Category Archives: Poetry

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Insecurities in a Sentence or How I Became a Writer

by Eleanor Levine

When I was twelve years old, there was only one street, or “block,” as we called it, which separated our town, Lakewood, NJ, from our rival town, Jackson, NJ.

An insipid hatred existed between the neighborhoods. When you entered a backyard not part of your terrain, a nasty comment evolved into several fistfights. And we were all, equally, boys and girls, ready to pounce on one another.

One day, on May 11, 1975, before a dentist appointment, I witnessed my middle brother—we’ll call him Q—pummelled by a girl from Jackson. This was unprecedented. How could this ignoramus, I felt, from this “redneck” part of the planet, dare to touch my brother?

It was OK for me to hit him or people in my hood, but when the insurrectionists were next door, when they punched the well-educated, royal Lakewoodites, this was completely unacceptable. Thus, I grabbed the girl and punched her until, within seconds, her Abominable Snow Monster of the North sister, came strolling through the screen door, grabbed me by the hair, and swung me around. My hair was a veritable bird’s nest, which is what the dentist described it when the “twirl” by the “girl” was followed by his teeth cleaning.

How might this hair-wrenching journey, you ask, account for my evolution as a writer and the culmination of my recently published poetry book, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria (Unsolicited Press, Davis, California)?

Well, it is symbolic of the numerous humiliations I have suffered from having too much hubris.

For the longest time, I did not want to define “hubris.” I wanted to let it go unknown like some unfettered cloud. I wanted to circumvent any responsibility for pomposity.

The teenager who turned my hair into a bird bush, well, she was among the first to see me, a wild 12-year-old, act as if the world owed me something.

I still act as if the world owes me something, and then I am left on my own, without much of the world, and it’s just me and the computer.

I would like to have more lovers and friends, in theory, but after alienating much of the planet, it is the screen and Kindle (formerly the typewriter and paperback)—the only beings that tolerate my superciliousness.

Imagine if you will, the vision of a 12-year-old New Jersey byatch—moi—getting twirled for all the kids to laugh at, after I assault a lion’s cub. You do not injure a lion cub and hope to go unscathed to the dentist.

But of course, the deluded writer shall forever believe that all things and beings, including the meandering sushi chef who survived Hiroshima, are worth assaulting. This is why Kafka said it is better to release the toxins, if you are a writer, than to let them grow unattended in your garden of apprehension and despair. His exact quote was, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.

It has always been poetry that has allowed me to release the anger, hubris, obnoxiousness, insecurity and “toxins.” I would be a colossal nut, locked away in a mental institution, if it were not for Mr. Kafka’s advice and the notion that one must expel the brain waves and mood swings that harass and mortify us.

For more than 30 years, when I found myself alone, betwixt the world and the pen, I wrote poetry.

What you find, when you read Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, is the culmination of many misadventures in my brain, much joy and love and even some displeasure at being a Jewish lesbian on the frontiers of New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.

My poem, “Insecurities in a Sentence,” shows the distempered release of angst and apprehension:

I like my insecurities
they float around me
like goldfish crooning
or poets snapping like piranhas
in a Dewey Decimal System of juxtaposition
metaphors strung out on anxieties

The contaminants are caught and their terrain is the English language:

insecurity in a sentence
without a spinal tap of reality,
or a scissor tap dancing toward metaphors
the flux and influx in a flood in a bathtub
like a string in a tampon
or the boy on the platform with the muted sensibility
the playwright disdaining his ideas
or a cockroach taking ambidextrous steps toward his food
Allen Ginsberg snapping photos from his verses
Walt Whitman dancing naked on a tree stump
a stroke of light fanning its way to me at an opera

Words are energized with our thoughts and feelings as in the poem, “Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria,” which is also the book’s title:

My green texts were longer than your grays
You felt smothered like a senior citizen in a hand-knitted Terracotta afghan

Insanity, like hair, is not meant to be a bird’s nest, and is best transformed into poetry, if you happen to write that. It keeps us saner than if we were receiving a lashing from Jackson, NJ’s Abominable Snow Monster of the North or our own mind.

I hope you’ll read my new poetry book, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, which is available at Unsolicited Press or Amazon.


Eleanor Levine’s poetry collection, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, was recently released by Unsolicited Press (Davis, California). Her work has appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Fiction, The Denver Quarterly, Litro Magazine, IthacaLit, The Toronto Quarterly, The Kentucky Review, Fiction Southeast, The Evergreen Review, The Literateur and The Stockholm Review of LiteratureShe is currently a copy editor and lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with her dog Morgan.

