ASL Poetry: A Moving Experience by Karyn Lie-Nielsen

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1990. CavanKerry Press is committed to finding ways to educate others about this law–especially about its impact on the lives of those in the CKP community. Therefore, in keeping with the CavanKerry Press tagline of “Lives Brought to Life,” we will be publishing a monthly blog in which a member of our diverse community writes about an ADA-related topic.
This series kicks off with “ASL Poetry:  A Moving Experience,” by Karyn Lie-Nielsen, a member of the CKP ADA Advisory Board. My first conversation with Karyn taught me how very, very little I knew about the fascinating world of American Sign Language poetry.  I’m so glad Karyn is willing to share her extensive knowledge of it.
Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher

portrait-1 (1)ASL Poetry:  A Moving Experience
by Karyn Lie-Nielsen

It doesn’t take long to discover how American Sign Language, the unique language of the Deaf, can increase our enjoyment of poetry.  Most of us realize how listening to poetry, recorded or delivered live at poetry readings, seems to enliven the words, mood, and meaning. Likewise, those of us who have seen a poem performed in ASL find that poetry can transcend to yet another level. The experience makes us feel like we have entered another dimension.

That’s because ASL is a visual language. “Speaking” in Sign involves not only fingers and hands, but also eyes, mouth, head, shoulders, arms, legs, and space—Signers call it the “sign space.” In ASL, printed words are freed from the flat page and lifted into space. Viewers have the chance to realize a poem that is truly embodied.

The language of ASL has no written equivalent.  It is based on English, but it’s movement, not writing, not sound.  Users of ASL do not speak English while they sign, because the sign-order of ASL is often very different from the word-order of English.  Moreover, there’s not necessarily a gesture for each word in the English vocabulary.  Sign consists of handshapes, facial expression and body positioning that make up a vocabulary of what we might call “words,” yet the lexicon of ASL is more accurately described as signs, or symbols, that represent ideas or concepts.  If there isn’t a word-sign equivalent for a word written in English, the signer might fingerspell that word. (ASL has a manual alphabet.) Or, since fingerspelling is slower and more difficult to “read,” a sign-translator can pantomime the idea.  When you want to communicate visually, you’ll sign, spell, gesture, turn your body, move your feet, anything it takes to get the concept across.

Translating a poem from English into ASL is different from merely word-to-word interpreting.  Sign language interpreters are called in to help the hearing impaired with doctor’s visits, news announcements, lectures, meetings, and general conversation.  But when it comes to translating poetry, the methodology isn’t the same. After all, poetry is not casual conversation, it is a literary art. Poets, as we are well aware,  intentionally measure each word, carefully calculating line and space.  An English-language poem translated into ASL requires the same skill and attention it takes to translate poetry from French or Spanish or Swahili.  Translators pore over the original language and distinctly make choices that allow the original intent to live on and reach the reader, or (in the case of ASL) the viewer. It’s not an on-the-spot task.  Yet, I am convinced there is no idea that can be written in English that can’t be represented with Sign.

You can see my own translations of two English language poems on my website.  One, “Among Vegetables,” is a contemporary poem written by CavanKerry poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont.  Another is Yeats’s “Never Give All The Heart.”

Strictly speaking, ASL poetry is at its most fascinating when the poem is originally created in Sign.  One of the most beloved poets in the Deaf signing community is Clayton Valli (1953-2003).  His original ASL poem “Dandelion” has been one of the most-watched Sign videos of all times.

Valli was a pioneer in the art form, defining how the repetition of handshapes are the signer’s equivalent to rhyme and meter.  There are English translations of “Dandelion,” available, but the best source is translated by the poet Raymond Luzak, and can be found in the anthology Deaf American Poetry, edited by John Lee Clark, a gifted poet himself, who is not only deaf, but is also legally blind.

While you’re looking around the web for ASL poetry, don’t miss “Flying Words” featuring Peter Cook and his speaking/signing partner Kenny Lerner.  This is a collaborative effort of two wonderful artists who bring unforgettable energy to their performances of ASL poetry and story-telling to both Deaf and hearing audiences. Cook is deaf, Lerner, hearing, so that the Sign is simultaneously spoken in English. Watch some of their work as well as some of the great pioneers of ASL poetry at

When you look closely at ASL poetry, you’ll surely start to notice how imagery, metaphor, and emotion are enhanced through visual expression.  As Jim Cohn, teacher and early trailblazer of ASL poetry said, “What deaf people do with language is what hearing poets try to make their language do.”

