An Interview with semi-finalist Joseph Lisowski

An Interview with semi-finalist Joseph Lisowski

From 1986 to 1996, Joseph Lisowski was Professor of English at the University of the Virgin Islands. He taught at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina from 2002-2014. He is now retired. Some poetry chapbooks include

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Guest Blog by Barry Marks: When Someone is moved by your writing but doesn't get what you intended to communicate

Guest Blog by Barry Marks: When Someone is moved by your writing but doesn't get what you intended to communicate

The fact is, once we throw a word or any sort of communication into the wind, whether at someone specific or not, we no longer control it. Each receiver can find things in it, consciously intended or not, that I think are every bit as valid (and “true”) as what the transmitter THOUGHT he/she intended.

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An interview with Barry Marks

Dividing by Zero cover - designed by megan cary

Negative Capability Press is happy to announce the release of Dividing by Zero by Barry Marks – Birmingham, Alabama attorney and author of the 2010 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist Sounding.

Dividing by Zero is a a riveting volume of poems, stories and narratives that weave a complex tale about a man, Raymond Shaw, who commits suicide and his daughter L. The unique structure, which Marks uses to tell both L. and Raymond's story, is inspired by the Talmud – the Jewish Rabbinic text that contains statements of religious law, case histories and interpretative notes on each page. 

This title is available through your local independent bookstore via IndieBound or on Amazon.com and will soon be available for distribution through SPD (Small Press Distribution).  

Barry, Negative Capability Press is proud to publish Dividing By Zero.  I think a lot of our readers would be interested in learning more about the book, especially your thoughts about the process as you wrote it.  

We don't usually ask this about poetry books, but what is Dividing By Zero about?

 Well, it isn't exactly a poetry book and there is a story. A daughter finds her father's unpublished poems, work he never shared. She resolves to publish it along with a strange narrative he left about his life and her own stories and memories of life with him.

The book combines poetry, fiction and personal remembrances. Did it start out that way?

Yes and no. Years ago, I was introduced to the Talmud, a centuries-old rabbinic text in which each page contains a statement of religious law and case history, augmented with commentary in the margins by half-a-dozen rabbis and scholars.

That seemed to me to be a wonderful way to express something difficult to describe, be it the law or human experience. How can we state the "truth" unless we can see it from many perspectives at once. A sort of written cubism seems necessary to address the mystery of truth.

 As I assembled poetry for a new book, I kept feeling that something was missing and that there should be more than just poems. One day, I remembered the Talmud and it mushroomed from there. I decided I wanted to present multiple points of view, but more than that, multiple modes of written communication, not only poetry and what it can share, but fiction and its allegorical message and narratives with their often flawed perspectives.

The poems are at first funny, then increasingly thoughtful and finally downright somber. Are you saying that this is how life is?

 No. Bear in mind that the conceit is that the poets daughter assembled these poems. In some ways, the order reflects what she saw her father's life and her hopeful belief that he became more empathetic at the end of his life.

Tell the truth, are you Raymond?

I hope not. Who we are and what we are really like is best told by those who love us. Ask my children, especially my youngest daughter.

You say in your preface that none of your characters resemble real people and none of the events described in the book ever happen. Yet you call this a true story. How can that be?

This goes to the heart of the book. As it developed, I realized that I was trying to tell a story not by a simple first or third person narrative, but by the emotions, perceptions and reactions to experiences of the characters.

 If I ask you "what did you do today?" You will say, "I got up slowly,  ate breakfast, was late for work but got there before the boss noticed." But what you experienced was not just those factual events. No one stood behind you saying, "You're up, you are eating, you are rushing to work..."

What you experienced was more like: sleepy....awake...disoriented....hungry... full...anxious... scared....relieved." In fact, it might be more accurate to tell a story about a knight who awakens from a witch's spell, shakes his hunger with food from a basket left by fleeing peasants, thinks himself in a strange kingdom where he does battle with a fire-snorting dragon with a great glass eye, who he vanquishes without realizing that he is in the present and he has done battle with a bus.

 Of course that is a silly story that has nothing to do with what actually "happened" but is it really like what you experienced in many ways?

 Cliché alert: I am asking for your definition of truth.

Would you call this book experimental?  I am thinking here of some of the work published in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith.  Your book makes exciting use of typography in portraying the worlds of father and daughter.

 When I hear that word, I think of a confusing, boring, book that is either academic or downright impossible to understand. I hope this book is fun, accessible and worthwhile whether or not the reader "gets" what I am trying to do.

 As I assembled poetry for a new book, I kept feeling that something was missing and that there should be more than just poems. One day, I remembered the Talmud and it mushroomed from there.

