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.

Review: Music for a Wedding by Lauren Clark (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer, Irina Teveleva.

Note: Reviewer Irina Teveleva and Adroit Interview and Reviews Manager Lauren R. Korn have created a Spotify playlist to accompany your reading of this review and subsequent (and inevitable) readings of Music for a Wedding. You can listen to "Music for a Book Review" here.

  Music for a Wedding , by Lauren Clark (Pitt Poetry Series, 2017).

Music for a Wedding, by Lauren Clark (Pitt Poetry Series, 2017).

 

The epigraph to Lauren Clark’s debut poetry collection Music for a Wedding, the winner of the 2016 Donald Hall Prize, comes from The Kinks’ song “Strangers.” The lyrics that open the collection suggest a love song rather than a dirge: “’til peace we find, tell you what I’ll do: / all the things I own, I will share with you.” The song, though, is about grief. The Kinks’ guitarist, Dave Davies, wrote the song for a friend who had died young of a drug overdose. In a 2010 interview with Stay Thirsty Magazine, Davies said, “It was like, what might have been if he hadn’t died so tragically.”

As the epigraph suggests, Music, too, is a book that catches the light at different angles. It is a book about a marriage ceremony, but it is also about a journey through the American heartland. It is a mixtape that features poems written after songs by Derek & The Dominos, Adele, Whitney Houston, The Mamas & The Papas, and the Lonesome Sisters. Most of all, it is a book about moving through grief and about searching for love, community, and connection—even when you feel the most lost.

If Music were an album, it would feature train signals and church organs, party noise and birdsong—Clark’s voice drawing everything together. One can hear the harmonic structure in “Mother’s Day,” the second poem in the collection. The speaker’s mother is digging through backyard dirt, searching for her dead husband as if to exhume him. One might expect the speaker to intervene, but instead they encourage her:

You have to pick up every shovel
and keep turning the ground. You
have to move soil until your hands
curdle. […] They will tell you
it’s wrong to keep shoveling, but
shovel forever. We all do.

This poem becomes an extended metaphor for the necessity of unearthing family secrets and airing skeletons hiding in closets. Clark’s speaker is telling the reader, you must talk about loss. Others will tell you that it’s wrong to keep grieving. They are wrong.

From this overturned soil, Music travels by train through rural America, past dark hills and lakes, farms and water towers, past daffodils old and new toward “the place / that is bigger than loss. The place that is big enough to hold every absence.”

In college, an archaeology professor taught me that in traveling, you should tune yourself to the local landscape in the same way that you would turn the dial in your car to the local radio station. In this way, he said, you should be able to recognize a small brook or a nameless hill in the landscape as a site of revelation, as much as a mountain or a canyon. When I read Music, I finally understood the metaphor; in this book, a field of corn can take on spiritual meaning. In “Listening to ‘Rolling in the Deep’ for Twenty Hours Straight,” Clark’s speaker describes how they watched as, outside of the train window, “All the people I love were standing in a mass in the middle of the spring / cornfield.” The field becomes a stand-in for human connection; “the cornfield taught me how much / can be mistaken for the touch of a human.” At this poem’s conclusion, the loved ones turn from each other, walking away in different directions. The poem ends, and the train and the speaker, too, are carried away.

In Music, the landscape becomes transformed by loss. Several of these poems gesture at a relationship between domestic violence and the violent history of westward expansion in the U.S. This collection resists easy answers about abuse. In “Parable,” a young child likens their body and that of an alcoholic father’s to a leg partnered with a shorter leg that others might see as deformed:

                     Who says both legs
have to be totally the same. Leg,
I can love your shortcomings.
Think of us as a set that walks.

It seems apt that a marriage ceremony is intertwined with the cross-country journey—two melodies in counterpoint. Over its course, small animals burn in a field and flower pots shatter; kitchenware is left outside and is filled with rainwater. This is a book of love poems—for people and for places—from a speaker who knows violence but holds hope for healing. And yet, so often, the speaker is also confronted with the limitations of what language can accomplish. In two poems about falling in love, sentences end with “and” unexpectedly, and. Then carry on again. In Clark’s translation, Catullus 101 is carved down to “I love you and I can’t prove it. / I love you and you don’t know.” The last poem in the collection, “Illinois in Spring,” concludes with the lines, “The wonder of watching a flying bird land / on water. The end of the line will always give you that feeling.” It is the end of the poetic line and, because this is the last poem in the book, the last stop on this train ride. This is as far as you can go; poetry can’t prevent an ending. One can anticipate that the dead will stay dead and that the lover might leave for good.

There is so much that Clark’s poetry can do for its readers. I read Clark’s poem about a road trip through the West, “Western Zuihitsu,” last spring, before it was reprinted in Music. Two weeks later, in the midst of life changes, I bought a train ticket to visit a friend in Indiana. It felt right to be physically moved by a poem, but as the train I was on rolled through the Midwest, I also thought about loss.

In these moments of transformation, Clark’s poetry is a source of strength and comfort. These dream-like poems are enough to stand on. Their promise is not that you will not lose anyone, but rather that you will move through the loss. In Music for a Wedding, as Clark writes in “Western Zuihitsu,” “The ground is made of soft stones and clay. It is like standing on the most enormous heart.”

 

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Irina Teveleva is a poet and writer. She was born in Moscow and lives in New York.

Review: Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out by Grant Kittrell (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer, Mike Good.

  Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out , by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out, by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

A bear is arrested by a policeman for walking too slowly, a favorite plaid shirt begins to bleed, and fictional places like The Gallimaufry Goat Farm collide with Jacksonville, Florida. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, Grant Kittrell’s debut poetry collection, leads its reader through unpredictable, surreal, and slapstick scenarios. Comprised of short prose poems, the collection often troubles the genre line between flash fiction and poetry. In much of his work, Kittrell reveals a fascination with idiom and strikes a conversational tone, showering his reader in speech, often imagined.

Tony Hoagland reflects on the potential and uses of idiom in poetry in an essay that first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 2014, writing, “The dictionary says that there are twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in common American use. Our speech is rife with idiom; we use it in the way that animals deploy various smells and glands—to tell others who we are, and whom we are with. Or, conversely, maybe we use it the way chameleons use color: to blend in.” With lines like “…I, laughing, long with the thought kept driving” in the short poem “Nana,” Kittrell seems to signal a Southern cadence. Aside from shading the collection in regionalism, Kittrell plays with idioms, setting up runways to take off into more surreal or abstract landscapes. In Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, the world is much like ours, but through language, possibilities beyond observed realities multiply.

Take, for instance, “Papa’s Crispies,” the fourth poem in the collection. The shared syllable in “pop” and “papa” creates onomatopoeia and, alongside “crispies,” immediately recalls the “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” mascots for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. The collocation of “snap,” “crackle,” and “pop” feels like an idiom deeply rooted within the cultural zeitgeist of the U.S.; these adverts first appeared in the 1920s. For me, the allusion evokes brief moments at the breakfast table with siblings before school. I imagine the white noise of a television flashing from another room alongside morning commotion. Thus, I feel as though I am already sitting down with the poet when “Papa’s Crispies” begins via a run-on line from the title, “[…] are still popping. But at the kitchen counter he’s getting soggy and she’s getting all soggy and they know it and sometimes they do not pop at each other like they used to.” “Soggy cereal” also arguably holds a place in our idiomatic word stock. Functionally, the phrase pulls the reader into the poem, piquing the imagination while Kittrell refreshes the image by applying “soggy” to the human body to suggest stagnancy. Meanwhile, the idiom “to pop off,” meaning to speak spontaneously and angrily at length, also lurks beneath. The implied violence becomes both playful and unsettling, and the popping continues. The speaker worries over their father, questioning, “I wonder what happens inside him when he finishes all those crispies, if the popping inside him has something to do with his keeping going.” This dreamy, childlike imagination coalesces at the ending in wonder and horror: “I take a mouthful, hold the crispies on my tongue and tilt my head back like I’m screaming. I’m not screaming, I’m just trying to understand.” In the end, the poem may have very little to do with cereal, but instead touches a universal nerve of isolation and concern. Idiom enriches many of these poems and invites its reader into the poet’s world.

As the collection’s title might imply, the act of understanding and reflecting on matters of the body and spirit are central to the whole, even if through a screwball lens. Often, in these reflections, humor explodes into violence, sadness, or longing. James Tate once wrote, according to a Paris Review interview with Charles Simic, “It’s a tragic story, but that’s what’s so funny.” As the reader moves with the author between tragedy and comedy, one device Kittrell utilizes to navigate this challenge is dialogue. Perhaps, unlike lyric, conversations are often more able to veer in unexpected ways while remaining true to their form, and the use of dialogue seems to me uncommon in contemporary poetry.

“Would You Rather” is one such piece that incorporates dialogue and offers morbid entertainment. The poem plays with the comedic, party-game construction as the speaker converses with a character named Molly Jean. In this piece, no quotation marks or italics offset the speech, blurring what is described with what is said. Molly Jean asks, “Would you rather kill one cow or thirty chickens? I’d rather kill a cow, I said. Suddenly, out of nowhere a cow appeared.” If a more lyrical or metrical underpinning were expected, as compared to the more relaxed and loose nature of the prose poem, I might beg for more precision—for instance, is it necessary to preface a cow appearing from thin air with “Suddenly, out of nowhere…”? But conversation is rarely precise, and in the poem, the rhythm of the revelation feels right. The would-you-rather dilemma escalates as the speaker debates with Molly Jean about the logic or illogic of the world and, at her command, attempts to stab and kill the cow. The speaker describes in unbroken deadpan, “I noticed there was cotton hanging from the cow’s severed neck and I thought, this does not make sense at all.” At this moment, the conflict deflates as the cow transforms, yet the conversation proceeds. Molly Jean continues, “Would you rather be a woman for a year or win 10,000 dollars? I said, I’d rather be a woman, and she raised her eyebrows again.” In this moment, “Would You Rather” continues beyond its conclusion and leaves its reader with an image of perhaps scrutiny or incredulity.

Though the collection feels thin at just 53 pages, it is perhaps in-part due to its relative brevity that it also never appears beleaguered by the prose poem form. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out manages to be playful but does not arrive without gravity. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein in her reflections on the prose poem in her essay “A Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem,” Natasha Sajé writes, “…prose is about verbs and poetry is about nouns: ‘Poetry is doing nothing but refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.’ Prose gets somewhere, but poetry is wherever it is” (The Writer’s Chronicle, June 2012). If that is the case, poems in this collection are. They are catalogs of a reality told slant. They are sitting down and figuring themselves out one word at time and rarely reaching tidy conclusions. Readers will have the delight of sitting down with this unique collection as it takes risks and catapults them into different worlds.

 

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Mike Good’s recent writing can be found at or is forthcoming from december, Forklift, OH, Rattle, Salamander, Sugar House Review, The Georgia Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Ploughshares Blog, 32 Poems Blog, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. from Hollins University and helps edit the After Happy Hour Review. He lives in Pittsburgh and works as a grant writer. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com.

Review: The Undressing by Li-Young Lee by Peter LaBerge

By Jason Myers, Guest Reviewer.

 Li-Young Lee,  The Undressing  (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Li-Young Lee, The Undressing (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Listen is the first word in Li-Young Lee’s rapturous fifth collection of poems, The Undressing. It is both invitation and invocation, a question and a command. Every word in Lee’s verse has this charged quality, a way of being many things at once. The book is “For The Lovers/And The Manifold Beloved,” and the love that Lee inhabits in these poems ranges from the close to the cosmic, as he addresses—and undresses—partner and Creator. “Beloved” is what God calls Jesus following his baptism, and God instructs those present to “listen to” Jesus. In Christian theology, Jesus is saturated in all being—he is manifold. Manifold is an operative word throughout these poems: many and folded. “Five in one body, begotten, not made,” he writes in a later poem called “Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet.” In the collection's first long poem, which shares its title, he declares, “A word has many lives.” Listen conditions both the reader and the speaker of the poem, as the speaker is engaged in foreplay, while the beloved is more interested in conversation than coitus.

