I remember my breath making tiny clouds. My hands mittened on the wheel. The crescent moon high up in the clear sky. I remember the mudflats to the horizon, your laugh and your hand on my thigh. I remember fog waiting doglike at the foot of the mountain. A doe we slowed down for, her eyes redefining silver in the highbeams. The open window turning your hair into a bird.
I remember you breaking the dashboard with your fists. My stillness. A hawk on a birch branch. The way the plastic pops back into place. I remember the black ice slide into the median and the twisted axel. A few spooky bits where trees rose up out of flooded, frozen fields. A few grains of snow piled up in corners. Road kill.
I remember saying I loved you, and later saying I didn't anymore. I remember the way the snow skating over the pavement made shapes that faded as we named them. I remember crying. I remember you crying. Our voice, fences in the darkness, and the riverbeds lined with a mess of broken ice.
Deaths on Other Planets
Vacuum seal burst.
Uncontrolled cellular mutation.
Cancer presumably caused by radiation overdose.
Multiple stab wounds from metal claws.
Overgrown with mold.
Eyestalk hemorrhage after hovercraft accident.
Strangled with own tentacles.
Crushed by weight of own cranium.
Beaten to pulp by human children at play;
sun-dried and washed out to sea.
A word for the sound plants must make at the moment they break soil. See how your fingers curl tight as fiddleheads and your whole body smells green. The glaze from breaking.
A word for the way home. For home itself. For the ocean you hear, cupping your ear to it. For melting, soft as tulip petals or morning glory, impatients or convolvulus petals, moonflower petals or forget-me-not. For the small animal sounds you make when it's good. Salt-laced and so tired now.
A word for tensing like the fretted strings under your capo. For the red darkness behind waking lids. For the buzz stars must get when they finally wink out.
See how moonlight's sharp music breaks all of your windows.
-from The Glaze From Breaking
BIO: Joanne Merriam is the owner and editor of Upper Rubber Boot Books, and former editor of Seven by Twenty. She was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1973. A graduate in English and Mathematics from Dalhousie University, she has worked as an oil and gas lease and title administrator, courier dispatcher, telemarketer, charity fundraiser, sheet music librarian, Medicaid claim sorter, check composition specialist, disability and workers' compensation administrator and web designer.
In 2001, she quit her job as the Executive Assistant of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia to travel Canada by train, and then parts of the Northeastern and Southern United States. Her first book of poetry, The Glaze from Breaking (Stride, 2005; Upper Rubber Boot, 2011), was written, in part, about those travels. In 2004, she immigrated to the USA. She has lived in Kentucky and New Hampshire, and now resides in Nashville, Tennessee.
Joanne Merriam's poetry and fiction has appeared in dozens of magazines and journals, including The Antigonish Review, Asimov's Science Fiction, The Fiddlehead, The Furnace Review, Grain, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, The Mainichi Daily News, Per Contra, Riddle Fence, Room of One's Own, Strange Horizons and Vallum Contemporary Poetry, as well as in the anthologies Ice: new writing on hockey, To Find Us: Words and Images of Halifax and The Allotment: New Lyric Poets.
The Glaze From Breaking by Joanne Merriam reviewed by Alicia Higginbotham, first published by Verse
Joanne Merriam's first collection of poems exploits the theme of absence defining space. She titles the collection The Glaze From Breaking and compliments this title with a cover picture of shoes being fired in a kiln. Just as shoes are bronzed to remind us of what used to fill them, Merriam's poetry is her reminder of someone once present. To emphasize absence, Merriam uses a lot of empty space in the book. The pages are stark white; most of her poems only cover one third of the page, with many being only one or two lines.
The Glaze From Breaking is divided into three parts. In the first section, "explosion of wings," Merriam uses bird flight as imagery to emphasize absence in her life. Aside from a few trite uses of butterflies ("somewhere a caterpillar becomes a butterfly"), these snapshots of an old relationship are touched with a special flightiness that lends to Merriam's sense of loss. This flightiness is a bit overbearing by the end of the section, though, and after floating through her thoughts, I am slightly airsick and longing for ground.
The second section is the most sparsely written, containing primarily three- and four-line poems. Merriam structures the narratives around the months of the year, as the title "calendar of dreams" suggests. Here she claims we are all in darkness in January, drowning in August, and sleeping through December. The flightiness of her first pages is left behind, but even on the ground, wind and fog remain prevalent forces:
October: "tamaracks bow in the wind, in formal wear."
