The High Window Journal’s Featured American Poet: Summer 2016

Nicole Callihan’s work has appeared in PANK, Forklift, Ohio, American Poetry Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and as a Poem-a-Day selection from the Academy of American Poets. Her books include SuperLoop, a collection of poems published in early 2014, and A Study in Spring, a chapbook which she co-wrote with Zoe Ryder White and which was released in November 2015. Nicole’s latest chapbook, The Deeply Flawed Human, will be released by Deadly Chaps Press in July 2016. Signed copies will be available here: http://www.deadlychaps.com/chapbook/ Further details about Nicole and her work can also be found here: http://www.nicolecallihan.com

Nicole-34websmal

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The ConversationThe poems

Previous American Poets

THW1: March 1, 2016

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The High Window is pleased to include five new poems by Nicole in its summer issue, but first here she is in conversation with Anthony Costello:

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This unedited conversation took place at 9am Pacific Time and 5pm Luddendenfoot Time. Apart from a cursory email exchange setting up the nature and boundaries of the talk, neither poet nor editor knew in advance what questions or subjects would be raised until the conversation began. NIcole Callihan had recently flown from New York to Los Angeles to attend a conference (Associatiion of Writing and Writing Program) and had two hours on Friday morning, April 1st, to talk about poetry matters via e-mail. The editor had just awoken from his usual mid-afternoon siesta (now an involuntary biological necessity) and was pleased to start a conversation with the American feature poet for issue 2 of The High Window. The editorial team at The High Window would like to thank Nicole for agreeing to feature in our journal.

Nicole Callihan (NC)

Anthony Costello (AC)

Hi Nicole,

I have just awoken to news that Eric Berlin, a poet from Syracuse, New York, has won the UK National Poetry Competition. I know he lives Upstate and you live in Manhattan, but I wonder if you have ever met him, or know his work? The reason I mention it is that in his acceptance speech he says that the competition win has reinforced his trust in ‘turning inward in a way to reaching others’. I feel from what I know of your work, the poems you have submitted for the American Feature Poet section issue 2 of The High Window, and the work you have submitted for the anthology of US poets to be published by The High Window Press in December, that your poetry would be closely allied with Berlin’s statement? AC

Hi Anthony, thanks so much for reaching out to me for this conversation. I don’t know Eric Berlin or his work (though I’ll certainly search it out now), but yes, yes, I think I’m certainly aligned with his thoughts about poetry. To me, there is something vital in examining the ways we operate: how we think, how we feel, what it means to be in a body this body

in a world this world. Poetry, for me, is trying to name what lurks within. It’s like I believe that if I can give voice to the unvoice-able, I can get closer, somehow, to the truth. NC

His poem is called ‘Night Errand’ and it ends I feel with an un-voiceable truth, an unsayable truth, now said. And a catharsis in the truth-telling, even if the truth might be socially unpalatable. When you mention exploring what lurks within, and being honest about the strange experience of being within a body in this world, it seems the only path has to be an emotionally honest one. I instinctively believe your poetry and I can’t say that about every poet’s work, especially my own. The other aspect of your work that is quite startling is that the voice in your poems seems to be addressing ‘de facto’ a wide audience, your work as a public statement, an earnest confession? AC

Interesting. Just the other day, I gave my students I teach first year college students in the Expository Writing Program at New York University four directions for their writing: Teach us something. Confess something. Contradict yourself. Forgive yourself. I’m drawn to confession. I lap up poems and essays and stories that unveil, but I want more than confession, of course. I’m deeply drawn to sound. As a very young girl, I went to tent revivals with my Pentecostal grandmother. It strikes me now that those summer nights contained everything I love about poetry: speaking in tongues, confessing, begging forgiveness in front of God and everybody, being forgiven, maybe even being healed. As for storytelling, I come from people who talk a lot and laugh a lot. There were whole swatches of time spent on porches and driving in a Honda with my mom for days on end. The sky never seemed to end, and we’d tell each other everything, real and imagined; we still do. NC

I feel there is an abundance of subject matter in your response that might not be able to be entirely discussed here, but what you say is fascinating, in that the tone and sound I heard in the voice of your poems seemed confident in the reader or listener response. So, a large congregation, a familial pentecostal church, or extended family, would be the ideal (safe?) audience, a powerful container for the expression of feelings and emotions. I am interested in the different worlds of the porch talk in North Carolina (?) and teaching at NYU. Can you say something about these two worlds and the journey you made from one to the other? AC

