2013 Black Box Poetry Prize Results

Dear Readers, Rescue Press is excited to announce Bridgette Bates of Los Angeles, CA as the winner of this year’s Black Box Poetry Prize. Bridgette’s manuscript, What Is Not Missing Is Light, was chosen by our judge, Heather Christle, and will be published in Fall 2014.

We would also like to thank all of the poets who sent us wonderful work as well as congratulate the finalists (below) and remind you that Todd Melicker’s rendezvous, winner of last year’s Black Box  Prize, will be released this November along with two other books: The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, and Jonathan Blum’s novella, Last Word.

Love, Rescue Press

Finalists:

Carrie Olivia Adams: Operating Theater Oliver Bendorf: The Spectral Wilderness Thea Brown: Think of the Danger Stella Corso: Eat Island Phil Estes: Daddio(s) Annie Guthrie: let x (be rogue) Leif Haven: The Belly of Things Anne Holmes: Junk Parade Laura Kochman: The Bone and the Body Matthew Mahaney: The Storm That Bears Your Name Matt McBride: City of Incandescent Light Bulbs Rachel Mortiz: Small Room for Arrivals Montreux Rotholtz: Unmark Stephanie Schlaifer: Clarkston Street Polaroids Steven Toussaint: The Bellfounder

Nate Hoks (Safety Book #31)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I love this book because I struggled to love it. At one point I disliked it. I used to teach 10th grade English and the book was part of the curriculum. When I started the job, I was none too thrilled by the book. I found it ridiculous, improbable, belabored and confusing – and I felt guilty asking my students to be responsible for the details of a book that baffled me. But over time, after teaching it year after year, Wuthering Heights took a firm hold on me. By the fifth or sixth time reading the book, I was an unabashed lover of the book. Brontë inhabits a kind of demonic mania in the love and hauntedness of Heathcliff and Catherine; but she constantly refracts our sense of this mania through layers and layers of framed narration. It is a tour-de-force of voice and design, and yet it never feels classical or academic or formulaic. I can’t even begin to explain how much I admire this coupling of a fierce, fiery, romantic imagination with a labyrinthine, intelligent, unpredictable structural design. The narrative design is as twisted as the plot, as twisted as the incest, as twisted as the transgressions and cruelty and violence and hypocrisy at the root of the novel; and in a sense, it is the vine from which all of these ghoulish elements sprout.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

The first time I read the book I was a sophomore in high school. I had to do a book report on it. I don’t remember very much about the experience, probably because I didn’t get the book at all. As a male teen growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, the rugged terrain of the Moors and the violent and erratic passions of Heathcliff and Catherine didn’t speak to me. The second time I read Wuthering Heights I was in my late 20s teaching sophomore English in New England. To an extent, my experience teaching high school was pivotal to my gradual love of the book because it was, for me, an experience of uncanny repetition: every year the rhythm of the academic calendar would evoke memories of my time as a high school student. As a result, that raw, emotional and awkward time in life was constantly re-animated in my psyche. Well, Brontë structures Wuthering Heights as a narrative of uncanny repetition, so I feel like it’s vital that my reading and teaching of the book was infused with these personal repetitions. Just as the second generation of characters repeats the first generation, with all their monstrous mutations and degenerations, so too did I repeat my teen years, year after year, day after day, with all the monstrosity and mutation (and sweetness!) of memory and sentiment.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

Wuthering Heights has influenced me in many ways, more so in my thinking and sense of the world than in my writing, though it has opened up thematic territories to me as well. It has affected the way I think about place, the self, being haunted, cruelty, and repetition. Wuthering Heights has also influenced the way I think about race and the rampant social hypocrisies that persist in Christian communities that are supposedly based on love. When Mr. Earnshaw brings home Heathcliff, this “thing” who is “dark almost as if it came from hell,” he is an orphan; but as much as Mr. Earnshaw is attempting an act of charity, it backfires and Heathcliff is basically re-orphaned into this isolated Yorkshire community where even the one person with whom he has a spiritual bond turns on him. And in a sense, most of the major characters, from Lockwood to Nelly Dean to Isabella to Catherine Linton, experience a kind of orphaning as they move between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, the two estates of the novel. So despite the closeness of the novel’s intimate community, there is a constant sense of abandonment and personal isolation, as if every single character were a freakish outsider. Brontë enhances these feelings through all the atmospherics of the text – the storms, the descriptions of the Moors, the haunted enclosed spaces, the frenzied and hallucinatory narrations.

