Category Archives: Series Poet

Meet Erik Mortenson, Series Poet, Summer 2012

Erik Mortenson



(Interview conducted via email correspondence in August of 2012)


Randall Horton: Erik, thanks for sharing “The Fifteenth Station” with Tidal Basin Review. I remember leaving these poems very curious about the larger work. Please describe the scope of “The Fifteenth Station?”

Erik Mortenson: The sequence follows a young African woman, who contracts HIV from her husband. As the pieces progress, her disease escalates until her death. A few pieces follow that event. Beyond that, the pieces follow the Catholic Stations of the Cross, which summarize the Passion of Christ from his condemnation by the Romans, until the opening of his tomb after his death. Traditionally, there are fourteen stations of the Cross. Obviously, I have added one more.


RH: The art of the line break seems a very important element in the aesthetic realm of your poems. One of the very first things I discuss with beginning students is the line break, primarily, because I feel that having a good understanding of end words and their use as breaks can add an additional layer to the poem. Could you please expound on how you have negotiated the line break throughout your writing?

EM: I agree with your thoughts on the line end—a term I prefer to “line break” for some reason maybe for the idea of violence in the line—and its use. I think of it as a primary tool for poets. It’s what separates much poetry from prose, except for the prose poem, which I also use in “The Fifteenth Station.” For my work in general, I write everything out long-hand and in prose. That way, I get down what I want to say—diction, rhythm, etc.—then I go back and let the piece dictate its form in terms of line ends and spatial arrangement. Some pieces are prose poems; some are “traditional” short-lined, left-justified, lyrics. Others have a page-as-field lineation strategy. In this sequence, however, while that concept applies, I really wanted the form of each poem to mirror the degeneration of the protagonist as her disease progressed. As with all the characters, I tried to think what poetry would be to them, and present that. In “The First Station,” I gave the speaker a very straightforward notion of poetry—roughly equal syllabic lines, generally equal-lined stanzas. As she progresses through the stages of her disease, her “poetics” devolves—or evolves?—into something far more radical.


RH: Within the series, voice and context are crucial. I view them as persona, not with the historical steeped in rhetoric, but rather the idea of acknowledging a certain humanness. The woman’s voice is so authentic, it is harrowing. How did you construct the female voice? Describe the process of stepping outside of one’s given station in life to so authentically portray another.

EM: I must say I am completely relieved to hear you say that about the authenticity of voice. Throughout the writing, one of my goals was to be “true”—whatever that can mean—to this woman. Of course, there is no such woman, and of course, there are LOTS of such women. I was very concerned with current notions of appropriating narratives and co-opting suffering, and I did not want to do that. I wanted to present a story through these poems. I could not be further from this character: I am male, white, American, healthy, and preposterously affluent in the scope of the world. I simply began with “The First Station” and tried to inhabit this woman—to convey, as you term it, her “humanness.”  What would she feel in this situation? How would she act? As she progressed, I simply tried to honor that as best I could. I think by the seventh or eighth piece, I felt marginally confident that I knew this woman. Surely, more than a few people will read this and NOT find her terribly authentic. However, as much of a goal as “authenticity of voice” was, it is not the be-all-end-all. After all, this is not a real person; the messages here transcend the voice of which they are a part.


RH: The reader of these poems cannot help but to be lulled by the rhythmic tones, pacing, internal rhyme (in places), and attention to sound through assonance and consonance. Discuss the aesthetic approach and the presentation of the work.

EM: I work out a lot of the prosody early on. Writing in prose first allows me to give real attention to the words themselves. I liken it to a golf swing. A good golf swing is composed of about 3,498,257 moving parts. No one can think of them all at once. This time, you pick keeping your head down, then, swing away. Writers get as many drafts as we need. The first time, I get down what I want to say. Then I can tinker with the diction and with some sound effects. When all that is square, I address how the words physically appear on the page. A vastly underutilized resource, the visual presentation of the poem on the page adds a layer of meaning to the reader that is dynamic and important, far more so than a flat, left-justified, short-lined lyric.


RH: The voice and tone of “The Ninth Station” are dictated by spacing, comma placement, attention to line breaks, and end words. This is the type of poem I would explore in a creative writing class, for several reasons. Explain your thought process here?

EM: Right. More than others, this piece embraces a number of aesthetics, culminating in the literal cutting of words and phrases. In this piece, the protagonist’s disease has culminated in bouts of unconsciousness and semi-consciousness. I tried to present what you would hear her speak if you were a medical worker at her side. She is not only hallucinating, but she drifts in and out of consciousness. However, for her, the narrative continues. It was quite a challenge:  first, I constructed her hallucinatory narrative. Then, I put it on the page. Then I decided which portions to cut to indicate unconsciousness, but decided to keep the blank spaces for the duration of what was cut. The trick was to cut enough to truly disorient the reader, but to keep enough to allow the reader some notion of understanding—an “almost get it.” I read this piece at a poetry festival, scared to death to look up at the faces of the audience. To my surprise, this read pretty well. Everyone seemed to follow the pathos that is in the blank spaces. It occurred to me that was what I really wanted them to get.


RH: What literature informed this series? Which writers are influencing your current poetic process?

EM: I’m not sure any “literature” informed this sequence. Obviously, Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island” was in my mind to a degree in terms of the framework, though I think this differs pretty substantially from that piece. I did do a good bit of research on HIV/AIDS and the liturgy of the Stations of the Cross. I also researched some African poetic forms because, in some later pieces, the Mother-In-Law returns and her poems appear in particular African forms. Again, to tie the stages of the disease to the Stations of the Cross, while including some liturgical/Biblical material, required a good bit of research and juggling. Someone so inclined could do a little Talmudic work with this sequence.

As to who is influencing my current writing, I write a lot of varied material. What I would call my “regular poems” are heavily-influenced by Ultra-Talk poetry: David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, and the likes. I’m actually pretty funny—Surprise, surprise! I even edit poetry for a journal of literary humor! I do a lot of UNcreative writing, so I’m pretty influenced by Kenneth Goldsmith and a number of conceptual artists and writers, including Jenny Boully. That merges with some political work I do, such as my current and pretty large project dealing with historical genocides, and I use a lot of material both found and original. So, writers like Anne Carson, Susan Howe, Muriel Rukeyser and such are never far from my mind.


RH: The poems, more specifically “The Seventh Station,” tend to pay attention to a workforce and the conditions in which its work is performed. Do you intend for these poems to encompass the political and the effects of classism?

EM:  Yup. I could leave it at that, but I won’t. We’re conducting this interview via email. I first opened this on my iPhone made in China in arguably less-than-ideal conditions. It was assembled with a number of elements taken out of the ground somewhere in Africa. You’re talking about Nickel, Palladium, Platinum, and a whole host of other things that some guy(s) dug out of miles of tunnel deep in the ground. The technology we use here doesn’t arrive without some human cost. Now, I haven’t thrown my phone away, and I don’t intend to, but I do think we need to be aware of the full price of our technological ease. The people of Africa, it seems to me, have always been exploited for their resources by others, and human capital has always figured a large part of this.

I decided, as I was near to completing the manuscript that I did not want to profit in any way from it. As such, if and when this sequence is published, I will donate ALL proceeds to a charity that works directly with African women living with HIV/AIDS. It will be a small thing, but I think the right thing.


RH: Is “The Fifteenth Station” an examination of a certain type of society and its beliefs?

