Brief Review of Mitchell Grabois’ The Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face (Pski’s Porch, 2019)
Erin O'Neill Amrnedarez (EOA): Please share some background information with our readers.
Mitchell Grabois (MG): The term “background” is limitless. Increasingly, I think of myself in terms of the 14-billion-year history of the Universe. When I walk around the lake and witness the sunrise filtering through the trees, when I work in my garden, when I help raise my young granddaughters and see them unfold, almost as if in time-lapse photography, I am often filled with appreciation and awe for the unimaginable timeline and the processes of physical development that led to the world existing exactly as it is, with the mountains and seas and all the plants and animals, and that humans evolved to be capable of appreciating every bit of it. Maybe there’s nothing more exalted in my experience than watching leaves being illuminated by the sun, or following the rotation of the blooms in my garden, daffodils to irises to day lilies and spirea, and on. But I also feel exhilarated when I look at the imperfect line of Quikrete Grey Concrete Crack Filler I laid down this week to keep water from percolating down through the walkway directly in front of my house and unsettling the foundation. All that means more to me than literature, written by someone else or by myself. It is unmediated experience, requiring consciousness but not requiring mind or language.
To use a baseball term, I know that this an elaborate wind-up for the discussion of poetry and being a poet, but in a literary world filled with clamoring narcissists, perhaps we could use a little more of this sort of reflection.
Moving much closer to the present, my people were Jews, which means that my history includes a couple thousand years of persecution. My paternal grandmother was born in Barr, Russia, the site of the first pogrom (anti-Jewish riot). My grandfather was born in Kishenev, Moldova, the site of the largest pogrom in Europe up to that time (1903). His father, my great-grandfather Saul, was a farmer whose land had been taken by Russian decree in 1891. He moved to Kishenev and became a wagon maker. Luckily, his partner was a Christian, who hid Saul and his family in his cellar during the pogrom. The brutality of that event made news around the world, and there was much condemnation of it in many countries, including the U.S.
In response to that condemnation, the African-American community protested that African-Americans had been, and were still being, subjected to worse injustices. It was eighteen years later that the infamous Greenwood Massacre, a violent anti-Black riot that destroyed the “Black Wall Street,” took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an event that has received increased attention in the wake of the public execution of George Floyd. As I observed in one of my flash fictions, “Doberman Empire” (written some years ago): The ghosts of the brutal past animate the present as the ghosts of our brutal present animate what-comes-next.
Fortunately, the eddies of European persecution caused my grandparents to flee to the U.S. in advance of the Holocaust. Of my grandfather’s siblings, only one of eight survived. Even for those who did not directly experience it, the Holocaust continues to influence modern Jews (as slavery and ongoing racism influence modern African-Americans), in ways both subterranean and closer to the surface. It is an influence on my poetry, even when it is nowhere in sight.
EOA: How and when did you discover your interest in poetry?
MG: I started working on my elementary school magazine when I was in the fourth grade. By the time I was thirteen, I considered myself a serious poet. I’m now 67, so I’ve been involved in this enterprise for over half a century. As I recall, even despite Wallace Stevens being an insurance executive and William Carlos Williams being a physician, the prevailing models for poets (and writers in general) in my youth were quite different than what they are today—the poet was a sort of Thoreauvian character—a loner finding his own way. That was consistent with my personality— brooding and introverted.
EOA: Which poets, contemporary or classic, do you most appreciate and why?
MG: I’ve actually read far more fiction than I have poetry, and I’ve written nine novels. The first was in my mid-twenties. I acquired agency representation but the agent failed to get me a contract with a publishing company. The comments of the editors to whom she submitted all ran along the same lines: too literary, too strange, too feminist. In my fifties, I wrote six novels, and also got an agent (for five of them) but, though he was able to get contracts for some of his clients, he failed to get one for me. He held the bizarre belief that his inability to get me a publisher was proof of how good my work was.
I’m still trying to get an agent for my last novel. I’ve recently reorganized, retitled and repackaged it, so I remain hopeful. However, my relationship to publishing my novels is probably unlike that of most writers. I feel like an old Brooklyn shopkeeper with shelves full of dusty inventory that he’d like to unload.
But to answer the question: some poets I’ve appreciated have included John Berryman, Wallace Stevens, James Wright, William Carlos Williams, Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder and other beats, Charles Bukowski (whose poetry I find more exemplary than his prose), Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Tony Hoagland and Zen Master Ryokan, “the great fool.”
