A Necessary Emptiness to Grow Into: A Review of Traci Brimhall's Saudade by Peter LaBerge

BY AMIE WHITTEMORE

 Traci Brimhall's  Saudade  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall's Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall’s third poetry collection, Saudade, with its blending of family narrative, myth, and magical realism is, in many ways, the love-child of Anne Carson’s novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Throughout, Brimhall’s attention to the architecture of poetry, on the line, stanzaic, and collection level, provides this book, which dazzles and baffles in turns, sufficient narrative clarity to fully enter into the ornate and heart-breaking world she shapes.

Saudade grows out of and complicates many of the preoccupations Brimhall explores in her prior collections, Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins, in its examination of spirituality, faith, desire, myth, and the interplay of humanity and landscape. Set in Puraquequara, a village in the Brazilian Amazon and also the birthplace of Brimhall’s mother, each section of the collection is told from the perspective of a different family member, beginning with (and returning to) Maria José, arguably the book’s central figure. In addition to Maria José, Brimhall includes sections in the voices of Maria José’s husband, Thomas; her mother, Sophia; and her grandfather, Don Antonio. In each section, a chorus of Marias offers commentary, encapsulating the collision between Western colonizers and indigenous peoples by bringing together motifs of Greek theater, Catholicism, and traditional indigenous beliefs to provide narrative continuity and exposition. The Marias make sure we know, as in “In Which the Chorus Provides a Possible Chronology,” that “history began but did not write itself,” and that they “sing history in reverse so the story might end in birth.”

While its characters’ concerns frequently overlap—dead loved ones are as inescapable as the rubber plantation, the fruits of the Amazon, and a sense in each character of being haunted by restless desires—each voice in Saudade is rendered in different poetic form. Maria José, for instance, speaks in tercets, whereas her husband, Thomas, speaks in long stanza blocks. As Claudia Emerson notes in an interview with Sarah Kennedy, “the tercet always feels that it’s searching for its missing line, pulling the eye down with urgency, and that imbalance” infuses Maria José’s search for her lost daughter, her memories of her affair with a boto (a dolphin that inhabits the Amazon), her marriage, and the role masculine figures have played in her life.

Of these issues, Maria José is most haunted by her grief and longing for her dead daughter, whose severed hand is found “in the mouth of a dead jaguar” and blesses the village with miracles (“The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara”). In “How I Lost Seven Faiths,” Maria José is consumed with impossible longings: “I wanted my daughter back. I wanted to live back / in the before. Before love possessed me. Before grief.” This backwards gaze is reinforced by the structure of the entire collection: we move through Maria José’s life and family tree in reverse chronological order, beginning with her daughter’s death and moving toward her grandfather’s life, as each character tries to return to his or her own “before.”

In contrast to Maria José’s aching tercets, her husband Thomas’ single stanzas convey his reluctance to accept various absences in his life. A colonist, Thomas arrives in the Amazon certain of his faith in a Christian god, and, even as his faith mutates, he resists its complete dismantlement. In “Better to Marry Than to Burn,” Thomas’ first poem in his section, which charters his arrival in South America, he has “the knowledge of God / like an apple in the mouth. I faced my temptation,” which includes his own wife as well as the lives and ways of the people he now lives among. However, his wife’s grief and her affair with the boto change him. Later, in “Sanctuary,” he admits, “I understood / my sorrow over the world does not change it” and that “better this choice to be powerless, / enthralled, to forgive God’s ambition to be free of us.” Here, we witness Thomas’ shift from certain knowledge to certain sorrow; from the belief he is a vector of change to his acceptance of his powerlessness.

Maria José’s second section deepens our knowledge of her, examining her marriage as well as her relationship with her parents: her father is imprisoned and her mother is dead. In an interview with Sierra Nevada Review, Brimhall comments on the “twined grief” that bleeds across generations—in life as well as in Saudade, which she considers a work of “autobiomythography.” Thus, the grief Brimhall felt in mourning the loss of a child and her mother’s death informs Maria José’s experiences in this section. Maria José addresses both her dead mother and an imprisoned man who is not her father, but for whom she can “imagine love, and then…feel it” (“When I Go to Prison to Meet my Father”). In “Revenant,” Maria José catalogues her parents’ romance and her mother’s death:

My mother of gold carnival mask, of green feathers
sprouting from her shoulders, of glittered body, candled dusk.

Let me inherit her fevered hips. Let me be all wing and stolen
and saved. Mother, rise up as July, as tempest, as God in his night
sweats and be tender. Hold the curtain back while I enter.

In reaching backward, toward her parents, Maria José finds indirect solace for her sorrow over her daughter’s death. This yearning for consolation in the arms of the dead is at the heart of Saudade, which, while revealing the impossibility of fulfilling that longing, also suggests there is comfort in the act of reaching.

Sophia, like her daughter Maria José, also struggles with the ways desire intersects with and disrupts faith. In the opening poem of her section, “Rapture: Lucus,” Sophia recounts the story of a “missing kapok tree,” which she knows

[…] woke from her stillness one equatorial summer
evening as Adão pulled parrots from her branches.

She dreamed an amorous faun chased her, which was a memory,
which reminded her that in another form she had legs

From the poem’s title we learn the tree has a spiritual dimension as “Lucus” is a Latin term for a forest or grove, but with some sort of “religious designation,” and even a past life. In Sophia’s view, the tree is not so much lost as awakened, rapture here not only pointing toward the Christian idea of believers rising to join Christ on the last day, but also to “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy.” In her poems, Sophia finds herself at the frustrating intersection of these definitions: on one hand, marked by a mole that resembles “a pink Madonna with her robe open,” she’s become a figure of worship and intrigue; on the other hand, she pines, “O miracle, abandon me.” (“Virago”). In “On the Feast Day of Our Lady Hippolyta,” Sophia wants “to write in my diary—Dear, there are some things / I would not do for pleasure. I want it to be true.” In these moments, we see that the insatiable and contradictory urges with which Maria José wrestles have their roots in her mother’s experiences, suggesting that, while genealogy may not offer explanation, it can help us see the patterns from which we emerge and which we (often) perpetuate.

Sophia’s sorrow segues into those of her father, Don Antonio, who also mourns for the loss of Sophia’s mother, going so far as to wish his beloved were alive and his daughter dead: “I want to barter with Heaven. It took the wrong love,” he pleads in “After Seven Lullabies Vanish from the Library.” While Don Antonio’s sorrows and desires reverberate with those of his descendants, his poems also offer insights into the collection as a whole. In “Sibylline Translation,” he notes “fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.” In “Belterra Exodus,” he suggests “we should invent a new / history of fact and fancy, where life is hard but courage / is easy because the dead do not resurrect themselves.”

Saudade is this marriage of fiction and dream, a “history of fact and fancy.” Through pairing invention with research, Brimhall excavates not recorded history, but lived history, seeking an authenticity that encompasses but is not bound by facts. This results in a collection that is at times confounding, at others enchanting. Its value, however, lies in its ambiguity: there are limits to invention, limits to what we can fathom about ourselves and our ancestors. As the untranslatable title suggests, ‘saudade’ is the longing for something absent. By its nature this longing can’t be fulfilled; we can only seek. As Brimhall states in the penultimate poem, “there is no fairy tale here to invite you to meaning, only the fantasy of the past you have made in your own image.” Saudade posits absence as irrefutably present in the fabric of human life: it provides us a necessary emptiness to grow into, to fill with our joys as well as our sorrows.

 

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Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

The Body and Its Various Types: A Review of Samantha Zighelboim's The Fat Sonnets by Peter LaBerge

BY ERICA BERNHEIM

  The Fat Sonnets , by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

The Fat Sonnets, by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

How serious notorious and public a form, to think you could find the solution to a problem or an ending to an observation in one brief moment—a fraction of an abreaction or the science of the pattern of crumbs appearing on the table from the eating of a loaf of bread.
— Bernadette Mayer, in the 25th anniversary edition of Sonnets

No bread crumbs appear on the cover of Samantha Zighelboim’s first poetry collection, The Fat Sonnets. Instead, three unnaturally greenish, glazed leaves float above an empty pink plate, (part of “Piehole,” a larger installation by Simone Kearney). The leaves are meaty and thick, congealed even, irregularly-shaped, marbled and menacing, reminiscent in their ominousness of the three seal men in Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II,” visiting that speaker in her bathroom, their “eyelashes like sharpened tines,” their eyes the shape of “dinner plates,” conflating food, femininity, and fear. Below the leaves in “Piehole” wait childishly large, pink-handled renditions of a fork and knife on either side of a dainty pink plate, the kind a child might use before transitioning into the world of the adults around her, one which is already familiar to her through exposure and observation. The concerns Zighelboim navigates in this collection are essential when we interrogate what it means to inhabit a body, to witness the body’s manifestations of turmoil, and to be helpless in the face of the body’s desires towards excess and self-destruction.

In the poem “Pie Hole,” Zighelboim’s speaker draws directly from that cover image, itself entitled “Place Setting,” placing it in the poem, reminding the reader how the “lettuces are toxic,” and the speaker’s ultimate wish is to “to end the lettuces into a fine and shining dust.” In this conversation, mastery over food—including the power to refuse it or to destroy it—symbolizes a larger sense of having agency in one’s own life and outward relationship to the gaze. The Fat Sonnets simultaneously controls and interrogates the body, emphasizing methods in which Zighelboim’s content seeks to pressurize its received form, resulting in the creation of multiple interpretations for the language itself.

In “Historiography,” for instance, Zighelboim employs various uses of “body,” the word made flesh, but also made into a catalyst that allows the reader the pleasure of peeling off other layers of meaning. The body began in an untroubled state, but “Then body fattened, deformed,” recalling Simone de Beauvoir’s own description (from The Second Sex) of how the evolution of a woman’s body can also be the catalyst for a desire to erase that body, to reduce it and its impact when gazed upon: “She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.” As “Historiography” progresses, readers are introduced to the speaker’s body in its current position, as a patient in a doctor’s office, the speaker ‘disembodied’ from her own form. In this sonnet, however, the argument moves forward and makes the body into the body, the speaker’s own familial legacy included in the troubling description of how this particular body exists and the spaces in which it is and is not permitted to exist: “Definitely no space for body in the family / plot.” Not only is the speaker foreseeing herself (and possibly her own direct lineage) excluded in the future from her family’s burial site, but she is also not part of its history; she will not be contributing to a legacy, perhaps because there was “No space for body on the barstool. No space for body / in the plus-size store…No // space for body at the cool kids’ party.” The body is excluded, removed from the social-romantic landscape of possibility, and violently erased, both from the present and the future.

By the end of “Historiography,” the body has gained some measure of status, at least syntactically, appearing at the beginning of the lines with a capital letter, even if it is an illusion of control: “Body stops trying… // Body all those nights and all those pizzas. Body binges / and body purges.” For the reader and the speaker, the end of this poem is not a victory, but a surrender to disappointment, rather than to acceptance, a giving up, rather than giving in, but the honesty of it, the conventional late turn in the sonnet, allows this to happen. In The Second Sex, de Beavoir also acknowledges the honesty with which women can live in the later years of their lives once they are no longer subject to the pressure to perform femininity or to conform to its standards.

The value of form—why this dialogue between outsiders and the self matters so much—manifests in other poems, such as “A Sensible Lunch,” which, in part, responds to “concern trolling,” a form of rationalized cruelty. The first line, “I’m eating brown rice and a single turkey meatball,” is an austere response to a presumed question to which there can be no “correct” or satisfying answer, control masquerading as concern, invasiveness disguised as participation in a process of purification and diminishment: “Are you having a sensible lunch?” The space between the first line and the rest of the poem continues the motif of exclusion and erasure, even as the remaining thirteen lines are crammed with sensual descriptions of meals remembered as part of a “we,” as opposed to the “I” in the first line. The last line of “A Sensible Lunch” may also be a nod to the cover image, the lettuce leaves transformed through desire into “three tiny edible flowers.” Whatever Kearney’s leaves are, they are clearly neither square, nor meals, but they haunt both reader and speaker throughout the trajectory of this collection, weightless and terrifying in their presumed virtuousness.

Just as the discussion of a body’s form often evolves into a discussion of bodies at large, poems in form can comment on the usefulness of adhering to the conventions of form, the traditions of the sonnet itself in the case of The Fat Sonnets. The sonnet is immediately recognizable and easy to classify, as can be the body and its various types (plus-size, petite, pear-shaped, willowy, etc.), willingly or not. While not every poem in The Fat Sonnets fits the textbook definition of a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet, each becomes a conversation with the form, and, as Richard Howard says, “Zighelboim gave to any and all of her poems the Sonnet’s intensity of Purpose.” Is it, as Bernadette Mayer asserted in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her own collection of sonnets, impossible to solve a problem in such a small space as provided by the sonnet? These are poems written for a world in which most of what we do is prepare ourselves to leave it behind: “I am an artifact / of myself. It’s time to move  now. It’s time to starve.” There can be no ending to these observations, nor is there any one form that can contain the problems of any body—private or collective—made flesh.

As I write this, I’m also fostering five very young kittens for a local animal shelter. Two of them are smaller than their brothers, and I am continually monitoring the weights of all five, delighted to see their tiny potbellies grow, encouraging them to gorge themselves on the kibble I provide for their nourishment. It is a relationship based on the purity of desire: the kittens must eat and grow “fat” as a way of surviving and because they are growing and changing so quickly.

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

 

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Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a
chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at
Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has
recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review,
Hobart, and Burnside Review.

Conversations with Contributors: Rachel Heng by Peter LaBerge

BY ALANA MOHAMED

 Rachel Heng, author of  Suicide Club  (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Three .

Rachel Heng, author of Suicide Club (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Three.

Rachel Heng’s debut novel Suicide Club will be published on July 10, 2018, by Henry Holt, Macmillan (US) and Sceptre, Hachette (UK). Suicide Club will also be translated into six languages. Rachel’s short stories have appeared in The OffingPrairie Schooner, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won Prairie Schooner’s Jane Geske Award, was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post. Rachel graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature & Society. She is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, pursuing her MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting.

 

Alana Mohamed: Suicide Club, aside from being a pleasure to read, can also be very funny. A lot of that comes from the contradictions of wellness culture. I wanted to start by asking for your definition wellness culture. How do you see that as relating to the Ministry’s lingo?

Rachel Heng: I don’t know if I have a definition, per se. Thank you for appreciating the humor. It’s weird, I always have this conversation with my husband, and he asks me when I’m going to write something funny, and I’m like, “I think I am writing stuff that’s funny!” He’s like, “That’s not funny.” We have very different ideas of what constitutes funny.

I think the book definitely deals with the absurdity of some of this controlled, sanitized existence. It’s not like I think everyone should be unhealthy, or not take care of their bodies, but I do think wellness culture in overdrive has a comic element to it. What the latest super food is and what the latest hot exercise is, because the previous one was not as good; the short attention span we have for products and treatments and how it’s always about fads and the next new thing. I tried to get that into the book as well.

AM: I was fascinated by the language the Ministry employs. “Life-loving” vs. “antisact,” the coded language of their Directives. Where did you pull that language from, and were there any real-life things you were influenced by?

RH: I was working in the corporate world at the time and I’ve always been fascinated by corporate lingo. Have you read Station Eleven (by Emily St. John Mandel)? There’s this moment in it—it’s about this post apocalyptic world, and people are escaping this flu—and there’s this moment where there’s a bunch of executives sitting around, looking at their emails, and they’re sort of speaking in their corporate lingo, but also realizing that they talk that way. I remember when I read it, I thought I had never read anything like that before, but it spoke so well to my daily life and what was going on in my head. Even reading government websites and newspapers, you see the euphemisms for things and the way that language can hide so much. It encodes so much inequality and violence, and just the ways in which we talk ourselves into things as a society, by calling them certain things.

A more extreme example is if you look at the kind of documents that were deployed in WWII, or anything like that. Any kind of war documents, any propaganda. I recently read Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look, which is based on, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s the American military dictionary. What she does is she writes poems around the definitions of different terms in the military dictionary to try and do that precisely and shake that language out of its formal, supposedly value-free terms that actually encode so much violence. And how do we think about the ways in which we use language to hide that?

All of the directives, the names of programs, the numbers, all of that to me was something I had fun with, but also is something I think about a lot in our daily lives as well.

AM: I started to wonder about what happens to institutional memory when people get to live for so long. How does that function in a world shaped by government double-speak? How do people preserve that knowledge? Do they get to? The relationship between Lea and Kaito seems to point to the importance of that.

