Absence and Other Inheritances: A Review of Hieu Minh Nguyen's Not Here by Peter LaBerge

BY ALLY FINDLEY

Hieu Minh Nguyen’s  Not Here  is available from  Coffee House Press  now!

Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here is available from Coffee House Press now!

In the epigraph of his 2018 collection Not Here, Hieu Minh Nguyen quotes Jason Shinder: “Let me keep on describing things to be sure they happened.” This, I think, is the most salient description of what this book attempts in its seventy-three pages. Throughout, we get the sense that we are witnessing a process of solidification, of personal reflection but also personal verification, as the collection refracts the same instances and figures in the author’s life to resolve them into a clearer overall image. This evolves throughout the text cyclically, the collection not sectioned into themes but returning to characters we come to know throughout the book, at different critical moments in their lives and at their intersections with the poet.

In the opening poem, “White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual,” Nguyen writes:

I guess I’m trying to explain what’s happening
without leaving

Nguyen digs his heels into the American Midwest, the place where he grew up, determined to achieve some sort of understanding of this formative place, its people, the memories grounded there. Though not always sure what he will find, or certain he will know how to confront it when it comes, Nguyen goes to meet his ghosts.

Throughout the collection, there are a couple of overtly linked progressions, the most distinct of which is the “White Boy Time Machine” series. This cycle begins with “White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual,” which is the first poem in the collection, and it continues, spaced at regular intervals, throughout the entirety of the collection. These poems set themselves the daunting task of dissecting the speaker’s relationships with white men. These interactions display the many ways that the weight of history is brought to bear on the intimate ways we relate as individuals.

The first poem invokes, with the air of a far-off, mythical land:

In the beginning there was corn, a whole state
of boys blond as the plants surrounding them.

And as the series continues, The White Boy becomes a mythical figure, one who represents something larger than his dopey grin and corn blond hair. He is a figure of ignorance and of desire, picked apart and examined here, but the product of a life that has not required him to do much examination himself. He is the self-defined Default of the American Midwest, that blunt force of uncritical existence that crashes against the tortured self-dissection of these poems (“oh, but why am I here?” Nguyen writes).

The series as a whole is spaced so that you dip in and out of them as you read, each time performing a process he describes as “climbing inside a boy & crawling / out into yesterday’s light.” The White Boy Time Machine poems examine a more instinctive and difficult to parse, but visceral, discomfort. Being with white boys makes the speaker feel a sense of near betrayal, or renunciation of his Vietnamese heritage, and throughout, this disconnect is emphasized by wide indents, structured almost in the manner of call and response (“i bit his lip” “spat back my grandmothers bones”). Each poem overlays a depiction of romantic and/or sexual relationships with white boys with the raw (and often violent) historical implications of their often flippant remarks. “But where are you really from?” his boyfriend’s parents ask. Nguyen muses, “Yesterday is the wrong answer, tomorrow too.” Nguyen examines the needles social ease (so often requested of people of color in white-majority social contexts) demands you swallow.

In “White Boy Time Machine: Software,” the second poem in this series, he describes a meet-the-parents situation with an underlying grimness:“the machine reassures me that i have nothing / to prove / i am who they think i am / i lace the corset, tight / blend a decimated village into the hollows / of my cheeks / a dirt burlesque.”

What his white boyfriend and his parents might see as avoiding controversial topics, or not belaboring historical issues that can bear no resolution at the kitchen table, is to the narrator a violent act of renunciation. To see this as a trivial sacrifice for social convenience is a privilege, and privilege a sharp blade wielded clumsily.

This series of poems forcefully captures the way it can chip away at you, having to explain compassion into people, and ignorance out of them, and how, even if in the end your pain is acknowledged, the distance that remains renders it ultimately and inevitably unsatisfying. The exhaustion caused by people will not see their contradictions—their transgressions, feel the weight of history for themselves without your insistences on your own behalf—is palpable. And as this exhaustion builds, eventually you give up (and “blend a decimated village into the hollows / of [your] cheeks”), with the added sting of your boyfriend and his family deeming this interaction a social success.

Throughout the collection, Nguyen’s command of language brings these realizations about in a way that is irrefutable: the situations are recognizable, the dialogue familiar, the images spliced together imprinted on our history. Each enjambment draws a new connection and makes clear Nguyen’s tight control of the line. Again and again, he slowly drops you then catches you, from one revelatory juxtaposition to the next.

This collection meditates on the aesthetics of power and privilege, personified by the blue-eyed boys of the American Midwest. One of the most fascinating examples for this is his mother’s response to her son’s relationships with men. When she first discovers her son is queer, she reacts strongly, but in a way we realize later is borne from concerns for her son’s safety. Interestingly, what seems to be years after his initial coming out, “made curious by loneliness,” his mother asks him about his current boyfriend and learns that this boyfriend is white:

It was simple before: I could not love him.
But now –
he will keep you safe.
& suddenly, the logic is gone.
Suddenly
I’m given the simple conditions
to my mother’s compromise.

safe.

His mother’s perspective depends on a kind of cultural capital, which can contribute to or detract from a sense of relative safety. This question of safety is not urgent or bodily to these White Boys, but it is physical and tangible to the speaker and to his mother, and for this reason she urges him, if he must love men, to love the white men who can keep him relatively safe.

A shallower reading of their relationship would leave out that understanding and the fraught love that lies underneath the fact that this is the one person you know who understands things you can’t explain to anyone else. His relationship with his mother is a big focus in this collection, and he touchingly describes her in the final dedication as “the person [he] understands most in this world.” As he dissects his relationships with men, he does so through the lens of his mother’s processing of his queerness and of how it fits within the paradigm of her own experiences with men. After all, they do share one heartbreak: Nguyen’s father walking out on the two of them, and despite living close by, ignoring them when he runs into them in the supermarket—an estrangement that cannot be attributed to physical distance. This experience seems to tie them together, informing both of their perspectives of what it means to be a man, a lover, a father.

The last stanza of the first “White Boy Time Machine” poem, with the haunting echo of a child’s lullaby, imagines his mother as a girl:

Somewhere somewhere
My mother is a girl
Somewhere somewhere
A soldier hands her a flower
& my eyes flicker blue

I interpret this excerpt as the poet examining how echoes of his own sexuality might find parallels in an imagined past of his mother’s (who, perhaps, was a young woman in Vietnam at the time of the War, a time in which many young Vietnamese women were preyed upon by white soldiers). The stanza impressionistically touches on his mother’s youth and her relationships with men, the intersection of race and culture with sexuality, and through these lenses trace his mother’s cynicism toward men, and how that is brought to bear on his own relationships. He attempts to understand himself through his mother, writing in “Lessons,” “If I’m anything, I’m a boy inside his mother’s body / Shoveling coal into a screaming red engine.”

Throughout, this collection and its author draw the reader into deeply personal and emotional moments, but always resist full disclosure, full intimacy with the reader. These truths were hard won, and even more difficult to reveal, to share and process visibly on these pages. Nguyen’s reluctant sharing feels like a kept promise to himself not to shy away from the truth, but to remember things, to be sure they happened. It makes the reader more grateful that he did, and it makes his writing feel much more real and immediate for the struggle of telling. His reluctance feels like the same poles of a magnet being forced close together—the force is more powerful that way, but always violently resists a direct touch.

One way to thread this collection together is to look at it as an examination of different means and definitions of inheritance. We encounter, early on, the obvious way of defining Nguyen’s inheritance: his struggles between connection and estrangement from Vietnamese culture, his complicated relationships with his parents. Yet inheritance as a model can be traced into many other pieces of this collection. And perhaps because of the ways in which traditional definitions of inheritance fail to capture his experience, Nguyen feels compelled to institute replacements.

A particularly poignant example of this comes in the poem “Elegy for the First.” At his uncle’s funeral, it dawns on the speaker that the man his mother claims is just his uncle’s “roommate” is also the person “there / in every photograph / of you smiling.” He realizes that this man must have been his uncle’s romantic partner. Though the moment arrives with a tenderness, the revelation’s timing is devastating. Too late, he realizes that he was related to his uncle not just by blood, but by experience—that perhaps his uncle’s experiences could have helped him understand his own. This lineage he acknowledges in the title—“Elegy for the First”—the beginning of a different kind of family line.

This poem is the devastation of a loss experienced only after you realized you had something else to lose, some comfort nearby that you couldn’t know to seize—and in this case, that means the loss of a rare and precious means of understanding and closeness. The depiction of the speaker standing next to the partner at the open casket, in a shared yet very separate loss, is crushing. He writes,

                       Pray
for the right ghosts                  to walk you
to the end of each season.

This hits at the heart of this poem: the right ghosts. What you are haunted by, but also whose presence you need to stick around awhile to guide you. This collection does seem to be about ghosts, and of picking those right ones, and of how to treat the ones you have, as well as how to exorcize yourself of the ghosts who insist on tormenting you.

In this poem, the “here” of the collection’s title takes on the meaning of the mortal world, the place his uncle left behind.

Uncle, a story before you sleep:
here, a child                dressed in dust.
                                   This time you wait for him
before you leave.

The absence is even more sharp for what other inheritances, lineages, the speaker feels lost from, disconnected to. The speaker longs to “& inherit any pulse you might’ve left behind,” catching at this thread as it disappears.

This sense of estrangement from traditional lineage is critical to Nguyen’s writing on queerness. Queer boyhood in particular is the central landscape of this collection—and it contains some of the most elucidating descriptions of the nuances it creates in his relationships, including but not limited to those with childhood friends, first loves, girls for whom he was the “gay best friend” in high school, relationship with parents as you grow older, as they accept you or accept being estranged from you (or any of the shades of gray in between).

In the poem “Nguyen” (one of the collection’s longest, and referring to the poet’s surname), he calls himself “A child                     of redacted blood.” He describes, briefly, how the use of the name “Nguyen” came about to obscure individual family ties, uniting under a single last name so that others can’t be singled out or endangered, merging their histories into one document, obscuring individual pasts. In describing himself as a “child of redacted blood,” Nguyen refers not only to his own feelings of estrangement from Vietnamese culture, but also to the name itself, as the poem tells of how he fell for another boy with the same last name. He writes that he was willing to

Forfeit my name
if all it has offered is the curse
of distance.

At the same time, we are given the sense that this name represents cultural identity and/or collective identity, and he would forfeit that for the sake of being true to his individual identity and to pursuing his needs as an individual person. Some loss seems inevitable: “Let me be clear, any love I find will be treason,” he writes. Nguyen offers his renunciation of his family’s past if it comes at the price of a future containing love.

With discussions of inheritance, we are also led to one of inherited emotional wounds. In “Again, Let Me Tell You What I Know About Trust,” Nguyen examines his relationship with his father, humanizing his father’s neglect by reflecting on how his father’s guilt for leaving manifests in reactionary impulse, anger, instead of reconciliatory, healing gestures. Nguyen writes that his father “[carries] guilt the same way he would a bat.” Not able to see through his hurt into a more productive response, the wounds remain unhealed, even if their origin is made clearer. And this means of inheritance makes more sense than a neat resolution: so often guilt is a bat, not a quiet penitence—something that surges up, so large in your throat that it feels as if it must cleared with force.

In “Again, Let Me Explain Again,” one of the longest poems in the collection that is separated out into sections/cycles of its own, he starts with “— perhaps I do want children / for reasons other than to appease my mother.” From here, Nguyen begins an extended hypothetical about parenting that ultimately opens the discussion of how the trauma he has endured could in turn be visited upon any children he ends up raising. This evolves into a discussion of his childhood sexual abuse, describing the abuse as a parasite, entering but then only resurfacing (“hatching” to use his words) far later, though it has been feeding on you all this time, like a sleeper cell of trauma. He writes:

& here I am today, years later, the host
of touch, a boy who lets the spider crawl onto his face
before smacking it dead.

The speaker addresses his fear of fatherhood and of perpetuating the cycle of trauma and even potentially abuse, that he might not realize he would perpetuate until he has the child. In “White Boy Time Machine: Joy Ride” (a title so blunt, darkly sarcastic, and viscerally stomach-turning), he writes as a survivor of sexual abuse: “I want to be a braver kind of meat.” These two poems address the cyclical nature of trauma, its potential to be its own kind of inheritance, and the dark implications of that. We all think that the cycle will stop with us, but what if it doesn’t? What if our nightmares are visited on those we seek to protect? Or rather:

Some spells take years
to cast. Some men
don’t know
they’re hungry
until they eat.

Yet within the collection, there are moments of hope, lampposts on the way through the dark. One of the most touching, “Attending the Party,” captures the importance and refuge of chosen family, while articulating with great tenderness the difficult process of accepting that love when you grapple with a depression that urges you to isolate yourself. He writes,

How lucky I am
           to be missed
by those who have run out
of ways to hold me?
& isn’t that what I always wanted?
                       To keep something perfect
long enough for everyone to notice
when I’m gone.

There are many poems, too, that, while perhaps sad, elegiac even, are undeniably love poems.

“Still, Somehow,” for example, is another ghost poem, but such a tender one. Nguyen speaks across the distance of loss softly and gently—

& because you aren’t here (won’t ever, again, be here)
to cover my mouth, I’ll confess, out loud, my love, so maybe
perhaps, you will hear me & join me, here, where the sun is sweet
against the water & because I love you, I will gut this distance
with nostalgia […]

It’s crushing, and yet it is his way of not just preserving but perpetuating the presence of these people he loves, for one last conversation. There is clarity in this grief—a realization of the full value of what has been lost, and in that clarity, at least, some sense of peace.

Alexander Chee writes of this book, “I’ve been waiting for this book, and if you’ve ever read one of these, you probably have been too—this collection is essential.” For me, that was undeniably true, and the reward of reading and engaging with this book was indescribably rich, nuanced, and textured. There is much to learn here from the way in which Nguyen reckons gently with the ghosts of his past. With luck, we may all find the right ghosts for ourselves.

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Ally Findley is currently the Editor at David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston. She holds a B.A. in English from Cornell University.

i feel my absence, i feel my presence: A Review of Marwa Helal’s Invasive species by Peter LaBerge

BY JUSTIN PHILLIP REED

Marwa Helal’s  Invasive species  is now available from Nightboat Books.

Marwa Helal’s Invasive species is now available from Nightboat Books.

In the eponymously-titled first section of Marwa Helal’s Invasive species, the speaker of the poem “the middle east is missing” seems to respond to its initial series of questions—beginning “wha do osama bin laden and i have in common?”—with anaphoric demands for utterance: “say we were occupied,” “say we did it ourselves,” “say je suis zidane, je suis egyptienne,” “say it to a rhythm not a plot,” “say it in the colonizer’s tongue,” and so on. A reader could argue that these interrogative and imperative prompts are rhetorical, intended only to be sounded in the mind. However, in a book that appears to take as one of its many ambitions a relentless, magnifying grid-like attention to the construction of U.S. American lexicons, a text generally concerned with how language is made to perform as both sector and suture in narratives of migration and that specifically illuminates the precise deployment of threat as a lexical tone embedded in the jargon of government “naturalization” documents and processes, Helal may in fact be invoking here the call-and-response tradition of oral poetry. Or am I not meant to feel in my mouth the consonance, morphemic divergences, and sliding inflections of these words?

say mine
say yemen
say yememi
say zay (like)
say hena (here)

In this same poem, the speaker asks “would you make a space for me? between zoot jute epoxy and a hard place somewhere.” For one, what proximity is there among these nouns other than that which the poet forces? “Zoot” and “jute” sing their common place of articulation and their assonance. In their denotations most immediately available to this reader, the former names a style of suit famously worn by Detroit Red a.k.a. Malcolm X a.k.a. el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, while the latter names a vegetable, the fiber of which is used to produce the fabric of such as burlap or crocus. “Epoxy” might refer to, among other things, a kind of resin used in some paints, coatings, and adhesives for structural materials. Similar linguistic collages/coagulations occur elsewhere throughout the poem; their sounds and denotative navigations resonate in such phrases as “jaunt, wax     wane” and “zoom in. stow the box, lock the key.” What space would the speaker want to have made from this dissonance of apparent fragments? Is the juxtaposition a corrective, an adhesive for what’s “missing?” This is a microspective instance of Helal’s efforts to enliven the play between registers, words, and even syllables (consider the processional intervention represented by the affixed affix in the title “Epiepilogue”) to reckon with geographic, linguistic, and memorial distances in her debut, which in parts chronicles the poet’s two-and-a-half-year pursuit of U.S. citizenship and almost four decades of being both Egyptian and American—in and of, to and from.

The subsequent piece, “the middle east experts are missing,” enlists the page’s visual field to involve the observer in dynamic agential work. Beyond the title, the sole text on the page arrives along its bottom margin: “* drops duct tape * wipes brow *.” In reading the blank space between the title and this subject-less evidence of action, what is it Helal has made the reader privy to? Accomplice to? The dimensions of the page conjure the interrogation room. Who has used duct tape and worked up a sweat? For what—a repair, a gagging, an erasure? Does the page use absence to force into question who the “middle east experts” are, or would be, even? What does Middle East expertise sound like and from whose mouth? Or, rather, given the attention lent elsewhere in Invasive species to the historically troubled terminology of “the Middle East” and its referents, is the refusal of text and simulated (presumed) muffling of speech an enactment of colonial-imperial practices of thwarting the colonized’s agency in self-identification? Is this where the concluding question of Philip Metres’s essay “Dispatch from the Land of Erasure (I)” reverberates? [ 1 ] Here, Helal delivers a nearly unoccupied field that is itself semantically occupied with the obscurity of those who would be pre-occupied with occupied territories. Who goes there? And what am I doing here?

