Welcome Back, Laura McCullough!

This month we are featuring the poets and writers who have signed with us in the past twelve months—all writers who submitted work during one of our two annual open reading periods.

Today we bring you Laura McCullough whose poetry collection Jersey Mercy will be her third with Black Lawrence Press.

The Author


Laura McCullough lives at the Jersey Shore. Her essays, memoirs, stories, and poetry have appeared widely in places such as in The Georgia Review, The American Poetry Review, Guernica, Pank, Gulf Coast, The Writer’s Chronicle, and others. Her recent books include an edited anthology, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia Press, 2015), and Rigger Death & Hoist Another (poems, BLP, 2013).  Her previous books include Panic (poems, Alice James Books, 2011; winner of the Kinereth Genseler Award and a Foreword Book of the Year Finalist), Speech Acts (poems, BLP, 2010), and What Men Want (XOXOX Press, 2009), and The Dancing Bear (poems, Open Book Press, 2007), and the anthology The Room and the World: Essays on Stephen Dunn (University of Syracuse Press, 2014). Her poem, “There Were Only Dandelions” was selected by Sherman Alexi for Best American Poetry, 2015. She was selected as a writer for the 2014/15 Florida Writers Circuit tour and has read in the Dodge Poetry Festival, the Decatur Book Festival, and other events. She has had fellowships or scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Sewanee Writers Conference, the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, the NJ State Arts Council among others.  She teaches full time at Brookdale Community College in NJ and is on the faculty of the Sierra Nevada low-res MFA and has taught for Ramapo College and Stockton University. She teaches for the Peter Murphy Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway. She is the founding editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations.

The Book

As I was drafting these  poems over the last few years, the narratives were all based on sonics influenced by the collision of sea shantys, pop, and hip hop music. I was looking for an amalgamation of musicality, and in the end, the narratives have this highly syncopated sonic rebar full of rhyme, near rhyme, assonance, and consonance. The “ear” of each section of the project is very different, almost like a club with multiple music rooms you move through. I hoped that there would be a sonic arc to the book as well as a narrative one. But, too, I hoped there would be a kind of psycho-spiritual arc; it moves from the mundane, the daily, the profane even, through the storm, like Hurricane Sandy, and meditations and explorations (the depths, the after-effects), and then back to a kind of calm, as in after a storm, but one in which Mercy, standing in for all of us, has to find a way to go on. You will see Bruce Springsteen in the last few poems of the book as a character who is a symbol for this, much as he is in real life.



Moon Croon in Eatontown
Mercy and Fred stand spitting seeds outside the port-a-potty
between the construction site and convenience store;
Rick is inside puking. He’s got too much something and not
enough something else—food; restraint; who knows?
Mercy’s social is tattooed across her neck. In case they find
my body, she told her mother. Now, she sings “Love Me
Tender.” Fred is listening past her voice for the next train
to the City, the one so many boys have been jumping in
front of. How many in this handful of years? Some fathers,
too, whose shame has grown on the tracks, and Fred
thinks the whole town is down and afraid. He wants
out. The nighttime whistle seems low and sad; for some
it rings hope, others anger. The train comes this way, goes
that, but everyone ends up in the same place—fly away
or lay down flat—someone singing old Elvis tunelessly
waiting out the night in a 7-Eleven parking lot.
Mercy Gets Her Krump On in Atlantic City and Shows Some Boys How to Dance Like a Girl
Tommy 2 AC Clown pops his ass down
on the boards says Show me what you got.
Mercy says, You think you know,
then does her show, going
diss and sick: bully, beasty, cocky.
All flash, no goof, not yet;
Mid East pop in her I-pod, power jerks and rugged,
she mugs a face, has learned grace is thought
weak, ends in pose, says, You so white,
without irony, wishing she weren’t.
She is grimy and sweaty from her
snaking and shaking and quaking and twerking,
feeling free right now from fear,
loving to be near what makes her feel alive.
When she gets the bus home, the mile-markers
on the Garden State Parkway clicking by
out her window look like the ruler
she will refuse to be beaten with, and she’ll calculate
the days until she can go again to,
Show them how it’s done.
Nautical Tattoo
He tells me a turtle once meant a sailor
had passed
the equator; a dragon or swallow or map
of China meant he flew
five thousand miles, and two was double.
A man in trouble might
have a beating held off by a praying Jesus
on his back.  If he’d been
to Cape Horn, then stars on his ear lobes;
a nautical star,
five pointed and dark, meant to be a psychic
light to guide the sailor
home when lost.  Some with angel wings.
A red one and a green one
on the chest was a warning, said, I am best;
give way. Who can wear
a thing like this today, I ask, my bare arm against
the rest, his pen poised.
Narrative has given way, he says,
but each of us is still the star in the center
of our own universe.
My fingers clench; the muscles in my forearm tense;
I’m posing and know it.
Once a student said I needed a tattoo for the experience
of pain. That’s a country
we’ve all been to, I’d said, even then floundering.
What right had I earned
to respond that way? As if I could speak the same
language as him,
as if I actually knew my own way home.