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


By Eileen Huang, Interview Correspondent.

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

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


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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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


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

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

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

Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

By Jackson Holbert, Poetry Editor. 

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

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

My brain is a cutter

Scrubbed down to zero
by the rubies
in the halo

I whispered your name into the red air

and you answered.

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

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

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


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


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

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

Sixteen Adroit Moments of 2016! by Peter LaBerge

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

National YoungArts Foundation.

National YoungArts Foundation.

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


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

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


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

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


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

Davidson Fellowship Foundation.

Davidson Fellowship Foundation.

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


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

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

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


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

To view the complete list, click here.


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

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


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

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


8: Sixteen out of the fifty Best New Poets 2016 selections were selected by guest editor Mary Szybist for inclusion in the anthology. 

Click here to see the full list.


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

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


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



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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

BEST BOOKS OF 2016.png


Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal
University of Nebraska Press

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



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

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



Solmaz Sharif's Look
Graywolf Press

Solmaz Sharif's Look is a reminder of why poetry matters and my favorite book of 2016. It's about the way that war settles into the people who experience it, both immediately and at a distance. It's about seeing violence, and about the violence people refuse to see. In one poem, a military dictionary defines "Destruction Radius" without considering "the brother abroad / who answers his phone / then falls against the counter." Everything ripples outwards. In addition to military vocabulary, the poems bring in Wikipedia articles and redacted letters and family conversations. Records stand in for people who have been killed. There are Prince songs, and there are cluster bombs. "Daily I sit / with the language / they've made // of our language", says one poem. "Each photo is an absence," says another. For me, reading Look made me witness some of the worst things that people are capable of and also understand the ways that seeing or refusing to see makes me complicit in them. The poems never settle into a single style or a predictable tone. Instead they are always shifting, requiring their reader to constantly renegotiate their own assumptions, perspective, and responsibility. Look is amazing and heartbreaking and necessary and imperfect and, I think, the best book for a very bad year. It doesn't turn from the evil in the world, and it doesn't give in. It ends "We have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter. // I am singing to her still."



Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You

I wish I had read What Belongs to You in the first month of 2016. After a year of overexposure, of feeling flayed and sunburnt from unrelenting reminders of the election, climate change, sexism, car crashes, kill-shelters, celebrity deaths, Islamophobia, all at once, all the time—this slim novel felt like life as we want to be living it. Deliberate, considerate contemplation. On the first page, the unnamed narrator, an American teacher in Bulgaria, meets a man named Mitko in a public bathroom and pays him for sex. The rest of the novel unfolds in real time along with their relationship, which Mitko calls priyateli—a word that the narrator loosely takes to mean “friend,” but just as easily could mean “lover” or “acquaintance.” The language barrier between the two men serves as an active metaphor for the paradox of desire: the endless, valiant, futile attempts to exactly translate someone else’s life into your own. What I loved most about What Belongs to You was the intense focus of the prose; one significant moment could take up pages, and years of insignificant action takes place off screen. As Greenwell himself wrote, What Belongs to You reads like “a peculiarly lyrical account of the past, free of the usual narratives of triumph and loss.” It supersedes a thick plot for the intricacies of one man’s thoughts and words about another man. It is simple, fluid, alive. It is what we should be doing right now. 



Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's The Crown Ain't Worth Much
Button Poetry

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s debut collection is heartrending and raw. In a Juniot Díaz-esque style of blunt, sharp prose poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much explores the pain of black souls and black bodies: how blackness shapes memories and how memory shapes blackness. Willis-Abdurraqib crafts a map of Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, in stunning, tiny stories. His poems talk of mouths and concerts, beer and high school, lust and pervasive death. The titles - “DUDES, WE DID NOT GO THROUGH THE HASSLE OF GETTING THESE FAKE IDS FOR THIS JUKEBOX TO NOT HAVE ANY SPRINGSTEEN” or “THE GHOST OF THE AUTHOR’S MOTHER HAS A CONVERSATION WITH HIS FIANCEE ABOUT HIGHWAYS” - will hit you with an unyielding urgency. These poems are as fragile as they are piercing, unraveling the author’s grief for and devotion to his mother who passed away when he was only 13 (“I saw my heart in the eyes of my mother. it was too small to save her”). With imagery of graves, blood, and micro-aggressions as commonplace as the barbershop or Fall Out Boy, Willis-Abdurraqib’s poetry sparks a craving for change. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much will knock you on the floor, raise you back up, and knock you over again.



