Guest Blog

The Creation of a New Narrative Space: Five Works by Poets with Disabilities by Peter LaBerge


From “Deep Sea Diving...In A Wheelchair,” by photographer Sue Austin (TEDxWomen, 2012).

From “Deep Sea Diving...In A Wheelchair,” by photographer Sue Austin (TEDxWomen, 2012).

As an academic field, disability studies is fractured: few scholars agree on the model and definition of disability, let alone the proper terminology. As a movement, disability rights activism occupies an uneasy position in the struggle for social justice. People with disabilities are often criticized for being unable to participate in marches and grassroots activism that inherently require some physicality. Poets and writers with disabilities exist within this quagmire. Even in literature, disability isn’t respected or proportionately represented when compared to other lenses for critical and identity-based analysis.

Ableism isn’t exactly uncommon in poems and essays. Romantic era poets valorized the senses as the critical conduit for understanding the human condition in relation to the world. As poet John Lee Clark remarked in the December 2014 issue of Poetry magazine, “English poets are especially fond of romanticizing and demonizing both deafness and blindness, equating these with silence and darkness—and death.” Many Romantic era pieces identify different disabilities as obstacles disabled people can heroically overcome or an affliction to be cured. The reality of disability directly opposes these reductive ideals. Indeed, “mainstream writers tend to reflect the predominant view of disability as tragedy,” writes Jennifer Bartlett in the preface of the anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. To many, only the able-normative subject can properly be the human subject of a work.

Considering the pervasiveness of linguistic and structural ableism in the world at-large, the ablenormativity present in literature isn’t surprising. Even after the Americans with Disabilities Act, buildings remain difficult to maneuver. Disability isn’t typically considered an identity category. Disabled people are often told by their parents, friends, and medical professionals to hide their disability in order to appear more “normal.” We constantly use “crazy,” “insane,” or “dumb” in our vernacular to describe ordinary events without considering the violent connotations of these words, all of which originally referred to people with mental, psychiatric, or speech-related disabilities. The widespread integration of this discourse in our daily vocabulary demonstrates just how little consideration is given to disability.

So, what is the role of disability poetry?

In the same preface, Bartlett explains the variety of disability poetics that exist. Some poets with disabilities embody their identity and embrace the label of “crip poetry.” In their poetry, they often center politics, thus “[creating] a narrative that speaks to and celebrates identity.” Other poets choose to embody their disability in different ways—instead of focusing on disability, poets may simply use a narrative form to inform their work or experiment with lyrical and poetic forms to establish new understandings of coexisting with disabilities.

For many poets with disabilities, experimenting and narrating their lived experiences provides an empowering moment. When normative society shunts disabled people to the side, an embodied poetics seeks to reclaim that personhood. As journalist and writer Lizz Schumer details in a Ploughshares blog post, “disability poetics allows the speaker to subvert expectations. It taught me that I can write about my body without letting it speak for me, bringing both of us more fully into the conversation…. We are so much more than blood, bone, and brain.” The same sentiment is shared by Jim Ferris, one of the foundational writers of “crip poetry.” “Crip poetry’s” challenges to the tropes of disability that engender pity have “the potential to transform the world” by reframing the “gaze…under which we are viewed” and by imagining new spaces for disability consciousness.

Yet, the strength of disability poetics comes in its celebration and acknowledgement of the differences inherent within the community. To different audiences, differences breed disagreement, and disagreement breeds irreparable fissures. But integral to the agenda of disability studies and disability poetics is a deep-rooted respect of the different sorts of conditions of people with disabilities. Just as important is the intersection of disability with other analytics of identity that modulate a person’s sense of belonging within normative societal structures.

This is not to say that the work of disability poetics has resolved the broad strokes of ableism. In 2018, problems with publishing and acceptance within the literary community remain widespread. At a larger and inescapable level, structural barriers still exist twenty-eight years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Writers with disabilities who presence their disability are sometimes disrespected and pushed to the margins of their respective fields. In this reality, then, “poetry is a way of being in the world that wasn’t made for us,” as Jennifer Bartlett aptly titled her New York Times column.

Five works by poets with disabilities:

1. Poems with Disabilities
By Jim Ferris

I’m sorry — this space is reserved
for poems with disabilities. I know
it's one of the best spaces in the book,
but the Poems with Disabilities Act
requires us to make all reasonable
accommodations for poems that aren't
normal. There is a nice space just
a few pages over — in fact (don't
tell anyone) I think it’s better
than this one, I myself prefer it.
Actually I don’t see any of those
poems right now myself, but you never know
when one might show up, so we have to keep
this space open. You can’t always tell
just from looking at them, either. Sometimes
they’ll look just like a regular poem
when they roll in — you’re reading along
and suddenly everything
changes, the world tilts
a little, angle of vision
jumps, focus
shifts. You remember
your aunt died of cancer at just your age
and maybe yesterday’s twinge means
something after all. Your sloppy,
fragile heart beats
a little faster
and then you know.
You just know.
And the poem
is right
where it

2. The Lady with a Green Cane
By Fran Gardner

Just be, you say
Be where?
Be here
Be now
Be nothing.
There—have you inhaled
The fragrance of being?
Be watching

The lady with the green cane
Walk walk
Stumble stumble

That’s walking for you
Walk walk
Stumble stumble

That’s writing for you
Walk walk
Stumble stumble

That’s life
A slow walk
A slower walk
A stop walk
Walk walk
Stumble stumble


How many gardens
How many leaves
How much living
Before life becomes being
Just being
Just seeing?

The lady with the green cane.
No big words—
Just a stumble
As she walks.

3. Red Shoes
By Sheila Black

Someone buried red slippers under the floorboards
and the mice nested in them. The floors splintered no matter

how many cans of deck paint we used. And one night
at the Embajada I broke a tooth, and the very next

night three teenagers were shot dead as they sat at
a booth by the window eating mofongo. The neighbor

woman used to sing a funny song from the forties
about a “road” and “clear day,” a fast car and a woman

with a pistol. You could see her back had been broken,
and she dragged her left foot behind her down the

stairs to the mail room. And Junior began smoking
crack after his church on Columbus failed and started

going by his birth name which was Jesus, until he
fell in love with Irma of the hideous rabbit-fur-and-

white-leather jacket, who stopped the cars by waving
her watery hands, smoothing her moth-bitten hair

from her moon-pale face, the violet lipstick she
always wore, until she wound up drowned in the East

River, and no one would say if it was suicide or
murder. But Junior said there were eels inside her and

began preaching again, doped on the corner. Mr.
Rodriguez fired him, though he didn’t want to, and after

Mr. Rodriguez often looked sweaty and pale as he
labored to move stuff to the basement, which he had once

done with Junior to help him. We painted our rooms
cinnamon, Aegean blue, repainted them eggshell, gris-perle.

We fought, and you tore all my letters and diaries and
sprinkled them out the window where they landed on

the roof of your car, plastered there by a violent
summer storm. It took hours to scrape them off; I wept

and Mr. Rodriguez gave me a small plastic-wrapped
packet of Kleenex and a month later you wound up in St.