There are the stories we tell ourselves, she says.

There are stories we tell others.

Then there’s the sum

of our hours

death will render legible.

Dialogue, in Lee’s hands, serves as both seduction and sacrament, a means of communication and a means of communion. “The Undressing” is about being naked both physically and spiritually. Dressing means putting on clothing as well as tending a wound, so the undressing Lee performs has erotic, psychoanalytic, and medicinal qualities. The voice of the beloved is sometimes playful, sometimes corrective: “I want you to touch me / as if you want to know me, not arouse me.” Still elsewhere it comes from that place where the psalmist said deep calls to deep: “One and one is one, she says. / Bare shineth in bare.”

Born to Chinese parents in Indonesia before his family fled from persecution to the U.S., Lee’s work has been imbued from the beginning with the compressed, ideogrammatic lucidity of classical Asian poetry, as well as the oracular expansiveness of prophets ranging from Isaiah to Whitman. “The Undressing” is his most mesmerizing long poem since “The Cleaving,” the final poem in his second collection, The City in Which I Love You.

As in “The Cleaving,” Lee finds pleasure and pain in close proximity, sometimes inseparable; he recognizes that those who wound us are often those who heal us. His poetry is haunted by family and world history, and also demonstrates tremendous tenderness for both. “Nothing saves him who’s never loved,” he writes, leaving ambiguous whether salvation is denied one who doesn’t give love or doesn’t receive it. It could be that love and salvation are symbiotic. In the next line Lee declares, “No world is safe in that one’s keeping.” He could be speaking of Trump, and/or he could be speaking of Mao, as he upholds Pound’s criterion of poetry being “news that stays news.” At the end of his long poem Lee writes, “For 20,000 years, human groups have thrived / by subtle and not so subtle mechanisms / of expulsion, exclusion, rejection, elimination, and murder.”

This tone is a rare lapse from the supple, enigmatic one that sustains most of the poem. No longer engaged in lovemaking, the speaker has put on his professorial robe and spectacles—though he does return to his original impulse. “If love doesn’t prevail,” he asks after descrying the decadence of our American moment (“One nation under the weapon”), “who wants to live in this world?” He then predicts the effort that will be required for love to prevail, “Ratifying ancient covenants. Establishing new cities.” In lines like this Lee makes clear that, like D. H. Lawrence before him, he composes under the spell of the Book of Revelation, with its visions of a new heaven and a new earth.

The incantatory nature of Lee’s work also owes something to St. Francis (“He is / my sister, this / beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite, / keeper of Sabbaths”) and to Sylvia Plath (“Seraphic herald of the ninth echelon, / pleromatic eon demanding a founding gnosis, her voice electric tekhelet, Septuagint, a two-leaved door”), yet his tendencies toward combining the intimate and the vatic, the personal and the political, have forged a new vernacular. Only Lee can conjure lines like “The menace of the abyss will be subdued,” “your body is the Lord’s pure geometry,” and “It was even before there were numbers, / those fearsome first angels.”

As Rilke, one of Lee’s acknowledged inspirations, once wrote, “Every angel is terrifying.” Yet Lee, fearless and devout, goes in search of dialogue with angels. The long, penultimate poem of The Undressing is a report of one such dialogue. Lee writes,

What’s The Word! she cries

from her purchase on the iron

finial of the front gate to my heart.

These are the opening lines of “Changing Places in the Fire,” an apocalypse in which a “sparrow with a woman’s face / roars in the burdened air.” The Word is, of course, one of the figures applied to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Surely the sparrow-woman knows this, yet she is intent on getting Lee to confess or testify.

I tell her, I sang

in a church choir during one war

North American TV made famous.

Such songs make The Undressing a psalmody, a prayer book of uncommon wit and beauty. “Say what’s The Word or we both die!” the sparrow-woman demands later, echoing Auden’s line at the end of “September 1, 1939.” For Lee, the work of a poet is to summon, say, wrestle with, dress and undress the divine. “An exile from the first word, / and a refugee / of an illegible past,” he continues to produce from the materials of his life love songs for the body and the soul. Listen to him.

 

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Jason Myers is the poetry editor of The EcoTheo Review. A National Poetry Series finalist, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, West Branch, and numerous other journals. He received an MFA from NYU and an MDiv from Emory University in Atlanta, where he was licensed to the ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he works in hospice.

Conversations with Contributors: Hala Alyan (Fiction, Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By John Stintzi, Guest Interviewer.

 Hala Alyan.  SALT HOUSES  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017),  The Twenty-Ninth Year  (Mariner Books, 2019).

Hala Alyan. SALT HOUSES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), The Twenty-Ninth Year (Mariner Books, 2019).

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and is currently longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

John Stintzi: While reading your debut novel, Salt Houses, there are definite moments in the prose where the language does something—usually something figurative that breaks out of the narrative mode into a purely evocative moment—that reminds me that you’re also a poet. Your fiction reads quite differently than your poetry, though. How do you find yourself working in either form? Do you go through phases of writing either poetry or fiction, or does it vary day-to-day?

Hala Alyan: I’ve always worked in both forms simultaneously, usually tackling a few different projects at once. I find that to be the most refreshing way to approach writing in general, because if I find myself burnt out with one project, I can busy myself with another. It can sometimes be a little distracting, but more than makes up for it in terms of feeling engaged with the work. Each process feeds a different part of myself: I can be more reckless with poetry, asking less of myself and more willing to leave it up to feeling inspired. I can leave poetry alone for months at a time, then write feverishly for weeks. But fiction demands more precision and discipline for me; it’s required me to build more of a muscle and dedicated practice. I’ll usually write poetry when I feel like it and write thirty minutes a day of prose no matter what.

 

Do you find that there is a difference in what you end up expressing with either form? Do you find either form better suited for certain kinds of work?

HA: I definitely think so. For me, if what I’m trying to say feels incomplete in poetic form, it means it’s time to try prose. Salt Houses is a good example of that; I wanted to tell a multigenerational story that spanned time and space. Poetry didn’t seem like the best fit for that sort of narrative. I think I also tend to rely on poetry to process more intrapsychic emotions and experiences, while fiction is a place I can imagine those of others.

 

Salt Houses is set in the middle-east and is a family epic about the Yacoub family, a Palestinian family who—at the beginning of the book—are displaced by the Six-Day War. Did you find that, knowing a majority of your western audience was likely unfamiliar with the particulars of that region of the world (and particularly that conflict), that you had to act as a sort of ‘translator’? Did knowing your audience might not be familiar have any effect on how you decided to tell this story?

HA: I have to say, I wasn’t thinking much about audience at all, which is probably the best way to get through writing a first novel. Otherwise, I would’ve been crippled by it. Whenever I did envision a reader, it was usually my brother or another family member. I think that freed me up to just tell the story of the Yacoub family, paying attention to whatever details regarding the political realities I wanted to. Of course, once the book was in the editing process with the publishing house, I had to clarify certain details. I never did put a glossary of Arabic terms in the back, though, because we live in an age where these things are fairly easy to research. It might require a little more of the reader, but I feel okay asking for it and grateful when it’s done.

 

Do you find that living in New York, at a remove from cities in the novel, like Kuwait City or Beirut, makes it a harder job to place your work there? Did you find yourself needing to revisit some of these cities when writing the book?

HA: Not so much harder as more nostalgic. I found myself yearning for a lot of those cities, and spent a lot of time looking at photographs and listening to music. I even found some ambient street noise! It helped that I was able to visit nearly every city I reference in the book in the years I spent writing it. I wasn’t always writing about the particular city I happened to be visiting, but even just sitting in a café or wandering around the streets at night helped recharge my emotional and cultural memory.

 

As well as a writer, you’re also a clinical psychologist. In another interview you talked about how this helps you develop your characters, but I’m interested in how emotionally taxing that job must be and how that aspect might affect the work. Is it ever a challenge to put your patients’ troubles aside when you sit down to write?

HA: That’s a great question, and not one I’ve thought a lot about. I suppose there’s a lot of emotional labor put into learning to separate clinical work from personal life, and I actually think that the bulk of that work happened during my training years. I definitely found myself inundated by clinical material, particularly traumatic stories of displacement and asylum seeking, and had some brilliant supervisors and peers along the way who helped guide me to a place where I can be present for my clients but also recognize the need to keep my private life separate. Of course, some days I’m more successful than others!

 

In Salt Houses, I find a lot of the characters have these moments where their emotions swell up and they either are washed over with them, or—more often—the characters tamp the feelings back down. It feels like there’s a lot of denial of reality, which is not surprising for characters dealing with the grief and displacement many of your characters are. These moments in the book feel very real, and seem like things you’d either hear about or see a lot as a psychologist. Do the ways your characters in Salt Houses exist with their emotions come partly from your work as a psychologist?

HA: Of course I can’t take the actual experiences of clients and then fictionalize them, but I suppose there is a certain “lifting” that happens when thinking about what trauma does to memory and emotional processing. In both my clinical work and in “regular” life, I see and experience the ways in which displacement, loss, and intergenerational trauma impact the way emotional regulation takes place (or doesn’t) and how emotions-as-currency are dealt with in general.

 

I found the choice of writing Salt Houses chronologically an interesting one because it pulled us through the lives of characters who are increasingly further from the family’s displacement from Palestine, a conflict that ripples throughout. Was that structure there from the start? How did you find it?

HA: The story began as a short story about Mustafa, as I was interested in his experience living between 1948 and ‘67, experiencing young adulthood issues alongside occupation and displacement. From there, I decided the narrative should be told chronologically, which, yes, pulls the characters further from the original displacement, but also shows the ways its impact plays out intergenerationally. The truth is, I found most of the structure accidentally. I’m a messy writer and rely a ton on editing. So for the most part, I just stumbled along in the dark. I wrote sections based on which character I was most interested in hearing from at that time.

 

What can you tell us about your forthcoming poetry collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year?

HA: The new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. It’s a way of looking to the past to determine my future: making sense of my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath. It was the most difficult collection to write, and the most gratifying so far; I feel very thankful for where these poems took me.

 

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John Stintzi is a non-binary writer who was raised on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. A selection of their poetry and fiction can be found in Los Angeles Review of Books, Humber Literary Review, PRISM international, Black Warrior Review, and the chapbook The Machete Tourist (knife | fork | book, 2018). John currently lives with their partner in Kansas City, MO, where they are at work on their first novel and their first collection of poetry.

A Conversation with Victoria Chang by Peter LaBerge

By Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Guest Interviewer.

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Victoria Chang's fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss (McSweeney's) won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017. She lives in Los Angeles and works as Teaching Faculty at Antioch University's MFA Program. You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.

 

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Over the course of about five weeks I exchanged emails with Victoria Chang, leading with my practical and admiring question of how she manages to balance her poetry career with such concentration and focus while maintaining her demanding day job as a business consultant.

What are some ways you move between the corporate consulting work you do and thinking about/shaping poems? Were there periods of time when you wrote less often or conversely wrote more because of stressors or events from your day job?

Victoria Chang: Definitely.  So I've worked in business-related things for nearly 20 years, maybe more.  I just recently stopped/retired from that work just this past summer.  There were periods (depending on the job I had) where I didn't have time to write and when I was in business school, and the years before where I was working a lot, I never wrote and wasn't in the right mindset.  I wasn't around the right kinds of people to generate creativity.  I hadn't yet found my “tribe.”  But once I got a more flexible job in my early to mid-thirties, I was able to dedicate morning time maybe from 7-8am to working on poems.  And that flexibility allowed me to go back and get a low-residency MFA and to occasionally attend AWP and go to writer conferences like Napa, Kenyon, Breadloaf, and Sewanee.  After I had children, I changed my writing habits again and only write in small short bursts—very intense bursts and then I revise for years on end after that at my leisure.  

 

This notion of community brings to mind how, not long ago, you leapt to another poet's defense on Twitter when someone implied he was doing something wrong by "posting so many poems"! I love that poet, too, so I applauded when you became unexpectedly fierce.  That notion of community, your mention of “tribe” and its linkage to creativity is fascinating on multiple levels.

