Interview up at Street Talk

meThe kind folks at Braddock Avenue Books have posted an interview with me in their Street Talk Series. Please take a moment to look it over: Bearing Witness, an Interview with Clifford Garstang

And while you’re there, check out the press’s offerings.

Interview with Mary Akers, author of Bones of an Inland Sea

Bones_of_an_Inland_Sea_coverMy friend Mary Akers has a new book out, Bones of an Inland Sea (Press 53, 2013).  I plan to give you my own reaction to this wonderful book in a day or two, but for now let me share with you this conversation I had with Mary. By the way, here’s what National Book Award-winner Andrea Barrett has to say about the book (just so you know I’m not lying):

“In Mary Akers’ stories, as complexly intertwined as the branches of a coral reef, her passionate characters engage both each other and a richly detailed, vital physical world. An impressive achievement.”

Here’s our conversation:

Clifford Garstang: Your book Bones of an Inland Sea is a collection of individual stories. But as readers move through the stories, it becomes clear that they are all linked together in fascinating ways. The more stories one reads, the more the characters reappear and relationships evolve. In the end, it feels a bit like reading a novel. Could you talk about that?

Mary Akers: If I had to assign this book a descriptive term other than short story collection, I would call it a “composite novel” or a “polyphonic novel”—a novel told in many voices. All the stories are interrelated, and yet each story stands alone. Characters repeat throughout the stories and several characters get more than one chance to tell their stories. I liked exploring how our stories change over time. What we tell ourselves, and others, about our lives changes as we grow and evolve, and even how we tell the story changes. Do we focus on reliving the bad? Or do we gain acceptance over time and tell a very different story twenty years after the actual events occurred? The stories in this collection explore the many ways that stories are told: the long view, the personal letter, a retrospective, a play-by-play, from multiple perspectives, etc.

CG: I recognized some familiar scenarios in these stories. There’s a devastating tsunami in Thailand, a woman in a persistent vegetative state with a family fighting over her right to live or die, a cult reminiscent of Jim Jones’ cult in Jonestown Guyana. Do you take inspiration from the news?

MA: Sure, I mean I take inspiration from just about anything, but especially from things that haunt me, things that I don’t understand and can’t let go. The Terri Schiavo case is a good example of that. And the awful images from the Boxing Day tsunami were so painful, especially for someone like me who has loved the ocean all her life. I was about twelve when the huge mass suicide in Jonestown Guyana occurred. I will never forget the news footage of all those piles of bodies laid out on the ground, arms around one another. How does one man convince 800 people to kill their children and then take their own lives?

CG: So would you say you are an issue-driven writer? Are you trying to get your readers to think a certain way about the world?

MA: It’s my job (as I see it) not to make my readers think a certain way, but to make them think. I don’t have an agenda when I write. Or if I do, it’s only to understand, to be open, and try to figure out what is right and what is moral and what it means to be human in this complicated modern world of ours. If that comes across to readers and in turn gives them some good food for their own thoughts, then I’m very happy with that outcome.

I conducted an interview recently with Robert Boswell, a really wonderful writer, and he said he’s been formulating this idea of low-custody authors versus high-custody authors. You know how some authors take you by the hand and walk you through a sort of guided tour, telling you all along the way what this or that means and what you should feel? Well, that’s a high-custody author, like Tolstoy, for instance, but that’s not me. I would call myself a low-custody author, more like Chekhov. I want my reader to do a little work, too, and I think most readers like to do that work. It makes us feel smart when we recognize what is happening or when we are left to figure something out on our own. Basically, I present the scenarios and the characters without any authorial judgment (or I try to), and I want to give the reader the opportunity to decide what he or she thinks.

After all, when I make a book, it’s only half done. A book is just symbols on a page. It takes a reader to finish the book. Readers spend eight hours or more with my words, but they make the pictures in their minds, they bring their own experience to the reading, and they make the book theirs in a really unique way. All of the arts involve an intimate experience between maker and consumer, but there’s something especially intimate about reading. I think some of that has to do with the fact that most art involves the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. But writing actually involves THE MEMORY of the senses and the writer merely invokes them. The reader supplies them. For instance if a character thinks, “it smells like my grandmother’s kitchen,” well that means something very different to every reader. And even if I supply details—“it smelled like basil and ricotta and Aqua Net and love…” I’m still asking you to go back and do that work of memory and make it your own internal sensation from my list. Fascinating, isn’t it?