EM:  Well, I’m not sure I intended it to be so, but it does do that in the final analysis. As I did my research, I simply could not avoid the repetition of stories from HIV/AIDS sufferers that spoke to the shame they experienced not only at the “hands” of their community, but also loaded on by their own family members. There is, frankly, some very backward thinking about this disease that still continues today. That is not the fault of those who believe it, as such, but of governments, who deny wholesale the very existence of the disease, and so-called “relief” agencies, which do nothing to disabuse people of such myths and even perpetuate them to foster their own socio-political agendas, etc. When you get down to it, though, if you lived in a small village, wouldn’t you feel some shame?  You know everyone is talking about it, about you, or your loved one. We are human; we talk. The smaller the fishbowl, the louder the talk sounds. I tried to embody this primarily in the voice of the Mother-In-Law. She is, for me, a bizzaro Virgin Mary. Mary has no voice in the Stations. She appears briefly, but one can be acutely aware that she is present for the entirety of her child’s suffering and tortuous murder. What must she have felt? I don’t ask this as a religious person, but simply as a human. As a human with children of my own, what must a mother feel? I didn’t want a direct mother-child relationship in this sequence, so the Mother-In-Law gave me a nice foil to present some cultural thinking.


RH: Is there a specific incident that garnered your interest in writing this series?

EM: No, not really. It is the culmination of a lot of things. I grew up a Catholic, and to call me “lapsed” is so great an understatement, it is laughable. Anyway, as a youth, I remember being fascinated by the Station plaques around my church. In my late teens, growing up in the height of the AIDS epidemic, I remember thinking, “Hey, these stations would make a cool story. What if ‘Jesus’ had AIDS?” I think Kushner’s “Angels in America” had come out, so I thought that idea had been played. The germ was always lurking in the back of my mind, I suppose, and reading bits and pieces about African mining—men who travelled very far from home to work, the inevitable prostitution that springs up around such “colonies,” the massive African epidemic and general Western disregard/indifference/apathy—all these kept swirling and, eventually, worked themselves onto the page many years later.


RH: Ultimately, what do you hope is the takeaway for readers of “The Fifteenth Station?”

EM: I think there are a lot of potential takeaways here, depending on the angle one chooses. I don’t mean to be coy here, but I’m not sure I want to limit a reader’s experience.  You have touched on many of the angles, purely poetic ones of form, diction, rhythm, prosody, and the like. There are issues of voice and persona. These blur with the social and ethnic elements we discussed. Obviously, those tie into political and religious elements.  If you are desperate to pin me down, the real takeaway here is a sense of the human.  That might be a little cheesy, even sentimental, though I think I avoid that pretty well.  Read the whole manuscript and you’ll see that just like the Mother-In-Law is no Virgin Mary, so the nameless protagonist is no redemptive Christ. Maybe the take away is the grace we humans are capable of when all hope—and help—is lost. Again, I am not a religious man, but the Passion narrative is illustrative of many things as a metaphor. At any moment, one reasons that Jesus could have ended the suffering. He’s God incarnate, after all. But he doesn’t. We don’t. We can’t. We can only bear up, shoulder our cross, heavy as it may be, and bear up.


Erik Mortenson is the author of, Dreamer or the Dream (Last Automat Press, 2010) and What Wakes Us (Cervena Barva Press, forthcoming).  His work also appears in both print and online journals and anthologies. He writes and teaches in Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and two children.

Randall Horton is a writer, teacher and the Editor-in-Chief of Tidal Basin Review.



Meet Chanell Ruth, Series Poet, Spring 2012

Chanell Ruth

Chanell Ruth was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Spring 2012 Center-Featured Series Poet. In Bottom of Midnight, Ruth courageously delves into the world of abused children. You can read her series poem in the Spring 2012 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Chanell Ruth below!


(Interview conducted via email correspondence in April of 2012)

Truth Thomas:  It would be impossible to read your series, “Bottom of Midnight,” and not be moved by the pain that it expresses, especially with regard to child abuse early on in the piece. It is difficult, necessary, and important work. Was it equally difficult to write—to open yourself up to this subject as courageously as you do?


Chanell Ruth:  For me, all writing is difficult, but yes. This was particularly so, as I was quite resistant to the subject matter for a while. Actually, I was adamant about not writing about this. Even though I was being urged to write these stories, I was reticent to approach them because I felt like they weren’t my own. I have interacted with, cared for and taught abused children in many aspects of my personal and professional life. The adults and young adults who I teach often cause me to ask “What happened to you in your life…”I urge them to tell their stories. In all my writing courses, I teach students how to find voice. And many times, abuse, neglect, lovelessness, powerlessness and feelings of annihilation of “the self” surface. I did this, but I kept avoiding the stories of these lost, long gone children and my relationship to the theme. After I realized they were, are my stories, I got brave. In 2010, I started to work through the stories of these children I know and don’t know. That work eventually became this collection.


T:  What advice would you offer to new writers with regard to writing what is painful to write?


CR:  Write it. When you aren’t ready, when you are. The characters will come down on you in a way you can’t hold if you just get open to receive. Do be resistant. An elder writer once told me that whatever you avoid is what you need to write. I take that with me. I tell my students, there is no such thing as writers block. We are constantly thinking; we cannot or do not write when we refuse to write the truth. When I feel like I have nothing to say, I say what is happening in the “right/write now”? There is no way to be silent then, when something is always happening.


T:  What is also evident in your series is a reflection of the consequence of the loss of innocence—for both boys and girls. What prompted this work?


CR:  I hear these stories; then, I hear silence. Again, I see what I construe as the remnants of neglect and abuse every day, present in those who beg for literacy. I see equality in the pain represented in males and females and we know that males are silenced even more so in this misogynistic, homophobic culture. Even though organizations like the National Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse publish dated, therefore less jarring statistics, we know that current research states, 1 in 4 girls report having been sexually abused, but what about the boys? It is actually a report of 1 in 5. Not the difference that most people think. We just have to expose sexual abuse. Period.     


T:  The speaker’s voice in your poem series is very much that of a blues bathed teacher. Indeed, in “VIII. Missionaries,” we read: “I am not a messiah / but they sit at my hands and feet / pouring offerings of words in their tongue / I can only remind them that they matter.” Who is your classroom and why do you suggest a miracle-maker is needed to reach them?


CR:  As a teacher, I constantly champion the power of the word. Though it may sound cliché, they have healing power. Listeners, readers, students are my classroom. I think we should all be learning and teaching as long as we are breathing. I learn with and teach whoever is listening and willing to respond. This Messiah is suggested because many 80s babies, digital natives and millennials have neither the power, nor skill, nor desire to simply respond, to engage in necessary dialogue. It is critical that they get back these simple tools, but every day, they are bombarded with messages that suggest the opposite. There is nothing to say, you can say it in 40 characters or fewer, what you got to say isnt good enough, so borrow your words from a rap song or Wikipedia. “It’s gonna take a miracle. Yes, it’s gonna take a miracle.” But the speaker says, “I am not a Messiah / but…” The speaker knows that what teachers do every day is miraculous. Even our survival is.


T:  Do you have hope that America’s most broken children, those you refer to as “broken and belittled, silenced by education,” can be unbroken?


CR:  Absolutely. There is always hope, even in the damnedest of situations. Hope is what we are made of. That hope is why I feel like this work is so important. America’s children have to know that they do have voice and that they have to tell what they know. I see hip-hop culture, the spoken word movement moving these youth. I see something burning still. Always.


T:  What do you see as your role as a poet—particularly a black poet—in contemporary America? 


CR:  I think it is important to tell stories. I think the black poet comes from that tradition. I try to speak to the streets, travels, the everyday, the ordinary. I have a respect for language and its ability to illuminate everyday things. At the same time I have to hold onto music, rhythm. I think that the contemporary black writer has to write for these times and always connect to our historical experience: be here and there at once. I hear myself continue to say silence. I think the poet’s role is to eradicate silence.


T:  Relatedly, what is the comprehensive literary vision that frames your work?


CR:  I hope to blend the narrative and lyric forms with honesty, authenticity, and trust in language. I believe in revisionist’s history though, when I narrate. We are told there has to be something off base, testing reality, when we narrate. My writing is very much rooted in the experience and memory, so I rely on realism and surrealism. And sometimes fantasy. Whatever I do, I want to make the page the truth.   


T:  One of the other points that comes through quite clearly in your poem is the idea that wounded people wound people. Was it challenging to express this theme—which you do masterfully well—without preaching?


