Jena Schwartz: The Space Between Lives

“Wisdom is the ability to distinguish between things; to make sense out of confusion.”


I met my wife in the space between lives. Both of our marriages to men had ended. In the name of sovereignty, we’d also severed the transitional relationships with other women that had respectively followed classic trajectories from headlong to toxic. In fact, we’d supported each other in making healthy and self-respecting decisions via a secret online group, where for months we’d shared words and photos from the front lines of our hearts and daily lives, along with a dozen or so other women from around the country. What we didn’t know is that we’d wind up together.

We met in the space between, with no suspicion that our meeting was in fact a kind of reaching for the other side of a chasm. On the one side was a heterosexual marriage going into its eleventh year, homeownership—a sweet house on a cul-de-sac, no less—and the apparent ease that is borne of fitting into social norms. Across that canyon stretched the unknown, where to be true to myself meant walking away from life as I knew it. The decision to leave my marriage felt a lot like jumping out of a plane, naked, without a parachute. After I realized I was gay, I spent three months gazing over the edge, feeling like I was going to throw up. I lost 15 pounds and had an affair with the woman who had drawn my genie out of her bottle, never to be stifled back inside. It was exhilarating and shattering, all at the same time.

The woman who would become my wife was in a similar period of loss and reclamation; she, too, had left her husband and suffered the consequences, facing an ugly divorce. And she, too, had moved into and then beyond a passionate but short-lived relationship. I suppose you could say we’d chosen these outcomes, but it would be true only in the sense of the things that choose us when we surrender to the rapids instead of the fighting the current of our lives. Sometimes diving into the waves is the best way not to drown. We’d done just that, and were now emerging. Little did we know, life was leading us to each other.

Meeting in person for the first time was like feeling feet on solid ground again after so much disorientation and reorientation. I remember having this profound realization—at least it felt profound at the time, though in hindsight I wonder if it’s obvious—that “sexual orientation” really does have everything to do with how we see and face the world. In coming out, my entire worldview, my perception and experience of friendships, my neighborhood, even my own body moving through space, had changed in ways that felt impossible to describe and equally impossible to overlook. It was not dissimilar to how I felt after giving birth to each of my two children. The air was different. My cells were different. My knowing of myself was wider and deeper, both more anchored and more expansive than before, while at the same time massively reconfigured.

By the time we met that January day when she picked me up at the Phoenix airport with a carful of women—she later told me she’d insisted on driving, practically fought a friend for dibs, but couldn’t pinpoint why she’d been so stubborn about it—we were both ready for a new kind of love: Love that would not make demands, would not hold us hostage, and would not manipulate or coerce or demean. In other words, we were ready for one-night stands with no strings attached. Ready for ease.

That was nearly six years ago. We just celebrated our third anniversary.

*

This morning, in the space between sleeping and waking, I shimmied my backside up against her, my ass against her belly. The other night I said something about spooning and she quipped, “Put your peaches in my spoon,” then we both cracked up. “Did you just make that up?!” I asked her. She had. Her brain makes me as happy as her body.

She is the spoon to my peach, the dark to my light, the light to my new moon when I cry, when I can’t see where I am. “You are right here,” she tells me, and every time, I choose to believe her. When she tells me everything is ok, I choose to believe her. I begin to believe this without asking, though it’s always nice to hear.

*

They didn’t believe me at first. “How can you be sure?” an in-law asked. “It’s a trend these days,” said one acquaintance. “It’s because you live in Vermont.” “Sexuality is fluid.” “It might just be a phase.” “You’re having a mid-life crisis.” “Don’t throw away your marriage.” “You’ve never even kissed a woman.” While there was no shortage of opinions, some were more encouraging: “Do you want to have a near-life experience?” asked a friend, twenty years my senior, from her unique vantage point as a self-described “seasoned old dyke.”

Even before my lips had touched another woman’s, my 36-year-old body had revealed to me its lifelong secret, and denying it evoked an inner fury I didn’t know I possessed. I tried to keep my life from unraveling by avoiding physical contact with the woman I’d fallen for; I attempted to dance around the truth six ways to Sunday, but it kept waiting for me on Monday morning. Once I knew what I knew, I cried every time my husband and I had sex. Both of us were devastated. And while my parents implored me to stay—“for the kids” and to “keep the family unit intact”—I knew with every fiber of my being that coming out was ultimately for them as much as it was for me. Years of being good fell around me like a house of cards.
Staying meant leaving.

All of this said, it’s important that you understand this: I didn’t know until I knew. My innocence had taken many forms: Domestic goddess, breast-feeding mama, dinner-maker, serial seeker always looking to belong. I felt like I found my people when I went to my first coaching training in my late twenties.  I felt it again at a Hillel conference, dancing in a circle with hundreds of Jews. I felt it among women, always among women, and yet never once stopped to think, “Huh.”

