Friday, February 27, 2009

You Might Find Cures Between These Pages

Elegy for a Scarred Shoulder
Review by Missy McEwen

Karen S. Williams' debut poetry book Elegy for a Scarred Shoulder dedicated to "the late Dr. Clarence Livingood, former chief of dermatology, Henry Ford Hospital Detroit, Michigan," is a poetry collection of "wonderfully made" poems about medicine and midwives, diseases and doctors and death, cures and childbirth, studies and science and surgeons, and hospitals and healing. Thus, Elegy for a Scarred Shoulder is not an easy read. These poems demand the reader's full attention as Karen S. Williams focuses on topics about smallpox, yellow fever, syphilis, keloids, and anorexia:

"The way the epidemic chewed and swallowed.
Onesimus had seen the horror...
The victims clothing
must be torn off, he heard, tossed
into a flame...
To cure it, some thought would be
a leap of faith, a move beyond
Bostonian cure...
But in Africa for displaced Guramantese,
for its lost son, slave Onesimus,
it required using a prickly thorn,
a hard known briar know to rend flesh
or a twig astutely shaped
a sharp, sharp knife." -- from "Onesimus' Twig" Birth of the smallpox inoculation

"Mosquitoes like these from Hispanola,
troll about ships,
flit and foul in Eastern bogs...
They cluster and breed,
still the quick and walking..." -- from "At First Frost" for Black clerics...whom lead black volunteers to serve the sick during the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia.

"Soon, I won't remember the quiet, petite girl:
brunette...with the lazy eye. She

reminded me of my friend except that
she was white...

She spoke to me in whispers
dulled by cheap wine, her

warm, breathy words
making me forget about prophylactics,
vivid canteen posters that spelled
'Syphilis is Death'...
and said that my French woman
may look clean-- but
there is no medicine for regret."-- from "French Letter" For African-American Soldiers with Syphilis during WWI

The poems in Elegy for a Scarred Shoulder are thick and heavy with history, importance and remembrance. Remembrance of doctors such as Dr. Daniel Hale Williams ("…performer of the first open heart surgery in 1893") and Dr. Kenneth Clark:

"Dark and stiff,
in perfect line,
boys and girls enter the room...
One by one they look at the table
I have placed mid-floor,
burdened with brown and white dolls...
I give the children basic instructions,
shake each tiny hand and say:
'Hello. My name is Dr. Clark.
What I would like for you to do
is look at the table filled with dolls.
Show me the doll you think is nice,
then show me the doll you think is bad.
Then after you do that, show me
which doll looks like you.' -- from "The Doll House" For Dr. Kenneth Clark

Karen S. Williams' Elegy for a Scarred Shoulder published by Willow Books, Aquarius Press (2008) cannot be summed up by quotes pulled from the text. It is one of those books that has to be owned and read in full, read thoroughly (you might find cures between these pages). A poetry book packed with so much knowledge and insight should be in every house and on every desk in every schoolroom and can be purchased at

To learn more about Karen S. Williams go to

Friday, February 6, 2009


Blood Ties & Brown Liquor
Review by Missy McEwen

Sean Hill's Blood Ties & Brown Liquor is divided into four sections and the pages that are used for the sections' titles resemble the backs of postcards and the cover of the book is like the front of a postcard (cover illustration: Detail of McIntosh Street by Frank Stanley Herring). Even the feel of the book (glossy, smooth to the touch) reminds me of a postcard. It is as if the reader has been sent a postcard, not just from Milledgeville, Georgia, but from another century and the poems are what is scribbled down (in the neatest handwriting) on the back, written by the relative with a knack for writing and storytelling. He sends you postcards about "Red-brown" Benny:
"Benny's handsome, red-brown like rust on a hoe…
The day is empty like a cicada's husk clinging to a tree,
empty like sound after the mule's kick when Benny falls, free
of this place then the hum of a bee and cry of a Jay.
Benny's skin red-brown like rust on a hoe is empty
as a cicada's husk clinging to a tree." -- from "Elegy for an Older Brother 1922"
He sends well-written, poetic postcards about the "..Georgia heat," "Silas & Mulberries 1917" and "Nigger Street 1937":
"McIntosh Street the sign reads
like the apple red but not
red delicious red but red
like redeye gravy on grits
at Gus's or red like stoplights
but they're also green and yellow
like apples in Allen's Market
on the corner…" -- from "Nigger Street 1937"
Postcards of memories, mostly memories:
"In the spring of '43 you went
to the prom. There was a band…
Lucien Walker spun records. You'd sewn your
own dress---white with bright red apples.
Your father didn't allow you to court.
Said you had to invite a girl. Your date was
Lucille Jackson…" -- from "#5: Going to the Prom"

"When I asked, you told me this quiet family lore.
I didn't do no courting worth nothing
cause daddy was so strict
. In May of '44
when you were seventeen--an innocent thing--
wouldn't be eighteen for seven months yet,
you eloped. Said: He lived right cross the street
there right cross the street
." -- from "#6: Courting"
Blood Ties & Brown Liquor is made up of "records," and "certificates of death and birth" and life -- life as it was in Milledgeville, Georgia, a town with mockingbirds and Flannery O'Connor's grave (there's a poem about it -- "In Memory Hill Cemetery"). In Sean Hill's book, the reader sees, hears, and feels Milledgeville and its people:

"Hear those cicadas building and falling
in rounds? Ain't as soothing as the steady
buzz of bees. Sounds like the whole church
testifying or a car's whine when the belt's
loose..." -- from "Milledgeville Evening Song"

"There was this high yellow man,…
lived up the road/from us when I was a boy…
He raised bees for honey.
[His wife] made candles from the beeswax." -- from "Milledgeville Evening Song"

"All night heavy moonlight dampened
echoes of the curfew bell that rang us in.

