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hookah embers

“Iraqi Fish Shop, Damascus” from The Bride Minaret was the featured poem at Split This Rock

Iraqi-Style Fish Shop, Damascus

By Heather Derr-SmithThe fish are opened up like salad bowls,
Slid between the metal bars of baskets,
Roasted in the wood-fired ovens, Iraqi style.
The flesh glows as if it were made of glass.
The men gather. Their fingers pull pieces of bread
From one giant flat loaf, as round as a bass drum.

His wife collapsed when she saw his skin,
Purple and green like a tie-dyed shirt.
His daughter erupts in tears, and she is only four.
A bird hops in its cage and sings to the streets below.
The oldest girl says, See, I have found this in the refuse,
A bicycle pump to inflate her ball.
See, these are the shoes I brought from Iraq,
silver football shoes. She wears them only in secret.

Naranj is a small bitter orange used to heal.
It grows in the courtyard, resisting the concrete.
We call the orange a Portugal
Because the sweet orange came from Portugal.
This is interpretation in the House of War.

The Ummah Is Changing is written on my chocolate bar.
The flavor is Ummah Orange.
These are the delights of the House of War.
Back home, the dense orange groves were scorched.
Through the warren of alleyways
And cinderblock homes was an incense of burnt oranges,
Burnt blossoms, burnt Portugal.

You can still buy those little Ramadan happy meals we used to love.
Mubarek Olsen, with little zombie children praying.
Remember the birds everyone kept in cages?
No one keeps birds like that in Europe anymore. It isn’t humane.

Poetry workshops in Mostar, Bosnia i Herzegovina, organized by American Corner at the Mostar Gymnasium:

mostarmostarworkshop

Poetry Workshops in Tuzla, Bosnia i Herzegovina, organized by Tuzla Open Center, an LGBT advocacy group and held at American Corner at University of Tuzla: Tuzlanski Otvoreni Centar

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Featured Poet at Sundress Press:

THE WARDROBE’S BEST DRESSED: “TONGUE SCREW” BY HEATHER DERR-SMITH

HeatherDerr-Smith

“Heathens”

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This selection comes from Heather Derr-Smith’s poetry collection Tongue Screw, available now fromSpark Wheel Press. Purchase your copy here.

Heather Derr-Smith is the author of three books of poems, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, Editor’s Selection, 2005), The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, Editor’s Choice Award, 2008) and Tongue Screw (Spark Wheel Press, 2016). Her fourth collection, Thrust, won the 1016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize at Persea Books and will be published in 2017. She was a visiting poet at Iowa State University in the Creative Writing and the Environment MFA program and at International University of Sarajevo and American University, Tuzla, Bosnia. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently divides her time between Iowa and Brooklyn, New York.

Beth Couture currently serves as both a Board Member and an Assistant Editor at Sundress Publications. Her work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle,Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, Ragazine, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. Her novella, Women Born with Fur, was published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014 as part of its Blue Bustard Novellas series. She is currently working on her Master’s in Social Work at Bryn Mawr College, and she lives in West Philly with her husband and five cats.

Interview at The Fem:

THE FEM: Your poems are filled with religious references, and it often feels like there’s a very dangerous, menacing spiritual force waiting to be unleashed. In “Tremble”, you write, “The San Gabriels rise up, fire out-flashing our longing for everything / everything in this world we want and ace and hunger for and cannot hold, / like God undressing before Mary. / If Joseph had seen it, he’d have cut off his hands.” Could you talk a little bit about the influence of spirituality on your work?

HEATHER DERR-SMITH: I was raised in a very conservative evangelical home. My biological father and my mom were both heavily steeped in the religious fervor of the early 60’s Billy Graham revival movement. My dad was at seminary. My mother kind of had this split self, both a Braniff Girl and very cosmopolitan, but also deeply religious and committed to this movement that would become the Moral Majority of the 80’s. My dad’s family’s heritage though was Mennonite and Brethren, a very different kind of culture from evangelical culture, apollitical, pacifist, and strongly attached to the land and after he disappeared from my life and the subsequent years of displacement and trauma, I later joined the Mennonite church as a way of reconnecting with him and claiming a sense of rootedness. I found healing in that community.  I did eventually heal out of the church and am no longer a practicing believer, but I do still feel drawn to the idea of God and I’m very moved especially by worship and praise, just that stance of openness to revelation or what’s divine even in the midst of suffering and brokenness. I suppose it’s a sense of grace that I love. The best of religion or spirituality allows one to rest in the question and mystery. The worst, of course, demands allegiance to dogmatic answers.

