Poetry

"All Sextoned Up": A Conversation with Henrietta Goodman by Peter LaBerge

BY KARIN SCHALM

 Henrietta Goodman, author of  All That Held Us  ( BkMk Press , 2018).

Henrietta Goodman, author of All That Held Us (BkMk Press, 2018).

Henrietta Goodman is the author of three books of poetry: All That Held Us (John Ciardi Prize, BkMk Press, 2018), Hungry Moon (Colorado State University, 2013), and Take What You Want (Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Books, 2007). Her poems and essays have recently been published in New England Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Field, Guernica, 32 Poems, and other journals. She teaches at the University of Montana.

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Karin Schalm: Henrietta, your new book, All That Held Us, came out this year as the winner of the John Ciardi Prize. Congrats, by the way. It’s an absolutely beautiful book—a poetic memoir of linked sonnets. How did you get started on such a strange and serious project?

Henrietta Goodman: Thank you! I started by accident. I had written formal poetry before, but I had never thought of myself as a formalist. A friend gave me an assignment to write a poem in terza rima, so I did, and that got me started thinking about other forms I had never tried. I had written a few English sonnets, but never an Italian sonnet, so I tried that—and the subject I chose (my mother’s fear of water and the absence of men throughout my childhood and adolescence) was something I had never written about. So, the experiment with a form that was new to me corresponded with my realization that I was interested in exploring that subject beyond just one poem. So I wrote another sonnet, and then another, and then I felt that I should either stop, because the poems were so different from the other poems I was working on at the time, or I should keep going and see what happened…which is what I did.

KS: What did you learn about yourself (and language) from writing these personal but highly structured poems? Did you find words through the demands of form that startled you? If so, did these words persuade you to tell stories in new ways that you might not have expected?

HG: I didn’t want the form, especially the rhyme, to draw attention to itself, so I tried, for the most part, to rhyme words that wouldn’t stand out as being unusual. I did learn a word, though, in the process of writing the poems, that ends one of the poems in the last section: escapology. It means the art of escape, Houdini-style. In the poem, it refers literally to escaping from a large spiked frame called the Table of Death, used in stage magic, but I came to think of it as referring to the process of extricating myself from the damaging aspects of my family history, and to think of the book itself as an act of escapology.

KS: As readers we understand there’s a difference between the speaker of a poem and the writer, but how does this play out when poems are actually based on the poet’s life? This book travels through the speaker’s childhood to adulthood. How do you, the poet, see yourself in regards to this speaker? I’m thinking about the scene where the speaker (who is just a child) is sexually and violently abused by a doctorIt’s such a painful moment, mostly because of the mother’s lack of response to her child’s screams. Have the formal constraints of the sonnet helped you tell this story?

HG: Thank you for asking this question. The two poems you’re talking about are near the end of the sequence and function as a flashback into a traumatic event from the speaker’s childhood. And the speaker is me, since the book is intended as a memoir-in-sonnets. I’ve made no attempt to separate myself from the speaker in this case, except to note that the poet and speaker are always different, in that the poem is a deliberately crafted piece of art with a voice that is not the same as the poet’s everyday voice, whether the poem is autobiographical or not.

I had never thought of writing about the incident, though I had certainly thought about its impact on me over the years and had learned to call it what it was—rape. When I thought of including it in the book, so much of which deals with my relationship with my mother and my attempts to understand some aspects of her past and her nature, I was drawn to the idea of writing about such a shocking physical violation in sonnet form. Form, of course, and poetry in general, is one of the ways we have of imposing order on chaos—of putting experience to use. We can’t control what is done to us, often, but we can control what we do with what is done to us.

As I was working on the two poems, I thought also of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room,” which describes the speaker’s experience, as a child, of waiting for her aunt in a dentist’s waiting room and hearing her aunt make a small sound (“an oh! of pain”). This experience contributes to the speaker’s sudden self-awareness and awareness of the distinctions and connections between self and other. I wanted, somehow, to allude to Bishop’s poem in my own poems, since my poems detail a coming-of-age experience also, but in a situation that inverts Bishop’s—I am the child in the exam room, while my mother is in the waiting room. I’m sure part of my goal was to write something that couldn’t be dismissed as self-indulgent or “therapeutic”—the accomplishment of writing about the experience in Italian sonnet form, combined with alluding to a significant figure in my poetic heritage, made me feel more confident in writing about an incredibly personal experience.

