Monthly Archives: February 2013

Poetry Spotlight – Matthew Gavin Frank

Author Photo linocut

OK, what did I do when I first read the brilliant poem – Elements of the Pasty and Its Relationship to the Lake – about two of my favorite things in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of the Black Warrior Review? I did what any poetry fanboy would: jumped to the bio section to find out about this writer and discovered that Matthew Gavin Frank is a Midwest writer teaching up in Northern Michigan University not far from where I grew up. When I contacted him, he was kind enough to let me reprint it in its entirety below.

I have read the poem many times and I am still in awe. I love the way it bounces between food, facts about the Great Lakes, and tidbits of life from the mitten states that make me homesick. It weaves several narrative threads together loosely in a way that each section adds and informs to the other sections around it. It manages to have plenty of facts, but still weaves a spell, a story, that is more mythic than the sum of the parts. Just read it – you’ll be glad you did.

Martin Ott

Elements of the Pasty and Its Relation to The Lake

It’s not like this with Cream of Mushroom soup and La Choy Fried Onions.  In the pasty, in the singular shell, dinner shares space with dessert.  We start with dinner and eat downward.  It’s not like this with Hot Dish, with casserole, with pizza with a Saltine crust.  In the pasty is an eating toward—a sinking into the bottom of food.  In this way, eating mimics drowning.  Ambiance mimics drowning.  In the pasty, is difficulty breathing, is eyes adjusting to the mineshaft dark and to the daylight, is anticipation, is harbinger, is a whole new world beyond the chuck and the rutabaga, is apples-and-cinnamon, is an eating toward, and an eating toward sweetness.

*

It’s not like this with backyard swimming pools, the facedown hair fanning the surface, the beach ball rolling pink over green.  In Lake Superior, drowning is an expected tragedy.  It’s dark at the bottom of a lake.

*

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP), “Overall since 2010, 210 people have drowned in the Great Lakes (74 in 2010; 87 in 2011; and 49 to date in 2012).

‘Just unbelievable how these drowning numbers just keep rising week after week,” said Dave Benjamin [GLSRP Executive Director of Public Relations].  “At this rate we could see well over 100 by the end of the year.’”

*

After days in mineshaft darkness, my uncle, or somebody’s uncle, or so many of our uncles swear by backstroking in Lake Superior.  It has to do with currents, tides, white-caps.  It has to do with everything wet and huge and cool enough to float on.  If a body of water this large isn’t killing us, Uncle says, it’s supporting our weight.

*

Like the dessert section of the pasty, the number 100 is something to reach for, to attain.  100 is a milestone.  A goal, sweet and morbid.  A perfect, even number.  Nothing is more even, more steady, than the hands of the drowned.  Not even 100.

*

Like the mine, Lake Superior supports its own agriculture.  Off the shore of my hometown, in 2010, the body of Rod Nilsestuen, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture was found floating in Lake Superior.

*

My uncle has a bumper sticker that says FUCK CORNWALL, THIS IS MICHIGAN.  If my uncle doesn’t have this bumper sticker, then he has black lung, and if he doesn’t have black lung, then he’s depressed due to a lack of light, and if he’s not depressed due to a lack of light, he can call this only soul-sickness, can only lament the ways in which we’re not jacketed in pastry dough brushed with egg yolk, a crust that will protect us from birds who scream from the dark, from the lack of air that, in the beginning, seemed to exhilarate.

*

ANIMALS DROWN AT LAKE SUPERIOR ZOO, reads the headline, and Uncle laughs.  It’s his one day off.  He’s just come back from his swim, for lunch.

*

This is goal-oriented eating.  The meat as a means to an end.  Macerated plums on Thursday.  The brake to a shaking hand.  In the bath of the headlamp is the pasty and the hand that holds it.  The batteries here are strong.  Once we bite through the crust, release the steam, the heat, the wet, something of the ghost and something of the future, things begin to go cold, dry, the batteries here are the only things that are strong.  Tomorrow, I want to lie in bed all day.  I wish I lived closer to the Lake.  I want to lie in bed all day and listen to whitefish court other whitefish.  I want to hear people swimming safely.  It’s good to have a goal.

