Archived entries for 2 or 3 questions

Q & A with failbetter Poet Amy Woolard

Amy WoolardIs there anything Amy Woolard can’t do? After having the chance to sit down with the poet-writer-attorney-advocate, we at failbetter have decided probably not. With a slew of accomplishments under her belt, including degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Virginia School of Law, and VCU Brandcenter, as well as authoring poetry and essays that have appeared in some of the best venues around, Amy Woolard is a woman setting both the poetry and political scene on fire. Read on for her revealing insights on The Wizard of Oz, coming out of her “not-writing decade,” and how a poem can be like the tentacles of a jellyfish.

1) So, we’ll never be able to look at the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz in the same way ever again, thanks to your poem, “On the Most Terrifying Character in the Wizard of Oz”. Can you tell us a little bit more about what spurred it into being and how you approached writing it?

I have a full bin of poems that consider The Wizard of Oz, its myth-making & its propositions. I’ve been very interested in the stories I first knew intimately as a girl, at an age when my world—because of books—was more percent-magical than it was percent-actual. These are the stories I used to make sense & nonsense of growing up—& they still interest me in that capacity. I love that there is always a bit of darkness involved. I love that each character has a tangled history, even when the plot seems simple. In The Wizard of Oz, the Witch’s sister is killed; she is wicked with grief. That’s a more complicated, interesting story than “some witches are good, and some witches are bad.”

The film of The Wizard of Oz used to run once a year on network television when I was growing up, back when there were only three channels to be had, & no VCRs even. It was an occasion, & I was enthralled every time. There were moments to fear, even when you knew they were coming: the Witch, the flying monkeys, Almira Gulch seizing Toto. But I was always seriously creeped out by the Tin Man. Unlike witches & talking trees (which all seemed reasonable to me), I didn’t know what he was. He looked like a robot, but wasn’t. He cried a lot, which was, frankly, unattractive. He just had this desperation to him that seemed a touch unstable to me—a kind of emotional black hole. And then he also carried around that axe. I’m probably saying too much about this.

For this poem, & my other Oz poems, I just wanted to prune back all that precious goodness & find the mess underneath. I’m always interested in the ways in which grief & desire cohabitate, & taking in the view from the house where they live, even when that house is made of tin.

As for writing it: the poem usually tells me where to go next, even if that path tends to double back on itself.

2) You mentioned in your initial e-mail (and in previous interviews) that you’re a notoriously slow writer. Knowing this, what does the writing and revision process look like for you? Dare we ask if you’re chasing after the ever-elusive first book?

I’ve got an almost-book. I’ve mentioned elsewhere, too—not only am I a slow writer, but I stopped writing for about a decade, & only picked up again about three years ago. I only managed to salvage a handful of old poems from the early days, so for this book, I started somewhat fresh. I think many writers probably go through some version of this, but even though I know I’m officially out of my “not-writing decade,” I really do live through that terror each time I finish something new, of “I don’t have any more poems in me.” Until I do.

When I’m working on a single poem, it’s like being in a monogamous relationship. I’m completely invested—that love feeling—until it’s done. I fall for my poems. I desire them. So while there’s exhilaration when I finish a piece, there’s also a kind of grief, because slowly that rush goes away & I don’t know when I’ll feel it again. I can’t write every day—or rather, I don’t. It’s just not a positive activity for me. But I do chase that love feeling every day. I read. I take walks in the world. I flirt with people. I pay attention to words & images, the rhymes & repetitions that happen all around me. I don’t write every day, but every day I do give myself over to that thing in me that wants to write.

I should say too: one thing writers rarely seem to talk about is how the activity of writing itself does not always feel good. The things you love always come bound with the power to hurt you, to disappoint you, to expose you—things most people actively try to avoid. That tension between want to write & want to feel good is a tough negotiation, sometimes.

3) Your second poem, “We Will Have Wanted to Have” has a delightfully hypnotic effect on the reader due to your use of form and repetition. How much does formal constraint impact your own work? Do you find yourself habitually chipping away versus adding to a poem?

I have always been a devotee of ‘poem-as-spell’—the way repetition of words can be both hypnosis (what some might observe as being ‘out of it’) & meditation (what most would see as being completely ‘inside of it’). A retracing of steps as a way to find a lost thing or to recreate a crime—the air is different, as is time: you at once feel both the present and the ghost of a scene occupying the same field. I’ve also always been a sucker for the French repetitive forms: villanelles and pantoums, their incantatory effects. The relationship described in the poem has always been its own kind of villanelle—stretching & turning back on itself (sometimes turning on itself) like a wave over time. The trick with a poem like this, & with a relationship like this, is not falling so much in love with the form that its only power is to knock you under.