November: "realize the reason so many trees have branches only on one side of the trunk is the forceful winds of the moon. mute fog."
December: "snow blows through the window, which won't close."
She documents the wind's dominance in nature, concluding with her own loss to its will.
The final section, "feathers into cloth," crosses from poetry into prose. Each piece is an explication of a moment in Merriam's past. Her memories go back to childhood and family rather than past relationships. This regression is the final landing in her descent from flight, but rather than being grounded, the poet is overwhelmed. She views things too closely, using words like "atoms" and "electrons," and describes her vision like a Seurat painting. She is looking so closely at things now that they are pixelated, and the book ends "I can't say what I found."
Merriam's entire collection uses silence to give her work an eerie feel of helplessness. Silence is a kidnapper of communication, and Merriam suffocates us in the inability to express, as though "[m]outh sealed in nectar, silence lies dormant on my tongue." The second of "Eight Ways To Think About Happiness" is as "[a] silence that could swallow our whole lives." In "February," "surely someone will say what we keep quiet." In "July," Merriam dreams that she "awoke to find my sheets covered with writing, unable to speak, and then I woke." She can communicate in her dreams by writing, but still then there is no sound. In "December," "the mic stays on despite our silences." Merriam remembers her relationship as a suffocating interaction under the weight of no communication.
Merriam emerges in the third section with noise, almost like a drowning victim gasping for breath. The first stanza of the first poem in this section ("With Every Step") contains actual quoted dialogue. In this same poem, Merriam writes "Sometime in 1974 I say my first word. I babble so much anyway that nobody notices." Then in the next poem, "Every Day 600 Miles Further From Home," she relates "[t]he water despairing of the weight of itself falls into the lake, making a sound like the crowd at a stadium."
As she revels in the comforts of home, we see that Merriam hasn't always suffered the intense feeling of silent repression, and in "Personal," when she once again reminisces about her relationship, we get a clear juxtaposition of herself and the ex-love. Merriam finally makes a judgment, instead of simply recalling a memory. She calls her lover "You: the language of trains, the shuddering against the track and the endless wailing warning of approach" whereas she is "Me: the wailing of the train going on for so long it acquires the quality of silence." We understand she felt an overwhelming desire to communicate, and her lover invalidated her need.
Merriam's obsessions include more than wings and silence, though. She witnessed a hurricane in Nova Scotia, and her awe of rain, wind, and destruction becomes evident: "Remember eyes. Yours. His. The hurricane's. The iris closes, and the train is littered with people." Another running theme is her connection of anything to glass. People break like glass, broken bits of glass litter the mind, and rose petals shatter like glass shards. Merriam interweaves all of these images beautifully, but repetitively. Through the three sections of her book, several poems are mirrors of themselves. Two poems document flashes of past events, one from "explosion of wings" and one from "feathers into cloth," both using the same "back in this year" introduction to each line. In two other poems from the same two sections, an exact line is almost duplicated: In "Tighten to Bruise" (part 5) "a tactile memory real as salt, as soap, as ashes," then in "Here" (part 2), Merriam writes of "soap to touch, salt to taste, / ashes to call you home."
The paragraphs of "feathers into cloth" restate what was more poetically and succinctly said in the previous pages. Her images are sharp and vivid, so that when they recur, you will notice. Altogether, the book provides a journey through relationship recovery, though for Merriam, the lesson is less is more.
An Interview with Joanne Merriam by Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your book The Glaze from Breaking was largely written during your travels by train through Canada and the United States after you quit your job in 2001. How much of an influence do you think this travel had on the production of your poems? Do you think you would have had the same poems or book had you not made the decision at this time to travel?
Joanne Merriam: Some of the poems were written before I started that trip, especially in the first section of the book, but no. The book would have been quite different. The long poem at the beginning of the third section would of course be missing since it's directly about those travels, but more than that, the three months that I spent travelling alone gave me a wealth of time to just think and write. There's not much to do on a train besides look out the window and get drunk and play card games with the other passengers, so I spent at least five or six hours every day that I was on the train making notes to myself, editing and writing, and thinking very hard about my life.
JB & AMK: In "Deaths on Other Planets," each line describes a cause of death. Some of the causes of death seem familiarly human, like "drowning" and "starvation," while others seem fantastic, such as "robot rebellion" and "eyestalk hemorrhage after hovercraft accident." What does this juxtaposition do for the poem? What does it say about death in general?
