Poet/Professor/Organizer Lynnell Edwards Discusses Coveting, Community, and Literary Louisville

Lynnell Edwards will read with fellow poets Jennifer Militello, Rebecca Morgan Frank April 29th for Sarabande Books. We get three poets, probably because it’s NATIONAL POETRY MONTH, and I’m not complaining. Lynnell will read from her latest collection, Covet (Red Hen Press, 2011) and new work. You can find all three of her collections for sale at Red Hen Press here. Apart from her role as Associate Professor at Spalding University, Lynnell also fosters writing and literature in our community as president of Louisville Literary Arts (LLA) progenitors of the annual Writer’s Block festival and the InKY reading series which happens on the second Friday of each month at The Bard’s Town.

Brandon Stettenbenz: The poems in Covet embody the speaker in nature and in family, and in return those things are also embodied in them. Alternatively, the speaker is often likened closely to objects of sentimental value, and thus the speaker becomes knotted, woven, gilded, loved, worn, and ultimately coveted: “I am wrested in these vessels, / weaving, woven—/ small, nested baskets…” Did you set out to write poems that worked this way with the title as theme or did a body of poems from a certain period of writing later fit together under the mantle of “Covet”?

Lynnell Edwards:  For a long time with this manuscript, I really thought I just had a bunch of poems in a pile with no real reason for them to be together in a book.  And the original “pile” was much bigger.   The two sequences which you specifically reference here – “From the Catalog, Locust Grove Antique Show” (fall and spring) at one point constituted a chapbook, along with some persona poems related to Locust Grove.  There are also a handful of poems in dialogue with literary history, and the remnants of an “alphabet” series. At some point I realized that I really liked the one word title Covet and that, in fact, it was a kind of through-line for many of the poem. That made it easy to begin pulling poems from the pile and organizing them into the loose calendar order in which they now appear.

BS: These poems are written in a measured, relaxed way akin to calm wind or waves lapping the shore. The rhythm of these poems borders on meditation, or at least to me it seems as if the speaker is meditating upon the significance of objects, places, and people in her life. I get the impression from this book that close observation and reflection are important to you. As a poet what would you say about the importance of meditating (dedicating time to contemplation) to our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world around us?

LE:  Meditation. Wow. I wish I had both time and temperament for it.  I’ve been practicing yoga for, like, almost three years and while I’ve pretty much nailed handstand and crow pose I’m nowhere close to stilling my mind!  Those particular poems and the impetus for them — the small, descriptive tags that appear on items at an antique show and which convey some specific, historical information – struck me as little narrative bombs.  The jangling music and the energy of some of the line breaks (I hope) create enormous tension in them.  The poems that seemed to me the most qualitatively different to me in both their argument and in my own process of writing them are the three poems grouped as “Triptych for Early Spring.”  I was most conscious on those pieces of presenting images, maybe not entirely unlike the work of the historically defined “Imagist” movement in the early part of the 20th century, though they align themselves along the axis of desire that, I think, makes Covet cohere.

BS: Some of the pieces in Covet contain analogies or implied transformations of animal/weather to human and vice versa, and even furniture takes on human qualities as the speaker describes someone’s care and love in making, maintaining and cherishing the object. There is perhaps much said and more implied in these pieces about our interconnectedness with the greater world and our personal spheres. Could you talk a bit about what differences you see in the way we covet objects and heirlooms versus the ways in which we covet those close to us?

LE:  That’s interesting.  I think that yes, there’s coveting of both objects and relationships in this collection.  Broadly speaking, I think the admonitions historically against coveting (“Thou shalt not covet”) come from that dangerous tendency to covet a person with the same intentions as we might covet a thing, particularly when they are gone from us or prohibited.  The title comes from the last line in the opening poem and reads, “the now dead thing that I did covet.”  Which suggests that to covet something is to perhaps destroy it.

