Friday, August 25, 2017

An Introduction to Shara McCallum's Madwoman

    Madwoman by Shara McCallum

     Alice James Books, 2017

    ISBN: 978-1-938584-28-2

Shara McCallum

Let me confess: I had never heard of Shara McCallum. At AWP Conference 2017, mid Friday morning, I listened, rapt, in a session called, “Written on a Woman’s Body: A cross-genre reading of bold writings about women and their bodies.” The presenters were prepared and impressive. The last presenter on the panel was Shara McCallum. A tough spot to be in, last. She opened, not with her own work, as the other four presenters had, but by reading Lucille Clifton’s “leda 1,” “leda 2,” and “leda 3.” McCallum’s commanding voice pulled off this reading and, in the process, put her own work in a vulnerable position. Then the strength of her own words followed—outstanding. She read from her newest publication, Madwoman, the following poems: “Madwoman a Rasta Medusa,” “Oh Abuse,” “Insomnia,” “Grief,” “To Red,” and “The Parable of Shit and Flowers,” in that order. Wow. The book was available at the Alice James booth in the book fair; I read it as I flew home from D.C. And this served as my introduction to Shara McCallum.  —Melva Sue Priddy

Shara McCallum was born in Jamaica to an African Jamaican father and a Venezuelan mother and moved to the United States with her family when she was nine. She earned a BA from the University of Miami, an MFA from the University of Maryland, and a PhD from Binghamton University. McCallum is the author of four previously published poetry books: The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2011); This Strange Land (Alice James Books, US, 2011), a finalist for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 2003); and The Water Between Us (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 1999), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry.

 Recognition for her poetry includes a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a Cave Canem Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series, and other awards. Her poems and personal essays have been published in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks in the US, the UK, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Israel and have been translated into Spanish, French, and Romanian.

McCallum’s dramatic reading drew me in. But the strength of her own words are admirable, at times lapsing into her Jamaican patois. As if this weren’t magical enough, her poems slip in and out of time, yet remain timeless. She includes the mystical and commonplace. She writes of all life’s maddening contradictions matter-of-factly, without explanations, reflecting real life. Madwoman does not step neatly from one age or stage to the next; her contradictions and paradoxes are often stirred in with rewritten myths, life challenges demanding one’s need to adapt and push through living, doing what has to be done, especially for a woman of color.  

One can, of course, make a search of all the wonderful reviews and interviews available on the internet (Consider reviews listed at the bottom of .) and so I intend only to introduce McCallum to readers unfamiliar with her work.  

The persona, Madwoman, marginalized, sane, insane, and, more likely, multiple beings at once, reoccurs, scattered throughout the book, and remains an engaging thread that confounds with her many anomalies. At one point, she is “the madwoman now being all women” (27). She is addressed by various voices from multiple intersections: “Madwoman as Salome”(8), “Madwoman in Middle Age” (24), “Why Madwomen Shouldn’t Read the News” (41), “Lot’s Wife to Madwoman” (51). 

One theme that binds this book concerns the various stages of womanhood. In response to a question about those stages and whether madness was an inevitable trait, McCallum states: 

I suspect some forms of ‘madness’ are an inevitable byproduct of aging. As we go along in life, if we are fortunate to live long enough, we will all accumulate losses—of people we love to death or to the changing nature of relationships over time, or of parts of ourselves as we are forced to confront the fact that versions of who we thought we might be or a life we imagined we would live will simply not [be] coming into being. The poems in the collection address various feelings of ‘madness’ roiling below the surface—among others, rage and sadness and dislocation of the self but also defiance, a wanting to say or actually saying ‘fuck you’ to societal norms and expectations. The vantage points through which I look closely at or dwell in these poems in anger, despair, fear, moments of coming unhinged, etc. are those of womanhood and girlhood and the stages in-between, as you note. But I am sure the gamut of emotions the Madwoman confronts exists in men and women alike, in anyone who has eyes to see and does not close them. (Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

A recurring motif is memory; what gets remembered, by whom, and why. In fact, McCallum’s prologue poem, “Little Soul” after Hadrian, opens the possibilities of memory’s role in, or lack of, influence. 