CR:  Thank you for using the “M” word. I think the hurt people, hurt people theme may have been the easy part to express, just by focusing on characters, but I suppose it was difficult not to be preachy. This collection was not meant to preach, but to bear witness. If there is a cycle of pain to parenthood, then there is one for fostering and teaching, as well. The whole body of the family suffers in the wake of abuse. The speaker wants to observe, record and does judge, but in the end there is reflection and redemption.


T:  How did you approach the crafting of this stirring non-sermon sermon?


CR:  I wrote one poem at a time trying to focus on each character in the family and focus perspective to each. I started with the theme and let the stories come. I had some wonderful workshopping with Kelli Stevens Kane, my workshop teacher Tyehimba Jess and renegade teacher, Tony Medina, who literally made me turn one of the poems upside down. I don’t think I would have tackled this without them. The first poem was “I. Family Services,” and I began with a line that I had been holding in my head for years, given to me by a mentor, “How could he do this to a girl so young?” This question of stolen innocence continued to return. I wanted to answer the question and pose others with each poem. The final poem ends with a question. With abuse, “Why?” and “How?” are always questions. I kept returning to that idea as I crafted the poems into the series.


T:  If it is true that every city has a poetic accent, how would you describe the poetic accent of Chicago?


CR:  Since the Midwest is a crossroads, we are sympathetic to language; we are borrowers. I never hear any regional dialect that I will not adopt. I hear it, analyze its creativity, and if it suits me, suits my and our traditions, I will pick it up. It is also innovative; we make and keep our own linguistic traditions. It is innately southern, a call and response, a sermon. Everything is a soliloquy. I often get accused of speaking unclearly or too softly. When I do, it is because my voice rests; becomes guttural; it almost clicks, like my grandma Josie’s strong Mississippi dialect. And sometimes I hear myself getting my southern belle on, like Grandma Doris. In Chicago, language is not only a vehicle, but a marker. It lets the listener hear more than your words, and Chicago aint loud, but it’s loud. It is like a blues song, slow, and fast like a jazz scat, but it always hinges on rhythm. And it has humor. I hear the most inventive things said in Chicago streets: humorous and curious things. When I hear the people, I tell them so. I repeat their words and sayings. That is what would be done in the south. We brought that here with us.


T:  Another aspect of your piece that pierces is the intense anger, and bitterness at human suffering (again, particularly that of child abuse). You often use neat stanzas to contain that firestorm of emotion which creates an ironic tension in this series. It reads as if the poems are almost ready to explode from the hurt that lives inside them. Was this formatting style intentional or did it sprint from your pen under the coaching of the muse?


CR:  A bit of both. I cannot claim what the ancestors give me, but I wanted the speaker to sound as if this is all a secret to be told. I was conscious of creating controlled, taut lines. I wanted the poems to be economical rather than sprawling, since you have only so much time to tell a secret. I also wanted the anger and pain to linger, so I worked to reconcile the intentions and musings.


T:  We are honored to have your work within our pages. Unreserved thanks. Your series poem is art that cannot be ignored. It reflects what is ugly and beautiful about our world in a way that aspires to heal humanity. Chicago is blessed to have you. We are blessed to have you. Please tell our readers what projects are coming up next for you.


CR:  Thank you. I feel honored to have such a light shined on this series. It certainly is meant to start a healing process. I will continue my work with City Colleges of Chicago this summer, teaching for Level Up, a college readiness program; I am also developing a writing series for writing about illness that I will teach this summer. A new collection of poems is brewing and I will do some research in Savannah this summer and get knee deep into the findings this winter at Vermont Studio Center. And I have to say, “Yes we Cannes!” I am headed to France to support the short film “Swimmin’ Lesson” produced by Shahari Moore and Christine List, who called on me to act in the film. That’s very exciting. It all is. I am blessed. Thanks Again.



Chanell Ruth, MFA, poet, educator, and performer, has served as Poetry Editor of Warpland Literary Journal. Her poems have been anthologized in texts, including Spaces Between Us and curated in The Citizens Picnic: Lynching in America from 1865 to Present. Chanell has attended Hurston/Wright and Callaloo workshops.


Truth Thomas is a musician, poet, educator and Poetry Editor of the Tidal Basin Review.

Meet Aisha Sharif, Series Poet, Fall/Winter 2011

Aisha Sharif

Aisha Sharif was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Fall/Winter 2011 Center-Featured Series Poet. Letters to Parkway is an amazing epistle thats whispers to the memory of her grandparents, Mama Too and Papa Trees. You can read her series poem in the Fall/Winter 2011 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Aisha Sharif below!


(Interview conducted via email correspondence in November of 2011)

Truth Thomas: Every time I have a chance to read profoundly well-crafted poetry, I count it all joy.  Your series poem, “Letters to Parkway,” rises like sweet bread in a bakery.  Thank you for blessing the Tidal Basin Review with your gifts.  It is a marvelous and magnetic ode to your grandparents—a multilayered portrait of your vibrant family—of upper-class black family dynamics and of color complex issues.  When you embarked upon the composition of this poetic suite, did you plan to address all of those issues, or did they surface naturally in the process of honest reflection?

Aisha Sharif: When I began writing these poems several years ago, I knew that class would be a prominent issue in my depiction of my grandparents.  They were a prominent couple in the Memphis social scene during the ‘50s & ‘60s, and that status was reinforced every time I went to my grandmother’s house and saw its decor, met her friends for brunch, heard stories about her international trips, and viewed pictures of her from her youth.  Her upper-class status definitely defined her and made me so in awe of her.  Yet, the aspect of color was something that did not surface until mid-way through the writing process.  In the poems, it was difficult to avoid describing my grandmother’s actions without also describing her physical appearance.  I realized that what made her so elegant and refined was not just her class but also her light-skinned color.  To put it simply, her color influenced her class.  Class and color were ultimately linked in my admiration of her; ultimately, this poetic suite became more than a personal narrative but a reflection of the bigger issues regarding race and class that affect the African-American community.

T: Often, discussions of color complex matters among black folks are about as welcome as tone-deaf singers at the Apollo.  How have these light-skinned vs. dark-skinned identity issues impacted you as a writer?

AS: These identity issues have really forced me to be more honest as a writer.  When writing it is very easy to hide behind the mask that is the “speaker” of the poem.  We can distance ourselves from the very complex issues the poem presents and imply that these are the “speaker’s issues.”   Yet, I had to reassess my own views while writing the poem in which Little Bug finds a matchbook with a picture of her grandmother on it.  Here, she focuses so much on how her grandmother looks; she’s mesmerized.  At that point as a writer, I had to remove the speaker’s mask and just confess that a part of me, Aisha, wanted to obtain that class and poise symbolized through my grandmother’s color.  That was a difficult poem to write because I had to face the fact that I harbored some of these color complexes.  Did I possess them because of my grandmother?  Society?  Low self esteem? Was it because through “light-skinnedness” I could hope to attain upper-class status also?  That poem was a reality check; I had to be responsible for my own self-perception and be more open in my poetry to addressing these issues regardless of how touchy they may be.

T: At what point did you know that the epistle form would be the form to help propel this narrative, which echoes of Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah and Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

AS:  That’s so interesting that you mention Thomas and Beulah because that book really influenced me to adopt the epistle form for these poems.  When I was in graduate school at IU [Indiana University], I took a class with Kevin Young on the long poem, in which we read Dove’s book as well those by Anne Carson, William Carlos Williams, and Sylvia Plath.  That class piqued my interest in how long poems, poetic series, and novels-in-verse can create and establish a narrative over the course of several poems.  I decided to use the epistle form to build my series because it allows the writer to recount stories, events, or personal feelings to a specific addressee.  Epistles also serve as a type of documentation of the writer’s life and words.  Those two aspects were important for me because these poems needed a real form that would allow Little Bug to recount events from the grandmother’s past and to narrate the events happening in her own life that the grandmother couldn’t experience due to her illness.  I felt that using several epistles would help display this intricate story one letter at a time.

