RAISE YOUR GLASS: Adroit Meets Best New Poets 2017! by Peter LaBerge

Congratulations to the fifty emerging poets selected by Natalie Diaz for Best New Poets 2017. We're thrilled about this list, and you should be, too. 

Special congratulations are in order for Christina Im, whose Adroit poem "Meanwhile in America" was selected for inclusion in this year's anthology. Christina is a Korean-American writer and high school senior (!) from Portland, Oregon. She was named a 2017 YoungArts Finalist in Writing (Poetry), and her fiction and poetry have appeared in The Adroit JournalThe Blueshift JournalStrange Horizons, and Words Dance, among others. In addition, her work has been recognized by Hollins University, the Adroit Prizes for Poetry & Prose, Princeton University, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Christina joins Ian Burnette and Moriah Cohen as contributors to Best New Poets from The Adroit Journal

We're also completely over the moon to share that Adroit poetry mentorship students—and fellow high school seniors (!)—Aidan Forster and Lily Zhou have been selected for inclusion. As high school seniors, Christina, Aidan, and Lily are officially the youngest contributors to Best New Poets in the history of the series.

We're cheering (loudly) for all twenty-one Adroit writers selected for Best New Poets 2017:

Alfredo Aguilar
Contributor

Eloisa Amezcua
Mentor

Mary Angelino
Contributor

Fatimah Asghar
Contributor

Kai Carlson-Wee
Contributor

Leila Chatti
Previous Poetry Reader

Jameson Fitzpatrick
Contributor

Aidan Forster
Contributor & Mentorship Student

M.K. Foster
Contributor

Roy Guzmán
Contributor

Christina Im
Contributor & Mentorship Student

Tyler Kline
Contributor

Julia Kolchinsky-Dasbach
Contributor

Kara Krewer
Contributor

Edgar Kunz
Contributor

Paige Lewis
Mentor

M'Bilia Meekers
Contributor

Xandria Phillips
Contributor

Osel Jessica Plante
Contributor

Keith Wilson
Contributor

Lily Zhou
Contributor & Mentorship Student

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DEAR WRITER: Tips for Young Writers (Vol I.) by Peter LaBerge

By Peter LaBerge & Topaz Winters. 

I founded The Adroit Journal in November 2010, as a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore. Since then, a lot has changed—both in my writing life and in the writing lives of thousands of teen writers from around the world. I'm talking expectations, communities, and opportunities. It seems it is no longer enough to be simply passionate about writing. 

Or is it? Below, take a peek into the minds of some of our favorite writers, and get inspired.

Peter LaBerge
Founder & Editor-in-Chief

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What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about your own writing?

Cortney Lamar Charleston: Looking back on how I began writing, I realize now that I first approached the page with a muted kind of arrogance; my intention, in my mind, was to speak to a world that needed to hear my voice and my perspective, working from the assumption that I was who I was and knew that with certainty. In the most conventionally understood ways, I suppose that I did: I had, after all, a grasp of where I came from—a respect for the people and the environments that produced me—and I knew what I believed in, what my values were, but experience (in life and in writing) has informed me just how delicate and intricate a tapestry someone’s personhood is. Sure, you can see the beautiful design from a distance and even make out some of its patterns, but until you get close, until your eye is fixed on the subject with the intention of inspection, you won’t notice the small and unique details: one thread’s relationship to another, where there may be flaws, and where you can begin to trace them to as you follow the needle work over the object’s body.

I’ve gotten a tad abstract here, but my point is this: writing has made it more clear to me precisely how I am put together: strengths and weaknesses, gifts and flaws, fidelities and hypocrisies. To me, this was a surprising challenge to my initial assumption, though in retrospect it seems foolish I ever expected different. If art, if poetry is the bridge to others we believe and hope for it to be, it makes sense that insight and learning would come back in the other direction on that same bridge. First and foremost, poetry is an act of self-discovery, even before self-expression, and it laughs at what you believe to know about anything; in short, you’re never smarter or wiser than the poem, even and especially when it comes to yourself, and the most helpful trick I’ve found is to never try to outsmart it, either.

 

What has your greatest writing-related failure been (not necessarily one you’ve already recovered from)? What has been your greatest writing-related success?

Emily Jungmin Yoon: I had to think hard for the first question because so often, what feels or seems like “failure,” in hindsight, ends up being not so much failure. One example would be when a poet gets rejected from a journal, contest, or fellowship, but later is accepted to another opportunity or another place that believes in the poet’s vision more strongly. I have felt often that I fail at being a poet, without really considering what it means to be a poet. I was sad when I wasn’t writing enough because I was under a lot of pressure from other facets of my life. This isn’t necessarily permission to be lazy, but I have to continue to remind myself that the identity as a poet isn’t measured by the amount of production. I don’t find the “So-and-so has xyz demands and if they can find time to write, you can” assertion or the “just write every morning for x minutes” suggestion helpful. People’s minds and bodies work in different ways. One should find their own way to make their time the most fruitful and to be happy at the same time. My way is to read a lot—in books, journals, and The Margins submissions pile—and be grateful that there are so many beautiful poems born every day even when I can’t make one. The inspiration from reading moves me to write, as well.

My greatest writing-related success, as cheesy as it sounds, is that I found many writer friends who will support and uplift me. We’re there for one another for failures and successes. We share opportunities and news with one another.  Some people say that writing is a lonely, solitary act, and it can be, but I feel that at least in the US poetry world, community has been very important. Writing a poem is like putting out a hand into fog, hoping that someone will take it in their hand to say they’re listening and that they feel it, too, whatever it is. I appreciate all the hands that have held mine before I had publications and awards. They’re the people who encourage me to keep doing what I believe in, whether that’s writing-related or not, and give me the boldness to be a poet.

 

How do you handle success when your friends are dealing with rejection and vice versa?

Maryse Meijer: I think the question of jealousy--our own and others'--is one that's best placed into a larger context, one that goes beyond the personal and into the political. Professional envy is cultivated by a capitalist society. We see ourselves as constantly in competition with our fellow artists for what we perceive as limited resources. Publishing, finding an agent, getting into a prestigious MFA program, landing a good teaching job, receiving awards or fellowships... all of these "rewards" are granted to us by institutions which, by and large, care more for themselves and their own agendas than they do for writers as human beings. It isn't possible for an institution to be truly "fair," or objective, or benevolent--the institution must build its own brand, promote the myth of its own prestige, and increase its power. Once we as artists understand that that power is often used against us--to divide us by destroying community through competition, by encouraging us to believe that success is handed down from above instead of defined and owned by individuals creating the work in the first place--we can perhaps divorce ourselves from toxic envy. When a fellow writer's work is recognized or celebrated, it enriches my community; it takes nothing away from me, but only affirms the writing world that is so precious to me. And when my own work receives recognition, I accept it without asking it to define or affirm me. Success, to me, is reaching my own standards; is producing work of which I am proud; is living as a writer with integrity and commitment within a larger community. The truth is, any success is fleeting; I can't really derive lasting pleasure or deep satisfaction from "rewards" granted to me from an institution that does not know me or truly care about me. When I form a real and meaningful connection with another writer or reader through my work, that's the true reward; and that's precisely the sort of thing others don't bother to feel jealous about.

Of course, we don't always live up to our ideals; envy finds its way in. When I find myself feeling less than overjoyed for a friend who is experiencing success, I ask myself: why do I feel threatened? Maybe it comes down to feeling that I deserve something I'm not getting; or perhaps I feel my friend doesn't deserve what I do. Has she worked as hard as I have? Has she written a story I think is "good enough"? Is it a question of feeling superior, or inferior? And from there I force myself to remember: these feelings serve no one, least of all me. They poison my friendships and my relationship to my own work. Why do I have to place myself above or below the people I care about most? Why am I thinking in terms of a hierarchy, rather than a community? Am I truly endangered by someone else's success? How am I complicit in the destruction of my own self-worth, the worth of my fellow artists?

On the other hand, if I'm the one who is enjoying a publication or other success, I am happy to celebrate and share with friends, but I don't over-advertise. I'm not on social media; I don't assume that a bit of luck in getting a story published or receiving a good review confers special status on me. It doesn't. Those successes, I remind myself, are inherently transient and without deep  meaning; I can't hold on to them or store them up like they're material goods. After a brief moment of pleasure in receiving recognition, I'm back to where I am on most days: struggling with the work in front of me. And it is a joyous and meaningful struggle; that's where my reward is as a writer. That's my success. That I'm still writing after 20+ years; that I'm still reading; that I'm ever more engaged in the community of artists I'm so proud of. I fight for my own work. I celebrate the work of others. I acknowledge moments of jealousy and then I move through them; I recognize when others might feel envious of me and I accept that, too. I deal with those issues by reminding myself what matters; not success as it is defined by institutions others have built, but as I define it for myself. Remember who has the power--you do! Your friends do. We do, together, because we create and we keep on creating, for ourselves and for each other. Just keep writing. Keep reading. Be an audience, and speak to your audience. Someone is listening. That's what matters.

 

How and where did you search for inspiration when starting out as a teen writer? And how did you manage your expectations when submitting to contests (specifically, high school writing contests)?

Sojourner Ahebee: Other poets have always been some of my most significant resources. As I was developing my voice as a teen writer, I looked to other poems, other models to witness how the old was made new again. In high school, with the aid of my poetry teacher, I began a practice each year which I called my “Important Excitement.” As a writer, this project allowed me to focus in on one of my many obsessions, and to intentionally create a collection of poems that revolved around some reoccurring theme. A hearty mix of rigorous research on my selected theme coupled with the drafting of poems gave me a huge sense of purpose and direction, and taught me what it meant to write with a collection in mind, to write beyond the borders of a single poem. In other words, I do not think inspiration for writers arrives at our doorsteps one day, or appears inside of us. I think writers have to will inspiration into the light, and we have to intentionally make a practice of it.

Having the courage to submit your work to publications as a young writer is certainly no easy feat. The very act of submitting one’s work indicates that we desire a meaningful engagement with our stories, an audience. I think managing my expectations around writing contests was a necessary part of my journey as a young writer. I remember receiving my first rejection, and it was easy to take it personally, to see the rejection as a reflection of my value as a writer and the value of my stories. But I think rejection is actually quite healthy and important for young writers. It pushes us to return to our works in progress with renewed energy and purpose. Rejection allows us to see that we are capable of the better story, the better poem, the better play. If you are a teen writer who is just beginning to send your work out, I would encourage you to embrace rejection. You have so much time and space to hone in on your craft, to become more sure of your voice. Do not place a high premium on acceptances into lit mags. Continue to write, to revise, to submit work and to grow and the rest will fall into place.

 

How many literary organisations do you work with or for? How do you navigate paid and volunteer writing, publishing, and editing opportunities?

Loma: My day job is doing criminal justice work but I do a lot of freelance work in the literary world. Poetry income is about 30% of the money I make annually. Most of that comes from touring. Some of that comes from awards, writing, editing, teaching, book sales, etc. Thus, my affiliations are wide and always changing. The one organization that has always felt like home to me is Lambda Literary Foundation. They have always provided me with artistic and editorial support. I began editing a journal with them four years ago and I frequently write for them. The other two organizations that I’m in frequent contact with are Sibling Rivalry Press (because they published my first chapbook and host the Undocupoets Fellowship, which I cofounded) and Nightboat Books (because they are publishing Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color that I founded). Maybe after my first full-length poetry book comes out then I’ll go on the academic job market. Before then, I like working in criminal justice. The other main organizations that have brought me into the poetry community are Poetry Society of America (where I once interned) and NYU (where I completed my MFA).

When I first began participating in the national literary scene, I had a policy to never say no. I would write, interview, speak as frequently as possible. Now, even though I’m prior to a first book, my schedule has gotten much too busy. I say “no” a lot to strangers who want free labor and “yes” as much as possible when it’s for a dear friend or paid appropriately. I always try to ask for compensation for everything, it adds up. I generally don’t “pay to play” in the literary world though sometimes I get suckered. I generally would rather make money than spend it.

 

For whom do you write? Have you ever stopped, or considered stopping?

Jane Wong: I write for you, for myself, for my family, for young women cultivating power and vulnerability, for ghosts, for the hungry ones, for the weird ones, for the laughing ones, for the fighters, for the restless sleepers, for the ones who can’t stop pressing their hands against the glass at an aquarium. I’ve never considered leaving writing; it’s a life source for me. It gives me hope, allows to me to ask hard questions, and offers me a new way of seeing the world. I write when I am at my darkest hour (not sure if kindness exists); I write when I am experiencing the utmost joy (plums ripening on a tree). It’s my way of making and unmaking sense of the world. I’ll never stop writing and I can only hope to welcome new writers into our communities as a teacher. I can only think expansively! I’m writing creative prose now, after a decade away. It seems natural to extend genres and to test out my voice in different, but utterly amazing outfits.

 

If you could go back in time to just before you began writing and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Dalton Day: Be patient. Don’t let any sense of community you feel become an unrealistic & toxic & competitive pressure to consistently share your work (& yourself) with the world. Be protective of it (& yourself). Don’t worry if the poems don’t “look like poems”, or if anyone tells you that they aren’t “poems enough”. They are, trust me. Take as much time as you need & know that eventually there will be a solid few who will give you permission to present the world as you see it & it will be ok to trust them. Know that you are one of those few. & oh my god, please, laugh.

 

Have you ever dealt with the fear of offending or upsetting someone close to you while writing—and, if so, what about the tug between sharing such work and hiding it? How did you ultimately make a decision about what to do?

Molly Brodak: When you write a memoir about dark family secrets, two things happen: one, someone will be upset about it, and two, you realize you are not alone. You realize everyone has dark family secrets, and by telling the story of your own you are shining a light on all dark family secrets everywhere. And this is such a useful and productive action that it makes up for the small pain caused by knowing some person is mad at you about it, and you take on your role as the 'betrayer' of secrets with lightness and dignity.

I was terrified of what my dad would think about me writing my memoir Bandit, which details his secret criminal life. So I had to put that thought out of my mind in order to write it, or I would have been paralyzed. I wrote the first draft of my memoir as if I were writing a diary entry, convincing myself it was utterly private and I was utterly safe to say all the things I really wanted to say. I edited it later with an audience in mind, but I was never editing it for that one person who would be mad about it. It wasn't for that person. It was for the people who needed it, the rest of us.

When Anne Lamott says, "you own everything that happened to you", she is telling the story of consciousness. We are all allowed to have this one sliver of existence for a while, and we ought to feel free to say how it really is without anyone intimidating us out of the truth. Otherwise, you lose yourself.

 

Would you recommend starting a publication to young writers starting out? Why or why not?

Joseph Parker Okay: Yeah, absolutely, it’s a great way to get exposure to lots of different writing styles that maybe you were unfamiliar with before, or didn’t know could be used in that way. Also, there’s a lot of talented people out there with a lot of good work they’re trying to share but are having a hard time finding a place for it, since a piece being published or not doesn’t usually rely on the quality of the work but on the publisher’s personal taste. The more people out there with different tastes running publications, the more level the playing field gets for everyone and the more writing that gets shared with the world.

 

What’s your biggest writing-related fear?

Khadijah Queen: My biggest writing-related fear is that I won't get everything written that I want to write before old Thanatos knocks on my door. I plan out my books loosely, and have several and I mean several in the works. But will I have time to write them, between mothering and teaching and PhD-ing, not to mention eating well and getting some real sleep? I just. don't. know. That's not a complaint, but it is a concern -- a slight fear at times, a big one at others. I don't want whoever deals with my papers once I'm gone to be publishing my terrible half-drafts. Ha. So I'm trying to finish as many of them as I can, though progressing very slowly right now. I have always felt a deep urgency to write, but now it's accompanied by a desire to take my time and enjoy life, too. It's an ever-shifting balance.

 

Many of us describe ourselves as “aspiring poets”, which has always felt weird to me—we write poems, we don’t aspire to write them. At the same time, there’s a tricky sense of obligation that accompanies dropping the word “aspiring”. How did you navigate this transition, and do you think there is indeed a heightened obligation to being a “poet”?

Jennifer Givhan: Growing up I didn’t know there was such thing as contemporary poetry—I’ve said this before elsewhere and it strikes me often seeing what amazing things young poets are accomplishing, as editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal, for instance, where we accept knockout poems from high school students, and of course I see the same happening again and again from The Adroit Journal, which always knocks me out with its stellar lineup of editors and poets, all so young. When I was in high school growing up in a small farming community on the Mexicali border, there were no poetry readings or slams—there were no coffee shops even, ha!

