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 A daughter finds her father's unpublished poems, work he never shared.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

Annoucing the publication of Later, Knives & Trees

Front Cover of Later, Knives & Trees

Front Cover of Later, Knives & Trees

Mobile, AL, September 23, 2014 – Negative Capability Press announces the publication of poet Maureen Alsop's new book Later, Knives & Trees. In the 68 page volume Alsop gently "reminds us that something has passed" as she speaks with "ethereal syntax" (E.C. Belli) about death and, ultimately, grief.

Alsop says "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." Later, Knives & Trees has been highly praised by many including the late Hillary Gravendyk who stated, "if you rotate these poems in your hand you will find they bend and scatter the light; they are prisms of language that break the sensual world into a spectrum, into lines of color."
Maureen Alsop, Ph.D. is the author of several full collections of poetry including Mantic (Augury Books) and Apparition Wren (Main Street Rag). Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines including Kenyon Review, Tampa Review, New Delta Review, Typo, and Barrow Street. Her awards include: Tony Quagliano International Poetry Prize, Harpur Palate's Milton Kessler Memorial Prize for Poetry and The Bitter Oleander's Frances Lock Memorial Poetry Award.

Later, Knive's and Trees is currently available for purchase on Amazon.com and extended information on the book can be found at www.negativecapabilitypress.org

Negative Capability Press was founded in Mobile, Alabama and has been publishing award-winning books since 1981. They are a Member of APSS: Association of Publishers for Special Sales (formerly SPAN). For more information visit our website at www.negativecapabilitypress.org

An Interview with Lissa Kiernan

Lissa Kiernan

Lissa Kiernan

Let’s say we’re sitting at a café in Brooklyn. Let’s say we’re drinking café au lait – and we’re talking about writing, about your new book: Two Faint Lines In The Violet – just out from Negative Capability Press. 

SBW:  Let’s begin in the beginning:  when did you start writing poetry – and what in your background led you to believe that you were a poet?

When I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, enrolled as a flute performance major, I took a modern poetry course to fulfill a humanities requirement, discovered Yeats, and fell in love.

Both of my parents were artists, my mother a pianist and my father a photographer. I remember they gave me a poetry collection by Stanley Kunitz for a birthday in my early teens. Kunitz says that both gardening and writing poetry depend on the "wild permissiveness of the inner life" but I didn’t give myself that permission for a long time because, in addition to being an introvert, I resisted the negative stereotypes associated with poets. Narcissistic, depressive, neurotic, pretentious? That couldn’t be me! LOL….

I still prefer to call myself a writer who writes poetry, rather than a poet, since I also write essays and short stories.

SBW:  Place:  How has the sense of place played a role in your writing?

The abbreviated version: sorry, there is no abbreviated version. Place has played a tremendous role in this collection of poems. Here's how:

My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and died from complications of his brain tumor four months later. During one of his three protracted hospital stays, he announced, apropos of nothing, “I’m not trying to be Erin Brockovich, but did you know that my closest neighbor also has a brain tumor?” I couldn't unhear that.

So I started doing some research and discovered that, in February 1997, under pressure from local watchdog group Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health had conducted a health study of the area where my father lived. Referred to locally as the Hill Towns, the cluster of eleven small, economically-depressed communities in the Berkshire foothills, including Charlemont, were chosen due to their location downriver from Yankee Rowe Atomic, one representing the greatest opportunity for exposure to the plant’s air emissions. Despite a dizzying array of disclaimers, the study—Assessment of Cancer Incidence and Down Syndrome Prevalence in the Deerfield River Valley, Massachusetts—nevertheless found statistically significant elevations in breast cancer, Down Syndrome, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the type of cancer my father had.

So there was this splintering disconnect between the lush, idyllic landscape where he lived, and this invisible, toxic threat that loomed around it. That feeling of the beautiful-terrible, the fortunate hazard, informs the first half of my poetry collection.

After he died, I finally gave myself full permission to write poetry. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but a need, moving my hand across the page, working its way through my grief.

Awhile later, I did make a conscious decision to pursue honing my craft when I enrolled in a workshop with Amy King at Poet’s House. Called “Making the Urban Poetic,” Amy posited that poetry was mutable enough to inherit the distinctive attributes of the cities in which its authors lived, and I play with that idea in the second half of my collection. These are poems more or less written from the point of view of a country mouse coming of age in, and coming to terms with, living in New York City, specifically Brooklyn, pre-gentrification.

SBW:  On poetry, in prose, in writing in general – maybe stories and plays, what formal devices – repetition, permutation, poetic forms such as prose poems, sonnets, villanelles, etc. are a part of your poetic repertoire? 

A lot of internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and awareness of meter and/or breath. Thanks to my early infusion in music (my mother was a piano teacher), my ear is pretty well-attuned to hearing harmonics and my heart fastened to pulse. Two Faint Lines in the Violet is primarily free verse, but includes several pantoums, two ghazals, a triolet, and a blues poem.

SBW:  In many ways your poetry is daring; you address the political ramifications of nuclear power plants and the sexuality of your father, how do you steel yourself to tell knotty, even dangerous truths about our human “being.”

