Friday, March 29, 2019

March News

Hello, my lovely friends. March has been a very busy and exciting month, with nine publications, radio shows, reviews, and poetry readings. I’m so pleased to share with you all the latest and greatest:

I usually make these round-ups chronological, but I am just so excited about this one, it’s going front and center: I am the featured poet in the latest issue of Loud Zoo, with five poems and the most thoughtful, in-depth interview I’ve ever had the good fortune to participate in, starting on page 39. The five poems are, “Garbage Pail Kids,” “Southpaw,” “Linda Martinez and Ed McMahon Say Hello from the Afterlife,” “No, I don’t have a foot fetish,” and “Grandma’s Fan.”

But that's not the coolest part. The coolest part is the amazing music composed by Tripp Kirby of The Electric Lungs to accompany the poems! They can be listened to on the magazine site, or go directly to Sound Cloud.

Special thanks to Tripp for the awesome collaboration! If you haven't listened to his music, I highly recommend Don't Be Ashamed of the Way You Were Made. I might be a little obsessed. Also, big thanks to editor Josh Smith for pulling this all together.

I had three poems appear in The Woven Tale Press, “Crystal River,” “Super Blue Blood Moon,” and “Buddhas on Death Row.” They are on pages 9-10 of the digital copy. The print version is available here. “Buddhas on Death Row” was also accepted for their monthly spotlight. Many thanks to their team for continuing to support my work.

For those who don’t know, “Buddhas on Death Row” was inspired by my pen pal, Moyo, who has been on death row in Texas for 18 years. While incarcerated, he has become a Buddhist and an artist. His work has been displayed in various galleries in the US, Finland, and the UK. He is currently working with at-risk youth, and taking classes to become an educator. Learn more about his art at

My poems, “Therapy” and “The List” appeared in Alien Buddha Press.

“Bug Out” and “Low” appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic.

I had two short stories in Ariel Chart Magazine, “Astronomical Events” and “The Little Holly Market.” Editor Mark Antony Rossi messaged me to say, “Your fiction pieces are ranked 2 & 3 this month in reads. That’s not the norm. Usually poetry beats fiction. Thanks for being so damn good.” I want to give a shout-out here to Mark, who has published my work before. He also the force between the Strength to be Human podcast.

Moon Song,” “Faces,” and “The Nostalgia Project” were published on Stanzaic Stylings. This rounds out the series of six that were published on that site. Thanks so much to editor Joanne Olivieri, it's been fun! “The Nostalgia Project” also appeared this month on Duane’s PoeTree Blog.

And my last publication was in the TOUCH issue of memoryhouse, two poems: "Brain Ghosts" and "Resonance."

Voice of Eve Magazine, which had previously published my poetry, gave West Side Girl & Other Poems a five-star review.

I can also be heard on Songs of Selah, an online radio show. I called in during the open mic portion in the second hour of the March 12 episode and had a fun conversation with host Scott Thomas Outlar and featured poet, Duane Vorhees. I read my poems, “Kitten Love” and “New Year’s Eve Talamada.”

I was at the Last Monday poetry reading at the Penn Valley Quaker Center. It’s a monthly open mic that’s been running for almost thirty years, and one of my favorite groups. If you’re in KC sometime, I hope you stop in for a listen!

And finally, ICYMI, I posted three reviews on my blog this month, (Letters to Joan, Dead Celebrities, Ghost Train), as well as a micro-essay (Supernatural). If you haven’t read those already, I hope you do.

My blog schedule is always a moving target, but what I have planned for the near future are: more poetry reviews, another micro-essay and maybe some O4S-related stuff.

Thank you, as always, for your readership!

Monday, March 25, 2019

Poetry Review: Letters to Joan by Allison Blevins

I didn’t know who Joan Mitchell was. I am an art enthusiast. I live in a cool art city. I live within walking distance of two museums and an art institute. I’ve taken my share of art history classes.  

Never heard of her.  

So, first and foremost, I want to thank Allison Blevins for introducing me to Mitchell’s work through her lovely chapbook, Letters to Joan. I blame the usual patriarchal bullshit for failing to give Mitchell the attention she deserves, despite being a contemporary of Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning, and, from what I’ve seen of her, I like her better than those dudes. Mitchell passed away in 1992, after a long, distinguished career. She spent most of her life in Paris, but she was originally a Midwesterner, like Blevins. Mitchell’s work is frequently described as violent, physical, athletic—her brushstrokes, the moods she was trying to evoke; a gallery owner remarked, “She approached painting almost like a competitive sport.”  

