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 A daughter finds her father's unpublished poems, work he never shared.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!

An interview with Megan Cary

Megan Cary

Megan Cary

SW: Megan, I want to start in the beginning – that beginning when I was introduced to Claire Evangelista.  John Chambers, and I had just finished editing the poems for Whatever Remembers Us: An Anthology of Alabama Literature, and I had a few pictures that my son Jason had taken when we stopped in Montgomery on returning from a trip.  I had asked Claire who might design this book and she told me about you. 

Whatever Remembers Us  Cover, 2007

Whatever Remembers Us Cover, 2007

You were finishing your undergraduate studies at the University of South Alabama.  Claire said:  “Megan Cary is creative and talented and great to work with. You will work well together" – and indeed that came to pass.  We’ve been editing and publishing together now for over seven years.

Was this anthology your first nationally designed book?  And what were your thoughts about this adventure?

MC: Yes it was. Actually, because I was an undergraduate design student at the time, it was really my first “official” design job ever for an actual client. I was very excited and nervous. I wanted to do well and create something beautiful that you, the authors and the readers would be pleased with.

SW: Since that auspicious beginning, you have been an integral part of Negative Capability.  Thanks to Claire and to Fate, Wyre, or Providence – and especially my gratitude to you Megan.  And thank you for designing our fabulous website.  But let’s introduce a backstory.  Tell us about your interest in art and about you chose art as a career. 

MC: For me, there has never really been any other option than art. My earliest memories are sitting with my grandfather at his desk and drawing with him. He was a pastor by trade, but he was also an amazing artist and would spend hours teaching me to draw animals and people while he worked on his sermons.

Megan, age 3, and her grandfather, Rev. Noah E. Johns

Megan, age 3, and her grandfather, Rev. Noah E. Johns

In addition to his lessons, my mother enrolled me in art classes through the Community Activities program from a very early age. In fact, I was too young for the more advanced courses but I looked older and was past the point of stick figures. We may or may not have stretched the truth a bit to get me in the better classes.

Computers, from an early age, also fascinated me. I got my first Apple computer around the age of four. I was using a rudimentary form of design software, “Print Shop,” all through my youth, making signs and banners. I guess if you think about it a certain way, I’ve always been a designer. It was a natural career choice, to combine both my love of computers and art when I graduated from high school.

SW: What did you do after your graduation from the University of South Alabama?

MC: After I graduated, I was lucky enough to immediately get a job with Crown Products, a national supplier of promotional products. I was a designer in their marketing department and created ads, catalogs, websites, managed their social media, and even tried my hand at designing bags and drink-ware. I eventually became a Senior Creative with the company before leaving. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities they provided to me; it was a great learning experience, and I made some wonderful friends.

SW: What I always love is stories – the way certain things happen.  One of my special memories is the publication of Alexis Saunders' two books, especially the last one when you and I drove to Tampa, Florida to put the book in Alexis' hands.  Alexis was a talented young writer who turned to poetry after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  She had given up her job in editing in New York City and returned home to Florida.  Alexis’s mother and I had been good friends and travelled the nine months of pregnancy together; we went to the same doctor and delivered our babies within a month of each other.  Alexis and my twin sons played together until my move to Mobile, Alabama when the children were two.  Stephanie, Alexis’s mother and I kept up with each other through the years – and when Alexis was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, she asked if she could participate in my poetry class blog.  She was a dedicated and passionate participant – and I asked Alexis if we could publish her poetry book.  We ended up publishing two before Alexis passed away. I was impressed, Megan, with your compassion – and the way you shared my vision of making Negative Capability more than just a means of getting a book into print – namely that of making Negative Capability a home-place for authors, a place where publishing is a shared experience of mutual respect and love.

MC: Thank you Sue, Alexis meant a lot to me. All of the authors I design for do, even though they may not realize it. But Alexis will always have a special place in my heart. She was so strong, compassionate and loving – and extremely talented. I think of her and her family often and miss her very much.