Interview with Susan Lewis: Is it Poetry, Prose Poem, or Flash?

Susan Lewis lives in New York City and edits Posit. She is the author of How to be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), The Following Message (White Knuckle Press, 2013), At Times Your Lines (Argotist Ebooks, 2012), Some Assembly Required (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Commodity Fetishism, winner of the 2009 Červená Barva Press Chapbook Award, and Animal Husbandry (Finishing Line Press, 2008).
Gay Degani: I’ve read many of your poems – especially your prose poems – but before we get started with discussing that subject, I thought my first question should be more about you, for me and the readers to get to know you. Can you tell me a little more about what brought you to writing? I noticed from your extended biography that you went to law school. Being a lawyer means lots and lots of writing, did that play any part in your decision to turn to writing?

Susan Lewis: It’s true that law involves plenty of writing – and reading. That was probably why I thought I might be better suited to the field than I was! I’d been a bookworm since I was tiny: a bit sickly, I was always reading. I was also taken all over the world (school be damned!) by my parents, who were globe-trotting Hollywood producers – and spent a lot of time in planes, trains, cars, and hotel rooms – reading.

By the time I was a teenager I had powered through the canon. As for writing, when I was six or seven, I fell in love with a slim volume of poems by Basho, and started writing Haiku, Tanka, etc. I kept writing poetry, plays, and short stories until I went to college, where I studied – and therefore wrote – literature and film criticism. After which I wanted to be “relevant” and “engaged” in social justice – hence my foray into law. The fact is law taught me plenty about discipline and accuracy. But it was not a great fit. I’m no warrior – I’ve always loathed competition. And intellectually, I’m more intuitive than methodical, preferring insight to argumentation, implication to explication.

GD: What launched you from law to writing, the actual step between pragmatic practice to creative work? How did that evolve for you?

SL: Ah, well, like almost everything I’ve ever decided to “start,” I had no idea what I was getting into when I “tried” writing! After getting my BA in only three years, going straight through law school, and finishing a very demanding stint as a law clerk to a US District Court judge, I decided to nourish my soul by “taking a year off” to write. 

Well, that year turned into a few, during which I discovered, to my chagrin, that I had no desire to go back into law. For a while I wrote screenplays, but discovered that world wasn’t right for me either. So I decided to pursue an MFA in fiction, which is all I wrote for many years. Then I morphed (yet again!) into a poet, albeit one with a foot still in the narrative door. But the fact is I’ve never lost my pragmatic side: so alongside the writing, I taught for a few years, and then served as a fiction editor, poetry editor, guest editor, managing editor, and finally, founding editor of the journal I run now (Posit).

GD: Let’s talk about your work!! One of the reasons I wanted to have an opportunity to interview you is because you do have one foot wholly into poetry and the other foot straddling the rather unclear line between poetry and fiction, what some people would call “prose poetry.” I began thinking about this “unclear line” between the two when I read one of my stories at an event and received several compliments on my poem! It was narrative flash, but because it was read aloud, I suppose it was harder to tell.

When I met you earlier this year, you introduced yourself first as a poet, then laughed and said something about how your poems sometimes merge with fiction (not your exact words, my apologies). I wanted to know more. What about prose poems? Are there distinct features to each side of the line, prose v. poem? Does it matter what we call them?

SL: Gay, I love these questions. In fact, the prose poem is a form with a venerable history (dating back to Beaudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé), and so yes, I believe it is a term with meaning, and not a shallow or arbitrary label, which is not to say that many prose pieces might not reasonably reside in more than one category.

From Beaudelaire
First and foremost, it comes down to the author’s intention/understanding – in which tradition she would like her work to be situated. But it’s also a question of the publisher’s understanding. For instance, although I tend to consider most of my short prose pieces poems, I have had a number of them published “across the aisle,” as flash fiction! And that’s fine with me – I’m not rigid about the label. But I do think there are ramifications.

For instance, in the readership. As we both know, fiction and poetry readers are pretty distinct populations, with very little overlap. (As are, to a significant extent, their publishers). Naturally, they’ll view the work from quite different frames of reference. This also speaks to how the author wants her work approached – which of its features she’s hoping readers will engage.

For myself, I’ve written most, but not all, of my short prose pieces in the belief that I was writing poetry – without necessarily knowing, during the composition process, whether they would end up lineated or in blocks. I also considered them poetry partly because I was inspired by, and responding to, the work of writers generally considered “poets.” In addition, I envisioned poetry readers as their “target audience.” On the other hand, for years I wrote short stories, even very short “flash” pieces, which were informed by a consciousness of, and admiration for, an entirely different literary corpus. (As were my intended readers).