I found all this out after the fact, so I actually read Letters to Joan twice, once without having viewed the art, then again after I had. I wasn’t able to view all of the paintings online, but enough to give me an idea of Mitchell’s style, to see what Blevins had seen. Without the art, I was still able to appreciate Blevins’ poems. But the poems were infinitely richer when paired with the visuals.  

In Letters to Joan, Blevins offers more than mere ekphrasis. She carries on a tradition of female interiority: quiet, meditative, dreamlike, deep. She offers poems that are keenly attuned to the body, which is fitting—not only for women, who I think inhabit our bodies in a way that men do not. But also because a book of poems inspired by Joan Mitchell should focus on physicality—for her ferocity, and because Mitchell fought so tenaciously against a series of debilitating illnesses: oral cancer, resulting in a dead jawbone; osteoarthritis; hip dysplasia; and then, ultimately, lung cancer. Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, from a variety of physical and mental health issues that don’t seem to affect men as much. Women are socialized to believe our bodies are all that matter, we who are charged with protecting our bodies from violation, and for having bodies that are capable of housing new life. Blevins offers poems that are sometimes self-recriminating, exploring themes about ambivalent motherhood and disappointment in our own mothers. Sometimes she attacks the sacred cow that is motherhood, referencing Susan Smith and such women who do the unthinkable.  

The book opens with mothers and children in, “Watching Dust Glow in the Window Light,” which describes the poet’s complicated feelings towards her daughter, and towards her own mother who left. She juxtaposes, “I want to keep you safe,” with “On days I wish you’d never been born.” Its images suggest helplessness: floating, shaken, caught, “caged-bird lips.” The idea of being caught in a snow globe that’s been shaken is a womblike image, a round ball of fluid, something small and self-sustaining, yet delicate and precious. The next poem, “Moored,” a word that implies being tethered, feels like a progression. It describes mothers worn “transparent as nightgowns,” the toll being a mother exacts on a person, bodily, mentally, spiritually. “The Color of Tearing” explores separation and separation anxiety, the distance between bodies in all relationships, and the inevitable demise that awaits, both in the relationship itself and for us, individually, as mortal beings.  

“How to Explain Fertility When a Friend Asks Casually” digs into bad mothers, “all the women and children dead/a history of female drowning.” Drowning does feel like something iconic in the deaths of women (Ophelia, Virginia Woolf). Drowning has also been a preferred method of infanticide, especially with unwanted girls. Water subsumes mother and child alike (again, a replica of the womb). At the same time, there is deep sympathy for the people involved in these situations. The title implies undertaking fertility treatments, which, for women who have trouble conceiving, can be a taxing endeavor in every possible sense. Imagine going through all of that only to find you don’t like motherhood very much, or that you aren’t very good at it. Drowning can feel like a way of erasing your mistake, of coming clean.  

In a series of body poems, Blevins focuses on the female form, though not in the way a male artist would, asking, “What is this burden of estrogen?” Blevins describes hair falling out, excessive perspiration. This reads to me like a meditation on age, dealing with mood swings and night sweats, and the anxiety that accompanies these seismic hormonal shifts. “Say my body, drooping and defiant,/ is a thing I can possibly control,” Blevins says, when, obviously, we all knows it’s the opposite. Yet, Blevins celebrates the body in “The Actual Size of the Rifts in the Human Heart May Vary Depending Upon Age and Use,” with erotic descriptions of explosions, “when a tongue figure eights/in your mouth” and “your bones draining into the basin of another woman.”  

My favorite image comes “From My Box of Tangled Memories,” of a girl, “with sirens for hair/and flashing blue and orange where her mouth/should be.” In a book rich with sensory imagery, I found that very evocative, the meshing of the mythological sirens with a beacon of warning.  

Water is a recurring motif—the feminine/womb imagery, as I mentioned, but water is also a powerful natural symbol on its own. I hear the quiet of the Midwest in the waters, in images of ponds, both wet and dry (even in its absence, water leaves an indelible mark). I hear the hills and plains. Blevins also weaves in combines, semis on back highways, stones, chicken, and deer. Even wood paneling and a rifle make appearances, which you will find in almost any mid-century home in the dozen states that make up the Heartland.  

Another recurring motif is color, which makes sense for poems that were inspired by visual art. “Promises Attached to this World” is a simply beautiful poem inspired by Mitchell’s No Birds, which, in turn, was inspired by van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. Mitchell believed that this was van Gogh’s suicide note. This poem is the most overtly ekphrastic, referring directly to “the blue in the corner,” the suggestion of blackbirds in flight on the canvas. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this is one of Mitchell’s less abstract pieces.  