Nathaniel stole the little cool
from the late August night that touched my skin

the way the silver I polish and my mistress's
looking glass on first touch took the warmth of my

curious finger…" -- from "Milledgeville Aubade 1831"

Fiction it may be (the back of the book has a blurb about the poems in Blood Ties & Brown Liquor being about "the family of the fictional Silas Wright, a black man born in 1907"), but the feelings are real; the characters are real; the town is real (Sean Hill is from Milledgeville, Georgia). Sean Hill has created a civilization and I forget that Silas Wright is fictional. With an imagination like this, I cannot imagine Sean Hill ever having writer's block. Sean Hill's Blood Ties & Brown Liquor is innovative, creative, and inspiring.

To pick up a copy (and cop-a-feel -- the book's feel is awesome) of Sean Hill's Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, published by The University of Georgia Press (2008), go to (There you will find a list of places where Blood Ties & Brown Liquor can be purchased). And to learn more about Sean Hill go to:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I A I Discusses Poetry with Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown, currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of San Diego, is the author of Please -- his first book, published by New Issue Poetry & Prose.

IAI: Please is your first book; how long did it take for it to come together?

Jericho Brown: The oldest drafts of some poems in PLEASE were written in 2000, and I wrote them when I first attended the Cave Canem workshop/retreat for African American poets. Some poems' first drafts were written in 2007, the same year New Issues asked to publish the book. But seven years seems a dishonest answer when I think of how I'm prone to reading and thinking more than to writing itself.

In the last eight years of my life, there were times I couldn't stop writing. Over a short period of weeks, I'd have many drafts of very different things and begin to think I may be quite literally possessed. Once, I actually had a car accident trying to get some scribbling done while driving. These periods were thrilling for me, but during them, I felt vulnerable in a way I have a hard time characterizing to some of my closest poet friends.

At other times, for periods as long as two years within the last eight, I didn't write at all. I couldn't even think to revise. This is, of course, painful and scary in a very different way. Today, I think I managed to get through these silences because I was much more interested in figuring how to write poems than I was in how to write a book. I had no goal other than the poem itself and could almost satisfy my yearnings to write by reading and discovering other poets.

IAI: You teach creative writing at the University of San Diego; how do you teach creative writing?

Brown: In addition to fashioning a classroom that investigates and hones craft, I help undergraduate students develop themselves as men and women who think about literature and appreciate art. To that end, students read poetry manifestos written by such canonical writers as Wordsworth, Eliot, Oppen, Hughes, Rich, Gl├╝ck, Howe, and others. Students then write their own credos and manifestos in order to begin thinking about what they deem aesthetically valuable. In every class, I emphasize the relationship between writing well and reading broadly, the relationship between sharpening critical skills and polishing creative skills. Students participate in what I call "field work," searching out recent issues of journals as different as The Southern Review and Fence, and scouring these magazines for poems they feel must exist and poems they had hoped did not, all the while familiarizing themselves with contemporary poetry. And, in order to highlight the orality of the art, students memorize and recite poems in class throughout the semester.

In the workshop, I guide students in analyzing poems for specific strategies, naming each as a tool that the poet uses to establish emotional depth, to make for musical pleasure, or even to incite humor. Following thorough discussions, students write imitations modeled after giants including Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara, Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton, Jean Valentine, Rae Armantrout, and David Kirby and more recent contemporary poets, such as Tina Chang, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Ben Doller (nee Doyle), Thomas Sayers Ellis, Beth Ann Fennelly, James Hall, Sean Hill, Jay Hopler, Douglas Kearney, Joseph Legaspi, Richard Siken, Natasha Trethewey, Rachel Zucker, and others. In class and in several conferences throughout the semester, we discuss the ways students deploy these tools in their own work.

IAI: Are the majority of your students poets and writers or are they students taking the class as an elective?

Brown: Even on library bookshelves, poets are never in the majority.

IAI: In schools, teachers tend to teach the same poets over and over again, such as Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Are you a fan of Plath? Dickinson? Hughes?

Brown: I'm pretty crazy about all three of those poets, but as I mentioned in my earlier answer, I don't think of them as the only poets.

IAI: If you were in charge of choosing the poet laureate for the universe, who would you appoint? Why?

Brown: Maybe I'd get Oprah Winfrey to do it because she'd bring a lot of attention to poetry itself, and since she doesn't seem to know a lot about poetry save for the verse of Angelou and Giovanni, she very well may hire really good poets to advise her on how to handle the job.