And a great deal of power comes with that outsider status. Like a potent contagion, Heathcliff radically contaminates the hypocritical purity of the novel’s privileged and reclusive society. And as with all contagions, the process is basically copied in a myriad of ways: for example, Catherine Earnshaw, after marrying Edgar, contaminates Thrushcross Grange and the entire Linton sense of propriety; or in an ironic reversal, Catherine Linton, contaminates the degeneration that has taken root at Wuthering Heights, altering the mindsets of both Linton and Hareton. You can trace this zigzagging of contamination, mimesis, repetition and reversal all over the novel. It’s dizzying.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

‘Disturbed her? No! She has disturbed me, night and day through eighteen years – incessantly – remorselessly – till yesternight – and yesternight, I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep, by that sleeper, with my heart stopped, and my cheek frozen against hers.

‘And if she had been dissolved into earth, or worse, what would you have dreamt of then?’ I [Nelly] said.

‘Of dissolving with her, and being more happy still!’ he [Heathcliff] answered. ‘Do you suppose I dread any change of that sort?’

Here Nelly, the housekeeper and principle narrator, is questioning Heathcliff about his graveyard pastimes. Heathcliff tells her that he bribed the sexton to give him a peak at Catherine’s yet decayed body (it’s been fifteen years since her death, but the body hasn’t decayed, apparently, because of the unique chemical composition of the peaty soil in the Moors). Nelly, horrified, asks if he is worried that he has disturbed her spirit. Heathcliff’s narration of digging up Catherine’s grave is one of the memorable transgressions in the book. Not only is he unearthing the dead, a big no-no, but there’s also a hint of necrophilia because we all know there’s no place more erotic than the grave.

I used to ask my students if this was the meaning of true love, loving someone so much that you want to decay with them. Imagine putting that in your wedding vows! Traditionally, death is the limit of the vow (“until death do us part”), but here we have to wait until death for the ultimate consummation, the long co-decay. But it’s powerful, too, because for all the improbability of the novel, Brontë is confronting the hard facts of our material existence. The dissolution of the body here basically mimics the dissolution of the self in the novel’s variation of romantic love. What you get is this unsettling blend of the macabre image of bodily decay with the ecstasy of romantic-erotic love. Death marries sex and transgression leads to a sanctimonious union.

There’s also a wonderful ironic sense that the living is haunting the dead, as if life itself (for Heathcliff) were a kind of ghostly act of haunting since his imagination and entire psychology is basically focused on a dead woman for the better part of 20 years. He becomes more otherworldly, less human, more of a “goblin” in Nelly’s words, until his final transfixion and death. Catherine’s ghost is reported throughout the book, and once Heathcliff dies, sightings of his ghost are also reported, but the living Heathcliff was already a ghost-in-life. There is a truth to this ghosting in that memory makes ghosts of us all.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

All the Catherine’s I know, namely my sister, and two fantastic poets Catherine Theis and Katherine Hollander.

*** Nathan Hoks is the author of Reveilles, which won Salt Publishing’s Crashaw Prize in 2010 and The Narrow Circle (Penguin, 2013). His poems and translations have appeared in Crazyhorse, Lit, Circumference, and Verse. He is an editor and letterpress printer for Convulsive Editions, and lives with his wife and son in Chicago.

Kara Candito (Safety Book #30)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? Robert Bolaño’s 2666, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. It’s a big, rambling 900-page epic that is roughly about the femicide in Juarez, Mexico (which is called Santa Teresa in the novel), although it’s really a messy, digressive mirror of modern life that tackles everything from globalism, to corruption, to intellectualism, to poverty, the family, and the violence of twentieth century history.

When I first read 2666, I was skeptical about contemporary literature’s capacity to speak to a world where terrible large-scale things happen. This is the kind of impossible and necessary work that I wish more poets and fiction writers would tackle.

Bolaño ropes the reader in with the hilarious opening section, “The Part about the Critics,” which documents the lives of four European scholars brought together by their mutual love of an obscure fictional Prussian novelist, Benno Von Achimboldi. In one sense, this section is a scathing critique of the politics of literary scholarship and its hegemonic conferences and cliques. On the other, it’s an insanely accurate exploration of how we fall in love with books, and how the formation of this love is often contingent upon biographical moments. Here, one of the scholars, the character Liz Norton, first reads Achimboldi on a rainy day:

Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallised spiderwebs or the briefest crystallised vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.

Thinking about the first time I read Lorca or Plath, it was as if I’d taken a splendid drug that made the world strange again.