Now that I’ve viewed Mitchell’s art, I can see why it would move a woman poet to such an outpouring of expression. I am impressed that Blevins would undertake such a project—transliterating abstract visual art into words is ambitious, to say the least. I’m pleased to say that she rises magnificently to the challenge.

Purchase Letters to Joan on Amazon

Also, be sure to check out The Harbor Review, an art and literary journal of which Allison Blevins is the publisher/editor-in-chief. They are currently open to submissions. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book Review: Dead Celebrities by Red Focks

When I agreed to review Dead Celebrities, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’d never read any of Red Focks’ previous works, but I was familiar with the gonzo sensibilities of his magazine/publishing enterprise, Alien Buddha Press, and I thought the odds were about fifty-fifty that I would enjoy it. 

I am pleased to say that I definitely enjoyed this collection. It’s a very quick read—only six stories. As I was reading, a string of adjectives occurred to me to describe this wonderfully weird compilation’s stream-of-consciousness style: absurd, audacious, comedic, satiric, dark, cerebral, seedy, macho, and tender. It manages to be all those things, all at once—not to mention, laugh-out-loud funny. 

“Short stories” is as good a category as any for these pieces, though I would lean more towards hybrid works: part prose-poem, part essay, part sketch comedy. In fact, these writings strongly evoke Saturday Night Live (if SNL were allowed to fling F-bombs), In Living Color (if you’re old enough to remember that show) and Celebrity Death Match. The titular dead celebrities run the gamut from athletes (Muhammed Ali), to musicians (Jim Morrison, Dolores O’Riordan), comedians (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Robin Williams) and various other personalities (Stephen Hawking, Charles Manson and various Mansonettes). Ali, Manson and Carlin make multiple appearances—I’m not sure what that says about Focks’ psyche. Living celebrities also make appearances to mix it up with the dead.  

If it needs to be said, Focks is not interested in historical personages, but what they represent to the modern American psyche. If you peel back the hyper-masculine hijinks (we literally watch Muhammed Ali go six rounds with Mike Tyson), you find parables on politics, identity, celebrity worship, fanaticism, and death.  

There are only six stories, so let’s dig in: 

“Ali v Hannity” is a broad political satire. It centers on a live television interview between Hannity and Ali/Cassius Clay; Hannity, Fox News poster boy, blustering and intolerant of anything perceived to be a slight on America, and Clay, a Black Muslim, who would most certainly be taking a knee at every playing of the national anthem. It’s an interesting image to offer in light of current race relations, though I would say this is the weakest of the stories. I still almost snorted Dr. Pepper out of my nose when Ali shouted, “And another thing, avocadoes are a healthy and delicious food!” Also, *SPOILER ALERT*, Hannity commits suicide at the end, and I never get tired of that.  

“Carlin v Hicks v Prior v Williams” is where we depart SNL and enter real absurdity, and I am here for it. It imagines a world where we have voted on which dead comedian should be cloned and brought back for one more celebrity special, even though some of these guys stated their aversion to doing those type of shows. The book is sprinkled with whimsical spelling and punctuation, and I can’t tell if that’s on purpose or not, a la e.e. cummings or Bukowski (“Hix” for Bill Hicks, “Prior” instead of Pryor), but who cares? It skirts sci-fi territory with a tangent about a vengeful holographic Carlin who becomes a computer virus, intent on wreaking havoc on us unworthy denizens of now. It also has lines like, “chiseling bone marrow from his worm and maggot filled skeleton,” so there’s that.  