One poem at a time. LOL. Seriously, though, it took what felt like forever before I began to find the words to disclose—even to myself—that I was writing poems that were also a form of investigative journalism into nuclear power. I was concerned that people would think I’d gone mad with grief, looking for someone or anything to blame.

However, by exercising due diligence and educating myself about the history of nuclearism, specifically that of Yankee Rowe, I began, tentatively, writing documentary poems about the energy plant, and, separately, elegiac poems about my father. Then it took yet another, steelier steeling, to write the poem that attempted to connect the dots, one that implicated Yankee Rowe, so to speak, as the scene of the crime.

As for my father’s sexuality, and other such "knotty" truths, that was somewhat less daunting. My father came out when I was 17, after twenty years of marriage and three children, and as shattering as it was at the time (1979, which was just before Rock Hudson's death brought about public awareness of AIDS) ultimately, his courage led to greater intimacy between us. Putting my own personal truths out there took a lot more nerve.

SBW:  Please explain duende – and its role in your poetry.

Sure...so speaking of personal truths, duende is a type of muse, though not the beatific, benign one we usually envision. It’s the muse that comes to interrogate us, to terrorize, to torture us into confession, to write the poems we're most afraid to write, the poems that might kill us in the process of writing them. Not all of my poems result from dancing with the duende, but I think some of the best ones do, such as “Census,” which I ended up making into an audiopoem. Other poems in the collection that are very duende is “Erratum, Last Line, Final Stanza” and "Dog Days."

SBW:  Who are your literary influences – poetry, fiction, nonfiction?

Poetry: Almost too many to name, both “the greats” as well as contemporaries. As for the greats: WB Yeats, Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman . . .

Fiction: Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham…

Nonfiction: Lewis Thomas, Rebecca Solnit, Anaïs Nin, Susan Griffin, Susan Sontag . . .

Playwriting: Samuel Beckett, David Mamet . . . Shakespeare! Hmmm. I notice that I can't list any women in this category.

SBW:  I notice in reading a number of Paris Review interviews which I enjoy and that serve as models for written interviews, many are of male writers.  Eavan Boland speaks of the influence of male writers, especially Yeats and Joyce.  Are women occupying a more viable position of influence in American literature today?

I am optimistic for the increased purview of women writers in American literature, though the numbers show that women are still underrepresented, not that we need numbers for confirmation. In my experience, women feel sexism and misogyny’s effects, however recessive and insidious, in and out of the literary arena, just about every day.

For me, the best way to counteract all that and stay positive is simply to keep writing, to keep trying to write better, to win better, to fail better (Beckett) to keep submitting, to keep mentoring and encouraging other women writers. I’m also heartened by the interest and admiration for women writers among many of my male friends, poets and non-poets, who readily self-identify as feminists.  

But in Ireland, Boland’s turf, and where I studied for two residencies during my MFA program, I gather it’s still a lamentable situation, though she and her contemporaries—Sinéad Morrissey, Medbh McGuckian, Claire Keegan—to name a few, are throwing down the gauntlet. Morrissey won the TS Elliot prize last year, for instance, and was just named the inaugural poet laureate of Belfast. So there’s hope, which makes me happy as an Irish-American woman.

SBW:  I know that you run a fabulous Poetry Cooperative, “The Rooster Moans.”  Tell us about it – how it began, what it does, and please mention The Poetry Barn.

Thank you, Sue! As a web developer by day and writer by night, creating a private, online space for writers to converse and share drafts of their work seemed like a perfect fit. The idea came to fruition when I was the poetry editor for Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal. Each Lobster author received an invitation to join The Rooster Moans, where I led ad-hoc online poetry workshops. So our community was already writing at a very high level; Susan Yount, Maureen Alsop, Brenda Mann Hammack, and Chris Crittenden, all fierce poets, were early adopters. Soon, they offered to "give back" by leading workshops of their own. I recruited more fabulous teaching artists, and after obtaining my MFA, took The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative public.

Now we offer up to three workshops every month, free to gently-priced, on a wide range of themes: magic realism, ecopoetics, objectivist poetry, confessional poetry, ekphrastic poetry, the grotesque, the prose poem, the fairy tale poem, nuclear poetics, poems influenced by film, oulipo, conceptualism . . .the list goes on and on. I’m incredibly grateful to our teaching artists and our “moaners,” as we fondly refer to the poets who enroll in our workshops, many of whom are regulars, for their steadfast support.

Our next step is to find a physical space in which to hold in-person workshops, retreats, readings, and residencies. I envision a generous number of acres in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and am actively looking for our home, the centerpiece of which will be an eco-friendly barn made from boards branded with poetry! I’m super excited for this next phase, and our supporters have been enthusiastically cheering us along.

SBW:  What else would you like to say about writing / writers?

Someone once told me: if you can do anything else, do it! And that's not half-bad advice for anyone on the fence about writing. It's such hard work. But its rewards—self-knowledge, empathy, self-respect, love—for me, at least, dwarf the energy expended to reap them.

And for those wondering if you are cut out to be poet, I promise you’ll eventually know, instinctively, just as you know your own name. Because like family, you don’t choose poetry, it chooses you. And when you accept that, and all that kin demands, you’ll finally, ironically, arrive at a complex peace—simultaneously more energized and exhausted than you ever thought possible. Welcome home.