Luke’s on lockdown and Junior caught pneumonia,
died that November. He was thirty-eight, though we

had believed him older. They buried him in Calvary
Cemetery in Queens. Once I rode a cab out that way —

we got lost, so many ticking minutes among the
slender white spikes of the graves. The red slippers —

they must have been for dancing, thin soled as if with
mouse skin, a powder inside that might have been talc,

rosin, or years of plaster dust, a piece of broken ribbon,
black at the edges as if burned off or torn and smeared with

shoe polish. Or the mice had gnawed it. And you
said “The name of the film,” and I said I thought it was a

story older by far, a girl who puts on the shoes and cannot
get them off, who skips down a road, then another and

across the world, until her feet fall off, and her hands
and they make her wooden ones.

4. Florence
By Khairani Barokka

hailstorm thundering the rooftops of basilica di santa maria novella.
laughing to myself as american tourists disgustedly traversed
the streets outside, the glittery ice debris. magician drafting lady, slim,
in girldress to skip and assist him, all to sustain a crowded gasp,
collective, into the night. guitar by lovers’ locks on the bridge, a friend.
i knew i’d walked too far, and hurt’s too spiteful yet i’d stayed a little,
just come on, come on now don’t let it begin.

ached and on the train to rome i burst, all hell gone loose and fraying out,
pulsating wound i’d always hoped would be delayed, one year away from
future medicine, body silently screaming for palliative skies, palliative earth,
come meet me at some understanding, again, train passengers saw
no hail, no brimstone, strange girl, lone in her seat, frame slightly squirming,
stock still in a moment, hidden, a feeling unmerciful,
fire wash over and
over, over, over,
in jaggedy-moving capsule bringing me rome, a few days’ amuck in fiery lake,
until subsided, until decision to explore the colosseum. provided wheelchair,
my arms excited at lifts and remnants of ancient beasts, old hurts, beginnings.

5. From Autobiography/anti-autobiography
By Jennifer Bartlett

I am merely curiosity; your own small freak show. Drag my bones out to Coney Island, and feel free to make an example out of me. Perhaps people will pay a nickel to get in; I’m tired of giving the show out for free. Drag me through the field of saints. Bless me, pray for me, rub my head for good luck. I am the product of bad karma. I am punishment for my mother’s aborted able-bodied children. I am the one nature meant to throw away.


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

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes: How I Wrote "Whistling Language" by Peter LaBerge




Originally published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and in the Best of Kore Press Anthology. It’s also published in So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, 2018).

It’s last night again. Sky lit up
from another eon. Airplane pushing east

over the Pacific, a belly full of televisions.
The children fashion paper bag wings, jump off

the shed into the rhododendrons. Still, we dream
embraces with the gone-before. The never-been.

A doorway in an upside-down world—
a childhood home afloat on a raging sea.

I’ll soar across it, only to land once more
on that autumn road by the coal slag mountain,

leaves singing by our ears, a voice
I love and lose again on waking.

Someday, I promise, we’ll go to La Gomera,
where the people have learned to be birds.

We’ll circle the volcano, listening.
Soon enough, a call from one coffee-ground hill

to another. The whistling language—
lilt and grammar transcribed

into the ancient mimicry of canaries.
We’ll hear them, but won’t understand the message

from shepherd to shepherd across the divide:
I’ve lost one down the hill. If someone’s up there,

tell me, what can you see?


This poem is about flight—like so many of the poems I write, and there’s a large probability the early notes for it were written on a plane. Every time I look out an airplane window, which was a regular event due to a job I had for most of my twenties, I marvel at this incredible feat we humans have pulled off, as cliché as that may sound. Clouds at arms-length. Our world faded to miniature far below. Once, a shelf of an ice field somewhere over Siberia and a tiny village brilliant in the primary colors of shipping containers, half-buried in snow. And twice, the international dateline, that impossible instant when you get to start a day again. Literally, a groundhog day. I have no memory of what I did with those extra days. No doubt they were wasted in the exhaustion of travel, in those liminal airport spaces, waiting for the next thing. But, inevitably, these places are where poems, or the pieces of poems, begin to happen for me.

I’m regularly filled with wonder at flight, but mostly I’m brought to how this triumph over nature isn’t nearly enough for us humans. It’s not the right kind of flight, not the flight of memory, longing, loss and desire. I think this is what this poem is about. (And I say “I think” because so often when I’m writing, I find the poem gets at more truth than any explanation I’m going to attempt to make about it.) No matter how much I traveled, no matter where I went, I still dwelled in memory with the people I missed, “the gone-before,” or even the impossible, the “never-been.” To me, this speaks to some of our deepest desires as humans. If we could just have had one more moment/conversation/day/year/lifetime with that one person… No matter how much miraculous flying we do, we still want more. We still want the impossible. We long to be more than our human limits will permit.

And then I was having coffee with a friend of mine, who was planning a move to the Canary Islands to raise her daughter closer to her extended family. She told me about one of the islands, La Gomera, about the rugged volcanic landscape, and how the people there developed a language of whistling that could carry their messages over two miles. It’s an ancient language, one developed by the original inhabitants of the island. I learned about how this language was especially useful to shepherds on the island, as they needed a way to communicate over vast spaces to help each other locate wandering sheep. I couldn’t help but think of this ability to communicate like birds as super-human, god-like or mythical, and imagined their voices carrying over these imposing volcanic hills.

I can’t think about volcanic landscapes and people adapting to them and not think about coal slag mountains, these looming, man-made hills of refuse that dominate the towns where my parents grew up and where I’ve spent countless days of my own life. (It turns out “slag” heap is actually a misnomer: they are made of shale and referred to as “overburden,” which I think is a terribly apt metaphor for what happens to the land that isn’t relevant to profit-driven mining industries.) The shale mountains in my parents’ hometowns have been there as long as I can remember, and I never even knew they didn’t occur naturally until I was a teenager. They look like volcanos—my memories of so many holidays are dominated by these mountains in their stark height, towering over entire towns, an American flag or two fluttering from the skeletons of old coal collieries rusting precariously on their steep sides.

It turns out, no matter where we go, we return to homescapes. To our early memories. To the moments that, for better or worse, define us. We return again and again to the people or possibilities that haunt us.

Ultimately, though, this poem is about hope for transcendence, for otherworlds and afterlives, whether in this place or the next—for the places we’ll travel metaphorically, where we might finally get some radical shift in our limited human perspectives.

That’s why the poem ends in a promise, the kind of pact. And a royal we. Yes, someday, I promise we’ll go there. Or, we’ll get there. To this place where we might give some peace to each other, where we might be able to help each other find what we’ve all been looking for. And where we might finally have the language to call out, across the widest expanses, what that is.


Mary Kovaleski Byrnes is the author of So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, May 2018). She teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, and is the co-founder of the EmersonWRITES program, a free creative writing program for Boston Public School students. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Salamander, the Four Way Review, the Best of Kore Press, Best of the Net, and elsewhere. She served as Poetry Editor for Redivider and has been a poetry reader for Ploughshares since 2009.