Do you think Asian-American poets are pressured to be part of a preordained “tribe,” and can you think of times when you've really NOT wanted to identify or be identified that way?

Your poems have been described as striking for their incredibly inventive, assured, and distinctive voice that, at the same time, calls to mind voices of other lauded poets (e.g. W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich—for the Barbie image, the barely-stifled but self-examining anger at times, the ability to produce incredible tension within a poem).

What does having or not having a "tribe" do for a poet's developing voice? Is there a merit in being alone in the wilderness, or do you think there is some positive relationship between MFAs and "voice." (In fiction, programs are seen as "the death knell" of distinctive voice.)

VC: Well, for the record, I usually don't leap to the defense of anyone on social media, but this case was different. I won't say anything more about it because given what I know now, I would not have engaged that person. So... Moving on.

I think I understand what you are saying—that others might clump Asian Americans into a certain tribe or group—that we are somehow all the same and/or we are all great friends and naturally connect.  I grew up in the Midwest and was forced to assimilate, so, in many ways, I don't identify with a lot of Asian Americans.  Sometimes I connect with particular Asian Americans, other times we couldn't be more different.  I'm just me and I have a very unique background, so while I speak Chinese, grew up in a very Chinese household, eat a lot of Chinese food, know a lot about the history of my parents' cultures, I don't necessarily identify with someone simply because they are Asian.  In fact, growing up in the Midwest (where there weren't a lot of Asians) kind of had a double identity effect on me--I was clearly the kid of immigrants for one, and secondly, I wasn't like the coastal Asian Americans who had the luxury of having more Asians around them.  It's easy to criticize myself for not being more X or more Y or for not being outspoken enough of political enough, etc., but I look back at my background and the amount of overt racism and discrimination my family, and I experienced growing up in the Midwest to be a clear reason why I am the way I am.  And I don't make apologies for the way I am either. It's just the reality of my background.

And yes, definitely. There's a huge merit to just being your own person. I am very very very independent. I have a strong will to be independent.  I also am attracted to visual artists and writers and frankly anyone in any field who has a lot of vision-—and I aspire to be like those people. I like to go my own way and do my own thing. I've never spent a lot of time caring what people think of me or my work. I just do what I do—like it or not. I love the MFA. I think it's a great time to do a lot of reading you might not do otherwise, to get exposed to different kinds of writing (by your faculty), and to learn everything you think you know but really don't.  It's the perfect place to get training and background.  You might spend those two years mimicking other people, but like the artists who learned from the masters, that's what writers are doing too.  It's only after you learn that you can go off on your own path and write the poems or prose only you were meant to write.  If you don't learn (and you can learn on your own, but good luck—it's a lot easier to learn within an intense environment), then you will just write the poems or prose you were meant to write badly (most likely—unless you are like the 1% of gifted people in this world, which most of us, including myself are not).

 

Which poetry or poems did you find yourself most in dialogue with when you started writing, and which do you find yourself turning to after having published multiple critically-lauded books (either mentally or literally, in terms of picking up their work or reciting it out loud)? Do you feel your own relationship with poets is different now that you have succeeded as a poet vs. when you were just starting to write poetry?

VC: I read a lot of books, especially contemporary poetry and during the year, I also try and read older poems and poets, so there are always a lot of things happening in my head.  I'm always interested in the most out-there writers in any genre, whether appreciated or not because I think those people are really pushing the envelope and trying new things.  I like to try new things too.  I think of poetry writing as play and so I enjoy playing with language from one project to another, and I tend to write in projects because of my obsessive personality. 

I don't know how "lauded" any of my books have been, but thank you for saying that.  I always think about all the great visual artists and how their work wasn't lauded while they were alive because they were doing such different things, so my goal isn't necessarily to be lauded by anyone.  And I certainly don't think I have "succeeded as a poet"—to me to be a real artist, a pure one, you never "succeed" because that's not what you are necessarily going for.  But I understand what you are saying in that I have published some books of poetry.  I think the minute you start chasing success as a writer, you're in for a rough road because so much is out of your control.  

 

“Lines like, “parks next to Soroptimist Park,” “paid her tuition by intuition,” and “One night    the power   in your house    will/disappear” all represent the way you play with words. What relationship do you have to emotional excavation and the tone shift such excavation can cause? How does this word play dictate your writing practice?

VC: I enjoyed word play in The Boss and Barbie Chang because it was fun and it made writing poetry fun for me.  It's not always fun to be in the sometimes harsh and unfriendly poetry community—people can get kind of mean sometimes, so for me, it's all about the writing and enjoying myself as much as possible.  I like the challenge of writing and trying new things.  Really pushing myself.  So, I allowed the language to propel the poems forward instead me trying to control what they were doing.

 

And just to spend a moment on The Boss and a book that resonated with so many readers. Not only does the boss dominate those who work for her/him, but the boss conveys to them a sense of their inferiority. It reminded me of Ed Park's novel, Personal Days, and I wonder whether you’ve read it and if you have, what you thought of it.

 

VC: I haven't read Ed Park's book, but I just looked it up and it looks interesting. I try and read all the poetry I can and then only have time left to stay on top of a few books of prose a year.  I like to read widely AND deeply.  But yes, I have had a lot of great bosses in my life and have had a few truly truly horrid bosses who were universally hated, but they are oddly still in their same positions—that shows you how the entire system doesn't always work!  It was fun to write about hierarchy and the slippage of hierarchy. One minute we are the boss (of our children), the other moment, the boss is the boss of us, and the children could suddenly be the boss of you, and then your dad is the boss of you. That was interesting to explore. Of course, this only came to my consciousness after I wrote that book.

 

Finally, I loved the "Dear P." poems in the book. Can you speak to those poems specifically?

VC: In the fourth section of the book, I "wrote in" those poems after the manuscript was finished—meaning the middle Dear P. poems were from an old manuscript and I felt that there needed to be more Dear P. poems at the end. But they needed to be different with caesuras and should feel more alight and haunting.  So I wrote all of those in section four when the book was mostly done.  

 

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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.

 

Staff Spotlight: Kinsale Hueston (Poetry) & Heidi Seaborn (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Peter LaBerge, Editor-in-Chief.

 Kinsale Hueston (left) and Heidi Seaborn (right).

Kinsale Hueston (left) and Heidi Seaborn (right).

Let’s get right down to it: Kinsale, you’re—amazingly—still a student in high school. Heidi, you pursued poetry as a teenager, then “lost the plot” and had an (extremely successful) 40-year career in communications, and are only now settling back into poetry. I’m curious—what led you to pursue writing beyond the extent of a teenage hobby, Kinsale, and Heidi, what led you back again to the open arms of poetry?

Kinsale Hueston: There was a turning point around my sophomore year of high school that signalled my departure from poetry just as something fun I’d enjoyed scribbling out in middle school or memorized just to entertain my friends. Where I live, less than 1% of my county’s population is Native American, and I think I became very aware of this once I took on a more active role in advocating for contemporary Indigenous rights. Poetry became my way of reconnecting with my roots on the Navajo reservation, which I’d lost touch with as a preteen because of my isolation within a homogenous population that did not know very much about contemporary Native issues and identity. I dove into my culture and began to celebrate it through this art form I’d loved so much, and I used it as an accessible tool and art form to educate my peers about my experiences, history, and people. As a National Student Poet, poetry is a little more like an actual job now, but I love the work and sharing my passion for writing on a national scale.

Heidi Seaborn: A couple years ago, someone I hadn’t seen since high school called me a “poet” in greeting. It got me thinking. I signed up the next day for a class at the Hugo House—a wonderful place for all things literary in Seattle—with Jane Wong. That’s all it took. I was hooked again. Since then, I’ve been hustling to make up for decades of lost time. The good news is that I have a lifetime of experiences to sustain my writing.

 

What do you think is the largest misconception about teen writers today, Kinsale? And Heidi, what do you think is the largest misconception about writers who pursue careers in other areas?

KH: I think most adults dismiss teen poets because they think we lack enough knowledge of and experience with writing. However, I think every poet, no matter how old they may be, is continually learning, re-learning, and developing their skills. Poetry is inherently imperfect, which is what makes it so accessible. Especially with today’s political and social climate, teen poets are more important than ever. We are caught up in the middle of things, and around this point in our lives we are questioning everything (ourselves, identities, politics, trends) which can generate some very powerfully observative, active, and transformational work. We are the next generation of writers, and to foster our growth is to invest in the future of this art form. We are also a truly honest reflection of our time, and therefore tend to bring an unmatched sense of truthfulness and rawness to poetry.

HS: I am blown away by the opportunities for young poets today. There was nothing when I was a teenage poet, and perhaps that is why I left my writing behind for a long time. That and needing to make a living! Most writers must pursue careers in other areas to pay the bills, sadly. If there is a misconception, it is that if you aren’t writing full time, you are a dilettante—you aren’t serious. Yet, we know many of our greatest poets had other careers (think Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams) and wrote all the way through. In my case, I loved my work, and I had a very successful business career. Yes, I wish I had kept writing, but given the intensity I bring to everything I do, it wouldn’t have worked. Now I’m grateful that I am able to dedicate my time to poetry. For me, this is my second professional act.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what compels some of my favorite writers to write—fear, anxiety, outrage, love, and entirely different emotional impulses altogether. Do you find that you write more to say something to someone else, or to say something to yourself?

KH: I’d like to think that I try to do a little of both. As an activist, I lean towards using poetry as a tool to advocate and educate, but I also love developing my own voice with every poem I write. Most of my works are celebrations of my heritage—like mini “songs of myself”—or bits of storytelling that, for me, are a way to deconstruct and analyze my own identity and discuss what it truly means to be a Native teen living in contemporary America. My writing  is an invitation into my life and traditions, but simultaneously a veneration of all these beautiful bits of culture that make me who I am.

HS: Both. In some cases, I am exploring my life’s experiences to surface meaning. In others, I’m sharing observations, wisdom, my perspective and sometimes, a social or politicized message. The majority of my work tends to relate the personal to the external world—not unlike life.

 

From reading applications for the Djanikian Scholarships to assembling and releasing our twenty-fourth issue, it’s been quite a reading season so far. What’s been your favorite moment of being on staff? What’s been the biggest surprise?

KH: The biggest surprise for me was definitely opening Submittable for the first time as a Poetry Reader and attempting to wrap my head around the sheer number of poems that were being submitted! That was also one of my favorite moments because of how excited I was to dig in and get to know these writers and their work. Reading diverse, personal, and distinct poetry is actually one of my favorite things to do, so one can imagine how much I love settling down on a weeknight with a cup of tea, ready to dive into new submissions. I also find myself so inspired after reading that I usually end up getting sidetracked and writing my own poems!

HS: Quantity and Quality. Like Kinsale, I’ve been amazed at the sheer volume—as if everyone on earth is writing poetry (and submitting to The Adroit Journal). The best surprise is when I open up a submission and start reading, and can’t stop, and can barely breathe because the writing is magic, stunning, transporting. You have created a literary home for that kind of work. It is very impressive.

 

Aww, thanks! Switching gears a bit, I feel like any writer who says they’ve never experienced writer’s block is definitely lying. Do you have any advice for our readers for kicking writer’s block to the curb?

KH: Reading work by other poets and writers is a really great way to find new inspiration. I tend to have a very cemented, safe vocabulary when I’m stuck in a writer’s block, so I usually listen to some slam poems online or crack open a random book at a library to just create a little word bank for myself. Other poets tend to use words I haven’t even thought of using, or ones I haven’t heard in a while that are really useful for conjuring up memories or key information that then can motivate me to keep writing. Also, just taking a walk, taking a break, or having a change of scenery are all really helpful, too.

HS: Since I started writing again two years ago, I haven’t stopped. I find inspiration is everywhere. Recently, I completed my first full-length book and two chapbook manuscripts, and was feeling a bit spent—not writer’s block, per say, just needing a kick in the butt. Taking a generative workshop did the trick for me. I recommend The Daily Poet (Two Sylvias Press, 2013) that has 365 prompts to anyone who is struggling with getting word to page. And the best is to read poetry. Lots of poetry. Given that is what I do for Adroit, I’m in luck.