My point is that I didn’t even know to call myself “aspiring” toward anything because I had no idea of the opportunities that existed for writers. What I knew was that I had to write down my lyric images and narratives and ideas or I would unravel with a thick ball of string in my throat knotting down from my stomach and pulling out through my mouth and I was choking. I’d tell people I wanted to be a poet though I was already writing. Terrible poems, yes, but they were clotting in my psyche and would be there waiting in that incipient form for when I finally said yes I am a poet and got down to the hard work of digging into the dirt for water and learning my craft, which has taken me over a decade. But it wasn’t until I said I am a poet that I got into the ditches. I was dipping my feet into the murk before, but when I finally freed myself to sink down below sea level and fill my lungs with that muddy stuff—that’s when the real work of learning began.

There’s too much at stake not to declare it: Here I am. I am. I exist. Declaring ourselves is survival, is joy, is hope. We can aspire until the cows come home though they may never come home. Now is the time. Whatever obligations exist do so whether we accept them or not. Should we give back to our peers? To those following in our footsteps? Those are decisions you’ll have to make for yourself all along the way, for there will always be those at your level and a few steps behind in the craft, no matter whether you’ve just dangled your feet into the murky ditch or you’ve flung yourself in head first. But wherever you are and whether you’re sunbathing on the sidelines or treading water or marathon swimming in the deep and nearly drowning—if you’re a poet, declare yourself so. The accolades will mean naught when you’re writing your own survival. The work is the water and the lifeboat. The work is everything.

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Conversations with Contributors: Hanif Abdurraqib (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Peter LaBerge & Eileen Huang.

We're thrilled to be featuring Hanif Abdurraqib on our blog today. Hanif is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism has been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Muchwas released in June 2016 from Button Poetry, and was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book prize. With Big Lucks, he released a limited edition chapbook, Vintage Sadness, in summer 2017 (you cannot get it anymore and he is very sorry.) His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is being released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio. He is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, an interviewer at Union Station Magazine, and a poetry editor at Muzzle MagazineHe is a member of the poetry collective Echo Hotel with poet/essayist (fellow Adroit contributor!) Eve Ewing

Click here to read his poem "Just Like That, A New Black Child is Born to Replace the Buried One", featured in our thirteenth issue. 

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Our first question comes to us from our recently featured contributor, Elizabeth Metzger. Elizabeth asks, “Where do your poems begin and end—in other words, what are some typical entry or inspiration points and how do you know when the work is finished, ready to be abandoned?”

HWA: What a brilliant question to open with. So, I think a thing I consider a lot is that I don’t ever truly abandon a poem once I’ve committed to it. A commitment meaning a commitment to the page, or to “The Process,” whatever that may look like for me on any given day. There is a lot to be said about a moment when a writer can feel a poem leaving their body, but not as much to be said about a moment where, instead, the body makes a new / comfortable / permanent home for a work that a writer imagined they were carving out of themselves. I think of the work as finished when I can, perhaps, walk into a day without it (or the idea of it) rattling around inside of me – which doesn’t mean (to me) that it has exited me, rather that it is fitting inside of my always-blooming tapestry of emotional absurdity in the exact manner that it is meant to. The problem I have – which I must say, Peter and Eileen, is unfortunately increasing by the day – is that I see an entry point in everything. I want to see an entry point in everything, sure. But there is no exit in everything. What, then, to make of the garden near the parking space at my apartment, and how the gardenias were stretching their wide and perfect mouths earlier this summer until I backed into them with my car one morning in haste, while running late for yet another something or the other? Is there an entry there? What might that entry allow me to explore about a little corner of my own selfishness, and am I ready to do that and still find my way out? Is there an entry for me in the two people embracing at the concert while a band plays a song from when we were all children and knew less of violence than we do now? Is there an entry in the way I call to a dog and that dog then runs to me, as I surely once ran to someone larger than me who had open arms and my name on their tongue? Of course, yes – at least I believe the answer is yes. But I’m trying to control the throws I make. I apologize for the sports metaphor, but just because a wide receiver is good doesn’t always mean that wide receiver is open. And so I’m trying to learn to check down more. Maybe hit an open running back – the entry point that is less glamorous, but might provide me with more options and more ways to move around. This is, I think, why I write so many serial poems. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much had two sets of them, and my second manuscript (which I am working eagerly on right now) also has two sets of them, and is tempting a third. I guess what I’m saying, friends, is that I don’t believe that I am ever finished with any work, though I’m sure the work would appreciate me releasing my hold on it from time to time.

 

Major celebrations are in order—your essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us will be unveiled by Two Dollar Radio this November, and your biography on A Tribe Called Quest is due out in a few years (though more on the latter later). I’m always interested in what motivates and governs the writing process of multi-genre writers—do ideas flow in and demand to be poetry, or demand to be essay, memoir, or a column (for your post at MTV News—so cool!)? Or does your exploration of genre tend to be more just that—an exploration?

HWA: There is this story I like about Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. Right after the band made Rumours and it sold like 80 billion copies or whatever, he led them into making Tusk – this weird, noisy, experimental pop album that is beloved now, but was kind of not as much so in 1979. Naturally, he got asked all of these questions about the shift in sound and he was like “I could have made Rumours again if I wanted to. I could have made that album for the rest of our career. But I wanted to make the thing I maybe wasn’t as good at.”

My exploration is tied to this: trying to find the ways to tell stories that I’m not good at, and seeing if I can get good at them. Do the hard thing until it becomes the less hard thing and then find a new hard thing to do. My entire process is governed by a repeated survival of small difficulties. And – I really want to say – none of it feels particularly triumphant. They Can’t Kill Us was an incredibly difficult and frantic thing. I locked myself away in Provincetown last winter, when no one was there, and paced around an apartment for days on end, fretting about these essays and writing this scattershot of things. But I left it with a better understanding of what my process needs from me and what I need from my process.

Also, I only think of myself as a multi-genre writer because that’s what I’m told I am. Sports again – I apologize – but when he was at his brief and glorious prime, it got to a point with Bo Jackson where people just said “well, that motherfucker is an athlete.” And while I’m certainly not the Bo Jackson of the writing world, I have never considered the idea of genre as something that governs me. My curiosities govern me. My desire to be wrong and come out the other side of that wrongness governs me. My passion for archival and connection and storytelling governs me. Sometimes that’s in stanzas and sometimes that’s in paragraphs, but make no mistake that it’s rooted in poems as much as it can be. I know what I’m doing, even when it looks like I don’t.

 

To back-track for a bit, we’d love to hear about the origin of your writing. What led you to first turn to writing, and what led you to stick with it? What did your transition to writer from someone who writes look like?

HWA: I found myself really curious about language first through a lens of songwriters and song lyrics. Which explains a lot and I apologize for being a cliché. I’m so fascinated by the work of a songwriter and their ability to tell story. Someone like Bruce Sprigsteen, who can create an entire world inside of a song. I mean, “Jungleland” is a fucking novel. And yeah, that song is like 9 minutes long, but half of that shit is a sax solo. And so I found myself wondering how to bridge these worlds I was fascinated by. I stuck with it – and continue to stick with it – because I haven’t found all of the answers yet. I hope I never do.

 

Here comes the obligatory question—who have you been reading lately? Who’s got you feeling excited about poetry and writing out there in the world? Lay all the reading suggestions on us!

HWA: Well, poetry is a long and always shifting list. I just got my hands on my dear pal Kaveh Akbar’s Calling A Wolf A Wolf and it’s exactly what everyone says it is and perhaps more. He’s a person who has work that really mirrors his personality: on this delightful edge of playfulness but deeply contemplative. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead is a really outstanding continuation of the work from their first book. It’s like their building a family, or a really clear lineage – much like a musician creating albums that echo each other. Eloisa Amezcua has a little chapbook called MEXICAMERICANA which is heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. There’s something about the way she really bends a word until she gets the most out of it that I really like. I think this may be due to her work as a translator, perhaps. Looking at a single word and seeing multiple possible endings. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve managed to get my hands on copies of sam sax’s Madness and Marcus Wicker’s Silencer and oh, fam. I read with my dear friend Aziza Barnes recently and the ferocity of their new work held me for days after. Layli Long Soldier is asking fantastic and riveting questions in her work, and I only look to answer them because I find out so much more about myself in the process. Khadijah Queen remains important to me. I’m reading Francine j. harris’ Allegiance for the 9th time. I have to keep buying it because I lend it out to people and, well, I’m sure you both know how that goes.

But I’m also reading a lot of musician biographies and essay collections, given the nature of my hovering projects. I revisit Lester Bangs often, who lit a path for me. I read his series of interviews with Lou Reed from the 70s over and over again, to get a sense for how a writer can approach a subject with both fascination and contempt. I just picked up a book called Dunbar Boys by Alejandro Danois. It came out last year, and is the story of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School basketball team from the 80s, out in Baltimore. It is both triumphant and tragic. I’m thinking about the balance of those two things while writing this Tribe Called Quest book. The Tribe story is both of those things in equal measure – both triumphant and tragic I’m always working at the intersection of those things and trying to figure out how to do it better.

 

And speaking of poetry and the world, your website bio says you believe that poetry can change the world. What sort of advice do you have for young writers (particularly those of marginalized identities) who hope to do just this?

HWA: Well, to be fair... I wrote that bio a long time ago. I’m not as optimistic as I used to be, but I’m still more optimistic than many of my peers (who, I think, would label me as too optimistic). But I’m always thinking of this very thing: how the young marginalized writer can change their corner of the world. I don’t know if storytelling and archival can absolutely change a world at large, because while I haven’t given up on empathy, I’ve given up on the idea that empathy automatically moves people towards some kind of action that aids those they are feeling empathy towards. So I think there is a new virtue in world-building – a way to create within your work the place you want to see and live in. This is easier said than done. Especially when a writer has to re-enter a world that isn’t like the one they built, perhaps. But I’ve enjoyed chasing that dream. There are certainly worse dreams to chase.

 

Much of your work directly or indirectly calls upon pop culture while also invoking heavier topics of gender, race, and family. How do you think cultural references enhance our understandings of our identities and relationships with the world?

HWA: I think I just have a firm belief that no pop culture is stupid or unworthy of using as a bridge to something greater. So much of the pop culture we consume is already attempting to do that work for us, or asking us to join it in the mission of looking outward at the world. I was so fascinated by all of the people who, after November, insisted that we “need poets now more than ever” as if we haven’t been building an entire language around this political moment and other ones just like it for years. So I’m thinking, then, of how people consume this work, or how they’re being asked to consume this work. Pop culture has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It has helped shape my views of gender, race, and family and it continues to. And so I have no other lens through which I can best articulate those things. I think being able to use it for all avenues is best. Yes, I can listen to the new Jay Z album and just hear an album. I can marvel at the production and appreciate the sonic landscape. But I can also listen to it and think critically about the role that gender plays in who we do and don’t allow forgiveness. I think I want to hold a space for myself, and within my work, where I am doing both of those things. Nuance is hard to come by on the internet and I understand all of the reasons why that is. But I want my work to always feel like a conversation that is being had across the table from a friend, where we can approach hard things and be unafraid to be wrong. Truly – and I know I keep returning to this – but I most want to strip the shame away from being wrong, which is hard. It’s hard to be wrong in public. But I have learned best how to write and approach things critically by being wrong and hearing from peers / readers / music fans / etc. what they’re seeing. I’m looking for a relationship wherein that kind of exchange is comfortable, and I think pop culture helps provide that.

 

Finally, I’ve heard wise writers say here & there that the best writing gives body to contradiction. The title of your essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, seems to do just that. What, in your eyes, is the relationship between contradiction and art?

HWA: In becoming comfortable with my many contradictions, I become more comfortable with myself and the work I’m presenting to people. The only thing consistent about my work is its inconsistencies, perhaps. I’m only proud of this because it’s a reflection of how I’m aiming, again, for a real human relationship with the reader. I love sneakers, for example. I will, upon finishing these last few sentences, find a sneaker store where I currently am (Phoenix, Arizona. Where I’m sad to report, Peter and Eileen, it is over 100 degrees – a far cry from my beloved Columbus, Ohio where it is currently a cool 77, reaching into an early fall the way only the Midwest can. I believe this to be a contradiction, as well. I am from a place of contradicting weather, so perhaps I never had a chance.)

But, I have a million complex feelings about sneakers. The way they are manufactured. The way they are valued and the violence that can cause. I’m mostly saying that I am a nesting doll of contradictions and so why wouldn’t it show up in my art? I think to exist now is to be in constant negotiation with the things you can accept and live with and the things you can’t. I am now off to buy sneakers and continue that negotiation that never seems to end, until it does. I hope the work remains exciting.

Conversations with Contributors: Shira Erlichman by Peter LaBerge

By Chloe Elliott, Guest Interviewer.

Photo Credit: Alice Chipkin.

Photo Credit: Alice Chipkin.

1. To begin—we’d love to hear your story. What led you to first turn to writing? What led you to stay with it?

I immigrated to the US from Israel at the age of 6. Learning English was linked to learning a new world. I went through ESL and so English was intimately tied to survival, accelerating, fitting in. My earliest memories of writing are: keeping a moon journal for a 1st grade class assignment with the help of my mom (so, writing was noticing, logging, accounting for, in a together-way); writing a poem about the snow from my bedroom window (“the snow was like a man dancing in the street” - so, writing was inventiveness, delirium, joy); and a moment that left perhaps the greatest impression on me, writing a poem about my grandmother utilizing difficult words from a spelling group I was placed in (“August burned in her eyes, / May bloomed in her mouth, / April rained in her hair, / she was my grandmother.”) My mom framed the poem and still has it. But the reason it was such a pivotal moment for me was because my 3rd grade teacher was a bit stunned that a new immigrant had written it; she sort of second-guessed her decision to place me in the middle spelling group as opposed to the high one. The poem displayed control of language and depth of expression. That moment sticks out to me now not only because I was somewhat underestimated as an immigrant child, but also because language is so much more than learning how to ask “Where is the bathroom?” in ESL. It is a wild daring thing that, if we’re lucky, takes control of us. It shakes us and says, “Beyond what’s true, what’s possible?” That first poem was a symbol: I am not just getting by in your world, I’m reimagining it.
 

2. Since your name translates to “song” and “poem”, do you feel that your path towards the arts has been predetermined, or rather a conglomeration of decisions you’ve made?

Predetermined. My parents’ powerful love of music is what named me. My parents met on an organized camping tour of Europe in 1980. They’d sit together on the bus, became friends, and often would start singing until the whole bus would join in. My dad learned English by singing along to Led Zeppelin records. My mom was that teen with a guitar, serenading her peers in the Negev. She wanted to go to music school, but life lifed and she ended up working in the hotel industry, marrying my dad, having kids, you know, lifing. It took my mom decades, but eventually she got into New England Conservatory at age 51 for Vocal Performance. There are certain things––predispositions, I’ll call them, or callings––whether genetic, spiritual, same thing, that we simply can’t avoid. I think even if my name was Sheila, I’d be artistic. But Shira didn’t hurt. It added a dollop of destiny to the mix. Names are more than words we turn around for. Names are prescriptions. They are coded, intricate as snake skin, as DNA. Whether we’re aware of it or not, one’s whole life is a conversation with one’s name.

"Sky Smile" by Shira Erlichman.

"Sky Smile" by Shira Erlichman.

3. Ode to Lithium #1: The Watchman is a wonderful piece to read, and incredibly rewarding, not only for its meaning, but also for its imagery—going through the poem is like unravelling a reel of old film from childhood. You’ve talked about how Pablo Neruda has influenced your ode series. In his Ode to ‘Andean Codillera’ Neruda writes, “I felt infinitely small in the centre of that navel of rocks, the naval of a deserted world, proud, towering high, to which I somehow belonged.” Did embarking on the project to write 720 odes feel similarly? And how has your approach to the odes evolved from this first poem, to your most current?

You know, I’m really grateful that you’ve drawn a parallel between that poem and the process of creating these odes. Neruda has been my guide in this project because of a tension this very line produces: how can one feel infinitely small, tiny in the centre of a thing so looming, and yet - belong? How can I face my mental illness, a ravaged decade of misdiagnoses / broken family / broken sense of self / deep denial / swallowed poison-stigma, how can I not only face it, but allow such psychic fragmentation to somehow become spiritual mosaic? How does a mosaic even become a mosaic, except for what is a single steadying hand saying you belong, you belong, you belong to each piece?