RH: Institutional memory and collective memory as a society was really interesting to me. I’m someone who’s a hoarder and really obsessed with losing things, as you might be able to tell from reading the book. But I’ll keep receipts and tickets and all those types of things. And because of my deep fear of loss—and death, but loss generally—my reaction to that has always been to preserve and keep memories. I write journals, I write stories. That’s why I write so much, it’s a recording exercise. What was really interesting to me was in this world where people essentially no longer fear loss—because they no longer fear death, because they can live forever—what that does to memory and the conscious preservation of stuff. What I came to, unconsciously, because it’s not like I had a thesis I was putting into the book, but unconsciously something that emerged was this day-to-day self-obsession. There’s this weirdly long-term thinking, while still being very much in the present, because it’s kind of about preserving one’s self and maintaining this ritual of wellness and health, but also never really reflecting on it. So in a way the absence of death leaves them in a suspended state of immortality, and that suspension is also the suspension of collective memory.  

AH: I got the sense of a claustrophobic world, but you go to lengths to point out that this obsession with immortality, the way it’s institutionalized in people’s lives, is not a global thing yet. It seems to be based mostly in New York, so why did you choose New York for the setting of this novel, and what makes New York so integral to the lives of the Suicide Club that they couldn’t leave?

RH: I was living in the U.K. when I wrote this book. It seemed natural at the time that it would be set in New York, and upon reflection I think it’s because I associate that kind of drastic inequality with the U.S. In many ways it’s because of the lack of social safety net, the fact that health insurance is so expensive, while in the U.K. you have this universal healthcare system, which, despite its flaws, provides free health care. No matter what happens you are going to be able to see a doctor, you are going to be able to have surgery or get treatment for cancer. You’re never going to be out on the streets because you can’t afford these things, which to me seems like a very sensible thing to do and I’ve never understood that about the U.S.

I’m from Singapore, and while there isn’t the same level of universal health care, there are subsidies and government hospitals and so on. The fact that in America there isn’t that kind of government subsidized health care, or a social safety net more generally, always struck me as deeply fascinating—like, this incredibly rich country that just doesn’t do that. And I’m not an economist, but I feel, intuitively, that America can afford these things since so many other developed countries can afford them.
 
I was thinking about the implications of that sort of deep inequality, and New York seemed to embody that. It’s a city of such extremes, of claustrophobia in many ways, but also housing the mega-rich with people who are really poor and what that means to have all those contradictions in one place.

AM: There’s a moment when you write about Kaito having to carry his son, who’s supposed to be younger or healthier, 30 blocks to the hospital because he’s ailing. It’s so powerful, because it’s such a reversal. I was wondering what’s at stake when these norms have shifted, or when we view health as an investment as opposed to a general good?
 
RH: There’s another great book by Michael Sandel called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets. I really love that book. He writes about the market-ization of sectors like health care, and what he argues is that when you put something into a free market, you are changing the way we think of that public good, regardless of whether it results in more economic efficiency, because now it's regarded as a commodity. One example he gives is people trying to get more blood donations. They started paying people a fee to donate their blood in order to increase the rate of blood donation. And what happened, actually, is the rate of blood donations dropped. Because people started to regard it as, “Oh, this is something I get money for,” and you start thinking about how you value that. And you’re like, “Oh, well I’m only earning $10 from this—is it really worth it to go all the way there for $10?” Whereas previously, you would donate blood out of altruism and because you wanted to. It wasn’t to earn anything. By making that a financial product and something people could make money off of, it changed the way we view it as human beings. And taken to the logical extreme, thinking about, as you say, the investment in other people’s health, that seems very terrifying to me. Just having a financial interest in other people's life spans. It changes the way we regard humanity and other people in society, and it is very scary and dystopian.

AM: There are so many wide-ranging effects of that. Part of what struck me as sad about the novel is that Lea has all these deep-seated issues with rage and violent tendencies. There’s this whole system structured to encourage her to keep that locked away, as opposed to getting treatment. As readers, who are we supposed to sympathize with here?

RH: The dystopias that I’m most interested in are the ones in which we don’t know who’s at fault. You have this feeling of helplessness and you wonder, “How did we get to this point?” Because in real life, it’s never that straight forward. In a dystopia where you have the oppressed and the oppressor, you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. But I think in life, so often everyone is propagating these systems and these harmful structures of power, so what I wanted to do in the book was create exactly that type of situation where you can’t tell who you are supposed to sympathize with.

Lea has kind of bought into this system. She is not the most likeable character and has a lot of flaws. But at the same time, you do sympathize with her because she’s just a human being caught up in this society, who has a sad and dysfunctional relationship with her dad. At the same time, she wants to prolong his life so she can spend time with him, but she also recognizes his wishes as a human being.

And thank you for pointing that out, because its something I think about a lot. People ask me, “Why is she so dislikable,” and I’m like, “Because I didn’t just want to write someone who’s likeable, and have the system against her!” To me, it's an easy answer. It's like, “Oh, okay. The problem is the system.” I wanted her to be invested in it and also accountable for propagating the very system that harms her.  

AM: You do a great job of following Lea down this rabbit hole, essentially because she has this complicated relationship with her father. With Anja, she’s already suffered significant enough loss to become disillusioned with the entire system when we meet her. I know that she’s from a foreign country with socialized medicine. Do you think that changes the way she views the system that’s cropped up in America?

RH: In the book, Anja’s from Sweden, and when she left, they didn’t have the same system in place as the U.S. But at the point we meet her in the book, the rest of the world has gone the same way as the U.S., but is just a few steps behind. So she doesn’t really have an exit option anymore. I think she is more disillusioned with it. She wasn’t even born into it. Her mother became obsessed with this American way of life, and Anja went along with that. Eventually she got sucked in and then stuck in the situation she’s in today. I would say she’s definitely bought into it less, and that accounts for her role in the Suicide Club. She feels like she has to do something but doesn’t know quite what to do, and that’s her way of taking action.

AM: Anja and Lea’s relationship seems so interdependent and I feel like part of that is because they are both artists surviving in an artless world. I was wondering if you could talk about the ways art keeps people connected in dystopias; or, what is art's role in this kind of mind-controlling society?

RH: I recently re-read A Brave New World, which was a book that I loved when I was a teenager, and I realized just how much I unconsciously borrowed from it. [Laughs] The absence of art in that world was definitely a big aspect of it. In A Brave New World, art is banned, music is banned, and all they listen to is this synthetic, really calming stuff that’s meant to keep people happy and floaty, but not really thinking about stuff or having deep, compassionate emotions. So I think that was the inspiration for [my dystopia]. And similarly, in the [Suicide Club’s] world, art is outlawed and certain types of music aren’t allowed. The kind of music that they listen to in office buildings and so on is triangles and birds and wind songs, sort of spa music. Because art is dangerous in many ways. Making art and consuming art is the stuff that unsettles people and jolts them to action, and that’s not what the society wants.

AM: I wanted to talk about the Suicide Club itself for a moment. It’s such a weird indulgence in richness and levity, but it also uses such grim language to extol their mission (“They leave us no choice”). I was struck by that tension. Do you think that tone is necessary in the world that they’re dealing with, or is it a choice they’re making?

RH: Because of the title of the book, people have asked me about mental health issues, and I didn’t write this book about mental health issues. The people in the book are not
depressed. It’s very divorced from the broader conversation around suicide. Suicide in the context of this novel is very much the terrible and logical conclusion to the world I have set up— one of a sanitized existence. Immortality is almost becoming the norm, and mandatory, and people are almost unable to die natural deaths. So in a way, it’s two polar opposites, both of which are horrible and, ultimately, Lea doesn’t choose either one. That grimness, I didn’t want to shy away from it. I felt like if I was going to include it, it had to be what it was. It was better to include it with all of its grim depictions within this highly sanitized world, so you do see the two polar opposites and so that you can see Lea being torn between them. The decadence is the counterweight to this sort of sanitized, sterile, immortal existence.

AM: I wanted to ask, because we’ve been talking about dystopias you’ve been influenced by, what, in your mind, makes a good dystopia?

RH: I like dystopias where you get a sense that it’s pervasive and everyone is accountable to it and it’s not just one party. It’s complex and holds people accountable. I think that’s why I love the Hulu remake of The Handmaid’s Tale, seeing it from the Commander’s perspective and from the Commander’s wife’s perspective. What’s really interesting is, seeing that, you almost understand where they’re coming from. It’s not just that you are the good guys and these are the bad guys. You can still tell that some people are more morally aligned than others, but at the same time, they are human beings. They’re not just dismissed as evil anomalies. You can see how society actually got there. Those are the types of dystopias that I really love. They feel realistic and even more inevitable in some ways.

I always feel like my favorite dystopias have at their heart a utopia that’s failed. That’s always really fascinating to me. You can say, “Oh, what if the world was this terrible place?” but the thing is, that feels like an action movie. But if you say, “This world is terrible, but you can understand why they got there,” that’s different. I think the most heartbreaking dystopias are the ones where you see why the people are convinced into doing what they’re doing. In A Brave New World, when the commander in chief is like, “Well, everyone’s happy now! What’s wrong with that?” that to me is so terrifying, because it seems like it could happen so easily. And it’s so heartbreaking, because people are just trying to do their best and things sort of spiral out of control.

AH: I don’t want to ask about the future, since we’ve already talked so much about the future. I wanted to ask, in writing Suicide Club, what have you learned about your writing and your attachment to certain themes. Going forward, has writing the book encouraged you to explore other themes further?  

RH: It made me realize just how obsessed with death I am. [Laughs] I always knew that I guess, but writing an entire book about it, I was like, “Oh, I should probably see someone about this.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things, which probably helped the book. I think those themes will always be present in my work, because even in my short fiction, implicitly, there is some theme of loss or the passage of time and aging, and it’s still popping up but in different ways. I’m working on another book right now, not dystopian, it’s kind of realist and historical. I already see similar themes starting to creep in. As a writer there are certain things that you’re preoccupied with, and they haunt your writing all of your life. For me, it might be aging and loss. [Laughs]

Before I wrote this book, I was always worried that I wasn’t doing it the right way, or that I wasn’t planning well, or the outlining was really all over the place and it wasn’t proceeding logically. It was so messy and so much trial and error. At the time, I thought this meant I was doing something wrong and that it wasn’t going to be a book, that I was never going to find the story. But now, after having gone through that, the many rounds of edits, the cutting of hundreds of thousands of words, I’m realizing that is my process. Which is, on one hand, depressing and stressful, but at the same time it’s quite reassuring. Even as I start this new book and feel that this is hopeless, I know from my experience writing Suicide Club that even if it feels that way, it can still turn out to be a cohesive piece of work that I’m happy with.

 

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Alana Mohamed is a freelance writer and librarian based in Queens, NY. Her criticism and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, BuzzFeed and Mental Floss. Her fiction has most recently appeared in wildness and BULL Magazine. She is the founder of Anxiety Dream Zine and previously edited fiction and essays for the Coalition Zine. She writes about books, history, and culture, and tweets about everything else @alanamhmd.

Conversations with Contributors: William Evans by Peter LaBerge

BY SHANNON BRADY

 William Evans, author of  Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair  (Button Poetry, 2017) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-One .

William Evans, author of Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair (Button Poetry, 2017) and contributor to Issue Twenty-One.

William Evans is a writer from Columbus, Ohio, the founder of the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam (September 2008), and a Callaloo Fellow. In addition to being the editor-in-chief of Blacknerdproblems.com, William has published three collections of poetry with his latest, Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair, on Button Poetry. His work can be found online in or forthcoming from Winter TangerineMuzzle Magazine, the OffingUnion Station Magazine, and other online publications.

 

Shannon Brady: You have a strong slam poetry presence. You founded the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam, have made it onto national teams, and have had National Slam finals appearances. How did you begin writing slam pieces? Is there a difference in your process when writing pieces that are written toward a live reading versus those that are written for the page and a book reading?

William Evans: When I began writing, I was definitely writing with the intent to perform, but not necessarily to slam. I was pretty oblivious to what slam was, even after I had been performing at my preferred open mic for a couple of months. Naturally, though, the competitive person that I was (having played sports all my life), slam was a natural fit for me now that I had this newfound passion for performing. But I never angled myself towards writing for slam, though I think I edited for slam. I want to be clear on the difference. I could discern that I could structure a line around clarity or digestion to a live crowd in the editing process, but I always wanted to maintain that the content of the poem wasn't determined by an audience scoring rubric.

I don't think I've changed my writing to better accommodate the page as much as I hope I've become a better writer, period. I truly believe that developing the tools of making you a more effective writer is a way of physically building the thing you are actually trying to say. I think that's a relentless and unending journey, but hopefully one I continue to progress.

SB: You mention The Black Panther and use other pop cultural references in your poems, and you also started the website Black Nerd Problems. How did that begin, and how has it evolved—both in your own work and as the moderator of a larger forum?

WE: Black Nerd Problems began in May 2014 after my co-founder Omar Holmon and myself came up with a vision to house a lot of our pop culture and nerd commentary in one spot. We felt that the content we digested and the way it was covered lacked our perspective. So we added ours. I think for myself and for the community that we've built with Black Nerd Problems, all of it pushes forward the idea that there was not only an audience for the things we had to say, but a yearning for that perspective as well. I'm not sure what we expected, but the response was a validation that we were both welcomed and necessary in these spaces that don't always make room for us. That's a responsibility I don't take lightly.

SB: Your title, Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair, and your cover—an illustration of a small, black girl, one of her pigtails braided and neat, the other not, with a crooked part—set me up to expect a conflicted and lighthearted exploration of parenthood. Yet that was only the tip of what you explore. What led you to choose your title piece and cover? How do you describe this collection?

WE: When I wrote the title piece (probably about half way through the process), I knew it was going to be the title of the book. It was my closest attempt at surmising my insecurities and outright fear of being father and the implications of what my unpreparedness could bring. I don't think it's an unique feeling in parenthood, but for me it's also colored in my journey through masculinity and maturation. And I knew that if I was going to write a book about my experiences in the present as a father, then I needed to show my work and demonstrate the events that delivered me here. I definitely wanted readers to see the tension of my adolescence, especially in how my experiences with intimacy were either pathways or challenges for me in becoming a father. I think something I learned early on is that to write about these experiences, such as raising a daughter or trying damn hard to be a good husband/partner, meant I couldn't be the hero of these stories, because I'm not. I'm really just a dude trying to make sure the folks in my life know how they impact me and have saved me, and I wanted the poems to reflect that.

As for the cover, that was the easiest part of this whole process. Once I knew the title, I knew that I wanted Keturah Bobo, an artist I am lucky to share a city with, to draw the cover. She has done so much profound work on representation and portrayals of black girls and women, that she was my first choice. I am beyond honored that she agreed to do it.

SB: In your poem “Auribus Teneo Lupum,” which is about your daughter being the minority in a private school, it seemed that there was a certain freedom to talk back on the page where you were not able to speak publicly. The title is Latin for “I grasp the wolf by the ears” (I had to Google it), signifying a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This sense of ambivalence runs throughout your work, along with a leitmotif of fear, violence, and death. As a white woman, I don’t experience that level of fear or risk of harm, but I see it in your work and in our society. For example, people were just arrested in Starbucks for being black. It’s also evident in the unending shootings of young black men. What do you think can be done against institutionalized racism on a poetry level? Or in other words, how can poetry be used to raise awareness about institutionalized racism?

WE: So many folks far smarter than I am have tried to unravel the placement of art in social justice and its real world impact. What I can say is that the most powerful tool in my arsenal is reminding people that I'm still here. That I didn't fade into the shadows of someone's biased fear. That I didn't blink myself awake in some other plane where everything is better. I write to keep the lights on, in the sense that I'm always visible to the folks that would feel more comfortable forgetting I was there. My wife and I both graduated from a huge Predominantly White Institution. We both work in corporate-like environments, both of us with responsibilities of managing other people. I think we are both very determined to show that this game, one that definitely was not designed for us—who occupy not only predominantly white spaces, but gatekeeper institutions—can be played in the way we see fit and on our own terms. Vievee Francis has this amazing term, which is Radical Normativity. It essentially means, in this context, that I try to write about things that seem like typical day-in-the-life events, except they’re not typical because I am black and visible in a hostile landscape. Going for a run around your neighborhood sounds typical unless people feel you are running for nefarious reasons. Dropping your daughter off at school is about as routine as it gets, unless you're worried about the relatability of the teachers to your young black daughter's experiences. So that's what I try to show.

I have a video of a poem called "Bathroom Etiquette" that begins as a funny and ridiculous interaction I had with a coworker about some of the weird things going on with maintenance at our employer. But the poem turns much more serious in how I interact with things in comparison to my white co-worker. A number of people have commented, "Oh, I wish the poem just stayed funny," or "why does race have to come into it?" And that's my point. White supremacy and its legacy are not gentle nudges when you have the time. It interrupts the narrative. It reshapes the story already in progress. That's what I hope to accomplish in my writing, that these things that pull me away from bliss are ever present.