Karyn Lie-Nielsen lives in mid-coast Maine where she writes poetry, short stories, and personal essays, and honors the perennial challenges of gardening in the New England climate.  Her poems have appeared in Poetry East, The Comstock Review, Maine Magazine, Words and Images Journal, and online at Cabildo Quarterly. She is a two-time winner in the annual Maine Literary Awards for both poetry and creative nonfiction.  Raised by deaf parents, she is fluent in American Sign Language and enjoys performing and translating ASL poetry.  She has taught sign language, worked as an interpreter for the Deaf, and performed with the National Theater of the Deaf.  Her poetry chapbook, Handbuzz and Other Voices, is forthcoming from Damfino Press.  These “Handbuzz” poems center on her experiences growing up within the Deaf community.  She holds an MFA from the University of Maine’s Stonecoast Writing Program and is pleased to be involved with the CavanKerry Press ADA board.

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Nin Andrews interviews Pam Bernard

Final photo Pam

What an amazing journey this book (Esther: A Novel in Verse) takes you on!  So tell me, how did this book come to you?

It’s so odd to think back and try to cobble together how this one came to me. There’s no straight line anywhere. My good poet friends in Boston, where we lived before moving to New Hampshire, suggested that I write a memoir, since I was bringing to our workshop snippets of experiences as a kid in a toxic family. I’d published two collections of poems and seemed ready to try something new. I tried for about a year to think as a memoirist—okay, this happened, but how did that change your life?—but something just didn’t feel right. So I began to go back to when the trouble might have started in my family, well before I was born. And because most of what happened to my parents as young people before they met is lost, along with the facts of their marriage and nine children born, I was in uncharted territory. It was this condition that inspired me, perhaps—to imagine the people I thought I knew in a story about their early lives—but to have no qualms about that story relying on invention, since it was in fact mostly fiction. I think I liked that power.

What inspired you to write a novel in verse?

It’s been a process from which I continue to learn. I had never considered myself a storyteller, so to be writing a story was itself strange. But as the book emerged as an idea and began to evolve, the compressed line seemed right for the telling of it—that nuance and constraint. And the interludes where the narrator steps back to a more omniscient role, where imagery and detail are more intense, seemed ripe for such shaping. Originally I had just those passages in poetic line, but found overall it seemed too precious, too proscribed. I tried all prose, and went back every time to poetry.

I’ve come to understand that embedded in the poetic line is an emotional resonance that interweaves with the story’s surface texture. The measure of the line accrues meaning just as any element of a piece of writing builds in complexity. The linguistic constraint helps reveal and define characters and their motives, particularly when little dialogue is used.

Exploring more deeply, I found that a hybrid point of view was useful, where the narrator acts at times more like the speaker of a poem, and in that way comes closer to the reader. Generally the way I map the line in a poem is to honor human speech, human breath. Because there is so little speech given to the characters in Esther, our knowledge and experience of the characters comes largely from the narrator’s perspective, including that tone and distance. It is the narrator we hear In Esther, the narrator who becomes a character of sorts and speaks as the embodiment of the land upon which the characters travel and suffer, and some survive—providing witness to their struggle. I believe this use of the narrator is what finally identified Esther as a novel in verse as I began early on to understand what was emerging.

How long did it take you to complete?

Give or take ten years. I wrote Blood Garden: An Elegy for Raymond simultaneously for some years, published it in 2010, then focused entirely on Esther. I was blessed not to have to wait to find a publisher, because CavenKerry was the very first place I sent the manuscript. I still find that astonishing.

Did you know the story of Esther before you wrote it, or did you discover it as you went along?

Esther began to come forward as a character as I progressed, and as that happened, I felt more and more comfortable imagining moments and outcomes, less and less inclined to care if something might be strictly factual. Emotional truth was key, however, and that emotional truth was always bound to my own truth, my own stake in this spectacularly failed family. That I was working out my own story was not clear to me until the very end.

However, some of the story is in fact true, or as true as one can imagine so many years hence. For example, early sexual abuse is likely to be among the things the real Esther suffered at the hands of her father, and he did in fact die by train, probably suicide. She was born in Montgomery County Kansas, and met my father as I’ve described in a logging camp in the Colorado Rockies, under those conditions. And he was just home from WWI and suffering what all of those young boys suffered as they tried to re-enter their lives, while so utterly and irrevocably altered by experience.