On the other hand, I'd probably appoint myself for fear of making the wrong decision by picking Winfrey.

IAI: When did you decide to become a poet?

Brown: I don't remember not wanting to write. While growing up, I always thought I'd have what adults termed some kind of a "real job" and then retire from it in time enough to do what I always wanted to do in earnest. As my relationships with my family became more and more strained in my very late teens, I began to understand that I didn't have to wait to have, do, or be anything I wanted. An example of this was my choosing English as a major while an undergraduate at Dillard University. I convinced my father that the major was best for those planning to attend law school, but I knew I just wanted a major that would allow me to read and think about poetry and fiction.

IAI: I always imagine a poet living like this:

"We walked down the path to breakfast.
The morning swung open like an iron gate…

We trotted back and forth to readings….

Someone was always hungover,
scheming with rhymes…"

At the bonfire, we flamed with words…"
-- from "Green Night" by Edward Hirsch
How are you living?

Brown: I'm grateful that I've been traveling a lot in order to fill requests that I give readings. Most of my recent life is centered around meeting really interesting people from all over the nation who love good poetry. Also, I try to make sure I have enough reading to do on planes since I spend so much time on them.

Other than that, I go to the gym a lot. I eat a lot. I talk with friends over the phone a lot. I teach a lot and read a lot in preparation for teaching. I usually go clubbing when I get the chance because I like flirting and dancing.

IAI: From the same poem, the line: "It was a green night to be a poet in those days/we didn't care if the country didn't care about us." Do you care?

Brown: Yes, but I have low expectations when it comes to this country caring about its poets. Maybe that will change now…who knows?

IAI: Finally, on a different note, I love the library; it is still a magical place for me. Is it for you?

Brown: Of course. Free books are more than magical.

Jericho Brown's book was recently reviewed on Immunization Against Invisibility.

You can learn more about Jericho Brown at

Jericho Brown's Please, published by New Issues Poetry & Prose (2008), can be purchased at and

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Armadillo

For the Love of an Armadillo
Review by Missy McEwen

In the pages of For the Love of an Armadillo by Didi Menendez (illustrated by Jeremy Baum), a delicate love affair (between The Armadillo and the narrator) takes shape. It is a love affair that is complicated and simple at the same time -- simple because they enjoy each other's company and are there for each other; there is no arguing, just dancing and watching television together, eating together, and sometimes kissing, but complicated because, for the narrator, there is conflict. The narrator is afraid she might be falling in love with The Armadillo. In the first poem of For the Love of an Armadillo "Armadillo," the poet writes:

"I am not sure how
the armadillo found
his way into my life…

I tell myself
not to feel
for the armadillo.

No respectable
woman my age
should feel for
an armadillo."

The illustration that comes before "Armadillo" is of a woman with an armadillo in her chest, next to her heart. The book carries on in this fashion -- the artwork (illustrated by Jeremy Baum) that precedes the poem complements the poem, so the reader gets a visual picture, as well as a poetic picture, of the developing relationship between the narrator and The Armadillo. In some of the illustrations featuring The Armadillo, the reader sees his 'stache, his stare, the smoke coming from his cigarette. It is not hard to believe why the narrator may be feeling for and falling for The Armadillo. She even gave him the nickname "Armadillo." But even though she knows him well enough to give him a pet name, she does not know him well enough to know his real name. In the poem "Armadillo and Andalucia," the poet writes:

"His real name may be Harry or Richard or Tom.
I don't know because he never offered to tell me.
I never asked.

I never ask Armadillo anything.
He never asks me anything either
except for the occasional what's for dinner?"

She does not know his real name, still she cooks him dinner as though she wants to be something more to him. She does for him as a mother would. In "Armadillo's Shoes," she tells him to shine his shoes. She gives him the polish and she spits on the shoes for him. She even wants to "knit him a sweater," but by the end of the poem, she wants to be more than a mother figure, she wants to be a lover; she wants The Armadillo to kiss her. The poem ends with these words:

"…kiss me Armadillo.
I want you to kiss me…hard."

And the poem that follows begins with the words "Armadillo only kisses me/when there is a full moon/or when it rains." This poem "Armadillo's Kisses" comes after the illustration titled "Conquest," and because of this sequence, I get the impression that the narrator has made her move, has given up trying to fight her feelings for The Armadillo, and The Armadillo has somewhat surrendered. But still she is taking it slow, maybe, not wanting to scare off The Armadillo by rushing things. She knows "never to serve/him snails al ajillo because snails/remind him of his first love." She takes what is given and does not ask for more. He kisses her, but only when it rains, only when there is a full moon. There is a limit to his love. Maybe during these times (of rain and full moons) he becomes sentimental and kissing is the only thing that will do.

In Didi Menendez' For the Love of an Armadillo, there are moments of tenderness, moments of longing, moments of passion, and moments of friendship. For the Love of an Armadillo is a classic story of a love affair told through poetry and pictures. It is a great read.

For the Love of an Armadillo, published by Goss 183::CASA Menendez (2008-2009), can be purchased from, and soon from Amazon and other online bookstores.