As for what makes fiction “fiction,” and what makes poetry “poetry” – any generalization can be shattered by the right counterexample. Nonetheless, casting a piece as a work of fiction invites comparison to literature that tends to emphasize character, description, dramatic arc, etc. Poetry, on the other hand, is presumed (or permitted) to be more about form or language itself, with a more primary focus on rhythm, texture, music, argument, etc. But we don’t have to look at prose poetry to see the lines blur; consider, on the one hand, Beckett’s fiction (or even Joyce’s); and narrative poetry on the other (Dante, Milton, Browning, Tennyson, etc.)

GD: I love learning about this. To introduce readers to your work, I selected one I particularly like that was published in the Brooklyn Rail earlier this year. What draws me to this work is the wordplay throughout, the way so many words and phrases echo each other. For example,

From: “Say What You Want”

Reach across this bloody chamber floor, clamor with comrades clambering for pale rays grasped like straws, gasped & ghostly. Sipping light like salamanders, cave-bound.

“Chamber,” “clamor,” and “comrades clambering” as well as “grasped” and “gasped” and “light” “like.” Is this what’s called an internal rhyming scheme? I’ve read poems here and there over the years, but haven’t studied them since college so the terminology is not part of my personal lexicon. 

Can you talk a little bit about the four pieces published under the heading from State of the Union

Readers of this interview can find them here: Brooklyn Rail/Susan Lewis

SL: I’m glad you like those pieces! I’m not sure I’d use the word “scheme,” but what you are identifying are indeed internal rhymes (as well as other poetic devices, such as alliteration and assonance). Since these are prose poems, as opposed to lineated verse, there are no line or stanzaic, breaks – so in a sense, every prosodic device is “internal.”

Those pieces are from my most recent chapbook, State of the Union, a group of twenty-five prose poems struggling, more and less playfully, as well as more and less abstractly, with the question of union – on the personal as well as social scale. I’m interested in the energy and provocation generated by wrestling to unite, or at least encompass, oppositions.

It strikes me as a quixotic struggle parallel to our struggle as humans, which I think is both imperative and impossible, to “only connect,” as Forster so succinctly admonished. Just consider the irony of that word, “only!” In a sense I’m just reaching for the artistry of Forster’s epigraph – using compression to encompass sincerity and irony, darkness and light, bleakness and humor.  

That little book has been fortunate to receive several generous reviews, but one that particularly moved me was by Moira Richards in a June issue of the Cape Times, treating my poems as relevant to the struggle for unity and dialogue in South Africa!

GD: You really know your stuff. What advice would you give a writer who finds herself (or himself) trying to decide which way to write a piece, as poetry or prose? In other words, if they feel they need to decide because they’re buried in a muddle of words they like, what criteria would you have them use?

SL: First, I’d think about which kind of reader I was wishing for. Then, I’d try writing it one way and if it flowed, I’d take that as a good sign. If the process stalled, or seemed to be stultified by the task of fitting into that particular form, I’d try changing it up, and see what happens. I believe in letting go and listening – in letting the piece you’re writing tell you what it wants to be – which can sometimes be surprisingly far from our original intentions.

GD: And my last question, could you please name your inspirations in life and in writing?

SL: Wow! The first thing I need to do is add the words “some of” before “your!” Writers who have inspired me include, but are definitely not limited to: Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Russell Edson, Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, John Ashbery, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Yasunari Kawabata, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee…not to mention the extraordinary writers I continue to discover almost every day.

In line with my fondness for duality, I’m inspired by two radically dissimilar groups of people in my life. There are those with the spirit to endure and even thrive, despite the often harsh challenges life throws at them. Others decline the refuge of optimistic delusion, and brave the pain caused by facing reality head-on. Their common denominator is courage, which inspires me in every shape and size.

New from Susan Lewis:

This Visit
BlazeVOX [books]
Paperback: 104 pages
ISBN: 978-60964-169-6
cover art by Michael Janis

An elegy to this visit of the living to our own existence, This Visit is a pastiche of lyrical dissonances assembled from intimate voices yearning for connection. The world of these poems is constantly struggling to take form, like Michelangelo’s slaves emerging from the half-hewn stone, or Duchamp’s nude descending a multitude of linguistic staircases by way of half-lines, half-steps, snatches of overheard lines, and the primordial rhythms and rhymes ingrained in our bones.