In asking me about my process, you chose a poem in which Neruda surveys the magnitude of the Andes with compassion, humility, sensuality, and multiplicity. You infer that I must also be embarking on observing something tremendous, even terrifying. Yes. Lithium encapsulates all of these things. So does Bipolar Disorder. Shame itself encapsulates these things: too huge to bear. And yet, you’ve done a great service to me by drawing this correlation. You understand that to approach this mountain one cannot only be terrified, or they miss the whole terrain. Neruda describes a “school of stone” that he can learn from. He is, first and foremost, the giant’s student. I am Lithium’s student. I’m not writing a book because I know something. I’m writing a book because I have a relationship with something. It just happens to be Lithium - salt, medicine, stigma, wound, treasure, all at once. That relationship is worthy of my eye. It is just as real and impactful to me as a person.

I take Lithium’s “bread” as Neruda puts it, “the bread of your grandeur,” seriously. I chew the immensity of my teacher’s knowledge. Ultimately, as I’ve discussed far and wide and you can find online, my first ode, the one you published, was a mistake. It was a  one-time experimental ode to something I didn’t love so much. It turned into a series because a poet’s spirit can’t help but ask, “Are you sure that’s all?” Writing the series has been a way to restore dignity to something tarnished. I joke that Odes to Lithium is really just a rebranding project. Ultimately, it’s already dignified, it’s medicine. I’m here to unfold dignity. The poet’s spirit, Neruda’s spirit, which is entangled with mine and guiding me, says: there are always more ways to love.

You’ll notice that at the end of his ode to the Andes, all of the loving language he uses about the mountain range, all of the incredible gratitude and compassion he possesses lands on something separate from the mountain, that even rises above the mountain: “the condor / raising / his powerful / wings, / his dignified / flight / over vigorous heights.” Isn’t that awesome? Like, that huge looming thing, that wilderness you’re chipping away at? There’s more to the mountain than the mountain.
 

4. We live in a society that still seems to carry a taboo over mental illness and its treatment. Through your Lithium Odes, it feels like you’ve been able to deconstruct this, creating a counter-link against stigmatisation. How have you balanced the personal and universal in your work? Where has your writing aimed to exist on that spectrum?

When I hear that my Lithium Odes are being discussed in group therapy by a social worker, I feel that my intentions are being realized. Over the last decade, I’ve been hospitalized twice for Bipolar Disorder, so when strangers ask me how they can get their friend or child a copy of my poems as they’re being discharged from a mental hospital, it has particular resonance. In large part, I’m writing these odes because I needed them and didn’t have them when I was discharged, newly diagnosed, deeply ashamed, and living in tangled silence.

I’ve written so many poems over my life; some are purely thought-experiments or conceptual puzzles. That just as valid, and it’s fun. A poem is, hopefully, always a thing of beauty. But with this particular project, it feels that I haven’t really succeeded if the poem is not functional: a salve, a tool, an ally, something that could be carried out of a hospital and into the world with a sense of companionship. My poems are really for these folks, the mentally ill, whose experiences of the mind are unfathomable or variant, the ones fighting for survival and voice. Their families too, the ones that love them and want to support them. It’s not exactly about being anyone’s hope or being brave, really. It’s about: We’re here. It makes me feel safer to turn to my left and right and speak with others who are Here, as opposed to all of us tip-toeing around our own existence for the sake of the Rest of the Them, those judging us. Instead of centralizing the public’s worries and ideas about Bipolar, I started to centralize my own truths. For me, to be explicit in my poems that I have Bipolar Disorder and take Lithium feels like looking at the tsunami of Shame, the culture’s toxins, which has towered high as the sky and is hovering, just ready to demolish me, and saying to it “So what?” I know who I am. Shame is afraid of that.

It’s been a process–––it wasn’t always easy to be explicitly personal in my writing. And there are poems that the public will never see, poems that may never be published, that I needed to write just for me, for my process. I still get to choose. Not everything that’s happened to me or everyone that’s been involved needs to be out in the world. And I have plenty of projects that are not confessional, expository, or even nonfiction. That is the whole point: I’m vast. Multitudes, you know. In their multiplicity and tangential-ness, that’s what the Lithium Odes are supposed to herald as well. You can’t pin me down. Again, the condor over the mountain whose wingspan is breathtaking.

"Liminal" by Shira Erlichman.

"Liminal" by Shira Erlichman.

5. There is still a sense that we apotheosize the “tortured artist.” Do you think we’ll ever be able to move away from that trope – and, if so, how as a community can we help to dismantle the romanticism of mental illness?

Yikes. This is a big one. I see this trope all the time and it honestly bores me. For one, if you love someone, you don’t define them by their suffering. You acknowledge their suffering, which is different. If you need someone (yourself or another) to suffer in order to be an artist, you need to ask yourself what you really think art is. Is art an emotional state? Is art immersion in pain? Is art brokenness? No. Just watch any child make art.

Pain can be an incredible teacher. It can show us things pleasure will never show us. But if you think pain is the only or best teacher, that’s limited. If I serve you a delicious pie and you gobble it up: Yum! If I throw a pie in your face: Yuck! That’s the human experience, pies in the face, pies on your plate. But the artist doesn’t say: just throw pies at my face. The artist savors questions–––that’s all. The questions can be about why someone would ever throw a pie in your face or what astrological sign this pie might be.

Beautiful, necessary art has come from Van Gogh’s mental hospital window and from Beyonce’s alchemizing power re: her cheating ass husband. Beautiful, necessary art has also come from an entire album dedicated to one state (Hi, Sufjan Stevens, please marry me) and elephants playing with paint. Ultimately, I want all of it. Because I want a healthy world. Healthy means whole. Don’t give people a reason to stay sick, to believe their illness is who they are, that their talent rides on their suffering. We’re done with that world view. We now know the reality of mental illness as truly an illness, not some Realer Emotional State. We now know that you can be medicated and creative. We now know that if Van Gogh had lived today he might have had the resources to heal, maybe even had a dynamic career while alive. Had he been understood, supported, and treated we might have known a fuller Van Gogh. Why would you want to rob anyone of their fullness? What––––for a painting you like? That is beyond insulting, it’s dangerous. I’m not a darkness-a-thon. My life is sacred. Beyond what anyone else says to me about where my art should or shouldn’t come from, I’m the one living my life. I deserve to be healthy and creative and not have those be cultural contradictions.

My advice on how to dismantle the romanticism of mental illness is simple: take care of your own mental health. Allow yourself to be so sad you paint. Allow yourself to be so happy you write. Go to therapy. Trick yourself out of the hypnosis that you make your best work when upset. Challenge yourself to make something every day, whether your mood ring is purple or green. Ask your dentist if she does her best work while weeping. Find out facts about your faves (Cobain, Khalo, Lamar, O’Keefe) that illustrate their full humanity, not just their worst days. Be an example of fullness, so that when someone tells you “Oh, personally I think all artists make their best work when Depressed,” you pity them. Because at home your pile of work is growing. Because you’re not interested in just drowning along.

Simultaneously, while learning how to be proactive and real about your own mental health, challenge others when they are uninformed. Learn from the mentally ill, read our books, listen to how we support and contradict each other. Say the words Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Mental Hospital. Don’t let realities go unnamed. Don’t let vagueness (fear) win at language. Don’t cloak real diagnoses, people, or stories. So many people are uncomfortable acknowledging that mental illness is real, has scientific premise, and affects literally millions of us. Be clear. This outspokenness has been a priority in my work and in my life because it opens all the windows and lets the air in. The truth is more important than comfort, or pain, always. The truth has a way of becoming a third lung.
 

6. We have a number of young readers in our readership audience. What would you say if you could say one thing to Young Writer Shira, and what would you say if you could say one thing to Younger Person Shira?

I’m going to cheat and do a run-on sentence for both Shiras: There’s no shame in body hair Your sensitivity is not a weakness When you’re bored in class it’s a sign of coffined curiosity not personality default I love that you’ve diligently kept a daily journal for years I love the beautiful purple stone cover what a lovely choice It’s okay to have a crush on Kathryn Your parents’ limitations are just that not your fault What frustrates you What scares you What angers you You don’t have to be as natural casual or blasé as Claire Danes to be cool Be more daring in how you protect bullied classmates The liminal space to wonder about life that you cultivate before falling asleep at night will have a lasting impact on you Ask for help more Keep collecting everything sea shells keychains rubber bands POGS baseball cards Keep reading every sad book in the library Keep honoring your quietest creative impulses But I don’t need to tell you that
 

7. Listening to one of your older albums Elephant Waltz (congrats on your new album, Subtle Creature, by the way!), I was reminded of two things: 1. The band Cyberbully Mom Club, and 2. The synaesthetic quality of the sound. Out of painting, poetry and music, which process do you feel is the most immersive and palpable? Any advice to young writers working also in other artistic mediums?

The Sufi mystic Rabia wrote, “It helps, putting my hands on a pot, on a broom, in a wash pail. I tried painting, but it was easier to fly slicing potatoes.” It’s really all about Presence. Isn’t writing amazing? You can get lost for hours. Isn’t painting amazing? You can get lost for hours. Isn’t music amazing? You can get lost for hours. Anything is immersive and palpable if you approach it openly, like a kid, without too many shoulds.

In another poem of hers called “Hey,” different parts of the universe, like the grass or a squirrel, say ‘Hey’ to each other; she closes the poem with, “I have been saying ‘Hey’ lately too,  to God. Formalities just weren’t working.” It’s a really radical idea to address God with “Hey.” I think we should be able to switch between mediums with that kind of casualness. Don’t put so much stock into what others say about your creative choices. Think of it as creative dexterity. You should be able to learn and explore however you want! Build tiny furniture for mice. Be a writer who paints. Slice potatoes. What Would Rilke Tweet. Rupaul said, “We’re all God in drag.” I feel that way about creative expression. Music, painting, writing – they’re Presence in drag.

I must be all about quotes today, because now I’m thinking about “Everything in moderation, even moderation.” What I really hear in that is, Everything in contradiction. I guess a lady with Manic-Depression might know a little bit about that. Contradiction strengthens you. Live in the liminal hum. Ritualize wonder. Be honest as mud. Submerge fully. Be your best audience. Enjoy doubt. Become familiar with terror. Focus on the task at hand and be eternal. Have no clue and try it anyway. Be slowly powerful. Lean into what you love. 2% Milk isn’t called 98% Water for a reason. Small efforts count.
 

"Halo" by Shira Erlichman.

"Halo" by Shira Erlichman.

8. When I first draft my poems I always have to write them into my moleskin using a blue Uniball pen. What’s your writing process, and do you have any traditions?

I write most easily on the computer. Pen and paper often feel too slow for me; it’s like my hand can’t catch up to my thoughts. While pen and paper force me to slow down, it often feels stifling, like a clogged pipe. It feels too self-conscious. I like to feel loose, like I’m in the bath, or playing with a puppy. So I fly on a computer.

I don’t have any major traditions. I like to employ the practice of being able to write anywhere, anytime. I don’t want to feel like I need a fresh breeze, a quiet room and a perfect cup of coffee to get going. These help. But forcing myself into less-than-perfect writing situations is more realistic to my life, and I want students I work with to feel less like Goldilocks and more like those freaky fish on the ocean floor who over centuries start to develop their own inner-luminescent light that guides them.

I guess you could say I have internal tweaks that I do in order to get comfortable. They are very subtle, almost imperceptible and have more to do with my attitude than my environment. Firstly, I absolutely hate the idea that the blank page is our enemy, so I make a point to silently, actively befriend the blank page. I sigh, relax my shoulders, feel true relief, This is my time baby! I enjoy the possibilities before me. I tell myself that even if no one ever sees it, what I’m doing is important. I think about writers that have left a timeless impression on me (Szymborska, Anzaldua, Clifton, Lorde) and I think, ‘I’m just like them.’ I don’t mean that like, I’m a genius. I mean that ultimately, what they did was just sit down and write. Over and over. No special sauce. Just take a seat, keep your willingness fertile, and write.

Announcing our Nominees for the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology! by Peter LaBerge

Aimee Gilmore, "Honey Baby" (Issue Fourteen).

Aimee Gilmore, "Honey Baby" (Issue Fourteen).

We are thrilled to announce our nominees for the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology!
 

POETRY

Kaveh Akbar, "Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)"
Franny Choi, "Introduction to Quantum Theory"
William Evans, "Wildlife"
Christina Im, "Meanwhile In America"
Charif Shanahan, "Asmar"
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, "Just Like That, A New Black Child is Born to Replace the Buried One"
 

FICTION

Maryse Meijer, "The Brother"
Kimarlee Nguyen, "We Gather Here"


NONFICTION

Kayleb Rae Candrilli, "This House is Obvious"
Lucas Church, "Rural Appalachian Tour of Homes"

Welcome to Staff: Summer 2017! by Peter LaBerge

We are more than thrilled to welcome onto staff one of the largest and most robust on-boarding classes in our seven year history. Welcome to the below stunners—and let's get to work!


Olivia Alger (Prose Reader) spent three years at Interlochen Arts Academy as a creative writing major. She was a semifinalist for the 2017 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts designation and a finalist in the 2016 YoungArts Awards and for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose. She was also an American participant in Between the Lines at the International Writing program, and a mentee in the Adroit Mentorship Program. She’s received two Gold Keys and an American Voices nomination from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She has edited multiple issues of literary journals and her work has been published nine times. She’s from Chicago area, but has also lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota. 

 

Walker Caplan (Prose Reader) keeps looking gift horses in the mouth. Her writing has previously been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, The Adroit Journal, Blank Theatre, and more, and her original plays have been performed in New York and Seattle. She is currently a student at Yale University.

 

Kathryn Fitzpatrick (Prose Reader) lives, breathes, and will die in Thomaston, Connecticut. She is a sophomore English major at Central Connecticut State University, and the recipient of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust Award for Prose.

 

Samantha Leigh Futhey (Poetry Reader) currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Recently, she completed her MFA in the Creative Writing and Environment Program at Iowa State University. She has poetry published in Cider Press ReviewRhino PoetrySuperstition Review, and The Fourth River, and forthcoming from Alligator Juniper and Zone 3.

 

Matty Layne Glasgow (Poetry Reader) is a poet and MFA candidate at Iowa State University. His queer ditties have appeared in or are forthcoming from The CollagistRattleCosmonauts AvenueThe Blueshift JournalWildness JournalRust+Moth, and elsewhere. His drag name is Sharon Stoned because he’s pretty basic and goes with his instincts on stage and in life. 

 

Adam Hamze (Poetry Reader) is a Muslim Arab-American journalist and poet from Austin, Texas. His work focuses on diaspora, ancestry, and living in post-9/11 America, and has appeared in The OffingVinylRadius, and elsewhere. His poems were selected as the editor's pick for the 2016 Winter Tangerine Awards and a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry.

 

Kelly Han (Editorial Assistant) is a rising senior at Westview High School in Portland, Oregon. She has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, but really she is just beginning to delve into the expressive world of literature and writing. Prone to whimsical moods, she loves to bake questionable concoctions, jam out on car rides, and go on spontaneous adventures with her friends. 

 

Cory Hutchinson-Reuss (Poetry Reader) grew up in Arkansas and holds a PhD in English from the University of Iowa. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Pinch, Drunken Boat, Four Way Review, Salamander, and Crazyhorse, as the recipient of 2016 Lynda Hull Memorial Prize for Poetry. She lives in Iowa City with her family.

 

Sierra Jacob (Poetry Reader) is an MFA graduate from the University of Montana, where she received the Richard Hugo Memorial Scholarship for Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in Cream City ReviewSonora ReviewThe Louisville ReviewHawaii Pacific ReviewPretty Owl Poetry, among others. Her chapbook CANELAND is forthcoming at Atomic Theory Micro Press. She was born and raised in Haiku, Hawaii.

 

Wayne Johns' (Poetry Reader) work has appeared in New England ReviewPloughsharesPrairie SchoonerImageBest New Poets, and elsewhere. He is the author of a chapbook, An Invisible Veil Between Us (Thorngate Road), His first book, Antipsalms, received the inaugural Audre Lorde and Frank O'Hara poetry prize. A former Lambda Literary fellow, he currently serves on the editorial staff of Raleigh Review and as a reader for the BOAAT Book Prize.