JM: The juxtaposition is meant to be funny. I'm not sure that it says anything about death in general. The poem was written for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and I was playing with familiar tropes of science fictional deaths. In classic science fiction, people rarely die of, say, pneumonia, or a bowel obstruction. I included more terrestrial-style deaths as a sort of tongue-in-cheek critique of those old tales, which were more interested in the fantastic than in how people would actually live on other planets.
JB & AMK: The poem is constructed of eighteen single lines, end-stopped by a period, except for the penultimate line that is end-stopped by a semicolon linking it to the last line. To what degree and purpose does this form lend to the subject matter of death in this poem? Why these end-stops? Why this sudden semicolon at the end?
JM: Well, of course periods are the most final form of punctuation we have, so it seemed appropriate that the deaths be set off by periods rather than commas or just a line break. The last death was too long for one line of poetry, and once I'd written it down as two lines I found it looked odd to me to have only one line end with no punctuation at all, so I added the semi-colon as the next longest pause that seemed appropriate for the meaning of the phrase. I don't have my drafts of the poem anymore, but I think when I first wrote it, each line just had a line break, and there were no capitals, like a grocery list, but that felt wrong so I ended up going with the periods, more or less by instinct.
JB & AMK: You're a big fan of science-fiction and have published quite a few poems I can only call sci-fi, such as "Death on other Planets." Do you think the sci-fi poem is a genre in-and-of itself like narrative, lyric, and epic poetry, or is it a small subset, a niche?
JM: It's a genre the way science fiction is a genre, but it's not a genre the way prose is a genre; pretty much depends on in what sense you're using the term. From my point of view as a working writer, sure, it's a genre: there are markets devoted to it, which is the only way in which thinking about what genre I'm writing is useful to me.
Sadly, the original name for this type of poetry was the oxymoronic "science fiction poetry" which has been captured in the name of the professional organization, the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA). I hate that term, and am on board with the more recent "speculative poetry" which is more inclusive, embracing poems with fantasy and horror backbones as well.
For readers interested in speculative poetry, I recommend The Magazine of Speculative Poetry and Strange Horizons, both periodicals that are publishing some interesting work.
JB & AMK: In your book The Glaze from Breaking, the second section is titled "Calendar of Dreams" and includes twelve poems for each month of the year. It seems really daunting to be able to write this many poems without their structure and sound blending together. How did you manage to write these poems in a way that isn't repetitive but still manages cohesion?
JM: Well, each poem was being worked on separately, as a separate poem, and none of them were working. I'd been keeping a dream journal, since that had been recommended to me by a friend as a great source of inspiration and self-growth. "Calendar of Dreams" was the only useful thing to come out of doing that, so I don't bother with dream journals anymore.
When I was putting together the manuscript for The Glaze from Breaking, I was under the gun for time, because I'd been contacted by Stride after they published me in their anthology The Allotment: New Lyric Poets, asking if I had a manuscript. Of course, you don't say no to such a question, but I didn't have a book manuscript, so I told the editor, Rupert Loydell, who if he is reading this will be finding out about this for the first time, that I just needed a month or two to clean it up for him, and then I sat down with every poem I'd ever written and tried to figure out which ones went together. I threw out a lot of them as not fitting in with the others or not being good enough for a book, and then I laid out the poems into a sort of chronology and wrote several poems to fill in what I perceived as gaps in the narrative.
I ended up with something like 60 pages, and that didn't seem long enough, so I took the fragments from the dream journal that I had been trying to work up into poems, and wrote "Calendar of Dreams."
JB & AMK: The prose poem is a cumbersome form for some poets; it seems that poets either embrace the form and constantly try to work within it or do not touch it. Judy Jordan once told me that a prose poem has to be doing more than any piece prose or poem-that the language has to be stronger, the syntax tighter, and the moment clearer. Your poems "Cunt" and "Auto Biographies" work with this form and, perhaps, make this form work for you. Where do you see yourself in the conversation of the prose poem and what do you think the form lends to poetry that other more traditional forms and free verse do not?
JM: I have a kind of capital-t Thing about line breaks. I want them to make sense, and to have some purpose. I don't like to use them just to break up the line because the page isn't wide enough. At its simplest level, a prose poem is simply a poem with very long lines, that isn't using hanging indents. To the extent that I agree with Jordan, I think prose poems only need to be stronger for market reasons, because editors can be resistant to defining something that looks like prose, as poetry. I don't think that the form itself demands more than a poem with a traditional approach to line breaks.