“Son of a Nutcracker!”: On the Complicated Masculinity of Elf by Peter LaBerge


Will Ferrell in  Elf  (New Line Cinema, 2003).

Will Ferrell in Elf (New Line Cinema, 2003).

Will Ferrell’s Elf turns fifteen this year, and I think that means it can be considered a classic holiday film. In it, Ferrell plays Buddy, a man who was raised by North Pole elves after crawling out of his orphanage crib and into Santa’s magic bag. Now grown, Buddy takes a voyage “through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops” on a quest to find his human father, a children’s book publisher who lives in Manhattan. At its core, the movie considers the old nature vs. nurture debate (is Buddy an elf or is he human?), but like any good holiday movie, it is wrapped with magic and wonder, then tied together with a shiny ribbon of capitalism and marketing.

Perhaps I am being cynical, taking what is undoubtedly a comedy (it ends with a marriage!) too seriously. However, though I do find it heartwarming and funny, there’s something that doesn’t sit well with me. Buddy the elf is thirty-years-old, but he acts as though he hasn’t hit puberty.

In the beginning, we watch as Buddy does his best to fit in with his adopted elf family. But he’s too slow making toys, his voice too deep for the chorus, his human size too big for the tiny elf houses. It’s a bummer for sure, not being able to fit in with the family who raised you—a feeling many of us misfits relate to this time of year. And it is his misfit-ness that sparks his journey to find his father, though his struggle to conform follows him through the Lincoln Tunnel.

Once Buddy arrives, the cold concrete of NYC seems less harsh because of his naïve wonder. In fact, his childlike view is often the root of the movie’s humor. The juxtaposition of his age (and size) and his behavior creates a space for laughter. In other words, if he didn’t act this way, we wouldn’t have syrupy spaghetti breakfasts, cotton-headed-ninny-muggins, or that escalator scene.  

And I think we could keep our belief in this character suspended, except that Buddy’s childish view of the world sticks around even when romance blooms. The blend of boyish awe and manly virility makes me itch like I’m wearing a damp wool sweater.

Further into the movie, Buddy meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) under the glittering lights of Gimbel’s, where he accidentally works after a manager mistakes him for one of the actor-elves hired to help the store’s Santa. Jovie works for Gimbel’s, too, and her costume leads Buddy to think that she is an elf like him. As she decorates a massive tree, he stares at her with the wide-eyed wonder of a child ogling presents wrapped in gold foil paper. But then things get strange(r).

Jovie is struggling to make it in the city. She eats instant ramen for dinner and the water has been turned off in her apartment. She showers at the store, and when Buddy follows the sound of her singing into the ladies’ room, it’s possible we are supposed to see his invasion of her privacy as innocent, but it feels voyeuristic. Then again, who’s more voyeuristic than Santa, who sees you when you’re sleeping? Perhaps Buddy is more elf than human.

Buddy sits on the counter listening attentively, and then joins in at the chorus. Jovie is, understandably, afraid. She screams, clenches the curtain close to her body, and peers through a corner. Buddy screams back, terrified by her terror and somehow unaware of his faux paux. The scene is already unpleasant, but the discomfort is exacerbated by the fact that the tune they were singing is “Baby it’s Cold Outside,” a song that is controversial for its date-rape implications.  

However, Jovie doesn’t call the police or report him to HR. (She can’t, you see, because she shouldn’t be using the shower in the first place.) A few scenes later, Buddy asks her on a date “to eat food,” advice given to him by his thirteen-year-old half-brother. She agrees, and the movie slides into a compilation of their date. As they stroll through the city, we are supposed to understand that Buddy is seeing something old with new eyes. But what I see is a manchild dragging a tolerant woman through the city she is more familiar with. And in addition to tolerating it, she takes care to teach him—taking him by the hand to educate him about Christmas trees as she moves from store fronts to Rockefeller Center, and then later, when the compilation ends,over the song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” with her teaching him to kiss. When he kisses her on the cheek, she says, “You missed,” before she pulls him down for a “real” kiss. And perhaps we are supposed to find it charming, but it all feels just a bit too maternal— his childishness righted by a woman who leads by the hand.

And maybe the kiss is extra icky because it doesn’t make sense that Jovie would fall in love with Buddy in the first place.

Elf is certainly not the only movie guilty of portraying this type of relationship. (It’s not even the only Will Ferrell movie. I can make similar arguments about Stepbrothers and that one where he joins a fraternity.) The boy/man falling in love with a mother/lover is a trope. I remember feeling the same uncomfortable itchiness watching the movie Big, where a thirty-year-old Tom Hanks plays Josh Baskin, a 12-year-old boy who becomes an adult overnight.

In this movie, Josh makes a wish to “be big” and wakes up as a grown up. He runs away from home, rents a room in Manhattan, and scores a job in a toy company. But more unbelievable is the relationship that forms between Josh and his coworker, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). Of course, Susan doesn’t know Josh is a child, and he doesn’t tell her right away. So, when he kisses her in her apartment, tentatively touching her bra, we are supposed to feel that their love is somehow pure, innocent because it is his first time. His inexperience appears as vulnerability, yet at the same time his fear of the dark is not the fear of a child, but the kink of an adult who wants to do it with the lights on. However, we know this is a character who has recently turned thirteen. Their relationship, like Buddy and Jovie’s, seems incongruent.

Why is Josh attracted to Susan? He is barely a teenager and only looks thirty. Susan both looks, and is, actually thirty. At the same time, it would have been beyond creepy if Josh looked this way and was still attracted to girls his own age. Their courtship is oddly sentimental, inappropriate, and unmistakably awkward.

Like Buddy, Josh is at first shunned for his inability to adult properly, but is eventually rewarded. And like Buddy, Josh forms an unrealistic and ill-fitting romantic relationship with a woman, despite the fact that he is a boy. Though Buddy is a man, he acts like a child, and though Josh is a child, he looks like a man.

Like Jovie, Susan is a bit unsteady in her life. And like Jovie, Susan is also a caretaker. She is simultaneously Josh’s lover and his stand-in mother as she tends to his cuts and tolerates his apartment. And in the last scene of Big, she drives him home to his tree-lined street, becoming his mother for one final time when she kisses him on the head to say goodbye.

I want to ask: What is it about these female characters? They seem to be written to fall in love with children, thus turning them into the amalgamations of mother/lovers. Why does this happen?  

But I feel like I know the answers to those questions. These are the roles we know of women. Caretakers, patient lovers, grown women with problems that can be solved by the love of men, no matter that the men are lacking their level of maturity.  

So maybe the question isn’t, what do we make of these female characters?, but rather, what kind of masculinity is this?

Instead I will ask: Do these movies want us to appreciate men who act like boys? Does wonder need to connect to children? Why do we need to combine wonder with sex?

For a moment I tried to see the romantic relationships in these movies as reimagined oedipal stories. But they are not, at least not in a Theban-ian way. Though Buddy does not have a mother, he doesn’t seem to seek one. He falls in easily with his biological dad’s wife. It is a father relationship he desires. And Josh has a mother, but he abandons her, letting her think that he has been kidnapped. For. Six. Weeks.