SE: I chose a few of your poems to present to some of my high school students. Your language, images, and emotional expression helped them engage. How are your poems being used to teach in your community?

WE: I think my proclivity towards being a storyteller and a visual storyteller are things I hear most often. I'm a big fan of efficiency in my writing, when I can afford to be. So I'm obsessed with letting the devices I have at play do multiple things to earn their keep. And it’s more interesting to me that way. I don't want to tell you what someone said that left an impact on me, I want you see what I felt immediately after. I want to be shown how human emotions mirror the most mechanical or gentle things we interact with, so I try to bend towards those types of irony. My hope is that readers are generous enough with me to indulge my story and see how it relates to them.

SB: With a full-time job, a young family, a website to moderate, and other projects, when do you find time to write? How has your writing life changed over time? Do you have any suggestions for readers struggling with finding time and space to write?

WE: My most honest answer to that is that I don't sleep a whole lot. But in all seriousness, I'm incredible at (read: in the terrible habit of) multi-tasking. I find a lot of ways to find overlap in a lot of my writing, but more than anything, you have to commit. Committing doesn't necessarily mean that you should be writing for two hours every night no matter what (though some do, and if you can, you should). But really it means you have a focus when you move into those spaces of being productive. If I say, Well, I'll go work on the site for two hours, I'm going to end up reading gaming articles for 90 minutes and about 3 minutes playing on my phone. So being task-oriented helps me more than anything. Have a goal, move into that space, work towards that goal. I do this for writing poems as well. I usually have 10-12 poem ideas bouncing around in my head at a time. Some of them are dormant, some are pounding at the walls to be formed. So I know that when I carve out that time to write, I'm making progress on one of those. The second part of that matters, progress. Producing one poem out of the dozen ideas I might have had sounds like failure on the surface, but it might be zero if I didn't make time for it. So it all counts, every time.

SB: Thank you so much for your generous responses!

 

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Shannon Brady has written about dance for The Village Voice, book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, reporting for Vanity Fair and various other freelance writing projects and poetry publications. Shannon once joined a dance troupe in order to write a profile about the choreographer. She has taught high school and college writing in New York and California.

Stories Abound: A Review of Natalie Shapero's Hard Child by Peter LaBerge

 Natalie Shapero's  Hard Child  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Natalie Shapero's Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Natalie Shapero's second collection, Hard Child, opens with “Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous // body parts, stories abound.” The collection closes with “God, of course they didn’t survive.” Her poems are distinct units with their own logic and tension but reference one another and borrow language (the last line of the book sounds like it could directly follow the first) in order to build on the book’s overall themes—or to land a joke, the way a comedian might in a standup set. These poems are taut and controlled, while appearing to make effortless leaps and connections.

Broadly speaking, Hard Child is about pregnancy and motherhood, confronting the way having a child changes one’s sense of memory and history. In two parts, more or less of equal length, the book’s arc follows the beginning of a pregnancy (“A blip in utero”) in the first, through the birth and early months of having a child (“To my young daughter, I sing…”) in the second. Throughout, Shapero’s poems try to reject history while embracing it: “I typically hate discussing the past,” the title poem claims; a few pages later, another says, “I swear to God I hardly think about the past.” And yet, throughout the book are references to historical events and people: Rasputin, the Iran–Iraq War, the Lindbergh Baby, the Kennedy assassination, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others.

This tension between denial and acceptance of history is deeply political, but Shapero remains present, always as culpable as the rest of us. In a poem called “Passing and Violence” she writes, “Watching football, I need / to see a man die.” But that’s hardly the most striking line of the book. One poem, “Monster,” begins in a birthing class before making a hard turn to genocide:

I recall
with ill feeling the curator, viewing a meager

tribute with disdain: CAN’T CALL YOURSELF A HOLOCAUST
MEMORIAL UNTIL YOU HAVE A TRAIN.

The internal rhyme of “disdain/train” twists the knife. There’s a joke there, but it’s caustic, like The Onion’s headlines about mass shootings. Shapero isn’t pointing a finger at anyone; she’s holding up a mirror.

The speaker’s memories also figure heavily, as in one of the standout poems of the collection, “Radio Science.” The poem opens with the speaker disbelieving a story on the radio—about babies in utero sensing the mother’s past trauma—until she is startled while out for a run. “[M]y blood arrested, foamed, / and troubled the dark in which the child formed.” As is typical in these poems, Shapero doesn’t confront the memory head on—“It isn’t right,” she writes. “I hardly / think of the past” (again, a denial of history)—choosing instead to tell us,

only the better times at that bar: recoil

of springs in the pinball corner,
pool table that accepted only quarters,

the floor too small and mobbed,
all of us always in range of getting jabbed

by a cue.

In describing the “better times,” she gives us an idea of what might have happened, the kind of man who would have been there, the way the speaker might recoil from him, the way the cue isn’t a cue at all. Throughout, the couplets are slant rhymed—like the speaker ducking the issue—until the very end when a repeated phrase and a full rhyme slam the poem home.

While history and memory are major motifs, the book is ultimately wrestling with the identity crisis that can happen when a person becomes a parent. Throughout, bodies change form or disappear in ways that are sometimes funny and sometimes unsettling, as in “Home Scale” in which parents are told to find their baby’s weight,

by stepping

onto a home scale holding
the baby, then you just subtract
your body from the scene.

In some cases, the speaker actually desires this subtraction, as in “Form, Save My Own”:

My mind has made
an enemy of my body;
it’s all I can do

not to quote Kissinger
on the Iran–Iraq
War: A PITY THEY

BOTH CAN’T LOSE.

In three consecutive poems Shapero writes about wanting “to know what kind of a dog I would be, were I ever a dog.” At first, it’s a demand; then “it’s ridiculous to opine on what kind / of a dog I would be”; then her lover asks her to stop talking about turning into a dog. As in “Radio Science,” this desire to transmute or vanish reads as a way to talk around an issue in the interest of trying to more accurately illuminate it. Is this postpartum depression? Does the speaker both want to be a parent and also desire a return to being childless? Perhaps. “It wasn’t for love of having / children that I had a child,” she writes. Shapero’s poems are rich, referential, and readable. That they remain indirect ultimately makes them more pointed.

 

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Timothy Otte is a poet and critic. Poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Denver Quarterly, Fence, Sixth Finch, SAND Journal, and others. Book reviews have appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter, Colorado Review, Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis, where he works at Coffee House Press, but keeps a home on the internet: www.timothyotte.com. Say his last name like body.

A Conversation with Dana Levin by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

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Dana Levin is an author, essayist, and teacher. Her most recent book is Banana Palace, which was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016, and she teaches as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She has been the recipient of several prestigious honors, such as the Whiting Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

 

I recently had a conversation with Dana about technology and teaching that came to a point of, “maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs.”

Wesley Sexton: In places in Banana Palace, you seem to be arguing (or at least pointing out) that technology’s goals are often immensely spiritual. When technology attempts, as it often does, to exceed the bounds of the body, it puts itself in a camp with other spiritual processes, namely poetry and religion. But what does that mean? For poetry? For technology? Are they speaking out of the same mouth and should they be?

Dana Levin: Wow, those are the questions, right? Okay, here’s what I think: Art and Religion were born the first time the living came in contact with the dead. The first time our primordial ancestor found her friend dead on the ground, touched him with her hand and shook him, was the beginning of our central realization: the body and the animating spirit are not the same, for in death the spirit vanishes and yet the body remains! Our technological innovations have always been in service to making work easier on our bodies, to accomplishing tasks with greater ease and greater speed. What would be easiest and speediest of all? To not have a body, to not be bound by time and space, to move and change all things simply by thinking it. Hence: hands-free communication tools, self driving cars, increasing automation in all areas of manufacturing, and soon: every day access to virtual reality, which I fear more than anything else, because it will make it even easier and more attractive to ignore the karma of being an embodied spirit on earth.

WS: That’s the rub.

DL: Most of the time, I think we’re embodied because we are supposed to be. I don’t think the goal is to leave our bodies behind, despite what many major religions tell us. Humanity seems hell-bent on ridding itself of its pesky body—both the personal body, and Earth. So there are other moments where I think: well hey, we’re tool-making animals: maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs, what do I know? And we may be taking such bad care of Earth that cyborgification may be our only hope for prolonging our species.

Poetry has always been sparked by the body/spirit problem. It is the central thing it sings about, whether in love poetry, religious poetry, or poems of resistance. Even in surrealist work, in poetry that seems driven primarily to explore and express the Imagination’s circus, the underlying tension is the way such poems sing against the Imagination’s annihilation, inevitable because it is housed in a mortal body (cf. Keats’ Urn). Technology and Poetry sing out of the same mouth because it’s the only mouth we’ve got.

WS: I love how what you say makes sense of so many large and disparate forces in society (religion and technology and even politics). I’ve heard before that, in terms of subject matter, there are only about four or five poems that one can write; but your response really makes me think that every question attempts to come to terms, in one way or another, with “being an embodied spirit on Earth.” In a way, that is what we are always talking about, as poets and as people. Everything is a response to that question.

DL: Yeah. I’m always interested in getting to source.

WS: Some of your poems tend toward a journalistic accounting of events, or a poetics of witness. I’m thinking about that rhetorical move in conjunction with your line, “information about information was the pollen we / deposited.” Is there something contemporarily important about taking stock of our experiences and saying what actually happened?

DL: Your question suggests that there is something extra going on in our contemporary times that makes “saying what actually happened” especially important. But “saying what actually happened” is always necessary to the history of human civilization, with its comings and goings of wrack and ruin, the rising and falling of silencing forces. One thing poetry has always done is bring us the news. But it brings it slant, it brings it with all its shadowy interiors intact. I often tell my students that, especially in the twentieth century, American Poetry offered a shadow history of the United States: Ginsberg’s HOWL and Plath’s ARIEL being crucial books of the 1950’s Silent Generation, books by Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and Wanda Coleman bringing us the news of black women in the 1970 + ‘80s, when the Women’s Movement was first trying to reckon with its own white supremacy. But even beyond the cultural and political, poetry has always brought us the crucial news of the Unsaid and the Unseen, which is often news of the SOUL, which is the most undervalued, under-broadcasted news we get.

WS: I think that’s great—thinking of poetry as bringing the news of the soul! I also love what you said about poetry’s slant-ness being a way to keep “shadowy interiors intact.” I think if there is one reason people struggle with or choose not to read poetry, it is this slant-ness, so I am often looking for ways to articulate the utility and importance of complexity in poetry. Many people (initially) explain poetry’s slant-ness as an authorial trick that intellectually shows off by creating some uncrackable riddle or something, but of course poetry must present itself to us in a mysterious way because that is how the world presents itself to us. That is how we present ourselves to ourselves.

DL: I agree.

WS: You recently said in an interview with Divedapper that you’ve been teaching poetry to many non-poets and that in that experience, you feel like a “missionary bringing the word of weird.” I love that moniker, and I wonder what ways you have seen poetry’s weirdness impact the uninitiated.

DL: A student recently told me she recommended another student take my class by saying, “Dana’s classes will make you feel like you’re going insane—” When I asked, with some alarm, how this was an endorsement, my student explained that, before my classes, no one had ever opened up the unconscious to her as a creative source. Poetry gives wildness a shape, poetry says: your dreams and daydreams might be trying to say something worth hearing. Poetry says: your imagination has value! Pearl beyond price!

While this is not foregrounded in my classes, it’s inevitable for the psychotherapeutic to rise up in workshop, which I think is of great aid to undergraduates, especially those who don’t have much experience tracking their minds, or feelings: writing and reading closely and inevitably lead to aha! moments of revelation and reflection. Last year I had a very quiet student, who I could tell was in the midst of personal difficulties, write a heart-wrenching response to Michael Dickman’s first book, The End of the West, and the way it evokes drug addiction, which was something her family members were struggling with. This student had no idea that poetry could engage this territory: speaking about the suffering of body and soul in the grips of addiction, and how this suffering affected loved ones and communities. She’d thought poetry too formal and polite to do this: she responded not just to the subject matter in Dickman’s book, but also *the way* he worked with language to talk about it. Poetry offered this student a double epiphany: first, that she was not alone in her suffering, and, second, that Poetry was open to the full range of spoken and written speech.

WS: That’s a great story! It happens so often that people have such a limited view of what poetry is and can be, that it is often such a great experience to show them how variously strange the practice of poetry truly is.

DL: It really is! I mean, come on—poetry is such a weird and powerful technology.

WS: For years there has been a deep skepticism about the workshop setting. What do you find are the wonders and limitations of a poetry workshop?

DL: Workshop, as a teaching tool, has the capacity to help students of any age encounter language anew, and as material: its sonic capacities, its nuances, the wondrous effects of diction and figuration. If a workshop is not spending time discussing these things, it’s not an educating workshop. Workshops can also create learning and artistic communities. To go back to the class referenced above, it was really meaningful to these students to have a place where we could discuss the secret, the unsaid, the inmost heart. And the closeness they began to feel as their poems told their secrets, their thoughts, their doubts, their angers and confusions, made the workshop experience all the richer: they really wanted to help each other figure out the most artful way to get at the truths they were trying to tell. Workshops fail when they devolve into focus group, thumbs up/down experiences, where clarity and immediacy win every time. It’s important for creative writing teachers to bring up, again and again, the complex nature of experience and how that complexity informs poems; to model patience with what at first seems opaque and inaccessible; to help students gain access to complex work.

At the graduate level, I have more ambivalence about workshop. Sometimes the hungers and necessities of career-building, hyper-awareness of poetry fashions, thrum under workshop discussion. The facilitation of the instructor is paramount here to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball, which is to help each student more strongly and sharply express their vision and linguistic palette, no matter how fashionable or unfashionable that vision and palette may seem to be.

WS: Yes, I suppose I’m wary sometimes of workshop imposing too much onto a writer instead of helping one say most artfully what it is they want to say. It sounds like that is a danger you are very aware of as a teacher.

DL: Thanks.

WS: You have done a lot of essay work exploring and explicating some of poetry’s most canonical authors (Homer, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, etc.). What is the importance of some of these writers to you, and do you think the canon is dangerously under attack?

DL: Hmm. I recently had someone studying with me express surprise and gratitude that I assigned him to read the canonical Modernist poets: Eliot, Williams, Stevens, etc. He said he had had no real idea how many of the craft approaches he was using in his own work came not from the contemporary but from poets working more than a hundred years ago. To truly be an informed citizen, one must familiarize oneself with the history of where they live. This is true for all citizenry, including citizens of the country of poetry.

Maybe we’re over-prescribing the debut on our reading lists; maybe censure or avoidance isn’t in the best interests of the students in our classrooms, when it comes to the sins of the canonical fathers (and mothers). And what a thorough and necessary education!-—-to confront, with a real spirit of inquiry, the paradox that some of poetry’s influential and innovative works of the past were produced by anti-semitic, racist, sexist, classist writers. It can be deeply uncomfortable and very challenging, for student and teacher, to have these conversations, but it seems the ethically and aesthetically sound approach.

WS: What you say makes a lot of sense out of a complex issue. I think the issue with having a canon probably emerges when canonical works become the only works being prescribed and read in academic settings. Given the way canonizing often ignores and silences voices and aesthetics from the margins, to treat canonical works as the model of “good” poetry would continue to silence those same voices and aesthetics.

DL: Totally, totally true. Because, as you said, the canon has ignored or silenced voices at the margin, we question, even deny, the value assigned it. The questioning is crucial. The denial, if knee-jerk, can get in the way of considering what the poems plunked on the canon’s gilded, ivy-strewn pedestals offered to the development of the art. For myself, I think the promoters of  the “canon” are hierarchical and exclusive, but the poetries inside the “canon” are merely a set of aesthetic artifacts, saying something about their moment in space and time. They offer a set of aesthetic suggestions. Power says “canon,” but the canonical poems are, simply, poems. Best to acquire knowledge of both the Power and the poems, their history of influence, and be free to absorb, embrace, rebut, reject, synthesize, mutate this influence, create anew.

WS: Thank you so much.

 

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Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, Literary Juice and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.

The Point is Just to Have Fun: On Reading and Writing by Peter LaBerge

BY EMILY FRISELLA

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I wish there were just a way to reassure people. The point is just to have fun. That is the beginning and the end of why I read. Now, what makes reading fun for me is a book that has a real reach and a strong intellectual yearning, and a book that seems to grapple with the culture in ways that are interesting. — Jennifer Egan

I find Egan's words (from an interview in Seattle Met magazine) incredibly reassuring. I had not yet read Egan's quirky and innovative novel A Visit from The Goon Squad when, sometime in the gray winter months of 2015, I heard her give a book talk at Oxford University arguing that reading should be fun. In a drab conference room in one of the world's oldest and most elitist academic institutions, this claim felt brave, even revolutionary.