My thinking about line breaks led to me experimenting with prose poetry. I do still break the paragraph/stanzas mid-sentence, sometimes, where a greater emphasis seems called for or where the break can lead to a double entendre of some sort, which is my favourite way to use line breaks. I think that working without line breaks, or with minimal line breaks, is a useful exercise for any poet, even if they thereafter abandon the form, just to give them greater mindfulness of how they use line breaks.
JB & AMK: Joel Brouwer's book Exactly What Happened is a collection of prose poems in which each poem can only have one hundred words. What sort of limitations do you place on a prose poem? Are limitations on a prose form counterproductive or do they lend something to the form that the designation of prose poem does not?
JM: I don't place limitations on prose poems. I'm not philosophically opposed to it; I just don't find it personally useful.
JB & AMK: Your poem "Cunt" enacts the meaning and sound quality of the word, but also compares the word to what it is, and, possibly, what it isn't. The poem also avoids the negative connotation given to the word by being suggestive without being vulgar. In choosing to write a poem about this particular word, what were you hoping to accomplish? Isn't a bit dangerous to write a poem of this title?
JM: Yes, and it resulted in some uncomfortable exchanges with my relatives, who were so proud of my book publication but had never read my work before. In retrospect, it may have been more trouble than it was worth! However, I do believe in reclaiming misogynist language, and this was a useful exercise to that end.
JB & AMK: "Cunt" begins each stanza with the anaphora "A word for," except for the last which is a single line beginning with the imperative "see," connecting back to the second sentence of the first stanza. What's going on here?
JM: I wanted there to be a syntactic disruption when the woman in the poem finally comes.
JB & AMK: Thank you!
JM: No, thank you!
Flash Interview: Uniquely Crafting the Craft, a Few Writing Questions for Joanne Merriam by Cathy Colborn, first published at flashfiction.net
Many times new writers cannot find someone to relate within the interview section of online or print journals. So I am putting this question out there: Do stories that involve some unique subject like "dealing with the aftermath of a transplant" or "letting your blood to coexist with dark creatures" grab your attention? Then Joanne Merriam may be the perfect author to help you along on your writing journey. I was lucky enough to score this interview with her about craft, and I don't know about you, but I'm taking more notes than usual.
Cathy Colborn: First of all, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I noticed in your bio it mentioned something about Academic Otolaryngologists. After reading "Facial Deficits" (Pank, print) and "Sundowning," I had a hint that you knew something about medical procedures. It was all very detailed. Does this profession sneak into your writing often? It is great to write what you know.
Joanne Merriam: I'm not an otolaryngologist; I currently work with academic otolaryngologists (I'm the academic assistant for four head and neck surgeons, and administer their fellowship program). Before I wrote "Facial Deficits," our department had a visiting speaker in from the Cleveland Clinic who had been involved in one of the first facial allotransplantations done in the States, and I happened to be assigned to escort him from one meeting to the next, and spent our walk asking about that surgery and his impressions; I was also able to get one of our facial plastics doctors to look at a draft of the story, and spoke very informally with a couple of other doctors about their experiences with patients with extreme facial deficits. Of course, any mistakes were still mine, but it was very helpful to have that expertise to draw from.
But yes, wherever I'm working tends to sneak into my writing. I spent a lot of time temping, so I could write for longer periods of time, when I still lived in Canada and didn't have to worry about health insurance, and then again for awhile when my husband was in law school, and those experiences snuck into a lot of stories; for instance "Swan Song" arose from a job I had sorting Medicare claim forms, and "Ring Around the Coffeepot" from a coworker who kept trying to make me get his coffee for him. (I'm happy to report that "Toy Boy" did not arise from any stints as a felon.)
The medical details in "Sundowning" were derived from experience in a different direction. My grandfather, who died a few years ago, had Alzheimer's, and one of my grandmothers still has it. I did quite a bit of research to make sure I was getting details right, but most of the details really arose out of anecdotes my mother told me about caring for her father. I think it was helpful to have an understanding of what living with Alzheimer's is like for both the person and their family, beyond the cold realities present in the medical research; that caregiving, without relief, even for those we love, can become oppressive. Short answer? It's helpful to ground what you write, no matter how fantastic, in lived experience.