But, ultimately, I’m not sure that I did allude to Bishop’s poem, because the word I chose to end one of my two poems on this subject is “inscrutable,” a word that appears not in “In the Waiting Room,” but in another well-known poem of Bishop’s, “Sestina,” which ends “and the child draws another inscrutable house.” I hope, though, that at least a few readers will hear an echo of Bishop in my poem.

KS: I love Bishop and hear echoes of her in your work. Who are some of your other poetic influences?

HG: I love this question! Two of my earliest and most important influences are named in the book: the poet Anne Sexton and Paul Westerberg, the singer/songwriter for the band The Replacements (my favorite, ever, from age thirteen to now). Sexton appears in the poem that begins section three of the book, when I mention getting “all Sextoned up,” and Paul Westerberg appears in section two as the music I’m listening to in my room as a teenager.

Fairy tales have long been an influence on my poetry also (since college, when I took a literary theory course that used fairy tales as the vehicle for various approaches to interpretation and analysis), and one of my sonnets references the story of Bluebeard, who systematically married women and then murdered them. And, in another of the poems, I refer to Milton’s Satan as “my twelfth grade English crush.” In this book I was looking back at some of the literary figures and concepts that were important to me as I was beginning my life as a poet, many of which I’m grateful to have encountered in Mrs. Johnston’s twelfth grade AP English class.

KS: I’ve been a big fan of your work over the years. Your first two collections, although personal in content, don’t read like memoirs. Nor do they make the same formal demands as All That Held Us. Given that your work is changing, where do you plan to go from here? Have you decided if you will continue with form or go back to free verse? 

HG: After writing 48 sonnets, it was difficult to stop. I realized I was thinking in iambic meter. I asked my friend, the poet Ryan Scariano, to give me some assignments that would force me to go back to free verse, where I had initially felt much more comfortable, but which now felt foreign. We exchanged poems by email for quite a few months, and then he suggested that we collaborate on a project—an alphabet of animal acrostic poems, or two alphabets, one from each of us. I realized that I had never written an acrostic and that the project was appealingly strange—and I was really drawn to the idea of doing something that sounded a bit ridiculous (like a children’s book but for adult readers of serious poetry, or like 48 linked Italian sonnets that were also a memoir) and doing it well. Plus, I like Ryan a lot as a poet and as a person, and I like animals, so I definitely wanted to do it.

We started the project about a year ago, and Ryan is finished with his alphabet, but I still have 6 or 7 more poems to write. The acrostic form has been a delightful challenge—I’m not good at very short poems, so I’m constantly fighting against the length constraint (when the word is done the poem is done, so my lines tend to be very long). And, I also have to attend to the integrity of the line and the placement of the line break in a way that free verse doesn’t require. We intend to publish the manuscript as a book that invites the reader to participate—like, here’s Ryan’s acrostic about a robin, and here’s my acrostic about a raccoon, and now, you, reader, have a blank lined page on which to write your own acrostic about a rabbit or a rattlesnake or a reindeer or whatever you like.

I don’t think I’ll ever really give up form after this. Even if I’m writing in free verse, I like the idea of devising some “rules,” if for no other reason than to break them.

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Karin Schalm is the Office Manager at Submittable.

Hope, Hypervigiliance, and Human Hours: A Conversation with Catherine Barnett by Peter LaBerge

BY HEIDI SEABORN

 Catherine Barnett, author of   Human Hours  (Graywolf Press, 2018) .

Catherine Barnett, author of Human Hours (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Catherine Barnett is the author of three poetry collections, Human Hours, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced and The Game of Boxes, winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her honors include a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a member of the core faculty of New York University's Creative Writing Program, a Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, and an independent editor in New York City.

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Heidi Seaborn: In your new collection of poems, Human Hours, there is an intimacy of voice that is utterly engaging, beguiling. How did you arrive at this voice?

Catherine Barnett: In these new poems, I tried to let the pleasures of tracking the mind in its circles and leaps enter the poems as vividly as possible. My tendency has been to compress my work; in this book I tried to give it freer range, trust it more. “Add add add; cut cut cut,” Anne Sexton advised. I then practiced the “Add add add” whenever I felt my inner critic threaten to take over, and I tried to take the reader into confidence.

HS: The notes for Human Hours are a found poem of their own. I was fascinated to read all the influences, borrowings and references. What tends to be a catalytic influence versus an informing or even factual influence on a specific poem or series?