BS: Through the techniques mentioned previously, these poems carry in them not just one or another poignant emotion, but rather the complex and conflicting emotions common to the human experience. Thus the emotion of “want” is conveyed through hunting dogs, love becomes worry, calm solitude is also loneliness, and the (to quote an adage) “ravages of time” reflect internal struggle. Some poets have cited the marriage of the universal to the specific as a determiner for what makes poetry, and I see in your work (like that of William Carlos Williams, for example) closely observed environments, objects and individuals rendered to minute detail and specificity which convey universal themes. Assuming you agree with the specific + universal formula, do you also consider the admission of and struggle with internal conflict, and the complex nature of human emotion to be a major component of poetry?

LE:  Yes. I’d say that last sentence pretty much gets at a central project for poetry, along with perhaps a documentary project (particularly for poems of witness or history) or other, classical modes that memorialize in various ways.  I think that I’ve always been drawn to the narrative potential in poetry; my undergraduate and graduate school creative writing was always fiction (which I’ve returned to lately) and drama.  And so, for me, the specific tends to be the specific story, whether it’s found in an object or a person.

BS: You are currently the president of Louisville Literary Arts, the non-profit organization behind InKY and the annual Writer’s Block festival. Could you fill in our readers on your role as president, and what LLA does for literature in our city?

LE:  What LLA hopes to do for the city is to bring readers and writers together, to enrich and celebrate the literary landscape here. My role as president of an all-volunteer non-profit organization has been various.  I hosted InKY for its first two years at the Bard’s Town and I’ve been involved significantly in organizing the Writer’s Block Festival.  Like all our Board members I do a lot of big picture planning and development, as well as little stuff – like picking up postcards from Kinko’s or putting up posters for the Writer’s Block or stepping in as a guest host at InKY.  I’m a little hesitant to speculate about the specific impact LLA has had on the city in terms of the literary landscape, though I have noticed in the last three years particularly that perhaps we’ve reached some kind of critical mass that suddenly makes it seems like we’re a literary center. For instance, there are at least three two more independent reading series; there is your blog – which I don’t think would have been possible or as necessary three years ago; there is an additional significant publishing interest (Typecast); there are at least two more independent literary journals (that come to mind). Louisville, as a literary community “feels” a little different to me than Lexington, where I’ve spent a fair amount of time giving readings, workshops, and participating on the board of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. But I think the fact that we even have a “vibe” as a literary community is saying something we couldn’t say three years ago!

BS: Louisville Literary Arts is a non-profit providing literary culture and entertainment free of charge to the public, and in the future they hope to branch out with programs for younger writers, etc. They need our help to continue their amazing efforts. Lynnell, how can we help LLA continue its mission enrich our literary community?

LE: The organization is in an exciting, but critical period. We need significant resources (yup, I mean money) that would allow us to actually hire someone to take on a staff leadership role.  And we need some specialized volunteer expertise, too, that I won’t go into here. But more broadly supporting the literary arts in Louisville means not just attending a literary event, but inviting a friend who’s never been to a literary event such as a reading or to the Writer’s Block to come along. When I’ve brought friends to readings who enjoy other arts events but have never been to a literary event, they’re always so surprised at how much they enjoy it!  I think supporting the literary arts generally in Louisville does help individual organizations specifically.  Someone once mistakenly, though with good intentions, I’m sure, asked me whether or not I thought InKY was somehow in competition with another reading series! Ha! Of course not.   I think all boats rise with the tide, and for now, the more literary activity there is of all types, the more it adds to and nurtures the community.

Author’s bio from her website:   Lynnell Major Edwards is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Covet (October, 2011), and also The Farmer’s Daughter (2003) and The Highwayman’s Wife (2007), all from Red Hen Press.  Her short fiction and book reviews have appeared most recently in Connecticut Review, American Book Review, Pleiades, New Madrid, and others. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky where she is on the Board of Directors for Louisville Literary Arts, a non-profit literary arts organization that sponsors the monthly InKY reading series and The Writer’s Block Festival. She is also Associate Professor of English at Spalding University.

Poet Chris Mattingly Talks Rural Roots and Kentucky Blues in His New Collection “Scuffletown” (Typecast Publishing, 2013)

Poet Chris Mattingly, whose new collection Scuffletown (pre-order here) is forthcoming this month from Louisville’s own Typecast Publishing, will read April 20th 7:30pm at Seidenfaden’s (1134 E Breckinridge St  Louisville, KY 40204) with fellow Typecast authors Amanda Smeltz (who’s coming down from Brooklyn, NYC just for us!) and Matt Hart— a line-up not for the faint-of-heart.