Were there aspects of Esther’s life story that surprised you, or that you didn’t expect to describe?

My sisters sent me their memories and stories of the family, but I soon realized how little I had to go on. I’m not sure what I thought I ought to be doing at that point, but the project morphed into story at some juncture, and that’s where it stayed. As I deepened Esther’s character, I was surprised by her courage. I had not expected that she would take form as she did, and certainly did not expect to be surprised by any of it. That she grows into a woman who is transformed by what was meant to kill her was both hard-won, and deeply satisfying to me.

This is both an American epic and a story of sexual abuse.  I love how you move so gracefully between the inner and outer experience.  Was it difficult to manage these two themes?  To balance them?

Difficult, always. And thank you for appreciating that difficulty, and finding the movement between those worlds successful. But that balance is a natural condition for me. One way I work it in the story is though point of view—coming close to each character as he or she appears, through diction, for example, and then also stepping farther back in the interstices. So, that movement, that shifting narrative distance creates a balance as well. And provides texture. I’m always careful to provide texture.

The book is very visual, painterly.  And you are an artist as well?

I’ve been a painter as long as I’ve been a writer, in fact a bit longer.  But both seemed to have emerged from the same need: to explore the human predicament.

The Esther you describe is someone who never really talks much or tells her story, it seems. And she probably never would. And yet you tell it.  It’s as if you want to give her the voice she never had.  Is that how you see women of her time?

Not so much women of her time, but girls and women everywhere. What Esther must endure is heartbreaking, but tragically, not uncommon. Yet these stories go untold, unrecognized. Because this is the truth, I wasn’t sure until I worked all the way toward the end that she would survive it. Or that I could write it.

Did you grow up in any of the landscapes you describe so vividly in the book?

Some but not most. I did a tremendous amount of research, and would have made trips to various locations to study them, but I just did not have the time with my teaching schedule.  The mountains especially were not familiar to me, nor was the desert. I’ve been to Arizona but never to the sort of deserts that Esther and Raymond traverse. I brought my mother to her ancestral home in Kansas many years ago to attend a family reunion and found it rich in material for poems. Some of that language found its way into this book.

What were the biggest challenges in writing Esther?

Making sure the characters were real to the touch, that Esther’s father, for example, was not drawn as pure villain, but rather the complex person he surely was. I needed to fully imagine these characters in order to have them flesh out convincingly on the page. For example, I had to think through her father’s terrifying abusive behavior, Raymond’s PTSD, her mother’s disavowal of what was happening right in front of her. And finally, I had to explore the reason why an older girl would not try to escape such abuse when the opportunity arose.

Also, being true to the time period was a continued challenge. After all, Esther is historical fiction as well, so I had to be accurate with regard to details. If Esther and Raymond were to travel a certain route, I had to make sure a road actually existed along that route in that particular year. So much was changing in the country back then, with regard to new infrastructure, due primarily to the automobile. In fact everything was changing. For example, in early 1920’s, electric lights were common, but most people in the country still lived on farms, without that convenience.

What writers have influenced and/or guided you?

I read all manner of writers, from non-fiction to science to poetry. I think it’s the writer’s voice that I crave, that utterly unique experience of hearing another person open and reveal honestly. My favorites are Italo Calvino, Gaston Bachelard, Deborah Digges, Russell Banks, Louise Bogan, Oliver Sacks, Sylvia Plath, Gretel Ehrlich, Hart Crane, Nabokov, Marguerite Yourcenar, Lewis Thomas, and many others.

I’d love to close with an excerpt of your choice.

Sure. This passage takes place on a train, as Esther and her father Aaron are headed west to the Colorado mountains, where at fourteen, her father demanded she will cook for all the loggers. He has taken her to be “good company,” but in reality has made his final claim for her body and soul, with no intention of returning to the farm. The first part is one of the interstices, where the narration is pulled way back.

The land brooded with sad farms, barley
just taking hold that would not survive
the drought or the merciless wind,

and beyond the barley grew sorghum,
as far as the eye could see, and what land
did not support a crop suffered buffalo grass,

and prairie dogs the farmers called fury
weeds, busy with their miserable lives.

