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.

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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.”