T: Deliberateness of the language you use draws readers in like candles on cakes when placed on the tables of children. Indeed, your choice of family names sparkle in the place setting of this series: “Mama Too,” your grandmother; “Papa Trees,” your grandfather; and “Little Bug” for you.  To what extent are these names real and to what extent are they kinfolk of the muse?

AS:  The names “Mama Too” and “Papa Trees” are actually names that my siblings and I used to refer to our grandparents.  The name “Mama Too” replaced the standard title of “grandma” and all of the connotations of being old that come with it.  My grandfather was called “Trees” by friends due to his height; he was 6’5”.  So, as children, my siblings and I referred to him as “Papa Trees.”  But “Little Bug” was a product of the muse – it developed while writing this series.  The name seemed to symbolically represent the speaker’s insecurities in light of her grandmother’s great status.

T: Trees represent more than simply statuesque elements of nature to black folks—so many of us have been hung from them.  In that sense, your grandfather’s name, Papa Trees, captures a wealth of symbolism.  Arguably, Trees become an additional character in the piece. They are ever-present—haunting, much like the unsettled blood of slavery did in Morrison’s Beloved.  Again, was it your intention to address the ghosts of slavery that haunt America, or did this symbolism emerge organically in the process of your writing?

AS:  The symbolism surrounding Papa Trees grew through the writing process.  I set out to have him function as a ghost of sorts – this dashing male whose absence was very much like a presence.  Little Bug’s inability to recall this man pushes her to construct an image of him, but it is unclear if it is an accurate depiction of the man as he really was or how she wants to perceive him.  Having said that, I guess we could say then that Papa Trees functions as a much bigger symbol.  He seems to represent that persistent need young people and, particularly, African Americans have to know their roots and the desire to re-figure and construct their history.

T: There is a river of living history that flows in “Letters to Parkway.” Its currents testify to the grand elegance, strength and accomplishments of African-American people (broadcasts that do not often make the news).  How did you approach the research that underpins this tribute to family?

AS:  I truly believe in William Carlos William’s statement, “No ideas but in things.”  Since it was hard for me to actually communicate with my grandmother, who had suffered a stroke at the start of my writing process, I learned more about her through her things.  When my family and I cleaned out my grandparents’ house, we stumbled across such an array of items in the attics, basement, and closets: golf clubs, newspaper articles about Papa Trees’ medical practice, dog tags from the Korean war, several pairs of leather opera gloves and wigs, manual typewriters, old bottles of wine, and tons of photographs.  I would literally sit on the floor with these things spread all around me and discern from them the types of people my grandparents were.  I would allow myself to ask questions, and the poems just developed from them.  It was as if I was putting together the pieces of a puzzle.

T: Were you at all transformed by that research?

AS: Yes!  My perception of my grandparents definitely evolved.  As children, we think of our parents and grandparents as these older figures who exist simply in relation to us.  But after this research, I began to see my grandparents as individuals with their own triumphs and struggles.  I also understood the impact of widowhood on my grandmother and on women in general.  For over 25 years, she lived alone in the same house and never remarried.  I wondered whether my grandmother, as well as many other widows, struggled with how she could get back that life she had before her husband died. I became more aware of the roles and identities women during her generation adopted when they married and how those roles and identities changed during widowhood.

T: Speaking of living history, one of the most inventive aspects of your poem is an ingenious incorporation of real life events used as list poems. You offer readers actual records that Mama Too kept of Papa Trees funeral arrangements. That craft element is to this poem what jet fuel is to flying—only this piece does not lose its perch on clouds. What inspired this rhetorical approach?

AS: One day I found an old telegram sent to my grandmother after her husband died. I wondered whether she kept it to remember the day he died and the love she received from friends afterwards.  That telegram made me consider all the different people who must have contacted her to send condolences.  How did she keep up with all the visitors and tasks that needed to get done before the funeral?  Through meticulous lists.  Lists allow people to see things in their raw state.  And like the epistle, lists allow people to write through complex issues quickly.  The records of the funeral arrangements catalogued the people who sent condolences; they also helped Mama Too process what was actually happening to her given the sudden loss of her husband.

T: Your poem reads as though it may be the beginning of a much more ambitious project. Is “Letters to Parkway” part of a larger work—an upcoming collection poems, or perhaps a play?

AS: It is!  I began writing the poems about my grandparents as a personal journey through my family history, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that there were bigger issues at hand.  I became really fascinated with widowhood and how it affects family members and the widow herself.  I have developed two more series of poems written in the voices of other women who are affected by widowhood.  These women are also writing epistles to understand their experiences with loss and its effects on the family unit.  These three sets of epistles weave in and out of each other and, together, make up one long poem.

T: For all who enter the world of this poem, what legacy would you like it to occupy in the afterglow of its reading?

AS: I would like for it to be a work that gives voice to issues that may be taboo or overlooked: color matters, self-esteem (particularly among African-American women), and widowhood.  I would like for it to be seen as a work that tries to utilize poetic form well.  My hope is that this collection shows how poetry – and writing in general – can be shaped to suit and reflect the ways in which women think and deal with the issues that affect them.

T:  My Sister, the best two-word prose poem I know begins and ends with the words “Thank you.” To embrace your work has been like tasting sweet potato pie.  It is filling and warm and always gets people’s attention. Last question: in perhaps 40 years or so, if another Little Bug springs up in your family, what would you like for that child to write about you?

AS:  Wow.  That’s a great question.  Having written this series of poems, I understand better some of the paradoxes surrounding my grandmother’s life, and I would like for my future granddaughter to feel free to write about the paradoxes in my life so that she can better understand me – the good and the bad:  my humor and solemnity, my faith and doubt, and, my interest in areas of life that are sad but inevitable, like loss and grief.  But whatever the next “Little Bug” chooses to write, I hope that she writes with curiosity.

Aisha Sharif received her MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.  Much of her poetry and nonfiction explores how religious and gender identities intersect.  Her poetry has appeared in Muslim Wakeup!, Touchstone Literary Journal,  Poemmemoirstory, Callaloo, and Mythium.  She is a Cave Canem fellow and teaches English at Park University in Parkville, Missouri, a short commute from her home in Merriam, Kansas.

Truth Thomas is a musician, poet, educator and Poetry Editor of the Tidal Basin Review.

Meet Julianna McCarthy, Series Poet, Summer 2011


Julianna McCarthy was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Summer 2011 Center-Featured Series Poet. The Twelve Days in August When… is a cinematic poem detailing the writer’s unforgettable coming-of-age as the world exploded around her during World War II. You can read her series poem in the Summer 2011 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Julianna McCarthy below!



(Interview conducted via email correspondence)

Truth Thomas: It is an honor to enter into the rich cinema of your poetry.  I am a great fan of your work. What prompted this series poem at this point in your writing journey?

Julianna McCarthy: Thank you, Truth. It’s an honor to have this poem chosen. Actually, the first draft of “Twelve Days…” was written way back in 2003. There have been many drafts since the; I think it’s finished now.


TT: Why the long title?

JM: Oh, I did try some shorter tent titles, i.e., “Morning”, and then inevitably “Evening.” Titles are tricky. I finally settled for imitation, a riff on Defoe’s “Moll Flanders: the Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders” or Fieldings’ “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” with its many subtitles for each volume – the “Wherein’s” as it were. 


TT: Your poem is replete with piercing imagery—riveting, in fact.  It represents a series of scenes like a play set in verse. Its dramatic aspects of a 16 year old coming of age in a time of war captivate like a well-made movie.  Do you think that your background as an actress informed that craft aspect of this work?

JM: I’m not sure there is any way to avoid one’s background; I’ve had a lot of jobs: on an assembly line, as a truck dispatcher, a clerk/typist for Care, Inc., a reservation clerk for a cemetery, a mother… and an actress. The actress is most likely the one who has a fondness for writing persona poems and following a narrative structure.