Esther could not have known while
she dozed—just one of many on this train
traveling in regimental discomfort, folks

who would die working the land
and be buried there—that beneath them,

the great continent of Pangaea was once
split by a vast inland sea, where
winged lizards and giant sharks

and turtles twice the size of an ox
held sway, and long-necked plesiosaurs

with great oar-like paddles prowled
alongside graceful, serpentine
predators forty-five feet, twenty tons—

where she now stirred and nearly
wakened from her dream of mountains,

trillions of miniscule organisms sunk
to sea bottom, their delicate carcasses
forming the chalk hills and limestone

quarries and shale beds that shaped
this prairie—what this girl understood
as flat, unchanging, was in fact the slow

rumination of what had always been,
shifting without notice, the forcemeat
of time on all things.


Aaron had unfolded the map
and struggled to set it flat enough to read,
but the best he could do left two hills
where his knees bent under it.

Esther sat very still as she always did
if it fell to her to be nearest him
when he was vexed.

Here! We must be here! Aaron blurted
to no one in particular. Startled
out of her stillness, Esther followed

her father’s gaze to one of the hills
where his finger jabbed at a black dot
beside a thin blue line.

She had seen maps in the encyclopedia,
maps of Africa, of mountains in South America,
the whole British Empire. Never
had she seen a map of Kansas.

Where did we start, Father?  Esther asked.
But Aaron was at it again, trying
to smooth the paper and paid no attention.

So she leaned in and saw that he had circled
Montgomery County, where the farm sat
heavy on the land, where Bessie’s brooding

countenance brightened as she worked
in the kitchen garden, its precise rows
of potatoes, sugar beets to feed the hens.

Esther conjured the snap peas and kale
near the tidy bed of verbena, her mother
bending to harvest thyme and marjoram,

their lingering fragrance.

Then the girl looked up toward her attic room
and saw herself there at the window,
gazing out beyond the barn.

She was thinner than she’d imagined
herself to be, in that life, just days ago, but
she’d thought her mouth to be a grim slash
across her face.
And it was.

The smell of fried chicken brought her back
to the train, to the family across the aisle

noisily opening their box lunches,
and to Aaron, still fingering the map.

Disquiet settled in her stomach.
Everywhere she had ever been in her life
was within the distance of the width
of her father’s hand.

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Windhover Journal reviews Brent Newsom’s “Love’s Labors”

6_w171_h264_s1_PL15_PCffffffGiven this strong debut, readers can hope that Brent Newsom’s future poems will continue to develop more of these individuals (and himself), focusing on the confusing and confounding wonder of the human condition(s).

Read the full review here

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News and Events: Week of July 20th


Celia Bland’s feature, “Ordinary Details: Humor in the Work of Jane Cooper,” is in Rain Taxi’s Summer 2015 edition

Pamela Spiro Wagner received First place for Prose for her essay, “The Dress” from the Louise Wahl Memorial Creative Writing Contest

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News and Events: Week of July 7th


Brent Newsom, RealArt DeRidder Art Gallery (108 W. First St., DeRidder, LA)
Tuesday, July 7th at 7:00pm
Public reading & book signing

Brent Newsom, Woody Guthrie Folk Festival (St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 202 N. Third St., Okemah, OK)
Saturday, July 11th at 10:00am
Featured reader in the Woodie Guthrie Poetry Readings

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Sapling interviews Starr Troup

saplingLast month, Sapling, a weekly newsletter from Black Lawrence Press that highlights the best of the small press world for writers looking for new venues for their work, interviewed our Managing Editor, Starr Troup.

Here is the full interview and many thanks to Sapling for allowing us to republish it our blog.

Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with CavanKerry Press?

Starr Troup: CavanKerry Press’s tagline is “Lives brought to life.” We hope to, through the wonderful words of talented writers, continue our mission to expand the reach of poetry to a general readership. We want to put highly readable poetry into the hands of as many readers as possible. We do that by publishing poets whose works “explore the emotional and psychological landscapes of everyday life.”  We are a literary press focused on community. Our outreach endeavors, among others, include: 1) the Gift Books program, 2) our involvement with New Jersey’s Poetry Out Loud Program for high school students, and 3) the sponsorship of a teacher scholarship to the Frost Place in New Hampshire.

Through the Gift Books program we donate books to organizations around the country, including schools, medical facilities, and other community-focused organizations. Our most recent version of the Waiting Room Reader has been donated to hospital and medical facility waiting rooms nationwide. We provide desk copies of our books to teachers across the country with hopes they will find intriguing poetry to use in the classroom.