There is nothing biological in the loves between these boy/men and the adult women they pursue, so the love, we have to think, is nothing more than an organic, traditional “falling.”

I imagine Freud might say that on some level all men seek to sleep with their mothers and therefore all mother figures. So Jovie and Susan (and every female character in an Adam Sandler movie) might fulfill a desire unmet in childhood. And in these two movies specifically, the romance that makes my skin crawl gives way to motherhood in the end. In Big, Josh returns home to his mother. In the closing scene of Ferrell’s flick, Jovie is dressed in elf regalia, visiting Papa Elf at the North Pole, holding Buddy’s child. Roles are maintained and the protagonists’ journeys end where they began.

In fact, at the very end of Elf, Buddy sits on Papa’s lap after he asks to hold the baby. He remains a child even when he has one.

Perhaps the final question to ask is, does Elf even need a romantic component? Did Big?

The answer to these questions is yes. A romantic component appeals to a wider audience. The answer is yes. They make more money this way.


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:

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



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


                            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.


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

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



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.


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:

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


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.


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.

Melanie Finn: How I Wrote The Underneath by Peter LaBerge


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?


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.


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.

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



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


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.”


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:

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


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

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


Let’s start with why I wrote this poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The definition of Fugue (from Merriam-Webster):

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

  • The organist played a four-voiced fugue.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

18 Love Poems for Everybody by Peter LaBerge


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

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

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

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

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


1. Tooth by Lucian Mattison

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

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

2. How We Make Love by Cheryl Julia Lee

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

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

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

4. Chevrolet by Nathan Durham

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

5. Garden of the Gods by Ama Codjoe

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

6. At Pegasus by Terrance Hayes

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

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

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

8. What's Bottled Breaks by Tanya Grae

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

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

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

10. Forbidden Fruit by Heather Cox

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

11. Love Poem For Scarecrow by Kathleen Radigan

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

12. A Psalm For The One by Tiana Clark

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

13. How To Talk by Caleb Kaiser

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

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

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

15. Alone With Mother by Chloe Honum

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

16. Orientalism by Tory Adkisson

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Leonid,” by Maggie Chiang, from Issue Fourteen.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Feminist Fridays: Don DeLillo’s White Noise is Relevant Again... by Peter LaBerge

...But Not Just Because His Protagonist is a Hitler Scholar; Or, A Feminist’s [Re]Reading of Don DeLillo’s White Noise


“ Self-Portrait as a Housewife ,” by Anita Olivia Koester, from  Issue Twenty-One .

Self-Portrait as a Housewife,” by Anita Olivia Koester, from Issue Twenty-One.

When Don DeLillo’s White Noise was published in 1985, Jayne Anne Phillips wrote this in her New York Times review: “In light of the recent Union Carbide disaster in India that killed over 2,000 and injured thousands more, White Noise seems all the more timely and frightening– precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness.” She was referring to the Bhopal gas leak, the worst industrial catastrophe in history, a disaster so calamitous that its repercussions are still felt in the community. (In fact, while I was writing this, The Atlantic published an article revisiting its victims.) There is no denying how the second segment of DeLillo’s book, titled “The Airborne Toxic Event,” seems like a microcosm of that tragedy. In this section, a train has either derailed or gotten rammed or something has punched a hole in its side, and as the chemicals spewing from the wreckage change from a feathery plume to a black billowing cloud, the town is forced to evacuate, all while the media, the government, and the healthcare system report a litany of changing symptoms and prognoses to the town’s people.

Certainly the ideas of shifty media and environmental disasters are still relevant thirty-three years later, but what’s notable about White Noise is that as relatable as it was in 1985, it is timely, frightening, and pertinent to American concerns for a new (but perhaps not as praiseworthy) reason: Babette. The first-person protagonist’s wife is often overlooked, both within the novel and in the praise surrounding it. But not only is Babette overlooked, she is also overly looked at, which makes her a pretty perfect representation of American women. But even beyond the male gaze and flattening of Babette’s character, I believe her experience with the fear-of-death blocking, black market drug Dylar is emblematic of our current administration’s war on reproductive rights.

That seems like a lot to pull out of a character who is primarily described as “Jack’s wife who has an affair with Willie Mink,” but bear with me.


In the third and final section of the novel, while the two are lying in bed, Jack confronts his wife about the Dylar pills he and Babette’s daughter have found. (The title of this section, “Dylarama,” sounds like “diorama” and reading it feels like peering into a box of Babette’s drama—it’s microcosmic, almost like a John Donne metaphysical poem, a tiny world unraveling in their bed.) He tells her, “It’s time for a major dialogue;” adding that he and her daughter Denise have her “backed against a wall.” His approach is confrontational, assertive, and accusatory. Jack compares the technology of the pill, which he’s had analyzed by a neurobiologist at the college where he works, to the microorganisms released to devour the toxic cloud. In this analogy, Babette and the airborne toxic event are the same, and a connection between mother-Babette and Mother Earth seems almost too easy. What warrants closer consideration is how this connection erases the individual-ness of Babette’s dilemma, yet also enlarges it. Before she speaks to Jack, he seems to see her use of Dylar as being equivalent to the town’s disaster: a huge, life-altering mystery that overcomes his thoughts. However, once she tells him the whole story, her whole story, the weight of the problem evaporates (at least for Jack) and he diminishes its importance.

After Jack’s opening monologue, Babette is silent for several minutes before she begins to tell her story. She starts by trying to identify the source of her unease, to set up the why before the what. But she doesn’t get very far. Jack won’t stop interrupting. First he corrects her, stopping her midway through her sentence to point out that she meant to say she was going through either a “landmark” or “watershed” period, not a “watermark period” as she has mistakenly said. And then, once she moves past his grammar lecture and begins explaining her crippling, unwavering fear of death, he interjects: “You’ve been depressed lately. I’ve never seen you like this. This is the whole point of Babette. She’s a joyous person. She doesn’t succumb to gloom or self pity.”

Jack is not only dismissing Babette’s understanding of her own mind and body, but he is delineating her person down to a compressed, “joyous” version of her that he has created. To him, her fear cannot be real, for it does not fit how he understands her. And as she continues to talk, he gaslights her into exhaustion. He tries to dissuade her fear of death by blaming her weight. When that doesn’t work, he belittles its seriousness: “If you’re able to conceal such a thing from a husband and children, maybe it’s not so severe;” and then he tries to take her horror away from her: “I’m the one who fears death.” All of this deflects from Babette and undermines her autonomy and her authority. Reading Babette in 2018 reminds me of every man who has spoken over me in a classroom or a boardroom, of every doctor who has ignored a woman’s pain complaint, of all of the men who have told women to smile.

Nevertheless, Babette persists with her story. Yet it seems that Jack, for all of his determination to get her to explain herself, still cannot pay attention. Perhaps this is the whole point of Jack—to be obtuse, self-involved, and childish. But his dismissiveness and insistence on talking over her feels too familiar.