 

Esther Lin (Poetry Reader & Copy Editor) was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for 21 years. She is a 2017–19 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and a recipient of the inaugural Undocupoets Fellowship. She was also a 2015 Poets House Emerging Poet and Queens Council on the Arts Fellow. Her poems appear in The Adroit JournalCopper NickelCortland ReviewCrazyhorseDrunken BoatGuernicaVinyl, and elsewhere.

 

Daniel T. O'Brien (Poetry Reader) is a recent graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at The Ohio State University, where he served as poetry editor of The Journal and managing editor of The Journal/OSU Press Book Prize Series. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from American Literary Review, Banango Street, BLOOM, Foundry, Prelude, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. He is also a frequent contributor to the poetry review website SCOUT. He lives in New York. 

 

Meghann Plunkett (Poetry Reader) was the winner of the 2017 Third Coast Poetry Prize. She was also a finalist for North American Review’s 2017 Hearst Poetry Prize, as well as Narrative Magazine's 2016 30 Below Contest. Meghann is currently an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where she was awarded the 2016 & 2017 Academy of American Poets College Prizes. Her poems can be found in or are forthcoming from Narrative Magazine, North American Review, Adroit Journal, The Paris-American, Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, decomP Magazine, and storySouth, among others.

 

Andy Powell (Poetry Reader) is a Teaching Artist for DreamYard and for Cooper Union's Saturday Program. He has poems out or forthcoming from Winter Tangerine ReviewThe RialtoSOFTBLOWJerryPANK, and elsewhere. He took 3rd prize in Ambit's 2016 competition, selected by Sarah Howe.

 

Macrina Wang (Marketing Associate) is a rising senior at St. Paul's School in Concord, NH, and is currently the Literary Editor of the Horae Scholasticae. Her work has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Macrina spends her free time writing, barely scraping by in Calculus, and looking up HD images of a young Stephen Colbert.

 

Jim Whiteside (Poetry Reader) is a graduate of the MFA program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellow. His recent poems have appeared in journals such as The Southern ReviewIndiana ReviewKenyon Review OnlinePoetry Northwest, and Salt Hill, as winner of the Philip Booth Poetry Prize. Originally from Cookeville, Tennessee, he lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

RAISE YOUR GLASS: Congratulations to the Adroit Class of 2017! by Peter LaBerge

Every year, we at The Adroit Journal witness a brilliant class of high school seniors apply and head off to college. We're honored to share the matriculation list of this year's class of senior mentorship students and staff readers!

This year, the University of Pennsylvania snagged a whopping eight of our seniors, followed by Harvard University and Princeton University, which snagged seven and six Adroit students respectively.

In particular, we're proud to share that mentorship student Cassandra Hsiao ('16, Poetry) made international headlines this year as an admit to all eight Ivy League schools and Stanford. Read her touching, evocative application essay here.

We wish each of the below forty students the best as they embark on their next chapters, and hope they'll stay in touch! (We have a feeling they will.)

MENTORSHIP PROGRAM ALUMS

Sophie Allen (NY — '16, Poetry), University of Massachusetts - Amherst 

Nikita Bastin (CA — '16, Poetry), University of Pennsylvania 

Anjali Berdia (MD — '16, Fiction), University of Pennsylvania 

Caroline Bernstein (NJ — '16, Fiction), New York University

Letitia Chan (MA — '16, Poetry), Harvard University

Carissa Chen (NH — '15, Poetry), Harvard University

Annabelle Crowe (NC — '16, Poetry), Rice University 

Maya Eashwaran (GA — '15, Poetry), Princeton University

Sophie Evans (LA — '15, Poetry), Princeton University

Kindall Gant (LA — '16, Poetry), Sarah Lawrence College 

Michel Ge (MO — '16, Poetry), Deep Springs College 

Samuel Gee (SC — '16, Poetry), UNC Chapel Hill - Thomas Wolfe Scholar 

Reuben Gelley Newman (NY — '16, Poetry), Swarthmore College 

Julia Gourary (NY — '16, Fiction), Yale University

Alex Greenberg (NY — '15, Poetry), Harvard University

Alexandra Gulden (LA — '16, Fiction), Kenyon College 

Kathryn Hargett (AL — '15, Poetry), University of Alabama - Birmingham (Honors)

Cassandra Hsiao (CA — '16, Poetry), Yale University 

Elizabeth Kim (CA — '16, Poetry), University of Pennsylvania 

Anthony Lagana (PA — '16, Poetry), University of Pennsylvania 

Elizabeth Lemieux (ME — '16, Fiction), University of Pennsylvania 

Katherine Liu (IL — '16, Poetry), Harvard University 

Patricia Liu (OK — '16, Poetry), Harvard University 

Noel Peng (CA — '16, Poetry), Princeton University 

Ben Read (WA — '15, Poetry), Reed College

Jae Haeng Rhee (TX — '16, Fiction), Cornell University 

Nicole Seah (Singapore — '16, Poetry), University of Pennsylvania 

Eliana Swerdlow (PA — '16, Poetry), Yale University 

Selin Turkyilmaz (IL — '16, Poetry), Colgate University 

Jamie Uy (Singapore — '15, Poetry), New York University - Abu Dhabi 

Alisa Wadsworth (NJ — '16, Fiction), University of Pennsylvania 

Emily Yin (MA — '16, Poetry), Princeton University 

Margaret Zhang (CA — '16, Poetry), University of Pennsylvania
 

 

STAFF READERS 

Chloe Kim (MA — Poetry Reader), Stanford University 

Heidi Kim (NY — Prose Reader), Princeton University 

Paloma Ruiz (TX — Poetry Reader), Harvard University 

Justin Zhu (AZ — Editorial Assistant), Harvard University
 

 

STAFF READERS & MENTORSHIP PROGRAM ALUMS

Jordan Harper (AL — Prose Reader; Fiction Mentee, '16), Emory University - Oxford College 

Rachel Litchman (IL — Poetry Reader; Poetry Mentee, '16), University of Wisconsin - Madison

 


We love you all so much! Congratulations!

Review: On "Together and By Ourselves" by Alex Dimitrov (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) by Peter LaBerge

by Nathan Blansett | Guest Reviewer. 

Copper Canyon Press, Alex Dimitrov.

Copper Canyon Press, Alex Dimitrov.

The test of modern painting, John Cage wrote in a leaflet on Robert Rauschenberg in 1953, was its ability to avoid being “destroyed by the action of shadows.” Referencing Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, which debuted that October in New York, Cage meant to suggest that their avant-gardism lay in their receptivity—to the environment and the contemplations of the audience. The shadows on their monochromatic surfaces didn’t destroy the paintings. They affirmed them.

“And you. You, you, you / you can read these lines in any order / because I want to leave nothing out / and there’s nothing here,” Alex Dimitrov writes in “Some New Thing,” a poem in his second collection, Together and by Ourselves, published in April by Copper Canyon. Like Cage’s avant-gardism, the identical long stanzas of Dimitrov’s new poems behold a sensitivity to every aspect of experience. The poems are not concerned with the artifice of a singular narrative thrust; like interior monologue, their disconnected lines try to capture the mind’s entirety.

In the four years since Begging For It (“decidedly a young man’s book,” Publisher’s Weekly wrote), his differentiation of style evokes Louise Glück’s intense maturation between her debut book, Firstborn (1968), and second, The House on Marshland (1975). Dimitrov’s obsessions—loneliness, knowledge, intimacy, time—do mist his early work, but in Together and by Ourselves they are fully-throated, devastatingly apprehended, like a dialogue between lovers that finally reaches an apex:

Lucky or not, we were riding in cars through the seasons.
I read you Baudelaire. I have more memories than a thousand years.
And our skin began to look like a puzzle
despite lighting or pleasures (“Champagne”).

In five symmetrical acts, the arc of Dimitrov’s bicoastal book lifts like a plane from the earth. The Los Angeles poems, primarily in the book’s second section, exist like photographic negatives—not underdeveloped, but inverted, the speaker nearly vanishing: “In the morning our photos looked darker than us / and the subject we were was a gamble (I know)” (“Lindsay Lohan”). That isn’t to say they are not compelling or personal in their voyeuristic evocations of American celebrity and vice; they are: “Although it was beautiful, the dialogue revealed little about anyone else” (“Los Angeles, NY”). At their best, such as in “The Last Luxury, JFK, Jr.,” Dimitrov locates a place where “on the way there, somewhere between floors, no velocity could recover us.” But the New York poems, their social nocturnes, have the greatest auras. Perhaps because a sense of intimate finality infuses them: “People walked out through doors / and through letters, through looks across rooms, / gifts that gave nothing of what they withheld, / what they couldn’t give back” (“Out of Some Other Paradise”).

Dimitrov’s art is obsessed with people and what belongs to them: their memories, their intimacies, their exiles, and their material and nonmaterial things. His book spends itself in description: “The window open all day: rain on the white desk, wood floor, / that strange curve on the back of your head (only I knew),” he writes in the opening prologue poem (“You Were Blonde Once”). That parenthetical aside is crucial to the book’s emotional arc—with each page turned, Dimitrov’s speaker becomes more and more affected by the great errors of “people and how they described each other… / incomparable to the sea” (“Gentleman’s Hour”). Even language, the usage of which is revenge against meaninglessness, fails and limits. “This is what he looked like, you said to them, / handing over a photo [...] / Nothing—not even the nothing— gets written by us” (“Biography”).

But the book doesn’t purely exist in this strata of longing and agitation. “There are minutes of peace,” Dimitrov writes in the title poem. There are minutes of amorous argument and defense:

The leaves. In their temporary dying,
give a rich background to people taking each other to bed.
Why would I give up the physical world?

[...]

My tongue, I have found, is warmer
than any sentence I’ve wanted to feel.
And what I have wanted, I should try to forget.
So I stay;
don’t you think so—where else would we go,
what is open this late?
I have waited all day just to see you.
In the darkest part of the water.
I see you in the darkest part of the water and swim (“A Living”).

The resounding pleasure of Dimitrov’s work locates itself at the intersections of distance and libertinism, of sensitivity and emotionalism. His ruinous lines are at once nonchalantly vague and strikingly specific: “When we met,” he writes, “you kept me up saying very few things” (“Together Alone”). The adjectives readily assemble themselves, but do little to replicate the unique and original experience of reading his work.

Together and by Ourselves ends with a long poem, “Days and Nights,” which functions as a kind of envoi. It is an extreme version of the book’s uninterrupted style, a graceful temporal movement of six pages, an assertion of a life on the page, which is what this book is. It was Sontag, who, in a television interview, said, “But if someone would say, ‘Oh, you can write this book, but you can’t publish it,’ well, you know, I’d want to cut my throat. Of course the book is for people. The book is meant to be shared.” These poems admiringly commit themselves to publicness but still, like any art, veil parts of themselves, and come from a place of necessity. As Dimitrov writes in “Alone Together”, “It cost me more than those evenings to see you; / more than a lifetime to see my own face.” Knowing oneself would logically precede being fully and unabashedly public; these poems revel in that work.

 

Nathan Blansett's poems appear in The Journal and New South. He is an undergraduate student at Emory University, and works as a gallery intern in Atlanta. 

Review: "Trouble the Water" by Derrick Austin (BOA Editions, 2016) by Peter LaBerge

by Derek JG Williams | Guest Reviewer. 

ON DERRICK AUSTIN'S TROUBLE THE WATER:
MORE, MORE, MORE & OTHER IMAGES FOR LONGING

 

All art seeks to create transcendence; it rarely succeeds. This occurs in nature as a model for our best efforts. A river runs downstream for hours. A dark ocean listens to waves smack and break against rock. If you watch and listen long enough, the water’s movement becomes a part of you. It’ll sync your heartbeat with the tides and eddies.

This same feeling is evoked in the brackish and sublime poems of Derrick Austin’s debut collection, Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, 2016). These poems occur where waters meet and converge—desire, sex, love, art, and race. Each idea is a wave folding over and engulfing what precedes it, building before breaking and drifting away. This is a book that readers can—and should—return to again and again, instinctually as one reaches for a drink when thirsty. These poems transport and transcend.

Austin’s speakers seek unity between the flesh and spirit. This search is framed by the book’s epilogue, taken from the Bible, John 5:4-6, which ends with the essential question, “Wilt thou be made whole?” It is this question that the book aims to answer. The problems in wholeness are multiple. How can it be attained amongst so much whirring water?

In “Pass-A-Grill” the speaker observes that “…the sea keeps upping the ante…the land itself, / an erosion so ceaseless I want to give / my body, wholly, to something else.” The contrast between the speaker and the ocean lies in the idea of permanence. The beach endures the waves, but will eventually vanish as a consequence. The land is ephemeral. This causes the speaker to seek “something else,” something more durable. What they find is a kiss to consume, and to be consumed by, in the poem’s stunning conclusion: “Mouth to mouth, we’re our own drowning.”

The sea’s language, sometimes technical, is used to an intriguing effect when applied to love and desire. In the title sonnet of the longer sequence, “City of Rivers”, the lover is described “emerging, naked, / from a cool shower. Rivulets chart your body’s cartography; / they stream and shine and lift themselves to you.” Even in the city, there’s rebirth in a simple shower, an act of renewal for the body, formed as a map to be traced.

Trouble the Water evokes the verse of A.R. Ammons, specifically his poem “For Harold Bloom” in which a speaker searches nature for an image for longing. Ammons writes, “I flaked the bark of stunt fir: / I looked into space and into the sun / and nothing answered my word longing…” Austin’s poems attempt to answer Ammons’ search through the erotic.

Consider these lines from “Apology,” which provide a slant take on William Carlos William’s apology for eating a plum, except here the apricot is the forbidden fruit:

…because you told me not to

I gobbled whole globes, soft

bites whispering off, and off, and off
until I unbuckled my belt to fit myself:

because I wanted you to catch me,

throttle me, and take my fingers in your
mouth: because it hurt to breathe…

The transgression is in the eating, a sweet consumption that gives the lines power. It’s a declaration masked as an apology. Thank god for good love poems, but this isn’t one. This is a fuck poem, and thank god for those, too.

The poems of Trouble the Water are most thrilling when they pivot into ekphrasis. These are some of the most pleasing because they frame art as reliable, while love, well—not so much. In “Sans Souci”, Austin writes, “I believe in art more often than your cock.” Wise choice. The cock will fail—messy. Art will fail too, but less often. Only through art can wholeness can be realized, connecting us across eons. We must swim in art without drowning. Perhaps we already do—as Austin writes:

Cruel body, which gathers and leaves
                            such sweetness.
             Only darkness in the painting,

             the body’s inmost color.

 

 

Derek JG Williams puts words into rows both long and short. He's a graduate of the MFA program at University of Massachusetts - Boston and a 2016 Blacksmith House Emerging Writer. His poems are published or forthcoming in PlumeBest New PoetsVinylForklift OhioSalamanderPrairie SchoonerStoryscape Journal, and New Ohio Review, among many others. Derek currently lives in Arizona. Learn more about him at www.derekjgwilliams.com.

Review: Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair (University of Nebraska Press, 2016) by Peter LaBerge

by David Morgan O'Connor | Guest Reviewer. 

 

University of Nebraska Press & Safiya Sinclair. 

University of Nebraska Press & Safiya Sinclair. 


                                                I was born with one ankle
                                                dangling in the sea, body grasping
                                                for another horizon.                       

                                                                        “Spectre”
 

Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal, winner and long-listed for more awards than can be briefly delineated[i], refers to the West Indies and Carib people who were, in a “purely linguistic sense, born savage,” according to Sinclair’s preface. The collection has five sections and is loosely threaded through Caliban’s journey through The Tempest. Appearances by the biblical Eve link sections, and the book’s central themes include: the sea, the daughter, the student, the immigrant, the woman, and the untameable master of language. Sinclair’s relationship to language is unique and brilliant. Few contemporary poets can capture the universal through the personal with such detail, allure, and wit.

Out here the surf rewrites our silences.
This smell of ocean may never leave me:
our humble life or the sea a dark page

In “Hands” the speaker’s mother’s survival skills “shucking whatever the sea/ could offer, each day orphaned in the tide” present themselves as the “filth of sailors whose bed she made” come to pillage her and the island. Not only is maternal endurance in each phrase, but also is Jamaica’s struggle against colonial desecration. An easy point to make but not swallow—and Sinclair, as in many of her poems, ends with a flicker of hope.

our bloodline of what once lived
and will live and live again.
In the sea’s one voice she hears her name.

