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Stephanie Lenox




Sunday afternoons Grandfather and I studied
the Guinness Book, dog-earing our favorites:


Mike, the headless chicken that lived eighteen months
before dying in an Arizona hotel room;


the man whose arm was severed and reconnected
three separate times: Lazarus, Jesus, and the lame girl combined.


Your grandmother is in there, he nudged me. Keep looking.
I scanned the Medical Marvels, Extreme Bodies


for the woman he said could balance a piano on the tip
of her tongue. I stared at each smudged photo


until every woman began to look like family,
same eyes squinting against amazing burden.


Other times we huddled over the family tree,
its names branching out on butcher paper, me captivated


by the word genealogy as if it contained the power to grant
my three greatest wishes, while he plotted everything,


traced us back to Sing-Go-Wah, chief of a tribe
of pranksters. He pinched my skin until the blood rose.


See, you are red. Then he showed me how to cup my hand
over my mouth to make a war cry.

Once before leaving, he said he had a present for me 
and dropped something weightless, invisible in my hand.


The world's smallest guitar, he explained,
like the one we read about, size of a human blood cell,


completely functional. Now, play me a song.
My pulse picked up as I tried to think of what I could do.


Leaning over, with the tip of his fingernail he strummed once
the center of my palm, told me to press my ear against it.


The Mother

I will place her in a basket and watch her drift away. 
I will crop her hair to scalp, twist her head round


and round, tip her back until the voice box wanes,
until she sounds like a barnyard animal, gut hungry.

I will bury her in the sandbox and raise her from the dead. 
I will sit on her like an egg. I will toss her through the air,


my human, flailing star. I will poke the soft body
with sewing pins, soothe her then with familiar song,


and when she cries, I will articulate. I will feed her
gravel and rainwater. I will stone her in warning.


When someone throws her down, I will go to her
and lick the scuffs from her plastic arms. I will dip


my fingers in water and place them in the corners
of her eyes. The spider will spin its web across her face,


and I will clear it away. I will teach her how to sleep,
press the glass eyes shut. I will scold her and bend


her knees in prayer. This is what it means to love,
to feel the teeth grind against each other in the mouth,


to give her a name, disown it, and give another.
I put her away in the night. I will look for her there.

How to Howl


The neighbor's whippet cries
in its cage with such stray


grief everything hollow tries
to hold it: the cup on the counter


trembles, space between walls
shifts. Restless about my ear,


the cry circles. Somehow I must
claim it. Along nerve paths,


it races in my brain, following
a familiar scent toward home.


Trampling the grass, it rests
with a wet nose on a warm body.


I cannot move it from its spot.
Instead I am the one moved.


I don't know what to call this
slow vibrato, wave after wave


from the cavity of my chest.
How is it I know how to howl?


To the dog's cry I cup my ear.
Nothing, nothing will contain us.

-from Congress of Strange People

BIO: Stephanie Lenox is the author of the full-length poetry collection Congress of Strange People (Airlie Press, 2012) and the award-winning chapbook The Heart That Lies Outside the Body (Slapering Hol Press, 2007). Stephanie's work has appeared widely in literary journals and has been nominated numerous times for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Salem, Oregon, where she teaches poetry at Willamette University and edits the literary journal Blood Orange Review.


A "Mini-Review" of Stephanie Lenox's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Aaron Bauer


It almost goes without saying, but any individual with access to a television or a WalMart should be able to rationalize that there is no such thing as "normal." At heart, we truly are all freaks about one thing or another, but we try to hide our nonconformities from others. However, in front of our families, the facade will often crack. You may be the black sheep of the family, but your sister Mary is green and red argyle. So who is to judge?

More than anything, I find Stephanie Lenox's poems fun to read. She has a playfulness with her syntax and enjambment that helps the readers experience the awkwardness of the situation, but also the acceptance of that awkwardness-almost a revelry in it.