But that’s not the whole truth, and this is where innocence gets a little murky. “Not in this lifetime,” I told myself, and I did count myself blessed. I had two amazing healthy kids and a supportive marriage. We wanted the best for each other—but I also lamented that I wouldn’t get to see what it was like, that mysterious wistful thing called “being with another woman.” I was not in the closet; I didn’t even know there was a closet. The thought that I was sexually curious was so confined, so compartmentalized, so totally cut off from felt experience. In my imagination, maybe it could be a one-time thing, something to get out of my system. I came to see later that it existed somewhere outside of my body—in a small, airtight box off to the far right of my consciousness.

When I got tired of being chronically depressed and unsatisfied by what by all rights looked like a perfectly lovely life, I went back to therapy. “I feel like I’m sitting on a landmine,” I told the therapist. “And I want to know what it is.” Several months after embarking on this search for what I did not yet know but was determined to discover, I sat on another woman’s couch reading Yeats, our feet touching lightly, out way past my bedtime while my husband lay in our bed, wondering where I was. The next day, listening to a mixed CD she’d made for me, the landmine exploded. I was alone in our blue RAV4 on my way to pick up our four- and seven-year-old children. And I just knew. I punched the steering wheel and sobbed as Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” played over and over. My whole life made sense to me in a matter of seconds.

*

When your body tells you something, believe her.

“Everything is okay,” she reminds me, when doubt rolls in like so much fog some mornings.

I choose to believe her. I choose to believe myself. I no longer feel the need to explain.

*

I lie in bed in the morning, listening to summer rain on the bedroom skylight, drifting in and out of sleep. I like it when she tells me I reach for her in the night. I like knowing that my love is real and not something I’ve invented, not a waking lie I have to convince myself of.

The sleeping body doesn’t lie.

In the space between lives, I had to come to learn—and unlearn—all the ways I’d practiced lying to myself and others. It’s subtle and sneaky—an orientation, if you will, and one I’d mastered not because of any special skill but as a result of years of repetition. Two things can happen when you do a lot of something for many years: One is that you get really good at it. The other is that you can cause injury, to yourself and others. For me, both were true.

I didn’t mean to lie. I meant to be good: A good wife to my husband. A good mama to my small children. A good friend. I smoked cloves behind buildings. I started a blog. I started writing a book, but couldn’t figure out what it was about. I “went out” a lot, usually with my journal and a hidden pack of smokes. I loved my life—but I was missing in action, searching myself out in ways something deep within me knew would require leaving.

*

I have two lifelines on my left palm. My ex-husband does, too. For years, I’d study them, musing about this odd mark we seemed to share and wondering what would happen. Something had to break but I found myself unable to imagine its form. Illness? Death?

*

Not two years into our life together, my wife got so sick we didn’t know if she’d survive. An anaphylactic reaction to a piece of baklava nearly killed her, and months later finally resulted in a diagnosis of Mast Cell Activation Disorder, sometimes called an “orphan disease” due its rarity, followed by a severe neuropathy in her feet that kept her housebound and bedridden for months. Not six months after our wedding day, she was barely able to walk from the bed to the bathroom, much less work or enjoy our new marriage. Some days, I cried out of sheer fear and exhaustion. What if this was it? Her illness brought us both to our knees in prayer, if in different forms, and taught us how to stay—in the body, in relationship with each other as spouses and partners and lovers, and in life. Roles neither of us would have volunteered for became opportunities to root down, not fight or flee reality.

Now she is healing and in some ways, we are beginning again, newly aware of how everything can change, can be taken away in an instant. Now the between space we wake to each day is one where we inhabit life unfolding, where love is really love and the notion of unconditional presence has been tested and strengthened by the fire of our first years together.

*

A footnote in a prayer book tells us that the light and the dark are not separate realms, and that the Hebrew word for “between” has its roots in “understanding.” Whatever it is that governs our deepest knowing stitches day and night together. The seams are invisible, requiring no explanation. Hers is the last face I see before we turn out the lights, and the first when I open my eyes each morning. And my heart, too, has stitched itself up.

There will always be a break between my life lines, reminding me that stepping into the space between things is a necessary and unavoidable part of any creative act. And by taking action, by surrendering to the body’s knowing along with whatever life is asking of me, confusion will clear and clear seeing will follow. It’s only a matter of time.

***

Jena Schwartz is a poet, promptress, and author of creative nonfiction who creates and facilitates online and in-person spaces that offer fierce encouragement for writing practice and the creative process. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with her wife and two children. Visit her blog and website at www.jenaschwartz.com.