Even when the conversation ends, the misogyny continues. The two get up, use the bathroom, and head back to bed. But Jack waits while Babette fixes the sheets, and when they both tumble in, as she tells him how tired she is and curls up for sleep, he peppers her with more questions. She acquiesces, but when she asks to stop after answering a few, he continues. It seems as though Jack still cannot conceive of a Babette who does not fit his meaning. He is dumbfounded: “I have watched you bathe Wilder, iron my shirts…” Through his confused musings it becomes clear that he only wants her to be his happy wife, the teacher of simple tasks, mother to children, reader to the blind.

But wait. Despite all Jack’s interruptions, we do get to hear from Babette regarding what Dylar is, where she got it, and what has happened to her since. After she finishes telling Jack about the mounting fear of death that has swelled within her, she tells him she found out about Dylar in a magazine. Her blind client requests that she read him tabloids, and it was while Babette was reading from the National Examiner that she saw an ad. She is vague in her description of what it said, telling Jack, “Volunteers wanted for secret research. This is all you have to know.” In a world full of fear where things stop making sense, even rag magazines hold truth. (How often does reality feel like an article in The Onion? How often does one read an article that feels real without realizing its satire?)

Babette tells Jack she followed through on the ad, passed a battery of tests, and became part of the study, ingesting the capsules that slowly released Dylar into her body, in theory, blocking the receptors that allowed her to fear death. However, just as the experiment seemed to be in full swing, three of the four scientists changed their minds, concerned the drug was too risky and its side effects too unknown. They worried she could die, or that parts of her brain could die, and even though Babette’s whole reason for seeking out the drug was because she fears death, she wanted to move forward. The mental gymnastics there are difficult, but the desperation is easy to understand. Babette, removed from the study but determined to alleviate her fear, must do anything to get the Dylar, and so, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, she followed the snake to the forbidden fruit. Babette confesses to Jack that she slept with the fourth scientist, Willie Minks. “It was a capitalist transaction,” she says.


Of course, the novel is bursting with commentary on American consumerism; it’s full of car brands and commercials, food lists and fashion choices, so Babette’s assertion that sex with Willie Minks was “a capitalist transaction” fits well within the scope of the story. But how raw it feels to read this now, when women’s rights to their bodies are increasingly controlled by the wealthy white men running our country, when women who cross the border seeking asylum have their children taken, are themselves sent back. Women’s bodies as commerce, traded, exchanged, and transacted, is a tale as old time and as new as tomorrow. Considering Babette while Title X funding is under siege, science-based healthcare for women is being overridden by moralistic ideals, and Brett Kavanaugh steps closer to being on our Supreme Court shifts my understanding of this diorama-esque section into something more macrocosmic. It seems like all women are Babettes, existing in a country full of Jacks certain that they know where women should be: “I have watched you bathe Wilder, iron my shirts.”  

And it’s not just Babette, it’s the Dylar she’s taking, that begs us to consider how relevant, maybe even prophetic, White Noise has turned out to be. I can’t help but think about how similar Dylar is to another slow-release drug that staves off fear: birth control. IUDs and implants seem to me to be just as miraculous as the capsule Babette takes. And it doesn’t seem difficult to jump from fear of death to fear of pregnancy, especially as maternal mortality rates in this country are on the rise, and threats to contraceptive freedom (which not only prevents unwanted pregnancies, but also relieves symptoms of endometriosis, ovarian cysts, even acne) are hovering over our heads like their own toxic cloud. Is it too hard to imagine a world where men use their power to elicit sex in exchange for birth control? The Handmaid’s Tale is not the only dystopian feminist novel we need to hand out.

It seems easy to swap out some of the words from Jayne Anne Phillips’ NYT review to make White Noise just as pertinent today. This book is, at its heart, an examination into how we function while the outside world is uncertain, how we come to normalize change, how the minutiae of life marches forward, how grocery shopping and newspaper deliveries coexist with disasters. That is, I believe, what Phillips was describing as “a particular American numbness.” Babette’s character is certainly emblematic of this phenomenon; she functions quite well despite her inside and outside world’s chaos. However, a close look at her experience with Dylar and with her obtuse husband with twenty-first century mindset is illustrative of our current (and long-held) male-dominated power structures. Babette’s story, like so many women’s stories, is one about resilience.


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:

Jos Charles: How I Wrote “tonite i wuld luv to rite” by Peter LaBerge


feeld , by Jos Charles (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

feeld, by Jos Charles (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

Read the poem, listed as “III” at Poetry Foundation, and listed as “LVII” in the collection.

Writing was, for me, like a gate, or slab beneath a charred, dripping piece of a thing, collecting remains.

I am not ashamed of what I was writing or had written, but across those months in the winter and early spring of 2016 when I graduated my MFA, I was unemployed, lost my healthcare, my cohort moved back home with their families (which for various reasons typical to many, but especially trans women, was not available for me at that time), I was turned down for work across a spectrum of legality, two of my immediate friends were hospitalized (trans women who were assaulted), and three friends died (all trans women, two who died by their own hands and one who was murdered). One evening I saw a post on Facebook about the life expectancy of a trans woman being 27—which I doubted, still doubt—but I had turned 27, and, I don’t know, it felt impossible not to shut the world off.

I was “depressed” and “suicidal,” in a kind of pathological way I still can’t grant myself. I was in the thicket of a kind of time that is very proximate to death. A time that, like a gate or rack, keeps one just before a visible open.

I say this not to exceptionalize myself—as if acknowledgment of affect were a way toward escape—but to say these experiences are typical of trans women, and, more broadly, how the academy is structured, unemployment, grief. I have experienced far from the worst, and, speaking as I do now, to you, is a kind of privilege I am grateful for, being something unavailable to the lives of those adjacent to me, like the life of who I was, then, in the kind of wood where the trees seem to speak, and they do speak, and I, silent, picked at the fallen fruit.

Let us say I was quantifiable, wholly interchangeable, in a way I no longer am.

Reading late Paul Celan for the first time, starting with Sprachgitter, I learned many things. I read Éduoard Glissant too—and Clarice Lispector. I learned about barring, or found words for this thing I learned, long ago, elsewhere. I learned how barring, from the job, from gender, from the bathroom, was constitutive of entrance. Or, rather, that the disciplinary mechanisms, as they say, are in fact the thing they are disciplining, existingly. That I am not so much trans, but it’s the bathroom, the job, the house, the loss, that’s trans. The death that’s trans. The incalculable now.

It was not a conversion, but a revelation, a looking outward, at what one passes through in order to conceive of stillness. The poem can hold much, yes, but it also necessarily veils and lets so much through. So I stopped trying to gather it, as if my blushing hands could hold damage. I focused on corridors, how a sound resonates, accrues its space. The poem, I understood, was, or could be, a space a reader wanders, accruing, in addition, instead, alongside, her being gathered up into an “I.” I learned to let the char finally fall and smoke up through the room.

That’s what I want now of work—the artwork, the poetic work: a use, not as a tool has, but as something unwieldy, figurable, like, not the slab, but the rack, gate, you pass through, and you look back to or will never look back to.

A thing you pick up, and at every moment, possibly, could shatter. Knowing one day it will.


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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A List of What Could Happen When You Vote by Peter LaBerge

By Christopher Salerno | Guest Columnist.

via Right Speak.

via Right Speak.


1. You enter the voting booth and are asked to pick from a list of common feelings.

2. You enter the voting booth and, November-surprise, you find a sparrow there ruffling its feathers.

3. You enter the voting booth and are met with photographs of every sexual partner you’ve ever had.

4. It’s finally your turn to vote and you enter to find the booth is actually a Dexter "kill room".

5. Instead of candidate names you are asked to choose between species of owls found in the Western Hemisphere.

6. Instead of candidates you are presented with pictures of employees-of-the-month from the Arby's in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey.

7. You enter the voting booth and they are out of your favorite candidate.

8. Your only choices are the chicken kabobs, the sirloin tips, or the trout.

9. You enter and enter and enter only to find out you are inside a Russian Nesting Doll. 

10. While waiting in line to vote, one of your Birkenstocks gets sucked up into a gymnasium floor fan.

11. You enter and there are no political candidate’s names. Instead, you are asked to rate your pain on the Wong Baker Faces Pain Scale.

12. You enter the voting booth and discover it’s only a Pepsi Challenge.

13. You enter the voting booth and a judge asks you to choose between living with your father or your mother.

14. You enter the voting booth, are overcome by varnish fumes, and see only a little black urn.

15. You enter the voting booth and find sand sifting through an hourglass.

16. You try to enter the voting booth but Cristo has stuffed the whole thing with gauze.

17. You are asked to give blood.

18. You enter the voting booth and cast a vote for whichever candidate would make the most formidable ghost.


Christopher Salerno is the author of four books of poems and the editor of Saturnalia Books. His most recent collection is Sun & Urn, selected by Thomas Lux for the 2016 Georgia Poetry Prize (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Previous books include ATM (Georgetown Review Poetry Prize), Minimum Heroic (2010 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize), and Whirligig (2006). A New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellow, Salerno is currently an Associate Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey where he also teaches in their MFA Program for Creative and Professional Writing. He can be found at

Conversations with Contributors: Brian Tierney (Issue 11, Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

by Jane Levy, Journalism Summer Mentee ('15)

The release of our Fall 2015 issue is just around the corner (Tuesday! Tuesday!)... but what about right now? Lucky for you, we've got a rockin' interview to tide you over. What happened when journalism summer mentee Jane Levy (Staples High School, '16) spoke with Issue Eleven contributor Brian Tierney? Magic, that's what.

Issue Eleven Contributor Brian Tierney.

Issue Eleven Contributor Brian Tierney.

Jane Levy, Journalism Summer Mentee: It's obvious we love your work, so first of all: what brought you to focus on poetry, rather than another genre?

Brian Tierney, Issue Eleven Contributor: Something like Saul being knocked from his horse. I guess I’ve been tinkering with words in one way or another for a long time. I studied English and journalism as an undergraduate, and was pretty far down the path of prose and literary studies graduate-level work when I realized I wanted to be writing poetry more seriously (i.e. not my embarrassing attempts to pen Neil Young songs). Suddenly, very suddenly, poetry was the most natural way of exercising my humanity. A fiction writer and friend of mine, John Fried, who works at my alma mater, put it this way: “I just woke up and realized I wanted to be doing it, not just studying how others do it.” There’s room for both, of course, but the point was well-taken.


JL: One of the things we admire in particular about your poem "Waking in the Year of the Boar" is its fresh treatment of grief and mortality. What do you think led you to address these themes in this way? (Whatever it is, please keep doing it.) 

BT: I arrived at “Waking,” which happens to share its title with the title of my first manuscript, after realizing autobiography was not a through street. I have a fairly small family, and many of them died in the last decade. My father was one of them. For a long time after he died, I wanted to make it mean something, say something, express something, as we all do, but I always came back to the particulars of our story, which to me becomes much less interesting since poetry is not memoir. As Williams wrote: “It is not necessary to count every flake of the truth that falls . . .  it is necessary to speak from the imagination.”

Who are we to live forever? Along I-80, goats graze,
testing the fences, not knowing there’s no heaven—
— Brian Tierney, "Waking in the Year of the Boar"

So I moved away from a more autobiographically fixed “I,” even as the manuscript is trying to emerge from one I’s encounter (my own) with networks of losses. One person dies, then another person dies, then Death takes on a formal persistence. But all of that matters much less when you are simply telling readers about your life. I wanted the “I” to be recognizably me, and so, be able to hold the weight of authentic experience, but also be capable of multiplicity and difference, of expansion and contraction, of observation and experience that could mean something to someone else.

The poem took off from there, as many other ones did. That I could grieve, but also find a way out that had nothing to do with an afterlife, or religious beliefs, or any other preclusion. Grief, for a while, is a blindness that elevates dark matter into the allegorical, the narrative, the symbolic, and the metaphoric, and through the metaphoric especially, into the poet’s capacity for empathy. But one of the reasons The Bible continues to throb long after scientific explanation, despite all the hypocrisies and hatreds attached to it, is because at its core the Bible is about creation and existence, and consequently, is a myth.

And myth—in a general sense—is humanity’s way of mirroring its own conception of the gods we’ve nurtured and ordained as creators and clockmakers and seers, a powerful subconscious self-instruction and preservation. There were lots of stones rolling around in my head when I wrote this poem. I wanted to dismantle some of my own previously held beliefs. I don’t believe in a higher power. I believe in the relationships lives have to each other. Earthly, animal, spatial, temporal, human; there is more to tell there than in any concept of god, or merely self.


JL: Shifting to "Elegy for the Mattresses Sleeping in the Past" for a second, I noticed you referenced Pablo Neruda's poem "Youth." What does this poem mean to you, and what led you to incorporate it into the poem? 

BT: Neruda is a poet many young poets read to be mystified and enlarged. He was a great poet of the heart, and of joy-pain duende. I’m not sure there is any particular reason I referenced “Youth” other than the fact that the line I borrowed, which made its way into the title, caught me in its lights and got me considering what starts to fall away as one ages, but also what remains to remind us of all we have done to each other through time, whether or not we’d prefer to forget it.

When reading Neruda, I always get the sense that it is all about the inexpressible, about accessing an accumulation of images and emotional depth and experience. It seemed to speak to ideas I was having at that time about lineage and growing back toward zero, which, despite its numerical denotation, is still something visible, seeable, especially in the world we’ve littered with remnants of ourselves and our stories. We do, in fact, leave something sleeping in the past, but our bodies remind us what that means to the now.


JL: You're, of course, entering your second year as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. What is something you have learned or realized during your time there that you can't imagine your craft without now?

