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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
Poems - First Draft - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Video
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 . . .
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)
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
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.
solidifies the sense that oddity is normal in Section Two. “The Amazing Cannonball Couple” underscores this feeling:
I should have been a schoolteacher,
climbing into the cannon beside mine. Her helmet
glitters, and beneath it, she wags her flame-retardant
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)
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,
This is not what I intended,
but it survives.
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)
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.”
“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)
Poems - First Draft - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Video
An Interview with Stephanie
Lenox by Steve Davenport
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
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
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
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.
Stephanie Lenox interview with The Collagist
Crowd the Book interviews Stephanie Lenox
Poems - First Draft - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Video
Stephanie Lenox reads from Congress of Strange People and talks about her work here