TT: Is Franklin High School rooted in reality? To what extent is this poem autobiographical?

JM: The poem is completely autobiographical, right down to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” at the movie house in Cambridge Springs.  And yes, there is a Franklin High School that held its football camp each summer at the state normal college. I remember going to games in Franklin —no bleachers. We just walked up and down the field with the action and there were flame lit oil drums to warm our hands and thermos cocoa. Wonderful.


TT: One of many elements that enthralls in this poem is your use of contrasts. The speaker in the piece is framed in the waning days World War II, in presumably a small town somewhere in America. However, just as clearly as you paint the narrator in a safe suburban world, you also fix the narrator’s thoughts on the brutality of war—on America’s nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.  Was this employment of contrasts intentional?

JM: I think the contrasts are more inescapable than intentional.  The small town of the poem is Edinboro, Pennsylvania, in that little piece of land between Ohio and New York (only 90 miles). It is spectacularly beautiful – woodlands and the foothills of the Allegheny mountains. It’s glorious. At fifteen, I knew you didn’t need a war to die young.  I’d already lost friends to Polio and Scarlet Fever and Whooping Cough and Meningitis and drowning—I’d been to my share of funerals. The war scared me, but nothing like the news about the A bomb and to hear of it while in such a gorgeous setting. That was monstrous— “the force of a hundred suns.” How can you even imagine that? Then, when I saw the newsreels, it paralyzed me.

TT:Resurrection” appears to be a strong undercurrent in your poem. Indeed, the narrator’s retelling of salvation of a kitten rising from the arms of violence fuels the plot of the piece. You even name the kitten Lazarus. One might argue that the resurrection of the cat is mirrored with the possibility of the rebirth of Japan’s nuclear bombardment. As a writer, do you believe it is possible for innocence to be reborn after enduring the horrors of life—especially of war? 

JM: I think it’s possible. It’s certainly necessary if we are to survive. If innocence can’t be “reborn,” then it must be reclaimed. I like your using the phrase “after enduring the horrors of life.” Enduring is such an accurate word. As I grow older, I find myself struggling to resist cynicism. It’s so seductive to see oneself as a sad, but wiser woman – and so silly.


TT: You capture the history of wartime America in this poem in great magnetic detail. It reads as if the bombing of Japan happened yesterday. What accounts for this? 

JM: It was a BIG time. The years before August 6th, 1945 had been filled with some shocking revelations. We lived at the movies and the newsreels had been grisly and upsetting all during the war. We scanned the faces of the dead and wounded looking for brothers and friends, for fathers and uncles. We sometimes sat through the movie more than once to make sure we hadn’t missed anyone. People called each other up if a local boy was spotted. Those newsreels: there was so much – the first pictures from the death camps, Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels, Hitler’s Bunker, VE day in New York and Europe, and of course, the great national sadness when President Roosevelt died. For me, the bomb did fall yesterday and it will continue to fall yesterday until the day I die.


TT: What I find particularly impressive—and piercing—is the timeless quality of this poem. In the latter section of your verses, the teenage narrator documents what it was like when World War II ended. She speaks of people telling “bad fall out jokes,” and folks celebrating with “Car horns.” When I read this, I was reminded of the spontaneous celebration America observed at the death of Osama Bin Laden, equally replete with bad Bin Laden jokes and car horns. Admittedly, the scale and nature of the two celebrations was profoundly different. Still the tendency for people to gloat over the death of enemies seems a consistent refrain among the living. You capture this well. As you approached this poem, was it your intention to record history, or to offer commentary on the violent, insensitive bent of humanity?

JM: A little of both, really. I wanted to tell what it was like for me that summer of ’45 and I also wanted to indicate that the introduction of an atomic weapon was life changing—everyone’s life changed. 


TT: Often events that occur in our formative years brand our life long steps. To what degree, if any, did the events of World War II impact your writing and your acting?

JM: To the nth degree, I’d say.  WWII was the subject of all the new plays and movies.  If you were acting you were acting in something about the war. For example, five years after the events of the poem when I was performing in Carmel, California in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (which examined the morality of a man who placed his responsibility to his family over his responsibility to the soldiers who depended on the integrity of his work), I would fall asleep every night to the sound of gun-fire and bombing runs from maneuvers at near-by Fort Ord  for the war in Korea. It never ends, does it?

TT: Again, I must say it has been an honor to immerse myself in your work. What artistic efforts currently fill your table? What can readers and theatergoers expect from you in the future?

JM: Well, I don’t know about theatergoers, but I am writing more and more of my own story in memoir and in poetry. My children, Thea and Brendan Constantine, are both writers. Thea lives in Portland and is presently working on a novel, selections of which have appeared in Black Boot. Brendan is a poet and teacher; his books Letters to Guns and Birthday Girl with Possum are already in bookstores. I am immensely proud of them. I have family stories I want to tell them. We’ll see, right?  Thank you for asking.

Julianna McCarthy lives above the snow line, with a dog and two cats in the Los Padres National Forest. She is the 2009 The Bridge First Prize winner and a Schieble Sonnet Prize winner, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, and a Pablo Neruda Prize finalist. Her poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Alehouse, The New Southerner Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Best Poem, and others.  Her chapbook, Photoplay, was released in 2009.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from New England College.

Truth Thomas is an educator, musician, poet, and a Poetry Editor of Tidal Basin Review.

Meet Rickey Laurentiis, Series Poet, Spring 2011

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Rickey Laurentiis was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Spring 2011 Center-Featured Series Poet. Down Atlantis is an honest, spiraling reflection on love in the face of Hurricane Katrina. Read, Down Atlantis, in the Spring 2011 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Rickey Laurentiis below!


(Interview conducted via email correspondence)

Elizabeth Larkin: As a native of New Orleans, you use the subject of Hurricane Katrina in juxtaposition to, not only the body, but also to discovery and aesthetic beauty. What makes poetry a fitting medium to process and respond to these nuances?

Rickey Laurentiis: Poetry, for me, was the only possible medium for the expression of these ideas. And that’s, finally, all they are: ideas about storms, love, sexuality, the body and, as you noted, aesthetic beauty. It is only poetry that presented itself to me as a possible vehicle, though that wasn’t always the case. Immediately after Katrina, —this was in 2005, so I was a junior in high school and had been displaced in southern California—I wrote nothing. I want to say I thought nothing. Life was all blur and motion. I didn’t exactly congeal until some time later when my family had returned to New Orleans and until I left that city en route to New York for college. I needed time, space and distance to effectively analyze and mythologize my experiences with the storm. Let me be clear, it wasn’t objectivity I was aiming for, but honesty. Poetry, for me, is about honesty.

Here’s a quote I respect: “Prose is the medium of communication, but Poetry is the mode of communion.” Mary Austin said that, and I remember it serving as the epigraph to the small anthology that a poetry professor had assembled for me at Sarah Lawrence College. I believe in that quote. I’m sure there are many ideas that only prose can handle and transfer, but I am convinced it is through poetry that we commune, where information is not only distributed from one body to the other but is shared, ingested, folded into a body such that it is no longer distinguishable from the body. I didn’t seek to write a long poem “about Katrina.” I sought to write a poem about dilemmas and moral and natural crises we all do or can potentially share.

EL: “Down Atlantis” provides an unusually intimate and apolitical perspective on Hurricane Katrina.  Was it difficult to abstain from wallowing in the political aspects of Hurricane Katrina? By avoiding rhetoric and/or the rhetorical, did you find yourself prioritizing the human experience over the federal implications of the disaster, or would you say this is one of the limitations of poetry?