“Manson v Society” is one of the longer pieces in the collection, broken into sub-sections like, “Charlie Manson’s Thoughts on Legalized Marijuana,” “Charlie Manson’s Thoughts on the MeToo Movement and Toxic Masculinity.” These pieces are pungent, exactly like one would imagine a dirty hippie commune to be. It opens with this gem: “Keep on picking creamed cheese and peanut butter out of your belly button.” When I was a teenager, I was heavy into true crime, and devoured Helter-Skelter and Child of Satan, Child of God. More recently, I read The Girls by Emma Cline, and there’s a lot of psychological territory to plumb when we view the Manson phenomenon through a modern lens. The MeToo movement, at its heart, is about the power dynamics between women and male authority figures. On a more primal level, Manson was always about rejecting society, and reverting to a more “natural” way of life (or “bestial.” Whatevs). On marijuana, Manson says, “Don’t trust the new seeds.” That feels like a reference to Monsanto. Even our beloved, illicit substances have been neutered. On “Pop Culture & Modern Music,” Focks muses on what Manson might be like in the age of social media—which is potentially terrifying. Or he might just be one of those sad little incel motherfuckers, it’s hard to say. But in both that section and the “Mandatory Vaccinations, Climate Change and Bitcoin,” Manson scats. Like, full-on shoo-be-do-be-do, and I snorted again. Also, the latter is the most poetic passage in the Manson cycle—a full indictment of humanity: “I was born on fire. I don’t need to light my holy texts on fire to survive the night. I do not fear the so-called beast.” I was a bit ambivalent on whether or not Manson should be the one casting stones, until I remembered that Satan literally means “the accuser.” Manson doesn’t fear the beast because he is the Beast. Still, I wonder, if we are being called to task by Manson, does that mean everything’s gonna be okay? Or am I to believe him because, sometimes, even the devil speaks truth?  

In “Ali v Tyson,” we get some needed levity, mostly in the form of Tyson’s lisp. (I only hear Drederick Tatum.) The titans go six rounds. I’ll let you read to find out who wins, but as the story progresses, the fight gets dirtier and dirtier, with body blows and flowing blood. But it’s not just dick-swinging—it’s a meditation on what it means to be the best at something. You have to fight to get there, and then you have to fight to keep it, and one does have to wonder if that’s worth it.  

Next up is “Squeaky and Clem.” If I had to choose a favorite from this collection, it would be a toss-up between this and the final entry. This is the most parabolic story in the line-up, using two of Manson’s acolytes, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Steve “Clem” Grogan to examine how people will believe anything if it means there’s a reward waiting, whether that reward be the promise of heaven as with the Abrahamic religions, or just a sense of belonging. Fromme had been a child dancer and actually performed on TV and at the White House. Then, y’know, she attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. The point is, she was a true believer in Manson. Focks describes their relationship as, “He fed himself to her, and she consumed him.” Charlie would appreciate the messianic reference there. He would totally dig himself as something transubstantiated.  

Grogan, on the other hand, was just a sad, craven little man that most people thought was developmentally disabled (which helped him avoid life in prison). Like Manson, he hung out with the Beach Boys and was an aspiring musician. (Maybe Manson speaks to artists because so many of his acolytes, as well as the man himself, were a bunch of frustrated creatives.) But as soon as Grogan got a chance to rat out his comrades, he did. Not coincidental use of the word rat, as Focks observes, “This is not the summer of love; this is the summer of the dead rat.”  

Both figures are pathetic in their own ways-- Fromme, fawning and servile; and Grogan, the go-along-to-get-along guy, incapable of making any decisions on his own. Modernity, since the Enlightenment, feels like a struggle between science and religion, between decision and indecision, between improving the world we live in now and longing for an impossible paradise. Grogan imagines death as “jamming with the Beach Boys, hav[ing] 100 wives,” just like a jihadist, awaiting his holy orders and an opportunity to hurt someone.  

The final story in the collection, “Hawking v Morrison v Manson v Carlin v O’Riordan v Ali,” takes place entirely in the afterlife. In a collection of the surreal, this one felt the most…most. The most dreamlike, the most cerebral: “We must be nothing more than math and vibrations.” Manson, Carlin and Ali appear again. They are joined by Stephen Hawking, Dolores O’Riordan, and Jim Morrison. It’s a fitting culmination, a layering of characters who, more than ever, feel like symbols rather than people, yet never lose their individual humanity, which is no mean feat. I also love how, when you think of them in real life, they seem to occupy such entirely different spheres, they might as well be from different planets. But in putting them together like this, you’re reminded, Oh, yeah. They’re all humans. And so am I. Focks has them all walk into a bar in some nether realm—yes, Hawking can walk, talk, and serve drinks. Also, the Lizard King is young and svelte again. Yet, despite being the bartender, Hawking is still the ideal of human intellectualism, of loftiness. His role feels part Anubis, part Chiron, part God, an interesting marriage of the secular and the transcendent. Manson, of course, is still Satan. The others fall somewhere in between. Manson keeps talking about how great he could have been, but “the universe had other plans.” It becomes a refrain of his. The others are having none of it. They talk, they drink, they fight. I thoroughly enjoyed the others verbally dog-piling on Manson. It also has one of my favorite lines in the book, “Time seemingly globs along the bar-floor in a molasses landslide.” I also love how Focks weaves in subtle references to the singers’ best-known songs, with references to “People Are Strange” and “Linger.” Focks has a gift for capping his stories with killer last lines, and this story feels like a fitting capper for the collection as a whole.  

