Shade of Blue Trees, By Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Reviewed by Zoey Gulden
Shade of Blue Trees
ISBN 10: 1948767147
ISBN 13: 9781948767149
In Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s debut poetry collection, “Shade of Blue Trees,” this expert scene-setting writer takes the readers through a gallery of art. Between her use of the line and white space, and the typesetters use of font and page spacing, the collection turns from one artifact to another; a glimpse of color here, a change in medium there, all culminating in four life-size paneled poems, showing how the seasons change around the speaker’s grief and how the grief morphs, ebbs, and flows within each season.
The collection is divided into four sections, each around a seasonal theme, although that isn’t obvious at first. In winter, we learn the speaker is coping with the sudden deaths of both her parents. The colors around us are plum, seafloor black, white, and ghost blue. The writer uses scent as her primary sensory detail, and focuses on stars, recurring imagery, and voice. We are transported into a world of revolving grief.
From there, we move to spring, summer, and end in a celestial autumn. Colors like gray and pink alert us of spring, with poems about body image in loss like “Double Helix” or crushes on trees like “Begin & End at Big Sur.” Summer is filled with red rose petals, hoof prints, barking sea lions, and mustering lilacs. Poems like “Sacrament” juxtapose warm weather imagery like watermelons with last breaths; a lover’s first embrace under Virgin Mary in “Still Life with Persimmons.” Autumn brings in magenta and cold snaps, poems like “Suburban Aubade with French Horn” that heighten the writer’s sensory work. Each section showing the way in which the speaker learns of a new self in loss.
Place is the strongest character, oscillating between Californian and German landscapes. In poems like “White Stone” we feel the very presence of the sea, the salty air, the deep canyons, and huge trees of California. “On Why I No Longer Sit at the Window Seat on a Train” brings the reader clearly through the urban landscape of central Germany. The two worlds in which Cressio-Moeller has occupied are brought front and center as the speaker moves through the seasonal times, and readers are reminded of how important landscape is to our processing and, eventually, our creating.
“I lack the luster that my lilacs/can muster at any time of the year” opens arguably the central poem of the collection, “Panels from a Blue Summer.” Once again the reader is woven in and around painted murals of the speaker’s consciousness, this time in hot, sticky summer, under the shade of blue trees. In this poem, the speaker plays with words and musicality stronger than any of the earlier poems. An evolution of understanding loss and solitude comes to a head in this artful example of words in murals. “She tucks her/wings and dives” ends the poem with just enough added white space to accentuate the deep dive the speaker is taking.
Trees are central to the mystical world of self-actualization and immense grief that Kelly Cressio-Moeller takes the readers on in her debut, as the title suggests, but the imagery doesn’t stop there. With senses heightened and colors abound, the reader moves through a year of internal depth, delight, distraction, and destruction with a reliable narrator and keen eye for color. Picking up this collection will remind readers that our inner pool for sorrow runs deep, but the world around us is there with buoyancy.
ZOEY GULDEN is an editor and nonfiction writer living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She is currently writing her thesis for her MFA at Hamline University. She is the assistant nonfiction editor for Water-Stone Review and the managing editor with Arcata Press. By day, she serves coffee and scones at Colossal Cafe on Grand Avenue and dabbles in some freelance copyediting.
In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—T.N. Eyer
In your short story “Date of Death” from Volume 24, you write about a fictional world, very like our own, except that people are knowledgeable about their time of death. This is an interesting concept. How did you come up with this idea? Why did you decide to explore it through your writing?
Great question. Most of my short stories start with how life would change if our world was the same as it is now but with one tweak: What if we knew our date of death? What if immortality were a possibility? What if we could increase our children’s IQ in utero but with possible mental health consequences? I guess what I’m saying is that most of what I write begins with some kind of quirky conceit and, if I’m lucky, develops into a story from there.
The format of your piece is also very unique. Each section begins with a number connected to the age of someone’s death. Why did you decide to break sections up into small chunks of text instead of a more traditional prose form?
I tried a traditional narrative format first, many times. So many times. And the story just wasn’t working. I was enamored with the idea though, so I just kept trying. Eventually, it occurred to me that the problem wasn’t the content but the format. Once I changed to this format, the story came together in a single day.
Your bio lists you as a former lawyer, how did that career prepare you or hinder you as a fiction writer?
I practiced corporate law which, at least at the junior level, is where creativity goes to die. But I will say that law school was wonderfully theoretical and full of interesting cases—both real and hypothetical—and I think that trained me to think a certain way, which has been immensely helpful as a writer. For example, I tend to think a lot (perhaps too much) about the consequences of my characters’ actions, which hopefully serves to make my story arcs more realistic.
