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The Flapper Press Poetry Café Welcomes the Playful Poetry of Sandy Feinstein

By Annie Newcomer:

The Blind Poets, Photo by: Daniel Arrhakis on VisualhuntC

The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets of all ages from across the globe. This week, we are happy to feature the work of Sandy Feinstein.


Sandy Feinstein, Photo by: Theo Anderson

Sandy Feinstein has been writing for more than 50 years. Skipping over the early decades in New York, the high points have been opportunities to write and teach in many places: Denmark (1989–1990) and Syria (1998–1999) while on Fulbright awards; Bulgaria as a guest instructor; and across the United States, from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, to UCLA and off to Southwestern College in Kansas, and, now, for almost twenty-five years at Penn State Berks, where she has taught a variety of subjects, including creative writing.


Her poems respond to the literature she teaches and to the places she has explored. During the last 30 years, her poetry has appeared in Slant, Columbia Poetry Review, XCP, Facture, Blueline, Connecticut River Review, Poetry South, and Gyroscope, among many others, including collections and anthologies. Her chapbook, Swimming to Syria, was published by Penumbra Press (2021). She also publishes fiction, creative nonfiction, and scholarly articles.

We reached to Sandy to talk about her work and inspirations.


Please Meet Sandy Feinstein!

 

Annie Newcomer: Sandy, welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café. You are a professor. Our educational institutions are in the news so much these days. Does this make your role more difficult or give you more opportunity to highlight your purpose? Will some of the changes in academia impact the availability of poetry classes and/or the way professors teach poetry?


Sandy Feinstein: Interesting question. Having taught full time since 1980, I have firsthand experience with the changes in English departments: I was interviewed to teach Renaissance literature for my first position, and students enrolled in the course. Still, it was those same students in 1980 who asked me to offer a creative writing workshop; and while interest has waned in early literature, it is still robust for creative writing. I have not, though, abandoned early literature: I just integrate readings into the other kinds of courses I teach, even into creative writing courses. I’ve written about using sixteenth-century poetry to teach creative writing in Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, edited by Anna Leahy.


AN: Often, for the fans and an audience, it seems to me that people imagine a start and a finish to any activity. For example, the play begins when the curtain rises and ends where it is lowered. A game starts at the whistle and ends on the last play. A concert starts with the first note and ends with the last note played. However, in reality, actors and musicians show up hours before their event to warm up. Imagine athletes on the fields before the Super Bowl or any other sports competition. So my question is this: How do you prepare your students to enter a poem? What warm-up exercises do you use with them in your classroom?


SF: Whether to prepare them to read or to write, I often have students respond to journal prompts that can be as simple as "formulate a question about the reading." The prompts may then become more challenging, asking students, for example, to rewrite the work in another form (e.g., if a poem, then in a short fiction; if a short fiction, then in a poem). If the poem is in Middle English, I might ask them simply to underline all the words they know. I’ll also have students read aloud—both the original works and those they created from them.


AN: I often hear that the writing life is a solitary one. How does your relationship with your students impact your own writing? Or does it?


SF: I wonder if I have deferred retirement partly because my writing is so dependent on interactions with students. Students elicit all kinds of poetic responses from me, one of which I mention in the back story that follows this interview; another, below, was written 15-plus years ago for another thesis student (she became a best-selling romance writer).


PORTRAITS OF THE NINE MUSES, Archaeological Museum of Cos

It’s Not as if I Didn’t Warn you

(that you’d be used)


The mythology’s all there:

Muse bites rival for perfect lines,

pointed nails write bloody verse.

Yes, of course, they look peaceful

lined up in togas on ancient vases,

Clio with her right hand raised,

mouth agape, silent stare.

She’s stopped mid-slap

at Calliope’s liberties, voiceless,

screams at Erato’s disregard.

Look closely at the urn,

reds and blacks that blur the smirks.

Epic takes history in great big gulps,

spits back just what works;

Lyric sings untrue loves

the short and long iamb

In spiro: I breathe. Incubus

or succubus, both steal souls.

Parasites strip meat from bone.

It’s what they do. Guiltless,

I, too, feed on what I find.

 

AN: In the publishing world, editors tend to be looking for the next best original poem. Do you think this causes poets to move too quickly, churning out poems and collections? In chess, if a player "moves" their piece too quickly, they often regret the move. Do you ever wish that the literary world might "linger" over students' and poets' work and not push productivity?


SF: Interesting. I wish I agreed that editors are looking for the “the next best original poems.” I think maybe we binge-write partly because we have to, whether anyone is paying attention or not. Some of what we write may not be ready to send (I can say that even about the ones below, because they were written this year, and I more typically hold on to work for awhile before I send it out).