It’s not often that you find a collection that can encompass so many themes and scenarios, that can juxtapose disparate personas in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky or condescending. Dead Celebrities is both a celebration and an indictment of the glorious mess that is life. I highly suggest you grab a drink and get in on the party, and remember that yes, we’re all in this together.

Purchase Dead Celebrities by Red Focks on Amazon

Also, be sure to check out Alien Buddha Press, which features a magazine as well as a growing catalog of art, poetry, chapbooks, and other publications. They accept submissions on a rolling basis. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Poetry Review: Ghost Train by Matt Borczon

I had the good fortune to come across Matt Borczon’s poetry in a Facebook writer’s group. If you don’t know that name yet, you should. He is one of the finest modern poets I have read. After reading just a few of his poems, I knew that I wanted to read every single line he’d written. Ghost Train happens to be the first that I got my hands on.

Borczon is a naval veteran who worked as a healthcare provider at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, the busiest combat hospital in the war at that time. Unsurprisingly, he returned to civilian life suffering from PTSD, and his poems are his way of coping with his condition. To be sure, there have been war poets for as long as there have been wars, and Borczon’s work has the expected accoutrements: rifles, wounds, and depthless horror. The weaponry changes, but war itself never really does. Borczon takes it a step further, exploring the aftermath of nightmares and the debilitating symptoms of PTSD—the inability to take in stimuli, the inability to relate to people who have not been through what he’s been through. I am not a war veteran, but I think this work would speak to any trauma survivor, to mental health sufferers, to anyone who has ever grappled with their personal demons, on a profound level.

His work is characterized by no punctuation, just stream of consciousness. His lines are brutally short, often just a single word. He told me he does this to capture the feeling of falling down a hole. I can certainly see that, but I also feel that it conveys a myriad of things: tunnel vision, narrowness, the pinched sensation that comes with traumatic stress, and even the lines on a heart monitor.

What I find exceptional about his work is his gift for weaving seemingly disparate elements into a narrative. It’s what caught my eye about his work in the first place; that, and his eye for original imagery. “Survival kit” weaves prayer, therapy, St. John’s wort, scars, jars and Victory gardens, among other powerful images into a litany of despair. The short lines make his poems look longer on the page, but it’s barely over 100 words, scarcely a paragraph. He manages to pack so much into such small spaces—but I suppose that’s a talent soldiers must acquire. “Frozen Charlotte” is another great example of his ability to make unusual connections, about dolls, an old folk legend about a girl who froze to death, and the dead children he saw on a regular basis.

The poems in this collection follow a chronological order, beginning with “Good bye,” in which the young man embarks on his journey to Fort Jackson, and, presumably, boot camp. He becomes a medic, and his poems explore the on-going vigil at the bedsides of the sick and the wounded—not just his fellow soldiers, but enemy soldiers and civilians, including children. “Repressed memories” describes the images that haunt his psyche as “coffin/sized memories”; the children who stepped on IEDs as “dissolved/into a/thin red sigh.”

The poems themselves are straightforward and accessible, delivered with startling clarity. He speaks of injury and performing his duties with a frankness that you would expect from a military report. “Who am I” is stunning in its honesty and bleakness. This matter-of-factness serves Borczon well—how easily these life-and-death scenarios could become overwrought. Borczon also makes it a point to illustrate how there are no safe occupations in war. Even when he transfers briefly to office work in the poem, “Human Resources,” he discusses filing death certificates.

“A kind person” and “Post deployment” are a one-two gut punch, exploring the agony of trying to go back to your old life, of watching movies and walking around your home town. But there is no escaping what’s in your head. He also perfectly captures the catch-22 of longing for home, even when you know you can’t ever go there again—there is no returning to the person that you were.

The collection ends on the poem, “Add it up,” an attempt to quantify his experiences, an exhausted accounting of what lays behind him (patients, rounds of ammunition, detainees, severed limbs) and what lays before him (prayers, missed birthdays, therapy sessions, medication). These are poems about coping, but sometimes, that means finding the beginning of the beginning of something that could eventually lead to healing. Coping is endless work ahead, like that scene in Poltergeist, when the hallway seems to extend on forever. There is no resolution. You get out of the traumatic event, but you never really get out of it. There is only the tunnel vision, the day-by-day. I appreciate so much that Borczon does not sugarcoat that reality.

Purchase Ghost Train on Amazon