Poets at the Mic with James Morehead, Jessica Sabo, and Rachel Abramowitz

SAN FRANCISCO, CA–We’re excited to share the next Viewless Wings Live event recorded with poets James Morehead (Poet Laureate – Dublin, CA and author of “canvas” and “portraits of red and gray”), Jessica Sabo (poet and author of “A Body of Impulse”), and Rachel Abramowitz (poet and author of “The Birthday of the Dead”). The event, available now on YouTube and the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, featured a unique format: three poets, reading three poems, and after each performance a discussion of the poem. A round robin of readings and discussion.

Below is an edited excerpt, highlighting one of the three poems shared by each poet. The full event is available on YouTube and the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Poets at the Mic with James Morehead, Jessica Sabo, & Rachel Abramowitz Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast

James Morehead: “We have a cool event planned today. We’re going to do a round robin of poetry and unlike other readings, we’re going to talk about each other’s poems, one by one. You’re going to get to hear a poem and really focus on it, and then we’ll talk about the poem. I’m going to start with a poem from my debut book “canvas”. The cover art is by the incredible Kari Byron. You may know her from Mythbusters, she also creates incredible black powder art and cool sculptures. This poem was inspired in part by one of her sculptures.”

carved
by James Morehead (from his book "canvas")

1

the sculptor prepares her tools
a discarded dentist probe for subtle detail
a twisted rake and wire brush to drape skin 

stepping back
she searches inside the polymer clay block
for figures hidden awaiting release

she starts by sculpting with her fingers
digging smoothing molding the clay
until features emerge

one tool then another
shaping carving blending occasionally placing slabs of clay
to form curled hair or add a flowing skirt

the sculptor's world collapses inward city cacophony muted
just fingers tools clay working
until in time there is nothing left to carve

2

the poet prepares his tools
a blank page for letters syllables words phrases
a puzzle to untangle finding order and place

stepping back he stares at the empty page
searching memories for images
to transform into well-ordered lines

he starts with random words
pleasing sounds rhymes and throwaway couplets
to be worked and reworked

words become phrases become stanzas
whispered aloud to test their resonance set aside to revisit later
discarded when impossible to mold

the poet searches for perfection
pacing the floor perplexed
until with a final pen stroke the poem appears

3

the sculptor’s work set on a shelf
the poet’s page slipped in a book
visions carved in clay and words
buried deep unseen unheard
Kari Byron’s sculpture that inspired “carved” (photo credit: Kari Byron)

Rachel Abramowitz: “This poem sets up sculpture as a removal of all excess and what’s not the sculpture. Right way you think ‘Michelangelo’. He said that he’s releasing the shape from the block of granite, or marble, and then the poet is accumulating material into the poem. Where do you place yourself? I know that you are a poet, obviously. I assume that you are ‘accumulating’ but do you also feel like a sculptor?” 

James: “First of all I was inspired by Kari’s macabre sculpture [note: included in “canvas”] and then I was just intrigued by the process of sculpting. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos on how sculptors work, their technique, and I was really fascinated by it. I thought about the parallels with poetry. Poetry is about displacing silence on the page. Billy Collins, who I saw. recently talked about how a poem displaces silence, that white space. A sculptor is discovering something that’s already there, and they’re just taking away the clay or the stone that isn’t necessary. I thought there was some parallels with poetry, so that’s where I had fun, trying to find those parallels between the two forms. The two sections of the poem have exactly the same number of lines, not quite the same number of syllables, but as much as possible completely symmetrical.”

Jessica Sabo: “Marvelous. I love this poem James and I wanted to ask about the three different sections. I love how it shows the process of sculpting, but I wanted to know more about what your process was in writing this poem.”

James: “Like a lot of my poems, it started with writing down images. I love creating ekphrastic poems and it started as that, but then it has to be more than just a cool description. I usually don’t know what the heck a poem will be about and I just start writing images. The epiphany was the parallel with writing poetry and that’s what this poem is about. I re-wrote the third short section, I don’t know, about a hundred times. I tried to wrap it up without doing so too tightly. I thought of so many pieces of art and poetry that are never seen. They’re put a shelf, they’re tucked away, created but rarely seen, and I thought that maybe that’s a way to finish it.

“I really had fun with the first section. I know a lot about poetry, but I knew nothing about sculpting. So I did a lot of research, the words, the techniques, and then tried to find parallels and that was a really fun challenge.”

21 
by Jessica Sabo
 
This fruit salad is the first / thing I’ve eaten in three days /  
Somewhere along the way / I forgot how to swallow / 
There are extra napkins in / all my pockets like I have a / 
compulsion for clean things / I am a black hole stomach / 
and glass jar heart and there / is never enough that can fill / 
one or the other up and / things seep out as if they were 
made that way / This day is supposed to be a / lot of things  
except a reminder / of everything I could have been / I  
chopped off my hair last week / added another piercing  
inside my mouth / and Dad’s right when he says / “you’ve  
lost too much weight” / and I think how easy it will be to  
climb into the shadows / to stop up all the holes / and lose  
myself in what remains.

James: “Your poetry is so powerful. There are so many people out there who have had similar experiences, and they feel like they’re alone. Is part of what you wanted to capture where you were, and then that where you are now, and the hope that’s embedded in that journey?”

Jessica: “Definitely. This poem, while unpublished, is part of a larger full-length collection that I’m currently working on. I really wanted to show what it was like being in the depths of my mental illness. I wrote this poem as a short memoir of my 21st birthday. To someone battling with mental illness, in my case anorexia and bulimia, birthdays were mile markers for survival, where I reflected on all the moments that had nearly taken my life since the last birthday.