When I was in the seventh and eighth grades, I read with a prolificacy that I doubt I will ever again achieve. I read novels under my desk in class, read ahead on my assigned textbooks, read my parents' National Geographic magazines and stayed up later than I was supposed to reading in bed. I wrote just as unabashedly. I spent my allowance on beautiful notebooks and wrote in them before and after school, filling their pages with accounts of play rehearsals and dentist appointments and crushes and embarrassments and short stories and scripts and unfinished novels. At thirteen, I was self-conscious and awkward, but when it came to my writing, I was not afraid that my words would not be worthwhile or interesting to anyone other than myself. I didn't yet understand what it meant to be pretentious, and so I had no embarrassment over my own writerly pretensions.

I also didn’t yet have a sense of what the wider world considered literary or not. I didn’t know what a serious writer was supposed to spend her time on. What I had was my school library, my parents’ bookshelves, and occasional trips to the local bookstore, where I would spend my Christmas and birthday money from relatives. I picked up books because they seemed interesting, and I when I found books I loved, I read them over and over again. I kept notebooks full of character sketches, short stories, and ideas for novels, and I truly believed that I was a writer.

The first time I felt a twinge of embarrassment over a book, I was about fourteen. A boy who I liked had stopped to talk to me, and he asked me what I was reading. I remember turning to show him the cover of the book—The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot—and suddenly realizing that it was emblazoned with a giant pink heart. I felt mortified, certain that this book would make me seem girly, frivolous, and deeply uncool. What if he was unimpressed by what I was reading, or, even worse, scorned my taste?

As I grew older and busier with school, I read less, but the question of taste became increasingly important to me. I decided to read “the classics” and spent summer vacations devouring Anna Karenina and David Copperfield. I still enjoyed YA romances as much as Tolstoi, but Meg Cabot became a guilty pleasure. Then, in college, my academic reading began to bleed over into my recreational reading in a way that it never had before. I loved my classes in English and history, and I wanted to learn more and more. Within a few weeks of first year orientation, I realized there were hundreds of contemporary writers who I’d never read, that in the circles I aspired to, writers like David Foster Wallace, who I’d never heard of before, were considered canonical. In an effort to pursue my ambition to be a writer, I joined the college literary magazines and began submitting my poems to a handful of publications. Instead of picking up whatever looked good, I began to ask peers and professors for recommendations. Gradually, I started to read things not because I wanted to read them but because I thought that I ought to read them, and I found myself avoiding books that I thought might seem frivolous to the kinds of serious, literary writers I hoped to emulate.

Literariness is elusive. It’s difficult to find hard-and-fast rules for what makes something ‘literary’ or not; any rule you think of will come along with a major exception or will contradict another rule. Your writing must speak to “universal” themes (Shakespeare), but also must be challenging, experimental, and grounded (Faulkner); erotica is smut (Fifty Shades of Grey), except for when it’s not (Anaïs Nin). Though we can analyze why certain types of storytelling and characterization and world-building are effective, being ‘literary’ is often about having the right tastes—which is to say, liking things that other ‘literary’ people like. This kind of thinking can create an insular, even blinkered, sense of what good writing looks like, but at the time, I didn’t think about it this way. I started reading performatively, reading so I could show others what I had read. I read things that looked and sounded literary, things that I could talk about at networking events and publishing internships, things that would impress my professors during office hours. And yes, many of these books were brilliant and fascinating and fun—but some of them were boring.

When I say these books were boring, I don’t mean that they were without merit, or that no one should read them, or that anyone would find them boring. I mean that, personally, they bored me. From time to time, all of us come across books like this—books that, for whatever reason, are a slog. But of course, this is largely a matter taste. I know many smart people who cannot stand Charles Dickens, and others who love him; I have only respect and admiration for a friend who wrote his dissertation on Milton, but I couldn’t make it through Paradise Lost, and I no longer believe that this makes me lacking as a reader or a writer. Taste is personal, and so boringness (and for that matter, fun) are personal, too.

None of this is to say that I believe that critics’ and scholars’ opinions don’t matter—I’d hardly be writing an essay like this if I did. I am incredibly grateful for the college education and internships and workshops that opened the ‘literary’ world to me, and I love spending time with people who take reading and writing seriously. It’s safe to say, I think, that all of the literary people who I admired and who, at various times, I have tried to model myself on, began reading and writing because it brought them joy. And so, these days, I am trying to read things that I will enjoy, whether that’s literary fiction, a cooking blog, or a sci-fi novel. I still take recommendations from friends and colleagues and people I admire on Twitter; I still read establishment publications like The New Yorker and the London Review of Books. But I’m trying to shake the habit of reading those books as a performance.

For me, writing is exciting not only because it can create new worlds, but also because it can create conversations. If you’re reading only so that you can say the right things, then you’re missing out on real conversation. Time spent reading a boring but impressive book and learning how to express an impressive opinion about it is never really worth that little thrill you get when showing a fellow cocktail-party-goer that yes, you know the modern canon at least as well as they do. When you read and discuss books purely to make yourself look clever, you’re too busy worrying over being caught out to really enjoy discussing them—it’s a game you can never really win.

During my year in Oxford, I was lonely, overworked, and, though I had yet to admit this to myself, depressed. It seemed that there was always someone brighter and more well-read, and I feared these people would scoff at what books I liked or didn’t like, what I read or hadn’t read. With a terrible case of impostor syndrome, I was beginning to lose sight of the reasons I had wanted to study literature in the first place, and Egan's words were exactly what I needed to hear.

With a Pulitzer, five novels, and two short story collections, no one would doubt that Egan is a serious writer—and now, here she was, reminding me that taking writing and reading seriously doesn't preclude the possibility of fun. Self-consciousness necessitates performance—whether in the form of cocktail party opinions on the Man Booker Prize or the sci-fi novel my fourteen-year-old self picked up to impress a crush—whereas, almost by definition, having fun requires feeling unembarrassed about what you enjoy most. I still pay attention to the prize-winners, yes. I am interested in others’ opinions on what writing is good or interesting. But I’m teaching myself to profess only opinions that I believe in, to avoid nodding along when I disagree with someone about a piece of art, but fear my ideas might be unfashionable. I write in the hope that my words will be read, and in this sense, writing is a performance—but these days, I remind myself that writing is not only a performance—because before my words become something that people will read, I am writing to experiment, to think through an idea, and it is best to start as unselfconsciously—as joyously—as I can.

 

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Emily Frisella grew up in Oregon and currently lives in London, where she works as a bookseller and blogs sporadically at www.untimelycriticism.com. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Rumpus,The Plath Poetry Project, Cosmonauts Avenue, Pedestal Magazine, Foundry, and elsewhere.

Leila Chatti: How I Wrote “Hometown Nocturne” by Peter LaBerge

BY LEILA CHATTI

  Tunsiya/Amrikiya , by Leila Chatti (Bull City Press, 2018).

Tunsiya/Amrikiya, by Leila Chatti (Bull City Press, 2018).

To explain how I wrote “Hometown Nocturne,” the final poem of Tunsiya/Amrikiya, it might be helpful to know the following things:

1. I spent the summer and fall after my MFA program in Tunisia and southern France. Visiting my home state of Michigan that October for a wedding, I discovered a SOLD sign in the front yard of my childhood home.

2. A dear friend of mine, Samuel Piccone, had recently asked me why, when I write so frequently about place, I never wrote about my hometown.

I began writing “Hometown Nocturne” a few days after returning to Michigan from my stay overseas. It was the second week of November, winter was quickly approaching, and I was staying in a Detroit suburb with my partner and his mother. I was disoriented; both “home” (in the United States, in Michigan) and not home. I would never again be home—my home was gone.

I remember very clearly how the poem began—I was reading Maggie Smith’s The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and a word jumped out at me: “field.” Just field, one ordinary word. I quickly opened my laptop and the first line arrived: “When I can’t sleep, I remember it: blue fields. . .”

I believe in trusting your impulses; if something startles you, follow it. I was startled by the word field that day in a way I had not been the previous thousand times I’d read that same word. I think that’s part of the magic: what was ordinary becoming suddenly new and urgent. I am also part of the magic, an integral part, as is any writer in the act of writing. My role is to be alert—to recognize the prickle on the back of my neck, the little rabbits in my brain lifting their heads from sleep. Right word, right time, and me paying attention—the poem began.

Writing this poem, I was very attuned to sound. In the beginning: remember, blue, borrowed, boots, curbside; lawns, poplars, spitball; sleep, fields, sleet, teenagers; sleep and slip; and so on. I write with my ear, and read aloud as I’m writing. I also think about the lines as distinct units, and so write line by line. I want each line to be interesting when read alone. Sound play and enjambment might be my favorite tools, and this poem was one where I really followed those instincts.

One of the most important parts of writing this poem was unwriting its ending. The poem has actually stayed almost identical to that first draft except for the final two lines. In the first version, I continued on after the trees’ pompoms into a long, unnecessary extension of what I had written in the rest of the poem—more East Lansing wintry details. As embarrassing as it is, here’s the ending of the first draft:

The whole way home I scuffed my feet,
shuffled across any unplowed stretch to mark the colossal
peaks and ledges of my name. I trekked
puddles to my bed, crawled into the fresh
bank of moonlight. Frost brimmed
the branches of the magnolia outside my room.
More than once, I mistook this burden for blooms.

What I realized when revising the poem four days later, in order to submit it in time for Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, was that I was getting too poet-y, too flowery (literally, with those blooms at the end). Dorianne Laux, my beloved teacher, once told me very kindly that I didn’t need to add frills and lace to my poems—I could keep that for my wardrobe (which I do, if you’ve ever seen me). Instead of flourishes, she said, just tell it straight. So I told it straight. I also chose to keep myself outside of the home, to further emphasize the sense of isolation and yearning for belonging and ownership I felt, as well as to resist the temptation for an ending which neatly resolves. This was the result:

I carved carefully my name in frost.
Scuffed my feet the whole way home.

I sent the poem in with a half hour to spare, and that’s the story!

 

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Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors' Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. Her poems have received awards from Ploughshares' Emerging Writer's Contest, Narrative's 30 Below Contest, and the Academy of American Poets, and appear in Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.

A Brief God: A Review of Emilia Phillips' Empty Clip by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

 Emilia Phillips'  Empty Clip  (University of Akron Press, 2018).

Emilia Phillips' Empty Clip (University of Akron Press, 2018).

Empty Clip, Emilia Phillips's staggering third collection, was the first in my (admittedly brief) reviewing history that I've read in its entirety before making any notes or underlining what jumped out at me. I simply couldn't slow down thanks to the immediacy of these poems—a breathlessness tempered by deep tenderness that's only possible in the wake of true reckoning.

During my second reading, I realized it's one of those books that arrives exactly when you need it most and begins speaking as if it's sitting beside you, ready to take your hand. I'd hazard that we're all feeling a bit vulnerable these days, beaten down by years of unending regression. And, for many, the unique horror of this historical moment has caused old traumas to resurface, and triggers we'd imagined had faded are flaring back to life. Phillips has called this her "book of fears," and she faces those fears unflinchingly, as in "One Year After Contemplating Suicide," where the speaker refers to "the future / into which you survive still, / a dirt road / mile-markered by loss." Phillips makes the case that loss is our true common language and acknowledges the ways in which we're indelibly marked by it in poems like "Apostrophe, Oregon Hill," where the speaker identifies "your absence dense inside me as a fulgurite / in sand after a lightning / storm."  Phillips also recognizes how powerless we are at keeping loss from ripping through our lives, as in "Campus Shooter PowerPoint and Information Session":

If a shooter
enters your classroom, there's nothing
I can do, he says, loosening his
tie. But I can help the classroom next
door.

But Phillips's eye lingers on spaces where horror and beauty, trauma and trust, brutality and gentleness rub against each other, throwing sparks, as in "facesofdeath.com," where the speaker notices "how the bullet / grooved clean into the skin below / her clavicle. A buttonhole, a baby's / mouth." This speaker clings to the world even as it shifts and bucks away, as in "To the Neighbor Boy with His Father's Hunting Rifle, Begging the Police to Shoot," where "I watched instead / the tree in your parents' yard / sway, turning out its leaves / like wrists." Or "Denouement":

The snow was up to my knees.
The shovel handle cracked in two.

The nuclear plant high-rised
steam. It was the most heavenlike thing

I've ever seen.

Ultimately, Phillips asks how we might be burnished by suffering, hammered until we're more pliable, and ultimately, oriented toward empathy, as in "The Days That Were Have Now," where the speaker imagines, "After the accident / one man will say to another, / She could be bleeding internally, / don't move her." This speaker looks to the almost imperceptible moments of grace that suffering makes possible, as in "On a Late-Night Encounter with a Barefoot College Student Wearing Only a Party Dress and a Man's Blazer," where the speaker relates that encounter, then shifts between it and a classroom incident in which a student inadvertently reveals she's been raped. At the end:

She cried in the back seat wanting

to know if I was going to fail her
I said I wasn't        I didn't

but in truth I really don't know.

That's a gutting acknowledgment of how we fail each other, how even the best intentions can come up short in the wake of trauma, but it's also a reaching toward, a witnessing of that failing, and a questioning of how we might mitigate it and somehow be better to one another.

The engine powering this book is possibility—the uncertain promise of tomorrow and the curiosity we muster to face it, and that's most evident in poems like "One Year After Contemplating Suicide," where the impulse toward self-annihilation "comes like desire, / the way the smell / of soap turns you / back into a body— / the body that wanted that body"; even when turning away from the world, Phillips's speaker pivots inexorably back into it. Phillips's gift for possibility leads to moments like this in "Overpass," where the speaker asserts, "I'm ready to say / that whatever / holds / our attention is a brief / god." And I'll take her at her word—this book, wrought from Phillips's attention, is a brief god whose gospel is empathy and whose rites bind us to our brief, uncertain lives.

 

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

Summer Opportunities for Young Writers: A Conversation with Alia Walston of the Chicago High School for the Arts' ChiArts Summer Program by Peter LaBerge

  ChiArts.

ChiArts.

Note: This is a sponsored post.

The ChiArts Summer Program is a three-week summer camp designed for students in grades K-5 and 6-8 to explore the artistic disciplines of Dance, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts in a joyful and nurturing environment, led by artists from the Chicago High School for the Arts. Campers will receive pre-professional training in the arts and create original pieces for performance and showcase.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with Alia Walston, one of the folks behind the program, to learn more about its mission and operation. Read on to learn more! 

Let’s start simple: We’d love to hear what led to the creation of the Chicago High School for the Arts’s summer programs for elementary and middle school artists. Is there a story there?

ChiArts is a relatively new school, we have only been open since 2009, and we came to be as an institution came to be as a way to fill the gaps in public arts education in Chicago. Before ChiArts’ opened, there were no public arts high schools in the city. By extension, our summer camps were started as a way to support the artistic growth of young people and to get our name out to our communities in Chicago.

 

If you could describe the ChiArts summer programs for young writers and artists in three words, what would they be, and why?

Intensive, joyful, and nurturing.

 

What, in your mind, is the biggest benefit of attending a summer program at ChiArts rather than, say, at another institution with writing opportunities for young writers? 

ChiArts is home to such an amazing team of diverse students, teachers, and alumni. We prioritize compassion, responsibility, and meeting our students where they are at artistically, academically, and personally. We pride ourselves on our social-emotional supports and all of this work absolutely extends to our summer camps. Our camps are led by current ChiArts instructors and alumni, which means that the folks who are working with us are truly dedicated to our mission and supporting the whole child.

 

Switching gears a bit, I often hear from young writers who are hesitant to call themselves poets, writers, or artists. This has always struck me as strange—in my mind, if you produce writing, you’re a writer—no matter your age, stage, or level of development. Then, of course, it becomes about developing your voice, and figuring out what you have to say. Do you agree with the notion that all writers are “writers”? If so, how do you think educators can better facilitate the claiming of this identity?

I love this question because it’s something that I think a lot about in my own practice. For the most part, I find that labels can be really limiting and ultimately do a disservice to people, especially young folks. Young people often believe they have to follow a regimented or strict plan in order to find success in their artistic careers. And if there’s anything I know from my own career, there is no one set road to success and curiosity rules everything. One thing we do at ChiArts is we encourage our scholar-artists to expand their vision of what is possible in their practices, whether they decide to pursue a career in the arts or if they choose to follow another path. Own your talents. Embrace your uniqueness. Celebrate your accomplishments. Those are the most important things, way more than any labels!

 

  ChiArts.

ChiArts.

Here’s a left-field two-part question: what was your biggest fear as a young writer or artist, and what’s your biggest fear as an educator?