Garrard Conley's Boy Erased
Penguin Random House

Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased is an absolutely gorgeous work of lyric prose. Rather than thresh the lyric from the narrative, Boy Erased works towards their intersection, blurring the two into a thriving result. The memoir focuses on Conley’s struggle with his sexuality in a Missionary Baptist family and small Arkansan community, and the way conversion therapy affected his relationship with his family and himself. The book interrogates the queer condition—particularly its connection to religion, shame, and self-acceptance—and is a testament to queerness as a forced subterranean state, as well as the strength and power it takes to elevate oneself out of said landscape. If you must read only one book of prose in 2017, Boy Erased should be it.



Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn

The epigraph and dedication to Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years convey Another Brooklyn’s quiet brilliance very well. The dedication has its own page, and rightly so: “For Bushwick (1970-1990) / In Memory.” Woodson’s narrator, August, recalls growing up as a girl in the neighborhood, remembering all the companionship, love, and trials she experienced. She says in the first paragraph: “I now know that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It’s the memory.” Yet the memory seems healing for Woodson, who creates a poetic and moving vision of August’s adolescence. The limitations of gender, race, class, family, and August’s own grief remain as she grows up, but through the act of telling her story, she faces her memories: her dad turning to women and religion, her friends supporting her and then drifting apart, and her own dangerous navigation through Bushwick as a young woman. The epigraph, a quote from Richard Wright, rings true: “Keep straight down this block, / Then turn right where you will find / A peach tree blooming.”



Daniel Borzutzky's The Performance of Becoming Human
Brooklyn Arts Press

I am always on the prowl for Latinx writers, and when I saw The Performance of Becoming Human among the winners of the National Book Award winners I knew I would have to read it. From the sudden codeswitching and cultural references to every gruesome detail, each line contains a bullet. The book draws from the author’s relationship with Chicago and Chile, but its themes are purposefully universal. Borzutzky’s world is full of broken borders: the border between bureaucracies, the border between countries, the border between one neighborhood to the next, the border, the border between life and death, or between two different kinds of living. An ape can become human by learning “how to spit and belch” while a Jewish man can be dehumanized by having his insides forcibly stuffed with horsehair. But while the ape’s transformation is merely a performance, the speaker and those around him are stripped of their humanity by the violence they face, transformed into mere bodies:

Was I a disappeared body, tossed out of an airplane by a bureaucrat-soldier-
compatriot or was I a migrant body who died from dehydration while
crossing the invisible line between one civilization and another

Borzutzky believes that poetry can act as a means of resisting “the kind of thinking that seeks to destroy the humanity of individuals by turning them into nameless, faceless numbers that can be quantified and disaggregated into minute bits of data”, and I think he has certainly accomplished that in these poems.



Solmaz Sharif's Look
Graywolf Press

Before the poems of Solmaz Sharif’s debut book Look begin, the reader is given an important epigraph, a definition:

look— (*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine
circuit is receptive of an influence.

Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
United States Department of Defense

This frame and its obvious and subtle multiplicities begins a promise with the book’s readers—and I don’t mean, plainly, the premise: a book of poems which seeks to present, define, decode, and vary words of warfare with colloquial language, for such a premise offers a play on politics and poetics. Sharif’s book contains no theater whatsoever. Instead, the promise made upon entering these pages is that language is not to be trusted. When in poetry the directive is listen (to the voice of the speaker, to the oral tradition of reciting and hearing poetry, etc.), from the onset, Sharif and the speakers of her book instead demand that we look. That each word is a mine—an object receptive to influence, or an object that can cause destruction, leaving a pit—a vacancy that cannot be filled. And that each word can be mine—can be claimed or reclaimed by a given speaker. So when the book itself begins with the title poem, “Look”, and the speaker begins with “It matters what you call a thing”, the reader must meet the speaker and the book with such rigor. Every location from Iran, to America, to Guantanamo, must be seen anew. At every turn, something could be lost. Every word used to describe war is a weapon used to shroud and normalize how gravely it threatens to end the period of time in which we exist.

