Poet, Editor, Mentor
Lissa Kiernan is poetry editor for Arsenic Lobster and founding director of The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative, a provider of online poetry workshops. She holds an MFA from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine, and her work can be found in Albatross, Canary, Whale Sound, and elsewhere.
Interview by Renee Beauregard Lute
Lissa, you founded The Rooster Moans in 2007. What is the creation story? How did it get its name?
Following my father’s death from complications of a brain tumor in 2003, I started to write poetry, after a long hiatus. I’d stopped around the time I moved to New York City after graduating from UMass/Amherst with my English degree. For better or worse, I back-burnered poetic ambitions in favor of embarking on a long personal and professional journey, which included obtaining my MA in Media Arts at The New School at a time when the Web was just beginning to burgeon, and meeting and marrying my husband Chris.
Seeking a place to put my grief, but feeling nervous about my rusty poetry writing skills, I found comfort in the relative anonymity of a virtual poetry space called Perspectives, run by an encouraging woman named Kristin Biss. For two years, I hung my hat there, surrounded by gifted and accomplished poets who took me under their collective wing. Then, tragically, Kristin, who was just 24, lost her battle with bone cancer. Mourning yet another loss, as well as my round-the-clock access to a group of poets that had become like family, I decided to form my own online poetry community. It seemed like a logical next step, since after earning my MA, I had begun to make my living as a web developer.
Regarding our name, everyone asks about it. I don’t know why writer’s workshops tend to get stodgy names while small presses and literary journals—places with names like Blood Pudding and Ugly Duckling and Radioactive Moat—get to have all the fun! What I tell people is that the poet, like the rooster, urges everyone to wake up, bear witness, be alive. And as Jim Harrison writes in his poem "Rooster": Isn't the worthless rooster the poet's bird brother? Finally, let’s face it; poets are often bemoaning things in their verse. The name also seemed to have a certain symbiosis with our sister site, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal where, after making publisher Susan Yount’s acquaintance at Perspectives, she asked me to become a reader. But, to be honest, the name initially came to me while listening to a lyric in a song by the same name written by the very poetically-named band Iron & Wine.
The teaching faculty at TRM consists of some truly fabulous poets—Chris Crittenden, Maureen Alsop, Alexandra van de Kamp, and more—how did they come to be a part of TRM’s family?
TRM was initially envisioned as an invitational community where, in addition to grandfathering in members from Perspectives, each contributor to Arsenic Lobster received an invitation to join. This included incredibly talented poets like Chris, Maureen, Brenda Mann Hammack, and of course, Susan Yount, poets I considered to be beyond workshopping. To my surprise, they told me how much the workshops meant to them and how grateful they were to have a place to make lasting online relationships and share drafts of their poems with peers. Soon, they offered to give back to the community by leading workshops of their own. Now that we’ve taken the site public, Brenda, Maureen and Susan also serve as the The Rooster Moans’ advisory board. This speaks to the cooperative part of our name, because our site really is a group effort, with the advisory board leading free workshops as a community service, and/or choosing to donate the proceeds from their workshops to the administration, maintenance and growth of our community.
The workshops offered at The Rooster Moans are diverse and intriguing. (Brenda Mann Hammack’s workshop, The True Fairy Tale Poem, sounds right up my alley. So does Susan Yount’s Duende workshop.) How do these online workshops work? What do they entail?
Teaching artists (a title we find warmer than ‘faculty’) come up with their own workshop themes based on their areas of scholarship and interest. And over the years, we’ve had quite an array: from traditional, nuts-and-bolts workshops like “Narrative Poetry” and “Found Poetry” to more experimental and cerebral themes such as “Poetry, Politics and Anti-Demagoguery,” “Meta-Poetry,” and “Magical Realism.” We try to offer something for everyone’s taste as well as budget, with workshops costing anywhere from free-$350, and some that even allow the user to select the price they want to pay. Our guiding principles are “poetry for the people” and “workshops that work.” In other words, we are firm believers that poetry should not be elitist and should get its hands dirty, metaphorically-speaking. But most of the workshops in New York cost upwards to $500, an amount that can be difficult for artists to come up with, not to mention the average tuition for an MFA.
