Chapbook Confessions is a series in which poets discuss, at length, the writing of their most recent collection of poems, in whatever way they desire. For more information on the series, go here.
Below, Kathy Boles-Turner writes on her 2018 collection, Ramshackle Houses & Southern Parables.
That’s all I was doing when poetry arrived shortly after my fortieth birthday. I figured it was a fluke, a one off, a little writing exercise to take advantage of while the next great American novel marinated in the back of my mind. Then it happened again. And again. Words came with light and heat and sound and texture.
A similar sort of word visitation had happened occasionally with prose. Characters’ names and voices, scads of dialog came following on the heels of one spark of an idea or another. Maybe the spark would begin with an image, a discussion of greatly loved books, or wishes for the future, walking in a field with my camera, listening to a new-to-me piece of music. Whatever the case, by the time poetry showed up I had already decided my destiny was to be a novelist and essayist. In fact, I had worked hard to learn all about successful execution of fiction and essay, developing research and organizational methods that impressed me a great deal more than anyone else. Next thing I knew, I was spending free time researching poetic forms, terminology, contemporary poets, and so on.
Rather opposite of my attempts with prose up to that point, “voice” arrived almost effortlessly. Intent, purpose, tone, beginning, middle, and end rarely had to be wrestled out of the ether. It was all rather shocking, and for some reason … embarrassing. I didn’t want to be a poet.
The words kept coming.
Since adolescence when I fell into the throes of one anxiety or another my reaction was typically to become sedentary. I’d sit for hours sometimes, mulling over all my worries. This was best done in the quiet or with music low in the background. Sometimes, but not always, I had the urge to busy my hands—organizing bookshelves or holding a pen and notebook. The notebooks usually got filled with doodles and penmanship practice, letters to imaginary folks, crooked little stories or the occasional poem bereft of rhyme and reason. But mostly doodles because the other stuff wasn’t as satisfying. Midway through my twenties I realized this was all self-soothing mechanisms. Not necessarily productive, but effective.
Midway through my thirties, after reading a particularly enjoyable historical romance, I thought what the hell. I want to write a story, too. I can totally do this! I mostly doodled. Even so, realizing that characters came to life at the tip of my pen, that I could see their faces and hear their voices, oh that was the stuff. I filled notebooks, stacks and stacks of notebooks. First with Feona and her tragic life in 17th century Ireland and Scotland whose descendants barely survived the American Revolution. Then with Margot, a contemporary woman with a meager self-image who on the day her divorce is finalized wins the Powerball. Then came Katelyn, a neglected child who inherits her grandfather’s land but no cash, raises her siblings, then runs off to Memphis to put herself through college and have a reckless affair with a rock star.
Katelyn was the last straw. I filled about four notebooks with all her drama before I realized just how bad my writing was. It became imperative that I learn how to write well so that I could tell her story well, because people needed to know all about Katelyn. For the first time, after years of stacking up notebooks full of stories, I confessed to my husband that I wanted to be a REAL writer. I wanted to go to college, join a writer’s group. But first, I needed a state-of-the-art computer and a REAL office. I asked him to make that all happen for me. He totally made that happen. Well, it was an okay computer.
There’s no need to bore anyone with all the in-between-details, so here’s the summary—a year after joining a writer’s group and enrolling in college at the ripe old age of fortyish, poetry happened. A year or so later, while researching poetic forms, I stumbled across the magic of cento. About five years after discovering cento, I was inspired to write a three act play entirely composed of cento poems. About an hour into that project I was wondering what the hell had possessed me to do such a thing.
Early in my literary studies, I came across a brief bio on William Stafford in The Literary West (1999). Stafford developed the habit of waking before everyone else in the house, getting dressed, and going downstairs to lie on the couch … to listen. While listening, “words would arrive”. How about that? I don’t recall any other school assigned reading being so inspiring, so validating as that. A REAL POET just lay around listening before composing pieces of literature that are now anthologized in a $95 textbook. Boom.
The more I read about Stafford and other writers, I discovered a disturbing fact—for the most part these authors of varying success and notoriety work according to a routine. Routine is somewhat elusive for me, always has been, in every aspect of my life. Why would writing be any different? It’s rare for me to manage the much lauded “butt in the seat” thing. And it’s even rarer that I write in great binges. Now revising, that’s definitely binge work. Days on end, caffeine fueled, crazed tenacity from beginning to end. But composition, with few exceptions, comes by fits and starts.