 

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions! Could you each give our readers a reading suggestion for the road? And what about this collection, publication, novel, or anthology led you to select it?

KH: Any collection of poems by Federico García Lorca is absolutely wonderful for long road trips or exploring new places. Poet in Spain is my particular favorite because it has mirrored translations in English and Spanish. Lorca is one of my favorite poets, not only for his romantic, haunting poetry, but also because he was so fascinating as a revolutionary and a modern hero. You can see his passion and love for nature and life in his work, which makes everything he writes a powerhouse. There’s such a good mix in there too—his short, sweet poems, his fiery and tragic epics, and also his fantastic, whimsical pieces. Even if you don’t understand the poems in Spanish without the translation, just reading them aloud is like music. The rhythm and rhyme are just gorgeous.

HS: Like Kinsale, I love García Lorca and spent last fall immersed in his work for a particular poem that I was working through based on my time living in Madrid. Currently, I keep picking up Nasty Women Poets (edited by Grace Bauer & Julie Kane; Lost Horse Press, 2018) when I have a spare minute. This anthology was dreamed up after Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during a presidential debate. The poems in it are varied, powerful, painful, funny, a clarion call for our times, with so many great women poets represented. While I don’t have a poem in it, friends of mine do, and I’ve had the good fortune to read alongside them on occasion. The readings are raucous. Nasty Women Poets has over 250 poems that speak loudly to what’s on the minds of American women today. It is very much today’s edition of No More Masks—the poetry anthology that captured the women’s movement in the 70’s—a book that was my bible back in the day!

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Peter LaBerge is the San Francisco-based editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal.

Announcing The Adroit Journal's 2018 Djanikian Scholars! by Peter LaBerge

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In honor of the contributions renowned poet Gregory Djanikian (b. 1949) has made to the field and study of literature, The Adroit Journal is proud to announce the inaugural class of Gregory Djanikian Scholars in Poetry—six promising, exciting, emerging poets. All emerging poets who have not published full-length collections were eligible for submission—regardless of age, geographic location, and educational status. 

Selected from a competitive pool of international applicants, Djanikian Scholars will receive cash prizes and publication. A complete list of this year’s winners, finalists, and semifinalists is available online: theadroitjournal.org/djanikian-scholars.  

The inaugural class of Gregory Djanikian Scholars in Poetry includes Kristin Chang (of San Jose, Calif.), Robin Estrin (of Santa Cruz, Calif.), Paige Lewis (of Tallahassee, Fla.), Brandon Melendez (of Cambridge, Mass.), Michael M. Weinstein (of New Haven, Conn.), and Keith S. Wilson (of Chicago, Ill.). More information about each scholar is available below.

“We’re thrilled to support the impressive efforts of these emerging writers, and to recognize their important contributions to the fabric of the literary community today,” writes founder and editor-in-chief Peter LaBerge. “We look forward to witnessing the growth of these and other writers as they continue to develop their literary gifts, talents, and pursuits.”

Finalists for 2018 Djanikian Scholar recognition include Grady Chambers (of Philadelphia, Pa.), Aidan Forster (of Greenville, S.C.), and Shelley Wong (of Long Beach, Calif.). Finalists will each receive Djanikian’s latest collection, as well as publication.  

Semifinalists include Alex Chertok (of Dryden, N.Y.), Lyrik Courtney (of Decatur, Ga.), Kate Gaskin (of Montgomery, Ala.), Matthew Gellman (of Brooklyn, N.Y.), Morgan Levine (of Houston, Tex.), Alycia Pirmohamed (of Edinburgh, Scotland), and Joey Reisberg (of Towson, Md.).  

About the 2018 Djanikian Scholars

Kristin Chang is nineteen years old, and lives in New York. Her chapbook is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press later this year. 

Robin Estrin lives in Santa Cruz, California, where she teaches creative writing. Her poetry has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, Potluck Magazine, and Miramar Poetry Journal, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

Paige Lewis is the author of the chapbook Reasons to Wake You (Tupelo Press, 2018). Their poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, the Georgia Review, Best New Poets 2017, and elsewhere. 

Brandon Melendez is a Mexican-American poet from California. He is a National Poetry Slam Finalist, Rustbelt Poetry Slam Finalist, and two-time Berkeley Grand Slam Champion, and is currently an MFA student studying poetry at Emerson College.

Michael M. Weinstein holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University, and has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and elsewhere. He teaches Russian literature at Yale University.

Keith S. Wilson is an Affrilachian Poet, Cave Canem Fellow, and graduate of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. His debut collection, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.

About The Adroit Journal

At its foundation, The Adroit Journal has its eyes focused ahead, seeking to showcase what its global staff of writers sees as the future of poetry, prose, and art. The journal hosts the annual Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose, the Gregory Djanikian Scholars Program, and the free Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program.

Featured in Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prizes: Best of the Small Presses, The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and NPR, the journal is home to the voices of Terrance Hayes, Franny Choi, D. A. Powell, Lydia Millet, NoViolet Bulawayo, Ocean Vuong, Eve L. Ewing, Ned Vizzini, Fatimah Asghar, and Danez Smith, among many others.

For more, visit theadroitjournal.org, facebook.com/adroitjournal, or twitter.com/adroitjournal. Please direct any questions or requests to editors@theadroitjournal.org.

The Adroit Journal's AWP 2018 Offsite Reading with 32 Poems, AGNI, Denver Quarterly, & Quarterly West by Peter LaBerge

We were oh-so thrilled to co-host our first-ever AWP event at Tampa's very own Jackson's Bistro on Thursday, March 8th. Below, you can access a livestream of the event, complete with information about the readers and a timeline of their readings. 

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You can view the details of the event here. We'd like to offer massive thanks to our event co-organizers, editors from AGNIDenver Quarterly, 32 Poems, and Quarterly West. Hope you enjoy the livestream! 

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A Timeline of the Evening

Learn more about each of our readers below!

23:59 Opening Remarks by George David Clark

George David Clark serves as the editor-in-chief and executive director of 32 Poems.

27:22 Wayne Miller (Poetry)

Wayne Miller’s fourth poetry collection, Post- (Milkweed, 2016), won the Rilke Prize and the Colorado Book Award. Wayne teaches at the University of Colorado Denver and edits Copper Nickel.

30:49 - Paige Lewis (Poetry)

Paige Lewis is the author of the chapbook Reasons to Wake You (Tupelo Press, 2018). Their poems have appeared in PoetryAmerican Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, Best New Poets 2017, and elsewhere.

34:28 - Paisley Rekdal (Poetry)

Paisley Rekdal is the author, most recently, of Imaginary Vessels, and is Utah’s Poet Laureate.

38:43 - Ye Chun (Fiction)

Ye Chun is the author of two books of poetry, a novel in Chinese, and a collection of translations. A recipient of the NEA fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes, she teaches at Providence College.

48:22 - Brandon Thurman (Poetry)

Brandon Thurman is the author of the chapbook Strange Flesh (Quarterly West, 2018). His poetry can be found in Nashville Review, Ninth Letter, The Journal, RHINO, and others. You can find him online at brandonthurman.com

53:44 - Victoria Chang (Poetry)

Victoria Chang’s most recent book, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss was published by McSweeney’s. She was awarded a Guggenheim and Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017. She teaches at Antioch University in Los Angeles.

58:31 - Sumita Chakraborty (Poetry)

Sumita Chakraborty is poetry editor of AGNI, art editor of At Length, and weeks away from completing a doctorate in English at Emory. In 2017, the Poetry Foundation awarded her a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship.

1:26:52 - Jess deCourcy Hinds (Fiction)

Jess deCourcy Hinds was the 2014-15 winner of the Pen Parentis Fellowship, and second prize in the 2016 Stella Kupferberg Story Prize judged by Lauren Groff. Writing credits include: Ms., Brain Child and Quarterly West.

1:37:52 - Michael Bazzett (Poetry)

Michael Bazzett is a 2017 NEA Fellow and the author of three books of poems: You Must Remember This (Milkweed Editions, 2014), Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books, 2017) and The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

1:43:58 - Hieu Minh Nguyen (Poetry)

Hieu Minh Nguyen is the author of two poetry collections, This Way to the Sugar (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and Not Here (Coffee House Press, 2018). He lives in Minneapolis.

1:50:38 Hadara Bar-Nadav (Poetry)

Hadara Bar-Nadav is the author of several books of poetry, most recently The New Nudity and Lullaby (with Exit Sign). An NEA fellow, she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

1:57:04 - Michael Wasson (Poetry)

Michael Wasson, a 2018 NACF National Artist Fellow in Literature and recipient of the Adrienne Rich Award, is the author of This American Ghost (YesYes Books, 2017). He is from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. 

2:05:15 - Raena Shirali (Poetry)

Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017). Shirali’s honors include a Pushcart Prize and the Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University. She currently lives in Philly, and reads for Muzzle Magazine and Vinyl.

2:10:24 - Stephen Kampa (Poetry)

Stephen Kampa is the author of three books, Cracks in the Invisible, Bachelor Pad, and Articulate as Rain. He currently teaches at Flagler College.

2:15:36 - Sarah Rose Nordgren (Poetry)

Sarah Rose Nordgren's two books of poetry are Best Bones (2014), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, and Darwin’s Mother, which is recently released from University of Pittsburgh Press (November 2017). Her poems and essays appear widely in periodicals such as Agni, Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review Online, Copper Nickel, and American Poetry Review.

2:38:14 - John Jodzio (Fiction)

John Jodzio's work has been featured in This American LifeMcSweeney's, and One Story. He's the author of the short story collections, KnockoutGet In If You Want To Live, and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home and the newly released chapbook, This Is The Only Orientation You're Gonna Get.

2:45:49 - Kathleen Winter (Poetry)

Kathleen Winter's new collection I will not kick my friends won the 2017 Elixir Poetry Prize. Poems are forthcoming from New Statesman, Prelude, Puerto del Sol and Western Humanities Review. She lives in Sonoma, California.

2:51:18 - Maggie Smith (Poetry)

Maggie Smith’s most recent books are The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, winner of the Dorset Prize, and Good Bones, the title poem from which has been translated into nearly a dozen languages.

2:55:44 - Kai Carlson-Wee (Poetry)

Kai Carlson-Wee is the author of Rail (BOA Editions, 2018). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and teaches poetry at Stanford University.

3:03:52 - Megan Fernandes (Poetry)

Megan Fernandes is an Assistant Professor of English at Lafayette College. Her work has been published or forthcoming in Tin House, Ploughshares, The Common, Guernica, PANK, The Adroit Journal, among others. She lives in NYC. 

3:10:24 - Analicia Sotelo (Poetry)

Analicia Sotelo is the author of Virgin, the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, selected by Ross Gay, to be published by Milkweed Editions in February 2018. She is also the author of the chapbook Nonstop Godhead, selected by Rigoberto González for the 2016 Poetry Society of America Chapbook 30 and Under Fellowship.

Well, there you have it! I hope you'll join us next year in Portland! Sign up below for updates. 

Raise Your Glass: Adroit Meets the 2018 National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards! by Peter LaBerge

The editors of The Adroit Journal are pleased to announce that a total of 62 National Awards were received by Adroit-affiliated students— 34 Gold Medals, 23 Silver Medals, 3 American Voices (Best-in-Region) Medals, and 2 Silver Medals with Distinction

To put this in perspective, approximately 900 National Awards in Writing are distributed each year... from more than 320,000 submissions across disciplines. We're over the moon for the 2018 National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards medalists affiliated with The Adroit Journal! See below for a complete list.

