Strange Country: On Ai, Frank Stanford, and Page Expectations by Peter LaBerge

BY LOTTE L.S.

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The 1970s. Roots: An Asian American Reader is published in 1971    the same year

the first issue of This magazine sows the seeds of Language poetry

culminating in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E seven years later        Lyn Hejinian

                                    Leslie Scalapino

                                        Ron Silliman

the Black Arts Movement continues to          grow       Sonia Sanchez       Amiri Baraka

Nikki Giovanni       Etheridge Knight

                                                             morph           

                            and later

                                             be challenged by younger poets    Ishmael Reed            

Cecil Brown     “confessional poetry”        sparks       both followers

                                           and reactionaries            

No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women   published in  1973

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers                                1974

    Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings    1975

    Audre Lorde              besmilr brigham Lawson Fusao Inada     Adrienne Rich

June Jordan                   Mei-mei Berssenbrugge    John Ashbery Joy Harjo

    Leslie Marmon Silko           Ana Castillo     Michael S. Harper      Alfred Starr Hamilton


Born in the mid-‘90s in South London, it is difficult for me to comprehend the full breadth of poetries existing in the U.S. during the ‘70s. Meanwhile in the U.K., Ted Hughes and his contemporaries continued their attempts to hold the poetry world hostage, and others provided a proliferation of propaganda to assert that a poem was not a poem if it did not rhyme. The British “revival movement” attempted to deploy oxygen into a sealed tank. In each person’s hands the assemblage above would differ, the same decade rendered unrecognizable for another. “Omissions are not accidents,” wrote poet Marianne Moore in 1968. We all choose who it is we recognize, who forms part of our reality. “When I was growing up I thought Arkansas was the centre of the universe, and Fayetteville was the centre of Arkansas, and Dickson Street was the centre of Fayetteville, and Roger’s Pool Hall was the centre of Dickson Street, and Roger was the Buddha,” poet C.D. Wright once said. Some of us will always be framed as marginalized, but no-one is marginal to their own life. U.K., 1970s: Another reality. Denise Riley, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the written and oral poetries of Bengali communities in East London, the poetry anthologies circulated within the anti-apartheid, Nicaragua and Palestine solidarity movements.

Ai and Frank Stanford are two poets often summoned for failing to receive the “recognition” they “deserved.” This is partly due to the fact that much of their work is out of print, the remaining copies $$$. While Ai received numerous awards and read to packed audiences, and both she and Stanford were published widely in journals and with presses, it does seem that both chose to situate themselves away from the movements and schools of poetry that were wielding their manifesto-ed lightsabers during their time. In a rare interview, Stanford warned, “If you’ve come here to get me to talk about movements in poetry and schools and writers and so on, I believe you’ve come to the wrong place.” Working as a land surveyor, he published ten collections of poetry with small literary presses, rarely giving readings. In 1977, he set up Lost Roads Press with C.D. Wright, run from Arkansas with the aim of showcasing the work of local poets. Not long after, Ai’s second collection, Killing Floor, won the 1978 Lamont Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets. In the face of the often-reductive descriptions of her work as “hard hitting monologues” focused on “tragic violence—rape, murder, incest, suicide, abortion”—she would assert, “I don’t want to be catalogued and my characters don’t want to be catalogued and my poems don’t want to be catalogued.”

Stanford was just ten months younger than Ai, born two states away in August 1948 in Mississippi, and by the time Killing Floor was published, Stanford was dead; three self-inflicted bullets to the heart, two months shy of his thirtieth birthday. I don’t intend to recount or amplify the already heavily-mythologized biographies of either poet (a simple online search will do). I want instead to track the work of two poets writing at a single moment in time—relatively close to one another but seemingly unaware of one another’s work—by bringing into proximity two collections: Ai’s Vice: New and Selected Poems (1999) and What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (2015). While Vice wasn’t Ai’s final collection, it spans over twenty-five years of writing, bringing together poems from earlier books with new poems. What About This contains all ten of Stanford’s published collections, as well as a selection of unpublished manuscripts, an interview, short prose, and excerpts from his sprawling 542-page poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of both the release of Killing Floor and Stanford’s death. Tavern Books crowdfunded over $10,000 to reprint an anniversary edition of Killing Floor, while Foundlings Press published Constant Stranger, a collection of writings inspired by Stanford, and readers gathered in Arkansas for the Frank Stanford Literary Festival.

While in their twenties, both poets made new discoveries about their pasts. Stanford found out that he had been adopted at birth from the Emery Home “for unwed mothers” by Dorothy Gilbert, who he had previously believed was his biological mother. Stanford is said to have never discovered anything concrete about his origins, the records of his birth lost in a fire that burnt Emery Home to the ground in 1964. “Night has put her coins over my eyes,” he would later write. “I don’t know my past.” Around a similar age, Ai found out she was “the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop.” She described herself as “1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish.” The New York Times noted that “the proportions are telling too, for not quite adding up to a complete person.” In Stanford’s work, the messiness of experience, fractured identity, and shifting contradictions are akin to a snow globe being shook, the sensation of stepping off a spinning roundabout:

the principal that old crawdad asked me my name I told her I am
the Marquis de Lafayette Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier
I got it down pretty good don’t I
better known around these parts as Francois Gilbert the gambler and duelist
sometimes I am Jean Lafitte the pirate I am the Japanese bowman
if I go into all my past lives it will take all day
but I was the rascal and rogue after I read the Lodging for the Night
I was Francis Villon

Here we see how The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You moves across multiple verbal registers without punctuation to avoid distinguishing between different selves; alternating between lyric and narrative, Stanford doesn’t abandon but reconfigures traditional lyric goals of expressing a singular self. What results is a consciousness ricocheting across multiplying existences. C.D. Wright called The Battlefield a “542 page poem without line integrity, punctuation or even space to facilitate breathing and eye movement, much less narrative clarity.” Written over more than a decade, the poem tells the story of twelve-year-old clairvoyant Francis—growing up white in the ‘60s between Memphis and Mississippi—who seeks to avenge the death of his friend, Sylvester, who is black and lynched in a racist attack. The Battlefield features a collection of characters based on many of the people Stanford spent his childhood summers with in the levee camps his father worked in, as well as cameos by figures such as Sonny Liston (who, after crying alone in a short-order café, falls asleep and is kissed on the back of his neck by Francis). If Stanford’s work spotlights the many shards of a self—“the adoptee, the backwoods Ozark dreamer, the vibrant light in the room, the withdrawn seeker” as A.P. Walton writes—Ai’s work offers a multitude of voices, “personas,” that express the shifting, contradictory and fractured nature of feeling. So begins “The Hitchhiker”:

The Arizona wind dries out my nostrils
and the heat of the sidewalk burns my shoes,
as a woman drives up slowly.
I get in, grinning at a face I do not like,
but I slide my arm across the top of the seat
and rest it lightly against her shoulder.
We turn off into the desert,
then I reach inside my pocket and touch the switchblade.

We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,
but somehow, I get the blade into her chest.
I think of a song: “Everybody needs somebody,
everybody needs somebody to love,”
as the black numerals 35 roll out of her right eye
inside one small tear.

At once disgusted and lustful, humorous and hateful, the speakers in Ai’s work refuse to be overawed or mystified by their own complexities. “I feel everything and nothing,” the rapper Dave declares in “Two Birds No Stones”; “That’s why I’m living three lives, I’m in GTA.” By presenting us with a seemingly endless number of characters who abuse and face abuse, who do not deviate from speaking with the same unbroken, cool inflection, Vice forces us to confront the possibility that these aren’t just a few rotten apples who wear their vices on their sleeves—but that the whole tree from which they bruise is sick. In Ai’s poetry, violence is not “an interruption of civilized existence,” as Lisa Russ Spaar writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, but “a prior, intrinsic, and terrifying truth of it.”

Stating that her speakers were not “vehicles” for her own voice, Ai said, “I’m not really searching for myself…. It’s human nature that I’m exploring, the behavior of everyone.” Yet Ai’s work avoids genericism or universalism. The poet and translator Forrest Gander writes, “One form of totalitarianism is the stuffing of expression into a single, standardized language that marches the reader toward some presumptively shared goal.” There is no such “goal” in Ai’s work; her poems do not seek to rehabilitate—this is why sins remain as book titles (Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed)—these are speakers who remain, who refuse or are denied healing, redemptive epiphanies, resolution, anesthetic, transformation. There is no exhale. In refusing to do so, Ai recognizes the limitations of poetry, its inability to unstick itself from the world’s nightly revolutions, its whirring mechanics under the totalizing, brutalizing, systems that determine so much of our daily lives. Likewise, The Battlefield is not a journey for “justice.” Stanford recognized that his writing could not stand in for the work of justice, choosing—after 542 pages of violence, dreams and death—to leave the poem on, “all of this ends / with to be continued.” Later, Stanford writes in Crib Death, “I for one leave the transcendence of language / To the auctioneers on the widow’s steps.”

But the speakers in Ai’s and Stanford’s work are gifted something: existence. I remember asking my Mum what she wanted to do after she had managed to extract herself from a decade-long clusterfuck of a relationship. “I just want to be,” she said. It sounded like the easiest thing in the world, but to be able to live without the (poetically omnipresent) necessity of redemption, of transformation–isn’t that everything? And it feels almost impossible most days. “I mean to live,” says the narrator in Ai’s poem, “Nothing But Colour,” after stabbing herself to death with a bronze sword. In another poem, “Everything: Eloy, Arizona, 1956,” a woman deserts her lover:

Tin shack, where my baby sleeps on his back
the way the hound taught him;
highway, black zebra, with one white stripe;
nickel in my pocket for chewing gum;
you think you’re all I’ve got.
But when the 2 ton rolls to a stop
and the driver gets out,
I sit down in the shade and wave each finger,
saving my whole hand till the last.
He’s keys, tires, a fire lit in his belly
in the diner up the road.
I’m red toenails, tight blue halter, black slip.
He’s mine tonight. I don’t know him.
He can only hurt me a piece at a time.

Ai’s speakers are aware of these limitations, our inability to pick and choose which parts of a person or world we recognize, and which parts we turn away from. She will do the best with what she can. She will take pleasure in what she can. Ai stated, “I’m not afraid to look a character in the eye and see his whole life, and deal with that life rather than an episode.” Intention is important for anybody—not just poets—to know why, by what means, and for whom or what we wish to act. But “good intentions” function solely to serve a good night’s sleep. More often than not, good intentions sustain crippling conditions, tokenize experiences and lives, emphasize “assimilation” as if it does anything but standardize and suppress the proliferation of ways of being, seeing, feeling–of poetries. “I try not to write about issues when I write poetry,” M. NourbeSe Philip answers in “Interview With An Empire,” “[Instead I try to] get to the truth of certain experiences.” Ai’s work doesn’t intend to make a reader empathize, understand or condone. Rather, it provides us with “the cruel radiance of what is,” as James Agee expressed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Yusef Komunyakaa recognized this in his introduction to a later collection of her work: “Ai’s ‘method’ was being alive.”

And yet I too keenly feel the tension between documenting the world as I experience it, and exploring how I’d like it to look, feel, run. Metaphor and the subversion of narrative form are two ways that Stanford’s work denies a singular, unified representation of reality. Take the misleadingly simple narrative of “Riverlight”:

My father and I lie down together.
He is dead.

We look up at the stars, the steady sound
Of the wind turning the night like a ceiling fan.
This is our home.

I remember the work in him
Like bitterness in persimmons before a frost.
And I imagine the way he had fear,
The ground turning dark in a rain.

Now he gets up.

And I dream he looks down in my eyes
And watches me die.

Stanford called his writing, “the poetry of being awake and asleep at the same time.” In “Riverlight” there exists no distinction between dreaming and reality, between the literal and the symbolic, between the “real” and the unreal. These binaries, and the hierarchies we see them strike up in daily life, float away. To be both alive and dead, both dreaming and awake, in both the present and past, is reality for Stanford’s speakers. We are all born into and make our own realities, for better or for worse. The presence of a missing friend, presumed dead, feels more real to me than the conversation I had with someone in my kitchen this morning. Disregarding linear chronology, Stanford’s poetry instead echoes how narrative and the process of remembering unfold in the mind. This reminds me of another Frank: Frank Ocean, whose album, Blonde, and mixtapes, Nostalgia, Ultra, and Endless, capture a consciousness delving into disjointed memories, the rabbit hole of past nights and years that mix physicality with the ethereal, exploring moments that morph into flashes of feeling, color, and texture that are felt presently. Each looks backwards to “The strange country of childhood / Like a dragonfly on a long dog chain,” to the point where memory is an active part of the present. “I can fuck you all night long / From a memory alone,” Ocean raps in “Memrise.”

Stanford’s use of metaphor and simile also refuses the hierarchies embedded in placing one thing in service of another, to render it more real. When Stanford writes, “Night is nothing / but the small shadow a woman-child’s foot casts / when she puts on her boots / when the taichi lesson is over,” the “small shadow” of a “foot” doesn’t exist to service our understanding of the night, but instead layers another narrative on top, spawning further narratives. “I am not content in just suggesting things by the use of words,” he writes, “I want to show the origins.”

After the release of her first collection, Cruelty, Ai was criticized by some for having “no consistent political position.” To claim so is “political.” To claim otherwise is “political.” As is whatever we choose (or don’t choose, or can’t choose) to dedicate our time and attention to. However, within current left-wing “radical politics” (O “radical,” a word increasingly used alongside “privilege” and “oppression” by those who think that using the word constitutes doing the work), we are often encouraged—as carla bergman and Nick Montgomery write in Joyful Militancy—“to wear our politics and our analysis like badges, as markers of distinction. When politics becomes something that one has, like fashion (rather than something people do together), it always needs to be visible in order to function.” At times, “having good politics” can be reduced to signaling (often online) “the right positions,” “saying the right things,” and “having well-formed opinions,” that form “the correct ways of critiquing and fighting” oppressive structures. By refusing to submit to the idea of a shared universality or hierarchy of feeling, reality, or approach, we are treated as equals by Ai and Stanford, expected to interpret for ourselves without prescription. And so their poems are changed by our reading, by our interpreting. They provide no platitudes, no certainties, no “correct way” or template with which to write, live by, or challenge our conditions. “Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple,” states Adrienne Rich in Poetry & Commitment. As we see in Ai’s work, lived complexity is not nuance; existence is not representation; recognition is not empathy. “I don’t decide to represent anything except myself,” Mahmoud Darwish said, “But that self is full of collective memory.”

Both Ai and Stanford approach the page—the persona—through their own subjective set of experiences, observations, and understandings. “It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing,” William H. Gass writes, “but the flesh made word.” So much in the world (and its writings within) tell us what it wants from us: to grieve, to feel anger, to invest in the project of empathy that attempts to “play our full emotional scales like a keyboard,” as Haukur Hilmarsson describes (though he was talking about the cops)–to exploit rather than honor the pain of those around us, to mine our own to the extent that not doing so can deny their existence in the first place. In 2018, we write into a different set of choices and contexts than Ai and Stanford did. But they are choices and contexts nonetheless. Realities, even. Stanford and Ai’s work doesn’t expect a thing from us, but to fully enter their worlds does require our trust, our own subjectivities, a willingness to bring ourselves to the page.

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Lotte L.S. is a poet living in Great Yarmouth. More of her writing can be found here.

Tiana Clark: How I Wrote "BBHMM" by Peter LaBerge

BY TIANA CLARK

 From Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video.

From Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video.

“…survival is not an academic skill.” — Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

When I wrote this poem as a modern ekphrasitc response to Rihanna’s music video, I was met with some resistance from various sources in my life and M.F.A. program. When I worskhopped the poem, I wanted my cohort to watch the music video first. A white, male poet refused to watch. Instead, he turned his head away. I told him he was refusing to look at me.  

I was told not to publish the poem. I was encouraged not to write about pop culture, and definitely not pop music. I was told the poem was too violent. I was told the poem would make white people feel uncomfortable, and then a white person actually said, “This poem frightens me.” I was told that I should be more concerned about legacy, and that poems should stand the test of time. I was told Rihanna would not stand the test of time.

It still astonishes me that certain white artists can have privileged access as interlocutors, freely dipping in and out of blackface to exploit and appropriate black art for their gain. What’s good Miley? What’s good John Berryman? But when I, a black artist, want to use black art that was made for me (FUBU poetics), somehow that’s not allowed or not deemed as elevated or worthy enough of a subject for a timestamp.

But what if my concerns are so present and urgent and necessary, that I don’t have the privilege to consider the bourgeois fears of tradition and inheritance?

I’ve never had anything passed down to me. Growing up, my mom never had any surplus cash for a savings account—no inheritance or heirlooms, no security for her future or mine. Our life was mostly paycheck-to-paycheck, sometimes a money order and making a Papa John’s Alfredo Chicken pizza last a week. My poetics were built on this need for some slice of survival concerned with communicating not in the future and for all time, but trying to save myself right now because I’m hungry. “I’ll eat you to live, that’s poetry,” Terrance Hayes says in his poem, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” And for me, poetry has always been a means of persistence, black persistence, by making, breaking, and re-imagining the possibility of received forms, especially my adoration and obsession for ekphrasis.

“There is something transgressive in writing about the visual arts,” Edward Hirsch says about ekphrasis. “A border is crossed, a boundary is breached, as the writer enters into the spatial realm, traducing an abyss, violating the silent integrity of the pictorial.” But what if the image isn’t always silent? Perhaps, that dynamic image is what Ezra Pound describes as “…a radiant node or cluster…a VORTEX.” For me, that massive whirling image is Rihanna repeating “pay what you owe me” while punching a payphone and when she gleefully tries to find the right weapon to attack her accountant who has presumably screwed her out of millions.

When I teach my students about ekphrasis, I urge them to make a static image sing. We start by reading Rilke’s famous sonnet, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends, “For here there is no place / that does not see, you must change your life.” I ask my students to tell me about a piece of art that has dazzled them to the point of transmutation. I often repeat what Carl Phillips told me and what Ellen Bryant Voigt told him at Bread Loaf: poetry is not the mere description of an experience, but the transformation of an experience. Hands shoot up across the classroom as they excitedly tell me about their favorite songs, plays, and movies. They tell me how they felt like a different person after, somehow even their cells have rearranged. I tell them they can use it all. Respond to it all. I repeat: nothing is off limits. I give them that sense of permission and freedom to explore what fascinates them, because I have to remind myself that it’s okay to respond to my current obsessions too. As a teacher, I’m not in the business of telling my students what poetry can’t do.

For me, there was no place that I did not see myself in Rihanna’s music video, which opens up with her naked blood-drenched body smoking a blunt covered in cash—her cash—signifying her power and entrepreneurship, her audacity, and ferocious revenge fantasy.

In Picture Theory, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that, “Ekphrastic poetry is the genre in which texts encounter their own semiotic others.” He describes a triangular relationship between: the poet, the art, and the poem—or the self, the other, and the image, as well as the listening subject all working through the meaning and multiple forms of linguistic and imagistic communication. And this is why I replayed the music video over and over and over again. Each click on my cursor felt like a rapture. I was encountering an electric otherness that I wanted to claim as my own, because Rihanna signified a luxurious power that I did not see reflected in my own tired life. I was tired of tact, tired of legislating the volume of my anger, tired of becoming a stereotype. For once, I was not ashamed of myself after watching “BBHMM.” For once, I could have the audacity to try and transcend my trauma.

Yes, there’s a graphic violence in the music video with viewer discretion advised, but haven’t we all been bombarded enough through literature and media with tortured images and descriptions of the black female/femme body beaten and/or lynched and/or raped and/or killed, often at the discretion of white men? However, this time, Rihanna is taking her own pleasure and dominance in a revenge fantasy that is often relegated to male actors and the male gaze. For example, Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar for the best original screenplay for “Django Unchained,” which Roxane Gay writes, “is a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, one where white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental.” But in “BBHMM,” the inverse is true. Rihanna is fully foregrounded and in control for seven minutes and two seconds (with 134,743,912 views as of 11/8/18).

But somehow “Django Unchained” is critically acclaimed, lauded as brilliant and subversive high art, whereas “BBHMM” is deemed, to some, as aggressive, low art trash, especially by several white feminist critics who were upset by Rihanna’s character kidnapping and torturing the accountant’s wife as collateral damage for the wrongdoing of a man. Rihanna is unworried about the well-being of a blond and beautiful white woman, because her own survival is at stake, which such a commanding visual metaphor, a comparison colliding two unlike things: black women and possessing power, black women and lynching the European standard for beauty, black women and the wage gap, womanist vs. feminist, and the dichotomies continue ad infinitum. Robert Frost writes, “…unless you are at home in the metaphor…you are not safe anywhere…you are not safe in history.” But what if I’ve never felt safe…anywhere? Let alone in my own black body. Nia Wilson’s throat reminds me that my breath is always at risk. I am anxious every single day about my well-being, and this is what I wanted to explore in my poem: the economy of sex and desire based off of retribution. I wanted to dare myself not to be scared, if not in life, as least for the length of one poem.

A few years ago, I went to a workshop with the badass poet, Kendra DeColo. She brought in a poem by Hanif Abdurraqib titled “E•MO•TION” after Carly Rae Jepson. This prose poem was a giant permission slip. It was another reminder that I could use it all and that nothing was off limits. I’m fascinated by this muscular poem and how Abdurraqib zips back and forth between the viral nature of black murder from police brutality, while weaving in an interview from Jepson about falling in love, all in a gorgeous container that wrestles with longing and persistence. Abdurraqib writes, “I say I, too, am a romantic, and I mean I never expected to survive this long. I have infinite skin.” After reading “E•MO•TION” the Rihanna poem just barreled out of me, almost a fully formed fist.  