CB: There’s no distinction for me between these kinds of influences. Last spring I taught a class on literary influence, a subject that’s enlivened and vexed by questions of tradition, appropriation, theft, originality, etc. Everything I read keeps me company and if others’ work shows up in my pages, I’m thrilled and honored. I try to note where the borrowings come from. I love “borrowing” in all its forms. I borrow my clothes from the thrift shop and will return them to the thrift shop; we’re here on borrowed time; anything we think we own we are really just borrowing.

HS: What role does metaphor play on the page and in your life?

CB: I don’t think metaphor can be willed, but since language is inherently metaphoric, it can’t help but show up on the page, the wilder the better. And yet often I side with readers who want a metaphor to work at a literal level, too. I direct my students to that wonderful 1926 exchange of letters between Harriet Monroe and Hart Crane, in which Crane reprimands Monroe for her desire for more “logic” in his metaphors. I hate to admit that I, too, am a sucker for logic, but I like especially logic that undoes itself or undermines itself or goes to an extreme.

I’m always looking for ways to figure out our absurd existence: what else is this like? Metaphors leap to help us. I guess this search for likeness is also part of the pattern-seeking mind of the poet.

HS:  In David Biespiel’s new book, The Education of a Young Poet, he describes metaphor as hiding “in random visible experiences like a dark suit pulled from the back of a closet found to still fit.” Your poem, “Idée Fixe,” opens with the line, “No woman wants to be low-hanging fruit,” a metaphor that you turn into something very literal. Which came first, the metaphor or the literal fact?

CB: The poem was triggered by that phrase, “low-hanging fruit,” which I honestly hadn’t heard before and which sounded like a good thing to me, though I could tell by the way it was said that it wasn’t a good thing. I took the mistake and ran with it. I love mistakes, to tell you the truth. When I was a journalist working at an art magazine, I wrote an article on the painter Willem de Kooning, who painted sometimes with his left hand so that he wouldn’t know quite what he was making, so that he could find or make or invent a “mistake.” I look for ways to do this kind of thing, or to find it in the world—and I think it does have something to do with the gap or the disruption that leads to metaphor.

When I was trying to dream up a possible cover for this new collection, I thought of this poem, “Idée Fixe,” and asked my mother, who’s an abstract painter, if she could make a painting of a peach. She sent photos of her work-in-progress, accompanied by brief notes that could themselves be poems. This is one of the many emails I received from her as she painted: “A bit of a sad peach. Brave, independent, worn honored. It just wanted to be seen. If I could I would take it to a color lab and make it a warm and fuzzy peach tone, which would be nice but not very true. Black and white would make it a literary peach. Maybe it really is an apple.”

And before that she wrote: “I will try. I will be as free as possible. It is very, very hard to create a beautiful line. I don’t think I have ever done it in my work.” In poetry, too, it is very, very hard to create a beautiful line!

Back to metaphor more explicitly, the poet Ed Hirsch says “Poetry is made of metaphor. It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things.” It’s a pleasure to collude and collide in these ways.

HS: Do you believe in the “muse” or is that just a metaphor for inspiration? If you do, who or what were your muses for Human Hours? If you don’t, what else inspires you?

CB: I’m embarrassed to admit that I do kind of believe in a muse—a muse that can be a little bit withholding because she believes simply in hard work, in writing even when words or ideas or feelings are recalcitrant. I try to show up every day so that the muse will know I’m serious even when I’m flailing. I tell myself that I can’t worry about not being able to write until I’ve written every day for three weeks straight. This is a good strategy for two reasons—firstly, because it’s hard to make it through three weeks, so I always have an explanation for why I’m not writing well; and secondly, because the muse seems to take pity on me if I show up every day with nothing.

Other inspirations? Café con leche. Beckett’s Happy Days. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. Kathleen Peirce’s poems and her chicken and dumplings. Dickinson’s letters. Keith Johnstone’s Impro. My inner agitations. Hope. Mistakes. My watch.

HS: Speaking of watches, time functions as both subject and method in this book. It’s both a constraint and a motivation. How would you describe your relationship to time? What has become urgent?

CB: I think I’ve always been in a rush, all my life. I live on the east coast now and I feel I’m always three hours behind, still living on west coast time. I ride a kickscooter all up and down NYC (wheeling it even into the subway car) because it saves me ten minutes on every commute.