JenaStrong-6

 

Issue 15: Behind the Scenes

For Issue 15, Sliver of Stone welcomes four new editors!

POETRY – Born and raised in Colombia, Stella Hastie now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. She writes in many genres and her work reflects her experiences as a Colombian-American who observes, explores, and questions the world from a variety of perspectives. Stella holds a BA and an MA in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  Her poetry has appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Sanskrit, Listen Listen, Huellas, and she’s had several articles published in local newspapers and magazines.

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NONFICTION – Timothy Laurence is a Research Assistant at the Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College. He is the author of the forthcoming essay collection, How to Make White People Happy, and has written essays and stories for numerous publications including The New Welsh Review, Catapult, Fourth River, Ninth Letter and Grist. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University Wales.

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Timothy Laurence

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FICTION – Tanya Perkins is assistant professor of English and coordinator of creative writing at Indiana University East, where she teaches fiction, composition, professional/technical writing.  An MFA from Murray State University, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including The Woven Tale PressFiction Southeast, The Raleigh Review, Big Muddy, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Forge,  and others. She lives in eastern Indiana with her husband, daughter and assorted four-legged critters.

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Tanya Perkins

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POETRY – Lis Sanchez has fiction and poetry in Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review, Puerto del Sol, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere.  She is a recipient of a Writer’s Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Greensboro Review Award for Fiction, the Eyster Prize for Fiction, the Lullwater Review Prize for Poetry and the Prairie Schooner Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing.  Lis holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia, including specialties in Creative Writing and Contemporary Latino Literature in the U.S.

Sliver of Stone: Issue 15

Visual Art by Henry Hu and Fabrice Poussin. Nonfiction by Rachel Richardson and Jena Schwartz. Poetry by Jennifer A. Reimer, Robert Beveridge, CL Bledsoe, Susan J. Erickson, Karen L. George, Barbara Laiolo-March (here and here), and January Pearson. Fiction by Leah Browning, Elise Glassman, Ken Poyner, and Mika Yamamoto. New Publication: Jennifer McCauley and Susanna Lang. Behind the Scenes with Sliver of Stone editors.

VISUAL ART

NONFICTION

POETRY

FICTION

NEW PUBLICATIONS

Issue 15: New Publications

Congratulations to Jennifer McCauley, Sliver of Stone‘s fiction editor, for the publication of her poetry-prose collection SCAR ON / SCAR OFF (Stalking Horse Press).

The final cover is done and the book is available to order on the press website and at all major bookstores online.

 

 

Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s SCAR ON / SCAR OFF runs the borderlands of mestiza consciousness, by turns neon-lit and beating, defiant and clashing, searching and struggling, in fistfuls of recognition, in constant pursuit of intersections and dualities. Drawing on Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, and the inspirations of her late friend Monica A. Hand, through polyglossia and hybrid text, McCauley evokes vividly the relationships between psyche and city, identity and language. In the rhythm and snap of these poems and fragmentary stories, we find echoes of Sarah Webster Fabio, Beyonce, flamenco, Nikki Giovanni, street slang, danger and hope. This is a profound collection, a rebel language.

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Columbia, Missouri. She holds or has previously held editorial positions at The Missouri Review, Origins Journal, and The Florida Book Review, amongst other outlets, and has received fellowships from Kimbilio, CantoMundo, the Knight Foundation, and Sundress Academy of the Arts. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Award and has appeared in Passages North, Puerto del Sol, Split this Rock: Poem of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF will be published by Stalking Horse Press in fall 2017.

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We’re also very proud of Sliver of Stone contributor, Susanna Lang, whose poetry collection, Travel Notes from the River Styx, is now available from Terrapin Books.

“In the earnest and beautiful Travel Notes from the River Styx, Susanna Lang peers into the tiny mirrors of a river’s current, the mirror her father cannot see himself in, the rearview mirror in which she spies sandhill cranes on an afternoon drive as she interrogates the natural and, at times, unnatural world. The result is a collection of double images: the moon a “copper coin with the sheen worn off,” “the flag [that] slips down the pole,” the country where her grandmother was born once called Russia, now Ukraine. As clear in its language as it is rich in argument, there’s something for everyone in Travel Notes, for travelers are exactly what this poet proclaims we are. It’s impossible to read this collection without wondering what doubles wait/lurk/reside beneath the skin of our bodies and of our world.”

–Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Susanna Lang is the author of Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013) and Even Now (The Backwaters Press, 2008). She has also published two collections of her translations of poems by Yves Bonnefoy, Words in Stone (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976) and The Origin of Language (George Nama, 1979). A two-time Hambidge Fellow and recipient of the Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Bethesda Writer’s Center, she has published her poems and essays in such journals as New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Green Mountains Review, and Poetry East. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.