The fact that, in latter sections of the book, some of these scholarly characters with whom many of Bolaño’s readers might relate, get sucked into the vortex of violence in Santa Teresa reflects the book’s investment in a world that is at once contrapuntal, nihilistic, and collective.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

It was in the spring of 2009, when I was in the third year of a doctoral program at Florida State University. I’d just finished comp exams, and I wanted to read something I hadn’t been required to suck the joy out of through formal analysis. In one sense, 2666 invites literary critique; it’s part crime novel and postmodern novel with echoes of Marquez and Kafka. It even incorporates characters from Bolaño’s other works. On the other, the book resists critique, or makes it feel cheap and reductive.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

As a poet, I have a hard time making decisions in terms of language, structure and syntax. I want to steal from ten different linguistic registers and exploit dashes, white space, and parentheses. I also want to speak to a fluid and messy world where real things happen. Bolaño gives me hope that the real and even the “political” can be approached via diffusion, repetition, and fragmentation; that emotional truth is often chaotic and inchoate.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

Still, American television is full of smiles and more and more perfect-looking teeth. Do these people want us to trust them? No. Do they want us to think they're good people? No again. The truth is they don't want anything from us. They just want to show us their teeth, their smiles, and admiration is all they want in return. Admiration. They want us to look at them, that's all. Their perfect teeth, their perfect bodies, their perfect manners, as if they were constantly breaking away from the sun and they were little pieces of fire, little pieces of blazing hell, here on this planet simply to be worshipped.

Holy shit. First of all, the patterning of rhetorical question and pithy response. Also, the relentless repetition of perfect. And finally, the wild association: “as if they were constantly breaking away from the sun and they were little pieces of fire, little pieces of blazing hell, here on this planet simply to be worshipped.” How did we get from the synthetic perfection of bodies on American television to the sun? I don’t know, but I believe it. Also, I don’t think Bolaño cares whether or not I believe it. Whether it’s the sun or the desert, this vision of hell as a burning surface gets repeated throughout the book. The petty hell of TV gets connected to the profound hell of a desert city where hundreds of women are raped and murdered. A universe of teeth and fire.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I haven’t sent this book to anyone officially. My copy is precious and mangled. I did recommend this book to my friend, the poet Liz Countryman. I think 2666 is a poet’s novel.

***

Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize (University of Nebraska Press, 2009). A recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the MacDowell Colony, Candito teaches creative writing at UW-Platteville and serves as the poetry editor of Driftless Review (www.karacandito.com).

Wendy Xu (Safety Book #29)

wendyxu1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? Nadja by Andre Breton (the Grove Press edition, translated by Richard Howard). I came to French surrealism “late,” whatever that means, maybe I just mean that by the time I read this book (and the Manifestos of Surrealism, Rimbaud for the first time, Baudelaire, etc etc), I felt as if I didn’t know anybody who hadn’t. Which I think, is part of why I love it so much. I didn’t read it for “my studies,” yet it changed my writing nonetheless. I’m awful at making time to read stuff for total pleasure, for a fun afternoon on the couch, I think this is art school’s fault. My fault for thinking it is art school’s fault, though I love art school. The novel is a little absurd, a little romantic, a little tragic, very funny and unconcerned with traditional narrative. Nadja is a woman, this frustrating and romantic surrealist idea that Breton chases around for ~200 pages. Sometimes literally. It is thrilling.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

I was on Wikipedia reading about Andre Breton. Then I drove to Amherst Books and bought it, took it home and read it twice, cover to cover, in one sitting. This was all in Western Massachusetts.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

It totally troubled (still troubles, thank god) my sense of the world, my sense of freedom in writing. It makes me want to listen more closely when someone is talking to me. It also helps me work on my secret-novel which is a secret most days even to me. The prose is often so unwieldy and sprawling and erratic. It makes me want to think more associatively.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

“Everything that permits us to live another’s life without ever desiring to obtain more from him than he gives, so that it is quite enough to see him move or be still, speak or be silent, wake or sleep, no longer existed for me, had never existed: this was only too certain.”

Depending on the day, this sentence (sentiment) is alternatingly wonderful or cripplingly sad.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I think I’m going to send it to Brian Foley. I think he’ll like it because it says interesting and sometimes-radical things about art, freedom, love, and “purpose.” With a little luck maybe he’ll come sit on my porch and talk about these things with me. Brian, I’m sending you a book.

***

Bio: Wendy Xu is the author of You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013), and two chapbooks: The Hero Poems (H_NGM_N) and I Was Not Even Born (Coconut Books). Recent poems have appeared (or will appear) in The Best American Poetry, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Western Massachusetts.