CG: There seem to be a lot of characters in this collection with military backgrounds. And also a lot of references to military actions and wars: You have a Viet Nam vet with PTSD, a Navy man who witnessed the bombings on Bikini Atoll in the 1950s, even a small local war in the Florida Keys over sponging rights in the early 1900s. Do you have a military background yourself?

MA: I was a military spouse for many years. My kids were all born in military hospitals. My father served during the Berlin Crisis. My uncle flew the hump in Burma. My grandfather landed on Iwo Jima. My brother was a navigator for Navy P-3 planes. My sister registered for the draft back in 1974 when she turned 18. All my life I have been surrounded by people—mostly men—who have served our country. The toll such service takes and also the benefits it provides to an individual are fascinating to me. I can’t think of any single experience that is more of a mixed bag of injuries and rewards.

CG: Another thing I noticed was that you have almost as many stories told from a male point of view as from a female point of view. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to write from a male perspective?

MA: Well, men make up half the world, don’t they? I don’t know, it seemed like the stories needed to be told in the way they needed to be told. It was my job to rise to the occasion. If it’s difficult, that’s my struggle, but it’s one I embrace. To be a fiction writer is to spend a lot of time imagining the lives and thoughts of others—often people very different from oneself. I think it’s a challenge. And I find men (as a group) very interesting. I’m really interested in what they think and feel and how they do or don’t express that. I actually think it’s very hard to be a man these days.

CG: You have an event coming up—a book launch to celebrate the publication of Bones of an Inland Sea. It’s at The Roycroft, right? Could you tell us a little bit about that?

MA: I’d love to. It is a book launch party and it will be held on September 21st from 5-7pm at the brand new Roycroft Power House. It’s open to the public, but you do need a ticket to attend. I’ll have some interesting door prizes that relate to the themes in the book (fossils, seaglass jewelry) and hors d’oeuvres will be served along with a signature cocktail that was designed for the book. It’s called The Lifeboat, as in “May I offer you a Lifeboat?” or “Would you care for a Lifeboat?”

Basically, the launch party is a celebration designed to send this baby book out into the world. Copies will be available for sale—and I’ll be signing them, and I’ll also give a short reading to give attendees a feel for the book. It’s always fun to hear work read in the author’s voice.

CG: Check out Mary’s website and blog, and her author page at Press 53.

Mary_AkersMary Akers is the author of the award-winning short story collection Women Up On Blocks (Press 53, 2009) and Bones of an Inland Sea (2013). She is Editor-in-chief of the online journal r.kv.r.y. and has been a VCCA Fellow and a Bread Loaf waiter. She co-founded the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology, a study abroad marine ecology program originally located in Roseau, Dominica. Akers frequently writes fiction that focuses on the intersections between art and science, including such topics as diverse and timely as the environmental movement and the struggle for human and animal rights. Although raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, which she will always call home, she currently lives in western New York.

Interview with Tom Lombardo, author of What Bends Us Blue

whatbendsusblueA few days ago, I posted my brief review of a wonderful collection of poems by my friend Tom Lombardo: What Bends Us Blue. Tom also agreed to answer some questions, which I’m happy to share with you here.

Q&A with Tom Lombardo

Cliff Garstang: Congratulations on the publication of What Bends Us Blue. The book is your “debut” collection of poetry, which surprises me. I’ve seen your work in print for so long and have known you as an editor (of After Shocks, which we’ll talk about in a bit, and at Press 53) that it seems as though you must have had a book out already. How does it feel to be a “debut” poet?

Tom Lombardo: I guess I would say “relieved” finally to have a full-length collection published after years of submitting it to publishers and contests ad nauseum. I had literally given up on this collection. But April Ossmann, who had worked with me editing What Bends Us Blue, suggested WordTech, and I always do what April tells me to do, so I sent it, thinking that this was the final submission before its death, but LO! It was accepted! I’d had a chapbook published back in 1998, and then my anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life Shattering Events in 2007. I have another chapbook accepted for publication in 2014. I’ve also published scores of poems in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India, and I’m the Poetry Series Editor for Press 53 (Winston-Salem), so I’ve been a poet and poetry editor for quite some time. But publishing this full-length collection is quite satisfying.

CG: From the beginning of the book, the reader gets that you’re exploring the blues in all of the connotations of the word. Let’s start with music. What’s your connection to music and how does it influence your poetry?