In addition to the visual representation of absence—or absence as representation, as in “poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids,” which features a square excised from the text as dedication to Tahrir Square, a site of protest and revolution in Cairo—Helal’s rhetorical and poetic tools are many. The texts of Invasive species employ, often in conjunction, epistles, footnotes, photocopies, found texts, appropriated government documents, the cento, and the Zuihitsu. The book’s opener, “poem to be read right to left,” instantiates Helal’s formal conceit “the Arabic,” which functions almost pedagogically to simulate the experience of newly encountering the directional strangeness of Western text, disrupting grammatical arrangements that native English readers might take for granted while contending with the poet’s own syntactical manipulation (“for mistaken am i native / go i everywhere / moon and sun to”), and eliciting inevitable neologisms and trips in meaning-making as the mind struggles to outpace the text. The abecedarian forms the organizing principal for the book’s second section, “Immigration as a Second Language,” a 54-page narrative collage of Helal’s immigration process, composed in parts of memoir, catalogue, travelogue, and glossary, and conveyed in tones of isolation, humor, and warranted anger. The book rounds out with a poem that employs a homeoteleuton of rapper Juvenile’s punctuating “ha,” as well as an ode to DJ Khaled that—with the redacted presence of Kanye West elsewhere, the echoes of Lil Jon and Oobie’s “Nothing Free” in Helal’s “of Ritual,” and the waves of liquid-heavy Arabic sonics that undulate like mnemonic refrains throughout—helps to underline music and lyric as sites for vernacular connection while foreclosing any kneejerk tendency toward hierarchies of register, art, inspiration, or responsibility to genre. These words from “poem for brad” resound: “the poets will say this poem is trash / but i don’t care.”

Candid and confident about its ecosystems of influence, at times wildly omnivorous and polylingual, purposefully pedestrian at others, the lyrical avatar of Invasive species is one whose existential impulse seems to be rabid availability—to the poet’s multitude of peoples and places—negotiated crossways by a slick, uppercutting investment in infiltration rather than naturalization, divergence (not “diversity”), and didacticism as a form of information smuggling. Helal’s is a work that could be described as attempting to alchemize M. NourbeSe Philip’s and June Jordan’s expressly stated needs—Nourbese Philip’s to “mess with the lyric” [ 2 ] and Jordan’s “to speak about living room.” [ 3 ] Invasive species swiftly takes its place among those volumes that have been donned with the epithet of “linguistically playful” but would more aptly be called linguistically displaced and reparative, formally discontented, prescriptively disinterested, and necessarily chimaeric. A scrubbing restlessness—and the question of what space of respite exists for it—infuses Helal’s utterance and demand for utterance:

but i can write you of ritual of ritual of ritual a structure of feeling a problematic repetition you see i am trying to break the mold i have no form [ 4 ]

____________________

[ 1 ] This question: “What countries could we see, and what countries could we make, if we erased the erasures?” Metres’s essay is one of a series by Arab American writers, including Helal, that challenges—outwardly and amongst the writers themselves—the particular invisibilities and inarticulations of and within Arab American experiences in the face of white-ascendant colonialism and its myopic canonical and critical discourse cohorts.

[ 2 ] Read the full text in the anthology Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, edited by Yopie Prins and Maeera Shreiber (Cornell University Press, 1997). Challenging the presupposed authority of the lyric “I” and reckoning with its collapse into (as well as its constitution of) a collective expression, Philip declares this need in the essay “Trying Her Tongue” and then practices it in the interior lyric piece, “Ignoring Poetry (a work in progress),” in which the speaker answers her own question: how does the poet work / a language / engorged / on her many / many silences // Carefully

[ 3 ] This line, from Jordan’s “Moving Towards Home,” is delivered repeatedly as if a chant toward manifestation and then distilled in its sentiment by the ultimate line—It is time to make our own way home—which I (mis)read as “time to make a home out of our own way, to create home from or within our own manners of speech and space-making.” Note: I read Jordan’s “our” as specific and intentional (I was born a Black woman / and now / I am become a Palestinian) and do not coopt it for the sake of this text.

[ 4 ] From “of ritual.”

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Justin Phillip Reed is a South Carolina native and the author of Indecency (Coffee House Press), winner of the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry. His work has appeared in African American Review, Best American Essays, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Obsidian, and elsewhere. Justin lives in St. Louis. Come see about him at justinphillipreed.com.

Conversations with Contributors: Megan Peak by Peter LaBerge

BY HOLLY MASON

Megan Peak, author  Girldom  ( Perugia Press ) and contributor to  Issue Sixteen .

Megan Peak, author Girldom (Perugia Press) and contributor to Issue Sixteen.

Megan Peak received her M.F.A. in Poetry from The Ohio State University, where she was former Poetry Editor aThe Journal.  Her first book of poetry, Girldom, won the 2018 Perugia Press Prize and was published in Fall 2018. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas with her son.

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Holly Mason: Congratulations on receiving the Perugia Press Prize! How did you respond when you heard the news?

Megan Peak: Thank you so much, Holly! Well, of course I was shocked and incredibly excited, but really what made the news most memorable was that I had just stepped away from my son in the NICU, who was born over 3 months early at 1 lb. 10 oz., to take the call from Becky at Perugia Press. Talk about highs and lows. It was surreal to hear my book had been chosen at this time in my life when I felt so far away from poetry. I am forever grateful for that call and for how it slowly pushed me back to the pages of Girldom and to newer works.

HM: Approximately how long did it take you from start to finish to write the poems and put together Girldom? And what within that time kept you writing?

MP: I would say it took about five years total. I spent the three years in my M.F.A. program working on these poems, my thesis, and then about two more years refining the book’s order, playing with the narrative arcs, adding new pieces and removing ones that didn’t fit anymore.

What kept me writing? I suppose the world did; it has never ceased to catapult me through both wonderful and terrifying experiences that, for me, are best processed on the page.

HM: What was the process like for choosing the Girldom cover image? And what are your own meditations on that image?

MP: That’s a great question. I was lucky enough to collaborate with a former partner on this image, which was such a unique process and is now quite bittersweet when looking at the cover. To work with another artist is such a privilege, especially when you get to watch them translate your work into something else. We read the book in its entirety together, and then she went through and marked the poems or images that “spoke” to her. She began drafting and sketching then moved into the digital realm, where she pretty quickly came up with the book’s cover as it looks now.

To me, the cover image is both provocative and delicate, which I suppose in a way encompasses a major thematic juxtaposition throughout the book. There’s this female body—bared, not entirely there, head exploding with stereotypically gendered colors, her frame surrounded by darkness—that exhibits a kind of violence present in the book. And then there’s the pale pink, the faint blue, the soft edges of the body, the way it glows against the black backdrop that speaks to the tenderness that can also be found within the poems. It’s a beautiful and smart image, and I’m lucky to have it as my cover.

HM: In “Self-Portrait As Stinging Nettle,” image carries and holds meaning, and this seems to happen in other poems throughout the collection. I am wondering if you would be interested in talking about the way poetry allows for this mode of communicating?

MP: When I was growing up, my favorite books were the ones that engaged all my senses, that allowed me to close my eyes and exist in the worlds the writers created on the page. I could chant with the witches in Macbeth; I could explore the moorlands with Catherine and Heathcliff; I could discover color and smell, pain and pleasure, along with Jonas in The Giver.

Imagery is crucial in my poems. I want my readers to be able to experience something when reading, and to be able to craft a poem that is grounded in an image, that walks toward, through, and / or away from an image has always interested me. I think poetry absolutely allows, requires even, the image as a mode of communication, translation, and reflection. The white space on the page, the opportunity for friction in line breaks, the precision of language—all of this within poetry urges us to communicate through vivid imagery.

In Girldom, I like to think of imagery as a kind of prism. There are images repeated throughout—the ice and snow, the wasp, the river, the girl—and I wanted the images to evolve as the book progressed. I wanted the reader to notice the stinging insects, the iced-over river, the girl turned woman, and I wanted them to see if and how these images changed from poem to poem, how that in and of itself is a way to communicate transformation, experience, and redemption.

HM: There is a pairing between tenderness and pain throughout the book that is quite compelling. For instance, the last stanza in “Wasp & Nettle”:

Here where I finally realize the sting
surrounded by all that is soft, the thistle
among all this tenderness, the sweet
wind passing through like an arrow.

I once read a Pema Chödrön quote that talks about “the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself,” and it really stuck with me when I needed it. Is there anything you can speak to about this pairing in the book?

MP: What a fantastic quote! Well, the book handles quite a bit of trauma—the turmoil of growing up, the violence of assault and its aftermath, the ache in being a girl, a woman, queer, different. This book, though, also attempts to find beauty and mercy in the world. I hope this collection allows readers to experience a world where both pain and tenderness exist, a world that may be marred by violence but a world also threaded through with gentle and tender moments. I hope the poems in Girldom remind readers that there is something so delicate and necessary about self-care, preservation, and awareness to these moments.

HM: In Girldom, there is something very striking (and relatable) about the image of the young girl (the coming-of-age girl) as an observer. The book seems to hold meaningful commentary about what one learns and doesn’t learn and the varied modes of learning/instruction within the coming-of-age process. I don’t know if I’ve read another book of poetry, specifically, that seems to arc in this way. This makes me curious about two different questions. (a) Are there any coming-of-age pieces that spoke or still speak to you deeply? (b) And what wishes do you have for your own child in their coming-of-age process (a lofty question, I know).

MP: I love that you call the girl(s) “observers” since the book plays with experience and agency and where on the spectrum girls fall in regards to observance, experience, and how much say that had in said experiences.

One “coming-of-age” poem that I still return again and again is “Young” by Anne Sexton. I adore everything about it—how it glides through itself in one long sentence much how adolescence felt to me: just one long summer of wasps and stars and budding things like bodies and desire, pleasure and pain. I love the prickle of language in the poem, the innocence of the girl but also the way Sexton seems to imply a shift in that innocence toward the end of the poem.

As for my own child, that is such a timely question since I gave birth to my son earlier last year. As a mother, I think really what we all want is for our kids to be happy. As for growing up, I hope he will continue to see the world with as much awe and wonder and curiosity he does now for as long as possible.

HM: This is another perhaps hefty or possibly trite question. How do you make decisions about form? Some poems in this collection exist in tercets, others couplets, others a single solid stanza.

MP: You know, form has never been a huge part of my poem-making process. A lot of times, it has to do with line breaks or how the poem actually looks on the page. Sometimes it has to do with musicality and pacing—one long stanza might leave one feeling a little more breathless than, say, a poem existing in couplets or tercets.

HM: I found the sounds and phrasing of so many lines to be remarkably stunning. For example, these lines in “Riddance:”: “This act of clearing—quarry in my chest tidied,/ swept bare of stones.” Or the sounds in “Origin”: “Tell me the world isn’t still// balanced on rib bones.” And often what stunned me was the accompanied image of the natural world intertwined intimately with human nature and the human body. Within your composition process do you begin with sound or image first or do they come simultaneously? Also, can you speak to your interest in the mixing of nature and human nature in the book?

MP: Image almost always comes to me first and then the music. I have no idea what that says about me as a writer or human being, but I tend to see something, whether real or imagined, and then use language and lyricism to breathe life into it.

As for nature and human nature, it’s an age-old affair, no? It seems we are always battling one another, trying to overpower one another. We are always trying to coexist, find some sort of harmony, and that has always interested me. So much of both human nature and nature nature deals with that duality of pain and tenderness; there really is so much we have in common with the natural world if we took the time to look and listen.

HM: Who are some of the poets, writers, humans, and/or artists that you admire?

MP: There are so many writers and poets to admire, and my list is always growing. A few that come to mind immediately are Kathy Fagan Grandinetti, Raena Shirali, Kate Gaskin, Maggie Smith, Ada Limón, Paige Quiñones, Louise Glück, and Diane Seuss.

HM: Lastly, what reading recommendations do you have? Or what books do you love and feel super attached to/smitten with?

MP: I’m constantly returning to C.D. Wright’s “Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil,” since it never ceases to reignite my love for language. Everything by Aracelis Girmay and Kiki Petrosino blows me away. There’s just not enough time in the day to read everything on my shelves right now!

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Holly Mason received her MFA in Poetry from George Mason University, where she taught undergraduate English courses and served as the blog editor for So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. Her poems have appeared in Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Outlook Springs, The Northern Virginia Review, Bourgeon, and Foothill Poetry Journal. She received a Bethesda Urban Partnership Poetry prize, selected by E. Ethelbert Miller. She has been a reader and panelist for OutWrite (A Celebration of LGBT Literature) in D.C. She currently lives and teaches in Northern Virginia.

A Texture Wholly Unlike My Life: A Review of Kristen Tracy’s Half-Hazard by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

Half-Hazard , by Kristen Tracy, is out from Graywolf Press now!

Half-Hazard, by Kristen Tracy, is out from Graywolf Press now!

As days grow cold and short, it’s refreshing to encounter a book like Kristen Tracy’s Half-Hazard, which at every opportunity orients itself toward gratefulness, luck, and wonder. Tracy’s debut collection isn’t free of darkness—it lives in the real world—but it asks the reader to acknowledge their own resilience; they’ve survived every danger, returned from every underworld, and that’s remarkable and worth celebrating. Tracy’s practiced eye for what is interesting and strange, as well as life-affirming, makes this debut a worthy light to carry into the winter season.

In these poems, Tracy is interested in transformation—something becoming more than or other than itself—and she grapples with it in her weirdest, most arresting poems like “Having It,” which revisits the goose who lays the golden eggs, speculating, “I like to think she made the golden eggs / to bridge their lives.” The speaker is drawn to transformation precisely because she herself has experienced a fundamental remaking, explored in poems like “Unofficial Lady Bible”:

At seven, I could press
a perfect pie crust with my thumb. Ta da!
Decades passed before I would open
the door to that walk-in and arrive
as somebody other than myself.

Tracy even admires attempts at transformation for their ambition and strangeness, as in “Local News: Woman Dies in Chimney, where that woman, “either fed up or drunk or undone” climbed into a chimney and “died there. Stuck. Like a tragic Santa.” This moment also exemplifies the collection's buoyancy, the lilting brightness that underpins misfortune and even tragedy. “YMCA, 1971,” about a man dying of a heart attack just as the timed lights on the tennis court go out, highlights an unexpectedly beautiful moment nestled within a tragic one, describing how “everyone dropped their rackets, / and began running in the dark / toward the white glow of the fading man's clothes.”

What gives this collection such depth isn’t just its buoyancy—that would be facile, even trite—but the sense that there’s a well of grief, pain, and trauma below the surface, and Tracy keeps choosing to turn toward its opposite, not from a place of ignorance, but from one of knowledge. This darkness is evidenced in “About Myself,” where “I wear my sadness like a coat / and the coat never comes off. / Its wooden buttons are fastened to me.” Although, Tracy acknowledges that “Others have had to catch much trickier knives— / all blade, no handle” (“Circus Youth”). And this is an undertow that never goes away: in “Urban Animals,” “He felt that TV ate my sensitive heart / the way boric acid eats through the beetle’s thorax.”

Tracy’s recognition of the world’s fundamental darkness gives greater resonance to poems like “To the Tender,” which concerns a jay fallen from its nest, asserting “even if the world is half bad, it remains / half good. While some of us sleep, our hearts / lie open, turned toward the tender, dreaming up ways / to thwart the crows.” Tracy recognizes that these efforts may be in vain, as in “Sometimes This Happens,” where the speaker’s father breaks the ice on a trough to let a cow drink, but “she’s swallowed a strand of wire. / This is the third cow he’s seen that will die this way.” Still, there’s the sense that tenderness is still worth choosing; even if the world thwarts us, there’s always the possibility that growth and transformation is waiting just ahead, as Tracy’ speaker says to herself at the end of “Teton Road,” “I have given you / all these chances. Take them.”

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Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of four chapbooks, including Twice Shy forthcoming from Nomadic Press and Harm’s Way forthcoming from dancing girl press. In 2018, she was a finalist for both the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Berkshire Prize for a First or Second Book of Poetry from Tupelo Press. Her poetry can be found in Third Coast, The Journal, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of the queer literary journal Foglifter and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

Michael Bazzett: On Silence; or, How I Wrote “The Epidemic” by Peter LaBerge

BY MICHAEL BAZZETT

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The chatter of humanity must generate trillions of syllables daily. If you stop and think about it, the accumulation of words is staggering. And even with all these words in the world, there is infinitely more that remains unsaid. Particularly when it comes to the important things. Just as almost everything that truly matters to us as people—i.e. love, trust, courage, understanding—cannot be directly seen, so too, do the most enduring truths live in silence.

I don’t know why, but this is something I think about a lot: the power of what remains unspoken, what cannot be spoken, of silence itself. All of these absences are, I think, necessary elements of poetry, composing the emptiness that allows the little bell of the poem to chime.

This preoccupation is what was simmering on the back-burner as I worked on “The Epidemic,” on and off, trying to capture an anecdotal moment from when I was walking my son to school as a little boy, back when his hand still slipped unthinkingly into mine. The boys, the scorpion, the stick, the clanking bell were all just straight reportage. And it’s true that the boys had hardly spoken. Yet given that our family was living in Mexico at the time, my poor command of Spanish created another layer of silence, which subtly changed my relationship to my own language, and also had a habit of charging what might otherwise have been mundane moments with more meaning.

That’s when the “What if?” frame occurred to me, the thing that began to push the recollection from the land of anecdote toward the territory of poem. What if such silences were contagious? What if we all just quit talking for a day or two? What if we couldn’t talk? What if we all started simply living and listening, what then? We would begin to embody our words? Would the world itself become the poem?

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Michael Bazzett is an NEA fellow & the author of three books of poetry: You Must Remember This (Winner of the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry); Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books); and The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and The Iowa Review, among others. His translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh, is out now from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Minneapolis. You can find out more at www.michaelbazzett.com.

The Act of Searching: A Review of Jaime Zuckerman's Letters to Melville by Peter LaBerge

BY JESSICA POLI

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There’s something about writers writing about writers. A space opens up—a little world—where both authors reside, facing one another from their places in the lamplight of their own desks, pens suspended in mid-air. Trying to figure something out. It’s a small and singular world, and yet vast. Volumes line the walls (think Interstellar’s infinity library, sans Matthew McConaughey). Smoke hangs in the air. A wave crashes. This is the world Jaime Zuckerman inhabits in Letters to Melville, her recent chapbook from Ghost Proposal.

The main concern in Letters to Melville is the act of searching. Through a series of short letter poems to Herman Melville, Zuckerman grapples with the present while summoning and speaking to the past, sometimes longingly: “I live here in the gap of this particular moment, envy you your pastness.” There are moments when the speaker seems to be searching for Melville himself: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, I will look for you to the last syllable.” Other poems invoke a larger sense of searching, appealing to Melville’s own expansive quest: “You hunted something immense and substantial. Not many of us have had our hands bloodied by the insides of something bigger than ourselves. Not many of us know how to find it in this vast expanse.”

Reading Zuckerman’s chapbook, an intimacy arises. There is the sense of a connection building throughout the collection between the speaker and Melville; what could be read as a casual interest at first transforms, by the end, into something very much like love. Zuckerman manages to sustain emotion while exploring questions heavy with the weight of eternity, shifting between diary-like musings about the speaker’s day and direct addresses to Melville. Throughout the chapbook we see the speaker reading: Melville, of course, is on the table, but there are also appearances by Homer, Shakespeare, and Charles Darwin. There is a sense of a larger dialogue happening, across time and between an infinite number of thinkers. Yet Zuckerman handles this invisible weight with care. Her prose blocks throughout the collection begin to feel like waves in the sea Melville was so obsessed with; they swirl and froth, layering dreams and memory, fact and fantasy. In one poem, the speaker muses over Melville’s old collection of Shakespeare at Houghton Library. In another, they suggest a make-out session in a state park. And in yet another, the speaker details a seven-foot-long black coffin they found washed up in a beach before ending the tale in defeat: “I can’t come up with a story better than yours.”

Through all of this, Zuckerman comes back, again and again, to the act of searching. Read in this light, there is a sense of something gained by the last lines—a concise moment of optimism, of relieved discovery: “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. // Open the door. There. Air.”

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Jessica Poli is the author of four chapbooks: Canyons (BatCat Press, 2018), Alexia (Sixth Finch, 2015), Glassland (JMWW, 2014), and The Egg Mistress (Gold Line Press, 2013). Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Southern Indiana Review, and Caketrain, among others. She earned her MFA from Syracuse University, and is pursuing her MA at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the founder and editor of Birdfeast Magazine and can be found online at www.jessicapoli.com.

The Creation of a New Narrative Space: Five Works by Poets with Disabilities by Peter LaBerge

BY DARREN CHANG

From “Deep Sea Diving...In A Wheelchair,” by photographer Sue Austin (TEDxWomen, 2012).

From “Deep Sea Diving...In A Wheelchair,” by photographer Sue Austin (TEDxWomen, 2012).

As an academic field, disability studies is fractured: few scholars agree on the model and definition of disability, let alone the proper terminology. As a movement, disability rights activism occupies an uneasy position in the struggle for social justice. People with disabilities are often criticized for being unable to participate in marches and grassroots activism that inherently require some physicality. Poets and writers with disabilities exist within this quagmire. Even in literature, disability isn’t respected or proportionately represented when compared to other lenses for critical and identity-based analysis.

Ableism isn’t exactly uncommon in poems and essays. Romantic era poets valorized the senses as the critical conduit for understanding the human condition in relation to the world. As poet John Lee Clark remarked in the December 2014 issue of Poetry magazine, “English poets are especially fond of romanticizing and demonizing both deafness and blindness, equating these with silence and darkness—and death.” Many Romantic era pieces identify different disabilities as obstacles disabled people can heroically overcome or an affliction to be cured. The reality of disability directly opposes these reductive ideals. Indeed, “mainstream writers tend to reflect the predominant view of disability as tragedy,” writes Jennifer Bartlett in the preface of the anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. To many, only the able-normative subject can properly be the human subject of a work.

Considering the pervasiveness of linguistic and structural ableism in the world at-large, the ablenormativity present in literature isn’t surprising. Even after the Americans with Disabilities Act, buildings remain difficult to maneuver. Disability isn’t typically considered an identity category. Disabled people are often told by their parents, friends, and medical professionals to hide their disability in order to appear more “normal.” We constantly use “crazy,” “insane,” or “dumb” in our vernacular to describe ordinary events without considering the violent connotations of these words, all of which originally referred to people with mental, psychiatric, or speech-related disabilities. The widespread integration of this discourse in our daily vocabulary demonstrates just how little consideration is given to disability.

So, what is the role of disability poetry?

In the same preface, Bartlett explains the variety of disability poetics that exist. Some poets with disabilities embody their identity and embrace the label of “crip poetry.” In their poetry, they often center politics, thus “[creating] a narrative that speaks to and celebrates identity.” Other poets choose to embody their disability in different ways—instead of focusing on disability, poets may simply use a narrative form to inform their work or experiment with lyrical and poetic forms to establish new understandings of coexisting with disabilities.

For many poets with disabilities, experimenting and narrating their lived experiences provides an empowering moment. When normative society shunts disabled people to the side, an embodied poetics seeks to reclaim that personhood. As journalist and writer Lizz Schumer details in a Ploughshares blog post, “disability poetics allows the speaker to subvert expectations. It taught me that I can write about my body without letting it speak for me, bringing both of us more fully into the conversation…. We are so much more than blood, bone, and brain.” The same sentiment is shared by Jim Ferris, one of the foundational writers of “crip poetry.” “Crip poetry’s” challenges to the tropes of disability that engender pity have “the potential to transform the world” by reframing the “gaze…under which we are viewed” and by imagining new spaces for disability consciousness.

Yet, the strength of disability poetics comes in its celebration and acknowledgement of the differences inherent within the community. To different audiences, differences breed disagreement, and disagreement breeds irreparable fissures. But integral to the agenda of disability studies and disability poetics is a deep-rooted respect of the different sorts of conditions of people with disabilities. Just as important is the intersection of disability with other analytics of identity that modulate a person’s sense of belonging within normative societal structures.

This is not to say that the work of disability poetics has resolved the broad strokes of ableism. In 2018, problems with publishing and acceptance within the literary community remain widespread. At a larger and inescapable level, structural barriers still exist twenty-eight years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Writers with disabilities who presence their disability are sometimes disrespected and pushed to the margins of their respective fields. In this reality, then, “poetry is a way of being in the world that wasn’t made for us,” as Jennifer Bartlett aptly titled her New York Times column.

Five works by poets with disabilities:

1. Poems with Disabilities
By Jim Ferris

I’m sorry — this space is reserved
for poems with disabilities. I know
it's one of the best spaces in the book,
but the Poems with Disabilities Act
requires us to make all reasonable
accommodations for poems that aren't
normal. There is a nice space just
a few pages over — in fact (don't
tell anyone) I think it’s better
than this one, I myself prefer it.
Actually I don’t see any of those
poems right now myself, but you never know
when one might show up, so we have to keep
this space open. You can’t always tell
just from looking at them, either. Sometimes
they’ll look just like a regular poem
when they roll in — you’re reading along
and suddenly everything
changes, the world tilts
a little, angle of vision
jumps, focus
shifts. You remember
your aunt died of cancer at just your age
and maybe yesterday’s twinge means
something after all. Your sloppy,
fragile heart beats
a little faster
and then you know.
You just know.
And the poem
is right
where it
Belongs.

2. The Lady with a Green Cane
By Fran Gardner

Just be, you say
Be where?
Be here
Be now
Be nothing.
There—have you inhaled
The fragrance of being?
Be watching

The lady with the green cane
Walk walk
Stumble stumble

That’s walking for you
Walk walk
Stumble stumble

That’s writing for you
Walk walk
Stumble stumble

That’s life
A slow walk
A slower walk
A stop walk
Walk walk
Stumble stumble

Stop.

How many gardens
How many leaves
How much living
Before life becomes being
Just being
Just seeing?

The lady with the green cane.
No big words—
Just a stumble
Somewhere
As she walks.

3. Red Shoes
By Sheila Black

Someone buried red slippers under the floorboards
and the mice nested in them. The floors splintered no matter

how many cans of deck paint we used. And one night
at the Embajada I broke a tooth, and the very next

night three teenagers were shot dead as they sat at
a booth by the window eating mofongo. The neighbor

woman used to sing a funny song from the forties
about a “road” and “clear day,” a fast car and a woman

with a pistol. You could see her back had been broken,
and she dragged her left foot behind her down the

stairs to the mail room. And Junior began smoking
crack after his church on Columbus failed and started

going by his birth name which was Jesus, until he
fell in love with Irma of the hideous rabbit-fur-and-

white-leather jacket, who stopped the cars by waving
her watery hands, smoothing her moth-bitten hair

from her moon-pale face, the violet lipstick she
always wore, until she wound up drowned in the East

River, and no one would say if it was suicide or
murder. But Junior said there were eels inside her and

began preaching again, doped on the corner. Mr.
Rodriguez fired him, though he didn’t want to, and after

Mr. Rodriguez often looked sweaty and pale as he
labored to move stuff to the basement, which he had once

done with Junior to help him. We painted our rooms
cinnamon, Aegean blue, repainted them eggshell, gris-perle.

We fought, and you tore all my letters and diaries and
sprinkled them out the window where they landed on

the roof of your car, plastered there by a violent
summer storm. It took hours to scrape them off; I wept

and Mr. Rodriguez gave me a small plastic-wrapped
packet of Kleenex and a month later you wound up in St.

Luke’s on lockdown and Junior caught pneumonia,
died that November. He was thirty-eight, though we

had believed him older. They buried him in Calvary
Cemetery in Queens. Once I rode a cab out that way —

we got lost, so many ticking minutes among the
slender white spikes of the graves. The red slippers —

they must have been for dancing, thin soled as if with
mouse skin, a powder inside that might have been talc,

rosin, or years of plaster dust, a piece of broken ribbon,
black at the edges as if burned off or torn and smeared with

shoe polish. Or the mice had gnawed it. And you
said “The name of the film,” and I said I thought it was a

story older by far, a girl who puts on the shoes and cannot
get them off, who skips down a road, then another and

across the world, until her feet fall off, and her hands
and they make her wooden ones.

4. Florence
By Khairani Barokka

hailstorm thundering the rooftops of basilica di santa maria novella.
laughing to myself as american tourists disgustedly traversed
the streets outside, the glittery ice debris. magician drafting lady, slim,
in girldress to skip and assist him, all to sustain a crowded gasp,
collective, into the night. guitar by lovers’ locks on the bridge, a friend.
i knew i’d walked too far, and hurt’s too spiteful yet i’d stayed a little,
just come on, come on now don’t let it begin.

ached and on the train to rome i burst, all hell gone loose and fraying out,
pulsating wound i’d always hoped would be delayed, one year away from
future medicine, body silently screaming for palliative skies, palliative earth,
come meet me at some understanding, again, train passengers saw
no hail, no brimstone, strange girl, lone in her seat, frame slightly squirming,
stock still in a moment, hidden, a feeling unmerciful,
fire wash over and
over, over, over,
endure,
in jaggedy-moving capsule bringing me rome, a few days’ amuck in fiery lake,
until subsided, until decision to explore the colosseum. provided wheelchair,
my arms excited at lifts and remnants of ancient beasts, old hurts, beginnings.

5. From Autobiography/anti-autobiography
By Jennifer Bartlett

I am merely curiosity; your own small freak show. Drag my bones out to Coney Island, and feel free to make an example out of me. Perhaps people will pay a nickel to get in; I’m tired of giving the show out for free. Drag me through the field of saints. Bless me, pray for me, rub my head for good luck. I am the product of bad karma. I am punishment for my mother’s aborted able-bodied children. I am the one nature meant to throw away.

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Darren Chang is an undergraduate student at Cornell University, where he participates in intercollegiate policy debate and devours large quantities of ice cream. Academically, he is interested by the intersection of different cultural perspectives, especially Asian American and disability scholarship. You can also catch him reading memoirs and autobiographies, playing ping pong, and laughing at memes of his home state of Indiana.

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes: How I Wrote "Whistling Language" by Peter LaBerge

BY MARY KOVALESKI BYRNES

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WHISTLING LANGUAGE

Originally published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and in the Best of Kore Press Anthology. It’s also published in So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, 2018).


It’s last night again. Sky lit up
from another eon. Airplane pushing east

over the Pacific, a belly full of televisions.
The children fashion paper bag wings, jump off

the shed into the rhododendrons. Still, we dream
embraces with the gone-before. The never-been.

A doorway in an upside-down world—
a childhood home afloat on a raging sea.

I’ll soar across it, only to land once more
on that autumn road by the coal slag mountain,

leaves singing by our ears, a voice
I love and lose again on waking.

Someday, I promise, we’ll go to La Gomera,
where the people have learned to be birds.

We’ll circle the volcano, listening.
Soon enough, a call from one coffee-ground hill

to another. The whistling language—
lilt and grammar transcribed

into the ancient mimicry of canaries.
We’ll hear them, but won’t understand the message

from shepherd to shepherd across the divide:
I’ve lost one down the hill. If someone’s up there,

tell me, what can you see?

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This poem is about flight—like so many of the poems I write, and there’s a large probability the early notes for it were written on a plane. Every time I look out an airplane window, which was a regular event due to a job I had for most of my twenties, I marvel at this incredible feat we humans have pulled off, as cliché as that may sound. Clouds at arms-length. Our world faded to miniature far below. Once, a shelf of an ice field somewhere over Siberia and a tiny village brilliant in the primary colors of shipping containers, half-buried in snow. And twice, the international dateline, that impossible instant when you get to start a day again. Literally, a groundhog day. I have no memory of what I did with those extra days. No doubt they were wasted in the exhaustion of travel, in those liminal airport spaces, waiting for the next thing. But, inevitably, these places are where poems, or the pieces of poems, begin to happen for me.

I’m regularly filled with wonder at flight, but mostly I’m brought to how this triumph over nature isn’t nearly enough for us humans. It’s not the right kind of flight, not the flight of memory, longing, loss and desire. I think this is what this poem is about. (And I say “I think” because so often when I’m writing, I find the poem gets at more truth than any explanation I’m going to attempt to make about it.) No matter how much I traveled, no matter where I went, I still dwelled in memory with the people I missed, “the gone-before,” or even the impossible, the “never-been.” To me, this speaks to some of our deepest desires as humans. If we could just have had one more moment/conversation/day/year/lifetime with that one person… No matter how much miraculous flying we do, we still want more. We still want the impossible. We long to be more than our human limits will permit.

And then I was having coffee with a friend of mine, who was planning a move to the Canary Islands to raise her daughter closer to her extended family. She told me about one of the islands, La Gomera, about the rugged volcanic landscape, and how the people there developed a language of whistling that could carry their messages over two miles. It’s an ancient language, one developed by the original inhabitants of the island. I learned about how this language was especially useful to shepherds on the island, as they needed a way to communicate over vast spaces to help each other locate wandering sheep. I couldn’t help but think of this ability to communicate like birds as super-human, god-like or mythical, and imagined their voices carrying over these imposing volcanic hills.

I can’t think about volcanic landscapes and people adapting to them and not think about coal slag mountains, these looming, man-made hills of refuse that dominate the towns where my parents grew up and where I’ve spent countless days of my own life. (It turns out “slag” heap is actually a misnomer: they are made of shale and referred to as “overburden,” which I think is a terribly apt metaphor for what happens to the land that isn’t relevant to profit-driven mining industries.) The shale mountains in my parents’ hometowns have been there as long as I can remember, and I never even knew they didn’t occur naturally until I was a teenager. They look like volcanos—my memories of so many holidays are dominated by these mountains in their stark height, towering over entire towns, an American flag or two fluttering from the skeletons of old coal collieries rusting precariously on their steep sides.

It turns out, no matter where we go, we return to homescapes. To our early memories. To the moments that, for better or worse, define us. We return again and again to the people or possibilities that haunt us.

Ultimately, though, this poem is about hope for transcendence, for otherworlds and afterlives, whether in this place or the next—for the places we’ll travel metaphorically, where we might finally get some radical shift in our limited human perspectives.

That’s why the poem ends in a promise, the kind of pact. And a royal we. Yes, someday, I promise we’ll go there. Or, we’ll get there. To this place where we might give some peace to each other, where we might be able to help each other find what we’ve all been looking for. And where we might finally have the language to call out, across the widest expanses, what that is.

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Mary Kovaleski Byrnes is the author of So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, May 2018). She teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, and is the co-founder of the EmersonWRITES program, a free creative writing program for Boston Public School students. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Salamander, the Four Way Review, the Best of Kore Press, Best of the Net, and elsewhere. She served as Poetry Editor for Redivider and has been a poetry reader for Ploughshares since 2009.

Why Writing is Not Intended for Robots by Peter LaBerge

BY BENJIE ANDRIANO

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As the demands of the 21st-century surge, a lot of companies have decided to shift their workforce to robots. However, this move to improve efficiency and service has been seen as creating a threat to the future need for a human workforce.

People are afraid that employing robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) would kill the need for jobs, making robots a serious threat to the economy. Some of the fields that are now primarily run by automation include farming, surgical, factory, and security. However, despite the advancement of robotics technology, there is much to be done for robots to be on par with humans. One example of a task that cannot be performed by robots is writing. Robots can never craft a good article, since they lack communication and empathy towards readers.

6 Steps to Writing Good Articles That Only Humans Can Write

Writers need to draw genuine passion and commitment to produce the best tale of their lives.

Writers need to draw genuine passion and commitment to produce the best tale of their lives.

  • Selecting a Topic. To write a readable article, you must know the pulse of your audience. In other words, you need to do research. You also need to streamline your topic to make it more specific and catch the attention of readers. These are important steps that only humans can perform.

  • Identifying the Needs of the Reader. Another essential step in crafting a good article is the need to understand the desires of the audience. As a writer, you need to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Make sure that your article answers all the probable queries of a specific set of readers.

  • Research. This process will make your article reliable. You must do intensive research and back your articles with valid information. To make your write-up grounded in facts, you must include quotes by well-known people, statistics, anecdotes, and references to local events or publications.

  • Polish Your Draft. If you want to produce a good article, you must be ready to do several edits. This means that you must re-read your draft several times and incorporate recent and relevant information to make your article more reliable and appealing to readers.

  • Be Specific. You also need to double check to make sure you have included all the vital information in your article. If you are writing a ow-To article, make sure that all the steps are written in a clear and concise manner.

  • Read, Revise, Read. Before you publish your article, you must ensure that it is free of all grammatical and contextual errors. You can do this by asking a friend to read through your article or by reading it aloud. Ask your friend if they fully understand the article and to identify any areas that need improving. 

These are some of the reasons why robots cannot become intelligent writers. Remember, to write a compelling article you need to use your heart and your mind.

If you want to hone your writing skills and share your words without limits, you can link to different online platforms. Some of them even provide perks and premiums to potential scribes. However, make sure to do your research so that you only collaborate with legitimate platforms.

The Changing Industrial Landscape

The attempt to replace the human workforce started in 1901 with the Industrial Revolution and began the transition towards a machine-operated industry. This move began in Britain and eventually spread to other countries.

The primary reason why companies opted to shift to a robotic workforce was to boost the efficiency of production. American automotive giant, Ransom E. Olds, even said that after utilizing machines, he increased his annual car production hit to 500%. Also, General Motors reported a significant increase in production after employing a robotic arm in the company’s assembly line. China’s Foxconn has also confirmed that robots have replaced one million of their workers, increasing efficiency and service consistency.

But despite the better results backed with robots, the critical issues regarding a mechanised workforce still linger. Experts believe that while robots finish the job fast, this does not mean that they can replace humans.

Top 7 Jobs That Will Soon Be Conquered By Robots

Robot at work: A lot of companies employ robots to augment production and cut the margin of human error.

Robot at work: A lot of companies employ robots to augment production and cut the margin of human error.

  • Data Entry

  • Accounting

  • Tax Filing Assistant

  • Freight and Cargo Personnel

  • Technician

  • Sewer maintenance

  • Insurance Specialist

Indeed, robots can be beneficial in many ways. However, in the midst of technological advancement, we must not forget to value human efforts. Always remember, unlike robots, the human brain knows no limits.

Adroit’s Best of: Poetry 2018 by Peter LaBerge

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2018 has been a standout year for Adroit and our engagement with new poetry and the poets who write it. This year, we featured over one hundred interviews and reviews in our issues and on our blog. Read on for a list of some of our favorite poetry collections illuminated in those features. Endless thanks to the poets, presses, and publishers we worked with this year!

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Eloisa Amezcua From the Inside Quietly (Shelterbelt Press)

As a poet, I think there’s a difference between airing one’s dirty laundry and in being honest to the spirit of the poem and in raising the emotional stakes for the reader. Of course there are boundaries I won’t cross, but that said, my poems aren’t entirely autobiographical, chronological, or “factual,” and I don’t think it’s my job as a poet to clarify that for readers.

Read the full interview with Eloisa here.

Fatimah Asghar If They Come For Us (Penguin Random House)

If They Come For Us gives readers lyrically beautiful but painfully true glimpses into a world we may not be familiar with and asks us to reckon with our place in it—whether that’s a place of commiseration, understanding, or of recognizing our own hand in upholding power structures that thrive off racism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

Read the full review of If They Come For Us here.

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes So Long the Sky (Platypus Press)

What happens to people when they have to leave their hometowns/countries out of necessity? What happens to their identities, their language, their family? These are central questions in the book and in our world right now, where more people are experiencing displacement than in any period in modern history.

Read the full interview with Mary here. Her piece, “How I Wrote ‘Whistling Language,’” is forthcoming on the blog in 2019.

Kristin Chang Past Lives, Future Bodies (Black Lawrence Press)

I feel like migration and mobility represent different things to me—there’s a kind of privileged mobility, where privilege and status allow you to move through the world with a certain ease and power and destruction, and then there’s migration, which demands sacrifice. There’s always a cost, emotionally and physically. It’s a kind of debt you pay off endlessly, generationally.

Read the full interview with Kristin here.

Jos Charles feeld (Milkweed Editions)

I had the thought that it would be cool to have some sort of language that didn’t seek to situate itself as corrective, nor did it ironically break into incorrectness. The very idea was to write not a world situated adjacent to ours that was speculative, but to have the language itself be speculative.

Read the full interview with Jos here. Read Jos’s piece, “How I Wrote ‘tonite i wuld luv to rite,’” here.

Leila Chatti Tunsiya/Amrikiya (Bull City Press)

When I first realized I was a poet, with the same certainty and absoluteness as the fact of my brown hair or the city of my birth, I was in early adolescence. I was a cliché in that I thought a lot, felt more than I could bear, and used poetry as a container for what I carried too much of.

Read the full interview with Leila here. Read Leila’s piece, “How I Wrote ‘Hometown Nocturne,’” here.

Jennifer S. Cheng Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems (Tarpaulin Sky Press)

…the speaker exists on Earth, but with a wound she carries with her through the streets. The wound’s round shape is reminiscent of the moon. She is displaced, but still, she blends in. In the blending there is still an aloneness, a theme that runs throughout this book. An exposure and a covering-up—an attempt to name and define and still, a blurry futility to this inclination. She is a part of the modern world and also a part of folklore. She is a walking myth.

Read the full review of Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems here.

Tiana Clark I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press)

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I’ve never had anything passed down to me. Growing up, my mom never had any surplus cash for a savings account—no inheritance or heirlooms, no security for her future or mine. Our life was mostly paycheck-to-paycheck, sometimes a money order and making a Papa John’s Alfredo Chicken pizza last a week. My poetics were built on this need for some slice of survival concerned with communicating not in the future and for all time, but trying to save myself right now because I’m hungry.

Read Tiana’s “How I Wrote ‘BBHMM’” here.

Forrest Gander Be With (New Directions)

The desert, like the blank page, humbles me like nothing else. No mark I make improves either the desert or the page, but both call to me. And maybe there’s something intrinsic to the human psyche that prompts it to project itself into spaces from which human presence is missing. Maybe there’s something both dreadful and hopeful about a terrain so indifferent to human beings that it manages to repel most traces of the world’s most aggressive species.

An interview with Forrest, from which the excerpt above was taken, will be featured in the next issue of Adroit in 2019!

Jasmine Gibson Don’t Let Them See Me Like This (Nightboat Books)

I think love is possible but [more so] has other possibilities of being different things outside of intimacy with the people you know—a kind of intimacy that can be felt with people who are not necessarily close to you. I navigated that throughout the book with different voices and experiences.

Read the full interview with Jasmine here.

Erin Hoover Barnburner (Elixir Press)

In political spheres, language is sometimes used to make the suffering of other people palatable to an audience. As someone who worked in communications for a long time, it is exhausting for me to listen to politicians and pundits because the obfuscation is so apparent. I believe in using language to articulate issues of authentic concern through the vehicle of story.

Read the full interview with Erin here.

Dorothea Lasky Milk (Wave Books)

There is something definitely frightening but potentially exhilarating about the way power displays itself in American English. […] Of course, I do feel any sense of grammar and all its formalities is possibly militaristic in any language, but I hesitate to make a generalization like that because I am (obviously, ha) not a linguist. I think the idea of grammar itself is violent, as it seeks to control new language. That’s why poets are so important, because we resist this violence with the beauty of our creations.

Read the full interview with Dorothea here.

Li-Young Lee The Undressing (W.W. Norton & Company)

For Lee, the work of a poet is to summon, say, wrestle with, dress and undress the divine. “An exile from the first word, / and a refugee / of an illegible past,” he continues to produce from the materials of his life love songs for the body and the soul. Listen to him.

Read the full review of The Undressing here.

Alicia Mountain High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press)

Desire also pulses through this collection like a heartbeat. Queer folks, especially when they’re women (whose sexuality is imagined as passive, an afterthought or myth), are forced to thoroughly investigate their desire, and ultimately, come to a deeper understanding of it, given that they must weave it from whole cloth. As Mountain says in “The Book Is a Hungry Darkness,” “My desires are berries because they are small and many.”

Read the full review of High Ground Coward here.

Gala Mukomolova One Above / One Below: Positions & Lamentations (YesYes Books)

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I think the problem of aloneness in my work is a problem of alienness. I think it might be an immigrant problem, rootless and refusing to be solved, even when transplanted amongst companion species—plants that can copacetically grow alongside. Friendship is so powerful to me, so vital to my survival, I want to honor it at all costs—to crown my friend family in flowers. To be loved, to feel cared for and protected, is not paradoxical to the feeling of aloneness for me.

Read the full interview with Gala here.

José Olivarez Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books)

Tenderness is hard. I love trying to write with tenderness in part because the risk is being corny, is being overly sentimental. That’s easy to fall into, and yet tenderness feels so urgent for me. I wake up and I could use some tenderness, so I try to craft that space into the poems. I try to do that not at the expense of the real world that we live in that is constantly showing us these images and reminding us of all the violence and pain that’s being inflicted here in the United States and all over the world. But tenderness feels like a way to interrupt that stream of violence.

Read the full interview with José here.

Emilia Phillips Empty Clip (University of Akron Press)

Phillips’s eye lingers on spaces where horror and beauty, trauma and trust, brutality and gentleness rub against each other, throwing sparks, as in “facesofdeath.com,” where the speaker notices “how the bullet / grooved clean into the skin below / her clavicle. A buttonhole, a baby's / mouth.” This speaker clings to the world even as it shifts and bucks away.

Read the full review of Empty Clip here.

Tommy Pico Junk (Tin House Books)

My community has always been lateral. They are all around you, just look out for them. Go to their readings, show up at their book parties, write them nice notes about poems. Show up for them when they need you, offer them help if you have the time, and court them like lovers.

Read the full interview with Tommy here.

Ben Purkert For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books)

I’ve been thinking recently about what we do when we finish reading books, how we tend to place them on bookshelves, which are usually found along the walls of a room. And so there’s this centrifugal thing that happens: we consume the books, and then they get relegated to the perimeter of our lives, in a way.

Read the full interview with Ben here.

Nancy Reddy Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press)

The many voices of Acadiana are tied to my interest in exploring different ways of knowing. The sibyls (women whom the ancient Greeks believed acted as oracles) speak with this absolute certainty that I’m rarely able to muster in my own everyday life.

Read the full interview with Nancy here. Read Nancy’s piece, “How I Wrote ‘Your Best Post-Baby Body,’” here.

Max Ritvo The Final Voicemails (Milkweed Editions)

Ritvo manages not only to escape himself, but he holds a mirror to the rest of us. What is it we’re hoping for out of someone else’s grave illness? Why do we lean so close and wait for a profound insight? Does that expectation put them (the sufferers) on the spot to sum up life in a brief morsel or two? I think the real question I’ve been forced to confront while locking horns with this collection: does this mining for meaning prevent us from living fully in the present, from savoring simple moments with our loved ones?

Read the full review of The Final Voicemails here.

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Justin Phillip Reed Indecency (Coffee House Press)

…this collection is an incendiary one, a work of joy as much as suffering, of celebration as much as tragedy, and of life as much as death. Reed’s wit and formal experimentation, quicksilver and luminous, shows the world as it is, while detailing how the very people that society most devalues, demeans, and seeks to destroy are its true visionaries.

Read the full review of Indecency here.

Diane Seuss Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press)

Seuss gets to the core of the daily violence of inhabiting the world; she gets to the daily maintenance and indignities of those bodies. She reminds us that “to belong to the land / and the people that made you is itchy / as hand-knitted wool.”

Read the full review of Still Life… here.

Carmen Giménez Smith Cruel Futures (City Lights)

Cruel Futures is an astonishingly present imagistic exploration of aging, familial bonds, and mothering in the context of late capitalism. Giménez Smith’s poems, sparkling with pop culture and gleaming with intelligence, unpretentiously welcome the reader into mortality, grief, and nurturing, while deftly highlighting how these human conditions are shaped by the race, gender, and class of those who experience them.

Read the full review of Cruel Futures here.

Tracy K. Smith Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press)

…the poems gaze outward and observe with an incredibly perceptive eye. The past presses up against the present, and empathy hums consistently below as a driving force behind the collection’s explorations of religion, history, prejudice, and environmentalism. While the future may loom like a “darkening dusk,” we are asked to watch, equipped with the past and a resoluteness of self. In Smith’s words, as it approaches, “let it slam me in the face— / The known sun setting / On the dawning century.”

Read the full review of Wade in the Water here.

Samantha Zighelboim The Fat Sonnets (Argos Books)

The bodies of the poems in The Fat Sonnets ultimately challenge and stretch the constrictions of their own forms and limitations, and—through their visibility on the page—contain the element of performance, inhabiting form as we inhabit our own human bodies, often imperfectly, but—at best—continuing to change and to take from each moment that which we need in order to thrive.

Read the full review of The Fat Sonnets here.

2019, here we come!

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Adroit's Best of: Prose 2018 by Peter LaBerge

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2018 has been a standout year for Adroit and our engagement with new prose and the authors who write it. This year, we featured over one hundred interviews and reviews in our issues and on our blog. Read on for a list of some of our favorite novels, short story and essay collections, memoirs, and books of non-fiction illuminated in those features. Endless thanks to the writers, presses, and publishers we worked with this year!

Alice Bolin Dead Girls (HarperCollins)

Today’s humans are addicted to stories, and we probably consume more of them than at any time in history. And these narratives help us to abstract and metabolize pain, like that of living in a violent, misogynist culture.

Read the full interview with Alice here.

Jamel Brinkley A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press)

To be a writer of color—to be a black writer—is to bear the burden of expectation. To be a black male writer of any era is to bear the burden of representing black masculinity. Throughout the nine stories, Brinkley writes refreshingly nuanced portraits of black men, which, more often than not, highlight their fragility, in many cases as the men attempt to highlight their virility.

Read the full review of A Lucky Man here. Read an interview with Jamel here.

Francisco Cantú The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Penguin Random House)

By prioritizing stories over statistics, Cantú allows his readers to develop their own relationship with the people on the other side. It is in fact this acknowledgement of migrants as humans that creates a basis for empathy, a means of solidarity that is paradoxically both universal and specific.

Read the full review of The Line Becomes a River here.

Alexander Chee How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

One thing I like about what’s happening with gender now is that we’re thinking about it more as a relationship to the self rather than a relationship to others, making self-identification more important first. A panoply of identities is making that possible. What makes me interested in say, queer liberation, is that it makes room for other people whether they are queer or not. It allows young children to feel the freedom of identifying as a boy but wearing hot pink shoes to school and butterfly wings.

Read the full interview with Alexander here.

Nicole Chung All You Can Ever Know (Catapult)

I didn’t write the book to be prescriptive in any way, and I’m not an expert; there are counselors and social workers who specialize in interracial adoption. But speaking as a lay person and as a parent: we have to have hard conversations about race. And I think it is important for kids to not grow up as the only one [person of color in their community] if there’s any way to avoid it.

Read the full interview with Nicole here.

Eve L. Ewing Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (University of Chicago Press)

Equal parts historical narration and intimate, journalist-style engagement with the people whose lives the closings affect, Ghosts in the Schoolyard closely builds upon recent work in critical race studies, revealing how ongoing histories and patterns of racism have intersected with, and impeded, both educational opportunities and civic power.

Read the full review of Ghosts in the Schoolyard here.

Roxane Gay, Ed. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (HarperCollins)

Gay describes the stories we tell ourselves as mechanisms for coping, or simply understanding trauma, even when coping hurts us as survivors. She describes the refrain she has often told herself, that her gang rape and the subsequent assaults and mistreatments were “not that bad,” and how, because of this refrain, “the surfaces of my empathy became calloused.” This feels important to read before spending time with the testimonies of the other contributors, as Gay asks readers to consider how rape culture and misogyny have limited our own sense of empathy for survivors of trauma.

Read the full review of Not That Bad here.

Rachel Heng Suicide Club (Henry Holt & Co.)

I was living in the U.K. when I wrote this book. It seemed natural at the time that it would be set in New York, and upon reflection I think it’s because I associate that kind of drastic inequality with the U.S. In many ways it’s because of the lack of social safety net, the fact that health insurance is so expensive.

Read the full interview with Rachel here.

Chelsea Hodson Tonight I’m Someone Else (Henry Holt & Co.)

I’m interested in the ambiguities of the self and one’s own weakness, especially as a woman. I think there’s this tendency to want to project or portray oneself as invincible and super strong at all times. I think that’s the reductive version of what I see on the internet sometimes and to me, something is only interesting when it has multiple dimensions. I’m really interested in this idea of portraying myself as I am, which is often full of sadness and absence and longing.

Read the full interview with Chelsea here.

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Eleanor Kriseman The Blurry Years (Two Dollar Radio)

…as much as this book is not a memoir, or autobiographical, it is much easier for me to put myself in a position to feel as a daughter than as a mother, even though my life circumstances and relationship with my mom are nothing like Callie and Jeanie’s. What I tried to do—and I don’t know if it fully worked—is to craft her character in a way that would both explain her actions but not necessarily excuse them.

Read the full interview with Eleanor here.

Catherine Lacey Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

American cities differ the most, to me, in their forms of loneliness and disturbance. In some places it’s the loneliness of car travel, in others, stringent societal norms create a feeling of solitude. In Montana a deep relationship with nature is a virtue. In Mississippi it’s seen as a marker of poverty—why would you go outside if you can afford to be inside? The main difference between people in Chicago and people in New York, as I see it, is that people in Chicago are comfortable being happy while people in New York distrust happiness.

Read the full interview with Catherine here.

Andrew Martin Early Work (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I’m realizing slowly how conservative my own view of what fiction could be was a few
years ago. I think you get a little bit hypnotized in student life to the idea of the well-crafted thing. Because it’s what you can control, and it’s real, and it’s good to know how to make a well-crafted thing. I don’t want to reject that. But my suspicion is that we could be doing more interesting work if we didn’t think we had to follow in the footsteps of a pretty narrow canon of American fiction from the mid- to late-20th century.

An interview with Andrew, from which the excerpt above was taken, will be featured in the next issue of Adroit in 2019!

Natalia Sylvester
Everyone Knows You Go Home (Little A)

One of the questions that was really driving this story for me was the understanding that when my parents left Peru, it was a choice that seemed impossible to make and one that required them to leave everything they knew and loved. Can we really call that a choice?

Read the full interview with Natalia here.

Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I think an interest with investigating exile and identity and the poetics of space is definitely going to continue to be a part of my work, and I’ve been writing essays, trying to produce narratives out of memories that feel both factual and fictional, and to consider what that means. What is the ethos of representation in auto-fiction? I’m also concerned with the recovery of space in a world where we spend so much of our time in virtual reality.

Read the full interview with Azareen here.

Elissa Washuta Starvation Mode (Future Tense Books)

I think Starvation Mode is really a book about the ways that hunger and romantic or sexual desire have gotten tangled up for me, about boys and men looking at my body and thinking it should be different, and that look is the thing I was devouring. But I’ve been single for years now. Now, if a man thinks my body should be different, he doesn’t get to touch it. My god, I’ve wasted so much of my life listening to broken men tell me to start running or eat Paleo because I needed to be “fit.” Speaking to other Native women about our shapes has helped—I’m never not going to have a thick waist (even at a size zero, with my ribs showing, I had belly fat) and I’m never not going to have a bony ass. This body is an inheritance.

Read the full interview with Elissa here.

Colin Winnette The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull Press)

A book is its own world, complicated and clashing, and that world is (significantly) a work of the imagination (h/t: Patty Yumi Cottrell for this phrase). When writing, I try to let whatever happens happen, just to see what’s there, what’s possible. When revising, I try to look at the terms the novel is setting up for itself, the decisions I’ve made (consciously or unconsciously that are working together in a way that feels meaningful). I do my best to engage with those decisions when describing what a character is going through, thinking, feeling, saying. One of the ways a book comes to feel unique and true, and therefore alive, is by thoroughly and consistently engaging with its own terms.

Read the full interview with Colin here.

2019, here we come!

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“Son of a Nutcracker!”: On the Complicated Masculinity of Elf by Peter LaBerge

BY AMIE REILLY

Will Ferrell in  Elf  (New Line Cinema, 2003).

Will Ferrell in Elf (New Line Cinema, 2003).

Will Ferrell’s Elf turns fifteen this year, and I think that means it can be considered a classic holiday film. In it, Ferrell plays Buddy, a man who was raised by North Pole elves after crawling out of his orphanage crib and into Santa’s magic bag. Now grown, Buddy takes a voyage “through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops” on a quest to find his human father, a children’s book publisher who lives in Manhattan. At its core, the movie considers the old nature vs. nurture debate (is Buddy an elf or is he human?), but like any good holiday movie, it is wrapped with magic and wonder, then tied together with a shiny ribbon of capitalism and marketing.

Perhaps I am being cynical, taking what is undoubtedly a comedy (it ends with a marriage!) too seriously. However, though I do find it heartwarming and funny, there’s something that doesn’t sit well with me. Buddy the elf is thirty-years-old, but he acts as though he hasn’t hit puberty.

In the beginning, we watch as Buddy does his best to fit in with his adopted elf family. But he’s too slow making toys, his voice too deep for the chorus, his human size too big for the tiny elf houses. It’s a bummer for sure, not being able to fit in with the family who raised you—a feeling many of us misfits relate to this time of year. And it is his misfit-ness that sparks his journey to find his father, though his struggle to conform follows him through the Lincoln Tunnel.

Once Buddy arrives, the cold concrete of NYC seems less harsh because of his naïve wonder. In fact, his childlike view is often the root of the movie’s humor. The juxtaposition of his age (and size) and his behavior creates a space for laughter. In other words, if he didn’t act this way, we wouldn’t have syrupy spaghetti breakfasts, cotton-headed-ninny-muggins, or that escalator scene.  

And I think we could keep our belief in this character suspended, except that Buddy’s childish view of the world sticks around even when romance blooms. The blend of boyish awe and manly virility makes me itch like I’m wearing a damp wool sweater.

Further into the movie, Buddy meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) under the glittering lights of Gimbel’s, where he accidentally works after a manager mistakes him for one of the actor-elves hired to help the store’s Santa. Jovie works for Gimbel’s, too, and her costume leads Buddy to think that she is an elf like him. As she decorates a massive tree, he stares at her with the wide-eyed wonder of a child ogling presents wrapped in gold foil paper. But then things get strange(r).

Jovie is struggling to make it in the city. She eats instant ramen for dinner and the water has been turned off in her apartment. She showers at the store, and when Buddy follows the sound of her singing into the ladies’ room, it’s possible we are supposed to see his invasion of her privacy as innocent, but it feels voyeuristic. Then again, who’s more voyeuristic than Santa, who sees you when you’re sleeping? Perhaps Buddy is more elf than human.

Buddy sits on the counter listening attentively, and then joins in at the chorus. Jovie is, understandably, afraid. She screams, clenches the curtain close to her body, and peers through a corner. Buddy screams back, terrified by her terror and somehow unaware of his faux paux. The scene is already unpleasant, but the discomfort is exacerbated by the fact that the tune they were singing is “Baby it’s Cold Outside,” a song that is controversial for its date-rape implications.  

However, Jovie doesn’t call the police or report him to HR. (She can’t, you see, because she shouldn’t be using the shower in the first place.) A few scenes later, Buddy asks her on a date “to eat food,” advice given to him by his thirteen-year-old half-brother. She agrees, and the movie slides into a compilation of their date. As they stroll through the city, we are supposed to understand that Buddy is seeing something old with new eyes. But what I see is a manchild dragging a tolerant woman through the city she is more familiar with. And in addition to tolerating it, she takes care to teach him—taking him by the hand to educate him about Christmas trees as she moves from store fronts to Rockefeller Center, and then later, when the compilation ends,over the song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” with her teaching him to kiss. When he kisses her on the cheek, she says, “You missed,” before she pulls him down for a “real” kiss. And perhaps we are supposed to find it charming, but it all feels just a bit too maternal— his childishness righted by a woman who leads by the hand.

And maybe the kiss is extra icky because it doesn’t make sense that Jovie would fall in love with Buddy in the first place.

Elf is certainly not the only movie guilty of portraying this type of relationship. (It’s not even the only Will Ferrell movie. I can make similar arguments about Stepbrothers and that one where he joins a fraternity.) The boy/man falling in love with a mother/lover is a trope. I remember feeling the same uncomfortable itchiness watching the movie Big, where a thirty-year-old Tom Hanks plays Josh Baskin, a 12-year-old boy who becomes an adult overnight.

In this movie, Josh makes a wish to “be big” and wakes up as a grown up. He runs away from home, rents a room in Manhattan, and scores a job in a toy company. But more unbelievable is the relationship that forms between Josh and his coworker, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). Of course, Susan doesn’t know Josh is a child, and he doesn’t tell her right away. So, when he kisses her in her apartment, tentatively touching her bra, we are supposed to feel that their love is somehow pure, innocent because it is his first time. His inexperience appears as vulnerability, yet at the same time his fear of the dark is not the fear of a child, but the kink of an adult who wants to do it with the lights on. However, we know this is a character who has recently turned thirteen. Their relationship, like Buddy and Jovie’s, seems incongruent.

Why is Josh attracted to Susan? He is barely a teenager and only looks thirty. Susan both looks, and is, actually thirty. At the same time, it would have been beyond creepy if Josh looked this way and was still attracted to girls his own age. Their courtship is oddly sentimental, inappropriate, and unmistakably awkward.

Like Buddy, Josh is at first shunned for his inability to adult properly, but is eventually rewarded. And like Buddy, Josh forms an unrealistic and ill-fitting romantic relationship with a woman, despite the fact that he is a boy. Though Buddy is a man, he acts like a child, and though Josh is a child, he looks like a man.

Like Jovie, Susan is a bit unsteady in her life. And like Jovie, Susan is also a caretaker. She is simultaneously Josh’s lover and his stand-in mother as she tends to his cuts and tolerates his apartment. And in the last scene of Big, she drives him home to his tree-lined street, becoming his mother for one final time when she kisses him on the head to say goodbye.

I want to ask: What is it about these female characters? They seem to be written to fall in love with children, thus turning them into the amalgamations of mother/lovers. Why does this happen?  

But I feel like I know the answers to those questions. These are the roles we know of women. Caretakers, patient lovers, grown women with problems that can be solved by the love of men, no matter that the men are lacking their level of maturity.  

So maybe the question isn’t, what do we make of these female characters?, but rather, what kind of masculinity is this?

Instead I will ask: Do these movies want us to appreciate men who act like boys? Does wonder need to connect to children? Why do we need to combine wonder with sex?

For a moment I tried to see the romantic relationships in these movies as reimagined oedipal stories. But they are not, at least not in a Theban-ian way. Though Buddy does not have a mother, he doesn’t seem to seek one. He falls in easily with his biological dad’s wife. It is a father relationship he desires. And Josh has a mother, but he abandons her, letting her think that he has been kidnapped. For. Six. Weeks.

There is nothing biological in the loves between these boy/men and the adult women they pursue, so the love, we have to think, is nothing more than an organic, traditional “falling.”

I imagine Freud might say that on some level all men seek to sleep with their mothers and therefore all mother figures. So Jovie and Susan (and every female character in an Adam Sandler movie) might fulfill a desire unmet in childhood. And in these two movies specifically, the romance that makes my skin crawl gives way to motherhood in the end. In Big, Josh returns home to his mother. In the closing scene of Ferrell’s flick, Jovie is dressed in elf regalia, visiting Papa Elf at the North Pole, holding Buddy’s child. Roles are maintained and the protagonists’ journeys end where they began.

In fact, at the very end of Elf, Buddy sits on Papa’s lap after he asks to hold the baby. He remains a child even when he has one.

Perhaps the final question to ask is, does Elf even need a romantic component? Did Big?

The answer to these questions is yes. A romantic component appeals to a wider audience. The answer is yes. They make more money this way.

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Amie Souza Reilly holds an M.A. in English Literature from Fordham University. She teaches at Norwalk Community College and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and ten-year-old son. She has published essays in The New Engagement and Entropy, and has flash fiction forthcoming in Toasted Cheese and Pigeonholes. Her blog can be found here: https://theshapeofme.blog.

Conversations with Contributors: Kristin Chang by Peter LaBerge

BY JENNIFER ZHOU

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Kristin Chang lives in NY. Her work has been anthologized in Best New Poets 2018, the Pushcart Prize Anthology (2019), Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, and Ink Knows No Borders. She is a Resist/Recycle/Regenerate leader with the Wing On Wo Project in Manhattan Chinatown, where she teaches paper-making workshops as anti-gentrification resistance and intergenerational community building. Her debut poetry chapbook Past Lives, Future Bodies is out now from Black Lawrence Press (October 2018).

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Jennifer Zhou: What has your journey as a writer been like? What first drew you to poetry, and how have you evolved over the years?

Kristin Chang: I like to think that my journey is one of perpetual beginnings—I’m always trying to unlearn capitalist/Western ideas of “progress” and “discovery” and trying to think of everything I write, everything I move toward, as a kind of coming home to myself. I’m also still struggling with calling myself a writer, because I often feel unworthy or don’t know how to see writing outside of constant, very visible production. I think I’m just trying to create a safe and healthy way to relate to myself and my work. What first drew me to poetry was probably the permission it gave me to disrupt language and reinvent it for myself—I think especially for immigrants and kids of immigrants, that permission to disrupt and disturb and reshape a language you’ve been alienated from is incredibly potent. In terms of how I’ve evolved, I love Jenny Zhang’s quote about writing toward your survival, and I like to think that I’m writing toward that and beyond it as well, that I can imagine my own safety and joy and intimacy within a poetic space.      

JZ: One of my favorite things about your book is its title, Past Lives, Future Bodies. I find it so fitting for this collection, with its resonating themes of heritage, self, and the clash between the two. What did this title mean to you when you wrote these poems? In what ways does it encapsulate the message of the whole collection?

KC: I’m so glad you liked the title! I was a little unsure about it—I was afraid it was too clunky or inside-jokey, because my mom loves to attribute aspects of my personality to my past lives, and when I was younger that used to frustrate me. I thought she wasn’t acknowledging my individuality, etc. etc.—but now I appreciate being reminded of my past lives. I’m also obsessed with the implications of regeneration, that we all have “future bodies” that are waiting for us to inhabit them, that birth and death are synonymous and that the future and past aren’t separate entities—they’re constantly enjoined and lived within the body. Now that I’m grown up and have discarded my old fixation on “American individuality” (thank goodness, right?) this title was born from that desire to embody what is ancestral and unlived/unborn at the same time. I wanted the poems in my chapbook to feel both rooted and regenerative, a wound watered into a garden.  

JZ: Speaking of themes, I was fascinated by how the idea of movement resonates through your work—whether it be movement away from your country, from your family, or from previous identities. How has your experience with movement, travel, and change inspired your work?

KC: There’s a poem in the chapbook that feels particularly close to me (“Yilan”), which sprung from an imaginary visit to Yilan—I was conflicted when writing it because I didn’t want to exoticize it, to capitalize off its traumas and its collective histories. But I also realized, halfway through, that I wasn’t really writing about a static place. I was writing about an embodied one. So the poem became more about the rhythms and migrations of stories, but also about the grief between the women in my family, those severances and losses that are birthed from movement. I feel like migration and mobility represent different things to me—there’s a kind of privileged mobility, where privilege and status allow you to move through the world with a certain ease and power and destruction, and then there’s migration, which demands sacrifice. There’s always a cost, emotionally and physically. It’s a kind of debt you pay off endlessly, generationally.     

JZ: One of the most memorable aspects of this collection for me is your striking use of structure and form. I found it fascinating that many of the poems appear in couplets, while others, like “anchor baby” and “The History of Sexuality,” are more unorthodox. What inspires you to experiment with structure? Do you think the form of a poem shapes its meaning, or is it the other way around?

KC: I think I tend to default to couplets, which is sometimes useful but usually not. Usually I’m just afraid to let my language loose on the page. The two poems you mentioned were really challenging for me in terms of form—especially the second one, which began as couplets before my wonderful teacher (Rachel Eliza Griffiths) mentioned that they felt restrictive. I realized that I had a lot of self-imposed borders and rules that I needed to move beyond. I think form and meaning interact and shape each other in really dynamic ways that are hard to define (it’s a chicken-or-the-egg kind of question), but for me, changing the form sometimes frees the poem and gives it a whole new body, a whole new trajectory. That’s how I felt when I changed “The History of Sexuality” from couplets to a less containable form—it was really liberating and gave the intergenerational storyline more room to root itself, to become unruly, to grow beyond me and into its own shape.

JZ: When reading the collection, I was struck by your ability to deal with extremely personal subject matter in a candid but still deeply powerful way. What do you find challenging about writing about your past? How does poetry help you engage with these elements of your personal history?

KC: Thank you so much! These are such kind words. Often when I finish a draft, I’ll look at the page and be like, “What did I just write! Where did this come from?” I don’t consciously think about what stories or pasts or selves I’m going to find language for, and when I do, it’s like coming up for air. It’s always terrifying, but I also can’t stop. Every time I finish something I always think “I can’t ever do that again!” because of how charged and emotional the process can be, but not writing is even worse. I feel severed from my body—very displaced from myself—if I don’t at least try.

JZ: As a very accomplished young writer, what is your advice for other emerging or aspiring authors? Any tips for seeking out inspiration or putting your ideas into words? Any recommended reading?

KC: I definitely have major, major impostor syndrome (like I get fairly regular anxiety dreams about it), but on a peer-to-peer level I just love to talk about what we’re all reading, and I especially love drawing inspiration from other genres and other art forms. I also just love reading poems out loud (usually not my own) and finding ways to embody what we read. I’ve actually been reading and writing prose lately, so some books I’ve loved are Ponti, by Sharlene Teo, and The Fruit of the Drunken Tree, by Ingrid Rojas Contrera, everything by N.K. Jemisin, and of course Asian women have been releasing such incredible work lately and always (If They Come for Us, by Fatimah Asghar, and A Cruelty Special to Our Species, by Emily Jungmin Yoon).

JZ: Now that your debut chapbook has been published, what are your plans for the future? Any new projects we might look forward to?

KC: I mentioned that I’m starting to write prose (yikes!) so that’s where I am—I’m actually trying not to feel guilty about not writing poems, but I like to think that my prose is really just poetry in disguise/poetry in another body. I made a joke that I feel like I’m cheating on poetry, that I’m betraying something or myself, but I also feel at home in my current form and I’m learning to reframe genre distinctions in a way that isn’t reductive. I can’t ever get away from poetry—it feels like the marrow of me. I hope that every project I hurl myself into feels like it has the bones of a poem.

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Jennifer Zhou is a junior currently attending high school in Beijing, China. She has adopted four dogs, learned three languages, and lived on two continents. When she isn’t busy with school, she is an amateur writer—you can find her work in twelve journals, including The Louisville Review, InkBeat Arts, and Skipping Stones, among others. She is a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee.

Beneath the Surface of Empathy: A Review of Not That Bad, Edited by Roxane Gay by Peter LaBerge

BY LETICIA URIETA

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture , edited by Roxane Gay ( HarperCollins , 2018).

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, 2018).

CONTENT WARNING: RAPE, SEXUAL ASSAULT, HARASSMENT

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The act of beginning this book was an act of facing an experience I knew would be enlightening, painful, stomach churning, powerful and resonant. I was excited by the prospect of being able to read and talk about this book, and yet I kept stopping and starting it out of fear and knowing. I knew that listening to each story had the potential to make me feel empowered and, at the same time, dig into my own traumas and feelings that are still difficult to face.

My experience with this book has been multilayered; I chose to read it and listen to the audiobook in which each author read their essay aloud. I wanted to consider whether there was a certain power that these authors could reclaim by telling their own stories aloud. Even in her introduction to the book, hearing editor Roxane Gay deliberately and clearly reading the names of each contributing author was powerful, like saying their names conjured a protection against an erasure of their stories.

In her introduction to the book, Gay describes the stories we tell ourselves as mechanisms for coping, or simply understanding trauma, even when coping hurts us as survivors. She describes the refrain she has often told herself, that her gang rape and the subsequent assaults and mistreatments were “not that bad,” and how, because of this refrain, “the surfaces of my empathy became calloused.” This feels important to read before spending time with the testimonies of the other contributors, as Gay asks readers to consider how rape culture and misogyny have limited our own sense of empathy for survivors of trauma. To call the authors’ stories ‘testimonies’ feels important too; testimony has a legal context, but many of these authors did not and may never have the opportunity to seek out justice through a system that often dismisses or renders survivors invisible, or else subjects them to extreme scrutiny that prolongs and amplifies trauma-as the country has seen played out during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. V.L. Seek describes this in her essay, “Utmost Resistance”: “We are trapped in a legal system that has never favored women and has never believed survivors. And we are mired in a circuitous and damning dialogue, so powerful that it invalidates our experiences, our traumas, our truths-a dialogue so powerful that we begin to doubt whether our experience was never there at all.” The act of telling these experiences is an act against erasure and for affirmation that it happened, as memory often fails survivors after traumatic events.

To call the authors’ work ‘testimonies’ is not meant to detract from the fact that each essay is carefully crafted and each one focuses on a different aspect of rape culture that largely impact women and femme peoples, though this collection spans genders and sexualities.

Some of the authors have chosen to tell their stories as linear narratives, while others have chosen to focus on a specific aspect of their experiences or their continuous path towards understanding and healing from these experiences. In Claire Schwartz’s essay, “& The Truth is, I Have No Story,” she grapples with the narratives that people have attempted to use to frame her assault, like “at least you weren’t killed.” By removing her experience from a comforting narrative structure, she disrupts these narratives of “not that bad” when she insists, “I want someone to watch me thrash and crumple because that, too, is the truth.” This is an idea that is echoed throughout the collection—that survivors do not owe the public or those hearing their testimonies a convenient or palatable narrative about their trauma. Sexual assault and harassment are pervasive and healing is work, not something that a survivor can simply achieve and move on from. Another contributor, artist Liz Rosema, has chosen to navigate the collective silence of youth impacted by an inappropriate coach in her comic, “What We Didn’t Say.” Some of the authors confine their stories to themselves, while others employ the direct address of “you” to confront a perpetrator, as AJ McKenna does in “Sixty-Three Days,” or to address other people who might have experienced something similar to their own experiences, like “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl,” by xTx. The diverse ways in which the authors choose to tell their stories speaks to the divergent yet relatable ways that many survivors navigate their traumas and their understanding of what has happened since.

The contributors to this book range from well-known, professional writers to academics to celebrity actors, yet all of their stories are treated with equal respect and care. In fact, it was stories from the writers who were less well-known that I gravitated towards, as they explored important ideas, like how intergenerational trauma begets more trauma and the ways that acts of sexual assault and harassment take away a person’s autonomy over their own body.       

One contributor, Vanessa Martir, an accomplished writer and teacher of creative nonfiction, wrote a piece about her relationship with her mother’s trauma and how it affected her ability to navigate her own in her essay, “What I Told Myself,” which is from her memoir and took seven years to write. When I asked her about her experience of recording herself reading her work, she said, “When I was asked if I wanted to record the essay, my immediate answer was yes. I knew that no one could do my story justice the way I could. To say I was nervous is an understatement, but I certainly walked out of there feeling fierce and unstoppable...and yes, empowered.” Martir’s work as a community educator is to empower others to tell their most necessary and difficult stories, and so her words ring true to others: the act of telling our stories can be a part of the healing process. While the act of listening to her words and to the words of the other contributors can be difficult, it feels to me to be an act necessary to fully experience this book.

Sharisse Tracey, whose essay, “Picture Perfect,” is one of the more graphic and disturbing ones to read, spoke to me about how it felt for her to have her essay included in this collection: “I knew, should my essay be chosen, in what I knew would be thousands of entries—that said to me, you matter. Your story matters and people care. Not only do people care, but they are pissed off, hurt, outraged, angry, horrified and they want to help to secure that these stop at the source and those perpetrators be brought to justice.” Tracey continues to affirm how powerful this experience has been for her when she describes the act of recording her piece, saying how difficult it was and how her voice cracked and she fought back tears. When listening to her audio recording again, she said that, “I braced myself to listen when I first received the audio file. It was painful to hear the story of a twelve-year-old girl being raped by her father. I tried to listen as if it were not me...but that was impossible. Although I’ve lived with the story, hearing it still brought me to tears. I believe the experience of listening to stories can often be more powerful, especially when they are read by the authors. In this case, with Not That Bad, I feel that all of us had to read our own stories. We own those stories. We live and breathe our words daily. Unlike readers, we can’t put the book down when it gets too painful or turn off the volume. Each of us paid for all of our words. Most of us are still paying.”

These stories are for the authors themselves, allowing them to work through their own processes of healing. They are for other survivors who need to read these stories in order to feel seen and to feel less isolated in their own silences.

But the stories of the people in this book are also working to name that which patriarchy and rape culture seeks to make unnamable, because to name an act levies power over it. These stories are directed at a society that is sustained by survivor’s silence and fear in the face of rape culture, and that seems insurmountable. The fact that this book exists speaks to the notion that it contains only a handful of stories among countless others, and that is a statement the book is making too. As Zoe Medeiros writes in her essay, “Why I Stopped,” “The more of us who come out as survivors, the harder it gets to ignore that there is too much to survive, the harder it gets to pretend that this doesn’t happen or it only happens to certain kinds of people.”

It feels too big to assign this book the job of “fixing” something for any of the contributors or for readers. Rather, the book seeks to create a conversation that is too loud to ignore. The subtitle, “Dispatches from Rape Culture,” is very deliberate. Rape culture, as it exists across spaces and cultures, creates a battleground between those fighting to dismantle it, those unwilling to interrogate it and those actively working to uphold it. These are some of the stories from that battleground.

There are times that, as a survivor, it feels difficult to know where to channel my anger and what the next step is within growing movements towards justice like the #MeToo movement. As Lyz Lenz writes in her essay, “All The Angry Women,” “my anger still feels homeless and without a direction forward.” Not That Bad may be a way forward; it draws on the work that activists have done and engages in a conversation that I hope will not soon end.

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Leticia Urieta is a proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

"All Sextoned Up": A Conversation with Henrietta Goodman by Peter LaBerge

BY KARIN SCHALM

Henrietta Goodman, author of  All That Held Us  ( BkMk Press , 2018).

Henrietta Goodman, author of All That Held Us (BkMk Press, 2018).

Henrietta Goodman is the author of three books of poetry: All That Held Us (John Ciardi Prize, BkMk Press, 2018), Hungry Moon (Colorado State University, 2013), and Take What You Want (Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Books, 2007). Her poems and essays have recently been published in New England Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Field, Guernica, 32 Poems, and other journals. She teaches at the University of Montana.

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Karin Schalm: Henrietta, your new book, All That Held Us, came out this year as the winner of the John Ciardi Prize. Congrats, by the way. It’s an absolutely beautiful book—a poetic memoir of linked sonnets. How did you get started on such a strange and serious project?

Henrietta Goodman: Thank you! I started by accident. I had written formal poetry before, but I had never thought of myself as a formalist. A friend gave me an assignment to write a poem in terza rima, so I did, and that got me started thinking about other forms I had never tried. I had written a few English sonnets, but never an Italian sonnet, so I tried that—and the subject I chose (my mother’s fear of water and the absence of men throughout my childhood and adolescence) was something I had never written about. So, the experiment with a form that was new to me corresponded with my realization that I was interested in exploring that subject beyond just one poem. So I wrote another sonnet, and then another, and then I felt that I should either stop, because the poems were so different from the other poems I was working on at the time, or I should keep going and see what happened…which is what I did.

KS: What did you learn about yourself (and language) from writing these personal but highly structured poems? Did you find words through the demands of form that startled you? If so, did these words persuade you to tell stories in new ways that you might not have expected?

HG: I didn’t want the form, especially the rhyme, to draw attention to itself, so I tried, for the most part, to rhyme words that wouldn’t stand out as being unusual. I did learn a word, though, in the process of writing the poems, that ends one of the poems in the last section: escapology. It means the art of escape, Houdini-style. In the poem, it refers literally to escaping from a large spiked frame called the Table of Death, used in stage magic, but I came to think of it as referring to the process of extricating myself from the damaging aspects of my family history, and to think of the book itself as an act of escapology.

KS: As readers we understand there’s a difference between the speaker of a poem and the writer, but how does this play out when poems are actually based on the poet’s life? This book travels through the speaker’s childhood to adulthood. How do you, the poet, see yourself in regards to this speaker? I’m thinking about the scene where the speaker (who is just a child) is sexually and violently abused by a doctorIt’s such a painful moment, mostly because of the mother’s lack of response to her child’s screams. Have the formal constraints of the sonnet helped you tell this story?

HG: Thank you for asking this question. The two poems you’re talking about are near the end of the sequence and function as a flashback into a traumatic event from the speaker’s childhood. And the speaker is me, since the book is intended as a memoir-in-sonnets. I’ve made no attempt to separate myself from the speaker in this case, except to note that the poet and speaker are always different, in that the poem is a deliberately crafted piece of art with a voice that is not the same as the poet’s everyday voice, whether the poem is autobiographical or not.

I had never thought of writing about the incident, though I had certainly thought about its impact on me over the years and had learned to call it what it was—rape. When I thought of including it in the book, so much of which deals with my relationship with my mother and my attempts to understand some aspects of her past and her nature, I was drawn to the idea of writing about such a shocking physical violation in sonnet form. Form, of course, and poetry in general, is one of the ways we have of imposing order on chaos—of putting experience to use. We can’t control what is done to us, often, but we can control what we do with what is done to us.

As I was working on the two poems, I thought also of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room,” which describes the speaker’s experience, as a child, of waiting for her aunt in a dentist’s waiting room and hearing her aunt make a small sound (“an oh! of pain”). This experience contributes to the speaker’s sudden self-awareness and awareness of the distinctions and connections between self and other. I wanted, somehow, to allude to Bishop’s poem in my own poems, since my poems detail a coming-of-age experience also, but in a situation that inverts Bishop’s—I am the child in the exam room, while my mother is in the waiting room. I’m sure part of my goal was to write something that couldn’t be dismissed as self-indulgent or “therapeutic”—the accomplishment of writing about the experience in Italian sonnet form, combined with alluding to a significant figure in my poetic heritage, made me feel more confident in writing about an incredibly personal experience.

But, ultimately, I’m not sure that I did allude to Bishop’s poem, because the word I chose to end one of my two poems on this subject is “inscrutable,” a word that appears not in “In the Waiting Room,” but in another well-known poem of Bishop’s, “Sestina,” which ends “and the child draws another inscrutable house.” I hope, though, that at least a few readers will hear an echo of Bishop in my poem.

KS: I love Bishop and hear echoes of her in your work. Who are some of your other poetic influences?

HG: I love this question! Two of my earliest and most important influences are named in the book: the poet Anne Sexton and Paul Westerberg, the singer/songwriter for the band The Replacements (my favorite, ever, from age thirteen to now). Sexton appears in the poem that begins section three of the book, when I mention getting “all Sextoned up,” and Paul Westerberg appears in section two as the music I’m listening to in my room as a teenager.

Fairy tales have long been an influence on my poetry also (since college, when I took a literary theory course that used fairy tales as the vehicle for various approaches to interpretation and analysis), and one of my sonnets references the story of Bluebeard, who systematically married women and then murdered them. And, in another of the poems, I refer to Milton’s Satan as “my twelfth grade English crush.” In this book I was looking back at some of the literary figures and concepts that were important to me as I was beginning my life as a poet, many of which I’m grateful to have encountered in Mrs. Johnston’s twelfth grade AP English class.

KS: I’ve been a big fan of your work over the years. Your first two collections, although personal in content, don’t read like memoirs. Nor do they make the same formal demands as All That Held Us. Given that your work is changing, where do you plan to go from here? Have you decided if you will continue with form or go back to free verse? 

HG: After writing 48 sonnets, it was difficult to stop. I realized I was thinking in iambic meter. I asked my friend, the poet Ryan Scariano, to give me some assignments that would force me to go back to free verse, where I had initially felt much more comfortable, but which now felt foreign. We exchanged poems by email for quite a few months, and then he suggested that we collaborate on a project—an alphabet of animal acrostic poems, or two alphabets, one from each of us. I realized that I had never written an acrostic and that the project was appealingly strange—and I was really drawn to the idea of doing something that sounded a bit ridiculous (like a children’s book but for adult readers of serious poetry, or like 48 linked Italian sonnets that were also a memoir) and doing it well. Plus, I like Ryan a lot as a poet and as a person, and I like animals, so I definitely wanted to do it.

We started the project about a year ago, and Ryan is finished with his alphabet, but I still have 6 or 7 more poems to write. The acrostic form has been a delightful challenge—I’m not good at very short poems, so I’m constantly fighting against the length constraint (when the word is done the poem is done, so my lines tend to be very long). And, I also have to attend to the integrity of the line and the placement of the line break in a way that free verse doesn’t require. We intend to publish the manuscript as a book that invites the reader to participate—like, here’s Ryan’s acrostic about a robin, and here’s my acrostic about a raccoon, and now, you, reader, have a blank lined page on which to write your own acrostic about a rabbit or a rattlesnake or a reindeer or whatever you like.

I don’t think I’ll ever really give up form after this. Even if I’m writing in free verse, I like the idea of devising some “rules,” if for no other reason than to break them.