Safety Book #21 (Blueberry Morninsnow) + Black Box Poetry Prize Info:

In honor of our second annual BLACK BOX POETRY PRIZE, to be judged by Zach Savich, we present a Safety Book interview with last year’s winner, Blueberry Morningsnow, whose collection WHALE IN THE WOODS was selected by Sabrina Orah Mark. Purchase Blueberry Morningsnow's WHALE IN THE WOODS here.

Purchase our Black Box Editor’s Choice, Philip Sorenson’s OF EMBODIES here.

Learn more about the Black Box Poetry Prize here.

And: come see Blueberry Morningsnow read with fellow Rescue poet Melissa Dickey, author of THE LILY WILL, at Prairie Lights in Iowa City on Monday, July 23rd.

***

BLUEBERRY MORNINGSNOW (Safety Book #21)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?

I love the book Home/Birth: a poemic by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker. This book is a birth book, and it’s also a death book. It’s a collaboration, so it’s also a record of a friendship. Which, that’s amazing. The author is actually not one person, but a friendship.

This is a book about birth—about homebirth, and birth in the water, and also the general birth situation, birth culture, in the U.S.

There are a lot of birth stories in here, and I love birth stories. A lot of questions, a lot of songlike lines, and I love those things too.

There are beautiful lyrical fierce passages in between long sections of two women conversing about a subculture in which they’re both involved, the homebirth culture.

I love this book because it is important. It makes me feel fierce things, and feminist things, and real things. And I feel supported, and complicated, and allowed to be complicated, as I read this book. And maybe these were things I already felt, but I am so glad they are here. I feel that Inger Christensen refrain chiming in me reading it: this exists, this exists. These birth stories exist, these questions exist, these paradoxes exist.

And maybe for me the encounter with art that will change me often starts with a sense of relief, a slow spreading sense of relief, much akin to happiness. Partly, again, it might just be the sense of relief that this exists. Like it’s just so much better now, the world, the fucked up birth situation maybe even; it’s made better because of the existence of this book, already.

There are things I wonder, like what does it mean to attend each other’s births? Is this the first book by poets who have attended the births of each other’s children?

The book is a call, sharp and wise.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

I think I was in Prairie Lights bookstore. I can’t remember actually! I don’t know where I physically was. But in my life, here’s where I was: my son was two. I do know that when I heard or read of this book, I immediately bought it, to sink into it. Because you see: I’d given birth several years earlier, gave birth to an almost ten pound baby boy in the living room, in a birth tub. At home in the water. And the waves of the way I was still re-making and unmaking and making my home in the world since then—ah, it’s unspeakable. It’s so damn complicated. I was completely vulnerable, thrown open. I had so much lucky support, don’t get me wrong. But I was thrown open—this was happening, and my son was two—it’s still happening, and he’s almost four! What is “this”?

Well what I mean is: at this point in my life: I’d given birth, some years now in the past—and I’d been writing! Writing these unfinishable poems; these impossible poems of birth. I’d been writing a birth book, full of the splendor and trouble and depression, full of the unthinkable—

and all the while still the baby was growing and changing, every second, every day. He’d wake up after a nap and his toes would be longer and the look in his eyes would be different. You know, I just felt time disappearing in a spiral down a hole that looked beautiful and terrifying. Looked like the shape of a baby face, full of life. And I couldn’t capture it, couldn’t finish any of my poems. They were long: the poems were wanting to be long, were wanting to be epic. But I didn’t have TIME I reminded the poems.

At any rate, this situation of navigating early motherhood and negotiating with time about how to write my own book of birth poems: that was where I was, when I encountered this book.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

Yes. It made me feel possibilities of life. It made me feel the possibilities of friendship, birth, family, and poetry. Those are all my favorite things.

Like I said before, this book immediately gave me a sense of relief. It lessened a pressure.

As I read this book, I decided I should start a discussion group, in which interested women would get together at my house, read the book out loud to each other, and then discuss, tell stories, feel things, etc.—together. This is something I still want to do. Because—the book feels like a circle, like it wants other things to radiate off of it. One of the refrains in the book is “We haven’t even begun to talk about. . .” And then that phrase ends in a topic, for example: We haven’t even begun to talk about our mothers. We haven’t even begun to talk about the hospital. We haven’t even begun to talk about post-partum depression. We haven’t even begun to talk about homebirth. . .