*

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from 1843 through the 1920’s, pure native copper just about leaked from the earth, exploded from it, and towns were established and boomed, and folks ate food and drank liquor and men spread their legs and women spread their legs and with food and liquor and spread legs made descendants who can visit these towns in the name of communion and reunion and union and none, and we call these gatherings heartfelt and we call these gatherings historical, and we use words like ancestry and inheritance and we stand on the rock piles and bluffs and tailings of Central Mine and Gay and Mandan and Cliff and Delaware and Phoenix and we eat pasties not because we need to, but because they are some sort of souvenir, some kind of shaft that leads, definitively down, toward something like heritage or lake-bed, something makeshift, but geologic and collapsible, and we pretend that these towns are not popularly preceded by the word ghost.

 

*

 

The old Phoenix church, in 1858, was called St. Mary’s.  Later, it was disassembled and rebuilt and renamed The Church of the Assumption.

*

We assume there are meanings in names.

*

Superior derives from the Latin superiorum or superus, meaning: situated above, or upper.  Lake Superior has the greatest depth of the Great Lakes, which means something to a miner.  It’s something to one day descend into.  It’s a milestone.  Lake Superior has the highest elevation of the Great Lakes, though Uncle backfloats upon it.  To the drowned, Lake Superior lives up to its name.

*

Here, to float upon is better than to float within.  The upper implies the angelic, though implication is often misleading.

*

 

The Ontonagon Boulder, of the Upper Peninsula’s village of Old Victoria, is a 3,708-pound massif of native copper.  It can now be found in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, where, should a tourist decide not to read the exhibit’s plastic 3×5 placard, he or she will wonder about the specialness of this big, ugly rock.

*

Ontonagon, in the Chippewa language, translates as “Lost Bowl.”  Regarding the pasty, I’m not sure what this should mean.  Regarding the Lake, this is convoluted metaphor at best.

*

According to a travel brochure titled, Visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s world famous “Copper Country,” Old Victoria is “a very picturesque ghost town.”

*

The atomic weight of copper is 63.55 g/mol.  The atomic weight of iron is 55.85.  The atomic weight of sulfur is 32.07.  The atomic weight of gold is 196.97.  The average pasty—a baked pastry shell, half of which includes a savory dinner of stewed meat and root vegetable, half of which includes dessert—weighs two pounds.  The average human lung weighs about 14 ounces, so much heavier than this underground air, so much lighter than the pasty.

*

Lake Superior is comparatively obese, but not lazy.

*

While many immigrant miners in the Upper Peninsula were from Cornwall, many more were Finns, Austrian, Croatian, Italian, Canadian, and Swedish.  Each group impacted the pasty’s regional evolution, with seasoning, with ingredient.  Culinary arguments were fierce. Regardless, each version varied little (those who lived near Superior often used lakewater in the dough), and each version was easily portable, heavy and hearty, but clutch-able in one hand, and each version, in the cold of the deep, could be heated up on a shovel held over the candleflame of the miner’s headlamp.  The pasties are cooking.  The canaries are screaming.  Someone coughs.  That means they’ve not yet drowned.

*

The U.P. pasty, when compared to the Cornish variety, contained larger chucks of vegetable, a higher ratio of vegetable to meat, encased in a thinner crust.

*

The U.P. pasty as thin-skinned, even in all of this winter, the weather, and the water, closer to the blood.

*

The U.P. pasty as a little of this, a little of that, as Yiddish, as Fanagolo, as Esperanto, and the language through which we all can communicate up here/down here, as a means to understanding, as overused symbology, as cliché, as Kumbaya, as all things savory sharing space with all things sweet.  As reminder.  As anchor.  As something even a really big lake can’t wash away.

*

Often, a homestead requires leaving home, and then never leaving the homestead.  A life of two places.  For the subsequent generations, it requires never leaving home in the first place.  The pasty as perspective, encased in a hard crust.  As riding a snowmobile before you can walk.  As backfloating over 100 bodies.  As your great-grandson doing the same thing.  As I remember when I…

 

*

An 1861 proverb proclaimed that the more ingredients one crams into the pasty, the more protection one has from the devil, as the devil may fear that he may end up as just another ingredient for the filling.