In the case of your book, I’m sure your realize that from the process form initial manuscript to finished product was not a quick one.  We went through many edits and back and forth exchanges in terms of content and format.  Would you please comment on the revision aspect of editing and publishing?

This book was in many ways a collaborative effort, which is how the editorial process should work. After talking to you and seeing your comments, I rethought the format (there were four elements at one time, instead of three) and at a couple of points, had to ask myself what I was really trying to do. Even when I disagreed, rethinking and responding to challenge made it a better book. 

Part of the challenge was the fact that the format demanded synchronization of poems, stories and narratives. I didn't want them to be too close. I did not want the narrative to explain the corresponding poem or what was going on as one or the other was written. Remember that this is L. assembling her father's work and her own and I didn't want it to look contrived. Nevertheless, when a poem was deleted or replaced, I often had to reorganize the narratives and stories around it.

 I have to tell you a funny story. Just as I thought I was done, about 6 months ago, I read a book on Maxwell Perkins, the Scribners editor who guided Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Lardner and others. While I didn't fancy myself one of those guys, reading about the torturous rewrites, and passionate arguments made me feel terribly guilty. I put the book away for a month, came back to it and dropped, moved or revised 30% of what I thought was perfect. 

Emily Dickinson is dead.  We can’t sit back and assume that even after we cease to be, someone will pull poems from our dresser drawers and gift them to the world.  How important do you think social media and marketing is to the poet today?

 It depends on what the poet wants. Once again, I'll turn to the book. If we want to be Raymond and put our work in drawers, then we deserve what we get out of it. If we care enough to want to share, if we want to be really serious about doing our best, then having it read is important. 

Sure, you can get carried away. I detest social media and marketing my work sometimes feels degrading. But when I read to an appreciative audience, I can see what works and what doesn't and really hear myself for the first time. When someone I don't know writes to me or stops by a reading and gives me feedback, I feel less like a strange little man hiding away scribbling and more like an artist true to both his craft and his humanity. OK, that was inflated, but if we don't get our work out there we risk being Raymond.

Now, Barry, what next?  Do you have thoughts about what directions you want your writing to take?  

Of course, I have a couple of dozen new poems, one or two of which are pretty good. ( You know, the book contains less than 10% of what I wrote during the period since my prior book was published). I may do another book of poetry in a couple of years.

I'm still toying with the idea of a book that combines poetry with experience/commentary/prose - perhaps more directly related than DBZ and more Talmudic. It would take a lot of work and I would want a serious, action-heavy plot. I have the first chapters and/or outlines of several novels I never got around to.

On the other hand, I'm working on a chapbook of minimalist, visual and funny very short poems. Really stupid stuff. I may let that part of my brain take over for a while!

In Their Words... with Irene Latham

by Patty Jameson


My Tuesday night Poetry class met one muggy, January night at Satori Coffee, a few skips away from the University of South Alabama campus, for an evening reading by a traveling poet. We squeezed close together on couches, our shoulders nudged our neighbors’, and we listened as Irene Latham charmed us with The Color of Lost Rooms, her latest collection of poetry.

Each poem is a painting—of someone you know or someone you might have been—and each painting is in a room, and you’re invited in. The Color of Lost Rooms (Blue Rooster Press) is a captivating look at the real and the imagined, a moment from history stolen and pinned inside of a page.

Irene is the kind of poet that all aspiring poets should talk to—she has published over 170 poems in various journals and anthologies, as well as two poetry books and one novel. Her new novel, Don’t Feed the Boy (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan), will be available later this year. Her first poetry collection, What Came Before (Negative Capability Press), was awarded the Alabama State Poetry Society’s Book of the Year, her first novel, Leaving Gee’s Bend (G.P. Putnam's Sons), won the Alabama Library Association’s 2011 Children’s Book Award, and The Color of Lost Rooms holds the distinction of winning the 19th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Prize for Poetry. Irene also serves as the Poetry Editor for the Birmingham Arts Journal.

I had the opportunity to chat with Irene before and after her reading, and she was kind enough to share some wonderful insights about writing and publishing, from both sides of the submission deadline.


I read on your website that even as a young girl you wanted to be a writer, yet you never took a writing class while you were in college. Instead, you pursued an education in social work. What led you on that path, and how has that knowledge helped you as a writer? 

While my parents were very encouraging of my writing, they also encouraged me to be practical. I’ll never forget my father saying, “you need to have a job in your back pocket.” So I chose the oh so lucrative field of social work. And even though I don’t currently practice social work, what I learned in those classes still informs my writing today – family dynamics! communication! dysfunctional relationships! It’s what great stories are made of.


Have you since taken any courses on craft and writing?