As a young writer, I was terrified of not being understood. I really wanted to reach folks on an emotional level, but it took a lot of work to get to the point where I could feel safe in exploring vulnerability, which I think is a really key part of being an artist.

As an educator, I pride myself on being accessible, radically honest, and compassionate. If I am not doing any of those things, I am failing my students. So my biggest fears are wrapped up in making sure that I am present and available enough to always act with integrity and consistency.

 

I know back when I was a teen writer and I had the privilege of attending a summer writing program like the ones you host at ChiArts, I wish I’d known some things before I dove headfirst into writing for three straight weeks. What are the best words of wisdom you have for students debating whether or not to take that leap and seriously pursue an artistic discipline for the first time?

Three weeks is a long time and also no time at all. This program and what you produce in it do not reflect your worth as a person. You are inherently valuable. Think of our program as an invitation for you to play, stretch, and learn more about yourself. When you see camp ( or any other program you pursue) as an opportunity for expression and presence, and not just a task to check off on a “success to-do list”, all kinds of flow and creativity is possible.

 

Could you tell us what your favorite part of the summer programs is, and why?

It is so awesome to see our building filled with smiling young faces of all ages. It is such a joy to be present with our students in a low-pressure environment and while the sun is shining!

 

To close, do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice  by an artist or writer that’d you’d like to share?

Audre Lord once said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Being a creative is a perpetual lesson in vulnerability. It takes strength, care, and vision to bring forth things from your intuition. Believe in yourselves!

 

To learn more about the ChiArts Summer Program, you can click here!

A Conversation with Leila Chatti by Peter LaBerge

BY CHAYA BHUVANESWAR

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Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors' Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. Her poems have received awards from Ploughshares' Emerging Writer's Contest, Narrative's 30 Below Contest, and the Academy of American Poets, and appear in Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.

 

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Can you reflect on the process by which you came to realize you were a poet, when it became central to you to write and publish your poetry? Are there significant relationships (mentors, teachers, early readers, friends) that helped you understand you have this gift, and are there ways you now seek to form those relationships with emerging poets to support them, now that you have a body of work and a readership?

Leila Chatti: I’ve always been drawn to words. My parents like to remind me that even as an infant, I was fascinated by books; there are photographs of me propped up in my crib surrounded by them. I think that’s very interesting, and I’m not sure why I was attracted to books before I could make sense of what they were, or even of language itself. Perhaps predictably, I began reading early, at the age of three, and writing shortly thereafter.

My parents encouraged these pursuits, though they were not big readers themselves. My siblings, too, don’t really read. I think I was a curious child and I knew reading allowed me access to an endless store of information. I was also curious about myself, and other people, and writing is where I worked to discover what it meant to be alive in the world.

When I first realized I was a poet, with the same certainty and absoluteness as the fact of my brown hair or the city of my birth, I was in early adolescence. I was a cliché in that I thought a lot, felt more than I could bear, and used poetry as a container for what I carried too much of. There’s a line by Lisel Mueller I always think of when I am asked why or how I began writing poems, because it comes from a poem in which she addresses the same question (it’s how the poem begins). As Lisel says, I “placed my grief / in the mouth of language, / the only thing that would grieve with me.” I had a difficult, extremely painful young adulthood. I wrote to make sense of my suffering. I still write to make sense of my suffering, the suffering I encountered then and the suffering I’ve since amassed. I write now, too, for and about other things, but this remains my primary impulse.

I was lucky to have had teachers who saw both that I was in pain and that I had a talent for rendering that pain into language. In particular, my high school English teacher, Marianne Forman, encouraged and nurtured my love of poetry. She first introduced me to the work of Naomi Shihab Nye by handing me a stack of her books, and ten years later, Naomi has written a blurb for my chapbook. And now that Marianne has retired, I’ve offered her what I know about publishing and her poems are making their way into the world. There’s a lovely circling back in all of this that touches my heart in a way I can’t fully articulate.

I’ve had many wonderful mentors on my path, including Kim Addonizio, who gave me the courage to leave my job and chase this dream, and Dorianne Laux, my poetry mother who, as a mother does, taught me everything I know. Now that I know anything at all, I try very hard to pass that knowledge along. It can be difficult to do this from afar, as it almost certainly requires the Internet (while I think it would be wonderful to send letters, I haven’t seen much of that in practice), and I withdraw frequently from social media to focus on my work and protect my health. I’ve found what I like best is direct mentorship—either through e-mail exchanges or in person, during workshops of varying lengths and contexts. I will be teaching my first online workshop this spring through The Speakeasy Project, which I think will be a happy melding of the two. And while I love to build long, deeper-knowing relationships, I’ve found that mentoring can also be as brief as answering a question, providing resources, or sending a note of praise and encouragement. I believe strongly in opening doors, particularly for writers from marginalized backgrounds/identities, because there is plenty of room for all of us wherever we’re trying to go.

CB: Your work involves such a gorgeous calibration of the mythic and the personal—it is a great comfort to read poems about prayer, characters from Ovid, the Q'uran, reproductive health, and questions concerning motherhood, instead of being swept into the pettiness and ugliness, the unbelievable headlines of certain recent political events. In particular, the scenes from ordinary Muslim life are what move me to tears—the life my partner and I are striving to give our kids. (My partner is a non-observant, but still deeply religious, Turkish and Q'uran-literate son of a cleric in rural Turkey.) The ordinariness of the prayer rug, the counting, the calls to prayer, knowing lines from Q'uran, knowing about holy days. Knowing things by their proper names, without letting hateful rhetoric in any way touch or define/defile them.

Have you felt compelled to respond to Islamophobia directly in your work? The incredible line “I have never felt in my bones a bomb's radius of light” gave me such joy, because it's so human and so compassionate, yet at the same time it glories in the "beauty of the world that has two edges, one of laughter, one of sadness, cutting the heart asunder" (per Virginia Woolf).

LC: I love that Virginia Woolf quote—I hadn’t heard it before, and now it’s going in my notebook. To answer your question, yes, I have felt compelled to address Islamophobia head-on. I was 11 years old when the Twin Towers fell and so came of age in the context of a country that despised me. I wonder sometimes what my life would look like if I hadn’t learned early the possibility (reality!) of deep, pervasive hatred; I cannot recall a time when I was not acutely aware that what I was was the wrong thing to be. That sense of being “bad” and an outsider rooted in me, and I suspect it had a greater hand in my development and self-esteem than I realized. If we all see the world through a particular lens because of our circumstances, this certainly tinges what I see.

Despite this, I originally resisted writing head-on about being Arab and Muslim. When I began my MFA, I was very sick—I had a tumor that was thought to be cancer, and suffered from daily, intensely unpleasant symptoms because of it. I, as you might imagine, thought of little else, and so wrote about this illness regularly. I was discouraged from doing so by an instructor and told my success would be found in writing about “Arab things,” advice which deeply unsettled me— not because I didn’t want to write about “Arab things,” but because I thought I already was (if I, an Arab, have written a poem, is that not an Arab poem?; and Arabs also get sick, and write about it—), and because I feared tokenism. I think many, if not all, writers of color experience at some point this dread, this doubt, that they may not truly be as talented as their white peers, that they wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the bright flag of their identity—that being nonwhite is the only interesting or valuable thing about them. I certainly did. I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t want success that wasn’t earned. Too often during those early years, it was implied—or said outright, by friends even!—that I was lucky to be Arab/Muslim because it was an easy ticket to publication and awards. Never mind that I was almost always the only Arab/Muslim published in an issue, or in a year’s worth of issues, of a journal, or that I had never been taught Arab or Muslim literature and had to seek it out on my own. Still, it haunted me, so I kept my most clearly “Other” poems to myself, which is a perpetuation of silencing. I sent out work that obscured my identity—work about the ubiquitous experiences of desire and grief—to prove that I did, indeed, deserve “to be there.” Once I acquired that proof, I sent out the rest.

So, all that said, I have a complicated relationship to writing about identity—or, rather, publishing that writing. It is interesting to me that Tunsiya/Amrikiya will be my first book-object out in the world, as I think even three years ago I would have been nervous about debuting with “Arab things.” At some point I internalized the idea that “serious writing” was writing where identity was in the background, because I had been raised with a canon composed of writers whose whiteness/Westerness/Christianity was so centered that it wasn’t even considered an identity, it was considered human experience. Of course, this is not true. I didn’t set out to specifically challenge this, however; Tunsiya/Amrikiya arose naturally, out of necessity. 2016 was a brutal, terrifying year to be Arab and Muslim in the United States. I wrote to process and to speak back. I hoped, of course, to educate and challenge, but I was mostly writing for myself and other Arabs and Muslims, so many of the poems in the chapbook are celebratory and domestic. It’s my life: where I came from, how I came to be the person I am, and a small glimpse of what life as someone like me might look like. I like to think that these poems may also push back against Islamophobia, though they are not explicitly political; hatred is often the failure to see a stranger as fully human, and in these poems I reveal my full self.

 

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Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, Quiddity, Natural Bridge, and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. She recently received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize with her debut story collection, WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS, due out October 2018. She has received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, Henfield award and several Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77.

NOTE: This interview was originally posted under Conversations with Contributors. Leila is not a contributor to The Adroit Journal, but she is a former poetry reader.

RAISE YOUR GLASS: Congratulations to the Adroit Class of 2018! by Peter LaBerge

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

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This year, Yale University leads the pack, claiming nine Adroit seniors for its incoming freshman class. Harvard University follows, with six Adroit seniors packing for Cambridge. Next in line, Stanford University has four Adroit seniors Palo Alto-bound.

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

Staff Members

Jenna Bao (OH — Prose Reader), Harvard University

Peter Fera (TX — Marketing Associate), University of Pennsylvania

Kelly Han (OR — Editorial Assistant), University of California - Berkeley

Kinsale Hueston (CA — Poetry Reader), Yale University

Annie Li (NJ — Graphics Correspondent), Emory University

Mia Nelson (CO — Previous Poetry Reader), Dartmouth College

Macrina Wang (NH — Marketing Associate), Yale University

Becky Wolfson (MD — Marketing Intern), Brown University

Grace Zhou (GA — Previous Prose Reader), Stanford University

 

Staff Members & Mentorship Program Alums

Joseph Felkers (MI — Poetry Reader & Mentee '16), Harvard University

Aidan Forster (SC — Previous Blog Editor & Mentee '15), Brown University

Eileen Huang (NJ — Marketing Intern & Mentee '16), Yale University

 

Mentorship Program Alums

Fareena Arefeen (TX — '17), University of Texas - Austin

Margot Armbruster (WI — '16), Duke University - Angier B. Duke Scholar

Margaret Blackburn (MI — '17), Smith College

Emma Camp (AL — '16), University of Virginia - Jefferson Scholar

Yiwei Chai (Australia — '17), University of Pennsylvania

Emma Choi (VA — '16), Harvard University

Jisoo Choi (MD — '16), Yale University

Uma Dwivedi (WA — '17), Yale University

Annie Fan (United Kingdom — '17), University of Oxford (UK)

Farah Ghafoor (Canada — '16), University of Toronto

Lily Goldberg (NY — '17), Williams College

Yuri Han (NJ — '17), Rutgers University - Honors College

Jacqueline He (CA — '17), Princeton University

Lilly Hunt (MS — '17), University of Mississippi

Christina Im (OR — '15), Princeton University

Kara Jackson (IL — '17), Smith College

Masfi Khan (NY — '17), Yale University

Katherine Kim (NJ — '17), Middlebury College

Ezra Lebovitz (NJ — '17), Harvard University

Morgan Levine (TX — '17), Columbia University

Enshia Li (Canada — '17), Stanford University

Isabella Li (NC — '17), Yale University

Margaret Lu (IL — '17), University of Chicago

Kaley Mamo (NY — '16), Columbia University

Alyssa Mazzoli (SC — '16), Bryn Mawr College

Joey Reisberg (MD — '16), Goucher College

Tessa Rudolph (CA — '17), Wellesley College

Ashira Shirali (India — '17), Princeton University

Sahara Sidi (VA — '17), Wesleyan University

Griffin Somaratne (CA — '17), Stanford University

Shannon Sommers (NY — '15), Yale University

Stephanie Tom (NY — '17), Cornell University

Alisha Yi (NV — '16), Harvard University

Carrie Zhang (NJ — '15), Haverford College

Nicole Zhen (OR — '17), Yale University

Joyce Zhou (IL — '17), Harvard University

Lily Zhou (CA — '16), Stanford University

A Review of Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

 Tomás Q. Morín's  Patient Zero  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

In his second collection of poetry, Tomás Q. Morín takes to task some of poetry’s biggest questions—those of language, love, and myth–in his signature, playful style, which is awe-inspired and reminiscent of Mary Ruefle or James Tate, yet derivative of no one. Whether he is mythologizing, investigating the types of influence we inherit as members of culture and language, or sigh-singing the cyclical process of love lost and found, Morín manages to tell it all in a way that inspires open-eyed curiosity, or, in the darkest cases, disappointed amazement. Those readers seeking a lens through which the world appears both strange and amazing, despite and because of its brokenness, will love encountering this new book.

Again and again, the speakers in Morín’s Patient Zero seek to understand the terms of their existence—what it means to live in a world where so little is ever fully explained. One might think such a task would take the form of intense and widespread questioning, but there are extremely few questions actually posed in Patient Zero. Rather, Morín encourages us to indulge in imaginative instances of history, persona, and impossibility until a conglomeration of provisional and possible answers to the question of truth begin to emerge. Throughout the book, Morín employs various intellectual strategies such as ekphrasis, translation, and epistolary forms; but never does his speaker take him/herself unproductively seriously. In fact, Morín seems to take pains to ensure nothing is too neatly wrapped, undermining poems at their most conclusive points with fantastical and absurd assertions, such as “one could love a herring / I suppose if the timing were right and the moon / shone just so and the fish could order a pizza / for two in near perfect French.” In another instance, Morín’s speaker interrupts a desperate search for a runaway lover to comment on the appearance of 3s and 8s: “those conjoined twins / disastrously separated at birth.” No matter the context, there is always a willingness to let absurdity into the mental landscape; and in every case, the situation is rendered more artfully and truthfully because of the inclusion.

Always, Morín’s poems navigate a balance between fancy and reality. Sometimes a poem begins with a slightly impossible set of assumptions and proceeds logically from there, as in “Ai,” which imagines the Japanese American poet as an atomic element and proceeds with a faithful description according to those terms. In another way, the speaker in “At the Supermarket” describes the scene and all its characters to us as if they are “trapped in a Rockwell.” At other times Morín’s speaker will use facts and logical processes to reach delightfully unexpected conclusions. In “Gold Record,” for example, the historical fact that NASA sent a record of various earthly sounds onto the Voyager space shuttle lands us on “shag rugs,” listening to music with a “race smart enough to escape / gravity and cross the peacock-black / of galaxies.”

Consistently, Morín’s poems create a moment where the fantastical and whimsical butt right up against the mundane and the ubiquitous. It is often at their most absurd moments that the poems in Patient Zero reveal to us something deeply and undeniably true. When circus clowns cram into a tiny car in “Circus Pony,” this cultural epitome of absurdity becomes a way to speak authentically about performativity of the emotional self and the particulars of existence. In this way, Morín’s poems awaken us to the absurdity that exists within us and within our world to make it so we may delight in that absurdity, to make us more human.

Throughout Patient Zero, there are also many clear-eyed attempts to come to terms with what it means to be a modern person and to be influenced by a truly syncretic culture. Morín’s speakers claim both characters from the Old Testament and professional wrestlers from ‘80s television as sources of inspiration and cultural identity. We encounter attempts and non-attempts at translation, and we are asked to question the selective power language enacts on our consciousness. As mentioned above, the poem “Ai” imagines the poet Ai Ogawa as a periodic element, literally becoming one of the fundamental building blocks out of which Morín builds his book. Cumulatively, the reader receives a view of globalization and cultural relativity as processes of creativity and perspective building.

Similarly, Morín includes in this collection a brilliant translation of Pablo Neruda’s “Calle a calle,” which is more commonly translated as “Walking Around,” displaying a glimpse of the talent brought most fully to fruition in Morín’s translation of The Heights of Machu Pichu.

Amidst these homages to intercultural experience is a deep-seeded and ambivalently answered question: How much can honestly be transferred from one culture to another? What is lost in the process of translation? In the poem “Saudades” (saudade being a word that is imprecisely translated as nostalgic), Morín’s speaker warns us against translation “unless [we’ve] been a disciple of the rough grief / that lovingly wraps [us] in its wings.” However, Morín also invites us into such discipleship, saying it

is warmer
than one would expect, so much so that it’s easy
to forget for a moment something trivial like pigs
aren’t supposed to fly or that if you say saudades
with enough pain and heart the pigs of your past will come
trotting out of the dark, doing their little sideways dance
around you, shaking their hips to the drum
in your chest until you forget what a frown is
or why we need them.

