Color, Ekphrasis, and the David Bowie Dilemma in Peter Jay Shippy’s A spell of songs

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Peter Jay ShippyYou begin A spell of songs in a startling way. “Untrimm’d” employs language which harkens back to the beginnings of epic poetry like Ovid and Milton. What follows are poems about intense personal relationships. Why did you choose to begin your collection in this register?

An earlier version of the book contained more poems like “Untrimm’d”—small pieces, lyrics, songs. I thought of them as a counterpoint to the other poems, which employ long lines and dubious punctuation. The title alludes to Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet—but it’s also a joke, calling attention to the book’s feral nature.

In “Blue, Stumbling Buzz” you mention Jan van Eyck. I was just reading that his Arnolfini wedding portrait has been poured over by art historians for decades. There is much debate in deciphering that image. I find that portrait akin to your collection. The symbolism and rich color add so much to the subject matter. Why did you mention van Eyck in this poem?

I’ve always loved his name—ike!—and the spider webs he painted on the vaulting of an imaginary cathedral. I think scholars call this “small time”—imperfections on paradise. Maybe he’s a proto-surrealist. The title is lifted from Dickinson, and the poem imagines another kind of signing away of keepsakes. A time when van Eyck might be exhibited on the walls of a village library.

You make an extraordinary and memorable use of color throughout the collection. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a “novel of color.” How does the writer use color to make impressions on the reader?

It wasn’t deliberate, which is just as well. If I had noticed—I might have washed them away. For the last few years, I’ve taught a course on ekphrastic literature. We read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Rafael Alberti’s To Painting, Gertrude Stein & Kevin Young’s To Repel Ghosts, among others. Maybe I ended up teaching myself something!

Along with color you make a fascinating use of symbols—their meaning is not immediately apparent, but like the symbols of medieval poetry, it takes some effort to decipher them. It is a very pleasurable experience! What is your approach to using symbols in poetry?SpellofSongsfrontcover

A few days ago I was reading a discussion between the novelist Rick Moody and the philosopher Simon Critchley. Their topic was David Bowie’s 1979 album, Lodger. Ostensibly, it was two middle-aged guys comparing who they were to who they are and how time reframes criticism. But, there was one moment that illustrated the poet’s dilemma—having to use words as opposed to notes or paint. Moody complained that the lyrics to “Fantastic Voyage,” the opening track, once bothered him because they were strange and unrhymed: “In the event/That this fantastic voyage/Should turn to erosion/and we never get old.” Now that he’s “desperately-middle-aged… I find it exhilarating.”

Critchley has no problem with the lyrics—then & now —because he had read the modernists. He describes Bowie’s lyrics as Pound-like.

So, always, the poet depends on a smart reader, an energetic reader, a patient reader—but even then, sometimes you have to wait for them to turn 50!


Nana slapped a phony Fabergé egg
with a black boa and my mother was born

filling the kitchen with the smell of first snow,
Grampus slipped out the window and raced

a greyhound to the coast, on the shelf, a jar
of white rice shook itself silly, like stoned lice,

I was there, her daughter, sipping sack, a witness,
don’t ask how or I’ll tell you how and then…

there’s no going back, in fact, it was me who wrapped
her own bawling mother in the Gazette while

Uncle Maxim greased his balancing pole and split
his pants for work, I read the funnies, specially

the strips with animals that wouldn’t exist
when I was a girl, I loved the one with Bugg,

a mustachioed cockroach from Bohemia
who broke English into confetti when he professed

his love for Clarice, a beetle from Rio
with question marks on her wing covers, so

we daubed-on whiteface and donned smoked glasses,
Nana latched the baby to her breast and ordered

a dozen long-stemmed American Beauties
and used the box to construct a pinhole projector,

at first light we were off to watch the cortege
carry the body of Atlas, our strongman,

to his resting place on the spinning stool
at the end of the bar, we rode the boneshakers

to the river and skipped stones at kids until
they handed over their lunch pails, her pupils

were black as pips, snake-eyes, the dog throw,
my mother’s eyes struck my eyes like matchsticks,