Our workshops take place in what we call “The Coop,” a password-protected forum, visible only to workshop members. This gives people a safe space in which to explore craft and protects our fledgling works-in-progress from being discovered by search engines. Our workshops typically last four weeks. Once a week, the teaching artist will post a written lesson, accompanied by a number of prompts. Lessons tend to include history on the workshop's theme, related imagery, audio and/or video clips, suggested reading, questions for discussion, and links to online resources. Workshop members post their reactions to the week's lesson and submit a poem in response to the prompt. Teaching artists offer detailed critiques on students' poems and, in the spirit of the cooperative, students peer-critique each other’s work, too.
Posting lessons in weekly increments tends to let the concepts sink in as poets work on generating their poems. And the cooperative environment contributes to a sense of investment in the poetry of other workshop members.
We also plan to offer ad-hoc live video webinars from time to time, but the asynchronous model has worked really well for us over the years, allowing for 24-7 access to the ‘classroom’ from anywhere one has an internet connection and a device to receive it.
What would you like our readers to know about The Rooster Moans?
Since your site focuses on making love connections between poems and literary journals, your readers might be interested in knowing that one of our teaching artists’ responsibilities is to suggest potential publication homes for workshop poems.
For example, in our current workshop, The True Fairy Tale Poem, Brenda Hammack recently suggested Cabinet des Fées, Fairy Tale Review, and Goblin Fruit as possible homes for those interested in publishing poems generated in her workshop.
In addition, many of our teaching artists are editors of literary journals themselves. Brenda is the faculty advisor for Glint, Amy King publishes Esque, Maureen Alsop is editor for Poemeleon and Inlandia. Susan and I sometimes even curate workshop poems for Arsenic Lobster, if they happen to fit into the conversation of a particular issue, as your recent review of our journal so aptly put it. For example, Mark Siedl’s poem “Whose Hand was That,” which appears in Arsenic Lobster Issue #23, was written during Chris Crittenden’s last workshop: Natalie Angier’s Wild Science Ride. Chris will be teaching a similar workshop this September titled Mary Midgley's Science-is-Poetry Extravaganza.
I also think that—due to the constraints of time and theme, as well as a smidgeon of healthy competition—our workshops tend to generate urgent poems, and urgent poems tend to be publishable. For example, Karrie Waarala’s poem "Processional,” which she wrote in a The Rooster Moans workshop on Magical Realism, was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize by the editors of Radius. A performer as well as poet, Karrie is now one of our teaching artists, and will be leading a workshop on persona poetry, called “Other People’s Shoes” this May.
The stories continue. Poet Lois P. Jones, host of Poets Cafe (Pacifica Radio) in Los Angeles, credits TRM with a recent poem being accepted into the San Diego Poetry Annual 2012. That poem is now part of the permanent collection of every college and university library in the San Diego region, as well as the San Diego County and City Library systems.
So, it's really a very fertile ground for producing work with one ear to the ground for publication opportunities, and for becoming intimately acquainted with various literary journals and editors and the types of work they are enthusiastic about.
If you could employ any deceased poet as one of TRM’s teaching artists, who would you pick?
That’s a very tough call because being a great poet and a great teacher are often separate skills. Robert Frost, though, was by all accounts a tremendous teacher as well as one of our finest poets. His poems have so much to teach about sound, form, imagery, psychology, and when to reveal things. "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." We could do worse than to have Frost teach a Rooster workshop!
If you could go to a tapas bar with any deceased poet, who would you pick?
Well, since you specified tapas, I’ll let that narrow the playing field to Spanish poets, and choose Federico Garcia Lorca. The concept he coined called duende (which simplistically put, means a hyper-awareness of one’s imminent death) informs much of the poetry I choose to read and hope to write. And, I could ask him to clear up that little mystery surrounding his death!