In a similar way, the speakers in “Little Road” and “Red Herring” relish in the imaginative possibilities presented by misunderstood and poorly-pronounced languages. Here, a connection might be made to Morín’s willful obfuscation of mundane reality throughout Patient Zero. Just as a person less-than-fluent in French can walk around a French market pretending to be blown “so many kisses / with every r and l and w they speak,” there is a way in which Morín’s poems encourage us to resist perfect understanding so as to see the world with curiosity and awe.

This encouragement, however, never tends toward escapism or willful ignorance—perhaps because Morín acknowledges some of the world’s deepest sadnesses in his poems. Morín is not oblivious to the damage we do to each other, but he makes us see the “pitiful soul, hand at his punctured / side, trying to groan louder than the TVs / the neighborhood keeps turning up.” In a poem addressed to an aborted daughter, Morín’s speaker tells of “all the birthdays / I’ve celebrated but that haven’t come / to pass since that day long ago when we agreed / it would be better if you never drew that / first breath of air.”

Morín’s speakers do not close their eyes to sadness, but they do not close their eyes to possibility, either. We experience, as readers, a push-pull relationship with a world that does not yet know the best way to love us. On both grand and personal scales, Morín enacts the story of “love / gone cold, and its light, the clammy light we might spend / years saying we can’t live without and then do.” Whether told through the grandiosity of eternal space travel or the specificity of a weekend vacation, the poems in Patient Zero tell a story of love’s incompleteness, creating in us a longing in which the world seems beautiful. In the book’s titular poem, Morín imagines the moment that Adam and Eve fell into lovesickness. The speaker speculates as to the source of their affliction, and though a definitive “patient zero” remains unnamed, we eventually learn of lovesickness that it is “something, and divine, and endless.” For Morín, if the world has a stable state, it is this oscillation between love and disappointment, or the true expression of love together with its souring. In some cases, both of these oscillations occur simultaneously, as in Morín’s supermarket retelling of the Caritá Romana, as well as his longest poem, “Sing Sing,” in which a Muse is imprisoned for lovingly intervening in her poet’s life. In both poems, tales of love and imprisonment are knotted together and retold in an identifiably American landscape.

Morín takes us from the enormous to the minutiae and from the universal to the personal, always encouraging us to come to terms as fully as possible with what it means to be a person. What does it mean to inherit one culture, complete with its language and habits and qualitative assumptions, instead of another? What does it mean to admit the limits of our understanding? What does it mean to be profoundly disappointed by the same world that asks us in a million strange ways to love it? The poems in Patient Zero take as a central concern the belief that the stories we tell ourselves affect who we become, and in response, they offer us several marvelously unique narrative possibilities.

 

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Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, Literary Juice and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.

 

A Review of Ghassan Zaqtan's The Silence That Remains by Peter LaBerge

BY ALLY FINDLEY

  The Silence That Remains , by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

The Silence That Remains, by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Ghassan Zaqtan’s The Silence That Remains speaks to the truths that live in the gaps between the episodic and ephemeral, marked “history,” “tragedy,” and “trauma” before our collective consciousness sails on. Zaqtan examines the space that is left between these flashes, and the forced reckoning of those left after the news crews retreat—the episodic nature of history and how personal lives continue on between the bullet points. There is a delicate redirection of our attention in this collection to the lives of people, with all their intricacies and enormities, in the margins and footnotes of historical trauma. Look at the people, these poems tell us. There, we will find the true magnitude of the cost of devastation.

This collection was compiled and organized from many other collections by its translator, Fady Joudah. Ordered temporally, Silence reveals Zaqtan’s penchant for alteration and revision, a lack of reverence for the set text. Some poems exist in different versions than their previously-published forms, others share the same title. His poetry lives in a way that other poetry rarely does, as he resists the tendency to imagine poetry statically and instead insists on the journey of each poem continuing, lending a fresh, timely currency to his verse and to his subject matter. His poems wend along through history, both personal and communal, preserved and (nearly) lost. This quality makes Zaqtan’s work (and particularly this collection) increasingly transferable and insistent on its continued relevance. Now especially, as trauma in Syria fills our news feeds and newsreels, the ways in which we memorialize such tragedy take on a painfully timely resonance—and unavoidable visibility.

Zaqtan’s experience, however, stems largely from his experience with conflicts in his native Palestine and later with violence in Lebanon. Born a Palestinian poet near Bethlehem in 1954, he identifies with those certain elements of the diverse Arabic poetic tradition. He has lived and written in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia, and a sense of place informs his poetic approach. In “Fingers,” found toward the beginning of the collection, Zaqtan asks, “What’s that ringing in the brevity of silence, / delicate between destruction’s instant / and fire’s eruption?” His answer:

Unrelenting and wise
fingers disassemble the horizon
into houses and send it back
to the beauty of dirt, iron, and people

Zaqtan articulates through his poetry, and particularly through this collection, that what remains, and what is built in that space, is defined by what has been taken. And in that sense, he places great evidence on physical space, belonging to that space when your home, your territory, the land that your ancestors made their own, has been taken from you. That land, once you are robbed of it, becomes the factor that defines you and informs the emotional and psychological landscape around you. In an interview with PBS’ Jeffrey Brown, Zaqtan explained, “For this uncertain place, for uncertain life, which we have in this area, we have to protect our personal history. A complete people has lost its future, has lost the location, has lost its place. And, obviously, poetry is one of the most expressive forms in order to reach the people. This is why the poets were the first to remind these people of their identity.”

In the poem “Khalil Zaqtan,” which eulogizes his late father and was originally published in a 1988 collection, Zaqtan writes:

And I will gather the house of your chucked absence.
As if we were alone on earth
[...] you die
so I can fold the falcon's wings after its departure
and believe the silence that remains.

This image of the house made out of “chucked absence” builds into Zaqtan’s theme of loss creating space. He extends this concept of building out of emptiness in his emphasis of the poem as a built space or landscape, using the language of physical place to describe the intangible or abstract. In “Khalil Zaqtan,” this house is the loss of his father. The poem “A Swallow” applies this perspective to the process of writing poetry and perhaps reveals something of Zaqtan’s concept of the poetic process. The poem begins describing its author: “Maybe he came out of a hole / in the evening’s wall,” “he became a carpet for the poem.”

A great deal of Zaqtan’s power lies in his ability to overlay our mental high-resolution photographs of war zones (public trauma, media narratives) with people we recognize, faces we know. He writes, “Two faces in catastrophe: / my father and his horse.” The minute details of people and things render the true face of loss clearly. The poem “Another Death,” already devastating in its sense of devastation-as-routine, begins “Her corpse is in front of the door,” but continues:

her standing there, singing at night, the glare of her silver comb
her knee that darts lightning our way
her glass rings

her henna-washed hair and pagan handshake
her laugh by the door
her gist in throwing her hair back or letting it down

She is seen not just as a body, but as all of the moments witnessed and all of the habits of the woman herself, the individuality painted vividly where, otherwise, she would become a number. In this capacity, Zaqtan prevents us from being able to to abstract these events, tying our inevitable private and mundane similarities, our small individual habits, to these public narratives which otherwise can only evoke sympathy without empathy. He builds for us a physical landscape, layering it with the moments and the people it witnessed—in peace, in war, and after:

The metal
the metal that tumbled
and whistled and howled
and sparkled in the space of the abyss
and in the middle of the roar
exactly there, in that corner
where coffee windows used to open in your eyelids

The precision of place is emphatic: “exactly there, in that corner.” It is important to get that corner right. It further emphasizes the seemingly inconceivable coexistence of these peaceful moments with the trauma that followed and that, but for memories, erased them. Rendering them here is Zaqtan’s rejection of that erasure, and his refusal to separate the peaceful and the traumatic events that have inhabited these spaces, as he layers these experiences and sensations over the same physical space.

This depiction gives the devastation a tangible human cost, and the contrast makes the loss more sharply felt for the fact that it was not, and never was, inevitable. Zaqtan uses the pinpricks of the quotidian, the peacefully banal, to sketch the outlines of the ineffable last reality of loss, deftly inserting his realities into the mental and emotional landscapes of those who will never physically witness those truths. In its telling of those truths, one of the poems that strikes me is “Their Absence.” It begins “and what remains,” bringing to mind the title of the collection, and its answer: silence. What remains is their absence, and this absence is stated in the presence of what have left. The poem reads:

And what remains
but little little
and their shirts
fabric that spreads on trees

banners that tug
only at trees

and are not received
a triumph

The banner of a nationalist conflict loses any honor in victory as it hangs from the body of a child. Objects lose their identity without the people they are connected to: a shirt becomes mere fabric without the child who once wore it. Humanity infuses these objects, and that humanity is then preserved in those same objects as evidence that humans lived. They were there.

Only a great poet can make you feel such grief and shame with the description of a small cotton shirt, can make you see the suggestion of a body and of a whole life lived inside of it—how the shirt fit against warm skin, present and dynamic. We don’t know what has happened, not overtly (in the sense that we, most of us, weren’t there—and none of us, living, reading, were the child). The context, however, is transferable, in the sense that this is what war does, what natural disasters do. This is what inhabiting these spaces, post-devastation, is like—living in the ringing silence of after. We are never told why the shirt flaps, deserted in the tree, but the weight of context resolves the final image. Zaqtan elevates this silence as the most pure form of communication, the most universally and instinctively understood. In his introduction to Silence, Joudah writes, “If silence is sacred language, golden, then everything else is inferior translation.” Rather than the absence of communication, it is instead the most pure form of it.

Formally, Zaqtan deftly crafts in short, delicate lines. His words would weigh too heavily and hang too simply for the sustained, breathy, and ornate line; each line says what it needs to say and says enough with little. Zaqtan’s manuscript is measured and cut into simple, observational truths which are constructed to reveal but not to dictate. He relies on the collective ability of an audience to fill the silences he leaves for us, knowing our innate similarities will guide our realizations. His language is sparing but not sparse. It is pared down to its densest core, the most suggestive words alone and undiluted in their force, darkly suggesting to us what we already know but perhaps do not yet see. We, unlike the people Zaqtan gives voice to, are not forced to make our lives in the aftershocks of this history. He paints for us life after the dust settles.

Silence resists our tendency to abstract history, news, and distance. Zaqtan’s poems read as necessarily internal, but they externalize distance, be it physical, emotional, psychological, or the distance of privilege—or lack thereof. The invasion of Lebanon, for example, took place as he was writing—a rocket literally burned down his Beirut apartment and many copies of his own poems. For me, this recalls Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “The Cure for What Ails You”: “cruelty, after all, is made of distance.”

Formally, Zaqtan refuses finality in his poems—an absence of final punctuation. Whether or not we can chalk such formal decisions up to difference in cultural or linguistic conventions, this absence creates the effect of a denied ending, a resistance to comfortably folding these scenes into the past or separating these stories from ourselves. As a poet,  Zaqtan is never finished with the poems, and we, as members of a global society, are never finished with his subject matter. In “Always,” he writes:

Seven days ago was Thursday afternoon
I read the poem
the one that was supposed to have been finished
that morning
and it wasn’t finished
For seven years
I finish it every morning then doze off
and by evening
I always catch it
opening its doors on the sly
and calling talk in

This volume is beautifully produced by Copper Canyon Press with the Arabic (verso) printed alongside its English translation (recto). As each script is read in opposite directions (English left to right, Arabic right to left), Zaqtan’s words stream outward from the center. The Silence That Remains is a collection to reflect on and return to, a thoughtful meditation delicately rendered.

 

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

Conversations with Contributors: Franny Choi (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Five.

By Nina Coomes, Guest Interviewer.

  Franny Choi , featured in  Issue Twenty .

Franny Choi, featured in Issue Twenty.

Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and the Helen Zell Writers Program. Her poems have appeared in PoetryAmerican Poetry Review, the New England Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow, Senior News Editor at Hyphen Magazine, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective. 

 

Interviewer's Note: In 1910, Japan began a long history of imperialism in Korea that persists today in ways both explicit and subtle. As a Japanese writer interviewing Franny about Death By Sex Machine, this interview is necessarily contextualized by the role of Japan as colonizer and eraser of violent history, specifically towards Korea.

Nina Coomes: Congratulations on the publication of Death by Sex Machine! Thank you so, so very much for writing this book. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a really long time, and I know I’ll be listening to the Spotify playlist that accompanies it even longer.

First, can you tell me a little bit about how you chose to title the chapbook? One of my favorite experiences while reading your book on the Boston bus lines was watching the person across the aisle from me spelling out the cover text—Dea-th-By-Sex-Mac-hine—and then watching how their faces would shift, changing into curiosity or horror or barely-suppressed laughter. It’s an arresting title and an equally arresting image (illustrated by Gel Jamlang) taken from a line in your poem "Kyoko_Inquires." Why this line? What did you want to convey to your reader?

Franny Choi: I think the reaction you describe (some combination of curiosity, horror, and giggles) is pretty much the ideal for how I hoped a reader would respond to the title—and I love the idea that the surprise comes out of the need to look a little closer. I really cherish that (hopefully brief!) moment of not understanding that makes someone say, “Wait, what? What is this?” and then want to keep investigating.

As for the title Death by Sex Machine, I think it’s a little capsule of some of the things going on in the project: the strange consequences of gender and sexuality that come out of our relationships with machines, humanity’s fear of its own inventions (including race and gender), the violence of being made into a tool for pleasure, the pleasures possible in language. And I hoped the double resonance of “death by chocolate” (capitalism making women eat things) and “sex machine” (James Brown making liberatory joy through art) would translate into something that feels lively and complicated and also fun to say. It’s a funny thing, though, to have a book with the word “sex” in the title. It puts some distance between me and younger students, my mom, the generally squeamish, etc.

 

The Turing Test is a test constructed by Alan Turing in 1950 that asked the question, “Can machines think?” But the test constructed that question in such a way that, basically, a human and a machine are in conversation—if the human can’t reliably distinguish that it is talking to a machine, the machine passes the test. You use the Turing Test frequently in this book, playing it against concepts such as love and weight. What do you think it means for machines to pass the Turing test? Are your poems the communications of machines that pass or fail?

FC: I think in many ways, people of color, immigrants, women, queer/trans people (and so on) are always trying to pass the Turing Test—to fool people into thinking we’re human, or at least indistinguishable from humans. I grew up thinking it was one of my greatest strengths to not have a Korean accent; I even remember studying the speech patterns of other Korean-American kids so I wouldn’t sound like them. I have a tendency now, too, to slightly adopt the accent of whatever region of the U.S. I’m in, as a subtle way of communicating, “I’m from here, I’m like you” (read: “I’m not like them”). Recently, I watched a video I’d taken of an incident of police brutality at a protest and felt this huge wave of shame because I heard myself pronounce “th” like “d” as I was shouting at the cop—at the latent bit of foreignness my voice betrayed in that moment of crisis, when my guard was down.

Of course, the project of passing as human is much vaster and deeper than accents. People who have historically been denied humanity are constantly taking tests to prove they experience the full range of human experience, not to mention all of the formal tests that allow or deny them access to resources, status, mobility, etc. Poems are technologies of consciousness; and so yes, maybe these poems are machines I use to—without the presence of my physical body—try to convince someone that there’s a person here.

 

Why did you choose to use Chi from Chobits and Kyoko from Ex Machina as the sister voices or sister experiences in your text? Sisterhood, daughterhood and motherhood—relationships centered on womanhood (or perhaps non-manhood) feature prominently. Why do you think these relationships emerged in your poetry, especially in the context of machines, which some might say have no family or familial relationship? Why are they important?

FC: Donna Haraway, in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” talks about cyborg relationships as occurring along lines of affinity rather than biological kinship. There’s plenty to say about how this plays against Haraway as a white woman writing, in much of the essay, about women of color consciousness—how saying “never mind my identity, it’s my politics that matter”—is nothing new when it comes to white women waltzing into rooms that women of color built.  But. Yes, calling someone “sister” is naming a line of solidarity, and of course it’s maybe the queerest thing to make family outside of traditional kin relationships. 

I think, also, that calling Kyoko “sister” is a way to name that moment of excitement and anxiety I feel when seeing an API woman on a Western screen. The stakes of representation are high; there are so many ways to fuck up. But I can’t help but love the API femmes I see on screen, no matter how troubling they are—there are too few of us not to. Maybe something that’s not super obvious to some readers is that the two figures I’ve called into conversation are both Japanese women, and as someone with roots in a country that was colonized by Japan for 35 years, there are stakes to identifying with Chi and Kyoko. So the relationship between the book’s speaker and these figures isn’t uncomplicated—but of course, sisterhood never is.