 

Brandon Stettenbenz: TYPECAST PUBLISHING (Louisville, KY) has a unique approach to publishing. They create one-of-a-kind books and assemble them by hand, ensuring that each collection has its due as an artifact worthy of ownership. Can we get any spoilers about the design, presentation, or packaging of Scuffletown?

Chris Mattingly: It’s the size of a Moleskine cahiers journal—which is what all of the poems from the book were drafted in—and the cover was letterpressed at The Firecracker Press in St. Louis.  In terms of the printing, the cover has a deep impression, some gritty noise, and nice shades of color that conjure river clay, in my mind.  The book feels good to touch.  It feels substantial.

BS: Matt Hart recently told me that Jen Woods is a “really careful editor”, and I read once that she told M. Bartley Seigel “this is going to hurt” before taking the red pen to his This is What They Say manuscript. Assuming that the recollections and ruminations in Scuffletown are hard-lived truth or nearly so, do you think developing this personal collection with an invested, supportive editor like Jen was easier or more difficult, than it would have been with a less intimate press?

CM: Easier.  The personal connection to the editor—well, to be clear, editors because Lindsey Alexander actually did the bulk of the hands-on editing with Scuffletown—was important to me as a poet and person.  To be honest, I wanted for this book to come out of this region in every way possible. This is almost [from a] political urge to grow and cultivate things—not just food—locally.  That said, I do want the book to achieve an audience larger than the local region!  This is where aesthetics comes in: For a long time, I’ve respected what Jen has done with the magazine (Lumberyard) and the work she’s done on Typecast Publishing’s previous collections of poetry.  So even though the book was created almost wholly on a local level, I believe Jen has created an audience that transcends place based on her aesthetics.

BS: Do you feel that the book ended up better because you were able to work locally with someone who, as a fellow Kentuckian, understands Scuffletown and the stories that emanate from that place (fictional perhaps in a similar way to Wendell Berry’s fictional “Port William” is an analog for his native Port Royal, KY)?

CM: Yes. Like I said, Lindsey Alexander was the editor of Scuffletown.  Lindsey, being from a Louisville family that has roots in Barren County, I fully trusted her ear.  Going back to the last question, it is important to note that we were able to cultivate trust through a personal connection based in part on both of us having deep family roots in rural Kentucky.  Also, because we were both in Louisville, we were able to sit face-to-face and talk about the book.  During these meetings, I was able to see the jubilance with which Lindsey approached the manuscript.  Seeing that joy eased any apprehension I may have had about someone putting hands on my art. For me, this trust would have been harder to achieve if I was working with a distant editor strictly through, say, email.

BS: Scuffletown contains confessions of realities beyond regret, and yet the speaker/narrator recalls his grim histories with an elegiac nostalgia. Talk a bit if you would, about the contradicting emotions that are captured so well, in my opinion, by the speaker’s raw, simply stated recollections.

CM: You’re right there is nostalgia, and that’s because it’s my childhood.  I am nostalgic about all sorts of elements of my childhood, not just the good.  I’m often equally nostalgic, or sentimental, about summer bike rides out to stripper pits as I am about sitting around the fire pit drinking whiskey with my mom after a domestic dispute.  The reason, however, is more complicated.  What I know is that in those moments, like in the poem “Bon Fire,” the mother and son connect in ways that many children never connect with their parents.  In that poem, the son becomes the parent to the mother, and in that, there is an opportunity to nurture, comfort, and even counsel the one who would traditionally be in that role.  I think there’s also something about healing and forgiveness that informs the tone you’re talking about.

BS: Getting through the collection can be difficult, not because of any tough abstractions or thick lexicon, but because of the emotional gravity involved. I have to admit, I’ve not shed tears in public for years, but as soon as I cracked the book (pg. 3) a poem titled Bonfire (mp3 here) took my knees out from under me. How would you foreword or foreworn Scuffletown to average poetry reader? To Kentuckians or others familiar with places with Scuffletown?