This is something I think about a great deal. I moved around quite a bit growing up. I started out in North Carolina but went to South Carolina, South Dakota, finally Oklahoma, before moving to New York two decades ago. Teaching at NYU and being able to live in New York in a tall glass building and write poems always feels like a miraculous accident. I’m like, wait, shouldn’t I be working in a diner somewhere?! I was talking to a friend the other day about what we called “impostor syndrome,” that feeling that someone’s going to come knock on my door and say, “You need to come with us. We know the truth.” What that truth is I’m not sure. I think about class a lot. I’m writing this from a lobby in a hotel room in Los Angeles; I’m wearing a blazer and pretty earrings; I use semicolons (!). The little girl in me would be so baffled and amazed at who she has become. NC

It’s an incredible (almost filmic) story and you paint rich pictures to accompany the journey. I can tell in these brief lines that you are an inspirational teacher. As for ‘imposter syndrome’ I have had that sensation big time! But the truth is we’re not imposters, the working class are just more sensitive to failure or success (using those two words loosely, and using ‘working class’ broadly). Both the high glass building in New York and the diner in Oklahoma both offer ripe pickings for poetry; perhaps the diner has longevity, something of the epic and the real. Which poets and poems helped you on your way from the little girl in a variety of mid-west states to the earring-wearing lecturer thinking about semi-colons while standing in a lobby in Los Angeles. AC

My first poetry love was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. My dad gave me a copy of Coney Island of the Mind when I was a teenager, and it just blew me away. From there, I went into a deep Anne Sexton wormhole. I still have a big hard cover copy of her collected poems that I never managed to return to the Tulsa Public Library. In college, I studied with George Economou who told me to read more Cavafy and less Bukowski. My abiding poetry loves

the poets I return again and again to are Jean Valentine, Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, William Carlos Williams, Ada Limón, Mary Ruefle, Paul Celan … I could go on and on. Most recently, I’ve been devouring Frank Stanford. I’m not sure why it took me so long to find his work: his voice rings so true in my head that I hear it surging through me. NC

Well done, Dad! That is a deep and varied list, and nice to see European poets on the list! At the High Window we are hoping to feature new Cavafy translations by Evan Jones who is working on a translation for Carcanet. If Sexton is your ‘wormhole’ then Celan is my dark cupboard, my blindspot. What am I missing in him that others receive? I went to him another way via an exhibition of Anselm Keifer’s at The Royal Academy in London last year. Many of the paintings were inspired by Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’. It is the unrelenting low notes in Celan’s poetry that I can’t take en masse. I can see the influence of Mary Ruefle in the repetitions and spare punctuation in your work, your spare dialogue in Jean Valentine, and your experiments with form and page layout in others you mention. I am new to Frank Stanford, and brand new to Judy Jordan (I know you haven’t mentioned her) whose work I came across in browsing North Carolina poets when I was reading some of Jon Thompson’s work last year. I find her work really interesting. (Joanna Solfrian put me on to Stanford). A tragic end to Standford’s life; it makes even more pertinent the quote by (his partner) C.D. Wright that ‘poetry is a necessity of life’. Do you feel this? And if you had to choose one poem to carry in your vade mecum, what would it be? You can quote your favourite lines or mention a poem and we will add it to this conversation. AC

For me, Celan exists almost wholly in the spaces. I turn to him when I’m most confounded. He seems to me to have answers that if I could just figure out the question I could receive. Take this poem:

“I know,
I know and you know, we knew
We did not know, we
Were, after all, here and not there,
And at times, when
There was only nothing between us, we found
All the way to each other”

Who is I and you, and where is here and there, and what is nothing, and how through it all have we managed to find each other, and lose each other, and find each other again? CD Wright’s quote that “poetry is a necessity of life” haunts me. I had just posted it in the days before her surprising death, and yes…yes, I so feel it. I went a decade without writing poems (I returned to them about four years ago, after the birth of my second daughter), and now, I can’t understand how I managed that decade. I read poems, of course, and they filled some of that necessity, but how did I get through without the specific returning and returning that happens in my mind when I’m writing poems? As for a vade mecum, I feel like a total cheeseball saying this, but I’m all about confession, right? It has to be Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” NC

The great thing about having a conversation is listening, so now I want to go back to Celan, and I will. I love your phrase about experiencing him ‘wholly in the spaces’, and reconfiguring the dialectic between the question and answer. And why not a poem called ‘The Summer Day’. We will see if we can use it. I didn’t know that Wright and Stanford had been together romantically when I thought her work was influenced by his. Yes, her quote is even more poignant with her recent passing. Perhaps the ten year period when you weren’t writing was Koestler’s soaking and waiting. Giving birth for you led to a creative path, a return, but for Sexton postpartum depression. Life is fragile, and poetry is a necessity. It seems now you are existing in the small miracle of poetic rhythm, a writerly life (and long may it continue); in recent years you have published chapbooks and books with the best to come, right? I feel given the confines of our two hour real time e-chat we are coming to an intense unfolding. And a beginning? Thank you for your time, Nicole. Enjoy your stay in LA and safe journey back East. I look forward to introducing you and your work to our readers. You can have the last word, and briefly reply to two final questions:

What is your favourite quote about poetry?

