one, but that may just be a psychological distance thing.

I don’t think I could say there’s a definite thing that all Chicago poets have in common, and maybe it’s because Chicago seems like the ultimate melting pot, a place where people come to from all over the place, so you have work by poets who now live in Chicago who are influenced by wherever they came from—the South, the rust belt, California. I’ve found the community of women poets amazing, however. Even the books we’ve published all seem very different and unique to each poet. I occasionally see strains of influence from one poet to the next, in terms of mentors and friends, and even in terms of just being immersed in each other’s work by reading their books.

A poet and visual artist, Kristy Bowen runs dancing girl press & studio, which publishes a chapbook series for women poets, produces the online lit zine wicked alice, and hosts an online shop, dulcet, featuring a variety of books, art, paper goods, and random fancies. She is the author of in the bird museum (Dusie Press, 2008) and the fever almanac (Ghost Road Press, 2006) as well as several chapbooks. Her third book, girl show, will be published by Ghost Road Press in late 2009.

Elisa Gabbert is a poet, editor, and collaborator extraordinaire. From “Smoking Villanelle,” written with Kathleen Rooney:

The situation was not without charm
but I’d never, ever do it again.
There must be a better way to stay warm

than running a lighter up & down my arm,
which is dry as a bone & matchstick thin.
One situation that’s not without charm

is a ritual bonfire—there’s not any harm
in a little pagan frenzy now & then.

12th Street: I love your collaborations with Kathleen Rooney. Whenever I come across your two names in a contributors list I rush to that poem. How did you find each other? Can you tell us about the process of making a poem together? Who gets to title it?

Elisa Gabbert: Thank you! Kathy and I met in grad school (at Emerson in Boston). We always had similar sensibilities; we’d often jinx each other by making the same joke at the same time. The winter after we graduated, and shortly after I read Nice Hat. Thanks. (by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer), I visited Kathy and her lovely husband Martin in Provincetown and suggested we try collaborating. We’ve been at it ever since, over two years now. It all happens over email: we’re both in front of computers a lot, so we write almost every day. Generally we go line by line, but we’ve tried many different forms and methods, e.g. writing from the bottom up or the inside out; leaving blanks in lines, Mad Libs style, for the other to fill in, etc. Whoever comes up with the best title first wins. When we’re stumped, Martin and/or my BF John (both tip-top writers) are often helpful in the title department.

12th Street: You’re one of the editors of Absent, an online literary magazine, and you have also worked with/at Ploughshares. What does this trend towards online publishing mean for print mags? What are the perks and pains of working for each?

EG: “In this day and age” I think it’s really important for print mags to have a strong online presence. Ploughshares has a very extensive website with archives going way back, an online submission system, and so on, but if a magazine can’t manage all that, the staff should at the very least present up-to-date info on the latest issue and submission guidelines. I think submissions are definitely heading in the online direction, which I applaud. I see no reason to waste all that paper, worry about stuff getting lost in the mail, submitters forgetting their SASE and so on. Embrace the web or be left behind. That said, print isn’t dead yet; print mags still offer things that online mags can’t. There’s a satisfaction to having something to hold and own and blah blah. Plus, for those who give a shit, and they number many, print publications are still more prestigious.

Along similar lines, I think online journals work best when they take full advantage of the online medium and offer things that print can’t. Take the format of No Tell Motel, with a new poem going up every weekday. That delivery model couldn’t happen in print; online journals can operate outside the “issue” model.

One of the benefits of reading for Absent over Ploughshares is that it’s relatively new and unknown, so there are far fewer submissions. Ploughshares is completely overwhelmed with submissions; not only is it difficult for our staff to keep up, but we have to pass on wonderful work all the time (not to mention slog through boatloads of less-than-wonderful work).

The disadvantage with Absent is more personal responsibility—fewer higher-ups to blame if things go wrong or quality is not high. Nothing is on auto-pilot at this stage. Our latest issue has been delayed by many problems, including editorial changes. It’s also tough to find a great web designer who will work for free. We have one, but he also teaches and has personal projects—we’re all busy and scattered across time zones.

12th Street: I think it’s safe to say we both like bringing pop culture into our poetry. Do you think it’s possible to go too far? Is there some subject, some term, some Internet acronym, anything, that really doesn’t belong in poetry?

EG: Nothing doesn’t belong in poetry. Poetry is a manifestation of thought, and anything we think about can go in a poem. Is it possible to go too far? Well, it’s possible to fail. One can fail in many ways. But sometimes the way to avoid failure is to go farther.

I like pop culture and lingo and brands in poems because they serve as a time stamp, like old photos sometimes have. I like when poems date themselves. Only we know what it’s like to live now.

Kathy and I do save most of our OMGBBQ’s for our collaborations vs. our solo work. We allow ourselves more freedom (and stupidity) there.

12th Street: What are you reading?

EG: I recently finished Hit Wave by Jon Leon, Poker by Tomaz Salamun, National Anthem by Kevin Prufer, and, in non-poetry, In Defense of Food and How Fiction Works. I especially recommend Hit Wave—it’s unlike any poetry I’ve read.

12th Street: What are you currently working on?

EG: Kathy and I are writing a lot, per usual—original stuff as well as translations of the French poet Max Jacob. As for solo work, I’ve been polishing a full-length manuscript and sending it out a little and obsessing about it. It’s a first-book kind of manuscript, not a concept book, so it’s hard to know which poems to include and leave out, how to determine order and so on. Also trying to figure out what to do next. I’ve been in kind of a writing lull and feeling restless in general and could really use some new project or source of inspiration … I want a ping-pong table. Maybe I’ll get depressed—that’s always good for poems. I’m also working on my running stamina, my tomato sauce, and my fall wardrobe.

'On the Road' / c. 1936

Mike Young lives up to his last name, and is more prolific than most. He often wears cowboy shirts.

12th Street:
You told me something this summer that has stuck out in my mind: Some people write poetry when they should be writing country songs. Can you talk more about this?

Mike Young: The country song is a terrific format for a certain kind of emotional distillation. Like if you want to write about dead people, failed dreams, steel wool, alcohol, ghosts. If you want shifting narratives and wordplay. Self-deprecation, even. Country music has all that in spades. And I’m not even talking about good country here. Just mainstream country like you’d see on GAC. Go listen to “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk” if you think L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry doesn’t exist on the tobacco farm. Tony Tost can speak much better about this (and less glibly, probably), but I am totally not kidding.

What I really meant when I talked to you, though, was probably that there is an undercurrent of honky-tonk emotional angst sort of tucked away, embarrassed, beneath the flashy crust of today’s popular, cutesy, post-avant, soft surrealist poetry. What if these poets just sat down and wrote a dumb country song about how much they miss high school? Or, like, how much they love beer in the afternoon? Eighty percent of the poets I know love beer in the afternoon. So do country stars. What I’m asking for, I think, is more unabashed sentimentality, in both poetry and the afternoon. DFW is right: irony has pervaded/perverted culture. Let Dr. Pepper make their sly, ironic commercials; if you really want to be subversive and shit, acknowledge sentimentality and “take it back.” (more…)