BT: Thanks to many great conversations around the workshop table, I became interested in the idea of dramatic context—the “staging” of material, and how important that context is to the success of any poem. That poetry is a dramatic genre, rooted in dramatic form, in a way other writing never can be. That is, of course, if you take “context,” as I do, to describe how the parts function in particular ways to create particular wholes, registers, consciousness, voicing, spatial realizations and all manner of poetic presence on the page, even if they may contain layers of meaning. So I realized context and staging aren’t relegated to monologues or soliloquies, or more obvious foregroundings of the performative, in which the dramatic quality and framework is almost literally the poem inside and out.

...poetry is a dramatic genre, rooted in dramatic form, in a way other writing never can be.
— Brian Tierney

In a way, staging requires a series of answers that make one answer, which is the poem itself, embedded as it is with many facets. Who is speaking? Why? Is this an address to a ghost? Is this present, past, future, visionary, autobiography? Is it simultaneous? Is it a singular moment? Is this historically anchored? Is it reclamation, or re-using? Is this about place, people, the earth, society? Is it a story? Is it narrative? Is it both? (It often is.)

The questions, to a degree, could be endless. I don’t mean to establish mutually exclusive terms, or false dichotomies. But how all of that (and much more) relates to words appearing and sounding on a page has everything to do with writing as an act of discovery and decision. I saw, in my own work at least, that the ills of individual poetic endeavors are often sets of lines that lead back to a failed context. Maybe this means an impulse started isn’t carried-through; or I hadn’t adapted, as one must, to how poems change and contexts change in the writing process. Not so much that the poem, on the page, in those instances, wasn’t there or wasn’t interesting, but that the poem had cut a shape that didn’t necessarily fit the staging, or fit it, perhaps, too well and so became predictable, dead, circular, or just plain one-dimensional. That can happen especially with ideologically driven poems that sometimes affix a narrow range of readings without concern for truths outside the will to order things and make meaning. It is a matter of emphasis; where to begin, how to begin, where to end and how; how the title frames what follows, or doesn’t etc. If you don’t know what a poem is, or pay attention to how it moves, there will inevitably be a mismatch that readers experience and recoil from. Then again, writing really isn’t as scientific or theoretical as all that.


JL: How do you envision your first collection taking shape? Are there any overarching themes that you either have explored or hope to explore?

BT: With my first collection, Waking In The Year Of The Boar, I became interested in mythology and de-mythology, and interacting with myths, stories, family and cultural histories. To some extent I’ve tried to rarefy and mythologize my own life in order to interact with a grief that is always usurping all the charms of promised resurrections. In that way, I wanted to participate in and undermine those myths, to see what was left. It’s why, for the purposes of these poems, the titular “boar” becomes my father (the year of the boar is both his birth year and death year, as it turned out), and so a type of grief that constellates life. At its root I hope the manuscript takes our coping devices, both personal and communal, historical and proprietary, and lays them out on the table in pieces, like clock-parts, to figure out the shape it all makes from fragmentation and yearning. Part of that required drawing together my family history (which includes my aunt’s suicide in the mid-1970s) with a much larger history marked by series of losses and inherited hurts. Many of the poems reach out to ghosts; many come up against futility; some find love in the ruins, to borrow from Percy Walker. I think humans are at a point in which we have gone so far into our humanity, so far away we have journeyed from the beginning—the natural course of things—that those organizing principles now fail us, or some of us. The space between those packaged stories and the real ones we live, is the space where certain belief systems outlive their efficacy. And so we fill them with questioning. I suspect it will be a subject of interest for me for years to come.


JL: And, finally, a classic for the road: What is the best piece of advice you could give to an aspiring poet?

BT: The old cliché stands tallest: writing and reading (poetry specifically) as often as you can. That is number one. I’ve heard some poets say otherwise, but I suspect that has more to do with self-assuaging than some arrived-at objective truth about writing and what it takes. It is up to an aspiring poet to find their own evolutionary course, and what works for them. I would say remember that poetry requires the wild thought or feeling—without it, and the arrangements it can gather in its course, the result is inherently a conservative one, and I’m talking on aesthetic terms, not political or ideological ones. Too much control in the initial writing process can mean not enough room for the mind to come up against the word, against language, in order to find new shapes for its passage into unrecovered country. That is where I want poems to arrive. It is a little paradoxical, to prescribe wildness to get to order, to the thing on the page, a sort of inverse relationship between wielding all you know and remembering to forget some of it sometimes. Kind of like that silly ’80s tune: “hold on loosely... if you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.”




Brian Tierney is a 2014-2016 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, and a graduate of the Bennington College MFA Writing Seminars. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNIBest New Poets 2013The Kenyon ReviewNarrativeHayden's Ferry Review, and others.


Jane Levy is a senior at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut. She recently studied at the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute and in the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, and currently serves as an editor for the student newspaper Inklings.

Joanne Polk: Merging Classical Piano and Feminism by Amanda Silberling

By Margaret Uhalde

Joanne Polk

Joanne Polk

Margaret Uhalde

Margaret Uhalde

Joanne Polk, a professional pianist, is a unique type of feminist. By focusing on the past in order to pave the way for women of the future, Polk dedicates her work to little-known female composers of classical music. Adroit talked to Polk about history, feminism, a music festival in the Catskills of New York, and more.


Margaret Uhalde: In your lectures you provide demonstrations of the music on period instruments. Can you tell me how different playing a 19th century broadwood is than a modern piano?

Joanne Polk, Pianist: Oh, it’s very different. The action (which is how hard the notes go down) is much lighter, and the number of keys is different. So for those of us who have been playing the piano since we were four years old, you get a certain kind of equilibrium when sitting down at 88 keys. When suddenly you’re sitting down at fewer keys your whole equilibrium is thrown off, and I find myself jumping to notes that aren’t there! Today, I played the Erard, but before when I was playing the Broadwood I literally ran out of notes. I was playing the wood. So, it’s a huge adjustment. Also, most of them are tuned down half a step. I have perfect pitch, so I’ll have a different “A” in my head, and I just have to ignore it.


I can’t even imagine dealing with that.

It’s really tricky, though for educational purposes it’s really fascinating. There are people who play these instruments, and that’s how they devote their life, but not me. I love using it to teach. When we have Manhattan In The Mountains (Editor’s note: a music festival dedicated to music history) up here we use the Piano Performance Museum a lot to say, “this is the instrument that Beethoven wrote for, and this is the instrument Schumann wrote for, and this is where the piano has evolved to today.” It allows you to see the evolution of it, but I like to play the modern pianos. I’m a modern kind of girl.


It’s quite clear that you’re an accomplished pianist, but have you become what you wanted to be when you were little?

It’s taken a different turn because I’ve devoted a lot of my performing career and all of my recording career - I’ve got 13 CDs out on the market - to music written by women. That I would not have said when I was five years old, “I want to do music written by women!” That is something that sort of came to me when I was in my thirties, and I met a woman composer who revealed to me how hard it was to write and be taken seriously, and that touched me. I did feel that I struggled as a woman when I was coming up. When I went to Juilliard there were a lot of gender comparisons, and so I did struggle a little, especially being a small woman. There was something about the struggle of a woman composer that touched my heart, and that sent me on a path that I remain on today. So the path is different, but making a living in music and spending my life in music was clear to me when I was four.


