Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Interview with poet Jennifer Martelli: A poet who looks at her life as an 'Uncanny Valley'

Interview with poet Jennifer Martelli: A poet who looks at her life as an 'Uncanny Valley'

With Doug Holder

Poet Jennifer Martelli sees her life as an "Uncanny Valley"- a term she told me that is used to describe the fact that what seems right doesn't always feel right.-- thus the title of her new poetry collection “ The Uncanny Value” ( Big Table Books).

 Jennifer Martelli is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry, and has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net Awards. She’s taught high school English and women’s literature at Emerson College. She’s an associate editor for The Compassion Project: An Anthology, and lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts with her family.

I had the privilege to speak to her on my Somerville Community Access TV program  " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: You have said in an interview that you write in the plainest language possible. So you have no problem with accessible poetry?

Jennifer Martelli: No—not at all. Early on this was a problem. So many professors would say that my writing is so beautiful, but they didn't understand what it is about. There was a part of me that felt-- for poetry to be deep or important it had to be inaccessible in a way. So half the time I didn't understand what I was trying to say. Eventually I went the other way. I tried to just tell a story. I learned that from Marie Howe. Now I am coming back to the middle, a little. I am trying to balance heightened language that is beautiful—with some artifice. But first I want to communicate with people. It is a razor's edge sometimes.

DH: You also mentioned in the interview that Elizabeth Bishop, Marie Howe, and,Sylvia Plath have influenced you. What is the common thread among these poets that attracts you?

JM: First off they are strong female poets. There is a strong female voice. Over the past six months if I bought a poetry book it was written by a woman. I didn't start this consciously. I love male poets too, of course. I love Robert Haas, Thomas Lux-- with his brilliant short lines, and Tony Hoagland—he was a teacher of mine—probably the smartest man I know. The women poets I mentioned are all different—but again I am attracted to them. What I love about Bishop—Bishop is talking to you in her poems. Like in “ One Art” she is making discoveries in the poem, and she is surprised in the poem.

DH: You studied at Boston University as an undergraduate, and you got your MFA from Warren Wilson. Who were some of the folks of note you studied with?

JM: You know—when I lived in Cambridge, Mass.-- you could more or less create your own MFA without entering a program. Major poets were living in Cambridge and for as little as a 100 dollars you could opt in. I remember folks like Steven Cramer and Robert Haas had workshops that folks could attend. When I was at Warren Wilson a big influence on me was Ellen Bryant Voight—she is a brilliant woman. Her notes were wonderful. Before the Internet took hold we wrote each other letters. tThe letters I have from her are like a textbook.

DH: You are the associate editor for the Compassion Anthology. Tell us about this and your role there.

JM: This is really Laurette Folk's baby. Laurette is a jack of many trades. She is a writer, novelist, and visual artist. She created this anthology online. What she wants to do is to bring compassion through action.-- like creating art and poetry. I am a poetry reader for the project. I give my input. We are starting to see amazing poets and poetry being contributed to the anthology.

DH: Your new collection is “ The Uncanny Valley” ( Big Table Books). Tell us about the germ of the idea for this poetry book.

JM: It is essentially biographical. It is about growing up in Revere, my life now-- in middle-age. It covers marriage, love, and writing. It deals with how one navigates one's way in the world. I find it inevitably hard. Robin Stratton, my publisher and editor, steered me to discover a great title. An “Uncanny Valley” is a term in aesthetics that describes things that look right but don't feel right. That describes my 54 years on this earth.

DH: In the collection you have a great poem titled: “Devil Tide.” You describe this group of nefarious  unforgiving rocks, the laments of seagulls, as a metaphor for how we cut ourselves off from people.

JM: That poem—is a prose poem. It is a conglomerate of the many beaches I visited and lived near. I have always lived near a beach. I have lived in Marblehead, Gloucester, and Lynn. The poem has to do to with how to say goodbye to people who might be dead or not in your life anymore. All these images came together for me and the poem was birthed.

DH: Was there a literary community in Revere where you grew up? I know poet Kevin Carey was born there and the novelist Roland Merullo.