TL: When I was in 7th grade, Sister Mary Flora (aka Elizabeth Farnsworth, God rest her soul) took me aside and handed me a tenor recorder and started my lessons. She did that for two reasons: I had the largest hands in the class (the tenor recover is two-feet long), and I had some behavior issues and this was her way of focusing me. There were two other boys in the class who already played recorders—a soprano and an alto. Sister Mary Flora composed original scores for the three of us to accompany the school choir. We performed Gregorian chant, in Latin, using the 4-line Gregorian clef, not the treble clef that you normally see on sheet music. Sister composed on her harpsichord, so we were an authentic  Medieval ensemble. We won competitions all over the state of Pennsylvania. That woman had vision.  She was demanding, but the experience was rewarding, and it started me playing music.

When I was in high school, I played in my first rock-and-roll band. Lead singer and tambourine. Covered the hits of the 1960s. In my 20s, I picked up a harmonica one day to jam with friends, and I fell in love with it. I’ve been playing it since then. I’ve played in probably a dozen garage bands over that time. I love performing. I was once in a Jazz-Blues trio that played regular paying Saturday night gigs in a popular club in Knoxville. I’ve played at festivals here and there. I’ve played to fairly large crowds and  I’ve also played in barbeque joints and hotel lounges where only 5 people were in the audience. I’ve loved every minute of it. And here’s one thing I’ve learned over all those years playing in bands: No matter how good the musicians, your band can never be better than its drummer. Remember that.

Informally, I will jam with anyone in any genre: blues, rock, bluegrass, soul, R&B, reggae, Old Time Appalachian. I can usually adapt to any style. I carry an 8-set of harps with me where ever I go, and I’m always looking for musicians to jam with. Harmonica is essentially a rhythm instrument, so it’s pretty easy to fit in once you catch the rhythm. And when I hit the licks just right, my whole body vibrates. Like getting that line of poetry exactly right. You can feel it from soles to scalp.

Being a musician—even mostly as an amateur—has influenced my poetry craft in the observance of rhythm. The rhythms of music—whether a 12-bar a-b-a blues/rock progression or a 32-bar a-a-b-b Old Time Appalachian progression or some of the nonstandard jazz progressions—are precise, but they leave room for freedom, improvisation, as long as you keep the underlying rhythm intact and close it out on the right beat. Lines and stanzas of poetry have rhythms, too, even in free verse. I believe that being a musician has taught me how to view the rhythms of diction, syntax and lines in a way that make the rhythms of the poem fit its mood or emotion. I wish I could say that this is not hard work, that it comes naturally, but no. It comes in revision, revision, revision. When you read What Bends Us Blue, closely examine some of my diction and syntax choices. Many of those units are selected for their rhythms—how they fit the rhythm of the line or the stanza or the poem as a whole. And in turn that effort drives me to select diction and syntax that might be unexpected—which I believe helps my poetry. Remember what I said above about the band never being better than its drummer? Well, in poetry, your poems can never be better than your rhythms. Your rhythms are the floor, just like in a band. Musicians build upon the floor of the rhythm section. Poetry should pay attention to its floor.

CG: And then there are “the blues” as in depression, which also finds its way into your work. What about depression inspires you?

TL: I do not suffer from depression. If I did, perhaps I’d be a better poet. Robert Lowell comes to mind. Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Many others. Mental illness has inspired many poets and writers. I do not suffer from a diagnosed mental illness—that I know of—at this time. Maybe there’s hope for something in the future? When I was in college and just afterwards, I spent years depressed and anxious, exhibiting anti-social behaviors (worse than those elementary school days). When I look back on those years—with the medical knowledge I have now—I realize that I suffered post-concussion syndrome from numerous concussions while playing high school and college football for 8 years. One or two concussions per year. More if you count what my coaches called “getting your bell rung.” It ruined my life from the ages of 18-24, when my brain finally came back into focus. I have written a chapbook of poems about it—entitled The Name of This Game—Poems about football and concussions? Fortunately one editor, Sammy Greenspan of Kattywompus Press in Ohio understood it and picked it up for publication in 2014.