AN: Why do you love poetry? And please share a little about your writing process with our readers.


SF: These are gigantic questions. I can only begin to answer them in the space available.


I love poetry for its sounds (“I wake to sleep and take my waking slow” [Roethke]), and where I am taken that I never imagined possible—at least that’s how I felt about “The Waking” as a college student. I love poetry for the ways it tells stories, somehow bursting the constraints of form and rhyme and meter (Chaucer’s narrative poems, Marie de France’s lays). I love that a poem can be small and evocative (Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”) as well as huge and provocative (Milton’s Paradise Lost). I love the voices. The music. The mystery.


Process, for me, is far less mysterious than the wonder of a completed poem that works. When I teach creative writing, I do the assignments I give my students. When I’m not teaching, I prompt myself with calls for work—like Flapper’s; or I simply sit still and stare out a window and describe what I see; or I respond to what a friend has written in an email. The hybrid piece, “A How to Guide to Navigating the Writerly Straits” (in Precipice: Writing at the Edge) began as a series of email exchanges with my friend and coauthor, a brilliant writer of creative nonfiction who expressed diffidence and frustration, among other things, about writing. Here are a few verses from one of my responses to a prose interlude of hers that asks, “What’s the point?” and ends with the killing of “dreams” (Keysha Whitaker):


Work with what you got

Too much time and space and dreams expire

Victims of too much light—breathless productivity indeed.


Anatomize dreams

On a schedule.

Here it is

(the things I do for you)


First things first. Start small. One word following another.

Ideas are strictly conceptual.

A paragraph is a project without baggage.


It’s the rewriting I find most challenging, the having to admit something doesn’t work as a poem—but did work as a way to get one written.


AN: I remember the first time my work was ever accepted for publication. I had just finished swimming my laps on a Sunday morning and after getting into the car to check my cell phone, I read the message, "We love your work. May we publish 'My Red Shoes'?" The light shone through my windshield, and even if it hadn't been a sunny day, I think I would have remembered sunshine. I was so happy. Can you share a moment that for you was your "sunshine" happy poetic experience?


SF: Hmmm. I suppose being read unexpectedly provides such moments for me. So, when the staff assistant first sent me a note about the poems included on a list of faculty accomplishments, I was deeply moved that she had clicked on the url to read them and then took the time to send me her thoughts about them; before she left her position, she wrote a poem for my birthday that I still have pinned to my office bulletin board.


AN: Sandy, ask yourself a question that I didn't ask and that you "need" to answer and then share both the question and your answer with us.


SF: I’m not sure there’s ever been a question I felt the need to answer; asking questions of myself is more typical. The question is easy: Why did you agree to this interview? The answer, less need but inevitable: I hoped it would make me think of something to write.


AN: So did our interview lead to another poem?


SF: Yes, it did! I wrote a poem in the morning before I sent off my responses to your questions.


AN: Thank you for spending time in the Flapper Press Poetry Café with us today, Sandy. What a delight. Now is the time for me to ask you to share three of your poems with their backstories with us. We wish you everything wonderful and hope that you will check back in with us in the future.


 

I was teaching creative writing last semester, in particular a work that students tend to misread—"For Hettie," by Amiri Baraka (written and published as LeRoi Jones), a revelation to me as a high school student (love poems could be funny?) The poet was alive then, and Hettie grew up not far from where I lived. I would never have written this poem, however, were it not for the Flapper Press Contest.


For Us, As If


We could be serious,

reverent with rhyme

and Shakespearean diction

not talk like we talk

about how you are not

like me

though we are both right-handed

when either of us grills

the bagels with eggs

NO, NOT THAT WAY

even to fold your shirt,

and explain

in storied clauses

elongate, interrupted,

circumlocated

sleeves

turned back again.

Damned, if we both

don’t still get it done.


Oh, what’s to understand

after a period?

Grammatical end

to one sentence

though another begins

with spoken or unspoken

impatience,

just to get to

whatever it is

misunderstood as

having a point

and not the telling

serial commas

maybe dashes

punctuating

how we show

again and again

that we are

who we are.

 

"Congress of Carnivores" is another poem your contest prompt elicited. It's the first narrative poem I've ever managed to complete—a form I love. The author and poem to which it responds is Geoffrey Chaucer’s "Parliament of Fowls" (the Middle English "foules" is pronounced fools). It was likely written to celebrate a wedding, though it is also political commentary; and it may be the first "Valentine's Day" poem. His "Parliament" is among my favorite poems, one that I have managed to include even outside of early literature courses (my field): the last four years, I have taught this poem in a course I co-teach with a molecular biologist.