*

In Superior National Forest, over two dozen attractions—islands, campgrounds, inland lakes, waterfalls, trails, jumps (the Devil’s Washtub jump, while technically outside of the Forest’s boundaries, claims lives each year as folks attempt to leap from a cliff, over a series of jagged rocks, into Lake Superior)—are named after the devil.

*

On the playgrounds of the turn of the century U.P., schoolboys would sing:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

Ate a pasty five feet long,

Bit it once, bit it twice,

Oh, my Lord, it’s full of mice.

*

The pasty sits fixed in the hands of the miner, poised, poisoned.  The Lake unfixes itself, runs from the hands we eat with.

*

Breton may have said, They lowered a humpback into a copper mine to determine

the quality of its air.  The human lung can hold only six liters of breath, which is nothing compared to Lake Superior. Where are the headlamps when you need them?  My uncle took them into the mine.  He says, Whales are the canaries of the ocean.  He says, the pasty is no kind of savior.

 

*

Regarding the Quincy Mine Shelter, from the aforementioned brochure, “Hopefully this historic site will be restored.”  An eating toward.  Before we die, we take the elevator up.  As with surfacing from the Lake, it takes a few seconds to recognize the sun.

*

The pasty as doubling-back on itself, as a confused plot line, as a figure-eight, Möbius strip, infinity, a late bite downward, toward the sweet, the sweet being closest to the hands.

*

In the candle-shadow of the pasty and the birds and the shovel, coughing, we can’t tell where umbra becomes penumbra becomes antumbra.  We can’t tell hands from feet.  We can’t tell if that’s a shadow dying, or a man.  We can’t tell if the body is broken, or celestial.  We can’t tell that Lake Superior has been called the Earth’s youngest major feature—at only 10,000 years old, a side-effect of last retreat of the glaciers.  We can’t tell that the Lake is tantruming like a little sister, can’t tell that retreat is sometimes an answer and, to a superior lake, a Big Bang.  We can’t tell that our uncles, still young, look so old.

*

So, we eat.  And, in swimming after eating, test our ability to stave off the drowning.  On the beach, the smell of cooking dinner.  Of greasy waxpaper unwrapping from pastry shells.  In them, the sounds of lakes masquerading as oceans.  Sometimes, the sun is out.  In it, we must come up to the surface of the earth.  We must retreat to the shore.  It’s lighter there.

About the Author

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of Pot Farm (The University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books), Barolo (The University of Nebraska Press), Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and the chapbooks Four Hours to Mpumalanga (Pudding House Publications), and Aardvark (West Town Press).  Recent work appears in The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. He was born and raised in Illinois, and currently teaches Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.  This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish-thimbleberry ice cream.

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Writeliving Interview: Marge Piercy

We’re proud to present an interview with groundbreaking novelist, poet and memoirist Marge Piercy. Woman on the Edge of Time made an impression on me when I read it in my teens, and Gone to Soldiers later challenged my thinking about what women and men should and could write about.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Influences are a matter of adolescence and early adulthood. After that, if you’re real, you’re on your own path. American prosody comes from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and that’s where I started. I read widely and had an excellent education in British and Irish literature in the Honors program at the University of Michigan and in grad school at Northwestern. In the latter, I began an intensive exploration of American literature which I continued after I left to work.

Allen Ginsberg opened my eyes to the possibility of writing far more directly and emotionally out of my own experience and politics than I had been led to believe was something that could be done.

I’d say the news is a far more extensive influence on me, the economy, what happens to people I know or don’t know but feel for than any “influence” of the sort you mean. I’m not in the academy but out in the regular world. At the moment about half my town is out of electricity from the snow hurricane – people without heat or water. NSTAR seems in no hurry to get them back up. I just wrote a poem about that. That’s my influence of the moment.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My creative process is to sit down at the computer and work. I write most days I am not on the road for gigs. More ideas swarm in me than I can get to before they evaporate. I write. I read aloud. My cats approve but often I don’t. I revise. I try again. I revise again. I turn the poem about trying different line breaks, verse paragraph or stanza breaks, beginnings, endings. I look at my imagery with a cold eye. I put the title through several revisions, usually. The first time I perform the poem, I find the weak spots and go home and rewrite again.

How does writing both fiction and poetry impact the other genre?