I spent three glorious (for the most part) years in the writer’s group where four more characters came to life and I practiced my hand at poetry, micro fiction, memoir, and blogging. Eventually I embraced the idea of playing to my strengths and let the fictional characters go dormant in digital files. And, eventually, I left the group but have since kept in touch with a lot of amazing writer friends discovered there. It’s no exaggeration to say that I learned more during the time in that community than I did from any writing professor, and I’ll always be grateful. Especially since it was while writing for a weekly prompt that I was inspired to write a memoir, an autobiography really, in poems. Nanoseconds after that idea blew my mind, I knew exactly what the title would be and how the cover art should look.
Poems for Ramshackle Houses & Southern Parables took more than three years to compose and compile—little scraps of papers with poems scribbled, or just a word here and there, a phrase, a single stanza. The common denominator of each poem would be voice. I had some pieces that I loved, but they didn’t fit, and some pieces that definitely fit … or they would if I ever finished them.
As luck and the universe’s sense of humor would have it, I lost my job and suddenly had plenty of time to sit down at my desk and try to make a book out of a bunch of scraps and southern drawl. For thirty days, every day, I put my butt in the seat. I made a book.
In its original form Ramshackle Houses was fifty pages long and got shortlisted for a book prize. Finishing was an amazing experience. Not the actual work, the slogging and chain smoking and freaking out over semicolons, the picking and choosing, and cutting, but the realization that I was DONE. That was the amazing. In silent awe, I printed it all out, put it in a binder, and walked around the apartment with it under my arm for days. I would open it, turn the pages, and just stare. I managed to work into every sentence for weeks … so, now that I’ve finished my first book …
That was April 2015. Within a matter of weeks came the promise that I would write a three-act play made of centos. A year later came the promise that I would write a collection of centos. I made these promises warm and snuggly in the delusion that such promises to self will lead to discipline and patience and wild riches and fame. I made these promises while patting myself on the back for, in spite of all the fits and starts, I managed to complete a chapbook and tenaciously continued to submit individual poems to every lit mag with open submission calls (99.9% of which were rejected). I made these promises because, through the countless ups and downs of marriage and piddly day jobs and family tragedies, when I sat in the quiet the words still arrived. And thanks to all that’s holy, I always had a pen handy.
When I made the decision to go for writing an entire collection of centos, the next logical choice was to start reading a lot of poetry. And the greatest thing happened—quite often, while reading the work of the greats and the emerging, select words and phrases would whisper back to me. Some would shine. Some clanged and rattled and sang. Some would bring with them a heady scent, or lush texture. I wrote them all down.
By then I’d stopped carrying around that binder full of Ramshackle Houses. It got replaced with a binder of over one hundred poems by other poets. I read the poetry, and the saved scraps or highlighted sections over and over until they started telling entirely different stories than the gorgeous narratives penned by their creators. My original intent was to follow the theme put forth in that play written in 2015—a woman who’s forgotten how to speak for herself with her own words begins to communicate her frustration and loneliness with the words of famous writers.
I knew the title would be No Voice of Her Own, what I didn’t know was how the thing would take on a life of its own. I finished it in 2017, submitted individual pieces for about six months. After receiving several of the loveliest rejections ever, I decided it needed to be an eBook. In fact, both of my chapbooks needed to be eBooks! I have since decided (with the help of a writing friend) to make the cento collection Volume One. I still have that binder after all.
A source of endless frustration, particularly over the past three years, is the underlying belief that I need a routine like all those famous writers talk about, a structure that will ensure productivity. Regardless of what schedule I’ve devised, or what ideas I stole from inspiring writerly tips, nothing stuck. It’s still by fits and starts. I have done a lot of banging my head against the wall in frustration.
Looks like no permanent damage has been done, so far, because I did finally have an epiphany: I need to stop trying to fit my square head in a round hole. Square head=natural writing style. Round hole=structured writing style. Why stop trying? Because in three years I have completed two poetry collections, one short story, half of a novella, three-quarters of a novel, thirty-something individual poems, and six essays. That just might pass as productive, right?
a journey that spans a sunlit churchyard
then stalls in a copse of oak
where daffodils lie trampled—I imagine—
by ambling ghosts
from funeral dinners
laid out by old ladies who recall better days:
Hazy Sundays sprinkled with hymnals
and yellow daffodil dresses.
Mama’s mama was told girls don’t have time for school. They cook, clean,
pick cotton, marry and give birth. Daddy’s daddy was told to check white
in the race box when he enlisted. The Cherokee don’t matter anyway.
Both barely survived that glorious era, that wondrous age of WW2.
Mattie, given years before to a stranger, a sharecropper, bore her 7th
child in ’45. JD sweated out nightmares and cheap beer on the voyage
west, leaving Europe in ruin. He had a uniform, medals and papers
to prove he’d served old Uncle Sam. Surely, he could get a job somewhere.