That sense of a menacing presence comes from several different threads—or is a tap into several different currents. I was told by my stepfather that I was born bad, evil. I was warned by my mother that my behavior (rebellion, independence, anger) would open up the door to the Occult. There was always the threat of demonic influence and as the scapegoat in a abusive home, I felt keenly that I was the gateway for that. I fought back against my stepfather’s misogyny and my family’s values, so I was a trouble-maker and an outsider in that system. There was always the threat of violence, whether it was psychological, emotional, physical, or sexual every single day of my youth. I lived hyper vigilantly, always ready to fight or to claim my ground.

I grew up with the sawdust trail of revivals. The constant paranoia that one was not really saved. The threat of hell or of demonic influence, especially the fear of the occult that was rampant in the south in the 80’s.

I think there’s a powerful morality and spirituality both in revolt and defiance. I believe in that. I found what was beautiful in the world and what was worth living fully into through that stance.It’s very important to me whenever I am writing about beauty to include the darkness. It feels like an important act of witness. I can’t forget what is brutal and violent, because it would feel like a kind of dishonoring and denial of human experience. That’s what I hated about the religious thought I grew up with, that kind of magical thinking that erased the complexity of being human. It felt really dehumanizing.

THE FEM: The natural world is all over your poetry, and it’s often imbued with sexuality as it is in Neruda’s work. I notice you mention him in your poem “Backfire”. Is he an influence on your writing?

HEATHER DERR-SMITH: I do love Neruda, and he was an early influence. I’ve always been drawn to mysticism, probably as a way of synthesizing the religious indoctrination I had as a child with my own tendency to rebel. Mysticism weaves the religious and communal with the individual pursuit or actuation of the self together in powerful ways. I say mysticism, because I see in Neruda a fervency in his politics and morality that feels religious and communal, but also this ardor and anguish of the self losing itself in love and rediscovering itself made larger through that loss. So, to me Neruda is mystical.

It’s very important to me whenever I am writing about beauty to include the darkness. It feels like an important act of witness. I can’t forget what is brutal and violent, because it would feel like a kind of dishonoring and denial of human experience.

I do find revelation and joy in nature. I always love to be walking in the prairies or the woods. I want to know the local flora and fauna and the names for everything that grows in a particular place, the chaparral in the mountains around Los Angeles, the magpies and Lime trees of Sarajevo, the prairie compass in Iowa. I suppose that the way I fall in love with people, really easily and often, is also a way I engage with the landscape. I always think in most places where I find myself wandering that this could be home, I could make my home here. Ultimately I am always longing to be connected and to belong, with people in friendship or in love, both of which are so closely related for me I can hardly differentiate, and in the land.

THE FEM: The California landscape is also filled with the threat of danger that seeks to creep in at various moments in your poems. For example, in “Raymond Fault, Los Angeles”, after describing a trip on mushrooms, you write, “In the morning the news said a human head had been found, / right along the road we had walked.” What draws you to that kind of ever-present violence that is always lurking around the corner?

HEATHER DERR-SMITH: Oh, this ever present threat of violence comes both from my childhood family experiences that wired my brain to expect loss and pain and then from my adult experiences where I sought out places where that was unfolding or where I was drawn to walk with other people who were experiencing trauma. So, there was emotional volatility and displacement in my earliest years, abandonment. There were subsequent years of upheaval and trauma. I was just constantly exposed to uncertainty and threat, whether psychologically, emotionally, or physically, that was just a part of my reality, so my brain developed to respond to that.

In my early adulthood I found that it was really important to me to stand in solidarity with people who were suffering. I felt compelled to respond to what was happening in Bosnia at the time. I just couldn’t ignore that reality and I needed to do something. So I did what I could in my home community at the University of Virginia and then in DC and then in the refugee camp. I continued over the years to work/walk with survivors, I’ve walked with survivors of war, going back to Bosnia, going to Syria, working with refugees here in the U.S.,  sexual assault survivors, children who have been abused, and more recently gun-violence survivors. So, violence is a huge part of my lived experience and what I witness to in my writing.

brooklyn studio
Courtesy of Heather Derr-Smith

THE FEM: What purpose do you feel art has when dealing with horrific tragedy?