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Isabella Alvarez, NH (11
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Katherine Ann Davis)
American Voices Medal (Best-in-Region) - Personal Essay/Memoir
Gold Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
Silver Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
 

Margot Armbruster, WI (12
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Trista Edwards)
Gold Medal - Poetry (x3)
Silver Medal - Poetry
Silver Medal - Writing Portfolio
 

Tess Becket, PA (11
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Kenzie Allen)
Silver Medal - Poetry
 

Daniel Blokh, AL (11)  
Summer Mentee (Nonfiction - Caroline Crew) & Previous Poetry Reader
Gold Medal - Poetry (x2)
 

Bronwen Brenner, NY (11
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Laura Citino) 
Silver Medal - Poetry (x2)


Annie Castillo, VA (11
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Carly Joy Miller)
Silver Medal - Poetry
 

Katie Chen, CAN (10
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Cady Vishniac) 
Gold Medal - Short Story
 

Emma Choi, VA (12
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Emily Paige Wilson)
Gold Medal - Poetry
 

Nadia Farjami, CA (10
Marketing Intern
Gold Medal - Poetry
Silver Medal - Critical Essay
Silver Medal - Poetry
 

Joseph Felkers, MI (12
Poetry Reader & Summer Mentee (Poetry - Jim Redmond) 
Gold Medal - Poetry
 

Aidan Forster, SC (12
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Cody Ernst) & Previous Blog Editor
Gold Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
Gold Medal - Poetry
Silver Medal - Poetry
Silver Medal w/ Distinction - Writing Portfolio
 

Jacqueline He, CA (12
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Dana Diehl)
Gold Medal - Poetry
 

Mai Hoang, NH (10
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Kamden Hilliard)
Gold Medal - Journalism
Gold Medal - Poetry
Silver Medal - Critical Essay
Silver Medal - Journalism
 

Eileen Huang, NJ (12
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Gina Keicher) & Marketing Intern
American Voices Medal (Best-in-Region) - Personal Essay/Memoir
Gold Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
Gold Medal - Poetry (x2)
Silver Medal w/ Distinction - Writing Portfolio
 

Kinsale Hueston, CA (12
Poetry Reader
Gold Medal - Poetry
 

Lilly Hunt, MS (12
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Glenn Stowell) 
Gold Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
Silver Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
 

Heather Laurel Jensen, AZ (10
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Alyse Bensel) 
Gold Medal - Short Story
Silver Medal - Poetry  
 

Nadia Eugene Jo, MA (11
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Raena Shirali) 
Silver Medal - Poetry
 

Audrey Kim, PA (10
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Nancy Reddy)
American Voices Medal (Best-in-Region) - Poetry
Gold Medal - Poetry
 

Ezra Lebovitz, NJ (12
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Doug Ramspeck)
Gold Medal - Poetry
 

Isabella Li, NC (12
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Oriana Tang)
Gold Medal - Critical Essay
 

Vivian Lu, NJ (11
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Eloisa Amezcua)
Silver Medal - Flash Fiction
Silver Medal - Short Story
 

Kaley Mamo, NY (12
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Maria Pinto) 
Silver Medal - Flash Fiction (x2)
Silver Medal - Writing Portfolio
 

Alyssa Mazzoli, SC (12
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Alex Higley)
Silver Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
 

Rebecca Oet, OH (10
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Gabrielle Bates)
Silver Medal - Poetry
 

Sahara Sidi, VA (12
Summer Mentee (Nonfiction - Caroline Crew)
Gold Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir (x2)
Gold Medal - Poetry
 

Emily Tian, MD (11
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Leslie Sainz) 
Gold Medal - Poetry
Silver Medal - Poetry
 

Stephanie Tom, NY (12)  
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello)
Gold Medal - Poetry (x2)


Valerie Wu, CA (11
Summer Mentee (Fiction - Graham Todd) 
Gold Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir


Alisha Yi, NV (12
Summer Mentee (Poetry - Cody Ernst) 
Gold Medal - Personal Essay/Memoir
 

Grace Zhou, GA (12
Previous Prose Reader
Silver Medal - Humor
 

Joyce Zhou, IL (12
Summer Mentee (Poetry) 
Gold Medal - Poetry (x2)
Silver Medal - Writing Portfolio

 

Congratulations to all! And remember that like all awards, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards goes through an inherently subjective selection process. Not being recognized does not imply lack of talent, merit, and promise. Whether you're a young writer writing because of Scholastic, in spite of Scholastic, entirely independent of Scholastic, or somewhere in-between, every voice deserves to be heard.

Conversations with Contributors: Chelsea Dingman (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Kwame Opoku-Duku, Guest Interviewer.

 Chelsea Dingman,  Thaw  (University of Georgia Press, 2017).

Chelsea Dingman, Thaw (University of Georgia Press, 2017).

It is said of some writers that their work cuts to the bone, that it strips you, leaves you bare and vulnerable, that it marks you. Chelsea Dingman’s work starts at the bone, and by the end of her first collection of poems, Thaw, piles of them have accumulated over the pages. Dingman’s work exists in the places that scare us the most: loss, grief, alienation, the suffering of the body. She writes with images that swirl in the mind for days and lines that imprint themselves upon you immediately. She is a poet whose work has become essential, and I jumped at the chance to have a conversation with her.

Kwame Opoku-Duku: Chelsea, I was reading one of your poems to my lover, and as I was reading it, my hands started shaking. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do to someone, and the word I kept coming back to when describing your work was “fearless.” You take risks that so many writers don’t, and the result is something that is beautiful—even while unsettling the reader, even while filling the reader with a sense of ache. Could you talk a little about what it was like to create a work like this? Was there a point when you had written a few of these poems and realized you have something special on your hands?

Chelsea Dingman: In terms of risk and trying to be fearless and trying to be in service of those poems, I was told my first year of grad school that basically women have a harder time getting published if they write anything that is “women-centric,” you know, that has something to do with women’s issues, so there was a point when I had started writing some of the poems that are in my book before grad school, and I had just decided that I was going to write in service of the poem, no matter if anyone was ever going to read it. Like, you have to be fearless enough to go where the poem needs to go, without worrying about audience, or purpose, or anything else. So, in terms of fearlessness, I’m always striving to where the poem needs to go.

 

Yes! So, have you always written like this, or is this a style that you’ve worked toward, in terms of the risks you take? Because for me, this is always something I’m trying to cultivate, and it’s scary, because risk is so difficult for people. We use things like irony, or the fantastic to avoid staring at that thing that scares us, as artists and as humans. Especially , considering that people told you—I guess, I don’t really understand what “women-centric” means, but—

CD: Well, you know, anything related to the female body, and things like that, because I was writing about—and the speaker is a woman in the poems—things like child birth and things that are specific to women. And one of my mentors said, “This will be really difficult,” and had me read essays by Rachel Zucker and other people who were talking about this. I think part of that, part of what you’re talking about is risking that—and I hate to use this word—but “sentimentality,” in a way. Risking going to the places where it’s scary to go is risking a level of sentimentality that isn’t always what people want in a poem. I feel like that was the line I had to learn to draw. Like, when you’re younger, and it seems like every undergrad’s poems are super angsty, or whatever. I feel like that’s where I learned the difference between craft and angst and tried to fit it all in a poem. I’ve always kind of written like that, but it was finding the craft elements that were going to be the best vehicle for them.

 

I think it was Allison Joseph who said that your poems “almost make you want to look away,” and I thought that would be such a great compliment, because it’s work that really leaves a mark on you. In that poem “Testimony of Hinges” you write, “I broke my wrists to give you my hands, // sawed clean through the bone. I dreamt / new hands, pink-tipped fingers / to drag over the knobs of your spine.”

That’s such a beautiful line, and I think that this is more a statement than a question, but one of the things I loved about your work is the way you focus on the body and the way you formed concepts of masculinity and femininity through your imagery. One example is the way men are imagined as trees being felled. I was curious if that’s something you find intuitive, or if it’s something that took time to craft?

CD: I think a lot of what I did in this book was intuitive. I wrote some of the poems in Thaw before grad school, and then the rest in my first year, so it really felt like I was just learning myself while I was writing this book, so a lot of the gestures, and even the images, were intuitive—much more so than the stuff I’m doing now. I think, in terms of the feminine and the masculine, the people who surround the speaker—I needed some other way to describe them other than as human, and I needed some other way to look at the body, kind of to take that one step away, rather than to have them show up as human in my poems. So it kind of gave me a little bit of distance, but I also love, love writing imagery. Images are my thing. I just love them!

 

The images are beautiful! I’m also curious as to how you approach form. Is that something that’s also intuitive with you? There are so many meaningful line breaks, there are so many points where there’s a little space given, or a little air added into the poem, and it did a lot for me. I was curious how you approach that. Is that something you consider as you write, or is it something you find more in editing?

CD: I think lineation is actually my very favorite thing about poetry, and that is always purposeful. That’s always something I’m working on. I can play with two lines for hours and hours. So all the line breaks, and where I use white space, were very purposeful, in terms of what I thought was in service of the poem, and what I wanted each line to deliver, and how, and the pacing. In terms of form—there’s no formal poetry—but I do that upon revision. I look at the content of the poem, and I try and figure out what box it wants to be in. I think, How am I going to deliver this content? How best can I deliver this content? Even before I decide on stanzas and everything else. But all that is purposeful and upon revision. I tend to just write and write and write in notebooks, and then I decide all that when I’m revising.

 

So what’s your writing process like? A lot of people say they write every day. Some people just try to write a few times a week. I know you’re super busy, so how does it usually go for you?

CD: In grad school, I did try to write every day. I felt like I had more time. I’m teaching four plus sections right now, so it’s really busy, and I have two kids, and so—I’m really busy. And so I’m trying to write on my off days, when I’m not on campus. But I’m happy if I just write a few poems a week right now because it’s such a busy time. And also, I’m trying to slow myself down. I would like to put in a little more time into different craft things that I haven’t done before: working on form, or other things I haven’t done, instead of just writing just to write.

 

There are some people who would just love to write! Like, I am amazed at the ways people like you, especially other poets, can manage entire careers, home lives, be on Twitter posting amazing poems for people to read, doing readings, all while the rest of us are struggling just to write a poem every once in a while.

CD: I think for me, there was a long time when I first had my kids when I stopped writing entirely, and I just didn’t have the energy, and it wasn’t until my youngest son was almost going into kindergarten that I was like, How did I miss that? And now I feel this sense of urgency, as though I lost all this time. I think that’s why I’m constantly pushing myself forward, and that’s why I’ve generated so much work in the last few years, because I was like, Oh my God, I missed so much time I have to catch up on. But I also feel like I banked all of the things that I was thinking about for a few years there, and they all just spilled out. I think the reason why I do write every week is because I fear not being able to write again, like I was in that period. And so even if I write a really crappy poem, I’m happy.

 

Right, and you never know. That poem might end up becoming a good poem in the next month or something like that.

CD: And I read a lot, because it really does help me generate. So, half the time, if I’m on Twitter, it’s because I’m working out and multi-tasking [laughs], or I’m stuck in traffic or something. I’m always doing five things at the same time.

 

What are the big things you tell your students about writing?

CD: That you need to read a lot to be able to write. Like, you have to read a lot. That is the whole key to the whole thing, I really think, to know what else is out there, whether it was 100 years ago or whether it’s now. But the best thing for my students, I think—the thing that gets them hooked on reading—is giving them contemporary writers to read. To see what’s out there right now. I try and to show them younger people who are writing, too, like Ocean Vuong, who is so young, and they’re really like, Wow, someone my age did that? Let’s go! It’s super inspiring for them. So, just read and read, and get your butt in the chair, because sometimes time management can be a thing that really gets away from them. But otherwise, I’m working with some grad students, and they’re so amazing, and for them, I think the biggest thing right now is just to discover who they are as writers. I mean, that’s what you use grad school for. To figure out what kind of poet you’re going to be. I don’t think we ever really know that, but where do you want your work to go? What are you doing in your work? Sometimes, getting them to articulate what their work is doing is difficult. And that’s the kind of thing we’re working on right now.

 

That’s great! I also wanted to ask you about migration, because it’s such a big theme of the book. Your [grand]father’s migration to Canada. Your migration to the South. I think of “Autumn Wars,” where you write, “Once, we armed ourselves and drove / over tundra in a twining womb / of white fields and sky / to get out. I saw then that some things can never be / made beautiful.”