“This poem, while it shows what was going on in the depths of my mental illness, there are parts of it where I wanted to show that there is self-reflection even in the darkest parts of the human experience. I was trying to convey with this poem that there really is hope.” 

Rachel: “I’d love to know about your influences, poetic or artistic or other influences, for the confessional or narrative style.”

Jessica: “There’s one person in particular, who has encouraged me to find my authentic voice and that’s my wife, Shannon. I’ve been a writer for a long time and when I met her 14 years ago I was in just a really dark place in my life, with my mental illness. She really challenged me to find the value in myself and to use the dark experiences that I’ve been through to not only help myself, but to help others. The most significant person in my life, who’s really inspired me to write, not only confessional, but also authentically, is her.”

James: “What is it like digging into those memories? Is it therapeutic? Is it triggering and traumatic in a way? Or is it a combination of both?”

Jessica: “It’s a combination of both. When I wrote this poem, I had a very different idea of what this poem was going to look like, because the memory of my 21st birthday is ingrained in my mind, for multiple reasons. Writing the poem was triggering, but also really empowering because I was taking this really dark memory, about a day that should have been flagged with joy and hope for the future was instead weighted by my illness. I remember being present for others that day who celebrated my life and accomplishments, but I wasn’t present myself, which was a common theme in my life.

“I found that by writing with the purpose of communicating that common theme I not only was able to address those memories, but also come out of it feeling stronger. It was both triggering and empowering.” 

Each Meal Here Was Once Alive
by Rachel Abramowitz
 
I hold my head on its column of clay                beads still

              as a ruined field. I trick the dumb

                 dove down       from the branch she stresses
 
  even in her hollowness. In this garden,
                ants the size of dinner plates from a distance.
 
  Each meal here was once
                                 alive, you say,
 
  and press your ear to the tomato vine
 
                             to count its rounded    heartbeats. I envy

               the penmanship of sweet peas, the vigilance

  of rosemary, cabbage leaves       marked like astral
 
                               maps by moths. Figs swell and split— a 

                                            cicada shedding its skeleton.

  When you hold one out to me
 
                               I drive my thumb into its seeded throat.

“Each Meal Here was Once Alive” was originally published in The Greensboro Review and in Rachel’s book “The Birthday of the Dead“.

James: “My first question is about the visual form of the poem. It’s a stagger-step of phrases and words. How did you approach the visualization of this poem?”

Rachel: “Form has always been difficult and so using the page in a particular way is a conscious choice. I start writing, not quite in prose, but in more of a traditional tight column, and then let the poem breathe a little bit, and seeing where the poem wants to land on the page. I enjoyed how it mimics the observation process, you see one thing and maybe focus on it for a moment or two, and then there’s a skip, and maybe in that skip is another memory. A non-linearity of observation. In those white spaces and moments of incremental change are those little moments that either we notice or miss. It depends on where you are in that moment. Form is always something I need to consciously approach.”

Jessica: “I love this poem. Rachel, the ending is so powerful. What inspired you to write this poem?”

Rachel: “Looking at nature which can be beautiful. When you first look at flowers, they are blooming, and fruits are burgeoning, and then you look a little closer and it can be horrific, there’s a lot going on that can be very frightening. Decay and things eating each other. You are seeing incredible beauty, and the horror behind it. And we participate in that horror, as parts of nature, inflicting our will upon nature and having nature inflicted will upon us. I think that moment of duality of beauty and danger, terror and ugliness is very interesting to me.”

James: “You have a macabre element to your poetry but it’s not dark and depressing. What triggered your fascination to see things in that way?”

Rachel: “I’ve worked so hard in my life to make things good and easy and beautiful because I think human beings want to move toward pleasure, as opposed to pain. You think you’ve found certainty and control and pleasure, and it’s an illusion. I think that always being aware that, even in moments of great joy, that can be pure, that it is only momentary. It’s only temporary, and that makes it more joyful. I love the darkness, I love those images and how they make life more interesting.”

You can watch (or hear) James, Jessica, and Rachel read and discuss more of their poetry on the full episode of Poets at the Mic on YouTube or the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Both Jessica and Rachel were also interviewed on earlier episodes of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast:

About the poets

James Morehead is Poet Laureate of Dublin, California, author of canvas and portraits of red and gray, and he hosts the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. James’ poem tethered was transformed into an award-winning hand drawn animated short film, gallery was set to music for baritone and piano, and his poems have appeared in Beyond Words Magazine, Wingless Dreamer, Prometheus Dreaming and Prompt Press.

Rachel Abramowitz is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Oxford. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Wave Composition, an intern at the Paris Review, a stock analyst (for three months), and has taught English Literature at The University of Iowa, the University of Oxford, and most recently at Barnard College in New York. She is the author of The Birthday of the Dead, the winner of the 2021 Marystina Santiestevan prize from Conduit Press, the chapbooks The Puzzle Monster, winner of the 2021 Tomaz Salamun prize (forthcoming from Factory Hollow Press in 2022), and Gut Lust, the winner of the 2019 Burnside Review prize (Burnside Review Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in numerous prestigious journals. Rachel is currently based in Brooklyn.

Jessica Sabo is a former classical ballet dancer and writer whose work focuses on the intersection between eating disorders, trauma, and sexuality. Her poems and essays have appeared in publications by 805 Lit + Art, Inklette Magazine, and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, among others. Her work has been anthologized with ChannelMarker Literary Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Damaged Goods Press, and is forthcoming with Quillkeepers Press. Jessica was selected as a finalist for the Adelaide Literary Award in Poetry in 2020 and is also the author of a chapbook, A Body of Impulse, (dancing girl press & studio, 2021). A west-coast transplant and Virginian at heart, she currently lives in southern Nevada with her wife and two rescue dogs, one of which has wings.

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