Interview with Shannon K. Winston, Author of Threads Give Way

Ocean imagery is used throughout Threads Give Way in a way that makes landscape seem like an active character in your poems. If the ocean had a voice what do you think it would tell us?

This is a compelling question and a fun one to think about! I’d like to approach it a little “sideways” if I could by saying first that landscapes, the ocean in particular, have always been a source of calm and awe for me. I’ve always needed to feel grounded and connected to my environment in really material and perceptive ways. The smell of a wood burning stove, a sunset streaking across the sky, the sound of the ocean–these are all experiences that have left me breathless. I love moments when you take a “time out” not in the cheesy “smell the roses” kind of way but more in the greater sense of re-evaluating our vulnerability, our place in the world, our relation to nature, and to others. I think our lives often deny us such opportunities. My poetry attempts to capture such moments–ones that ask us to slow down and to really think about how we would describe, respond to, and live in our world.

The wonderful thing about the ocean is that each wave resembles the previous ones and yet is new. No two waves are the same. For me, the sound of the ocean is a great constant while also promising future possibilities. So if it had a voice, it might say something along those lines and ask us to be open and accepting of new possibilities.

As a child did you ever pretend to be a mermaid? How did this experience inform your poetry?

No, I never explicitly pretended to be a mermaid but I did pretend to be a bird. I put on my roller skates with a childhood friend and went as fast as I could while flapping my arms. I’ve always been obsessed with the wind and with speed. I love the feel of the air on my skin. In fact, almost every day since I can remember I’ve gone swinging on playgrounds near my house. Starting your day with your feet off the ground is the most amazing thing; it gives me a sense of renewed energy or if I’m in a bad mood it changes that, if only slightly. The rhythm of swinging has also deeply informed the rhythm of my poetry. The back and forth of a swing is like the back and forth of waves in some ways…I’m pretty dedicated to imagining myself in “foreign” environments–to imagining I could fly, have gills, etc. So being a mermaid is part of that but so is imagining myself as a fish, a bird, a tree even. Part of this came at a time when I was young and felt extremely awkward in my body and with myself more generally. So in my poetry, the act of entering into a new environment (the sea, for example) became a way for me to navigate such feelings–a process that was/continues to be incredibly freeing.

Your collection is beautifully cohesive. How did you decide on the ordering of your poems?

The ordering process was one of the most challenging things about working on this collection. When I originally wrote many of these poems, I wasn’t necessarily working towards a larger narrative. Jeremy Shiok was key in helping me with this and together we were able to talk about what kind of story we wanted to tell. And I say “we” since this project was such an amazing collaboration. Jeremy pushed me to become a better, more nuanced writer and to consider many different aspects of the process–including how to conceive of my poems together.

A Van Jordan once said (during a reading) that depending on how you order your collection it could tell at least four different stories. Starting with “Sea Anemones, Sea Stones” and ending with “Daybreak” seemed so right to me. The collection is about a lot of things that those two poems capture: the natural world, sensuality, encounters with others, otherness, traveling, etc. They echo each other nicely. I wanted to create a sense of reverberations, and overlaps (with variations) and to instill a sense of rhythm too. We worked hard to make sure that poems fit together while also giving a sense of dynamism, change, and unfolding. Rather than grouping all the poems about my childhood together, then, we worked to think about how they could best be “scattered” throughout to give the collection a sense of openness & airiness.

You mention Kid Ory in your poem “Wallpaper.” After hearing his name, I couldn’t help but think of his music as a sort of soundtrack to your book. Your poems, like the good blues music, balances good with bad. Did you use music as a way to channel the ascetic of this collection?

Kid Ory was very much a part of this collection but for slightly different reasons than you suggest. A man named Mr. Casey was an integral part of my childhood in France. He was an Irishman and our landlord while we lived in the outskirts of Paris. He quickly became a grandfather and godfather figure for my sister and I: he taught us French, took us to the market on his errands, let us help him in his garden. He had an amazing, huge garden that was surprising since we were living in such an urban environment! He even had chickens! Anyway, we would sit outside in his garden–filled with lavender smells, ivy, etc–and tell us stories. Some beautiful, others terribly sad. Before World War II, he played in blues bars in the center of Paris. He LOVED Kid Ory and continued to play his music until he died. I continue to be fascinated by his life and stories that seemed so fruitful for poetry.  So yes, the blues/Kid Ory was a really strong aesthetic but indirectly. It was Mr. Casey’s life–defined so much by music–that inspired many of my poems.

Are you currently working on a new poetry project?