Alexis Saunders

Alexis Saunders

Obituary - Alexis Morgan Saunders (Died March 7, 2010)
Saunders, Alexis Morgan, 34, passed away in the loving arms of her mother on March 7, 2010 after battling brain cancer for almost five years. Alexis was born in Tampa and graduated from Berkeley Preparatory School in 1993 and Vanderbilt University in 1997…read the full obituary

SW: And so you're off to Graduate School. What has your MFA meant to you?

MC: It meant a great deal to me. I was accepted to Savannah College of Art and Design’s graduate program, which was both exciting and daunting. SCAD is a top-ranked design school, which means that the professors and students expect nothing short than the best of out of each other. There were a lot of tears, sleepless nights, and times I questioned my abilities. In the end though, I came out a better designer because I was surrounded and challenged by peers just as passionate about design as I was.

SW: And now you are an Assistant Professor at the University of Mobile. What do you teach? You said you love teaching. Talk a bit about that.

MC: I have always loved learning. The pursuit of knowledge is incredibly important to me, and I realized that I wanted to share that enthusiasm with others. I have been tasked with creating the graphic design program in the Art Department at the University of Mobile. I primarily teach design related classes, though a drawing or painting may be thrown in every once in awhile, which I enjoy.

The best part is that I get to sit down with my students every day, just as my grandfather sat down with me, and share what I’ve learned. I love the University of Mobile because our small classes allow me to give individual attention to each and every student and because of that, we are building a small but mighty community of passionate, talented future designers.

SW: Your book covers, Megan, are amazing.  In fact, you have been called a genius.  What are two or three of your favorite covers – and what about their evolution?

Thank you, but I think genius might be overstating it a bit. I will say that I believe the fact that I’m an avid reader and I always read the work before I design, gives the covers I make more meaning and impact. It’s hard to pick two of my favorite covers. But if I had to narrow it down, the first would be for Barry Mark’s Sounding.

Sounding  cover, 2012

Sounding cover, 2012

Barry wanted to include a picture of his daughter, who died in a tragic automobile accident and a photograph of a sculpture she had made for him. I struggled with how to incorporate these two in a harmonious manner. After much thought, I realized that what the cover needed was exactly the opposite. It needed to be fractured and broken, like the author’s world after his daughter passed away. What I created was raw and, to be frank, uncomfortable. I was very apprehensive sending it to both you and Barry. I was very relieved when the feedback was positive.

My most recent favorite cover is for Rob Gray’s Jesus Walks the Southland. Rob’s book touches on some sensitive topics in the South – religion, race and politics. Rob had a lot of ideas that he shared with me for the cover, one in particular was the idea of having a Jesus-like figure walking down a country road.  I tried this several times and again, it was almost too comfortable for such powerfully questioning material. I merged this idea with the idea of baptism, renewal, purification and transformation. I think it worked well.

Jesus Walks the Southland  cover, 2014

Jesus Walks the Southland cover, 2014

SW: Anything I haven’t asked that you would like to mention?

MC: Just that I would like to thank you Sue, for the opportunity that you have given me. Over the last seven years I’ve had a chance to design over twenty books for the press and gain invaluable knowledge about the publishing industry. Also, I’ve made a wonderful friend.  



An Interview with Poet Maureen Alsop

A self-portrait.

A self-portrait.

Negative Capability Press has had the pleasure of working with poet Maureen Alsop, also an editor at Poemeleon and teacher at the Inlandia Institute and The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative, on her forthcoming book, Later, Knives & Trees, which is projected for release in September 2014. A resident of Palm Springs California, she is the author of two additional books of poetry, Mantic (Augury Books) and Apparition Wren (Main Street Rag), is the winner of multiple poetry awards, and is the author of numerous chapbooks. Though she has recently been busy traveling, we were able to catch up with her for a quick interview.

Interviewer: First of all, congratulations on your forthcoming book, Later, Knives & Trees. What was your inspiration?