One of the poems was featured recently on Verse Daily and another will be featured on American Life in Poetry next summer.

Issue 14 Interviews

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and the 2016 Florida Book Award bronze medal for poetry. She has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, and her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2015, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, and more.

Marci was interviewed by Yaddyra Peralta for Sliver of Stone.

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Jan Becker is from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. She didn’t stay there very long. She grew up in a Marine Corps family, on military bases all over the United States, and wandered the US for many years before settling in South Florida. She is currently an MFA candidate at Florida International University, and has taught courses there in composition, technical writing, creative writing and poetry. Her work has appeared in Jai-Alai Magazine, Colorado Review, Emerge, Brevity Poetry Review, Sliver of Stone, and the Florida Book Review. She was the winner of the 2015 AWP Intro Journals Award in Nonfiction. Her first book, The Sunshine Chronicles was published by Jitney Books in 2016.

Jan was interviewed for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

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Issue 14: Behind the Scenes

Do you ever wonder what Sliver of Stone editors are up to, when they’re not feverishly reading, editing, or soliciting work from writers? We invite you behind the scenes of our magazine.

NICHOLAS GARNETT, Nonfiction Editor

Nick Garnett and co-producer Esther Martinez continue their work on Miami’s home-grown true story live reading event, Lip Service, which is now produced by Miami Book Fair. Upcoming events include an open-mic night on April 27 and Lip Service’s next stage show, on May 20 at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables. The submission period for the May 20 show runs until April 16. For submission guidelines, visit Lipservicestories.com.

FABIENNE JOSAPHAT, Fiction Editor

Fabienne is on a sabbatical this time around, so that she can focus on her next novel.

A French translation of Dancing In the Baron’s Shadow will be released in Europe this summer. The novel is set in Haiti in 1965, during the repressive and brutal regime of François Duvalier, aka Papa Doc, aka Baron Samedi. The Miami Herald describes it as “an ambitious and impressive first novel, a love letter to Haiti and its people, a tale of two brothers who repeatedly manage to find their way back to each other — and to redemption.”

JENNIFER MARITZA MCCAULEY, Fiction Editor

Jennifer is everywhere! Here’s a link to all the literary journals she works with.

Jennifer’s cross-genre poetry collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF will be published with Stalking Horse Press this fall. More soon!

She’s currently on a sabbatical.

Jennifer

JUSTIN BENDELL, Fiction Editor

Justin is doing it all, and telling it all in this short Q&A:

Q: Justin, Do you have any writing projects outside of Sliver of Stone?

A: As a matter of fact, I do. In New Mexico, where I live, I have started a literary journal called Manzano Mountain Review. The journal is exclusively online, at least for now, and it seeks writing from former and current New Mexico residents. This isn’t a very wide net, I admit, but we are going to see what kind of subs we get for issue 1. If we feel the need to widen the pool, we will do so. 

If you’ve ever lived in New Mexico, please send us your poems, fiction under 3000 words, creative nonfiction, or visual art! 

If not, I encourage you to check us out at manzanomountainreview.com . Our first issue will debut online November 1, 2017.  

Q: Sounds terrific. Anything else?

A: Yes! A friend and I are developing a noir/crime fiction podcast. It is still in the early planning stages, but our goal will be to chat about / analyze  one critically-acclaimed novel or story collection each month. When we get it up and running, I’ll spread the word. 

Q: You’re certainly keeping busy. 

A: Yeah, I also have a black metal e.p. coming out in April, but that’s for another venue.

justin at todds for bfast

Justin at Todd’s for breakfast

MJ FIEVRE, Founding Editor

MJ’s short play, “If You’re an Orange,” will be produced in South Florida this spring, as part of an event organized by Compositum Musicae Novae (CMN) at the Pinecrest Gardens‘s outdoor amphitheater.

“If You’re an Orange…” is a two-character poetic play about chronic depression.

Who’s involved in the production?

Amy Coker is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she studied Literature, Shakespeare, and Modern Drama. She is the Literary & Programs Manager at City Theatre, as well as an actor and director. Amy most recently stage managed and assistant directed for Mad Cat Theatre. She was recently seen directing for the One-Minute Play Festival and various staged readings, and onstage in Sol Theatre’s The Christmas Carol. Next up Amy will be directing and producing two plays at the Ft. Lauderdale Fringe Festival.

Robert Fritz is a graduate of the University of Miami where he received his BFA in Musical Theatre. He is a member of the Miami Children’s Museum’s team of theatre-makers. He was recently seen around South Florida in See Rock City with Evening Star Productions, The Normal Heart with Outre Theatre, and A Christmas Carol with Actor’s Playhouse. Next up Robert will be seen onstage at the Ft. Lauderdale Fringe Festival, and in Rock Odyssey at the Arsht Center.