I’ve started to think about a new project and what it might look like. It’s not set in stone but I’ve been think a lot about the theme of “disasters” or “catastrophes,” which is to pertinent to our world right now. I’m fascinated (and horrified) by the way we’re surrounded by these narratives–the oil spill, war, etc– but also distanced from them too (in that we are often geographically far away). I’m less interested in writing an apocalyptic narrative than thinking about the ways we respond (or don’t)/understand (or don’t) such events. How do we make sense of such things? How do we think about them? These are some of the questions that I find really important to think about. It’s exciting to think about doing something thematically very new.  We’ll see where it takes me.

What did you learn from writing this book? How did these poems change how you approach life?

I learned the value of patience, revision, and dedication. There were many times when I thought, “why am I doing this?” but I also know that I must write. It’s a compulsion and a drive that I’ve felt for a long time. It’s sometimes very hard to write though since we’re a culture of instant gratification and “success.” Writing, for me, isn’t about that but sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that. I’ve also found a wonderful writing community (communities) since writing this book–something that’s hard to find! I also learned how amazing collaboration can be! Working with Jeremy was such an invaluable, inspiring process that’s given me an amazing new energy!

You can order your own copy of Threads Give Way at Cold Press

Bees’ Knees Special Edition: The Poetry of Diane Lockward–Advice from a Wordsmith

Diane Lockward is the author of What Feeds Us, which received the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, and Eve’s Red Dress. A third collection, Temptation by Water, will be released in June. Her poems have been  included in such anthologies as Poetry Daily: 360 Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, and have been published in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writers Almanac. She lives in northern New Jersey and works as a poet-in-the-schools for both the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Your book What Feeds Us made me incredibly hungry for lush and savory food. Is there a dish or a recipe you would suggest that would ease my cravings after having been teased line after delectable line with your descriptions of flavor?

In the poem “Anniversary” the speaker talks about Bocconi Dolci, an absolutely delectable dessert that’s guaranteed to satisfy every one of your cravings. Three layers of meringue, each covered with melted chocolate, whipped cream, and strawberries. The sweetness of the dessert is at odds with the sadness of the poem, but that’s why I chose it for that poem.

Your collection of poems flows seamlessly from poem to poem, giving the book a real sense of cohesiveness. Did you begin with a concept when writing What Feeds Us or did the work organically emerge?

I wrote the poems without forethought of how they would cohere in a collection. When I had 60 or so poems that I felt were book-worthy, I printed them out and read, re-read, and re-read, looking for common themes, motifs, images—and they were there. The overriding obsession seemed to be the idea of nourishment or its absence, of what feeds or fails to do so. I omitted the poems that had no relevance and then set about arranging what I had into sections. It makes me happy that you noticed the book’s structure as getting the structure and flow is a tough task, but it’s the one that makes the difference between a collection of poems and a bunch of poems.

My new book, Temptation by Water, came about in just the opposite way, that is, I began with the concept and then wrote the poems. That was a more efficient way of doing things. I had fewer false starts and deadend poems and less frustration arranging the poems into a collection.

The persona in many of your poems has a complicated relationship with Bees. The word “bee” seems to stand for difficult concepts such as fear, love, and even death. How did these bees make their way into your work?

Those bees came from my lifelong fear of them. My father grew gladiolus and had gardens in several different locations. Occasionally, on a Saturday, he compelled my brother and me to spend a day working in one of the gardens. We hated every minute of it. My brother wanted to be playing baseball. I wanted to be anywhere but in that garden, anywhere without bees. Then one summer at camp I saw three girls get swarmed by bees. I had nightmares about that for years. In the poems the bees become the embodiment of everything I fear. I did not write those poems as a set, but in assembling the manuscript I became aware that bees were a recurring image.

When the cover art was first submitted, it had no bees. I asked the artist if he could add some and he did. He told me that years ago it a common practice for various insects to be included in still life paintings. I love the way he depicted the bees greedily feeding.

You are a very active member of the WOMPO poetry community. Could you please explain what this group is and how a poet would join?

Wompo is an online listserv begun maybe a dozen years ago by the poet Annie Finch. When I joined about ten years ago, there were 120 members. Now there are close to 900. Its purpose is to serve as a place where poets, primarily women, can raise issues and concerns related to poetry. It’s a great source of information and a good place to turn to when you need to know something, such as how to get a reading in Paris or what’s a good poem to read at a friend’s wedding. Anyone who wants to join should go to the Website:

When two or more poets gather, they are often referred to as a “tribe.” What does it mean to be a part of the poetry “tribe?”