There’s very little cross over between the fiction and the poetry. Generally an idea comes with the genre attached. One exception happened recently when I jotted notes while I was doing a miniresidency. I thought it would be a poem. Then when I sat down to write it, it became an essay instead. It was just too prosy and diffuse to be a poem, but it was something I wanted to write about. “Gentrification and its discontents.”

The other exception is when I am doing research for a novel or nonfiction, often I experience things that produce poetry. They are about our experiences during research and have no direct connection with the prose work. Examples: Slides from my recent European trip in Available Light; the poem “The happy man” in The Hunger Moon.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

I left graduate school and worked part time living in a slum apartment in Chicago in order to write what I needed to. Staying in academia was stifling my poetry and fiction. It was a hard life. I dressed from rummage sales, ate whatever was cheap, dealt with the experience that nobody but me took me seriously as a writer. That went on for some years. I could not publish serious fiction about being a woman at that time. My poetry got published long before my fiction could. The world had to change from women’s liberation before I could break through with my fiction beyond an occasional short story. I could not make a living from my writing until I was 32. I have done so ever since.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I have a contract with PM Press for a book of short stories. Some of them I wrote years ago, but once I had the contract, I began writing new ones. I’ve written eight so far and hope to write a couple more before the book is due. I have been sending them out and getting them into various zines. I am enjoying working on short fiction very much. It feels good to get back into a genre after two decades away from it.

My agent has a new novel I completed just before I started writing short stories.

I am writing a lot of poetry, as usual.

As I said, I wrote an essay two weeks ago. I am not sure what to do with it.  Usually I only write essays when approached to do so.  Haven’t figured out where to send it.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I am an avid gardener. Ira Wood and I grow almost all our own vegetables (exceptions being red onions, avocados, artichokes) and bush fruit, sour cherries and pears. I freeze, dry, can. Put up enough paste tomatoes & 4 kinds of tomato sauce so we never have to buy any. I planted what has become a rhododendron forest years ago. Many beautiful trees. A rose garden (no hybrid teas; no bushes requiring poisons) – I actually know a lot about roses and freely give advice. Lots of daylilies. Very few annuals except marigolds & sunflowers that I start from seed. I actually start almost everything we grow from seed, except perennials. Our ornamental gardens are like British cottage gardens, a mix of perennials and bushes. I grow lots of herbs for cooking and medicinal uses.

I’m a very good cook. These days I mostly cook Mediterranean – all the way around.  Provencal, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Middle Eastern, Moroccan. The exception is on the Jewish holidays when I do some traditional Ashkenazi dishes as well as Sephardic and Mitzraki. For over thirty years, I have conducted a Seder for friends and now into the third generation. I update my Haggadah a bit every year and do most of the cooking. We no longer hold it in our dining room as we only have room for fifteen and it has grown far beyond that.

I find that gardening and cooking make a good accompaniment to writing. The rewards are physical and it’s good to do something besides sit on my ass in front of a computer.

About the Author

Marge_smiling 

Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times Bestseller Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry including The Hunger Moon and The Moon is Always Female, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Misplaced Person: Kent Shaw

kent

Poet Kent Shaw is the next in our series of wanderers. Kent’s peripatetic nature has led him out to sea and back again. Landlubbers in West Virginia have got him now, and here’s what he has to say about it.

David Schuman

Where do you originally come from?

I want to say St. Louis. Because it makes me proud to say I’m from the Midwest. I understand for some people Midwesterners are dull. But what’s really dull is Oklahoma, where I spent at least half of my childhood. Everything in Oklahoma is flat. The oldest mountain range in the United States, the Arbuckles, are in Oklahoma, and before the state could be accepted into the union, it had to agree to push the mountains into the earth so that the whole state would be an undying, uniform flatness. There is nothing mythic in Oklahoma. I think I might have broken my fingers in Oklahoma trying to dig up red clay. That’s the most remarkable part of Oklahoma.

But I am from St. Louis. Because the eight years I lived in Oklahoma, I wished I could live in St. Louis. And when I was discharged from the Navy I returned to St. Louis. And, honestly, my wife and I have established a careful account for my emotional immaturity where you have to subtract 8 years from my age to find my Actual Human Maturity. In Actual Human Maturity terms, my years from 24-35 were still formative, like they were on the edge of my childhood. And since I was living in St. Louis during those years, it is undeniably proven that I am of St. Louis stock.