Gladys Ramirez is professional director and actor in South Florida. Offstage, she is in her third season as the Artistic Director of The Project [theatre], Miami’s only site-specifc and immersive theatre company. Onstage, she has played with Gablestage, City Theatre, Island City Stage, The Stage Door, Mangrove Creative Collective, Promethean Theatre, Fantasy Theatre Factory, and Parade Productions. A Miami native, she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from New World School of the Arts.

A note from MJ: “Universe, listen to me, and listen to me good: Writing TV scripts and plays; that’s what makes me happy: That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life: That’s how I want to make a living. You heard me, Universe. Now, make it happen.”

Gladys Ramirez

HOLLY MAYES, Art Editor

Holly is staying busy and healthy.

Holly Mayes

BETTY JO BURO, Nonfiction Editor

Betty Jo Buro talks about her first AWP Conference:

Q: What took you so long to get to AWP?

A: It’s usually in February, somewhere cold, and I prefer not to go places where heavy outerwear is required. Layers make me sad. Plus, I always assumed AWP would overwhelm me. This year, my arm was twisted, I was promised the hotel connected to the convention center, giving me the option to stay completely indoors, and I caved.

Q: So, was it overwhelming?

A: Well, walking the aisles of the Book Fair and recognizing all the literary magazines and journals that have sent me rejections was a little overwhelming. But, I did get to meet some editors who had published my work, and that was cool.

Q: What surprised you?

A: With all the talk of books disappearing in the digital age, you can’t help but leave AWP feeling the opposite, feeling optimistic. Books were everywhere. Books are being published. The book, I’m relieved to report, is alive and well.

Q: What were the highlights for you?

A: I enjoyed the panels, but for me, it was the smaller moments–making new friends with writers in the Starbuck’s line, a Roxane Gay sighting in the lobby bar, a Dim Sum lunch I’m still thinking about, a spontaneous anti-travel ban protest on the book fair floor, hanging with old MFA friends, and witnessing people I love sign their books. The very best part? Being asked by the awesome folks at Cherry Tree magazine to read from one of my essays at Bus Boys and Poets. That night I layered up and ventured out. That night was magical.

Betty Jo

JUBI ARRIOLA-HEADLEY, Copyeditor Extraordinaire

Jubi has been focusing on his poetry, taking two online poetry classes at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. He’s become a reader for By and By Poetry (www.byandbylit.org), for one.  AND he’s been accepted into the poetry workshop at the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices this summer in Los Angeles! We’re very excited for him.

Jubi

THOMAS LOGAN, Comics Editor

Thomas is off the grid, devoting himself to his upcoming video games podcast with geek-world experts AJ and Richard. More soon!

Thomas

YADDYRA PERALTA, Poetry Editor

From Yaddyra: “Throughout the year, I work as Assistant Director of Palm Beach Poetry Festival which is going into its 14th year in 2018. While we offer community outreach programs throughout the year, the main event takes place on the week of Martin Luther King Jr Day at Old School Square in Delray Beach. This year, we offered daily poetry workshops in the morning, craft talks in the afternoon and evening poetry readings with poets David Baker, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Tina Chang, Lynn Emanuel, Daisy Fried, Terrance Hayes, Dorianne Laux, Carl Phillips, and Martha Rhodes. Putting together this many events and making sure all the parts fit is a lot of work, but as a poet, it’s a pleasure to witness Terrance Hayes reading new and unpublished poems; to realize I’ve lived this long without reading David Baker’s muscular and compassionate poetry; to hear Lynn Emmanuel discuss the structure of a book via Langston Hughes’s Selected Poems. We already have the lineup for 2018. Keep an eye on our website palmbeachpoetryfestival.org in the next few weeks for news!”

Photo credit: Old School Square in Delray Beach by Owen McGoldrick.

HECTOR DUARTE JR., IN-TRANSLATOR EDITOR

From Hector:

“I’m glad to be finally graduating this spring from Florida International University’s Creative Writing MFA program. For a second there, I thought it would never happen. Then again, a lot of things happened this past year–globally and otherwise–that I thought never would.

Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts, former flash fiction editors at The Flash Fiction Offensive, were kind enough to ask me to take over as editor there while they buggered off to write their epic novels.

Why, of all people, they picked me, I still can’t figure out. I’m forever grateful, though, and having a blast doing it.

My co-editor is Rob Pierce, a mean mutha out of NorCal.

We’d like to entice–or strong-arm–you to submit a story. Here’s the link: https://outofthegutteronline.submittable.com/submit.

Do it now!”

Hector

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: Hour of the Ox

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and the 2016 Florida Book Award bronze medal for poetry. She has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, and her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2015, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, and more.