How has your recent transition from being a lawyer to a full time fiction writer been going? What are some challenges that you are facing? What are some things that you enjoy about writing full time?
I’m happier, but I make a lot less money. I’m fortunate to have such a supportive husband; without him, I don’t think I’d have the courage to pursue writing as a full-time career. I’m too risk averse. Another challenge is the absence of a clear path to success. In law, there was a very clear path to success: work hard, bill a lot of hours, bring in new business and get promoted. Writing is not that straightforward, and it’s a lot more subjective, which can be frustrating. As for what I enjoy about writing full time—as you may have gathered from my previous answers, I’m an ideas-driven writer. My favorite thing is to come up with a creative conceit and see where it leads me. Sometimes these conceits become stories and other times I can’t seem to devise a suitable plot, but I really enjoy the thought-process regardless.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I like a lot of speculative fiction, both classic and contemporary, particularly if it makes me think: George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Claire North. I’ll stop now.
What are you currently working on? What are some future projects you’d like to tackle?
Editing! My first novel is slated to be released by Stillhouse Press in 2023, so I’m currently working on edits for that. I’ve also just finished a second novel and am editing that. The timing of all this editing is perfect because I had a baby in December, which is so exhausting and all-encompassing that my creative juices aren’t exactly flowing at the moment. In light of that, I think the future project I’m most excited to tackle is sleep training my little girl.
T.N. Eyer writes literary fiction with a speculative twist. In addition to Water~Stone Review, her short stories have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review and december, among others. Her debut novel will be published by Stillhouse Press in 2023. A graduate of Yale Law School, T.N. loves unnaturally hot showers, Dance Dance Revolution, and rhubarb pie. She lives in Pittsburgh with her wonderful husband and the world’s most adorable baby.
Meet the Editors: Outgoing Managing Editor, Robyn Earhart
For twenty-five years, Water~Stone Review has been a collaborative passion project of students, faculty, and staff. Creative Writing Programs staff member, Meghan Maloney-Vinz serves as the journal’s executive editor, while established writers in the field act as contributing editors for each genre. Current MFA (creative writing) students work as invaluable editorial board members and assistant editors.
In this series of blog posts we introduce you to these incredible and accomplished contributors and editors. In her last post as managing editor, we hear from the incomparable, Robyn Earhart.
To the Water~Stone Review Community:
A few weeks into the fall of 2019, after the publication of Volume 22 “Tending to Fires”, I received a perplexing text message from my sister-in-law upon her receiving her purchased copy in the mail. She wanted to know if I had suggestions for how she should read the issue. I replied with what I now consider the most unhelpful of responses: Just read it how you would any other book. She was a voracious reader; we often talked about what books we were currently reading anytime we saw each other. Was a journal that much different from the fiction and YA books she liked to read? When she asked me a similar version of this question again after purchasing her copy of Volume 23, I realized then that to someone outside of the writing field, the concept of a literary journal may be quite unique.
When I first applied to graduate school at the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, I was already familiar with several literary journals, my favorite at the time being the now-defunct Tin House journal. What drew me to Hamline’s program was the opportunity presented for graduate students to work as editors and readers on Water~Stone Review, in addition to teaching students in the BFA program with the undergraduate literary journal, Runestone. I liked reading journals for their content, but classmates also shared with me how literary journals serve as a multitude of pathways for career progression. And who are the readers of journals? Writers. We read journals as part of our research for places to submit our work, to learn from studying the works of other writers, and for those like me who want to work in publishing, to discover new writers. Supporting literary journals is one way that writers can feel connected to others in a field that can often feel solitary and isolated. It’s one piece of our literary community.
Community. It’s a term that I understand differently now after three years in my post as managing editor. Community for WSR has always been our bread and butter — our journal has been an institution in the Twin Cities for twenty-five years. A critical need for an editorial position like mine has been both to provide a learning opportunity for a student and for someone to connect with our audience of contributors and readers. When I accepted the position, I was thrilled to take over managing the “In The Field” interview series on our blog. Many of the interviews I conducted with our contributors deepened naturally into private conversations I chose to keep offline. I’ve cherished talking with Kristin Laurel on the arduous work of healing from great loss; I’ve felt affirmed with Noah Davis on changing societal perceptions of rural populations in nature writing; and I’ve just enjoyed waxing poetic with E.A. Farro on how to engage with non-scientists on issues of climate and ecosystem deviation and change.
