Tag Archives: virtual book tour

an interview with pamela johnson parker



Welcome to the latest stop on Read Write Poem’s Virtual Book Tour!  To read more reviews, check out the tour schedule at Read Write Poem! 


Selected as the first place winner of qarrtsiluni‘s 2009 poetry chapbook contest, Pamela Johnson Parker’s A Walk Through the Memory Palace is a gorgeous little treasure–a glossy chapbook with ten poems that sing as if they are 100.   Praising the collection, judge Dinty Moore said, “Whether writing about rich gardens, sagging breasts, or the ink of a tattoo, this poet sees through the obvious to something radiant on the other side, painting a startling portrait of an intimate world. Not a wasted word here: the nouns are like gemstones.”


As a poet working on my own first collection, I am always curious about the process.  How do you choose the poems?  How do you put them in any kind of order?  Pamela Johnson Parker was kind enough to indulge my curiosity and allow me to interview her about the manuscript process, the final product and what it’s like to hold your first collection in your hands. 


For more information on the collection, or to order one for yourself, you can visit the A Walk Through the Memory Palace website.  If you’d like to hear more from Pamela, you can visit her blog: Pamela’s Musings





on the manuscript process

Can you talk about your process of compiling the manuscript? For instance, the collection is comprised of 10 poems. When you sat down to put your manuscript together, how many poems did you start with? How did you whittle it down?

I wanted the poems to move imagistically rather than chronologically. I write rather long poems and I knew that more than 10 poems would be over the limit page-wise.

I wanted the poems to move from an awareness of lust/ache that is a presence to an awareness of loss/ache that is an absence. I wanted a poem that basically worked through one scene to set the stage for the book. I wanted a poem that distanced its subjects through captions and had several memory palaces to end the book. I also wanted to go from the sensibility of being young and unaware to being all too aware of what it meant to lose what’s beloved.

I laid out all the poems that comprise my full length manuscript and pulled out about 25. I scrambled them around until I ended up with 10, which seemed like a good number. I knew what I wanted, but not exactly how to line them up. (I didn’t have my guardian angel, MFA mentor, Brian Barker, to help. He was a great help to me in organizing the first book-length manuscript).

I wanted the poems to resonate but not be too matchy-matchy. I made a list of images–here’s flowers, here’s a pathway, here’s a garden, here’s a fish, here’s water–and then tried to make something organic out of these disparate pieces. I thought of it as planning a garden. The poem about last year’s journals, this year’s yard is pretty much a poetics statement for me.

Did you look at any particular collections for inspiration when you were putting yours together?

I read many collections to think about narrative arc. Two collections that were especially helpful to me in understanding how books might be organized are Animal Gospels by Brian Barker, and The Determined Days by Philip Stephens. These are my MFA mentors, and their books are gorgeously organized. I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse in order to think about non-narrative movement.

A Walk Through the Memory Palace is such an evocative title, the Memory Palace such an intriguing destination. Where did the title come from?

If I’m going to be honest, which I try to be, I have to say that that came from a serial killer, specifically, Hannibal Lecter. In the prequel Hannibal, I re-encountered the memory palace, a concept that I hadn’t heard of since Psychology and Philosophy classes in college. How do we remember what we remember? How do we stand to remember what hurts? What do we do with those memories?

On your blog, Pamela’s Musings, RWPer Carolee Sherwood asked you about your selection of the book’s first and last poems. Your answer was fascinating. Can you, perhaps, speak again on that subject, specifically on the “charm bracelet structure” of compiling a manuscript versus the “gardening and pruning approach”?

For A Walk Through the Memory Palace, I wanted to move forward and backward, across and down, meander. For the next chapbook, Other Four-Letter Words, in which the poems are all love poems, I wanted to chime and circle. I think the first chapbook seems more organic and the second more traditionally musical—the difference between a private little jig and a quadrille, maybe.

Tell us about working with qarrtsiluni. Was there much editing to be done after your manuscript was chosen as the winner of their 2009 poetry chapbook contest?