Marci was interviewed by Yaddyra Peralta for Sliver of Stone.

Miami poet Marci Calabretta at her home in Coral Gables.
By Scott McIntyre

Without giving away too many secrets, can you talk about Hour of the Ox as a book project? You have created a world that seems all at once imagined, mythical and palpably real. How did this book begin to take shape?

A lot of research went into this book. It started with a few seed poems that dictated the loose narrative of the collection, and as I wrote more poems toward the manuscript, I began to see patterns and holes in the narrative where a poem idea could fit. I like to throw everything into my work to see what juxtapositions come out, so research included reading historical narratives and news articles about the inhabitants of Jeju, Korean folklore, watching Youtube videos of the pearl divers singing, and eating a lot of tangerines. A lot of these poems exist in liminal spaces between the real and imagined.

The first poem in the book is “Anti-Elegy” which reads almost as a catalog of losses and gratitudes. If the anti-elegy were a form, how would you define it?

That’s a great question. I’m not sure such a form would be the perfect opposite to an elegy. I love the idea of a catalog of losses and gratitudes, which in “Anti-Elegy” are the same. I’m very interested in things that appear to be opposites but are more like slant-binaries, if you will. For example, cows and horses, milk and orange juice, love and violence. All of those things might be classed in the same categories or as opposites, depending on context. I would like to think a poetry form like the anti-elegy would capture those pairings in such a catalog. I also think that the list of objective images would create some sort of powerful emotional landscape that adds up to something much deeper than mere grieving. To me, this particular poem serves as a twin for “Songs of Thirst: Six Sijo” and is much like the memory orbs in Pixar’s Inside Out, where a memory is made more complex by the multitude of emotions one can simultaneously feel. I prefer my poems to create an emotional atmosphere through concrete imagery, and while “Anti-Elegy” functions as epigraph, catalog, and cast list for the rest of the manuscript, it also requires real engagement from the reader to know what sort of emotional response they are supposed to have.

One thing that you captured here is the sense of a culture–not just the culture of a nation or ethnicity but also the culture of a family and/or a place–and, in this case, a matriarchal culture. The women in the book figure prominently, while the men move almost like shadows. A lot of this book, I gather, is inspired by the pearl divers of Jeju Island. What about the haenyeo inspired you to write poems?

When I started writing these poems, I was interested in exploring an aspect of Korean history that I had never before had access to as a Korean American adoptee. But then I stumbled upon a New York Times article about the South Korean “sea women” who became the breadwinners and shifted the economic balance on the island. I was enamored of these women in their fifties and sixties who had become such public pillars of the island’s culture by taking the most demeaning jobs. They are also physically powerful. I certainly can’t hold my breath for three minutes while freediving. Pearl-diving is a dying art, too, as the younger generations move on to other careers and these women grow older. The intersectionality of personal family obligations and culture duties within a collectivist society always fascinates me, and I wanted these poems to be able to simultaneously explore both this slice of Korean history and the idea of personal and national duty. The great poet Marilyn Chin once said, “The personal is political.” Within a single family’s experience can resonate many facets of both the history and spirituality of a whole culture.

An interesting aspect of a lot of these poems are the macro-details. The poem “All the Sheep Have Scattered” includes images such as “your hair’s whorl” and “the light sewn into your skin” (which echoes the mother sewing “pearls into my skin” in “Old Country, New Country). I wondered how much of this had to do with influence, not just of your favorite poets or even teachers, but perhaps particular works you were reading while putting together the manuscript.

If I were to create a family tree of all the books that influenced this manuscript, I would certainly include Ai’s Collected Poems; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris; everything by Robert Hass; Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief; everything by John Keats; Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes from the Divided Country; everything by Li-Young Lee; Osip Mandelstam’s Stolen Air: Selected Poems; everything by Sylvia Plath; Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Departure; Richard Siken’s Crush; Tracy K. Smith’s The Body’s Question; Franz Wright’s The Beforelife; and Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects. From each of these books I saw something different that I wanted to learn, whether it was etherealizing line breaks, emotional landscapes, pinning an abstraction to a concrete image, or stringing a lyric sequence into a loose narrative. During these years, of course, I read too many books to name here, but I treated each text as a textbook, and each poem that came out of it as a kind of exam.

I remember you saying that you like book projects, which I gather to mean collections bound by a strong thematic or narrative thread. Any new book projects on the horizon?

Everything is still in the early stages at this point, but I have a few different projects in the works. I think I’ll forever be a project-based writer. I’ve been writing a series of lyric essays on Korean food, pop culture, and adoption; and always more poems about Korea.

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Marci serves as a program coordinator for Miami Book Fair and producer for The Working Poet Radio Show. www.marcicalabretta.com.

