When my good friend, Pam Yenser told me her poetry collection would be published earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to savor it. You see, I have missed working with Pam ever since I moved from Albuquerque to Charleston eight years ago. Missed hearing about her projects, missed reading her latest poem drafts, and equally missed telling her about my own work. Of course I had to interview her for Zingara Poetry Review, which you will find below immediately following a poem expert from her book, Close Encounters Down Home.
Our Lives Were Like Firefly Light
Our lives were like firefly light
Caught in a jar, we lit up the night.
How did our collectors punish us?
Did Mother bruise us with brushes?
Did Father grow closer by inches?
Had he grown too big for his britches?
Was he mad enough to break into
her closet and remove each left shoe?
The lawyers said she had dementia.
Who was crazier was the question!
Leave, my darlings, that long-ago life
where Father knocked with a kitchen knife
at your side door. Shake off that old shoe-
stealing monster. I never left you
alone to remember. Now you’re free
of Mary and the Frankenstein she
married. Look! I have razor blades sewn
into the hem of every poem.
from Close Encounters Down Home, Finishing Line Press, February 2021
Tell us a little about the genesis of your book, including your writing process.
I love your reference to the “genesis” of my book! It’s an apt metaphor for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS Down Home. Although there was no single moment when I decided to write about my father’s fixation with the Roswell, New Mexico, flying saucer incident or how it affected me, I can tell you that it showed up among many poems with vivid and often distressing moments from childhood—some with recurring images and motifs I had not yet connected to the rest of my poetry collection. One day, I envisioned that story stretching from childhood and coming of age into a well-organized adult poem of perception. Once I focused on paring down to a thirty-page narrative, one memory begat another, telling the poet-speaker’s “true” story as honestly and openly as possible.
The poetry writing process is an intricate exercise, isn’t it? There are the poems (part memory and part memoir) and then there is the plot (part chronology and part time travel). For the memoir aspect of my poems and creative nonfiction, I dig through biographical memorabilia: family photos, letters, hospital records, email reports, calendars, event notes, cute kid memorabilia, pre-Covid travel guides, and whatever is in the eight storage boxes bearing down on my bedroom wall. For allusions to historic events like the Roswell saucer crash, I collect contemporaneous accounts in books and magazines. It’s hard to keep up. My book was published two months before The New Yorker broke several stories in its May 2021 issue, revealing the highly anticipated opening of top-secret military reports on extra-terrestrial sightings—including the Roswell saucer incident.
The poet-speaker’s story begins in Roswell, where flying saucer mania attracts her father, who straps her in and flies her down through the clouds and over the wreckage. “Cloud angels!” she remembers. “It looks like a broken kite!” The “red rocks and glitter” I wrote about years ago showed up in a photo released recently by the U.S. Army. Worried my book of poems would get lost among the hundreds of books titled “Close Encounters of the First Kind,” or the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth kind, for that matter, I added “Down Home” as a subtitle. There are several homes of memory in the book, and all include a fox of a father, a religion-possessed mother, a brother L.A. doctors called your little retarded brother,” two younger sisters, and their little brother.
While grouping poems that emphasize time and space travel, I formatted “Memory’s Gate” and “Snow Angel” to travel typographically forwards and backwards on the page, like a windshear, creating a cyclone of words on the page. “The End of TV,” in the shape of a tornado a few pages before, confirms the news, “It’s coming.” Most of the poems are separate memories, but the book’s final poem “Damn, il pleut is a summation in rhymed couplets. It is also an illustration of the time and place displacements the speaker in the poem experiences. I was sitting in a recliner, a legal pad in my lap, when I had the notion to recount the father-daughter relationship from beginning to end. That poem submitted the next day—on the final day to enter—won the annual Ithaca Lit poetry contest. Thank you, judges…and Ms. poetry muse.
Now, about the mechanics of the writing process, or should I say, the consequences of the writing process? The machinery of publishing…the publishing part.
Like most everyone these days, I use Submittable to access challenges, and contest deadlines. It is nothing like the old days, when I mailed off a manila envelope containing a few poems and a stamped return envelope. I used to dread return of my poems—not only because of the usual rejection slip, but also because the pages themselves might be handled by many, mis-folded, or missing—which meant those printouts couldn’t be recycled for the next submission…but then, return envelopes might also contain encouraging notes. I remember an acceptance I received from esteemed Shenandoah Editor R.T. Smith, who wrote to me in a formal letter of acceptance that he had “at last received a sestina that worked.”
How did your book come to be published?
How, indeed! I was mentored into the process of publishing. I remember one night meeting the brilliant poet Hilda Raz, former Editor at Prairie Schooner, that widely respected journal at the University of Nebraska. Hilda had moved to Albuquerque about the time I did, when she became Editor at the University of New Mexico Press. I had long ago submitted poems to her, but we didn’t know each other. Fortunately, we all met through a college friend of poet and critic Stephen Yenser. She had read that my husband, Jon Kelly Yenser, and I were giving a reading, and she invited Hilda. Kelly had recently published chapbooks through Kattywompus Press—a wonderful experience, and that reading led to Hilda’s acceptance of Kelly’s collected poems at the University of New Mexico Press…and a mighty motivation for me.