Mattie’s 10th came into the world while Korea still smoldered. By then,
JD was drinking his dinners in North Memphis bars before walking home
to the wife and kids. About the time Vietnam set afire, Mattie’s elderly
husband fell ill. They would never own that poor patch of land farmed
for forty years. She was tired anyway, tired of her daughters asking why
the colored folks got paid for field work, but not them. She got cheap rent
in North Memphis, and doctors close by, not to mention a growing list
of sons-in-law that didn’t have to depend on hateful old cotton.
Soon after Mattie and JD became neighbors, he was publicly declared
a white man—in a chorus of riot voices as shots rang out. The streets
were turning to war, more and more. He had to get away. Black and white,
let the devil take ‘em all, he said, then headed east to McNairy where the land
sloped and sold cheap. Just a while after I came along, Mattie and JD became
neighbors again—ten country miles apart. By then, her belly was perpetually
swollen, her legs bent. She told stories about a childhood that made me cry,
and had little patience for questions. I had thousands of questions.
JD’s stooped shoulders did not straighten when he faced his grown children,
nor when he walked his own land. That time killing Germans afforded him
a small pension, and a year-round garden never quite fenced-off from
the chickens. He sang in a different language when he thought no one
was listening. I was always listening. They were my first loves, my favorite
storytellers and historical figures. Both cared enough to notice I’d do anything,
swear anything, just for them: Mattie made me promise to get good grades
and never trust a man. JD dared me to stay fearless.
Some Forgotten Names
She clattered into the classroom every time,
with hair coiled like smoke, brows drawn
low—thunderclouds of pure reproach. In
her eyes we were not merely eighth-grade
impressionable minds, but misery unleashed
to damage her hard-earned bliss. She devised
That much anticipated third first date at 17
escapes memory, maybe, because his breath
escaped too quickly, in such a violent mourn-
ful way. Ragged panting distracted from the
goal of filing away significant details. There
were drinks with cloudy ice cubes, music,
then, sometime later, breakfast at a ‘greasy
spoon’. Egg yolk drowned perfectly dry toast
in the center of his plate.
Somehow, he seemed very happy.
3 & 4.
A pair of brothers who praised the historical
longevity and spiritual merits of weed: Each wore
blurry grins as they claimed cash up front was
the usual standard of business, but since I am a
friend of a friend, they said, JUST THIS ONCE!
The transaction proceeded as paneling shook,
the windows shook as they bragged in big clumsy
voices about their record collection. NO ONE
APPRECIATES VINYL THESE DAYS! WE
SHOULD DANCE, BLONDIE. YOU STILL
The Sound of Writing
A metallic grinding.
A slick wine-greased giggle.
A thundering gallop
over that last towering edge.
A silence so dense with awe
the sun dares not move
songbirds wait to sing
and breezes hold their breath.
A keening mournful wail
that steels a heartbeat
robs hope and drives
the best of men to suicide.
The flutter of silken wings. The searing sting of a hollow-point. The visceral smack of failing organs bleeding out.
Writing will wake you with whispers. Make crazed accusations. Lecture threaten and plead.
Van Gogh got drunk on yellow and drew a map to the heat
of God’s hollow eye. He crashed against eleven melting stars,
then slipped inside silken folds of a midnight cape designed
to hide one fierce dragon and a web of broad irons that confine
madness to terrible heights.
This is how Anne Sexton wanted to die:
swallowed up by that rushing Beast
in Van Gogh’s boiling night.
I want to stay alive to taste the yellow.
We drive with the windows down
Letting sticky August fingers tangle our hair.
Ribbons of dust and gravel wave alongside
Miles of spent cotton rows.
Ramshackle houses, eyeless and idle,
Stand guard over engine block boneyards.
Rusted fenders and cinder blocks shade old dogs
Sniffing out a familiar stench.
We drive past bent neighbors, vacant,
Staring at nothing but their troubles.
Along the way he tries to sing my favorite song
But I’d rather hear the radio.
On past the riverbed and unmarked graves,
We drive with the windows down, watching
As dark curtains pull across the flat blue sky
And all the constellations ignite.
When we drive past the county line his sex
And velvet voice says, you know I love you.
And in my own distant way I say, love me,
If you can, just keep driving.
My poetry collections, Ramshackle Houses & Southern Parables and No Voice of Her Own, are available on Amazon for Kindle. Other venues are forthcoming. Likewise, the short story Whiskey-Niner-Kilo is available along with a preview of my novella, The Reaping. I am also online at generationkathyblog.wordpress.com