Kevin Perkins: Acrylic on Paper

Kevin Perkins is a painter living and working in Dallas, Texas. He received his BFA in Communication Design from Louisiana Tech University.

Cossatot (2016), Acrylic on Paper, 13″x9″

Perkins works with synthetic polymer paint on canvas, cotton and paper. Ever enthralled by the natural world, Perkins work conjures up traditional landscape paintings that tend to veer into abstraction.

Greybeard (2016), Acrylic on Paper, 13.5″ x 22″

Perkins’ work intends to evoke a dialogue with the natural landscape with an attentiveness to the present moment without being tied to the particularity of place.

Blue Light Special (2016), Acrylic on Paper, 11.5″ x 8.25″

Check out his website at www.kevinperkins.us.

Jan Becker: The Sunshine Chronicles

Jan Becker is from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. She didn’t stay there very long. She grew up in a Marine Corps family, on military bases all over the United States, and wandered the US for many years before settling in South Florida. She is currently an MFA candidate at Florida International University, and has taught courses there in composition, technical writing, creative writing and poetry. Her work has appeared in Jai-Alai Magazine, Colorado Review, Emerge, Brevity Poetry Review, Sliver of Stone, and the Florida Book Review. She was the winner of the 2015 AWP Intro Journals Award in Nonfiction. Her first book, The Sunshine Chronicles was published by Jitney Books in 2016.

Jan was interviewed for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

You recently defended your Masters thesis in creative nonfiction at FIU. It took you eight years to get through the program, but you somehow managed to also publish The Sunshine Chronicles before you defended. How did that happen?

The finished thesis is a collection of essays about “immigrating” to the United States after an abusive childhood in the Marine Corps. It’s a tough program at FIU, and the topic is one of the hardest to write about artfully. After about six years, I switched my focus from a book-length memoir to essay. When I inventoried my drafted work, I found I had enough to defend, and about three other books, but there was one integral piece missing that I needed to pull the collection together. It was the hardest essay I’ve ever written, because it’s about the darkest period of my life, after my stepfather’s death, when I was diagnosed with PTSD and plagued by persistent flashbacks. While I was struggling with that essay, I was going through a rough time personally. Over the course of about a year and a half, my best friend Michael died. I lost my grandmother, and six other people. I went into a deep depression. I couldn’t even look at the thesis during that period, and was finally at the point where I had no choice but to finish or be kicked out of the MFA program, when I was approached about working on The Sunshine Chronicles by my editor at Jitney Books, J.J. Colagrande.

J.J. likes to get things done quickly, whereas I’m more methodical about my work. Some of the essays in my thesis are ones I started working on eighteen years ago. It was a Hail Mary kind of deal. He was looking for one final book to get in the Jitney catalog so he could launch the press. I’d been told I had a book of Facebook posts that were unusual and interesting enough to publish as a book. I sent him the file, without even looking at it, and it turned out to be 2,455 pages of material. He did the work cutting that down to about a 350-page manuscript, but it needed more work, and I was stuck on the thesis with a deadline. And poor, J.J., I don’t think he knew what he was getting into when he approached me. That last essay thesis required me to go back and re-visit a lot of memories I’d been putting off dealing with. I was back in full-blown flashback mode, doing the best I could to get through, and had to tell him, back off. I’m going through something you can’t understand. He respected that I needed space to figure it out, and said, “Yeah, do what you need to do, and the new book will get done when you’re finished.” I’ll always be thankful to J.J. for seeing something in my writing, and having faith enough to say, “you can do this,” because at the time, I was hopeless.

Having the extra pressure on me—coupled with someone believing in my work when I couldn’t—and he wasn’t the only person who believed in my work, he was just the most pushy and vocal–freed me up to finish working on the final essay. I pounded out 5,800 words in a matter of a few hours and sent the manuscript in to my thesis director—who for the first time in eight years didn’t require any revisions. That gave me room to finish trimming back The Sunshine Chronicles. It’s strange, looking back at my writing in that book, that even when I wasn’t working on my thesis, I was writing—and more surprisingly, even when everything seemed dark, I was living.

You’re surprisingly funny in The Sunshine Chronicles, even when you’re writing about serious issues. Can you talk a little about humor?

It has a lot to do with the zeitgeist on social media. When something goes bad in the world, you’re suddenly exposed to overwhelming strife, drama, and competing voices on the internet. Some days I open my Facebook page and read through my newsfeed and I want to jump out the window, because everything feels so bleak and depressing. I can always laugh at absurdity, and the world I live in is extremely absurd. It’s tragic too. I don’t laugh at tragedy, but I can laugh at the situation in my laundry room, or my grandmother’s antics, even when nothing else is funny. There’s also something about approaching a serious topic with humor that is disarming to people who don’t agree with your politics or personal beliefs.