            Look and the poems in it will be long taught for their political veracity, ability to advance the discourses of docupoetry and poetry of witness, and for their deft criticisms of contemporary issues such as war in the Middle East and America’s role in it. These claims about Look have already been made, perhaps. They are true, already, because the poems know better than we do that politics are noise, but death and art have a space between them, which becomes history. If we are so lucky to read this book at its prophetic word—to look at each page and the words on it, to reflect upon our languages and our selfhoods, then perhaps we may receptive of its influence. And if we do—if we finish this circuit—perhaps we will land in the same place we began, changed by such currents therein.  



Jennifer Givhan's Landscape with Headless Mama

Jennifer Givhan’s first book, Landscape with Headless Mama, transports its reader into a world where the lines between real and imaginary, literal and mythical, and individual and generational are blurred. Set in the desert southwest, this collection builds a landscape of many forms: physical, temporal, cultural, mythological – even the body becomes landscape, “a dwelling from which he never / came.” With deep wit, kick, tenderness, and humor, Givhan deftly navigates both familiar and alien terrain: girlhood, memory, marriage, miscarriage, adoption. At its core, Landscape with Headless Mama explores the journey of motherhood – and so intimately, for Givhan interweaves the voices of girl, young mother, and miscarrying artist before settling on a final form whose presence has already been felt throughout: Ariel Mama, a woman who gives “us song as gesture / for the pain.” It’s a world both welcoming and dangerous, starved and lush with love. Lines and stanzas twist in the most daring ways – “call it home, bellyache, unsafe” – and bite before nursing each tender wound. And through it all, you’re left with the unshakeable feeling that these are more than poems – these are ways to stay alive. 



Brynne Rebele-Henry's Fleshgraphs
Nightboat Books

Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Fleshgraphs is nothing short of a masterpiece, the best kind of fever dream. Without a doubt the most striking feature of this book is Rebele-Henry’s ability to quite literally embody an incredibly wide range of characters, in a way that doesn’t feel appropriative or forced. Reading Fleshgraphs had me in a sort of trance, every fragment flowing into the next, pages turning constantly. I read the whole book in one sitting, and it would be difficult not to—with themes ranging from addiction to religion to sex and sexuality, Fleshgraphs is visceral. I found that I could relate to some of the emotions and ideas explored within these fragments, while some were completely foreign to me. I suspect that there is something about Fleshgraphs that really hits home for a lot of people; I’ve already lent my copy to friends and they’ve sent me iPhone photos of their favorite passages. The book strikes a perfect balance between emoting and storytelling, two perfectly complementing aspects of poetry.  Its range is broad enough to make it appealing to most readers, yet its specificity demonstrates a particularly strong poetic voice. Rebele-Henry doesn’t hesitate to take risks, often inching towards the taboo (“Catholic school is like one long gangbang, Lisa says”). Her tone is composed and sophisticated, yet also raunchy and cutting, which I find has an often humorous but humbling impact on the reader. Fleshgraphs is definitely one of this year’s books to remember.



Joshua Jennifer Espinoza's There Should Still Be Flowers
Civil Coping Mechanisms

I first encountered Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s poetry in The Offing, while procrastinating on a paper on a book written by a dead white man. As I generally do when reading poetry to procrastinate, I scrolled swiftly to the bottom of the page in an attempt to convince myself that I was merely taking a very brief break from my work, and instead wound up reading Espinoza’s work at least fifteen times over.

I wear my clothes. ends the poem. I wear my body. / I walk out in the grass and turn red / at the sight of everything. 

This vulnerability– baldly presented, without a sign of there ever having been hair– characterizes much of Espinoza’s second collection, There Should Be Flowers. Every poem startles; here, more than ever, the experience of trans humanity is presented so viscerally, so delectably, that it is impossible to regard it as though an outsider. All that womanhood / caught in the roof / of my mouth was like honey, Espinoza writes in ‘FIRST LOVE’. I knew it would never / go bad / so I never / said anything about it. And again, in ‘I HATE THE POEM’ she writes, end-stopped and enjambed, The moon eats itself. 

Espinoza performs her sadnesses with such artfully shameless clarity that it is easy to worry that the collection will devolve into wallowing at any moment. However, the sorrows of Flowers belong as much to Espinoza as they do to her people and her land, and this galvanizes the book to its triumph. How long can I keep tricking you into thinking what I’m doing is poetry, Espinoza writes, and not me begging you to let us live? 



Max Ritvo's Four Reincarnations
Milkweed Editions

There is no doubt in my mind that Max Ritvo’s first and only poetry collection is among my favorite books that I have ever read, to say nothing of only 2016. Harnessing the full magic of language, the poems in this collection contain a multiverse of small weirdnesses, which range from the outwardly absurd (such as the fake memory of a man feeding birthday cake to his goldfish) to intimate and heartbreaking addresses to the speakers’ beloveds. I can honestly say that while reading (& re-reading) Four Reincarnations, I felt intense joy and sadness side by side with one another, a feeling I’ve only ever gotten from a handful of things in my life ever – though Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, comes to mind. In terms of poetic comparisons, the only one that I feel does Ritvo’s poetic mind justice is Emily Dickinson. Four Reincarnations is a book of brilliant meditative thought, engaging with subject matter that ranges from mortality in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis to the small ecstasies of love and laughter within our relationships to one another. Ritvo’s voice in these pages is beautiful, charming, darkly hilarious, and deeply wise. If you’re anything like me, you will gasp, giggle, weep, and have your mouth fall open in awe of what he has created here. 



Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry
FSG Originals

Ben Lerner’s enthralling new book, The Hatred of Poetry, is one of the best pieces of criticism I read this year. Written in an approachable style, the book discusses many questions I have as a poet: Where does non-poets’ contempt for poetry come from? What makes poetry so special? Why should a poet be a poet and not something else? Lerner fills these questions out, mapping (and critiquing) the hatred of poetry from Plato to contemporary times. Using examples from Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, and Rankine, Lerner explores arguments common to the anti-poetry camp before dismantling them. Lerner handles his subject with both nuance and humor, and in spite of our culture’s prevailing hostility towards poetry, his book persistently searches for (and finds) poetry’s gifts. It’s a great (and quick) read for anyone interested in poetry criticism—or for a poet who wants to defend themselves from accusations that they don’t have a “real job.”

Conversation with Contributors: Hieu Minh Nguyen and Muriel Leung (Issue Sixteen, Poetry) by Aidan Forster

By Audrey Zhao | Interview Correspondent.

Let’s kick things off with a series of questions from our previous featured contributor, Joel Hans. Joel asks, “If you could hand-pick or delineate the ideal audience for your work, would you? If so, is it a particular individual, a certain collective, or something you can’t quite explain? What do you think this audience, in particular, has to gain from reading your work? If you feel like you have that audience already, can you talk about how you got there, and if not, what barriers are keeping you from reaching them right now?”

HMN: Wow. That’s a great question. I’m not really sure if my poems have just one audience, but I often joke that my poems are like a bat signal for lonely people. But honestly, I really do hope there’s a little truth to that. I guess I hope my work can offer people little escapes from their loneliness. 

ML: In a nutshell, when I write, my audience is queer, women or nonbinary, of color, cognizant of immigration histories, and believes in ghosts. I’m happy when the work resonates with many different bodies in the room that identify otherwise, but these are the bodies I picture. There’s a certain amount of control one does have over their audience, and a lot of it boils down to language – the particular lexicon one uses, the references, whether or not a text exists in multiple languages, etc. These decisions ensure that some may “get” the work more than others at certain points and the rest will just have to deal. I think the joy of reading poetry (or anything, really) is when you stop thinking about difference as a foreign or strange encounter, but work to learn the language of the text and the author’s position. My ideal readers, in addition to the ones who read the work already and share in my communities/identities, are those who try to read beyond the contexts of their own bodies despite occupying different spaces in the world.

I think it’s easy to absorb the blame as a queer writer of color for not writing in such a way that is palatable across the board. Critiques about obfuscation, being too sentimental, too narrative, not experimental enough, too many inside jokes requiring specific cultural contexts to completely understand—I seem to have gotten it all in writing workshops. But at some point, one realizes that what wasn’t being understood was an issue of my immediate readers’ limited purview. On the other hand, I’ve acquired such a wide bag of knowledge of white canonical writing and references—the James Joyce quote, the references to a famed character in a Flannery O’Conner short story, and the particular narrative structures of different William Faulkner novels. How is it fair that while others can scrape by reading only white writers, my education includes the study of literature of my own marginalized communities in addition to the white male canon, which I only have access to by acquired privilege of sticking it out through cycles of graduate study? I’m doing the work – still doing the work to read as widely as possible. In terms of my audience, I ask that they do the same.


What are you reading right now?

HMN: I just finished reading Carl Phillips’ Tether, and I’m still trying to recover. I’ve been thinking about some of those poems everyday. Also, I just started Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair, and it’s a stunner. Sometimes when I get excited about reading a book, I start to sweat. It’s not very cute.

ML: Currently, I’m reading several recently released poetry collections such as Kimberly Alidio’s After projects the resound (Black Radish 2016), Kay Ulanday Barrett’s When the Chant Comes (Topside Press 2016), Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press 2016), Angela Penaredondo’s All Things Lose Thousands of Times (Inlandia Institute 2016), and Map of an Onion (Inlandia Institute 2016). I love these books for how history creeps along their pages.

In fiction, I’m reading Dana Johnson’s In the Not Quite Dark and (finally!) Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

And the imperative read for every new graduate student – Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling.


How did you get into writing? Why do you continue to write?

HMN: In middle school I was a really big theatre geek. It was a very intense time. I really wanted to be an actor, but when I got to high school, they only offered social justice theatre classes. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but in that class we learned how to write and perform work about topics that were important to us. Writing poems just seems like a natural transition from that work.

ML: I wanted to write to invent a world where I saw myself living. 

Several writers and I were talking one day and were surprised to find that we had all at some point written fan fiction. Or vampire novellas. Or some other form of writing that involved the merging into of a world that existed and was widely talked about on TV and other media at the time. I think we wrote because we were lonely and writing in this way allowed us to be part of somebody’s world, not just in the passive viewer way, but as one who can expand upon its walls. We use the word “escape” a lot for this sort of writing, but there’s a real world embodiment here. I wrote so I could feel a bit bolder each day.

I think some of those feelings of loneliness and desire to engage intimately with the world still persist now. I think the difference now is that I’m interested in creating something new that can still clearly showcase the lineage from which this work comes from. It’s comforting to hear from someone, for instance, that they can tell I harbor a strangeness derived from an equally strange childhood. I suppose I write because that part of me still lives there, even if in disguised form.


Muriel, your poem, World’s Tiniest Human, in Adroit Issue Sixteen is haunting. It hurts me in the best way and I think it’s because there’s power in what is left unsaid. Do you actively withhold in your writing process? How do you know when something should not be said?

ML: Thank you! What I find most interesting in the story of Thumbelina (the figure who inspired “World’s Tiniest Human”) is that she is considered fragile and yet she is determined to tackle the bigness of the world. I think there’s such bravery to that as well as a sense of calculated risk. I believe she readied herself for danger even if she didn’t know exactly what form or shape it might take. What a sense of survival a girl like that can learn just by moving in the world!

Withholding is a survival skill just as being perpetually open and vulnerable can be one too. I think of withholding as being watchful, as observing how others move in reaction to you being in a space. I think sometimes it’s important to not immediately divulge the story of your life if you know it won’t be in safe hands. It’s the same with writing—with good writing you can convince the reader to stay with you even if the end goal isn’t immediately clear. And that’s an act of trust on the writer’s part. For the reader too, I don’t think trust should be automatically granted to the text. Writer and reader should both be doing the work to talk to each other, and the act of reading should be a type of work that feels gratifying for the time it takes and the intimate knowledge that is revealed. I know, for instance, that after some density of prose, I often think I should offer space for the reader to breathe and take in content a different way. It takes some special consideration of how different readers might read and what my work can do to respond with some generosity.


Hieu Minh, I’m very glad I was introduced to your work through Apology, Sort Of and Commute in Adroit Issue Sixteen because you tackle heavy topics of queerness, brown-ness, and more with open defiance. You state things very clearly, almost blunt. Is that an artistic choice? What is more important: the narrative or the imagery of a poem?

 MN: I’m all about sentiment, and figuring out how to get that sentiment to come across to the reader. Sometimes it’s through narrative. Sometimes it’s through imagery. I guess it depends on what I think will be most effective. 


You’re both editors, Muriel for Apogee Journal and Hieu Minh for Muzzle Magazine. What are qualities of poems that have completely captured your attention?

HMN: I feel really lucky to get to read so many people’s poems. It’s my favorite part of being an editor, and as an editor, you have to read a lot of work. The poems that I am instantly drawn to are the poems that don’t make me think of other poems when I read them. 

ML: I love work that does something interesting with its form, that is complicated and against hand-holding, poems about the body, poems that aim to not reproduce the infliction of trauma and violence through their reading (but poems that do work to critique the producers of trauma and violence though), poems that sometimes double as prayers, spoken poems, performed poems, poems that are a multi-headed hydra of different forms and media, work that pools together instead of divide and conquer, anti-colonial work, love notes, love is political notes, epistolary poems addressed to ghosts, writing about longing, writing about longing for a form to contain its desire, words dressed in its own fatigue, tongue-tied poems, poems with split tongues, poems that play double-dutch with language, poems that trouble and traverse the space between you and me.


Both of you are also Kundiman fellows. What is it like to be a Kundiman fellow?

HMN: Thrilling! There are secret Kundiman lairs across the country. Just kidding?? I actually met Muriel at my first Kundiman retreat! Some of my closest friendships started at that retreat. That has easily been the best part about being a fellow, meeting and building with a network of incredibly kind and generous people. 

ML: Imagine you’ve dreamed of a city your whole life and you’ve searched for it everywhere you go. One day, someone approaches you and another. And another. They don’t give you this city of your dreams, but they do give you postcards of other places you have never thought to visit, but why not? When you put together those patchwork postcards, you get some semblance of something better than you ever dreamed of.

I think we dream of community in idealistic terms and we want things to fit in a certain way to fill a certain longing. It’s not that Kundiman has offered me all the answers about how my identity politics factor into my writing at all times, but I have met some amazing people—to know them in the context of a space that feels safe, inviting, and loving all at the same time. How often are we alone with our words? How often do we write alone? Kundiman reminds me I’m not alone.  


In the same vein, how do you make literature your (pardon me for lifting this directly from the Kundiman site) “vehicle for cultural expression” and “instrument for political dialogue and self-empowerment”? How can we all harness literature in this way? Or is it innate?

HMN: I think I’m still trying to learn and figure this one out. But first, I think you have to want your work to exist in the world in this way. Lately, I’ve been just trying to write what I won’t allow myself to forget.

ML: I don’t think it’s innate. I think it’s about intention and awareness of how one’s voice gets read across a larger body politic. I do think we have a responsibility to each other (to the world) when we write and especially when we publish the work to be read widely. That responsibility means to not reproduce the harms we see in the world, to be cognizant of other bodies that occupy spaces different from ours, and to produce writing that checks the history of where it comes from and where it can go. That being said, I’m not too sure if “cultural expression” or “political dialogue” or “self-empowerment” quite captures what I try to do per se. For example, much of my writing is self-flagellating and flawed and sometimes too frank about self-destructive tendencies. I think they’re issues that need to be talked about—bodies that do not fit into normative categories of wellness, traumatized bodies, bodies that are continuously triggered, etc. I think the work itself is messier than what the terms can capture, but the larger goal is, yes, towards social and political awareness, to stretch the discourse of Asian American poetics beyond its current container. It has to go beyond representational politics though. It has to be critical of its own categories and be willing to shed its terms to be free moving for a while. Again, we have to try at this, especially as writers of color. We don’t have the privilege for things to be granted to us by pure accident. 


I know for me, writing poetry has sometimes become a confession of sorts, an almost, “I’m still here and I’m not leaving.” Is it the same for you? If not, to you both, what does it mean to write poetry?

HMN: Totally! I might also add a, "I've been here!"

ML: I love that—“I’m still here and I’m not leaving.” I want to write it in the sky. I never want to leave. My mother once lamented that getting older meant you worried about being forgotten (and would she be forgotten?) I write because I don’t want to forget, especially not my mother. Especially not the many people I’ve loved and lost in my life. I’ve gotten worried, actually, that all my poems have become elegies, even my love poems. What does that say about my fear about departure? It helps to think about how memory is unreliable at the end of the day and that we remember and then we don’t. A poetry of uncertainty feels much more suitable for its form than one that proposes to know the answers. I think I write because I’m unsure and I think you’re unsure too.