Emily Rose Cole

We recently talked to Emily Rose Cole. She just released her new chapbook composed of persona poems, Love & a Loaded Gun, from Minerva Rising Press. One of the poems from the book, "Persephone Returns," was first published in The Pinch 37.1 (as "Self-Portrait of Persephone Returning").

Keep reading for Emily's fascinating discussion of persona poems, the publishing process, and her own personal connection to Judy Garland.

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This book is made up entirely of persona poems. Why did you choose this form? 

Working in persona was the key to “finding my voice” in poetry. Ironically, my voice is clearest when spoken from the mouths of other people, and as soon as I learned to lean into that tendency, the whole world opened up. I love persona because it allows me to reflect on my own trials and tribulations from the perspective of another person. A question I used to ask myself in choosing a persona was “how is this other person like me” but more recently I’ve inverted that question to “how am I like them?” Empathy is the most important tool for my writing, and I’ve found no more effective way to explore the connections between myself and other people than to inhabit someone else’s voice.

All the voices in the collection are female-identifying people, and writing these poems challenged me (and, I hope, my readers) to re-think women’s roles in the familiar narratives that most people know. Often, even the most famous women are passive agents in their own stories: Leda is raped, Persephone is kidnapped, Rapunzel is rescued, and on and on. I wanted this collection to re-center these women’s agency and give them a chance to reclaim their narratives, and that meant letting them speak in their own, proud voices. 

What was the process like in publishing a chapbook?

I didn’t originally set out to write an all-female collection, I just happen to find women’s stories compelling and, in the larger context of literature, such stories are woefully underrepresented. Because persona poems generally seek to show us sides of characters who are often misunderstood, female voices from myth and popular culture were a natural fit for the form. So I wrote poem after poem and, after a few years, I discovered that there were enough female-centered poems to make up a chapbook. I actually defended a version of the manuscript as part of the thesis for my MFA at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and got a lot of helpful feedback on it from my peers and advisors there.

After I had about 20 pages of poems (20 pages in MS word, that is! The little tiny chapbook 32 pages), I did some research about chapbook presses and curated a list of contests to send to. After many rejections (and one finalist nod!), I was thrilled to win Minerva Rising’s chapbook contest 2016. They did such a beautiful job with the book!

My long-term goal is to repurpose many of the poems that appear in the chapbook into a full-length persona manuscript (one which will include both men’s and women’s voices), but that goal is still far on the horizon. The potential full-length manuscript is more a side project right now.

“Persephone Returns” functions as both a self-portrait and a persona poem. What do you see as the difference between the two? How do you choose when to use which form?

“Persephone Returns” was actually written as a self-portrait (in The Pinch, the poem appears under the title “Self-Portrait as Persephone Returning,” which was its original title). The line between persona and self-portrait is thin, but important. The poet Lisa Russ Spaar has a great essay called “Thoughts on Poetic Self-Portraiture” in which she informs us that self- portrait poems as a “self-conscious literary entity” weren’t really popularized until after 1975, when John Ashbery published Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, after which their popularity exploded. But artists have been invoking self-portrait for centuries, and poets are no exception, even if we don’t often admit it as openly as sculptors and painters.

There is almost always an element of self-portrait in poems, especially poems in the lyric mode, and that’s why I think both persona an self-portrait poems are so crucial: to write a persona poem is to consciously inform your audience that you are about to don a mask (fittingly, the word “persona” itself is derived from the Latin for “mask”), but when you write a self-portrait poem, you only partially invoke the persona. The poet holds the mask in her hand but chooses to keep it lifted partway off her face, telling the reader explicitly “I see myself in this person.”

For me, persona and self-portrait are both useful tools for exploring someone else’s perspective, but self-portrait poems are investigations of the self first, and the persona second, whereas persona poems are investigations of the persona first and the self second.

Speaking of that connection between persona and self-portrait, is there a historical or pop culture figure from these poems that you connect to the most? Why? 

Oh, that’s such a hard question! I connect to all the women in this book on one level or another, though some of their poetic voices were louder than others. But I think the truest answer is that I relate to Judy Garland the most. I am also a singer, and I was drawn to her since I was a child. In my mind, Judy Garland is also inexorably connected to Dorothy Gale and The Wizard of Oz (as the poem’s references show), but the Judy Garland poem was actually far easier for me to write than its counterpart in Dorothy’s voice.

Singing has always been a very important part of my life (and my poetry, for that matter!) and I have always been fascinated by the ways that singers use their voices to assert their power. Though, historically, her story is ultimately a tragic one, it was important to me to present a narrative in which she could reclaim some of the power I always found so magical about her. That’s why the central image of this poem, the bluebird, functions as a way for Judy to find her voice, despite the initial, unasked-for trauma of having the bird sewn into her throat. In a way, that poem is a statement of purpose for the book.