Beth and Dave are the greatest, most tireless advocates of poetry and this chapbook. I am so pleased that they worked so hard on this project. I suggested the cover art, and after that I didn’t have anything to do except read the perfect galleys and admire the finished product. The website was their idea too! I really respect the work that they do with qarrtsiluni and they gave this same commitment to the chapbook, as well. I feel like it is our book, not my book.

The hardest part of the whole process was reading the poems. I don’t have a good reading voice, so I worked really hard on this. My husband Harvey was the other reader, and he’s wonderful. Matt Markgraf was our sound man, and he made the recordings painless and professional.

on the final product

What did you do when you held the final copy in your hands for the very first time?

I cried the second I saw the package on the porch. I was shaking so hard that my husband had to open the box and hand me a book. I am not a sentimental person, but it was truly like holding a baby—shivery and strange and familiar all at once.

If you had to write a blurb for the back of your book, what would you write?

“Pamela Johnson Parker has had the best teachers: Daniel Anderson, Philip Stephens, and Brian Barker. She can never thank them enough.”

The painting on the cover, “Cupid Complaining to Venus,” by Carrie Ann Baade, is gorgeous. How was the cover art chosen? In your mind, how does the painting speak to the content?

I saw Carrie Ann Baade’s wonderful art online and knew that I wanted it for a cover if I ever had a book. I cut a deal with her for a project that fell through. By the time that this chapbook was ready, the image I originally fell in love with was taken. Carrie had new images up on her website that were garden based in theme and graciously allowed us to choose. Beth and Dave helped narrow the images down to two. The one that we chose, “Cupid Complaining to Venus,” reminded me of “any multiplicity of stings” that’s in the “Tattoos” poem. It goes well with the garden poems, and the idea that there is sweetness in sorrow (tears of honey) is really appealing to me.

on the poems

In a recent RWP interview, Nathan Moore asked what line of your own poetry you love the most and you responded, “I’m really fond of my titles. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard” is currently my pet.” Is that still your favorite? If so, what is your 2nd favorite?

I am working really hard in fits and starts on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard.” It’s still my favorite. My second favorite? Probably “78 RPM.” I really love antiques and those old records are so evocative. That’s a time that’s past, another sort of memory palace, music cut into grooves.

What is your favorite poem in the collection? What makes it your favorite? Can you talk about its genesis? What inspired it? How many revisions did it go through before it made it into the collection?

My favorite poem in the collection is probably the first one, “78 RPM.” It was inspired by purchase of antique wicker porch furniture. I sat on the loveseat, and it bit me! I thought I’d been stung by a wasp. I think there were 15 or 20 drafts of that poem over two years.

Are there any poems not in the collection that you wish had been included? Will they make it into a second collection? Are you working on a second collection? Full-length or chapbook?

I am really pleased with this chapbook the way it is. I’m going to have a second collection published in 2010, Other Four-Letter Words. I have a full-length MS out to publishers, but it’s boomeranging back to me with some regularity. Right now, I’m working on a book-length poem, as well as drafting out other poems. My process is very weird. I always have three projects at once.

last words

What poets/collections are you currently reading? Who is on your to-read list?

I am currently reading The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, as well as Nicky Beer’s collection, The Diminishing House. What fine poems Nicky Beer writes—she and Stevens are in fabulous conversation in my mind.

I have a long to-read list: Eavan Boland’s newest collection and Charles Martin’s translation of Ovid are at the top of the stack.

Two collections I read recently have stayed with me: Displacement by Leslie Harrison and Please by Jericho Brown.

Do you have any advice/tips/tricks for poets who are putting together a first collection?

Trust your ear. Read your poems aloud. Have a second reader and really listen. What do you hear that links up sonically? What images seem true to you? Where does a poem need tweaking? Where do you surprise yourself?


Ed Skoog’s “Mister Skylight” – Man the Lifeboats



Welcome to the latest stop on Read. Write. Poem.‘s Virtual Book Tour! To read more reviews of this ambitious debut collection, please visit the Book Tour Schedule.   Like what you see and want to read more of Skoog’s work? Visit his blog or Copper Canyon Press and purchase your very own copy!


Life must be worth something/ for the loss of it to hurt so much.


This is the simple truth that the poems in Ed Skoog’s new collection, Mister Skylight, are built upon. Again and again, through flood, hurricane and wildfire, through the daily bewilderment of life’s uncertainties, there is the certainty of wreckage, that “Sunset ripens and ruptures,” that “If you were delicious, [cormorants] would dive after you/ with powerful small webbed feet or leave only a feather.”

The phrase “Mister Skylight” is an emergency signal to alert a ship’s crew, but not its passengers, of an emergency. To read this debut collection is to be at once the ship’s crew—alert to impending tragedy, and its passengers—utterly unaware. As Skoog said in a recent interview with Dave Jarecki,

“The ship is at its end. But the warning comes without wanting to alarm the passengers. It’s a warning for the crew to start readying the lifeboats, or to start preparing for abandoning the ship so it could get done in an orderly process…That was probably the scariest thing I’d ever read for some reason, not just the phrase but the thought of being a survivor, or temporary survivor, and to hear that sort of warning…”


As the first line of this title poem intones, “When you enter the city of riots, confess/ what turns your life has taken.” Throughout the book, Skoog is confessing, though his work is far from what some critics call confessional. Instead, “It is like the enormity Gregor Samsa/ is hoping to sleep through, but, well, can’t.” It is impossible to ignore the man-size cockroach in the room, or, in Skoog’s world, the ocean opening “Grand Isle like a casket,” or “…next week’s water/ writing its black line across plaster.”

In this way, each poem takes on a narrative cast, alluding to the universal in all of our myriad sufferings. With little effort, readers will doubtless see themselves in such carefully wrought lines as, “Who’s not tired of choosing between/ invisibility and flight?” Will say yes when invited to consider, “Is it sufficient to believe in dirt?” for as the narrator reminds us:

The mind will join eventually with sod,
merging memory of a lovely kiss with dirt
and its caress; the hands I wash dirt
from will become cleansed of hands.


Trust in Mr. Skylight, personified alarm, and view through Skoog’s clear eyes the humanity surrounding each of us, if only we were alert enough to see it, if only we had our own “Mr. Skylight” counsel:

The problems of language are mostly solved

in the fish’s gutting on the public sink, and thrown to sea
lions by the old woman with fierce embarrassment for a hat.

A girl staring at a croaker cut in half
runs to daddy. She reminds me that terror

has a place here, in the beginning, among strange messages.



Sometimes, like the very tragedies he is recording, Skoog’s images are difficult to interpret. In “Party at the Dump,” it is clear a storm has come through. “What can’t be seen under the thrown/ was home.” In the closing lines, however, a beautiful debris of language works in disarray:

When the wind turns along the fence, when the gray
horse rounds the turn, blue arguments gnarl
podiums of sky. Wind kneels in August februation
The boy with the web painted on his face
pursues his thoughts through the vineyard.



Much like survivors returning to the ruin that is their home, we are forced to look again, read again, and strive to make meaning of what doesn’t lend itself to simplicity. Such is the nature of tragedy. Such is the nature of trying to understand someone else’s emotions. Always, always, however, the raw feeling is present.

I’ve had enough. I/ know she means she also doesn’t know/ what secret sent every quarter/ down Markey’s jukebox.” So begins the poem “Ruler of My Heart,” and if you didn’t know better, didn’t know the history of post-Katrina New Orleans and its people’s tenacious rebound from tragedy, you might conclude the poem was simply giving voice to a maudlin narrator, some guy sitting at the bar drowning his sorrows.

But Irma Thomas—Soul Queen of New Orleans—, and the singer in question, is a survivor. Though Katrina left both her home and night club underwater, Thomas didn’t falter, moving 60 miles away for a very short time before returning to The Big Easy and achieving great success. Likewise, Skoog’s poems resist the temptation to flounder in melancholy, resist utter despair in favor of a savage and conscious honesty.

Just as the birth of the blues gave suffering not only a voice but a swift kick, so the poetry in this powerful collection is born of what Skoog calls “the heartbreaking impulse…the lyric impulse to respond internally and to want to communicate that with somebody.” Tune your ear to Mister Skylight’s mournful wail. As you surrender to your own impulse, one truth will resound—though this life may be melancholy, it is never, never without beauty. It just takes a poet’s eye (and voice) to reveal it. “You hear it. You do not hear it.” Your choice.