Beneath her gravid
belly my gliding hull
a conger eel. 

Act one, or the first section, is grounded in family. A daughter matures and goes to school. The sea breezes. Conch shells sparkle. The “neon” city begins to appear. Section two, begins with a prose poem “Notes of The State of Virginia 1:”

Where Thomas Jefferson learnt how to belittle a thing. How to own it. He
created the word and wanted my mouth to know it. He wanted the whole
world pulled through me on a fishing string. Where I will find my fingers in
the muscle of my throat, where I will marvel at the body asking to live.

Experiencing America, there is a subtle shift in theme—familiar territory for most readers—but told through a crystalline-newcomers lens. The prose blocks are as strong as institutional pillars, bringing America’s racial history and the everyday divides to the forefront. The poem “Elocution Lessons with Ms. Silverstone” masterfully tells the story of a girl becoming a woman as she is drilled to fit into her new world. Her “d”s become “t”s.

In full maturity, Sinclair’s Act III speaker fills the roles of woman and poetess. Literary references appear more often, as does the awareness of her strength. “The Center of The World” opens with, “The meek shall inherit nothing.” Sinclair attacks the myths and religions we have all been force-fed:

in my hems. I have milked
the stout beast of what you call America;
and wear your men across my chest

like fur. Stick-pin and snow-
blue chinchilla: They too came
to nibble at my door.

Themes turn bitter, and the musicality of each stanza swells. In Section IV, perhaps the strongest, Sinclair’s awareness grows, “…giving birth to my old selves.” In “Spectre,” the omnipresent sea anchors the immigrant experience. Sinclair offers a glimpse of the reason:

I was born with one ankle
dangled in the sea, body grasping
for another horizon.

Hungry infant searching for salty night,
I ate leaves of scripture left open
to avert the spirits of the dead—

but already I was unruly and invited them in,
imbibed them in my fevering dreaming
until my skin was no longer my skin.

Act V is comprised of one poem. “Crania Americana”—a coda, with the final line dripping in blood; Sinclair ends with the question, “Master, Dare I / unjungle it?”

In our post-factual, gas-lit current political climate, where divisive lines are easily drawn and it is easier to threaten to build walls rather than discourse, where daily language is dumbed-down into spite and ignorance, Sinclair’s Cannibal is a breeze of fresh sea air which comforts and challenges. If Sinclair’s next collection is even one tenth as good as this one, it will still be better than most. Cannibal has already carved a chunk off the literary canon. What’s next, other than to revisit Sinclair’s “Home”:

Have I forgotten it—
wild conch dialect,

black apostrophe curled
tight on my tongue?
 


[i] Winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award
Longlisted for the 2017 Dylan Thomas Prize
An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year
Longlisted for the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize
Longlisted for the 2017 PEN Open Book Award
One of BuzzFeed’s Best Poetry Books of 2016
One of The New Yorker’s “Books We Loved in 2016”
A Publishers Weekly “Poetry Top 10” for Fall 2016
One of BuzzFeed Books’ Best Literary Debuts of 2016
A Poets & Writers Top Ten Poetry Debut of 2016
One of The Roots Best Books of 2016 By Black Authors
A Publishers Weekly “Most Anticipated Book of Fall 2016”
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry
                                                                                    (and growing…)

One week left — Apply to the free & online Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program today! by Peter LaBerge

Now in its fifth year, The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program is an entirely free and entirely online program that pairs established writers with high school and secondary students interested in the processes of drafting, redrafting and editing in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. The program will last from June 25, 2017 until August 5, 2017, and will be capped at sixty-six students. The aim of the mentorship program is not formalized instruction, but rather an individualized, flexible, and often informal correspondence. 

We are currently open to applications from high school students on a rolling basis, via our submission manager. As such, early applications will receive the strongest consideration, and applications will be accepted only until seats are filled, or until April 7, 2017 at 11:59 pm EST—whichever comes first. We are currently more than halfway full for the 2017 summer mentorship program! 

Click here to start your application!

Click here to view the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program Information Booklet.

*     *     *

Carissa Chen

Mentor ('15): Aria Aber
YoungArts Finalist in Writing (Poetry)
YoungArts Finalist in Visual Arts
National Scholastic Writing Awards Gold Portfolio Medalist


The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program offered me the incredible chance to work with enthusiastic peers and teachers. The program encouraged me to take risks with my writing and my mentor, Aria Aber, worked with me individually to help me find my unique voice. The program also connected me with a supportive community of creative writers. I would strongly encourage the program to any high school student!

*     *

Aidan Forster

Mentor ('15): Cody Ernst
National Scholastic Writing Awards Gold & Best-in-Grade Medalist
Recipient, Poetry Society of America Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Poetry Award
Runner-Up, Adroit Prize for Prose

Publication in Indiana Review, Best Teen Writing, Pleiades, and elsewhere

The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. There, I found a community of young writers who were interested in engaging with poetry in an exciting way and in growing as people and writers. The mentorship helped me find and develop my poetic voice, explore my poetry, stretch the limits of what poetry could be, and make lasting friendships with like-minded artists. I recommend the mentorship to anyone who wants to strengthen their understanding of their own work and build long-lasting, wonderful friendships with other young writers.

*     *

Brynne Rebele-Henry

Mentor ('15): Talin Tahajian
Author, Fleshgraphs (Nightboat Books, 2016)
Recipient, Adroit Prize for Prose
Recipient, Glenna Ruschei Award from Prairie Schooner
Publication in Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, jubilat, and elsewhere


The Adroit Journal Mentorship Program helped me find a steady poetic voice and learn to intensively edit poems. I made lasting friendships with other mentees and mentors—one of the other mentees, Aidan Forster and I, went on to create an online community for young LGBT+ writers once the mentorship ended, as well as an LGBT+ focused literary publication called Fissure. The Adroit Journal, never mind its network of emerging and established writers, never ceases to astound me.

*     *

Alex Greenberg

Mentor ('15): Jackson Holbert
Five-Time Commendation, Foyle Young Poet of the Year Awards
Publication in Columbia Poetry ReviewFlorida ReviewSalt Hill JournalThird CoastWashington Square Review, and elsewhere

his mentorship program was truly a remarkable experience. Not only were the mentors and mentees professional and thorough, they were open-minded to my ideas and ideologies, my beliefs and personal predilections. They didn’t rewrite my work for me but pushed me towards discovery and revision through their thought-provoking questions about imagery, form, and syntax.

*     *

Rhiannon McGavin

Mentor ('16): Keegan Lester
YoungArts Finalist in Writing (Poetry)
Semifinalist, United States Presidential Scholar in the Arts
Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate

Acclaimed YouTube Personality, The Geeky Blonde

The Adroit Summer Mentorship Program was a fantastic experience for me! I am still in touch with my writing peers and mentor, still swapping poetic inspirations. The editing techniques and structures I was exposed to greatly progressed my writing, and the fact that it’s online makes it way easier for students on the go.

*     *

Oriana Tang

Mentor ('14): Peter LaBerge
United States Presidential Scholar in the Arts (Poetry & Short Story)
Davidson Fellow in Literature
YoungArts Finalist in Writing (Poetry & Short Story)
National Scholastic Writing Awards Gold & Best-in-Grade Medalist


Having seen the mentorship program from both sides, as both mentee and mentor, I can honestly say it’s a profoundly beautiful and affirming experience for both parties. Not only did the program improve the quality of my writing, but also it introduced me to an incredible community of writers that has been a critical support network as I and my writing have grown.

Conversations with Contributors: Elizabeth Metzger (Poetry) by Aidan Forster

By Eileen Huang, Interview Correspondent.

We asked Chen Chen, our last interviewed contributor, to give us a question to kick things off: If you weren’t a writer, what other path could you imagine taking?

EM: I think I would like to be another kind of artist, the more performative the better. I often think of poems, of writing, of words as surrogate selves. The poem-self is truer than any “autobiographical” self, this made artifact, this written voice that captures not one facet of a self, but the cusp of a moment of being. In this way, poetry satisfies me because it involves that translation of inner to outer, that contradiction, that revelation “this is who I actually am, no this.” And poems of course are objects in time, which is something I love about them. They’ll evolve and change beyond the page, beyond myself, my intentions.  They are the voices in our heads. They are selves to try on. I don’t mind the spy-like secretive feeling of dancing or shouting inwardly and tugging out the reverb, the disembodied mind-ore, making the inner echoes into some semblance of a self, a single true moment of selving maybe, on the page.  I do like being sneaky, becoming something surprising even to myself, recording a self in flux—that great espionage! So I’ve thought about being a spy but I’m way too fearful. A psychoanalyst would be fun, to explore and expand another’s mind and sense of self in the world. 

But, what if I could make something with my body that was as true; what if my body could fold and turn as lines do? The vulnerability of an enjambment I could communicate without words, without approximation, or the restrictions of language. The stage as page. What if my speaking/singing voice could carry a poem’s multiplicity of meanings in one tone? I’d love to sing, to dance, to act—something where I could feel no segregation between mind and body, self and world, art and being. I would be able to create in company, to become and be witnessed at once. I could feel so known in the moment—unlike writing, performing or making art with the body seems to achieve an intimacy with others, with the world of space and time and people that language arts can only achieve through the creator’s absence, through disappearing. I leave my self for you to try on, like the sisterhood’s “traveling pants” or a Dickinson dash—we can all fill it, bring it to life, make ourselves more present, but only one at a time.

 

Your poems “Tinsel Demon” and “Grown Daughter” appear in our latest issue. I was struck by the beautiful, haunting imagery that you employ in both of them. Tell us the story of these poems—where did you find the inspiration for their images and turns?

EM: Both of these poems appear in my first book, The Spirit Papers, which just came out through the Juniper Prize with University of Massachusetts Press. Both poems anticipate loss—or recount loss as an exercise in anticipating it. Tinsel, I remember poet Timothy Donnelly saying in a conversation we were having about material culture. The word itself was enchanting, and I was thrilled by the idea of a poem using “research.” Of course, poems resist my intentions so my exploration of tinsel took me far from my research into the actual history of tinsel. I was disappointed by its real origins and began instead to imagine my own history for it, a kind of destructive creation myth. The fluttery spiritlike silver stuff out of its contemporary holiday context began to tell me its own story. So many of my poems consider future children before birth and myself and those I love and fear losing after death.  In “Tinsel Demon,” I imagined a pre-world for those fears, an anti-apocalypse apocalypse, a kind of substitute big bang theory in which a demon shreds space and creates light and color as a kind of curse or infection. When he finally exhausts himself, he scatters not space but his own drained-of-color self across his invention, our new world. His suicide becomes our tinsel—reflective, silvery, tangled—that kitschy beautiful thing. I keep accidentally writing tinself as I write this. That sonic/spelling slip is such a big part of how I learn my own sense in a poem: Isn’t selfhood as multifarious, reflective, messy and tacky?

“Grown Daughter” involves less intention, less intention gone awry. Even though it stays in one scene, nearly narratively, more than many of my poems, I wrote it very stream-of-consciously. The contextual story is that I spent an evening after some writer’s block doing rituals in Los Angeles with my spirit-friend, the poet Max Ritvo. We went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant and shared three dishes. We tasted everything mindfully at the same time and discussed the sense of taste, which led to synaesthesia, and ultimately the way the eye perceives color, depth, and scale. Then we took a nightwalk, a rare event it seems in this drive-everywhere culture. We somehow started discussing our friendship and relationships in general, how like vision, there’s a selectivity, a trickery really by which we name and define what we see, fill in what we can’t see. Like the senses, every relationship contains every other. Max and I often joked about being each other’s mothers and one of our first writing prompts was to write morbid poems to each other called “for my dead mother, Elizabeth” and “for my dead mother, Max.”

Beyond blurring life and death (which unfortunately was something we were often imaginatively doing in both terrible and self-preserving ways because Max was dying even as he was so radically alive), we were also interested in blurring the “yous,” the identity of the intimate others in our lives and poems. If a friend or relative or beloved is addressed in a poem, they cannot remain other. They become half-mirror, half-curtain—maybe pure catalyst—for the speaking self. I came home from that evening inspired, bleary-eyed, overwhelmed. After months of complaining about my lack of inspiration or privacy or a writing routine that was feasible in Los Angeles, I sat tilting my chair back at a round dining table beside an empty chair. In the same room, Dan (my now-husband) was reading (a no-no for my usual writing process). I decided to see what would happen if I wrote without thinking or announcing (even to myself) that I would be writing. What came out was a conflation of my fear of losing Max, my fear of losing my own mother, my desire for a new loving stranger to become my surrogate mother, and my desire to become a mother. The poem’s mother-daughter relationship is more than bidirectional; it seems in retrospect almost erotic. The mix-up of other and self was liberating I think. It allowed me to stay interested, to follow this odd, sort of oppressive pair and learn what we were becoming, what we loved and resented in each other, what we were afraid of becoming—which turned out to be time more than anything else.

 

I ran a quick search on the title of your new chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (forthcoming from Horsethief Books), and I found out that it’s the name of a series of experiments done by a forensic scientist—she recreated crime scenes as miniature dioramas that could be used as crime scene training tools, which I think is super fascinating. What led you to this name, and how do you think it applies to your work (or, more broadly, poetry as a presented art form)?

EM: I think you’re right—this appropriated title (the series directly responds to those dioramas) also speaks to a larger theme or question about death in my work. In my first book, The Spirit Papers, I consider death metaphorically through the voices of posthumous speakers, fantasies of heaven and hell, and the imagined or impending departures of those I embody and love: Max, my future child, my miscarried siblings, my mother, even myself. In this way, I am haunted by spirits of the dead but also of the spirits we each already carry as mortal beings—the essence we can’t really examine until we are somebody else’s memory, someone else’s imagination. The spirit is the thing we hand over for the other to keep, not unlike the poem. After all, we can only explain death as an outsider—there are no firsthand accounts. The loss is missing only to us, kept only by us. The loss becomes the survivor’s to possess. It is a strange absence we all carry and I think anticipate—it motivates us to create but it also lurks behind all fear and dread I think. As a fearful person who loves to imagine all the possibilities, I think of death (in poetry and beyond) as the living test of Keats’ negative capability. To dwell in it can be creative and self-destructive.

The unexplained death of the nutshells allowed me to think about death from a new perspective, to remove myself from the death of my loved ones. Instead, I had to think about death scientifically but also materially. Murder. Measurements. I felt I shared an obsession with Frances but where she adored the precision of evidence, of recreating a scene, I couldn’t stop imagining the imprecision and uncertainty of who these dolls were or what it meant to gaze on the deaths of inanimate models. The relationship between objects and material art and death, especially crime and the backstories and psychologies of the dolls fascinated me. I do think the use of a creative act to help explain our most destructive acts as humans is a lot like poetry. Even the line break is a kind of internal violence that leads to order. Even the white space between stanzas, in any form, suggests the silence, the absence, the inexplicability between rooms.

Today I think many adults fear poetry because they look at poems as if they are supposed to understand some clear message or lesson, when often they are as much handmirrors as microscopes. A poem is in many ways a miniature. A compressed world. We are so used to the disorder and uncertainty of being human beings, individuals with only one brain to access, in a world that is inexplicable, huge, daunting, and full of wonder. But in a nutshell, a miniature, we become the gods of our world—we can see so much more at once so it seems we have more control and authority, that there may be order and understanding. On second glance, consuming it all at once is overwhelming, more stimuli than we are meant to take in even if the scale is smaller—and of course the kicker is that, while illuminating, miniaturizing our environment renders it unusable. It is art. It cannot change without our moving the parts (like a dollhouse) or at least imagining into them, projecting our stories. The meticulous physical replica awakens us to all that is metaphysical and missing, impossible to approximate. A poem embodies a similar paradox. It is useless as a thing without us, but it can guide us by expanding our perspective, our power. We learn from globes early how much of earth is water, but we cannot swim. We can spin and spin it and our world turns no faster. The miniature is a power game. It instructs and affirms our selfhood, but we are still subjects of a gigantic and unknowable world.

 

I feel as if the question “How did you start writing?” is a bit vague. To change it up a bit: Was there ever a time when you wanted to stop writing? If so, how did you overcome that urge?