In the poem "Inheritance," just as in the other two poems we are featuring this week, the couplet form helps to reinforce the themes of instruction and familial love. The two line stanzas help us see the closeness of the grandfather and grandchild in "Inheritance," the nurturing of a child and her doll in "The Mother," and the acceptance of a youth with her animal-like eccentricities in "How to Howl."

In "Inheritance," we see a tender moment between a grandfather and his grandchild. Through the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, the child is initiated into the strangeness and wonder that is human existence. In this book seem to be all the wonders of the world:

      Mike, the headless chicken that lived 18 months
      before dying in an Arizona hotel room;


      the man whose arm was severed and reconnected
      three separate times: Lazarus, Jesus and the lame girl combined.


In each of these couplets, Lenox uses the enjambed lines to make what already seems a bizarre situation even more inexplicable. Yes, it does indeed seem odd that a chicken could live so long without a head- atypical, of course, but understandable, since we've all heard the axiom "running around like a chicken with its head cut off.' However, after 18 months, why would it even be in a hotel room? Likewise, the man with the reattached arm is not merely a wonder of modern medicine but an individual who surpasses even biblical significance.


Lenox continues the theme of family in her poem "The Mother." In this poem, the heavy anaphora "I will" gives the impression of a lesson, a set of rules about how a mother should rear her children to be repeated and internalized. However, the dictums quickly

become disturbing:


      I will bury her in the sandbox and raise her from the dead.
      I will sit on her like an egg. I will toss her in the air,

      my human flailing star. I will poke her soft body
      with sewing pins, soother then with familiar song


Again, while not being truly outside the realm of possibility, these situations move beyond our normal understanding of a mother and her role. What type of mother would do this? How can we come away with anything other than outright condemnation for this mother? Through the course of the poem, however, the child is revealed to have "plastic arms" and "glass eyes," and the mother" is transformed into a child playing with her doll.

But this raises more difficult questions than it answers. We are left with the question: how much is this child doing simply what children do-play with their toys-and how much is she emulating her own mother?

While all the poems we feature this week are certainly introspective, perhaps the most internalized of the three poems is "How to Howl." Technically, this is the simplest of the poems, with short lines and frequent end stops. However, we see the speaker overcoming a struggle to accept an aspect of herself:

                  Somehow I must
      claim it. Along nerve paths,

      it races in my brain following
      a familiar scent toward home.


The speaker must lay "claim" to this part of herself, seeing also that the source of this trait may not be something she has control over but rather is an inheritance.

What strikes me most about this poem is the last line: "Nothing, nothing will contain us." We would expect this poem to end with the line "nothing will contain me," as the singular first person was used throughout the poem. This last word offers us a deeper insight into the struggle the speaker was encountering. This howling is not only a strength she now recognizes, but one she also sees as a familial trait. This is an incredibly empowering and unifying realization.

Lenox's ability to constantly surprise, surprise again, and then surprise that you were surprised at all creates engaging poems that continuously evolve as you read. It is also humbling to realize we may not be quite as far from being in a freak show as we often believe, that, perhaps, we are simply who we are.

Stephanie Lenox and Congress of Strange People: It’s A Family Affair, a review by Paul David Adkins, first published by Grazing Grain Press

Every family has a black sheep, an uncle who raves about UFOs and Sasquatch. “There’s one in every clan,” some might opine. However, Stephanie Lenox, in Congress of Strange People, argues that oddballs are normal; the ordinary relative is aberrant. Her case is strong, exhibits convincing. By the time the reader completes Congress, the only question is where he fits within his family’s eccentric spectrum.

Lenox opens with “The Inheritance.” The speaker confesses:


Sunday afternoons Grandfather and I studied
the Guinness Book, dog-eared our favorites . . .

Your grandmother is in there, he nudged me. Keep looking. (3)


Family structure is at the volume’s forefront. Of the 13 poems which comprise Section One, nine either have family members included in the title or first line. The other four pieces retain strong familial themes. In “Ode to Nancy,” the speaker outlines her ambivalence to a traditional family:


You had a mother decent enough to die young
and leave you the darling of your handsome lawyer father,
part orphan, part princess, keen mix of tragedy
and privilege . . . (11)

Tension is inherent to domestic life, and Lenox subtly introduces marital discord. The speaker senses problems, but the author resists a heavy hand, employing instead a child’s intuition to explore the conflict. “The Big Island Slides: 1974-75” allows the speaker to observe her parents’ anxious interactions:


. . . Mother gleams
as Father fumbles with the projector,
hammering it in the dark, his curses muffled
by the machine’s warm breathing. (5)


The speaker expands this struggle to include her own sibling rivalries and the parents’ eventual divorce. She also explores a pronounced sense of discontent in “The Mother” and “Fairytale.” Her crimes are minor: teasing dogs and damaging toys. But her sense of awareness dovetails beautifully into Section Two.


On the surface, Section Two addresses individual Guinness Book record holders. Earlier versions of many pieces appear in Lenox’s chapbook The Heart That Lies Outside the Body. But while the poet opens Congress with “Inheritance,” she closes her chapbook with it. This particular shift allows Lenox to expand focus from the novelty of a freak show, found in the chapbook, to the freak show of a family, in Congress. These observations resemble tensions discerned in Megan Snyder-Camp’s Forest of Sure Things. Lenox’s descriptive passages in “Minutes from the First Congress of Strange People” closely resemble Snyder-Camp’s opening poem in Forest of Sure Things, entitled “Sea Creatures of the Deep:”


O sockeye O rock sole O starry flounder
O red Irish lord O spiny lumpsucker (1)


More importantly, however, is the familial strain both poets examine, the escapes their imaginations allow them within a childhood torn by conflict. This exploration allows the poets to compose powerful, perceptive work.


Lenox solidifies the sense that oddity is normal in Section Two. “The Amazing Cannonball Couple” underscores this feeling:


I should have been a schoolteacher, she says,
climbing into the cannon beside mine. Her helmet
glitters, and beneath it, she wags her flame-retardant wig
in mock regret . . . (44)


The speaker declares in “Too Much Time on My Hands:” “Whatever I’m making, / I love it — / I want to marry it.” (37) In “The Collector: A Self-Portrait in Clover,” she claims: “I didn’t know what I was looking for / until I found it . . .” (34)


The desire for respectability, a niche, a home, is a driving factors of Congress. Whether it’s the oldest living male stripper in “Bernie Bares All,” who boasts: “I live for the blush . . .,” (42) or the stoic little person in “Shortest Woman Living,” who declares: “I must endure . . .” (25), the speaker chronicles this quest for respect among society’s forsaken people.

Lenox cinches the familial theme in Section Three. Barriers between oddity and family begin to fall. In “The Question,” the speaker observes:


The question comes out breech,
butt-first, suffocating.
This is not what I intended,
but it survives. (54)


Her perceptions blur further in the next poem, “Miss Manners Says, ‘Gratitude is Not a Natural Reaction to Generosity:’”


The garden slug is marrying all my strawberries—
just what kind of wedding is that? (55)


She closes:


I don’t know how to speak to you.
I hardly know the right way to act.
Is it indecent of me to want to give you everything? (55)


The speaker even begins to deconstruct in “Mating,” observing: “. . . mosquitoes dance over my skin / taking me, bit by bit, into night’s / warm determined romance.” (57)


“After Uncle Fred Nearly Dies, We Send the Tape to America’s Funniest Home Videos”decisively links the freak show to family dynamics.


It’s clear we like our trampolines taut and ready
to dump our dumb asses into the nearest thorny hedge. (59)


She closes the piece: “We want so much for it to be worth something.” (59)


And Lenox’s characters are worth every penny of admission. They are world changers,

groundbreakers, these strange mothers and sisters and uncles. The speaker argues in

“My Last Poem:”


Wars end: because of me. Peace prevails:
because of me. If there’s hope,
it’s me. If there’s prosperity, me.
Change, me. Love, me. (67)


Herein lies the crux of the collection. Lenox records a kaleidoscopic celebration of individuals with whom she forges a distinct connection despite their being outcasts, oddballs. Nothing is too peculiar, too weird, too eccentric for the poet to shun. Every accomplishment merits a carnival, every record holder deserves a festival, a parade. The very act of living precipitates a standing ovation, as the speaker notes in “The Dance:” “sixteen burning hours I clap my hands.” (40)

An Interview with Stephanie Lenox by Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Let’s start with a warm-up question.  Why do couplets organize these three poems?  Please explain the couplet love. 

Stephanie Lenox: On an aesthetic level, I find them pleasing. It’s a tidy form that offers maximum spaciousness to the reader, an opportunity to breathe and look away at regular intervals. Stanza comes from the Italian meaning “room,” and the couplet is the smallest room you can get for your money, sort of like a studio apartment. If you put two people in that room, there’s really no getting away from them. It can be intimate or stifling, loud or quiet. Or both. 

I think it’s interesting that “Inheritance,” the final poem in my chapbook The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, is the first poem in my new book Congress of Strange People. In the earlier chapbook, the poem is not in couplets but in an irregular structure with dropped lines that was modeled after a poet I was reading a lot at the time. Revision lead me to the couplet, and I decided to stop there before the poem disappeared altogether. Given time, I will revise poems out of existence.

SD & AMK: The couplets operate like contained structures.  That is, even though lines break, each couplet could end with a period.  Is that intentional? 


SL: Yes. In these poems I’m most interested in containment. I’m attracted to writing in received forms, and though the poems here are composed in free verse couplets, there’s something about the structure that, for me, retains the fingerprints of tradition. I’m thinking specifically of something the poet Ali Shahid Ali said in reference to the structure of the ghazal, that the couplet is like “a stone from a necklace,” and that each should “shine in that vivid isolation.” These poems are explorations of longing intensified through the self-contained couplets.


SD & AMK: “Inheritance” moves from one text to another, from Guinness Book to butcher-paper family tree to the narrator’s youthful palm, from a mass-manufactured book through a one-off paper product to an imagined instrument.  How conscious of this progression were you as you wrote the poem?  And were there in early drafts other texts? 


SL: I wasn’t so much aware of these as “texts” as I was of them as resonating images. I felt they belonged in the poem together and that I could use them as stepping stones to get somewhere interesting. I trusted that an engaged reader would find a connection between them. So, I guess what I’m saying is that it was more an intuitive progression than a planned one.


Though I haven’t saved drafts of this poem, I suspect the earliest version just had the Guinness Book as its central touch point. For my book, I had been writing a series in the voices of record-holders, and I needed a poem to act as a bridge between the odd persona poems and the more personal, narrative poems. What started off as a somewhat artificial assignment became a poem in its own right when I introduced other elements into it, such as the family tree and the search for the grandmother. I like starting with the big, wide world and whittling it down to a single idea by the end of the poem, to have it all balanced, in this case, on the invisible image of a microscopic guitar.


SD & AMK: The weightless, invisible gift with which you end the poem is beautiful and, in its way, capable of sonic inscription not unlike a poem, but it’s the earlier gift, the one Grandfather bids her to find in the Guinness Book, that gets me.  Is Grandmother the woman who “could balance a piano on the tip/ of her tongue” or merely suggested by her?  Does the narrator find Grandmother in the book?  How does the gift of the microscopic guitar comment on the search for Grandmother and/or the amazing piano. 


SL: This is a really beautiful question, and I fear my answer won’t live up to it. I’d much rather talk about craft than about content. I’m not trying to be difficult here. In my poems, I aim for ambiguity. Talking about content and interpretation feels, to me, like an infringement on the reader’s experience. I write with the hope that others smarter than me will actually read the poem. I’d rather hear what they have to say about it. I can tell you that the transference of gifts in the poem, the stories being told, and the search for something that may or may never be found, are all part of a deliberate gesture.


SD & AMK: As with “Inheritance,” the couplets in “The Mother” might all end with a period.  There’s one exception, though, and it’s the couplet that sets up the poem’s claim: “This is what it means to love . . . .”  Here’s the line break (end of the eighth couplet): “I will scold her and bend/ her knees in prayer.”  Was that a conscious move?     


SL: I’m not sure “conscious” is how I’d describe my decisions, and especially in this poem. My conscious brain is filled with all sorts of nonsense. I write in order to get beneath that. When I compose, I read aloud until I’m hoarse, until the poem feels inevitable. I’m much more methodical during revision, but if I’m lucky that method only leads me back into the world of the poem where I can start to grope my way toward the best words in their best order. In this particular poem, repetition builds tension so that the break from that insistent phrasing leads, naturally, to the poem’s turning point.


SD & AMK: “The Mother” is brutally specific and, in places, specifically brutal.  That is, as the young girl, presumably a daughter herself, plays mother to her doll, she lays out the specifics of “what it means to love” and, conversely, what it means to be loved.  To whom is the young girl speaking and how important is that?   


SL: Your guess is as good as mine. I think the tense of this poem should give you a clue about the speaker. In my reading, the speaker is talking to herself, likely a future version of herself. Earlier drafts of this poem were in past tense, and I knew that wasn’t what I wanted. The shift to future tense gives the poem a more ominous, distant, trancelike feel.


SD & AMK: Fifteen times the speaker uses the same two words, “I will,” (and once, “spider will”) to musical and chilling effect.  Early on, in the third and fourth lines, you underscore “will” with “until.”  Would you address the use of sound and repetition in this poem? 

SL: Sure. Childhood is all about the pleasures of repetition and routine. My three-year-old would watch the same episode of “Dora the Explorer” on continuous repeat all day if allowed. When writing in a child’s voice, repetitive structures made sense. Repetition also lends itself to the gravity and trancelike atmosphere in the poem.


SD & AMK: The title “How to Howl,” with its repetition of sound and suggestion of meaning, is practically a poem by itself.  At what point in the writing of the poem did the title come? 


SL: The title comes from the line in the penultimate stanza, “How is it I know how to howl?” That question signals an intensification of the speaker’s identification with the dog. I wanted to prepare the reader for this by suggesting it in the title. The title, then, becomes the first “howl” of the poem and the question is its answer.


SD & AMK: In “How to Howl,” the dog’s cry, uncontainable, is registered as “stray grief,” which the speaker attempts to shape with the “slow vibrato, wave after wave” emanating from deep within her “chest.”  Do you consider “How to Howl” an ars poetica? 


SL: Yes, I do. I can’t help but see all poems on some level as ars poetica. I read very selfishly through the lens of the poet. I want every poem to teach me how to live and how to write.


SD & AMK: The last line of the poem makes the claim “Nothing, nothing will contain us.”  Yet the lines of the poem are contained syllabically (six to eight syllables per line).  The last couplet, in particular, is a model of containment, each line eight syllables long, the last line through strategic repetition of “nothing.”  What are we to make of this tension between control (shaped grief) and the uncontainability of “us” and the sound we make?  

SL: It’s intriguing that you noticed the syllabic regularity of the lines in that poem. I wasn’t counting syllables directly, but I was aiming for a caged feel from which the howl could break loose. The repetition of “nothing” was more for the mirroring effect. This tension, between feral noise and contained emotion, is one I’m obsessed with and continuing to explore, both through this book and my current manuscript of poems.


I haven’t been asked such serious questions about my work since my thesis defense! Thank you for your close and kind attention to my work. And thank you for this opportunity to reflect on my craft.

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