New Jersey has a very successful Poetry Out Loud program, this year having the highest student participation and teacher participation in the country. During the state finals of the competition a CavanKerry author acts as a judge. CavanKerry gives books to the library of every participating high school, each of the students who is a regional finalist, and each state finalist.

Our Associate Publisher, Teresa Carson, teaches at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching each summer. She works with teachers who attend the workshops, from elementary school, middle school, and high school to undergraduate and graduate level, to bring poetry into their classrooms. CavanKerry provides a scholarship, each year, for the teacher of the student who has become the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud State Champion.

Sapling: How did your name come about?

ST: Our Founder and Publisher, Joan Cusack Handler, has a strong Irish background. Her parents were from County Cavan and County Kerry in Ireland.

Sapling: What do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?

ST: Our Publisher and Associate Publisher read all poetry submissions. Our Publisher and I, as Managing Editor, read all memoir submissions. The editors choose each title based on: the high quality of the writing, the cohesiveness of the collection, the distinctiveness of the writer’s voice, and the ability of the work to engage a diversity of readers intellectually and move them emotionally.

CavanKerry accepts submissions only during the open submission periods. We do not run contests. We consider manuscripts from first-time authors to late career authors. Our guidelines are clearly outlined on our website and we hope that all writers read what’s there before submitting.

Sapling: Where do you imagine CavanKerry Press to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?

ST: CavanKerry continues to work on the improvement of business practices and procedures. We recently expanded our submission procedure to include the Submittable platform. We’ve also been expanding our community outreach programs and will continue to do so. We hope to see more of our books in classrooms. Recently, our author Loren Graham’s book, Places I Was Dreaming, was selected as the freshman seminar book for Carroll College in Montana. We’d like to have more of our books selected for school-wide reading.

Sapling: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?

ST: The hardest part of my job, as Managing Editor, is the very mundane, behind-the-scenes job of coordinating everything that has to do with the release of our titles. Working with the author, the copy editor, the designer, the distributor, and the printer requires great attention to detail… and attention to due dates. My office has clipboards hanging from nails in the wall – clipboards with production schedules, and event schedules, and design schedules. In spite of my reliance on technology for my daily work, I need those tangible hard copies of information hanging on my wall. It’s a constant reminder of what is coming due in one of the three seasons I am working on at any given time.

I love working with the authors. I begin contact as early as two years before the scheduled release date, and I continue working with an author sometimes up to two years after a book is released. We talk about the production schedule, copy edits to the manuscript, and marketing strategies for post-production. This past April I spent the days at AWP in Minneapolis with three of our authors – Dawn Potter, Loren Graham, and Brent Newsom – working the table, answering questions, and managing the book signings and sales. It was a wonderful experience. I felt both exhilarated and completely and totally exhausted after the long days of interaction, almost as a yin to their yang, as we spoke to the many participants at the conference.

Sapling: If you were stranded on a desert island for a week with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?

ST: If I had to choose today it would probably be: God Laughs and Plays, by David James Duncan – one of my favorite nonfiction authors; The Complete Robert Frost, to satisfy some of my poetry cravings; and the JRR Tolkien Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy to have a place to lose myself. I want to live in Lothlorien one day, and have since I first discovered the place when I was very young. Of course three books wouldn’t be enough, and the titles will probably be different if you ask me a month from now.

Sapling: Just for fun (because we like fun and the number three), if CavanKerry Press was a person, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?

ST: As the Managing Editor of CavanKerry, I think if CavanKerry were a person she would be thinking about more ways to put our quality literature and beautiful books in the hands of readers. The other two things would have to be related to that, because after all, that is what publishing is all about.

Starr Troup is the Managing Editor of CavanKerry Press, headquartered in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and has worked for the press from her home in Central Pennsylvania for two years. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Wilkes University with a focus in nonfiction. In past lives she has taught fifth graders to love literature, owned and managed a business with her husband, and worked as Director of Education for Ixtlan Artists and Lakota Performing Arts. Starr is a writer of nonfiction, a part-time photographer, and a passionate lover of the natural world. She lives in York, Pennsylvania with her husband, Chris, and her two cats, Pippin and Macintosh.
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Nin Andrews Interviews Brent Newsom

Photo credit: M. Trey Reynolds

Photo credit: M. Trey Reynolds

I admire this book (Love’s Labors) so much, I don’t know where to start. I can’t quite believe it’s your first collection of poetry. Really? So I am guessing it took you a long time to write?