Speaking of which, Susan Yount is teaching a Rooster workshop on duende in April. Lorca, in fact, is sort of Arsenic Lobster’s patron saint. On our guidelines page, we feature his quote: “Intelligence is often the enemy of poetry because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head…”
What are you reading?
I’m always reading at least ten things at once. Currently on my nightstand: Amy King’s I Want to Make You Safe, Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure, A Study of How Poems End, Kimiko Hahn’s Mosquito & Ant, Carl Dennis’ Practical Gods, Jane Hirschfield’s After, Sandra Beasley’s “i was the jukebox,” and Amy Clampitt’s “A Silence Opens.” Most of these were recently procured at a 50% off sale at Poet’s House, at which I happily bought way, way too many books.
What would you suggest our readers read?
In general, I would suggest trying to read something every day that you feel is just beyond your comprehension, and/or work you actively dislike. I think we learn more from reading things we don’t like, or don’t immediately understand, than by reading in our comfort zone. In other words: push yourself.
In terms of journals, we are so fortunate to be living at this time when there is such an abundance of quality poetry journals, many freely available online. Naturally, I would recommend Arsenic Lobster. Lately, I also tend to find poems that resonate with me in Canary, Redheaded Stepchild, The Found Poetry Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, The Nashville Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Toad Suck Review, and Esque, among too many others to name.
Complete the sentence: “I listen to ( ) when I’m writing, and always have ( ) on my desk.”
That’s a great question. If I listen to anything, it’s usually the conversations around me wherever I happen to be. I grab writing time on the bus and subway; I have so many poems that get their start on public transportation, as I take in the theater of the city! It’s not uncommon for me to overhear a snippet of conversation that sparks a poem or makes its way into one that I’m already writing. But generally speaking, I prefer silence while writing. Silence allows me to tune in to the frequency of my inner thoughts. If I do go for music, it’s instrumental, since lyrics compete with the words I’m trying to get out of my head and onto paper.
Once in a while, I’ll put on something to enhance a particular mood. For example, I once wrote a poem called “Friday Night Blues Rhapsody” while listening to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” I was raised to be a musician, in fact; my mother was a piano teacher, and the first two years of my undergraduate work were spent as a flute major. I also write music criticism. Being so responsive to music, listening to it can be a mixed bag when trying to write.
But it’s quite the opposite for me with visual stimulants: the more, the better! On my desk, I cluster together all sorts of objects: rocks, shells, fortune cookie fortunes, errata, photographs, postcards. I have a favorite maneki neko (the Japanese beckoning cat) from a special friend and a lucky matchbox charm custom-made for me by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, who was my thesis mentor at Stonecoast. Lately, I’ve also been trying to keep fresh flowers on my desk, particularly tulips.
You’re locked in a tower, à la Rapunzel. You can only have one poem with you. Which poem is it?
I like contemplating this question. I think it would have to be something that I can read repeatedly and have a slightly different takeaway each time, but ultimately be life-affirming, since being locked in a tower is so depressing! It would also need to have abundant and sumptuous descriptions of the natural world, which I would sorely miss. And it should probably be quite long, allowing me to linger over it time and again. James Schuyler’s “Hymn to Life” has most of those qualities, and I am fond of Schuyler’s work in general, so I’d choose that, at least today.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
Get real still and quiet. This sage advice came from singer/songwriter Scott Miller during a “Music & Lyrics” session I attended at the annual Americana Music Conference in Nashville. It’s simple but true; I’m able to best hear what it is in my heart when I can clear my head of all the noise that seems to constantly swirl around us these days. Then again, if you are trying to write an ecstatic or rant poem, then the absolute opposite is true: put yourself in the midst of chaos—a city, a bar, an airport—and have at it!
Renee Beauregard Lute is the reviews editor for The Review Review.