Mark Doty gave a lecture—years ago!—on the difference between “lyric” and “narrative” time (terms I borrowed for the title of a poem, “Lyric and Narrative Time at Café Loup”) and I realized then that the biggest source of tension between me and my then-young son was that I had to live in narrative time, where the clock is operative and has power, and he wanted (as did I) to remain in lyric time, where the clock disappears. Writing, and working on a poem, is one good way to enter lyric time. Reading, too.

HS: There’s a line in the title poem from your last book, The Game of Boxes, that could be a precursor to the poems about your father in Human Hours: “I draw all night / to distract my boy / from life’s greater deletions.” In your new book, poems seem to hover ahead of loss—on the wavering edge—yet they never dip over into the sentimental. Can you talk about holding that edge in your writing?

CB: Mostly I live in a state of hope bumped up against hypervigilance, which sometimes takes the form of anticipatory grief. In fact, I became a writer because I thought writing might help me deal with the loss I knew was built into the human condition.

I’m all for true sentiment, which is not the same as sentimentality. It’s a kind of bliss to be able to access real feeling—so often it’s diluted or distracted away. On the other hand, sometimes—often—it’s too much to bear or to handle, and the shaping and making of art is a powerful container both for the maker and the reader. Maybe some related questions, which I like to think about but can't answer, are: how and when does feeling usefully challenge restraint? and how and when can restraint give us access to true feeling?

HS: And yet, in this collection, your poetry has an exposed, vulnerable quality that often approaches what little remains of what is considered taboo. Do you ever feel the need to self-censor?

CB: I wonder what you’re seeing that seems close to taboo? I might like to be someone who breaks taboos but I don’t think I’m that kind of writer, not here in this book and not in either of my other two books. Vulnerability, yes, I believe in making oneself vulnerable. I think it’s a kind of strength, actually. But even art that feels vulnerable has been made. It’s made out of aesthetic decisions, and it’s not the transcription of a diary by any means, even when it might approximate that. Beckett said, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist....” What is it Rimbaud says? “I is an other.” Yes, the I in these poems often resembles me; but she is also very other, a collage, a made thing looking for a “form that accommodates the mess.” It’s true that I try to leave interpretation and judgment behind when I’m writing but the poems go through endless revisions. The question of self-censorship seems pretty much beside the point. Of course there’s self-censorship! Writing is not life, it’s art, which has a shaping force to it. A transformative and transforming force.

HS: The reviews for Human Hours highlight the tragic-comic quality of this collection. We are living in a time where humor is not just a pleasure but a survival technique. What brought on this shift in tone?

CB: I went to lots of improv shows, I tried out some improv classes, I let myself be more prolix and discursive and wandering. The material in this book is different from the other books, so it allows for different ways of saying. My first book was a book of elegies and there was certainly no room for humor there. In this book I wanted to attend to the possibilities in language itself and to the absurdities of our human situation. Right now I feel the absurd has slipped right into the dire, and humor is both a little more of a luxury than we can afford and more necessary than ever. Francis Bacon says, “The imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” And recently I just heard someone say that humor gets people to laugh, and once their mouths are open you can slip in some truth....

When I went back to a college reunion years ago, someone told me to “turn around”—he wanted to check out my ass to see how I was faring.... That was the last time I ever went back. And yet that was the culture I was raised in. The speaker knows she’s long been confused and disappointed by the expectations and demands placed on girls and women. The poems try to chronicle the ways a woman might feel both constrained and free, afraid and courageous, lonely and eager for solitude. I think at least one of the the artist’s jobs is to question the status quo. Certainly to pay attention and to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

HS: Do you think of the four “Accursed Questions” sequences as prose or poetry or lyric essay? Each is comprised of questions, answers, statements and the artful dodge. For me, they capture the muddle of human experience, what we know and the limits of what we can know. Can you share how this series came into being and its relationship to the rest of the collection?

CB: I think of these sections as lyric essays, with lots of connectives rubbed out. Some of the material was drawn from pages of daily notes I wrote on the subject of questions. A friend and I were both hoping to write prose books and so we made a pact to exchange 500 words every day on our respective subjects. Matthew Zapruder finished his wonderful book—Why Poetry—and rather than a prose book, some of my late-night explorations made it into these brief lyric essays. I’m still taking notes because I am still questioning questions. I love them. I’m addicted to them. I think they more than anything can help us empathize, understand one another. Now the trick is to listen.