In my career as a medical editor, I’ve studied the drugs that are used to treat diseases, and the anti-depressants that are universally prescribed nowadays in lieu of psychological therapy. That’s what inspired my poem entitled “The Poet Chooses His Drug.” We live in a pharmaceutical society. Better living through drugs. There are now 6-7 prescription drugs that treat depression. Which to use? That’s the point of my poem “The Poet Chooses His Drug.” How would a poet choose? The anti-depressants do work, and those who suffer from depression find relief, so I cannot criticize them. But there’s always a risk or a side-effect. Would we have Robert Lowell’s or Sylvia Plath’s work if they’d had Prozac? May have been better for them, but worse for poetry.

CG: The poet Steven Cramer writes in the foreword to your book that What Bends Us Blue is “so deep and wide with feeling it’s fair to say the reader plunges into an emotional element that’s oceanic.” Tell us more about that “emotional element.” The poems seem very personal, but there’s more to it than that.

TL: Yes, the poems in What Bends Us Blue are rooted in personal experience. But poetry is never the literal truth. Poetry must use figurations—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony, strong imagery, intense use of the senses—to reveal A TRUTH about the human condition. I believe that the figurations of authentic poetry create those emotional elements. If I may use one example from What Bends Us Blue. The poem “When” a long, streaming poem about the hours I spent in the hospital the day my wife Lana died in a car wreck. Rooted in personal experience. Emotional elements. But the figurations make it emotionally expressive and evocative, as poetry critic Harold Bloom might say. I used these lines to describe the moments I spent with her lifeless, mangled body:

				you notice her
			freckles turned off when you look
		into her open eyes
her emerald irises replaced by
			pupils the size of Buffalo nickels and
	a depression
				pushed against her left eye socket
		a child’s thumbprint on a ball of Silly Putty
when you wonder whether it might be 
						fixed you ask
nurse fellini is she dead you hear
							I’m afraid
so and your wife confirms it
a single red bubble
		trickles from the edge of her left eye
				through a child’s thumbprint
		into her strawblond hair when you think
she’s crying blood you fall
					through her black pupils 

Note the figurations and imagery: freckles turned off…pupils the size of Buffalo nickels…child’s thumbprint on a ball of Silly Putty…a single red bubble [confirms it]…[trickling] through a child’s thumbprint…crying blood…fall through her black pupils. It’s the figurations that drive up the emotional stakes. In addition, the form of this poem…no punctuation and lines all over the place, curiously enjambed,  create a state of unreality or shock, which is the state I was in at the time. Yes, the material is emotionally charged to begin with, but without the imagery and figurations, it’s nowhere near as powerful. That’s what Steven Cramer perceived. Oceans of figurations.

As you might imagine, that poem was extraordinarily difficult to write. Initially, it was inspired by Donald Hall’s poem “Without” which appears in his collection of the same title, about the illness and death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. “When” started out flush left, like Hall’s, with anaphora of the subordinate conjunction “when,” as Hall uses the preposition “without.” But it eventually found its form, which may look like no form at all, but believe me, it’s quite purposely planned to look the way it does on the page. The form along with the figurations and the mixture of second and first person—it meant to disorient the reader. I don’t believe I could have written “When” any sooner than I did, 15 years after Lana’s death. In the writing, I picked off the scab of my grief and let the pus drain. Day after day of writing and revising this poem drove me to through grief to exhaustion.

CG: The book includes the poem “How Bill Gates Saved My Marriage,” one of my favorites of yours, having heard you read it years ago. True story? Or is there anything you’d like readers to know about it?

TL: Let me first note for your readers that What Bends Us Blue contains a balance of emotions, even humor, and this poem is a fine example. “How Bill Gates Saved My Marriage” is based on truth. Yes, indeed, I tracked my wife’s menstrual cycles on Outlook, keeping an eye toward PMS-driven moodiness, so that I might be extra nice or at least avoid anything that might be construed as critical or, God Forbid, confrontational. But the flaw I discovered, as the poem says, “testy engineers / programmed precisely perfect / 28-day cycles. Real-life biology instigates disaster /  like the time…” In a poem like this, I ran the risk of offending women, so I was very careful not to be overly critical or sarcastic. PMS after all is a natural part of human biology. So the poem is matter-of-factly humorous and turns out to be, at its core, a love poem. The poet Cathy Smith Bowers, a mentor of mine, calls it “an insightful—and cautiously respectful—take on the phenomenon of PMS.” I respect my wife’s body and thus her PMS. At readings, women come up afterwards to tell me how much they like the poem. One woman told me amazingly that her boyfriend does exactly the same thing with Outlook. Perhaps it’s a trend? A movement? If we respect our mates enough to track their moods, then maybe relationships may be saved. What are relationships if not the accommodation and compromises built upon love, and the learning that comes with them?