Abdurraqib also writes, “It's been said that pop music desires a body—a single, focused human form as an object of interest.” But I didn’t realize that the body I desired was my own. It wasn’t Rihanna’s body, but my own damn body on the brink. I wrote the poem in celebration of a persona, a lyric self, unconcerned with the burden of approval or workshop critique. I needed a poem to save me and keep saving me, and that’s I why I wrote “BBHMM,” as a legacy for me.

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Tiana Clark is the author of the I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, as well as the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Best New Poets 2015, Oxford American, and elsewhere. You can find her online at tianaclark.com.

Conversations with Contributors: Anna Rose Welch by Peter LaBerge

BY SAMANTHA SETO

 Anna Rose Welch, contributor to  Issue Twelve  and author of  We, the Almighty Fires  (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch, contributor to Issue Twelve and author of We, the Almighty Fires (Alice James Books, 2018).

Anna Rose Welch earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her poems can be found in a number of publications, including Best New Poets 2014, The Kenyon Review Online, The Paris-American, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and others. Her first book, We, the Almighty Fires, won the 2016 Alice James Award and was published by Alice James Books in April 2018. She currently lives in Erie, PA, where she is the Chief Editor of an online pharmaceutical publication (Biosimilar Development) and a violinist in the Presque Isle Pro Musica chamber orchestra.

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Samantha Seto: Congratulations on your book!

Anna Rose Welch: Thank you so much and thank you even more for reading and taking the time to chat with me about it!

SS: Why were you drawn to the Old Testament stories around which the book is written? How did you come to the decision to arrange the book into its four parts?

ARW: To be honest—and this is going to sound more demented than I would like it to—but I was drawn to the violence of those stories. If we’re looking at the Old Testament stories as works of fiction or myths, they carry so much more emotional heft. I’m also drawn to the notion of a vengeful God because it’s a more interesting concept for my narrator to grapple with and challenge. So much of what my narrator struggles with is how to balance free will in the face of whatever has some kind of power over them—whether it be another person, a deity, lust/love, or even art. I am a spiritual person, and I had a positive experience growing up in the church. I was never taught to fear God, which is probably a big part of why I’m drawn to the darkness of the Old Testament. There are so many silences in these stories—so many instances of being told to do something or face the consequences with the rest of humanity that have lost their way. And though I studied these darker stories in Sunday School, I was never told that I was doomed or that one wrong step would lead me astray and throw me outside of God’s good graces. The Great Flood story, which is the most prominent biblical story explored throughout the book, is just as much a story about rebirth as it is destruction. God didn’t like the world he’d created and destroyed it. What came next He hoped would be a better creation. My narrator, I think, has the same hope.

I wish I could say that the organization of the Bible had something to do with the organization of my book into four parts. But I felt it fit best in four sections because of the two longer poems in the book—Noah’s Wife and Noah’s Woods—which fit so organically as their own sections. The six Noah’s Wife poems—one for each time she’s referred to and never given a name in the Bible—served as an interlude or inflection point for the narrator. I wanted to give voice to some of these silenced old testament voices, and in turn, spur the narrator on towards their own “genesis story” in Noah’s Woods.

SS: There are many references to art in this collection, many of which depict religious or classical imagery: Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy in “Rough Music,” for example, or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in “Noah’s Woods.” In the second part of “Noah’s Woods,” the speaker points to the simple art of the craft, “we glued popsicle sticks into rafts,” reminding your readers that anyone is able to create art. Why did you pick the pieces that you did? Do you have a background in art history? Where did your interest in writing about art come from?

ARW: I had a feeling when I went to college that I’d end up an English major, but I also wanted to explore other subjects on the off-chance that I’d find something I loved just as much, or more. Art history almost seduced me away from pursuing English. My freshman year, I enrolled in an art history survey class, and despite the fact it was at 8 AM, there was something wonderful about being sleep deprived in that dark room watching the slides and hearing my professor talk about art techniques and subject matter—a majority of which was religious. Though, in the end, English/creative writing became my major, I loved art history so much that I ended up getting a minor in Medieval Renaissance studies because it combined history, religious studies, and, most importantly, art history. One course in particular—an upper level seminar on “The Renaissance Woman”—continued to haunt me for years after and was a big influence on my work. So much of the scholarly literature we read in that class circled around the female body and how the body was depicted through art, or how women altered, abused, or subjected their bodies to extreme conditions in an effort to express piety. I was also drawn to the merging of the sacred and the erotic. So much of the artwork in the Renaissance played with this—and there’s no better example than St. Theresa in Ecstasy. I love how this almost in-your-face erotic clashes with The Birth of Venus, which is an image of demure innocence.

SS: Tell me more about the love affair you describe in your book. In “After You Left,” for example, you elaborate on making love: “He whispered: Listen. Something’s devouring the leaves. / Like this, he said, searching my mouth until I tasted salt. / Like this, his palms said, sinking to my hipbones.” The narrative seems to be grounded in the lyrical present. Are you writing about how you experience love, or have you imagined the lover who appears in your poems?

ARW: There are actually very few instances in the book in which the lovers or love affairs described are truly how I have experienced love—and that’s the case in After You Left. A lot of these poems were written during a period of my life in graduate school when I was trying to take more risks and shock myself by what I was writing. I was newly single, spending hours in the same café night after night writing, and I was in love with the thought of being able to create any kind of relationship (or sexy goings-on) I wanted to on the page. After You Left was an exercise in vulnerability; up until that point, I’d never written anything that forwardly sensual and disturbing.    

SS: In these poems, the body illustrates the beauty of movement and seems to be used to express human nature. In “Rough Music,” you’ve used sensory detail to portray the body of the speaker’s lover, “Without clothes / you’re evidence man was created in the Lord’s image.” In “As If Out of Clay,” you write, “I wore pearls like any other bride / and he bit them from my neck like any other man / tears the apple from its core.” And in part VI of “Noah’s Woods,” you describe the beauty of the human body: “I saw two photographs of a dancer: one where her lover lay on the ground before her, his arm pressed to her breastbone.” Why do you find the human body to be the best conduit for these particular stories and/or for your poems?

ARW: I’ve always been fascinated by the body and the different ways it works from person to person. Once, I went with my brother to his appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. I remember looking around at the people walking through the hallways and sitting in waiting rooms filling out forms, thinking about all that can go wrong with the body. And, often, there’s no way to keep whatever is going to happen to it from happening. The body presents us with a fascinating duality. There’s nothing we really understand more than our own bodies—we come to learn what foods will be harmful for us, what medicines we shouldn’t take, what makes us feel good, and when doesn’t. But at the same time, we can’t always control what our body chooses to do to itself; we are at the mercy of our genes, which means we have proclivities for certain chronic diseases or addictions, and for frustrating (yet fascinating) scientific reasons, medicines work differently from person to person.

I also was drawn to the body given my background studying texts about Medieval/Renaissance women and how female saints in particular demonstrated their loyalty to God. So often it involved deprivation and suffering. One of the many non-poetry scholarly books I was reading during my writing spree in grad school was The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 by Caroline Walker Bynum. There was much discussion about the fragmentation of the body, one particularly beautiful passage being, “The body decays only into indestructible bits which God can reassemble or recast as a statue, or as a jeweler, making a mosaic, puts the stones back together again.” I have notebooks full of snippets from texts such as these about the body, and several of the poems in the book—for instance, Redemption, Ravishment, and even pieces of Noah’s Woods—play around with the fragmentation of the body. Depending on who the early Christian writer was, that fragmentation was either something that was a threat to your redemption or a symbol of the spiritual over the physiological.  

SS: Your collection is full of classical Greek and Roman mythology. What is it about antiquity—classical or biblical, or a combination of the two—that allows you to speak to female desire and empowerment?

ARW: When I was first getting into my book, I was fascinated with mining culture: the act of digging into the earth and harvesting the darkest pieces of it that would give the world light. Though I failed miserably at actually writing solely about mining (though my family’s roots are in mining culture), it turned out that my book ended up being an excavation. My poems became obsessed with digging into history and unearthing the stories and voices that haven’t always been heard and finding solidarity with them. I’d like to believe the women that came before me—or the mythmakers—had some of the same questions, frustrations, and identity-shaping experiences as I have had.  

SS: Many of your lines are musical. Eugene Gloria, whose blurb graces your book’s back cover, wrote, “There is a keen attention to music in these poems—a crafting of sound as sturdy as an ark in a biblical flood and as obsessive as the water’s recursive singing.” You’re also a violinist. How do you see music influencing your poetry, and your poetry influencing your music?

ARW: When I was younger, music was a big influence on my writing. The poems I wrote in high school were not completed poems until I had included references to every instrument found in an orchestra. If I learned anything as I became a more advanced writer, it was that, A.) a literal orchestra doesn’t belong in a poem, and B.) that the more time I spent practicing violin, the fewer poems I actually wrote. When I was in grad school, I took private lessons for two years and played in the orchestra for a semester. Given the regular rehearsal schedule and the practice required for the orchestra, on top of private lessons, I was devoting a significant portion of my days to practicing as opposed to writing. So, I ended up leaving the orchestra (though I loved it) and was better able to balance lessons/daily practice and poems.

I’m currently floating about in seemingly unending silence, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I find myself thinking more and more about the Bach d-minor sonata for unaccompanied violin. Playing violin was my first love—I started when I was five—and it was always a critical part of my identity and a huge source of pride (and it still is). It was my second voice—where words failed, my violin was there. Music undoubtedly influenced the sounds and rhythms of each poem. But what I find puzzling is the fact that, while the violin is a lyrical and romantic instrument, known for its soaring melodies in orchestras, so many of my poems—especially today—reject long lines. I’m drawn to stark, brief, end-stopped declarative sentences and double-spaced lines. It’s the absolute opposite of the sound I strive for when playing violin. It’s an interesting dichotomy I don’t quite understand, and I probably never will.

SS: What is your writing process? You’re an editor for Biosimilar Development; is your writing process for poetry different from that of your editorial work? Did you write each poem in Fires to stand alone, individually, or did you write the poems collectively for this book? How long did it take you to put together this collection?

ARW: So much of this collection was written in a quick burst in about a six-month period during my final year of grad school. I could barely keep up with myself at the time. Some of the other poems eventually came out in the year or so after graduation. Overall, during the process of writing the poems, I was aware that I loved writing about water in all forms and many of the poems had to do with God or womanhood. But I wasn’t thinking about them as an overarching conversation or collection outside of putting them together into my thesis. It ended up that, once I put them all together into a thesis, the poems were quite cohesive with each other in a way that leant itself well to a book manuscript. My thesis advisor encouraged me to take a chance and start submitting it.

SS: Along those same lines, how does your work with Biosimilar Development affect your poetry and/or your poetry-writing process?

ARW: My job was a pleasant surprise. When I first started working for my company managing a variety of different pharmaceutical publications, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I felt lucky enough to be an English major and to have ended up in an editorial position at all. But I also expected it would be a step towards something else non-pharmaceutical related eventually. When I first took the helm of Biosimilar Development, I legitimately began to love what I was doing. I’ve always been a curious person. But before taking this job, I don’t think I quite realized what a gift and necessity it is for me to have a job that would regularly challenge me (and pay the bills). Since I don’t have a background in science, business, political science, or regulatory affair, I have to step outside my comfort zone daily and talk to industry experts and do research to learn the ins-and-outs of these more technical aspects of the industry. I’ve actually had to become a “personality” in this space—in fact, I dare say I’m better known today in the pharma industry than I am in the poetry world right now. Another good thing is the fact this process requires me to use the left side of my brain, while poetry stimulates the right side of my brain. So I don’t generally feel “burned out” from my job. But I think it has made me a more analytical writer. I approach each poem from a more narrative, organizational sense. Just like I have to consider organization and pacing of an article, I’ve begun to focus more on the movement of my poem and what the progression of each new image or statement can mean for the poem and what it can ultimately become.

SS: We, Almighty the Fires won the Alice James Award in 2016. What was your experience working with Alice James Books? Your book was also shortlisted for prizes from Tupelo Press, The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, and The OSU Press. What are your thoughts about literary contest culture?

ARW: Right before my book was picked up, I’d really begun to marvel at a number of Alice James’ books—especially Cecily Parks’ book, O’Nights, and Richie Hoffman’s Second Empire. They’d also signed on to publish my thesis advisor and good friend Jennifer Chang’s second book, Some Say The Lark. So, when I got the call, I remember being stunned because I never thought my book would fit into the caliber of the other writers they published before me. Working with them was wonderful. Though I only interacted with Carey Salerno a few times in the course of editing my book, she was thorough, intelligent, and supportive. The same goes for the other editors when it comes to post-publication awards, review copies, or ordering books/reading promotion.

I’ve personally benefited from the contest culture, given that that’s how my book came into this world. I know it can be depressing and exhausting for many people in the thick of it—and at times I felt the panic of “what if this never happens?”. But what I do like about the contest culture is the fact that you never really know who is on the editorial board or board of readers, and contests with guest judges always change your chances. There’s no way of predicting what anyone is going to like. When I was in the thick of it, I was a finalist for a prize at Tupelo and didn’t win. For the next two submission periods, I wasn’t long or short-listed at all. I submitted to Alice James three times, and the first two times, I was rejected. I went from that to winning. And there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. I often joke that the day the readers discovered my manuscript, they liked it only because they had gotten a lot of great sleep the night before, were well hydrated, and were probably in a happy place eating donuts just coated with rainbow sprinkles.

I think it’s also a good reminder of just how big the writing world is today; I hardly ever know or recognize the names in a list of book prize finalists and semi-finalists. When I was reviewing the list of finalists for the National Poetry Series just this year, I was thrilled to see so many names I didn’t know. I find that so refreshing, given the echo chambers you can run into with social media.      

SS: The cover of your book is really striking. How do you see it being representative of your poetry? How was the image chosen?

ARW: Shortly after I signed my contract, the first thing the editors asked for was a document of 20 different images that I liked. I spent weeks poring over Pinterest and found (too) many images I loved. I found a lot of images by the artist who made my cover—Brooke Shaden—and suggested a few of them, but honestly never would have predicted the folks at AJB would’ve picked the one they did. A few months later the editors sent me several different cover options. I decided to go with the current cover because it felt the most symbolic of the subject matter. It reminded me of the “tongues of fire” from the Pentecost story in the Bible and had a similar drama that I associate with cathedrals and sacred relics. It also implied that the main figure on the cover was looking down on something, like she was an almighty figure, and I thought that complemented the juggling act between free will and faith throughout my book.

SS: It’s hard to find books that interest and resonate with me, but I loved your book. Do you have any recommendations for me, re: further reading?

ARW: So many! I would highly suggest Jennifer Chang, Cecily Park, Sarah Eliza Johnson, Traci Brimhall, and Cynthia Cruz. I recently discovered Susannah Nevison’s Teratology and Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting, and I’m stunned I hadn’t found their work until now (but that’s the beauty of poetry books). I’m currently picnicking my way through Diana Khoi Nguyen’s The Ghost Of, Nicole Cooley’s Of Marriage, and Monica Youn’s Blackacre, which have been forcing me to stop and really think my way through the individual poems and collections as wholes. In the past year or so I’ve also enjoyed Lauren Clark’s Music for the Wedding, Ruth Awad’s Set Music To A Wildfire, Jenny Molberg’s Marvels of the Invisible, and anything by Jennifer Militello and Katie Ford. As you can see, I’m a huge proponent of reading other women, though I’m also a sucker for Ocean Vuong, Jack Gilbert, Chris Santiago, Paul Guest, Mark Wagenaar, and Richie Hoffman.  

SS: Is another poetry collection in your future?

ARW: God, I hope so (LOL). It’s likely at least another 10 years out, if I am being realistic. In order to write well, I need to be questioning or rebelling against something. Writing has become much slower going and I’ve become even more critical of what I do manage to write since finishing the poems in my book. At this point, I’m trying to remain open to a new project, whatever that might be, and it’ll come to me when the time is right.

SS: Thanks, Anna Rose. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk to me about your book. I really admire your devastatingly beautiful work.

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Samantha Seto graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a B.A. as a Writing Seminars major and History of Art minor in December 2017. Her work is published at The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Cornerstone Magazine, The Harvard Ichthus, The Yale Logos, Scarlet Leaf Review, Chicago Literati, The Penn Review, Global Vantage, Compulsive Reader, North of Oxford, Writing for Peace/DoveTales Journal, The Los Angeles Review, and The Collagist. She wrote a book, Midnight, published in August 2015. She loves comparative literature. Samantha lives in Washington, D.C.

Feminist Fridays: On Maggots, Motherhood, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Peter LaBerge

BY AMIE REILLY

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Last August, on Eclipse Day, my son was sitting at the kitchen table, holding the pinhole camera we’d made, when he asked, “Mom, what are those?” His voice was tinged with something I could not put my finger on. Something curious but also disgusted. I looked at him, my eyes following his finger downward,where he was pointing at a trail of fat maggots inching across our kitchen floor.

There’s something that feels illicit about an eclipse—the way the moon crosses over the sun so that for a few moments, night conquers day and all is dark when it shouldn’t be. It feels briefly apocalyptic, a glimpse at the end of the world. Perhaps the appearance of maggots in my kitchen, so close to the life I made, were a result of this celestial phenomenon.

I lied to him. “They’re caterpillars, bud. And they’re confused because of the eclipse. I bet the moon is disrupting their natural navigation.”

But why are caterpillars acceptable and maggots cringeworthy? Julia Kristeva defines abjection as our repulsion to reminders of our delicate materiality. My disgust of wriggling maggots is based in my fear of death; they are a reminder of rot. (The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.)

I needed to get them out of my space, so I sent my son upstairs to brush his teeth, bent down with some tissues and started to squish. Halfway through my mission, my thinking changed.

These maggots, these larvae, are more than just embodiments of death. They are babies. And maybe it was the eclipse, or maybe it was the fumes from the bleach, but then I thought, maybe I am thinking about them all wrong. Maybe these helpless invaders are not only reminders of death, but also life. Something in between.  

In the early pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, she describes Victor’s exploration into the liminal space between the living and the dead: “…I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analyzing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life…” From life, death and from death, life. How monstrous.

I went from angrily crushing them between my fingers to being tinged with tenderness. Something about the newly realized juxtaposition—death worms as fly babies—combined with the still unshakeable feeling that I had been invaded suddenly felt a whole lot like motherhood.

Pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing can seem like an invasion. And for many second-wave feminists, motherhood was seen as a scourge on our fight for equality. Yet for others, like the brilliant Adrienne Rich, motherhood was more complicated; necessary, sometimes joyous, but not what was portrayed in literature and culture. With the birth of children there are moments of breathtaking beauty, but also moments of terror, dissatisfaction, and confusion.

In the first essay of her collection Of Woman Born, “Anger and Tenderness,” Rich includes glimpses of her journal entries: “Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance…And yet at other times I am melted with the sense of their helpless, charming and quite irresistible beauty…” Rich encapsulates the flux of motherhood, of feeling monstrous in her anger and awestruck at their tiny magnificence. Because she leaves these missives in journal format, her words feel like secrets, whispered confessions.

Rich is revealing this secret: motherhood sometimes feels like a constant shifting of power, and there is no homeostasis. Like Rich, I have felt these feelings in my own mothering. Though on Eclipse Day, it wasn’t my child causing me to vacillate between feeling lovestruck and worn out. Crushing the maggots on my floor felt like a monstrous flex of power. And yet, they stirred in me a twinge of something softer. Many have described the birth and death of the woman upon motherhood, about the joy and pain of raising a child. These maggots were a representation of both. New life, old death. Suddenly those worms morphed into something new, something apart from the narrative I’d had of their existence.

The maggots-as-death trope is as old as literature itself. They are used to evoke disgust and fear in the Bible. They can be found in Chaucer (“The Monk’s Tale”) and Shakespeare (Hamlet). In the anonymously authored “diary” Go Ask Alice, maggots appear in the narrator’s horrific dream about her newly dead grandfather. And Toni Morrison writes maggots into scenes that encompass death and children in both Sula and God Save the Child. But my own thoughts about maggots-as-babies don’t align with these stories. A small thing, I know. But for a moment it knocked me a little off-kilter.

In “Anger and Tenderness,” Rich also questions whether her inability to cohere to literary images of motherhood made her “then abnormal, monstrous.” If maggots no longer cohere to the literary trope, who is the monster? The squisher or the squished?

Much has been written about Mary Shelley’s relationship to motherhood, how it was so fraught with death, how those experiences may have influenced her writing. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died from complications shortly after giving birth to her, and Shelley had three children, two who died in infancy. It is plausible to read these biographical details alongside Frankenstein and gain a deeper understanding of how birth and death combine in her story. Victor’s mother dies when he is a young man, and, like Shelley’s mother, it is arguably motherhood that kills her. In addition, Victor himself is a mother-figure, a creator of life. Shelley even uses language unmistakably reproductive and maternal to describe the moment he discovers his monster is living: “The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires was the most gratifying consummation of my toils.” This mix of maternal language, tinged with both awe and pain, feels quite a bit like Rich’s essay.

Rich describes feeling like a monster in her selfishness. Maternal Victor is also a monster, not only because of his own feelings or because of his selfishness, but also because the life he creates is made from death. Frankenstein’s monster is a creature manifested from the corporeal evidence that death is permanent. But understanding Victor as a mother-figure means that his monster is his child. And he is a monster too, lurking in forests murdering his creator’s loved ones. And yet, his murder spree stems from loneliness. His maker has rejected him, abandoned him. Who is the monster here, the creator or the created?