HEATHER DERR-SMITH: It’s one of the ways of finding healing. There are other ways. For me art was essential to my own healing and survival. I think in naming my experience, in testifying, in claiming, in speaking, in telling the story I found so much strength. This is an old, old impulse in human healing that goes back to shamanism and witchcraft (There’s that wonderful occult influence). We cast spells and create realities out of dreams with our words and language. Creativity can stitch together the broken self. In my teen years I was a part of a group of kids who had all been traumatized in different ways, runaways, kids from abusive home situations, throw away kids. Our saving grace was this intense desire to create. We all wanted to be artists and musicians and writers. We found direction and guidance in literature. Most of us survived and thrived, even, and I believe it’s because we immersed ourselves in art.

THE FEM: You’re off of social media and you’ve said that one reason is because of the kind of messages you were receiving from men. Do you feel that the internet has caused writers, and women writers in particular, to be more vulnerable than before? Is there a way to engage without opening oneself up to unwanted attention?

HEATHER DERR-SMITH: I was off social media for a while, but I’m back on now. It’s going pretty well, actually. I had a time when I was really frustrated (and often triggered) by the misogyny and harassment, but I blocked whoever needed to be blocked and I surrounded myself with a supportive community of women writers and poets and allied men. Yes, women are very vulnerable. Our bodies are still a central location for violence in the world and we are always at risk. I am a survivor, and I’m certainly not alone. In fact, most of the women I know are survivors. This is our lived reality. I just believe in walking through it and standing defiant. I don’t believe anyone opens themselves up to unwanted attention. Women are just doing what men do, networking, promoting their work, being fully engaged and present in the world. If women are harassed it’s not because they should have done anything different. Women should be free to be as sexual as they want or as fierce as they want, as open or uncensored as men without unwanted attention. I think building a supportive network is key.

Interview with Heather Derr-Smith for the 25,000th issue of Oslobodjenje. English Translation here:

Wonderful Visit to Budapest, Brno, Prague, and Sarajevo to see former students and colleague and translator, Velid Beganovic,  and meet with poet Goran Simic for the opening of the Museum of Literature in Sarajevo. I also shared Iftar with Edina Kamenica from Oslobodjenje and novelist and Journalist Edin Krehic.

with Goran Simicwith poet and translator, Velidsarajevo at dawn

Video of Heather Derr-Smith reading the poem, “Touch” from Tongue Screw with Jim Coppoc on Guitar and Elliot Smith on Violin.Vinyl Cafe, Ames.

Review of Tongue Screw, Cleaver Magazine, Johnny Payne, May 27, 2016

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Tweetspeak Review

Woman-in-empty-warehouse-poetic-voices

Poetry Workshop, English Class, Phillips Exeter, May 25, 2016

English Class, Phillips Exeter

Poetry Workshop, Holocaust Studies Class, Phillips Exeter Academy, May 24, 2016

Holocaust Studies Class, Phillips Exeter

Reading with Tom Simpson at Water Street Books, Exeter, New Hampshire, “The Art of Survival: Trauma, Recovery, and Witness” May 26, 2016

http://waterstreetbooks.d7.indiebound.com/event/poet-heather-derr-smith

water street bookstore

Roots Poetry Series, Brooklyn, New York, May 20, 2016

Roots Poetry Series, Brooklyn

Chop Suey Books, Richmond, May 14, 2016

Chop Suey Books Richmond

Reading at Atomic Books, Baltimore, May 12, 2016

Atomic Books

Interview with Heather Derr-Smith at Spark Wheel Press: http://sparkwheelpress.com/site/interview-with-swp-poet-heather-derr-smith/

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Spark Wheel Press Reading, AWP 2016

AWP 2016 Spark Wheel Press Reading

At the Getty, Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, Los Angeles, AWP 2016

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Writing Studio, Brooklyn , New York, April 2016

Writing Studio, Brooklyn

Revisions for fourth manuscript, Thrust, Brooklyn New York

thrust manuscript

Reading list for Thrust:

reading list for fourth manuscript

Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop Reading with Noah Warren and Mary Kim Arnold, April 10, 2016:

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Karen Craigo’s Appreciation for Tongue Screw: http://betterviewofthemoon.blogspot.com/2016/03/an-appreciation-of-tongue-screw-by.html

book cover heather