I was a closet writer for many years, just writing for my own pleasure, and didn’t really feel the urge to publish until I was the busy mom of three boys. I loved being a mom, but I craved something that was just mine. And when I looked around my house, all I saw were stacks of paper overflowing my counters and spilling out of my drawers. So I enrolled in a community education class at UAB on Freelance Writing for Magazines. And so my self-education began.

I tend to be a private writer – I’m protective of my process, so a lot of feedback, especially early in a project, is not good for me – and I never considered pursuing an MFA. I’ve always been kind of stubborn and wanted to do it my own way. But I have found writing conferences – particularly ones sponsored by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – to be of tremendous value both in terms of teaching craft and for learning the publishing end. I’ve also attended writing conferences sponsored by Alabama Writers Conclave, Mississippi Writers Guild and others. I adore books on craft, and love how the internet has all sorts of suggested remedies, whether I’m struggling with character development or plotting or how (and where) to submit a collection of poems.

The key for me has been to write and write and write. I know a number of writers who attend all the best writing classes and conferences, yet don’t invest the same amount of time actually practicing what they’ve been taught. For me, the most important learning has happened when it’s just me and my computer in a room.


You traveled a lot as a child and also as an adult. Which of your destinations has spoken the loudest to your inner muse?

The thing about having a vagabond heart is that you can’t possibly choose one destination over another. They all speak to me. In fact, it’s one of the things I struggle with. I feel pulled in a lot of different directions. I’ve had to train myself to stay put, to see one journey through before embarking on another. Right now I am exploring the weeks during my childhood that were spent at my grandparent’s orange grove in Polk County, Florida. My muse, in general, seems to be a nature-loving gal who enjoys romantic, rural landscapes.


Your book, The Color of Lost Rooms, features several ekphrastic poems. Is there a particular genre of art that you find inspires you more than others, and how do you approach the process of turning a visual object into a poem on a page?

I really enjoy the interaction of the arts and am constantly inspired by other media – film, visual art, textiles, nonfiction, nature. If it makes me feel something, I want to write about it, must write about it. I actually give a whole lecture on how this process works for me. It involves moving beyond simple description and often requires research. Then it becomes an exercise in empathy, and finally an imaginative leap. It’s about putting oneself inside the painting or film or whatever and making those very personal connections.


How did you come to be poetry editor for the Birmingham Arts Journal? How do you think the experience has made you a better poet?

A poem of mine appeared in the inaugural issue of Birmingham Arts Journal, and I was so thrilled with the publication and the folks running it – especially editor Jim Reed. I started hanging around, volunteering to promote the magazine, and eventually, when the first poetry editor moved on to other things, Jim invited me to take over the position. I’ve been there ever since and love meeting and working with the poets who submit their work for publication. The job helps me better evaluate my own work, and I am often inspired by the poems that find their way to me.

Sometimes you have hundreds of submissions to read through for the journal. How would you characterize what makes one poem stand out from all the others, and what is the greatest weakness you've noticed in the poems that aren't selected?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was this: It’s more important to be different than better. This is certainly true when one is selecting poems to fill such limited space. I will choose a less polished piece over a heavily worked one any day, if the poem is fresh and gives me something unexpected. I really want to be surprised, and I really want to feel something when I read a poem. The biggest weakness I see in submissions is when poets settle for the early images that come to their minds (and everyone else’s mind) and not digging deeper for that astonishing observation or analogy.


Do you ever stop revising your poems?

Perfectionism is the enemy of any creative pursuit. It’s important to understand that work can only be done in stages. It takes time. So I revise long enough to get a poem in shape to submit for publication – and then later, often after publication, find ways to improve it.  Sometimes I stop revising and abandon poems not because they can’t be any better -- simply because I can’t make them any better yet. At which point I move on to the next poem, and the next. Growth requires movement. Each writer has to find her own balance.


Can you tell us a bit about your new novel, Don't Feed the Boy? How did you research the zoo setting? 

I’m so excited about this book! I remember the moment I got the idea: I was in a bookstore with my father (an avid reader – he reads a book a day!) over the Christmas holidays. I had been thinking about how we adults have these passions, but what happens when our children don’t share them? So I said out loud to my father, “how ‘bout a story about a boy whose parents are zoo people, and he feels like he was born the wrong species, and he wants to escape the zoo?”  My dad laughed, which was a very encouraging sign!

Soon after, Whit was born. The book is really about finding the place where you belong in the world, finding your very own passion and being strong and brave enough to go after that thing, whatever it may be.

Research included a lot of reading zoo veterinarian and zoo director biographies, interviews and trips to the zoo as well as drawing upon my own experience training as a teen zoo volunteer at the Birmingham Zoo.


Where to go from here:

For more information on Irene Latham or to order one of her books, visit her website at http://www.irenelatham.com/index.html.

Intersted in submitting to the Birmingham Arts Journal? Visit http://www.birminghamartsjournal.com/index.html.