CC: "Facial Deficits" has a great narrative structure. I say this because you start the story with a taboo of a taboo, a statement on how "patients undergoing radical transplants purposely reject their new parts because they feel "foreign." It really hooks the reader and forces the characters you create to push the change of your protagonist (but not without making us feel the residual tension almost for good). Do you have any advice for writers struggling to make it all come together, who may have a unique subject but can't get "that ending" quite right?
JM: Funny enough, I actually started with the beginning and ending and struggled with the middle for "Facial Deficits." Middles tend to be my problem more than endings. I look at the basic outline of a story (not that I do a formal outline) to see which bits are unconvincing or just flat out missing, and I pluck away at it until it feels right. A lot of it is instinct, which I realize isn't a helpful answer. I should say it feels like instinct, but it's based on reading a lot. I probably read two or three books a week, and I try not to get so caught up in that.
CC: With so many different formats to write flash and poetry out in the publishing world today, do you ever feel like you have to rework a piece just to "finally get it out there?"
JM: No. I often rework my writing, of course. Most writing lives and dies by its revisions. But I don't make changes to my work solely to make it more saleable. Luckily, in practice, making a piece more saleable generally makes it better writing too, so it's not much of a dilemma. I do write specifically for specific markets sometimes, but that's a matter of knowing their tastes and guidelines going in, not of weakening or warping the work to sell it.
CC: What advice do you have for those who are new and unestablished and want more than anything to get published?
JM: I was that writer, and I sent out a lot of horrible writing, which I'm relieved was never published. I would tell them to stop being so impatient. Unless they're a genius (and very few of us are geniuses), they're going to need to write a lot, for years, before their work is good enough for public consumption. I would also say, respect your future self enough not to rush your work out before it's ready.
I just started Upper Rubber Boot Books in 2011, and I receive a lot of bad submissions. I don't mind it, because it's part of the job, but I do mind when people send things that aren't remotely related to what I publish, or who argue with me about my rejection (often those are the same people). So, if you do think your work is ready, my advice would be to be both focused and polite when you submit it.
There's a quote I keep seeing, I think by Ira Glass, to the effect that creative people have taste before they have ability, and that we have to learn how to create well enough to satisfy our own sense of taste, and a lot of people quit before they ever get there because it takes so long. That's been my experience too. It took me a decade, maybe longer, to write something that was worth foisting upon the public. I still struggle with it. Ultimately I think learning about publishing and submission etiquette and all that is, while helpful, kind of a distraction from the real work of putting aside your ego and just making the writing better.
CC: I don't want this interview to make it look like "getting published is all that matters" to us. Do you feel it is beneficial to write everyday? Do you think it is important to have your own quiet place to write?
JM: I'm sure it would be beneficial to write every day and to have a quiet place to write, but it's been rare in my life to have either of those things, and I think it's important to be able to keep working in sub-optimum conditions.
I can make space in my schedule for writing regularly, but not daily. I notice that I write better when I have been writing recently, and I strive to write as often as I can, but other responsibilities have a way of intruding. As for noise, I like it, but not too much. I tend to play music while I write. Total silence makes me twitchy.
I think what you're driving at is what sort of environment and schedule is optimum for writers. That probably depends on the writer, of course, but having a space where you can keep your notes without anybody disturbing them, and where you can write comfortably, are likely universal positives. I don't need a quiet space, but I do need to be able to sit so my back doesn't get sore, and so I'm warm enough.
CC: This question is for our readers that haven't yet experienced your work. Imagine I am the next publisher you really want to work with. How would you describe in a few words the emotions you wish to come across in your next great flash or poetry collection?
JM: Hmm. This is a hard question for me, because I don't think in terms of emotions. I suppose I want readers to feel energized by my work.
CC: Finally, Stephen King says, "[For me] good description usually consists of well-chosen details that will stand for everything else." What are your thoughts on that statement?
JM: It's true. Little details can make a story come to life when they're right, or can bring the reader abruptly out of the story when they're wrong. I do enjoy some lush description in the context of longer works, but even then it's getting the details right that matters. Writing this way, with an eye to detail, is also a way of trusting the reader, of saying, "You're smart, and I don't have to lead you by the hand."
CC: I want to thank you again for giving us this interview. I'm sure your advice will help many writers get the courage to maybe draw from experience, be patient in the revision process, and work towards the great ending that their unique protagonists deserve.