When Hilda Raz, a wonderful listener and ever an advocate for poets, realized how often I read my broadly published poems, she looked at Kelly and said to me, “Why don’t you have a book of poems? Every poet I know has one.” My excuses were inadequate: grading papers, managing home and garden, balancing a career and two kids. I had submitted my book-length manuscript only a handful of times. Hilda’s question was to the point, and soon enough she had me focused on submitting poems and collecting prizes: the first Bosque Poetry Prize for a quartet of poems on James Merrill, the Ithaca Lit Prize for the concluding seven-part poem of the chapbook “Damn, Il Pleut,” and a plaque I treasure from Leslie McGrath, judge at the W.B. Yeats Society of New York, in recognition of my epistolary verse “Dear Mary Shelley, Regarding Monsters.” At that point, Hilda gifted me a workshop and suggested I sign up for the annual Colrain Intensive Poetry Manuscript Conference. With additional encouragement from Four Way Books Founding Editor Martha Rhodes and also from Translator/Editor Ellen Watson, who had helped select some of my poems previously for the Massachusetts Review, I buckled down to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, finishing it in March of 2020 and submitting the manuscript immediately to a Finishing Line Press chapbook contest. I didn’t “win,” and yet I did: I was a finalist, and Editor Leah Maines invited me to publish at her press. By that time, twelve of twenty-two poems in my manuscript were published in serious journals. I am delighted with the book. Finishing Line Press is a first-class operation which not only makes handsome books but has a well-developed marketing plan and distribution network—necessary elements for a successful publication.
Can you discuss how you determine when to use formal elements in your poetry?
I have never shied away from traditional or experimental forms; in fact, I tend to rhyme like hell when writing poems of witness. I was a formalist from kindergarten, thanks to a book of nursery rhymes my Grandmother sent. I stapled books of my rhyming poems for my teachers throughout grade and middle school; however, I didn’t know any other way to write until my Wichita High School teacher Lee Streiff, a beat poet who wrote flying saucer fiction, sent me to the library during class to read books by the imagists and early Beats. At Wichita State University, I fell in love with Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” and bought Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms for practice. I learned formalism at WSU by example: John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and James Merrill—poets whose rhyme and line breaks are meticulous and witty, and I was drawn to Sylvia Plath’s syllabic lines. I began to use syllabics in poems of mine that otherwise don’t appear to be formal; but it is the energy of rhyming couplets that drives my final chapbook poem to its logical conclusion.
What are some overarching themes or motifs in your collection and how do you explore them?
As I gathered my “memory poems” into a book, I used a flying motif in conjunction with time travel and family history. I meant to make a narrative out of memoir and motif, starting with the Roswell crash. But memory knows no chronology: sequence and consequence are distorted. Poems likewise move back and forth between the actual and the imagined—as does our understanding of interplanetary space travel! While arranging the order of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS poems, I seized the chance to emphasize time and space travel by placing poems that travel typographically forwards and backwards on the page midway in the book. In “Memory’s Gate,” the adult poet-speaker is pulling rotten fenceposts at her home in Idaho, when she remembers a neighbor and her father discussing flying saucers over a picket fence while her father casually reaches up her skirt as she walks along the top rail. In “Snow Angels,” I forward my truth, then reverse the direction of 9-9-9-3-foot syllabic lines to speak of the past. Here is a small excerpt illustrating the turn:
It is our father who harries us
along that old game of Fox and Geese,
our spokes creating an enormous
sign of peace
until we are chased until all fall down
to make hourglass waves of skinny arms
and spraddled legs becoming frigid
…then and there in a dormitory
meant for students in a Midwest mining town
where the military marriage
of a nurse
and her captain came undone and I
vanished inside—becoming nothing
more than desire in her lover’s eyes
for a girl.
I should note how beautifully the overarching metaphor of flight is depicted in the painting on the cover of the book: blue skies, the exposed woman turning her back on a column of naked children, all those figures focused on the challenge and perils of flight…or escape. The artist who painted that triptych is a lifelong friend and former colleague who is familiar with my story—one that has versions in other lives; and so, in the opening, I invite my readers to come onboard through a literary device—the apostrophe:
You’re in that saucer
spinning out over Roswell
on edge like a dime….
Sylvia Plath seems like an important figure for you. Can you talk more about that?
Ah, yes, but of course. Sylvia Plath reminded me of my own situation, right down to the moment I felt so trapped in my parents’ little brick house that I thought “If the wolf isn’t caught I will walk down to the nearby creek and drown myself. Mercifully, I could not figure out how to do that in water so shallow. Like Plath, I eventually told my father, in so many words, “we’re through.” I was a college student when I read Plath and started writing “Confessional” poems. I read Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. His students included Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. That was the heart of the movement. Though we both had “Daddy” poems, Plath’s efforts at suicide were unfortunately more focused than mine. For others who suffer closed doors and intimate inuendo, it takes time to react—it’s difficult to process what has just happened.