Was that a theme you considered before you started writing, or more something that found its way into your work?

 CD: I think that was kind of one of the obsessions of the book, if you want to put it that way, and I think that’s one of the obsessions I write about—even the chapbook I’m putting out this spring—I have the same obsessions. It was about my grandfather’s migration to Western Canada. I think that obsession came out of feeling a little bit cut off from home, where I’m living right now, and how you can raise kids so far from where you began, and where your ancestors began, and how they can kind of lose track of their lineage that way. When I was writing Thaw, I had a lot of that. My kids were small, and I felt like they would never know my Ukrainian background, how I grew up, how my parents grew up. Like, it’s just all so foreign to them, they don’t even know my parents that well. That was a real obsession of the poems, I guess. Writing in response to that feeling.

 

So, do you go back to Canada a lot? I notice in some of your bios, they’ll start with “Chelsea Dingman is a Canadian citizen,” which I always thought was kind of fun. [Laughs]

CD: I know! I feel like I need to fly the Canadian flag or something. Yes, we go home, but I’m from Western Canada, so where I am in Florida, it’s a lot of travel, so we don’t get there as much as I would like. It used to be once a year, and then it became every two or three years. So yeah, I don’t get home enough. I think that’s part of why it became an obsession to write about it. People ask me, Were you writing the snow and everything from memory? And I was, because you just start missing all of the things you’re trying to explain to people.

 

 You mentioned you have the chapbook coming out. Is there anything else on the horizon?

CD: No, so I wrote three manuscripts in grad school. One every year.

 

Wow, that’s great! You’re going to have work coming out forever!

CD: [Laughs] That’s kind of why I have so much work everywhere right now. Thaw was my first year;, and then my second year, I wrote the work coming out in the chapbook. It was my thesis, and it’s the second section of that manuscript. It’s loosely based on the speaker’s immigration from Ukraine in 1924 and the second wave of immigrants to Western Canada. And then the third manuscript is about infertility and stillbirth, which I wrote last year. Now I’m working on wherever I go after that. New work.

 

Well, you’ve definitely got some time, since your work will be coming out for the next three years. [Laughs] My last question is kind of a serious one. You have two sons. [Beat] Do they know that their mom is a rock star?

CD: [Laughs] No, I don’t think so. You know how people don’t really understand poetry? I don’t know if you have that, too. But even my mom, trying to explain it to her…

 

Oh gosh, yeah. I don’t even really try. It’s just nice that people sort of know that you’re a poet, and that you’ve published work somewhere, you won some award, or whatever. People can just take that with them.

CD: Yes! I know. And my mom, she doesn’t understand everything, but she’s super proud. My kids are, too. They like to come to work with me. They think it’s fun to sit in my office and play on my computer. You know what I mean? Like, I want them to value going to college and all that. If they don’t understand poetry, I’m okay with that.

 

***

Chelsea Dingman is a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida. Her first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved, is forthcoming from Madhouse Press (2018). In 2016-17, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, The Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, Water-stone Review’s Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, and The South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry. Her work can be found in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Cincinnati Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.

Kwame.jpg

Kwame Opoku-Duku is a poet and fiction writer. His work is featured or forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review, BOMB, Gigantic Sequins, Booth, and Chicago Review of Books' Arcturus, among other publications. Kwame lives in New York City and, along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. Find him online at kwamethethird.com or tweeting @kwamethethird.

REVIEW: THIS AMERICAN GHOST BY MICHAEL WASSON by Peter LaBerge

By Cassandra Cleghorn, Guest Reviewer.

  This American Ghost , by Michael Wasson (YesYes Books, 2017).

This American Ghost, by Michael Wasson (YesYes Books, 2017).

Neurobiologists have dramatically revised their estimates of when the human brain fully matures, pushing the threshold from the mid-teens to 25. According to this timeline, poet Michael Wasson's prefrontal cortex has only very recently knit together. This American Ghost is a record of the poet's fresh maturity; with great precision and tenderness, Wasson marks his developmental stages from boyhood to manhood. "So get naked & turn off / the light you've left on for twenty-five years," he writes in a poem composed of directions to his adult self. "Feel / how the rain might slow into snow & your breath / brightens from the dark held in your mouth" (27-28). But even when Wasson's poems recall childhood or adolescence, they reference something beyond the scope of a single lifespan. "The silence of the reservation / could fill me / to the point of breaking & I'd be / the boy in the front yard," he writes, locating the reader at a particular place and time in his recent past, and then swooping her off into a much more diffuse atmosphere composed of light and shadow and bodies that refract and glow: "can you see the fleshed / curving of my shoulders turned / black as near midnight?" (29) In each poem, Wasson brings his reader to the cusp of new knowledges and new ways of knowing, and holds her there, with him, expectant: "I'm waiting / in the yard for an answer to / the world" (30).

Wasson is Nimíipuu, from the Nez Perce Reservation in north-central Idaho, a piece of land that represents a fraction of the 17,000,000 acres the tribe claimed as their own before the brutal encroachment of white settlers at the start of the 19th century. When the public purchase of reservation lands was authorized by the Allotment Act at the century's end, settlers rushed in again to further dispossess the Nez Perce; today, only 12% of the reservation is owned by tribal members. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the current Nez Perce population is 3,500. Indigenous languages are the further casualties of colonialism; one of Wasson's poems begins with the recollection of Nez Perce elder Titus Paul, who was forbidden to speak his Native language at the Chilocco Indian School in 1922. The Endangered Language Project labels nimipuutímt (the language of the Nez Perce) as "critically" at risk, estimating that there are less than 50 speakers worldwide. In the past few decades, however, tribal members have worked toward language revitalization, developing language apps and online courses. As with digital repatriation (including the Nez Perce Historical Photograph Collection at University of Idaho), the Internet has opened up potentially dynamic ways to redress what Native American Studies scholar Tyler Rogers calls the "lethal archival logic" of settler colonialism. Through this resonant silence, Wasson listens for the questions of "another century": "how to change all these years of loss" (25) and "how are we remembered / in our choreography / of bones?" (145).  

In response to such questions, Wasson offers world-mending poems through which he threads phrases of nimipuutímt, sometimes accompanied by English equivalents and at other times left untranslated.  "kée píi'nekeyneks: Let us (swallow) take each other in" (7) reads the epigraph to one poem. In another, based on a traditional Nez Perce story, the poet makes as literal as possible the heat of the songs he sings:  "I confess     I'm young // & you take a flame / to my tongue // c'ic'ál is lit in the mouth   c'ic'ál again" (23). Readers may recognize in this bilingual dance a kinship with the work of Diné (Navajo) poet Sherwin Bitsui, and of Mojave poet and language activist Natalie Diaz, who enters what Diaz calls the "mausoleum" of her tribal language, writing her way into words she is only now learning as an adult. (To learn more about the challenges and rewards of bilingual creative writing, see this account of the MFA program at the University of Texas, El Paso.) Bitsui, Diaz, and Wasson follow Gloria Anzaldúa, whose work darts between multiple dialects of Spanish, English, Spanglish, and Nahuatl, calling out white supremacy by exploiting her readers' varying degrees of familiarity with and ignorance of the languages of oppressor and oppressed. But where Anzaldúa addressed a potential readership of millions of native Spanish and bilingual speakers in the U.S., Wasson draws upon a second language that most readers not only don't speak, but didn't even know existed. In this daring move, Wasson shares a sense of intimacy that defies translation, claiming likeness with those few readers who hold his endangered genealogy in common, and difference from the majority who do not. From the latter, Wasson invites a listening and a learning.  

Wasson thus expresses an expansive sense of service to his people, and of witness to those who stand beyond the circle. From the American ghost of the book's title and the Homeric dead of its epigraph, through the hauntings of immediate family members, friends, elders, and ancestors, the poet takes seriously his task, "to grieve history." This potent phrase names history as both the object of mourning and the ambivalent process by which the survivor may recollect, recover, and restore what is lost. Wasson knows that there are holes that cannot be filled by even the most fervent words of any language: "because when is the best question / I can muster" (23).

Intimations of suicide and lynching recur through the poems. The poet steps

                                                                        into a field & here is where

                                    it happened--

                                                                                                another boy

                                    held                                      dragged by the cock (7)

 

Before bringing the reader into the crime's horrific conclusion ("how that body burned / from the inside out"), he assures us that "we are still     so blessed to be // a wreckage of the most terrible monster" (8). In his compact and explosive chapbook, Wasson conveys viscerally and eloquently—and with seemingly infinite compassion—the intimate legacies of this genocidal empire:

                                             sometimes to remember this living

 

                                    we let a word

                                                fire from the opened hole in the head

 

                                    & tell me how to swallow what light does

 

                                                            to the tongue at rest (23)

 

***

 

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Cassandra Cleghorn’s Four Weathercocks was published in 2016 by Marick Press. Her poems and reviews have appeared in journals including Paris Review, Yale Review, Poetry International, Boston Review, Tin House, Eyewear Review (forthcoming)—and (most recently) Colorado Review and lovesexecutiveorder.com. She lives in Vermont, teaches at Williams College, and serves as poetry editor of Tupelo Press. You can find Cassandra at https://cassandracleghorn.com.

CONVERSATIONS WITH CONTRIBUTORS: CHRISTOPHER KEMPF (POETRY) by Peter LaBerge

By Mia Kang, Guest Interviewer.

  Christopher Kempf , featured in  Issue Twenty-Two .

Christopher Kempf, featured in Issue Twenty-Two.

 

Chris, thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. Late in the Empire of Men is a stunning collection, and I’m excited to learn more about its making. As a first question, I’m curious to know about your process—how did these poems begin to form, and at what point did you start to see them as a book? Can you describe a moment when this project broke open for you?

Christopher Kempf: Mia, thanks so much for speaking with me, and thanks, too, to The Adroit Journal for giving us this opportunity. I think highly of your own work—the razor-sharp syntax, the historical consciousness—so it’s such a pleasure to think about these questions.

I wrote the oldest poems in LITEOM—“Predictive Text: The Corn Monster” and “In the ’90s”—as part of my MFA thesis in 2009, but the current form of the book was a relatively late development. Though I’d been aware, as I worked on the collection, that the poems were circling a set of common interests, it wasn’t until I had a title for the book that I began to see it as a structurally unified project, one, specifically, that laid a coming-of-age narrative across the westward trajectory of American history. 

I like your description of the project “breaking open”—for me that happened after I wrote “Clearing the History,” what I saw immediately was a kind of keystone poem for the book, since it’s there that the speaker moves from Ohio to California, from childhood to adulthood; as soon as that poem fell into place, the book, as far as I was concerned, was finished.

 

What’s something you’ve had to work toward or against in terms of your skills as a writer? In what ways did these poems challenge you, whether to explore new ways of writing or to go deeper into certain aspects of your practice?

CK: One of the things I struggle with, still, is fighting against—or “breaking”—the rhythm of the poem in order to convey the specific idea I want to get across at that moment. I almost always hear the rhythm of the poem before the words themselves, and while, ideally, music and meaning should work together, sometimes the prose-sense doesn’t want to fit into the poetic container, or overruns the musical staff, or whatever other metaphor one wants to use.

I’ve always loved the way Frost talks about it. The metaphor he uses—which, I now realize, is better than my own—is hearing the rise and fall of voices behind a closed door. For Frost, it’s the music, the tone of a sentence that lets it accrue such a rich affective complexity, and I’m trying more, in my own work, to loosen the rhythm in order to achieve a more varied intellectual and emotional range.

 

The book deals in part with mythical themes and characters, as well as with the resonances of the Roman Empire. What’s your relationship to classical literature and history? What has hooked or repelled you about the classics?

CK: I was raised Catholic, and still consider myself Catholic to a certain extent, but what interests me in the religion is less the doctrinal or theological niceties than the underlying system of myth, which is—if one goes back far enough—pagan. That myth, the dying and rising god, is all around us, it seems to me—in the changing of the seasons, in the names we give to our children, in secular rites like Homecoming. For the ancients, the world was alive with divine energy, and I’m trying, in LITEOM, to re-enchant things like the Indianapolis 500 and high-school graduation parties and even video games, to show both their mythic importance to American culture as well as their more deleterious effects. I think your own writing about Rome, if I understand it correctly, sharply critiques these more negative aspects of myth, even while feeling compelled by them.