You’ve been an advocate for women composers for years. Do you think what you experienced and those gender biases still exist in music today?

I think it’s much better. Musical America is the major publication in the music world, and they had an article called “Profiles in Courage” featuring the thirty top musicians in the world, and they chose me because of my work promoting women composers. It said in the article that the work I’ve done has made a difference. I think there are more women studying in conservatories, and women couldn’t go to conservatories for a long time. So now we’re seeing that, and the big change is, we’re seeing women conductors. I do think there’s change. Is there still bias? Of course. Is it ever going to be unbiased? I don’t know. A couple of women have won Pulitzer prizes in music - that’s never been done before. I think there’s a difference, because people have worked for one. Many men and women have devoted their time and effort to supporting and promoting music by women, especially in the last 50 years.


How does classical music stay relevant when the music world is constantly changing?

The thing that’s so difficult now is that everything is so fast; with texting, and video games, everything is fast. Music is a lifelong pursuit, and to tell someone it’s going to be ten years before you can really play that piece well, forget it. People don’t want that. Also, the number of hours of practicing that you have to spend alone in a room is not attractive anymore. Because of technology now you can be in touch with people quickly, and there’s so much enforced solitude as a musician, just because of the amount of practicing you have to do. So you’ve got to get out there, and take it to the schools, and put out a Christmas album if you have to, but do something that is going to make it matter. We will become irrelevant very quickly if we and people younger than I don’t start making it relevant. My last CD that came out in September debuted at number 1 on classical billboard, and it was music written by a woman. Now that’s super exciting, but if you compare what’s number 1 on classical billboard to Taylor Swift’s number 1, it’s like one hundredth of that. I sold a couple of hundred CDs in a week. She sold a couple of million in a week! We’re not that relevant, but we have to keep trying to be. I think music written by women could touch certain people in our society.


Definitely. Social issues are always evolving, and now feminism is more prominent. Do you think it would benefit classical musicians and women in general if your cause became a bigger part of feminism?

There was something about the struggle of a woman composer that touched my heart, and that sent me on a path that I remain on today.

I do, very much. That’s where my next step is, to go to some of the women’s studies divisions in colleges and universities, and say I bet you’ve never heard of Clara Schumann. There is another Schumann, there is another Mendelssohn, and others. I think people go into the concerts with kind of low expectations, and then they come out knowing this music is just as good. That’s not to say there isn’t bad music written by women, but there’s also bad music written by men. Not everything that everybody does is great, and so we have to be permitted that spectrum the way men are. So I think it takes an advocate to get it out there, and that’s absolutely how I devoted my life since my mid-thirties. It’s something that touched me and it’s worked.

Here’s a more personal question: what’s your favorite song?

You mean piece?

Any song, just to listen to, what you sing along in the car to. Is it a classical piece?

No, it is not.

Is it pop, country...

It’s the Beatles! I’m a 1960’s rock and roll fan. I’m a runner, and that’s what I listen to while I run. That’s my stuff, I’m a Beatles fanatic.


I rarely listen to classical music in my free time. I’m just too busy criticizing it, I’d rather listen to something I know nothing about!

You’re a musician married to a musicologist, is that a match made in heaven?

It can be. We’re doing lectures/recitals now, and they’re new for us. Jeff is a lecturer, not a performer. Our son is a performer, and he and I perform together; he’s a cellist. Jeff is more of an academician, but now we’ve recently started doing the lecture/recitals. It’s fun to merge the two. When my son is home it’s always, “what room are you practicing in?” He can move the cello, I can’t exactly move the piano. Jeff and I don’t have to argue over practice space in our marriage, and it’s fascinating because Jeff can also give me historical background on music. So basically, this marriage works.

You’ve talked about performing with your son, and how being a musician often involves being alone with your music. Do you ever find a connection with composers or other musicians that you don’t really find elsewhere?

Yes, very much so. There is absolutely a connection through music. Many years ago I played a couple of concerts with a woman named Diane Pascal, who’s a violinist. This was easily fifteen years ago and I will never forget how much I loved playing with her or how I felt our souls meshed. She moved to Vienna and we’ve hardly been in touch, but I invited her to teach at Manhattan In the Mountains this summer, and she’s coming. So she and I are going to play together for the first time in years. There are connections that you make when you’re playing music with somebody, with whom you share a soul that are lifelong. Then there are also connections to certain composers; there’s one composer who’s alive whose music I feel very connected to, and she and I have worked together a lot. So yes, you make those kinds of connections that I think are irreplaceable. It’s a very intimate exchange. First of all you have rehearsals where you let your guard down and can say anything, but what happens on a stage is a very intimate thing. It’s very different from rehearsals, and when you’ve been through that with somebody, you can develop lifelong friendships.

What made you and your husband come to the Catskills?

That’s a circuitous story: it was actually Tatiana [Goncharova], Grigory [Kalinvosky], and I (my two performing colleagues, a pianist and violinist) talking about how we wanted to run a festival in our own way. I believe somebody introduced us to someone else, and then someone else, and we ended up having a meeting and looking around. It took us a couple of years but we started our first festival in 2012 here with 24 people, and we’ve got 43 coming this summer. So I think we were kind of putting the word out that we wanted to start our own festival, and it worked.

We all know you’re a fantastic pianist, but do you have any hidden talents?

I have some hidden passions. I don’t know if I have hidden talents. I’m passionate about psychology. I study it all the time, since I was about thirteen or fourteen. I’m a passionate reader. I read many books a week, novels, and I love to write. I wouldn’t call any of those talents. I think when you have one talent you’re blessed to have one. I’m also a bad runner, but I’ve been running for thirty years. I wouldn’t call that a talent except that I keep going.

Margaret Uhalde is an eighteen-year-old college student in New York. She works too much, has too much faith in humans, and doesn't sleep enough, but knows it will all pay off in the end. In High School she co-founded a creativity club called “This Is Me” and helped publish two literary magazines. Her writing has been featured on the Words(on)Pages Press blog and she regularly contributes to the Catskill Mountain Region GUIDE Magazine. She manages the coffee bar in the Prattsville Art Center and has been featured in a few exhibitions there. She’s in love with everything coffee and creativity, and is trying to figure out how to live off of the two. Find her at

Joanne Polk is a member of the piano faculty of Manhattan School of Music, and is an exclusive Steinway artist. She was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year (2014). Her recordings include: by the still waters, which received the 1998 INDIE award for best solo recording, Songs of Amy Beach, which was nominated for a 2007 Grammy Award, Completely Clara: Lieder by Clara Wieck Schumann, which was selected as a “Best of the Year” recording by The Seattle Times and was featured on New York Public Radio’s Performance Today, The Flatterer, which was a “Pick of the Week” on New York’s classical radio station (WQXR) and debuted at Number 1 on the Classical Billboard Chart, and many others. Joanne Polk received her Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees from The Juilliard School, and her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Manhattan School of Music. She has given master classes at many summer festivals and universities across the country, and was one of four directors that launched Manhattan in the Mountains.