the sun whistled white as bone, Uncle Maxim
dipped a Kaiser roll into the warm water

then molded it into a dummy and plugged
my mother’s red yawp, years later, he would lead

a crack camouflage unit during the war,
they managed to conceal hundreds of clouds

from enemy zeppelins, years later
Grampus’s shadow came home and stained the carpet,

years later Nana stuck me to her old tit
and taught me to steer robotic mitts with my thoughts,

years later Bugg’s moustache grew into two queries,
as my mother grew older she stopped stomping

the floor like Trotsky, the amazing counting horse,
and so the circus ran away from her,

don’t ask how or I’ll tell you how and then…
I was there, her daughter, sipping sack, a witness,

Nana slapped a phony Fabergé egg
filling the kitchen with the smell of first snow.



Peter Jay Shippy is the author of Thieves Latin, winner of the 2002 Iowa Poetry Prize, Alphaville (BlazeVox, 2006), and How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic (Rose Metal Press, 2007). He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2005 he received a Gertrude Stein Award for innovative poetry. He teaches writing at Emerson College.

Jordan Rothschild hails from Philadelphia and is a graduate of Temple University. He is currently completing a M.A. degree in English. He enjoys exploring the rich cultural heritage of the City of Brotherly Love.

Kendra DeColo on Gender, Sexuality, and “Loving the Fuck Out of One Thing” in Thieves in the Afterlife

decoloYou do so much throughout Thieves in the Afterlife. For example, there are some poems that respond to the work of other poets and artists, and others that challenge commonly held beliefs about gender and sexuality. But in the midst of this intricate dialogue, you still manage to craft your poems expertly, layering unique images on top of each other and including intricate sound patterns throughout the collection. Where do you usually begin when writing a new poem–with an image or phrase, or with the underlying meaning or idea?
Right now, I’m reading the Best American Poetry series edited by Terrance Hayes, and he begins his introduction with the line, “What we end up making, whether it’s something we do by ourselves or with others, is always a form of conversation” (from Eugene Gloria’s “Liner Notes for Monk”). His whole essay/interview is incredible. I love the idea that poems are conversations—with our obsessions, shadow selves, the constant negotiation of trying to stay human/decent. My poems usually begin with trying to capture a mood or tone, the desire to embody a feeling, to speak back to what fills me with reverence, rage, or awe. I want to be in my body when I write, so I try to begin with the concrete and then hopefully elevate it through tension and dissonance. The poem is a way to hold the feeling: a vessel for keeping what I love and a prism to reflect complex and simultaneous experience.

Gender is especially important in this collection. Many of the poems throughout Thieves in the Afterlife take instances of female degradation and transform them into moments of empowerment (as in the first poem, “Anthem,” where the phrase “I Heart Pussy” carved into a bench becomes a declaration of praise instead of remaining crude graffiti). How did you become interested in writing about gender in your poetry?
I’ve been interested in writing/talking/making art about gender for as long as I can remember—maybe starting in middle school when it became clear that girls and boys were treated differently, and no one talked about it or seemed to care. Or when I was 20 and realized that the number of women I knew who’d been sexually assaulted couldn’t be counted on both hands. I have always wanted to write what feels urgent and relevant—gender is always there at the forefront of my experience, shaping the way that I see the world. In poems, I’m able to go to another space that I can’t access in daily life or in a Twitter feed—to complicate the experience of being this body and hopefully create space for others to see themselves and respond. My husband has this phrase —“You just have to care about one thing.” I think this is so true—that all you need for a full life is to love the fuck out of one thing and this will be enough to open your heart and help you connect to the world. An obsession/interest in gender is so woven into everything that moves me, and it drives me to create poems that make people feel alive in their bodies. For me, writing about gender is another way of celebrating the body and claiming the right to be who you are.

In addition to gender, you also write poems about female sexuality. Where many people might gloss over the “messier” or “more graphic” parts of this–like orgasms and clitorises and even pleasure, depending on who you ask–you don’t ever seem to shy away from these topics. Did you find it difficult to write about subjects that some people consider to be inappropriate or even taboo? Was censorship ever a problem, whether from yourself or others?
I feel lucky to have grown up in an open and accepting environment. Despite being from Massachusetts, I never had any ThievesCoverfinalreal shame or Puritanical baggage. I spent a lot of my childhood in Provincetown, Massachusetts where the expression of sexuality is out in the open and celebrated. When I was young, it was clear to me that there were so many ways to exhibit/perform/embody one’s sexuality, and it was a beautiful and liberating thing. So writing about sexuality never felt like a transgression or subversive act, but a natural expression of who I am and the way I am in the world. I want to say that at times, in my poems, the body/sexuality is just a medium, a context for writing about other themes. Why should writing about a clitoris be inappropriate or taboo? But then again, I know that the female body is also a battleground, and it would be naïve to think that writing about it—no matter what my intentions are—isn’t going to trigger or engage with other people’s hang-ups. And the truth is, I want to be provocative in the sense that if someone is uncomfortable with (or threatened by) vaginas or bodily fluids or female sexuality, I would like my poems to challenge them. I’m thinking about the Lars Von Trier movies, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and 2, which were criticized pretty heavily for trying to be “provocative.” The scenes are graphic and sometimes hard to watch, but ultimately it’s about a person owning and reckoning with her desires—completely on her own terms and excluding the male gaze… I guess that’s what I hope to do, to push against whatever tries to keep us feeling powerless, no matter what ideas or images I’m exploring.

One thing I really liked in this collection is how often you used other creative works as inspiration. For example, you titled one poem, After Watching The Misfits,” a few others draw on Rodney Dangerfield for material, and there are others still that use a line, style, or form from another author’s poem. Even though some of these references are a bit older, your poems still comment on present attitudes and current events; you weave the past and present together seamlessly in your work. In what ways do you see poetry as being essentially part of a larger dialogue with other artists, poets, and pop culture icons?
I love that as poets we’re always responding, pushing back, digesting, interrogating, collecting information and influences, and finding a new language for our themes. Pop culture feels especially charged and potent to write about because it is alive, performing and mirroring identity. Think of “Mr. T.” by Terrance Hayes, Marcus Wicker’s love letters, poems by Tim Seibles, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Michael Mlekoday and Sally Wen Mao. Going back to the idea about just needing to love one thing, I find that the most compelling poems are sincere in their infatuations, a way of paying tribute, no matter what they’re about. The hope is to take forms/genres and subvert expectations—to create dissonance, bringing together our obsessions and vocabularies, and articulate our jumbled, tumultuous daily lives through an equally rich and complicated mode of lyric and consciousness.



from Thieves in the Afterlife by Kendra DeColo

Let’s get wasted as avocados,
solemn and shapely
in their alligator skins, lucid, sweet-talking

lovers laid bare on rough blankets,
two-for-a-dollar magic
sacked and clutched

in a child’s alleyway
hand. Let’s get foamed, salty-eyed,
dismembered into smoothness,

gilded and glyphed
onto a retired stripper’s back, smoked
and spooled, shucked

to a mineral glow. Let’s get stupid. Opalescent.
God-complexioned. Viscera strangled
to a shimmer. Ghosted, vanquished,

sticky as hashish, lacquered and whispered
into the Guadalquivir’s ear. Let’s get squalid and romantic
in the squid-pink light

roughing up the tulips, then let’s stumble
down the throat of 3 a.m.
to the titty bar

where Magda will stroke our faces
before breaking our jaws
with those ungodly breasts

and we will cry out with a tenderness
that betrays our hunger, our voices
thatched onto a roof

that collapses under her weight,
twinkling like half-formed
hearts terrorizing

her vastness, green and wild as
another country. Bearable
music wincing between moans.


Kendra DeColo has taught creative writing in prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, and middle schools. She is the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and residency awards from the Millay Colony and the Virgina Center for Creative Arts. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she is founding poetry editor of Nashville Review and Book Review Editor at Muzzle Magazine.

Courtney Kuntz is a recent graduate of Eastern University and soon-to-be resident of Philadelphia. When not packing boxes, she writes poetry and fiction, both of which have appeared in Inklings.

Martha Silano on art, corporations, religion and the American Dream in Reckless Lovely

Martha-SilanoSome poems in your collection Reckless Lovely use scientific language with great lyrical power. Could you explain the relationship between poetry and science and perhaps, more generally, art and science?
Poetry and science go together for me because I grew up in a home with a scientist father and a literature/language-loving mother. One parent, my dad, was very passionate about helping us observe crystals, or showing us how to turn potato peels and cantaloupe rinds into “black gold.” Meanwhile, the other parent, my mom, was taking us to the library, sharing her excitement about a book called Hailstones and Halibut Bones, making us fall in love with language. The first poems I wrote were haiku about grasshoppers, caterpillars, and the like—I was always curious about critters and their doings. When I began reading poetry in high school, I enjoyed those of Whitman and Dickinson—especially the ones with grass and birds and snakes in them. For me, the best way to explain the relationship between art and science is to use Leonardo da Vinci. as a model. Here’s a man who invented the helicopter, calculator, and solar panel, along with positing the theory of plate tectonics, but is best known for painting The Mona Lisa. My parents embodied both forces; they taught me through example that anyone could be both a scientist and an artist – all you had to do was be passionate about what you loved.

The title of your collection comes from your poem therein: “The Untied States of America.” Does this fact give this poem a special significance within the collection?
Yes. America breaks my heart because it’s founded on admirable ideals—life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness—and yet my rational brain tells me that more often than not, nepotism, not meritocracy, determines economic success. Am I shocking anybody when I say that you need to have money, family money, in order to make money? And yet, our beautiful rags-to-riches lie serves as a beacon of hope around the globe. Also, America’s in the sack with her posse of corporations; she is always more than ready to irreparably deplete and blemish herself to keep Boise Cascade and Monsanto satisfied. The only way this makes sense is if corporations are more powerful than countries. It is a sobering thought, but why else would a country plow up native prairie to plant a crop that is inedible unless it passes through the belly of a cow or is chemically concocted into high fructose corn syrup? It’s nuts. Either that, or it’s reckless. Unchecked greed is reckless: the draining of wetlands to build golf courses and five-star resorts. The lovely part is two-fold: what remains pristine (the place the scythe misses), and also, let’s face it, the five-star resort. The title is purposely oxymoronic, a paradoxical conundrum: “I am large; I contain multitudes,” says America, as does this book. Religion is reckless and lovely too. How many have died in the name of a savior or a crusade, and yet aren’t those hand-carved wooden altarpieces from the Middle Ages gorgeous? Finally, in the effort to heat the homes of many, to run their blenders and dishwashers, we have nuclear power. Reckless or lovely? Hard to say…bumblebee  close-up

A group of poems in the collection—to name a few—“How to Read an Italian Renaissance Painting,” “Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows,” and “Leonardo Da Vinci’s Gran Cavallo” speak beautifully about art. Could you talk about some of the difficulties and pleasures of writing about art?
Writing about art is easy. All you have to do is walk around a museum until a piece of art demands your full attention. Once you’ve given it, take notes. What do you see? How do you feel? What was the artist’s intention? Mainly, it’s about lowering expectations, sharing what the art is saying to you. Most importantly, I steer clear of what critics have said about the artist or his/her art, concerning myself only with accurately describing how I see or feel it. I usually conduct research—that’s my favorite part about writing about works of art—but it’s not required. The only difficulty for me right now is I have very little time to visit art museums, and art museums are the best places to view/write about art. Revising is also tough—deciding what needs to be described more clearly, what can fall away, where and if the logic of the poem went south—but it’s pretty much the same process as with any poem.

In your poems you use very precise language as well as airy, other-worldy, poetic language. Could you talk about the tension between these two uses of language?
Sometimes an image needs to be precise and exact; sometimes what you’re going for is more suggestive, less obvious, or you want what you have to say to come out more like a whisper. I remember early on one of my teachers, Henry Carlile, told us about his teacher, Elizabeth Bishop, how she used to admonish them: Don’t underestimate your reader’s intelligence! He’d end by saying “your reader is smart; let him or her connect the dots; you don’t have to do that for them.” Maybe that’s why I smudge out exactness in places –I’m not exactly sure. When it came to revising, I always paid close attention to what my teachers said, often following their advice.

In Reckless Lovely you write about the religion of the old world such as in the poem “Saint Catherine of Siena” and religion in America explored in “Easter Drama” and “God in Utah.” Could you talk about the American religious experience—where it is and where it is going?
Oh, that’s a tall order! I was raised Methodist by two lapsed Catholics. There was plenty of New Testament in the weekly sermons at church, but also quite a bit of Old Testament at home. I was trying to come to grips with the unanswerables in this book—where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we headed? But also, do any of the organized religions provide satisfactory answers? I happened to visit two areas of the country—Utah and Arkansas—where Mormonism and Christianity are a bit more pronounced than up here on the left coast. I meant to include poems about Krishna and Buddha, but they never fully materialized. I don’t know where religion is going in America. If I attempted to come up with an answer, it would come off as narrow-minded, judgmental, clue-less. There are others—historians, journalists, wise sages—who are more suited to answer this question. My religious knowledge is very limited, but it does not seem to keep me from poking around where I shouldn’t be poking. I guess that’s one of the jobs of the poet.


Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows
from Reckless Lovely

Cult of the brow ascending like a condor,
of refusal to bow to the whimsy of busy tweezers.
From follicle to follicle, freedom unfurls.
Brow most buxom. Ferret brow.
Brow channeling Hieronymus Boschian shenanigans.
Brow championing Duchampian high jinx.
Brow side-skirting ye olde pot o wax.
Brow hobnobbing with Salvador Dali’s mustache.
Mink stole brow; brow I-stole-it-from-a-rodent.
Brow suggesting a profuse, gargantuan beard.
Circus-circuit brow.
Brow that never shook hands with laser.
Most inexplicable brow, most unpixelated.
Bad luck black kitten brow on the prowl.
Mercury in retrograde brow.
Brow undaunted by a John Deere tractor.
Brow the embodiment of national glory.
Brow the mystic mestiza, but brow also
weeping with dislodged fetus, with loss and forlornness.
Brow a come-hither furry viper.
Brow the little known Black Shag Slug.
Brow the unretractable bewhiskered tongue.
Brow the fleecy fluke, tufted cobra, downy leech.
Brow the dark secret of the fastidiously plucked,
that perpetual raised-brow surprise.
Brow surprising, but unsurprised.
Brow the prismatic lion in the wardrobe when you were expecting beige scarves.
Brow adding a bristly flourish to bright Tehuana dress.
Sing holy praises to the insistence of the brow.
Sit down and write a letter to the core beliefs of the brow.
Knit a sweater to the milagro-like votivity of the brow.
Conjure new words to praise the liftingness of brow.
Flamenco to the mural-worthiness of the brow.
Praise god for the untamability of the brow.
Brow most steadfast. Brow on endless loop,
brow most perennial, most acanthus.
Brow aching, yet soaring like an unruffled raven.
Unamputated brow.
Brown never renouncing its femininity.
Feminine brow donning its midnight suit.
Brow the corpse that proves the path to the next.
Brow never resting in peace.
Long live the flourish of the stalwart, seaward sooty gull in every self-portrait.
Long live the childlike exuberance of the feisty, the feral. Long live the monkeys
and parrots, perched beside the unwieldy, the emblematic.
Long live those wooly-bear wonders worthy of worship, like two black wings—
signature smudges left by the pig twirling on a spit.
todas las dias, todas las noches.


Martha Silano is the author of three previous collections including the winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize selected by Campbell McGrath, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books, 2010), Blue Positive (Steel the Books, 2006), and What the Truth Tastes Like (Nightshade, 1999). Her poems have appeared in over a dozen anthologies and The Best American Poetry 2009.

Jordan Rothschild hails from Philadelphia and is a graduate of Temple University. He is currently completing a M.A. degree in English. He enjoys exploring the rich cultural heritage of the City of Brotherly Love.