In our local community we often work in isolation and find few, if any, people who share our love of poetry. When I was first learning the craft, it was essential for me to attend workshops and conferences and festivals. I learned the craft, I gained faith in my ability to do this thing that I wanted to do, and I met other aspiring poets as well as accomplished poets. I became part of the tribe. Later I belonged to a small group that met once a month at my house. We wrote together and critiqued each other’s work-in-progress. That was another kind of tribe. The last several years I have joined with a half dozen or so women poets in the summer. We take turns hosting a poetry day at our homes. We spend all day giving each other prompts. These are fabulous days, full of poetry conversation and writing. We usually go home with 4 or 5 new poems underway. That’s my favorite tribe.

Are you currently working on any new projects?

My new book will come out soon, so lately I’ve been busy proofreading galleys and compiling mailing lists. Once that’s all done, I will get back to some new writing. Because I started writing poetry late, I don’t have the big backlog that some other poets have. I work from book to book. That means that right now the cupboard is pretty bare.

What suggestions / advice would you give to the beginning poet?

Have patience and persistence. Respect your tears; they are often where the poems reside. Learn the craft. Be willing to serve an apprenticeship. Read the masters to learn where you came from. Read contemporary poetry to learn what’s being done today. Buy books by other poets; that’s one way we support each other. Mark up the books and learn from them. When you ask for a critique, be sure you are not just looking for compliments; otherwise, you won’t grow as a poet.

Bees’ Knees Special Edition: What is Magical Realism? Colin Meldrum, Editor A CAPPELLA ZOO helps the Bees’ Understand What it Takes to be Magic.

1. How did A cappella Zoo come about? What lead to its creation?

I had this quirk as a kid that I always had to make my own of everything: my own greeting cards, my own birthday presents. I always loved reading, so it was only a matter of time before I started writing my own stories and novels and eventually assembling my own publication. It was a dream for many years, and then when I graduated with a creative writing degree, it all seemed possible. I started researching other serials and exploring the publishing community like crazy. I gathered up my savings, enlisted a handful of literary buddies, and dove in. To be honest, I really wasn’t sure what would happen, despite the fact that I had thoroughly covered all my bases. I ran into bumps here and there, but A cappella Zoo has always been about being open and flexible, so I was ready to adapt to what I learned along the way, and to grow quickly as a unique publication. When the submissions started rolling in, the feeling was unreal. It has all been incredibly rewarding.

And that name! Where did you find that musical title?

Everyone’s curious about the title! That was the first question shouted out at our debut issue’s release party. First of all, I was attracted to an animal-related title because animals play such interesting roles in literature, and particularly in a lot of magical realism (take “Cat and Goldfish” and “The Snake in the Throat” from our upcoming issue, for example). Stories and poems love to explore what it means to be human and how we interact with our surroundings, and animals are often key players in that investigation. Aside from that ambiguous animal element, to me “A cappella Zoo,” seems to be a collection of diverse, raw, honest voices. But I love to hear others’ interpretations of the title!

2. Your website advertises openings for a person to be a “reader” for A cappella Zoo. What would a reader do and how would this job help a writer grow?

During our reading period months (May & November), each reader reviews 5-10 submissions per week. We debate online which submissions are most memorable, the most ready for publication, and the most exciting contributions to our specific publication. Our current editorial board collaborates via the internet from six states, Canada, and Wales. This gives us some great diversity, which has helped A cappella Zoo grow in an interesting way.

Every bit of this process has been eye-opening for me as a writer, and the other board members have shared similar experiences. All of us were familiar with literature classes and used to dissecting and critiquing work that was already understood to be publishable or even classic, but learning to compare unpublished works and learning to articulate what in a piece of writing is working and what’s not working is a different experience. After reading several dozen submissions I often go back to my own story drafts and find that it’s much easier to “see” my writing for what it is, to view the story and language objectively. I think all writers who hope to be published should volunteer on editorial boards to gain that invaluable perspective.

3. According to your website, A cappella Zoo “is a print journal & ezine of magical realist & experimental writing…interested in shaking up traditional ideas and assumptions about truth and art.” In your editorial opinion, what is the best way for a writer to “shake up tradition”?

I think the best way to shake up tradition is to first be aware of all the stereotypes, clichés, and formulas that end up in your writing and then use them as tools rather than cookie-cutter puzzle pieces. In other words, use them consciously and purposefully to your advantage in order to take a route in writing that is either unexpected or that delivers a unique experience. Here are some examples:

A. During the process of writing, be aware of and contradict your own personal assumptions or pitfalls. I was halfway through a story recently when I realized that I was running into some gender stereotypes that were bogging the story down as flat and cliché. So I switched the sex of every character and sat on that for a few weeks. Part of the experiment worked – I ended up keeping half of the new gender assignments, including that of the protagonist, and the story felt much more organic.