Yes, my work was mostly done in the solitude of my house, but somehow, interacting with and promoting the work of our contributors had allowed me to bridge a divide and feel connected to a community of people I admire and respect. I’ve cheered on the sidelines as Halee Kirkwood was selected for the 2022 In-Na-Po Poetry Fellowship with Poet Laureate Joy Harjo; as Keith Lesmeister and Denton Loving expand the insightful work of East Over Press with a forthcoming fiction anthology of rural writers of color; and as Su Hwang, Sheila O’Connor, Carolyn Holbrook, and Kao Kalia Yang won Minnesota Book Awards (among the many WSR contributors honored as finalists) in the past three years. It’s been a true joy to see Michael Kleber-Diggs and Allison Wyss, two contributors I’ve admired for many years, publish their debut books to glowing reviews. Tt’s even funny when your own husband sees a contributor’s name in the media and says “Isn’t that so-and-so that you’re always mentioning?”
Since her initial question to me, I’ve had a few conversations with my sister-in-law about how to read a Water~Stone Review. In teaching her, I hope I’ve invited her to feel a part of this community as well, to join the fold of writers and readers who look forward to each issue in the fall. To see their work, or the work of their loved ones, in a beautiful print journal with curated photographs that mirror images and themes of written work, carefully constructed by writers, editors, artists, printers, and local distributors in the Twin Cities community. To see the mutual aid resources, the connections created with other local organizations, and the work of all contributors—past and present (always)—hyped up and shared around on our social media accounts. I’ve felt fortunate to learn that a literary journal like WSR truly is the work and love of community.
As I began to transition out of my position, I had the privilege of reading the final pieces selected for publication in Volume 25, forthcoming this fall. I wish I could mention here whose work you’ll enjoy reading soon, but I’ll leave that honor I’ve always enjoyed up to the new managing editor, Rachel Guvenc. But I will say this: after three issues of raging fires, a hunger for something intimate, and the ghosts that continue to haunt us, I witnessed resilience and redemption resonating in several forthcoming pieces. They bring to mind that literary journals, like the human spirit, will always continue to exist, for us all.
With an abundance of gratitude,
Robyn Earhart lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her husband and pets.
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Christina Olson
I noticed that both your poems “[…]” and “Gut” published in Volume 24 compliment each other as they both veer into the field of a strained relationship with a father. How do you use the medium of poetry to explore painful experiences such as strained familial relationships?
I wish I had a better answer to this question, but the simple one is that like many writers, articulating something in a poem helps me articulate it in my mind. So writing out the details of the strained relationship with my father in poetry helps me give voice and shape to the relationship. It also helps me establish my version of the story, because god knows he and I are not having that conversation at the present moment. I’m writing the narrative of how I see the story unfolding, my version of these true events.
I really resonated with the poem “Gut” as I have often struggled with my own weight. Although it wasn’t as much the content of the poem as it was the specific details you used that drew me in. For example, I could visualize the mother’s Slim-Fast stored in the garage. I was also drawn in by the father’s viewpoint. My favorite line being, “Why can’t a woman with a soft body, once such a source of pleasure, keep her body just as soft but not more?” How did you go about choosing specific details to give the poem its fresh form?
Again, I wish I had a better answer to this question but the truth is that these are very autobiographical details. There were cans of Slim-Fast in the garage and women’s bodies were very much open to discussion and critique in our 90’s household, and yeah, my father was clearly unhappy that his wife’s body had changed since birthing children (the horror). As a young woman in that household, privy to all that dieting and body talk, it is something that I still carry deep in me today. I am still unpacking it today.
This poem came from an exercise that the visiting writer Tiana Clark (who is the greatest) gave my poetry workshop. I wrote alongside my students; she wanted them to write a poem about a body part a la Ross Gay’s “Feet” and I was like “oh I have to join in on this one because the word ‘gut’ lives rent-free in my head.” I absolutely stole that mid-poem turn from Ross, by the way: the moment in the poem about midway through where he says “But did you really think I’m talking to you about my feet?”
Also, if what I’m writing here about bodies and the 1990s in particular resonates with anyone, please go listen to the podcast Maintenance Phase. And if you’re already a listener, become a subscriber!
You have two full length poetry books published as well as three chapbooks, including the 2019 Rattle Chapbook Prize winner The Last Mastodon. What are the advantages and disadvantages to writing a chapbook versus a larger volume of poetry?