 

“Chi_Conjugations” employs an experimentation that reminded me of Pussy Monster in that I think you beautifully use experimental forms to give readers a hidden or larger truth. “@FannyChoir” is another such poem, where you process tweets sent to you through multiple languages in Google Translate. What was the experience of writing “@FannyChoir”? Did it feel triumphant—to rearrange the words of others that seemed like they had origins in hate? In the multi-translation and mistranslation, did you find anything that surprised you?

FC: I’m not sure if it felt triumphant, though that was maybe the hope. What it felt like was this: over a period of a few days, a wave of trolls tweeted terrible things at me. (This happened when something I said about whiteness showed up on a white supremacist website and, it turned out later, in a slideshow for a lecture by Richard Spencer. Weird times.) And I was surprised at how put-out I was, considering I pretty much spend all day reading and writing and thinking about how racist, sexist violence operates. You know, you learn to survive in very Ravenclaw ways, reading articles, writing triumphant poems, etc., and then you spend a day trying not to look at your phone while strangers call you a gook and threaten to rape you for hours. Initially, I was totally fascinated by all the violent tweets; I was obsessed and really wanted to play with that language. But after a while, I found I couldn’t do it without feeling really, really awful. Feeding those tweets into Google Translate was an attempt to break the language, to make it uncanny and funny, to make a way to engage with it without being wrecked in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure if it worked. These days, I can read that poem aloud without being dropped back into the panic of that day; and I hope, moreover, that the language is so garbled that I can read it aloud without triggering anyone else.But it doesn’t always feel great, and it doesn’t escape me that a part of my book is still a preserved space for those voices to live.

 

“Turing Test_Weight” is a poem that physically made me feel like someone knocked the breath out of me. The way you set up the poem, the way the interrogator’s question lands (“what is….your country of origin”)—it brought the semi-sci-fi hypotheticals of the entire chapbook sharply into focus. In particular, I’m thinking about the Turing Test and learning English (or any other normative language) as a second language, and the different signals we give to try to pass societal interrogations meant to determine worthiness. In a parallel fashion, I think your poem “Choi Jeong Min” and its questions about naming are also related. How do you see immigranthood intersecting with the themes of your book?

FC: I think foreignness is one of the many things that can place a person in the uncanny valley—that horror/humor of perceived emulation of humanity. I know that in some ways, no matter how perfect my English is, no matter how I sound on the phone, no matter how annoyingly good my grammar is, I’ll always be seen as someone doing, at best, an extraordinarily good job at emulating a native speaker. But I think it’s a beautiful gift to have grown up with the understanding that all English is broken; all English is breakable. I have no respect for the sanctity of English. Neither do Chi and Kyoko, and I think knowing that allowed me to write their voices with a kind of wildness that I might not have otherwise. I remember someone describing Gertrude Stein as writing poetry “as if she had never read any.” That’s the kind of brand-new-ness that I wanted their voices to have—the wild disrespect of someone who’s always been an outsider to the rules of a thing. The project is, of course, about the pain of being relegated to the outside, but for me, it’s just as much about the wisdom and the pleasure that come with it.

 

And I’ll leave you with this last question: throughout the book, there were many words that appeared more often than not—mouth, fish, ghost, stink, slug, please. Please in particular stood out to me, because, while your chapbook’s primary cyborg speaker is constantly having things taken from her, she is also exhibiting a hunger that in some instances is depicted as uncontrollable and monstrous, and in others tender-hearted and sorrowful (“sometimes / when the sidewalk opens my knee / i think / please / please let me remember this”). Please, then, takes on many tones. In that same vein, what do you think the cyborg ultimately wants? What do you want for this book? What do you want for your writing more broadly—for yourself as both artist and human, now, and in the future?

FC: There’s a poem in the full-length book called “What a Cyborg Wants,” and the first line is “What a cyborg wants is to work perfectly.” Which of course isn’t all the way right, but maybe that’s part of it, at least: to be a thing that happens the way it’s supposed to. Oof, what a dream.

As for the rest of your questions: oh, I don’t know. But I think about that line by Hannah Sanghee Park: “the layers / comprising me are, reductively, soft / hard, soft.” About what it might look like to live and write with that knowledge. Today, I asked a question at a Q&A with the poet Robin Coste Lewis—a roundtable with only about twenty people in the room—and something in her answer opened up a little part of me, and to my total horror, I started weeping. Just staring back at her, wearing probably my butchest flannel, and fully weeping, not able to stop. And though it was totally embarrassing, maybe that’s all I’m trying to make, really—a little aperture of softness. A room where the hard rules and histories that made us are on equal footing with the things only tenderness can teach.

 

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Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, performer, producer and artist. She was born in Nagoya, raised in Chicago, and currently resides in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The CollapsarEATER,  and The Margins, among other places. She is a 2018 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow.

 

Conversations with Contributors: Eve L. Ewing (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Five.

By Ashunda Norris, Guest Interviewer.

 Dr. Eve L. Ewing, author of  Electric Arches  (Haymarket Books, 2017).

Dr. Eve L. Ewing, author of Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, 2017).

Dr. Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. She is the author of Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the year's best books by NPR and the Chicago Tribune. She is also author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side and the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. She is a scholar at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other venues. 



Eve L. Ewing's debut poetry collection Electric Arches is a stunning hybrid work of art that encompasses poems, short stories and visual images. An award winning text, Electric Arches explores Black girlhood and womanhood in a blend of futuristic and magic realism prose that skillfully erupts from the page. Dr. Ewing took a moment to chat with me about the formulation of the work, how childhood influences her poems, Afrofuturism, and the lure of ideal writer lives.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ashunda Norris: What specific book, person or action led you to poetry?

Eve L. Ewing: I don't have an answer for that because I don't really remember a time when I wasn't writing poetry or reading poetry. The first poem I wrote I remember writing when I was six years old. Poetry has always been my life. I'm sure a major influence was that my parents used to read to me a lot. In my family, we have a big tradition of silly rhymes and word play. My mom used to make up really funny, silly songs for us that used repetition and rhyme and sing them for us when were little. That was the first thing that led me to poetry. It's something that has been in my life for as long as I can remember.



This collection seems childlike—and I don't mean that pejoratively—in its brevity, clearness, hybrid art forms, innocent speakers. While reading, I placed myself back into specific ages of my girlhood: 10, 12, 16, 18, etc. Can you talk about how the text came to be and how you formulated worlds within the worlds of the poems?  

EE: Thank you so much. That's a huge compliment because that was definitely my intention. I wanted to write a book that could tell a coming of age story but in a way that left space for a possibility in the past and in the future. I think of the book as a series of tellings and retellings of memories and flashbacks that I'm inviting people to inhabit with me. I'm somebody who, in many ways, [laughs] is very childish in nature. A lot of my work is centered around thinking about futures for children and how to make the world better for children, working with children directly and indirectly. That definitely influences the way I write. I used to be a middle school English teacher, and I thought a lot about my students as a very specific imagined audience as I was writing. I think childhood is really important. Often, people think of poetry as this really serious adult thing. For most Americans, their youth is the height of poetry consumption in their whole life because poetry is read in school. A lot of adults don't necessarily go on to keep poetry as a part of their reading habit. A lot of the ways people perceive and recall poetry are influenced by childhood, and children really play an important part of shaping the literary canon. I like to celebrate and lean into that notion.



A great deal of your poems speak to the nuances and idiosyncrasies that make up the Black woman. You've included pieces that pay homage to very complex women—namely, Zora Neale Hurston in "what I mean when I say I'm sharpening my oyster knife," Erykah Badu in "appletree," and Marilyn Mosby in "one good time for Marilyn Mosby," each poem focusing on a different aspect of Black womanhood. Was this deliberate? Can you speak to the conception of these poems?

EE: I think we, as Black women, although this is something that is changing and improving, we (Black women) are given really limited models of how we get to be and how we get live with the expectations placed upon us. I'm intrigued by the many examples of Black women, both famous people and everyday people, who defy conventions. All of us, every single one of us, is an individual in ways that are not acknowledged and not portrayed in media and in books. When I was younger, I felt pressure as a Black woman to write about certain topics or to write in a certain way or have a certain tone. For example, the idea that I had to write about—especially with me coming from a performance background and spoken word culture, that my poetry had to be like, sad or like had to be about trauma stuff or it wasn't good Black woman poetry. And I just wanted to resist that. Of course, with all recognition to and appreciation for people who have used their poetry to write through trauma. I also think there needs to be space for us to be our full selves. I wouldn't say I see each of those women as representing a different particular part of Black womanhood, necessarily, but that I hope that the book presents many different facets and idiosyncrasies of Black womanhood. There is no one such Black womanhood. There's no homogeneous vision or idea of what it means to be a Black woman. The sooner we understand that, the freer we can be.



Visual art is character in the collection. A great number of the poems appear on black paper—an unorthodox choice but quite effective, especially in the piece "why you cannot touch my hair." How did you initially build this poem? Where did the choice to change up the paper emerge in the process?

EE: I wanted to make a book that was going to be visually striking as an object as well as in the content that it presents. When people are presented with words or literature or art in general, our society tends to be hyper-verbal and focuses on the words themselves. There is something about visual presentation that allows people to access the information on a quick level. Even if it's somebody who can't read or who doesn't know all the words being used in the poem, or a maybe it's young child or a person who doesn't speak English. There is something valuable in thinking about the book as an object itself. Even people who consider themselves readers of poetry, we underestimate sometimes about how much the visual impacts and compels us, or doesn't. It's almost taboo to admit that ugly book covers are not compelling or interesting. I was really excited to work with the designer at Haymarket. To think about, what does it mean for this book to be a visually compelling object, and what are the ways that we can do that? The black paper is a part of that. As for the poem, the line or idea I thought of first was the line about the hair being technology from the future or being somehow dangerous. My hair as, like, a menace to society. Thinking about all the times when I was a kid when people would say, "Oh, your hair is so crazy." Playing with the idea of hair being seen as unruly or difficult or a problem. When I was a kid, my hair would not look the way people thought it should look. Babysitters and random people thought they could come up to me as a child and ask me about my hair or try to touch it—or want to play with my hair, braid my hair, just do something to it. It was always understood to be this thing that didn't belong to me, that it was seen as a threat. As I got older, I learned the language and the history to understand that our hair is considered dangerous and has to be tamed or controlled. I think that's where the poem initially came from.



What is your current writing process?

EE: It really varies depending on what I'm working on. I'm very deadline- and goal-oriented in the sense that I'm not a person who sits around waiting for inspiration to strike. Writing is my job. As a scholar and academic, writing is definitely my job. My promotion and whether I get tenure is based on my ability to write well. I don't have the option of "Oh, I don't feel like it." I have to really set deadlines to get it done, power through and hustle, which is not the most eloquent or romantic answer, but it's my work, and I have to do my work. When I need to write, I'm trying to create a space that is as free from distractions as possible. My ideal writing process is creating an environment where I wake up in the morning, walk to the computer, and start writing. I may have to make breakfast in advance or drink tea and close all of the open tabs that don't relate to the writing. I return to things. I revise them. I usually like to give my work a bit of space or finish a draft or a bigger project before returning to revise it.



Afrofuturism is a theme throughout the collection. In this work, alternative worlds don't seem as far-fetched or endlessly out of sight; that is, Afrofuturistic nations are a plausible reality, as in the first poem of the collection, "Arrival Day" which opens with a quote by Assata Shakur. For me, the piece names or imagines an optimism within the proximity of human thought—it provides an entryway into the poems that follows and commands the question, What is home? How does it manifest for you as a poet? 

EE: For me, home is really about people and the stories we construct. It's about the people that we love and how we became the person that we are and how we're continually engaged with the process of becoming. The reason I write about Chicago so much is because the city made me who I am as a person and as a writer. I have a lot of love for people who are serious about where they're from, and it also doesn't even matter where they're from. It's about being a person who is attentive to the relationships that are being formed, including the relationships you form with yourself and understanding the role that place has to play in that. The streets that you walk, the tree that you see and the dogs in your neighborhood and the person who cuts your hair and the person who takes care of you when your mom is sick and the person who taught you to ride your first bike. Those people a part of how you come to be as you are, and that is inextricably bound up in place.  



Those who are reading this may be living or attempting to live full writer lives, which can be a tricky balancing act of many responsibilities. What advice would you give those who see you and believe that you're living a seemingly flawless writer life?

EE: [Laughs] Well, whether you want to be a writer or an athlete or musician or entrepreneur, no one should ever believe that someone else's life is flawless or feel like you understand even one percent of what a person's life is like from what you see on social media or from what you assume based on these cultural tropes that our society has. The purpose of social media is to take the stand-in of photo album or a note to a friend or a diary. These are things that represent fragments of a person's life. None of them represent a totality of a person's life. People don't understand what came before. I've been really blessed that the book is doing well, but that doesn't tell you about all the times the book was rejected before somebody agreed to publish it. I started blogging when was fifteen years old and practiced writing every single day. I did freelance when I was nineteen or twenty. I would get paid $20 to write something. That would be hours of work with me getting paid very little money. Those are the things that helped me hone my craft. You don't see me working in a restaurant writing poems on napkins. Those forms of labor are not visible. You don't see a person's whole life through any one fragment of a portrayal of them. People underestimate the regular, everyday work of being a writer.



And finally, name five books and five works of visual art you'd recommend to readers.

EE: Five books: Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde; Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith; Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler; madness, by sam sax; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay. Five works of visual art: Tehran Taboo, directed by Ali Soozandeh; the “Vetiver Night Women” series, by Brianna McCarthy; the poster collection from the Justseeds collaborative; “Little Miss Sunshine,” by Hebru Brantley; and “Color(ed) Theory,” by Amanda Williams.

 

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Ashunda Norris is a fierce feminist, filmmaker, poet and teacher whose most recent work as a filmmaker has screened internationally, including Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya. She was born and raised in the heart of rural Georgia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, Huffington Post, The Rush Magazine and elsewhere. She is a proud alumna of Howard University and Paine College and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mount Saint Mary's University. Ashunda is a Cave Canem fellow and has received a residency from The Lemon Tree House. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

 

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A Review of Diane Seuss' Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Peter LaBerge

BY E.B. SCHNEPP

 Diane Seuss'  Still Life with Two Peacocks and a Girl  (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Diane Seuss' Still Life with Two Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A story presented through still life, Diane Seuss’ fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, exquisitely layers self, art, and language, while struggling with femininity, violence, and the question of the gaze. A collection set primarily within paintings, we see both self and painting only in fragments: the folded hands of a girl, the tail feathers of a dead peacock, a basket of fruit. Only at the collection’s conclusion do we see Rembrandt’s painting, from which the collection borrows its title, and arguably the self of the poems, whole. By this point, we know the painting and, indeed, the story Seuss is trying to tell, all the better for its slow approach to completion. This slow reveal doesn’t come from a desire to conceal or from a coyness, but rather from a well-crafted intention to draw the reader in—all the while making the reader question precisely from where they are viewing the image and the speaker. Are we in a gallery surrounded by paintings, viewed at one’s own leisure, led by an eccentric guide? Or are readers themselves bound by canvas and frame, being as much the viewed as the viewer?

Still Life both opens and closes within a painting titled Paradise, wherein Seuss introduces readers to the painting as self: “I have lived in a painting called Paradise, and even the bad parts / were beautiful.” In this first poem, the speaker shows readers around her world, piece by piece, the same way we are brought to the art and to the speaker herself. But it is also an exploration of borders and boundaries, a journey we do not take alone as we wander through the world of the speaker, getting to know her through the art she lives within.

[…] I am told some girls
slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it,
and some even climb over the edge and plummet to wherever

Before we can reach this point of understanding, we have to take time to live in the painting, within the frame, to wander in and out of the lives given to us on canvas, and occasionally to slip behind the eyes of the men and women who created them. Mid-collection, painters find themselves painted into the quintessential Midwestern landmark, Wal-mart. “Like you, we enter the store. Like you, we exit. The light outside will not relent.” All of these figures—the real imagined in a new space and the imagined presented as real—are treated with such tenderness and reverence it’s impossible to look away, impossible to not imagine Georgia O’Keefe, for example, standing beside you in a Wal-mart parking lot:

from above, we’d like to believe, it’s made of the same bone that we are.
How high would we have to go to see it as the skull of the deer we found
summers ago in the creek bed? Deep down we know it was not born and
cannot die.

This journey through painting and representation to the real also comes with loss and considerable harm to the speaker. The tangible “Real” that the speaker ventures toward and ultimately escapes into means inhabiting a body and the baggage that comes with that existence.