RL: When I was engulfed in the storm and its aftermath, I—and perhaps my family and some other citizens of the Gulf coast—couldn’t be concerned with “the political aspects” of Katrina. What we knew: there was a storm, levee failure, water and impending loss. There was not yet time to consider the role of the National Guard in this disaster. Sure, while it was maddening to see no identifiable help on its way, who could think of Katrina’s implications for Bush’s administration when tired or hungry? But, I’m not sure I would agree that I take an apolitical posture toward the storm in “Down Atlantis,” at least not if I consider the radical decision to love and to make love, despite a hostile environment, a political one. In the poem, I parallel the burgeoning peril of a storm with the burgeoning peril of sexuality, more specifically, homosexuality. I parallel, in my own words, the problem of natural and “unnatural” disasters. I’m not sure I can explain the connections I sense between the dichotomies better than I did in the poem. Nevertheless, I do feel a connection.

EL: Once you chose to embed a personal narrative of discovery and liability within the frame of the disaster in New Orleans, what parallels suggested themselves? How did these two narratives–of private and public upheaval interact?

RL: I did not choose to embed a personal narrative within the narrative of the storm. The two ideas always existed simultaneously to me. I remember having recurring dreams, or daydreams, where I was faced with an image of two men, romantically embraced, on a levee. The sky is dark, violent, as if the storm were there or soon approaching. It’s an image that still haunts me, and I think it has less to do with the destructiveness of the weather as it has to do with the vulnerability these two men are showing. In the image, the men are almost always facing away from me, staring down the stormy sky. I began to consider these men: Who are they? How can they be so bold? Is it boldness or stupidity? How can they love each other in spite of the hostile environment? Do they survive? To me, the idea of two men in love standing on a levee (of all things) as a storm approaches is not unlike the very notion of staying in a city despite a “mandatory evacuation,” despite approaching disaster. In conversation with some people not from the Gulf region, I’ve learned that this is a puzzling idea for one to love so fiercely (whether someone else, whether a city itself) that he will not leave, will go down with the ship, as they say.

EL: The poet Robert Duncan says “this poetry, the ever forming bodies in language in which breath moves, is a field of ensouling. Each line, intensely, a soul thing, a contribution; a locality of the living.” Would you equate Duncan’s assessment to your poem in terms of language and the body?

RL: I think Duncan’s quote fits. Writing “Down Atlantis” was an organic, painful, beautiful, sloppy and enriching process. It moved through many stages and many forms. It couldn’t be written for many years and, actually, its first words were penned while I was outside of the country. From the beginning, I knew the poem had to be sectioned, had to be—in that way—fragmented and clipped. So the sections grew out of each other, taking up where the other had trailed off, had been eroded, and twisting it and giving it momentary flight. It became a song, in a way, recalling earlier moments and echoing them. A pull and tease. A flirtation. In the end, it is a love story between the experienced and the inexperienced, which seems (at least at this age) a fitting metaphor for life.

EL: “Down Atlantis” is an extremely personal poem with elevated language, dealing with a man’s dual identity as son and lover. To what extent does your personal experience inform your writing process? Also, how important to you is identity within the landscape of the poem?

RL: Carl Phillips has said something to the effect that identity should be, or at least can be, crucial and yet incidental, and that it should be the identity of the poem itself, not the poet, that ultimately matters.  This former idea may be where I was, subconsciously, moving toward at the very ending of “Down Atlantis.” I’ve had conversations with other poets I admire who complicate this latter notion, however, arguing while this may be true during the poem’s initial creation, any subsequent edits will involve, to some degree, the poet’s identity and the opinions he maintains. But where do I fit in this? Where did I fit while writing “Down Atlantis?” I know my experiences dually as a son and lover (and a son, certainly, is a kind of lover, no?) greatly influenced the poem. To the extent where I wanted those identities to be clear, I attempted to make them clear in the poem. Ultimately, however, “Down Atlantis” is a poem about a storm-in-coming, about an identity-in-process, and fluidity. Those aspects are more important to me in the poem and perhaps in poetry in general. I’m not very interested in the static. Give me queer.

EL: Although confessional poetry has been around for decades, members of this generation specifically have a much more disclosive attitude towards their personal lives, perhaps due to the prevalence and universality of social networking platforms. You yourself have a Facebook, a Twitter and a blog. Do you think this generational perspective, this unabashedness, this willingness to divulge, has influenced your work? If so, how?

RL: Sure. I live in a world with, probably, more opportunities to divulge information about one’s self than has ever been the case. You already name Facebook, twitter and blogging as evidence. But, it seems to me, I also live in a world that is keenly aware of this disclosive attitude, one that is constantly making great pains to maintain what little privacy is left. So therein is the paradox: more personal information, yet more attempts at keeping it closeted or, at least, masked. As it relates to poetry, this paradox doesn’t seem particular to this generation or time in history. I think of Emily Dickinson, who wrote well before confessional poetry was “discovered” and coined, but confessed to an incredible degree in her poetry; whose emotional vulnerability and unforgiving honesty at times makes me, literally, tremble; and who told us to tell the truth but tell it slant—that is, not exactly un-masked, not exactly directly-at-the-thing. To make it strange: this is how I approach poetry.

EL: With regards to craft, your line breaks seem to create their own musicality within the breadth of the poem. There seems to be great care taken in what comes before and after a line as well as what follows and precedes a period or comma. I would like for you to talk about this process and to discuss one or two of your literary influences when it comes to this aesthetic sensibility.

RL: H.D. was a strong influence when it came to the aesthetics I assumed while writing “Down Atlantis” and, more broadly, my aesthetic sensibility as a poet. The reason this poem went through so many drafts and so many radical forms—at one time, the poem was long-lined, a la Whitman—is because I was (am?) so meticulous. I needed to find the form for it and, smaller, I needed to find the line for every idea I had. It was a kind of surgery made up of careful excision and extraction. The desired effect was to create a particular music that is, at once, bleak or stripped, yet is building up, crescendoing, to a “somewhere.” Mystery factored largely into the writing of this poem. I’ve had some trouble with other poems or collections of poems I’ve read that treat Katrina because of the fact that, too often, they seem convinced that they “got it.” They understand, definitively, what Katrina was, is or means. They know the answers; I don’t know the answers. I especially didn’t while writing “Down Atlantis.” I still don’t know if those men on the levee survive, or if they want to. I don’t know what love is, but only know that I want and need it. I don’t know what it means, really, to say, Yes, I was there. I saw it. And I’ve gone back.

EL: You return to the theme of accountability and guilt again and again within “Down Atlantis,” implying that one bears the responsibility for the disaster by “[waiting] too long,” by inciting God to punishment, by engaging in a love that is not accepted in the bible totin’ south. This is an unusual way to parse a natural disaster, albeit reflective of certain accusations the homosexual population faced in the wake of the disaster. What led you to introduce and explore this theme within the poem?

RL: This is what I’m trying to get at in my answer to the last question. To these huge things we, as humans, are faced with (disaster, love, death, etc.), it seems to me that there will be contradiction as we think about them. Katrina was no more all evil as she was all good, as is love, sex, or anything. So, I think at those moments in the poem where the speaker seems to consider his own possible role with the impending disaster—I think these are moments of another kind of honesty, an un-sureness, a mystery. One has to wonder at some point: Do I deserve this? Wasn’t I told to evacuate? Is this the price I pay? Should I love this way, when so many preach against it? Why preach against it? Should I love at all, which is to say should I trust again? I recognized while writing “Down Atlantis” that this would probably be a strange way to contemplate the disaster. I recognize, too, that there are things I can and will always be able to say or write just based on the fact that, yes, I was there, whereas you—you weren’t. But that, to me, seems to give me a kind of permission to say these things that others may shy away from or, rather, just can’t consider. I don’t know the experience of having watched Katrina unfold on the screens of televisions across the nation and the world. I suppose this perspective could only see the disaster as horrifying, and that all its victims are just that: victims. I suppose, by that perspective, one would feel encouraged to write what they saw, and to write it immediately. There is a privilege though, to write about a disaster before even its survivors have survived. But I am still waiting for the poem about the experience of being that voyeur in, say, Kansas or Chicago, who has seen this disaster (or any, for that matter, be it in Haiti or Japan) on the news, and is horrified, whose own sense of security is threatened and whose psychology is changed. Or isn’t changed.

EL: “Down Atlantis” can be read as a metamorphosis from naiveté to accountability. As a young poet, your own voice may yet be subject to a metamorphosis.  How has your perspective on and approach to writing changed in the last five years?

RL: Well, in the last five years I have graduated from high school and completed most of my undergraduate career. That process meant, as I have said, moving from New Orleans to New York, which as I think about it was a kind of major culture shock. New Orleans, to me, seems like no place inside this nation, both before and especially after Katrina. It may share more similarities with places outside the country such as the Caribbean and parts of Europe. Though New York City has a similar global aesthetic, it’s more corporate, more modern. Sometimes, I feel like by having left New Orleans, I really left the battered old country for “America.” In effect, once in New York, I began to think more intensely about the place I had just departed. I began writing about Katrina, finally, at this time. My writing, in general, changed and matured, which I am sure is due to contact with more writers who were both my peers and professors. But to say exactly “how” my perspective and approach to writing has shifted—this is a question I’m still pondering. I’m still growing.

EL: The presentation of alternate and concurrent realities within “Down Atlantis” introduced by the phrase “Meanwhile, in a future” evokes the uncertainty and endless possibility of youth.  The youth are also ascribed resilience, fearlessness and reactivity. Do any of these qualities pertain to your experience as a young poet? What challenges are unique to that experience?

RL: I often wonder what defines a “young poet.” Is it she who writes a poem, consistently, but who also happens to be what is understood as “young?” Or is a young poet simply one who has just come to poetry? A sixty-year-old man who, only a year ago, began jotting down some rhymed couplets in his notebook—is he, then, a young poet? I will say that, regardless, the experience of being a young poet is often confusing and dizzying, especially as a young poet who is slowly gaining accolades, publications, and interviews such as this one. It’s a strange moment of transition, I guess; or, more aptly, a strange country that one must, carefully, navigate. I may be resilient and reactive, but the idea of being fearless is foreign to me. I certainly have my number of anxieties and worries. I wonder, often, can I do that, or write that? Am I allowed? If not, when will I be allowed? In the end, perhaps age is but another identity marker that should remain both crucial yet incidental to the poem and the process of writing it.

EL: What are you working on now?  Also, what would you say you learn in the process of writing “Down Atlantis?”

RL: “Down Atlantis” is one of  the few long poems I have written that compile a manuscript that—in much the same approach that “Down Atlantis” takes—explores these ideas of natural and “unnatural” disasters, love and coupling, burgeoning identities and, especially, water itself. Perhaps because of this, I’m now writing much shorter, stranger yet still lyrical poems, and I’m excited to see how long this impulse will last. I believe it will last, for if anything writing “Down Atlantis” taught me patience and diligence. It taught me honesty.

Rickey Laurentiis was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. His manuscript, One Country, received an honorable mention for the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, judged by Claudia Rankine, while his other honors include a 2010 Pushcart Prize Nomination, and first- and third-runner up in the 2009 International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize, selected by Carl Phillips. The recipient of fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and the Atlantic Center for the Arts, his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals, including Indiana Review, jubilat, Knockout Literary Magazine and Vinyl.

Elizabeth Larkin graduated from Choate Rosemary Hall, where she received the Berger Prize for Poetry and the John Dos Passos Creative Writing Award.  She tutors English at Central High School in Bridgeport, CT.  She is an editorial assistant at Aquarius Press and has published poems in numerous academic literary journals.  Elizabeth currently attends the University of New Haven.

Meet Sarah McCartt- Jackson, Series Poet, Fall/Winter 2010

Photo: Bryan Jackson

Sarah McCartt-Jackson was selected by TBR’s Editors as the first Center-Featured Series Poet. Her series poem, Calf Canyon, is stunning in its emotional-depth, grit, and seamless merging of nature with the human experience.  Read the 8-part series poem, Calf-Canyon, in the Fall/Winter 2010 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Sarah McCartt Jackson below!




(Interview conducted via email correspondence)



Melanie Henderson: First, Sarah, thank you for sending your work for consideration. It was the pleasure of our editors to select your submission, “Calf Canyon” for the first Tidal Basin Review Series Poet Center Feature.


Sarah McCartt-Jackson:  Thank you, for providing a gallery for “Calf Canyon” and other artistic works.


MH: When crafting this call for series poems, our editors considered how often our own poems tend to follow a sequence either in form, style, content, sound, and/or sense. Tell us, how intentional was your process in creating the series poem, “Calf Canyon?”


SMJ: “Calf Canyon” was very intentionally written as a series poem. As I was writing it, I referred to successful long poems to guide my process of long poem cohesion.  I tried to create a sense of unity throughout the work while also establishing distinct scenes that could live separately.  The culmination of the poem requires not only the scenes, but also the combined tension of each moment.  Thus, the sequencing process proved to be the most revelatory for me.  Repetition of sound and image (particularly in the women of the hills and repeated water imagery) represented instants that could ground my reader in the arrangement.  I also wanted the seriation (especially in the second sequence) to show the cyclical nature of the focal concern within the poem.


MH: Part of the appeal of “Calf Canyon” is the symbiosis of the word placement and meaning. For example, Stanza 2 of Crossing:


the spider’s heart a bruise,

each chamber a stitch that nicks the copper blood

as it rushes through, each valve sighing out

                                      like the hush that hung


hung physically and lyrically hangs at both the end of the line and the stanza. In this way, the effect is maintained whether read on the page or aloud. How important is this sort of visual demonstration to your work?


SMJ:  I realize there can be an excessive use of visual and white space on the page, so I try to balance the idea of visual and experimental form with traditional form.  Here, I tried not only to highlight lines or phrases by indention or emphasis but also to propel or pace the poem.  I hope that each line stands alone as a moment in the overall story.  Even more, I intend for each indentation or dropped line to burrow into another frame of the narrative.  The issue is a complicated one that I did not think could exist in the iceberg-tip and rest-of-the-iceberg dichotomy.  I saw the narrative as sedimentary in its telling.  The fact that the unborn child cannot live is complicated by the fact that the unborn child might not survive.  I hope the form reflects this complication.


More importantly, I would not have been able to write this poem without a freedom of form.  Where I had been writing in relatively uniform (visually speaking) stanzas or lines, I tended to restrict myself.  To extract the precise feeling and complexity of the situation, I had to give myself space.  I had to force myself to extend a line, drop a line, or move a line visually where I typically would not.  While I didn’t spill my words onto the page confessionally, I tried to allow myself more area to let the narrative and relationship speak for itself.  But to make this a good poem, I had to edit the form obsessively.  So the poem would not exist if I had not let the form gallop; conversely, the poem would not have worked if I had not pulled in the reins.


MH: Some might consider the flush right placement of line 6 “like the hush that hung” experimental, as it is slightly non-traditional in form? Do you rejoice in or reject the idea of producing poems that show elements of an experimental aesthetic?


SMJ: It depends on the level of experimentation.  Some poets embrace a plane of craft that sometimes discourages indulgent experimentation.  I could not have written the poem without personal experimentation, but I also could not have written it without training and commitment to conventions of the poetic craft.  So, I rejoice in experimentation during my writing process but also in the importance of revision.


MH: There is a certain music that radiates an undertow of sound, like a backdraft that continues to build throughout the poem. This sound music is predicated on the juxtaposition of words or certain clusters of words. What is the music that you want the reader to hear?


SMJ: First, I want the reader to hear the sounds surrounding the narrator.  I want the reader to hear the “tidal bulge dragging” and the dusty fossils being plucked from a dry shorebed.  I also want the reader to hear how the narrator narrates what she experiences, how she chooses to animate the inanimate.  I hope the reader hears how an ocean roar translates into her roaring womb or how the narrator’s supposition of the unborn child’s voice as a “resin gurgling just beneath the surface bark” functions as an extension of the creaking rope of a tortured woman.  I hope the undertow of sound carries and sustains the reader from one section to the next and creates subtle, cohesive links between the sections.