Chapbooks give me a tidy place to explore one or two things without fearing that any more length will distend or water down what I want the narrative arc of the book to be. I know many poets don’t think about the narrative arc in a book of poetry, but I do, constantly. It doesn’t need to be the simplistic hero’s journey or anything like that, but rather I’m always thinking about the release of information over the course of a manuscript, and what transpires from the first poem to the last. Some topics I’m interested in don’t have quite the substance or the intensity to be sustained for 60-80 pages. They are much, much more compelling and deep at 15-25 pages.
One thing that was helpful to me, to reframe my thinking, was that when I first started writing I assumed that a chapbook was just like “here are someone’s best 20 poems while they work on a longer work.” And some chapbooks do read like that to me, and that’s okay! But I’ve learned that I prefer to use the chapbook format for topics that maybe are more inherently experimental, or (like I said) can’t sustain an 80-page narrative for some reason. I have really, really come to love the challenge of a chapbook format these days. The brevity is its own set of formal constraints.
I noticed that you are a former editor at Midwestern Gothic as well as a professor at Georgia Southern University. How have these careers helped and/or hindered your own creative writing process?
Both roles give me the privilege and opportunity to constantly be talking about, thinking about, and teaching writing product and process, and both keep me in contact with authors and editors of all levels. I don’t have anything disparaging to say about not having time or energy for my own writing, or how grading student work means I have less time for my own work; I find that the opposite is true. I feel energized by being part of these communities and I feel very, very lucky to have them.
I’ve been known to assign collections of poetry that I didn’t get into on my first read as texts for my advanced classes simply because the weeks we spend talking about those books help deepen and challenge my personal reading of the texts, and I can think of a couple collections that I really appreciate now because of the conversations Advanced Poetry Writing students at Georgia Southern had about them. (I don’t introduce the books as “here’s one I sort of disliked,” ha ha ha. That would be uncool. These are more like books that everyone seems to love and I sort of like but I feel that maybe I’m missing what everyone else is so jazzed about.)
There are themes of science and history in your pieces which is especially noticeable in The Last Mastodon. How do you use research to inspire your craft?
I could talk about this for hours (and I do in some talks I give, yikes) so the short answer is that I’m very inspired by the limitations of a historical or scientific fact. The task of making that fact into art without compromising its inherent scientific or historical accuracy, this is something I find fun. Whenever I teach creative nonfiction, I always say that just because something is true, that doesn’t make it inherently interesting. It’s on the writer to discover how to shape the story of that truth into a compelling read, which, when successful, is even more compelling because it’s “a true story.”
Also, now I’m friends with a couple scientists, and I am legit scared to subvert their life’s work for the sake of a clever line in a poem. That was a rule I made for myself when working on Mastodon, and it’s served me well in matters of both veracity and craft. Like, who wants to piss off a bunch of paleontologists that were kind enough to let you hold tusks and share their whiskey?
What and/or who inspires your poetry?
Science, zoology, biology, history, food history, family, the mating habits of the grey kangaroo, the coney-style hot dog, Ernest Shackleton, horseshoe crabs, and the stories we tell ourselves about all of the above.
What are you currently working on?
I have a third full-length collection, The Anxiety Workbook, out with some presses at the moment—that book is, surprise!, all about anxiety (both “Gut” and “[…]” appear in it). And I’m about to head to Norway to collaborate once again with the amazing stone carver/visual artist Laura Moore. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Christina Olson is the author of Terminal Human Velocity (Stillhouse Press, 2017). Her chapbook The Last Mastodon won the Rattle 2019 Chapbook Contest. Other work appears in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Normal School, Scientific American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University and tweets about coneys and mastodons as @olsonquest.
In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Maria Zoccola
The following interview was conducted between contributor Maria Zoccola and assistant poetry editor Trisha Daigle discussing Maria’s poem “self-portrait as god” in Volume 24 and Maria’s work. The featured image, I SURRENDER, was created by Genesis TRAMAINE and included as a panel in 2019 at the Paul Robeson Gallery on Rutgers University.
I was immediately drawn to your poem “self-portrait as god” in Volume 24. It takes a certain amount of pluck to pull off a poem where the speaker takes the voice of god. What works for me in this poem though is that god takes on sorrow and regret. There is a humility to it. Art has often bestowed god with human emotions, but rarely do we see god as frail and uncertain. What was the motivation behind this poem? What made you decide to write as god?
In the poem, the concept of god swerves dramatically between God as creator to the creating god inside the human animal. It blurs; it blends until the two are a single entity of anxiety and regret, a consciousness that expands and collapses under and through the weight of in/determinism. At the core of the poem, I needed the speaker—this being that is sometimes mortal and sometimes not—to accept blame. To hold that blame inside them.