Samantha Hunt, in an interview with The New Yorker, said “When I became a mom, no one ever said, ‘Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.’ Meanwhile, I could think of little else. It’s scary to think of mothers as makers of death, but it sure gives them more power and complexity than one usually finds.”

Zadie Smith, in her essay “Joy,” writes, “Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”

In Frankenstein, Shelley writes about a dream Victor has about his love, the woman he hopes to be the mother of his children: “I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I swathe grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.”

What a mix of pain and pleasure, fear and elation. And though these three women writers are coming from different places, from different times, different experiences, so much is the same. Motherhood and loss, abjection and empathy. Life and death simultaneous.

My maggots, I think, can be understood as occupying the liminal space between life and death. I’ve thought about them often in the year that has passed, perhaps more than one should think about kitchen pests. But there they are, even in their deaths, still living in my thoughts. What can be made of the larvae who often feed themselves from something dead, who are considered only in relation to their connections to decay, and yet, are newly alive? Born from a mother, vilified for surviving. They, too, are Frankenstein’s monster.

Shelley’s novel, perhaps born from her own connections to loss and motherhood, complicates our understandings of life and death. Victor creates new life from dead parts, and the life he creates brings death to others. But why? Because his creator abandoned him. Do we blame Victor for his monster’s violence? (Don’t we always blame the mother? Am I my son? Is he me?) Victor is both a mother and motherless. His creation is both child and monster. Shelley’s book is a story about loneliness, and isn’t that so much of what motherhood is about? When Rich writes about feeling monstrous, I think she is writing about isolation. Secrets whispered about the parts that don’t fit, like the maggots in my kitchen.

When something doesn’t quite fit the narrative we know, we bristle against it, squash it. In feminism, motherhood doesn’t quite fit. So many second-wave feminists felt motherhood was a saboteur to the movement, a setback, a succumbing to patriarchal norms. Now, third-wave feminists (re)try to pin down a motherhood narrative, a bug splayed out under glass. And yet, so often it slips from beneath the pin.

Heather Hewett responds to Rich in the book Mothering in the Third Wave. In it she asks, “Why are we still talking about feminism and motherhood in the same terms, and often in ways that are more personal and less political?” Her question is two-fold.

To answer the second part of her question, we must look backwards: Our second-wave mothers taught us that the personal is political. And so giving voice to the experience of motherhood will always be personal, because each one is different. And these stories are political because women’s bodies are still monitored and dissected by the outside world. Simply telling stories is an act of political bravery. A public confession.

To answer Hewett’s first question, we must consider faults. The language of motherhood fails us because the narrative set up is too rigid, inflexible and exclusive. It is binary, there is little space for the liminal spaces of reality. For every stance there is someone to take it down. For every step forward, someone else falls back. What words could possibly help us come to terms with an experience that leaves a woman both vilified and deified, depending on what room she enters?

The spaces in between, where we explore the grey mess of child-bearing (or choosing not to bear children, or being unable to bear children) are where the stories are. But for too long these stories were focused on the white and middle-class. Hewett’s essay also explains the importance of intersectionality in third-wave feminism and its continued examination of motherhood. She is telling us that what is missing from this conversation is the space for voices that, for too often, have been ignored. We need to change the narrative.

Perhaps we need to remove the binaries. We need to see anger, tenderness, life, death, joy, pleasure, monsters, mothers, children, and loneliness as parts of a whole. Instead of looking through a pinhole camera to catch a glimpse of what is both beautiful and terrifying, we need to look wider.

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Amie Souza Reilly holds an M.A. in English Literature from Fordham University. She teaches at Norwalk Community College and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and ten-year-old son. She has published essays in The New Engagement and Entropy, and has flash fiction forthcoming in Toasted Cheese and Pigeonholes. Her blog can be found here: https://theshapeofme.blog.

Nancy Reddy: How I Wrote "Your Best Post-Baby Body" by Peter LaBerge

BY NANCY REDDY

 From Amy Gilmore’s “ Honey Baby ” (Issue Sixteen).

From Amy Gilmore’s “Honey Baby” (Issue Sixteen).

In terms of content, the obvious backdrop to my poem “Your Best Post-Baby Body,” published in Issue Nine of Foundry, is celebrity baby culture, starting with those insane supermarket checkout headlines about how X celebrity “got her body back” after baby. (Perhaps Beyoncé’s interview in the September Vogue, in which she describes her frenzied efforts at getting back in shape after her first baby and her decision after her twins to take things more slowly, will mark a change in coverage of celebrity moms and their bodies. I can’t say I’m optimistic on that count.)

But I’d rather talk here about craft, and how the postpartum body—my own postpartum bod—helped me to think differently about my work.

After giving birth, my primary experience of my body was as an unreliable, boundary-less blob. (“Motherhood frays my edges,” writes Carmen Giménez Smith in Bring Down the Little Birds.) When I was away from the baby for too long, I’d leak milk through my shirt. When he cried, milk through my shirt. When he slept too long at night, milk all over the bed. (This almost never happened, mostly because he almost never slept very long.) I bled for four weeks after his birth, like a nightmare never-ending period. The first time I tried to go for a run after I was cleared for exercise at my postpartum checkup, I peed right through my pants, the result of a pelvic floor weakened by pregnancy and labor. I cried all the time, sometimes for relatively good reasons, sometimes not. All of this is within the rather broad range of normal for a postpartum body, though I wish I’d known then what I know now about pelvic floor physical therapy, which really should be standard care for every postpartum woman.)

My own postpartum body was an untrustworthy, leaky container, and I’ve become interested in the poem as a porous container. This poem was one way to test that out: how much did I think a poem could contain? Could I write about the troubled saint Christina and J. Lo in the same poem? What might the connections be between the teenaged female saints whose path to sainthood so often entailed self-starvation and my own adolescent desire to make myself small and unassailable?

Erika Meitner’s poems, which so often move between the intimate and the ordinary and broad national issues, have helped me to think about how expansive a poem can be, how much of the world it can let in. “Porto, Portare, Portavi,” the last poem from Copia, moves from airports to the wars to Iraq and Afghanistan to the death of a neighbor and the heartbreak of secondary infertility; “In Defense of the Empty Chaos Required for Preparation” places the murder of Philando Castile alongside Meitner’s fears for the safety of her own black son. I think also of Sarah Vap’s aphorisms, which, she explains in her Commonplace interview with Rachel Zucker, developed as she allowed her children’s interruptions to enter the poems, rather than making a dividing line between the domestic and the world of art. (I especially like the ones in The Spectacle and The Nashville Review.)

In addition to wanting my own poems to become more porous, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the female body as it appears in poems. It took reading two poems by Rachel Mennies, published in Adroit last summer, to get some critical awareness about how I’d been positioning the female bodies in my work. “The Teenage Girl Understands” and “Kneeling,” which take a blow job and bulimia as their respective subjects, are each knockout poems, but together they’re even more compelling, even more unsettling. They make me think about the work (as Rachel puts it) we ask our bodies to do, and how destructive that labor can be. And they pushed me to think more critically about the bodies in my own work. My first book was full of bodies, often my body—but always posed, always consumable and attuned to an outside gaze.

I’m interested now in making space for the unsexy female body, and I hope this poem and this essay are a start. I’m trying to extend the tenderness with which I handled my tiny newborn’s body to own wracked body, my own altered postpartum brain and writing life. These are not just personal or domestic matters. It’s also a project for the craft and practice of poetry.

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Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Pleiades, Blackbird, the Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

The unholy idol of narrative: A Conversation with Alice Bolin by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Alice Bolin, author of  Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession  (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, a New York Times Editor's Choice and  recipient of a Kirkus Star. Her nonfiction appears in publications including The New York Times, ELLE, Vulture, and Tin House. She is assistant professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis.

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I fully admit it—I’m drawn to dead girl stories. It’s an easy pull given that so much of our popular culture employs the trope for entertainment. Dead girl stories are quite literally everywhere. As a thriller writer who has used the trope in my own writing, I was jazzed to read Alice Bolin’s critical essay collection, Dead Girls. What I found was a collection about so much more. Bolin uses the dead girl trope as an entrance into a journey, one that leads the reader through an Americana of popular culture, which expertly turns back around to examine itself. I was thrilled to have the chance to ask Bolin a few questions about her latest work.

Meredith Doench: The collection of Dead Girls covers so many different topics—it’s fascinating to see how they all eventually come together. How did you determine the structure for the book and what were your goals in the ordering of the essays? I’ve heard you refer to the book as the “unholy idol of narrative.” Could you explain what you mean by that and how it fits into the structure of your collection?   

Alice Bolin: The four sections of the book are mostly organized by similarities in topic—the first mostly about true crime and violence against women, the second about Los Angeles, the third about witchcraft and sisterhood, and the fourth a long essay thinking about when I moved to LA and the politics of white femininity. But I do intend for there to be sort of an evolution through the sections. I start out the way readers might expect, talking very explicitly about Dead Girls, but I didn’t want to dwell there. I wanted to try to find a way out—and I model that in the book, straying farther from the “Dead Girl” theory as I go on. I also wanted there to be a way in the book for me to reflect and revise what came before. In the introduction and in the last essay I was able to look at the first essays I wrote in the book and question the assumptions that undercut them.

In the first essay I say that Dead Girls are sacrifices to “the unholy idol of narrative,” meaning that one excuse for killing girls in pop culture is that “it’s a good story.” Today’s humans are addicted to stories, and we probably consume more of them than at any time in history. And these narratives help us to abstract and metabolize pain, like that of living in a violent, misogynist culture. I do see an overarching narrative in my book, but it’s obviously fragmented, out of order, doubling back on itself. I don’t necessarily want it to read smooth. I want the reader to be aware of their experience of reading it.

MD: I was very keen on interviewing you not only because I love works of cultural criticism, but also because the dead girl trope touches on my own work. One aspect of my writing is a lesbian thriller series where the first two books feature a string of “dead girls.” Your book has given me a lot to think about in this regard. You talk about how the dead girl trope can be found in genre and literary styles of writing. What responsibilities do you think an author has to her audience (and possibly culture) when working with this type of trope? Do you think there is any difference in responsibility between genre and literary writers?      

AB: This is a really interesting question. I think that a writer has both ethical and artistic responsibilities to her audience, meaning that she should tell a good story without also telling a damaging one. This is at the heart of my criticism of the Dead Girl story. That it’s not only politically suspect—the catalyst is a teenage girl body quite literally objectified—but also artistically lazy. If we’ve seen it a million times before, is it still a good story? So I think we can follow both our artistic and political instincts to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of this genre. There are a million ways to subvert or complicate this trope narratively, and quite often doing that creates a much fresher and more interesting product.

I think genre writers actually more often push the boundaries of these narrative formulas, because they are so self-referential and allusive—they take it as their duty to comment on and play with the genre conventions.

MD: I think that your father and I might be cut from the same cloth, at least in terms of our reading tastes! I was touched by the descriptions of your father’s personality and his active reading style. In many ways, the descriptions of your father reveal a lot about you. Was it difficult to incorporate such personal relationships and experiences in a book that also feels very academic at times?  

AB: It was difficult, though my relationship with my dad was the least difficult to write about, especially because he took a pretty active role in the writing process. I interviewed both him and my mom and let them read and give notes on the first draft of the essay. My dad loves the essay and keeps rereading it. He is such a ham and likes being one of the stars of the book.

I think to be a nonfiction writer you have to tell yourself that your relationships and experiences are yours to write about in whatever way you choose, but I’m not sure that’s true—I’m still working on not stepping on or appropriating other people’s stories when turning them into characters.

MD: One of my favorite parts about the book is that it brings up issues of writing—in particular, creative nonfiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about the question you ask regarding how you can use the form of the personal narrative without it using the writer. This “meta” question turns the reader’s eye toward the artist’s structure and choices of what to include (and exclude). In some ways, it is like your discussion of how the dead girl trope works. How does your work invite readers to pay attention and consider exactly what they are reading and watching (i.e. consuming)? Do you see what some might call the “blind consumption” of popular culture connecting with crimes against women and minorities in American culture?       

AB: It is really gratifying that you connected with this part of the book! By talking explicitly about the ethics of nonfiction and my specific aims with the book, I am not only inviting people to think about the ways the essays were created, but to take my conclusions with a grain of salt. I want to allow myself room to think things through and to change my mind, and to let my readers do the same. You’re right that one goal I had with the book was to encourage people to be more mindful consumers of popular culture, thinking about what trends and repeated narratives say about our values, and why we are drawn to what we are. I don’t think that that is going to solve all of our cultural problems—in fact it is probably the last place we should start if we want to end gun violence or violence against women or police brutality. But if our culture is a mirror on our values, we can clearly see the problems of our society by watching and reading more critically.

MD: In the not-so-distant wake of reports that Sherman Alexie has continually sexually harassed (his word, in his written statement, was “harmed”) women in the literary communities in which he was a part (and a HUGE name within), how do you feel about including Alexie in a book that seeks to illuminate the harm done to women by men? Had the timeline been different, would you have thought to exclude your analysis of Indian Killer as a part of your essay, “Black Hole,” or have you thought about revising the essay to include the reports? Also, you only briefly mention the privilege of the “Dead Girl,” that is the Dead [White] Girl, and I’m wondering why you neglected to include, in further depth, cultural criticism surrounding the murders of women of color and people of non-conforming genders/sexuality and, perhaps especially in “Black Hole,” the murders and disappearances of indigenous women in North America?

AB: I don’t think I would exclude Alexie entirely, but if the timeline were different I would have written about the allegations against him. I’m a critic, and my essays are not endorsements. I still think Alexie is an important, if obnoxious, figure, and the book I focus on, Indian Killer, is his least successful and most bizarre, with tons of gratuitous violence and no satisfying conclusions. Alexie used his institutional clout to prey on people and otherwise behave badly, and I think it’s crucial that he is stripped of that institutional power. But his literary legacy will have to be reckoned with, and had I had the time I would have considered the way his known transgressions reflect on Indian Killer, this troubling and complicated book. Whether that attention might add to his institutional power is a fair question, but that’s basically the minefield I work in every day.

I am talking mostly about fictional violence in the book (or the dramatized world of true crime), and I’m thinking about the reasons the murders of white girls and women hold so much sway in those arenas. In another version of the book, I would have written in more depth about the marginalized victims you mention, but in the end I decided that it was not primarily about murder and violent crime—it’s about Los Angeles, reality TV, witchcraft, writing, and my own experiences. The Dead Girl story becomes more of a case study or a backdrop; a way to understand both the threats and privileges I carry with me through the world and the paradoxical way white women can be both oppressed and oppressor.

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Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.

Against Assimilation: A Conversation with Nicole Chung by Peter LaBerge

BY ADORA SVITAK

 Nicole Chung, author of  All You Can Ever Know  (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018).

Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in October 2018 and named a best book of the season by The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, TIME, Newsday, ELLE, the Today Show, and more. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Slate, Longreads, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt, among many others. She is the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. Find her on Twitter @nicole_soojung.

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Adora Svitak: Your own journey of becoming a mother dovetailed with your discovery of your birth family. What did looking for them mean for you as you were expecting?

Nicole Chung: I had thought about looking for my birth family for years, ever since I was a kid, and yet at the same time I never seriously thought about it. I didn’t know how you would go about doing it. Sometimes people would say to me, “Have you ever thought about going on a TV talk show? They can find your birth parents for you.” And I’ve seen that—the reunions on television or private investigators—but it all just seemed so unlikely to me. I thought about it in the way I thought about any fantasy.

Becoming pregnant was that final push because for the first time, I had to think about the kind of parent I would be in a very real sense. Until you see the positive sign on the pregnancy test, it’s still very hypothetical. I kept coming back to these questions: what was my birth family really like, and why did they give me up?

Practically, there were also medical issues I wanted to know about. In my first prenatal appointment, they asked me questions about my family medical history and I had no idea how to answer. It was scary, and I remember thinking I should maybe try to find out more—not just for this pregnancy and the birth, but for after. What sort of questions will my child have? How can I provide those answers when I don't have them?

AS: You’ve written that thinking about race and identity for you started in college—can you expand on why that was?

NC: One reason was having the intellectual maturity to recognize when people said casually racist things to me. Growing up, I was pretty ignorant of when a microaggression was even happening to me. Remembering the stories now, it seems so obvious—kids pulled their eyes back or called me actual slurs. Eventually, I was able to recognize that as racism. But it took time to recognize the more casual things: people complimenting your English, always asking where you’re from, or the very particular type of microaggression adoptees get, which is hearing, “You’re so lucky to be raised here.” People would say to me, “You might have been murdered or something or abandoned or left in the street if you’d been raised in Asia—who knows if you’d be valued as a girl!” Well-meaning. But also gross. By college I could recognize those remarks for what they were. College was the first place where I had lots of friends of color; that had never been my experience growing up where I did in Oregon.

I was also a history major, and I don’t think there’s a way to study history without becoming very aware of systems of oppression. I had great professors who didn’t just say, “This all happened in the past.” They said, “[These injustices] happened here and this is why we still live with them, why they’re not gone.”

AS: There’s a lot of debate about what multiculturalism should look like in our society. I’m thinking here of the clash between Trevor Noah and the French ambassador, and assimilation versus hyphenated identities. How do you think questions of identity should be negotiated in multicultural society?

NC: When I talk to my kids, I don’t want them to feel that they have to choose between different parts of their heritage. They’re Korean and Irish and Lebanese. I don’t want them to feel like they have to hide or partition parts off. They are whole people, not fractions of this or that. America puts a lot of pressure on people of color and immigrants to assimilate, to not talk as much about race, not make such a big deal out of racism. Yet at the same time, as an adoptive person who was completely assimilated, I can say that assimilation doesn’t save you from anything or anybody. I couldn’t have been raised any whiter. I still experienced racism my whole life. Of course it is never enough for people, even if you are fully assimilated. So I think we shouldn’t [assimilate]. People should obviously do what makes them happy. I’m not worried about trying to please or trying to fit in because no matter what you do, for a lot of assholes, you will not ever be enough. So there’s a freedom now that comes from realizing that, a freedom to be who I am—and to try and teach my children to be who they are.

AS: When you write about your adoptive family in All You Can Ever Know, you mention they had a sort of “color-blind” attitude. What is the kind of attitude you wish white parents of children of color would take?

NC: It’s hard. I didn’t write the book to be prescriptive in any way, and I’m not an expert; there are counselors and social workers who specialize in interracial adoption. But speaking as a lay person and as a parent: we have to have hard conversations about race. And I think it is important for kids to not grow up as the only one [person of color in their community] if there’s any way to avoid it. I know it’s a privilege to think about moving or changing schools, churches, or community organizations. But you as a parent have to empathize with your children,  look at things from their perspective. Parents do this automatically. Before I go into a situation, I think—for both my kids, but especially my younger daughter who’s autistic—how they might experience that space. Is there a way that I can help prepare her for it? Is it a space that maybe isn’t the best for her, that she doesn’t need to be in?

We know from studies that many white parents of white children avoid talking to their kids about race. They may think that just raising them to be generally kind and tolerant is enough. We know it’s not enough. I know a lot of adoptive parents who love talking with their kids about culture and heritage but really struggle when they’re trying to talk about racism and bigotry and oppression. But if you’re really interrogating your connections, communities, your social circle and your family, you have some hard conversations. And you should bring them up; don’t wait for your child to always bring it up. They need to know from the time they’re verbal that it’s a topic, and that they can share their feelings or their questions. Not just about race but about adoption. They shouldn’t have to feel the burden is always on them to ask these questions, or to comfort you or make you feel like everything is great. Because that doesn’t make these problems we have as a country go away. Be honest and forthright. It’s difficult work. But it’s necessary.

AS: Knowing what you know now, is there any advice that you would give your younger self?

NC: I wish I’d had a word for what was happening to me throughout school—that I’d known to call that racism. At that time I thought of racism as something that looked so different, something in the past. And growing up in a white, conservative, and religious family, it took me a long time to start questioning certain things I was raised with. As an adoptee, I was sort of outsider in my family. Sometimes I didn’t agree with certain views, but the pressure to be “one of them” and to fit in—even within my own family—was so great, and I’d be the only one pushing back on certain topics. It was really hard to do that over and over, to be the only one. Often I just didn’t want to do it. I wish I had known it was okay to feel differently about these things in my family—looking back, the reason I felt differently was really obvious.

AS: Did you read any other memoirs that really inspired you while you were developing your book’s form and structure?

NC: I went in not knowing. You have an outline when you propose, but my book looks pretty different than my original outline. Structure was the hardest part of this. I wish I was the kind of writer who could read other people’s brilliant work and think, “Oh yeah, I totally see how they did that.” But I experience books I’m reading in the moment, so while writing I honestly wasn’t looking to any particular other books for form and structure. I’m teaching a class right now on this and this is everyone’s number one question: how do you figure out the structure? This was hard—I muddled through. I finished writing it in a year, and then had a few months where I took it apart and restructured.

AS: As a memoir by an Asian-American adoptee, All You Can Ever Know is groundbreaking in a number of ways. Why aren’t there more books like it?

NC: There are few memoirs by Asian-Americans. There’s Woman Warrior, and Amy Tan’s memoir just came out last year, and some others, but there weren’t a whole lot of examples when I started writing. And this book is very different than a lot of other books about adoption, because the discourse around adoption has been dominated for so long by people who aren’t adopted. Other people have told our stories for us or said what they should mean. So I really hope that if this book is at all successful, that it opens the door for more stories. As we continue to have an evolving conversation about adoption and transracial adoption in particular, I hope that the voices of adopted people are centered.

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Adora Svitak received her B.A. from UC Berkeley, where she majored in Development Studies and minored in South Asian Studies and Creative Writing (taking workshops with Vikram Chandra, Kaya Oakes, and Joyce Carol Oates). She was editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Political Review, and has previously contributed to Bust, TED, Social Science Matrix, Women’s Media Center, the Bold Italic, Slackjaw, Edutopia, and the Huffington Post.

Fighting for an Education in Bronzeville: A Review of Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard by Peter LaBerge

BY JACOB PAGANO

 Eve L. Ewing’s  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side  is out from University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side is out from University of Chicago Press, 2018.

As a freshman at Amherst College in 2014, one of the most transformative courses I took was David Delaney’s “Race, Place, and the Law.” The seminar, cross-listed in LJST (Law, Jurisprudence, Social Thought) and Black Studies, considered how the formation of certain places, from neighborhoods to voting districts to police precincts, was not only impacted by race, but had themselves created distinctive racial geographies. Physical places such as these, Delaney argued, were never just localities. Rather, they were constructed by discriminatory policies, prejudices, and, equally important, attempts by activists and organizers to reclaim a sense of community and agency. A housing section in Bronzeville, Chicago, for example, is imbedded with histories of racial segregation. For many residents, the neighborhood also has other meanings—it is a place of shared community and history, what theorist G. Lipsitz calls the “black spatial imaginary.”  

In a new study, Ghosts in The Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (2018, University of Chicago Press), Eve L. Ewing, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Service Administration, carefully examines one of the most disruptive, and racially-charged, changes to Chicago’s spatial geography in recent years: the closing of public schools in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood and the resilient fight by community organizers, students, and activists to keep them open.

Ewing, a former schoolteacher in Bronzeville—a neighborhood which has historically been a center of black artistic and musical life (Gwendolyn Brooks, Sam Cooke, and Lou Rawls all were either were born or grew up there) —began this project in 2013, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an unprecedented closure of nearly 330 Chicago schools. Emanuel and his appointed school chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, argued that closures were economically motivated, a fiscal response to “underutilized schools,” and had nothing to do with race.

Ewing emphatically contests that notion. “88 percent of the students who would be affected,” she points out in her introduction, were black, while “90 percent of the schools that would be closed were majority black.”

For Ewing, two questions immediately emerge from these statistics, and they frame the stakes of her project. First, she asks “What role did race, power, and history play in what was happening in [her] hometown?”  Second, she poses a question that we might paraphrase as: Why, if the schools were underperforming, did parents and students launch campaigns to keep them open?

Working with a diverse set of methodological approaches—field observations, statistical analyses, interviews with community members, and the occasional reference to race theorists—Ewing begins to answer those questions by providing a comprehensive account of the history of housing and schooling in Chicago’s South Side, specifically in Bronzeville.

The short version of that history begins in the 1950s and ‘60s, when many of the schools that Emanuel proposed to close—such as Dyett High School and the William J. And Charles H. Mayo Elementary School—were first opened. Because of the Chicago Housing Authority’s racially-motivated building projects and draconian enforcement of restrictive covenants, Bronzeville was one of the few places black families could live. Racial makeup of the schools reflected that; schooling and housing became enmeshed in a “double-helix”-like relationship. Meanwhile, with the surge in immigration from the South to Chicago in post-War years, there were burgeoning numbers of students, and Dyett and Mayo were often at maximum capacity.

Such schools, as Chapter I (“What a School Means”) explores, quickly grew into more than just educational institutions, serving as the center of cultural and community life, preserving historical memory, and giving parents a true sense of empowerment in their children’s academic futures. Dyett High, for example, was named in 1972 after Walter Henri Dyett, a famous violinist and educator in Bronzeville, as an homage to a tradition of black excellence. The school became “a tacit way of celebrating community itself,” a “place of care, a home...its very existence... a testimony to the history of black education in Bronzeville.”

So when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced the closure of Dyett in 2013, and when parents received a letter saying that “Dyett has been chronically underperforming” and had too few students, community organizers immediately proclaimed moral outrage and quickly formed a Coalition to Revitalize Dyett. The school had long been a “stable institution” to the community, and parents believed that the only reason it was underperforming was because CPS itself had failed to provide adequate funding. And what was the reason for the drop in students? That was indeed a product of the racialized housing policy, which had concentrated a disproportionate number of black families in the area. By closing, rather than rehabilitating, the school, CPS seemed to participate in a long history of racial discrimination that restructured African-American spaces and institutions without the consent of residents.

Because Ewing has close connections with the community itself, and because she gained the trust of its organizers, she writes with an intimate narrative force, avoiding, as the Chicago aphorism goes, the opposition to outsiders and the sense that  “we don’t want nobody sent by nobody.” Ewing is “somebody” in the community, and we hear directly from leaders and students in the resistance movements—which involved long negotiations and a hunger strike. When we learn that the movement achieved real success, the potential of community organizing resonates with strong emotional energy. Dyett closed as a high school in 2015, but re-opened in 2016 as Dyett High School For The Arts.

Other schools in Bronzeville, such as Overton, Williams, and Mayo, were less fortunate. All of them are now closed, and those who would have been students there face perilous educational futures. Many have to bus long distances to schools where, research suggests, they face difficult environments and often perform worse.

Ewing’s fourth chapter thus takes up the topic of “Institutional Mourning,” a neologism to convey the experience communities face during the “loss of a shared institution.” That kind of mourning, Ewing argues, occupies a special place is black communities; it participates in a long history of oral storytelling and testifying that refuses to let racist, authoritarian policies eradicate one’s narrative. Mourning is a way of remembering what once was, and what might be again.

Equal parts historical narration and intimate, journalist-style engagement with the people whose lives the closings affect, Ghosts closely builds upon recent work in critical race studies, revealing how ongoing histories and patterns of racism have intersected with, and impeded, both educational opportunities and civic power. In many ways, it is reminiscent of projects like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s seminal 2014 study in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” which traces the history of Chicago’s racialized housing policy and calculates the monetary loss it caused for black families. But where Coates is looking at concrete displacement, Ewing is considering something far more abstract: the value of an education and school in one’s own community.

It is both in her probing questions of what education means to socio-economically disadvantaged racialized communities and in her incisive challenge of political rhetoric that obfuscates or deflects from racial issues that Ewing offers us not only a site-specific study of Chicago, but one pertinent to broader questions of schooling in racialized worlds.  “Across the country, at the highest levels of decision-making power,” Ewing writes, “we see education policies that value neoliberal ideologies over the lives of children—especially when the children are black.”

Her arguments throughout are hard to contest, crystallizations of both data and theories from the likes of George Lipsitz, Judith Butler, and Derrick Bell. The only area where Ghosts left me wanting further insight was in regards to the kinds of housing policies and models which might begin to supplant that employed by Chicago’s Public Schools.

If more community schools are to be kept open, for example, how can cities ensure that they thrive? How can such schools become more attractive to colleges and ensure that their students are receiving top educations without sacrificing their neighborhood or community value?

Ultimately, Ghost’s success lies in the fact that Ewing deftly and convincingly writes from myriad perspectives—as a teacher concerned for students, a researcher with an eye to statistics, and a Chicagonian devoted to bearing witness and testifying to injustice. Advocate and journalist, theorist and sociological observer, she thus creates a multi-dimensional portrait of the students and activist fighting in an ongoing struggle of injustice and resistance.

It deserves a spot on the bookshelf of any policymaker, activist, and certainly in the college classroom.

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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.

Book as Chaotic Good: A Conversation with Erin Hoover by Peter LaBerge

BY AVNI VYAS

 Erin Hoover, author of  Barnburner  ( Elixir Press , 2018).

Erin Hoover, author of Barnburner (Elixir Press, 2018).

Erin Hoover’s debut poetry collection, Barnburner, was selected by Kathryn Nuernberger for Elixir Press's Antivenom Award. Individual poems from Barnburner have appeared in The Best American Poetry and Best New Poets series, and in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Pleiades. Hoover has served as past editor of the Southeast Review, volunteer for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and co-founder of the literary organization Late Night Library. She earned a Ph.D. from Florida State University and currently teaches first-year writing.

Barnburner was released in October 2018 and is available for purchase from Small Press Distribution.

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Avni Vyas: Let me first just say how cool it is to read your collection from start to finish. There were poems I’d seen published in journals, one of which I remember emailing you about years ago (“What Is the Sisterhood to Me?”) because I simply couldn’t get it out of my head. So pardon my exuberance. It’s always an intimate act, reading the work of someone you know “off the page” rather than someone you only interact with through their work.

In the epigraph, we learn about the concept of a “barnburner,” and it helps frame the argument of the book, both in the external world the speaker inhabits, but also the speaker’s own interiority. Where, in the process of this book, did the idea of the barnburner emerge for you?

Erin Hoover: Everyone who read the book in early drafts, before it was titled, seemed to pull something different from the manuscript: it was a feminist book, or it was concerned with modernity in addressing technology and environmental degradation, or it was like a break-up letter to the working class town where I grew up. I wanted it to be all of those things, not point to one of them. This left me with trying to think more thematically in terms of the book’s emotional content, the tone that I felt tied the poems together. The word origins of barnburner have not only to do with anger, but with self-destruction, which appealed to me not in the sense of personal choice—a person who is self-destructive—but as a driver of American culture. I think the barnburner spirit exists not only in the content of stories, but in extreme rhetorical positions, where politically, you’ve got to dial yourself up to eleven to even be heard. I’m always wondering what people pick up from the book, politically.

AV: I enjoy how you characterize barnburning and how the speaker internalizes it, self-sabotage to earnestly be rid of something—a political framework, a history, a civilization—in order to start over. In Hindu mythology, there’s this concept of the Nataraja, who I’ve always considered a barnburner. Nartaraj is an incarnation of Shiva who appeared on Earth (according to seventh-century poets) in order to disrupt the power held by corrupt sages and rulers. Nataraj defeats his enemies by dancing the earth into flames, calling forth the end of an old era.

EH: Most of the poems have to do with the failure of some ideal that was once held very closely by the people who populate them; I don’t mean nostalgia, but basic social contract stuff around how to value your partner or the worth of work. On the other hand, I hope that readers will see that Barnburner is full of people who are trying to make real connections with one another in the midst of chaotic moral territory, from the first poem where the speaker is trying to subvert the call center script to the last poem where the robber we’re supposed to be afraid of in the poem extends kindness to the pathetic “Valkyrie” character, and vice versa.

AV: Poets have incredible power in engaging politics, and I think Barnburner rises to this occasion, indicating that language helps us identify what to burn down, and language gives us room to start over.

For instance, in the poem “PR Opportunity at the Food Bank,” the speaker questions the larger framework for this “opportunity.” (“This interview / shouldn't be an interrogation, / but with the room's folding table and awful / light bulb, two white people, / me and a journalist, it's clear screws // will be put.”) Then, the speaker finally identifies the question everyone wants answered: “Who is responsible for your poverty?” As a reader, I could see this question being asked all along by the poem, but when it confronts the reader like that, you can't help but engage your own assumptions within that narrative: how am I disenfranchised? am I protected? how have I contributed to others' poverty? The poem openly engages a discomfort and vulnerability we need to better understand, especially in such a politically exhausting time. Do you think poems have a political responsibility or play a role in the process of affecting political change?

EH: In political spheres, language is sometimes used to make the suffering of other people palatable to an audience. As someone who worked in communications for a long time, it is exhausting for me to listen to politicians and pundits because the obfuscation is so apparent. I believe in using language to articulate issues of authentic concern through the vehicle of story. I think this is one reason that in my poems, I have been determined to talk as plainly as I could. For all of the reasons you mention, “PR Opportunity at the Food Bank,” deals very directly with the relationship between language and meaning and the theory and praxis of activism. (“Recalibration” is another poem that I would put in that category.) I want to live an ethical life, and I think that people who will like this book want to engage with how to do that.

I really like what you have to say about Barnburner in some part illustrating the potential capability of poetic language to affect change. Poetry has a limited audience, yes, but that audience is growing, and I think poetry is intersecting more now with other forms of cultural production, so that poems might have some kind of reverberating effect.

AV: It seems, too, that the people in the poems are aware of the limitations of our best intentions as a way to provide for each other. The poems present a constantly shifting tectonic landscape—how do we provide for each other when even the ground won’t stay still?  (“Every party / has a fulcrum, everyone in control / and then no one” from “If You Are Confused…”) The speaker’s interiority and rhetorical questions offer some idea as to the desire of these connections.

EH: I have to admit that I don’t have a very unified theory of the speaker to present; I think it’s the most complicated part of Barnburner, for some of the reasons you identified. I’m wary of identifying her too closely with me, in part because of a national obsession with seeking out the autobiographical threads in women’s writing. Regarding so-called Confessional Poetry, what most people miss are the other aspects of craft that you are going to have to engage to write about the contents of your life. Narrative figuration is a craft I have worked hard to learn; I don’t think that the experiences that I have had are inherently interesting. In Barnburner, there isn’t intended to be narrative arc where we as readers come to a realization. At first I played around with trying to do something like that, but it wasn’t how the poems were written. If the book had a character alignment, it would be “chaotic good.”  

AV: Yes! The poems in Barnburner are seductive in a rhetorical way; they beg unanswerable questions. The subjects—sex, drugs, power—are all intoxicants, and the poems treat these themes accordingly, in moves that are all lovelorn, heartbreaking, scorned. For me, the poems some people may read as lurid reveal the stakes of the speakers, and indeed, the stakes of Barnburner as a whole. (“If You Are Confused…”, “What Kind of Deal...”, and “Takedown” are representative poems of this kind.) Stakes of power, consent, and desire are textured and detailed, which the poems establish for its reader organically. In terms of sexuality, I think of the violence and antipathy enacted by systems onto individuals. To characterize the book as lurid would be to miss the revolt and upheaval in the collection.

In the poem “Girls,” the speaker wades into the territory of desire and acceptance. The turn in the poem comes for me when the speaker declares: “I wanted to be a woman / who could Take Back the Night Somewhere, // hang with those bad bitches at Seneca Falls, / but I’d kissed a drummer from Staten Island / for no better reason than he chose me.” Rather than position the speaker’s desire to be accepted against her desire to be a badass, I appreciate that the poem calls out the temptation to separate those desires in the first place. Can you describe the “absurd position of having been found”?

EH: I’m glad you brought up that line. I intended “Girls” to be a poem that made sense on the narrative level but also lay out a theory of feminism that people could dig into if they wanted, and that is mostly accomplished through the speaker’s internal monologue as she moves through the drama of the poem. While I stand by the job I did evoking the atmospheric messiness of backstage, my interest isn’t really in what happens there, but what the speaker’s intense reaction to it, both an embrace of third-wave, postmodern feminism (the line you mention) and yet a longing for the first- and second-wave feminism of yore in earlier lines. And then it gets highly rhetorical at the end in a way that I hope I pull off as a rejection of gender essentialism. I started writing it after watching the show Girls, which for a while was a real cultural touch point, though I’m glad that I took most of the original references to the show out of the poem.

AV: If Barnburner is a kind of call to action (I read it that way, especially in the penultimate poem, “With Gratitude to Those Who Have Made This Book Possible”: “My job // is to notice”), what kind of action would you want it to be?

EH: That line was meant to clarify the ones before and after it, which describe the overlap between New York’s leisure class and its culture class. As someone who has been adjacent to those people, I have to say, I’m not shocked when we don’t get the literature we need to help us change our toxic culture, because often producers of culture benefit from the status quo. I think the stakes for writing now should be as high as we deserve. And I think part of what we need to do is observe what is actually happening. What are the real and imperfect contents of people’s lived lives? What are our struggles? What does injustice look like?  Real change is usually messy and I really believe that poetry can help us think it through.

AV: When you call your speaker chaotic good character (yes!!), it made me think of how the speaker embraces chaos in many of the poems. Barnburner includes drugs among one of its topics, and in my reading, this serves to deepen arguments around a larger cultural anxiety and escapism. However, Barnburner doesn’t centralize addiction as one of its primary focuses, nor offer a resolution about their role, for instance in “Science Fiction: A Love Poem”: “But what if // there is no evolution, / beyond the good days / of the dope we share and its reliable / result?”

EH: Early readers of the manuscript criticized it for not having something to say about hard drug use, although drugs appeared in the poems, sort of like the rule about Chekhov’s gun. What I wanted to get across instead is how atmospheric opioids can become to a person's life or to the life of their community.  Like what if the drugs weren’t equivalent to a gun, but the color a wall was painted in a scene? At the same time, I was really fascinated by how drug economies work, the communities that form around using. In many ways they parallel legal economics and communities, the difference being that from outside there is this notion that drug addiction is a moral failing, the very definition of not being able to resist a temptation. But of course anyone who knows anything about drugs from a sociological perspective knows that hard drug use is usually about a million other things, and to view them as a matter of individual failing gets a lot of people whose problem this really should be off the hook. Anyway, the more I talk about Barnburner, the more I think about the vision of morality it presents, and in the book, drugs are amoral, in that the people who do them aren't bad or good, necessarily. I hope readers won’t fault the book for not engaging with the way drugs hurt people, locally or even globally. I can only say that the book wasn’t about those issues.

AV: We’re seeing a fascinating moment in the literary landscape where the democratization of the Internet has undone some of the artifices of gatekeeping in traditional publishing models. I think I welcome the floodgates opening because writers and readers are finding one another more immediately without having to go through a publisher. I'm fascinated by this moment where readers celebrate, say, Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur. Kazim Ali identifies this interesting position: “Kaur’s verses—okay, okay, her poems—are simple and yes, I would say, simplistic, but they are obviously resonating with a wide and deep audience.” Regardless of the work’s effectiveness, the social response to poems becomes just as important as the work itself. In your experience, which texts “mentored” Barnburner? Were there particular writers or collections that guided or influenced the book? Who are you reading these days?

EH: Very early on in my “career” writing poems, I decided that it was important for me that an audience connect with what I had written. If I didn’t think I could interest someone else, I wasn’t interested. I often think about how the life of an individual might intersect with phenomena people share in common. For instance, part of my origin story as a poet is that I was two months old when Three Mile Island happened, a baby living in a shadow of a potential nuclear disaster whose lack of agency was only surpassed by that of the adults around her, who didn’t have the money to leave central Pennsylvania. That accident impacted my childhood in a few ways, in that I think I have always mistrusted my environment—there was always this sense that my safety was subject to an invisible danger. So of course that’s a topic I’m going to write about (“Nobody Wanted Such a River,” “The Evacuation Shadow”), not only because it’s compelling to me, but I think metaphorically will work for a reader processing their own dangers.

In her introduction to Barnburner, Kathryn Nuernberger made a very apt comparison to Robert Frost, who was a poet very conscious of wanting to write for people; he was a genius not only of the rhythms of the line but of telling stories, of developing characters. I also think that books that explore the way that the contents of an individual life or a place become part of mythology are in kinship with mine, such as Muriel Rukeyer’s Book of the Dead, and more recently, Claudia Emerson’s Secure the Shadow. I was reading these books as wrote Barnburner in a way I can’t confess to reading Frost. I was also reading Plath, who hardly shows up in interviews like this anymore—because we are all supposed to know Plath—though I think that people who read Barnburner will see her under the surface of my book.

After I’d already written Barnburner, I read Troy, Michigan by Wendy S. Walters, and I admired the way Walters connects psyche and place—what a masterful book! I also will read anything written by Monica Youn, out of pure admiration, because I think she is obsessed with the way words sound and the way they resonate, with the etymology of words and ideas. As Youn’s interest in language seems influenced by studying law, my work is in some ways drawn out of my prior career in public relations.

I tried to organize the book conscious of how a reader would see it, in terms of pace, looking at poem length, considering the perspectives in the poems. I wanted to create a book that was more successful as a book than that poems were in their component parts. In a way, it was easier for me, because although I’d written the book poem by poem not thinking of them as parts of a whole, the worldview of the poems was consistent. Getting back to what you said about Rupi Kaur, I wanted Barnburner to be readable, I wanted people to like reading it, the same way I picked up Sharon Olds’ Satan Says when I was on a break from my high school job at a bookstore and couldn’t put it down. That guided my decisions as much as wanting to tell of the racist patriarchy or make a critique of late-stage capitalism.

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Avni Vyas is a poet living and writing in Florida. Her poetry can be found in journals such as Grist, Meridian, River Styx, Juked, Crab Orchard Review, Gargoyle, Better Magazine, and others. With Anne Barngrover, she is the author of the poetry chapbook Candy in Our Brains (CutBank). She is an Instructor of Writing at New College of Florida.

Melanie Finn: How I Wrote The Underneath by Peter LaBerge

BY MELANIE FINN

  The Underneath  ( Two Dollar Radio , 2018), by Melanie Finn.

The Underneath (Two Dollar Radio, 2018), by Melanie Finn.

She is young, 22, her make-up smudged, racoon-ish. She wears a tank top and jeans, unwashed, bra straps showing, rubbing her bare shoulders. Her shoes are the giveaway: scuffed, leaky sneakers, laces undone. I see her clearly, as she passes me, oh, I take her in, the smell of her, dandruff, cigarettes, the clinging odor of closed, dark rooms, of a creature kept underground.

Her shoulders, I think, should have sunburn, should be exposed to the sun by a lake somewhere, a reservoir where kids like her go and drink too much and plot their escape. Not ferreted in, as she is, room to car to room, her skin the color of mushrooms.

He’s ratcheted to her side, black t-shirt, low-slung jeans, a facial hair arrangement that hints at individuation. He has a sense of his particular self, his own life, his face and he looks at himself in the mirror, in that brief plateau between the high and the jones, when he feels, loves, regrets, yearns, hopes intensely. He takes a razor and chooses the side-burns, the narrow strip on the cleft of his chin. Then he erases himself with smack.

They move past me, they don’t even notice me, they are thinking only of the second floor, Skink or Bunty or Shifty, whatever his name, with his wares, whatever they are, bundles, eight balls, dime bags, tabs. I know because I have been in such motels, seeking such wares from such Buntys. I was once familiar with the underneath.

But now I am here, hand-in-hand with my dazzling twin daughters, I’m an actual paying guest at this motel, I will shower in it, sleep in it. Tomorrow I will get in my new Subaru Outback and we will drive away. No one will ask me to suck dick if I can’t pay.

So, this moment, her passing me, is where a book begins, because she turns slightly. Seconds—all this is happening is perhaps five seconds; we forget how the brain attends on many levels, and a book is about opening up those seconds, exploiting those levels and using the dark matter within as you wish. There is no exact word for this process; theft, manipulation, disfigurement—none quite convey the ruthless appropriation by a writer of another person’s experience, the turning and twisting it, like a glass blower, into narrative. In those moments, I am hardly human, I’m a soul-stealer.

This girl, my prey, I cannot see her eyes, they’re buried inside clumpy mascara, but I know she regards me, I have this sense she is trying to speak, she has a message. A plea?

Child.

She turns, moves on, as if on wheels, pulled by steel cables, into the motel. I turn, on my wheels, pulled by my cables. I see her child. He is sitting in the back seat of her shit-box Pajero, no seat belt, a hat and jacket, filthy and too big. He is five, his eyes gone like a war child, pin pricks. I experience two completely disparate sets of feelings. As a mother: sorrow, anger, pity, concern—does this girl want me to do something, call someone, save her, save the child? As a writer, I am already shamelessly conjuring the lines: of course there was a kid… with what was left of her smacked-out brain, with some remnant of her mother’s love, she’d left him in the car, her child, her asset. She wasn’t selling him. Yet. She wasn’t that far down. Yet. The “yet” was out there, she could perhaps glimpse it in the distance like a dark tower, and therein the dark walls lay all the terrible things she was capable of.

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Melanie Finn was born and raised in Kenya until age 11, when she moved with her family to Connecticut. She lived and worked in six different countries as a freelance journalist and screenwriter for 20 years. In 2004, her first novel, Away From You, was published to international acclaim. The following year, she and her husband, wildlife filmmaker Matt Aeberhard, moved to a remote region of Tanzania to make DisneyNature’s haunting flamingo epic, Crimson Wing. During the filming, Melanie became the medic to the local Masai community and established the Natron Healthcare Project. Her second novel, The Gloaming, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Vermont Book Award. The Underneath is set in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where she now lives with Matt and their twin daughters.

A Vestigial Light in the Hiding Places: A Review of Alicia Mountain's High Ground Coward by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

 Photo credit: Libbie Early. Alicia Mountain,  High Ground Coward  (University of Iowa Press, 2018).

Photo credit: Libbie Early. Alicia Mountain, High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press, 2018).

There’s a particular invisibility to queerness between women, due not only to a lack of cultural representation, but also to the underlying conviction that anything women do without men is inherently dumb, pointless, and boring. Those of us who orient ourselves toward women know otherwise, of course, but we’re so accustomed to this lack that when something actually speaks to our experience, it takes on outsized significance, like a gold coin glinting in a handful of dirt. High Ground Coward is one of these texts, a work that delights in the rich, nuanced connections between queer women while illuminating how we negotiate society’s derision and diminishment.

This collection speaks to “a vestigial light in the hiding places” (“Deadbolt Door Syndrome”), the beautiful, bright worlds queer women build amidst society’s homophobic, heteropatriarchal darkness. Alicia Mountain beautifully illustrates the tension between wanting to be seen and needing to be hidden; her speaker will “steal a red Sharpie from Rite Aid / and write fagz run this town on walls / in plain view” (“Deadbolt Door Syndrome”), but also “never told / until someone / in the crepe paper dark / of a dorm room / sighed and said, / all your desires are sacred” (“Drive Thru”).

One way that Mountain personifies this specific queerness is through doppelgangers or twins. Of course, all marginalized people code-switch to a certain degree, especially in the rural communities where this collection takes place, but I’ve never before seen a collection so deeply engaged with this doubling and how it ruptures the self, even while keeping it safe. Mountain’s poems are full of twins, who will “press me against the kitchen counter, / borrow my shirt for an interview, / betray very little to the houseguests” (“Solitary Tasting”). These shadows are simultaneously self and other, as in “On Being Told to Do Whatever I Want,” where “the twins of us are in love / but won’t say it / and the sound of their sleeping is ice melting in a jar.”

Desire also pulses through this collection like a heartbeat. Queer folks, especially when they’re women (whose sexuality is imagined as passive, an afterthought or myth), are forced to thoroughly investigate their desire, and ultimately, come to a deeper understanding of it, given that they must weave it from whole cloth. As Mountain says in “The Book Is a Hungry Darkness,” “My desires are berries because they are small and many.” Mountain draws attention to “the growing mole on my left breast, in the way a woman / puts her hot tongue to it long enough that I forget / my grandfather’s melanoma, my Aunt Barb’s mastectomy” (“Number Love, My Taxes”). There’s an intimacy that feels exclusive to those moving through the world as women in poems like “Orange Grove and a View of the Pacific,” with “Lily in a belly shirt before / one of us took it off. / This used to be a dress, / she said, I made it.” In some ways, desire is the animating force of queerness, what first tugs us toward a different life, a new community. And there’s a language of desire spoken in our communities, alongside a language of mourning, as in “Deadbolt Door Syndrome,” wherein the speaker asks, “Who am I / to carry loss like a back pocket flag?”

One of the collection’s most affirming threads is the assertion that tenderness is an action—something we give and do—not just something we feel. As Mountain’s speaker says in “Almanac Traction,” “I am trying to show you there is nothing outcast about you.” Even lust expresses itself as tenderness in poems like “Remember Driving to Salt Lake City,” “you remember waking up in Salt Lake City / you remember me undoing your seatbelt in the driveway / how there was no undoing then.”

Ultimately, High Ground Coward reads like a survival manual, a bulwark against a society that would flatten and silence queer women and deny the connections we forge. Mountain rejoices in those connections, showing both how strong and gentle they can be, as in “Upland Honest,” where “My belly hunger-moans when / you lean your head against it— / ferocious, even the softest part of me.”

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

The Blurry Years: A Conversation with Eleanor Kriseman by Peter LaBerge

BY SHANNON BRADY

 Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of   The Blurry Years     ( Two Dollar Radio , 2018).

Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of The Blurry Years (Two Dollar Radio, 2018).

Eleanor Kriseman is a social worker in New York City. She was born and raised in Florida.

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Shannon Brady: First off, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading The Blurry Years and becoming immersed in your protagonist Callie’s world. Her loneliness, with an absent father and irresponsible, alcoholic mother is poignant. From the beginning I was expecting something terrible and relieved by her pluckiness and resilience. How did Callie come to life for you?

Eleanor Kriseman: The book started as a short story, which is the middle section of the book where Callie and Jazz meet. I kept writing about Callie and filling in her early adolescence and the book grew from there.

SB: Callie is an intriguing protagonist. When we first meet her she’s well read, getting good grades, generally raising herself and trying for a long time to not blame her mother for all the turmoil, irregularity, and danger she brought into her life. Her mom, Jeanie, is complicated. How did you approach writing about Callie’s mother?

EK: I wrote a couple of chapters from Jeanie’s perspective that I know wouldn’t be a part of the book. Even though I knew I wouldn’t use it, I needed to have an idea of her backstory and past history, so she wouldn’t be just a villain. I wanted her needs and wants to be palpable, too.

SB: Motherhood is such a loaded topic and role in our society. The unrealistic expectations for grandeur and martyrdom go hand in hand and there’s the other extreme of irresponsibility, neglect, and abuse. It doesn’t seem like we have many cultural or literary models for sustainable, balanced motherhood. Are there any literary mothers you love to hate or hate to love?

EK: I think this is also a loaded question, in addition to a loaded topic. I certainly didn’t want to contribute another mother to “love to hate” or “hate to love” to the canon, and I hope I’ve managed to give Jeanie enough credit and complexity to understand why she might mother the way she does. Callie’s father is largely absent from the novel—I think he’s only mentioned once or twice, but as far as they know, he’s still alive. He’s still out there. But Jeanie’s the one taking care of Callie, not him. The dynamics and responsibilities of parenthood are so gendered, even today, that mothers are the ‘default parent,’ and everyone seems to have an idea of how they could be doing their jobs better (without offering any support to accompany that advice).

SB: I agree that parenthood continues to be gendered and full of unsupported advice, and that as flawed as she is, Jeanie was the present parent to Callie. I also think you did a lovely job of not editorializing about Jeanie but showing her actions and how Callie responded. Was that tough? Dealing with motherhood and parenting and the safety of children, I wonder if there was a temptation to judge her on the page?

EK: It was incredibly tough to write Jeanie. I actually did write at least one chapter from her point of view, as a separate story originally, but it didn’t feel right to insert it into Callie’s story, so it didn’t stay in the manuscript. But, you know, as much as this book is not a memoir, or autobiographical, it is much easier for me to put myself in a position to feel as a daughter than as a mother, even though my life circumstances and relationship with my mom are nothing like Callie and Jeanie’s. What I tried to do—and I don’t know if it fully worked—is to craft her character in a way that would both explain her actions but not necessarily excuse them. Neglect and abuse and cruelty—those are cyclical and systemic issues, and often get passed down from generation to generation, or exacerbated by the precarity of economic instability. Rather than judging her, I’d hope that a reader—by the end of the novel—might get a sense of Jeanie’s own pain, or frustration, or setbacks that played into her identity as a mother.

SB: I was immersed in Callie’s perspective, but I did clearly see the effects of Jeanie’s parenting and the pressure of her having to parent alone, especially as Callie becomes a teen and her life takes a darker, more troubling turn. The weekend I was finishing your book, I also saw a powerful teen performance of Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creatures. It’s a play whose monologues of teens in different parts of the world explore their pain, subjugation, confusion, and their strength. The sexualization of teens was also reflected in your book. How did you approach Callie’s sexualization?

EK: I think it is deeply sad. The way teenage girls are sexualized has changed, but the way it makes a teenage girl feel is the same. When dealing with it in writing, I start with feeling and work out the circumstances from there.

SB: From your work as a social worker, have you seen some of the teen issues you explored in your novel?

EK: Most of the book was written long before I became a social worker. I began when I was a student and continued when I was working in publishing. It’s an age I’ve always been interested in. Now, it’s important to me to not mine the stories of anyone I work with and to keep it very separate. I’ll be at a middle school this year and definitely want to keep my work and writing separate.

SB: That makes sense. You have a good understanding and presentation of teens that comes throughout your work.

EK: It’s easier to write as an adolescent because that time marks you and I’ve lived through it. Right now I don’t feel as if I have the authority and knowledge to write much older characters.

SB: Do you have favorite teen literary characters?

EK: A Complicated Kindness is the coming-of-age story of a young girl in a Mennonite community in rural Canada. It was written by one of my favorite writers, Miriam Toews. I first read her book at age 15 and read it about once a year.

SB: As you read it again, has Toews’s book changed for you?

EK: Initially I was all about the teen narrator, but as I get older, I can interpret and understand the decisions of the other characters more. I also return to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It came out in 1948 and has a teen narrator who lives in a crumbling castle with her father and sister. It is a very funny book, basically her journal.

SB: Do you have a favorite genre?

EK: I like coming-of-age, short stories, and place-based novels, especially if it’s someplace I’ve never been.

SB: Speaking of place, although your book is Callie’s story, another protagonist seems to be Florida. Clearly you know the place well and infuse the setting with vivid, lush details that make the reader able to feel the humidity, the pools, the languor, the long, hot, lonely days. What does Florida represent to Callie?

EK: I love that you got the sense that there were two protagonists here, one being place (Florida in particular.) I think Florida represents something very different to Callie than it does to many other people—for Callie, Florida isn’t a vacation destination, or a relaxing break from reality. It is her reality. So the things she finds special and intriguing about it aren’t necessarily what the rest of the world does—a glimpse into the refrigerator of a rich woman whose son she babysits is just as “exotic” and foreign to her as “life on the beach” would be to anyone else. And I think, at least later on in the book, she becomes somewhat aware that what Florida represents to her does not align with the rest of the world’s perceptions of and about it.

SB: Your cover art conveys that duality of Florida well, with a picture of a young girl on the beach holding a blue balloon and another shot of a high-rise apartment and palm trees next to rubble. How did you choose your art?

EK: My mom owned a bookstore when I was growing up and I worked there, and then in another indie bookstore in Brooklyn, then in publishing, so I know that people judge a book by its cover. I was fortunate to have a lot of creative input with Two Dollar Radio. An old friend of the family, Bryan Thomas, did a photography series about the areas of Florida hardest hit by climate change. He calls it The Sea in the Darkness Calls. He had already combined the two images on the cover as a diptych and I liked the juxtaposition.

SB: I found it intriguing that you set your story in the past. What made you choose the late-seventies and early-eighties?

EK: I don’t like writing about cell phones. Hopefully it’s a limitation I won’t always impose upon myself, but cell phones have changed dynamics and communication and I didn’t want to write about that with Callie. It also makes it easier to say it’s not me. People assume autobiography or memoir about this book, and the time setting became a nice barrier. It’s really interesting working with teens now and I’m fascinated by how their communication is evolving. I love reading work set in the present day and writers who are able to weave miscommunication via technology into their work.

SB: Did your writing about Florida happen when you lived there or once you moved to New York?

EK: New York. I’ve lived in the city for 10 years. I came for college at NYU and have a degree in French language and literature, which is the least practical thing you can study. I started writing this book my last semester of undergraduate and finished the rest when working at a bookstore or in publishing. I wouldn’t have seen Florida as clearly had I not left.

SB: Are there any best times of day, places, or ways for you to write?

EK: Late evenings and early mornings on the weekends are good because it feels quieter in terms of the city, not everyone is out doing things. I write at home in a corner near a window. I also like the NYU library. It’s very calm and quiet. I work best when I have constraints on time and when my job doesn’t require the same kind of thinking. I don’t do as well with having a lot of time!

SB: What would you suggest to someone starting out and wanting to write and publish while holding down a day job?

EK: Break things up into more manageable tasks to make it less daunting. Start with a story or chapter. You can submit small parts of something larger and that can fuel your creative process.

SB: What are ways for readers to follow you and your work?

EK: I have an author Instagram account where I’ve been posting old pictures and things researched when writing. There are pictures from my childhood, vintage tourism posters, and images from photographers like Stephen Shore, who used to take extensive cross-country trips in the ‘70s and managed to work Florida into his route on at least one of them!

SB: I’ll take a look at it and look forward to continuing to read your writing. Thanks for chatting and sharing your process and thoughts.

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

Born to Be Guests: A Review of Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails by Peter LaBerge

BY GLENN STOWELL

 Photo credit: Ashley Woo. Max Ritvo’s  The Final Voicemails  (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

Photo credit: Ashley Woo. Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

One frequent and endlessly forgivable side effect of serious illness is an inclination to turn inward and focus on your own suffering. I’m sure in many cases that it’s even medically helpful to transform yourself into another monitoring device, paying constant attention to your symptoms, scrutinizing their ever-so-slight permutations, in the hopes of front-running any uninvited byproducts of this particular course of Doxil or Oncovin. But the risk you run—or rather, the risk you’re forced to run—is that your mind might slowly become bound inside the two bed-rails, day-by-day your awareness sliding so completely into the self that there’s (understandably) little-to-no room left for paying meaningful attention to the distress of those at your bedside, or for a wider perspective at large.

It seems to me, that among Max Ritvo’s many acts of heroism in writing the material that became The Final Voicemails, was his incredible ability to actively check this inclination. In this collection, raw meditations on death are not documentation of suffering that serve only to extract a sort of charitable sympathy from the reader. Ritvo was able to get outside of himself, somehow, and to keep an eye on how all of this would be narrativized.

And it’s not even the pain foremost, it is the story of me in pain that is paining me.

I am possessed with self-pity, and it is expressing itself out of my mouth.

[My Bathtub Pal]

And once more:

In extreme pain we leave our bodies and look down to commit the pain to memory like studious angels.

[December 29]

Relatedly, I’d say that while there are moments of profundity in The Final Voicemails—so many awe-worthy, arresting lines with phrases that feel as though they were cut with diamond saws—Ritvo always manages to step around any sort of impending-death convention or trope you might expect to find from a lesser talent. I’m sure that some adjunct friends, or distant family, or miscellaneous internet denizens who’d followed the sound-bites of Max’s story, etc., will order this collection and try to mine it for inspiring nuggets the way you might pick up Ray Dalio’s Principles or, I don’t know, Eat Pray Love, in the hopes of trimming a few lines for pasting to your whiteboard at work or for a self-explanatory meme.

Max Ritvo pulls away from this current, this market for bite-sized, summatory sentimentality. One of my very favorite iterances comes in the opening poem:

All this time, I thought my shedding would expose a core, I thought I would at least know myself…

[The Final Voicemails]

Oh, I love these lines. They remind me of Emerson’s account of himself grieving the death of his son and just waiting for an insight, his hard-wrought reward, some knowledge buried in all the suffering. Emerson wrote of the experience, “the only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”

Likewise, here’s Ritvo:

…my baldness is not wisdom

[Delphi]

Ritvo manages not only to escape himself, but he holds a mirror to the rest of us with lines like that. What is it we’re hoping for out of someone else’s grave illness? Why do we lean so close and wait for a profound insight? Does that expectation put them (the sufferers) on the spot to sum up life in a brief morsel or two? I think the real question I’ve been forced to confront while locking horns with this collection: does this mining for meaning prevent us from living fully in the present, from savoring simple moments with our loved ones?

Ultimately, this question is not about grave illness, either. We’re all terminal, one way or another. Ritvo:

But we suffered and there is no pill to treat time.

[Nobody Asked Anything]

I.e., no one can be saved from time’s metastasis. Hopefully this fact isn’t staring you in the face at this exact second, but Ritvo’s work suggests to me that perhaps we ought to spend less time on anxiously examining ourselves, working up the dread that comes with such probing—what does it all mean?—and spend time on whatever it is that makes our lives feel vibrant today.

I find this thought to be tied into another powerful thread that runs through Ritvo’s last poems: there are references to (what I’ll call) a culture of high achievement, where we’re always jumping from one goal to another, and how it worms its way into our brains.

We, in the West, eat until we want   to eat something else, or want to stop eating altogether.

[Amuse-Bouche]

I.e., we’re devouring one thing and then as soon as we’ve finished, we’re onto the next thing. And that cycle of goal-setting continues right up until you’re at the end of your life. It’s gritty, it’s stated beautifully, and it’s true. Again, Ritvo:

You’re almost at the finish line. But first, you have to pick a finish line.

[The Soundscape of Life is Charred by Tiny Bonfires]

There seems to me to be an insistence here about escaping the default, competitive settings of your brain, stepping outside the finish-line-to-finish-line mentality and doing something for its own sake. Playing cards with your grandmother. Cooking a meal from scratch with your partner. Going for a bike ride in a part of town you usually don’t see. I’ve belabored the point enough, but that’s the sort thinking these poems have inspired in me.

Beyond that, I’d like to call attention to the gorgeous and abiding sense in the collection of being a guest in this life. There’s a sense that, as a guest, you’re obliged to make a humble truce with the fates. Like entering someone else’s house, you’re bound to play by their rules or pay homage to their customs.

Some people were born to be guests. Like me. Next time, I told her, you pick the spot.

[My New Friend]

It’s wonderful, and sad. Once more:

I can hear already a roaring in the distance, half salt, half horse,

I like this, I’m scared, but so’s the sound. We’ll both be guests.

[Quiet Romance]

So you’re a guest for a while, and then one day you’re no longer welcome. You’ve got to go. But that’s not necessarily all tragic. There’s a nitrogen cycle angle at work in the poems, a brutally hopeful reminder the death begets life in some ways.

And the chef is God, whose faithful want only the destruction of His prior miracles to make way for new ones.

[Amuse-Bouche]

It sounds a bit like Conservation of Mass, or like something beautifully Malthusian. Ritvo stares at his place in all of this biochemical cyclicality and contemplates what’s next after passing, what he’ll become, what he’ll be. Perhaps my absolute favorite section:

When my heart stops, it will be the end of certain things,
but not the end of things itself.

Sure, my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too. In the end, I love chairs, and I love dogs, and I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs, and if I am ever a thought of my widow I’ll love being that.

[My New Friend]

I think, as a work in and of itself, the knock against this collection might be that it doesn’t feel entirely whole or fully fleshed out. It doesn’t seem endlessly sanded-down, or scrubbed, or otherwise brought to a Pinesol-slick sheen that gives you the impression of wood floors waxed ahead of a realtor’s open house. And, of course, there’s an obvious explanation—there wasn’t enough time for its author.

As a result, I do believe that the collection’s relative bareness, its sort of skeletal authenticity is fitting. Ultimately, it might make The Final Voicemails a more effective piece of art; after all, you’re only allotted so much time to leave a voicemail before you’re cut off.

Max Ritvo didn’t have the good fortune to live as long as, say, William Maxwell. Ritvo wasn’t afforded the opportunity to sit down in his later years and peck away on his typewriter, editing up something like “Nearing 90,” Maxwell’s wonderful essay, where the author reflected on his long life winding to a close, lamenting chiefly about the books he wouldn’t be able to re-read during death. Why would we hold The Final Voicemails to the same standard of pristine wholeness as So Long, See You Tomorrow, a well-scrubbed little novel that Maxwell wrote as a senior citizen? Well, we shouldn’t. But why would we even want Ritvo’s last work to be so whole? The hole itself is a huge part of this collection, a gravitational center around which the poems orbit.

Incidentally, the central device of So Long, See You Tomorrow is an unfinished house, and that’s an image that comes to me when I think about the core of The Final Voicemails. There are no walls in this house, just beams, floors, and studs. You can go room to room here without the need to open doors. You can look up and see the sky. The poems in The Final Voicemails exist as a similar sort of living blueprint of a corner of Ritvo’s mind or a set of joists, incomplete but graspable and solid.

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It is generally a good deal to be a guest in this world, but the arrangement comes with a striking set of contractual terms – the most brutal of which are that you’ve got to leave one day and that the timing is not necessarily up to you. But, as Ritvo illuminated in The Final Voicemails, when you do leave, it’s not the end of your impact or your love or, maybe, your spirit. There are significant contrails left behind. There are dogs and chairs, and there are people who, in their memories, thoughts, and actions, continue to keep essential parts of you in existence.

I’m done. The last word here shouldn’t be mine:

But when you decide someone has something to say their silences speak to you too—

[December 29]

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Glenn Stowell leads the breakfast shift at a center for veterans experiencing homelessness, and manages financial investments by day. He translated and edited You Jump to Another Dream, a collection of poems by Beijing-based sound artist and underground organizer Yan Jun. The collection was published by Vagabond Press in Australia. His other work has been published in the Green Mountains Review, the Tulane Review, the Berkeley Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

Courting Sadness: A Conversation with Aaron Smith by Peter LaBerge

BY AIDAN FORSTER

 Aaron Smith, author of  Primer  (Pitt Poetry Series, 2016).

Aaron Smith, author of Primer (Pitt Poetry Series, 2016).

Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry published by the Pitt Poetry Series: Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize; Appetite, an NPR Great Read, and finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Publishing Triangle's Thom Gunn Award; and Primer, a Massachusetts Center for the Book "Poetry Must Read." His chapbooks include Men in Groups and What's Required, winner of the Frank O'Hara Award. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Court Green, Guernica, Ploughshares and Best American Poetry. A three-time finalist for the Lambda literary award, he is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is associate professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His new book, The Book of Daniel, will be published by the Pitt Poetry Series in 2019.

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Aidan Forster: Having read Appetite and Blue on Blue Ground, Primer strikes me as a shift of your lyric needle, a sobering reflection on the episodic escalation of a queer youth and middle age inflected by depression. How has the experience of writing Primer differed from that of your other collections? In what ways was it the same?

Aaron Smith: Blue on Blue Ground, that’s the book that came out of graduate school. I finished graduate school in 1998—20 years ago—so things have changed significantly. You sort of know there’s a book happening, but you don’t really know what putting a book together means, so I was just sort of writing poem by poem, and then I didn’t start shaping it for a long time, or I had versions of it. Blue on Blue Ground was a really lonely book, and it was also a book where, in graduate school, I really realized I was about to start writing queer. It seems silly now, I think, to generations coming up, but we were attacked for identity politics. They were like, “Nobody wants to hear this,” “Think about your audience,” “No one wants to read the lives of gay people—you’ve gotta think about everyone.” It’s thrilling to see now that so many people are bringing their identities to poetry.

Blue on Blue Ground sort of slipped up on me. I wrote poems, and then I sat down with a mentor and we talked about it together. So it was really poem-by-poem. Appetite was the most miserable book to write. What’s funny is people think, Oh, it’s fun. The long movie poemI Love the Part” is in the middle, then there are these Daniel Craig poems—there’s definitely intensity—but I wrote and wrote, and I thought I had a finished version. I sent it to my publisher, and my editor, Ed Ochester at the Pitt Poetry Series who has been really wonderful to me, was like “I don’t think it’s done. I wanna do your second book, but I don’t think it’s finished.” And he was right. He circled ten poems that were working, and that’s ten poems out of an entire manuscript! I was like, Oh my god, I’m never gonna get this done! Then I got snowed in in Buckhannon, West Virginia where I was teaching, a miserable little town with a college and amazing faculty, and that’s when I started writing “I Love the Part.” I was watching movie clips, and that sort of exploded the whole book for me. I do think there’s a history in gay writing: gay men, we’re dishy, and we’re chatty (the New York School poets do this). I’ll say it for me, I don’t want to make any assumptions for all gay men, but the tradition that’s interested me is where we’re gossiping or we’re chatty, and I think “I Love the Part” opened that voice up for me, where I could sort of critique these things while they’re happening, sort of a fun queer aesthetic. And then it sort of pushed all the other poems, and more poems showed up.

I didn’t write for two years after I wrote Appetite. It was so miserable. I like the book now, but I would say in some ways I still don’t even understand it, which is not the thing a writer should say. I get it, but my relationship’s very different, maybe, than what someone else’s relationship to it would be. As for Primer—I have dealt with depression my whole life, and it’s always a weird thing to write about as a gay person, because it’s like: He’s sad because he’s gay, and I didn’t want that to happen. But the truth is I was sad, and I am gay. I felt like I was silencing this part of myself and there was also this sort of weird responsibility to a community. I’ve also really been questioning: what’s community? What’s that mean? Sometimes it feels like really powerful, urban, gay white men who make decisions about marriage rights and equality forgetting rural queers, trans people, people of color, so I was really questioning this idea of community. I always write my truth, and I was in a really bad place. I grew up a Fundamentalist Christian, as you can see in the books, but I’m no longer that, obviously—and I said something about the gay community one day to a really smart therapist, and she said, “Oh, I didn’t know you left one fundamentalist church for another one.” She had me. 

My friend Peter Covino, who’s a wonderful gay poet, started a group, seven of us, and once a week we had to send a draft of something to the group. There was no critique—it was just a deadline. My day was Thursday, and I would just treat it as a deadline. Even though I was depressed and I was teaching, I was like, I have to get this done. I would spend an hour writing just to get my piece in, and a lot of the poems about depression showed up, and I wasn’t going to censor them. I understand there’s shame in the book, and I know it’s sort of a taboo to talk about gay shame. We’re supposed to be the “It Gets Better!” movement, and I was like, Maybe it doesn’t always get better. Maybe it gets better, then it gets complicated in different ways, and I just thought I wasn’t being truthful by not writing about this. I knew it was complicated to write about suicide. I didn’t want to glorify it, and I don’t think I did, but as an artist, I wasn’t being true to myself to pretend like that aspect of myself didn’t exist. So, in some ways, I feel like the first two books were a lot more about queer identity and this one was investigating a lot of sadnesses and this secret depression. Because I’m queer, the work’s always gay, queer, but it felt different for me, too, it felt formally different. One of the poems, “Still Life with Gun,” has mostly one syllables or two syllables. I was trying to capture how I speak. I was reading poets who were pretty narrative, and I wasn’t trying to do a lot of tricks. I just wanted to tell what I wanted to tell. David Wojnarowicz, an amazing queer artist, said, and I’m paraphrasing: “I make art for two reasons: so I can see things in the world that look like me and I don’t feel so lonely” and “to debunk the myth that we’re a one-tribe nation.” We might be gay, but we’re not all the same. I love my students, who are open to fluidity and to identifying themselves in ways that are truthful, and it’s a really thrilling time, in that sense, for me to think about queer community.

A. Forster: The myriad speakers in Primer contend with internalized architectures of shame at every turn: a boy’s shame at his inability to mirror his father, or a young adult trapped in the perceived victimhood of his own desire (as in “Bleached,” the speaker “afraid someone would know [he] had a body / [he] wanted to do things with”). As a denizen of the American South, Primer’s prismatic look at shame resonated with my lived queer experience. What do you consider to be the role of shame in your poetry?

A. Smith: I’m extremely interested in shame, the places the larger party line says we should be past: No, you come out, now you can get married and join the military, and you don’t have shame, and that’s not true. I grew up Fundamentalist Christian. I was told I was going to hell not just by family but by everyone around me. I was told my desire was wrong, that my body was wrong. We obviously still have the AIDS epidemic, but I grew up when there was no real treatment or preventative drugs to help people live, so I was basically told that if I were gay I would die of AIDS and I was going to hell. I didn’t have the luxury of moving on and saying, I’m post-shame. I love being in uncomfortable spaces. I was fortunate to study with the poet Toi Derricotte, and she’s always in those spaces that are complicated, where sexuality intersects with family and identity and race. She asked me once in graduate school, Why do you keep the poems about your family and your Christian upbringing separate from your poems about gayness? What would happen if you merged them all together? Of course, I was terrified. Once I started doing that, it opened up everything for me as an artist.

I’ve had people tell me to be careful about shock value in my poems about sex. I literally write about sexuality because I think it’s one of the great confusions of my life. Having sex, the body—I’m always trying to figure out what it means. I don’t know if you’ve seen the comedy special everyone’s talking about, Nanette by Hannah Gadsby, but she’s so open about how she’s middle-aged and she didn’t want to come out to her grandmother because she still has shame. I just don’t believe that queer people in this culture, at least at my age, are completely shame-free, and I just wanted to talk about it, and I always want to talk about it. I want to investigate it, and think about it, and I want to live in the places and the spaces that make me uncomfortable and sort of bring them out, to say it’s still there and maybe eradicate it from myself. I’m a little too jaded to say I can change the world, but I think I can change myself, which makes me better in the world, and thus maybe the world gets a little bit better and a little bit easier. But it’s an obsession. I think some people didn’t like [Primer] because I wasn’t supposed to talk about gay shame, and I just didn’t care. I really had to let go of the notion of what I thought was trendy or interesting for other people and really be honest. I’ve had so many people tell me how much they appreciated that I talked about suicidal ideation, that I talked about being in middle-age and still having shame, or pockets of it that live inside me. Obviously, I’m not the twenty-three-year-old who feels that way. I was thinking about how my sister and my mom and I were in a car and a man got out and started screaming at us over a parking space. It was really nasty, but I think this is Trump’s America now. This is the second time I’ve been attacked in a year—two men bashed up my car when I accidentally cut them off several months before this incident—and I’m sitting there, and I pulled my Mace out, and I said, “You need to get away from my car.” He said, “Oh yeah? You’re going to Mace me? I’ll just call the police on you.” It was so fascinating to me that he was so entitled to his anger and his position and his straight-white-male privilege that he still believed it was my fault. I realized I was wearing these really fantastic women’s vintage Oscar de la Renta glasses, and my family sort of joked about it, but a part of me wondered if I was blaming myself for having fem glasses on. Where’s my shame? When’s it my fault? On subtle levels, I’m still catering to people, or fearful for my life, and it makes me feel ashamed, but I’m also trying to figure out safety, not being murdered. I never thought I would feel this way at forty-four, but I’m more afraid of straight white men than I’ve ever been in my life.

So, all these things are swirling in my head, and shame’s in there, and it’s all been complicated by a world that seems more willing to be vocally nastier and uglier. I will probably always write about shame. I just finished a new book, and my friend said it’s totally in new areas of shame. In Nanette, Gadsby says you put a kid in shame and have them soak in it, and they lose the language for how to communicate outside of it. We’re having to re-teach ourselves. I see some youngsters coming out at twelve with absolutely no shame and I love it, but that wasn’t my experience, and I think I should write my truth, which sometimes isn’t trendy. But I also don’t live this life where I’m constantly beaten down by shame. These are moments, these are poems, and I sit down and think about these things, and then I make dinner and have a normal life.

A. Forster: Primer populates itself with acts of witness and invokes the poet and speaker as voyeurs of their own desire. I’m thinking, especially, of the poem “Liquid,” in which the speaker creates an implicit distinction between himself and those who think “it’s normal to be beautiful / and looked at,” delineates a sexually-charged interaction between himself and a muscled runner, and imparts a wonderfully delicate eros at the poem’s conclusion. Here and elsewhere, the speaker finds a microcosmic poetic reality in the beatific body of another. What is the significance of witness and sight as forms of poetic world-building?

A. Smith: The last thing in the world I want to do is pretend like I’m not implicated. It’s so easy to find a headline where someone has been homophobic and write a poem saying that person is terrible and I’m right because I see it. I miss “doubt” in poetry right now. I want places where we know what’s right, but maybe the speaker is confused or implicated, and they’re investigating their role. I can critique that body culture, but I’m also a man who is sexual, so it’s a weird moment. I’m trying to live up to this ideal that I’ve never lived up to, but, at the same time, I’m mad that I feel this pressure to do that. At times, I look at men in books and I objectify them because men need to be objectified a little bit because women have been going through it for years, but I also try to lampoon it. I make fun of David Beckham—I compare him to myself—and there’s a self-loathing in that. I think I’m a year older than him, and I feel like we’re two different species. What does it mean to try to fit in? I wonder what it would be like to be looked at, or to be the default, what a different life that must be. I’m not saying that I should never be seen, but I like feeling invisible because then I think I can be an artist. There are times when I think, What a burden to be looked at, what a burden to walk into a room and have everyone look at you. I’m fascinated by bodies and how we move in them, our different experiences of them. I’ve had men tell me, “If you just worked out, you’d be really handsome,” and that was a time in my life when I ate almost nothing and worked out six days a week. That was my twenties, when I was so confused about what I should look like and be. I’m fascinated by these blind spots and how we don’t take care of each other.

A. Forster: In addition to writing poems, you also teach creative writing. In what way has teaching influenced your work as a poet?

A. Smith: At a very practical level, it has made me a much better editor of my own work. I spend so much time critiquing that when I go back to my own poems I’m really fast. I’m like, Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. But I have to be careful not to start editing before I finish writing my poems—I have to tell myself to just keep going. But it’s made me really think about how I put poems together and how my students put poems together. I think I’m a good teacher, and I think a mark of a good teacher is seeing what your students try to do and bringing that out instead of saying, No, a poem must be this, and it reminds me of how many different ways there are to do this. I also enjoy when my students are pushing into new territory. I’ve had students write about being asexual, which I’ve not really seen in literature. I have students who are writing about being non-binary or being trans, and I find some of the most exciting writing happening in that space where we’re dealing with a gendered language, taking he/she out and using they, and finding ways to represent that on the page with a language that wants to norm. I love thinking about those sorts of problems with language in writing, and I’m really thrilled right now when I read really smart work by trans students. I’m at Lesley University, and so many  students in my classes are progressive, and I get really excited to see how everyone’s thinking. I get really excited about where I see queer poetry going, particularly trans poetry. I find it to be one of the most exciting spaces now. Jos Charles is a poet I’m very fascinated with, and I’m looking forward to reading her book feeld. She has a book called Safe Space, and I think that book investigates what the language can be pushed into.

A. Forster: I’ve heard a lot of poets say they write the poems they needed to read in their youth. Is Primer a retrospective almanac for a younger Aaron Smith? Who are you priming, and for what?

A. Smith: I think the younger Aaron Smith may have been too afraid of it. Maybe college-aged Aaron would have read it. When I think about you [Aidan]  reading it in high school, I’m happy. I was still in the heart of Fundamentalism and confused when I was in high school. It’s funny, with this new book I’ve been writing, I’ve been going back and digging through significant poets for me. I ordered a new copy of Alice Walker’s Her Blue Body Everything We Know. As I’ve gotten older, people have told me her poems aren’t as great, but I was looking through them, and it brought back almost a muscle memory for me, a memory of how radical it was that she’s questioning Jesus. I didn’t know you could question God. I would’ve been a little afraid of Primer, but college Aaron would have been happy to find it. I remember finding David Trinidad. David and I have become friends over the years, over his work and the work of Tim Dlugos, and when I found them, I was like, Oh! Ok! Timothy Liu’s book, Burnt Offerings, was hugely important for me. But before that, I was reading women. Men weren’t writing for me. I could find women, and they were saying things and putting their bodies on the page, and I could identify that way. Many gay men of my generation would watch movies and pretend we were the women. These women poets, who have always been important to me, were trailblazing so much space, and it started with finding that Alice Walker book and then exploding from there. I finally found queer men, and then I had these amazing women poets, these amazing queer poets, these queer poets of color and women poets of color, and they just opened the door for me.

So, I think college Aaron would have been more prepared for Primer. I also think college Aaron might have been afraid because Primer is a little bleak and he would’ve hated thinking that it was going to be tough in his forties. But, that was really a medication issue. I didn’t get the proper diagnosis for what was going on in my head until a couple years ago. I told so many doctors that I was sad and I fantasized about wanting to kill myself, and they were all like, Here’s Zoloft, the standard. Twenty years later, I’m sitting in therapy, and I’m at my lowest, maybe three years ago, and every morning I’m waking up (it’s in the poem “Blue Exits”) thinking, Should I go to work or should I kill myself? Well, I’ll go to work. I think it was more passive ideation, but that can lead to active ideation. My grandfather was a suicide, and I knew it was something that could be passed down, and they finally identified, between this therapist and the psychiatrist, that I had PTSD from my childhood. I was like, PTSD? I didn’t go to war! But they said, “No, you were so demolished by Fundamentalist Christianity that we think you have PTSD.” Then they got the meds adjusted and I woke up like, Wow, I missed half of my life. If Primer can make somebody start asking questions earlier, then I’m thrilled. I wish I could’ve found a book like it, started asking questions and maybe advocating for myself earlier. If you’re depressed, it’s hard to advocate for yourself. Now I look at Primer and I’m so glad that I wrote it, but it also makes me really sad to look at. Even the forms in Primer—the clipped lines or the enjambment or the tight poems—can remind me of the sadness. In my new book, The Book of Daniel, I’ve been double-spacing, I’ve been playing, I’ve been laughing. It still has intensity and sadness and so on, but I had to change my relationship to form, or I didn’t know if I was going to keep writing. I had another long period of silence. I don’t think I wrote for a couple years after Primer was turned in. I hear people say they have to write, but not so much for me. I can just watch TV and read magazines and look at books when I’m not writing. But I love writing, and I’ve gotten back to where I really love it as an art, and it’s been a lot more fun when I’m not so sad. One thing I tell students: if you have to be sad to be an artist, then don’t be an artist. If you’re an artist and you’re sad, that’s fine, but if you think you have to court sadness in order to be an artist, then I urge you to run away from it. It’s so much better to be happy.

A. Forster: What’s next for you and your work?

A. Smith: I saw an interview with Ada Limón where she said she was a lyric narrative poet. I’m not afraid of narrative—I know that’s a dirty word sometimes, and it was being discussed when I was in graduate school, and it’s still being discussed—and I go back to the idea that there’s room for everything. Let’s quit saying there’s one way. Even as we’ve been talking here, you see how I have so many things that I keep bringing in, and I had a moment where I was like, Can I get that on the page? So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been double-spacing a lot. I’ve been letting the next thought come and seeing where it takes me, and then in revision, making sure there’s some kind of thru line. I don’t want poems that are just weird things thrown together—I want them to have an emotional heft to them. When I took some time away from poetry, I went to Instagram and started making nine-square collages. They’re very irreverent, erotic. I was doing really well, but then people started reporting them, I’ve had some censorship. But at the same time, it brought me back to poetry. I thought, Can I get a quote by Plath in but also reference a Frank O’Hara poem? I’ve been giving myself these challenges—like, I’ve always wanted to write a poem about Alexander McQueen, so I’m going to title this poem “Alexander McQueen” and see what happens. That’s been thrilling. Primer was really line by line and week by week, but I’ve had so much fun rethinking my process and working on The Book of Daniel: it’s been about getting my influences in and getting a reference to Cher with a reference to Plath. That’s what makes me excited, thinking how can I put these things in. Letting these different voices in, letting tangential things happen, letting the way that I think onto the page, then still trying to keep the energy up, the line breaks interesting, and feeling the form differently. Like I said, Primer, when I look at it, makes me a little sad because the actual forms of the poems remind me of the sadness, so I really tried to shift into different ways of writing to re-energize myself, and it’s been a lot of fun.

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Aidan Forster is a queer poet from South Carolina. a 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, his work has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Poetry Society of America, and the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, among others. His work appears in or is forthcoming from The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2017, BOAAT, Columbia Poetry Review, The Journal, and Tin House, among others. He is a 2017 Tin House Summer Scholar in Poetry and reads poetry for Muzzle. His debut chapbook of poems, Exit Pastoral, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in November of 2018. He attends Brown University and plans to study Literary Arts and Gender & Sexuality Studies.

An Essay Inventor & Other Creative Minds Who Were Gamblers by Peter LaBerge

BY BORIS DZHINGAROV

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Note: This is a sponsored post.

Gamblers are often subjugated to stereotype.

You have probably heard that many creative and ingenious people are prone to various addictions. If minds of those astonishing and worship-worthy humans work in a way that they see more dimensions, shapes, colors of everything that surrounds them in a daily life, then it’s not a surprise that they may have certain disturbing habits as well. There are writers whose drinking habits prompted the weirdest legends to be composed about them.

It’s believed that Ernest Hemingway was never sober while writing. However, his biographers debunked this myth. He was, in fact, a fan of certain spirits. Sobriety during work was crucial to the writer.

Honoré de Balzac was known to be a coffee fanatic. He used to drink up to 50 cups a day! This was his way to energize and catch an inspiration wave.

So a little (or even an excessive) gambling habit doesn’t seem that bad after all, right? At least, it doesn’t do serious harm to physical health. So thought many famous authors and artists of all times.

So, who was that mysterious genius who invented an essay?

Come on, it was Michel de Montaigne! Little did he know that his creation would cause so much trouble to all students! Nowadays, we can get some affordable writing help; students from de Montaigne’s times (the 16th century, by the way) had to write it all by themselves.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

This man was a genius. He wrote his name into the history of literature forever. So we can forgive him for having a slightly disturbing gambling habit, right?

Well, not “slightly,” to be honest. You know you have a problem when you write a novella titled “Gambler” to pay off casino debts. What irony! Roulette was Dostoevsky’s absolute favorite, and he spent many hours playing this game of chance and losing continuously.

If you’ve ever read any of the Russian author’s works, they definitely left you with some food for thought, whether you liked them or not. He was and still is an incredibly popular writer, and his talent helped him to get out of a debt pit. Dostoevsky was writing novels, getting good money for them, and was blowing it all. On the other hand, his life was far from boring and, perhaps, it was more exciting than office work.

Claude Monet

This man is one of the most talented artists in the history of France. His work was the epitome of impressionism and inspired many young painters to pursue their careers in this genre.

However, a talent doesn’t provide you with an addiction-prevention medicine, and it just so happened that Monet turned into a very passionate gambler. In his case though, the hobby helped him to become a famous artist and helped the whole world to find out about Claude Monet.

This creative French mind was experiencing serious financial struggles when he started his career as a painter. In fact, it was more like a hobby rather than a career, because supplies were incredibly expensive and the little money that he earned selling his work didn’t cover expenses.

Once, Monsieur Claude won an impressive sum playing a lottery. Back in the 19th century. $13,000. Today, his winnings would be equal to a quarter of million bucks. That sum helped him to get back on his feet and continue painting. Basically, if it hadn’t been for gambling, we wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of his most famous “Water Lilies” or “Impression, Sunrise.”  

Charles Bukowski

This genius has quite a reputation. Charles Bukowski was an image of a man who made bold, spontaneous decisions in life: he had no regrets, practiced all kinds of deviant behavior, and engaged in drinking and gambling. Some people may think that this lifestyle is not acceptable, and others will be incredibly jealous of him.

Mr. Bukowski has certain similarities with Fyodor Dostoevsky in terms of gambling. However, his was not a huge debt. It was, for him, about pouring his passion about games of chance on a paper.

Charles Bukowski wrote a poem about Las Vegas, and he mentioned gambling and its many attributes in much of his writing. The German-American poet developed a very interesting philosophy concerning this issue. He was sure that if you don’t play, you don’t win. There is literally no way you can find this statement to be illogical. In fact, Bukowski thought that a real life and gambling had a lot in common. Both can be called games of chance.

René Descartes

You’ve been to at least one philosophy class, right? Then you must be aware that every piece of knowledge that we have about modern psychology was born thanks to the one and only René Descartes. He is a French philosopher who had a big share of academic success in the most intriguing and thought-provoking field of study. But he didn’t want any of it at all. In fact, he had no idea he would ever become a philosopher.

He went to law school but then decided that a job of a professional gambler was much more appealing. Yes, this is an official profession, even now. Professional gamblers are characterized as self-employed and they have to pay taxes just like everybody else.

René Descartes is known for his quote, “The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues.” You might think that the French philosopher said that about gambling. But nope, not really. His life path held an unexpected, scientific turn for many reasons, including his gambling failures. However, Descartes never gave up on his enthusiasm for games of chance and continued playing for the rest of his life, but not as actively or excessively as he used to when his passion bore into his soul.

Michel de Montaigne

We’re not done with famous and glorious French thinkers yet, so stay put! Don’t you think that there is some kind of a pattern here? I wonder how many philosophers we’d find if we wandered into one of Parisian casinos? Well, if we had lived in the 16th century, we definitely would have found de Montaigne playing one of his favorite games of chance.

His essays are considered to be the best works of the genre, especially taking into consideration that he invented the genre itself. His works are so successful and appealing because of, you guessed it, gambling! Thanks to this activity, he learned a lot about life, its ups and downs, as well as others’ attitude towards it.

He developed a philosophy that was wrapped around an idea that humans can’t control anything that’s going on in their lives. We can only have an impact on certain processes, and we can shift certain situations to different directions.

He’s famous for his quote, “Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” And these ideas have a direct bearing on the gambling sphere. You need to learn to control yourself when the world fails to follow the plan you’ve set out for yourself.

Feminist Fridays: She made the empty rooms roar by Peter LaBerge

BY AMIE REILLY

 Image by Blythe King from  Issue Seventeen .

Image by Blythe King from Issue Seventeen.

She made the empty rooms roar with accusation and shake down a fine dust of guilt that was sucked in their nostrils as they plunged about.

from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

The mayor of the city where I live recently decided that a sidewalk needed to be installed on our street. He sent a foreman here on Saturday morning to tell us what was happening. At sunrise Monday morning, before we could protest, a truck full of men sliced through the yard, a pine tree, and our walkway. A concrete moat surrounds me.

Rapunzel was locked away in a tower because, before she was even born, her father promised her to a witch.

The witch caught Rapunzel’s father stealing rampion out of her garden. He was stealing it, of course, because his wife was craving it and told him she would die if she didn’t have it. So in the way the story gets told, it is her fault the baby gets taken away. Except that really, he agreed to let the witch take the baby in order to avoid his own death. And this means somewhere in a stone house Rapunzel’s mother was left grieving for the loss of her child. She was punished for wanting.

Beautiful Rapunzel, locked in a tower, her hair growing in ropes strong enough to hold an adult, is then courted by the king’s son and she falls in love (at age fourteen). When the old witch finds out, she banishes the pregnant Rapunzel to the desert. She was punished for loving. (Somewhere someone is thinking, But don’t forget the poor prince—he fell into the brambles and was blinded!)

As the story continues, we learn that the blinded prince wandered the forest until he found his lost love in the desert, her newborn twins in tow. Childbirth and early motherhood are not mentioned, though her swooning collapse into his loving arms is. In the end, Rapunzel’s tears renew the prince’s sight and they live happily ever after.

This is a fairy tale about three women: a mother, a crone, and a virgin who becomes a whore but is redeemed by motherhood. Though the story is centuries old, we know that women are still flattened into these roles. Rules are built like walls around women’s words and bodies in an effort to keep them under control. There’s no place for stairs or nuance in these towers.

Once upon a time, I got trapped in an elevator that was going up to the top floor of a hotel. That night, I had used a fake ID to get into a concert with my roommate and afterwards one of the band members invited us back to his room. My roommate and I had had a lot to drink. I don’t remember how we got separated. But somehow I ended up in an elevator with the (older, married) singer, and somehow the elevator buttons were out of reach. The man had a thick brogue, a thick wool sweater, and thick curls framing his face. He grabbed the back of my head with thick fingers and stuck his thick tongue down my throat in an act that felt not like a kiss, but like a gag.

When women find themselves trapped, whether in sealed towers, elevators, or the confines of laws and mores, they often become disembodied. To be trapped like this is to be simultaneously watching and watched, spectacles and spectators of their own bodies. Yet for most men, these rules are different. Elevator buttons are seldom out of reach. Towers aren’t traps, they are platforms to rule from. When men are placed on high, it is more often to stand in judgement. To look down upon the subjects and cast rulings, shout power, be heard.

I listened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on the radio last Thursday. Though I was not watching, I knew what she looked like because the commentator told me she appeared “stricken.” When her voice trembled, my stomach turned. She sounded like me for a moment, and I knew that waver could impact her credibility, that her words and her looks would be judged and written about for years. I imagine they’ll be studied in university courses the way I studied Anita Hill’s in the ‘90s.

Dr. Ford’s voice filled my car as I sat in a parking lot. That morning, I taught a roomful of college freshmen Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue.” In class, we spoke about language and power, considered the impact of cognitive bias and what happens when those with power don’t (won’t?) listen when words become difficult to understand. At first I thought about how often language fails people. Now I wonder how often people fail language.

As I heard Dr. Ford’s voice grow stronger in the face of frivolous questions about finances, I imagined her on a witness stand, though I know this isn’t a trial. The commentary of the reporters seemed invasive; the recapping felt like a sports replay. I only wanted to hear her, to thank her.

When Serena Williams lost the U.S. Open in early September, the media was divided. Some tried to defend the umpire, blaming Williams for being “out of line.” But she wasn’t. Williams, whose every move and wardrobe choice is criticized in ways that are unquestionably tied to her gender and race, was chastised from on high by a man with power. The umpire, a man sitting physically above her, judged her body and language and it cost her. She did not lose control, she has been under control. She lost because she was emotive.

Women get trapped in towers, powerful men get to shout from them. These stories are not new.

Brett Kavanaugh opened his speech with an assertion that his statement was his and his alone. As if he could stake a claim on language. He pleaded for the people to consider the power of the word “evil.” (I used to think there was power in the word “no.” I don’t think that anymore.) Then his voice cracked, and although I was not watching, I knew that he was crying. My stomach turned. I knew this would be perceived by some as sensitivity. When he steadied himself, I understood that he would be seen as a strong and capable man. I have heard men’s voices do this before.  

A text came through my cellphone, and as I looked at it I realized I was I tired. The text was from a friend: “The world is a dumpster fire.” I told her I was having a rage flare in the seat of my station wagon, and she sent me a gif of the earth in flames. I thought about these images and the metaphor of fire as anger. Flames are tongues and rage comes out in words, but want I really want is quiet. A reprieve. But there is no sleep and there is no fire, not yet.

When it comes, how will we describe it?

In 1977, a woman named Francine Hughes was divorced from, but still living with, an abusive man—a man who beat and berated her in drunken rages. He moved back into her house after they divorced because he’d had an accident and she had empathy. Hughes’ ex-husband raped her and humiliated her. Do you know what else he did? He burned her books.

One night, after he drunkenly raged and raped her, she lit his bed on fire. Mickey Hughes died and the house was destroyed. With her children in tow, she drove to the police station and turned herself in. Francine Hughes is the reason domestic violence is a viable defense. In court, up on the witness stand, Hughes told the truth, and a jury of her peers deemed her innocent by reason of insanity.

A little like Bertha in Jane Eyre, Hughes was a madwoman in the attic. Unlike Bertha, however, Hughes’ fire destroyed her monstrous husband. Also unlike Bertha, Hughes lived to tell her side of the story. Her voice changed American Justice.

And yet, after her death last year, Hughes’ granddaughter told USA Today, “She didn’t feel like it was something to be proud of. She never felt justified. She never felt free. I think that’s kind of why she kept it low key because I think she was ashamed and haunted by it.”

Burning everything down helped Hughes get rid of her abuser, but his abuse never left her. That she died without ever talking about her abuse, that it was a source of shame for her, reminds us that even when justice happens, trauma haunts like a ghost. What words can there be?

My description of what happened to me in that elevator years ago is not well-written. I did not—could not—adequately portray the spinning, trapped feeling of my fear or the in-between temperature of my body. My language is repetitive. In repeating the word “thick,” I hope you will understand the scene—not only the way he looked, but the feeling that followed.

When people began to question (threaten) Dr. Ford, they came for her memories. They said her narrative was wrong. They said if it really happened, she would remember more, be able to tell us more. Like Dr. Ford, like so many women, I do not know what I was wearing that night in the elevator. I do not know what the hotel lobby looked like. I do remember the name of the band, but I can’t recall how I got to the hotel. It is a story that is both mine and not mine because it is lost. The story is flawed as I am flawed, and there are no words for that.

Kavanaugh’s words did fail him. He ranted, shot fiery language at those who asked him the pressing questions that must be answered. The words he was so sure of at the beginning of his speech became evasive, insulting, unstable. It seemed as though the platform he thought he was standing on disintegrated beneath him. This might be enough to make him fall. As I write this, I hear that the GOP has agreed to postpone the nomination for a week.

He will, I hope, be barred from further power. He will be chastised for his actions. He will be judged for his performance. Of course, Dr. Ford will be judged for hers, too. Her trauma won’t go away, but she has impacted Justice. Memory is fallible, and so is language. Trauma stays. It is to be believed. Perhaps things are changing. As I write this, though, I hear the President say of Dr. Ford, “She looks like a very fine woman.”

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Amie Souza Reilly holds an M.A. in English Literature from Fordham University. She teaches at Norwalk Community College and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and ten-year-old son. She has published essays in The New Engagement and Entropy, and has flash fiction forthcoming in Toasted Cheese and Pigeonholes. Her blog can be found here: https://theshapeofme.blog.

Nothing Is Ever Itself Only: A Review of Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

  Indecency  by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).

Justin Phillip Reed’s debut collection, Indecency, offers a sharp, uncompromising rebuttal to a society that would like to reduce the speaker to their race, sexuality, and gender performance. Reed turns the white, heterosexual gaze back toward itself, revealing the void at the heart of those identities, while simultaneously reveling in black queerness and expounding on the vast universes contained therein.

Indecency, asks, What is sayable? Isn’t propriety just oppression with a smile? Reed then makes space for the truth white western culture asks marginalized people to keep to themselves and demonstrates how it attempts to conscript them into protecting the privileged from the reality of what is done in their name to maintain that privilege, as in “They Speak of the Body and One Sits Up Straight.”

what's black    and red        and red        all over? the public
drops    its hand    from the ear where it had    what it thought
was the decency    to whisper.

Reed illustrates how our society reduces black people to their bodies and then demeans and discards those bodies in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact,” where “The soil is thick with hidden Black girls, the myth that only quiet Black girls are worthwhile Black girls.” Reed negates this dehumanization by grounding Indecency in physicality. His speaker, “so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet” (“Take It Out of the Boy”), is determined not just to survive, but to raise their voice over what seeks to silence them. This is a speaker who has “scrubbed my own maroon out of the porcelain / mouth of a pedestal sink,” in “Slough,” and relates, “I haven't swept / the welcome mat, haven’t taken advantage / of the free counseling sessions, have been / here before” in “Nothing Was Ever Itself Only.” But there’s a fierce intellect here that refuses to look away, wondering in “Paroxysm,” “why Edvard Munch’s screaming figure isn’t black as the day is long.”

One of the collection’s most exciting through-lines is its examination of whiteness—the ravenous blank of it, and how its cold, relentless spotlight throws blackness into strange relief. Reed demonstrates how whiteness obscures itself by insisting that its many violences are done by no one in poems like “A Statement from No One, Incorporated,” where faceless white voices insist, “We are so / many blades in the yard the wind / runs screaming invisibly through.” By rendering itself invisible and innocent, whiteness attempts to make itself unassailable, so it’s remarkable how Reed peers into this lack to reveal not only what whiteness imagines itself to be, but also how the construction of whiteness prefigures blackness as the repository of and direction for violence. This is especially striking in poems like “Pushing up onto its elbows, the fable lifts itself into fact.”

Unlike missing Black girls, taking black girls is a Western custom. It seems likely that such a statement will soon appear inaccurate: the white space in the new textbook editions will have nothing to say about it, if the white spaces behind those textbooks have anything to say about it.

It’s certainly not a new idea that whiteness requires blackness to serve as its shadow and foil—that’s one of many the twisted logics of white supremacy—but Reed illuminates the contours of whiteness in ways that undercut and deftly dismantle it, rather than taking existing dynamic as inevitable, describing, “A feeling in which the rest of the world is a white couple riding horses down the spine of a beach at dusk” (“Paroxysm”). Even more remarkably, Reed lets blackness speak back to the forces that demand its negation in “The Fratricide.”

How can we tell ourselves apart for you. How can
we help you to tell us apart. How can we help
you tell us apart. How can we help you to tear
us apart. How can we help you. You tear us apart.
How can we tear us. You help us apart. You help
us part. How can we tear you. How can we tear
you. How can we help us to tear you apart.

Reed highlights the paradox of living in a world that wants you dead in poems like “On Life as an Exercise in Preparing to Die,” where the speaker notes, “carnation once referred to the color of flesh: beyond the black and white meats, the bloody organs arrange a bouquet of crushed roses, paling and exhausted.” Reed also illustrates how being systemically imperiled binds black people, particularly black men, as in the previously mentioned “The Fratricide,” where the speaker “was already / wearing the skin of his skull, molding its contours / to mine.”

However, Reed calls attention to the ways in which queerness excludes his speaker from that fraternity, as in “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me for Being a Faggot,” where the speaker addresses “Dear fellow / gay-ass nigga,” asking, “who loves you these days? / I hope it’s Black people. I hope no one / stole the certainty of that away from you,” and later in the poem, addresses the white man who disavows their relationship in favor of the closet:

From its stubborn clay I’ve shaped
a creature, hollowed into its guts
a pair of lungs, attached appendages
that make it capable of walking
out of every room it enters at will
and willed it to love. What have you done.

That’s a radical sentiment, just as this collection is an incendiary one, a work of joy as much as suffering, of celebration as much as tragedy, and of life as much as death. Reed’s wit and formal experimentation, quicksilver and luminous, shows the world as it is, while detailing how the very people that society most devalues, demeans, and seeks to destroy are its true visionaries.

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

Stay good: A Conversation with Tommy Pico by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRAN BATH

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Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the author of the books IRL (Birds, LLC, 2016), winner of the 2017 Brooklyn Library Literary Prize and a finalist for the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Nature Poem (Tin House Books, 2017), winner of a 2018 American Book Award and finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Award, Junk (Tin House Books, 2018), and Feed (forthcoming 2019 from Tin House Books). He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural fellow, 2013 Lambda Literary fellow in poetry, a 2017 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, was awarded a 2018 Whiting Award, and has been profiled in Time Out New York, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn where he co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot, and is a contributing editor at Literary Hub. @heyteebs

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I am just going to call it. Tommy “Teebs” Pico’s voice is one of the most exciting things to have happened to contemporary poetry.  In an era where GIFs and character restricted tweets have attained unprecedented levels of cultural currency, Pico resuscitates long form poetry and wonderfully distorts expectations of language, space and time as he maps out an extended meditation on what it is we are anchored by and what the stuffing of our lives says about us.

In its prologue, Junk is described as “a break up poem in couplets,” and what this reader found was a visceral gallery of the human condition. In the space of a page, Pico redirects our attention from his candy cravings to his consumption of critical music lyrics (people often overlook the gravity of the Erykah Badu lyric, “I’m feelin kinda heavy/cos my high is comin down”) to his afflictions with the New York gay scene (Edible is the birthright of all butts but I hate gay guys so much There’s this idea that only some bodies are worthy of desire) to mourning the genocide of his native ancestors (America wants its NDNs weary, slumped over the broken horse...but I’m giving you NDN joy NDN laughter NDN freedom) to deeply profound observations of our nature (The way “to see” is also to apprehend? It can’t be that sight is isolating It’s like taking a dip With the water on all ends you are suddenly your whole entire skin). Junk compacts as it expands, Pico’s language takes up space and commands movement in ways that make you learn about poetry on the page.

Reading Junk is consuming art in the truest sense. And like all prize-winning art (yes, earlier this year Pico was awarded the Whiting Award, and just this week the American Book Award), the sum parts of Junk cannot be quantified, only understood and beheld through the lens of each reader as we are forced to consider our own pillars for self-orientation.

Junk is the third in a trilogy of Pico’s published books, and the prolific poet just finished the manuscript for his fourth. He also makes up one quarter of the luminary gay literati behind the hilarious and seriously intellectual Food4Thot podcast. I had the pleasure of speaking to the charismatic poet about Junk, his poetry career, our mutual worship of Janet Jackson, and plenty more.

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Kiran Bath:  Tell me about your commitment to poetry as a career. I remember in one of your Food4Thot podcast episodes you described a moment where you were sitting in a café with a friend in Williamsburg and decided there and then, “I'm going to make this poet thing work What has this journey taken from you? What has it given you?

Tommy Pico: Oh yes that was my friend Chantal (who is a new fellow at the Center for Fiction in NYC! Yay friends!). That decision has probably done some terrible stuff to my blood pressure, wrecked my nerves, upended any sense of job or apartment or income security, facilitated the opening of new credit cards to pay off old credit cards, usurped any energy that I could have committed to a romantic partner etc. etc. etc. But it’s given me a real sense of artistic community, a deep understanding of my direct line to my ancestors, and has given me the satisfaction of knowing that I am capable of anything if I put my mind and my energy and my whole ass into it.

KB: I’m in awe of the stamina that goes into your poetic form, long streams of consciousness that flow into one another and back and forth. Can you describe how this flow works through your mind and onto the page?

TP: I just try my hardest to affect on the page the kind of curiosity and obsession and circuitous Ms. Pacman-ing that happens in my brain thing all the time. It takes drafts, it takes long stretches of working on it a little bit everyday, and short bursts of fireworks that leave me wanting to sleep for, like, 20 years. I’ve just committed to the process, so we’re seeing each other through our ups and our downs.

KB:  Landscape always plays a significant role in your work. In Junk the constant references to the urban foreground and junk food consumption (“mint sour patch kid”, “chicken tikka pizza,” “dumbo carousel park,” “west village karaoke,” etc.) adds a layer of surrealism to the language, which is fun to experience as a reader. This theme seems to be a natural continuation of your previous book, Nature Poem, where you really stick it to the stereotypical expectations of American Indian writing. What has helped you to deny those expectations from impacting your work, and what advice can you give to other poets in giving permission to oneself to do the same?

TP: I don’t think it’s about denying expectations, because I think that has the potential to perhaps reify them even further or create/reinforce all kinds of defense mechanisms. In my case anyway I think it was more about me looking at those expectations very plainly, always staying curious about them, listening to them and where they come from, so that when it came time for me to write it wasn’t with an ignorance or denial of those expectations, but a kind of shouldering through them, and ultimately trying to be all parts of my identity: native, queer, urban, hard femme, jokey, loud, shy, sexy, etc. etc. etc. so that it couldn’t be reduced to any one kind of perspective.

KB: That is a super constructive approach to it and wonderful for aiding self growth. In terms of navigating the online world, and as someone who has a love/hate relationship with Instagram, it’s been really interesting for me to watch how poets and writers I follow use social media and how they’ve adapted to its dynamics. What is your relationship to social media? Do you think it’s important for artists to maintain a social media presence today?

TP: I am not good at making proclamations about what other people should do, so I can’t say it’s important or not to maintain a social media existence. More and more my opinion is don’t do it, because that place is vicious and quick and devoid of nuance. But being quick, it also moves on to fresh meat every six hours. For me, it’s a place for my punchlines and my puns and save-the-dates. I have to delete it regularly, because I don’t really have good impulse control and in general it’s not great for my mental health. I live for the day when I can get off everything and get a landline and sit in the dark alone with my eyes closed lol.

KB: Argh. Same. I feel like apps like Instagram tend to take much more from your identity than feeding it sometimes.

Moving on, I think poets are custodians of culture as much as any other artist, and in that sense what you contribute through writing with authenticity and what you embody through ownership and celebration of your identity as a queer Native American poet is critical for the culture and society we want to create for the next generation (and ours!). Does this concept of being a custodian of culture resonate with you? Do you think there is an obligation for poets to be as authentic as possible to perpetuate this?

TP: My bff Lauren (Wilkinson, look for her debut novel next year from Random House [yay friends!]) said one time that poets were stewards of language so anytime I text her a portmanteau or whatever I hashtag it stew-stew of lang-lang, so I suppose I am a custodian of culture. That question of authenticity is like a game of Whac-A-Mole or something. Most of the time you miss it and even when you hit on it it’s not like anything really changes. And then it’s gone and there you go trying again. But yes, in that sense I think it’s important to fail and miss and that’s pretty authentic, to me.

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KB: In reading your work and the work of other poets there is sometimes a fine line between themes of self-loathing and self-deprecation. Maybe there is no bright line, and certainly many of us don’t actively observe the distinction when we’re in our zone of creating. What are your thoughts on this? How do you practice tenderness with yourself?

TP: Writing sucks and I hate it and it’s very hard and when I give my writing over to someone to look at, it feels like a stab throughout my nervous system or like drinking green tea on an empty stomach. Gag reflex. It’s mortifying. I’m in therapy. I’m mostly okay. When those imaginary detractors come armed to the teeth, the tenderness I try to practice is to let those thoughts come without judgment, without evaluating their worthiness, without trying to push them away or smother them into my ample bosom. Like I said before, to hear them and stay curious and let them go when they eventually peel away, because they always do.

KB: Exactly. Much easier said than done, I’m sure. Now as a fellow fanatic of Janet, I deeply appreciate your reverence of her throughout Junk, and I lost my shit at the J.Lo reference where I think you refer to her cameo in “That’s the Way Love Goes.” How has Janet inspired you as an artist?

TP: Janet is to me a model of someone who continues to make things and put them out there on her own time, kind of like Sade. I saw Janet in concert last year and I wept openly throughout the whole thing because for as long as I’ve been alive she’s been putting music out there, so she’s been a constant refrain in my life. There’s the me during “Control.” There’s the me during “That’s the Way Love Goes.” There’s the me during “Velvet Rope.” There’s the me during “Damita Jo.” And then me and her and this tour. All of my old selves fused into one. It was like she was touching me at all stages of my life and saying I was okay, that I was enough, beautiful even. Anyway I lost my voice that night for the first time in my life and for the next two days I could barely say a gd thing—and the thing is, my voice is super important to me, it’s the only thing I can control, but I was like welp. If I gave me voice up to Janet I can’t imagine a better host.

KG:  Yep, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, your voice is audio silk!

It is such an exciting time for poetry and especially for poets of color, and what makes it even more special is to see how many of the celebrated contemporary poets uplift one another and form close friendships. Who are some of your peer poets that you are excited about?

TP: Jfc so many, too many to list and even if I started I would be leaving some others out and that would not be cute. There are three rn that I want to bring yr attention to because they are new additions into my reading list and you need to be ready for them: Destiny Birdsong, George Abraham, and Ananda Naima Gonzalez. Just wait. Oh and in terms of peers I am super obsessed with Anastacia-Renée Tolbert bc she is probably my favorite performer with my favorite voice and these poems that take my breath awaaaaaaaaaaay.

KB: To close, I want to remark on a challenge for many creatives who come to NY, and that is finding community, both artistically and socially. What does your community(ies) and support network look like? How did you build it? What kind of a bearing (if at all) has it had to your artistic development?

TP: This is a very big answer that I’m going to have to reduce into a very small one because I have to go sign a lease lol. My community has always been lateral. They are all around you, just look out for them. Go to their readings, show up at their book parties, write them nice notes about poems or whatever that you liked. Show up for them when they need you, offer them help if you have the time, and court them like lovers, you know? I made an arts collective in Brooklyn called Birdsong made up of a lot of artists, writers, musicians and academics from 2008-2013 and I made sure to give them and myself an outlet for our creativity and a direction for our ambition. Start somewhere, keep going, stay good.

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Kiran Bath is a multi-disciplinary artist from Brooklyn by way of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Tidal, Antiserious, Live FAST magazine and other journals. Kiran’s work explores themes of sexual liberation, misogyny and identity from a first generation perspective.  She received a fellowship from Brooklyn Poets and she was also a finalist for the annual Yawper of the Year prize. As well as dreaming up poetry, Kiran explores storytelling through film photography and critical essays. You can catch Kiran reading at random events around the city or through her borderline neurotic instagram stories. @kiranbath_

Documenting and Detailing: A Conversation with Lauren Camp by Peter LaBerge

BY HEIDI SEABORN

 Lauren Camp, author of  Turquoise Door  (3: A Taos Press, 2018).

Lauren Camp, author of Turquoise Door (3: A Taos Press, 2018).

Lauren Camp is the author of four books of poetry: Turquoise Door (3: A Taos Press, 2018); One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), winner of the Dorset Prize; The Dailiness, winner of the National Federation of Press Women Poetry Prize and a World Literature Today “Editor’s Pick;” and This Business of Wisdom. Lauren is the recipient of a fellowship from the Black Earth Institute, residencies from Willapa Bay AiR, the Gaea Foundation, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and a finalist citation for the Arab American Book Award. In 2018, she presented her poems at the original Mayo Clinic, and her work has been translated into Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish and Arabic. She lives and teaches in New Mexico.

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When arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan moved from Greenwich Village to Taos, New Mexico in 1917, she continued her tradition of gathering a creative community around her that included Martha Graham, Georgia O’Keeffe, D. H. Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Willa Cather, and Ansel Adams. Mabel’s house, now a historic hotel and conference center, invited Lauren Camp as its visiting poet-in-residence during the summer of 2013. Lauren’s fourth book, Turquoise Door, Finding Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico (3: A Taos Press, September 2018) emerged from this time.

Heidi Seaborn: Congratulations on the publication of Turquoise Door, it is a beautiful and arresting book. I have actually visited Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house in Taos. It is a bit off the beaten path. What brought you there and to write this book?

Lauren Camp: I was invited to be the poet-in-residence in the summer of 2013. Even though I live in Santa Fe (not that far from Taos), I had not really experienced The Mabel Dodge Luhan House. I came into the residency thinking it would give me time to work on two other projects—one being One Hundred Hungers, a collection about my father’s boyhood in Iraq. But a few days after I arrived, I felt the place and history grab ahold of me and I needed to set Baghdad aside and be in Taos in the 1920s. I pretty much wrote the entire draft of this manuscript in my little cottage on the grounds during my two weeks there.

HS: Wow! To have walked in to a place with one idea and walk out a couple weeks later with the draft of this gorgeous manuscript is extraordinary. What happened to open up this creative stream?

LC: Thank you. It was amazing. I remember that on the drive to Taos, I was very, very hot. When I arrived, the person greeting me was calm and kind. She guided me through the public rooms and gave a little history. I felt welcomed, and it put me at ease. The people working at the house were quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Mabel’s history. I felt this little tickle of a past time. I asked a lot of questions and listened. Suddenly, it became a world that I needed to explore. I started documenting what I was hearing and experiencing as poems. I came home a few weeks later with 52 pages of poems and a working title (which I later changed and changed again). That was pretty exciting. The poems, over the next couple of years, went through massive revisions, but I had a good start. In revising, I was building context. For me, both Turquoise Door and One Hundred Hungers have context—they are a whole thing.

HS: What about the poems written as letters to Mabel. They seem to break in as if to draw attention to what the speaker is experiencing?

LC: The letters to Mabel came later. To bridge the gap between the historical and the present, I chose to correspond with Mabel. Writing letters to someone is a beautiful action—it takes time, is one-to-one. I wrote to her with respect, as a thoughtful person. Each letter gave me a way to talk about what I was doing in the space she called home and express that back, through time, to her.

HS: I felt from the very first poem that you were escaping something when you came to Taos. What were you running from?

LC: I was escaping. It was a dramatic fire season that summer. I was escaping the wildfires. Early summer in New Mexico is sometimes difficult when there is no promise of rain. It’s dry and hot and there is nothing you can do about it. It is heart wrenching. But Taos is up, just far enough to get away. While I was driving up to Taos from Santa Fe, I was soaked from the sun blistering thru the car windows. Then I arrive in Taos, and everything is joyful. It took me an hour and half to drive there and in that time everything changed. Supposedly, when Mabel first came, the trip from Santa Fe to Taos took 17 hours!

HS: Place is so important in your work and you take your reader directly into the landscape whether its Baghdad or New York or now New Mexico. This collection is such a love letter to your adopted state, New Mexico.

LC: It is! When I travel, I try to write. It’s my way of holding things that seem valuable and figuring out places. I came to poetry after having moved to New Mexico. Living here and writing poetry have given me a “focused witnessing” ability that I didn’t have before. Poetry has allowed me to take in what I wanted to take in: a tree, an angle, a detail. I photograph in this way, too—very focused on specifics rather than a grand overall picture.

HS: You are physically moving through these poems, experiencing this time and place, rather than observing. I’m curious what made you enter so directly into this world and make it your own?

LC: I suppose that reflects how I initially wrote the poems. It wasn’t so much a years later, looking back sort of approach. Everything was happening in the present or the very near past. I was documenting and detailing. Later, when I went back to revise, I could find a poem's truth more clearly, which, in some ways, turned out to be different from my truth.

HS: The sky is ever present in this collection. The sky is in the majority of the poems and yet your images of the sky surprised, each evocative and new. The sky is almost its own persona. Was it the lack of rain? The drought?

LC: When you live here you have to write about the sky. It is certainly a subject that remains strong for me after two decades. The drought was around me, over me. Drought in New Mexico is like a wool blanket—so heavy and oppressive. No way to get relief, no rain.

HS: Do you experience drought as a writer?

LC: I don’t experience dry spells, or maybe it’s more accurate to acknowledge that I don’t think of the writing process that way. I can always drop into revision and stay within that. I don’t write every day or generate every day. I don’t want to sit with a blank piece of paper and fill it. I want to write when I have something to write. I revise every day. There can be long stretches when I am not writing and then when I am compelled, I write a lot.

HS: As you were apparently during this residency at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House? Was this different than other residencies?

LC: I’ve done five residencies; this was my second one. Almost all have been self-directed. In this case, I was in a cottage on the property—Auntie’s Cottage, where I could retreat to write at this adorable little table. But I tended to do that only at night. The poet-in-residence wasn’t meant to be a public thing, but I made it a public thing because it was a busy time at Mabel’s, and I’m a social person. I interacted with everyone. I was both guest and part of the house. People would arrive and sit by the fireplace as they did a hundred years earlier. That history took hold and instead of writing what I had planned to write, this came.

HS: Was it Mabel’s spirit at work?

LC: Perhaps, in that Mabel was a connector. She brought people to be with her. I don’t think I would have liked her, and she definitely wouldn’t have been interested in me at all! She was ending her third marriage when she arrived in Taos and then was onto her fourth marriage quickly. Her whole life she was seeking something. Seeking the love or attention that she didn’t get as a child. She started these salons—what she called gatherings, first in Italy, then in Greenwich Village.

In Taos, her goal was to create a Utopian society, continuing the salons. In that time, Taos was an outpost, inaccessible, not overtaken by tourists. She jumped into a space that she didn’t belong in and made herself at home. Soon artists and writers from all over the world were making the long trip to Taos to be with Mabel. People such as Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keeffe, Rebecca Strand. Georgia O’Keeffe’s first introduction to Taos was through Mabel. She came three times to Mabel’s Taos house, and ultimately made New Mexico her home. It was here that she made her most important art. Mabel brought people and gave them the possibility of a different viewpoint. Such an amazing gift for a creative person!

HS: Many of the people drawn to Mabel also influenced numerous poems in this collection.  I’m thinking of the poems about D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams in particular.

LC: Yes, Mabel was a conduit to all these artists. The Ansel Adams photo. for example, drove me to research his style, and in particular that photo (Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941). I wanted to understand where that came from and how he got that image, which led to my poem “Exposure.”

My visit to Lucero Peak Cave, where D. H. Lawrence set his short story “The Woman Who Rode Away,” was a great adventure. It was fascinating to write about a place that he had written about, as if I had stepped into his fiction when I stepped into the cave.

HS: Yet the sweep of your work in this book is about more than Mabel and the artists or Taos in the 1920s, to me I read also a landscape of grief?

LC: Yes, grief and love and loss and place. This is what I return to over and over. Turquoise Door is a love letter to a time and place. I often choose to write about individuals and set their stories in a place, and then I work to make that place come into being.

HS: And you have done that with Turquoise Door. The reader has a deep and complete sense of living under that vast New Mexican sky. You have taken us behind the Turquoise Door to experience a time and place, to get lost, to feel loss. Thank you for taking us with you on this journey, and for talking with me about your process writing this remarkable new collection.

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Since Heidi Seaborn started writing in 2016, her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Nimrod, Mississippi Review, Penn Review, Yemassee Journal, American Journal of Poetry and in her chapbook Finding My Way Home. She’s won or been shortlisted for over a dozen awards including the Rita Dove Poetry Prize. Her award-winning debut book of poetry, Give a Girl Chaos (see what she can do) is forthcoming from Mastodon Publishing/C&R Press. She’s a New York University MFA candidate, graduate of Stanford University and serves on The Adroit Journal staff. www.heidiseabornpoet.com.

The experience of snaring: A Review of Shira Dentz’s how do i net thee by Peter LaBerge

BY MIKE GOOD

  how do i net thee , by Shira Dentz (Salmon Poetry, 2018).

how do i net thee, by Shira Dentz (Salmon Poetry, 2018).

Shira Dentz’s third, color-studded book, how do i net thee, invites an interactive, immersive reading experience. Dentz’s iridescent language might best be described as Play-Doh, constructed to be flexible, moveable, and often flung—though unlike Play-Doh, these poems are often weightier and sticky. Mostly resisting paraphrase and defying narrative explanation, Dentz’s lines instead sprawl and twist associatively across the neural net of the poet’s consciousness. While this book can often feel elusive, Dentz’s poems are not diction-dense in the way that an Albert Goldbarth or G.C. Waldrep collection might read. Rather, a Dentz reading experience may feel more like floating, recalling to my ear, the static felt in certain Rae Armantrout poems, perhaps Jorie Graham with simpler diction, or a motion reminiscent of C.D. Wright’s Rising, Falling, Hovering; that said, this is a style that feels like Dentz’s alone.

The first poem, “wax,” opens the collection in this vein, beginning “lightmilk / a little more tea-color than yesterday— / a march date coils.” While the word “lightmilk” will not be further illuminated by any OED or Wikipedia entry, its defamiliarization of light and milk feels evocative. I imagine myself sitting at a kitchen table with the poet, stirring tea, and reflecting on my morning, “lightmilk” evoking milk being stirred, tea brightening in a cup as milk is added (maybe skim milk, I’ll allow—but here in this essay only), and the muted quality of morning light. I think I am looking at a calendar (“march”), but perhaps I am examining a date to eat? Then what “coils”? A calendar? A fruit? The lightmilk? Trying to build a narrative quickly becomes impossible; thankfully, it soon feels unnecessary. In addition to contracting and expanding spacing between words and letters—even vertically on occasion with superscript and subscript in addition to these relatively conventional methods—Dentz also plays with capitalization and punctuation, both fragmenting sentences and blurring their endings as the rhythms and visual effects of poems require. For Dentz, the page is more canvas than vehicle, and the poet uses unconventional spacing on every access to create an unconventional reading experience. (For this reason, I elected to focus more deeply on the first poem— more conventional spacing makes its citation more intelligible. To be honest, most of these spacing techniques are, while enjoyable to witness, tedious to describe; as a result, I aimed to spare my kind-hearted review-reader this onerous description.)

“wax” continues from these three short lines into longer lines that break closer to the page’s right-hand margin, using enjambment across stanza-space: “…a word rising / ahead like smoke.    wax // flowers float along water my brother a steed’s dark flank glistening back.”

 Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

In this sentence’s numerous potential subjects, I am reminded of John Ashbery’s idea of poems that refuse to describe experience, but rather describe the “experience of experience.” In similar equine obfuscation, his poem, “Baltimore” begins “Two were alive. One came round the corner / clipclopping.” And, if like in Ashbery, in Dentz, the “experience of experience” is the subject, we may never be fully privy to what incites its impulse. Yet our palate may salivate at “…dark flank glistening back,” an effect of the percussive k’s and similar gl phonemes in tandem with the somewhat sexual imagery in uncomfortable proximity to “brother” and “steed.” Ashbery further explains what he wishes to capture, noting, “I have a feeling that everything is slipping away from me as I’m trying to talk about it….” Similarly, things seem to drift as “wax” continues. As a counterweight to the drifting, Dentz provides sound as moorings; lines continue to cluster around phrases containing assonance and consonance such as, “…a bit of thought passed.”, “bird darts // past.”, “today’s springlike // gash.”, “bird // darts past,” ending with “knife the heat breath there’s not anything more to say about the brother” the line concluding without punctuation. The transformation of “passed” into “past” and the repetition of birds darting represent similar techniques that recur throughout how do i net thee.

In reading Dentz, I am also reminded of a concept articulated in Mary Ruefle’s essay, “On Beginnings.” Ruefle describes, “I believe the poem is an act of the mind. I think it is easier to talk about the end of a poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind.” Perhaps Dentz would agree that being hung up on the beginning of a poem is unwise. In her poem, “If you’re going to keep criticizing the beginning,” her speaker answers the title with the lines “nothing will follow; // how like an eye / nnnnnnnnnn / an oval tooth in the background.” Yet, even as the poem is an act of the mind, in Dentz’s work, a poem’s beginning and ending may shift per reader and reading. “Surfaces    fast as blood” represents one poem that blurs beginnings and endings. Here, by rotating page orientation and text layout, the poem’s lines smash against one another.

 Excerpt from "Surfaces fast as blood" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "Surfaces fast as blood" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Cathryn Hankla, a former teacher of mine, once remarked something to the effect of, a poem’s first impression on its reader is often as a visual medium—first visual, then aural, then both, as senses trade off. If so, “Surfaces…” creates a first impression of chaotic disorientation. The title, running parallel to the book’s spine, pulls its reader from the portrait orientation of the previous page to landscape orientation, and the mind must turn with the poet’s. On the right side, where the poem seems to beg us to begin, lines read, “the mother and father spreading,” and goes down the u’s spine to describe “last night / the father / drove a / black mini- / truck into a / store….” This section concludes “another night the mother. shouting / in red orange yellow //    upside down,”. At this point, the reader must flip the book again to experience two mirroring lines on the left margin. They read: “hanging like a bat . a man-flavor like a lifesaver i was alive but had no home :” Where does this poem conclude? It doesn’t seem to want to end, but to recur as often as the reader elects to flip the page. The poem is an act of the mind. “…i was alive but had no home.” Here, the home is the reader’s mind. We’re left with the chaotic image the poem first impressed.

However, the poem does not rest there, though the mind might. Rather, “Surfaces…” continues into the next page, still in landscape orientation: 

Lines continue to fold in and rebegin. The poem seems to conclude with only minor strangeness, “Leaves are falling though it’s still warm.” However, on the following page, “Surfaces…” reasserts itself yet again, back in portrait orientation, with the title reappearing in the conventional location. Here, the poem repeats the lines on the first page without the spatial manipulation. While, perhaps at their least interesting under this orientation, upon the repetition, they feel more charged.

While I cannot rightly explain the happenings of these inventive poems, as they happen, they pull me deeper, choosing not to pull me closer to the poet or speaker. It is an unexpected experience, since the poems themselves seem so closely to mirror thought without revealing the thinker. Is it necessary to feel close to the poet to feel close to their poems? I don’t think so. Yet, the closest I feel to knowing the poet’s persona is in the zen-like line that closes the collection, “Everything can be measured in fruit.” Perhaps lightmilk can also be measured in fruit. Mary Ruefle speculates in another essay, “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.” This collection seems to be knocking on the door to a different world. The question posed by the collection’s unpunctuated title is never answered: if “thee” is the reader, how does a poet net their audience? As Dentz writes in “The Penmanship of Trees,” “to take these lines, however flimsy / hurl them at the white shrouded sky.” Each of these poems seem hurled to snare us—and if not snare us—snare us in the experience of snaring and being snared. And it is lovely when they do.

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