JM: There was no real literary community. It truly was a working-class city. My parents grew up during the Depression and they felt poetry was frivolous. There were really not many places to go with my interest, aside from English class. If you look at Carey's work and Merullo's you'll see what I mean.

The Devil Tides

There are rocks off the coast shaped like eggs. There are rocks shaped like misery and one like a skull. Bodies have washed up on the slippery barnacles at low tide. There is a brown island I can walk to from the crushed shell beach. If you are born up here, you know sadness and you know gulls. You know how a good clamshell makes a good ashtray. You know the land is as flat as any place where men change into wolves under the mutton moon. You know that. Resent everything, for it’s the only way you don’t forget. Resent everything you love, it keeps you anchored to the beach. Fishing boats bring in cargo from pink and white tulip fields in the Orient. The heroin is cheap and it is hot. Just past King’s Beach the seaweed is red clogged with pennies or fingers. It smells even in the cold. Too many villages are connected by thin causeways pinched on either side by the Atlantic. Devil tides cut them off from the world. Folks go out and never come back. There are empty graves engraved in marble in big churches. Folks go out hot and turn blue. No one ever forgets, except how to measure. If you knew this, you’d never ask anything more of me.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Review of Works on Paper by Jennifer Barber


review of Works on Paper
by Jennifer Barber
published by Word Works
Winner of the 2015 Tenth Gate Prize

Review by Alice Weiss

Spare and lovely, the poems in Jennifer Barber’s Works on Paper resonate with answerings. Not just call and response, mind you, although that is there too, her poems seek out the moment when there are mysterious answerings even though the call is inaudible. In “Source” the opening poem, the leaves, hearing the rain before it sounds, lean “toward the place where the rain is about to begin. . .widening the surface of their urgency, their need/to register each shifting of air.” In “Almanac,” a graceful and gracious compression of one of Virgil’s Georgics, where beehives are ruled by a king, she wonders “Who first discovered/ it was a queen.” Always she is in conversation.
In “Assembling a Psalm,” phrases propose a psalm, without being one, and at the same time, being one: the sun, the cedars, grass like flesh, and where is she? She doesn’t know and not knowing still, and we find an answering:
there is always a turn
a way to open the lips
At one point in the collection she asks, “Is bereft some kind of command,” making the language have a conversation with itself. And indeed, the conversation she would most like to have, that with a father who has died of cancer, she cannot. So she preserves what must be the utterly inadequate question of dying, in On Morphine, his last words
Are these my eyes
under my hand.
And in the poem “After a year,”
What if he had dreamed
death as light on a windowsill,
shorebirds running at a wave?
She does not so much struggle with her grief as let it make images of itself. It doesn’t feel effortless so much as full of grace.
he was growing wings,
and would leave us when the wings grew in.
The valet that holds his clothes, “with its limited/knowledge of the body of a man.”
In “Benign” after the death begins to recede, conversation begins again with the world and other voices. She reads The Death of Ivan Ilych, and of his last three days, but putting the book aside, hears that
The wind
roughs up the highest branches of the oak.
The ear opens like an eye

—Unable to fit in the sack
or work free of it, he howls and howls.

There are conversations, as here, with Tolstoy, Goya (a delicious poem about an etching of four bulls where I suspect her father peers out at us), Chekov, the Bible and Near Eastern Creation myths. This last contains my favorite of all the lines in the collection,

After the great battle
when the leader of the gods
split with his arrow
the Mother of All.
he stretched half of her out as heaven,
he fattened the rest of her as land.

The other singular quality of an underlying call and response pulse is music. Barber’s lines are like measures, often couplets, always short, but her language is flowing so the tension between the stops and the flows is like, well, I flounder for a metaphor of my own, but it’s simple. It’s like song. These are the notes that struck my ear reading this time through.

The moon
naked as a slate
impossible to write on or ignore.

A gazelle is wearing
antelope pants.

By pear I mean pear,
not a riddled heart.
At least I think I do.
The flesh of it laid bare