Little soul—kind, wandering—
body’s host and guest,
look how you’ve lowered yourself,
moving in a word of ice,
washed of color.  My girl, 
what compelled you once
is no more. 
Such a small, unassuming poem, and yet there it is: How are our lives shaped by memory, “what compelled you once”? Which begs of Madwoman, what role has memory played in your development? These questions will not be answered in this book. No neat little strings. McCallum doesn’t try to tell us what the meaning of her life is, what the meaning of our lives are, woman or man, madwoman or sane. And she reinforces this in the book’s second poem,“Memory” (quoted in full): 

I bruise the way the most secreted,most tender part of a thigh exposedpurples then blues.  No spit-shine shoes,I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet.Wherever you go, know I’m the windaccosting the trees, the howling nightof your sea.  Try to leave me, I’ll pin you between a rock and a hard place; will hunt you,even as you erase your trackswith the tail ends of your skirt.  You thinkI’m gristle, begging to be chewed?No, my love: I’m bone.  Rather: the sound
bone makes when it snaps.  That ditty
lingering in you, like ruin. (5)

Nothing sentimental here, no, rather bruises, dirt, howling, bone and ruin that linger. At best, the truth will confront: “Friends,/do you remember when we were young?/Life plump with promise and dreams?/Me neither” (41). Memories can “become unbearable” (12). But answer our life’s questions?  One voice asks midway through “Madwoman Apocrypha,” “Shouldn’t the death of ten thousand matter/more to you than that of just one person?” and another answers, “Yes. But I’m afraid grief isn’t math” (75). “Insomnia” speaks: “Dear one, why do you assume/there are lessons?” (64).

Yet even in the grittiness of life, McCallum gives us some beauty and innocence, but not much. “How else chart/a course than the way a child//plucks flowers from a field—/the eye compelling the hand to reach” (11). Even “Death” waxes poetic, if absolute: “…for I am in you/as the river is inside the stone”(56). 

In McCallum’s last poem, and the longest covering nine pages, “Madwoman Apocrypha,” several voices are speaking at once. Interlaced are those who will question and those who will tell Madwoman something, each with his/her own agenda. “Apocrypha” is a biblical term referring to texts of largely unknown authorship. When asked how this word defines the poem, McCallum responds: 

It speaks to it very well. But there’s another part of the definition of the word that is important to me to add to the mix. Apocryphal texts are those omitted from the ‘canon’ and are therefore not accepted as doctrine. Aspersions are often cast upon apocryphal narratives—due to their supposed lack of authenticity or truthfulness or sufficient evidence to back them up—in order to qualify and rationalize their exclusion. (“Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

An excerpt from this poem is difficult to layout, the page is broader than the regular page, but let me try, in order to show these voices intertwining.   

          Q: Why do you make the past a fiction?
          A: Everything is a wager.

                                                                                              Duppy know who to frighten
                                                               I heard this as admonishment 
                                                                           when a child.  But now
I think she is, I will be,
                                                                                        we have always been
                                                                                                             the duppy we fear.

          Q: What do you mean “a wager”?
          A: I needed to enact a search, but something happened
          I didn’t mean to have happen. I’ve become
          a sifter and a counter of grains.  

                                                                                     When as a child I couldn't sleep,
                                                                                                  stroking my arm,
                                                            she would sit with me, repeating,  …

                                                            nursery rhymes, song, nothing making sense

  but her voice and the dark.

          A: I don’t know where she ends and I begin. (77)

This last answer, above, has no question before it. The poem attempts to imitate the many voices each of us may have to confront within ourselves, even when there are no easy reassurances. 

Madwoman may be semi-autobiographical (most poems are), but, certainly, it reflects those voices living on the margins of society, voices full of authenticity, truth and lived experience but which are often unheard. Shara McCallum reminds us they are worth hearing by bringing us into their complex world. Find her work and read. And so I give McCallum the last word.