Wow, thanks! That’s quite a compliment. I did spend several years working on the collection: the earliest poems included in the book, some of the Smyrna poems, were drafted in the spring of 2007, and I was still writing new poems in 2010. After that I revised for three years before sending the manuscript to CavanKerry. I was in graduate school most of that time, and an earlier version of the book served as the creative portion of my dissertation, which I completed in 2012.

I wonder if you could say a few words about the evolution of Love’s Labors, and how you developed this rhythm—rotating poems about the birth of your children with other themes: your father, your faith, and the locals. The whole book reads like one long poem.

Initially I envisioned an entire collection of Smyrna poems, some of which dealt with themes of faith and doubt from the beginning. But when my wife became pregnant with our first child, all my creative impulses were magnetically drawn to issues of fatherhood and family, and I wrote poems on these topics throughout the pregnancy. For a while I was dismayed by this, convinced I was writing two different manuscripts that might never be finished or would only work as chapbooks. And then I also had poems that fit in neither sequence. But a mentor of mine, William Wenthe, wisely suggested the poems were more closely related than I had believed. He was right, and once I saw the connections, I was able to conceive of the manuscript as a cohesive whole. At that point the challenge became finding an appropriate structure for the book.

I considered sequestering the Smyrna poems, the pregnancy poems, and the “miscellaneous” in separate sections, but that obscured all the resonances between them. Instead I tried grouping poems that shared some thematic resonance. At one point I had something like eight or nine different sections, which was a bit too disjointed. Thinking in terms of narrative helped me find the book’s final structure, which has five sections; this final arrangement highlights common themes between poems and also opens narrative threads that are gradually tied together as the book moves along. Two of the final three poems, “Claudia Blackwood Has Her Doubts” and “Cut,” were the last poems I drafted; by that point I was consciously looking for effective ways to close out the book.

You also weave between the miraculous and the humdrum, between hope and disillusionment. It’s so convincing, especially in a book where faith and childbirth and a father-son relationship are major topics. And what a perfect finale—that last stanza. I am hoping you will post that stanza here?

Certainly. Here’s the final stanza of “Cut,” which is an eight-page poem:

I have only just made peace
with having a father,
and here you are to make me one.
Blood and vernix and milia
cover you—flat-nosed, puffy-eyed,
cone-headed, flushed and wailing
and wet in the nurse’s hands.
Your mother waits for you.
In my left hand a clamp,
scissors in my right. The blades
bite down.

The title is perfect. At what point did you know the title of the book? How did the title come to you?

The title Love’s Labors came to me very late in the process—shortly before sending the manuscript to CavanKerry. As my dissertation the collection was called But You Are Rich, a phrase taken from the book’s epigraph: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: . . . I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev. 2:8-9). I was never fully satisfied with that title but couldn’t think of anything I liked better for the longest time. Finally I just started making a really long list, like 25-30 possibilities. At some point I began toying with variations on Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labours Lost. Having the word “love” in the title risks sounding sentimental, but hey, so does writing so many poems about having a baby, or about issues of faith. (A poet friend, a former professor of mine, has told me I somehow get away with writing about subjects that usually lead to treacle. I guess that’s a compliment?) But so many of the poems grapple with some variety of love—familial, sexual, divine—and I liked the way “labors” evokes work, working class people, and childbirth. Hitting on Love’s Labors was like a puzzle piece finally snapping into place.

I love the local characters. I especially love the opening stanza of your poem, “Esther Green Plans a Funeral.” I can just hear her talking.  I imagine you hear these people in your head when you are writing?

Yeah, writing those persona poems is a mixture of listening and conjuring. Esther was the first of the Smyrna characters I worked with, and once I got into her voice it felt very comfortable. Growing up in Louisiana, of course, I was surrounded by southern women with very strong and distinct voices. So I had that history to draw on.

Sydney Lea wrote a beautiful introduction to the book. Is he one of your mentors?

He’s not, actually, though he’s a poet for whom I have great respect. I did meet Syd when he visited Texas Tech in 2011, where I did my Ph.D., and he was wonderful to talk to, and he gave an excellent reading. What I love about Syd and his poetry is that he’s so adept and comfortable writing in form and meter, but he’s not tendentious about it or strictly bound to it the way some formalists can be.