EM: Sort of. I used to like hiding that I was writing. I wanted everyone to know I wanted to be an actress and my poetry was very private (I’m talking during childhood/early adolescence). When I first felt my mom’s desire for me to share my poetry with teachers and others, I had the desire to appear to stop writing. My mother encouraged me forcefully to submit to a poetry contest in middle school. I swore never to write again. I may have even torn up a notebook in rebellion. For me, the feeling of not writing is one of not living (sometimes as a result of needing to focus on life; sometimes as a result of not wanting to live much at all). I become half ghost and half traitor. I experience it a lot and it feels interminable but then I’ll write in a burst and often these blank periods feel longer than they are—often they are periods of dramatic and immediate change—a new relationship, a new environment, a new role such as teaching, a new schedule, most recently a bedrest pregnancy. The self-consciousness (in time, in body, in space) that such living requires can stall my writing, but the experience always contributes to some growth or change in the writing when it does return.

I hope one day I’ll learn to trust that the urge and ability always does return. During these silences, I don’t keep notes—at the very worst, I don't even have interest in reading—but somehow the mind keeps storing and transforming so as much as it feels like I am abandoning poems and they are abandoning me, nothing really vanishes for good. Writing is actually a lot like not writing. They both are states of adaptation, helping me make meaning or transform the meaning of things I can’t quite grasp. Even the not writing states serve the writing, and I think the writing states make richer the life moments of not writing. Even in the most intense period of writing, twenty-two hours of the day at least require no pen, no computer. I like writing, that feeling of finishing a poem, even radically revising it, but I often prefer the feeling of waking up in a world where a poem is possible, where language visits. In my writing periods, beyond the everyday tasks and obligations, ideas come and go like passersby that may at any moment inspire an inner guest, a companion. The suspense can be painful, but there is always a possibility to live toward. It sounds almost parasitic, but I live for that intensity, the company of an unwritten poem.

Whether I’m writing or not, the key is that I do want to be writing. It means being, wanting to be in this world. That said, there is within the writing of every poem, the dread and pressure before starting, before ending too and sometimes somewhere in the middle—like is this really worth it? What if I fail? That present is scary to me. But even then, it’s not really wanting to stop, it’s an in-the-moment kind of learning, not knowing. I want to begin again in safety, I want to survive the end.

 

What’s one piece of advice you’ve heard that’s helped you the most as a writer? And/or, what’s the strangest piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

EM: In high school, I was quiet. I loved writing anything—stories, poems, essays—but one day junior year I quietly ran for an assistant editorial position at the school magazine and lost. I was devastated. A senior beat me, but to rub salt in the wound, another talented senior who hadn’t even run actually got a position as assistant editor, too! Christine Schutt, my English teacher and the faculty advisor at the magazine, an exquisite novelist and short story writer who may as well be a poet, wrote to me: “a writer knows enough to raise her hand.” She wasn't reprimanding me, but she also didn’t pity me. At first I was baffled, even angry. Eventually, her words made me realize that being a writer began with being able to identify oneself as a writer. A writer didn't have to hide behind, but could be a voice in the room as well. I think this idea of authority over time tempered my shyness or at least gave me the confidence to assert myself beyond the page, to look at the world as a writer even if no one else noticed or cared.

Another piece of advice Christine gave us when we began writing personal essays, learning how to use digression, avoid explication, craft a sentence: “never be the victim.” I can see her hands pushing forward through air with each cadence as if to break down the invisible classroom boundaries. Her advice always came with gravity and mischief and rhythm. This mattered. “Never be the victim.” She read us some stories of Amy Hempel and maybe Lydia Davis, too. I realized that even in a memoir-essay, a first person account, the voice must be human, complex, vulnerable but NOT pure. The advice helped me understand grit and avoid sentimentality. I think she followed up by advising us to write the last thing we’d ever want to record on paper. I'm a blusher in life, so the idea of using my sacred writing space for my embarrassment and shame was non-intuitive, thrilling. I love that advice because art isn’t about conveying a message, telling it how you want it to be, how you want yourself to appear. The power to write comes with the willingness to be prone, transformed, excavated, rediscovered both by yourself and the reader.

 

Since a lot of our readers are younger writers, do you have any advice or insight for aspiring writers?

EM: The importance of a mentor, a peer, some kind of first reader—a pair of hands that will hold everything and anything. It’s more important than any workshop. Even if he or she is silent or not a writer, I believe a writer needs a human audience to imagine, preferably an audience of one. I think this trust is essential, a destination that allows one to want to be clear, to be precise, to be understood while also tricking the writer into becoming her own first reader. It’s like the dreaming brain, mysteriously moving between the store of conscious memory and our unconscious and involuntary mind. The real but imagined reader forces the writer to oscillate (without awareness) between her own expressive needs and the impressions she will leave on another. Strangely, having a reader in mind can allow more openings, more space in a poem for negative capability, for self-surprise, and also for the particular to become universal.  

My other suggestion may seem to contradict this companionship: solitude. Being alone not writing, not trying to write. It turns on the voices in the head. It allows us to welcome visitations, to invent rituals, to become others, to rest on the border of wakefulness and dream. It forces us to make our own company, to take in the world around us. It forces us to feel uncomfortable and at ease, afraid and hungry, unnecessary and sometimes omnipotent. We humans gestate pre-verbally, and I think every poem does too. Poets need this sacred mammalian time to doubt themselves completely. To destroy and recreate, phoenix-like, their sense of self. We learn the world before language. We have to let ourselves get to the point of need, of desperation for words before using them. They need to recharge to become essential. You will begin to feel the metallic of a syllable, a quenched alchemical thirst. I think for me and probably many young writers, there needs to be some care in creating boundaries, hibernation periods, in order to find freedom, to become “the writer self” before writing. You can become as the poem becomes rather than writing the poem from outside it. The poem must be both an other and a self, a stranger and a self-portrait. It’s kind of like a lived version of form: we have to make meters and constraints for ourselves, in time and space, to let ourselves become new, free. Being alone leads to a different use of language than the language we take for granted in social communication. Language becomes a different beast, not just a means to communicate or exchange information, but an extension of oneself, like building a body, a fossil, a monster that exists out of time and will be read.

Oh and lastly, revise as an alien, a violent and impatient alien. Meaning comes from forgetting any source or intention, the “trigger” as Richard Hugo would call it. To allow new meanings to emerge, cut away anything that feels too familiar, too easy, too painless. Clarity is about transparent emotion not wrought explanation. Be a masochist, let the poem confuse you, change its mind, hurt you. Trust disorder before order. Experience the poem as an unexpected planet rather than an explicable thing. You are now the poem’s purpose…it is not the other way around.

 

What authors and books have got you inspired & writing right now?

EM: Emily Dickinson—her posthumous speakers above all—is my first and final go-to, but it’s more what I have stored within me than reading her on the page right now. Keats, Rilke, Mandelstam, Donne, Hopkins, these are some of my constants. I adore and always return to Franz Wright (Walking to Martha’s Vineyard) who really gets that the stakes can never be too high, that suffering and irony are one, that belief and doubt are one. Mary Jo Bang offers me a new pace of thinking, not my own, all while wrapped in the most lavish textile, a new language that is somehow already mine. Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” I always go back to for its ability to talk while somehow teaching.  Jorie Graham’s early work I especially love for the fullness of questioning, a metaphysics paved by its music. I wrote and put together The Spirit Papers in large part alongside my soul friend, the exceptionally talented Max Ritvo. We had a lot of cross-pollination, not in voice, but in obsession maybe? He died in August and I have been rereading his genius collection Four Reincarnations ever since. It reminds me that entertaining a reader, making her laugh is a way to live again, to make energy (and often beauty) of suffering.

Much of my writing is more directly inspired by the visual than by written art—the lighting of an old film, the photographs of Francesca Woodman. Most recently, I have suffered a bout of silence, not writing because of a terrifying pregnancy, and to some extent the element of blank in my grief. I’ve just started looking at some gorgeous paintings by Egon Schiele that Max sent me before he died, paintings of pregnant women and blind mothers nursing. Non-poets, their plays, letters, memoirs, fiction, criticism: Kafka, Beckett, Gaston Bachelard, Maggie Nelson. John Berger’s fragmented essays, And Our Faces, My Heart, Deep as Photos; Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors; Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness. The stories of Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Amy Hempel, Christine Schutt.

 

Lastly, give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor. 

EM: Where do your poems begin and end—in other words, what are some typical entry or inspiration points and how do you know when the work is finished, ready to be abandoned? For instance, what does revision look like and does your relationship to your work change throughout the writing process?

 

***

Elizabeth Metzger is the Poetry Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal. In 2013, she won the Narrative Poetry Contest and was listed as one of Narrative’s 30 Under 30. Her poetry has recently appeared in The New Yorker, Poem-a-Day on Poets.org, BOMB, Yale ReviewKenyon Review Online, and Best New Poets 2015. Her essays and reviews appear in PN Review, the Southwest Review, and Boston Review. Her debut collection, The Spirit Papers, won the 2016 Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press in February 2017. Her chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, will be published by Horsethief Books in 2017. She has taught writing at Columbia University, where she received her MFA. 

Eileen Huang is a junior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. She served as the 2015-2016 Northeast National Student Poet, the nation's highest honor for youth poets presenting original work, and has been recognized by the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards, the Kenyon Review's Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize, and the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In her free time, Eileen enjoys reading and shamelessly watching B-list romantic comedies. She serves as an Interview Correspondent for The Adroit Journal. 

Conversations with Contributors: Chen Chen (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Audrey Zhao, Interview Correspondent. 

Jess X. Chen.

Jess X. Chen.


Let’s begin simple: who and what have you been reading lately? What’s got you excited?

Chen Chen: Jennifer S. Cheng’s book House A moved me so deeply. The poems use epistolary and essayistic techniques to excavate Chinese diasporic identity on a sensory level. Reading it is like seeing a map of my own heart unfold on a warm surface made of oceanic currents. I see the bodies of water my parents have crossed. I see the homes they’ve constructed. I see the homes I’ve been trying to build. How filled with memory and grief and mung bean soup, these homes.

 

Your poem, “Nature Poem” in Issue Sixteen is full of fabulous imagery such as tall post-apocalyptic pineapples growing out of heads and deer who are “supreme headache(s) of beauty.” How do these images come to you? Is it visceral or do you have a message you craft your images towards?

CC: I don’t know. I’m probably like most poets, in that a poem for me starts from a windy scrap of a phrase, a hairy fragment of an image, a smelly sneaker of an impulse. I just follow the stench, the screech, the sudden hue. Of course, like any person who thinks they’re hot shit from time to time, I get ideas. I try not to be too attached to any one vision of where a poem’s headed. I try to remember what the philosopher Avital Ronell says: get rid of the hot and just be shit.

 

After reading your upcoming book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), Sherman Alexie had this to say: “Chen Chen is already one of my favorite poets ever. Funny, absurd, bitter, surreal, always surprising, and deeply in love with this flawed world. I’m in love with this book.” Can you tell us a bit about the collection? How did it come about? And what, in your mind, is the significance of the ‘further possibilities’?

CC: The collection began as my MFA thesis at Syracuse University. It changed significantly before I sent it out to contests. It changed radically after it won the Poulin Prize and the judge, Jericho Brown, gave me his wonderful suggestions and insights.

Of course, being the obsessive maniac reviser that I am, I really went for it. I took out about fifteen pages. I rewrote the title poem sixty times. I reordered the first section every way I could imagine. I revised a long poem that I had started in college, in my first ever poetry workshop. I fretted over contradictions. I fretted over contractions and commas and semi-colons. I drove my friends nuts, showing them one slightly altered version of a poem and then another, another. After I turned in my final proof corrections, one friend suggested that I put everything having to do with the book on its own external hard drive and then put that hard drive in a safe and get my boyfriend to come up with a combination for the lock.

But working with Jericho has been an amazing gift. He understands what this book is about. He saw its shape before I really did. The book is about my mother. My messy, messy relationship with her. And it’s about “further possibilities,” yes—in relationships, in selves. The book explores what happens when we refuse to stop desiring and becoming. 

I am also indebted to Peter Conners and everyone at BOA for the care and enthusiasm poured into making this book a reality. A million gratitudes.

 

To what extent do you find that your poems are in conversation with each other?

CC: Well, I only write about cute boys and snowy streets, so my poems are always in tune with each other. Seriously, though, I find myself returning to the same subjects. I try to vary my approach to these subjects. Then, while assembling a collection, I try to see where it’s important to emphasize the overlaps and where it’s good to highlight the differences. I want each poem to live and behave and dress whichever way it likes best. But the poems have to find some way to live together in the same house! Sometimes I have to kick a poem out. It’s tough. I write them an excellent reference letter, though.

 

How did you stumble into writing poetry—was there a collection, a friend or family member, or an educator that particularly intrigued you? And what led you to stick with it?

CC: I think the first collection of poetry I read that wasn’t for school was Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House. I remember checking it out from the Newton Free Library in Newton, Massachusetts, and just falling in love with the language. I don’t know why I was drawn to that book in particular when browsing in the library. I was in high school. I was lonely.

My third year of college, I took my first poetry workshop, led by Martín Espada. I had been writing poems and stories for years, but Martín opened up poetry for me in the most stunning way. For Martín, the political is inseparable from the artistic. He gave me permission to write unapologetically outraged poems that grappled with injustice and asserted resistance. He also gave our workshop some helpful publishing advice. The fact that he believed in us enough to give us real publishing advice moved and encouraged me.

 

In that same vein, do you remember the title of your first piece of writing, and/or what it was about? (Mine was something about seashells.)

CC: I used to keep diaries. I still have all of them somewhere. They are super embarrassing. I was very honest in my diaries. I felt like I had to be, like my diary would know if I was lying. Now that I think of it, I was a superstitious child. I believed all sorts of objects had agency and that I had to do things in a highly ritualized fashion to avoid Bad Stuff. Anyway, I wrote about boys I had crushes on but I didn’t know I had crushes on them. I just knew they were really cool. Like, SO COOL. I also wrote about my action figures and what happened in the latest episode of Captain Planet. You know, the timeless subjects of lyric poetry.

 

As a mentor for the 2016 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, you already know we as a publication have a sizable youth audience and following. What do you think you needed to hear back in high school, and what advice would you offer students currently in high school?

CC: I think I needed to hear that I wouldn’t always have all this acne and that I would grow up to have more important enemies than my orthodontist. I had braces for a very, very long time. My parents would joke: we could’ve bought a new car with the money we’re spending on your crooked teeth! But what I would tell students currently in high school is this: you are 100% valid and 200% beautiful and no one gets to define you but you. Keep doing what you love. Keep finding supportive people. If you don’t know what you love yet, that’s okay. Challenge authority!! Make things. Try to give people really thoughtful, personal gifts. Learn to cook a few simple dishes well. Do a somersault every now and again. Don’t listen to any advice, including mine, that doesn’t sit right with you.

 

Thanks so much for answering these questions! To close, do you have a question for our next installment of Conversation with Contributors?

CC: If you weren’t a writer, what other path could you imagine taking? 

 

***

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow, Chen’s work has appeared in two chapbooks as well as in publications such as PoetryThe Massachusetts Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. Chen helps edit Iron Horse and Gabby. He also works on a new journal called Underblong, which he co-founded with the poet Sam Herschel Wein. Chen received his MFA from Syracuse University and is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, with his partner Jeff Gilbert and their pug Mr. Rupert Giles.

 

Audrey Zhao interviews contributors of the Adroit Journal for the Adroit Blog. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Fissure Magazine, the Rattle Young Poets AnthologyWords Dance, and Vinyl. She is a Bay Area native.

Conversations with Contributors: Raena Shirali (Issue Seventeen, Poetry) by Aidan Forster

By Clare Boyle, Guest Interviewer.

Let’s begin with a question from the contributor with whom we last had a conversation, Molly McCully Brown. Molly asks, “What was the last poem you read that really changed things for you, that altered something about how you see yourself or the world, or made the ground shift underneath you? 

RS: This semester, I taught “Lettuce” by Nick Sturm as part of a lesson on anaphora (shout out to Mikko Harvey, whose lesson I totally stole), and since then, it’s been one of those poems I chant lines from to myself almost daily. Formally, “Lettuce” altered the way I thought about anaphora, and I so admire how it leans on obsession in order to make a point about excess in this world—that even our excess is never enough, that, “There is / so much still to be done.” I die in the best way every time I read this line: “He tells you how bad it is for the lettuce / that we talk about art like work and love like economics.” Before this election, I was moved to tears by what’s articulated after that line break; I was at a point where I wasn’t writing poems often, and was much more focused on cultivating love actively in my daily life. So those lines were affirming, but they also served to remind me that the language we use to discuss art and love matters; because that’s the language with which we construct the stories we tell ourselves. It means something to say, “This year, I was a sponge. I absorbed all I could of this world and left my comfort zone in my reading practices,” instead of, “I only wrote X number of poems and could have written so many more.” Really, that one line of poetry made me so much more mindful. And now that we’re here—a week away from the inauguration—I’m fixated on what happens before the line break. Lettuce is transcendent, essential, and, obviously, subject to decisions humans do or don’t make concerning the environment. “Lettuce” is an insistent call for us to be better to our natural world, even as it reminds us that “the world is us kissing / under a sheet lettuce.” We can’t be part of the transcendent if we don’t “start / giving a shit lettuce.” This poem makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to love beyond my all-too-human capacity.