I’ve been inspired too, I have to admit, by the grand, civilizational histories that used to be written by people like Oswald Spengler and Edward Gibbon, another form of mythology in their own right. There’s a lot these histories get wrong, but they bespeak a desire for synthesis, for unity, that we seem, in our age of specialization and distraction, to have given up on; that desire, I think, is fundamentally religious in nature.

 

The poems in Late in the Empire of Men take a wide range of forms on the page. Did your use of classical references inspire any particular formal strategies in the book? Would you say you had a formal project you wanted to engage in the book as a whole?

 CK: I hadn’t thought of the form of the book as relating, much, to the classical references, but I do think of the formal movement of the book—oscillating between single-stanza, columnar poems and more fractured or jagged poems—as embodying a shuttling between wholeness and brokenness, unity and fragmentation. To the extent that the book has a formal project, it’s about thinking through, in form, the problem of how an empire holds together and how it falls apart. One could think of the book, then, as an excavation, trying to gather these mythological fragments and make them, in the present, into a kind of whole. This is, I guess, an Eliotic project, only with poems about OkCupid and food courts.

 

I found your book often calls upon elegy or nostalgia, but it always pushes those to become more present in the present rather than enacting a simple looking back, if that makes sense—the poems tend to collapse time in a way that creates a kind of endlessness. And the time-space of the book feels distinctly contemporary. Can you talk about what you had to work through to constellate past and future in this way, whether in individual poems or perhaps in terms of sequencing?

 CK: That’s such a keen take on the book—thank you.

Sequencing LITEOM, as a coherent narrative, was far easier than handling the temporal shifts in individual poems, since the book begins in childhood and moves through the pangs of adolescence—the speaker coming into his capacity for violence and sexuality—toward a more stable, if still unsettling, adulthood.

For me, time is always a function of place, which is why I love your punning term “time-space.” By that, I mean that place, as I experience it, is a kind of historical palimpsest, layered over with the various groups—both familial and civilizational—that ever occupied a given house or town or nation. Sometimes we’re made acutely aware of the presentness—“presence” would be the religious term—of the past, such as when we’re staring at the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or walking through a redwood forest, or lying in one of those massive, 19th century parks with monuments and greenhouses and skating ponds we’d never build anymore. The poems in LITEOM are infused, I think, with that historical consciousness, with the conviction that we are hardly the first to see what we see, even to feel what we feel. Against the foundational tenet of lyric poetry—that the individual is a world until him or herself—LITEOM asks whether we’re really that exceptional; I’d say probably not.

 

Masculinity—especially the way young American men are raised into it—is at issue throughout the book. I sense you worked hard to undo any strictly declarative or narrative register of language into something more indeterminate in these poems. Can you discuss how gender figures into your approach to language and form?

CK: It’s interesting that you think of the poems as “indeterminate,” whereas I tend to think of their form, precisely, as “narrative” and “declarative.” I’m grateful, though, to be seen as indeterminate, since the opposite, I guess, might be something like “self-assured” or “didactic.”

Perhaps what’s actually taking place in the poems is a formal undoing of discursive or semantic assertion; in other words, something like lineation, for instance, complicates what seems to be a straightforward statement, as in “What/ this century left us is just/ this one way to be men…” Yes, the passage suggests, it’s terrible how American imperialism inducts young men into patterns of violence, but this also makes sense on a logical level—this is how empires work.

I wanted these poems—and want all my poetry—to resist the kind of easy moralizing that mars far too much of the poetry being celebrated these days. I want my writing, rather, to examine self-consciously its own implication in injustice, the very material ways in which it—and me, and the entire poetry community—profits from those systems of violence we most vehemently object to. Brooks and Warren talk about a poem being “massive” and “multidimensional”—I want that. Poetry certainly has a role in opposing injustice, but it needn’t do so, I don’t think, at the expense of complicated, responsible thinking.

 

Late in the Empire of Men is your first collection of poetry, and congratulations again on such an impressive debut. What did this book teach you? What are you working on now?

CK: Thank you, Mia. And thank you again, really, for such thoughtful, challenging questions; I had to think deeply about these, for which I’m grateful.

Writing LITEOM, and watching it make its way in the world, has taught me a lot about writing poetry, but it’s also taught me to be a kinder, more generous citizen of the poetry community. The book has benefited tremendously from the kindness of others, whether friends and teachers who read early drafts, or the incredible staff at Four Way who midwifed it, or complete strangers who took the time to think with it or review it. At the same time, I’ve learned to value the work in itself independent of whatever praise or criticism it garners in the outside world; I’ve learned satisfaction can’t come from outside—one always wants one more fellowship, one more award, one more acceptance letter.

As for what’s next, I’m finishing up a second poetry collection about a year I spent living in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and trying to make a significant push on a doctoral dissertation about the rhetoric of labor in early creative writing programs. That—and reading as much poetry as possible.

 

***

 

Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize in Poetry from Four Way Books. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The New Republic, and PEN America, among other places. A recent Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, he is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.

 

Mia Kang is an Oregon-born, Texas-raised writer, named the 2017 winner of Boston Review’s Annual Poetry Contest by Mónica de la Torre. A Brooklyn Poets Fellow and runner-up for the 2017 "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Contest, her work as appeared of is forthcoming including Rattle Poets Respond, Narrative Magazine, Poetry Northwest, and the PEN Poetry Series. Mia is currently a PhD student in the history of art at Yale University, where she studies contemporary art, constitutive outsides, and impasse.

 

 

The Ultimate Guide to High School Writing Workshops, Programs, & Camps in 2018 by Peter LaBerge

By Katie Chen, Sarah Feng, Peter LaBerge, and Amelia Van Donsel. 

 

We know how it goes: your friends focusing on STEM areas or sports have already got their summers figured out, and you want to write. But where? And how? And how can I learn—which programs are vanity programs, and which do the work? 

We struggled with this precise set of questions as high school students, so we set out to create this nifty guide for all student writers looking for writing workshops, camps, mentorship programs, and writing studios. Got another camp or two (or seven) in mind? Give us a shout and we'll check it out! 

In the meantime, you may wish to additionally check out our college guide for high school creative writers, as well as our tips for high school teen writers. And with that, we're off!

 

Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program

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Duration: June 24th - August 4th
Eligibility: Grades 9-12
Opens for applications on March 1st

(Disclaimer: We are alums of this program.) The Adroit Summer Mentorship Program is definitely worth your attention! A little over a month long, this free, online summer program revolutionizes your approach to writing and consistently pushes you to approach writing and publishing more creatively. Mentors are a range of experienced and flexible professional writers across genres and across aesthetics. The program also provides a number of networking opportunities—with a shared Facebook group and weekly peer reviews, we were introduced to people who would later become our closest writing friends today. 

Overview
Application Guidelines
Sign Up for Application Period Updates


Bard College at Simon's Rock Young Writer's Workshop

  Bard College at Simon's Rock.

Bard College at Simon's Rock.

Duration: July 8th - 28th
Eligibility: Grades 9-11
Deadline: Rolling

Located at the beautiful rural campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, this three-week workshop for young writers encourages students to find unconventional, expressive, and out-of-the-box ways of writing, while encouraging peer review and assigned reading seminars. The low teacher to student ratio –– each session is only 12 students –– also encourages personalized attention.

Overview
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Between the Lines @ the University of Iowa

  Between the Lines.

Between the Lines.

Duration: July 14th - 28th
Eligibility: Students aged 16-19.
Deadline: April 2nd for all American applicants

Iowa’s BTL program provides a cultural exchange program for students from the United States, Russia, and Arabic-speaking countries. With an emphasis on world literature and arts, the camp conducts workshops in students’ native languages. Evening and weekend excursions include nature sightseeing and translation events.

Overview
Application Guidelines
Application Portal (for American students –– different process for international students)


CSSSA (California State Summer School) Creative Writing Program

  Tumblr (CSSSA SYDNEY).

Tumblr (CSSSA SYDNEY).

Duration: July 7th - August 3rd
Eligibility: Grades 9-12; California residents.
Deadline: February 28th

The creative writing program at the California State Summer School is a four-week workshop for Californian high schoolers. CSSSA includes instruction in fiction, poetry, memoir, and dramatic writing, taught by four professional writers. The approximately 70 students the program admits per year are designated California Arts Scholars; upon completion of the program, each is awarded a Governor’s Medallion, California’s highest honor for artistically gifted students. 

Overview
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Denison University Reynolds Young Writer’s Workshop

  Denison University.

Denison University.

Duration: June 17th - 24th
Eligibility: Grades 11-12
Deadline: March 4, 2018

The Reynolds Young Writer’s Workshop is a residential 8-day workshop for passionate high school student writers. Founded in 1994, it is one of the oldest summer writing camps for high school students in the country.

Overview
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Duke Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP)

  Duke TIP.

Duke TIP.

Duration: 2 weeks, varies for location/course.
Eligibility: High school students.
Deadline: Varies for location/course.

Duke TIP, located in places such as Costa Rica, New Mexico, North Carolina, and beyond, provides in-depth courses in all different subject matters. In the Fine Arts track, TIP offers Creative Writing Unplugged –– becoming more professional and organized with writing –– and Filmmaking: the Art of Visual Storytelling, a project-based class about visual communication. 

Overview
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Iowa Young Writer’s Studio

  Iowa Young Writer's Studio .

Iowa Young Writer's Studio.

Duration: June 17th - 30th (Session 1), July 8th - 21st (Session 2)
Eligibility: Grades 9-12
Deadline: February 8th (sign up for our 2019 version below so you don't miss next year's deadline!)

The Iowa Young Writer’s Studio, held in the literary hub of Iowa City, is a two-week writing workshop in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. IYWS is highly touted by most young writers; it’s well-known for being very selective with applicants, and is regarded as a top provider of in-person literary community and instruction in teenage literary circles. 

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Interlochen Center for the Arts Creative Writing Summer Program

  Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Duration: June 23-July 14, July 15-August 6
Eligibility: Grades 6-12 (high school and middle school camps are separate)
Deadline: Feb. 1  (sign up for our 2019 version below so you don't miss next year's deadline!)

Hosted in the Writing House, an immersive building constructed specifically for writers, students engage in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and playwriting workshops, participate in independent study, and perform at public readings. Also, you’ll be living in a cabin with participants from all the different majors –– music, visual arts, etc. –– and outside of classes, it’s like an art haven; at night, violinists and poets host open mics, and artists are always painting against the serene Interlochen lake. In summer 2017, Interlochen even hosted its own miniature Color Run for campers.

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY)

  Pexels.

Pexels.

Duration: Many different sessions
Eligibility: Grades 2-6, Grades 7-12
Deadline: March 26th

Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth is a nonprofit dedicated to identifying and developing the talents of academically advanced pre-college students around the world. It serves bright learners and their families through our research, advocacy, and counseling, as well as our signature gifted and talented summer, online, international, and family programs. With a few lit-themed classes like Crafting the Essay and The Graphic Novel, you may just find your summer plans here.

Website
Application Guidelines


Kelly Writers House Summer Workshop @ UPenn

  Kelly Writers House.

Kelly Writers House.

Duration: July 8th - 18th
Eligibility: Students entering grades 11 or 12 in summer 2018.
Deadline: March 4th

At the Kelly Writers House Summer Workshop, students will spend each morning in a personal essay writing workshop led by Penn creative writing instructor Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who also serves as the Director of the Summer Workshop. Over the course of the workshop, students will read and critique one another’s writing as part of the revision process. The goal of this workshop is to provide creative high school students, especially those who have not had similar opportunities, with the chance to dedicate full days to the practice of writing. Students will develop their own work and will read and critique their peers’ writing in a setting similar to an undergraduate writing workshop. There will also be time to explore Penn and Philadelphia with fellow workshop students and program staff.