Q: Why do you keep referring to this woman
in third person? She is you after all, isn’t she
A: I’ve come to believe all stories
are self referential. Or else none of them are. 

When comes the night of your unmaking? (78)

Melva Sue Priddy lives near Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband. In addition to reading and writing, she enjoys gardening, sewing, and grandmaw-ing. She holds an MFA from Spalding University and has published work recently with Still: the Journal, Friends Journal, Poet Lore, and LexPoMo.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Interview with Ariel Francisco

...the hurricane somewhere out

in the Atlantic, spinning itself into nothingness,
dissipating under its own destructive power.

     — from “Post Hurricane Miami,”   
Ariel Francisco

The above photo and the following bio were found on the poet's website:

Ariel Francisco is the author of All My Heroes Are Broke (C&R Press, 2017) and Before Snowfall, After Rain (Glass Poetry Press, 2016). Born in the Bronx to Dominican and Guatemalan parents, he was raised in Miami and completed his MFA at Florida International University.

Ariel Francisco is a first generation American poet of Dominican and Guatemalan descent. He is currently completing his MFA at Florida International University where he is the editor-in-chief of Gulf Stream Literary Magazine and also the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Tupelo Quarterly, Washington Square, and elsewhere.

I've never met Ariel Francisco. When poet friend, Kate Fadick's chapbook, Self-Portrait as Hildegard of Bingen, became available for preorder from Glass Poetry Press, I learned that Editor Anthony Frame was offering a purchase deal on all the chapbooks he would publish in the first series, so I subscribed, and discovered Francisco's poetry in that series. Karen L. George

(This interview was conducted via email.)

One of the qualities I especially enjoy about chapbooks vs. poetry collections is that chapbooks, especially one as exquisite as yours, are so effective in creating a cohesive work, a concentration that resonates in each poem and in the poems as a whole. Every time I read your chapbook, I notice more connections or threads woven through it by the use of repeated imagery and themes that deepen and illuminate your work. What do you like and/or dislike about this short poetry form?  

AF:  That’s actually really interesting because I was working on my thesis (which turned into my forthcoming full length collection, All My Heroes Are Broke) when I was approached about publishing a chapbook. I had another project I was working on which was about chapbook length, but ultimately decided to construct something from the poems in my thesis instead. So while I didn’t write it as a chapbook, or with a chapbook in mind, I had a lot to work with which presented ample opportunities to create connects and threads throughout. It was difficult but also a lot of fun, essentially paring 60 pages of poems down to 20, and then trying to figure out an order. I think I decided on the title first, for example, so that set the opening poem and closing poem in place, and I just worked my way inwards from there.

What I love about chapbooks is their ability to create and sustain these threads throughout the poems, whatever they may be. I don’t want to say it’s easier to do in chapbook than a full length book because I don’t want to diminish it, but it does make more sense to do that in a smaller space. I think that’s part of the reason why chapbooks are becoming more popular. It’s a slightly different medium where one can accomplish something different, and there are a lot of talented poets out there publishing very cool, very strange, and very beautiful chapbooks.

 In your poems you mention the poets Baudelaire, Bukowski, Lorca, and James Wright. Are these some of your favorite poets, or ones that particularly influenced you, and if so, can you tell us what you particularly admire about them? Or if these are not favorite poets of yours, what are some of your favorite or most influential poets, and why?

AF:  They’re poets that I’ve read pretty well at different points in my life. Of those, James Wright has had the biggest influence on me, even for the style of these kinds of poems— engaging with them directly instead of just writing a poem in their style, or after them, which seems more common. I’m thinking, for example, of Wright’s “As I Step Over A Puddle At The End Of Winter, I Think Of An Ancient Chinese Governor,” which alludes to Po Chu-I (another poet I really love). I also got this from Campbell McGrath, one of my teachers and mentors, who is always bringing in poets of the past into in his own poems whether it's James Wright or Richard Hugo or Emily Dickinson or Frank O’Hara. I think seeing it in his work sort of gave me permission to do it in my own, and it’s a lot of fun. Not to mention it gave me more poets to look up and read when I was younger. Reading Campbell’s “James Wright, Richard Hugo, the Vanishing Forests of the Pacific Northwest” was the first time I had heard of those two poets, for example.

Also, a lot of it is just true, and I often use that as a jumping off point for poems. Where it takes me is another story but I did find that Baudelaire book and mail it to someone that never got it, and I was reading James Wright on the L when that dude started throwing up on himself.

What drew you to poetry?  What inspires you to write poetry?

AF:  I didn’t start writing poetry until I started college. I’d been reading incessantly since I learned how to read, though I never read poetry until my senior year of high school. In AP English, I remember hating T.S. Eliot but really enjoying Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath and that was pretty much it. Going into college, I knew that being just a reader wasn’t a real thing, so I figured writing was the logical progression. Though I’d mostly read fiction and novels, I had no interest in writing it, at all. It seemed strange at the time, but I found absolutely no correlation between reading fiction and wanting to write it, whereas reading even just that little bit of poetry (most of it being The Waste Land, which again, I hated) seemed to just make more sense to me, I think because it struck me more as a sense-making endeavor. I could obviously understand why people read novels but I couldn’t fathom why someone would want to write one, whereas poetry right away made sense from both angles.

I remember before taking an Intro to Creative Writing course in my first semester of college, I went to Barnes and Noble to check out the poetry section (I guess even then, I knew I had to read more poetry in order to ever get good at it) to see if I could something that would interest me. First, I found Emily Dickinson’s collected poems (the affordable B&C classics version, which I still love). Then, in a moment of befuddlement and sheer job, I found Plath’s Ariel which I had no idea existed. Imagining thinking “I’ll give this poetry thing a try” and then finding your own name on a book by one of only three poets you’ve read. I took this as a good omen and signed up for a workshop almost every semester in undergrad, and just kept writing, which was great because I had failed chemistry and college algebra in my first semester, and switched my major from Marine Biology to English (long story).

What inspires me to write poetry is just the desire to make sense of my life, which I think is the source of a lot of art. It’s as reflective and analytical as it is creative for me, so when I get it right I feel like I have created something and solved something else.

 I wanted to ask you about the poem “Perhaps it Wasn’t Such a Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Salinger’s story that is referenced in the epigraph is so haunting, and I found your poem haunting as well. The ending image stuck with me, of the “I” of the poem searching the hotel windows, “ears perked / for the sound of a muffled gunshot.” But I was equally struck by the image near the center of the poem, where, after seeing this man at the beach who “stands in the foam staring at his feet, / hiding his toes in the cold froth,” you say, “I lay Salinger’s / ‘Nine Stories’ in the bird-pocked sand.” The poem doesn’t spell out what the story of the man standing in the ocean might be, or of the other person in the poem who is reading Salinger’s “Nine Stories.” Yet they’re connected by being in the same place at this exact moment. And by how the man standing in the ocean suggests the male character in Salinger’s story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which is a story in the collection “Nine Stories.” The “muffled gunshot” in the poem also echoes the ending of Salinger’s story, where the troubled man leaves the beach, goes into his hotel room and shoots himself.

But I’m curious about why the “I” of the poem lays the story collection “in the bird-pocked sand.” We don’t know if he lays it there temporarily, or is, as it were “done” with the book, himself haunted by the story. I had the curious idea that maybe the “reader” I’ll call him/her, thinks this man on the beach is troubled in some way, and that maybe this book of stories is just what he might need. I’m curious what you meant to suggest by his laying of the book in the sand. It’s such an evocative image, as is the effect of the scene of this beach mirroring the scene in Salinger’s story.

AF:  This is a really great question and I feel bad that I can’t give a very long answer to it. On the one hand, I think he’s putting the book down to reflect. Given the setting of the story, I think he is perhaps imagining that he is on the very same beach that Seymour killed himself on and is maybe revisiting the story in his head, imposing it on his current surroundings. I think he sees the man hiding his toes in the water, that’s for the reader (also hopefully reminiscent of Seymour accusing the woman in the elevator of staring at his toes). I like the idea of the reader thinking the book might help this troubled man but the “I” is too lost in thought to notice him, unfortunately.

In your 2014 “Gulf Stream Literary Magazine” interview with Tony Hoagland, he says at one point in the conversation, “Poems are like clues that have been left for us along the road, little packages that have been left which anybody might find.  You might read a poem, like I did, by W.S. Merwin, many years ago and say, ‘this man knows what I’ve been looking for, and he’s saying what I’ve been waiting for somebody to tell me.’ Our contemporary poems have the obligation to do that too.”

Do you agree with Hoagland’s idea, and what do you envision or hope your poems tell its readers?

AF:  Oh yeah, I definitely agree with Tony there. I mean, I think that’s just a fun way of explaining why we love poems so much. When you read a poem that really resonates with you, it truly does feel as though the poet has some kind of secret insight into your life. How could they know this is exactly how I feel? Right? But it also acknowledges the extreme subjectability of poetry. There could a poem out there that everyone is raving about, but you don’t find it to be particularly good or interesting or resonant. It could be that that poem is not a clue for you.

What I hope for my poems, in the hands and eyes of readers, is to create a space or atmosphere for the mind to occupy. I think of them as tiny episodes of a very weird show— the episodes cumulate not necessarily into a cohesive story but into a larger space. I’m not sure if that makes sense but I hope people keep watching.

I read that you are the editor-in-chief of “Gulf Stream Literary Magazine,” and a reader for “The Indianola Review.” What are some of the elements you look for in submissions, that make a poem memorable for you?

AF:  Speaking broadly, my favorite kinds of poems are those that seem to communicate a genuine human experience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something true. I know the speaker or the “I” in a poem isn’t always the poet, but I want to believe or be convinced that it is. I want to believe that when reading a poem, the person speaking to me is an actual person telling me something that’s very important to them. Why is this thing important? Maybe I’m not sure, but if I believe that it is, I will reread it for reasons.

What poets and/or collections are you currently reading, and can you tell us what you particularly like about them?

 AF:  Oh, too many to name! I’ve been revisiting Phil Levine, though mostly his collected interviews and essays and various prose things. His work occupies a real world that I recognize very well (the working class struggle, etc.), so I’m always coming back to him in some way or another. Similarly, Adrian Matejka’s new “Map of the Stars” is a book I’ve been really loving this summer. He seems to dip into memory a lot in this book with poems about childhood, whether it’s wonder and curiosity (I too was obsessed with space as a kid) or the struggles of growing up poor, of feeling out of place in the place you call home. That’s always going to resonate with me.

I understand you have a forthcoming poetry collection called “All My Heroes Are Broke” that can be pre-ordered now, and released by C&R Press in September.  Congratulations! Can you tell us a little about this new book?

AF:  The book has epigraph from the rap group Atmosphere, which I think sums it up pretty well: “I ain’t saying that you never had to struggle for a buck or some luck or some love, motherfucker join the club.” The poems are essentially about a life in search of these three things (hence being broke, in more than one sense), not necessarily finding them, and not necessarily giving up. Briefly, it’s about being a first generation American and finding that everything kinda sucks.

Do you have any new projects you are currently at work on?

AF:  I’m grinding away at my second book, and I have poems towards a third and a fourth (they don’t make sense together). I’m translating some of my dad's poems into English, which is a really interesting experience. I’m also maybe working on a chapbook of poems inspired by Cowboy Bebop. And, of course, I am looking for a job.

* * *

You can read several of Ariel Francisco's poems below:


Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys photography and traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of the poetry collection Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014), and five chapbooks, most recently Into the Fire (Blue Lyra Press, 2016) and the collaborative  Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017). You can find her work in Rogue Agent, Blue Fifth Review, Heron Tree, The Ekphrastic Review, and America. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website: