World Before Page: A Conversation with Jamel Brinkley by Peter LaBerge


 Jamel Brinkley, author of  A Lucky Man  (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories (Graywolf Press/A Public Space Books). His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Best American Short Stories 2018A Public Space, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Epiphany, and LitMag. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was also the 2016-17 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His work has received support from Kimbilio Fiction, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Beginning this fall, he will be a 2018-2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.


Leah Johnson: Hi, Jamel! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about this raw, moving collection. When you began to craft A Lucky Man, what works and what tradition, if any, did you believe it to be in conversation with?

Jamel Brinkley: Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity. In terms of your question, I didn’t think about the fact that I was writing a collection until fairly late in the game. Prior to that, I was just working on one story and then another story and so on. In some cases, I felt I was trying to be in conversation with individual stories by other writers, including “Old Boys, Old Girls,” by Edward P. Jones, “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” by Yiyun Li, “The Mistress,” by Gina Berriault, and “The Ascent,” by Ron Rash. As I began to think of the stories as a possible book, I thought of them as being in conversation with Edward P. Jones’s two collections, which are very important to me. I was drawn to the geographical focus on one place and to the careful, loving, and honest attention to the lives of everyday black people.

LJ: You said you “began to think of the stories as a possible book.” At what point did or does that happen for you?

JB: I honestly don’t think I was truly convinced until I got a literary agent, but then again, maybe not until she told me a year and a half later that I had completed enough stories, with enough to say to one other that we could begin sending it to book editors. People in my MFA program would refer to the stories I was workshopping as part of a collection, but I didn’t really take that seriously. In my mind, I was just learning how to write. But I guess every new story or novel is a process of starting over and learning how to write it.

LJ: You’ve spoken previously about leaving your PhD program because of the inaccessibility of language used to discuss the writing. I’m wondering if A Lucky Man was a stride towards grounding contemporary fiction in something more attainable for a more diverse audience? And if so, how has the discourse surrounding the book so far interacted with that intention?

JB: I wouldn’t say that I had that intention actually. But I did want to write stories in which the language was clear, first of all, with controlled flights of what you might call lyricism. It’s been interesting to see readers call the language of the book precise and simple on the one hand, and poetic or even “mannered” on the other.

LJ: You’ve worked with language in a number of different ways—as a teacher, an academic, a writer—but I’m curious about what it was that spurred you into making writing your own fiction more central in your life?

JB: The desire to write my own fiction, which I suppressed, denied, or redirected for a long time, wouldn’t go away. Eventually I would just find myself doing it, though without much discipline or direction. I finally took a series of writing workshops during the summer of 2012, and the teachers I met then were very supportive of my work, urging me to consider placing it more centrally in my life. Their encouragement helped me believe in my potential as a writer.

LJ: I want to spend a second on process, and more specifically, what the process was or is for writing a collection so deeply grounded in place. What did the day-to-day of crafting this collection look like for you?

JB: I’m a daytime writer, typically in the morning, or from the morning into the early or mid-afternoon. In a first draft, I proceed pretty slowly, just discovering the story and its characters sentence by sentence. The grounding in place helped because it gave me something solid to knock up against during a process in which I’m otherwise fumbling around. Aiming for a solidity in the prose, even in a first draft, also helps me. Once the chaos of a first draft is done, I try to see what’s there, particularly what’s there that I hadn’t really intended to put there but what might actually be useful or important. This can be very difficult to do without a workshop or other readers, by the way. From that point on, in revision I’m just trying to work on one element at a time. I may have a draft where I’m working only on the dialogue, or one where I’m working only on one specific character. I try not to work on more than one thing in a given draft, so hopefully by the end the whole story feels layered and carefully attended to.

LJ: You have quite a revision process. How do you know when a story has reached its final form? And after that, how did you know when your collection was done or ready for submission?

JB: I stop when I feel like I’ve done all that I can do, taking into account some of the feedback from workshops and trusted readers. I never think, “This is it! It’s perfect now. Not a word can be touched.” But I do know I’m reaching the end of what I can do on my own when I’m done addressing the technical concerns I can see. In her Paris Review interview, Toni Morrison says, “I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerly-ness from it,” and I find myself doing something like that near the end of a draft. I feel like intense technical revisions tighten up a story, but maybe too much. I try to loosen things up near the end, to relax the language and the story a bit so that it feels more like life. I also look forward to the chance to work with a good editor. I’m not a parent, but I imagine that the feeling I have when I send a story out might be similar to a mother or father watching their kid go out into the world. You know they’re not at all perfect, but you hope you’ve done a fine enough job with them that they can fend for themselves and have a good existence overall.

LJ: What struck me in multiple stories in this collection was the discursive nature of the dialogue. It was equal parts sharp and honest. I was struck by the scenes between Claudius and Ben and Naomie and Sybil in “No More Than a Bubble”, off rip. Is there any advice you’ve received on how to make dialogue jump to life that you could give writers who struggle with it?

JB: Dialogue can be hard to teach, but what I’ve found most useful to keep in mind is to prioritize the sound of the speech more than the content, and to allow the dialogue to sometimes move at odd angles. I like the idea of dialogue sounding exactly right, but also reflecting our human tendency to hesitate, to dissemble, to be preoccupied and less than fully attentive to others. That’s how I work to get the tension and contrast in rhythms that I want my dialogue to have.

LJ: I’m headed to Kimbilio for the first time at the end of the summer (yay!), so I have to slide a question in specifically from one Kimbee to another. Did writing in community with other black folks provide you with something that other spaces didn’t—especially as your work seems to wrestle so heavily with issues of race and class? If so, what name would you give to that something?

JB: Congrats! I’m so glad the Kimbilio community exists. In a way, the discussion of craft was heightened at Kimbilio (and at Callaloo, another community I’ve been fortunate to be a part of), maybe because we recognized that craft isn’t apolitical and that race and class and gender aren’t separate from craft. In other, predominantly white spaces, where craft is more likely to be seen as some kind of “pure” thing, people can get tripped up by matters of race, class, gender, and politics. Danielle Evans has said something like, “Some work needs to be done in the world before it can be done on the page.” It feels to me like a place like Kimbilio represents work that has been done or is being done in the world, the work of making authentic community.

LJ: You were raised in New York, and the strength of that relationship to the city is woven beautifully throughout the collection. Has living in other places for grad school and for fellowships changed your relationship to the work at all?

JB: I lived in New York for decades before I moved to the Midwest and, now, to the West Coast, so I think something essential about the city, or at least the city in a certain era, has been indelibly stamped on me. I wrote most of the stories in this book while living in Iowa. It’s hard to say whether that resulted in some kind of loss. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, but I was able to get the work done, and I think the whole “distance brings clarity” effect was in play too.

LJ: From The New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly, A Lucky Man has been a major part of the conversation of what not to miss this year—and rightly so. That seems like a magnificent way to debut. How are you processing the reception—both the good we’ve seen or the maybe not-so-great that we haven’t? How are you staying grounded?

JB: I’m the sort of person who doesn’t get too excited when things are going great, but who can fall into despair when things aren’t going as well as I would like. I’ve been very pleased with the positive reception the book has gotten so far, and I’m grateful to the team at Graywolf for the huge role they’ve had in getting that reception. While the overall reaction has been good, of course I’ve obsessed over the lukewarm pre-publication review that was riddled with errors, or the fact that the New York Times, for example, decided not to review the collection. Like Erykah Badu said, “Now keep in mind I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” What has helped to keep me grounded is meeting or hearing from readers and booksellers who enjoyed the book. It feels like a miracle that anyone has read it! The other thing that has kept me grounded is the experience of reading from the book in New York with my mother and brother in the audience. The book is dedicated to them, and to have them there and to see how proud they were of me has helped keep everything else in perspective. I’ll never forget that evening.

LJ: The collection opens with an epigraph by Carl Phillips, and as I read the book I couldn’t help but note how deeply poetic much of the language is. It seems like there is a definite interplay between genres in your work. What poets are you reading right now?

JB: I’ve just finished the new Terrance Hayes collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, which I really enjoyed. Jenny’s Xie’s Eye Level and Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages are two others I’d mention. Last week I was excited to read a new Layli Long Soldier poem, titled “King,” which was published online by Wendy Xu at Hyperallergic. Keith S. Wilson has been putting out exciting work, and I’m looking forward to his forthcoming collection, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, with Copper Canyon Press. I’m still thinking about a recent Traci Brimhall poem, titled “Dear Eros,” which VQR published, and Safiya Sinclair’s “Gospel of the Misunderstood,” recently published in The New Yorker. I’ve been rereading Joanna Klink’s Raptus, as I often do when I’m going through it. I’m looking forward to returning to some June Jordan and Wanda Coleman, and to reading Lynda Hull for the first time.

LJ: What sustains you in this work?

JB: Eating well, sleeping well, reading, and spending quality time with friends and family are all important. But I would also mention this: The writer Kaitlyn Greenidge has been posting excerpts of Toni Cade Bambara’s essays on social media. In one of those excerpts, Bambara says the “underlying standard” in the book reviews she wrote was this: “Does this author here genuinely love his/her community?” I think that’s terrific and true. And even if my work doesn’t shy away from sadness, tragedy, and flawed humanity, ultimately I write out of love for my community. That’s why it’s equally important for me to try to get pleasure, humor, joy, strength, and striving onto the page. Telling the entirety of the story, out of love and a desire to tell the truth, is sustaining for me.

LJ: Now that A Lucky Man is out in the world, what’s next for you—with the Stegner Fellowship and beyond?

JB: More stories, and maybe a novel too! I have a few projects going, and some notions about others that I haven't started yet. We’ll see what works out.


Leah Johnson is an essayist, fiction writer and hopeless midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah is a recent graduate of the MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work—which can be found at Bustle, Electric Lit, Yes Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, Faded Out, and elsewhere—is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.


Conversations with Contributors: José Olivarez by Peter LaBerge


 Photo credit: RJ Eldridge. José Olivarez, author of  Citizen Illegal  (Haymarket Books, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Four .

Photo credit: RJ Eldridge. José Olivarez, author of Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Four.

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, Citizen Illegal. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. He lives in Chicago.


Dujie Tahat: I want to start off by thanking you for writing Citizen Illegal. As an immigrant myself, it was really heartening. I’m not a Mexican immigrant, but I grew up working in the fields of Eastern Washington. My family and I picked fruit alongside undocumented immigrants, and they were my best homies growing up. So in a lot of different resonances, the book really spoke to me.

José Olivarez: Thank you. That really fills me with joy. I wrote the book in part for the students that I work with here in Chicago and in part to a younger version of myself that I’m imagining. So to hear that it resonates with people not to just here in Chicago but in other parts of the country has just been—I don’t have the words. I’m filled with gratitude. Thank you.

DT: Of course. Of course. Let’s jump in. In the tile poem “(Citizen) (Illegal),” the parentheticals almost enact the way immigration—the process or the politics of it—can interrupt the normal course of life. There’s a certain shock that feels particularly familiar to me. In your crafting of the poem, how did you arrive at interruption as a formal mechanism? And why, specifically, the parenthetical?

JO: Yeah, there are a few answers to that question. One is that I was attempting to do exactly what you’re talking about. I was thinking about the ways in my own life an everyday experience becomes interrupted with this realization. Or it’s like I’m having a day and everything is fine, then someone will say something or a headline will creep by, and suddenly, I’m once again aware and present in my own body, in my own experience, aware of everyone else in the room. So I was trying to recreate the way that that experience occurs, the way it interrupts just constantly this routine from time to time. In the book, the parts that are not parentheticals are not necessarily wild experiences, you know? It’s a baby growing up singing Selena songs or hiding from El Cucuy. But I was trying to figure out a way to interrupt that narrative, to interrupt that experience with these quick judgments.

In terms of how I arrived at the parentheticals, part of that comes from my deep love of hip hop and ad libstrying to find a way to play with poems in a way that mimic some of what I love about rap songs. So thinking about how you layer a text with multiple voices and different experiences, the parentheticals felt like a good way to accomplish both what I was trying to do in terms of layering voices as well as a good way to interrupt this experience, to bring the reader back to this constant recollection of where one stands at any given moment.

DT: You know, I hadn’t thought of ad libs, but that makes perfect sense. I really love that. In my first reading of the poem, I thought of boundaries a lot, and borders—both because the physical shape of the parentheses and the notion of a border or line cutting into someone just living an ordinary life. I’m curious too in the writing of that poem, when you knew you wanted to do that, did you write the whole poem and then insert the parentheses or did you write the parentheses in as you went along?

JO: I wrote one part, the first part: “Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have / a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).” I wrote that first sentence and put the parentheticals in because I was trying to interrupt it. And when I read it and thought about it, not only did it work for that sentence, but I could think of any number of moments and experiences that are also interrupted, that also have this judgement placed on them whether it’s silent or spoken. From there, I started to build out the rest of the poem. So it was that first sentence and then thinking through how else I could play with the form that I had developed.

DT: You have a pretty incredible resumé and bio on many accounts. In the traditional sense, you have Harvard, Poetry Foundation, Lincoln Center, the Met. Another way to read the interruption of the parentheticals in “(Citizen) (Illegal)” is the immigrant interrupting “traditionally American” spaces—if we limit “traditionally American” to mean institutional, exceptional, superlative, white. Do you ever get imposter syndrome? How do you claim your space within those institutions?

JO: Oh man. Yeah. Absolutely. I get impostor syndrome all the time. That’s one of the things that I’m thinking about right now even as I’m talking to you, like who am I to pretend like I have any more knowledge than anyone else? I have always battled impostor syndrome because I’m in these spaces where I’m acutely aware that there aren’t a ton of other people of color or a ton of other people with immigrant backgrounds or a ton of other people who are non-traditional in the way that you explained. And that can make me feel like I have to be everything, like I have to be almost a Super Mexican and make sure that I’m doing right by all. You know what I mean? Like really make sure I’m putting on properly for all my people at all times. And that’s just an impossible thing to do.

Also, my being in those spaces is not going to fundamentally change those spaces, so it’s not a mistake that I feel that way when I’m in any one of those cultural institutions, right? It’s by design that they are predominantly cis, het, white, upper middle class, whatever. It’s by design that those institutions are that way. I don’t have any more faith in those cultural institutions than I do our government. I know that likewise they are only kind to me and other people from marginalized background when it’s beneficial to them, when it’s useful to them. That’s part of why I feel impostor syndrome in those spaces too. Because I know that a lot of the other people in those spaces have been trained to be there. They feel like they own the place, and I never feel that way. I never feel like when I’m in a big museum that I own that space or that it’s for me. I always feel like I’m on the outside even when I’ve been brought in. Maybe that’s just a personal thing, but I’m always constantly battling that.

In terms of the second part of your question, I guess I take care of myself by trying to create space not necessarily within those institutions, sometimes outside of those institutions, and by making sure that when I am in partnership with institutions, that I’m there with a purpose. That it’s beneficial not just to myself but for the people I care about. I partner with the Poetry Foundation because it allows me to teach in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, for instance. So I’m very clear about why I take on these partnerships and why I am building partnership with them. That helps.

Another thing is, within those spaces, I’m trying to find people that do understand and are in solidarity with me—building those connections so that within those institutions, none of us feel like we are isolated or alone but that we are working together and finding ways to collaborate with each other. Those are two things, but you know, a lot of it, honestly, goes back to building spaces outside of those places.

One of the things that’s been important for me that I’m really interested in is building pathways for young Latinx writers in Chicago. And I can go to those different institutions to try to find ways to collaborate with them, but I can also just immediately start to do that myself working with neighborhood spots to host an open mic or workshop. Having that place then feels good, feels powerful and safe. So when I do interact with other people in institutions, I’m doing good, I feel nourished, and I don’t always feel like ‘'m in a space where I’m othered or marginalized.

DT: The point you make that those institutions aren’t actually designed for your or my comfort is something I think of a lot. Thinking of my own interaction with institutions, I think those things are useful in so far as they give me access and a certain capital—both real capital and social capital—that then allow me to hopefully do the work that I’m actually interested in, which it sounds like you’re really invested in. The other half of your bio I find personally fascinating. My come-up was with Youth Speaks Seattle. I went to Brave New Voices, and I know you did too. You’re also a big part of LTAB and Young Chicago Authors. You’re clearly invested in youth education and cultivating young voices. How much of teaching and working with youth is part of your writing process? Does working with young people keep your language fresh?

JO: In terms of how being an educator and working with young people is part of my artistic process, it’s not that they keep my language fresh. I think working with young people is useful because it means that, for me, there are stakes to my work. When I write my poems, I’m not just theoretically considering the fifteen year olds that I want to save or the fifteen year old that I was. I’m not just remembering that fifteen year old version of me. I have young people that are going through their own lives and trying to process and figure out their own place in the world. So it matters to me that they see the poems and that they gain something of use beyond just like, “Oh José is dope.” You know what I mean? And in a way that they can articulate that goes beyond “He’s older than us and therefore he must be skilled in this particular way,” but that they really connect with the poems. I’m pursuing the craft of poetry not just for the sake of the craft itself but because I really believe in the power of language and stories to build bridges and to help create new possibilities. It’s completely connected to that for me. I give those poems to my students and then they tell me that they begin to lead workshops for young people using those poems and poems of other writers that we studied, and we begin to build a conversation between us that hopefully then results in their writing of books and inviting more people into that conversation.

As for the language part, I like my language from, like, 2006, you know. I still say “Word” and things that are way out of fashion. I kind of love that. I love old-timey language. I love saying that I’m going to get into shenanigans. And I love the language that young people are using, but I don’t feel compelled to use it. I love the language of my own youth and try to work with that.

DT: Would it be fair to say that working with youth rejuvenates your poetics? How would you characterize that relationship?

JO: I think it it gives the work a different energy, for sure. In part, the way that I was able to finish the book was coming back to Chicago and getting into deep conversation with three students in particular who are now going off into the world. They’ve graduated from high school. They just finished the first years of college and are beginning to lead community writing workshops and become teaching artists. In particular, working deeply with them and seeing what kinds of questions they were grappling with gave my own poems a new energy. I was thinking about their frustration with the walls that were getting in the way of their own writing, and that helped me gain a sense of clarity about what kind of boundaries or walls I was coming up against in trying to make these poems fresh, trying to turn the story and find new ways in, trying to find more nuances, and trying to find new possibilities for the poems. Working with them to find their own limitations helped me see my own limitations as a writer. Then figuring out how I could show them, with this book, my own way through those limitations.

DT: It strikes me that your sense of poetics is deeply rooted in community, and I think when folks with Youth Speaks or BNV backgrounds say “poetry community,” we mean something a little different than “traditional” institutional poetry communities. There’s something really urgent about it. The slam scene and spoken word culture has obviously shifted—and I think juiced, in a really good way—contemporary American poetry, especially as this crop of BNV youth age into adulthood. Obviously there’s The Breakbeat anthology you’re in, folks like Nate Marshall, Danez Smith, sam sax, and Safia Elhillo that are breaking into or are fully in the institutions of poetry. Given that sense of poetics, both in the actual speaking of a poem in a room where there’s performance and urgency and then also the bigger sense of what you’re talking about—working with former students who are leading their own workshops—there’s this real-time thing happening. Do you see that as crucial to understanding contemporary American poetics? And how does that urgency translate?

JO: Let me see if I can try to answer that. The first way that I got feedback on my poems was via the open mic. And that was important because I could see people react. Everyone is nice at an open mic, but there’s a difference when I’ve read a poem that sends a jolt electricity through the room. That was useful in beginning to be able to see what part hit and what part I could cut or needed to rework in some way. It made me a good listener.

People think of an open mic as a performer reading their poem but it’s really a conversation. The audience is giving you notes. The audience is part of it. You can learn to read that conversation and get feedback on the poems. For me that was crucial in becoming and continuing to grow as an artist. It’s still something that I love to do, to read poems an open mic—and to read new poems because it gives me a better sense of if I’m getting closer to what I’m trying to accomplish. It gives me a sense of if I’m being successful or not.

In terms of how going from the open mic or the slam has helped to give an urgency to the work on the page, both of those things require craft. Like I said, they require you to listen and pay attention and figure out what has energy and what does not. Part of this for me, it just so happens, is that some of the best craft writers right now are also really attuned to their craft as performers. They’re also really strong in that regard. Either they started that way or they didn’t, but if you write a bad poem you can’t perform it into being a good poem. Both of those spaces require one to pay attention and listen and be thoughtful about their work and make decisions about how they want the work to live in the world.

It also just so happens that before publishing came around to younger poets of color, the slam was one of the places that was somewhat open to young poets of color. I think it’s just a matter of opportunity and now that there’s been more of an opportunity, you see people not just winning slams but winning all of these book awards.

DT: Definitely. And I think of youth slam culture as very fundamentally opposed to the long-standing narrative of the rugged, solitary, romantic writer who is tortured and writes on their own—

JO: Yes. Yes. I didn’t even think about that, but yeah I think you’re absolutely right. I think the ethos now is a lot more shared, and I do really get excited when I see my peers do well. When I read their poems and they move me, I get excited for their own possibilities and my own work. You’re right. It is a shift from this idea of a writer going into the woods and pursuing their craft separate from the universe. I think the world of spoken word—in particular, the youth poetry culture at Young Chicago Authors and Brave New Voices and all these other places—is all about how to get connected with the world, how to become more in tune with the world. They’re not try to separate themselves from that, and I think that has absolutely given the work new urgency. I don’t want to say that it’s made the work real, but it’s work that has urgency today. It’s useful right now. It helps us envision the future, and it helps us reckon with the past. And, you’re right, it’s in community, which makes it all the more powerful because it is rooted in the work of making connections with people and not trying to separate oneself from people.

DT: And to your point of it being rooted in connection and listening and responding and being thoughtful about how you speak into a room, it also has implications for the urgency of your narrative. You, José Olivarez, your narrative in contemporary American politics and what that means for an immigrant on the other side of the country who’s not a Mexican immigrant but can, like myself, can read your book and see themself in these pages. Poetry has always been written in time, but it seems like this new ethos has even amplified that. The narrative of the individual poets, in some of ways, are as urgent as the craft of the poems that they’re putting out there.

JO: I hear that. Part of me wants to push back a little bit.

DT: Please do.

JO: I guess the reason why I feel a little bit of hesitancy towards that is because the narratives that we’re telling are absolutely important, but it still doesn't work unless you’re attuned to the room and attuned to the craft. I sometimes get backhanded compliments that are like, “Your poems are so timely. Congratulations!” But I worked really hard on writing the best poems that I could. It’s so much deeper than just the narrative that I tell. But I hear you. The narratives are important.

DT: I’m with you, and I don’t mean to mischaracterize the poetry itself or diminish the craft of the poems. The way I think I meant that question is in the way that you can’t perform a bad problem into being a good poem. Obviously people have different relationships to poetry, but the poet’s narrative shouldn’t supplant how good the poems are. But it’s an element of it, right?

JO: Yeah, absolutely. There’s also an element of who’s being invited to read poems now. There was just that report that came out not too long ago explaining that the readership of poetry has increased over the last however many years, and for me the reason why is because more people have been invited to partake in poetry now than in a long time. Part of that, for sure, is because the stories have had more appeal to  young people of color, to queer young people of color. There’s been an intentional invitation to them to come in and listen to the poem and participate and write their own poems. Before, it was a lot harder. Poetry felt a lot harder to access in some ways. It required an advanced degree or it required a particular class upbringing or race or whatever. And now it feels like the door has been flung open to so many people who are so excited to see these different narratives.

DT: And that kind of gets back to what we started the conversation with—inhabiting these spaces but at scale. Shifting gears a bit, though, how do you practice tenderness in your writing?

JO: Tenderness is hard. I love trying to write with tenderness in part because the risk is being corny, is being overly sentimental. That’s easy to fall into, and yet tenderness feels so urgent for me. I wake up and I could use some tenderness, so I try to craft that space into the poems. I try to do that not at the expense of the real world that we live in that is constantly showing us these images and reminding us of all the violence and pain that’s being inflicted here in the United States and all over the world. But tenderness feels like a way to interrupt that stream of violence. It comes in a similar way to what we were talking about with the first poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)”—to try and interrupt every day violence with a stream of tenderness can sharpen the edges on both those things, so I can make tenderness feel as important as I think it is. I can get at it the proper way. That’s one of the ways that I try to practice tenderness: thinking about how I can interrupt life and all of its reminders of violence and insistences on violence with the things that make me feel good, with the things that make me feel tender and soft—writing about my  family members and the people I love and everything else in a way that is as soft as I want them to feel.

DT: That’s beautiful. Family figures very strongly in your work. In “The Day My Little Brother Gets Accepted into Grad School,” you write “my dad prays between gulps. My mom / drinks when god blinks.” I think that perfectly summarizes the characters you’ve rendered out of your parents in the meta-poem that is the book. Do your parents like the portrayal of themselves? Do they feel that they’re true? If not, how do you navigate that with them?

JO: That’s a good question. I hope that they like the portrayal of them. In reality, I don’t know exactly how they feel about the book. My mom doesn’t speak or read English, so I don’t know. I have to sit there and explain each of the poems to her. I get the sense that they’re proud though. In part because the other day I was supposed to meet someone for an interview at a taquería here in Chicago, and we canceled because their flight was delayed. But when they landed in Chicago, they went to this taqueríia, and they’re sitting there. They just got in from New York. They’re preparing for the interview, and they hear someone talk about poetry. So they think maybe this person is a poet. Then they hear them say “breakbeat poets,” and they’re like, “Oh maybe this person knows José.” And it turned out that it was my dad and his friends. They were at the taquería talking about my poems. My dad doesn’t tell me directly if he’s proud of me or not, you know what I mean? But I hear these stories. My brother Pedro will tell me he’s picked up the book and that he’s reading it, so I get the sense that, at the very least, they’re cool with it.

When I wrote the book, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just writing about them to exploit their lives and their own stories, but that I was trying to deepen my relationship with them through these imaginings and through these poems. That was very important to me. I haven’t had a chance to talk to them about the book yet, but I hope they’re proud. I hope that they love it. I’m excited that my brothers really dig the book, and my cousins who have read it are excited. They’re buying copies for their friends and talking to coworkers about it, so I feel good, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet.

DT: Yeah. It strikes me that for immigrants and children of immigrants, the concerns about writing about family are a bit unique. I mean in my experience of even exposing my status and talking about it out loud outside the family, the different sensibilities we had were clear. My dad was super private, and he struggled to even articulate why. He’s just said, “Don't do that.” There’s this inherent—I don't know if it’s politics or polarization or exposure—certainly, potential for exploitation that happens when you just speak it into being. That’s a thing I struggle with. When you were putting the book together and when you were thinking about deepening your relationship, hoping that that’s the outcome you were driving towards, what were the questions you were asking of yourself? How did you stay away from exploiting stories? And then there are times too when they are overt political statements that need to be made—do you then just do that?

JO: A couple things: One, it’s not just one poem about my mom or one poem about my dad. They are characters in the book. Each of them are treated from multiple angles, and you get to see them in different ways. One of the critiques I got early on as a young poet was when I wrote a poem that was meant to be an ode to my mom. And in that poem, my mom was making food for the rest of the family, which is one of the things that my mom did. But a poet, Toni Asante Lightfoot, read that problem and told me, “There are parts of this poem that are beautiful, but I wonder if you could write a poem about your mom that doesn’t have her just be your mom in the poem.”

In all these poems I’m trying to think about my parents even beyond the ways that I know them as just my parents. I have to imagine who my parents are not just in relation to their children but in relation to the world, in relation to their own youthful dreams and desires, in relation to what they consider their work and purpose, and what their goals still are in this life—not just to treat them as people responsible for me and my brothers but as people with dreams and ambitions completely outside of being parents. So I was trying to make sure that that was happening, that I didn’t just imagine my mom at work for the family or that I didn’t just imagine my dad at work for the family.

Part of the reason that they’re in this book is because when I think about the interruption—the violent part of being Chicano in this country, of being first generation—that puts a distance between me and my parents sometimes. That’s one of the ways that I see it and feel it. So it felt important to include them and to try to write through those violences, to try to find ways across.

It was also important for me that before I publish the book, that I sent the book to my younger brother Pedro. And I asked him, “I think that these things are true, but could I be making them up?” Memory isn’t 100% accurate, so I sent it to Pedro. When he got really excited about the book, that’s when I felt comforted knowing that I wasn’t just packaging my family story into a commodity for the sake of somebody else’s learning. That this was something that my family would feel excited about, that they would take pride in.

DT: That’s beautiful, too. In terms of memory, does poetry give you the freedom, or alternatively the constraint, to engage with memory? Or do you feel an ethical obligation to remain one hundred percent factual knowing that that’s obviously impossible due to the nature of memory? How do you balance the intent to have your memory in the service or something and then be true to that memory?

JO: Absolutely I struggle with how to write the poems as ethically as possible with regards to the people in the book. I can’t help but write towards memory. I’m naturally a super nostalgic person. I was on the Internet yesterday, and I saw an article pop up about Pokémon and I got really excited. I love memory and I love the past. I love history and personal history. I love learning where people are from and what they used to do when they were kids and what gets them hype about the world. All of those things are just what I’m naturally drawn to.

In terms of how I try to engage with memory, I tried to create a voice where the faulty narrator contradicts themself and different parts of the story. One of the poems might tell the story one way, but then the poem gets told another way. Using a faulty narrator, not as a way of contradicting different stories but using stories as a way to complement one another—using contradictory stories as a way to compliment what might be missing from another story. So then that releases the pressures to be one hundred percent accurate all the time because if I visit the memory in another poem then maybe I get some more of the facts right that second time, and altogether the book—the meta-poem, as you said—hopefully gets closer that ethical truth—if not factually the truth, then at least an emotional truth.

DT: So, I want to talk about humor. I’m impressed by and deeply obsessed with how humor works in poems. When you set out to write a funny poem, they often feel like the hardest ones to do right. All of the “Mexican Heavens” are some of the funniest poems I’ve read, and you’re very playful in your book. It’s super interesting to me the ways playfulness reconciles with seriousness and the other major themes throughout. It almost seems playfulness raises the stakes for seriousness. Do you see playfulness as a way to get more serious? Is there a way that poems can be more serious the more playful they seem?

JO: I think that’s absolutely true, but that wasn’t the intention in writing the poems. Again, I was coming up against a problem: I was writing these poems about being Mexican that all felt tragic. And they felt tragic in a way that didn’t jive with the way that I experience it or the way I think about the experience. I kept writing and I would tell different stories but it would still end up being tragic. Those poems were failing in part because they were missing humor, because the entire time me and my brothers were going up together, we didn’t just see ourselves as tragic. We were cracking jokes about each other. There was a playfulness that was missing in those poems. I set out to try and use humor and playfulness as a way to leap this hurdle that had presented itself, which was that I had internalized too much of this tragic way of writing about myself. I needed to find a way to do more than that for the poems to have the type of life that I wanted to give them. Does that make sense?

DT: Yeah. I’m thinking specifically about “I Ask Jesus How I Got So White.” I think of White Jesus as more of a punchline than anything—at least in my experience. But baked into that, White Jesus is obviously a vehicle for white supremacy, racial politics, and that history. It makes me think of George Saunders, I think, who wrote something like, “We laugh when told the truth too bluntly.” So in a way, it is speaking a truth in the most forward kind of way—

JO: You’re right! And so the problem with the poems that I was writing wasn’t that they were tragic but that they weren’t the whole truth. They weren’t truthful enough. Absolutely. In order to make the poems closer to the truth, I needed to change something about how I was telling those stories. And I was able to find at least one way via humor.

DT: “Mexican American Disambiguation” is one of my favorite poems in the book. It puts a finger right on the conflict and the division and the cleaving of immigrant identity—what you have throughout our conversation so eloquently called an “everyday violence.” How the immigrant perceives themselves depending on what country they’re in or who’s in the room with them at the time, how others perceive them, all the euphemisms they’re confronted with day to day. Walt Whitman would say that he’s all these things, that he contains multitudes. Obviously it’s easy being a White dude in the time he was a White dude. But in your sense of poetics—or if you’re willing to make a statement about immigrant poetics, whatever that is—is it important to parse out all of those things like what you are v. what you aren’t v. how others see you? Or are you all those things?

JO: I will try to answer for myself. For immigrant poetics, that feels a little bit harder.

This was another one of those poems that I couldn’t write in a tragic way, but I needed to figure out how to write the fluidity of experience. I had this experience when I was a college student. I studied abroad in Brazil and it didn’t matter that I was just Mexican. You know what I mean? It didn’t matter that I was of Latin American origin. Everyone there is of Latin American origin. Having that kind of disruption to the way that I identified and how I moved through the world—the way I saw myself was just suddenly gone. And how I could see myself, at least in Brazil, made me realize all the ways that identity is always shifting and moving. It made me want to play with that. So I don’t know that I have any particular answer about whether it was important to parse out all of those parts or whether it’s important to claim all of those parts. For me, what was important was to show the ways that this identity is always moving. That this identity that we generally think of as static and one thing, this idea of what it needs to be Mexican American is actually this huge multitude of things way beyond any one particular story about Mexican American identity.

DT: Your poem “If Anything Is Missing, Then It’s Nothing Big Enough to Remember” asks similar questions about identity, I think—but more explicitly through the form of language:

“…you scissor yourself along the lines,
you choose a side, you cut & cut & one day you wake up & the
voice in your head speaks English, you stop coming around here,
the old photos fade down here, your name mispronounced
here on your own tongue, your grandparents graying like
your memory of them & you graduate from college, & your
classmates say you must be so happy to be so American now”

In this poem, is the narrator speaking to the you before or after the voice in his head started speaking English? Are the memories in your book related to when the voice in your head made that shift? 

JO: One of the things that jolted me was realizing—and this is only probably like four or five years ago—that the voice in my head was speaking a different language. At one time, my only language was Spanish, and I was translating everything from Spanish to English. And now, I have to translate the other way. Throughout the book I’m trying to reckon with what that means, and how that does affect my memories because a lot of those early memories I experienced in the completely different language. That means that I had a completely separate experience than what I can remember because I remember now only in English. Maybe that is why I’m so enchanted with this idea of a faulty narrator. It’s in part because there are entire scenes from my childhood that I can never truly remember because I just don’t have the language anymore. I still speak Spanish but I don’t have the intimate relationship with Spanish and with those memories I once did. In a lot of ways, there’s no way that I can ever hope to reconstruct those memories again. At least not right now.

DT: It strikes me fluidity might be the commonality here, but how much does language then have to do with your identity? Obviously, there’s something really important about that shift, and there’s something really important about your ability reflect on memory through different languages. But if the poet’s businesses is language, if our work is language, then what does that mean for your identity?

JO: With language, I’m trying to tease open all of these places that feel closed. So I’m trying to take these identities that feel static—or are shown as static—and open them up to everything. I’m trying to see if Mexican American is put under a microscope, then what do you really see? What is everything that grows out of there? And if you take these different memories and you tease them open and you try to find language for them, what are all of the ways that you can then stretch that language. What I’m trying to do is both create a language for these memories that I can’t possibly piece back together and also, within the present time, find ways to open up the possibilities for the language that I’m existing in today. I’m trying to open up the ways that I can inhabit English. If English in a colonial language, then so is Spanish, you know what I mean? In my relationship with English, I’m trying to stretch and figure out how I can make space for myself and claim the language as my own. 

DT: If excavating both memory and language is the activity that you’re engaged in, then is the outcome a more full self, or is there something else?

JO: I mean, I think that’s what I'm hoping for, right? I’m hoping that the outcome is a more full self. And I’m hoping for that outcome because I’m hoping, then, that the young people and people in general—in particular, those who have felt similar disruptive experiences—will read the book and feel that they’re seen too, that they feel more possible and less like anomalies. I’m hoping that’s the result—not just for myself but for others as well.

DT: That’s lovely. Chicago has a rich literary tradition, and people from Chicago love talking about Chicago.

JO: That’s true. 

DT: How has the city shaped your writing? Which past and present Chi-city poets do you turn to or inherent from?

JO: Chicago has given me so much as a writer in terms of language. I think of my language as being a very local language. I think I make most sense in Chicago. The city has given me not just a backdrop, but I almost think of the city like another character that I’m always in conversation with. So I’m always asking the city of Chicago for more. And the city of Chicago is also terrible at times, so it’s also like an antagonist. The city of Chicago is a huge part of my writing.

In terms of the poets from Chicago that have helped shape me, poets from right now include Eve Ewing, Nate Marshall, Raych Jackson, H. Melt, Kevin Coval, Jamila Woods, Britteny Black Rose Capri, also a lot of my students: Kara Jackson, Pat Frazier, Victoria Chávez Peralta, and Luis Carranza. There are people like Melissa Castro and Keren Díaz de León, who's really lovely, and Alison Rollins lives here now and she’s dope, Beyza Ozer, Luis Tubens, and Erika L. Sánchez, who doesn't live here anymore but is still really dope. I could shout out Chicago poets for days like Avery R. Young, Krista Franklin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, and Michael Heflinger, who used to live in Chicago and actually now lives in Washington.

Then in terms of past poets, the two big influences on me are Gwendolyn Brooks and then Sandra Cisneros. When I was learning to write at YCA, everything started with Gwendolyn Brooks. We always read her poems before workshops, and we aspired to be poets in conversation with community in the way that Gwendolyn Brooks was always so giving and always in conversation with her neighborhood and the people around her. So I grew up with that understanding of what poetry was and what poetry could be like. Then Sandra Cisneros, discovering that she was from Chicago too. Her books and her poems have given me the language to begin to start to tell my own stories and have allowed me to enter particular memories that I had no idea were worth touching on as stories until I read her writing. For me, those two are the ones I come back to the most. But then there’s also Studs Terkel, who’s book Working is one of my favorite books of all time just for how it gives language to so much of the angst that I feel around working and so much of the wonder of working. Studs Terkel is really important. I’m sure I’m missing like a million people, but I’ll leave it at those three for now.

DT: Last question. Maybe the most important question. I know that you’re a big fan of the Netflix show Lovesick, so I need to know whether you’re team Dylan or team Evie?

Why do we have to choose a team? Why is it team Dylan or team Evie? I don't understand. They are in a relationship together. I’m team Dylan and team Evie. I want that relationship to succeed so badly, and I’m so worried that it’s not going to. I just feel like it can’t work and that stresses me out because they’re so thoughtful towards one another. I was wondering how the show was going to treat their eventual getting together and whether that was just going to be the end of the show. But to see them go through their own anxieties about themselves and themselves in relationship to this person, helps me practice being communicative and just fills me with so much joy. It makes me feel like I’m not so clueless. So I’m rooting for both of them. I’m team Dylan and Evie and, really, I’m team anyone who watches Lovesick because, in my opinion, it’s—if not the best show on Netflix—then one of the top three or four shows, for sure.

DT: Hey, I’m with you on that. Thank you, José, so much. I appreciate you and the extra time you were willing to spend talking to me.

JO: Of course. I wasn’t going to miss the question about Lovesick. I appreciate your questions. I’m glad we got to talk. A lot of the questions you asked are questions I haven’t been asked before, so I’m excited to keep grappling with them. Hopefully, the answers were good. Thank you for talking to me.


Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian-American writer living in the Pacific Northwest. His poems have appeared or will soon in Shenandoah, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Strange Horizons, The American Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere. Dujie is a recipient of fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw. He serves as poetry editor at Moss and Homology Lit.

Chelsea Dingman: How I Wrote "Fugue" by Peter LaBerge


 From " Linoleum Flowers ," by Nadia Wolff, from  Issue Twenty-Two .

From "Linoleum Flowers," by Nadia Wolff, from Issue Twenty-Two.


Let’s start with why I wrote this poem.

Because women are crazy. Or pregnant women are crazy. Or ovulating women are crazy. Or grief-stricken women are crazy. Or betrayed women are crazy.

Because I had read Emily Van Duyne’s article, “Why Are We So Unwilling To Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?” in LitHub while writing a manuscript of poems about infertility and child loss.

Because my speaker suffered several miscarriages, as well as a stillbirth. Because my grandmother suffered this. Because my mother suffered this. Because I suffered some of this. Because women everywhere suffer this.

Because I was enraged and heartbroken when I read the accusations about Plath’s miscarriage. Because she couldn’t, and still can’t, be trusted. Because she killed herself, we are discouraged from taking her as seriously as we might. Because I was scoffed at, seen as cliché for reading her as a teenager. And later.

Because it felt insane for my speaker not to feel less than sane at this moment. Because there were times when I wondered if the babies I had tried to have were real. Because shame.

And what might be the expected mental health of a person under extreme duress? Is it really that women are crazy? Rendered incapable by hormones? Unable to control their emotions? Or is it more possible that external stressors have a lot to do with how one deals with extreme circumstances? These questions seem never to flag. Hillary Clinton and the election aside, attempts to discredit a woman’s experience as emotional and thus less worthy are what made me want to write this experience, and write it as honestly as I could.

After reading Van Duyne’s article, I paralleled Plath’s miscarriage with my speaker’s multiple miscarriages (& child loss) in this poem. I wanted the speaker’s voice to be less than reliable and by invoking Plath, I knew it could create that sense of suicidal irrationality. I also wanted to let my speaker enter a sort of fugue state and tell her: it’s fine. Take all the time you need. You can come back from this. Maybe I was speaking to myself.


The definition of Fugue (from Merriam-Webster):

a: a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts  

  • The organist played a four-voiced fugue.

b: something that resembles a fugue especially in interweaving repetitive elements

  • a story that is as rich and multilayered as a fugue

2: a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed


Women are expected to be godlike. We should be able to lose babies and go to work and take care of our other children and keep up with all obligations and fail at nothing. I quickly realized that that is the fastest way not to process anything either. In a way, this poem is a pause: I gave my speaker a time-out to feel as disconnected as she wanted to from her body, her baby, her spouse, her reality. She is in a place where her body feels like it is at war with her. The invocation of the holocaust harkens back to Plath and her work, but also this feeling that the speaker’s body is this nation-state that betrays her, where all that tries to live inside her dies. Literally, spiritually, and figuratively.

I had crazy dreams when I was pregnant. Many stemmed from fear. I was sometimes in a place called “Three Valley Gap,” which is a ghost town in the Columbia River valley in British Columbia. When I wrote this poem, I had this terrible image of Ted Hughes chasing Sylvia Plath, threatening to kill her in this isolated place where she was very alone. My dreams, because they felt surreal, came back to me and entered the poem. The landscape of the poem very much mirrors the speaker’s interior landscape.

I do want to stress that this poem did not begin with politics. I wrote it by forcing myself to sit inside old experiences and trying to write out of them. There were times that I didn’t feel believed by doctors, or even my husband. There were times that I thought I had done something to cause the miscarriages. There were times it felt like nothing had happened and I could pretend that was true. The ease with which you can lose yourself is the reason this poem is so short.

In a workshop I had with Terrance Hayes a couple of years ago, he described himself as a confessional poet. He said that he took many events that he either witnessed or had happened to him and combined or rearranged the details in his poems. I already knew that poems didn’t need to stick to the literal truth, but his admission was freeing for me. Everything in service of the poem.

When I wrote this poem, I was pulling from all of the places in my life, as I often do in my work. All of the reasons that I feel strongly about it occurred to me afterward. The emotional reason is still the most resonant for me, though: it can be terribly painful to attempt to have a child, to lose anything loved.


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:

The best I can wish for you is bad luck: A Review of Myriam Gurba’s Mean by Peter LaBerge



Every so often, we encounter a memoir which voices a narrative that, though lived and told by so many, has still not been heard in its complexity, or received the recognition it deserves. Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017), Myriam Gurba’s witty, trenchant, and all too relevant account of a culture in which sexual violence exists as a frightening daily reality and is often confronted alone, marks that kind of memoir. It is urgent reading for anyone who wants to understand the hidden traumas on our high school and college campuses (and, as the #MeToo movement has shown, definitively everywhere), and an opportunity to hear directly from a survivor whose voice moves seamlessly between empathy and satire, wit and slam poetry-style conviction.

Mean tells the story of a queer Chicana (Myriam’s mother is Mexican, her father white) in the style of a feminist bildungsroman, with sharp attunement to what it means to be a mixed-race and bilingual woman growing up in Santa Maria, California. The world Myriam describes is one where sexual violencein the junior high classroom, where Myriam is molested by a male classmate, or on the town’s baseball teamis seldom punished. Gurba’s account is also deeply intersectional, addressing how cultural barriers make telling one’s story even more difficult, while at the same reveling in the joys and opportunities that come from being able to vacillate between Mexican and American cultures. Its content today would receive a trigger-warning, but Gurba gives us none, which is part of the point: this is violence we cannot afford to turn from.

The memoir opens with a vivid account of the night when Sophia Torres, an itinerant worker,  was raped and killed in 1996 by an assailant who, we soon learn, also attacked and raped several other women, as well as Gurba herself while she was attending UC Berkeley. Myriam’s narration of Torres’ murder, representative of what follows, is poetic and deeply embodied. Beginning with a lyrically rich few lines—“Let’s become that night. Let’s become that park. Let’s absorb and drip”—Gurba invites us to witness what is often unseen. She wants us to feel that we are there when “a dark-haired girl walks alone...” and is raped and killed.

The narrative that follows—tracing Myriam’s own pre-teen to college years—is at once courageous in its emotional breadth and in its ability to revel in a caustic humor that, despite all the pain, Myriam insists on preserving. At the crux of the memoir are poignant confrontations with grief: Myriam wrestles with the ghosts of those killed in acts of sexual violence and narrates the time she was raped; she accompanies her sister to an anexoria appointment, only to hear a doctor conclude “Mexicans” can’t be anorexic; and she faces a world of both adults and teens who are willfully blind to the pervasive hidden sexual violence in her California town.

The cultural climate in Mean—unfortunately one that resembles the experience of many on college campuses today—is one where administrators say, “These kinds of things happen,” to students when they report assaults. These are the words the school nurse tells Myriam when she recounts the night a man raped her, making the narrative itself, the imagined conversations between you the reader and Myriam, the place where confession, empathy, and understanding must occur.

Myriam’s words are like poetic flashlights, activists in their urgent demand for illuminating the truth: “Somewhere on this planet, a man is about to touch a woman to death,” she tells us while lying alone in her room one night and recalling her traumatic experiences at junior high. She later says, “After a stranger ambushes you and assails you… You understand that you live in a world where getting classically raped is possible and that classical rapists lurk everywhere.” Part of what Myriam does here is make us uncomfortable through language at once mocking and bitingly honest (“classical rapists”) that resists a culture where sexual violence is perpetuated in part through euphemistic diction that ignores or masquerades its effects and allows too many turn a blind eye.

And Myriam not only makes the blunt, poignant observation“When you have PTSD, things repeat themselves over and over and over”—but performs that repetition in the narrative. Traumatic memories return, again and again, regardless of where Myriam finds herself.

At the same time, almost as its own act of resistance, Mean sizzles with humor that is at once Myriam’s self-proclaimed “mean” style (“being mean,” she says “makes us feel alive”), which mocks and satirizes on a whim, but is also profoundly revealing of the way laughter can at times be the only way to express and confront despair. Part of what Myriam’s humor does is sublimate frustration and anger through imaginative fantasies. Spending the summer before she goes to college in the Mexican desert, Myriam encounters a missionary couple with a beautiful daughter (to whom she is attracted) and tell us: “I am a gringa, and since gringos are really good at exploiting Mexico as a liminal space, a shadow rose in me and eclipsed my morality. Images of violence toward the missionaries’ daughter sped through my mind.” Myriam is no real threat—she herself abhors violence—so we can laugh here, and realize the joke for what it is: a way to find laughter and to confront her own queer sexuality in a violent, discriminatory world.

And much of her humor is itself cultural commentary that points out the underlying prejudice in our culture. Recounting the irony in the fact that a white man teaches her college anthropology course, she says, “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?” And she doesn’t stop at anybody’s expense, telling us that, “‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ was originally a kind of rapey song meant to be sung by a guy. Luckily, Cyndi Lauper saved it.” It’s this kind of biting attention to the implicitly sexualizing language in our culture that characterizes much of Gurba’s wit, and invites us to be aware of how we ourselves speak.

Following her short-story collection, Painting Their Portraits in Winter (Manic D Press, 2015), the memoir further establishes Gurba as a voice that, like writers Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, fearlessly reveals the complex tensions in being queer, Chicana, and a young woman in America. Castillo, a leading academic who considers the unique experiences of Chicanas as they relate to mainstream feminist debates in America and the literature that represents those experiences, would find a poignant, revolutionary example in Gurba. And like Cisneros in her inventive vignette style in The House On Mango Street Arte Público Press, 1984), which tells the story of Esperanza Cordero growing up in Chicago, Gurba has conveyed those tensions with profound relatability, striking psychological chords in her readers through prose that unabashedly moves into modernist-style poetry on one page, and into sitcom hilarity the next.

What Mean does so brilliantly is not only narrate such traumas and questions of identity, but help reveal the psychological obstacles, the grit and resiliency, that exist behind finding the voice to share them. Mean is both readable and unforgiving in its psychological realism, the way sexual violence leads to dissociation, P.T.S.D., confusions with what is normal and what is not. In doing so, Mean is also a profoundly impactful account of how violence threatens to take away language and the incredible ways that its victims have resisted that threat and reclaimed it with force.

Without giving away the memoir’s ending, it is fair to reveal that Gurba’s voice as the narrative develops becomes something of a compelling emotional friend—she is not just speaking, but she is speaking directly to anyone who has encountered such violence and wants to know what kind of enjoyment, what kind of moving through the world, could feel real and meaningful again.

In this way, the “mean,” bitingly humorous tone the book uses so brilliantly throughout, indicated by the epigraph from Jenni Rivera’s song “Unforgettable” (“Lo mejor que te puedo desear es que te vaya mal,” or, the best I can wish for you is bad luck), also finds a convincing note in profound empathy, reading almost like a letter to women and young people everywhere. 

And though the omnipresence of violence as an ongoing possibility never departs Mean, Gurba ultimately becomes the understanding and resilient voice she herself (and every young person) surely deserves to hear. That she is a high school teacher in Long Beach, California, is no coincidence, and one can only hope that her students are good listeners.

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Jacob Pagano is a writer and reporter who graduated from Amherst College in 2018 with a degree in English. He has worked as an assistant producer for the In Contrast podcast at New England Public Radio, lived and reported in China, and written for publications including The Oxford Culture Review, The Oxford Review of Books, and The Mainichi Daily Newspapers. He also freelance writes on activism and social justice movements, and he currently has a Gregoy S. Call Fellowship from Amherst College to develop his thesis on James Baldwin into an article. He lives in Los Angeles and loves to travel.

Oh, Canada: knife | fork | book Poets John Stintzi and Lauren Turner by Peter LaBerge


 John Stintzi (left) and Lauren Turner, both shown with their chapbooks published by knife | fork | book.

John Stintzi (left) and Lauren Turner, both shown with their chapbooks published by knife | fork | book.


I moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, nearly one year ago, and in that year, I’ve tried my damnedest to learn about Canada’s literary and publishing communities. It was Adroit that brought me to John Stintzi, however, when they interviewed author Hala Alyan for the journal earlier this year.

The conversation, below, between Ontario-born Stintzi and Montréal poet Lauren Turner, came about because, as an American living abroad, I have been anxious to merge the literary communities I know in the U.S. and those I am still becoming acquainted with in Canada. As the Director of Content, I am in a position to provide the confluence for such a conversation in the pages of Adroit. Both Stintzi and Turner recently published chapbooks with knife | fork | book, a poetry-only small press and bookstore in Toronto. I had the privilege to visit k | f | b in June, and I am so excited to give it—alongside its owner, Kirby, a CanLit institution—some much-deserved attention in the States.

The subject line of the e-mail I received from John, with this conversation attached, read “Lauren Turner conversation!” and I don’t think there’s a better way to express the excitement I feel in hosting these poets, below.

Lauren R. Korn
Director of Content
The Adroit Journal


John Stintzi: We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time—your chapbook out from knife | fork | book—is a collection of poems, but it’s also a modern retelling of the Samson and Delilah story (from the Old Testament) set in modern day Montréal. I’d love to start by just hearing about what drew you to that story in particular?

Lauren Turner: I didn’t intentionally set out to write about Samson and Delilah. The project started in procrastination to writing an essay about Samson Agonistes by John Milton, a closet drama I was studying for a grad school seminar. Like most literature and pop culture devoted to the parable, Milton’s work presents Delilah as a conniving femme fatale and Samson as the wronged man ensnared in her trap. Beyond the misogynistic and two-dimensional nature of the Miltonic text, I started thinking about how when relationships end badly, there’s a knee-jerk temptation to paint the instigating party as the villain. I wasn’t convinced that Delilah made a good villain.

JS: I wonder how many great projects started as procrastination? My current novel started out as an attempt to write a short story in place of a term paper, only it refused to stay short and I had to write the term paper anyway! I love how you modernized this story. Like, Samson with a man bun is perfect—the book feels like Lynn Crosbie’s Liar meets Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. It strikes me that while being a part the chapbook’s narrative, each of your poems feel self contained. Did you find that to be a challenge?

LT: Right? In my defense, I was also due to submit poems for workshop that week! And thank you, that’s a tremendous compliment. Those two books were very influential during the writing of We're Not, along with Ariana Reines’ Coeur de Lion for added grit. Rereading Liar is always the best remedy if you’re writing a piece that has lost its pulse! I wasn’t fully aware of what poetry could do until I started reading Lynn Crosbie.

Anyway, to loop back to your question: I’m relieved to hear that my poems read like individual entities. You brought up your novel and the writing of this project definitely felt novel-esque. But I’m envious of you, as a novelist, because the same pressure isn’t exerted on book chapters to stand alone outside the whole! When I started We're Not, I was 23 and admittedly under-read, so I didn’t realize the mental gymnastics required to complete it. That sounds like a humble brag, but there’s a reason it’s chapbook-sized and not a 100-page tome!

JS: Every time I work on putting together my poetry manuscript, I have the distinct urge to write nothing but novels for the rest of my life. Collections (of poetry and otherwise) are so difficult to wrap a head around, because of they bring disparate work together, but also require some sort of constructed ordering. With We're Not, I’m guessing the ordering was more straightforward to put together than a more general collection of poems, since you did have an underlying narrative timeline to tack the poems to.

To put together my poetry chapbook, The Machete Tourist, I had a hard time coming up with what to include, and ended up doing a “sampler” of several of the different kinds of poems in the wider manuscript rather than, say, feature a single strain of the underlying (lyric) narrative. But having the trajectory of the book in mind did give me something to hold onto when it came to ordering the poems I selected. What part of the chapbook experience (before or after publication) have you found most difficult?

LT: Oh, really? That’s surprising since The Machete Tourist reads like a very intentional whole. For me, your speaker holds the poems together. Their voice is the blade that crisply, and patiently, parses apart each thought. How you play with focus across the collection is really exciting, too. It feels like sitting in the optometrist’s chair, being asked to look through different lenses: “How does the poem look this way? What about now?”

As for my chapbook experience, I had things pretty easy! David Bradford, who formerly did editing for knife | fork | book, sent me a Twitter DM (of all things!) after a reading I did in May 2017 to ask if I had a chapbook to submit. At that time, I hadn’t even met (Jeff) Kirby, the owner of knife | fork | book, or visited their delightful bookshop in Kensington Market. So, I thought my odds of a “yes” were low to moderate—especially since 3rd-person poetry about biblical figures isn’t exactly en vogue! Anyway, I was scheduled to have coffee with Kirby, a month later, after a knife | fork | book launch in Montréal to discuss We're Not. But the coffee never happened. Instead, we met at the event, chatted for a bit, and when my chapbook came up in conversation, Kirby said simply: “Oh darling, of course, we want to publish you!” And that was that.

JS: I’m glad The Machete Tourist felt put together—I guess the feeling (and fear) of their seeming disparate-ness is a curse levied on the creator!

Also, I definitely sympathize with the cautious pessimism of submitting my manuscript. I’d also never met Kirby, and was also solicited through a Twitter DM! Though it was from Kirby directly, after I’d tweeted about being 5 away from 100 magazine rejections. Kirby’s eventual response to the manuscript was: “You had me at ‘Dayspring,’ and held me through ‘War Wounds.’”

It did turn out that the real reason I was on their radar was that at one point (2013!) I had a blog (which nobody read) where I wrote a post against admiring people in secret—arguing that you should be vocal to people when you appreciate what they do, even if though it can feel weird. Somehow, Kirby had read that, and retained it, and followed me for it. It was weirdly disappointing to me to have to consider that they didn’t publish me out of pity regarding a silly tweet about rejection but because I’d actually—years and years ago—written something that made them feel something earnest.

 I will say, on the “ordering” of manuscript idea, I did very clearly want to start at “Dayspring” and end at “War Wounds.” Most importantly, I wanted to end with “War Wounds” (a poem about experimenting with shaving my legs) because it was the queerest poem in the book, and was therefore the poem I was the most scared to have people read. I figured some people would put the book down before getting to it, but if they read the whole way, they would probably be on my side.

Did you find the experience of publishing yours scary at all, despite that the surface of the story is Samson & Delilah’s story? To me, it feels way more urgent and vulnerable than your cheeky description of it being “3rd-person poetry about biblical figures” might belie. I don’t want this question to seem to be too leading—“no” is totally cool—but was there anything you were afraid of in publishing this book?

LT: But Kirby is all about publicly admiring poets and championing their work! I’m not surprised an essay “against admiring people in secret” would stay with them. As someone who is (apparently) too hard on myself, I relate excessively to your “they must be publishing me for secret, alternate reasons” anxiety. Do you find that writing auto-poetry heightens the feelings of insecurity over rejections vs. being accepted? Like it’s difficult to untangle yourself as a person from the poems as art? The Machete Tourist is clearly written from the skeletal level. I like how when I said “the speaker” earlier, you just threw that mask out the window and referred to “War Wounds” as “a poem about experimenting with shaving my legs.” The ownership of the work is powerful. And ha, I’ve been found out! We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time is filled with my own self-interested concerns. A few years back, I was very preoccupied by the idea that your past could close off your future. It’s an anxiety that backbones my chapbook. I never intended Delilah to exist as a stand-in for myself. But there are overlaps between her existence in the poems and mine from the ages of 24 to 26. She’s hurtling towards everything, yet living almost entirely in her head, which fuels the lightning-paced relationship with Samson. They get married quickly, but I wanted their connection to appear ambiguous despite its intensity. Performative love, almost. But ultimately, I wasn’t afraid of publishing anything in We're Not, because moving away from 1st person allows a certain degree of anonymity.

JS: I’m happy to hear that it wasn’t scary for you! And I will say that I haven’t had any bad reactions to mine, either—though I do think I probably have some conversations in my future related to it. I absolutely love that We're Not takes up a space in the middle distance between your experience and simply projecting a voice onto the fictional lives of fictional characters. (I will maybe make enemies calling the bible “fictional.”)

As much as my poetry—these days—can be described as “auto-poetic,” I think there’s no lesser value in work which extends beyond the autobiographical or lyrical self, which is why I appreciate your use of “speaker” to refer to my voice in “War Wounds.” I don’t see value in reality over fiction, is what I mean to say, because I think that line often gets in the way of valuing the expression.

When it comes down to it, it’s simple: I don’t want readers to care about my life, I want readers to care about what I’m saying. Which is what I love about We're Not. It says a lot of stuff about life and performative love (and generally relationships in this day and age) that I deeply connect with as a human being who has experienced these things. I don’t come to the book hoping to learn something about ex-boyfriends of yours, I come to it to feel things about the characters that I refuse to let myself feel for myself.

One thing I personally didn’t expect when the chapbook came out was how many people would, you know, actually read it. What has the experience of having the chapbook meant to you as a writer? (Besides getting to become part of Kirby’s entourage, which is not to be undervalued.)

LT: I went to an Alex Dimitrov reading where he was launching Together and By Ourselves, which comes across as intensely personal. And before the Q & A, he said: “Ask me anything, except about my book.” As a statement, it seems so counter-intuitive since the poems read as confessional, but I feel that way too. I’m very comfortable putting secrets in poems, tucked carefully under the gauze of aesthetic. It doesn’t mean I want to have a conversation about what I’ve disclosed. Essentially, this is my convoluted way of trying to show solidarity. I hate that writing auto-poetry—which is my main focus these days, too—forces you to defend the actual content, rather than strength of the writing itself. I’m open to gripes about word choice and metaphor, not about my version of the “truth”. In any case, The Machete Tourist is beautiful, affecting, and brutal, and it deserves a large, enthusiastic readership. So, I’m very happy that it’s getting one! Being primarily based in the U.S., did you worry about going with a Canadian publisher? A chapbook feels like a concrete indication that you’ve been working really damn hard.

In CanPo[etry], it’s definitely treated like the biggest step prior to publishing a full-length collection. Before knife | fork | book showed up, We're Not felt like a failed thesis project. The manuscript didn’t work well at 50 pages, so I’d hacked it down to 20 pages and rewrote half of it. By this point, I wasn’t sure if the poems were even good anymore—which is what happens when you obsess over a project for four years! So, getting the green light for We're Not was a huge confidence booster. Kirby’s resounding “yes” motivated me to spend more time writing, submit more work to journals, and ultimately felt like a welcoming hand into the community. Having a chapbook helps from a career standpoint, but it benefited me more emotionally. When knife | fork | book accepted my manuscript, I was living in the aftershock of being diagnosed with a terminal illness, barely two months earlier. Considering my affinity for the Samson and Delilah story, I’m shockingly agnostic. But new friends and good news have historically shown up at the bleakest points in my life.

JS: There’s so much I love here, and I think I shared many of these feelings. I’ll say that I have no qualms with having a Canadian publisher despite that I’m in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. (Unless, of course, that future gets much, much worse.) Also, a piece of advice that Brad Listi has been sharing a lot lately on his podcast—the Otherppl Podcast—is that you should “follow the enthusiasm.” It’s been a rare thing to feel as considered through a publishing experience as I have with Kirby. I don’t think I know anyone who loves poetry quite like Kirby does. Also, since poetry is such a fickle market, I don’t think it matters in the same way as it does with fiction where you’re being published. Silly as it may be from a “career” perspective, I’m actually really happy to publish in Canada as well as the U.S. Despite a lot of the pain in CanLit these days, there’s so much exceptional work happening, and I’m happy to pretend I’m a part of it.

And you’re right, a chapbook is definitely viewed as a big step towards publishing a full collection. It’s a great thing to have, but I personally don’t anticipate that if I ever find a home (in Canada or the U.S.) for Junebat—the full manuscript—it will be with someone who has read the chapbook. But I’m more than happy to be proven wrong.

For me, I don’t know that the actual achievement of getting the chapbook has hit me as much as the fact that the chapbook has actually been read by people. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t had a large readership (though I think my mom has bought and distributed ~20-30 copies) but more people have read it and responded to it than I (jaded as I can be) really ever anticipated.

I want more writers to have this experience, and I think more will. I love chapbooks, and love that they seem to be having a moment right now. It feels like, for me at least, most of the stuff I publish in magazines doesn’t really get read by anyone once it’s published (with one recent exception being my poem in The Puritan). Being out of school for awhile now, it’s been a time since I felt that an amount of people were reading my work. Which is all I really want.

One great thing also about chapbooks is that they don’t take long to publish, which is a kindness. Junebat has been under consideration with a press since before I was ever solicited for The Machete Tourist—and the chapbook has been out for three months now. I’m really heartened to hear that your acceptance was there to brighten up the dark times of your diagnosis. Shifting gears a smidge, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and publishing lately through the lens of writers who are working with illness, like you, and how the industry could better serve them by—for example—prioritizing their consideration and expediting publication. This said, I haven’t heard of any publishers doing anything like that, and I hate that this translates into sick writers having to compromise their ambitions by approaching smaller presses—often with a more limited distribution—because they have a quicker turnaround because they don’t have the privilege to tolerate the industry’s glacial pace, and just want to get their work out there. What has having knife | fork | book and Kirby championing you and your work meant to you? And how might we as an industry do better to serve writers with illness?

LT: This interview should double as a bat signal for readers to flock to your Goodreads page and leave their reviews of The Machete Tourist. We need some quantitative evidence here!

To start dancing around your questions, time is definitely a major concern in my life. Mainly, not having enough of it. But I’ve learned that it’s better for me if other people don’t conform to the pressure of my self-imposed schedule. Having such a serious illness, I often get stuck on what I’m going to do next and how fast I can accomplish it. It’s a little maddening for myself and for anyone close to me. Plus, I lose the enjoyment of my life as it happens. However, you’re entirely right. I’m wary of submitting to a press with a large backlog because my health is unpredictable. I don’t think I feel resentful about that fact or want publishers to speed up on my behalf, rather I’m hurt when my peers can’t empathize. The hardest part of being sick is the emotional isolation. So, I appreciate that you’re asking me how I want to be accommodated, even if I don’t have a perfect answer. Sickness is so individual. To create a CanLit that serves every sick writer, we’d have to start making an effort to ask everyone separately what would help. Looping back again, it’s easy to get hung up on the big-name publishers. But I try to remember they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Would wide circulation and prestige be amazing? Of course! Is it necessary to produce a book that readers enjoy? Absolutely not. I mean, Billy-Ray Belcourt just won the Griffin Poetry Prize with This Wound is a World, which was published by Frontenac House, a small press based in Calgary. The quality of the poetry comes first. I would be thrilled to home my full-length manuscript with a publisher who was excited about the work. That’s it. You and I both had positive experiences with knife | fork | book, which isn’t a large enterprise, but their impact throughout CanPo feels tremendous. We’ve been profoundly spoiled, I think!

JS: I so agree. I think that’s one of the great things about CanLit, is that—unlike the U.S.—a smaller house loving your work can still make a big impact. Billy-Ray is one of many great examples. It still happens in the U.S., of course, but I think in the U.S. there feels like there’s just so much more noise. I also think it’s worth mentioning that experiences with smaller presses (k | f | b being a great example, since it’s pretty much a one-Kirby operation) can also be much more rewarding than being taken as one of 30 books at a bigger house. There’s a trade-off, and just because the house might have wider distribution, you might not get that love-campaigning that can make all the difference.

And you’re right, I’m definitely guilty of oversimplifying how sick writers could be better served—there’s no one-size-fits-all, and I appreciate your calling me out! I just know how much the prolonged waiting erodes me, and I figured that if my time were more limited, I’d lose my mind.

I so appreciate your taking the time to converse with me about all things serious. Another of the great things about having been one of the three chapbooks launched this spring (mine, yours, and the amazing Roxanna Bennett’s Unseen Garden) has been meeting and connecting with you and your wonderful work, both in We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time and otherwise. What’s next for you? Is there anything exciting (brand new or coming out soon) we should keep our eyes peeled for?

LT: Likewise! It was a pleasure to meet you and your lovely partner at the launch in March! I’m so glad that we got to have this chat. Thank you for taking the time out of your week, and thanks to The Adroit Journal and Lauren Korn for facilitating this conversation. I have some exciting, top-secret news to announce in August. So, stay tuned for that! Readers can find me on Twitter and Instagram as @sickpoettheory where I post any new publications. Otherwise, I’ll be here in Montréal, trying to survive the summer heat and toiling away at my full-length manuscript, tentatively entitled The Only Card in a Deck of Knives.


John Elizabeth Stintzi's writing can be found in Los Angeles Review of Books, PRISM International, Black Warrior Review, wildness, and other venues. In November of 2018, John will be working on their novel Field Notes On Desire as an Artist-in-Residence at The Watermill Center in Water Mill, New York. John currently lives with their girlfriend in Kansas City, MO, and is seeking to place their first novel as well as their first full collection of poetry. For more information, head to


Lauren Turner is a writer living in Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal on the unceded land of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation. Her poetry chapbook, We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time, was published by knife | fork | book in March 2018. Other poems and essays have appeared in Grain, Arc Magazine, Poetry is Dead, Canthius, Minola Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Puritan, and elsewhere. She won the 2018 Short Grain Contest and was a finalist for carte blanche’s 2017 3Macs Prize.

RAISE YOUR GLASS: Adroit Meets Best New Poets 2018! by Peter LaBerge

Congratulations to the fifty emerging poets selected by Kyle Dargan for Best New Poets 2018. We're incredibly excited about this list, and you should be, too. 

Special congratulations are in order for Destiny Birdsong, Kristin Chang, and T.J. McLemore, whose respective Adroit poems “ode to my body”, “Conversion therapy”, and “Desert Triptych” were selected for inclusion in this year's anthology.

We're cheering (loudly) for all fifteen Adroit writers selected for Best New Poets 2018:

Destiny Birdsong
Previous Poetry Reader / Contributor

Ellie Black
Poetry Reader

Anders Carlson-Wee

Kristin Chang
Contributor / Greg Djanikian Scholar in Poetry

Emily Rose Cole

Patrick Errington

Benjamin Gucciardi

Kathryn Hargett
Mentorship Alum / Contributor

Peter LaBerge
Founder & Editor-in-Chief

Michael Lee

Elizabeth Lemieux
Mentorship Alum / Contributor

T.J. McLemore

Olatunde Osinaike
Poetry Reader

William Palomo

Meghann Plunkett
Poetry Reader / Contributor

Shakthi Shrima
Previous Poetry Reader

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Conversations with Contributors: Gala Mukomolova by Peter LaBerge


 Gala Mukomolova, author of  One Above / One Below: Positions & Lamentations  (YesYes Books, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Seventeen .

Gala Mukomolova, author of One Above / One Below: Positions & Lamentations (YesYes Books, 2018) and contributor to Issue Seventeen.

Gala Mukomolova earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in the PENPOETRYPANKVINYL and elsewhere. In 2016 Mukomolova won the 92nd Street Y Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her first chapbook, One Above / One Below : Positions & Lamentations is available from YesYes Books.


Ali Shapiro: Can you talk a bit about the title—how you chose it, why you liked it, how you got that Hole song out of your head (assuming you have at this point, which I haven’t)?

Gala Mukomolova: You know what? I can’t get that whole album out of my head. I’m a sucker for a hook and Courtney has so many sharp and jagged ones. I think I wanted to invoke a certain kind of girl when I chose this title, and I want to assert here that both parts of my title are important. When I chose One Above One Below, I was speaking to a girl who grew up radicalized by Courtney on stage with her leg up on an amp flashing her pussy and daring you to shame her. I was speaking to a girl who grew up desperately consuming every and any mention to magic—to negotiating the veil between. It’s one of my deep beliefs that Live Through This is a powerful ritual turned record, that Courtney was a medium for the divine feminine, and these songs were sacred offerings for survivors. My book is not an ode to Courtney Love or Hole or even that record; it’s an ode to the divine feminine force that permeated so much music at that time, to the Lilith part of Lilith Fair. Regarding Positions & Lamentations, I wanted to make sure that these poems were not tops or bottoms, that they didn’t lie prone on a pillow waiting to be deified or defiled, that they didn’t hover hungrily waiting for permission. This book, as you might have guessed, is a switch.

AS: I did guess—or rather, I noticed and felt—lots of switchiness in this book. In some ways I think it parallels what Courtney Love does in “Violet,” the way she flips between registers—she’s laid back, she doesn’t care, then all of a sudden SHE’S FUCKING SCREAMING, then she’s laid back again. The line “one above and one below” is a moment like this—a mid-sentence flip. That strikes me as paralleling a thing you do in your poems, often in the space of a single line or stanza: “you give her a name, you break her neck,” for example. Is this part of what you mean by “this book is a switch”? And how does that relate to the girl you just talked about—the one who negotiates the veil?

GM: My friend Sara Jane says I’m a poet who’s interested in embodiment, and I’m so prone to dissociation that I didn’t see it until she said it. Embodiment, what’s that? I think I’m getting to it; like some people who feel with their eyes first, I’m feeling with my words. Sometimes to know something, you’ve got to find its edges—the parameters that keep it in place and keep you from slipping into it. To investigate that edge, to claim knowledge, that’s a kind of violence, and it’s beautiful, right? I need the rough and the gentle in the same body, I need to know you’re capable of both. Now I’m thinking of a mosh pit in 2007, a Team Dresch reunion show, and the ecstatic crush of women’s bodies against mine chanting lyrics to "Fagetarian" and "Dyke." That was a ritual too, so many daggers digging the ground; when I fell in the pit, my ex-girlfriend’s new lover extended her hand and pulled me back up into her arms.

AS: Your description of falling in the pit is so lovely and communal and safe (despite and because of the crushing, I guess)—it reminds me of other references to deep friendship between women in your book, “deep friendship” being kind of too cheesy and platonic to capture it. What I mean is that your book feels populated by women who care for you, who visit, bring flowers from Home Depot, and so on. And yet these relationships also remind me, paradoxically or perversely, of all the times in your poems when there’s a reference to not belonging, to aloneness or loneliness. The speaker says it sometimes—belonging to no one; I don’t belong to you; accept aloneness—or it’s explored via images, often animals who are lost or unclaimed. Can you talk a bit about how this idea of being claimed/unclaimed fits into your book? And maybe also about all those dogs?

GM: I think the problem of aloneness in my work is a problem of alienness. I think it might be an immigrant problem, rootless and refusing to be solved, even when transplanted amongst companion species—plants that can copacetically grow alongside. Friendship is so powerful to me, so vital to my survival, I want to honor it at all costs—to crown my friend family in flowers. To be loved, to feel cared for and protected, is not paradoxical to the feeling of aloneness for me. There’s a poem I touch in the chapbook, a Rumi poem I used to treat as a prayer when I was young, it ends with the words “there are love dogs no one knows the name of, give your life to be one of them.” All my life I thought that kind of love was sacred. I still do. But, I’m tired. Who calls love dogs in to rest by their hearth? An alien problem, if no one knows my name then no one can call me home. I’ve got to call myself—that’s an aloneness I used to fall down heart-heavy from but now I’m rising.

AS: OK yes, I see that—not paradoxical at all. Let’s talk about the other kinds of relationships in the book—I’m thinking about the poems that deal more explicitly with sex, thinking (because of what you just said about being called) of the various moments in which you’re called or claimed in italics: pretty fag, for example. How does sex in this book relate (or not) to the kinds of aloneness you’re talking about? To the question of being claimed?

GM: Sometimes the questions you ask me make me feel like you missed your calling as a therapist. I want to imitate the poem here so that I might maintain some level of personal mystery, but I want to be candid with you... How to be both opaque and candid at once? A pet name means nothing until a lover enters it into your poetic memory (yes, this is an Unbearable Lightness reference). All of a sudden your body collapses around the words sweet girl, becomes a mess of sugar. Some lost dogs don’t come by the name etched into their tag when they’re found because it’s not about the name, it’s about the mouth that first spoke it. Sex is the tug of a leash, a reminder, it only works when both animals choose it. By that reasoning, this book might be full of poems that are carrying their names like useless collars. Sniffing the air, marking their territory.

AS: Sometimes the answers you give make me feel like you missed your calling as a—oh wait, you are a poet. But listen, what about that bird: “you give her a name, you break her neck”? And what about those bad bitches in the second poem, the one that ends: “Don’t linger, I won't give anything a name?” Are those examples of what you’ve just described—poems that carry their names like useless collars? Or are they different animals—names the speaker gave, instead of names that were given to the speaker?

It won’t surprise you to know that typing the word “name” so many times has summoned up a Richard Siken poem, “Saying Your Names”—his is a long list of names, a torrent, a howl—an effort, I think, to not only call but name an absent lover home. And then perhaps it won’t surprise you to know that I’m thinking of your dedication: I wrote this book for a handsome woman and her handsome absence.

GM: Perhaps, in my dedication I meant to say something that I hadn’t truly managed to say throughout the whole book—since so much of it catalogues what I witness rather than what I feel. I guess I want to reveal two things to you. One, which will come as no surprise to you, is that this dedication is very deep lez of me—it references Rita Mae Brown’s small book of poems titled Songs to a Handsome Woman, which is about Rita’s relationship with an older woman (it was written to seduce Alexis Smith, I’ve read); and two, which is an impulse I know you’ll understand, is my choice to use the word handsome twice: once, to underscore my devotion to female masculinity as a site of desire, and the second time to measure the absence—handsome as significant, as substantial.

[As for the absence itself,] all absences are a kind of wound, aren’t they? A kind of cut or ditch. Some of us love a concave we can store things in. Some dykes. Sorry not sorry, dad joke, I know.

The poems you’re picking up, they’re the ones where the speaker did the naming, and in participating in it, recognized her own vulnerability. That to name something is by no means to claim it or insure that it belongs to you. In fact, I’ve found that every time I named something, a poem, a relationship, I was already letting it go. Maybe that’s my bad luck but maybe it’s a dynamic understanding of love and attachment. Anything alive can leave, it’s what’s dead that stays with you forever.

AS: Speaking of claiming and reclaiming, what role does form play in your work? I’m thinking first of the “found” forms—the Craigslist emails and the essay on The Awakening—but also of the poems that are kind of contrapuntals, or those that start off looking like contrapuntals but often become something else, cleaved and then rejoined. What strikes me about these formal decisions is that they feel, ultimately, quite unconstrained—like, you take what you want from form but don’t worry about breaking the rules….

GM: Form is a funny thing for me. I respect form, I’ve learned and relearned the names and syllabic measures. I have a feeling half my poems arrived to me subconscious in some ancient form and crumbled into sapphic fragments once they reached my brain.

I like to play with restraints, I like feeling like I’m buckled in tight by a shape or margin. I’m sensitive to syllabic balance in a line. All of this and a kind of chaos, a refusal to surrender entirely to anything that wants control. If I’m going to submit to a poem, an energy, I want it to be toward boundlessness.

AS: It occurs to me that this kind of play creates a similar experience in the reader—of being controlled, of having our expectations set up and then subverted, of your poems’ refusal to stay still or be just one way, just one thing. In other words, we’ve now arrived at the idea that your poems are actually… Tops?

GM: But isn’t the subversion where a switch really shines?

AS: So, um, speaking of fucking, the end of this book breaks my heart. Is the fucking the thing, or isn’t it? And what if it is? And what if it isn’t?

GM: It took me a long time to get here, and it’s true that sometimes it’s easy for me to convince myself of things I want to believe, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t matter if the fucking is the thing. So what? You know? Partnerships have roots, love is born somewhere in the body. Maybe like Greek goddesses, some connections are born of foam and some from the head. I know this isn’t what you asked me but I've got to tell you how, just now, I needed to understand how Athena was born from Zeus’s head and so I looked it up. I think in grade school I was taught that Athena didn’t have a mother, that the goddess of war and wisdom came from Zeus as if she was Eve transforming a rib. But, Athena had a mother. Her name was Metis and she was an oceanic Titan known for her wisdom. Zeus raped her like he did almost all the mothers of his children. He raped her because he wanted her and killed her because he was afraid of her. He killed her by swallowing her while she was trying to escape in the form of a fly. That’s how Athena came to gestate inside Zeus and that is why she sprang from his head. I guess I shouldn’t compare any kind of love to the ways in which goddesses are born. But, and this is something I might whisper to you after one drink too many in a dark booth, isn’t desire the root, symptom, and cure for violence? As if there’s someone out there that can love us in all the ways we want to be loved, as if there’s a human being out there born to serve our every hunger gladly. If someone can only love me in one way, let them.

AS: You also write horoscopes for NYLON. Do you see similarities between your horoscopes and poetry? Or does the process/tone/persona you inhabit feel totally different?

GM: It’s a different work, the horoscopes, no matter how lyrical I make them. When I write them, I’m trying to reach a large audience, I’m trying to speak in a language that NYLON readers will more-or-less “get.” Even when I write an essay, I get lost in this endeavor—to somehow bend the rivers that flow through me and make them into one cohesive body of water that’s easy to recognize. With poetry, I feel wild. I’m tempted to play God and suck the rivers dry. I don’t care so much what you “get” or don’t “get.” I’m working the realm of feeling and tone—I sew a veil and I place it over your head. You see, just talking about making poems has got me mixing weird metaphors… Veils, rivers, what? I’m coming back to it. No matter what about the process is different, one thing is the same and that’s my antennae. I’m always fiddling the rods and opening up the channel, listening to something bigger than me that speaks from the other side.

AS: You’ve got a book coming out—WITHOUT PROTECTION. How do you think about the book in relation to the chapbook? Sister? Mother? Other half?

GM: The mother, for sure. The big romantic cunt without protection that birthed my chapbook animal.

AS: Can we listen to that Hole song again?

GM: Yes. Come over.


Ali Shapiro writes, teaches, and draws comics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

18 Love Poems for Everybody by Peter LaBerge


 From “ Pacemaker (Heart) ” by Marc Sexton, from  Issue Ten .

From “Pacemaker (Heart)” by Marc Sexton, from Issue Ten.

What more is there to say about love: conditionally unconditional, fleeting forever, temporarily eternal? How many other ways can we croon—don’t make me say it—“I love you?” After all, the blushing days of courting are over, chivalry is dead, and “Not all / of this of consequence / or will seem useful / in this modern age,” as contributor Richie Hofmann writes in his poem, “Courtly Love.”

But as exemplified by this list, romantic poetry and billets-doux still captivate us. We haven’t yet out-evolved romance and feeling and wanting to feel. Beneath our postmodern blue-light brilliance, we are still deathly afraid of being alone. So we write love poems for our flings, for our betrothed, for our mothers, for our scarecrows, for our friends.

Love hurts. We know our readers have had their share of romantic mishaps and lost longings, but as Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Walden, “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” So we’re sending you a homemade remedy for a broken heart, a list of our favorite poems for both teens and adults, from us here at Adroit to you. Whether you’re a lover of language or looking for the rosiest words to send to a secretly admired—or even if you’ve sworn off the neurochemical con-job altogether, here are eighteen short love poems to say the words and, perhaps, to make you fall in love with verse all over again.


1. Tooth by Lucian Mattison

We’re starting our list at the beginnings of the earth. In his poem, “Tooth,” Lucian Mattison explores the timelessness of love using the speaker’s environment: a creek filled with reminders of modern life—“taillights, halves of soda cans, /weathered glass”—as well as fossils with “a primal texture like nothing / I’d ever touched before.” With both the initial hesitancy and the childlike wonder of love’s first discoveries, two explorers momentarily leave adult life to unearth something new, tender, and as old as time itself.

Take your beloved digging for shark teeth—it might just work.

2. How We Make Love by Cheryl Julia Lee

Once we’ve discovered it, first love can be awkward, “like preschool attempts at origami,” as Cheryl Julia Lee writes in “How We Make Love.” Throughout this piece, Lee draws out this metaphor from love’s fresh, first folds, to the inevitable heartbreak, and to the hardening of the heart as one realizes that “paper / folded along the wrong / lines too many times tears easily and neatly.” Like Mattison’s “Tooth,” this piece expertly folds the rough edges of time into a physical object, a dry reminder of our previous passions.

3. Courtly Love by Richie Hofmann (second on the page)

We travel back in time for this poem by Richie Hofmann, back to when courting was a game and poetry was a hand of cards. Nostalgic on the surface, the piece also brings to light the work of wooing and writing and waiting: “…it was exhausting to expend oneself so freely.” What came after, too, was a self-denying process, as suitors had to juggle with “how both to fuck and to maintain / the semblance / of one’s virginity and one’s good moral / standing.” With our evolving societal norms surrounding love and sex, the question arises: is love perhaps more genuine, more open in this modern era?

4. Chevrolet by Nathan Durham

Nathan Durham’s account of a connection between two boys in “Chevrolet” brings us from the old to the young. The strength of this short piece lies not in grand romantic gestures, but what’s in between Durham’s shifting lines: “I don’t say anything, but you know, / and I know.” And through Durham’s efficient yet beautiful diction, the reader knows, too, how tightly bound the boys are to an intolerant, religious past, the tautness of the air even as they are alone, but also how, together, they can somehow breathe again.

5. Garden of the Gods by Ama Codjoe

Ama Codjoe’s poem, “Garden of the Gods,” speaks to the wealth of African-American art and literature and its paramount role in the reclamation of identity. These works, like the ones of sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, appear to Codjoe “more real than local news, / a depiction (spoiler alert) of the fictions / of race and their real consequences.” Through a beautifully interwoven narrative of personal experience and solidarity, Codjoe demonstrates the grounding power of individual stories and relationships in a near-dystopian world.

6. At Pegasus by Terrance Hayes

At first, “At Pegasus” by Terrance Hayes seems to speak from the perspective of an outsider looking in, a straight man at a gay bar. But the memory of a boyhood friend leads the speaker to find in these dancing men a common love, whether platonic or romantic. The musicality of lines such as, “He wouldn't know me now / at the edge of these lovers’ gyre, / glitter & steam, fire” exemplifies the other purpose of poetry: to lend beauty to those kinds of love rarely acknowledged as beautiful.

7. I Don’t Go To Gay Bars Anymore by Jacques J. Rancourt

Though gay bars have historically provided spaces for the LGBTQ+ community, “I Don’t Go To Gay Bars Anymore” brings attention to those who would prefer not just a bar, but a more open, accepting world. And while Jacques J. Rancourt paints a kind of utopia in his poem, the uncertainty conveyed by the tone and lack of punctuation reminds the reader that this place is not yet realized. Even promised lands don’t last: “somewhere a western wall / still holds our prayers in its teeth / I want to be seen I want    to live / like in Jerusalem right before or right after / it was sieged.” Right now, it seems we’ve found a “holy city… so close / you could almost swallow it.” Almost.

8. What's Bottled Breaks by Tanya Grae

In lines that break and swell like the Florida tide, Tanya Grae brings us a piece to make us fall in love again. “What’s Bottled Breaks” explores the disorienting prospect of rekindled hope in a landscape we thought we knew: “maybe the state is / broken, / or my own is, or yours— /birds losing direction & sense, unbecoming / themselves in pulled feathers & song.” And who knows? Maybe this poem will reel your bruised heart in “after decades at sea.”

9. Symmetry by Kristin Chang (third poem on the page)

Dizzying and relentless, Kristin Chang’s “Symmetry” juxtaposes intimacy with another woman and isolation from the world, the beauty of the body and the violent persecution of it: “My mother says / women who sleep with women / are redundant: the body symmetrical / to its crime.”  Surprising in its use of form and word play, “Symmetry” ropes a myriad of moving parts—the female body, shorelines, arrows, and silence—and docks them all at bay.

10. Forbidden Fruit by Heather Cox

Heather Cox’s sun-glazed “Forbidden Fruit” speaks of an overripe love. Like “I Don’t Go To Gay Bars Anymore,” “What’s Bottled Breaks,” and “Symmetry,” this piece blurs the outer world with the individual body: “her hands were in between everything. Her lips, / red ripe like cherries eager to plummet.” And like the other poems discussing same-gender attraction, “Forbidden Fruit” speaks to the queer body’s self-awareness of how it interacts with and is perceived by the world.

11. Love Poem For Scarecrow by Kathleen Radigan

“Love Poem For Scarecrow” by Kathleen Radigan takes us from summer fruit to autumn fields. Addressed to a scarecrow, the poem’s singsong quality and rhyme feel like a gentle caress and a warm hand to hold. And though the recipient in this case is inanimate, “Love Poem For Scarecrow” testifies to the transformative power of love to bring the world around us to life. Harvest this poem for the frost-bitten months to come.

12. A Psalm For The One by Tiana Clark

A seamless fusion of our time and the days of old kings, Tiana Clark’s visceral “A Psalm For The One” explores the intimate side of the biblical king David. This piece’s drifting, musicality traces love’s perfect expectations, to fulfillment, to disillusionment: “I held his hand on the streets walking home, / thought I heard a voice say He was the one, but— / the summer wind can mimic almost any wish.” And at the close of the psalm, we can’t help but feel we’ve all met someone we used to believe was the one. Amen.

13. How To Talk by Caleb Kaiser

“How To Talk” by Caleb Kaiser thins the boundary between openness and intimacy in its mapping of the geography of the physical body. The exposure of the bodies “soaked in June, rubbing like a forest” connects something private with the outside world, lending this poem a sense of vulnerability. As suggested by the title, this pieces also portrays erotic love as a teaching, emboldening force: “You said you couldn’t dance. / I cupped your hips and showed you / how trees swayed.” And as the confession in the second-to-last stanza proves, the lesson worked.

14. On The Nights My Lover Dreams of Drowning by Amber Rambharose

As Amber Rambharose’s poem “On The Nights My Lover Dreams of Dreaming” reveals, some kinds of pain love cannot fix. Rambharose effortlessly blends a haunting metaphor about drowning and a striking metaphor about bullets: “I have learned / that there are times when the decision must be made not to cut / through muscle, to let shrapnel swim forever.” This piece highlights the destructive power of empathy; when those you love are drowning, you cannot help but feel the chasm as well.

15. Alone With Mother by Chloe Honum

Love isn’t always romantic. Chloe Honum’s poem, “Alone With Mother,” packages an entire world and the subjects’ freedom from its demands in a few, poignant lines: “Like runaways, we were free / of the house and its babble: / pill bottle labels, shopping lists.” And like the silence that follows, “a kind of love between us,” nothing more needs to be said.

16. Orientalism by Tory Adkisson

“Now is a time for romance, / comedy, maybe even a little / catharsis,” writes Tory Adkisson in his post-war poem, “Orientalism.” But even after the battle, some divides never disappear. Embedded in an overarching metaphor about cinema, the poem references the 1993 Chinese film Farewell My Concubine and its protagonist, a male Peking opera star who plays the concubine of a king, the actor of whom he falls in love with in real life. Similarly, Adkisson’s poem mirrors the blurring of theatre and life, between abandoning ingrained societal script, or letting the predetermined role direct one’s life.

17. All Those Whom I Have Loved by Gregory Djanikian (at the bottom of the page)

As our list draws to a close, we want to say goodbye properly. Heartbreaking in its simplicity, Gregory Djanikian’s poem “All Those Whom I Have Loved” faces head-on the terrifying prospect of the end, of leaving your loved ones. More terrifying still: perhaps we have not loved enough, and grieving the end itself is time wasted. As Djanikian writes, “not even what has held me here / shamelessly and without reason / at the edge of my small poignancies” will matter in the face of the undiscerning grief that follows. But even as the lines dwindle to a single breath, our time with this poem, or any poem, never has to end.

18. When I Say I Love You, This Is What I Mean by Kenzie Allen

While Djanikian prepares us for the inevitable farewell, Kenzie Allen’s poem considers how we keep the memories. “When I Say I Love You, This Is What I Mean” exposes the anxiety of novice and experienced writers alike: What if we can’t “make it stay?” What if we can’t capture “the way you asked my skin to sing for you / or how your scalp locks the scent/of Oregon?” In that case, as Allen demonstrates in swirling, ethereal imagery, we immortalize ourselves in metaphor, we become the “light / through the fogged air of that mountain,” we ink ourselves into something stronger.


Meimei Xu works as an Adroit content intern. She is a junior at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, and her work has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the Library of Congress. Currently haunting the hills of Atlanta, GA, she has also made homes in Miami, Chicago, and Nanjing, China. Her ideal home, however, adopts the contours of the writing and art dearest to her heart.

A Path to Empathy: A Review of Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith by Peter LaBerge


  Wade in the Water , by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Tracy K. Smith’s fourth collection, Wade in the Water, surveys America and its history with an incisive, yet hopeful, honesty. By peeling back the present, Smith reveals the tendrilled roots of our nation’s grittier past. The forms of the poems range from erasures to ghazals to pantoums, but the cornerstone of the collection is the found poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” which draws from the letters of African Americans in the Civil War. Detailing the injustices faced by the veterans and their families, the sequence features appeals to Abraham Lincoln, requests for due pension, and plans to reunite with separated family members. Preceding this piece is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence, reworked and recontextualized to speak directly to the racial discriminations of the past and present day. The speaker proclaims:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
                                                         Our repeated
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

Smith then enumerates these “repeated petitions” through the intimate, letter-based poems that follow.

Throughout the book, Smith also continues to question the relationship between the political and the personal, focusing especially on the intermediary of human connection. In the aptly named “Political Poem,” the speaker depicts a dreamscape of two individuals mowing their lawns as they communicate wordlessly across the distance. The speaker imagines that one “let[s] his arm float up, stirring / the air with that wide, slow, underwater / gesture meaning Hello! and You there!” Through the word choice of “let” and “float,” this gesture of connection is rendered instinctive, as though the released arm raises, or “floats up,” of its own accord. Optimistically, empathy and recognition are portrayed as the natural default, even in the languorous setting of suburban America. The poem ends with the admission that the mowers’ work “would take forever. / But I love how long it would last.” The word “would” reminds the reader of the fictional nature of this interaction. Despite the scene’s normalcy, it remains in the conditional tense, as though asking us to actualize these everyday gestures of connection.

Similarly, in the last section of the collection, Smith turns an observant eye to the individuals surrounding us in our daily lives. In “Charity,” an elderly woman treks persistently up a hill, “tussl[ing] with gravity.” Even from a distance, the speaker identifies with the woman:

I am you, one day out of five,
Tired, empty, hating what I carry
But afraid to lay it down, stingy,
Angry, doing violence to others
By the sheer freight of my gloom,

These moments of self-recognition thread the collection. Even when unflattering, such observations prompt the speaker and readers to hold up a mirror to their own behavior—to empathize and see themselves in others. In “Eternity,” too, the speaker recognizes this interconnection, “as though all of us must be / Buried deep within each other.”

This method of self-association is the conceit of the poem, “Refuge,” near the end of the book. It expounds the potential of empathy as the speaker addresses a refugee:

Until I can understand why you
Fled, why you are willing to bleed,
Why you deserve what I must be
Willing to cede, let me imagine
You are my mother in Montgomery,

The speaker endeavors to understand the “you” of the poem through her own lens. Avoiding a false equivalency between her experiences and the refugee’s, she aims to connect as best as she can “until [she] can understand.” Beautifully wrought, these poems offer a path to empathy. While some may contend that true empathy may never be achievable, Smith doesn’t make any grand claims, and, instead, asks readers to relate as best they can through their own experiences. As the speaker divulges, “Until / I want to give you what I myself deserve, / Let me love you by loving her.”

These themes of history and connection underpin the work, though Smith’s characteristic inquiries into religion and nature are also prevalent. Poems like “The Angels” and “Hill Country” offer modern interpretations of religious themes; angels are “Grizzled, / In leather biker gear” and God is lodged at a “cabin / Where he goes to be alone with his questions.” In the present day, angels are calloused, and even God has withdrawn to the woods for quiet contemplation. Environmentalism, too, is a recurring concern. For instance, “Watershed” discusses the pollution of DuPont chemical company and its gruesome health impact on cattle with “chemical blue eyes” and nearby individuals diagnosed with cancer. Interspersed with a prose account of a near death experience, the poem offers a fractured narrative from the perspectives of a lawyer and a dying man.

Yet, for all these varied voices and outward observations, Smith eventually shifts her gaze to her family. In the later poems “4 ½” and “Dusk,” she shares a lighter optimism as she considers her daughter’s appetite for life and development of a “solid self-centered self.” The speaker muses, “She wants a movie, or maybe / Just the tussle of her will against mine, / That scrape and crack. Horn on rock.” Through these “tussles” and references to the steadfast goat, her daughter’s tenacity is underscored, implying a hopefulness for the future. “Dusk” even ends with following scene of her daughter:

                                              The shoulders
Still so naïve as to stand squared, erect,
Impervious facing the window open
Onto the darkening dusk.

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


Amanda Hodes is a writer and musician studying at American University in Washington, D.C. She serves as editor in chief of AmLit and has been published in Furrow Magazine, Prairie Margins, and AmLit. She was also a Folger Shakespeare Library Lannan Fellow and a 2017 Fulbright UK Summer Institute participant at the University of Sussex.

Lynn Melnick: How I Wrote "The Night of the Murdered Poets" by Peter LaBerge


  “  Leonid , ” by Maggie Chiang, from  Issue Fourteen .

Leonid,” by Maggie Chiang, from Issue Fourteen.

The Night of the Murdered Poets is the name for the execution of thirteen Soviet Jews in a prison in Moscow on August 12, 1952. The defendants were accused of crimes such as espionage and treason. Stalin thought that if he destroyed the intellectuals, particularly the Jewish intellectuals, it would put an end to any rebellion or dissent. It is shocking to me that poets had that much influence, but apparently, they did. (The historical truth is that those who were murdered weren’t all poets, but that name stuck, and it also works as a title for this poem.)

When I wrote the poem, I had just begun a fellowship year at the New York Public Library and suddenly, for the first time ever, I had so much time ahead of me to write and to think. It was September and I was in a nice office in a huge library and I began to request from the catalog a pile of books containing, hopefully, the secrets to unlocking my heritage. How do I fit in? How does my story fit in? How do I tell my story in light of all these other stories? My overall project rested somewhat vaguely in my head, but I knew I wanted to finally take on the issue of Jews and Jewishness and Americanness and my Jewishness and Americanness. Most of the poems I wrote last year are about some aspect of these issues and I was always thinking a lot about how much I don’t know. Investigating and acknowledging the scope of what I don’t know is very important to me.

When I wrote this poem, I had just spent a quick weekend in California, the state in which I grew up, and I was in the confusion of all that air travel. Plus, a trip to Los Angeles always mindfucks me and makes me think about my personal history. I bring up photos of myself early in the poem because I’m trying to conflate the historical events I describe with the historical events of my own life. I do that in my poems sometimes. Here, I’m switching back and forth between this historical story and my story, trying to make connections between things that maybe don’t always add up but they’re like puzzles I’m trying to solve because my gut tells me they add up.


Lynn Melnick is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and Violence and If I Should Say I Have Hope. A former fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she also teaches poetry at Columbia University and the Unterberg Poetry Center at 92Y, and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. 

Mapping the Lunar Body: A Review of Jennifer S. Cheng's Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems by Peter LaBerge


  Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems , by Jennifer S. Cheng ( Tarpaulin Sky Press , 2018).

Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, by Jennifer S. Cheng (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018).

Jennifer S. Cheng’s new hybrid collection Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems is a lyrical exploration of women’s mythology and a reimagining of feminine spaces. It is a re-weaving of ancient stories about Chinese goddesses, an exploration of the body as landscape, and a deep-dive into liminal experience. It tells a big story: a romance between body and space, a map of the undefined spaces women’s bodies inhabit. Told in fragments, Moon uses a hybrid form that combines emotional and physical cartography, narrative storytelling, and lyric poetics. It re-invents these forms just like it re-invents folklore. The central thread of the book centers on the stories of the “Lady in the Moon” and various Chinese sea goddesses, or “Women In The Sea.” These women surge and disappear throughout the book, reappearing and re-telling their stories like the tides. The collection begins:

In the story of the Lady in the Moon, there is only one ending: to live out her nights as a captive, over and over, as if some necessary penance, as if a sorrow to see a woman paper-thin against the lesser light.

While this opening sets the stage for the story that has been told, with a singular and constricting ending, the woman in the moon is released through the re-telling as the book progresses. The phrase “as if” suggests that the woman’s fate may not in fact be a “necessary penance,” and that there are many possibilities to the reality of what happened. The speaker presents these different possibilities by telling us:

The lady in the moon loved her husband, but one day she left him on the earth in order to fly into the midnight, the edges of her dress like a decaying moth’s arms. She wanted to live on the light of the moon. Or: The lady in the moon was banished from the heavens along with her husband.

Present in these poems is a fundamental contradiction, a complicated desire: the simultaneous love for a person whose affection ties you down (the husband) and the love of freedom, exploration, and vast space. Depending on the story, she may not, in fact, be trapped by a “lesser light” but may be inexplicably drawn to the “light of the moon” or to the “midnight,” two contrasting images that may not be so different at all. Or, she may be trapped in penance with her husband, after all. Can seemingly contradictory stories all be true, simultaneously? In these fragmented folktales, Cheng gives the reader options on what to believe.

In their exploration of the liminal, the shadowy spaces in between definitive narratives, these poems chart the unchartable, that which moves, the dynamic bodies we inhabit: corporeal and geographic. One of the poems, titled “Chang ‘E,” asks us: “What is the relationship between a woman’s fragments and her desire/ for wholeness?”And later: “For in a world where boundaries are slowly slipping, we begin with a map of the body in motion.”

In these poems, body and landscape are inseparable. Just as bodies of water move, the human form moves, part of  a greater whole. All are part of a narrative that is complex and immense.

Interspersed between these stories are lyric poems in which the speaker incorporates elements of folklore into her own life. While each story is distinct in its own way, a blending occurs, revealing a common experience of watery women. By writing about these stories, the speaker reclaims an identity and a complexity truer to lived experience. She blurs her own myth with the myths of others. Take the poem “Myth-Making (I)” which opens:

Let us say
I fell from the sky

Let us say one night I reached

around my back & could feel
the place where something had been
severed. I would always
try to name it.

And later in the poem:

    I do not attempt
to cover it. In the streets
of Mong Kok & Wan Chai, I wear
thin cotton dresses and shirts
with low backs. In the crowds
I blend in. Nobody notices

my round wounds.

Here, the speaker exists on Earth, but with a wound she carries with her through the streets. The wound’s round shape is reminiscent of the moon. She is displaced, but still, she blends in. In the blending there is still an aloneness, a theme that runs throughout this book. An exposure and a covering-up—an attempt to name and define and still, a blurry futility to this inclination. She is a part of the modern world and also a part of folklore. She is a walking myth. She makes it so by asserting, “Let us say,” and she invites others to share in her reality, her own walking mythology. She uses her voice to define her experience but does not seek a definitive narrative.

In these poems, the speaker provides a new voice but does not want to provide an answer or a final say. To do so would be to miss the point. They ask: “To set about infusing a voice, where do we begin? Its shadow spaces, half-obscured corners, the ellipses at the tail of its third breath.”

By looking into the overlooked places on the edges of the most overlooked places, telling stories where no one knows they exist, perhaps even the owners of the stories. “The sound that cowers is usually the one that rings deepest,” the speaker says. And later, “Perhaps I wanted to un-know a myth.” In the unknowing there is an untelling that inevitably reveals a new myth.

Cheng rewrites stories about creation and the feminine. The speaker tells us:

You will remember, above all else, how she is—motherless, childless, godless—the last girl on earth—how the story of the world begins with her, a body in the marshes, sleeping, alone.

What is the worth of a woman on her own? In a culture that says a woman’s worth is defined by her relationships to others, the speaker asserts the power of this position—everything begins with her, a re-imagining of a creation story. Again, Cheng breaks down a binary: beginnings and endings. This story contains many births and completions.

The focus of these poems is on process and unfolding. In a section of the book in which each of its prose poems are titled “CHANG ‘E:” the speaker of one such poem tells us:

A chrysalis is an envelope of earthly hues, raw green, wrinkly dried brown, seeded vessels like leguminous plants. Instead of the transformation of their wings, now the rows of sleeping pods. Instar, and I am holding a word of celestial materials, ready to make a world apart. Sky and sea, speckled with gold, and empty ones, thin layers of lip skin, translucent, slit open. Inside the envelope: decomposition, disintegration, destruction. The structures are carried in the dissolution. The body holds knowledge as if it were a horoscope, an omen, an intuition of atmospheric currents to come.

Through the symbol of the chrysalis, a temporarily static vessel created to birth movement, Cheng focuses on how bodies contain both stasis and change. She focuses on the sleeping, as well as the holding: both “sky and sea” deep fluid knowledge that is like the sea, free and unconfined. Images of the skin as paper and the body as envelope appear numerous times throughout Moon, and as a symbol of movement and communication, a thin vessel that can contain complex sentiment. For example, Part ii of Moon’s Prelude which tells us that the story of the Lady in the Moon “is immersed in a pale envelope.” From as far away as the moon, apart from others, we can still send messages rich with meaning.

What Cheng delivers us in Moon is a delicate, complexly layered letter. It is both translucent and dense, a sensual story full of texture. It asks us to get inside the envelope, hold it up to the light, peel it apart, and fold it back together again. It is an invitation to participate in the telling of her myths, our own folktales, and the common stories that we as humans are all a part of.


Ariel Kusby is a writer, editor, and bookseller based in Portland, Oregon. Her poems, stories, and reviews have previously appeared in Entropy, Bone Bouquet, Pith, 1001 Journal, Adolescent, and Hunger Mountain, amongst others. She works as a bookseller in the children’s room at Powell’s City of Books, and is the managing editor for Deep Overstock, the National Booksellers’ Journal. To read more of her work, visit

Conversations with Contributors: Meg Freitag by Peter LaBerge


 Meg Freitag, author of  Edith  (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Two .

Meg Freitag, author of Edith (BOAAT, 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Two.

Meg Freitag was born in Maine. She has degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and UT Austin's Michener Center for Writers. Her poems can be found in Tin House, Boston Review, and Black Warrior Review, among other journals. Her first book, Edith, won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize and was published by BOAAT Press in late 2017.


The following interview took place over Google Hangout and GMail between March and July 2018.

Lauren R. Korn: Edith is your first book. What has the process of publishing a first book been like?

Meg Freitag: It’s been really good! I’ve loved working with the folks at BOAAT. As far as the book is concerned, because it is a first book, I didn’t feel much outside pressure to publish it right away. I ended up spending a lot of time—a couple of years—revising it. I’m really proud of the finished product.

LRK: You said you didn’t feel a pressure to publish. You earned an MFA at UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers—you felt no pressure to publish while in the program, either?

MF: No. Not so much. My professors in the MFA program were pretty encouraging of me making the work into what I wanted it to be.

LRK: What is your day job?

MF: I work as a conference producer. I put together industry conferences on esoteric tech topics for Silicon Valley folks. It’s unlike anything I thought I’d end up doing but it’s been fun. I’m learning a lot and I travel a ton.

LRK: It doesn’t sound like you have much writing time, then?

MF: No, I don’t. It can be hard. I have to really muscle it into my schedule.

LRK: With so little time afforded to you, have you been able to tour with the book?

MF: A tiny bit, yeah. I went to Austin for the book launch. I still have a lot of friends there and some of my family’s there, so it made sense to do it there. And I’ve toured a little bit around the Bay Area doing readings. I did a reading when I was in Tampa for AWP in March. I’m hoping to do a little more of it before the end of the year.

LRK: The poem that begins your collection, “When Edith Doesn’t Have a Body” is not addressed to Edith—it speaks of her in the third person. It is also separate from the rest of your collection—it is not part of Parts One, Two, Three, or Four. The poem reads, then, as a preface to the collection, and I’m curious as to why you chose that particular poem to act as such when there are other poems in the collection that speak to life after Edith; e.g., in “Sometimes It’s Easier to See Into the Future Than It Is to See Into the Self,” you write, “So much goes on without you, Edith.” Are you speaking directly to your readers here, introducing us to the parakeet who becomes not only the subject of your narrative, but the object, as well?

MF: You know, it’s funny, I actually hadn’t realized until you mentioned it that it’s the only poem in which she’s addressed in the third person. I guess it does serve as a kind of introduction to Edith in that way, and introduces my impulse to speak directly to her. I like that it also establishes Edith’s death and the circumstances surrounding her death right away so it’s not a distracting mystery throughout the book.

LRK: That’s a good point. Putting that poem at the front, you wouldn’t have to keep mentioning her death in other poems; you could just put it out front.

MF: Yeah. I feel like sometimes, when you have something big that’s unsaid, it ends up taking over everything. It can be so distracting.

LRK: Was that a pretty big question brought to you in your workshops?

MF: [Laughs] No, not so much. My workshop peers were really close to everything that happened. I had started writing these poems to Edith as a writing exercise. I didn’t realize they were going to turn into an entire book. I was just interested in experimenting with apostrophic address. At the time I started writing to Edith, it was quirky and fun, because she was still alive. And then a few months into the project, she died, so the tone of the poems changed (obviously) due to that. And, you know, I was close with everyone in my workshop, so everyone knew what had happened. 

LRK: How long did you have Edith before she died?

MF: Five and a half years.

LRK: Is that pretty typical?

MF: I think 7-8 years is typical—in captivity, and even longer in the wild. There are a lot of accidents when birds are kept in captivity, as proven by my situation. I thought I had a couple more years with her.

LRK: You mention “captivity.” Containment and boxes, too, play a large role in your collection—from Edith’s cage to an airplane’s black box, from the internality of one’s body to loneliness (read: the relationship of one’s body to another’s). In “A Limitation of Mockingbirds,” you write, “If someone hurts your feelings, there is an impulse to thrash around / Inside your own body.” How did your relationship with Edith exemplify or make clear the poet-speaker’s reality of containment and/or captivity?

MF: This is a great question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. The truth is, I think, it didn’t really. You’re definitely onto something here, and I think that’s the case with a lot of the themes that you’ve drawn out with your questions, but these themes aren’t always apparent to me at the time I am writing. This relationship, inside versus outside—it wasn’t something that I was really consciously infusing into my work. But I’m sure there was something going on in the back of my mind or deep down in my psyche that kept putting those images into the poems.

LRK: It’s interesting to me, the way that you brought captivity into our conversation: that there is danger in keeping an animal in captivity, that their life can be shortened. This isn’t really a question, but there seems to be some semblance of guilt there, that Edith may have lived longer had she not been held captive in an indoor space.

MF: Absolutely.

LRK: In that way, I feel like this manuscript acted as a vessel for your grief. You came out the other side not only with this enormous product, but you probably dealt with your feelings in a way that was a lot more manageable.

MF: Yeah, I think so. The project worked to bring a kind of heuristic order to my world, which is helpful when you’re going through something that feels otherwise bottomlessly meaningless. But I think part of it was also just the time it took to write it. The fact that the manuscript took me several years—during that time, the natural grieving process was also working itself out. And I mean, any time you lose someone who is really dear to you, you’ll always have feelings of regret and a kind of imagining of a different life in which that loss didn’t happen. It’s still something that is very sad to me, and I’m sure always will be, but time takes the edge off. By the time the first draft of the book was finished, the grief had aged--it was less of a visceral, emotional experience and more of an intellectual mind-fuck. Like, it had reached a point where it wasn’t so much, “GUH…,” but more like, “It’s so fucked up that she’s not still here.” 

LRK: It becomes a logical reaction versus an emotional reaction.

MF: Right.

LRK: So many of your poems speak to your dreaming life in relationship to your waking life in a seamless way. In thinking about poetry and its place in genre (i.e., its place in literary marketing), I can’t help but think of how poets utilize fictional narratives as metaphors. Is this what you’re doing with dreams in Edith, or should your readers see these references as literal?

MF: It’s a little bit of both. They're definitely not solely metaphorical devices, but there were times when it was convenient to use them as such. A lot of the dreams are based on dreams I actually had, and some of them aren’t, or they’re kind of revised dreams. Dreams, to me personally, are really important and inform the way that I live my life. I have a Jungian sensibility about dreams in that I believe dreams reveal truths to you, they teach you how to live. And so there was no way that dreams weren’t going to be a huge part of the speaker’s experience of the world of the book, because it’s something that’s so present in my own life.

LRK: You say, “the speaker.” There is the confessional “I” so present in these poems. This book reads so confessionally, so narratively, and I’m wondering, do you want your readers to read the “I” as you?

MF: That’s a good question. There is of course a natural inclination to see the speaker as the writer in “I”-centric poetry. Even as someone who writes and reads a lot of poetry, and as someone who’s taken a lot of poetry workshops, I still tend to assume sometimes in the back of my head that the “I” is the author, the “I” is the writer. I have to constantly remind myself that that’s not the case.

I would say that the speaker of my book is someone who is very close to me and someone who is very similar to me, but is not me. And I agree with you: Edith is arguably in the big-C Confessional tradition, but at the same time, it’s not completely autobiographical. A lot of it is. A lot of the big, important things that happen in the book are, but the art of narrative is also at work. I’m trying to tell an interesting story.

I believe that a poem can absolutely be written in the “confessional” mode without having to be entirely factually true. Take Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” for instance. One of the pillars of Confessional poetry, but it’s also a personae poem. Sometimes you must circumvent the self to get to a deeper, more vivid truth.

LRK: I assume the speaker-author relationship a lot, too. And so often I find myself having to bring myself out of that. Some writers even get agitated by that assumption.

MF: While I don’t feel agitated by it, I do understand the resistance to it. It can feel a little reductive I think. Even if you are writing exclusively from personal experiences, the work ends up being this kind of false or constructed life. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to a poem or book of poems. But who experiences the world like that?

I think there is also resistance to feeling like, as poets, we owe the world our deepest, sloppiest truths.

LRK: I get that, too.

I’d like to talk with you about your writing practice, the spaces that you were able to write from (or in) and the spaces in the book, itself. There is an astounding sense of space or place in Edith. A good many of its poems mention a “kitchen” or “tile” or “floor” in a way that has me wondering whether a) Edith’s cage was kept in the kitchen; and/or b) this manuscript took its shape in the kitchen (if those two questions aren’t one and the same).

And what does your writing process (in the kitchen, if that is, indeed, where the manuscript was written) look like? How has it changed throughout your movement through educational institutions, and how do you see it changing in your immediate future (whether that question portends a forthcoming project or career change, etc.)?

MF: So, first, Edith’s cage was not in the kitchen. It was in my living room. And just a PSA for anyone thinking about getting a parakeet, you're actually not supposed to keep their cages in the kitchen. Birds are really sensitive to smells, particularly chemical smells. Like Teflon. Like, if you burn a non-stick pan—that can kill them. But that’s where Edith’s remains were found, in the kitchen, on the floor, so that brought it explicitly into a couple of the poems.

And as far as my writing process, I’m not the kind of person who works at a desk. I’m a rover. When I started Edith, I lived in a tiny one-bedroom house. It was a very small, 500-square-foot square that was divided into four tiny rooms. One of them was a kitchen, one of them was a bedroom, one was a sort of living room, and one was an office. I think most of the poems were written from my bed. I’m a big bed-writer. I think zero percent were written from my office. My office is a place where I end up stashing stuff. Some of the book was written in the kitchen, though.

It’s hard to say exactly how my process has changed over the years. It’s always been somewhat of a fluid thing for me. Just like I move around my environment when I’m working, I move in and out of different phases, different processes. Different things work well for me at different times. I’m pretty adaptable in that way, which I feel lucky about. But the flip side of my procedural easy-goingness is that I struggle with self-discipline. If I find a project that has a lot of natural momentum for me, then all’s well. But I can get really squirrelly when I’m working on something more challenging or elusive to me. I let myself off the hook pretty easily. I’m trying to be better about it. I’ll say that entering grad school did have a big impact, just because of the vast amounts of time I was suddenly allowed. I could plan my whole day around the writing. I could stay up all night working on something and sleep until 1 if it felt right. 

And yes—to answer your last question, I do see this all changing once again in the near future. I’ll be leaving my current job at the end of July, actually, and moving once again to go back to school. To study fiction of all things. I’ve never focused on prose-writing full-time, so I’m not even quite sure what that’ll be like for me. 

LRK: Where will you be studying fiction, and how did you come to decide to try your hand at fiction in a workshop setting? Are you solely looking for a lengthy time to write, the time afforded to graduate students?

MF: I’ll be attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I’ve been working on fiction for a while now, but the more I work on it, the more I realize I have a lot to learn. I think my fiction has something going for it on the sentence level, but I have a really hard time with structure, pacing, character development, etc. That is all totally overwhelming to me. I want to get better at it. Part of that is taking classes with people who can teach me how to do these things, and part of it is, yes, just having the time to practice.

LRK: I think it’s easy to understand how craft at “the sentence level” might be a strength for a poet, and how things like structure and character development might be, initially, out of reach. That said, I think your poetic inclinations towards character may be stronger than you think. I’m interested in how you created a speaker in Edith who is so transparent, and I’d like to talk with you about lying and how you use it as a device in your poetry (and how it operates outside of your poetry).

More than one of your poems “sees” your speaker lying, but that lying is either transparent: “I’ve been lying a lot lately,” or it’s introduced only to be re-examined in a come-clean sort of way: “When I was ten I found a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, beneath the Slip ’n Slide. // … When I was ten I lied a lot—About…finding a dinosaur bone / In my backyard, about having a Slip ’n Slide.” I think there’s a vulnerability to announcing yourself in a such a way, and not only does it elicit a child-like interest in perception, it also creates a striking intimacy between the poet-speaker and her readers. Can you speak to that desire for transparency and, ultimately, that page-playfulness?

MF: The way that I play with “lying” in this collection is a little more intentional than some of the other things you’ve mentioned. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about the speaker and the self. Like I said, I do think it’s natural to come to an “I”-centric book and assume that it’s entirely autobiographical. To bring up the idea that there is even the possibility of un-truth in a poem is destabilizing in a way that I think disrupts the assumption of writer/speaker continuity.

Also, there’s just something really exciting about an unreliable narrator or speaker. There’s a complexity there that’s interesting to me.

LRK: I read this as being a collection of events that probably did happen, but that destabilization made me question that assumption. Like, there was a point at which I was like, Did this actually happen? Was there, actually, a bird? Was this all constructed in order to bring these internal things into focus? So, I, too, am really interested in the unreliable narrator—in both poetry and in prose. I mean, it’s very clever, and you’ve done it so well.

MF: Thank you.

LRK: So, I’m at an age where I’m very conscious of the female, child-bearing body that I inhabit. Assuming that you, too, identify with that feeling and that embodiment, I’d like to know the thought- and writing-processes that birthed a collection so tightly threaded together by the repetition of that imagery. “Birthed” is a good word, actually, because birth and babies are two (or one) of the motifs I see in Edith. I think that each works with and against Edith’s character in certain ways; how did you imagine babies working within your Edith concept? Babies and birth (and milk, too) are, at times, paired with animals and insects—also very prevalent in your collection. Aside from Edith, what roles do animals and insects play in your every-day? What role did you wish them to play in Edith and/or in the characterization of your speaker?

MF: Again, this wasn’t really conscious for me. Both of these things are just a part of my world, the world that I draw from in order to write what feels real and alive to me. I think those are two separate things for me, though, animals and birth/babies. I don’t think the themes are so related in my head. Animals represent the natural world, which is something that I think about a lot. And being a woman of childbearing age, it’s inevitable that it’s a part of my psyche. So even though it may not be something I’m actively thinking about, it makes sense to me that it would be something subliminally revealed in my work.

LRK: Can you go into a little more detail about how animals are a part of your world?

MF: I’m looking at my dog right now. So, I have a dog, and I had a bunch—well, not a bunch, but I had several birds. Edith wasn’t my only bird. And other pets, too. For a long time I worked for a reptile sanctuary that also did educational programming. I’d bring snakes, lizards, tortoises around to different schools in the Bay Area. We even had an 80-lb. Burmese python I’d take around sometimes. I’d bring her on the city bus in a rolling suitcase. Everyone would think I was just on my way to the airport. Her name was Julie. 

I love animals and have a lot of respect for them. I feel like we have a lot to learn from them—about ourselves, about our relationships with each other and with the earth. About death.

LRK: That’s amazing. I love that. I hope that’s something that continues to thread itself throughout your poetry. It’s unique. It’s not “nature poetry,” per se, but the connection I felt in reading Edith was similar to the inextricable sense of being “at one with.”

MF: Thank you! I hope it continues, too. I think it will.

LRK: Was there a point at which you knew this collection was, indeed, going to be a collection? Did its cohesiveness come about through workshop input, or…?

MF: It was pretty late in the process of actually writing the book when I realized I was writing a collection. I was just focused on writing the individual poems at first. I had a lot of energy for them. I’d sit down to write, and I’d get really excited. So, the collection sort of took off from that point, that energy. I kept going, and at some point, I was like, maybe there’s a book in here.

LRK: You begin your collection with an epigraph by Édith Piaf: “Formerly you were breathing the golden sun. / You were walking on treasures. / We were tramps. / We were loving songs.” Can you speak to how that epigraph defines or best suits your collection?

MF: Edith—the bird—is named after Edith Piaf. And I’m just a big Edith Piaf fan. I knew I wanted her to be present in the book somehow, but that presence just never worked out in any of the poems. And that song really speaks to me. It’s a song about loss. I thought it was appropriate in that way.

LRK: Edith won the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize, judged by Dorianne Laux. What is your poetic relationship to Laux’s work? Did you see Laux as someone who would read your manuscript with a certain amount of enthusiasm, or was she peripheral to you entering the contest?

MF: She wasn’t the main reason I entered the contest. I love BOAAT, and so I was excited to see that they were doing a first book contest. And I love her work, and I do think there is a little bit of a thread there. She writes pretty narratively-cohesive poems, and I guess, when I saw that she was judging the contest, I did think it could make sense. But when you submit to a contest, you have to get by other very discerning eyes before you get to the contest judge anyway, so was hard to imagine that she was going to end up seeing the manuscript. But she’s great. I met her once, and she’s wonderful. Very generous, very irreverent.

LRK: Your dog is named Ramona Quimby. You must have been a Beverly Cleary fan as a child? Can you speak briefly to your evolution as a reader? How did you come to poetry?

MF: Yeah, I love Beverly Cleary. I used to really, really love books when I was a kid. My favorite was horror-writing, scary stories. By the time I was in fifth grade I’d read every Stephen King book that had been published at the time. But when I got to middle school—or maybe I was a bit older—I started resenting books, because they reminded me of homework. I was very into visual arts—painting, drawing, photography. That’s all I wanted to do. But when I discovered Sylvia Plath [laughs] and Anne Sexton—maybe my sophomore year of high school—they totally blew open my world. Their work gave me a lot of renewed energy for reading and writing.

LRK: It’s always interesting to me when Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton come up in any referential spaces. I mean, a lot of girls, a lot of women, a lot of people, came to poetry through them. And in your book, I can see a bit of that influence, too. Especially in the confessional mode and your speaker’s unabashed attitude, re: truth and un-truth. I don’t know whether the conversation has to be new, regarding those poets… I wish I had something more insightful to say, except that I see their influence in Edith.

MF: That’s high praise.

LRK: Good. It was meant to be.

You’ve said you read a lot. Because I’m a book hoarder and greedy reader myself, can you throw some book or author recommendations my way?

MF: Okay, full disclosure: I’m in a writing phase at the moment. I don’t really write and read at the same time. I get too enamored with the voices of writers I admire and end up losing myself. And I’ve been trying to be in a writing phase, and so I’ve been reading very lightly.

But as far as what books or writers have really excited me recently, I’d first have to mention Hera Lindsay Bird, a younger poet from New Zealand. Her first book came out on Penguin, and it’s self-titled. So bold. I’m recommending her to everyone right now. Um, Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow, which was published by Octopus a few years ago. Their whole catalog, really. Larry Levis’ Winter Stars is a book I’ve been returning to a lot. Laura Kasischke. A dear friend of mine, Bridget Talone, just published her first book on Wonder. It’s called The Soft Life and it’s out-of-this-world good. Hieu Minh Nguyen’s new book Not Here. Frank Stanford has been speaking to me a lot in recent years. His opus, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, is enduring and powerful. No one’s ever written anything like that. It’s an exhausting read but 100% worth it. Anne Carson is a big influence. I re-read “The Glass Essay” recently and can’t stop thinking about it. And Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, of course.

LRK: You should pick up Sina Queyras’ My Ariel, from Coach House Books. It’s in direct conversation with Ariel. It’s a big collection—it’s 120-some pages. But it’s really beautiful and really dynamic.

MF: I have to admit, the recommendations question always stresses me out. I just know that I’m going to end the conversation and then think of someone else I want to add. This question is something I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about. So many wonderful, necessary writers out there right now. It’s a golden hour for poetry. 

LRK: That’s a great note to end on, Meg. Congratulations, again, and good luck with your book tour and new writing life in Iowa!


Lauren R. Korn is a poet and graphic designer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. An M.A. student in English at the University of New Brunswick, she is also the Director of Content for The Adroit Journal. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming.

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump, and the Department of Education: Why Public Education is Broken in America by Peter LaBerge


  “ Satire ”  by Nayeon Clara Hong, from  Issue Twenty-Four .

Satire by Nayeon Clara Hong, from Issue Twenty-Four.

For 13 years of our lives, we spend seven hours a day and 180 days a year in schools. We’re not allowed to complain, either, since every state has compulsory education laws that require some sort of schooling until the age of 16. I was lucky enough to attend public school in a district where the Board of Education encountered little trouble in securing funding. Test scores were high and outcomes were generally good. Even parents who could afford to send their children to private school chose the local public high school because of its reputation and rating. But not all Americans identify with such a rosy image of public school and instead find a broken system mired with inequality and ineffectiveness.

About 90 percent of students are enrolled in one of the 98,200 public schools across the country that served over 50 million students last school year. The other 10 percent enroll in private elementary, middle, and high schools, which are still subject to some curricular and logistical regulation by local boards of education and state governing agencies. But what separates the United States from other countries with compulsory education is the lack of federal oversight. The Constitution does not guarantee a right to education, and only Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) sets a legal framework for educational rights in the United States.

Because of the Constitution’s 10th Amendment delegation of educational control, state and local governments hold the primary responsibility for public education in the United States. The first Department of Education (DoE) was designed to only collect information on public schools across the country. In its current iteration, the Cabinet-level DoE provides about 10 percent of funding to state education systems through grants from taxpayer dollars, coordinates Federal programs while complementing state and local efforts, and aims to strengthen the Federal commitment to equality of opportunity.

The Federal Government, and specifically the Executive Branch, garners the authority to supervise education through the Constitution’s Article II provisions for international relations and the 14th Amendment that guarantees equal rights. Education is an important element for international relations not only because of the international law requirement of the UDHR, but also because a well-educated population maintains and increases the United States’ competitiveness. Education boosts global competitiveness and occurs in two main ways: economic growth and technological innovation. Higher educational quality builds a stronger economy by increasing the human capital available in a society, leading to higher labor productivity. The additional effect of increasing innovation through fostering new inventions and processes adds to economic growth and ensures national security. A pipeline of newfound technologies like drones and updated missiles helps our military maintain its dominance.

Another key reason for education lies at the heart of our government: democracy. Thomas Jefferson first upheld the necessity for an educated citizenry, writing in a personal letter that a public trusted with electing its leaders must be well-educated. Later, public school reformers such as Horace Mann and John Dewey followed suit, capitalizing on the ability of education to equalize conditions and train citizens to fully apply their talents for society’s benefit. Although indicators of civic participation such as voter turnout are currently low, basic and equal education builds a deliberative democracy that increases representation and informed voting. As the Washington Post’s subtitle subtly explains, “Democracy dies in Darkness.”

The “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment provides students the right of equal access to education. Historically, the equal protection clause was crucial for integrating public schools after the Jim Crow Era. For instance, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine, and subsequent cases, including Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), applied a stringent requirement for desegregation. The Federal Government’s role in following the 14th Amendment is relatively clear-cut: the Executive Branch, including the DoE, must enforce equal access to public education and execute the Supreme Court’s decisions on the matter. Yet, even six decades after Brown v. Board, education remains highly unequal. A 2018 forthcoming study from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis investigates the geographic inequality from a data set of 200 million standardized tests, concluding that correlates of race, socioeconomic status, and school characteristics still play an outsize role in determining achievement.

The United States has many improvements to make in both educational equality and educational competitiveness. Educational outcomes are still deeply tied to race, class and disability, starting from differences in early childhood education—richer children can afford daycare and preschool, while poorer children are more likely to stay at home with extended family. Disadvantaged children score two grades behind their classmates, according to a study from the University of Michigan. School districts just miles apart can spend thousands more per student, based on funding allocation.

Compared to leaders in education such as Finland and Singapore, the United States scores poorly on international tests. No matter how researchers spin the data, American students belong squarely in the middle of the pack on the Program for International Student Assessment—15th in reading, 37th in math, and 19th in science. The responsibility for ensuring proper and equitable education falls to the U.S. Department of Education and specifically Secretary Betsy DeVos, but little is being done to rectify the situation.

The most obvious problem at the federal level is an abdication of responsibility to public school students. President Trump has made it incredibly clear that education is not his priority, even threatening to eliminate the Department of Education and combine it with the Department of Labor. The FY 2018 budget cut over $9 billion with large-scale effects on federal appropriations for early childhood education and elementary schools, and the FY 2019 budget proposal reduces the DoE’s funds by another 11 percent. Crucially, the 2019 budget slashes $2.3 billion from the Supporting Effective Instruction state grants for teacher training and $1.2 billion from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that pays for after-school and summer enrichment opportunities. Instead, President Trump wants to re-allocate this funding to school choice programs that have increased support for charter schools.

The nomination and subsequent confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education reinforces the irresponsibility of President Trump when it comes to education. In light of the hullabaloo over her confirmation hearing, the President’s and Vice President’s support of such an unqualified and unpopular nominee signals a commitment to increased elitist interests in education. As a public servant, Secretary DeVos should be responsible for increasing educational outcomes in public schools, but her experience only deals with private schools. She has demonstrated “a sketchy understanding” of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, an unwillingness to defend equal accountability for public schools, and a scary detachment from the reality of federal financial aid for higher education.

Thus far, both the President and Secretary of Education have focused on increasing school choice through building charter schools and paying for private school vouchers. Charter schools receive public funding but are privately run; the schools typically enjoy less regulation from the government, having developed their own curriculum and certification policies. Although charter schools may better serve gifted and talented students while allowing parents freedom over their child’s educational trajectory based on lackluster public school ratings, the results are mixed. Non-profit charter schools seem to do better than for-profit ones, and new charter schools tend to perform poorly.

The problem isn’t necessarily with the charter school model; rather, organizations like the NAACP and Network for Public Education worry that charter schools replicate inequality and steal funding from already cash-strapped public schools. Many charter schools are de facto segregated by race: 70 percent of black charter school students attend a charter school with nearly all black students. In addition, more charter school students are expelled than public school students, especially those in minority neighborhoods.

Vouchers for private schools signal the loss of faith in public education among the nation’s elite. Once upon a time, public education was the nation’s pride and joy. A public high school diploma provided a stepping stone to success, and public schools made many gains in equality and educational quality. Now, the elite are afforded their choice of schools, and Secretary DeVos wants to extend that privilege to low-income students. In principle, this sounds like a wonderful idea; in practice, many students can only afford cheaper private schools with the voucher, limiting the effect.

Vouchers aren’t available for every student, and even in states where eligibility requirements are lax, only some students take the vouchers, leaving the rest of the disadvantaged students to continue in already disadvantaged public schools. Moreover, a slew of studies cited by Mark Dynarski at the Center on Children and Families at Brookings Institution conclude that private school vouchers result in worse outcomes, based on math and reading test scores. The current federal commitment to choice-based education at best provides mixed improvements while at worst replicates past inequalities.

Yet, the states are doing no better. Federalism has only increased inefficiency and an inability to provide equitable education. States are cutting education funding left and right, and with no federal money to fill in the gaps, public schools suffer even further. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed by President George W. Bush in 2001, pushed for standards-based reform and federal accountability through Title I grant earmarking. States were required to test students in the third through eighth grades in math and reading each year and demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” for each school.

But, the NCLB was replaced in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which keeps intact the commitment to testing while granting any accountability checks back to state governments. For example, the Federal Government can no longer tie funding to adoption of Common Core standards. States rarely have fulfilled accountability requirements without federal supervision (see voting rights). The decreased federal power and increased power for state and local boards of education only transfer more choice and responsibility to parents and families, according to Cornell Law School Professor Michael Heise in the Columbia Law Review. Such action threatens student attendance in public schools along with curricular equality.

Federalism in education isn’t hopeless, however. After the 2008 Recession, President Obama and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan adopted the Race to the Top Program as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States essentially competed with each other to adopt data-driven evaluation processes, including performance-based evaluation for teachers and better assessment for student outcomes. After the program’s expiration in 2015, both the Center for American Progress and EducationNext concluded that the “competition” had, by and large, increased public education quality. Of course, problems still arose with the Race to the Top policy: states that “won” the competition gained far larger benefits than states that “lost,” and Race to the Top still promoted charter schools at the expense of public schools.

The problems of the educational system today are striking, and solutions aren’t easily found, especially considering this administration’s crass treatment of education. But the responsibility to provide equitable education cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of states that already lack resources. The Federal Government should decrease its focus on school choice to instead properly fund public schools nationwide. Private school vouchers and charter schools should be more responsive to taxpayers’ concerns over outcome and be more transparent. Importantly, schools should be funded with the worst-performing public schools in mind. We know our country’s federalist model for education can work, but without a strong, federal guiding arm, educational (e)quality collapses, and democracy dies in darkness.


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

Scar Tissue: A Conversation with Catherine Lacey by Peter LaBerge


 Photo credit: Jesse Ball. Catherine Lacey, author of  Certain American States  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Photo credit: Jesse Ball. Catherine Lacey, author of Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Catherine Lacey is the author of four books, most recently Certain American States. She lives in Chicago.


Ask anyone who’s read her: Catherine Lacey writes some of the best sentences in the English language. Dwight Garner once called them “the sign of a writer settling in for a long backcourt game, one who is going to wear you down rather than go in for the kill.” I’m inclined to disagree. Even when her characters are seeking answers, exhausted and unsure of themselves, Lacey’s fiction is sharp and fluvial in nature: part Kafkaesque non-arrival, part sick-of-your-platitudes, part unconcerned about the kill because living is hard enough.

Her new book of stories, Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), is full of characters losing track of themselves, moved or paralyzed by grief. Devotees of Lacey’s previous work will find the same preoccupations with loss, what makes us love another person, and why that love fades. “No one should trust the feelings that occur at nineteen or twenty,” Lacey writes in one of her stories. “Everyone should just sit very still until they reach the calmer waters of later-young-adulthood, that promised land of lowered expectations. Even so, I still don’t get it—how so many people manage to keep asking the same person the same question every day—Is this what you want? Am I still what you want?—without going insane.” Lacey writes about artists and their transgressions; the strange texture of those desires “incommunicable between strangers”; what happens when we are at the end of our sorrow and decide to give everything away; what happens when a person becomes tired of being a person.

I met Lacey at the Tin House Summer Workshop, where I was her student. We conducted the following interview over e-mail.


Spencer Ruchti: The earliest of the stories in Certain American States were published in 2013, just a year before Nobody Is Ever Missing. What’s changed the most for you since then, in your writing and in your taste in books? What differences did you notice when you started looking at these stories as a collection?

Catherine Lacey: I’ve been writing short fiction for myself for as long as I can remember, but around 2010 I started writing every morning like it was my real job before I went to a job that paid bills. I wrote a ton of unpublishable stories then—mostly trashed now—and I think the main thing that changed since then is that I’m less impressionable. I have a clearer vision of what my stories need to have in order to be mine; I’m not looking outward for confirmation that I’m doing it right. I think there’s a necessary period in a writer’s development during which you allow all your favorite writers into your head and you judge your work against their work. My crowd was Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, Sam Lipsyte, and Lorrie Moore, among others. But eventually you have to tell everyone to go home so you can start judging your work on its own terms. A few stories survived those early years, and they’re the ones that stood out as distinct from everything else I was working on at the time—sort of premonitions of a latent voice that I didn’t realize I was developing.

SR: How did you come to this initial crowd of writers?

CL: Sometimes a writer feels so entrenched in my head that I lose track of when I first read them. Barthelme is this way. O’Connor is the same. The rest, also, I’m not sure how I first came across them. I remember someone I don’t particularly like talking shit about Lydia Davis in 2005 and I later realized that because that dude didn’t understand her work, I knew immediately that I would like it. Also, it makes sense to go figure out who are the favorite writers of your favorite writers and go read them.

SR: You once described yourself as a “spongy” writer, someone who absorbs and inadvertently mimics the styles of other writers. What writers do you feel spongiest toward? When you notice this foreign voice in your work, do you let it stay, or do you mute that voice in the next draft?

CL: You must learn to use that sponginess as a tool, I feel. If a writer does this to you, you must only read them when you want to use their voice as a direct influence on a particular work. I think I contracted a mental virus from Thomas Bernhard about ten years ago and I still work around the scar tissue. He’s a dangerous one. And my partner has noticed that often when I complain about something it often comes out sounding like a Lydia Davis story. (Representative complaints: You’re often walking a few paces ahead of me; The bird you pointed out flew away before I could see it; We cannot understand why everyone dislikes our friend Margaret.) Davis has completely colonized a part of my brain, and I think she’s brilliant so it’s fine with me. Most importantly, you cannot read low quality shit or watch low quality films or whatever. It will hinder your verbal and visual vocabulary.  It will mess you up before you even know what hit you.

SR: Sort of speaking of Lydia Davis, who’s a prolific translator: can you speak about the process of having your work translated? What’s essential in the author/translator relationship?

CL: I admire translators so much—they’re the most careful readers and they care intensely about language and meaning and precision, which is more than I can say about most people. If I had my pick I’d surround myself with translators. They’re my favorite people.

Yet the possibility of my books being translated did not occur to me until it was already underway. The experience has varied widely by country. My publisher in Italy is a small, independent house, but both novels have done well there because independent book sellers in Italy have been my advocates. I can show up at a bookstore in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning and it’s packed. I can only assume that my Italian translator, Teressa Ciuffoletti, improved the books with her vision.

With most translations, I’ve gotten a few emails asking me to explain a line or word choice and through that I’ve realized how much unconscious thought and intention goes into every decision.

SR: You also write some of my favorite sentences in the English language. Here’s a representative passage from “Please Take,” which, even out of context, knocked me out of my seat when I first read it: “I weep athletically almost every day and sometimes I cannot get down a city block without collapsing but Adrian is always upright and smiling and glad, so glad, so glad. It may be we do not live in the same world at all. Some nights I wake up and panic, thinking he’s truly gone, for real this time, and I lie there shaking, all my organs going wild in me for hours until I roll over and see he’s been beside me all along. I keep sleeping in the wrong places, I think, or maybe I’m just waking up not where I am.”

When you’re writing something like this, with its own current, rhythm, and gravity, how do you start? Do you draft meticulously?

CL: Thank you. I feel I write the best sentences when I’m in a place of total embodiment with the character who is speaking. By embodiment I mean that I am inhabiting, physically, the space of the character, that I feel I have briefly become that person, that my mind has been given over to their way of seeing the world so fully that my body feels different, too. When I’m in that place of embodiment, I often won’t even have to edit much. Once I have a full draft of something I will read every line of it aloud to make sure the audial integrity and spatial balance is there. I still do a good deal of nitpicking and vacillating between words and moving commas around.

SR: When you get to the draft where you’re reading every sentence aloud, what makes you pause and revise?

CL: I read my pages as quickly and as loudly as I can; any time I stumble or meet resistance, I stop and figure out why. Also, any time I get bored with a sentence or feel like I’m repeating a point that’s already been made in the story, I delete savagely and without remorse.

SR: Can you talk about where the story “Violations” came from? It acts as a parody of your own writing style, or maybe a rebuttal to how critics have tried to define your voice. The narrator is obsessed with the idea that his ex-wife, a novelist who writes in monstrous, unwieldy sentences, is writing about him in an autobiographical sense.

CL: There’s a long version and a short version to where that story came from and I’ll tell you something of both. On the one hand I was feeling angry and childish and petty, so I was trying to make fun of myself for feeling that way, and on the other hand I was feeling a little burdened by the idea that the facts and experiences of a life are not exclusively our own—that is, the things that happen to us usually involve other characters, other people, who will inevitably have a way of telling the story that differs from one’s own. Writing stories well, however, is difficult, and some of us have cultivated this skill more than others, so there is often an imbalance in who gets to tell a story based on who is simply better at telling them. This is something we all have to contend with in our families and relationships and friendships. Looking back at that story now I can see how there’s another level going on, which is that I’m in the unusual position of having given stories to the public that are then professionally and non-professionally critiqued or discussed in terms of syntax or style or whatever and that experience is a bit weird but ultimately humorous to me. After a few critics describe some aspect of one’s style it inevitably changes your experience of that style. You start looking over your own shoulder a little. This also happens interpersonally; we often contend with other peoples’ ideas about who we are (or who they want us to be) in ways that can be exhausting and limiting. I wanted to stop doing that, so I used this story to exorcise that feeling.

SR: So much of your fiction deals with grief and how people function in the wake of death. There are some characters who are paralyzed by the death of a loved one, and others who fantasize about performing their grief. (From “ur heck box”: “The months after Rae died I had the repeated impulse to do something inappropriate, something dangerous, but the only thing I could think to do was not get off the subway when my stop came.”) What is it about grief that interests you?

CL: I really don’t know. Something strange that happened when I wrote my first novel; the parts about the main character’s adopted sister dying young came really immediately and honestly; I never edited or questioned any of those parts. Then, after the book was done but before it was published, my step-sister died young and it felt like I’d had premonitions of that loss before it happened. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized there’s so much grief in my work. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, nor should I, but the stage of grief is a rich one for fiction, I suppose, because it connects a character to the past. It implies a narrative immediately.

SR: Do you feel a unique connection with any character or narrator in the story collection?

CL: I suppose I feel a unique connection with all of them, that is, each character feels like a very distinct perspective and each requires a different mode of connection, but in general, I feel an aversion to aggrandizing characters. I don’t like it when a character feels too precious. I prefer to leave them unnamed when it makes sense, and I tend to avoid physical descriptions if I can. A character is a way of looking at the world, not a person to idolize.

SR: What new books are you excited to read in the next year?

CL: Laura Adamcyzk has a debut collection—Hardly Children—coming out from my publishing homebase, FSG Originals, and it’s really excellent. Miriam Toews, an incredible mid-career writer from Canada, is publishing a book called Women Talking that is a total miracle. I adored that book and cannot wait for everyone to read it.

SR: In the last few years you’ve lived and worked out of New York, Montana, Mississippi, and now Chicago. How have you reconciled with nomadic living? How does writing in Brooklyn contend with, say, writing in Missoula?

CL: I had a fear that if I left New York I wouldn’t be able to write as well because I always thought there was something about the pressure of that place that made me work, but that hasn’t been the case. Ultimately the transience of the past few years is what shifted the story collection from being titled Small Differences to being titled Certain American States, and I ended up replacing some older stories with some newer ones (“Because You Have To” and “Family Physics”) that were generated by all that moving around. No matter where I live, I always find it reasonable and compelling to wake up and have some coffee and write for a while.

SR: Did you find new pressures in new cities? Different anxieties than the ones you found in New York?

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

SR: The last story of the collection, “The Grand Claremont Hotel,” has a voice that’s strikingly unlike the others. The narrator is fired from his job while on a business trip and undergoes existential dread in his newfound freedom. Hotel management upgrades him from room to room in a Kafkaesque series of events until one day he realizes the hotel won’t let him leave. He’s trapped in purgatory but seems to find peace there. What inspired this story?

CL: Oh dear, I’m not sure I really know. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms lately. One night I was in Reno to speak at the university and I was upgraded for no reason to a room larger than a small house that had a bathtub in the living room. I feel this enticing, numbing sense of being coddled every time I stay in a hotel. I find it both enjoyable and upsetting, which is usually a good place for me to begin writing.

SR: “Enjoyable and upsetting” sounds like a perfect blurb for this collection. What other enjoyable/upsetting events have inspired these stories?

CL: Crying in public, watching and practicing martial arts, filling out family court paperwork, air travel, unsuccessfully attempting to teach high school students, co-owning and running a bed and breakfast, setting up temporary homes in drastically different places several times in two years.


Spencer Ruchti works as a bookseller in Harvard Square. He lived a long time in Pocatello, Idaho, and then Missoula, Montana. He now lives in Boston, where he’s writing a novel.

Poetry is hope: A Conversation with Nicole Sealey by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.



Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, finalist for the 2018 PEN Open Book Award, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, Cave Canem, MacDowell Colony and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming to Best American Poetry 2018The New YorkerThe New York Times and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, visiting professor at Boston University and the 2018-2019 Doris Lippman Visiting Poet at The City College of New York.


Katie Willingham: Let’s talk about the very first poem! I love how it’s full of personal detail but by enacting this relatable catalogue of “medical history” it becomes universal. This poem also has me thinking about facts and what they can and can’t offer. Would you talk a little about the last line, how the speaker says, “I understand, / the stars in the sky are already dead” and this is corrected in your end notes? How did you decide to embrace this falsehood and also let readers in on it by having that note at the end?

Nicole Sealey: “medical history” is all about (if a poem can be “about” anything) what we know, what we think we know and what we have yet to discover. “I understand,” I believe, speaks to this. Though the line does not tell an actual truth, it does tell a poetic one—one that reiterates the tone and sentiment of the poem. Plus, poems owe nothing to truth. Though, I must admit, I believe that I owe it to readers to provide scientific truth. Hence, the note at the collection’s end clarifying that stars are most likely not dead. That the distance between the stars and us is so great that we can only see the brightest stars.

I guess one can argue that I embrace both falsehood and reality.

KW: And when did you know this would be the first poem?

NS: I don’t remember the exact moment in which I knew, but the collection itself called for an opening poem void of pretense. Part of the pleasure I take in writing poetry is an instant intimacy with readers. By the first page, we’re practically family. As we know, the relationship between reader and writer is reciprocal. We bring with us all that we are, the sum total of our experiences up to that point. There’s an exchange happening—one that encourages vulnerability, one that can transform strangers into kin. Which is why the opening poem is one of my most intimate poems, which is why I was so comfortable opening the collection with “medical history,” its lines: “I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.”

KW: I love this idea of bringing all that we are as writers and also as readers. Is this “instant intimacy” something you look for in collections you read as well? Does something you’ve read spring to mind?

NS: I definitely look for “instant intimacy” in the collections I read. I look for heart and sentiment.

As a reader, I want to feel. However, I don’t want to be told when and what to feel. Poems by poets who write against sentimentality often end up lacking sentiment altogether. Whereas sentimentality is contrived, designed to elicit a specific response at a specific time—the cued music on a television show that tells the audience when to clap or cry, sentiment is real feeling. Poets like Lucille Clifton, Vievee Francis, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Sharon Olds, and Matthew Olzmann write poems with heart and gut. Everything these poets have written comes to mind.

KW: On the subject of the real and unreal, I’m drawn to your use of the hypothetical in this book, especially in “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born,” in which mother and daughter discuss immortality and their different conceptions of time. I’m thinking about how you use the hypothetical to provide this beautiful distance from which to consider what is. How do you think about this alternate world-building in poetry or any writing and what it can offer?

NS: I truly believe that poetry is drawn from the collective and colored by the individual. Though we have immediate access to images provided by personal experience, such as the time and place in which we exist and the circumstances into which we were born, the I, by virtue of its humanness, is the we. Whether we know it or not, we access a history much older than ourselves and geographies beyond ourselves. That said, “beautiful distance” is natural. This distance, I think, is in all poems, including “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born” and “in defense of ‘candelabra with head.’” Distance gives us the opportunity to see ourselves objectively.

KW: Another way this book engages possibility is via revision or addendum. I’m thinking of “clue” and its erasue “c ue” and also “candelabra with heads” and “in defense of candelabra with heads.” Can you talk about engaging these coexisting paths through the same material?

NS: Yes, revision and addendum and addition. Just because a poem is “finished,” doesn’t mean the conversation is over—poems are ongoing conversations about what it means to be human. For example, I remember neither what I was thinking nor reading when I drafted “medical history.” I do know that it was conceived on the heels of “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born.” But, I believe, all poems work in this way: one poem leads to another, and that poem leads to another poem and so on and so forth. In this way, we have no choice but to engage coexisting paths through the same material.

Also, I’m not sure if the “same material” remains the same. With each reading and re-reading, the material is as changed as we are.

KW: Your “cento for the night i said ‘i love you’” perhaps comes at this idea of retooling from another angle, offering a new path through both an incredibly significant but common phrase, “I love you,” and also through the lines of so many other writers and thinkers that are filtered together here. I read elsewhere this poem took quite a long time to write, but it’s also very patient on the page to me as a reader. Can you talk about the white space and why you chose to break the different sections across pages?

NS: White space is an important part of “cento,” of any poem. White space indicates points at which readers are encouraged to take a breath, to take it all in.

As I’ve said, a poem, by default, accesses times and spaces beyond itself. “cento for the night i said, ‘i love you,’” however, intentionally set out to do just that. Because of this, the poem required more room to breathe, to stretch out, hence the double spacing and the sections.

KW: Would you share a little about how you go about titles as well? I’m thinking about “Imagine Sisyphus Happy” and the way it contextualizes the poem that follows. Where do titles come in the process for you, or does it vary, and how do you think about their work in relation to the rest of the poem?

NS: At the CantoMundo retreat last summer, Rigoberto González said that a poem’s title is actually the poem’s first line, which I wholeheartedly agreed (and still agree) with. And, like any first line, a title ought to be compelling. As you know, a title isn’t garnish, it is doing the revelatory work of contextualizing and situating the poem within larger conversations. In the case of “Imagine Sisyphus Happy,” the larger conversations include love, pity and the absurdity of life.

Though every poem requires something different of its title, for me, titling is an important part of the poem making process—as important as the image, as the line, as voice and style, as revision. As such, I spend as much time on the title as anything else.

KW: I noticed in your interview with Kyla Marshell for Mosaic Magazine that you mentioned adding love to that famous list of certainties normally composed of just “death and taxes.” I’m fascinated by this and how hopeful it is, but also how you discuss the way love and death are intertwined. Your book would suggest to me this is a hopeful thought, but I thought I’d ask you to expand. If love and death are intertwined, where does hope fit? What are your thoughts on hope and poetry, or hope in poetry?

NS: Hope, I think, is inextricably linked to love and death. So, too, is it linked to poetry. I’d even argue that poetry is hope. Hope, as Webster defines it is: “to cherish a desire with anticipation” or “to want something to happen or be true.” I often attribute that or a similar description to poems as well.

KW: I’m tempted to end there because that’s such a powerful sentiment, and it really brings into focus what’s so precious about poetry, so thank you for that. Perhaps it works though, to leave our discussion of poetry there and conclude by asking about other art forms. Do you practice other arts aside from writing? If you could be a virtuouso of something else what would it be? And is there a piece or an artist of that form you admire that you could recommend to us?

NS: I’m a fan of art in the most expansive sense and of beautiful things in general. Like most people, I love music, theater, dance, visual art, literature, et cetera. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a ballerina. As a teenager, a singer—I sang in the gospel choir. And, how could I forget interior design (I recently reupholstered my dining room chairs) and fashion (I love pairing classic and unconventional pieces together)? Basically, I’d want to be a virtuoso at everything! If there were more hours in a day, I would seriously pursue all my passions, not just the writing.

At present, I’m still awestruck by Deborah Dancy, whose 2016 work, Queen Bea, is the jacket art for Ordinary Beast.


Katie Willingham is the author of Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, 2017). She earned her MFA at the Helen Zell Writers Program, where she was the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Poetry, a Theodore Roethke Prize, and a Nicholas Delbanco Thesis Prize. You can find her poems in such journals as The Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, Poem-a-Day, Third Coast, West Branch, Grist, and others. She has taught both composition and creative writing at the University of Michigan. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Shown to be mirrors: An omnibus review of Milk, That Which Comes After, and small siren by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.


 Dorothea Lasky's  Milk  ( Wave Books , 2018), Alexis Pope's  That Which Comes After  ( Big Lucks , 2018), and Alexandra Mattraw's  small siren  ( The Culture Society , 2018).

Dorothea Lasky's Milk (Wave Books, 2018), Alexis Pope's That Which Comes After (Big Lucks, 2018), and Alexandra Mattraw's small siren (The Culture Society, 2018).

Some books do something new within the poetic space, while others challenge our understanding of what poetry can do. Three new collections by Dorothea Lasky, Alexis Pope, and Alexandra Mattraw are the second type, enriching and expanding our understanding of what poetry is and what it might become.

In Lasky's Milk, anything and everything is only a turn away, whether through metaphor's web of associations or simply the poet's inexhaustible imagination. It's hallucinogenic: in these pages, individual identity falls away and, in exchange, the reader is given access to something like shared consciousness. This all-encompassing, fervent voice comes into focus in poems like "Little Kingdom."

We are no better than those
Who walk the earth
And the worms we ingest will make us strong
Everybody has a patch of dirty
Where they plant their green peril
Everybody makes the sign of the star
On their forehead
To let the devil know
It's me, Lord, it's me
Come home

This pace engenders anxiety and foreboding, the poetic equivalent of glancing over a shoulder, sure someone's following, which serves its subject matter, since death (always one step behind us all) swirls through Lasky's collection like a cold wind. In "The book of stars and the universe," Lasky writes, "In the dream my father took my dog / He brought her to the other world / My dog I miss you / My father I miss you."

Pope similarly grapples with the surreal aspect of loss in That Which Comes After." "I didn't feel the passing // Of my grandmother but it happened // The same as my own" ("LET'S START ALL OUR FRIENDSHIPS"). However, while Pope's specificity gives lie to the very idea of a universal, her speaker wants to be witnessed, just in a truer and more direct way, as in "BUYING TAMPONS," where she commands, "Look at me // I'm crying don't // Look away."

Mattraw picks up this theme in poems like "The Day Before the Burial," where "Night air fills lilacs, a soon darkness / rustles in the back room." This speaker is porous; familial relations and natural landscape blur her edges until "we're all / temporary / a constellation / mind" ("Triangulation").

This is where these three collections most directly communicate—in highlighting how women (in their ability to create life, along with the monthly expelling of potential life) are in constant proximity to the stuff of creation and destruction, and therefore, have something unique and urgent to say about where life and death rub against each other. In fact, the Milk evoked by Lasky's title is the useless, painful kind that comes after a miscarriage, as detailed in "The clog."

The place
With the dead babies
But no matter what I did
How hard I yanked
She would never leave
I knocked and knocked

Miscarriage is a death that our society doesn't allow to be mourned—a primal, deeply disorienting loss that women are often isolated within, without a familiar script or way of expressing their grief. And there's little compassion for a loss that so calls into question the way we believe life should go, as in "The miscarriage."

The women of the world say
Work harder!

The men of the world say
Work harder!

Pope's speaker in That Which Comes After attempts to offer support for this same loss in poems like "ALL MY FRIENDS LIVING DIFFERENT," asserting that "There's no talking about sky // Not while S holds a belly full // Of used to be life, the swell // remains thumpless." Of course this speaker's flat-footed; there's simply no language to reach across this gulf, as in "I MEAN THERE ARE SPECIFIC": "Feel better my friend // Texts me I'm worried // About her miscarriage // Is that too blunt."

Mattraw's small siren frames these revelations by illuminating the mysterious, baffling experience that even a successful birth engenders in poems like "/ Dilation /."

                                    / swimming you emerge /

                                            forty weeks under /
                             screaming in a stranger / palm reading
                                            your first body / How

will I know it's you?

These larger thematic arguments are further bolstered by the collections' formal choices. Where Lasky minimizes punctuation, allowing lines to flow like a tide that inexorably rises to drown the reader, in That Which Comes After, Pope uses line breaks to stumble us, calling attention to the constructed nature of poetry to implicitly question and undercut it, as in "THIS IS NOT ANOTHER BIRD POEM."

What gets stuck to my fingers

When I'm half alone

In the situation call back

Unknown numbers on my phone.

Mattraw's small siren keeps the reader at a similar remove, unpacking and bursting apart poetic structure in increasingly interesting ways. For example, there's a poem that runs as a footnote across the bottom of the right, blank pages of the book's first section.

In their own ways, each collection plays with scale, turning lyric binoculars toward grand horizons and then back to the interior. And, ultimately, those vantage points are shown to be mirrors, the divisions between them constructed by individual ego. Simultaneously, concepts of time and space are revealed for their triviality as the reader is invited to move through poetic time. As Pope's speaker declares in "THERE'S A RIVER IN PENNSYLVANIA," "Take the big clock off the wall // It's too early or late for time."

On the poetic plane these collections traverse, all things are equally exalted and insignificant, beautiful and ugly, powerful and weak. In fact, those very distinctions are rendered meaningless. And, once you give yourself over to it, letting it overwhelm you, there's something like transcendence to be found in poems like Lasky's "Kill Marry Fuck."

Sixty years later
A bomb of women
An entire country of women
Two women in the countryside
A pale green tapestry
Washed white by the seashore
The world

Within this glorious cacophony, there are moments of almost uncanny lucidity, as if a delirium is briefly lifted as someone looks you in the eye with a jolt of recognition, like this moment in Pope's "BUYING TAMPONS," "Over time we // Capsize into whatever // We've been running toward" or Lasky's "Winter Plums."

She's gonna die

We all are

Until then, the weather

The cold sweet fruit

These collections articulate a radical freedom that reaffirms poetry's core promise of possibility. In Milk, Lasky's insistence on her own dream-like logic wrests the reader into an alternate state of consciousness and makes room for her poems to be—and say—almost anything. There's the searing beauty of moments like "In the morning touching the wrist you will know what life is" in "A hospital room," the self-effacing sincerity of "My friend once came over / And read me her poems so freely / I wanted to / But I couldn't abandon her" in "Ghost flight to the moon," and the surreal sadness of "My mind / A bloodhound / For oblivion" in "Floral pattern." Pope's sincerity has a similar effect, giving the reader a giddy sense of expansion, while the speaker makes herself small, intimate enough to confide that "BUYING TAMPONS" "Is like buying diapers // It doesn't end // Until it does."

Ultimately, these poets embody so many selves and modes of being that they return us to one of the oldest archetypes of the poet—the trickster. These poet-tricksters open space for uncertainty and questioning, demonstrate the ways in which we're stuck in useless patterns of thinking, and upend tired assumptions that underlie cultural systems of power. As Lasky's "Snakes" articulates, "The time in-between / When you feel that poetry is the last thing you need / That's the time you need poetry most of all." There's no way to anticipate what comes next in these collections, no expected route ever taken, but the reader is grateful to follow them off the path and into the dark, nourishing unknown.


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

The cause to remain open: A Conversation with Colin Winnette by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.


 Photo credit: Jennifer Yin

Photo credit: Jennifer Yin

Colin Winnette is the author of several books, including Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio) and The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull Press). He lives in San Francisco.

Reid Kurkerewicz: You mentioned once after a reading that you appreciated your particular MFA program because you were able to work alongside artists in many different mediums. Can you expand on what that experience did for your writing.

Colin Winnette: I was in writing workshops during undergrad and went on to study at an interdisciplinary graduate program. In general, that meant I went from studying with a small group of people all working in the same medium (which was extremely helpful and inspiring in certain ways, especially when starting out), to an enormous group of people trying to do a lot of different things all at once (which opened a lot of mental blocks and re-framed my thinking as a developing writer). I learned a lot about craft in the workshops and about writing itself, but studying fiction in an art context helped me better understand the ways in which writing fiction was an act of making art, and could be thought about as such. Every element in the production and presentation of a piece of writing can be looked at as an artistic decision, to be engaged with in ways that alter the meaning of the work itself. That helped me better understand that there aren’t rules for fiction, but there are things that people have done for a reason, or to achieve a desired effect (conscious or unconscious). That might be obvious to some, but for me it was an important distinction that was reinforced in graduate school. It helped me because it created a sense of freedom that was based in decision making.

RK: The Job of the Wasp seems to take place outside of identifiable time, and objects that would date the historic period are conspicuously absent. In particular, I get the sense that you avoid communication technologies, even as you grapple with issues surrounding the gathering and processing of information. In Haints Stay, especially, but also in The Job of the Wasp, information seems to float around unmitigated by technology, yet confusion abounds. Why do you leave out the machines we usually blame for our problems?

CW: Contemporary communication technologies aren’t used or described in those novels, but I wouldn’t say they’re absent from them. Haints Stay and The Job of the Wasp are very different books, though. The Job of the Wasp required an isolated narrator and a setting that was difficult if not impossible to place in time. Haints Stay is set in a different world altogether—one that refracts our own, sitting somewhere between reality and dream. It uses that setting to engage with ideas about masculinity, identity, and violence, and problems I think pre-date modern communication technologies, but remain pressing issues. My favorite novels do this: explore something urgent by looking at it aslant, or even looking away from it or obscuring it (see Moby Dick writing about America, religion, and humanity by taking to sea on an isolated ship, or Marie Ndiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, in which you never learn the specific reasons for the narrator’s persecution, only that she, and people like her, are viewed with contempt by the members of her community). But I don’t make a point of avoiding modern communication technologies. You’ll see them in other things I’ve written. I think with an iPhone, as with any other element in a story, the question is how to write about it or write around it in an artful way. It’s in there (or out) if that decision adds to the meaning and experience of the work itself. That’s all that matters to me.

RK: The danger in the idea that truth is partially personal is that it can obscure the obviously harmful actions of those who intentionally operate in that moral grey area, like a Henry Kissinger or the bullies in The Job of the Wasp. The narrator himself begins to take actions knowing that others will have their own unique understanding of the current situation. If we accept that truth won’t stay in one place, how does one go about setting up a system of morals? Is a moral compass even possible in the world of The Job of the Wasp?

CW: Every system is limited in scope, so when it comes to the question of how to treat other people, I try to listen and respond to the person and the situation itself rather than apply a system. I don’t always succeed, and this isn’t always a sensible approach, so sometimes I hate myself. But a lot of the problems in The Job of the Wasp come from the rigid application of a system of thought onto a situation in which not everything is known (or the manipulation of well-intentioned systems by potentially corrupt individuals). I’m as skeptical of that rigid application as I am of anyone who says there is no truth, so who cares what we do. Growing up in Texas, I was steeped in morality, surrounded by very moral people, and they were some of the most close-minded and hateful people you could ever meet. In some cases. Others were spectacularly generous and beautiful. I love them to this day, will always love them, and consider them role models. A system of morals is only as good as the person using it to get by.

RK: There seems to be distance between the reader and the characters in your novels. Even as we come to know them, important aspects of their identities are withheld. The most obvious example, to me, is the narrator’s unknown name in The Job of the Wasp but extends to more complicated facets of identity like religious belief or the entirety of your character’s pasts. Do you know the answers to some, or all, of these questions, or are they hidden from you too? What’s an example of something you don’t know about the narrator in The Job of the Wasp?

CW: I know the answers to certain questions, and there are others I still wonder about. But, for example, I tried to fully understand the physical setting, although it’s obscured in the book itself. As for the narrator, if there’s anything I can’t say for certain, it’s what happens to him next.

RK: Another reason it is difficult to get to know your characters is because you continually traumatize them, and we often catch them in the middle of readjustment to a harsh world. How do you go about evoking these readjustments without having experienced them yourself? (I assume you haven’t dug up too many corpses.)

CW: A book is its own world, complicated and clashing, and that world is (significantly) a work of the imagination (h/t: Patty Yumi Cottrell for this phrase). When writing, I try to let whatever happens happen, just to see what’s there, what’s possible. When revising, I try to look at the terms the novel is setting up for itself, the decisions I’ve made (consciously or unconsciously that are working together in a way that feels meaningful). I do my best to engage with those decisions when describing what a character is going through, thinking, feeling, saying. One of the ways a book comes to feel unique and true, and therefore alive, is by thoroughly and consistently engaging with its own terms. But this book isn’t inviting you to step into the skin of a boy who has uncovered a corpse, and live what that must be like, because I don’t think that is a singular experience. The world of this book is absurd, surreal, scary, and sincere. Everything that happens is shaped by those characteristics.

This question touches something at the heart of this book, though. The Job of the Wasp is very skeptical of our ability to perceive or communicate what is happening with another person, or what they’re going through, thinking, or feeling, and why. If anything, it’s about the terror of detecting the distance between the life that surrounds us and our limited ability to perceive and respond to it. I have these limited tools and this narrow psychology, and yet I am impacted daily by external forces that exceed those things and demand some kind of response. It’s a beautiful part of living, the cause to remain open and changing and growing, but it can also be terrifying and difficult. Enter this horror novel, in which the narrator urgently and obsessively tries to understand what is happening to him, and why, so that he might come up with some kind of proper response to it. To me, that can be what it feels like to be alive.

I would be skeptical of any book that claimed to be a 100% accurate depiction of a specific experience—which isn’t to say one’s experience doesn’t matter. Every individual brings something unique and important to their work, and as such, experience gives one an incredibly valuable set of resources from which to draw on. The more books written and published and celebrated by writers with different backgrounds, the more we’re able to see, and the more ways we have of seeing. This is one of the many reasons diversity in publishing is essential.

RK: Your work seems to be in direct conversation with worlds we usually think of as cinematic, like horror movies and westerns. Conversely, what non-narrative artworks inspire you?

CW: The paintings of Agnes Martin.


Reid Kurkerewicz is a journalist, poet and author living in Madison, WI. He is currently writing a novel about a goose in the garden of Eden. His poetry has appeared in Sea Foam Mag, and his fiction has been published in Watersoup and Placeholder Magazine

At the altar of creative thinking: A Conversation with Dorothea Lasky by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.



Dorothea Lasky is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, Milk (Wave Books, 2018), as well as ROME (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2014) and Thunderbird, Black Life, AWE, all out from Wave Books. She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013) and several chapbooks, including Snakes (Tungsten Press, 2018) and Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she co-directs Columbia Artist/Teachers and is the Director of Undergraduate Studies. She lives in New York City.


Do not deny,
Do not deny, thing out of thing.
Do not deny in the new vanity
The old, original dust.

    — Laura Riding, from “Incarnations”

Lauren R. Korn: There’s a repetition in Milk that, I think, mirrors both your subject matter—the persistence of [making] a human life, a baby—but also that of the writing process: repetition until inception, as it were. Do you see these repetitions as being similar? I’m curious, too, as to whether Milk has always been a collection of poems, or whether the book has been, at any point in your writing process, a single long poem. (Again, I’m speaking to the collection’s recurring images.)

Dorothea Lasky: Thank you for noticing all of these things. The book was never one long poem, but I did mean for the repetition in the book to suggest a kind of cohesive, one long poem feel, but I did also want the book to feel like a set of discrete poems. Like so many other poets lately, I have been thinking a lot about the connections between the essay form and the form of a poem. In earlier versions of the book, I had essays included alongside the poems, but then decided to take them out, something I feel now was the right decision. However, I think the book has elements of the essay in its type of repetition. It comes back to ideas, imagery, and language as a way to emphasize them. The book has an iterative structure, versus a trajectory of progressing anywhere in particular. I’ve always been somewhat against the idea that poems have to have arguments and I think the more books I write, the more my poems mirror this belief. As in making anything (babies or poems), the process of creativity is about coming back to something you’ve technically “done before” and seeing if you can do it again, perhaps better, or at least in a new or different way.

LRK: At certain moments in Milk, I was reminded of Ariana Reines’ Mercury—both books see women’s bodies held up against technology, the subsequent perception of those bodies through technology’s lens, but also in spite of it; there is, too, the idea of poems holding or being spiritual objects; and I think both collections speak to a kind of modern romanticism and lyricism. How do you view poetry as a part of or being the core of your spirituality (if, indeed, you hold such a belief)?

DL: Thank you so much of comparing Milk to Mercury. I love the similarities you have found between them and would love to think more about them. I do think of poetry as a core of my spiritual belief, in so much as in anything, poetry is a way to record everyday life and make it important. The last few months I have been thinking a lot about the purpose of a life and the point of art making, and feeling very sad and hopeless as I circle around these ideas, particularly as the cruelties of the world and humanity rise more and more to the surface. I think of course that ideas of purpose or the point are distractions for living and for spirituality, and for poetry, too. I guess that in so much that poetry is like any human process, it is spiritual. I think poetry can transform and transcend, but it doesn’t have to. In this way, I hold Poetry up like a god.

LRK: Another aesthetic similarity I see between Milk and Mercury is their use of illustrations between sections. Is visual art a regular part of your creative practice? How do you see your illustrations pursuing clarity—or obscurity—in Milk?

DL: I am very much a frustrated visual artist with zero talent or skill. This manifests in my everyday life in terms of fashion, as I am a somewhat obsessive collector of costume jewelry. I would say that the visual worldand my experience of itis at least of equal importance to poetry to me, if not more important. When I was working on Milk, I wanted to work a bit against the idea of typical section breaks in contemporary books, which again suggest some sort of linear progression, as when they use Roman numerals and suggest an ordering of elements. I thought that having images versus words or numbers might help me find my own way of organizing the book, so I created my own images that felt like they represented the book and its sections. The images are meant to give the book an occult element, as I feel that the visual world is tied closely with the possibility of another world, with our literal vision obscuring other alternative ones. I drew the images with inspiration from sacred symbols, ideas of weather and atmosphere, and other divinatory materials. It was my hope that Milk might look a little bit like a spellbook.

LRK: How has motherhood changed your relationships to or with other women? Do you see that change reflected in Milk and/or your current poetics?

DL: Thank you for linking this conversation between Rachel Zucker and Sarah Manguso. I have a vague memory of hearing about it many years ago (I see it came out in 2009), but I don’t think I ever read it in full or much of it at all until now. It’s quite amazing to read it and think about what parts of it I relate to now and then what parts I do not. It reminds me a bit of a conversation I had with Sheila Heti, right before her book Motherhood came out and right before Milk was released this spring, which was just recently published by Propeller Magazine and can be found here. Except that conversation felt very different, both the experience of having it and the air which surrounded it, and seemed to feel much more about our books specifically than us as people and the choices we’ve made in our own lives. That conversation felt wildly intimate for a brief time, despite us never having actually met, and I sincerely can say it was a great moment in my life to talk to someone as magical and brilliant as Sheila Heti about her book, a moment of communion for me. 

That being said, I don’t think Milk has changed my relationship with other women. Not that it is the same thing, but I don’t think that being a mother has either, maybe sadly. I don’t have a lot of close friends, female or otherwise, and motherhood itself has isolated me further into a solitary path where I feel I have less and less people to talk to or hang out with, which feels extra lonely as it feels like it could be an opportunity for things not to be this way, as motherhood has definitely made me a more loving person. Or least my perception makes me feel so, for whatever that’s worth. I do long for more conversations with people and for more real friends.

But then again, here I am talking about real life and Milk is not real. I think if anything my current poetics has maybe nothing to do with other women. But then when I say that it seems ridiculous as the book itself is absolutely for other mothers, so that they wouldn’t feel lonely if motherhood was not exactly what they were told it would be. It certainly wasn’t for me, as my first baby was born three months early and as her life hung in the balance, I searched for poetry books to help me through it. Milk is meant to be a gesture of love for mothers who need itwho need a poetry book that is a friend during a hard timefor them to get their power back. It’s meant to be an offering, which is what I’d like my poetics to always be.

LRK: Milk seems to be, at many points in its pages, in conversation with or utilizing confessional poetry, acting as record(s) of your cognitive space (even though so much of your poetic imagery reflects exterior space). What is your relationship to confessional poetry?

DL: I guess I would say that I love confessional poetry, but not necessarily the term confessional. Or more so, my associations with it, which involves a sense of misogyny. I feel that the frame of confessionalism is always somehow saying it is un-poetic to discuss the self in a poem, when I feel all poems involve the self as a lived-in necessity. I think poems involve the self and the body, as the two are so deeply intertwined in a poet, alongside all of the outside forces interacting with these two things. But I think that the main argument I have with the term confessionalism is again that having a self and all its messes in a poem is essentially unearthing a taboo. A self itself isn’t ever a taboo—it’s just that some readers want to read about certain selves more than others. But no, I do think the self and the body are one thing, in a poem and in everything. And because they are one thing, they become simply portents for the poem to hang on to.

LRK: Your collection, Black Life, bears the epigraph “NO MILK / BLACK LIFE,” which you attribute to Laura Solomon. Upon reading Milk, this epigraph sprang to mind. Do you see these two collections—and the collections that make up your oveure, broadly—speaking to one another?

DL: I love you for noticing this—thank you! They are meant to absolutely be in conversation with each other, as Black Life, is about nihilism and the annihilism of self that happens with death, when there is no milk left to give that can save you. It was written as my father was dying from Alzheimer’s and during that time, I was thinking a lot about what parts of our selves exist beyond this lifetime.

I stole the quotation to start the book, as around that time, Laura Solomon and another artist were playing a game where they gave people those two lines and asked them to think about what they first imagined when they heard them. Then I think the idea was to create something out of whatever one thought of first. At least that’s how I heard the prompt. When I did this exercise, in my imagination, I immediately saw a mother and son, in a room bathed in green light, with an empty Milk container. The boy’s smile is sinister and directed at the viewer. He knows that life can be ruthless and that death is mean.

When I had my daughter, because she was a preemie, right after she was born I needed to pump breast milk to help her start to live outside of my body. I remember the nurse coming up to my room right after I had her and taking down tiny drops of colostrum to the NICU, as that was all it was going to take to jumpstart her tiny body. I saw the power I always had, but never knew I had, to save a life. It was in these moments that I remembered Laura Solomon’s line, “No Milk,” and immediately saw milk as a sort of symbol for the lifeforce, for the power of creativity.

I see all of my books in conversation with each other. I put poems in each of them that reference the other ones in various ways. As a poet, I see my life as the writing of one long book.

LRK: How has publishing changed your relationship to poetry? Do you see that change reflected in Milk?

DL: Although my first book, AWE, came out about 11 years ago now, I still continue to feel grateful to have people who publish my work. It was difficult getting my first book published, as I had entered every first book contest ever for years before Wave Books published it. There was a sort of rigidity and reticence, I think, that my poems developed in response to this, as I really did feel that my work was being judged coldly and ruthlessly constantly, like being on a perpetual first date with poetry readers. But once AWE was published, I started to let my guard down a bit and I think my voice changed from there. I saw the intimacy and depth of care that existed between me and real living readers, and my love for them poured out into my poems. I see Milk as being a sort of pinnacle of this love.

LRK: Milk is strewn with color. I know the cloth edition of Milk is green, but I’m curious: do you consider green the color of the book? (I think I would say the book is blue.) If I were to ask you about the tonal color of the book, would you have a different answer? (I think I would say the book is orange, tonally.)

DL: I love this question! Yes, I do think of the book as green, actually. I know I mentioned the green light in my Black Life image earlier. The strangeness of green has long been an obsession of mine. I think even close to 20 years ago, or maybe even longer, I started thinking about how much green can change a poem or a picture and how this relates to common ideas of green, that it represents health and renewal. I think of plants as holy things and related to life-giving, which relates to Milk’s theme as well. But although I instinctively trust that plants are “good things” they aren’t always and they are actually very odd and represent the weirdness of being alive in the world. Anyway, I’d say the green I think that is the book is related to all of these ideas and is the green of the cloth edition of it. I love that you think the book is blue and would love to hear more why you think so. The color it is tonally is especially a very interesting question. Tonally, I might say it is yellow ochre, which I guess in many ways is close to orange. I’d love to ask this question of other books sometime and discuss it with you.

LRK: Ha, I would love to do that, too!

My next questions are my attempts to ask you questions you may (read: probably definitely) have answered at some point in your life, but which I’m hoping you haven’t answered in an interview capacity. (Thanks, Jack Spicer.)

Write about how the fall of Rome affected modern poetry.

DL: Do you mean modern poetry, as in Modernism or contemporary poetry? I feel like the fall of Rome has affected nearly everything about contemporary culture, either maybe or definitely unfortunately. The idea of Rome is a cloud that absolutely informs life in America. I think the myth of Ancient Rome itself shapes American poetry immensely, not by the use of its imagery, which can be oppressive and silly when used incorrectly, but in its syntax and relationship to the power dynamic between the persona and the reader.

LRK: How do you see that power dynamic playing itself out?

DL: There is something definitely frightening but potentially exhilarating about the way power displays itself in American English. The kind of speech and writing we are taught in schools here and the kind of syntax we favor is heavily simplistic, stylized, and staccato. Our syntax is militaristic and the language of Ancient Rome was too, just in its own way. Of course, I do feel any sense of grammar and all its formalities is possibly militaristic in any language, but I hesitate to make a generalization like that because I am (obviously, ha) not a linguist. I think the idea of grammar itself is violent, as it seeks to control new language. That’s why poets are so important, because we resist this violence with the beauty of our creations.

LRK: You’re probably hating the commas I’m adding to your responses. Always in copy-edit mode... Sorry!

DL: No, thank you! I hate punctuation in general, except maybe a sexy colon making a title all formal-looking or a period piercing the air. I think I may have taken at least one of your commas out already.

LRK: Ha. Good. I tend to over-punctuate, anyway. ...What constellation do you most resemble?

DL: Probably most people who know me would say Andromeda, but I wish they’d say Draco. The truth is probably Volans. What about you?

LRK: Today, I feel like I most resemble Cygnus. It’s always looked like a shrugging torso to me, like the shrugging emoji or emoticon. Not to say I’m ambivalent or uncaring. I’m willing to admit ignorance. All of this has little to do with its mythology, but… Why do you say you most truly resemble Volans?

DL: Because I’m wily. I love yours!

LRK: Ha, thank you. I'm interested in the story of Leucippus and my etymological namesake, Daphne: my interpretation is kind of a stretch, but I guess I identify with a want to resist stasis. I feel, too, that I’m loyal, which seems like a kind of stasis, actually.

DL: It makes sense! Also, I can see why you think of loyalty and stasis as being connected. It definitely feels that way to stick by someone or something, no matter what. But I think of loyalty as something so positive, and stasis has a depressing tone to it. Perhaps I think of loyalty as a choice.

LRK: Good point. I guess the stasis I attempt to resist is that of identity. I listened recently to an interview with the writer Jesse Ball, who said, “I think it’s much more pleasurable…to go through life dynamically altering who you are and how you feel about things.”

DL: I love this idea and I totally agree with it. Just as Dickinson said, “We both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.” It’s impossible to stay the same forever.

LRK: What card from the Tarot deck represents the absolute of your desires? The absolute of your fears?

DL: I always get a little jolt when I get the Ace of Wands. I’m always terrified when I get The Tower, even though I know rationally it can be a positive card given the circumstance.

LRK: Do you remember a circumstance under which drawing The Tower proved positive for you?

DL: Eek, I don’t! It has always been bad, to be honest.

LRK: I had my tarot read by the poet Hoa Nguyen in February, and my circumstance mirrored her own so exactly—moving to Canada for the furthering of a partner’s career—that when she said she’d drawn The Tower before packing up her life, I was certain I was in for your aforementioned terror. (I was lucky: no such Tower-terror arrived, but my four-card spread did include the Five of Pentacles.)

DL: Oh, I am so glad you didn’t get it! I remember once, a long time ago, I had a Sagittarius boyfriend who was moving from his old apartment to a new life, and he painted some symbol of his own making that represented to him a kind of rebirth right on his old wall. When he showed me the painting, he seemed pleased and explained how important this idea was to him. I’ve always thought his explanation was like the way people try to make you feel better about The Tower card when you get a reading. They will say, “Oh no, don’t worry, out of destruction comes rebirth.” I’ve never trusted that idea completely. I love zero destruction at all times and just moving on, not tearing the whole thing down before you go.

LRK: You’re so definitive! I love that. I feel like it’s not just tarot card readers that consider destruction as a means to rebirth. Nietzsche (“I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those that cross over”), T.S. Eliot (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”), Anne Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, the list goes on and on. I suppose, though, that the poet is a kind of tarot card reader—there is a lot of overlap in the hypothetical Venn diagram. Eliot even wrote of the tarot in The Waste Land, “with a wicked pack of cards.”

DL: Or as Plath said in “Daddy”: “And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack.”

LRK: (I’ll take your Plath quote over my Eliot quote any day.)

DL: I think poets are absolutely spiritual workers, dealing in divinatory objects, which are in their case, poems. Although I think that this connection sometimes serves to mystify the role of a poet in society even further than it is already. I personally think it should make it clearer. People sometimes want the work of poetry to be all brain and part of a linear, cerebral process, when it is more complicated than that and involves the most holy type of thinking of allcreativity. The brain itself is the greatest divinatory object of all. I guess, who knows, but I myself worship at the altar of creative thinking.

LRK: Like thousands (343K+) of other Twitter users, I follow you and Alex Dimitrov: the Astro Poets (@poetastrologers). It’s so clear to me the influence poetry and astrology can have on one another, but I’m wondering how becoming a ‘poet astrologer’ has changed your poetic process not on or via Twitter.

DL: Thank you for following us! I feel that I have always had an interest in the ways in which poetry and the spiritual world interact, so I am not sure that Astro Poets has changed this about my poetic process or poetry writing. I remember when I started getting really obsessed with astrology, almost 20 years ago now, a friend asked me, “Since you like it so much, will you start putting more astrology into your poems?” I remember how confused I was by this question, only because I believe in the idea of emergence when it comes to writing poems and I don’t go into a poem thinking I am going to write ‘about’ anything. But writing with Alex for our Twitter, our columns at W Magazine, and the book we are writing together, we do have to write ‘about’ astrology and poetry, so I guess I’d say that the Twitter has affected my idea of writing for these types of forums, which as a poet I didn’t consider as seriously, as they weren’t available to me in the same way. I’d say for sure that writing for Astro Poets has affected my sense of the scope of prose and what kinds of prose writing I am interested in doing in the years to come.

LRK: Can you elaborate on this idea of prose and scope?

DL: Aside from Astro Poets, I’ve had some opportunities in the past five years that have opened up the idea that I could write prose in some form and not be limited to just writing poems. I am currently finishing a book of lectures on poetry, which should be out in the coming months. After that, I hope to finish at least one other book of prose. Also, I’ve written a few prose pieces lately for online publications (which you can find here and here), and I’d love to do more writing like this in the near future.

LRK: And I cannot wait to read more writing like that in the near future!

You recently took part in a residency at Mount Analogue. What does a Twitter residency mean to you? How are you navigating the digital space, and how is it different than how you might approach a physical or place-based residency? This is not to say that digital space does not have a ‘placeness.’

DL: I loved doing this residency! The people who run Mount Analogue are so nice and I think it is such a fabulous idea to invite visitors to occupy a digital space in this way. I have never been to a formal residency in a ‘place’ and would love to go to one sometime, so I am not sure how it is different. But I would assume that there would be something very different, as no matter how much the digital landscape occupies our imaginations and actual beings, it was different to post on the Twitter during a regular day of everyday life, versus the idea of going and being somewhere for a long time. When I did my posts at Mount Analogue, I thought about creating a cohesiveness to what I was writing. I think Twitter lends itself to this. When you have a Twitter account, you sort of have to have a theme or else people might get confused. If it’s an individual person’s Twitter, then the theme can, of course, just be that person’s performance of themselves, like the way a persona performs their mask in a collection of poems or across a poet’s work. My residency got me thinking about all kinds of other Twitters one could create to give poetry more attention by Twitter users.

LRK: Astro Poets seems like one such Twitter account, giving poetry a ‘mainstream’ spotlight.

My next question exists purely because I have you “on the line.” In “Astrological Sign Poem,” published in LitHub, you write, “Capricorn, you are nothing if not hell.” I’m a Capricorn and identify strongly with this line, but can you to parse your sentiment for me and for Adroit readers?

DL: It’s hard to completely explain it. I’ll just say that Capricorns love lushness and hell is certainly nothing if not lush.

LRK: A love of “lushness.” I’m so glad I’ve attempted to curb my questions for you; I’m prone to asking questions with long explanations.

What is the last book you purchased, and where did you purchase it?

DL: R E D by Chase Berggrun. I got it from the poet at Mark Cugini and Layne Ransom’s engagement reading. It’s fantastic and everyone should buy it immediately!

LRK: One last request: please give this interview an epigraph.


Lauren R. Korn is a poet and graphic designer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She is the Director of Content for The Adroit Journal and will be an M.A. student of Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick this fall. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming.

Groundshift: A Conversation with Jos Charles by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.


 Photo credit: Cybele Knowles

Photo credit: Cybele Knowles

Jos Charles is a poet, translator, editor, and author of feeld (Milkweed Editions, 2018), a winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series, and Safe Space (Ahsahta Press, 2016). Charles has an MFA from the University of Arizona and is pursuing a PhD in English at UC Irvine. She currently resides in Long Beach, CA.


Brad Trumpfheller: Hello! How are you?

Jos Charles: Hi Brad! I’m good, how are you?

BT: I’m good! Could have slept better, but at this point that’s not a deviation from the normal.

JC: I wish there was an easy solution to that. It’s a life of perpetual under sleep, bad eating habits, and just, coping.

BT: That’s very, very real. What does your day look like today?

JC: Well, I’m starting in the fall at UC Irvine for a PhD in English with a focus on Medieval Literature, and I got summer funding contingent on going to these professionalization workshops and orientation.

BT: Are you finding the time, in the midst of getting ready for the PhD and everything, to keep up some sort of writing practice?

JC: Probably not writing in the sense of creating new work every day. I have a newer manuscript that’s not done, but it’s to the point where I am editing it every day.

BT: You know, I wasn’t planning to start with the newer stuff, but I’m excited: do you want to talk at all about this newer manuscript?

JC: Yeah! I guess after writing feeld, a couple of things... I found that I was liking the process of observing things and writing about them, which occurs a lot in feeld. There’s a lot of particularizing that happens in the book, but also these general statements that Safe Space had a lot of. So with this newer work, it’s a bit less of, like, analysis as much as it is looking at things and the relationships between them, whether that be the so-called natural, the metropolitan, or the political.

When I was in the voice that is feeld—and I think this is just what happens after working on something for a few years—I was at the point where I wanted to write straightforward poems. Poems that weren’t part of some constricted, conceptual project that feeld very much was. Though there’s some underlying conceptual work happening in this project, in that it’s following a one year period, 2016. It was a weird year.

BT: Yeah, that’s very, very true.

JC: For everyone, right? But there was also a lot of personal things. Financial stuff, I had a few friends who were hospitalized. And then the election happened. Also, I was in Tuscon at the time, and the mountain that overlooked the city was on fire, and then I moved back to LA in the middle of the year, when all those fires were going on. Everything was quite actually on fire. I keep on returning to figure out what happened in that time. It feels like it was a significant year. You know, there are those periods to which we return, these dates that impact beyond themselves, and 2016 felt like that for me, personally. So, I’m charting that, this new timeline that’s opened up. It’s like you know, in sci-fi, when the dark timeline breaks into the regular timeline: we’re in the underbelly timeline now. There was a rift in the curtain, then the Demigorgon came in.

BT: Haha, exactly. Were you still working on feeld in 2016, or had you pretty much wrapped it up?

JC: By then I was more or less finished with what would be feeld. I started writing some of the work that I’d consider part of this newer manuscript, though that’s all been heavily edited or scrapped by this point in the process. There was some period of overlap. I would be writing these newer things alongside the, like, exiting from feeld. But yeah, feeld was mostly written between like, the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2015, I’d say.

BT: Was there any similar kind of overlap in the progression, or not progression, but the movement from the poems in Safe Space to writing feeld?

JC: The expression I’ve used before for Safe Space is that it’s the early collected works. It spans a gamut of, like, eight years, I think. And I did edit a lot of it. At one point there was a manuscript that looked one way, and I submitted that around; it didn’t get in anywhere. I left it, started new work, just like considered it... I don’t know. Like Brahms, light it on fire and this will never happen again, you know? And then in that new work, I was seeing these connections back to what I had written in undergrad. So I sat down,  revisiting a lot of it. Even the work that came out of that period that’s in there, it’s all severely edited. Then that would eventually become Safe Space, which I compiled in 2014. There was a gap in the writing process, this big gap, between the writing of Safe Space and feeld. But in terms of publication, it was pretty back to back.

BT: Gotcha. This is a super general question, but I wanna circle back to something you said earlier, that “voice of feeld,” and just the notion of considering it a unified voice. Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at that voice, with its apparent weirdnesses in the spelling and syntaxes?

JC: So there’s a number of different things. Let me try and sort of chart what I was feeling, and walk concentrically around it, hopefully finding the center by the time I’m done.

Growing up, my first introduction to poetry was early modern poets—Shakespeare, Milton. The first real poet who I really liked, whose collected poems I went to go buy from the used bookstore was John Donne.

BT: “John Donne had everything going for him in terms of identity and was a miserable shit baby.”

JC: Haha, exactly. God, that poem was so long back when I wrote it. I’m glad it got edited down. But, yeah, who I was thinking of in terms of the orthography, the spelling, was Spenser. That beginning of the standardization of spelling, and what that means, what that says about the world moving from the oral, the aural, from the public, to something that is meant to be read in private, in silence. Which is a new thought. A new thought for what poetry would be in Western Europe. So you go from public space to the private home. And so there was this thought, that had to happen in order for standardized spelling to come to exist as it did. Which something like the printing press would facilitate further.

I was also thinking about, after Safe Space, that I like the internet, am a true millennial. I love text speak. So I kept trying to get text speak in a poem that didn’t seem disingenuously trendy. Because I enjoyed it. I like the interpretive possibilities it opens up. And also it’s just how we talk.

There’s also this discourse in queer and trans communities, that was happening online, where suddenly using the correct terminology became indicative of what subcultural sphere you belonged to, or were speaking about. Where like, oh, I know to say “trans women and femmes” as opposed to “MTF transsexuals.” People wanted to find the right thing to say, which is good, you know. But then there are these questions of like, who has access to it and who doesn’t?

BT: Sure, sure.

JC: It was in part dictated by whether or not you had internet access, who has time to be one hundred percent updated, every day.

So out of these things I’ve been walking around, I had the thought that it would be cool to have some sort of language that didn’t seek to situate itself as corrective, nor did it ironically break into incorrectness. The very idea was to write not a world situated adjacent to ours that was speculative, but to have the language itself be speculative. One of the ways I thought about it, or how I described it to myself, because at the time I was finishing up Safe Space, was to have something I could say to myself before sitting down to write, to like orient myself to whatever particular project I was working on. So for feeld it was “What if the Wife of Bath was trans?” How would language have developed differently?

And of course it’s nonsense in one sense. And it’s just unknowable. But it was a way for me to frame myself to this question, if language had taken a slightly different turn to accommodate certain kinds of experiences, yet we wound up where we are today. How would language be failing us and how would it be succeeding us? As I started writing it, certain things fell by the wayside, and certain things would fall more into focus. I was tinkering away at the marble to find the shape of what the book would eventually become. For the speculative side, I was initially conceiving it very much in line with something like Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, which is a more literal speculative work. But things came about in writing it; like I came into the treatise-like quality of it, where it enters a phenomenological kind of language. I wasn’t expecting that; I wandered into that.

BT: There’s so much you said that I want to ask you about! One thing I’m thinking about now is sort of the way, in certain kinds of contemporary discourse, queer and trans people are sort of categorized or prescribed as being predominantly younger, that queerness is some kind of new phenomenon. Which of course is not true. But I think about how Safe Space spoke back to that by inhabiting the space of juvenellia, and then how feeld might, like, embody the impossibility of that anachronism on the level of these formal things we’re talking about.

JC: Yeah, that’s a nice kind of trajectory. I’ve thought about that kind of thing for both works separately, but I like that way of drawing a connection between them.

BT: When you were talking earlier about Spenser and that groundshift in English language poetics that happened, I was wondering about feeld’s relationship to that duality of the written and the spoken. There’s a very different kind of experience, and they’re both valuable, but there’s a different experience in hearing these particular poems read aloud and reading them on the page, and how the audience experiences that speculative language. How do you navigate those kinds of distinctions?

JC: Right. I try to think about readings as their own life. To me, it’s no different than, for the purposes of analogy, a score for a piece of music. The performances can have such a large range of variety. You can play it very slow or you can play it very fast, and people will probably still recognize it. At some point you hit unintelligibility, when people will say, “No, you just played Drake, that’s not the same thing!” And maybe that’s helpful to do, I don’t know. It’d be kind of fun, though, to have a big bougie concert and you play Drake. Then the point becomes being unrecognizable to an audience. But as long as you’re within the realm of “acceptable” interpretation, as long as it’s still intelligible as the thing it presents as, then it’s all good. When I do readings, I try to think about what people are there for, what would be useful in that context. Depending on the audience, depending on what I’m reading for, it varies. Usually I try to highlight intelligibility. 

BT: Was that at all something you were thinking about in the process of editing feeld? Like, did you have any moments where you were concerned with readers being unable to make sense of the poems?

JC: For me, the poet is the first reader. You hear the work first. You have to edit then as that reader, asking if the work makes sense, if it’s useful, to you. But the question of, is this useful to other readers not like me is a question of publication. It becomes, at some point, a question of how the work is to exist, circulate, in the world.

There was a time when I thought about it much more. But now, I have a surety that I’ve found for myself as a reader, not just myself as a writer. And once I found that, I found this faith that there are other readers like me who my work could also be useful for. But y’know, that’s ultimately for readers to decide, not me.

BT: Sure, sure, sure. That’s interesting. I feel like I asked that question, and then like, the other voice in my head was immediately unsure about its use, like, of course the poems don’t need to be “understood” by everyone who reads it, whatever that means.

JC: Haha, and that’s the thing, right? What does it mean to understand something? If I look at it as a piece of art and it causes pleasure, or it reminds me of something in a nostalgic kind of way, or gives me some flush of happiness, or I am challenged by it, whatever response I have to it—that’s fine, I’m just not preoccupied with the level of meaning. I’m stuck on what is the work doing, in an active way. And if it’s not doing anything, that can be fine too.

BT: I think, sort of going off these question of availability, or access, I wanted to ask you about this author’s note that got shipped with the ARC of feeld. I guess its kind of a stupid logistical question, but what I have is just two or three printed pages stapled together and tucked into the front cover of the book. Is this going to be a part of the book that will be in bookstores and what not?

JC: No, it’s not going to be in the book at all. I wrote that to be—initially when I was sending the book around—an abstract for the book. You know, for blurbs or reviews, or whatever, if they didn’t have time to read the whole thing. I also made a trailer for it, which is out in the world. But it won’t be in the copy people can purchase. I had thought about including it, but sort of decided that it attempted to explain what the book was doing. I do like it, though.

BT: Yeah, I really enjoyed reading it! I found it a cool little accompaniment to the book. But now I feel bad for talking about this text that someone reading this doesn’t have. 

JC: No, no, I think it’s good; it’s going to have a life in the world, so it’s something worth talking about. I do like that they folded it up and slipped it in the book, I may have them do that for all of them. But that may be too enormous an amount of labor for such little payoff.

BT: It’s an enormous payoff, though I don’t envy being those marketing interns. I feel like I’m bridging outside of the book itself, the poems themselves, now, but I did want to ask you about the acknowledgements, if only because I was very drawn to you naming Paul Celan specifically as a forebear. Can I ask how you see Celan in conversation with feeld, or with your poems more generally?

JC: I like Celan, I like his poems a lot. There is something technically, on the level of the word, beyond thematics or anything, that I’m drawn to in his work. Repetition, the economy of language. The way that turning outward towards an object can be an opening rather than a closing. How his poems can be so highly personal but not anecdotal. Which I think something like feeld—and Safe Space, too, maybe in a longer format—also has. Like you don’t leave either book with a sense, I think, that you’ve gotten memoir. The personality of the “I” is not the focal point. And yeah, in feeld, there’s a bit more of a lyric “I,” there’s very little overlap with my “I” beyond like an analogical sense. So, there’s that impulse we share. Celan will have poems that include events that happened. Like I’m thinking when he visited Heidegger’s hut, Todtnauberg, the one that begins with the well that’s shaped like a star. And becomes about “Celan’s” self, but only as much as that’s a weight pressing onto the poem, it doesn’t come with an explanation. You don’t need one. And of course, none of this is to make any kind of lineage, between Celan and me, any biographical or psychological comparisons. Only in terms of what I learned from his work that I try to apply, that I hope, technically, comes across in the poems. Does that make sense?

BT: It does, it does.

JC: It’s a difficult question to fully answer, I think, but it’s a good one to ask.

BT: We’ve been chatting for about forty minutes, so I do think we’re nearing the end, but is there anything else you’d like to talk about? We began with what you’re working on now, so the anti-chronology of all this is in full affect now.

JC: I can definitely talk about some of the things I’d recommend, what’s been exciting to me right now. Jamie Berrout has these wonderful translations of Esdras Parra, as well this wonderful group (Trans Women Writing Collective) she’s an editor for, where you sign up and every month you get a new booklet of writing by a trans woman. It’s a fantastic series. And Incalcuable Loss by manuel arturo abreu is available for pre-order—it’s sure to be a beautiful, gracious work.


Brad Trumpfheller is a writer & bookseller from the South, currently living in Boston. With Nabila Lovelace, they are the co-editor of Divedapper. Their work has appeared in or is forthcoming from DIAGRAMColorado ReviewWest Branch, the Nation, and elsewhere. 

Conversations with Contributors: Kayleb Rae Candrilli by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.


 Kayleb Rae Candrilli, author of  What Runs Over  (YesYes Books, 2017) and contributor to Issues  Twenty  and  Twenty-Four .

Kayleb Rae Candrilli, author of What Runs Over (YesYes Books, 2017) and contributor to Issues Twenty and Twenty-Four.

Kayleb Rae Candrilli is author of What Runs Over with YesYes Books, which was a 2017 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender poetry. Candrilli is published or forthcoming in TriQuarterly Review, Cream City Review, Bettering American Poetry, and many others. You can read more here.


Rachel Franklin Wood: I'm so excited to begin this interview with you. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me. If at any point I ask you about something that you don't want to address, please say so. I'm happy to redirect.

I've read and reread What Runs Over leading up to our conversation, and having this collection as a companion has carried me through the rough first weeks of spring. I don't mean to report that this is a comforting read. Yet, as I read, I felt myself settle into what felt like an old friendship in which intimacy and candor and shared history function in equal parts. Before we begin, I want to take the opportunity to thank you for writing this tremendously generous book and setting it loose in the world.

For a collection so honest, so transparent, I'm struck by the presence of absence in What Runs Over. For example, in the opening poem, you write,

my daddy almost pumped me full
of lead.                 my daddy almost left me
                            so ask me why I hate animals

With the omission of the expected rhyme of "dead," you draw more attention to what is being implied than what is explicit. What role does absence play in your work? What do you omit, consciously or otherwise?

Kayleb Rae Candrilli: This is a super good question, and one I’m happy you asked. I think absence and omission operate in a few ways in WRO. In the case of the omitted rhyme “dead,” I think I am trying to do a few things: build tension, yes, but also let readers know that I will never be willing (or able, for that matter) to give them the whole story. The ways in which I’ve dissociated from my own memories are powerful, and, of course, part of the reason I’ve been able to move forward at all. Sometimes, when I omit, or redirect, or redact, I am trying to protect myself/&/or my family. It’s not always tethered to a consideration of craft. Sometimes, I just don’t want to remember how close my father was to killing me, my mother, my sister.

On page 58 I redact visually and “black out” what my sister was wearing at the DHR office. I did this in one part because I don’t remember what she wore. But I also redacted this way to protect her. I did this to exert control and feel as though, as an older sibling, I could still exhibit some protective qualities—even though my whole childhood was without agency, and truly, I couldn’t protect her at all. Much of this book is just a clamoring to retroactively claim agency.

In early drafts of WRO I had much more visually redacted. I remember bringing in a few early pages to a workshop at the University of Alabama and a peer used an electronic version of the pages to look underneath the redactions, and they found long strings of periods and slashes and underscores. In the moment, I felt so invaded by that action, but it also helped me understand the ways in which I was coping with my trauma, or, maybe more accurately, not coping.

After that, I really started to use surrealism to reclaim the memories. On page 83 I write:

as a child i made lists / i made lists of meat and meaty parts / my mother would caldron catch me stirring rabbit’s feet, my dog’s clipped toe nails, beaks of turkey and grouse, the liver of a fawn daddy killed out of season / daddy’d say, the young ones are so tender / and i’d keep stirring and my mother started to worry that i wasn’t getting enough sun, that all the meat i ate was just a little too green to be good / she said what’s wrong with you and i poured her an elixir / i said here mommy, this is for you and me, it will invisible us, it will make daddy wonder where we’ve gone to / mommy, this is the good drink / she humored me, took the glass-vialed potion and put it on a shelf of birthday party sand arts / and it sat there and it sat there and it rotted through the glass and it acid tore through each floor and me and mommy lava jumped through the living room right before the whole damn house burnt down with daddy still in it / and after i took mommy’s hand, said, pointing to only ash, see? invisible.

There is no lava in rural Pennsylvania, but there is heroin addiction, and domestic abuse, and an undying desire to escape. I don’t have to tell you that life would have been easier with my father dead. I don’t have to tell you that I wanted the heroin to take him—or that the house never burnt down. You already know that.

But all the omission, the redactions, the reclamation of memory through surrealism, is how all of this trauma can live inside of me without consuming all the good stuff. And I’m so invested in the good.

RFW: In your answer, you’ve touched on something that I experienced during my time with WRO. For every instance of trauma, there are responding moments of exhilaration, joy even, at the experience of existing in your body. In this, what is “bad” and what is “good” become complicated, tangled. Perhaps my favorite moment of this occurs in the poem on page 17 in which young Kayleb violently rushes at deer, only to lie in the “dry-warm patches” of grass exposed after the animals scatter. Here, what is professed to be an aggressive act reveals what is hidden beneath bodies and what is revealed is beautiful and feels warm on the skin.

I understand that you are currently working on a new collection that allows for transness and joy to exist simultaneously. First, thank you. Second, is this new collection more anticipatory, more forward-thinking? Or will it return to moments in childhood where joy was present? Could it do one without the other?

KCR: I think the second collection, tentatively titled All the Gay Saints, intentionally strays from childhood. I needed a full departure from WRO in regards to content and tonal register. I needed that departure to grow as a writer, but also have some respite from writing about trauma.

So instead, All the Gay Saints, is, I believe, a book of trans boy love poems, to my partner, but also to my body—as you can see me think through the decision to get top surgery.

A poem that, I think, does work in both regards is “During my top surgery consultation, my partner says to the doctor, tell me what you will do to their veins.” Which is right here with Tinderbox if you want to check it out in full. But the last few couplets read:

I am scared
of my partner

being face to face with my blood
because I love them.

When we talk of the future, my future chest is as flat
as our future backyard. We plant

a lemon tree and it grows
even in winter.

This tone of hope is one I try to maintain and cultivate throughout All the Gay Saints. In this way, it feels like it’s a productive sequel to WRO. I joke a lot that the happiest part of WRO is seeing my author photo at the end, where I am grinning ear to ear. But really, it’s so exciting to be alive and to have lived and be living through it all. It was a contentious decision to make that my author photo. Young trans folx will read the book, and that’s the last thing they will see. I love that.

But to get back to the question, the new book names my partner my “future husband-wife” and runs that nomenclature throughout the book. So in a very textual, up-front kind of way, the book is anticipatory and thinking toward a future—a future where two gender non-conforming people are alive, and happy, and thriving outside of the pain that is so often prescribed to us by this world.

Childhood appears sometimes, but namely as a way to show how cool it is to be owning these bodies in the present. In “My horoscope is my future husband’s horoscope & we are both considering T” I write:

Husband, nothing is holy
like self-construction.

Our fathers built staircases & we are bringing
sledgehammers to our bodies so gently
only we can hear this pleasure.

There is nowhere to go
but into one another.

Something I’m aware of is the book’s (and my) participation in the social, capitalist, and hetro-patriarchal subscription to marriage. I believe that mine and my partners’ bodies do a lot to queer the institution of marriage but surely not, and perhaps never, enough. I think the future I reference so often will teach us how to productively queer the institution more once we are in it, but we will still be “in it.” It’s just something I recognize and would rather be forthright about. I, and we, are still learning, as queer people, how to mitigate our desire for marriage with the ethical hang-ups that inherently come hand-in-hand.

RFW: In both of the poems you've shared above, future seems to be a thing gently built by your own hands. My impression is that the future envisioned here could not manifest in an urban environment and exists, if only within the landscape of these poems, in a rural space. If in WRO you write of the violence and unpredictability of the rural, in these poems rural landscapes allow for the freedom to explore change. But in both WRO and these newer poems, I see creation of remarkably queer rural spaces in the inextricable relationships between body and environment. Can you speak some to your understanding of rural queerness? Does it have definable aesthetic?

KRC: This is perhaps one of the most nuanced and intuitive questions I’ve ever been asked. So, thank you for it.

Everything can be two things. Rural Pennsylvania can be where heroin addiction tore my family apart, it can be where animals were cruelly poached out of season, where I was beaten, etc. But it can also be where I first kissed another queer person, where I was shirtless in the forest alone and only worried about ticks, where I realized the trees didn’t care much about my gender, and maybe I shouldn’t either. It was all of those things simultaneously.

When you are inside of something, lost in something, it is hard to see where one begins and another ends. It’s taken me a while, but I don’t fault the land for the behavior of those who lived on it. I think that’s why my “future” is willing to inhabit a rural space, a rural space where two queer people will treat each other with gentleness and love and respect, a rural space where two queer people will grocery shop and a young trans kid will see us, and thusly see a possible future for themselves.

I reflect a lot on my time chopping wood, and how that performance of “masculinity” helped lead me through the conscious beginnings of my queerness, and how I also used it as a violent physical outlet to work through the trauma that was happening around and onto me. And, additionally, it was an act that kept my mother and sister warm during winter. It’s hard not to be thankful for that kind of physical work, when it yielded so much I still consider productive and fundamental to my personhood. I think that admiration and appreciation comes through in most of my poetry.

I think too, and your question gets to this, that rural space provides just that, space—both literal and figurative. There is room to be alone, room to spend time thinking about your body and your body’s relationship to the landscape. What you lose in all that space, of course, is seeing other bodies like yours. Rural queers are, rightfully, so hungry for representation.

I have a new poem and a sentence in it reads, “I believe strongly that had I known one trans person as a child I’d have half as many scars as an adult.” I believe that, but I also know said scars look more to me like the wet earth after a tree uproots, than a pothole in pavement. And that, after all this time I’ve spent healing, is beautiful and peaceful in its own right.

I guess what I wish for the future is that rural queer representation is more prevalent in all the artistic fields. I certainly write hoping that young rural trans folxs will find my work, and then find something to hold in it.

Sometimes, when I know I’m signing a book for someone who came up rural, I sign with something like “This landscape can’t keep us down.” And for me, that is the rural aesthetic. The rural aesthetic is saying “this landscape can’t keep us down” a million different ways, until we all really believe it.

RFW: What you've written about existing in a rural space as a queer person resonated with me and I hope to forgive my rural landscape in the same way that you have. The only way that I felt it possible to transition was to partition my lives, was to move, was to cut off communication. For many years, I equated rural to the closet, and, though nothing charges my spirit like Wyoming landscapes, being in that state has been in the past an act of silence. But recently, my two distinct identities have begun to join more frequently. The experience is often odd and anxiety-making, but the relief that has come in the joining has been tremendous. In it, I believe I've begun to allow others to really be with me. Not as I am on the page or in selfies, but as a physical body before them in that moment. Perhaps this will get me home again. I'd like if it would.

One thing I've realized in transition is that nearly everything I've held true about myself is tenuous and demands to be turned and turned again. With that exploration, transition becomes contradiction and frustrates my conception of self unless I allow for spontaneous, near constant re-calibration. If transition is contradiction, writing about transition is an effort to make movement tangible, and perhaps what I find most confounding about creating art from transition is that it grants rigidity to an amorphous and continual progress. What has been your experience of having WRO as a physical representation of your self in the world shaping the perceptions of others who may not personally know you? Do you think others look to it to understand trans identity as a whole? Should they?

KRC: I’m glad it resonated and I think a partition is so healthy. The end of WRO is in fact a marker of partition:

The last deer I reach for meets
the front of a metro north.

What is more of a partition than that?—the epitome of urban life, the metro north, crashing into a quintessential signifier of the American rural, the white-tailed deer. And though that partition helped me move forward, I am thankful for the ways it is currently dissolving, as it is helping me grow into a more honest version of myself.

But to your question, I wrote WRO as I was coming out as trans. It is written very much in a moment of realization and power and reclamation. That said, I think it’s very likely that some cis readers might mistake WRO for a text meant to understand a wholistic “trans identity.” I really hope they don’t. And I’m sure many cis readers will have the nuance and political awareness to understand that my body in one moment isn’t the end-all be-all of the trans identity—not even close. But I think trans readers are already so well versed in transition as amorphous and confounding that they won’t mistake WRO as anything more than a moment, a beginning of one person’s transition—a transition that will exist and last as long as my earthly body exists. There is no point A or point B, just a body chugging along.

I notice more from readers how the BDSM strains throughout WRO shape their perceptions of me. I think that may be just as dangerous a tendency as assuming I’m some ~trans~ monolith. Sexuality is just as fluid as gender, and it’s interesting to see people make assumptions about my sexuality/kinks/etc. with not much consideration of how time and new relationships and, in my case, less alcohol abuse can alter behavior and preference and a sex life. Again, there is just a body chugging along, and the things it wants are always shifting.

But to get back to writing about and through transition, I do find it important to write and then just move along. When I revise, I revise for craft and not for the content or the ways in which I handle my own body. It’s going to change. It’s going to keep changing. In that way it feels like a productive way to document whatever “transition” it is I’m walking through. The whole body of my work is what can illustrate transition as amorphous and spontaneous. It’s important for me that each piece not try to be to big for its britches. That said though, the most recent poem I drafted tried very much to gesture to the feeling of spontaneity and recalibration you’ve described. And while it may not be a slamming poem, it matters to me. The last lines read:

this poem is not so much about a beach
as it is about arriving there,

blowing stop signs
until the coast affirms

that lines are always changing,
and the tide

tells me my body can morph,
just as many times as it needs.

RFW: So much of the work that you are doing, both with WRO and in your daily existence, pushes you towards community. But, having returned to a rural place after completing your MFA (and please correct me if I'm mistaken), you must have greater access to extended community than you did as a young person. Has leaving altered your understanding of what a rural community is? Do your communities (local, extended, poetry) ever join?

KRC: Well, though the future I reference so often in the new book is rural, I actually live in Philadelphia right now—which is pretty chalk full of community in all respects. It can be overwhelming sometimes, actually. I certainly don’t think I’m cut out for city living long term.

That all said, after my MFA, I spent half a year in Throop, PA, trying to get my feet under me and prepare for and heal from top surgery. My time there was so dreamy. It’s a relatively low income town with all these brightly colored small houses—a ton of pinwheels and “beware of dog signs” in yards and windows. Almost like an inland beach town. There, I felt myself spending a lot of time on the phone with friends from my MFA, and from Penn State before that. I would spend time on the phone while walking through the town—willfully ignoring any stares from locals that might not want me there. I thought that was a big indication of how extended community was protecting me, and helping me feel supported—despite their distance. Throop, PA was also where I crowd-funded my top surgery. And all my communities (familial, local, extended, poetry) held me up and joined to facilitate my having a better quality of life. The kindness still astonishes me and I feel grateful every day. Though loneliness, in an immediate physical sense, was still something that happened in Throop, it was so very different than my young experience.

But in terms of rural community, I believe it’s important to outsource (I’m thinking virtually here) while you try to build or join something on the ground. I think it’s important to understand, too, that in rural settings, if you’re lacking a feeling of community, there is a chance it really just doesn’t exist yet. You’re often not missing out on something already in existence. You may just have to build it, as small or as big as you’re comfortable with. And they will come. Queers are everywhere. Cute, and everywhere.

RFW: I truly don’t think you could have set up my final question any better. We’ve spent so much of this interview speaking about the future, and about what is involved in its realization. Will you do so one more time? When you look to the future, what does your community look like? Your home? Tell me about the trees, the animals, the people.

KRC: When I look to the future I see a community of queer people hell-bent on helping to facilitate one another’s happiness and wellbeing. I see contentious mentorship and support for the younger generation. I see a community that won’t allow young folxs to reach their mid-twenties before they can see themselves in poems, in stories, in music, in film and in painting, in all art and media in general. I see timely torch-passing, and the equitable sharing of capital in all forms. These are idealistic, yes, but I promise to help make it so. And I know so many others who have promised the same. So that gives me hope.

And my home, that’s wherever my partner is. Cliche? I don’t care at all lol! We are so excited to get old together, and drink coffee together, and poorly tend the house plants together, and name a BernieDoodle Drew Berniemore together, and make home videos together, and make zines together, and one day abandon all things to work summer jobs at the Jersey Shore, just because. Life is short and life is long. We’re going to try to fit it all. <3


Rachel Franklin Wood is from Laramie, Wyoming, but she hasn't lived there for nearly 10 years. Since leaving, she's moved around the west thinking about what it is to be a rural queer. She's leaving wherever she is now as soon as she's able. She writes poems.