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Karin Schalm is the Office Manager at Submittable.

Hope, Hypervigiliance, and Human Hours: A Conversation with Catherine Barnett by Peter LaBerge

BY HEIDI SEABORN

Catherine Barnett, author of   Human Hours  (Graywolf Press, 2018) .

Catherine Barnett, author of Human Hours (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Catherine Barnett is the author of three poetry collections, Human Hours, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced and The Game of Boxes, winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her honors include a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a member of the core faculty of New York University's Creative Writing Program, a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, and an independent editor in New York City.

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Heidi Seaborn: In your new collection of poems, Human Hours, there is an intimacy of voice that is utterly engaging, beguiling. How did you arrive at this voice?

Catherine Barnett: In these new poems, I tried to let the pleasures of tracking the mind in its circles and leaps enter the poems as vividly as possible. My tendency has been to compress my work; in this book I tried to give it freer range, trust it more. “Add add add; cut cut cut,” Anne Sexton advised. I then practiced the “Add add add” whenever I felt my inner critic threaten to take over, and I tried to take the reader into confidence.

HS: The notes for Human Hours are a found poem of their own. I was fascinated to read all the influences, borrowings and references. What tends to be a catalytic influence versus an informing or even factual influence on a specific poem or series?

CB: There’s no distinction for me between these kinds of influences. Last spring I taught a class on literary influence, a subject that’s enlivened and vexed by questions of tradition, appropriation, theft, originality, etc. Everything I read keeps me company and if others’ work shows up in my pages, I’m thrilled and honored. I try to note where the borrowings come from. I love “borrowing” in all its forms. I borrow my clothes from the thrift shop and will return them to the thrift shop; we’re here on borrowed time; anything we think we own we are really just borrowing.

HS: What role does metaphor play on the page and in your life?

CB: I don’t think metaphor can be willed, but since language is inherently metaphoric, it can’t help but show up on the page, the wilder the better. And yet often I side with readers who want a metaphor to work at a literal level, too. I direct my students to that wonderful 1926 exchange of letters between Harriet Monroe and Hart Crane, in which Crane reprimands Monroe for her desire for more “logic” in his metaphors. I hate to admit that I, too, am a sucker for logic, but I like especially logic that undoes itself or undermines itself or goes to an extreme.

I’m always looking for ways to figure out our absurd existence: what else is this like? Metaphors leap to help us. I guess this search for likeness is also part of the pattern-seeking mind of the poet.

HS:  In David Biespiel’s new book, The Education of a Young Poet, he describes metaphor as hiding “in random visible experiences like a dark suit pulled from the back of a closet found to still fit.” Your poem, “Idée Fixe,” opens with the line, “No woman wants to be low-hanging fruit,” a metaphor that you turn into something very literal. Which came first, the metaphor or the literal fact?

CB: The poem was triggered by that phrase, “low-hanging fruit,” which I honestly hadn’t heard before and which sounded like a good thing to me, though I could tell by the way it was said that it wasn’t a good thing. I took the mistake and ran with it. I love mistakes, to tell you the truth. When I was a journalist working at an art magazine, I wrote an article on the painter Willem de Kooning, who painted sometimes with his left hand so that he wouldn’t know quite what he was making, so that he could find or make or invent a “mistake.” I look for ways to do this kind of thing, or to find it in the world—and I think it does have something to do with the gap or the disruption that leads to metaphor.

When I was trying to dream up a possible cover for this new collection, I thought of this poem, “Idée Fixe,” and asked my mother, who’s an abstract painter, if she could make a painting of a peach. She sent photos of her work-in-progress, accompanied by brief notes that could themselves be poems. This is one of the many emails I received from her as she painted: “A bit of a sad peach. Brave, independent, worn honored. It just wanted to be seen. If I could I would take it to a color lab and make it a warm and fuzzy peach tone, which would be nice but not very true. Black and white would make it a literary peach. Maybe it really is an apple.”

And before that she wrote: “I will try. I will be as free as possible. It is very, very hard to create a beautiful line. I don’t think I have ever done it in my work.” In poetry, too, it is very, very hard to create a beautiful line!

Back to metaphor more explicitly, the poet Ed Hirsch says “Poetry is made of metaphor. It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things.” It’s a pleasure to collude and collide in these ways.

HS: Do you believe in the “muse” or is that just a metaphor for inspiration? If you do, who or what were your muses for Human Hours? If you don’t, what else inspires you?

CB: I’m embarrassed to admit that I do kind of believe in a muse—a muse that can be a little bit withholding because she believes simply in hard work, in writing even when words or ideas or feelings are recalcitrant. I try to show up every day so that the muse will know I’m serious even when I’m flailing. I tell myself that I can’t worry about not being able to write until I’ve written every day for three weeks straight. This is a good strategy for two reasons—firstly, because it’s hard to make it through three weeks, so I always have an explanation for why I’m not writing well; and secondly, because the muse seems to take pity on me if I show up every day with nothing.

Other inspirations? Café con leche. Beckett’s Happy Days. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. Kathleen Peirce’s poems and her chicken and dumplings. Dickinson’s letters. Keith Johnstone’s Impro. My inner agitations. Hope. Mistakes. My watch.

HS: Speaking of watches, time functions as both subject and method in this book. It’s both a constraint and a motivation. How would you describe your relationship to time? What has become urgent?

CB: I think I’ve always been in a rush, all my life. I live on the east coast now and I feel I’m always three hours behind, still living on west coast time. I ride a kickscooter all up and down NYC (wheeling it even into the subway car) because it saves me ten minutes on every commute.

Mark Doty gave a lecture—years ago!—on the difference between “lyric” and “narrative” time (terms I borrowed for the title of a poem, “Lyric and Narrative Time at Café Loup”) and I realized then that the biggest source of tension between me and my then-young son was that I had to live in narrative time, where the clock is operative and has power, and he wanted (as did I) to remain in lyric time, where the clock disappears. Writing, and working on a poem, is one good way to enter lyric time. Reading, too.

HS: There’s a line in the title poem from your last book, The Game of Boxes, that could be a precursor to the poems about your father in Human Hours: “I draw all night / to distract my boy / from life’s greater deletions.” In your new book, poems seem to hover ahead of loss—on the wavering edge—yet they never dip over into the sentimental. Can you talk about holding that edge in your writing?

CB: Mostly I live in a state of hope bumped up against hypervigilance, which sometimes takes the form of anticipatory grief. In fact, I became a writer because I thought writing might help me deal with the loss I knew was built into the human condition.

I’m all for true sentiment, which is not the same as sentimentality. It’s a kind of bliss to be able to access real feeling—so often it’s diluted or distracted away. On the other hand, sometimes—often—it’s too much to bear or to handle, and the shaping and making of art is a powerful container both for the maker and the reader. Maybe some related questions, which I like to think about but can't answer, are: how and when does feeling usefully challenge restraint? and how and when can restraint give us access to true feeling?

HS: And yet, in this collection, your poetry has an exposed, vulnerable quality that often approaches what little remains of what is considered taboo. Do you ever feel the need to self-censor?

CB: I wonder what you’re seeing that seems close to taboo? I might like to be someone who breaks taboos but I don’t think I’m that kind of writer, not here in this book and not in either of my other two books. Vulnerability, yes, I believe in making oneself vulnerable. I think it’s a kind of strength, actually. But even art that feels vulnerable has been made. It’s made out of aesthetic decisions, and it’s not the transcription of a diary by any means, even when it might approximate that. Beckett said, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist....” What is it Rimbaud says? “I is an other.” Yes, the I in these poems often resembles me; but she is also very other, a collage, a made thing looking for a “form that accommodates the mess.” It’s true that I try to leave interpretation and judgment behind when I’m writing but the poems go through endless revisions. The question of self-censorship seems pretty much beside the point. Of course there’s self-censorship! Writing is not life, it’s art, which has a shaping force to it. A transformative and transforming force.

HS: The reviews for Human Hours highlight the tragic-comic quality of this collection. We are living in a time where humor is not just a pleasure but a survival technique. What brought on this shift in tone?

CB: I went to lots of improv shows, I tried out some improv classes, I let myself be more prolix and discursive and wandering. The material in this book is different from the other books, so it allows for different ways of saying. My first book was a book of elegies and there was certainly no room for humor there. In this book I wanted to attend to the possibilities in language itself and to the absurdities of our human situation. Right now I feel the absurd has slipped right into the dire, and humor is both a little more of a luxury than we can afford and more necessary than ever. Francis Bacon says, “The imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” And recently I just heard someone say that humor gets people to laugh, and once their mouths are open you can slip in some truth....

When I went back to a college reunion years ago, someone told me to “turn around”—he wanted to check out my ass to see how I was faring.... That was the last time I ever went back. And yet that was the culture I was raised in. The speaker knows she’s long been confused and disappointed by the expectations and demands placed on girls and women. The poems try to chronicle the ways a woman might feel both constrained and free, afraid and courageous, lonely and eager for solitude. I think at least one of the the artist’s jobs is to question the status quo. Certainly to pay attention and to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

HS: Do you think of the four “Accursed Questions” sequences as prose or poetry or lyric essay? Each is comprised of questions, answers, statements and the artful dodge. For me, they capture the muddle of human experience, what we know and the limits of what we can know. Can you share how this series came into being and its relationship to the rest of the collection?

CB: I think of these sections as lyric essays, with lots of connectives rubbed out. Some of the material was drawn from pages of daily notes I wrote on the subject of questions. A friend and I were both hoping to write prose books and so we made a pact to exchange 500 words every day on our respective subjects. Matthew Zapruder finished his wonderful book—Why Poetry—and rather than a prose book, some of my late-night explorations made it into these brief lyric essays. I’m still taking notes because I am still questioning questions. I love them. I’m addicted to them. I think they more than anything can help us empathize, understand one another. Now the trick is to listen.

HS: Catherine, it’s been a pleasure to listen to your answers in response to these questions. I also want to personally share my gratitude for the last stanza of “Accursed Questions, i”—it captured my whole childhood (yes, the red speedo) in a few lines.

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Heidi Seaborn is Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal, a New York University MFA candidate and author of an award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos forthcoming from Mastodon Books in early 2019. Since Heidi started writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for over a dozen awards and published in numerous journals and anthologies and in a chapbook Finding My Way Home. Her website: www.heidiseabornpoet.com

Everything Almost Snaps Back: A Review of Carmen Giménez Smith’s Cruel Futures by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

Carmen Giménez Smith’s   Cruel Futures   is No. 17 in the City Lights Books Spotlight Series.

Carmen Giménez Smith’s Cruel Futures is No. 17 in the City Lights Books Spotlight Series.

Carmen Giménez Smith’s sixth collection, Cruel Futures, is an astonishingly present imagistic exploration of aging, familial bonds, and mothering in the context of late capitalism. Giménez Smith’s poems, sparkling with pop culture and gleaming with intelligence, unpretentiously welcome the reader into mortality, grief, and nurturing, while deftly highlighting how these human conditions are shaped by the race, gender, and class of those who experience them.

Giménez Smith demonstrates how the understanding of childhood shifts and evolves when someone begins to parent, addressing her “terrible childhood” in “Ravers Having Babies,” and wondering at “what tatters you made of me / though you made me a scrappy little watcher / the breaks are there and vibrate.” And, the further Giménez Smith travels from that cosseted realm, the clearer its contours become, as in “A Cascade of Feeling,” where she confides, “I was recipient of only thirty percent / of my father's wrath, and that slice / is key to my composition.” Since this collection is concerned with mothering and being mothered, Giménez Smith’s poems continually return to childhood, dipping in and out of its environs like loons on the surface of a lake.

Some of the collection’s most affecting poems grapple with the tectonic plates of middle age: children growing up as parents grow older, one generation entering the world as the other exits. In poems like “Dementia As About Me,” Giménez Smith’s language is almost painfully intimate, giving the reader the feeling of hard-won, exhausted truth: “I write / things like carved out or like guts spooned out / with a rusty spoon: my guts, her spoon.” Time is ever-present in this collection, as in “Dementia Elegy,” where “Dreaming about mothers means mortality is / bristling the hair on your neck.”

When looking at her daughter, Giménez Smith sees the predicament of possessing a female body—especially a brown one—from the clear vantage point of having inhabited it for so many decades, and this knowledge worries her in poems like “Dispatch From Midlife,” where “Past fertility, insomnia / is the new membrane / around my nights.” Her daughter is stepping into a fraught, gendered and racialized physicality, just as Giménez Smith's speaker struggles, ambivalently, to remain within it—although she eyes that struggle with humor and self-awareness, as in “Careworn Tale,” where “I pluck stray hairs from my beauty / to assert control over my beauty. / I measure out what I have left.”

Giménez Smith also knows the price society exacts on women for their physicality; in “The Hero's Journey,” she relates that, “I had learned / at a young age how mutable the female body / was, everything almost snaps back.” In “Ethos,” Giménez Smith confides that “I want to clear the dross / of misogyny, so she won’t suffer under its yoke.” However, she’s not sure that’s possible, even as she prepares to fight for it, saying, “I’ll paint my face, take off my earrings, do the inevitable.”

The common thread here is the speaker’s aging—her intimate relationship to her body’s movement through time, which “shortens our telomeres without mercy” (“Ravers Having Babies”). There’s synthesis in this collection, a clarity of vision that manages to coexist within the overwhelm of consumerism, television, and pop culture. This slim book is astonishing in scope and ambition, managing to depict society’s constant babbling chatter, while continually asserting the individual dignity of her speaker and those she loves, and leaving room for breathtaking moments of revelation, like when “a lark / breaks through my skin” (“Bipolar Objective Correlative”).

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Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of Foglifter Journal and lives in sunny Oakland, California.

Raise Your Glass: Adroit Meets the 2019 YoungArts Awards! by Peter LaBerge

We are so thrilled to share that high school writers affiliated with The Adroit Journal have brought home a total of fourteen awards from the National YoungArts Foundation's 2019 YoungArts Awards!

National YoungArts Foundation.

National YoungArts Foundation.

From the YoungArts website:

The National YoungArts Foundation is proud to announce the 2019 YoungArts winners—710 of the nation’s most promising young artists in the visual, literary, design and performing arts. Selected from thousands of applications and representing artists from 44 states, YoungArts winners gain access to one of the most comprehensive programs for emerging artists in the United States, offering financial, professional and artistic development opportunities over the course of their careers. A complete list of the 2019 winners, all 15–18 years old or in grades 10–12, is available online at youngarts.org/winners.  
 

Congratulations to the 2019 YoungArts Award winners affiliated with The Adroit Journal!

Daniel Blokh, AL
Summer Mentee (Creative Nonfiction — Caroline Crew)
        Writing - Poetry (Merit)

Bronwen Brenner, NY
Summer Mentee (Fiction — Laura Citino)

Writing – Creative Nonfiction (Finalist)

Eliza Browning, CT
Summer Mentee (Poetry — Matt W. Miller)

Writing – Poetry (Merit)

Emma Choi, VA
Summer Mentee (Poetry — Emily Paige Wilson)

Writing – Short Story (Honorable Mention)

Audrey Kim, PA
Summer Mentee (Poetry — Nancy Reddy)

Writing – Poetry (Honorable Mention)

Qingying (Susan) Li, MA
Summer Mentee (Poetry — Natasha Oladokun)
Writing - Poetry (Merit)

Serena Lin, NJ
Summer Mentee (Creative Nonfiction — Lo Kwa Mei-en)

Writing - Creative Nonfiction (Finalist)

Eunice Lee, CA
Summer Mentee (Fiction — Cady Vishniac)
Writing – Short Story (Merit)

Juliet Lubwama, PA
Summer Mentee (Poetry — Denice Frohman)

Writing - Poetry (Finalist)

Megan Lunny, PA
Summer Mentee (Fiction — Eshani Surya)

Writing – Short Story (Finalist)

Sophie Paquette, MI
Summer Mentee (Creative Nonfiction — Kayleb Rae Candrilli) & Previous Pose Reader

Writing – Short Story (Finalist)

Sahara Sidi, VA
Summer Mentee (Nonfiction — Caroline Crew)
Writing – Creative Nonfiction (Finalist)

Nikki Velletri, RI
Summer Mentee (Poetry — Meg Day)

Writing – Poetry (Finalist)

Anna Wang, IL
Summer Mentee (Poetry — Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello)

Writing – Poetry (Merit)
 

*      *      *

Stay tuned for information regarding the 2019 YoungArts Week Writers' Reading, which will be live-streamed on the YoungArts website.

Fighting the Silence: A Conversation with Alexander Chee by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRIN KHAN

Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  (Mariner Books, 2018).

Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018).

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.

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Alexander and I discussed his essay collection while seated outside on a hot day at the Tin House’s Summer Workshop at Reed College in July, where Alexander was faculty for one of the novel workshops. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kirin Khan: In your essay “On Becoming a Writer,” there’s this moment where you talk about how in the U.S., there is an insistence that the measure of success for an artist is becoming middle class, and that failing that means your art has failed. How would you describe success outside of that middle-class aspiration?

