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Entries in poetry (5)


Jacob Rakovan

He has so many commas after his name. Jacob, poet. Jacob, bartender. Jacob, dad. Jacob, hillbilly. That last one is as much a badge of honor as any of them.

“I use it because I want to say, 'This is what a Hillbilly looks like. This is what a Hillbilly sounds like,'” says Jacob, a Portsmouth, Ohio, native who now lives in Rochester.

Jacob Rakovan on his early influences: “Weirdly, I was obsessed with Thomas Merton—the Trappist monk and poet, and Baudelaire—the decadent poet who wrote litanies to the devil. Both at the same time. When I was around thirteen,” Jacob says. “I think those influences find their way into my work whether I am aware of it or not. Probably some Dante, as well. Metalhead teenagers dig Dante, at least the Inferno.”He grew up in Appalachia. And, though he's lived and traveled all over the U.S., Jacob never forgets his origins. Hillbillies are his people. And the word has a connotation he wants to dispel.

“It's not something cute on a barbecue sauce label, or a knickknack of an outhouse your parents picked up at a gas station in Virginia,” Jacob says.

“Hillbilly is a huge, disenfranchised population, dying in coal mines, living in pollution and decay, being fed prescription heroin by unscrupulous doctors and then being incarcerated for it. Hillbilly is the third world, here in America, mocked because some assholes with beards get a television show.”


The poet begins

He discovered poetry as an Appalachian teenager, hanging with a circle of high-school headbangers. The group discovered a library book they liked well enough to photocopy and decorate Jacob's cellar haunt.

“It was a limited edition of Kenneth Patchen's The Dark Kingdom. My hoodlum friends and I loved it so much we first photocopied it, and hung the poems up in my heavy metal basement, and then eventually 'liberated' it, and read it until the cover split, then duct-taped it back together.”

It was just a matter of time before he started writing poetry as an angsty teenager—where many poets begin.

“And I just kept doing it,” Jacob says.

Good thing he did. This year, Jacob received the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry for a project in which he interviewed members of his family to build an oral history of Appalachian culture.

“Catfish baits are made from congealed blood,” he offers. “The word 'Ohio' means 'woe' in Enochian, the language of the angels as according to the Elizabethan magician Dr John Dee. The Mothman appeared in West Virginia on the night the Silver Bridge fell into the river, the same night my grandmother was shot.”

The project isn't complete yet, but another big one is.

This fall also saw the launch of Jacob's first full-length collection, The Devil's Radio, from Small Doggies Press. One of the chief forms in the book is elegy, many of which are written for people who were once a part of Jacob's life.

“When you are from a place like Southern Ohio, your personal mental cemetery gets pretty crowded,” he says. “When I was putting the book together, the elegies formed a natural skeleton. So a book that had been a much looser collection started to have a structure around loss, and grief, and trying to name names. There are a lot of deceased people in there.”

He wrote it in a season of loss and reflection.

“It was such a time of grief for me, having just lost my niece, and trying to process that,” Jacob says. “I realized I had all these other deaths that I was carrying around, and I just tried to unpack that grief. It gets heavy carrying all those people with you everywhere.”

As for what people take away from reading his book—that's entirely up to them.

Jacob's first full-length collection, The Devil's Radio, is out this fall from Small Doggies Press. He'll mark its release at Poetry & Pie Night Friday, Dec. 13. See details below.“I think people bring themselves to the book. It's a place where we meet each other,” he says. “I hope people find some music in it.”


How poetry has changed

Readers find all kinds of different meanings in poetry. These days, they're also finding poetry available like no other moment in human history, thanks to the internet.

“Everything is accessible, all the time,” Jacob says. “We have externalized memory, and at any point, you can read whatever you want to read, so this world of poetry, that used to seem very small and closed and esoteric is immediately open and accessible to anyone that wants to read something. A Sumerian creation myth. CIA improvised munitions manuals. Facts of Life erotic fan-fiction. Everything.”

And the digital revolution affects readers and writers alike.

“Every poet, everywhere, has access to the world's biggest library,” Jacob says. “I believe very passionately in provincials and autodidacts, and the internet is great for that. Anything you want to know, no matter how minute, how bizarre, is out there, somewhere. All of that changes what poetry is, and how it works. All the good stuff comes from the outsiders and the fringes.

After the New Year, Jacob dives into teaching a poetry workshop, titled “Poetry as Invocation,” at Writers & Books in Rochester.

“Poetry is how we address eternity, in both directions in time,” Jacob says. “The class itself is based on the ideas of invocation and evocation, the practice of apostrophe, in which the writer or speaker addresses an opponent, or a third party other than the audience, and the idea of images as a sort of mental construct, of poetry as conjuration.”

Jacob, teacher.

See more: Visit Jacob's blog or order The Devil's Radio

Say hi: Via email  and on Facebook.

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Poetry & Pie Night: A book release party

Friday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m., join Jacob Rakovan and Rachel McKibbens for a special edition of their popular underground reading series, Poetry & Pie Night. Both Jacob and Rachel have books recently published. The pair will read from their new collections, and have books available for sale and signing. Email for directions to the event.



A selection from The Devil's Radio

(first published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature)


The river is for drowning girls

every song says it's true
hair blooms in the cold current

the little fish rise like angels to meet them
they go down into the dark
in the good black mud

they roll, white-eyed
through brown water
arms out in benediction
fish-pale bellies and breasts
a basement full of mushrooms
roots and blind things

they say
there are catfish big as Volkswagens
near the dam, the divers come back up
and never go down again

they say
when the drought drops the water
low enough the old carved stones
break the surface

and only say
that you'll be mine
and in no other's arms entwine
down beside
where the waters flow
down by the banks of the Ohio

here, once
they humped the earth like new dug graves
in the shape of serpents, eggs, moons
wheels and bears
buried bones,
copper axes, obsidian hands

but the river is for drowning girls
every song says it's true

Train trestles cut across
flat stones and mud, ring top beer cans
tangles of fishing line
the river swells with rain and swallows fields
making mirrors of the mud
leaving fish to die for the corn
leaving the old stone blades of knives
arrowheads, bone beads and broken pots

the river is for drowning girls
hungry for their white flesh
it beats against the city walls,
glutted with chicken coops, detergent bottles
syringes, empty jugs, tampon applicators
slick black logs and fishing floats

dark as a rotted oak leaf, as a cold night
as the smoke of a fall fire on the bank
dark as a barge filled with west Virginia coal
electric light of a lone house
and a song ringing out

go down go down you Knoxville girl
with the dark and roving eye
go down go down you Knoxville girl
you'll never be my bride

the river is for drowning girls,
girls drunk and dancing
girls fucking
boys fresh from jail
in cars

girls with hair too high,
with painted faces, and slit up shirts
girls in towns with cold smokestacks
who run blue lines up their noses
smoking beside a bonfire
swapping speckled eggs for candy bars

the river is for drowning girls
they go down to the last line of land
and wait to be taken away



Cori Winrock

What is poetry, if not chemistry?

When a neuroscience professor at Oberlin College opened his course with the poem, "The brain is wider than the sky," by Emily Dickinson, Cori had a reaction.

“I started to see the links between neuroscience and poetry,” says the Rochester native. “And how the mind works with what's going on around us.”

Here, Cori reads at Poetry & Pie Night in Rochester last summer. Cori's work has been featured in some of the most respected literary journals around, including Denver Quarterly, The American Poetry Journal, and Atlas Review. After Cori graduated from Oberlin in 2004, she went on to Cornell University, where she completed her MFA in Poetry in early 2008. She stayed on at Cornell for two more years to teach undergraduate writing.

While there, Cori proposed a topic inspired by her interest in the intersection between art and science. She call it Literature in the Lab.

“You can pitch your own original section of a writing seminar, and they accepted it,” she says.

“It came about because of the types of students I was getting in my classes. People in other fields—in research and science—also need to be able to communicate successfully to others. I wanted it to be useful to them.”

When Cori later joined SUNY Geneseo's English department as Visiting Assistant Professor, she brought the concept with her. And the subject has blossomed.

“I'm pitching next year for it to become a 200- or 300-level Medical Humanities course,” she says. “I'm working to adapt it into a full-blown, cross-disciplinary course between biology and literature.”

The campus isn't the only place where Cori sees the emergence of new ways to view poetry. Since returning to the Rochester area, she's noticed glimmers of a poetry scene full of fresh voices—and audiences.

“It's growing,” she says. “I'm seeing smaller gatherings of different types of people. Places that are less expected environments for poetry readings, like a loft or a backyard. That makes it more accessible to a different kind of audience in Rochester.”

In fact, she'll be reading at one of those spots this Saturday.

As a poet, Cori tends to work in batches.

“I did a big batch in January, and I just wrote my first piece since then,” she says.

She also likes to take her time.

“I tend to write a trillion drafts,” she says, meaning roughly 20. “There's an initial burst, and then I return to it. It could be something I jot down someplace.”

And she saves everything.

“I'm such a slow writer, that nothing ever really gets scrapped. I never throw anything away.”

Her poems are inspired by imagery that comes up in the midst of research and random finds. “Things that happen in the moment,” she says.

“Image is how I find my way in,” she adds. “I never start a poem unless I have a first image that I want to write about, and that gets me excited.”

And her poetry reciprocates, with richly visual language. It's a written equivalent to tapestries, anatomical renderings, and haunted hay rides.

Expect that vivid adventure when you pick up her first book, whose working title is This Coalition of Bones, coming in Winter 2014 from Kore Press. It's divided into sections, each with a loose theme. Memory. Suburbia. And, of course, science.

“I'm obsessed with the beautiful freak,” Cori says. “Those elements of the universe that aren't often seen as beautiful.”

But when the right poet is watching, they are.


See more: From the Fishouse magazine, Blackbird journal

Say hi: and on Facebook


* * *


If you're in the Rochester, N.Y., area, you can hear Cori read in person at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at The Yards, 50 Public Market. She and two other poets will share their work as part of the Deep Fried Poetry Series, presented by The Bakery, an online literary magazine. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.


* * *


Here's a taste of Cori's work, originally published in Blackbird journal in 2010.

Instructions for Dematerializing
for the disinterment of Harry Houdini

Feet Locked in Stocks
but your departed
wife has been cautiously levitating
nested escapeboxes out
from each other, one at a time: sleight of
matryoshka hand

: : :

You became the dreamt
trapeze husband, the properly applied
force of a shoestring. O handcuffed
secret, our unrevealer, how many locks
you’ve left for us to pop
open to find

Suspended in Midair from Ankles
the mind refuses to exhume
your illusion, containers of glass-
and-steel: the body lifted
right out of the body; earth
left open as an eye
socket after
the coffin is pulled

: : :

Tell us—will your bones
be laced, lined
with arsenic and the old
deep-believings of séanced
revenge? will we uncover fistfuls
of sleeping-dirt, the incessant
chill of wanting left
within answers within

Lowered into Tank Overflowing
with water your wife wrote
letters, dissolved: Dear
Ehrich, Dear Prince of Air,
Master of Cards, Dear Manacled

: undid each one until dis-
apparition, until she reached
right through the din of tricks,
of history, of death, into dear de-
materialized, dear my lovely
but you




Rachel McKibbens

The distance from brutalized girl to loving mom is wider than one page. Rachel would know. She's been both. And she's filled the space between with poetry.

You can hear it when her voice glows warm with wisdom. Or rage. Or love.

“Reading aloud brings new blood,” says the mother of five, who lives in Rochester.

“Many topics I thought were scarred over, often reopen when I'm working them out for the page, and then reopen when I resurrect them for the stage,” Rachel says.

She usually waits until there's a safe distance from an experience before she writes about it. Still, the emotions are never far from her voice when she reads.

“I get emotional when reading my poetry,” she says, “and I usually don't rehearse or over-read them, so they feel new again when we meet onstage.”

And sometimes, she breaks her own rule about waiting, and writes while the feelings are still raw and fresh.

“Those are the poems that choke me up when I'm reading them to an audience.”

RachelChoked up or not, her confessional work reveals a deep, dark well of courage. That's clear from her first published collection, Pink Elephant (Cypher Books, 2009), which captures her fearless look back through life's chapters. The critically acclaimed book is taught in MFA programs around the country.

Rachel's work as an instructor has taken her around the country, too—and helped others heal along the way. She taught poetry through the Healing Arts Program at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan for four years. Today, she teaches creative writing in housing projects, needle exchanges, high schools, hospitals and universities.

“Teenagers, drug addicts, the mentally ill. I get along best with underdogs,” Rachel says. “I don't trust people who haven't struggled. I can't relate to people who have it easy.”Reviewer Barbara Jane Reyes, writing for The Poetry Foundation, says Pink Elephant “illuminates for us how the process of survival, which she has taken into her own hands, is a lifelong, ugly, and non-miraculous one.”

Nothing's come easy for her—including success. But she's found it anyway. The same year her book was published, Rachel was named 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion, after nearly a decade on the circuit. Slam poetry—in which writers read and are judged—draws eighty teams of poets from cities around the U.S., who compete in the National Poetry Slam.

Between raising a family and traveling to teach and share, where's the space for writing?

“There are only two months in the year when I write,” Rachel says. “And when I do, I write about 20 to 30 poems in that time.”

She works after the kids have gone to bed.

“I write between 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m.,” she says. “Sometimes I listen to music. The band Dark Dark Dark was on repeat while I wrote the final poems for Pink Elephant.”

In the end, it's not the time of day or the soundtrack that makes things happen. It's simpler than that.

“My best work has always come from me sitting down and just writing,” she says.

“The words are already in my head, waiting for their turn.”

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Rachel got her start at an open mic program in 2001 in her native California. Since then, she's made a name for herself as a New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and a poetry slam champion. She's also appeared on HBO's Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and in the documentary, Slam Planet: War of the Words, which premiered at the SXSW film festival in 2006.

Below, she shares "Central Park, Mother's Day" at inkSLAM 09 in Los Angeles. (Adult language)



Albert Abonado

Albert at playLike many poets, Al suffered early for his art.

“I wrote a poem for a girl in kindergarten who returned it to me and said 'that's nice.'”

