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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Where Are They Now?: A New Hayden's Ferry Blog Serial

Have you ever picked up an old issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review, read one of your favorite stories or poems, and then thought to yourself, “I wonder what this writer is doing now?” Well, even if you haven’t, we’ve got the perfect solution: a new blog serial where we track down previous contributors and find out what’s going on in their lives and their writing.

This week, we figuratively sat down with Shara Lessley, whose poem “Fallen Starling” appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review #35. Let’ see what she had to say!

Hayden’s Ferry Review: Tell us a little bit about “Fallen Starling.”

Shara Lessley: “Fallen Starling” was written during my first year of the Stegner Fellowship, although I discovered the unfledged bird while living in Alexandria, Virginia. I suppose I should have given it a proper burial. Instead, I watched its tiny remains evolve over several days. When it came to writing the poem, I couldn’t resist the obvious tensions: an “unliving” thing reanimated by the combination of erosion and weather, by scavengers and the simple fact of time. All the while, the bird’s one good eye (I believe the other was missing) darting up, fixed in self-study -- as if in denial of, and yet completely fascinated by, its own undoing. I’ve always found that if you meditate on the literal long enough, it transforms. That’s what happened with “Fallen Starling.” After thinking about the bird for an extended period of time, I couldn’t help but discover its metaphorical possibilities.

HFR: Have you written more poems about birds? Or things fallen from the sky?

SL: Thomas Lux once confessed he’d received endless jars of maraschino cherries after publishing “Refrigerator, 1957” (“ do not eat / that which rips your heart with joy”). Those familiar with my work have given me an antique, peacock-lidded ink jar; Small Deaths, Kate Breakly’s post-mortem photographs of the natural world; as well as a tiny glass box identified as a “bird coffin.” When a friend texted “this made me think of you,” along with a photo of an ant-eaten finch she’d found half-devoured beside her doorstep, I knew it was time to reconsider my relationship with winged things! I’m not a birder by any means. I’m lousy at species identification. The title of my book, however, is telling. Although Two-Headed Nightingale features poems on dismantled sparrows as well as taxidermied hummingbirds housed in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the collection also includes other expressions of flight. The title phrase, for example, not only gestures toward Keats’s “immortal bird,” but is also the 19th C. stage name of conjoined songstresses Christine and Millie McCoy.

HFR: What sort of things do you find yourself obsessing over in your writing?

SL: I obsess about what isn’t working. When I was an undergrad at UC Irvine and just starting to piece together half-formed lines and stanzas, James McMichael advised (warned?) our workshop that poets must think of everything. He went so far as to say that one misstep -- down to the syllable -- destroys a poem. That’s a lot for any twenty-one-year-old to handle, especially one who, as Merwin writes in “Berryman,” “had hardly begun to read.” Still, tough as it was to hear at the time, McMichael’s words are ones I carry with me.

HFR: What else has been going on with you since you were published in Hayden’s Ferry? What are you working on?

SL: A lot! Moves to New York, Maryland, Wisconsin, North Carolina. Lots of packing, unpacking, repacking. In 2009, my husband and I relocated to Amman, Jordan. It’s an absolutely fascinating time to live in the Middle East, given Arab Spring and the political changes sweeping the region. It’s also very interesting to read Western media coverage of what’s happening here on the ground. During our stay, I’ve been fortunate to experience the richness of the country’s cultural, historical, and geographical offerings. The lost city of Petra, Wadi Rum’s red deserts, floating in the Dead Sea, Jerash’s Roman ruins, the gorge and waterfalls of Wadi Mujib -- each of these is an adventure in itself. The people here are generous and inviting. I feel lucky to have this time and place in which to write.
The Middle East (and Jordan in particular) figures heavily in my current project, tentatively titled The Explosive Expert’s Wife. The manuscript includes poems that take place in average homes in Amman and along Golan Heights, for example, as well as stateside settings like the FBI crime lab and the Unabomber’s Montana cabin. Ive been struggling for months to finish a narrative poem about Flauberts tour of Egypt. Who knows how that will turn out...  

HFR: What are you reading these days?

SL: Street signs, billboards, food labels -- since moving to the Middle East, I find immense pleasure in sounding out even the most basic words in Arabic. I studied the language somewhat intensely for about a year, but needed to take a break following the birth of my son. Arabic is both difficult and beautiful -- the alphabet itself is an artful series of valleys and peaks. Silly as it sounds, I love walking through the grocery store and testing myself: can I read the Arabic equivalents for pomegranate, yogurt, black pepper, salmon, and lamb? 
As for literature, I just finished re-reading Wallace Stegner’s wonderful novel, Crossing to Safety, and have moved on to Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. This spring, I hope to take on Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad and finish Tablet & Pen, an anthology of Middle Eastern literature edited by Reza Aslan. I’m always reading poetry -- lately, it’s been Henri Cole, Marianne Moore (again and again!), Tracy K. Smith, Louise Bogan. I can’t wait to get Bruce Snider's new collection, Paradise, Indiana. It feels like I'm always waiting for Terrance Hayes or Brigit Pegeen Kelly to publish something new.

HFR: Any upcoming publications we should know about?

SL: My book, Two-Headed Nightingale, is now available. Poems from The Explosive Expert’s Wife appear in a recent issue of The Missouri Review and on Poetry Daily. Others are forthcoming in places like jubilat and The New England Review. My essay on ballet and Elizabeth Bishop will appear in The Southern Review’s summer issue – I’m pretty excited about that.


Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry, her most recent awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship, the Tickner Fellowship, and a  “Discovery”/The Nation prize. You can find her at

Got a previous contributor in mind who you think we should catch up with? Email and let us know!

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