 

You’ve described poetry itself as an empathy machine. Is there a metaphor through which you consider poetic process? 

RS: Hmm. I don’t think this is a metaphor, so much as an observation from both teaching poetry and writing across genres myself. But my sense is that empathy doesn’t simply involve imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes. It involves really leaving your own experiences and attempting in whatever way to embody the experience of another. I think writing poems works much in the same way, especially when we’re writing personal poems. We can’t write through personal experience when we’re “too close to it” (that’s an oft-used teaching adage that used to really rile me up as an undergraduate)—and I think that’s because, to reach our experiences on the level of art and aesthetics, we have to be able to dissociate. To imagine we are someone else who is then imagining our own experiences. For me, at least, the poetic process is much more convoluted when I’m writing in the personal or confessional mode. I almost take on the persona of someone I’m not to reach the person I am—to move past fact and toward truth. I didn’t used to write poems this way, of course. It came, as all things do, from practice, and from reading widely, and from leaving myself behind every single time I came to a page. Meryl Streep, in her Golden Globes acceptance speech this week, said the most basic job of the actor is to embody the other, to acknowledge structures of privilege at work in doing so, and to seek to foster empathy. I think the same is true of poetry. 

 

This fall, a lot of very conceptual poets visited Brown University (where I’m a freshman), and I’ve grown much more willing to approach a work on its own terms. What is your personal definition of the purpose of art? Do you think it is the work’s responsibility to invite its audience in, to give them context or explain itself in order to better communicate its message, do you think it’s the reader’s, or does it fall somewhere in-between? 

RS: This is such an interesting question, Clare. It seems to me that art should always try to push us forward—that is, toward something unarticulated, unsayable, and true. For art to do that, it has to push the reader beyond their comfort zone. Even poems that make us happy, that move us to joy or praise—or poems that are conceptual and seek to challenge us intellectually—do so by, well, moving us. I think readers have to be willing to be moved toward the uncomfortable, the in-between. As readers, then, we can’t engage with art, or poetry, without doing the work—or, as you say, approaching the work on its own terms.
Honestly, though, I think this question is also one couched in the political, which is what makes it so compelling to think about in our current moment. Recently, I was listening an episode of Code Switch (a podcast by NPR that everyone should listen to), which highlighted the explanatory comma and this idea that people of color feel like we have to constantly explain our culture—or the cultures of others—to white Americans. And man do I feel with those podcast hosts, especially in terms of my poems and their subject matter. During my MFA I was told constantly to define Indian terms or phrases that appeared in my poems, and I felt very strongly—and still do—that that sort of explanatory comma is detrimental to the poem and can even be construed as insulting to the reader. I think readers should be willing to work—at least on the level of Googling terminology—for the poem at hand. But I also believe that the act of reading poetry or practicing art in any form is inherently a statement, political or otherwise. It seems to me that we want the same thing from our “ideal authors” that we do from our “ideal readers” and “ideal citizens.” We just want one another to be engaged, to be willing to do the work of active listening, to be open to learning something in the process of engaging with the text. So, yes, the responsibility definitely falls in between, I think, especially for those of us writing across cultures, across national boundaries, and toward a poetics that is more inclusive, more intersectional, and with the goal of spreading understanding and empathy.

 

You’ve cited lineation and enjambment as aesthetically important to your poetry. What do you personally try to accomplish in each line? In your opinion, what makes a successful line?

RS: Very early on in my poetry education, I encountered the idea that if a poem’s enjambments are effective, each line of the poem is a unit, and reads as its own little poem. That stuck with me, and dictates my approach to lineation and enjambment to this day. I love the idea that once you reach the end of the line, you can either move on to the line below it, or jump back to the beginning of the line. The notion of the line as fragmented yet cyclical is appealing to me—especially as an Indian American who is fascinated by the idea of reincarnation, yet wholly skeptical of it simultaneously. I’m similarly obsessed with the ampersand, because it approximates the form of an infinity symbol, while simultaneously breaking, undermining the notion of continuity. I also think that successful lines in a free verse poem vary in their strategies. If line one destabilizes, line two might serve to lyricize. Barbara Hernstein Smith says in Poetic Closure that reading a poem is an engagement with constant instability. I treat my line breaks accordingly.

 

Let’s talk about your debut collection, GILT, forthcoming from YesYes Books (congratulations!). How did the book come together, and what’s one thing it’s made you realize about your work? 

RS: (Thank you!) GILT began as my MFA thesis during my time at The Ohio State University, but it includes poems that date back to my sophomore year in college. So it’s been in the works for quite some time, and really none of the poems in the book were generated with the “goal” of belonging in a manuscript. In that sense, I think it’s a book that could only have been written as I grew to embrace my identity as a first generation Indian woman. Really, writing these poems—owning my experiences as a survivor of sexual assault, as someone who grew up completely imbued in systems of supremacy, as someone who once tried desperately to be seen as anything other than an “other”—has completely changed me as a person. And more than that, it’s changed how I view art, what I value in art, and what I strive for in my own work. It’s made me realize that the personal and the political can’t be parsed out cleanly, and that for those of us (so many of us) whose identities are inseparable from the way we navigate this world, our art is often a reflection of that truth. And furthermore, that art engaging with those issues—issues like trauma, assimilation, immigration, and violence—can serve as a vehicle for change. It made me realize that my work isn’t about being comfortable, and that instability is its/our very strength.

 

You, of course, are also a photographer. How did you become interested in photography? What do images accomplish that words can’t (and vice versa)? What are the similarities and differences between how you approach your poetic and photographic practices?

RS: Because I attended an arts high school, I was exposed to a wide range of art forms early on, and photography was one I fell in love with long before I fell for poetry. Though I took the class on a total whim, working in the dark room at the young age of sixteen really fueled my obsession with and patience for process. Making tens or twenties of a print just to get the lighting right, or to accentuate that one highlight above the subject’s cheek—that feels so much like the work poets do in revision. You tweak, then you delete, then you tweak again and throw the poem or negative in a drawer for a year. Both mediums take dedication, patience, and an anti-capitalistic view of productivity. You may only make one poem, or one print, every few months, so you have to be comfortable with using your time for something other than monetary gain. I guess maybe I’ve always loved getting obsessed & wasting my time.
Really, though, I love this question about story: what stories images can tell that words fail to, and vice versa. When I applied for graduate school, I thought that very question would be central to my work, and to my eventual thesis. What I found, though, the more I wrote ekphrastic poetry, and the more I considered the individual poem as a fragment, an attempt at rendering a holistic experience, is that photography and poetry are in fact quite similar. Both offer a glimpse, a moment, of or within a broader experience or narrative. Both engage lyrically (imagistically, briefly) with the world. Both provide the artist with limited tools with which to render their subjects. For me, the question is less about how one medium fails, and more about their shared attempt to hold so much of the world inside such a small space. I suppose poetry is the medium I’m favoring at this moment because access is an issue with photography that is less inconvenient with text is one’s tool. I can write poem after poem engaging with my heritage without having to foot the bill for a ticket to India (which I definitely cannot afford right now); but I do have to work harder to recall, sitting at my desk in South Carolina, the exact nuances and details of the landscape I’m imagining. So much of my photographic practice relies on immediate engagement. Poetry allows me to delay & distort & deviate from the actual.

 

When you are sitting down to write, how do you block out—or, perhaps, honor—critical voices or thoughts about what you can and can’t say? Have you developed strategies over time? 

RS: Because so much of my work involves reconciling my own trauma alongside (and as a result of) systemic trauma—as in work that engages with the torture and rape of women accused of witchcraft in rural India, or work addressing gang rape cross-culturally—my hardest job when I come to the page is to honor voices, whether they’re internal, cautionary voices, or those of the women whose experiences I’m attempting to access. Something I’m always cautious of is lyricizing violence, even as I’m trying to bring the lyric and the violent into a shared space, for the reader to consider how the two coexist—how music sometimes is the only solace, and we shouldn’t search for further justification (I’m thinking specifically of poems like “Stasis,” wherein writing a poem of, about, and out of rape is a lyrical battle cry, more than anything else; wherein music is necessitated by violence, even when the speaker who has experienced great trauma wishes for nothing but silence). But in terms of strategies when considering critical voices, or the voices I’m engaging with through persona, or through apostrophe, I’ve gotta say: I don’t have one. To me, it’s more important—and largely more respectful—to meet each voice and each poem on their terms, much in the sense I referred to earlier when discussing readers and where we meet the poems we encounter. For example, my poem, “Holi: Equinox Approaches” is an elegy, through and through, for a woman who was gang raped as public display in her village. Writing that poem, my inner critic was cautious of romanticizing or casting that fucking awful event as linguistically “pretty” in any way. On the other hand, my second book, summonings, includes a series of persona poems from the perspective of an accused witch in India. My inner critic as I’m writing those poems cautions against appropriation, and is constantly thinking about how to balance the portrayal of my self in the persona poem with the accurate and research-based portrayal of these women and their actual experiences. I guess one strategy I’ve developed while writing the new poems is to leave the realm of persona when the level of violence I’m exploring becomes overwhelming—to recast the rhetorical approach of the poem, such that I’m writing towards an absence. I really believe that poetry’s job isn’t to shy away when we arrive at those moments. If all poems did is engage with what we know, and stop short of trauma or grief “we simply can’t imagine,” how can we ever reach the point where we actively empathize? I think it’s far more productive to write into that space of incomprehensibility, to use language as a weapon to combat the silence my fellow women and POCs are being forced into across this globe.

 

Last summer, you served as a mentor for the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. What was your favorite thing to teach, and what was your favorite thing to learn? 

RS: Oh man, that whole experience was a complete blast. My mentees were (and still are!) so intelligent, engaged, passionate, and visionary. But enough gushing (for now). My favorite day, no matter the student demographic or age range, is the day I teach persona. Obviously, I have a penchant for persona as a tool in my own writing, but I think that especially for young writers, it provides this sweet spot in terms of distance from their own experiences, while simultaneously allowing them to reengage the personal on terms that don’t seem so, well, personal. And every time I work in an intimate capacity with younger poets outside of the classroom, I’m reminded just how valuable one-on-one instruction is, especially in this field. Interestingly enough, I wound up restructuring my poetry syllabus for the following fall semester based on the progress of my mentees, and delayed workshop until the very last weeks of the class. In the future, I’d like to delay workshop until the second level of poetry classes at any level. Mentoring reminded me that what’s most important is getting students—and ourselves!—to generate, to write our truths fearlessly and bravely. I think critique can undercut that current detrimentally at times, especially when writers are at a relatively young stage in their development.

 ***
 

Indian American poet Raena Shirali lives in Charleston, SC, where she teaches English at College of Charleston. Her first book, GILT, is forthcoming with YesYes Books in 2017. She received her MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University. Shirali's poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Better: Culture & Lit, The Boiler, Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, Four Way Review, Indiana Review, Muzzle Magazine, Ninth Letter, The Nervous Breakdown, Pleiades, and many more. Her honors and awards include the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Most recently, she was awarded a 2016 Pushcart Prize for her poetry, recognized as a finalist for the 2016 Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, and won the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize judged by Claudia Rankine. She was recently awarded the 2017 spring Philip Roth Residency at the Stadler Center for Poetry, & currently serves as a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. Her obsessions include coasts, gold, & red wine. 

Clare Arlington Boyle is a freshman at Brown University, where she plans on concentrating in Comparative Literature and Education. She started a poetry collaborative at Brown and conducts workshops with New Haven middle school students when home. Last year, she served as Editor in Chief of Daystar, the arts and literary magazine of the Hopkins School. She has recently discovered a passion for Lisel Mueller.

Conversations with Contributors: Molly McCully Brown (Issue 17, Poetry) by Aidan Forster

 

By Eileen Huang, Interview Correspondent.

As per tradition, we asked our last featured contributors, Muriel Leung and Hieu Minh Nguyen, to give us a few questions to ask you. So, to kick things off: Is there anything you are too afraid to do in your writing but would like to accomplish in your lifetime? What do you think is the place of fear in writing?

MMB: I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the kinds of holes we felt still existed in the manuscript I’m currently working on, and I caught myself responding to her question by saying: I know, but I’m afraid to write those poems. For me, that fear is the clearest signal that those are the poems I ought to be writing. The best poems, I think, are acts of discovery, and we never discover anything if we aren’t willing to wander toward what seems difficult, or unknown, or fraught, or tangled, the edges of the map where there might be dragons. And what’s waiting over the edge of the map is different not just for every person, but for the versions of yourself you are from one year, or day, or minute to the next. Having just finished a book that is in one way very personal, but also centrally concerned with lives and histories and experiences that aren’t my own, the thing that seems scariest to me right now is writing very clearly and unblinkingly and directly into my own individual experience, and so that’s what I’m trying to do.

 

Let's talk about the excerpt from your series "Another Dormitory," which can be found in Issue Seventeen, and in your book The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, forthcoming from Persea Books in March (and a recipient o the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry--congratulations!). The book is centered on the Virginia State Colony--an institution deeply involved in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. What led you to this setting, to this topic?

MMB: The simplest answer to this question is that I was raised about 15 miles from the grounds of the Colony. I also have a neurological disorder called Cerebral Palsy, which effects my balance and my muscle-tone. Growing up in Central Virginia with a disability, I knew the basics of the Colony’s fraught history—that throughout the early and mid 1900s people with mental and physical disabilities were forcibly committed and sterilized there-- and it hung around on the margins of my consciousness. In college, having moved far away from rural Virginia, I found myself thinking a lot about its history and landscape, and so the Colony was frequently on my mind. One summer, a friend and I decided to drive there and look around. I spent a long time on its grounds and in its cemetery, and kept thinking that if I had been born in the same part of the world even fifty years earlier I might well be reading my own name on one of those headstones. I knew from then on that I wanted to write about the place, although it took me a few years to figure out how to manage it.  Patient accounts from the 30s and 40s, when the book is set and sterilizations were at their height are incredibly few and far between. The book is almost entirely in the voices of imagined Colony patients and staff, but I don’t intend at all for them to stand in for the actual lived experiences of people who were committed to the Colony. Instead, I hope they might draw attention to the violence of having sterilized and silenced such a large population of people, and make a space to acknowledge not only the things those people might have done if given the chance, but also the whole and complicated lives they lived behind Colony walls.

 

 

 To zoom our, for a second: When and how did you first start writing?

MMB: My parents are both writers and I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I made whoever was around take dictation for me when I was too young to actually write things down myself— apparently I often woke my family up in the middle of the night with an idea I wanted them to transcribe, which I’m sure lost its charm very quickly— and then, as soon as I could hold a pen, that was it for me. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. My parents are novelists, though, and the joke is that my great rebellion was to be a poet and not a fiction writer. I can remember discovering my mother’s copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems at maybe seven or eight years old and, of course, not really understanding any of it, but reading: The soul has moments of escape - / When bursting all the doors - / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, and feeling the music, and the strangeness, and the kind of desperate compression of it. I can remember thinking: That. I want to do that. The fact that poetry’s been with me my whole conscious life is this huge luckiness. I have no idea who I’d be without it.

 

 

 What poets are you reading right now? Which three poets would you most highly recommend to our readers (many of whom are in high school, and are hungry for your suggestions!)?

MMB: Over the holiday I got to sit down and read Donika Kelly’s Bestiary which I’d been wanting to get to since the second it came out and which is an absolute knockout. I also finally read all the way though Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval, which I adored, and reread work by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Lucia Perillo, both of whom died this fall, and whose poems I’m reencountering with renewed wonder and gratitude in the face of their sudden absence.