You are kind of on fire right now. Recently, you won a Dogwood Award, and your short story, “We Hold Our Treasures, We Bury Them” was a Best of the Net finalist. On your website you have listed 19 forthcoming publications for 2022, including a set of Helen of Troy poems that will appear in the Kenyon Review. Tell me a little about these poems. What was the inspiration behind Helen of Troy?
Oh, thank you so much for asking! I’m pretty jazzed about the Helen project. I’m a total Iliad nerd, and about a year ago I started writing persona poems in the voices of women from the epic—I had an Andromache poem in a recent issue of Grain, for example, and there’s an Iphigenia poem forthcoming from Salt Hill. I hadn’t touched Helen, though. She didn’t excite me the way the others did; there was no sense of doom about her, no scythe waiting just offscreen. She bounces through the Trojan War in safe luxury and then goes home with her former husband to resume the throne of Sparta. Isn’t there something just a little bit maddening about that? Aren’t you kind of on the side of the other gals, the ones who finish their run slain or enslaved?
But I finally sat down—grudgingly—to try a Helen poem. And completely shocked myself, because what came out on the page was this hilarious, disaffected housewife, this stifled, cliff-edge woman grasping for agency in a world that was not Bronze-Age Greece but instead the hills of my own Tennessee in the early nineties. It was like all the lights in the house turned on at once. I knew her, and I knew following her voice was going to be the work of more than just a poem or two. I’m maybe two-thirds of the way through a full-length manuscript now, and getting to share Helen poems with some of my favorite journals has been immensely validating. Other people are hearing her voice now, too.
A lot of your poems deal with transmutation and fantastical creatures. I think a lot of poets go through this shedding of skin, this molding an identity that feels more true to them than their old selves. I’ve heard that a lot of writers’ first books/early work lean toward coming of age, or young heroes’ journeys. Does this feel true for you? Are your new poems similar in style?
Fantasy and mythology allow us to take hold of emotions and concepts too enormous or amorphous to nail down in our own lives and begin to understand them in a way that is both outside and inside the realities of our lived experiences. Abandonment, grief, longing, even coming of age—these are high-stakes themes that feel differently to us when examined through the familiar or surprising rhythms of folklore, of known entities. Cooler to the touch, perhaps. Consumed in a way that doesn’t scar the throat going down. Sometimes the catgut emotions of real life vibrate too fast to hear the music within them. You’re too close to the canvas; all you see is paint splatter. For me, at least, the fantastical allows me to step back and see the way the brushstrokes line up to create art.
Speaking of new work, what are you writing these days? Or are you working on any big projects?
Helen is taking up most of my poetry brain these days, but I’ve also been starting to explore through my work what it means to be a girl raised by and in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. It’s an enormous set of questions, and there are a thousand ways to get at the answers, some that hurt and some that heal.
All of your poems are written without capital letters. Is this simply a stylistic choice?
Fiction writing feels to me like marching into the world, like declaring myself into a microphone. Poetry feels so very different. Poetry feels like whispering, like passing notes under a desk, like drawing letters in ocean foam that run together and dissolve. The lowercase is a way of keeping that feeling even on the page.
I used to manage a wonderful nonprofit program that put creative writing workshops into public middle schools. Emotions are huge when you’re twelve. They’re all-consuming. When they got too big to fit inside a single body, I’d head out to the hallway with the young writer so we could sit on the floor with our backs against the cinderblock wall. Feet thudded past. Announcements blared overhead. Doors slammed. And the two of us kept talking quietly underneath it all, on the ground, our hearts in our hands. Lowercase feels like that.
Who are some of your favorite writers, poets, thinkers?
To keep the Iliad theme, I’ll start with Alice Oswald! Memorial is all-consuming. Anne Carson, of course. I had the privilege as a college freshman to take a class with Natasha Trethewey, and even after a whole semester of sitting two desks away from her in the workshop circle, I was still so in awe that I never got up the courage to ask her to sign my copy of Native Guard. The head of the creative writing department was Jericho Brown, and somehow I did find the courage to ask for his signature on Please. In a completely different genre, I’ve devoured everything Naomi Novik has ever written and am in agony waiting for her next book.
I’m always curious about a writer’s process. What does your process look like? From where do you draw inspiration?
Someday I’m actually going to learn how to write, and then I won’t have to figure it out all over again from scratch each time I turn the page in my notebook.
Maria Zoccola is a queer Southern writer with deep roots in the Mississippi Delta. She has writing degrees from Emory University and Falmouth University. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Salamander, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her and her work at her website.