HS: Catherine, it’s been a pleasure to listen to your answers in response to these questions. I also want to personally share my gratitude for the last stanza of “Accursed Questions, i”—it captured my whole childhood (yes, the red speedo) in a few lines.

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Heidi Seaborn is Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal, a New York University MFA candidate and author of an award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos forthcoming from Mastodon Books in early 2019. Since Heidi started writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for over a dozen awards and published in numerous journals and anthologies and in a chapbook Finding My Way Home. Her website: www.heidiseabornpoet.com

Everything Almost Snaps Back: A Review of Carmen Giménez Smith’s Cruel Futures by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

 Carmen Giménez Smith’s   Cruel Futures   is No. 17 in the City Lights Books Spotlight Series.

Carmen Giménez Smith’s Cruel Futures is No. 17 in the City Lights Books Spotlight Series.

Carmen Giménez Smith’s sixth collection, Cruel Futures, is an astonishingly present imagistic exploration of aging, familial bonds, and mothering in the context of late capitalism. Giménez Smith’s poems, sparkling with pop culture and gleaming with intelligence, unpretentiously welcome the reader into mortality, grief, and nurturing, while deftly highlighting how these human conditions are shaped by the race, gender, and class of those who experience them.

Giménez Smith demonstrates how the understanding of childhood shifts and evolves when someone begins to parent, addressing her “terrible childhood” in “Ravers Having Babies,” and wondering at “what tatters you made of me / though you made me a scrappy little watcher / the breaks are there and vibrate.” And, the further Giménez Smith travels from that cosseted realm, the clearer its contours become, as in “A Cascade of Feeling,” where she confides, “I was recipient of only thirty percent / of my father's wrath, and that slice / is key to my composition.” Since this collection is concerned with mothering and being mothered, Giménez Smith’s poems continually return to childhood, dipping in and out of its environs like loons on the surface of a lake.

Some of the collection’s most affecting poems grapple with the tectonic plates of middle age: children growing up as parents grow older, one generation entering the world as the other exits. In poems like “Dementia As About Me,” Giménez Smith’s language is almost painfully intimate, giving the reader the feeling of hard-won, exhausted truth: “I write / things like carved out or like guts spooned out / with a rusty spoon: my guts, her spoon.” Time is ever-present in this collection, as in “Dementia Elegy,” where “Dreaming about mothers means mortality is / bristling the hair on your neck.”

When looking at her daughter, Giménez Smith sees the predicament of possessing a female body—especially a brown one—from the clear vantage point of having inhabited it for so many decades, and this knowledge worries her in poems like “Dispatch From Midlife,” where “Past fertility, insomnia / is the new membrane / around my nights.” Her daughter is stepping into a fraught, gendered and racialized physicality, just as Giménez Smith's speaker struggles, ambivalently, to remain within it—although she eyes that struggle with humor and self-awareness, as in “Careworn Tale,” where “I pluck stray hairs from my beauty / to assert control over my beauty. / I measure out what I have left.”

Giménez Smith also knows the price society exacts on women for their physicality; in “The Hero's Journey,” she relates that, “I had learned / at a young age how mutable the female body / was, everything almost snaps back.” In “Ethos,” Giménez Smith confides that “I want to clear the dross / of misogyny, so she won’t suffer under its yoke.” However, she’s not sure that’s possible, even as she prepares to fight for it, saying, “I’ll paint my face, take off my earrings, do the inevitable.”

The common thread here is the speaker’s aging—her intimate relationship to her body’s movement through time, which “shortens our telomeres without mercy” (“Ravers Having Babies”). There’s synthesis in this collection, a clarity of vision that manages to coexist within the overwhelm of consumerism, television, and pop culture. This slim book is astonishing in scope and ambition, managing to depict society’s constant babbling chatter, while continually asserting the individual dignity of her speaker and those she loves, and leaving room for breathtaking moments of revelation, like when “a lark / breaks through my skin” (“Bipolar Objective Correlative”).

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

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

BY LOTTE L.S.