EOA: How has your life experience shaped your writing? Is there a strong correlation, or do you prefer to write from observation or imagination?
MG: Many people have had far more difficult lives than mine. However, without going into detail, my childhood was psychologically challenging. In fact, at age 17, approaching high school graduation, I felt dead. I wasn’t suicidal—I felt that I was already, literally dead. It was… disconcerting. It took me many years to surmount that. I believe that the impetus for many poets to write is to try to make sense of emotional realities that they experience that cannot easily be understood and explained. That was certainly true for me. Over the years, as we all do, I developed my own blend of life. Sensitivity, cheerfulness, suffering, compassion and black humor are elements of that blend, and it comes out in my writing in ways that can’t be programmed or predicted.
EOA: How has your craft evolved over time? Have peers or mentors assisted in honing your process?
MG: To my benefit or my detriment, or both, I’ve been largely isolated and self-contained as a writer, and “self-taught.” I have no English or Creative Writing degree. In college I took a couple of writing courses. One of the instructors harped on “writing organically,” which made sense. The other instructor was Jim Dodge, the novelist and poet and friend of Gary Snyder. After reading many of my poems, he told me, “Despite Gary Snyder, English is not an idiographic language.”
I don’t know if I can speak to how my craft has evolved over time. I’ve never been good at identifying what writers have influenced my work and that sort of thing. I guess that’s because I’m neither a literary person, an intellectual or an academician. I don’t believe that you have to be those things to be a good writer. Certainly, you don’t have to be those things to enjoy your writing process and what you’ve written. After writing a lot of long fiction, during the last ten years I’ve focused on poetry and flash fiction, and lately I’ve gone back and started compiling a lot of it into book form. I’ve cringed at some of the work before deleting it. However, on rereading, most of the work feels fresh and: Hey, this is good shit. I believe that, ultimately, that’s the prize that you get from being a writer—the understanding that you’ve engaged in a creative process, which is valuable, perhaps even sacred, in its own right and, rereading your work, you have a feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment.
EOA: How did you decide upon a publisher for The Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face?
MG: Lacking connections, and acting according to my long-held principle that I would never pay submission or contest fees, I simply found a list of poetry publishers and sent out the manuscript. Subsequently, Pski’s Porch Publishing, a small press in upstate NY, accepted and published it.
EOA: Are you satisfied with your publishing experiences thus far?
MG: Despite my natural aversion to marketing, I marketed THE ARREST OF MR. KISSY FACE to the best of my ability, and there were some sales. The publisher did little marketing. Poets should know that there is a very small market for poetry (though I understand that there’s a stronger one in Britain). If you can manipulate social media in innovative ways, you have a better chance of some success. But any writer nowadays, poet or otherwise, who nurtures the old dream of becoming “rich and famous” through his or her writing is some kind of moron. The market for literary work in general has significantly shrunken. I read an interview with John Irving not long ago in which he stated that if he were starting out now, he would never get published.
EOA: What advice would you give to other poets contemplating publication of a first collection?
MG: I was excited to have a bona fide publisher publish my poetry, but really, what does that matter? It means that one other person (or maybe a committee) liked my work well enough to put it on paper. Is that important? I think that in the future I will simply self-publish my work, as I did with one of my novels, TWO-HEADED DOG. (By the way, both that book and THE ARREST OF MR. KISSY FACE are available for purchase through my website, wordsbymitch.com, in which you can also find many of my poems and flash fictions which you can enjoy free-of-charge.) Self-publishing short-circuits the waste of time and the hassles of trying to find a publisher and then dealing with the publisher. Considering only my poetry and short fiction, I probably have ten books worth of work. It tickles me to imagine a great-grandchild or great-great grandchild or a descendent even further in the future, reading some of my work and thinking: My ancestor, Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois, was an interesting dude.
Making this decision puts more responsibility on me—if the only decisions about which poems will appear in my books are my own, and if I’m committed to quality, then my decisions better be well-considered and sharp. Also, let’s not forget the other meaning of “submission.” Why bow your head and accept your fate as a subordinate when you can embrace freedom and take your place as a fully self-determining being?
At this moment, I’m on, maybe, my sixteenth revision (typical for me) of these responses to the Aji editor’s interview questions. I revise until I am fully satisfied with a piece. I revise even after a piece is published. And that’s certainly something that any writer should know—as many, many writers have said previously: Writing is Revision.
EOA: What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?
MG: I’ve never really thought about my writing in that way. I’ve never written with a reader in mind. I guess I hope that some of it might give readers pause, might give them a deeper sense of humanity, might amuse them.
EOA: What advice do you have for other poets when it comes to pursuing a desire to write and publish poetry, to find community and an audience for their work?
MG: Just do it?
If they’re young, they might consider acquiring academic degrees, like the MFA. There’s been a lot of criticism of the MFA, but human beings operate in clubs, through networking, so acquiring degrees, with all the consequent contacts, could be helpful. Getting published requires a combination of talent, hard work, and luck, and luck usually comes through association with other people.
The Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face
I kissed the woman who slices lunch meat
at King Sooper’s
She shoved smoked turkey at me
and cried: Next!
I kissed my doctor
I’d been wanting to do it
since she first told me to stick out my tongue
and complemented me on its smoothness
and the elegance of my taste buds
I kissed her and she asked
On a scale of one to ten, how have you been feeling this week?
I kissed her again
Have you been seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there?
I kissed her a third time
Have you been feeling suicidal or homicidal?
I kissed her more deeply
really sent my tongue to a remote locale
Do you have access to weapons?
How can you ask me that
after everything we’ve been through?
Anyway, this is America
She called Security
Security knew me
from the days when I was a high school football star
and an amateur boxer and cage fighter
who went by the moniker Destructo
They were afraid of me
called the cops
warned them: Be sure to bring your stun guns
your billy clubs
and chemical weapons
The first cop who entered the room--
I kissed her
She yelled FREEZE!
Hands where I can see them!
Get down on your knees!
I happily complied
Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys
Gasoline smells like gin
sweet and clear
I’ve loved that smell
since junior high
when me and Pollo Murillo and Hector Delgadillo
huffed it from the jerry can
in Pollo’s dim garage
Isn’t “jerry can” an incandescent phrase
transcending its simple language?
Delgadillo said I was Mexican
I said, I’m a Jew
Delgadillo said: You may be a Jew
in your shaved-off prick
but you are Mexican in the soul
Then he passed me the jerry can
no worries about bogarting that
there was plenty for all
Murillo ran off a mountain road
Delgadillo went to prison
and got shanked by the Aryan Brotherhood
and will wait for my chance for revenge
Brief Review of Serafina Bersonsage’s A Witch’s Education (EMP, 2019)
Interview with Serafina Bersonsage
Serafina Bersonsage (SB): I’m a Michigan-based writer with a penchant for poetry, fantasy, and more or less unpublishable ephemera: fictional lexicons, made-up annals, detailed descriptions of places that don’t technically exist. At six, I caused a small panic in my first grade class by convincing half of the students that I was a vampire. My mother introduced me to T.S. Eliot, socialism, and Bloody Marys; the precise order is hazy.
Random facts: I lived in Philadelphia for a year; I read tarot on a regular basis; I married a man who is at least as much a bibliophile as I am; I enjoy studying languages and once asked for a Latin textbook for Christmas, but was utterly trounced by Old Irish grammar. I learned to shoot tequila in my fourth year of grad school, and I once stayed awake for so long during finals that one of my professors thought that I was possessed because of all the burst blood vessels in my eyes. I can’t do math, play a musical instrument, or play sports without risking serious injury to myself and others. In high school, I refused to date anyone without a half-decent plan for world domination.
EOA: When did you start to write poetry? What was your inspiration?
SB: I started to write poetry in high school, a couple of years after I began writing fiction, mostly because I found it easier to work on poems than novels while pretending to pay attention in class. I can’t really speak to the inspiration behind my earliest poetry, because I tend to avoid rereading it at all costs. I seem to recall that some of it was vaguely Arthurian; I was obsessed with Merlin and Viviane. This was a time when I listened to a lot of Loreena McKennitt. I aspired to be an elf.
EOA: How did you hone your craft? Did you take classes or attend workshops? Did you have mentors?
SB: My formal training is in criticism—I did a PhD in English at the University of Rochester, where I wrote my dissertation on microcosms in seventeenth-century British literature. This involved reading a huge amount of rather sycophantic country house poems and trying to make sense of the stage directions for masques—Ben Jonson could be very catty about special effects!—and at one point I developed a small crush on Margaret Cavendish and crashed a stationary bike. And I think that all of this was very beneficial for my writing, because it allowed me to live in another world for several years, and also helped me to get over any lingering preoccupation with the notion of voice. For the first two years, I didn’t write any poetry or fiction at all, and, after that, I worked on my dissertation, and wrote poetry and fiction to please myself.
Eventually, I began to share my work, and the feedback that I’ve received from others has absolutely had an impact on how I approach certain things. I can tell that a piece of advice has really struck a chord when I find myself applying it to other projects—not even necessarily in the same genre. My doctoral advisor never saw my fiction, but some of her comments on my academic writing still come back to me when I’m revising a novel. Remarks on a novel manuscript by my agent (the brilliant Connor Goldsmith) have led me to poems, and various editors’ comments on poems have sometimes informed my fiction. My husband reads everything that I write. He’s an insightful and ruthless reader—a far better critic than I ever was, when I aspired to such things.
I tend to get a lot out of other people’s comments; nonetheless, I remain mildly allergic to workshops. (I can see how many writers find them helpful; I just tend to avoid formal groups on principle.) I did take one undergraduate writing class, at the University of Michigan-Flint—but, as I was also taking the GRE that semester, I’m afraid that I wasn’t terribly engaged. The most useful advice that I can recall was to aim for three hundred words a day—a strategy that has its limitations, of course, but one that served me well when I was just getting back into fiction, a few years after that.
EOA: A Witch’s Education seems to be, at least in part, a response to cultural assumptions about gender and women who refuse to conform to them. What do you hope readers will take away from this “wicked” little book?
SB: It depends entirely on who those readers are. If they’ve been marginalized in some way, if they’ve been slut-shamed or judged for failing to meet cultural expectations or otherwise pushed into the woods, then I would hope that this book gives them a sense of being somewhat less alone in that, assuming that it resonates with any part of their experience. If they’ve been privileged enough to avoid such things, then I would hope that it broadens their perspective a bit. And, if they’re Trump supporters, then I would hope that it gives them a paper cut. (But I very much doubt that anyone from the third category will read my book.)
EOA: Along with irony and some delightfully sharp edges, your poems also imply some understated humor. Does that humor seem helpful in dealing with some of the especially difficult topics treated in the book?
SB: I think that the tendency to turn to humor when confronting difficult topics is a habit that I picked up from my father, who has been known to improvise some truly top-quality comedic monologues in hospital rooms. I also suspect that a certain kind of dark humor tends to be more prevalent in Michigan, or at least in the parts of Michigan where my parents and I grew up (Detroit, in their case; the suburbs of Flint, in mine). When things go badly enough for long enough, you start to turn to the mordant, the wry, the sardonic. There’s a protective quality to it, certainly, but it’s also a way of reaching outward—connecting with others by finding a way to make light of something that’s objectively not great. (I recently learned the etymology of the word “sardonic,” by the way. It involves poison and laughter and quite possibly senicide, and is definitely something that I would encourage your readers to look up.)
EOA: The copyright page in A Witch’s Education pokes fun at the standard copyright credits. What was your process for selecting EMP as the publisher for your book?
SB: I believe that the copyright page in question, or a version of it, is one that EMP uses in all of their books. I was pleased to include it in A Witch’s Education, because I think that it’s admirably honest. Very, very few people are making (significant) money in this business. Obviously, I do think that artists should receive credit for their work, and I support the enforcement of copyright laws insofar as those laws allow artists to make a living. But I also think that it’s good to push back against the proprietary urge when feasible.
I submitted the manuscript of A Witch’s Education to relatively few publishers. I understand why so many small presses have made contests such a central part of their selection process, but it’s deeply frustrating, because a $28 contest fee isn’t a trivial expense for many people, and multiple contest fees can be prohibitively expensive for those of us who prefer to live by Erasmus’s words. (“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”) So it was a short list, and EMP was on it because I felt that the press’s unapologetically anti-establishment ethos would be a good fit for my project. Happily, my publisher agreed.
EOA: What are you writing now?
SB: I’m writing poetry on a fairly regular basis, and I’m also working on a draft of a fantasy novel, which is about four-fifths complete. The latter project tends to involve the generation of large amounts of worldbuilding material—some of it, very sketchy and utilitarian; other parts, less so. I feel tremendously fortunate to be able to spend so much time in another world, especially given the state of this one.
I’m writing this in July, when the pandemic seems to be on the wane (at least for the moment) in Michigan, but spiraling out of control in many other parts of the country. Writing during the pandemic has been an interesting experience. When my husband and I rented our current apartment, we had never expected that we would both end up working from home— He spends a good part of the day on the phone, so noise-canceling headphones were a necessary investment! Tuning out the news proved to be rather more challenging, and I’ve had to become considerably more disciplined about when, and how often, I check the latest numbers. It’s been stressful, but I feel grateful to be able to keep writing during these times.
