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The Next Big Thing Q & A (see also the Reader's Companion to Calendars of Fire)


Mary-Sherman Willis tagged me for this interview. She teaches  creative writing at George Washington University and is the author of Caveboy, A Poem (Artist’s Proof Editions, 2012). You won’t want to miss her delightful Next Big Thing interview about her forthcoming book-length poem, Graffiti Calculus.


What is the title of your book?
Calendars of Fire

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Calendars of Fire is an extended elegy whose grief is political as well as personal.

What genre does the book fall under?
Poetry

Where did the idea for the book come from?
The writing of Calendars began with a question about pronouns: what would it take to make of “I” and “you,” the other I am separated from by history, ideology, religion, nationality, or gender, a “we”?  Where was the song, equal parts  words and silence, that would “swarm like white dragonflies / across the checkpoint”? I began to explore spare formal structures that allowed me to rove across the disparate but mutually insightful realms of contemporary geo-politics, intimate relationships, classical mythology, and the rural landscape. Then, within months, three people I had deep, long-term ties with died in close succession: a former lover, a mentor in poetry, and a friend. Death entered as the ultimate checkpoint, and the poems took on an elegiac cast. A lyric voice insisted on reentry.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the book?
I began to write the poems that became Calendars shortly after my last book, A Darker, Sweeter String, was published in early 2008. They came fast, the process intensified by grieving and the acute realization that love is all that sustains us in this life. I began a to assemble the manuscript in May, 2010.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My work has long been haunted by the quest to understand why we humans do violence to each other, a question that’s impossible to answer satisfactorily but that we must continue to ask. You might say that it was both the violators and the violated (often one and the same) who inspired this book: Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, Oedipus, the imprisoners and the imprisoned in the Spanish Inquisition and in Tehran’s Evin prison, those lost in the Nazi Holocaust and in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Figures who stand on the sidelines, knowing too much, as what they have foreseen comes to pass compelled me as well: the men’s chorus in Agamemnon lamenting the fate of the young who flock to “War, War, the great gold-broker of corpses,” the Trojan slave women in The Libation Bearers, bewailing “the voice of Terror / deep in the house, bursting down / on the . . . darkened chambers;” the blind seer Tiresias, like all prophets—and poets, one might add—condemned to speaking to the wind.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
As I write this (February 24, 2013), the book is traveling east in a UPS truck from the printer’s in Maple Grove, Minnesota, to my house and to the offices of Tupelo Press in a refurbished mill building in North Adams, Massachusetts. Tupelo editor Jeffrey Levine chose it from among the very large number of manuscripts submitted during Tupelo’s open reading period in the fall of 2010. I feel extraordinarily fortunate in this, as I have been to work with Tupelo’s Managing Editor Jim Schley on editing and formatting the book.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?
Since it feels presumptuous to do this, I’ll just say that I have spent much time in recent years with the work of Carolyn Forché, Susan Tichy, C.D. Wright, Martha Collins, Abraham Sutzkever, Paul Celan, and Mahmoud Darwish.

What actors would you choose to play the characters in your book?
Oh my god, does not compute.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
I offer up this short poem, one in a sequence called “Tiresias at Last”:

With birds on his shoulders

He becomes the mind that will enact it
the wound traveling in a widening orbit
the will to keep silent that needs to speak

The future arrives—not in the motifs 
of songbirds but in the falling off
from notes to intervals

Violation rises like a planet
its own sound something quiet
like sliding bodies into water 

Ah, yes, one more thing: The gorgeous cover image is one in a series of paintings of books that are either flying or falling, depending on your perspective, by the artist Xiaoze Xie. 


I'm tagging John A. Nieves for his debut poetry collection, Curio, forthcoming from Elixir Press. John describes the book as "an exploration of things we colllect and hold close, from relationships to folk tales." I'm also tagging Denise Bergman for The Telling, "a book-length poem that investigates the life-long secret of a woman who believed that as a child fleeing repression, she accidently killed her mother." The Telling is scheduled for publication by Cervena Barba Press in November.