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop

  Kenyon Review.

Kenyon Review.

Duration: June 24- July 7 (Session I), July 15- 28 (Session II)
Eligibility: High school students aged 16- 18
Deadline: March 1st

Located at Kenyon College, for two weeks student writers are challenged to exploring, reconstructing, and sharing their writing through daily workshops. Since it is also a residential program, students also have the chance to interact with and connect with students who love writing as much as they do. This program is an extremely highly regarded summer writing program, and should definitely be checked out!

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Kundiman Youth Leadership Intensive

  Kundiman.

Kundiman.

Duration: July 9th – 13th
Eligibility: Rising 9th grade – 12th grade students who self-identify as Asian American.
Deadline: February 15th (sign up for our 2019 version below so you don't miss next year's deadline!)

Students will read selections from important works of Asian American literature and history and will consider how they speak to the opportunities and challenges we face in the twenty-first century. As a culminating project, they will engage in an oral history/creative writing Kavad project which will bring them in dialogue with their peers and instructors in a highly supportive, fun, and encouraging environment. Throughout the Intensive, they will receive counsel from leading writers, artists, and industry innovators.

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


New England Young Writers Conference

  Middlebury/Bread Loaf.

Middlebury/Bread Loaf.

Duration: May 17th – 20th
Eligibility: Grades 9-11.
Deadline: November 29th, 2017 (sign up for our 2019 version below so you don't miss next year's deadline!)

The New England Young Writers’ Conference (NEYWC) at Middlebury College's picturesque Bread Loaf Campus is a four day writing-focused workshop for high school students in New England and from around the country. The long weekend is packed with writing seminars, workshops, readings, and opportunities to meet fellow young writers. High School English teachers or guidance counselors may nominate up to five students from their school to participate in the conference. Up to two may be selected. 

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Northwestern Center for Talent Development (CTD)

  Pexels.

Pexels.

Duration: Three week programs (July 1st – July 20th & July 22nd – August 10th) as well as five week programs (July 1st – August 3rd) are offered.
Eligibility: Many different grade brackets, ranging from Age 3 to Grade 12.
Deadline: First come, first serve. Many programs begin to fill up in mid-March. (Financial Aid deadline is April 16th.) 

Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development provides challenging enrichment, honors and Advanced Placement courses taught in a highly supportive environment. From early childhood through elementary, middle and high school, Center for Talent Development (CTD) gifted summer programs encourage gifted kids to explore academic areas of interest and connect with a community of peers. The Equinox Program caters to grade 9-12 students. 

Website
Application Guidelines
Tuition Information


Sarah Lawrence Creative Writing Workshop

  Sarah Lawrence College.

Sarah Lawrence College.

Duration: July 2nd - 7th
Eligibility: Students entering the 10th, 11th, or 12th grade.

Directed by distinguished faculty members, this program allows high school students to explore writing in a non-competitive and non-judgmental environment that values the risks and adventure of the creative process. Each day, participants attend writing and theatre workshops led by prose writers, poets, and performance artists. Included in the week are mini-workshops taught by program faculty and guest artists. Rooted in the Sarah Lawrence College tradition of one-on-one interaction, the program offers students the opportunity to meet individually with workshop leaders. Classes are limited to 18 students, with three faculty members per workshop. The program also includes faculty and student readings and a celebration of student work on the final day of the program.

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Sewanee Young Writers' Conference

  Sewanee Young Writers' Conference.

Sewanee Young Writers' Conference.

Duration: July 1st - 14th
Eligibility: Grades 9-11
Deadline: Rolling

Held at the University of the South, the Sewanee Young Writers' Conference is a two-week camp taught by authors recognized by the New York Times and the Oprah Book Club, among other prestigious organizations. Small classes are put in rigorous environments and often go on local excursions, such as hiking in forests which serve as the settings for famous books. SYWC also offers classes in playwriting and songwriting, a rare trait for a high school program.

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Stanford University Summer Sessions

  Stanford Summer Sessions.

Stanford Summer Sessions.

Duration: June 23 - August 18, 2018
Eligibility: Current 10th, 11th, 12th, or gap year student.
Deadline: February 15th (sign up for our 2019 version below so you don't miss next year's deadline!)

This one comes recommended from Adroit’s editor-in-chief, Peter LaBerge. The Stanford Summer Session offer high schoolers the chance to take undergraduate-level Stanford courses in fields of their choosing; the creative writing ones, spanning all the major genres, are taught by Wallace Stegner Fellows like Adroit contributors Richie Hofmann, Laura Romeyn, Jacques J. Rancourt, and more. 

Website
Application Guidelines
Application Portal


Telluride Association (TASS)

  Telluride Association.

Telluride Association.

Duration: June 24th - August 4th
Eligibility: High school sophomores or equivalent.
Deadline: January 9th (sign up for our 2019 version below so you don't miss next year's deadline!)

For six weeks, 56 rising juniors are able to participate in a college level seminar at either Cornell University or University of Michigan. While it's focused on critical black and ethnic studies, students who love history and social justice, or who want to learn something new, are highly encouraged apply. As someone who has been lucky enough to attend, the six weeks I spent at TASS not only challenged me to rethink my opinions but also provided me with a lifelong community.

Website
Application Guidelines
 

Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP)

  The Activist Times.

The Activist Times.

Duration: June 24th - August 4th
Eligibility: High school juniors or equivalent.
Deadline: January 16th (sign up for our 2019 version below so you don't miss next year's deadline!)

TASP is a program that is perfect for any student who is in love with the tangible act of learning. Rising seniors participate in one of four seminars located at one of three campuses: Cornell University, University of Michigan, or University of Maryland. At TASP, students can expect to meet others who are just as passionate about learning, as well as being intellectually challenged every day.

Website
Application Guidelines


UVA Young Writers Program

  UVA Young Writers Program.

UVA Young Writers Program.

Duration: June 24th - July 6th; July 8th - 27th
Eligibility: Rising 9th grade through rising 12th grade with a minimum age 13 by start of session (June 24 - July 6) or Rising 10th grade through rising college freshmen with a minimum age 14 by start of session.
Deadline: March 1st

The Young Writer’s Workshop of the University of Virginia is a nonprofit arts organization established in 1982 as the nation’s flagship program for young writers. Now in its fourth decade, it continues to bring together a community of writers from across the country and internationally with a common purpose: to create a supportive, non-competitive environment where teenage writers can live and work together as artists. The faculty of authors and residential staff bring professional experience to the development of new talent. The summer program is located on the idyllic campus of nearby Sweet Briar College where the Young Writers Workshop welcomes its participants to a retreat space where writers commune with each other, immerse themselves in creative activity, and fuel their imaginations through an innovative arts program.

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Katie Chen is a junior at Colonel By Secondary School in Ontario, Canada. Sarah Feng is a sophomore at the Pinewood School in Los Altos, California. Peter LaBerge is the San Francisco-based editor-in-chief of the Adroit Journal. Amelia Van Donsel is a freshman at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York.

REVIEW: THE HOUSE OF ERZULIE BY Kirsten Imani Kasai by Peter LaBerge

By Katharine Coldiron, Guest Reviewer.

 Kirsten Imani Kasai. Photo by Alanna Airitam Photography.

Kirsten Imani Kasai. Photo by Alanna Airitam Photography.

  The House of Erzulie , by Kirsten Imani Kasai (Shade Mountain Press, 2018).

The House of Erzulie, by Kirsten Imani Kasai (Shade Mountain Press, 2018).

Imagine a novel, mostly in journal entries or epistolary form, that unfolds slowly. Imagine that it bears witness to the deepening madness of a man who’s either a nascent schizophrenic or the victim of a voodoo curse. Imagine a sultry, blood-soaked novel haunted by the history of the American South and the complexities of Creole culture and heritage. Imagine that this novel uses a kaleidoscope of perspectives, no one view revealing all, and that its end bears destruction without resolution—more sour fruit of the Southern legacy.

If all that sounds appealing, you’re in luck: that novel exists, and it’s The House of Erzulie, Kirsten Imani Kasai’s third novel and her first for Shade Mountain Press. The plot involves a modern-day historian locating and becoming obsessed with the journal and letters of a mixed-race Louisiana couple from the 1850s. The husband of the couple, Isidore, suffers under a mysterious curse; we read of his descent first in his wife Emilie’s words, and then in his. Isidore’s journal comprises the bulk of the novel’s pages, which is a good thing, because his prose (and, by extension, Kasai’s) is extraordinary.

I saw Her last night, a vague and spectral shape wandering the cane fields, climbing among the shattered ribs of my ruined glass house. …I pushed myself through cloying lightless rooms as if wading through muddy swamp water, following the sobs of a crying child. I call his name but he does not answer except to weep and wail.

Sometimes the prose of these nineteenth-century citizens veers into melodrama, but that label is hard to avoid when considering a Gothic novel—which, make no mistake, is precisely the category in which The House of Erzulie rests. It sits on the shelf with Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: restless ghosts, body horror, dastardly secrets, loves that should not be. The African American Gothic is often ignored in favor of the British variety, which is a shame, because there are just as many haunted houses and wailing spirits in New Orleans (more, even!) as on the moors of Yorkshire. The volume of melodrama turns up gradually as the novel progresses, both in theme and in language, but the book is so absorbing that this insistent music is hard to criticize without a particular distaste for the genre. Gothic fiction and melodrama share a lot of the same geography; this Gothic novel sometimes tips the carriage as it rides, breakneck, over its emotional territory. But in return, the reader is gifted with prose like this:

The house, the house! That cursed landlocked shipwreck. Pasted like a flyer onto my sleeping mind’s eyes, I cannot unsee it or spend a peaceful nocturne without wandering its spiraling, ruined halls.

If they are to the reader’s taste, the pleasures of this genre, and this novel, are exquisite.

If the initial, epistolary section of the book occasionally feels unpromising, it is because Emilie’s voice, perspective, and activities are appropriately limited for a woman of her era. Her letters are sometimes repetitive or trivial. But, crucially, they set down the groundwork for the horrors to unfold later in the novel. The reader needs to hear her perspective on what befalls Isidore before we hear his own. And once he begins to reveal that perspective, the novel becomes mesmerizing, clamping down on the reader’s attention and locking its jaws.

I believe little in Spirit realms, ghosts, or heathen gods, but if such powers exist, they trifle with me and take great pleasure in batting me about between their paws. Devour me now, I say! My cowardly soul has little use for this world as it is. I cannot account for my time, and my unquiet mind will not make sense of these events, nor find suitable explanation for what has happened.

What concretely connects Isidore and Emilie to Lydia, the modern-day historian reading their words and framing the novel, becomes clear only in the final pages. But what thematically connects the two stories is plain much earlier on. Lydia has had a bout with madness herself, and she practices what’s now known as “cutting” and what was once “bloodletting” in order to soothe her demons, just as Isidore does. Blood, literal and metaphorical, is front and center in this novel, from Emilie’s hemorrhaging during childbirth to the red Xs Lydia paints on a voodoo queen’s grave.

Inevitably, the topic of bloodletting in the South will invoke the spilled blood of slaves. The novel does not draw its emotional power from slavery (as does what is probably the most famous African American Gothic novel, Toni Morrison’s Beloved), but it does not ignore it completely. This is a challenging balance to strike. This novel covers a narrow emotional scope rather than a broad political one, but no author writing about the South in the 1850s can reasonably disregard slavery. Kasai negotiates the problem partially by gesturing to New Orleans as a profound melting pot, where racial lines are harder to draw than in other areas of the South, and partially by unflinchingly depicting a whipping and an auction in the course of the novel’s other, more emotionally central events. 

The House of Erzulie privileges the spaces of dreams, imagination, and sexual ecstasy (oh, no, this novel is NSFW). It does not care much whether it’s taxing the reader’s patience, or straining her credulity, and at some point, the reader must stop caring about these elements, too. Kirsten Imani Kasai wants to take you for a tour of a particular house in New Orleans, and the best option is to accept her offered hand and go along, eyes open. I suggest you leave the lights on while reading.

***

 

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Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, The Offing, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator.