Carolyn Hembree’s debut collection terrifies.
The title character of Skinny leaves the South and a beloved, dying matriarch for New York City, a “far-off island dream.” Through an expansive dramatis personae, the poems offer polyphonic responses to harrowing encounters. Here is a life at once immediate and recognizable yet imbued with nostalgia: silent film intertitles, biplane transmissions, the broken Welsh of ancestors. This collection incorporates ekphrastic works, prose poems, dramatic monologues, odes, elegies, a pastoral, and a word problem, among other free verse experiments. Despite familiar allusions and forms, the work is otherworldly—regionalisms of the Deep South combine with the idiolect of a very particular family to form a singular grammar as fractured as the landscape it describes.
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"the voice is from elsewhere thrown"
$14, 6"x 9", 72 pgs, perfect bound
Still of Mamie and Bird
Who’s turned the chairs to the wall in the front room,
dreamy wall nightly dreamt up by the floor lamp?
Who’s heard the whistling Bird whistle thrice?
Mamie supine in the back room—L’Air du Temps
and cherry wood, her slender carved bedposts and bed doll.
Close, the Bird whispers out—
Who wrung the necks of your hopes, Skinny?
Bird loose—wire cage turned to sand flying away,
Bird into baby grand fly, into wall, into shadow fly.
Bird in a beach towel dies like fruit dies—softer.
Orange breast feather—Red breast feather
. . .
Chair full of holes in the shower holds her body up,
a chair water runs through like memory and is lost.
Stand in her mirror, turn it right side out
then step into your grieving like a shift, Skinny.
The way lightning flashes inside a bright day—
the way a mother’s ills take stronger in the child.
"I am reminded of a ball of heat lightning that shot through our house one summer when I was young. That charge stayed in the air and made us feel like we had snapped suddenly awake. Skinny wakes us with that blue coil, “fast under a low ceiling," shooting from sideboard to curtain rod to screendoor in one brilliant flash, electrifying everything. It sounds like bottle-rockets are going off, and I feel the thrill and terror of living inside each explosive line."—D.A. Powell
"Carolyn Hembree rips into language almost physically to make new phrasing out of her Southern lexicon. Skinny, an autobiographical tour de force, arrives full of swagger: In this debut volume of poems, Hembree gets as close to the original words for things as I can remember anyone doing in a long time."-—Jane Miller
"Hembree’s poetics and Skinny'shonesty direct us to language in the raw, a space integral to the human experience and to poetry in large, a museum antechamber of the self where one is in incessant, powerful dialogue with the world around us, the world that has been, and the world that could be. Like Twombly’s scribbles and smears, Skinny challenges the observer, ultimately having the effect that challenging art has: the expansion of art, language, and the self." -—Megan Bell, Pebble Lake Review.
For the full review from Megan Bell, click here.
Interview with author Carolyn Hembree on winning the 2015 Trio Award for her second book Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague.
What was your initial response to winning the 2015 Trio Award?
Well, a friend and I had taken a day trip to a strip of beach in Waveland, Mississippi. When I spoke with the Trio House editor, I was on the strand screaming, YES YES YES, and my friend was in the surf smiling a beautiful smile and saying, yes yes yes.
Can you tell us a little bit about Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague?
Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague is a series of poems arranged like a truck owner’s manual. It takes place in Appalachia, my birthplace and the stomping grounds of my relations since pre-Revolutionary times, and responds to some of Stephen Hawking's questions about the nature of time. It's utterly weird. And sincere.
Do you think this book falls under the hick poetics category? Can you talk a bit about that (what is hick poetics, for those who aren't familiar with the anthology, and where does your poetics fall along the "hick" spectrum?
Considering the incredible poets in the Lost Roads anthology Hick Poetics—Berssenbrugge, Herrera, Powell, and Wier among them—I’m honored that my poems, at least to editors Abraham Smith and Shelly Taylor, fall under this category. As stated on the Lost Roads website, the anthology explores “the liminal, the rural, the great American wilds.” Certainly, my second collection’s setting, rural Appalachia, satisfies this definition. As for subject matter, the personal questions that compelled me to write Rigging – metaphysical and spiritual ones – led me to the hills I came from; traveling and researching the region led me to more questions about physics, genetics, my body, gender. Such is the recursive character of creative process.
How does it relate to Skinny (if at all)?
Oh, it totally relates. Both are book-length projects (and I wanted to be a lyric poet, I did). Domestic spaces and the urban South dominate Skinny, whereas Rigging takes place in rural Appalachia. In the process of making Skinny, a coming of age story, the voices, characters, and subverted narratives emerged from my experiences and memories, whereas Rigging draws as much from within as from sources outside of myself. Still, my obsessions and terrors remain: gender, animals, psychosis, disease, biblical stuff, family relationships, cultural identity, violence.
What does having a second book out, and winning this award, mean for your career as a writer and educator?
I'm honored and shocked that the manuscript won two awards in a matter of days — the Trio Award, selected by Neil Shepard, and Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Prize, selected by Stephanie Strickland — and will be published by Trio House Press in the spring of 2016. Both were chosen blind from slush piles. I've learned from friends and experienced first hand that the first book doesn’t usually serve as a passport for book two. As a mentor to MFA students and budding undergraduate poets, I hope that students will see that my success resulted from a tenacious, rock-ribbed attitude toward submitting; this manuscript was revised and submitted numerous times before being selected for publication. Inside the classroom and the program – I proudly teach at the University of New Orleans — we primarily discuss craft, theory, and process. I believe that's appropriate; first and foremost, we have to nurture the artist. However, the success of our teachers makes us proud and hopeful.
Will there be an award ceremony?
Yes, Trio House will host a reading at the 2016 AWP conference. I'll read with the 2015 Trio Award judge, Neil Shepard, Stephen Cramer whose manuscript Bone Music won the 2015 Louise Bogan Award, and the 2015 Louise Bogan Award judge, Kimiko Hahn.
What's next for you?
Well, I'm immersed in my current writing (individual poems and a longer project). For the past year or so, I've been researching a couple of new territories and making notes for a third book.
Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plaguewill be published by Trio House Press in 2016.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carolyn Hembree’s poems have appeared in Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, jubilat, and Witness, among other journals and anthologies. Her poetry has received three Pushcart Prize nominations, a PEN Writers Grant, a Southern Arts Federation Grant, and a Louisiana Division of the Arts Fellowship Award in Literature. Before completing her MFA, she found employment as a cashier, house cleaner, cosmetics consultant, telecommunicator, actor, receptionist, paralegal, coder, and freelance writer. Carolyn grew up in Tennessee and Alabama. She teaches at the University of New Orleans.
For more information, visit the author's website at carolynhembree.com.