CM: Think of the poems in terms of the blues form.  We play the blues, we sing about hard times, sadness, and violence as a way of keeping it from having power over us.  This book is like that; it’s me singing, testifying.  I want it to be like the experience of hearing Skip James sing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”: no matter how down-low and rough [it] seems, in the end, you feel strangely empowered, maybe even connected to the speaker’s, or your own, experience a little more.  If so, maybe the work will be validated, the experience redeemed.

BS: Level of education and manner of speech are addressed repetitively in Scuffletown, and near the end the speaker even indicates that he’s lost some part of his identity by leaving words unique to his region of origin behind. Laying judgments like “genuine” and “truth” aside, why did you decide, after college, that you would continue or return to writing in form and dialogue befitting your Kentucky heritage (as opposed to adopting non-regional standard English and traditional narrative forms or classical forms)?

CM: That’s what this project called for.  I wanted the language to insinuate place.  The themes in this book aren’t just regional, they’re American, but I think each region has a different way of understanding and dealing with those themes.  One way this shows through is the language we use.  For example, one poem ends with: “Let me beat on your for a while.”  The idea, because of who the speaker is, is that she is basically saying, “I love you” in her own language.  The line comes from an actual experience:  One day, while fiddling around in the root garden, I overheard my neighbor say, “Git over here baby girl an’ let me beat on you fur a-while.”  Because I am a sucker for a good expression, I stood up smiling while I felt the chaos of language resonate through my body.  The little girl, 4 years old, was tickled, squirmed a little and simply said: “Naw, Mamaw.”  The expression, make no mistake about it, was one of affection and tenderness.  The old woman was basically saying let me love on you with pinches, squeezes, nibblin’s and rough ticklin’.  An idea conveyed in a language that insinuated place with all its intricate familial, regional, historical, and class workings churning through my head like so many gears.  Truth-be-told, I was moved by the way her expression entangled love and violence.  And I was startled by what murked the surface of the quirky words: the brutal truth and wisdom of love’s deeply textured experience.  The way pleasure is complicated by a hurting place peppered her tongue with subjective experience that burned like bourbon in my chest as I said the words over and over later that night.  And I was startled again by the way her words evoked a place beyond the backyard in Louisville, out past the hills of her East Kentucky upbringing, and into a psychic region in a league with, say, the bullfighters, gypsy flamenco guitarists, and death infused dancers of Garcia Lorca’s duende.  Or better, Blanch was like Feste, the jester in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, who imparts real depth of understanding beneath a sheen of comical ease.  But of course, she was just talking, being her own danged self in her own danged backyard.  She was not weighing each word or measuring each syllable, calibrating lines, and synching up sounds with meaning.  She was not trying to raise a place from out of the seasoned lumber of the written word.  The way we poets do.

BS: You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University here in Louisville. Would you like to tell readers who may be unfamiliar with that program about the Spalding writing/academic community?

CM: It’s a close-knit community that also is very much linked to the larger Louisville community.   I think it feels linked to the wider community because during the residency—it is a brief-residency program—many of the readings and seminars are open to the public.  As far as the instruction, it was ideal for me because it is more of an apprenticeship experience.  While workshops are the backbone of the residency, the bulk of the semester is spent one-on-one under the guidance of a master.  I worked with three different poets, one poet twice, and I always like to liken my experience to that of the young poet who’s exchanging letters with Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.

BS: Seidenfaden’s here in Louisville is a neighborhood bar, and you’re also performing for Holler Poets at Al’s Bar in Lexington on April 17th. Do you prefer to read your poetry, rife as it is with hard luck and hard drink, in a bar as opposed to a lecture hall, classroom, gallery or other formal setting?

CM: Not really.  In a way, it seems more important to read these poems in a formal setting, but I do feel at very much home in taverns.  When I was a teenager, my mom worked in a neighborhood tavern.  I used to go in there to watch her work and listen to the stories of the people at the bar.  Also, my uncles and dad went to neighborhood taverns, so I grew up going there with them, too.  As far as Seidenfaden’s goes, on quiet nights, it’s like home: I’ve done homework there; I’ve hung out with my dad there; I was hired for a job while hanging out there; my friends and I used to spar and shadow box inside on slow nights; I’ve watched the World Series there; I’ve walked down there from the house just to unwind; And the poems do seem to ideally fit into that context.

BS: I’m betting both readings will be rowdy and raucous. You won’t wanna miss the party, dear readers! Clean out your ears and wear your stompin’ shoes. Bourbon is optional but recommended; tip your bartender(s).

Chris Mattingly is the author of Ad Hoc and a translation of Anglo-Saxon riddles A Light for Your Beacon both from Q Avenue Press. Mattingly holds an MFA from Spalding University, cultivates a great big garden, plays banjo, sometimes travels ridiculous distances for burgoo and chess pie, and is the eighth-generation Mattingly to live in Kentucky. He currently resides in south-east Georgia where he teaches at East Georgia State College

Poet Amanda Smeltz Discusses Wine, New York, the Ambiguity of Destruction, and Her New Collection IMPERIAL BENDER

Typecast Publishing authors Amanda Smeltz, Chris Mattingly, and Matt Hart will read April 20th 7:30pm at Seidenfaden’s (1134 E Breckinridge St  Louisville, KY 40204). I guess Jen Woods couldn’t resist throwing a party here in Louisville for National Poetry Month! Smeltz’s Imperial Bender is forthcoming as a limited VAULT edition, the first run of Mattingly’s Scuffletown is due shortly, and Matt Hart’s Sermons and Lectures: Both Blank and Relentless is being reprinted in box-set (letterpressed booklets and the CD album of the same name by Matt’s band TRAVEL stuffed into a cool box). To celebrate her own book and the rest, Amanda Smeltz is coming all the way from Brooklyn, NYC to party with us!

 

Brandon Stettenbenz: As a sommelier you have to know your product intimately, down to the slightest nuance. In Imperial Bender, your poems often compare individuals to very distinct wines, and you seem to mull them over carefully, in a similar way to wine though perhaps with less professional distance. How does your profession fit with or influence your poetic?

Amanda Smeltz:  I compare people to specific wines in the book? I know there’s one poem where I liken my skin getting tan to Heiligenstein (which is a famous vineyard in Austria, it means holy rock)— but this has less to do with wine knowledge and more with my capacity for mythologizing. My profession isn’t being a somm; that’s an aspect of my day job. Thinking about wine isn’t a superpower, though of course it doesn’t suck to think sensually and emotionally as part of your job. But listen, a lot of it’s throwing around cases of booze in storage and dealing with imbecile salespeople. The Muse turned down my invite to visit the walk-in where I’m counting kegs.

BS: Speaking of spirits, this collection is boisterous, surreal at times, but also seems very personal. Some of the poems, in my opinion, read like letters to loved ones lost to death, or simply left behind. There’s an elegiac fondness working like vines through this book, like some organic network of human experience that binds crazy parties and indiscretions into a tapestry of being (as opposed to a National Lampoon movie). Could you tell us how you approached balancing your personal experience/narrative with the universal/philosophical images that delve into/aim for our “collective unconscious”?

AS: Hey, there’s plenty universal and philosophical about indiscretions! Shakespeare was more bawdy than I am, and no one pokes him about showing too much undapants.

I was fretful about a very confessional poem I was writing in grad school, one that was about as realist as they come, and a friend advised me not to be so nervous: he said the more honest we are in poems, the more others will recognize themselves in them. Through empathy, I wager. Admittedly I sometimes fear being considered an inferior intellect for my need to overtly explore my personal history, but that’s only when I’m being pathetic. I’m bound by my personal experience, even my body, but I mean to use them both to enter being beyond my own. As to how I go about doing it, I don’t understand my own methods. A lot of the poems are just frantic attempts. Rhyme I tried, and bravado, and narrative, and vivid imagery. How does any poet do it? I’m still learning. Seidel has: “I don’t remember poems I write. / I turn around and they are gone.”

I like that you said “elegiac fondness” in the same breath as “vines,” though. Couldn’t be happier to have those things said in earshot of my poems.

BS: Your poems in Imperial Bender go back and forth between allusions involving Greek mythology and romanticized modern experiences akin to the dramatically embellished beaches and pastoral places a reader might find in say, a Harlequin Romance. I found these transportations surprising, at times hilarious and at other times dead serious. I just don’t see many people hitting two very disparate ends of the literary spectrum within one collection, let alone one poem, very often. Delivering believable emotions to your reader in two modes back to back seems like an inherently difficult approach. Why did you decide to layer your work with these different allusions?

AS: Because that manner of counterpoint delights me. High and low, pah. It seems to me our notion of poetry lags way behind our notions in the visual arts. We’re comfortable there with not differentiating between high and low. I make a shitty realist, it turns out, and I can’t “correct” some of my bad taste. I populate my poems with things I delight in or am vexed by. If that’s Tupac and the book of Isaiah in the same breath, I can’t help that any.

BS: You also address people in your personal history (most notably in “Letter to Denny from Brooklyn”) as well as historical figures (ex: George the second) and poets (ex: Keats, Li Po). Besides being obviously rooted in your past and education, perhaps in your development as an artist or just personal development in general, what reasons did you have for using such specific figures? What’s their function for you, and also for your readers?

AS: I like people! I put people in my poems because they’re what I spend the bulk of my time thinking about in real life – whether alive or dead, fictive or “real…”  The people in what I write are alive to me. To employ someone from my life is strange anyway: the moment you put them in your poem, your intention of how to depict them or what they mean to you is out of your hands. It belongs to the reader immediately. Denny Smeltz may as well be John Flippin’ Keats to you. And who Keats is to me is my own goddamn business, and I intend to keep talking to and about him. Although, as regards the habit of name-checking my poet loves, the very intelligent Mark Bibbins told me I’m too much FUCK YEAH NEW YORK SCHOOL, and that’s likely true.

BS: There’s quite of bit of self-destructive behavior, which you lament, celebrate, and forgive almost simultaneously. Likewise, the destruction and mutilation of individuals, societies, and landscapes wrought by war is also present. Finally, the motif of destruction, mutilation, and change inevitable to time and human experience is implied by natural imagery (most notably in “Baby, Vivere”). Those are three quite distinct ways to address our malleable reality and growth/decline as individuals and as a species. Why did you choose such an aggressive mode to tackle this subject? Is the natural imagery intended to quell or defang the terror of war and abuse?

AS: “Lament, celebrate, and forgive almost simultaneously” – that’s very accurate. That’s close to how I encounter wrongdoing and suffering in myself and in the world. Some kinds of destruction have no redemptive aspects – rape, abuse of power, brutality. But even in the wake of horrible suffering, there’s sometimes a pasture… And some kinds of destruction aren’t evil at all; I’m not the only artist who’s made good, lucid work in a gnarly hangover. I don’t know how to talk about the ambiguity of destruction better than this. It is probably one of the reasons I write poems.

If this mode, whatever it is, seems aggressive to you, I can tell you that you aren’t the only person who’s found being with me exhausting. Being a human is intense!

For the natural imagery – no, it can’t de-fang the horror of the world. But it is still crazy beautiful here sometimes. There’s a begonia blooming outside my window right now, on my gritty industrial block. I love it, and I love the neighbors who insist on it despite their nonexistent backyard.

BS: Ok, that was a ton of literary, philosophical and craft talk. Lastly, I’d just like to share a note I wrote while reading Imperial Bender and maybe get your reaction to it: “Celebrations of the wild mundane and of modern misfits drunk on dreaming.”

AS: I’d say you’ve captured perfectly my romanticizing self-indulgence. Cheers.

BS: If you aren’t excited Louisville readers, you might want to check your pulse. Seidenfaden’s (1134 E Breckinridge St  Louisville, KY 40204) April, 20th @7:30PM: Grab your best hat, slip on your boots, get ready to laugh, hoot and holler, put a couple books and maybe some bourbon on your tab for the authors!

 

Author Bio: “Amanda Smeltz is the assistant poetry editor for Forklift, Ohio. Her interests include philosophy, history, swears and insults, bourbon and big laughter. In addition to writing, you can find Smeltz in her Brooklyn stomping ground working as a sommelier and wine director. Buy her a drink.”