Paula Cisewski: Fuck Your Punishment Culture

Paula Cisewski photoINTERVIEW + NEW POEM

Paula Cisewski‘s second poetry collection, Ghost Fargo, was selected by Franz Wright for the Nightboat Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Upon Arrival (Black Ocean), of the chapbooks How Birds Work and Two Museums, and the co-author, with Mathias Svalina, of Or Else What Asked the Flame. Her poems appear regularly in literary magazines such as South Dakota Review, A Handsome Journal; H_NGM_N; Forklift, OH; failbetter; Everyday Genius; We Are So Happy to Know Something; BOMB; and REVOLUTIONesque. She is the 2014 Writer-in-Residence of the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts.

Paula teaches and is, along with her husband Jack Walsh, a cofounder of JoyFace Poetry & Arts. She founded and curated the open mic night at the Artists’ Quarter Jazz Club in St. Paul and the Imaginary Press Reading Series and served as the 2013 host of The Banfill-Locke Reading Series.

Ghost Fargo

Upon Arrival

A Minnesota State Arts Board Grant and a Jerome Grant recipient, Paula worked in warehouses, was an artist mentor with Minneapolis teens, owned a coffee shop, and waited one million tables while raising her son and earning her BA from St. Catherine’s University and her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

* * *

TSE: Paula, in what ways is your work spectral? Your second book, Ghost Fargo, even has the word “ghost” in it–would you also talk about how you arrived at your territory for that book and your title?

PC: Thank you for conversing with me, Sun Yung!

Your question makes me think of that Mina Loy quote, one that I’m using for an epigraph in a current manuscript: “It was the being there of its not being there that intrigued me.”

Too, I recently came across this line from Carl Phillips: “For me, the best poems don’t so much give us place as remind us that there is a place that we don’t inhabit alone–the weather of that place is, variously, joy, despair, terror, innocence, trust, mistake…” That feels comforting, but also incredibly haunting. We share that place with the living and the dead and the not yet-living. the animate and inanimate. Even memory, even desire, are kinds of ghosts. Sitting down to write is invoking the not-present.

On a more literal note, Ghost Fargo meditates a great deal on gone people and things. A cut down tree, an outgrown youth, a lost brother, a  son’s lost father, a glacial sea. How these absent presences can ghost around present experience, and also enrich it.

TSE: I love those quotes. Even though I don’t know if Fargo qualifies as the rust belt, I definitely felt a sense of kinship with your poems’ settings and attitudes, along many dimensions, in terms of their rust-belt-ness, the same way when I have been to Milwaukee and Detroit and saw many of the same types of scapes that I grew up in around and in Chicago. How has living in Minneapolis, not so far from Fargo, yet with major differences, affected your poetry? Did you start writing while you were still living in Fargo?

PC: Much of the Fargo in the book isn’t Fargo, really. One of the carnivals is Bemidji, MN, where I was born, and where the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues still stand. Other parts are probably my grandparents’ home in Ironwood or Ontonagon, MI. I have family in Milwaukee, and we also lived in a suburb of St. Paul before moving to Fargo. We moved a bit for my father’s job. Maybe that mid-America geographic spread is what gives it that rust-belt feel, or my working class family.

I started writing young; it was a compulsion. I remember turning in a thirty page ghost story in sixth grade, probably to the horror of my teacher, when the page limit was one to three. And in high school I wrote notebooks of punk rock lyrics for a band that sadly never materialized. But it was in Minneapolis, the city I ran back to when I turned 18, where I learned nearly every foundational thing I know about poetry and where I found the most amazing poetry community. I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Minneapolis poetry peers.

TSE: I would second that about the poetry community here! I want to ask you about your new project. I have a variety of questions and feel free to answer any, all, or digress. When did you know that you wanted to write this memoir? Is there a “why now” answer? How did you decide to go the crowdsourcing route? What are some of your memoir influences, if any? What, so far, is different about your prose process, or what is the same as your poetry process? What role is research playing? What do you want people to know and feel when they are reading your finished book? Are you continuing to write poems or work on a poetry book or is the prose book taking up most of your creative time/energy?

PC: I am working on a mixed-genre memoir around my family’s experience with the prison system. It’s something that’s been needling at me to write for well over a decade, but I didn’t feel like a genre-crosser nor did I have a clear idea why a memoir would be an important thing for me to make. In 2009, I received a SASE/Jerome grant and was able to travel and do the initial research, but the going was still amazingly slow. Plus, I had a deeply draining job that limited my ability to delve into narrative. I wrote another manuscript and a half of poetry while I picked at and wrestled with and avoided this story.

This year has been full of epiphanies; I realized that if I put off the writing any longer, I was basically choosing to put it off forever. Plus, my growing awareness of the current prison industrial complex motivated. Documentary work by Ashley Hunt and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have been a couple amazing inspirations to speak up.

The name of my book is Fuck Your Punishment Culture, and I mean that sincerely. The U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population, more than any other country in the world at any time, and we are, among other issues, pouring money into for-profit prisons rather than on programs that could change mindsets and reduce crimes in the first place. I hope people can find something in my personal story to relate to that larger picture. It’s pretty scary to write, so I hope to make discussion of this topic less taboo.

TSE: Thank you, Paula! I look forward to reading Fuck Your Punishment Culture.

* * *


Kimsooja is
a needle woman.
She stands
straight up
like a sewing needle
pricked into
a busy street.
She has become
insistent stillness,
stability as one
kind of lawlessness.
The possibilities
of degeneration,
constant. In the busy
marketplace, people
walk wide circles
around Kimsooja.
Her statement is
her rootedness.
Her rootedness is
in the way.
She is doing
a play I name
“The sorrow
of all silent


A belief in needle
women sends a message
about the self.

Compared to another
artist, I am
only a sometimes

needle woman.
Though I tried

perfectly still
like some kind
of prick. It was

a game
of telephone.
Playing telephone

with Kimsooja’s art
and the stillness
image started,

but then it circled
back meaning something
entirely different.

Let’s just look
at this belief
for a second

without freaking:
I wanted to worship
a needle woman.


Some women
are spiders,

not needles.
Feel free

to worship them.
Any worship-object sends

a message about
the self.                                Degenerationism.       It’s caught

webbing. Dust,
dew, laundry pile:

all varieties of proof

the natural world.


A spider woman
crawled from
the back of a dream
and into my ear

and laid her eggs
while I was playing
telephone with
needle woman.

* * *

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