In hindsight, some of the things I wrote about in The Sunshine Chronicles are quite chilling and serious. For example, in one post I wondered what woke the presidential candidates up at 3AM, because I thought it would give the best indication of who they were as people, behind all the slick PR posturing. Now we know. It’s that Neiman Marcus pulled the Ivanka Trump line. That’s heartbreaking to me, and somehow prescient.

The Sunshine Chronicles reminds me a lot of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which was the bestselling book during the American Revolution. Ben Franklin was funny. He looked at the world around him and laughed, despite the terrible oppression of colonial society. I feel we’re due in the United States for a revolution of thought, and there’s got to be some humor in it if it’s going to reach those who view things from an angle obscured by fear and hatred. People are more willing to switch their gaze to a different perspective if it’s entertaining.

Can you talk a little about truth? One of the unusual things about your book is how honest it is. Where do you draw the line on what you share and what you keep hidden?

I try to be careful not to be hurtful with what I write about on social media. It’s not a place to air my grievances. The Winemaker Chronicles, a series of posts about a visitor who consistently overstays his welcome, is an exception to that rule, and he never paid rent while he was here, and was a pain in the ass. The worst houseguest ever. So, with him, it was a way to work out some frustration. I was much kinder to him in the book than he deserved. He’s since sent a cease and desist letter. That just makes me laugh, because there’s no way to shut Jan Becker up once I get started. I’m happy to say he was so disturbed by what I wrote about him that he canceled his annual visit this year.

I’m not afraid to expose my own dirt. I don’t care if people know I see a shrink, because my shrink is a lot crazier than I am, and more people need to see shrinks without feeling it’s something shameful. After growing up in a family with dark secrets, I have no issue with exposing myself, because it frees me up to live my truth, and there’s something empowering about accepting yourself as you are. I have nothing to be ashamed about. I’m human. I think a lot about the motto: E Pluribus Unum. To me, that not only means the United States is one country made up of many pieces, it means that out of all these pieces, one must be an individual. It shouldn’t be so hard to be open, but it’s liberating. No one can define you if you take the time and effort to define yourself.

More importantly, the consequences of being untruthful and too frightened to be honest are too staggering. In an age where one can’t trust the media, being honest with oneself and with one’s vantage point on the world is the only way left for writers to create a truer reality for the future. Even if it’s on my Facebook page. There’s this belief with creative nonfiction, that it’s all really a lie, because as a writer you tell people what you want them to believe. I look at it a little differently. I tell people what I want to believe, and in that way, I come as close as I can to rendering truth.

 

What It Means To Say Sally Hemings, by Ashley Jones

An excerpt from

magic city gospel cover (1)

Bright Girl Sally
Mulatto Sally
Well Dressed Sally
Sally With the Pretty Hair
Sally With the Irish Cotton Dress
Sally With the Smallpox Vaccine
Sally, Smelling of Clean White Soap
Sally Never Farmed A Day In Her Life
Available Sally
Nursemaid Sally
Sally, Filled with Milk
Sally Gone to Paris with Master’s Daughter
Sally in the Chamber with the President
Sally in the Chamber with the President’s Brother
Illiterate Sally
Capable Sally
Unmarried Sally
Sally, Mother of Madison, Harriet, Beverly, Eston
Sally, Mother of Eston Who Changed His Name
Sally, Mother of Eston Hemings Jefferson
Eston, Who Made Cabinets
Eston, Who Made Music
Eston, Who Moved to Wisconsin
Eston, Whose Children Were Jeffersons
Eston, Who Died A White Man
Grandmother Sally of the White Hemingses
Infamous Sally
Silent Sally
Sally, Kept at Monticello Until Jefferson’s Death
Sally, Whose Children Were Freed Without Her

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ashley jones headshot

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University (FIU), where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. She served as Official Poet for the City of Sunrise, Florida’s Little Free Libraries Initiative from 2013-2015, and her work was recognized in the 2014 Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writer’s Exchange Contest and the 2015 Academy of American Poets Contest at FIU. She was also a finalist in the 2015 Hub City Press New Southern Voices Contest, the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award Contest, and the National Poetry Series. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in the Academy of American PoetsTupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, Fjords Review, Quiet Lunch, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, Night Owl, The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pluck!, Valley Voices: New York School Edition, Fjords Review: Black American Edition, PMSPoemMemoirStory (where her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016), Kinfolks Quarterly, Tough Times in America Anthology, and Lucid Moose Press’ Like a Girl: Perspectives on Femininity Anthology. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017. She serves as an editor of PANK Magazine, and she currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.