That said, I have developed & intentionally feed this particular form of repetition as a kind of watermark on my work, & also a way to hedge against the content becoming too precious. Poems are death-defying; they are each a tightrope, though it may stretch across different dangers for different writers. For me, it’s sentimentality down below; that’s what would kill me in a fall.

As for chipping v. adding, what I can say is: it’s more about moving things around. I love jigsaw puzzles. The way I put poems together mimics that process quite a bit. I put my box of pieces together first: single words, phrases, images, maybe a title—& then I find the corners (for me, usually the first and last lines), and spend a day or two filling in the rest of the poem. I move words and images around the page as you would jigsaw pieces that you sense are part of a similar section—the same colors, pieces of the same body. Oh, these are all part of the ocean, & this piece is the tentacles of a jellyfish. That kind of thing. Nothing gets on the page that isn’t going to appear in the poem somehow. I start & make from scratch.

4)  What have you been reading lately? What book or poet do you continually return to? Who should we publish next?

I love these kinds of questions. The one thing that can get me fired up to write, & to write better (& fail better) is to read the work of writers I admire. I’m also fortunate that, for me, many of these writers are also friends & former classmates & teachers of mine. I tend to feel about classmates & teachers the way I feel about siblings & parents: an almost absurd level of love & loyalty, no matter what they—or I—do or say.

Jane Yeh is my favorite poet writing today; both of her books [MARABOU, THE NINJAS] are exquisite & hilarious & so precise. Another poet-friend from my MFA days, Michael Jay McClure, has a distinguished career as a professor of art history, & is also writing & sending out poems again, & I couldn’t be more thrilled. We need more of his work in the world.

Lately, so many more: Chelsey Minnis’ POEMLAND is a force. I also keep coming back to Richard Siken’s WAR OF THE FOXES, Beth Bachmann’s TEMPER, Ansel Elkins’ BLUE YODEL—such ambitious voices, all. And when do we get a new Arda Collins collection?

Poets I continually return to: Lucie Brock-Broido. Frank Stanford. Charles Wright. Larry Levis. Anne Carson. Tracy K. Smith. Jorie Graham. And. And. And.

Q & A with failbetter Poet Nancy Reddy

reddy_nOur own Angela Apte sat down recently with fb poet alum, Nancy Reddy,  to talk about a few things, including her recently published first collection of poems, Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions).

1) One of the most striking things about your poems is how the speakers often inhabit a world of want. There is a hunger in the poems – often a literal hunger  - but also a need on the part of the speaker for something. With that said, there is nothing feeble or weak about the female figures in your poems.

I think you’re really right that these are women shaped by hunger – and for me, that hunger or want is also really wrapped up in the desire to speak, coupled with the difficulty of speech. I think poetry has long been, for me, a way of testing out the limits of speech. I grew up in a family that was very concerned – especially for its women – about being appropriate and polite, which often times meant not saying anything too directly or saying anything that might upset anyone. As a result, I think a lot of these speakers push against that silencing.

A slight aside: I read “Come Fetch” at a reading in Madison that a bunch of our friends came to – people who aren’t themselves poets. And after I read that first line – “I was the worst of all possible wives” – I saw a bunch of slightly nervous glances at me, then at my husband, who was also in the audience, as if I might be about to confess some grievous misdeed. (I wasn’t.) So later I made a joke about it – my husband is definitely not some kind of Bluebeard burying previous wives in the basement. But I think that freedom to create speakers who are very definitely not-me has been really important as well. These women are often saying things I want to say – but their particular stories are not actually mine.

2) Your poems evoke a palpable and harsh rural landscape. How much were you influenced by your dissertation research into the Wisconsin Rural Writer’s Association? If that research has little to do with the collection, could you speak of the influences informed the collection?

These poems are really shaped by the landscape of the upper Midwest, particularly its harsh winters. I moved to Wisconsin from Texas, and though I’d grown up in Pennsylvania, with snow and winter weather, I found that the Wisconsin winter is an entirely different thing – it totally transforms the landscape. The lakes freeze over and the snow stays on the ground for months. I learned that the sunniest days are also the coldest, because it’s literally too cold for clouds to form. There’s an austere beauty in Wisconsin winters. (It’s perhaps easier to say that, now that I’ve graduated and moved to southern New Jersey, where I live literally two blocks from the beach.)

My dissertation, which is in Composition and Rhetoric, examines the work of the Wisconsin Rural Writers’ Association, an organization founded at the University of Wisconsin in 1948 to encourage creative writing in rural communities around the state. I didn’t really get started on that research until Double Jinx had already started to take shape, so I don’t think there are a lot of direct connections between that research and these specific poems. But my dissertation has helped me to think about writing broadly – why people do it, what it means to them, how they persist when other commitments intrude – and that’s an especially interesting question for the writers I study, many of whom were farm wives – people who’d been set up to believe that their most important identifier was always going to be wife and mother, who were surrounded by implicit messaging that people like them couldn’t really be writers. And in my research, I read about what having a writing group meant to them; one woman says that it has “given me an emotional outlet to supplement the monotonous routine of housework and has thus made me a more interesting and certainly more contented person.” I find that tremendously moving.

My next project is more directly influenced by these women and particularly the post-war cultural climate – tensions between domesticity and industry, modernization and nostalgia.

3) What’s the story of your book?

My book took a while to really take shape. It started in my MFA, but a good half of the poems were written after I’d graduated. Several of the other members of my MFA cohort came in with these specific visions of the book they wanted to write (and they’ve turned out really beautifully – Brittany Cavallaro’s Girl-King and Josh Kalscheur’s Tidal are two) and that really amazed me. I just knew I wanted to write poems, and I was thrilled to have the time and community to do it. It took a while for me to kind of find my footing in terms of the scope of the book. Quan Barry had us write two poems a week in our first semester of the MFA, and that was helpful in setting a sort of poetic metabolism – just writing a lot and seeing what happened. And Jesse Lee Kercheval gave great advice on the first day of her workshop, in the second semester: she said she wanted us to “write more and be less careful.” And since I can be really overly precise and obsessive about revision, that was really important in giving me freedom to keep playing and not take my work too seriously. I wrote the Miss Z poems (these two - All Good Girls Deserve and Birds Keep Nothing in Their Bones — were originally published in The Journal) that first winter in Wisconsin, and then I wrote the first Nancy Drew poem (The Case of the Double Jinx) that spring. Those poems helped me to figure out what interested me, and what questions to follow in writing the rest of the book.

I finished my MFA with a thesis titled Her Body’s Versions – which got at a lot of the central ideas of the book, versions of the self, the invention and reinvention of the female body – but it took another couple years of writing new poems and mercilessly tossing old ones to arrive at the book’s more or less final form. And I should thank my dear friend Rebecca Hazelton for some really crucial and no-nonsense advice – she told me to chuck a couple poems I’m been hanging on to, even though they probably weren’t as strong as they needed to be, and she also suggested some reordering. Ex Machina came to the front of the book at her suggestion, and she also suggested the title Double Jinx.

4) So many people (including me) struggle to fit their creative work into their family and work lives. How did work on the book fit in with work on your Ph.D? Were you still writing and editing the collection when your first son was born? If so, was he a good sleeper?

I haven’t counted, but I’d guess about half of the poems made it from my MFA thesis into the book. I believe the book was more or less done by the time my older son, Penn, was born – a very small number of the poems, I think, are from a poem a day challenge I did when he was tiny. He was decidedly not a good nighttime sleeper for the first six months or so – but he would take incredibly long naps, and I would drag myself into my office and try to write. I was so hungry for that time, because motherhood was such a big change, and writing was so hard, but it also made me feel connected to that other, non-mother version of my self. And so, in a way, the book feels like the last artifact of the person I was before I became a mother.

In terms of sustaining my poetry writing while completing the PhD, I think two things have been really crucial. The first is being part of a writing group. As I’ve developed a scholarly identity, it’s been really important to also have a place where I’m seen as a poet and where I know I’m going to be asked what poems I’m writing. It’s affirming, and it also helps keep me accountable to my writing. The second is that I’ve periodically done poem a day challenges via email. Every person on the email chain writes one poem each day and sends it out – and you’re not allowed to comment on anyone else’s work, and you’re actually discouraged from even really reading what other people send. So you have the accountability of sending new drafts  out without the anxiety of “ack, is this crazy thing I wrote this morning actually ready for anyone to read yet?” And that’s been incredibly freeing for me. (I actually think 2 or 3 of the 4 poems Fail Better published were written that way.) And because it’s for a limited period of time – 10 days or sometimes a month – I was able to fit that kind of writing in with the other work of graduate school. It’s helped also that my scholarly work is on writers, so I’m always thinking about how people write and why, and that’s helped me feel connected to my own writing self in a way that other research might not. Though of course there’s a certain irony in writing a dissertation about how ordinary people maintain a writing practice – when, to be honest, that dissertation writing at times crowded out my poem writing.

Quickie Q & A with failbetter Author Grant Ginder

We try to be a full service journal over here at failbetter, anticipating your wants and needs as readers before you are even wanting or needing. That’s what 2 or 3 Questions is all about–and now, it’s Grant Ginder’s turn in the hot seat.

Grant Liz_Resized1) Which has been better for your writing: Being a speechwriter, working for a literary agent, or teaching expository writing?

They’ve all been good for my writing in different ways, to be honest. I think speech writing was the first job that taught me the importance of narrative — how a story, or the sense of an arc, is necessary to draw in an audience. And also, obviously, the importance and ability to write in different voices that speech writing teaches is invaluable when it comes to creating new and distinct characters. Still, though, when we’re talking about what’s been better for my writing, I’ve got to say being a literary agent (as much as I’m loathe to). In many ways, it was a wholly depressing job; seeing how the sausage gets made, so to speak, can be devastating. That said, I read a ton, and a lot of that reading was from potential clients. I very quickly gained a sense of what I responded to as a reader, and as a writer — what got me excited, so to speak — and (more importantly) how to incorporate those elements into my own work without sacrificing my nature as a writer.

2) Where did the awesome image that the excerpt ends with come from?

I’m assuming you’re talking about the house built out of records, right? Really, I think it came from a few places. For starters, I’m sort of obsessed with memory (as this excerpt, and the rest of the book for that matter, shows), and the physical traces of memory. I’m also really interested in jazz. I don’t know anything about it — I mean, absolutely nothing — but I’ve always had this sort of visceral response to it, so the prospect of doing a little research on the topic was exciting (the fact that Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh used to be such a hotbed for music made it that much more fun to research). So, right: the two threads sort of came together into the idea of records, of vinyl. And I got to thinking: Okay, what could Alistair, the grandfather, do with these records to preserve memory, or to use memory to protect it from itself, and the idea of a house built out of records struck me.

3) How does being from Orange County inform your writing and your existence?

Well, Tamra Barney and the rest of the cast of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County regularly read and edit my work. Also, whenever I go home to visit my parents (I’ve lived on the east coast since I was 18), I always get sand in my laptop (I write on the beach). I’m kidding about all that, of course. Orange County is a place with (probably rightfully so) a lot of negative stereotypes: plastic surgery, suburban sprawl, a fuckload of foreclosures, etc. It’s also, of course, a very beautiful place. And I guess it was interesting growing up with that tension — that idea that beneath such a beautiful place was all this hilarious (and sad, maybe) absurdity. But I think you can find absurdity anywhere, if you look hard enough. I mean, I suppose it says something that when I turned 18 and went off to college, I got the hell out of Dodge and haven’t moved back. Still, at the end of the day, I think I’d be lying if I said Orange County has had this drastic impact on my existence and my writing. If anything, I look at it with this sort of comfortable ambivalence.

On influence and craft: 3 questions
for Anthony Carelli


Anthony Carelli’s first book Carnations was published in 2011. Currently he’s a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.


In an article in a Princeton magazine, US 1, you mention Hart Crane as one of your favorite poets. Is there a specific poem that inspired you to write the way you do now? Do you remember the first time you came across Crane’s poetry?

“To Brooklyn Bridge” is the Hart Crane poem that has most captivated me. I wonder if it is also the poem that has most inspired me to, as you say, “write the way [I] do now”. Looking back at the Proem this evening I notice that the petitioning of the Bridge in the poem’s last two lines, “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship led a myth to God” would have been a suitable epigraph to my book Carnations.

In my puzzling quest to write poems Crane has been more my guiding star than my captain; I don’t really know how to take instruction from him; I don’t know how to glean strategies of craft from his impeccable poems. Crane’s is the highest pitched lyric my ears are capable of hearing. I stare up awestruck into his poems and wonder “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” which is a line of baffled praise that Crane utters at the marvel of the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, if I were asked to name one aspect of Crane that has most determined my path, it would be his orientation as a poet of praise. My poems tend to be praise poems, too.

I began reading Hart Crane in earnest in September of 2001 because one evening my teacher Philip Levine said the dead poet’s name. I’m sure Levine had much more than a name to say – I know Crane is one of Levine’s favorite poets – but I don’t remember exactly what Levine said that so turned me on. All I know is Levine said Crane’s name and I went out soon thereafter and bought a paperback copy of Crane’s complete poems. The Proem happened to be the very first poem in that paperback edition. When I started reading the book I found the poems to be both intoxicatingly exquisite and utterly incomprehensible. Those years I was living in Brooklyn and I would often take my Crane book to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, in Crane’s old neighborhood, and read the Proem while standing in the very spot Crane stood when he conceived of the poem, looking out along the Brooklyn Bridge as is spanned the East River and landed in Manhattan. I would try my best to figure out how Crane translated vista and vision into those marvelous words.

Along those same lines, do you feel that the poetry that influenced you as a beginning writer (whether it’s Hart Crane or other writers) is still as inspirational at this point in your career? If so, what made it “stand the test of time” for you, but if not, what changed in your connection to the poem or poet?

The poets – Jack Gilbert, Seamus Heaney, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop – that strongly influenced me at the beginning of my career continue to influence me now. I can’t get enough of them. I read them all the time. Though I don’t know any of them personally, these poets have become something like my poetry friends. They are the crowd I hang with. I look to them for guidance. I feel safest when I’m in their midst. Yet I have no idea what makes a poem or poet retain my attention over many years.

Your biography on Memorious mentions that you graduated with your MFA from New York University in 2003, and your first collection, Carnations, was published in 2011. Once out of your graduate program, what was your writing routine like, if you had one at all? Did it change over the years?

Between 2003 and 2007 I lived in no single place for more than six consecutive months. I lived in various homes in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Georgia, and twice spent extended seasons in South America (primarily in Paraguay, and Chile). I worked odd jobs, including a stint at a golf course in Madison, Wisconsin and at a seaside boardwalk t-shirt shop in Wildwood, New Jersey. During that time my writing routine was as varied as my environs. I was writing plenty but most of what I wrote was wild and pretty terrible. Over those years I kept in constant mail correspondence with the poet friends I had met in graduate school. Along with letters sharing details about my nomadic life and whatever books I was reading I would enclose poems, hoping for (and often, weeks later, receiving) my friends’ thoughtful feedback.

At the very end of 2007 I gathered my wild unfinished poems and settled in Brooklyn. In addition to working at a savory pie shop, I joined a poet gang called Freshkills and with the help of the other Freshkills poets I began finishing poems. I finished the bulk of my first collection while writing with them.

In your time working towards Carnations, how did you arrange your life to make sure your writing was still important? Has your writing routine changed at all since the publication of your first collection? If you could create an ideal location and atmosphere for writing (a white sand beach on the Gulf Coast… Paul Muldoon’s posh living room…) what would it be?

I don’t know if I ever arranged my life in a way to, as you say, “make sure [my] writing was still important”. I just try my best to find a sustainable (here I’m speaking in terms of personal economics rather than ecology) lifestyle that allows me as much time as possible to write. But within that framework my writing routine changes every day. This was true before I published Carnations and it continues to be true today. I have no notion of an ideal location and atmosphere for writing. Well, I like a roof above my head, and I like having ready access to my books, but beyond that I don’t demand much of my environs. I write in all different corners of whatever house I find myself in. I write standing, sitting, and lying down. But mostly, alas, I don’t write. I read and fuss and play and drink coffee.

…or are you happy to see us?
2 questions for Etgar Keret


Etgar Keret is the acclaimed author of several wonderful and widely translated short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, TV scripts, screenplays, and more. He’s also the newest member of the failbetter family, via his short story “What Do We Have in Our Pockets?” And while we’re on the subject:

Rumor has it that you wrote “What Do We Have in Our Pockets?” because your friends were asking you what’s in your pockets. Can you tell us if this is true? Has anyone offered any interesting guesses, as to what you’re carrying around in there?

I do carry a lot in my pockets. I’m a person who loses anything that isn’t a part of him, so either I glue stuff to the back of my neck, or put it in my pockets.

And what is in your pockets?

A huge hope for a better future (that’s why they are bulging) and some other stuff too: lots of keys, though in many cases I’m not sure which doors they open, and a lot of folded pieces of paper. Some of them are ideas for stories, others are phone numbers of people I’ll probably never call, not to mention a lot of taxi receipts that never got to my accountant. If he reads this: Eitan, would it be OK if I just mail you my pants? It would be much easier than going through them myself…

“Disaster” and beyond: 1 question
for Donald Illich


Donald Illich is the author of “The Mistake” and “The Talent,” both of which are live today on our site.


It’s been more than five years since we published your poem “Disaster.” What have you been up to since, and how has it affected your work?

In the last five years I’ve been trying to publish a book of poetry, as well as poems in general. I’ve been much less successful on both fronts than I’d like. I’ve gone through several different styles beyond the “surreal” one that “Disaster” represents, though maybe that style is what I’m best at. I keep at it because poetry is incredibly important to me, and I’m not going to give up on it. I’m really happy that failbetter has taken my work, because I see it as a good omen for this year in my publication efforts (though I just got rejected for a book prize).

An actual experience, and then a poem:
1 question for Damian Fallon


Damian Fallon’s poem “Bats” is live now on site.

And about those bats?

This poem was based on an actual experience. I live in Brooklyn, close to Prospect Park, and one summer day friends and I picnicked there until well after the sun set, and there were honest-to-goodness bats whirling around above us. Once we realized what they were, we were surprised, although we shouldn’t have been. It’s easy to forget that the borough, like all urban areas, was once forests and meadows and streams.

I inadvertently write about animals quite a bit, but I wouldn’t say I have a sentimental attachment to them or to bats in particular or to nature in general. But I do have respect for them. It’s common to romanticize nature and animals, to yearn for a kind of back-to-the-land-ness, but I remind myself that nature is brutal, that it would kill us (surely me) if we weren’t careful, and that animals (probably) don’t care about us one way or another.

While thinking about this question, I could only recall that I often saw bats as a kid at my grandparents’ home, on their property that was surrounded by farmland in then rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Naturally, in those days, bats scared me, a sense that was only heightened by the cemetery that was across the street from their house. When bats flitted about in the darkening sky, it signaled to me that it was time to stop playing outside and go inside to eat dinner, surrendering the night to these creatures.

My grandparents are gone, the house is still in the family, but the man who owned the farm sold it off many years ago. Soon after, housing developments and a law school were built, which now completely surround the property. As I write this, I’m getting a kind of evil pleasure in thinking that bats are frightening suburban children and law students returning to their cars after evening classes, making their presence known, reminding them of what the place used to be.

One thing, another, or perhaps both:
1 question for Alissa Fleck


Alissa Fleck’s poem “Honeymoon Period” is live today on our site.

Why, we wonder, is she not a painter?

Well actually I am a painter. I’ve made about three paintings in my lifetime and they form a triptych of sorts. Each of the three paintings is a replica of the same photograph of my boyfriend and me, each lacking in any nuance (any nuance is purely accidental, or borne of a loss of interest in finishing that particular painting.) I presented the triptych to my boyfriend for Christmas, and only afterward realized how intensely creepy it was to present him with the same image of us, peering somewhat terrified out at the camera (I don’t know—that’s what happens with paint), obsessively painted over and over again. So that was sort of the birth and death of my painting career.

Anything for a Laff: 2 questions
for Marjorie Manwaring


Marjorie Manwaring is the author of “Snow Day,” “Where Sadness Comes From,” and “Musée Mécanique,” about the last of which:

Your poem “Musée Mécanique” captures the sense of wonderment and playfulness a kid must have felt, walking into a penny arcade, and seeing its hand-made, mechanical, silent movie-thrill games, back when they were the going thing. What’s the penny arcade of now – and would you write a poem about it? And If someone else writes a poem about it, decades from now, what will play the role of Laffing Sal – and what will be the new Mystic Ray?

As for what might be the “penny arcade” of now—well, when I was a kid, we still had pinball machines, which seem like first cousins to the penny-arcade games, and then most of those got replaced by video games—and I’ll admit, I never got that into those. (My brother and I got “Pong” for Christmas one year—that and a few games of Pac-Man and the occasional car-racing game in a cramped anteroom while waiting for a table at a pizza parlor are the extent of my video-game know-how.)

I still like the pinball machines—the noise and sound and feel of them, the atmosphere of being in a dark space with the lights blinking and zinging and the sound of the pinball rolling… And I know there is cool stuff out there like the simulation games and all that, but they are just something I haven’t felt compelled to try. And now it seems like most people play at home or on a laptop or phone—although I know there are places like GameWorks, but (surprise!) I haven’t been there, either. So, one thought is that the penny arcade of today is a place like GameWorks or a kid’s laptop or other device. And I probably wouldn’t write about those because I don’t know that world and don’t get inspired by it. However, I think that even the computer-literate kids of today are drawn to the whole dizzying, over stimulating, deep-fried-fat spectacle that is a carnival or a fair or an amusement park. And, there are still the simpler closer-to-home (timeless?) pleasures—kids still seem to enjoy getting gum or prizes out of gumball machines at the grocery store. They still seem unable to stop themselves from coveting the cheap plush toys in those crane games strategically placed at burger and pizza joints. Call me nostalgic, a Luddite, a fuddy-duddy, but I think there is something quite satisfying and pleasurable about inserting a coin into a machine and hearing the giant jawbreaker roll down the chute or manipulating the crane’s claw so that it latches onto the ears of a stuffed Piglet. And I have, and do write poems about that world.

lovecalcWhat might the new “Mystic Ray” be? The machine I write about in the poem is at Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. It tests your “love appeal” by asking you to place your hand on a metal plate, which contains a hand-shaped depression that is dotted with small pin-sized holes, no doubt a way to evaluate your life line and the like. I was pretty sure there had to be an app for something like this but not owning a Smartphone, I didn’t know for sure. (Yeah, you knew that was coming. And no, I don’t still use a modem or a rotary dial phone.) Of course Google can come to the rescue, and, sure enough, here are just two examples of what is available: LoveCalc for Android—”The most complete and accurate love compatibility calculator”—and Name Match 2011—”Calculate whether two people fit together based on first names. Based on an ancient Scandinavian love formula.” All this just in time for Valentine’s Day!

And finally—Laffing Sal. She, like the Mystic Ray, is housed at the Musée Mécanique, and you can watch her on YouTube. The placard that lies at her feet inside her glass encasement tells us that she “has made us smile and/or terrified children for over fifty years. Bring history to life with the investment of 50 cents.” First let me say I don’t think it’s only children she terrifies. Second, I think Sal taps into what Freud called “the uncanny,” that feeling of unease when something is life-like but not alive—or is it? We experience dissonance in watching this oversized, slightly creepy, jerky-motioned likeness of a woman belt out her hysterical and contagious laughter; it leaves us a little off-kilter (but in a good, roller-coaster, Chucky-movie kind of way), as do many of the other automata and mechanized dioramas in the museum. Being fond of many things vintage and antique, I like to think that Laffing Sal and her ilk will continue to hold sway over those who meet them. Perhaps the Mystic Ray can tell me if I’m right.

Stumbling around in darkness:
2 (or 3) questions for Jennifer Clark

Jennifer Clark, whose poems we feature this week, lives on the Mount of Moon.


mich_handWe love the playfulness of “A Concise History of Michigan Cartology,” and its picture of Michigan as an open hand, with lives written into it. And we wonder, does Kalamazoo lie along the palm’s life line, love line, or somewhere else?

Kalamazoo hovers near the arc of everyone’s life line. Because Kalamazoo sits on the palm’s lower west Mount of Moon, we are a visionary people, blessed with the gift of imagination. For me, Kalamazoo is a fusing of several lines. I left this city for a decade but the gravitational force of its seasons, its lakes and streams, and its earthy people tugged me back. Kalamazoo is tangled into my life and fate lines. My greatest loves reside here. My writing material springs forth from this fertile place.

Can you tell us something about the inspiration for “Gay in the Age of Copper“? And why, in a poem about living a certain way, the focus on burial, and the dawning of a darker age after?

This piece was inspired by the recent discovery made in Prague. Archaeologists unearthed remains of a 5,000 year-old male skeleton. The way in which the individual was buried—like the women of that time—led archaeologists to conclude that the gender identity or sexual orientation of the person was other than a heterosexual male. Whatever the case, care was taken in this burial and suggested, at least to me, that the ancients respected different lifestyles, and may well have been more enlightened than people today. If so, we did enter a darker age as we slipped through the bronze, iron, and middle ages, and somewhere along the way we lost this ability to love in a much bigger way.

Or maybe it’s just that when it comes to writing poetry I often stumble around in darkness. This approach causes me to brush up against things I might not otherwise touch.

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