“Zipper Trip,” my first confessional poem, was under consideration for a prize at Massachusetts Review when I withdrew it from the competition to protect my family from publicity that would have attracted and enraged my father. That poem, taught later in Women’s Studies classes and listed in literary indexes, drew responses from male as well as female readers who found themselves in a similar situation. I was driven from that point to read the many isolated, multilingual, and multi-gendered poets who speak out against repression. I sometimes try on their exact form and write my way within the shape of their argument—now called a “hermit crab” device. An example of a hermit crab poem in my chapbook is the opening “Like Emily, They Shut me up in Prose,” a 12-line Rondeau Prime form I closely follow. I even make myself at home in Dickinson’s title, which comes from the first line of her poem (the work of her editor, because she simply numbered poems and didn’t use titles.) Like a naked crab on the beach, I crawled inside her poem, making myself safe at home. Within her protective shell, am I the poet, poet-speaker, or a vulnerable creature hiding on a hot beach? I begin this book like a hermit crab, at home wherever I am safe from predation.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m completing a full-length manuscript with the working title of “Transported Here.” I am obviously not done with time and space travel—nor with shaped and formal poems. My Roswell experience begins that collection, including a section on the family that, as a reviewer put it, “does not travel well together” as they drive across the country on iconic Route 66. Continuing my interest in the unstable dynamics of memoir and memory, my collected poems recall campus protests of the 1970’s, during the run-up to Vietnam War and its interruption to our studies and our lives. I also write about love as passion and escape…into nature, human nature, and the historic role of the cicadas’ devastating “Insect Sex” on the Kansas landscape, necessitating that we find relief (re-leaf?) by being transported through travel—across state borders and abroad. The book ends with poems about the summer 1971 in Greece with James Merrill, our dear mentor and Yenser family guide. In this final chapbook-sized section of my collection, I attempt to capture all that is Merrillian in Greece: the art and food, politics, history, armed Colonels marching into a play in the amphitheater at Epidavros, the bucolic Peloponnese, the bluest seas, and whitewashed island towns, marble walls embraced with bougainvillea, and investigations of the ruins—both personal and planetary.
Now, a question that everyone wants to know the answer to: How has writing been during this time of the pandemic, social political upheaval, and activism?
Covid more or less shut down our writing routines until we got the green light, or rather the “turquoise” light here in New Mexico. We haven’t been able to join our writing tribe at the coffee shop, on campus, or in each other’s homes. Like so many others, Kelly and I had medical concerns and were directed to isolate at home, where we found ourselves excessively cooking, housekeeping, composting, gardening, dog walking, and Skyping for hours with family and friends. We were depressed by the politics of the first Covid year—not only horrified by the Corona virus and its blood-red spikes, but also disgusted with our nation’s bloody politics—so many shootings, so many lies, so much gratuitous violence. Aside from donating, I felt helpless to help. Sometimes, the best I could do was to shower and change pajama/sweats once a week to become presentable for a conversation or poetry reading on Zoom, but I also became aware and grateful for a safe house, companionship, and online transportation. We were obliged to sit for hours in our car, waiting for groceries, but wait we did, then wipe the stuff down, and cut out the rotten parts. That is the lesson we’re learning, isn’t it: to appreciate the leavings of our lives?
Retired after working at ten colleges and universities, I have more time to write. I now manage a family business—NM Book Editors, where I teach as a developmental editor. I find it satisfying to see a client’s annual award-winning books of memoir reach the reading public, and I am educated by the subject areas I’m obliged to study. I recently discovered the Netflix series Rotten, which contains a segment featuring a New Mexico client: a lawyer trying to save American farming from international dumping of cheap products. I watch the British baking show to broaden my survival skills. I’ve learned to make biscotti and lost 20 pounds by giving it away to friends and neighbors. I’ve slept for 20 years and awakened to the silver in my hair. I have religiously washed my hands until my skin has become thin, transparent, loose, and smooth as silk. I’m writing my first Pandemic short story. The anti-hero is a politician who runs from room to room, trying to escape until Truth catches up with him, and he catches Covid.
It came to me then in a dream, as I ran from room to room in Freud’s castle, that I too must have made a mistake: I turned a corner and fell to the bottom of a dry cement cistern. I stood up, spun around, looking upwards for toeholds, where there were none, and said, “Does this mean I’m dead?” But here I am, and all my family vaccinated and free as birds! In the tiny territory of our Albuquerque backyard, grown children are transported by car or plane from Wichita and LA, my hometowns. Meeting on our patio under climbing yellow roses, bees, and butterflies, we recite the names of this yard’s honorary survivors: Dove, Hawk, Magpie, Meadowlark, and Sparrow.
Close Encounters Down Home is available for purchase at Finishing Line Press
PAMELA YENSER (BA, MA, MFA) was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and has been teaching at colleges and universities since she was a sophomore at WSU. She does improv and gives readings. Her poems are available online at Connotation Press and Notable Kansas Poets; in print at Poetry Northwest, Midwest Quarterly, Shenandoah, Massachusetts Review, others; and in many anthologies. She and her husband, the poet Jon Kelly Yenser (UNM Press), work at NM Book Editors, LLC, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.