What are you currently working on writing-wise?

So many things! I’m one of those writers that likes to have a lot of work simmering at once, and I sort of flit from project to project like a distractible hummingbird. I just finished the manuscript for my first poetry collection, which includes self-portrait versions of several of the poems from Love & a Loaded Gun. That narrative arc of that collection focuses on my relationship with my mother before, during, and after a long illness. 

My most current project is an investigation of the landscape of northwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and its devastation due to hydraulic fracturing. Concurrent to that project, though, I’m still working on more persona poems (most recently a crown of sonnets in the voice of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) and one day I hope to have enough work to fill a whole full-length collection of persona work.

Erin Adair-Hodges

Past contributor Erin Adair-Hodges has a new book out from Pitt Poetry Series. Let's All Die Happy was the winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett prize. Two of the poems from the new book, "I Would Have Listened to Rush" and "Ode to my Dishwasher," first appeared in issue 35.2 of The Pinch. 

We spoke with Erin about what she's been up to lately, her inspiration for the book, and her writerly impulses. 

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What have you been up to since publishing with The Pinch?

First, The Pinch was among the first places to publish my poems and the first to ever solicit me for work, so I will always be grateful for that.

Since the spring of 2015, I’ve been fortunate enough to publish a lot of work and in 2016, my first book Let’s All Die Happy won the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize from the Pitt Poetry Series—it was just published at the end of October. I’ve also moved to Ohio to take a position as a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Toledo. So in other words, a lot.

Can you tell us about your book Let’s All Die Happy and the inspiration behind it?

The book wasn’t something I envisioned before its creation. I respect and even envy “project” books, but I consider mine a collection of poems that weave together an examination of disappointment and yearning. It takes what are presented to women as life-defining events (motherhood, marriage, daughterness, sex) and asks about what happens when we do what we’ve been told will fulfill us and yet feel hollowed a bit by this. Yes, motherhood is awe-inspiring, but postpartum depression is annihilating. Marriage is a great source of support, but it can also be stultifying. I’m interested in flipping over the thing we think we know to complicate our understanding of these roles and relationships.

How did it feel to win last year’s Agnes Lynch Starrett prize, and what did it mean to you?

I was told the news on an early Monday morning, and almost immediately I had to go teach a class of freshman comp. I think this sums up a lot about my experience—it’s tremendously affirming, but then I just have to keep getting work done.

That’s not meant to sound ungrateful; I am, on an almost daily basis, fairly floored by my good fortune to have won this prize. The significance of it will seep in and surprise me. I’d accepted a while ago that my life wasn’t going to look the way I thought it would and that I’d have to find happiness in what I had the opportunities for instead of what I really wanted. At some point, I decided that wasn’t enough. I wanted a life as a poet and I made it. Winning this prize has been affirming in a way that’s hard to overstate.

The business of poetry (separate from the art of poetry) celebrates youth in a way that can make it seem if you didn’t hit it when you were young, there’s no space for you. I’m concerned with supporting those voices, mostly of women, who for varied reasons had to sublimate their artistry and ambitions. I hope to be able to give support and community to those who may not see a way in for themselves.

Where does your general impulse to write come from? And what does a typical day of writing look like for you?

My impulse comes largely from reading. Those days I can write, I begin by reading at least a few poems to become inspired—images, line breaks, surprising language—any and all of it can trigger a desire to get onto the page and do it myself.

I don’t have a typical writing day. I teach a heavy load and have many other responsibilities, so I don’t view writing as a daily practice, otherwise I’d be constantly anxious because of my failure to write during busy times. Instead, I try to listen to my impulses. The past few weeks, my commitment to writing poems as part of the Plath Poetry Project has led to a kind of epic tear, but before that it had been nearly three weeks before I could write. I personally can’t follow the advice that you should write every day, but I also don’t wait for inspiration to strike. If I have time, I sit down and try; if I don’t, I go through the world with a lens open to experience that will find its way to my work.

What is the last a) TV show you watched, b) book you read, c) drink you drank, and d) song you listened to.

a.    Show: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

b.    Book: Ordinary Misfortunes by Emily Jungmin Yoon

c.    Drink: Pinot Grigio

d.    “Blue Magic” by Son Little

 

 

Hunter Choate

Hunter Choate's story "Mirror Box" was recently listed as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2017. The story first appeared in issue 36.1 of The Pinch, and it captivated our staff with its flawless writing and powerful storytelling. Recently, we spoke with Hunter about how it felt to receive this distinction, as well as what inspires his stories, and where his writing's headed next.

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Q: What have you been up to since publishing with The Pinch?