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

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

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

                                    Leslie Scalapino

                                        Ron Silliman

the Black Arts Movement continues to          grow       Sonia Sanchez       Amiri Baraka

Nikki Giovanni       Etheridge Knight

                                                             morph           

                            and later

                                             be challenged by younger poets    Ishmael Reed            

Cecil Brown     “confessional poetry”        sparks       both followers

                                           and reactionaries            

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

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers                                1974

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

    Audre Lorde              besmilr brigham Lawson Fusao Inada     Adrienne Rich

June Jordan                   Mei-mei Berssenbrugge    John Ashbery Joy Harjo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now he gets up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY TIANA CLARK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations with Contributors: Anna Rose Welch by Peter LaBerge

BY SAMANTHA SETO

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

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

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

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Samantha Seto: Congratulations on your book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS: Is another poetry collection in your future?

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

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

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

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

BY NANCY REDDY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY AVNI VYAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY GLENN STOWELL

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

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

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

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

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

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

[My Bathtub Pal]

And once more:

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

[December 29]

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

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

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

[The Final Voicemails]

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

Likewise, here’s Ritvo:

…my baldness is not wisdom

[Delphi]

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

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

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

[Nobody Asked Anything]

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

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

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

[Amuse-Bouche]

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

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

[The Soundscape of Life is Charred by Tiny Bonfires]

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

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

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

[My New Friend]

It’s wonderful, and sad. Once more:

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

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

[Quiet Romance]

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

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

[Amuse-Bouche]

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

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

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

[My New Friend]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[December 29]

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

Courting Sadness: A Conversation with Aaron Smith by Peter LaBerge

BY AIDAN FORSTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay good: A Conversation with Tommy Pico by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRAN BATH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY HEIDI SEABORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HS: Do you experience drought as a writer?

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

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

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

HS: Was it Mabel’s spirit at work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY MIKE GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

 Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Love, Despite Collapse: A Review of Brenda Hillman's Extra Hidden Life, among the Days by Peter LaBerge

BY CARA DEES

  Extra Hidden Life, among the Days , by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Extra Hidden Life, among the Days, by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 2018).

Folded among Brenda Hillman’s tenth full-length poetry collection, Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (Wesleyan University Press 2018), are explorations of grief and loss, global warming and economic crisis, protests and violence against protests, feminism, the soul and its music. This new installment in Hillman’s œuvre has much in common with her four previous collections, each dedicated to and infused by one of the four elements. Like Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), Practical Water (2009), and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), Extra Hidden Life focuses on particular motifs – foremost among them, the “hidden” and necessary work of insect and plant life – which stitch each section together and lend her meditations on death and survival an imagistic unity. Through her emphasis on the microscopic or near-microscopic and its patient work of constructing and decaying, Hillman reminds us of the stakes of writing “in the twilight / of       a terrible year.” Piercing and brilliant, the collection calls on the reader not only to take action, but also to hear and “To love, despite / collapse, the life forms / reading to the wood.”

The five sections of Extra Hidden Life expand upon and echo back to one another. Hillman moves deftly from sorrow for the destruction of ecosystems and Native land, to the omnipresence of guns in the days “inside history where America is lost,” from the death of friends and family, to police violence against people of color. With her boundary-breaking forms, subtle and sudden shifts in tone and image, and startling fragmentations of her lines, Hillman pushes against an easy classification of her work. Indeed, she is not unlike the “great writers” mentioned in her poem, “Curl of Hair in a Drawer,” who are willing to “abandon their / camps & are burning the maps to stay warm.” Her poems spiral organically into and beyond themselves, grounded in the radiant physicality of body, nation, and planet.

Extra Hidden Life’s ruminations on the natural world—its embrace of wild syntax, its play of negative space, its foregrounding of activism and resistance—repeatedly put me in mind of Denise Levertov’s poetry, especially “Making Peace”: “A line of peace might appear / if we restructured the sentence our lives are making, / revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power, / questioned our needs, allowed / long pauses . . .” These poems speak to the need to restructure language and thought to better comprehend the world, to be willing to listen to what Levertov names the “syntax of mutual aid.” Frequently, Hillman incorporates color iPhone photos within the poems, so that her visual art seems to act as its own poetic line or to signify a new kind of punctuation. There is something breathing and beating and untamed in these forms, something simultaneously fluid and sharp. The speaker of “(untitled)” asserts that “The visible stands for everything, including the invisible.” The reader, plunged into the joyful, devastating world of these poems, is challenged to reconsider how they might learn to see the invisible in the visible, to love “the law  of the rock & dirt.”