[…] I flew when I was five. Levitated, I guess.
                                                    […] Floated

there as if in a warm sea. It happened often
until I was ten, when I had the thought
that human beings can’t fly and was dropped,
As if from the beak of a large owl, onto the floor.

I was banged up. Cuts and bruises.
From then on, inhabiting my body felt shameful,
like I’d been ejected from the Garden and was
sentenced to a life of peeing and wiping,

But more than the raw shame of being a body, Seuss gets to the core of the daily violence of inhabiting the world; she gets to the daily maintenance and indignities of those bodies. She reminds us that “to belong to the land / and the people that made you is itchy / as hand-knitted wool.” This never negates a deep love for those same people but merely acknowledges the irritation and ache of it, which in the end makes the tenderness she has for the characters and figures of this collection all the sweeter and more meaningful.

Seuss and, indeed, her speaker are testing the boundaries of the body and frame—both a literal picture frame, the frame of a poem, and the more metaphorical frame of existence. The literal picture frame in which the recurring female painted figures find themselves contained is also being toyed with in a more literal fashion, the itchiness of inhabitation and the tenderness toward the figures on the other side of the idealized Paradise measured—until, finally, she finds the courage to leave:

                                                          […] I remembered
 
it all: my yellow room, my little crib with decals of butterflies
and a black-and-white dog and a gold cat on the headboard,

how I’d compose stories about them in my head before I could
speak, and the yellow bird we kept in a cage […]

                                                          […] I wanted
my mother, and this is why I left Paradise.

In traveling through these poems, we are slowly exposed to the literal painting that haunts this collection until, finally, we can see the full image at the same time that the speaker finally escapes her frame. These concepts speak volumes to the palpable constraint of the poems, as well as to the gaze. With the figures of the painting stepping beyond the frame, they become a little more real—whole individuals (typically female and, as such, more likely objects gazed upon than active participants) given more direct agency. The empowerment and revitalization of these typically-female figures—the perspective shift, each gazing at the world from their frame—shifts our perspectives and expectations as much as Seuss’ speaker stepping directly out of the frame and back into the “Real.”

Throughout Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, Seuss demonstrates remarkable tenderness toward her figures and speakers, exquisite control over form and design, and has given us, her readers, another exquisite collection, where visual art and poem are combined into an inextricable whole. Readers can’t help but be drawn into the frames the figures occupy, joining the speaker post-expulsion from the constrained but safe world of the painting into the sweet ache of reality upon its close. The world outside the pages seems fresh and leaves the reader questioning what or which frames they occupy, who they are gazing upon, who is gazing upon them, and most terrifying of all, what they might find if they took the leap, if they were to fully occupy and embody whatever lies beyond.

 

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E.B. Schnepp is a poet hailing from rural Mid-Michigan who currently finds herself stranded in the flatlands of Ohio. Her reviews can also be found in the Mid-American Review, and her poetry can be found in QU, The Evansville Review, and Roanoke Review, among others.

 

 

A Review of Eric Pankey's Augury by Peter LaBerge

BY BEN LEE

 Eric Pankey's  Augury  (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Eric Pankey's Augury (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Speculation—the foundation for all things literary and scientific—harbors the ambiguous no-man’s-land between curiosity and truth. In poetry, speculation offers the incredible capacity to alter perception and shed new light. Speculation is hope; it is risk, and to be perfectly clear, speculation is everything. Eric Pankey’s newest collection of poems, Augury, brings speculation to the forefront of his literary adventure and offers the reader a chance to step into a surreal and uncharted realm of explication.

Centered around the conflation of metaphysicality and seemingly mundane objects, each line in Pankey’s book shape-shifts. In his poem, “Another Time,” Pankey exhibits such fluid adaptations in imagery to give dimension to a chipped flower vase at a funeral for someone’s mother: “[She] felt the flaw on the vase’s neck: / A crack as fine as fishbone in the glaze / […] The past, she’d learned, is like a fishhook— / Curved and barbed” (43). Suddenly, the fractured vase at the mother’s wake—seemingly mundane and insignificant—arrests the protagonist like the way a tiny but sharp hook latches onto a fish. In other words, Pankey’s sentences are like minefields, cunningly ridden with trap doors and explosions where one least expects.

Often taking the form of concise conjectures, his poems also leave the reader with a hint of mysterious distrust, as many of them contain a dissonance that can only be resolved by reading further into the book. His poem “Vespers” literally culminates in a final note on the evening prayers in question. In a final breath, the speaker remarks, “The drone upon which harmony hangs” (40). The fragmented sentence, coupled with its physical separation from any other line in the poem, emit an actual feeling of dissonance. Amazingly, Pankey recreates a musical setting within poetry, striking a final chord that, while poignant, begs to be continued. Furthermore, Pankey’s poems act like puzzles, as they challenge their beholder to make new sense of both how they appreciate the space around them and how they interact with their confines. From ponderings on celestial allure to the gritty reality of Midwest alcoholism, Pankey slyly intertwines an area of reality with dreaming. In his “Speculation on Immanence,” he explicates the implications of confinement, noting:

The room is
Unnoteworthy
Except for the dreams…

And Magdalene’s face

Still illuminated
By the skull
She consults (27).

In essence, Pankey clouds the difference between mental and physical captivity. One’s own head space becomes synonymous to a cell-like room, as if to say that internal thoughts can be just as enclosing as a physical internment; what may happen in a dream interchanges with reality.

Although many of his poems consist of two to three line stanzas, Augury also contains a more lengthy piece with a singular nugget of prose on each page—often made poignant by the delicate use of paradox. In a speculation on melancholia, the speaker self-reflects, asserting that he is “Distracted, attached / To an absence, / Attentive to only distractedness” (17). Instead of writing about distraction outright, Pankey toys with the duality of attentiveness and distractedness, utilizing paradox to blur the convention that a person can only exist in a state of one or the other. Additionally, in an emphasis on the importance of speculation in creating poetry, Pankey admits, "At a loss of words, I write poems" (38). Here, Pankey remarks that poetry lives to explicate the inexplicable; in order to make sense of what is unfamiliar, a poet must draw from and transmute what they already know. As a result of this rationalization and subsequent experimentation, paradox bubbles to the surface.

Aside from paradox, some of Pankey’s poems also employ elements of wonder, as to create a whimsical awe that disrupts otherwise dark images. The speaker in his longer prose piece, “Souvenir de Voyage,” recalls a fantastical journey, laced with outlandish imagery: “Don’t expect to find there votaries of a vestigial cult of Dionysus, twin falcons rending the flank of a gazelle, or a shroud of jade squares held together with copper wire” (68). Dionysus, the Greek god of grape harvest and wine-making, connotes a luxurious sentiment. In corroboration, the likeness of two falcons on either side of a gazelle embodies a graceful but mythical scene. To top it all off, the jade and copper add a material regalness, resulting in a wholly fanciful section of the poem. As a whole, Augury simultaneously grapples with dark paradox along with fantastic imagery. In the employment of both truth and abstraction, he blurs the lines of thematic conflict, leaving the reader to make sense of a void in which what is real and what is not are open to question. Essentially, Augury enforces not only meditation, but speculation.

 

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Originally from the Twin Cities area, Ben Lee is the 2017 National Student Poet for the Midwest and a two-time national medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. He attends The Blake School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Raise Your Glass: Mentorship alums Aidan Forster, Jacqueline He, & Alisha Yi named U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts by Peter LaBerge

We couldn't be more excited to share that mentorship alums Aidan Forster (of Greenville, S.C.), Jacqueline He (of San Jose, Calif.), and Alisha Yi (of Las Vegas, N.V.) are this year's three U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts for the Writing discipline, in the genres of Creative Nonfiction, Short Story, and Poetry respectively. 

 

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Aidan Forster

Aidan Forster is a high school senior in the creative writing program at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina. His work has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards, and the Poetry Society of America, among others. His work appears in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2017BOAATColumbia Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, and Tin House, among others. Aidan will be a freshman at Brown University in the fall, and his debut chapbook of poems, Exit Pastoral, is forthcoming from YesYes Books.

Aidan has a long and rich history with The Adroit Journal. After his freshman year of high school, Aidan participated in the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program for high school writers, during which he studied poetry with poet Cody Ernst. Aidan then joined our staff as a Blog Editor, where he led the execution of our interviews, reviews, op-ed's, and other forms of blog content. Aidan then traded in his editor hat for his contributor hat, landing on the editor's list for the Adroit Prize for Poetry in 2016, being named both the runner-up for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose and a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry, and being named a finalist for the 2018 Gregory Djanikian Scholars Program. This summer, Aidan will serve as a poetry mentor in the 2018 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program.


Jacqueline He

Jacqueline He is a high school senior and writer from San Jose, California. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, Bennington College, Princeton University, Columbia College Chicago, John Hopkins University, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the Claremont Review, Gigantic Sequins, and Radar Poetry. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Jackie studied fiction with Dana Diehl in the 2017 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, after being named a semifinalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry. She will be the Prose Summer Assistant for this year's summer mentorship program, and will be a freshman at Princeton University in the fall.

You can click here to read a wonderful suite of poems by Jackie published in Radar Poetry.


Alisha Yi

Alisha Yi is a rising senior at Ed. W Clark High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Princeton University, and Hollins University, among others. She has work in or forthcoming from Slice Magazine, the Miami RailHermeneutic ChaosUp the Staircase Quarterly, and elsewhere. When she isn't writing, she is running free in desert lands.

Alisha studied poetry with Cody Ernst in our 2016 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, and was a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry, selected by Safiya Sinclair. She will be a freshman at Harvard University in the fall.

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Congratulations to all students recognized by the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program! The 2018 ceremony will be held June 24th, when each honoree will receive a Presidential Scholar Medallion.

Review: Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer Cara Dees.

  Darling Nova , by Melissa Cundieff (Autumn House Press, 2018).

Darling Nova, by Melissa Cundieff (Autumn House Press, 2018).

As the title suggests, Darling Nova explores both the intimate and the infinite, documenting the brilliant, immense fragility of human and animal life immediately before and after it has dimmed. Melissa Cundieff’s first full-length poetry collection announces its obsessions from the first poem: “reminiscence is an augury / backwards, a slow bullet returning to us, now.” Here, speakers mourn not only those whom they have lost, but also the futures that will never come to fruition, consumed alongside the dead. Like the return of the “slow bullet,” reminiscing is a form of retroactive self-destruction. In this space, Cundieff seeks to warn, remember, and record, “To show the crows / that coins can be plucked after all from our friends’ eyes.”

Cundieff’s attention to the transient and the evanescent echoes throughout the many elegies piercing the collection, whether it portrays a child mourning the loss of “a floating pinpoint of dust” or a speaker’s first experience with death after watching a hawk’s “pupil turn...so black / I felt as though I had been blindfolded and led high up / a cliff, then pushed.” Settings range from a John Wayne movie set seeped in carcinogens, to a mass killing in Oklahoma State University’s homecoming parade, to the island of Kos. The latter is the backdrop to “Ellipsis,” an unblinking lament for Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy made famous in the photograph depicting his drowning:

Trying to think of a next, selfish line,
I’ll hear his breath like white noise.
(Looking past the water’s surface, pennies

in blue sleep. Is it not built into our eyes
to be sorry?)

Most often, the elegies of Darling Nova focus on the deaths of children and the “never-born” from the poem, “Hurt Music.” The voices of the dead disappear and reappear, a “living ghost to my edges,” reminders of the adult’s ironic outliving of the young existence she cannot shield from harm.I cannot help but think of Joanna Newsom’s gut-wrenching song, “Baby Birch,” the lyrics of which serve as the epigraph to the collection: “And at the back of what we’ve done / There is the knowledge of you.” Though only mentioned once, “Baby Birch” haunts the book, whether in the unflinching portrayal of abortion (“The bell’s emptied space / has no name”) or within the immeasurably delicate tissues of a man receiving the news of his terminal illness in “A Scene”:

When told decay
has made its way into his absolute,

where thinnest vessels flicke
in synapse and in remembered birdsong...

In this poem, the subject’s future is suddenly amputated, any prospect of survival cut short. The speaker is left to recognize and contemplate what the man “doesn’t recognize...all those losses / parading the bone-white god’s breath / of x-ray with its careful promises.” Like the image-driven lyricism of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, in which “the dead can mother nothing...nothing but our sight,” Cundieff is concerned with the act of witnessing death, the survivor’s consequent trauma, and the unreliability of written accounts of that witnessing.

Cundieff speaks to this witnessing with an incisive, luminous detail that permeates elegies like “Poem for Infinite Returns,” in which the speaker vows to “not make a metaphor of you,” or in the poem, “Hoping Wherever You Are, You Are Not Watching”:

                    In this trial of willing
you and your dogs to the widening, altered sky, I will call,
but you will not answer, because you, like our father, cannot,
could not ever, bear the asking noise of my voice.

Though often confronted with silence, abandonment, or the dark, laconic responses of household objects and animals, the speaker insists on finding answers in the voices of the past, even though she warns the reader of the danger of this undertaking, as in “Adam in Love”: “The risk of remembering is guilt, my friends, / and the clock’s beating lockstep, real.” There is real consequence in this struggle against forgetting; remembrance carries with it both guilt and the fixed grind of time.

Cundieff’s insistence on mourning, despite its certainty of guilt and pain, recalls Larry Levis’ declaration: “Every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory / Someone remembering her diminishment & pain.” As in Levis, the voices that answer the speaker—if they do answer—tend to be brutally, bitingly honest, as in “Eyeteeth”:

                  So often I ask my house
for its honesty. It answers back: stacking doll, rind, bitch,
chanteuse, fist. I ask again. This time, what is memory made of?
The house answers: compass, compulsion, headlights fugitive at night,
teeth speaking their white, a birthday cake on fire, a mirror’s
ten thousand scraped and silver darlings.

If remembering is an act of revolution or defiance, it is also an act of love, one that insists on praising the “silver darlings” of the smashed reflection alongside the bright ferocity of fire, teeth, and bone.

At times Cundieff moves into the realm of prophecy and myth, with speakers centered between the living and the dead, the spoken and the unspoken, the past and the present. These aphoristic interjections, typically set off in italics, are a trademark of Cundieff’s work, as in the never-born’s command to “Carry me in the bell, betrayer. / In the apogee of your voice / to my voice.” In “Indexical,” both the “necessary message” of the leaves and the speaker’s thoughts take on an oracular weight:

                                             October leaves
assemble a necessary message, the bright red

of their dying a symptom of denial.

The weather knows there is no such thing
as the absolute absence of hope.
I doubt

in a year we will even be talking.

The speaker is not only a reader of signs; she is also a translator and messenger, even if that message is one of silence or of the unspeakability of love or grief. Poetry and song have within them the potential for both ecstasy and transcendence. In Darling Nova, that transcendence is less about rising above the human realm and is more dependent upon confronting and staring down decay, transforming it into the human. “I sang my old / language with a worm in it,” the speaker of “Rebirth” intones. “[A]nd the worm dangled / with every exhale it took to conjure the distant / vowels of humanness.”

In the second half of the collection, “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” and “Paradox” mark a shift in focus; while continuing to contemplate mortality, humanness, and language’s incapacity to fully encompass the two, there is a growing concern with desire and the living body. In “Paradox,” the heart, which “cannot speak at all without / metaphor,” bursts beyond human expression, compelling the speaker to “realize I’m not dead yet, / that I can come back from fading / into the body’s old routine / of being alive.” The heart offers the physical pulse and rush of blood, but it is also uncontainable, powerfully elusive, and a testament to the limitations of language, “just a tongue not knowing / not even touching, / another tongue.” Later, in “As Beginning, As End,” the mother speaks to the daughter who wishes to travel back in time to reclaim her infancy, “We have left each other / for each other. The body wishes. The body is a wish.” The mother and daughter have, by necessity, separated into two solitudes, and the infant daughter, “all tangle / before word” has disappeared. The body is more than the vessel of a soul, spirit, or consciousness; it is its own hymn to vitality in all its devastating impermanence.

Darling Nova conjures a deep loneliness, the ache and anodyne of motherhood and daughterhood, and the finite scope of language, itself. There is much that distinguishes this collection from others—its subtle musicality and fierce, fearless imagery, for starters—but part of what makes these poems tick is also the incandescent steel of the voices underpinning the universe Cundieff creates. Her speakers do not shy away from “our anxieties / over death, over divorce and children, / [that] stare out like fallen fruits.” Rather, they “hold the rotten pear” and “stab...the wolf / in its yellow iris.” They fight tooth-and-nail to praise the body, to name suffering, to “tell the leaves above me that I've come here / to watch them change.”

 

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and teaches at Vanderbilt and Fisk University. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and was named a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, The Journal, GulfCoast, and Southern Humanities Review. Recently, her first manuscript was listed as a finalist or semifinalist for the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.