I've been working on short stories. I'd like to have enough for a collection soon. Beyond that, I was an opening reader for Lauren Groff at a Functionally Literate event here in Orlando. That was a huge treat. And, of course, there's a novel on the distant horizon. There's always a novel on the horizon, right? I'm a big believer in momentum, so I'm trying to buckle down and make it all happen.

Q: Can you tell us about the process that went into writing "Mirror Box"?

The story originated with the idea of a one-armed kid who wanted to impress girls by making the preposterous claim he was the drummer for Def Leppard. On its own that's little more than an absurdist joke and, while I enjoy humor, I aim to use it in service of illustrating the hard business of being human. So, as is often the case in my writing, the process was accretive. Years ago I'd learned about the use of mirror boxes to treat phantom limb pain, and once that information dislodged itself from the recesses of my brain and made its way into the story, I had the room for added depth. The third person narrator also unveiled himself in the writing process. His role in the story was a surprise to me and hopefully that translates to the reader's experience.

Q: What does it mean to you to have "Mirror Box" selected as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2017?

It's such an honor to have work mentioned alongside stories by so many authors whose work I admire. Writing is a lonely endeavor and it's brimming with rejection—my personal record is five rejections in the span of 24 hours—so there's a certain validation to the Distinguished Story nod that I'm sure will help fuel the writing for a good long while.

Q: Where do you look for inspiration? On a typical day, how long do you spend writing?

Inspiration is everywhere. The key is being attuned to it. I like the David Lynch example of paying close attention as random pieces to your creative puzzle are being flicked to you beneath a door. That said, a few things I look for include ways to balance the oddness and humor of life with its beauty and sorrow, and I’m a sucker for a striking image. I often think in terms of visual mnemonics. In the same way someone trying to memorize a deck of cards will assign visual cues to each card, at key points in my work I look to include images that have the power to linger.

As for the sausage making of getting the actual writing done, I try to wake up early and get in an hour or so before heading to the office. Unfortunately, I’m not a morning person and it takes me a while to get into the writing flow, so most of my progress is made on the weekends when I can steal a couple hours in succession to focus on the work.

Q: Just for fun, which do you prefer: dogs or cats, coffee or tea, rain or sunshine? 

You couch this as being the fun question, but I’m already envisioning sternly worded letters from the militant wing of the American Kennel Club, the Peaceful Tea Ceremonies or Death gang and drought sufferers everywhere. I think I ought not answer. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.

For more on Hunter and his writing, visit his website. To read his story, "Mirror Box," check out our limited edition PDF of 36.1, and for news about our upcoming publications and interviews, take a look at our new blog, The Spark

Brad Aaron Modlin

In 2007, Brad Aaron Modlin won second place in The Pinch's  River City Writing Award in Poetry with his poem, “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade." The poem recently went viral, so we asked Brad a few questions about his writing, his views on social media, and his connection to poetry.

Q: What have you been up to since publishing with The Pinch?

A: I’m an assistant professor at Missouri Southern (not to be confused with Southeast Missouri/SEMO Press, who run the Cowles Prize and published the book). In my job, I’m lucky to get to talk about three genres of creative writing with great workshop students who give me new ideas. I’ve been reading some wonderful books as well.

Q: How has the writing been going?

Writing keeps us all busy. My short collection of short stories, Surviving in Drought, won The Cupboard’s annual contest and came out earlier this year. I’ve been working on both a nonfiction manuscript and a new fiction one. 

Q:How did your poem gain momentum, and how does it feel to have a poem go viral?

A: I don’t know how that happened. I do know the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama took the original photo of the poem from the book. Then I was on airplanes and in mountains for a couple days—and not plugged in to the Internet much. My social media use didn’t include Twitter, so when I returned, I created an account to get a better idea of what was happening. It was quite a surprise. 

I’m glad this poem seems to resonate with people. I know we aren’t supposed to have favorite children, but this one is important to me. As a reader and a human, there are certain pieces out there that I frequently return to because I enjoy them or because they help me live. A writing goal of mine has always been to pay that forward.

Q: Is this a viable opportunity to bring poetry back to the masses?

A: I used to have, taped to my office door, a bookmark given out by members of our English student honors society (Sigma Tau Delta). It featured a quote from a biopic of C.S. Lewis: “We read to know we are not alone.” I think we sometimes join social media for the same reason. And so it makes sense that folks share literature there. Because social media is a place where we share news—good and bad, personal and societal—it’s a place where we ask a lot of questions. Whatever our questions, literature has a response. Social media gives us a chance to remind each other of that, too.

Brad’s poem can be found in his new book “Everyone at This Party Has Two Names," and for more information about the talented poet, visit his website. Discover other great poems with a back issue of The Pinch, and if you're interested in submitting to The Pinch, click here. Submissions reopen August 15.