What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?

I like oceans. I am writing poems for a third book right now, and there are oceans everywhere. Moving in. Imposing themselves. Employing financial derivatives. Posing for sculptures. The title to my second book (in manuscript) is Gigantic. The title to my first book (published) is Calenture. And these are both codes for OCEANS EVERYWHERE, MOTHER FUCKERS!! The first time I saw the ocean at sea was in the middle of the North Atlantic. We were steaming to the Persian Gulf. I had followed some friends up to the top of the Tower to look out at the ocean. And there aren’t words for what I saw. The ocean is gigantic. It is blue. But not the blue you’re thinking. It’s a deep blue. The darkest blue. The blue that you reach for from 10-stories at the top of the Tower on the U.S.S Eisenhower, but I assure you that’s still not the blue that you’re thinking. I will be in love with that blue for the rest of my life.

Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?

I live in West Virginia now. And I don’t belong here. And this isn’t an I’m-supposed-to-be-from-the-Midwest kind of non-belonging. West Virginia feels like a foreign country. And I don’t know why that is. But I am not of these people. I felt the same way when I lived in Houston. I am not, will not be, cannot be, have no wish to be Texan. Even a Houston, Texan. I could comfortably spectate on Texans. They are fascinatingly arrogant. But there is something about West Virginians, and I haven’t learned how I am supposed to fit among them.

I am frightened by the poverty in this state. It is insidious. It is unrelenting. I looked up the median income for Huntington, where I live, and it’s a third of the national average. This is no joke. The people who have money live in the mountains so that they are looking down on the city. I used to mock that “noble steed” they put at the doorway for P. F. Chang’s. I thought it was a piece of suburban kitsch. A couple weeks ago, my wife and I took a day trip to Lexington, and I thought the horse aesthetically pleasing.

How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?

The geography of the state is gorgeous. I drive 45 minutes to work. The sunrise over the mountains is beautiful. The trees, bare of leaves, standing in formation at either side of the highway are beautiful. Last year leaving a Starbucks, I saw a herd of 20 deer leaping along the edge of a mountain, and I felt a rush of life. I don’t understand mountains, which is to say I feel humbled and troubled and awed being among them.

Before we moved here, there were mountains in my poems, but they were the Rocky Mountains. My mother lives in Denver. Coming here the fall of last year, the mountains started showing up everywhere in my writing. I suppose mountains and oceans are the primary population of my poems. Essentially I put anything that’s bigger than me in my poems. And since I’m not really that tall, that usually includes most people I meet. And a lot of these people are from West Virginia. And I keep trying to figure out what they’re doing there. And what they think of me.

About the Author 

Kent Shaw’s first book Calenture was published by University of Tampa Press. His poems have since appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. He is currently an Assistant Professor at West Virginia State University.

Read Kent’s review of Murder Ballad by Jane Springer at The Rumpus here:

http://therumpus.net/2013/02/murder-ballad-by-jane-springer/

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Poetry Spotlight: Orlando Ricardo Menes

menesfuria

I recently read Furia by Orlando Ricardo Menes (Milkweed Edition, 2005) and was interested in how the author was able to move from the autobiographical to the mythological, drawing upon experiences of being born in Lima, Peru, to Cuban parents and one family line from China, all while being influenced by Miami and his move to the United States.

Throughout Furia, Orlando Ricardo Menes uses the global staple of rice to help glues his exploration of the political and global to the concerns of everyday people and members of his own family. This central image, whether used throughout a collection or in an individual poem, can help ground and add earthiness to work that might otherwise be too preachy or myopic. Below is one one of the poems from Furia, Mythopoesis, first published in Sycamore Review.

Martin Ott

——————————————

Mythopoesis

Rice was not a gift of T’ien Ti,

God of Heaven, but that of a wild

dog. Long ago, on the plains

of Xietan, a flood killed all crops

so that humans had to hunt

in summer, scavenge in winter.

One day the clumsiest of hunters

saw a wild dog leave a marsh,

rice seeds stuck to its tail.

These grew and soon he harvested

them with his bare hands.

Thus the dog’s reward would

forever be a sweet and sticky ball

of glutinous brown rice.

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