CG: You’re the editor of a remarkable book of poems, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life Shattering Events. Explain what that is and how it seems to have taken on a life of its own.

TL: After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events is an anthology of 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations. These poets from around the world present poems of recovery from Grief, War, Exile, Divorce, Abuse, Bigotry, Illness, Injury, Addiction. The anthology springs from my personal experience with the death of my first wife Lana in 1985. I was a very young widower and the experience re-directed the course of my life. But the call for submissions for this anthology brought so many responses that I knew that the anthology would go far beyond the obvious “poetry of loss.” As the submissions rolled in, they drove the categories of recovery. Though I did solicit a few poems from “name” poets, I also found much wonderful poetry submitted by very good poets who were not well known in the academic world.  After Shocks sold very well and continues to reach audiences. Recently, the Kurdish poet and activist Nazand Beghikani asked for 20 copies to distribute at a Paris-based conference on Kurdish Women’s Rights.

In creating this anthology, I unwittingly created a community of 115 poets around the world, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and many of whom now communicate with each other via email, Facebook, etc. So the life of After Shocks continues through them. About a year ago, I started the Poetry of Recovery blog (www.poetryofrecovery.blogspot.com) where I feature an After Shocks poem and  an interview with the poet, and I also feature new work or readings by After Shocks poets. I love these poets and their work and want to spread the word about them. In good faith, they submitted their poems to me—an unknown editor at the time—so I hope to extend my gratitude to them forever. I also met Kevin Watson, Press 53’s publisher, through After Shocks, and he and I clicked, and he asked me to start a poetry series of my selections for Press 53.

One After Shocks poet, Satyendra Srivastava, Indian born British poet who’s emeritus faculty at Cambridge,  liked one of my poems so much that he translated it to Hindi and placed it in Pravasi Duniya, a daily newspaper in Delhi that features poems. I met Satyendra when I invited him to an After Shocks panel at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  Such a wonderful and brilliant man and great poet. He has invited me to read with him in India. Wow, I’d love to do that someday!

CG: What else do you want to tell me about What Bends Us Blue? Like: where can readers find out more, learn where and when you’re giving readings, and so on.

TL: I’d like you to know that What Bends Us Blue is not only about grief and recovery. It’s about What Comes Next. And it has its fair share of humor and fantasy. Thomas Lux notes, “What Bends Us Blue is part elegy, part praise for the Human and The World, part funny, tough defiance of the inevitable, and ALL memorable.” My publisher says, “What Bends Us Blue mixes wry humor and heartbreaking lyricism, makes beauty from sadness, joy from pain.”

So, buy it at Amazon.com www.tinyurl.com/whatbendsusblue or Barnesandnoble.com. I have copies, too, which I’ll sell at a discount. Send $14 to me at Suite 500, 1401 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30309. I’ll cover the postage.

I will be posting the details, locations, and times of my reading schedule at the book’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/whatbendsusblue, but note that I’ll be reading this Fall in Atlanta on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12, Charleston, SC, on Oct. 14, Asheville, NC, on Nov. 3, Cary, NC, on Nov. 17, and Nashville, TN, on Nov. 20, 2014. I’ll also be reading at the Press 53 offices at the Community Arts Café in Winston-Salem, NC, as soon as I can arrange that. I also have a radio interview scheduled for Oct. 28, 9 PM Eastern, on RN.FM. You can listen here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rnfmradio.

Check the book’s Facebook page for details and times www.facebook.com/whatbendsusblue.

Author 1

Tom Lombardo is a poet, essayist, and freelance medical writer who lives in Midtown Atlanta. Tom’s poems have appeared in journals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India (translated to Hindi and Mayalayam), including Southern Poetry Review, Ambit, Subtropics, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Atlanta Review, New York Quarterly, Chrysalis Reader, Pravasi Duyina, Thanal Online, Ars Medica, and others. His nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Press, 2009. He was editor of After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life Shattering Events, an anthology featuring 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations. Tom runs the Poetry of Recovery blog at www.poetryofrecovery.blogspot.com. His criticism has been published in New Letters, North Carolina Literary Review, and South Carolina Review. He earned a B.S. from Carnegie-Mellon University, an M.S. from Ohio University, and an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte. Tom is poetry series editor for Press 53, which is based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.