Alsop: Because she would not return, my mother. Her light surrendered mine.  So again death: source. Cyclical architect. Home intimated a textural precept, a self-capture. The body’s immersed compression, brush strokes. Myrrh, buttermilk, oak wood— inscriptions travel to the midpoint dissolve as prose.  Expansive: my lack of courage & love's dissolution pressures each boundary.

Interviewer: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? If so, what is it about that poem?

Alsop: I like the poem "Sanctimony," even though it maintains a slightly accusatory edge. "(Untitled) Bijouterie (1)" as a reflective intermingling of voices within and beyond. "Inviable" is another favorite.

The untitled poem "your soul left slowly" resonates for me as an observational elegy. I wrote this from a sense of being within and outside of the consciousness of my mother in the year before she died. I grew in her presence and appreciate that this poem evolved through those moments when we were together. The landscape throughout that time being internal, personal, private.

Interviewer: I’m sorry about your mother. In my experience, writing can often be therapeutic. Would you say writing poetry has helped you navigate through your grief? Is poetry something you use as a way of making sense of the world/life/your emotions?

Alsop: My mother's death, her process of aging and dying was one source. The other source was a self portrayal/reflection captured shortly after her passing, which offered expansive questions on identity, the boundaries of individuality and dissolution. How we love all which is radiant and fading. When a loved one dies, intimate portions of our lives flake away and travel with them. These relationships and experiences are irreproducible and irreplaceable. Our country, my life at midpoint, the places I grew up are disappeared, and we are close to losing the great generation which my mother was part of. 

Poetry is an innate, natural touchstone, a source for understanding dimensions beyond typical structures of language. In many ways, a primal art, the basis for grief’s expression.

Interviewer: Once Later, Knives & Trees is published, who are you going to give the first copy to?

Alsop: Probably to my husband who is a consummate supporter of my work.

Interviewer: Do you have any readings planned yet?

Alsop: I am hoping to read in Hawaii in November in celebration of receiving the Tony Quagliano Poetry Prize. We will be traveling to visit family in Australia, so possibly in Oz as well. I will also be reading in Claremont, California in the Spring, and will be a resident at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos next year.

Interviewer: Congratulations on your win! You’ve also won the Harpur Palate's Milton Kessler Memorial Prize for Poetry and The Bitter Oleander’s Frances Locke Memorial Poetry Award, as well as published two other books of poetry and numerous chapbooks. How does it feel to be a successful poet? Do you have advice for new poets who are just beginning to try to get their work published?

Alsop: I am not a big advice giver, and try to avoid it.  Work at your craft continually. Push in every able direction. Read. Don’t compare yourself to others. Do not balance “success” against typical standards; there really are no typical standards, simply currently accepted understandings. There are no perfections or imperfections.

Interviewer: I must ask: how would you describe your writing process?

Alsop: Fragmented by design as I often have very small patches of time or very limited stretches of time within which to work on a poem. Thus I may return again and again to revise and refine. However poetry lends itself to allowances for interruption, separation, distance. Prose obliged itself as form. For many versions, I removed titles, debated transitions within the collection. Ultimately returned to original structures.

Interviewer: Who are some living authors that you admire?

Alsop: "This is what it's like to live. The shutters bang, the end of my life begins. I am thinking of the black tongue of the king snake... No such Titan ever visited during my days as an aedile.”

From: Norman Dubie; Mark Strand, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, John Ashberry... These are a few lines from a few living poets that float through me. On occasion.

Interviewer: Before we’re done, can you write us a haiku about the room you’re in right now?

Alsop: This is not a haiku, obviously, but a collage of a view that my room gathers:


Maureen has been working on a series of videos in response to Later, Knives & Trees that you can find here: http://www.yourimpossiblevoice.com/poetry-videos-maureen-alsop/ . Visit her website, www.maureenalsop.com , to learn more about Maureen and to keep up to date on readings, book releases, and other events.