And, given what you said earlier about ‘tent revivals’, are you healed? AC

Healed? I don’t know about that, but healing, always healing. As for my favorite quote about poetry, I probably return most to Frost’s notion that “Poetry begins as a lump in the throat.” I’m just still learning to swallow. NC

* The poem of Judy Jordan AC had in mind was the near-epic ‘Help me to Salt, Help me to Sorrow’ from Carolina Ghost Wood

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And here are five poems by Nicole Callihan:

THE ERASURE

By January, I had erased your lips,
rubbed and rubbed until they got thinner
then disappeared entirely. I wiped the pink
and grey dust of your mouth from the page,
but that alone was not enough. And so, I began
to erase more, to rub holes into the very being
of you—the violence of the pencil’s other end
finally getting her say—until you were only
chest and shoulders and hips and thighs,
until you were only shoulder and thighs,
until all I had was the faintest outline of shoulder.
I placed my head there, breathing in the last of you,
and chewed absently on my yellow #2,
knowing then as I had known all along,
that, in the end, this pencil would be all I could hold.

26 MOVEMENTS

Mountains to beach. Here to there.
In a hotel room south of Memphis,
Oprah on the TV, me weeping in a bed.
To pass to another place,
as in, into the shade. A falling strand
of hair. Snow. Bowels. And transitively:
A pawn. A pen. Or, to prompt.
Rouse. Cause. Stir.
The imagining of seeing you again.
Seeing you again.
The return to the mountains.
Rupture. Rapture.
To cause (your body
or a part of your body) to go
from one position to another.
Depart. Displace. Disturb.
In a car headed west. Shadows.
I keep knocking on your door.
Nothing.

FEAR

back then there was nothing to fear but fear
and commies and my mom not coming home
but she always did and then the commies
got hungry and for a long time fear itself
pretty much disappeared just left a fear-shaped
hole which was okay at first but then I started
throwing beers into the hole so I could hear
the cans ping off the walls when I ran out
of beers I picked up with the wine
span crackle pop now I’m going blind
and fear has become a monstrous cavern
I’m hanging upside down by my nails
sleeping with my eyes open
comforted only by the bluebird
and the ping of a text from my mom

BULL’S EYE

my whole life I wanted
a transcendent love affair  an out of body
beyond the body  so much more than the body
one of those if you bring your body
around here kind of places
you’ll just hear angels laughing and pointing
at your five foot three inch sack of flesh  like
look at that carnie! look at all that lousy meat!

the thing is: if the wings were good enough
and there were darts and winter wasn’t a factor
I think you’d choose the bar over heaven
and for a little while this made me hate you

when I was twenty death was made-for-tv
but now I’m in my fifth decade
I’ve got nothing but six white horses and a body
and I’m like holy shit I am going to die
wrinkle up and die  then I’ll have an eternity to transcend
so what to do with this flabby flesh now
drink a beer? scratch my ass? want you?
before the cancer the heart thing the blip in the brain
train wreck car crash liver failure choking on a chicken bone
oh moving target of existence
what shall we do with what little we have?

CHIGGER RIDGE

there the sun
did not rise
until we’d been
up for hours
then it
crowbarred
the day
turned the trees
from lead
to silver
turned the dead
to face
the river
the night again
the old poet
told me to
go to sleep
wait until
i dreamed
of an angel
and when
the angel speaks
the old poet said
listen to her
notice the color
of her dress
blue jean blue
then wake up
and write it
down in
the valley
all night i slept
i was naked
but i was not cold
and lo
i say unto you
the angel
did her bidding
and lo
she offered me
a slopjar
and lo a cat’s eye
marble
and lo she told me
not to be afraid
of the soul
and the grass
on the ledge
in which i lay
made me itch
with a violence
i’d carry away
o if the portrait
of the self
is a pallet
on the floor
if the floor
is as cold as
the night outside
if the night’s
got nothing
on the old man
out back
you say self
and point
to my chest
my head
but what of these
trees this still
star-soaked sky
what of the
cuts and tongues
and tins of meat
what of the self
can be cleaved
from the girl
on the ridge
who in the dark
with a cleaver
stands and lo
i say unto you
lo i say come
with me lo
i say stay

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