At night, the dead: Read. Write. Poem.’s Virtual Book Tour Stops By…


* Originally published here as part of Read. Write. Poem.’s Virtual Book Tour, this review can also be found in Poet’s Quarterly.


I am the second stop on the Read. Write. Poem. Virtual Book Tour. As such, please enjoy this break from my regularly scheduled vacation!  And, please, if after reading this review, you would like to purchase your very own copy of Lisa Ciccarello’s At night, the dead, please visit the Blood Pudding Press Etsy Shop!


You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead.


Most of us fear the dead. We fear their reach from beyond, their spectral presence in the dark, looming over us while we sleep, the awful things they might do. After reading Lisa Ciccarello’s prize winning chapbook, At night, the dead, published by Blood Pudding Press, it becomes clear that, though the dead are most certainly here, they are not here to do us harm. Rather, they love us, the dead whose love is just a little series of letters. They would like to be remembered, and maybe to have a voice.


We are supposed to house the dead in our mouths, but we let them stay in our throats when we sing.


The dead, it seems, seek a voice. In the dual role of poet and medium, Ciccarello chooses not only to house the dead in her mouth, but to sing:

I am the dead I am the dead
I am the dead. The song I know.

The mouth is the entryway, the tunnel through which the dead find their voice. Ciccarello’s haunting lyrics–surreal, pensive, often mysterious– linger in our psyche, long after they have provided the release the dead are seeking.


Just as mortals, having seen a ghost, will question their own vision, so readers of At night, the dead may question what is real and what is Ciccarello’s fantastic imagination.   The dead put their fingers in your mouth, the narrator asserts. Despite the next line, You are dreaming, you will soon question whether you, the reader, are awake or asleep, whether there are fingers in your mouth or not. Ciccarello’s stream of consciousness prose poems lull you into a sort of waking sleep-walk. In time, we (readers) take on a spectral form, hovering over each poem, studying it as the dead study the living when:

you are asleep & inside the dream the dead rise up & their bodies are gone but their love has a form & they come to love you but it isn’t a dream…


Like the dead, we become ghosts, floating through each piece, accepting it’s improbability for ethereal truth.


I want to keep telling you about the dead, the narrator says. They write the same word over and over again. Ciccarello does not write the same word over and over again, though there is a ghostly echo to the repeating clues she gives us in each of these sixteen poems.


Indeed, taken as a whole, the collection is a tightly woven tapestry of encounters with the dead, stitched together by recurring threads: salt on widow sills, luminous coins, burned paper, house and home. Comprised mostly of prose poems, each piece links almost imperceptibly to the next, most often through these cleverly repeated images.


Coupled with Ciccarello’s skill at crafting poems that read like small prayers or incantations, such repetition serves not to keep the dead at bay, but to welcome them, honor and invite them into the house they remember and give them

Everything they ever wanted: the window view, soap that floats, someone pressing down hard. Lips made out of paper. A smile that shines (just a flame at his mouth & so what).


We want to remember what was so close to our faces, the narrator tells us. So, too, the dead/ remember;/ yea & it is not enough. As Ciccarello’s haunting narrative continues in its melodic refrain, such surreal reasoning begins to make sense. Our home is full of beautiful boy & come on girl. The dead “have a home in the ground, but they forget.” Is it possible the dead are us? You and I, questing readers?


Without doubt, the dead are a metaphor for something. Just what is elusive, so we must continue to read and look for clues. In providing such mysterious little gems, Ciccarello—poet, medium, mouth-piece for the dead–does not disappoint. The sheer lyricism of her language can make a clue out of a seemingly irrelevant detail. Take for instance, this gorgeous morsel of truth:

Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought sparkling behind the next. In the patient necklace each will be touched.


Overall, At night, the dead is a haunting collection, though not in the traditional sense of ghosts and fear. Instead, it is a series of surreal linked vignettes, brief but memorable encounters with the elusive dead (who may or may not be you and I), ferrying a message that may or may not come clear as the final poem exhales its last syllable.


Do not be surprised, when, after you have finished that last poem, you find yourself going about your own days and nights trying to discover your own dead and what they are asking for. Do not be afraid when the salt is gone the dead touch your mouth.