MH: “Calf Canyon” is speakerly, at times, using the straight line to carry the series forward. You effectively merge moments of plain speech with others that are highly imagistic and sparse. If we consider that poetry is the economy of words that aims to say much and impact greatly in the most minimal amount of space, how do you negotiate these speakerly moments? How comfortable are you with this negotiation of poetry and what might be considered prose? I am glad they did, but I am interested in learning why and how the speakerly moments survived the revision process?


SMJ: I maintain those dense moments of narrative to build tension and intensity.  These are times that cannot be described sparsely that need to work as a heavy stone; these moments submerge the bucket, but reel water to the well lip.  There are others (like the bat’s brains) that can—and should—happen rapidly.  I negotiate it this way:  sometimes we think in poetry, sometimes in prose.  I wanted to portray when the speaker might think in poetry, and when she might think in prose.  Sometimes the narrator’s medium to express her experience happens plainly, but other times she uses more scientific or cartographic language.  The emotional resonance would not reverberate without each word the speaker reveals.  I wanted to imply that though she is in this situation, she is capable of mindfulness. 


Habitually, I try to balance these narrative moments with the more lyrical ones.  My poetry tends to be dense with images and words at once.  The best advice I have received about my work is:  “Let your poetry breathe” and let the readers take a breath.  I try to pull readers into a story, compel them forward, and provide a sense of catharsis or resolution without losing them.  Therefore, I have to tell my reader when to breathe.  In “Calf Canyon,” especially, I tried to use the form, the sections, commas and colons, and the “spare” line for breath.  For me in this poem, it was not so much about the “economy of space” as the density of the complex story.


MH: The speaker’s voice is firm in its address of the sentimental. Tell us more about her and who you have crafted the speaker to be. How closely do you relate with the speaker? If ever, how often do you draw on personal experience?


SMJ: The speaker is a woman dealing with domestic violence.  She is capable of admitting the harm to her but unable to admit the harm to others in her very immediate family (namely, the unborn child).  Her ambiguity of her own life mirrors her ultimate ambivalence towards her own unborn child’s life.  While she might love the child, she believes she can never have her because of her situation.  The poem is her lament—and desertion—of the child.


Generally, I try to balance my sentiment by not writing from personal experience.  While many of the places, events, and images in “Calf Canyon” are factual to my personal life, I think the most auto-ethnographic aspect of this work shows through the way I describe the events as how I experience the world around me.  The diction, the images, and the organization reflect my personal worldview—how I organize the way I see and struggle with the intricacies of human experience.


MH: “Calf Canyon” deals with the grating memory of an unborn child, a seemingly wanted child who never breathed. Though the woman alone deals with the physical loss, I admire that this poem addresses the emotional loss of the man and woman. When writing about so sensitive or emotional a topic, there is a fine line between too much information and too little, too much sentiment and not enough sentiment to attach to a breathing person. How do you achieve the balance?


SMJ: I have a dual mind:  at once scientific and creative.  I am both objective and poetically subjective. I have attempted to attach the brass rings of all those worlds.  The story I recreate in “Calf Canyon” is never just her story or his story.  I titled the series in a way to emulate the phases of meiosis.  Two cells merge to create one zygote.  Two people determine what occurs after that.  Keeping this in mind throughout the process kept me objective while also maintaining her point of view.


Because of this predilection toward science and poetry, both ends of the spectrum (or asterisk point) inform the other.  Where I see science, I see poetry.  Where I see poetry, I see science.  Therefore, sentimentality (to which camp I unabashedly belong in real life) becomes tempered by science, query, and theory.  With my diverse backgrounds in anthropology and creative writing, ranging from archaeology to some viticulture, I try to balance my poetry in today’s ecological landscape and the human role in nature. 


MH: There is a moment in “Calf Canyon” which uses the epistle to facilitate an interior dialogue with the unborn child we just mentioned. This form allows for the intersection of the “real” and “unreal.” How important would you say form is to your continued development as a writer?


SMJ: Originally in “Calf Canyon,” I did not let the speaker directly address the unborn, but that impulse seemed too objective.  Introducing the epistle allows her to attempt an explanation for her child while also allowing the reader to glimpse inside a private moment.  The entire poem might be a private moment, but the apostrophe to the unborn opens the speaker and, ultimately, the form.


To my own work, the blur between the real and the unreal is why I attempt to write poetry.  Not that I am trying to emphasize this blur, but I do try to construct my poems in a way that reflects how the “real” and “unreal” materialize.  Where a sun god myth might be “unreal,” its purpose and manifest functions are “real.”  Likewise, where a poem or unborn child might be “unreal,” the emotion is real.  My development as a writer relies on a constant oscillation between hot and cold—whether my work remains at the extreme or somewhere in the halocline. 


MH: Nature is beautifully interwoven with the narrative thread throughout your series, “Calf Canyon.” These references to nature create a concurrent text and seem to play an equally imperative role in this poetic exploration. Where does your knowledge of nature come from? How does nature influence your creative process? How have you managed to use nature as a literary device?


SMJ: If I were going to list my creative influences, I would first be obliged to nature.  Raised to love the natural world in a reciprocal manner, I cannot imagine my life without a tree.  Some describe “dog people” and “cat people.”  I like to think of myself as “plant people.”  Like poetry (and poetry crafting), nature fluctuates, pulses, and sustains life.  I can only offer reply to its influence by suggesting it in words through my work.  Rather than a literary device or metaphor, I mean to represent nature as the truest expression of the human-planet experience.


MH: What experience should the reader take away from the poem? Would you say the language, the music, the connotation or all three? Explain if you can.


SMJ: From the poem, I hope the reader takes away the music and the connotation.  Without one, I do not think the other would exist successfully.  I wanted the music of the words to enhance the narrator’s perceptions and attitudes.  I hope each section successfully presents the narrator’s struggle, whether it be in emotional or physical terms.  Most importantly, I hope what she says in the end reveals something about the way our culture views—or even advances-women in her position.


MH: Who are your creative influences?


SMJ: First, I have to say the poem would not exist without Judy Jordan who encouraged me to break free of rigid poetic form.  She offered me the advice to let my readers “breathe,” and she also helped me let my images breathe.  I wrote and rewrote the last line at least thirty-seven times because Judy taught me resolve and patience.  Judy’s constant guidance embeds my poetic river without damming it.  Other literary influences include W. S. Merwin, Davis McCombs, Amy Randolph (for her lyricism), and the poets I have been fortunate enough to work with throughout my studies in poetry, especially Young Smith, Frank X Walker, Allison Joseph, and Rodney Jones.


MH: What do you hope your work will contribute to contemporary poetry? The American landscape of literature?


SMJ: One goal I hold for myself is that I hope my poetry can successfully merge scientific rhetoric with poetic conventions—and that people will enjoy such an aesthetic—because I believe in the beauty and irony of classification, taxonomy, and the idea of hypothesizing truth.  More importantly, I would like to be able to promote the world of poetry to a wider audience range.  Sometimes, it is easier to say, “I’m a student/teacher/folklorist” than it is to say, “I’m a poet.”  Many people follow the latter with, “Oh, that’s nice” and a pat on my shoulder.  Contemporary poetry offers people more than I think many realize.  Lastly, I would like my work to explore the craft and act of poetry in terms of its contribution to the articulation of cultural human worldviews—how we say who we are.


Sarah McCartt-Jackson is completing her Master of Fine Arts at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and her Master of Arts in folklore at Western Kentucky University. Her work has received honors from the Academy of American Poets, Copper Nickel, NANO Fiction, Friends of Acadia Journal, and Saxifrage Press.


Melanie Henderson is a poet and the Managing Editor of Tidal Basin Review.