Alexander Chee: It’s often unspoken but it’s something I’ve definitely experienced so regularly over time that I started speaking about it. For my first novel I was paid $4,000 out of a $6,000 advance before the house went bankrupt. I saw the paperback rights get sold, ended up getting half of half of that money because of the bankruptcy. It was probably significantly less money than a lot people make for a novel, so it was funny that one of the first reviews that would come up when you google my name was by someone who had taken my poetry career very seriously and accused me of ‘selling out.’

It’s been very moving to me over that last two years to have so many young writers who are so different from each other tell me how much my work has meant to them. How it’s helped them connect to themselves, to write the stories and poems that they have been wanting to write. I think for me the definition of success is making space for other writers, especially at this point in time in our history as a country and culture.

A friend of mine (Noel Alumit) sent me these postcards from a prisoner who had read my first novel. The prisoner, a convicted pedophile, described himself not being able to speak for the four days that he was reading it. He went on to say it was the first thing he’d ever read that ever showed him how what he did was wrong. I didn’t realize that I had written my first novel to do that, but that strikes me as a measure of success.

KK: That moment was incredible to me, just reading about it in the essay “The Autobiography of My Novel.”

AC: It’s what you end up meaning to people that is the real marker. You should want to get paid, even paid well, but we’re trying to change people’s minds, trying to illuminate, to help people reconnect to themselves and others. That’s the marker I use to see if I’m succeeding or not.

KK: In the essay “After Peter” you talk about being a minor character in this story, and that you tell it because the people who would tell that story are all dead. That devastated me. How do you write about large scale loss? In the collection, you confront it again after 9/11 (“On Becoming an American Writer”), this massive scale loss, and how paralyzing it can be as an artist.

AC: It’s important to remember that your despair is a gift to them—not to ones who were lost but to the ones who took them. In these conflicts, they want you to feel like their win is inevitable, they want you to give up on fighting back or succeeding. It’s interesting to see things like the cultural production that we have in the U.S. that is much richer and more diverse than it has been in a while. At an age when we have more and more Black filmmakers, POC filmmakers, writers, thinkers, critics doing astonishing work, at the same time, we have this white supremacist takeover of our three branches of government. It points to the way they really are a minority and the country is not with them. This is their revenge on us. They are trying to act like they are the majority and that their wins are legitimate—and they’re not. It’s on all of us not to give up in the face of that, not to give this country to them in the process.

KK: Do you view writing about the people we’ve lost is a way of resisting that?

AC: Yes. I think one of the biggest challenges we face is the loss of intergenerational knowledge. I had a student last year doing an assignment for a writing class. She was a Black Lives Matter activist and she started doing some research into her family and discovered she came from a family of Black Panthers. None of them had told her. She was stunned to discover this, like, “Were you just going to not tell me?”

That’s very rare, not common at all, but in that silence, there is something to investigate. Why would they watch her doing what she was doing and not tell her about their own experiences? That silence, whether it’s born out of death, loss or fear, it’s something that we have to reach into and fight so that we can have those lessons of, how did we fight before this? How did we find courage before this?

The thing that’s very moving to me now are the intergenerational conversations that are possible with internet and social media. One of the things that’s been most gratifying to me is connecting to young queer writers and young writers of color, hearing from them, the work they are producing. I’m still part of a very small group of out gay Korean American writers—for a long time I was an only one, and the first. Then there was Sam Park, who died just as James Mattson debuted last winter, this sad mix of debut and loss. Sam died of stomach cancer; his posthumous novel is coming out this fall. I’m waiting for there to be so much more than there is, and I can see it coming. I feel myself still trying to hold that space for people. I’ve been funding fellowships at Jack Jones Literary Arts and Lambda Literary and am looking at creating one in Sam Park’s name at Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.

KK: When you say you’ve been waiting for it, what do you mean?

AC: The writers who are arriving are the ones that I’ve been waiting for.

KK: Like a queer, POC revolution?
AC: Yeah, exactly. Patty Yumi Cottrell. Franny Choi, especially.  She’s amazing. One of the reasons I’m still on Twitter is that I get to see her tweets. It’s a delight to me. Chen Chen is fantastic, too.

KK: In “Girl,” you explore the shame of being misgendered as a kid and what’s underneath that. I was often mistaken for a boy as a kid. When I was a bit older, I’d get these sexy, cheap costumes for Halloween, and I’d wear a wig and high heels, but then I’d get mistaken for a man in drag. It was really disorienting that there was no way for me to be perceived as female, whether I performed this kind of hyper-femininity or wore my brother’s hand-me-downs.

AC: You were always trying to be a woman and not quite getting there.

KK: Right. I just am what I am. I thought it was interesting that in your essay, you explore that childhood shame of being mistaken for someone that you can be much more comfortable with later. I was wondering if you had things to say about that, that moment of being mistaken for a girl as a kid versus looking really hot as a girl and passing in that moment as an adult.

AC: One thing I like about what’s happening with gender now is that we’re thinking about it more as a relationship to the self rather than a relationship to others, making self-identification more important first. A panoply of identities is making that possible. What makes me interested in say, queer liberation, is that it makes room for other people whether they are queer or not. It allows young children to feel the freedom of identifying as a boy but wearing hot pink shoes to school and butterfly wings.

KK: And getting to be pretty.

AC: Yeah, getting to be pretty. Nail polish and what not, all these things that were so risqué as a teenager in the ‘80s, that are so mainstream now.

KK: You write about the excitement and potential violence there.  I felt that.

AC: That’s the thing, especially for men who do drag for the first time, who pass. It’s a vision of the reality of being a woman in a way that nothing can prepare you for, which is the constant threat of violence.

KK: Do you think writing about large scale loss, such as the AIDS crisis and 9/11, is different from writing about individual loss, like your father or Peter, specifically? Does it feel different?

AC: Grief and grieving are never really over, because they’re born out of love. So long as the love is there, the grief is also there. You learn to live with the loss, and it becomes this long-term meditation. One of the great wounds of the AIDS crisis was that the Gay community finally had this tremendous victory for pleasure in terms of sex, so many different kinds of sexual explorations were happening. The other was this way in which it was a warning, for those who were able to take it, about what this country would face under healthcare for profit. It was happening just as that change was happening in healthcare. When I look at this friend of mine who just got 185K bill for this cancer procedure she had—it’s just a crazy way to think about trying to live a life in this country where 40% of Americans would have an emergency if they needed more than $400.

KK: That reminds me of how, in the book, you talk about there being three decades worth of wealth accumulation for the rich, and that this was literally letting the poor die and determining our value.

AC: Right, acting like its natural.

KK: That it’s a reflection of our worth that we are poor in the first place. Therefore, our deaths are justified.

AC: In the aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s win, it was funny to see this renewed attention to the sorts of values that she is putting forward: healthcare for all, a climate change proposal that’s aggressive and confronts what’s actually happening to the earth, and suddenly, there was a lot of discussion of whether these kinds of values would work in the rest of the country. At the same time, there are polls that show that Democrats are favored at 49% versus Republicans at 37%—this massive leap has opened up. These issues are supposed to be hurting Democrats and Americans, but what if this is what people want? Healthcare for all has been widely supported by a majority of Americans for a very long time, going back to Obama’s election. The only place where it hasn’t had widespread support is in Congress.

KK: Noel Alumit previously said, in conversation with the 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellows, that one thing he wanted us to know is that “your novel will not fix you.” And that that is something he wished he knew with his first novel.

AC: That’s funny.

KK: In “The Guardians” you talk about your novel waiting for you to reach where it is, in terms of speaking out. What are your thoughts, do you agree with Noel?

AC: You’ll still be the same person after you publish your first novel. It won’t magically fix any of the problems you have with your personality or government or any of those things. The cognitive process of being able to reconcile that which was not reconciled before certainly was a profoundly, psychically transformative experience for me, and that was part of what I write about in the collection, in both “Autobiography of My Novel” and in “The Guardians.” I don’t know that it was the writing itself that was the recuperation, as much as the writing was how I was able to see what needed to be recuperated and how I was able to chart that for myself.

It reminds me of when I was a yoga teacher and was learning about chanting. Chanting was a way of observing your breath through the sound that your voice makes. Writing was also like that, a way to observe the mind. It is not therapy, and I think that people who think it is therapy are putting a lot at risk. I was talking with another friend who writes memoir about the importance of doing the private writing for the self—many of these essays were born out of or reliant on journals that I’ve kept. Journals allowed me to reflect and tell myself things that I needed to tell myself. Out of that, I was able to figure out what I needed to put in an essay. If I was using the essay alone to do that, the success or failure of that essay would weigh too heavily on the recuperative process, and would be an incredible violation of it as well. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to think that your writing can fix you, as Noel said. It can’t fix you. But it can show you how to be fixed.

KK: In “The Guardians” you also talk about being in a video/documentary where you lie about how abuse hasn’t harmed you. I felt that there’s this desire to say that, even when it isn’t true.

AC: Your feelings catching up to you can take so long.

KK: Which isn’t something people tell you. In the same essay, you discuss repetition as a form of forgetting. Can you ever really write the trauma? Do you feel like you go back to it and are writing about it in different ways? Or do you feel like at one point you’ll be done, or is it more like grief, where it transforms as you grow?

AC: It’s a Freudian idea, Freudian repetition trauma. With this book, I do have this feeling of having concluded something. There may be more to write later, but I think now I’m really excited about turning to other projects.

KK: In “Girl” you write that sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask. You repeat the idea of the mask: in “Girl” you put on the mask and find out who you are without it, and then in “The Guardians,” there’s another mask, whether it’s behind the novel or in the documentary, of pretending to be okay. That idea is also talked about as passing as whole. There’s passing as straight, passing as white or by race, and then there’s passing in relation to trauma, passing as “okay.”  Can anyone really pass with respect to trauma?

AC: Lots of people are fooled, and they can’t be faulted for being fooled if you put all your effort into it. I should add that, unfortunately, people have some pretty horrific opinions about how you should handle sexual abuse and rape.

KK: And whether it was bad enough.

AC: Yeah. I went through that with one interviewer recently who was like, “Well what you describe in there, it wasn’t that bad, right?” It was a woman. I was just like, “Yeahhh, I don’t know how to talk to you about this, it was really clear in the essay.”

KK: It’s a scale used to silence people. I’ve heard that the fewer details about rape that you give, especially when pressing charges, the more likely it is that someone will sympathize with you. Because the more they find out, the more likely it is that they will say, “I would have done something different.”

AC: Yes, yes. I remember that. Even when I was very young, seeing how my friends who had been in this choir with me had to leave school, because they were harassed once the story of the crimes came out. No one was empathetic. At least if they didn’t actually have to be, and even then, empathy was its own fraught situation. So, it didn’t seem like there was any reward in trying to talk about what was left.

It’s the strangest thing. I was teaching the novel Agostino by Alberto Moravia to my students in Italy.  The story is of a young boy who is on vacation with his mother, who is this beautiful widow, and he falls in with this very rough crowd of boys while she is enjoying herself with a new lover. They introduce him to the ringleader of the child gang, this older man who is a pedophile. They trick him into going on a boat ride with the man—that is essentially how he inducts boys into this gang. My students were really horrified by the novel and by what they saw as the misogyny in the novel—the mother is treated constantly like an object of desire by everyone, including her son. Her value is always focused on her looks; she’s always judged on her desire to have a sex life. And I kept trying to push the conversation further, and finally I had to lay out—in the novel if you look carefully, the pedophile eventually becomes this boy’s mentor on how to be a man. This mother is considered an enemy of his manhood, and I said, “The mother has only ever supported him, the pedophile is the one who abused him. Why in this world is the mother the one who is hated? I know you’re struggling with the misogyny but I need you to look all the way in. What does the structure of the novel communicate? It’s the depiction of a world that’s gone wrong—what is it saying that’s wrong, and that, finally, was what you could see when you pull back from all the rest.” It’s a slim novel, but it lays bare a structure that we see again and again in terms of what’s happening along the border with children being separated from their parents and being essentially pushed into situations where they are in the hands of abusers. And we’re being asked to treat the kids as criminals, as the trespassers and blame their parents as well. It’s a lot.

KK: It really is. In “The Guardians,” you get down to the “this is what happened” piece and you take us through it, which is incredibly hard and incredibly brave. In the #MeToo movement, there are narratives about women being abused as adults, but I don’t see as much about childhood trauma, and men and boys are just beginning to step forward publicly as survivors—it’s rampant for all genders. I just wanted to emphasize that that’s no small thing that you’ve spoken out so boldly about it in your essays. People are going to ask you about it and that’s got to be hard. What were your thoughts when you decided to really write this essay?

AC: I was trying to get at the ways in which you turn yourself into something else in the attempt to hide the pain. How you engage in a second kind of erasure after the first erasure that was the trauma itself, and how hard it was to reconnect to that boy who was so alone back then, and who built these baroque defenses that turned out to long outlive their capacity to protect me, and that I had to dismantle in order to engage in the kind of recuperation that I desperately needed.

KK: Which is something that people don’t talk about with PTSD—these tools saved your life at one point.

AC: Right they got you through something. Being hidden got me through something. The thing is, it was time to stop hiding.

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Kirin Khan is a writer living in Oakland, CA who calls Albuquerque, New Mexico her hometown, and Peshawar, Pakistan her homeland. Kirin is an alum of VONA, Las Dos Brujas, and the Tin House Writers Workshop, and she is a 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2018 Steinbeck Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Margins, Your Impossible Voice, 7x7.LA, and Foglifter among others. Kirin is working on her first novel.

We Want What We Want: A Review of Genevieve Hudson's Pretend We Live Here by Peter LaBerge

BY KIMBERLY KING PARSONS

“5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from  Issue Twenty-Five .

“5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from Issue Twenty-Five.

Desire drives every story, in one way or another, but few writers capture white-hot want like Genevieve Hudson. Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books) features characters obsessed with obsessions: how we are always trailing them, struggling to give them names, justifying them as we go along. Each of the wide-ranging voices in these stories—vegan activists, teenage skateboarders, a patient recovering from a harrowing surgery—are seekers at heart, unified by their sticky, boundless compulsions. “Anything I’m not supposed to have I want,” confesses the lesbian narrator of “Adorno,” who has, for reasons murky even to herself, recently slept with her beloved sister’s much-older husband. Hudson’s characters can’t always explain their actions, and they rarely know what’s best for them. Perhaps this is why they feel so nuanced and relatable. The world they walk through—flooded with lust, saturated with longing—is familiar to anyone who has ever had an insatiable ache.

Articulating desire is tricky—we want who we want, mostly without knowing why. It’s elusive, a chemical dance between bodies. Still, the characters in Hudson’s collection make half-hearted attempts to justify their urges. In “Bad Dangerous” the narrator laments her astrological predisposition for fixation: “I’m a Cancer after all. I reach out my crab claw and snap someone in my pinchers…It’s compulsive. I just keep pinching the shit out of this new thing until one day I lose interest and let it go.” Though many of these characters are in deeply chaotic situations, they are off-kilter and frequently funny, sarcastic and self-deprecating. They study crystals; they visit psychics and have their feet rubbed with sage; they have their birth charts read. Each of them is looking, in their new-age-y way, for gentle answers, or at least for alternative methods of rumination.

Rather than directly interrogate her characters’ jagged impulses, Hudson shows longing at the sentence level, bakes it right into the syntax. The language is corporeal and completely unexpected: a dirty floor “sprout[s] a kind of hair” and monotonous tasks “jiggle” a janitor’s heart. A filthy van is described first as smelling like “muscles and open wounds” and later as having a “menstrual stench.” The prose itself seems full of blood, the syncopation like a pulse.

Hudson’s careful attention to detail also makes her a master of evocative setting. In “Cultural Relativism” a young professor leaves Amsterdam for a teaching job in Alabama. Hudson is as deft at describing ivy-covered buildings and Southern “monuments of horror” as she is the icy waterways of the Amstel, but she never strays far from the body—where desire lives:

Conjure something that looks Ivy League—colonial mansions, wide lawns shaved to the height of an army crew cut, phallic chimes…Now, bring in a vicious Southern sun and burn everything so it walks with a limp. There, perfect.

There’s another type of yearning that moves alongside the physical in these stories: the search for home. We’re introduced to these characters in moments of dislocation—they are running from bad decisions, making new lives in foreign places or else traveling, living in liminality. But you get the feeling that no matter where they are, no matter how moored or forgiven or how loved, these characters would still feel adrift. The title reminds us that these are characters pretending to belong. For them restlessness is constant, and desire itself—even if it is fleeting, risky, or unrequited—is the closest approximation to feeling at home.

But the stories in Pretend We Live Here are certainly not tragic. Following desire, Hudson reminds us, can be blissfully life-affirming—it makes you bold, even as it drags you through dangerous places. “The wanting was a shake that started in my toenails and moved up toward something that wasn’t my brain,” says the narrator of “Possum,” after “innocent” dirty dancing at a Halloween party leads to full-blown fascination. The narrator’s crush, known only as “the possum,” tells her that if they lived in the same city, they would get into a lot of trouble. “The way the possum said trouble made me want to have it,” she says. “It made me want to eat drugs from the palm of her hand and follow her down the interstate on a motorcycle at 4 a.m. I wanted to turn a dollar into a straw and suck the possum up my nose.” This is precisely what the stories in this collection do: they take you off guard with their certainty and their strangeness—they grab your hand and lead you to unexpected, beautifully dark places. They make you greedy for more.

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Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage in 2019, and the novel The Boiling River, forthcoming from Knopf.