In the middle section, “Metaphor & Simile,” the speaker welds together the words of Jean Toomer, Wallace Stevens, Rosa Parks, and Róża Luxemburg with images of algae, fungi, and lichen. Early in the section, which is composed of twenty-four “journal poems” inspired by the work of giovanni singleton and Robert Creeley, the speaker offers advice: “During the Can’t stand it / how to live:   skin in the yards, / life forms, species on stucco & bark.” As is true of other sections woven throughout Extra Hidden Life, the journal poems of “Metaphor & Simile” concern themselves with survival and the fight for survival, especially in spaces in which others wish to cause harm. In this way, fungi and lichen serve as a pattern for persistence, for how countless small forces can break down the destructive and the hopelessly cruel in “a cinnamon revolt...”:

          Not to despair yet to look out, to somehow chant
profound & blare each molecule existing here in
          circles at its will, something will outlast
          the scene, anthropocene, ~i~ write to you near
Xanthoparmelia here, “perhaps the most common
species” on granite, nameless energy
          till all of life seemed wrapped in it~

The study of the “hidden life” of forests and stone is thus a symbol of defiance, a hymn of gratitude, a protection spell, and an elegy for the fact that “you can’t write the names of species / Fast enough before they disappear.”   

Hillman threads themes of grieving and loss throughout each section, and the titular poem, “Extra Hidden Life, among the Days,” is particularly memorable. Dedicated to C.D. Wright, it features “extremophiles    , chemolithoautotrophs / & others with power for changing / not-life into lives,” an extended metaphor for the fierceness of Wright’s life and art:

The living prefer life    , mostly they do
              ,    they are ravenous
            ,    making shapes in groups
  as the dying grow        one thought
        until the end  , wanting more
              specifics ,     desert or delay
           until the i         drops away into
            i am not here  ,   the mineral other
pumps & vast vapors   , ridges & shadows beyond
         the single life it had not thought of–

Like the “i” that has dropped away and into extreme heat or cold, or like the heavy caesurae splitting the poem in two, Wright’s presence in the poem is also a rending absence. “Her Presence Will Live beyond Progress,” a long poem originally published as a chapbook by Albion Books (2017), is also dedicated to Wright and switches to a more confessional first-person lyric:

          i cling to her like a burr on a sock
    cling to her like a lipstick stain
cling like lichen on the live oak    breaking things down

    extra hidden life          among the days

Each line clings to the previous as the stanza drifts back toward the left-hand margin, before the next line again becomes untethered and independent. To be burr or stain or lichen is to “cling” for as long as possible to the living beloved; for the lichen in particular, “breaking things down” is both a deeply intimate and restorative act.

“The Rosewood Clauses,” an elegy for Hillman’s father, pairs grief and the looming threat of global warming with cacti and the silent industry of ants. Ants, figures of continuous work, invisible life, and decomposition, are also figures of incredible strength and endurance amidst disaster: “There is a / leaking out of everything. The ants / work underground; the invisible / is a communist.” Extra Hidden Life interrogates this unbearable sorrow from its opening section, “The Forests of Grief & Color.” Though several epigraphs headline the section, the excerpt from Judith Butler’s “On Grief and Rage” seems especially apropos: “Can we perhaps find one of the sources of nonviolence in the capacity to grieve, to stay with the unbearable loss without converting it into destruction?. . . if the grief is unbearable, is there another way to live with it that is not the same as bearing it?” Hillman offers a response, showing how grieving and living alongside the unbearable mirrors the struggle to save forests, animals, plants, and shores, democracy, and human life. At a moment in which “nothing / comes together anymore– / democracy & time, / from da: to divide–,” fighting for survival becomes a strategy for survival, itself. This collection urges the reader to not only brave the disillusionment and despair rampant in our politics and to stare down its indifference, but to also work alongside their own sorrow and fear, defiant and awake and “possessed of deep & vagrant joy.”

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, she was named the runner-up for the 2018 Third Coast Poetry Prize and a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Journal, and The Southeast Review. Her first manuscript was recently listed as a semifinalist or finalist for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

Conversations with Contributors: José Olivarez by Peter LaBerge

BY DUJIE TAHAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT: Please do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JO: That’s true. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY CHELSEA DINGMAN

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

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

I.

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.

II.

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

III.

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.

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

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

BY JOHN STINTZI and LAUREN TURNER

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

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

Lauren R. Korn
Director of Content
The Adroit Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations with Contributors: Gala Mukomolova by Peter LaBerge

BY ALI SHAPIRO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS: Can we listen to that Hole song again?

GM: Yes. Come over.

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