He was so put off that he didn't find his way back to his craft until high school, when he “wrote a lot of bad poems because I felt really hormonal,” he says.

Of course, in Al's defense, poets who start young are never more overwrought than they are at 17. But you can tell by his sense of humor—and perspective—that he gets it now.

“During this tragic, dark period of scribbling in the margins of my marble notebook, I discovered I liked being inside the world of a poem,” says Al, of Rochester. “Then I read a lot of poetry. Then I wrote poems that were not as bad.”

Today, his poetic voice has changed no less than the octave it dropped from those same high school hormones. Along the way, he's earned an MFA from Bennington College and has been published by several literary periodicals, including Anti-, Front Porch Journal, and Rattle.

When it comes to finding inspiration to write, Al says there's no steady stream.

“Honestly, I wish inspiration happened with some consistency so I could produce quality poems on a regular basis,” he says. “I just take the whole process poem by poem, although patterns do develop.”

For instance, he's spent some time exploring his Filipino background. He's looked at family history, which comes through in pieces like this one, published in Issue No. 150 of Front Porch Journal

In a Field Called Vietnam

“You look like someone I shot once”
What bothers me was his specificity:

In a field he called Vietnam where
the one I'm supposed to be is

more of a memory of me who fidgets
with a gun twenty yards away.

He stopped thinking about me until
I was standing among buckets of

produce where he says “I shot you
once, and how are you planning

on living with that?” In his defense,
I was very tan that summer

so I didn't bother to correct him
with my Filipino-ness. I said

you remind me of my mother
whose green card was stolen

last month. Sometimes, I have
two mothers. I'm not sure which one

was the one I once saw holding
the hole in the neck of a man

dying in a field. I saw the hole
grow teeth and now the man travels

around the country talking
out the back of his head with two

voices: the bored voice
and the surviving voice,

and when he asks for water
his mother tilts his head back

to let the air out of his brain.


Other times, Al's subject matter has more to do with where he is in his life, which you see in this excerpt from the longer piece titled “APARTMENT 2B”published in Rattle No. 31

I think my neighbor is dead, or maybe I don’t know
what to do with a neighbor so quiet compared
to the ones that came before her, like that couple
who found a reason to fight every day, and I laughed the day
I heard the man cry out about the black eye his girlfriend gave him,
and when I saw him the next day down in the basement
doing laundry I wanted to ask: hey man,
what happened to your face?
but instead I said:
I think you dropped a sock.


At the moment, Al has a manuscript “floating out in space that I continue to add to and subtract from like a bad habit.”

His subjects?

“Lately, I find myself referring more to pop culture and examining my concerns about the future,” he says. “Some friends have had babies recently so you could say I’ve had babies on the brain, too.”

That's right, Al. Just let it all out.


See more: Anti-, Front Porch Journal, and Rattle

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Peter Conners

Finding fresh ways to share the ideas that consume his thoughts. That's the simple, driving force behind this Pittsford, NY, resident’s journey as a writer and one-time Deadhead. It's taken him through the worlds of poetry, prose, and genre-defying spaces in between.

PeterHe clearly follows one of the first rules of the pen: write about what you know. His careful attention to character and scene brings even short passages to life.

Peter got his start in poetry during high school.  

“I shared it with some friends and they responded enthusiastically which encouraged me to continue,” he says.

“I have never stopped writing since then.”

Peter's putting the final touches on his next poetry collection, The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees, to be published by White Pine Press in spring 2011. Until then, here's a taste of Peter's work, from Of Whiskey and Winter, published by White Pine Press in 2007:

A Man Learns to Fly

In his younger years his father had toted him out to the bird feeder.  It was brown, bent, speckled with white droppings - angled against all seasons.  No mix was sufficient to keep the lesser birds away: Old bruise-colored grackles arrived on the scene.  Meager starlings.  Rusty female cardinals.  At each new mix, elated, they waited, but the loveliest of feathered winds never blew their way.  And so the father taught him to love the ugly ones.  Named them after earls and dukes, invested them with flight patterns to shame the baldest of eagles. 

In the boy's front yard, truly, the meek had inherited the earth. 

Such is the ornithology of family.

A boy flew away one morning to return a man to find his father turned to ash beside a bag of grainy seeds.  And this note: Help me to fly


Today, Peter is an editor at Rochester, NY-based BOA Editions, Ltd., one of the longest-running, best-known, and most respected literary publishers in the country, where he also directs the publishing company’s marketing efforts.

Click to visit "Growing Up Dead" online.And this writer never stops writing. He’s even adapted his last book, Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead, into a screenplay he hopes to see shot in Rochester. But that’s as much as he’ll reveal about the project. For now.

“I can’t say much beyond that other than – when it happens, you’ll know about it,” he says.

His next nonfiction book, White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, will be published by City Lights Books in November 2010.

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