And, Oh, Lord, the three poets I’d most recommend? From all of time? This is an impossible question, and I think my answer to it would change depending on the hour when you posed it to me. I’m going to cheat a little and just talk about three great poets who’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I just re-read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s A Few Figs From Thistles to prepare for my graduate school exams, and honestly I think everyone kind of forgets about Millay a little bit, but that book is so strange and wonderful. Maybe that seems like an odd place to start, but I was so surprised to remember how much I love her, and how much I felt like I had to learn from her.  In terms of contemporary poets, I think Ada Límon is doing some of the loveliest and most urgent work out there right now. Her poems are equally unafraid of darkness and of joy, and they teach me something every time I read them. I want to put them into everyone’s hands. I’m also crazy about Tyehimba Jess’s work. I think he’s doing something really exciting and significant with persona poetry and his poems are deeply intelligent, and energizing, and moving.

 

 

Speaking of which, do you have any advice for those interested in pursuing poetry as a career?

MMB: Honestly, it’s only in the last year or so that I feel like I’m starting to approach having anything close to a career in poetry, and every time a literary journal accepts a poem or I take care of a piece of business that moves my collection a little closer to publication I still brace momentarily for someone to jump out from behind a corner and tell me this is all an elaborate prank. It all feels more than a little bit magic to me, and I don’t know much useful practical guidance I have to give. That said, the best advice I have for any young person who wants to be a writer is to read, read like your brain is on fire: widely, wildly, and hungrily. Read outside of the contemporary moment, read work in translation, read work that you love at first blush and work that at first feels impenetrable to you. Read generously and ready to find something about every poem to learn from or fall in love with. If I feel certain of anything, it’s that the skills which make a good writer are the same as those which make a good reader-- attention to detail, consciousness of both form and content, the ability to think analytically and creatively simultaneously—and that everything you read is like a little more fuel you’re adding to your own tank.

The natural extension of that advice, I think, is to start paying attention to which presses and journals are publishing work you really love and identify with and are doing a really beautiful and careful job with their product. When you’re ready to send out work, send it there: to venues you whose vision you respect and whose authors you admire. Out of all the places where I sent The Virginia State Colony for consideration, Persea was the one publisher whose recent catalog I could tell you about in detail, and I don’t think it’s an accident that my book ended up there. They’ve published the couple of collections in the last few years that have maybe meant the most to me personally—Alison Seay’s To See The Queen and Susannah Nevison’s Teratology—and I’m so glad I paid enough attention to know to send my work to them. I trust them completely to take care of my poems, and I feel incredibly honored and lucky that my work is keeping company with the writers they publish. I want that for every young writer.

 

 

You've previously written some stunning essays, two of which can be found here and here. There's a sort of unifying power between poetry and prose--do you choose a particular medium to express different ideas? What has drawn--and continues to draw--you to both genres?

MMB: I think, for me, the difference between writing poetry and prose is less a question of wanting to express different ideas or experiences than a question of wanting to express ideas or experiences differently. That is to say, it’s more a matter of scope and angle then of content. A poem is like a pressure cooker, and I think I will always be most in love with the little worlds that their necessary compression and lyricism produces. A poem is somehow always both whole and fragmentary, and something about that feels like my first language. But I write essays when I want a little more breathing room, a little more space to unpack something, to provide context, to make digressions, and tell stories, and work my way from my usual essential uncertainty toward solid ground. There’s a lot of overlap between my prose and my poems, and I like to think they’re always to talking to each other. I’m so grateful to be able to write—and read—both. 

 

 

We've, of course, just crossed the threshold into 2017--a year that seems critical and nerve-wracking in so many ways. What--if you believe in them, and don't mind sharing--was your resolution?

MMB: I’m simultaneously really suspicious of resolutions and always making and revising them, which maybe says something about a general lack of self-discipline. I do think you’re right, though, that 2017 will be a critical year, the kind that calls for meaningful intentions and commitments, whatever you call them. I’ve promised myself that I’m going to be especially attentive to really showing up and supporting the institutions and the people I believe in—I mean this in smaller ways: subscribing to literary journals I admire, and being better about checking in regularly with all the far away people I love—and in larger ones: figuring out active, tangible ways I can be of service, and be a better listener, at a time when so many and so much seem at risk. I’m also going to better about not leaving my laundry until the hamper is towering, because doing it is never as bad or unpleasant as I think it’s going to be, and there’s really no excuse for it.

 

 

Lastly, give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor. 

MMB:  What was the last poem you read that really changed things for you, that altered something about how you see yourself or the world, or made the ground shift underneath you?
 

***
 

Molly McCully Brown is the author of The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017), which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Image, TriQuarterly Online, The Kenyon Review, The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Raised in rural Virginia, she holds degrees from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Stanford University. Currently, she is a John and Renée Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi.

Eileen Huang is a junior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. She served as the 2015-2016 Northeast National Student Poet, the nation's highest honor for youth poets presenting original work, and has been recognized by the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards and the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In her free time, Eileen enjoys reading and shamelessly watching B-list romantic comedies. She serves as an Interview Correspondent for The Adroit Journal.

Review: Green Migraine by Michael Dickman (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) by Peter LaBerge

Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

By Jackson Holbert, Poetry Editor. 

            Michael Dickman’s new collection, Green Migraine, explores chronic pain, fatherhood, and the poet John Clare through intense, fleeting images that evoke a sublime and sublunary landscape. The book is formed around five different migraines, represented by colors—white, red, yellow, green, and black.

            Dickman’s first two collections—The End of the West and Flies, both published by Copper Canyon Press—focus intensely on the lives of others: friends dead in the Oregon heroin epidemic, Dickman’s mother, and Dickman’s brothers. In these early collections, Dickman fuses the fractured, alienated language of Franz Wright with a phantasmagoria unique to Dickman’s particular blend of northwestern American surrealism. The poems in Green Migraine—especially early in the book—pile images on top of each other and create a structure in which the violent shines out of the surreal. The best of these recall the late James Tate’s ability to follow almost meaningless sentences with pronouncements of intense, profound grief. The closing lines of “Red Migraine” best exemplify this:  

My brain is a cutter

Scrubbed down to zero
by the rubies
in the halo

I whispered your name into the red air

and you answered.

In this excerpt, Dickman’s speaker himself seems surprised that the name answers.

            The weakest poems in Green Migraine, like the weakest poems in Dickman’s first two books, pack so many violent images together that the violence becomes expected and unremarkable—but Dickman’s highs wouldn’t be possible without these lows. A style that is brilliant in part because it risks failure must, from time to time, come short.

            The triumph of Green Migraine is the long closing poem, “Lullaby.” Written for Dickman’s son, August (to whom the book is dedicated), “Lullaby” not only exhibits the violent, surreal quality and overall oddness of the early poems in the book, but also introduces new elements into this constellation: gentleness and joy. This change is born first in the speaker—“My pregnant wife one two my brain and how can you be more than one thing // But I am!” Over the course of the poem, the gentleness begins to belong to the world.


 

Michael Dickman is the winner of the 2010 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for his second collection, Flies. His first book, The End of the West, was published in 2009. He has received fellowships from the Michener Center for Writers, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Vermont Studio Center. His poems are regularly published in The New Yorker, and his work has appeared widely, including in American Poetry Review, Field, Tin House, and Narrative Magazine. He was born and raised in Portland, and now teaches poetry at Princeton University.


 

Jackson Holbert's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2016, VinylThrush Poetry JournalMuzzle MagazineWhiskey Island, and the minnesota review, among others. He was raised in Nine Mile Falls, Washington and is currently an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. 
 

Green Migraine
by Michael Dickman
Copper Canyon Press, 2016
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-5-55659-451-9
75 pp.

Sixteen Adroit Moments of 2016! by Peter LaBerge

1: Nine Adroit-affiliated high school students attended the 2016 National YoungArts Week in Miami, Florida, as 2016 YoungArts Finalists. 

National YoungArts Foundation.

National YoungArts Foundation.

Congratulations to Olivia Alger (Writing - Short Story), Lindsay Emi (Creative Nonfiction), Caroline Fairey (Creative Nonfiction), Ava Goga (Poetry), Ashley Gong (Poetry), Rhiannon McGavin (Spoken Word), Isabella Nilsson (Short Story), Rachel Page (Short Story), and Polina Solovyeva (Short Story). Congratulations also to the thirteen Adroit-affiliated high school students who won YoungArts honorable mentions and merit awards, and thus qualified to attend regional programs in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.

 

2: We released five issues of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art.

Congratulations to Pushcart Prize nominees Kaveh Akbar, Carolina Ebeid, Marty McConnell, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Kimarlee Nguyen, and Brian Russell; Best of the Net nominees Fatimah Asghar, Alex Dimitrov, Randall Mann, sam sax, Shane Jones, Jenny Xie, Patrick Chambers, and Barrett Warner; and PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize nominees Jaclyn Grimm, Rachel Page, Anna Rowser, and Polina Solovyeva, among other Adroit nominees.

 

3: Three Adroit high school seniors were named 2016 United States Presidential Scholars in the Arts.

Prose editor Isabella Nilsson, Poetry reader (& previous mentorship student) Audrey Spensley, and contributor Rachel Page were invited to attend a prestigious ceremony at the White House to accept the appointment. And Rachel was also recognized as a United States Presidential Scholar in Academics, representing the District of Columbia! 

 

4: Two Adroit students were recognized as honorable mentions for the 2016 Davidson Fellow Scholarship! 

Davidson Fellowship Foundation.

Davidson Fellowship Foundation.

In 2012 & 2015, poetry editor Kamden Hilliard and prose reader (& previous mentorship student) Oriana Tang were recognized as Davidson Fellows in Literature! This year, blog editor (& previous mentorship student) Aidan Forster and poetry reader (& previous mentorship student) Audrey Spensley were recognized as Honorable Mentions for the scholarship. 

 

5: Adroit students took the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards by storm, ultimately claiming an unprecedented 68 national medals. Highlights include two National Gold Medal Writing Portfolio winners (the top recognition offered!) and four National Silver Medal with Distinction Writing Portfolio winners; four American Voices (Best-in-Region) Award recipients; four Best in Grade Award recipients; and a Gedenk Award for Tolerance recipient. 

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

To put this in perspective, approximately 2,000 National Awards are distributed each year... from more than 320,000 submissions.

 

6: The high school class of 2016 graduated! Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania snagged the most Adroit students this year, with five seniors headed to each. In their wake, Stanford University, Princeton University, Brown University, and Yale University each snagged three.

To view the complete list, click here.

 

7: Our 2016 Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prizes, for students in high school and college, were awarded to Ohio Northern University student Rachel Cruea and homeschooled high school student Brynne Rebele-Henry

Click here to view the total results of the 2016 Adroit Prizes. And click here to submit to the 2017 Adroit Prizes, open until February 15th! 

 

7: The Adroit Journal visited the New York City Poetry Festival for the fourth year in a row! 

Pictured from left to right, readers Elizabeth Onusko & Lucy Wainger, editor-in-chief Peter LaBerge, and readers Brandon Courtney & Eduardo Martinez-Leyva put on a great show.

 

8: Sixteen out of the fifty Best New Poets 2016 selections were Adroit-affiliated writers. 

The collection of staff members and contributors was selected this year by Mary Szybist. Click here to see the full list.

 

9: We held our third annual Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, a free online program that pairs high school students from around the world with established poetry or prose mentors. 

Click here to learn more about the program, and click here to learn about some mentees! 

 

10: Adroit swept the 2016 Teen Sequins contest, sponsored by Gigantic Sequins

Congratulations to the 2016 class of Teen Sequins: mentorship students Carrie Zhang, Aidan Forster, Ben Read, Margaret Zhang, and Talia Flores, and business development associate Bradley Trumpfheller.

 

11: Contributors Kaveh Akbar and Javier Zamora received 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships, while contributors William Brewer, Charif Shanahan, and (again!) Javier Zamora received 2016-18 Wallace Stegner Fellowships.

The former are sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, while the latter are sponsored by Stanford University.

 

12: Alex Dimitrov won a Pushcart Prize for his poem "Cocaine," originally published in the Fall 2015 Issue of The Adroit Journal.

The win marks the first Pushcart Prize receipt and anthology inclusion for a poem published in the journal. Click here to read an interview between Alex and our interview correspondent Audrey Zhao!

 

11: Adroit filled nearly a third of the seats in the Best Teen Writing 2016 anthology! 

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

The Best Teen Writing of 2016 (ed. Madeleine LeCesne) features selected stories, essays, and poems from the body of writing nationally recognized through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

 

14: Mentorship students Maya Eashwaran (of Alpharetta, GA) and Joey Reisberg (of Towson, MD) were selected as two of five National Student Poets, representing the south and the northeast respectively.

Scholastic.

Scholastic.

A ceremony welcoming Joey and Maya hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama was held today at the White House. They join fellow appointed poets Stella Binion (Midwest), Gopal Raman (Southwest), and Maya Salameh (West).

 

15: Fourteen Adroit students were recognized by the 2016 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards, sponsored by the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom.

Each year, an acclaimed pair of judges select fifteen Overall Winners and eighty-five Commended Winners. More than 10,000 entries from over 6,000 poets poured in this year, and judges Malika Booker and W.N. Herbert made the selections. Congratulations to Letitia Chan, whose poem "Making Glutinous Dumplings with My Mother" was selected as an Overall Winner. Letitia, a student at Milton Academy from Hong Kong, studied poetry with Nancy Reddy as part of the 2016 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program.

 

16: A truly spectacular bunch of eight Adroit-affiliated writers claimed 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature - Creative Writing Fellowships!

Congratulations to contributors Michael Bazzett, Landon Godfrey, Amorak Huey, Matt Morton, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Danez Smith, and Jeanann Verlee, and 2016 Adroit Prize judge Corey Van Landingham, among the other stunning 2017 recipients! 

*

As 2017 begins, no matter where you find yourself, we hope you're encountering the new year with equal parts light and strength. It'll likely be a tough one, but it will be this light that will get us through.

Happy New Year from the staff & editors of The Adroit Journal!

Presenting: Adroit's Best Books of 2016! by Peter LaBerge

Every year, we have the privilege of publishing and teaching the works of talented and diverse authors of poetry and prose from around the world. Though in many ways 2016 was a degrading and difficult year, it was also a year of profound and intense art. We asked student members of our staff and mentorship communities what their favorite books of the year have been. Here's what they had to say...

BEST BOOKS OF 2016.png


ARIA ABER | POETRY READER

Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal
University of Nebraska Press

There are poets you love and poets you envy. Safiya Sinclair certainly possesses the intelligence and lyric innovation that I envy. After every page of Cannibal, I felt the urge to kneel and bow to the queen of haunting imagery, arcane and innovative vocabulary. Cannibal is a fervent book that shackles me to read, reread, read out, and perform its poems. A truly magical, hypnotic, and devastating re-imagination of Shakespeare’s The Tempest focused on the perspective of colonized Caliban, who happens to be one of my favorite characters by the bard. But Sinclair’s words reach beyond the transmogrification of an old play—her poems bend the boundaries of the English language itself: “All night the world bled on my fang / like a language and we unsmiling // our narrow gape / our space unslanging…” If language is a house, Sinclair has built a linguistic palace of delicious, lush and opulent architecture. Her style, which Cathy Park Hong aptly identified as “afro-futuristic,” bubbles with feminism and mythology. Every poem, every line even, feels like a mirror house seething with secret plants and selcouth music while exposing the vulnerability of womanhood. In an interview, she mentions her belief in Lorca’s duende. There are only a few contemporary poets who showcase the spirits of duende, and luckily, Cannibal is seeped in it. My life was awaiting her genius. If only Sylvia Plath were here to read this.

 

MARGOT ARMBRUSTER | SUMMER MENTEE ('16 - POETRY) 

Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press

I don’t know if I’ve ever anticipated a release as excitedly as I did Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Simultaneously expansive and gorgeously taut, the book shattered my lofty expectations and established itself as one of the most gripping poetry collections of 2016. Vuong writes bravely and clearly about his experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant and a gay man, both of which are incredibly important in the wake of (and amidst) the bigoted violence which swept & sweeps the country this year. In the first poem of the collection, “Threshold,” he recalls a man he overhears singing in the shower: “I didn’t know the cost//of entering a song—was to lose/your way back.//So I entered. So I lost./ I lost it all with my eyes//wide open.” Night Sky with Exit Wounds is my shower-song, the music throbbing constantly in my head. It’s the book I can’t, and don’t want to, leave behind. 

 

JESSE DE ANGELIS | POETRY READER

Solmaz Sharif's Look
Graywolf Press