B. Use a story as a vehicle for poking and prodding a societal assumption or pitfall. From our Issue 3, Alexander Weinstein’s “The Pyramid and the Ass” attacks our obsessions with technology, pornography, shortcuts, and capitalism. And your own poem, Nicelle, “Sideshow Serpentina: the Last of the Split-Tailed Mermaids,” flies in the face of the societal norm that we just don’t talk about the lonely, secret depths of our physio-psychological hungers.

C. Play with the definitions of “poem,” “short story,” etc. Drew Lackovic’s “Everything Ends” (from Issue 1) is told through corporate documents, footnotes, and emails, often with a reply to an email given before the original email, which made for quite an intriguing read.

D. Put faces to the old stories or generalizations that we take for granted. JS Simmons’ “The Bluebird” and Pete Pazmino’s “The Singing Bucket” (from Issue 3) are clearly inspired by popular poems and fairy tales, but they’re written with a contemporary, gritty, honest twist, fleshed out, rehashed, and personalized.

4. What are some examples of magical realism?

Generally, magical realism involves inserting something bizarre or magic into an otherwise realistic setting or situation. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most famous magical realists, and I especially love his classic story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” In it, some villagers come upon a winged old man on the beach. They wonder if he’s an angel, but he’s clearly sick and even has mites in his feathers. They take him in and turn him into a lucrative peepshow in a cage in their yard. When he gets well and escapes, they’re glad that this strange creature is finally out of their otherwise normal lives. No scientific explanation is provided, as in much of science fiction, and no new realm with its own laws of nature is revealed, as in much of fantasy.

While magical realism is quite common in many traditions of historical storytelling, like in mythologies, and still quite common in other parts of the world (for example, Kafka’s Metamorphosis), the genre is less traditional in American adult literature. Children’s literature, however, plays with it regularly. Many children’s books extend well within the realm of the fantastic without leaving our world or reality behind, such as The Giving Tree and Stuart Little. Like children’s fiction, adult magical realism often takes the supernatural for granted, as in another of Garcia Marquez’s stories, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” which focuses on the drowned man as an interesting, admirable person rather than on how the corpse could possibly be so perfect and preserved. Adult magical realism also seems especially concerned with the spectrum of human reaction.

A few clear-cut (and short) examples of magical realist stories we’ve published include Lydia Williams’ “Oven of Dreams” (Issue 1), Lesley C. Weston’s “Too Far the Sea” (Issue 2), and Roxane Gay’s “Requiem for a  Glass Heart” (Issue 3).

All that being said, not everything we publish is strict magical realism; in fact, we deliberately keep the definitions and boundaries loose to keep us diverse and to further juxtapose the realms of magic and realism.

5. What does Hybrid writing mean to you? How would you define it? What about hybrid writing excites you?

A hybrid is something taken from elements of two things that don’t “normally” go together. I suppose hybrid writing would most often be associated with combining genres or forms (such as in the prose poem), but the concept can be extended to any sort of writing experiment. Even a metaphor works to produce a hybrid, particularly when seemingly dissimilar things are “yoked by violence together,” as Samuel Johnson would say. This type of experimentation is so exciting to me because of the opportunity it presents to discover something: a new idea, a new feeling, or a new point of view.

6. I just ordered a copy of your novel-in-stories A History of Halves from; could you give me a small preview of what I have to look forward to?

Well, speaking of hybrids! A History of Halves is an exploration of variation and what happens when the alleged polar opposites within dichotomies are fleshed out and forced to interact or even become one another. A lot went into it. It was immensely fun to write, and I’m sure it will be a rewarding puzzle to read. The book is a series of thirteen stories that follow the Earth-long survival, transformation, and apprenticeship of Echo. Echo and the teacher become the water serpent and firebird that are so important to so many cultures. The stories move from Mount Olympus to Mount Sinai, from the Great Wall of China to an Iranian Friday Mosque, from the Colombian cathedral Santuario de las Lajas to a near-future American dental chapel, and from the tomb to the womb, with just enough magic to blend myth and history. I hope you enjoy it!

7. In your editor’s profile you listed the novel Geek Love as a favorite read. What is it about this book that makes it great by your standards? (As a side note: I love Geek Love too!)

I love how Katherine Dunn took something bizarre, then made it more bizarre, then made the bizarre seem normal and what was “normal” seem strange and dangerous, and then subtly shifted into magic. While highly irreverent and progressively more and more shocking throughout, Geek Love manages somehow to focus on its characters, their humanity, and the intimate details of their everyday lives; they’re so real that I’m simultaneously in love with and terrified of all of them.

Please visit A cappella Zoo.

Also please visit Colin Meldrum to learn more about his upcoming publication.