The book is a circle of remarkable conversation. Writing sentences; finishing each other’s stories; reminding, remembering; asking questions; not being able to answer them: that’s the way of this book. It’s not that I agree with everything that’s said absolutely and just love it because I feel validated or something. It’s that it IS a conversation—it’s inviting.

From this book, I gather back a sense of braveness, boldness. I gather ideas, starting points.

It reminds me of 'zines I used to read, used to trade and order in the mail, 'zines with herbal potions for natural abortions, witches’ potions, feminist activism, lifelines. It’s almost like listening to a mixtape with Heavens to Betsy and Team Dresch on it. . . It’s honest and raw and necessary. . . It’s a plea and a notion and it’s a palimpsest, but this time it’s bodies written over and out of bodies, it’s phrases and lines written from the front lines—from the backs and the hands and the bellies and the questions and the vulnerabilities of birthing women.

The question I kept asking after birth: what just happened? Who am I now? I felt like a shifted person, ineluctably shifted. Not just because of  the fact that another human being had formed in my body and that my body had then opened to let that being out, in an unimaginable yet commonplace way, but also due to the fact that it kept happening: everything kept opening and splitting. The culture I lived in, my job, my friendships, my partnership, my family: everything was shifting and opening and splitting. Everything was different, yet profoundly the same. The images of birth in my body and in my mind kept reoccurring. I kept asking: what happened? A body came out of my body! A person, a human being, a wonderful person! I still want to shout it and talk about it, it’s just so weird. And he is here, out here, still growing and going. I think:  I’m back here reeling, still at the start of the Big Bang while everything else radiates out.

One is re-made. Like a poem I suppose. Or a conversation with a friend that is going on and on and on, over years and changes, births and deaths.

What do I want to do? Because of this book?

I want to write poems.

Want to be a witch.

I want to create art with friends.

Particularly with one friend.

Art saves.

Friendships save.

Perhaps we can just go out on our branches and sing about it:

Safety book.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

I love the lyrical poems in between the conversation sections of the book. They are little gatherings of the language and phrases that are in the conversation sections—but they are beautiful often, and they seem like they should be sung out (perhaps it’s the italicized leaning that makes them so songlike)—actually they seem like spells at times:

“Feel grateful like a feminist, like an activist, like a friend and the truth is when you saw what you could do—

women watching over—

it changed everything and was safer and feminist all the drawers and doors and windows

at once and the low noise we make opening, opening.”

And:

“lotus flower, birth certificate fast and strong and wild

the celestial nurse, I just know good witch watching over

shining moment, mostly still of course it is a sacred grove”

And “Hold the space” is a phrase that’s returned to over and over, it’s probably the line I think about most, when I think of this book. This idea is so strong, this idea of holding the space. Just hold the space, stand there and hold it. Be in it. It’s strong. It reminds me of the choice one has at every moment, not just transformative moments, and it’s a hard choice: the choice to be, to be physically, soulfully, psychologically present.

Here’s some more choice urgent bits:

“I believe in science. I believe in art. Obstetrics fails to honor either.”

“We’ve hardly begun to talk about all the reasons midwifery is a sacred art, a language we must preserve, a nonrenewable resource we’re at risk of losing, and how this could damage humankind.”

“The way we welcome babies, the way women feel (physically and mentally) after and about their births has profound and lasting consequences for our society.”

“People say about homebirth, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I could be that brave,’ but they don’t get it: when I think about being in a weird-smelling room in weird-smelling clothing strapped down with monitors and denied food and water, and with strangers pushing me to make choices  I don’t want to make, I think that’s terrifying. I can’t imagine how brave you have to be to birth in a hospital.”

And, lastly, I love this, this record-keeping of the moments that happens:

“The baby just kicked when I typed that.”

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I keep giving away this book: first, I gave it to my mom, who gave birth to me at home in 1977, and who writes books about the history of midwifery herself. I have given it to three or four friends, and not all of them mothers. I have talked about it with quite a few people.

I have a friend who just wrote to me yesterday telling me the birth story of her second child—I would like to send her this book, and maybe make a care package of amazing birth books and albums for her too: The Mother-Child Papers by Alicia Ostriker; Body Clock by Eleni Sikelianos; Mother’s Spiritual by Laura Nyro. . . (all of which I considered writing about too for this interview). . .

Thanks for holding this space here, Rescue Press!

***

Blueberry Morningsnow lives, writes, mothers, and teaches in Iowa City, IA. Her first book of poems, Whale in the Woods won the Black Box Poetry Prize in 2011, and just came out on Rescue Press.