These poems are so engaging, so intimate and entertaining, I am wondering what the secret is. As if you could tell me. What is your creative process like?

Ha! If there’s a secret, I wish I knew it. Sometimes it seems the process is different for every poem, and that’s not far from the truth, I think. But generally speaking, I carry an idea in my head for a while before I every write anything down. When I finally do start writing, I try to get down a complete draft. Then, over a period of weeks or months, the poem goes through revision after revision. One round of revision may be focused on the narrative, if there is one, then on images, the next on syntax, then line breaks, then sonic effects; eventually these things run together, but learning to focus my attempts at revision in this way has been tremendously helpful to me.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

The most challenging poems to write were “Claudia Blackwood Has Her Doubts” and “Cut.” I was pushing myself to expand the scope of my writing when I wrote these, so they’re both longer poems. The former poem is also a sonnet crown, and there’s something very Sisyphean about that form. Next time I try one it probably won’t be a dramatic monologue in a female voice. Aside from those poems, the biggest challenge was finding the right structure and sequence.

Who are your primary literary influences?

Frost is big for me, though that’s probably not a very fashionable answer these days. Even more unfashionable, but probably responsible for my penchant for persona poems, are Edgar Lee Masters and E.A. Robinson. More recent influences would include B.H. Fairchild, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Natasha Trethewey. Richard Wilbur. Rita Dove’s early book Thomas and Beulah.

I’d like to close with a poem of your choice.

Pfc. Mason Buxton Wets a Hook

All warfare is based on deception.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Whether you’re wiping out a phantom weapons cache
or planting homemade bombs in cardboard boxes,
trash cans, saddlebags—Sun Tzu was right:
the lie lies dead at the heart of war. By it
we live and die. The art’s in choosing lures.
(A shiner? Melon lizard? Chartreuse worm?)
That’s part. But a naked lie won’t nail a bass.
You hide the hook inside. Then drop the bait
between two cypress stumps, jig your rod
at five Mississip, crack open a cold one. Sip.
He bites, you set and reel—then watch the lake explode.

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What Do I Know? by Brent Newsom

In Track a Book, we follow one manuscript’s journey from creation to publication.  This monthly series looks at Brent Newsom’s CavanKerry release Love’s Labors.

“Mine the Mind” by Corey Lee Fuller. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

For my final blog post, I’ve been asked to answer the question, “What do you know now, that you wished you’d known when you started this journey?” Rather than expounding on a single possible answer to this question, a list seems in order:

I know that I have an amazingly supportive wife and family.
I know that I have exceedingly generous colleagues, students, and friends.
I know that CavanKerry Press is run by wonderful, poetry-loving people.
I know that I have the endurance to write a book.
I know that readers have connected with my poems (click and scroll down to read the first review of Love’s Labors, on p. 70 of this issue of The Oklahoma Review).
I know that readers have been puzzled by my poems (one—a family friend—contacted me on Facebook to ask for a reader’s guide).
I know that small-press publishing is a labor of love.
I know that publishing a book requires lots of collaboration.
I know that poetry can matter—and does—to more people than we think.

I suppose I knew some of this already, to some extent, before the journey to Love’s Labors began. But there are degrees of knowing. And the experience of writing, submitting, editing, and publishing my book has deepened my understanding of and my gratitude for all that I knew, and know better, and will come to learn more fully still.

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News and Events: Week of June 22nd


Nin Andrews, Rochester Contemporary Art Center
Tuesday, June 23rd at 7pm
Nin will be reading at the Rochester Jazz Festival

Jack Ridl, Ox-Bow School of the Arts (Saugatuck, MI)
Friday June 26th, 10am-5pm
Jack will be leading a workshop “for those who want to begin to those who have been writing for years. There is no pressure to achieve, to complete, to write ‘well.’ All we’re gonna do is ‘see what happens.'”

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News and Events: Week of June 8th


Joan Seliger Sidney, The Studio @ Billings Forge (563 Broad Street, Hartford, CT)
Monday June 8th at 7pm
Joan is reading in the WordForge Series with Elizabeth Thomas

Wanda Praisner, Reading, Sussex County Community College, Betty June Silconas Poetry Center
Saturday, June 13th, 2-4pm
Wanda will be part of the Poetry Festival Launch Reading for Stillwater Review, Volume 5

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