EOA: Who are you reading these days?
SB: I’m currently reading Anne Carson, whose “Essay on What I Think About Most” I particularly like. I’ve also managed to find my way back to Donne, as I do at least a few times a year. As far as fiction goes, I’m reading Anita Desai’s The Artist of Disappearance, and I’ve just started The Lord of the Rings in Spanish. (My Spanish comprehension is better than it was, but I’m still in the process of building up my confidence by reading books that I’ve already read in English.) Assorted nonfiction from the stalagmites that appear on most unused surfaces in my apartment: Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia; John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent; George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By; and Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky, whose lectures on YouTube are absolutely fascinating. (I don’t think that I’ve enjoyed science class so much since baking soda volcanoes passed as cutting-edge research.)
EOA: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
SB: Take a break if you need it! I think that it’s difficult to overstate the importance of fallow time, perhaps especially where poetry is concerned. Sometimes it’s best to let things sit—a poem or a project, certainly, and, at times, it can be beneficial to take a break from writing (poetry, fiction, anything at all), in order to find your way back to it. But that advice runs counter to the narrative of perpetual optimization that seems to dominate more and more of our waking hours. It feels nice to have goals, and sometimes it can be beneficial to aim for a poem a day (50K words in a month, etc.), particularly if you’re struggling to cultivate a consistent writing practice. But it can also be a fine way to produce an impressive amount of mediocre poems.
On a related note, I think that many poets, especially newer poets, tend to underestimate the amount of time that they should allow a batch of poems to rest before they try submitting them to literary magazines (or posting them on social media, if that’s their inclination). Clearly, for some writers, it’s the opposite problem, and they’ll accumulate years, or decades, of backlog before they submit anything at all. But I think that premature submission is much more damaging, because it can be tempting to allow external feedback (whether positive or negative) to drown out your own critical voice, and it’s harder to be objective about something that you wrote just last month. I’m fairly certain that at least 80% of the hurt feelings generated by rejection could be avoided by delaying submission for an extra few months (longer, if necessary).
I also think that it’s quite important for poets (and all writers) to study languages other than their own, and to try to learn something about the history of their preferred language(s). Obviously, it’s exciting to read works in the original, but the point is also to get a better sense of the limitations of your own language. Where does English lack nuance where Spanish conveys it, and how might a poet writing in English try to get around that? Studying the history of a language might also shed some light on that, and can be especially useful in awakening your sensitivity to dead metaphors—a necessary sensitivity, whether you prefer to engage in necromancy or avoid corpses altogether.
We fashioned ourselves
into slightly damaged trophy wives --
not the blonde tanned televised
variety, but the sort you see
in dim cafés, sporting crow’s feet
and small Latin and less Greek, the sort
a wealthy Democrat might seek
to adorn his house in Brooklyn
to play at being bohemian.
We made ourselves such lovely dolls.
Her degree is terminal
like her prospects.
Her dissertation is bound in a little black dress.
It sits on the shelf and oversees
dinner parties and gathers dust
becoming an amusing anecdote, like mine
We guard our theses, share identities
all taking up yoga, vegan cooking
all losing the same fifteen pounds.
We wear the same black tights to interviews,
each other’s shadows on the pavement.
We wear the same dress to our weddings.
Five hundred years ago, just possibly
before the Dissolution of the Monasteries
we married the same man, had no mirrors.49
We were each other’s reflections then--
on the street, by accident, I look
at a woman looking critically
and just too closely, as if she knows
as if she means
to read my history, I see
shards of me in her eyes
Actually, I hate children.
Yes, even if they prefer the real fairy tales.
Yes, even if they are yours.
I cannot stand their voices
so loud and ugly, and no --
it isn’t particularly funny
what they said.
A friend’s fat baby I may like
on Facebook, where children are seen and not heard
silent, frozen — and, speaking of freezing
I will nod politely
at the mention of freezing my eggs
for I am one of those childless women
who claims to love children
but I am lying — and, speaking of lying
yes, you did look fat in that dress
and, yes, I fucked them
(both of them
in twenty-four hours
and did not shower
before I came to bed).
And have I mentioned that I hate dogs?
They fenced off the woods in my favorite park
the woods where a monster like me should live
not far from the little town,
bound in hate
to the people who let
their dogs run free and bark and shit
just like their waddling toddlers64
and. passing, I will smile and wave
and say good morning,
and I will hope
that the tall pines crack and crush them,
that their children choke on breadcrumbs
that the apples are poison that fall from the trees.