The Good Stuff

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Conversations with Contributors: Matt W. Miller by Peter LaBerge


 Matt W. Miller, author of  The Wounded for the Water  (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and contributor to  Issue Eighteen .

Matt W. Miller, author of The Wounded for the Water (Salmon Poetry, 2018) and contributor to Issue Eighteen.

Matt W. Miller is a poet, father, surfer, and teacher from Lowell, Massachusetts. His third book, The Wounded for the Water, published in by Salmon Poetry in 2018, explores the lure of the water, the pulse of the body, and the ways in which drowning and fluidity surface in the grit of daily life. Miller has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Walker E. Dakin Fellow at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and recently completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. He teaches English at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.


I met Matt as participant in Philips Exeter’s summer Writers’ Workshop for teachers in 2016, which he co-facilitated with his colleagues Mercy Carbonell and Willie Perdomo. I called him recently to discuss his new book, craft, teaching, and navigating the writing world.

Alexa Garvoille: Did this whole book start with the long poem, “Ordeal by Water”?

Matt W. Miller: I think it started to organize around that poem. That poem almost made it into my last book. It wasn't quite fully cooked, and I think the editor at UNT kind of felt that when I was trying to put it into Club Icarus. But I'm glad I was patient with it because it wasn't done. It had a lot of fat on it. But then I was writing other stuff, and this theme was coming up again: water, physical wounds, drowning. They started to coalesce. But every time I actually tried to write a poem like that, a drowning poem, it would always be terrible. If I stumbled into it, I'd go, Oh, look at that, it's another one. But when I was trying to do it and acting like, Oh, I'm writing a book, this is my next chapter, it always came off just terrible.

AG: And were you aware that you were working towards a book focused on water?

MM: Not at first, no. But as I was looking at a group of poems, I knew these were all kind of connected in some way. Connected in a temporal way and in a subject matter way. And then the final way, where there's all types of drowning. It may not even mention water or literal drowning, but it's happening anyway. Like the part where they guy's drowning in his job working at a prison. You know, it's just burying him.

I was getting closer, and then all of the sudden I had to cut stuff out, wait for more stuff to arrive. Literally, I feel like you have to wait for them to show up sometimes, some of these poems.

AG: When you're writing poems that come from lived experiences, as many of your poems seem to, are you living that moment thinking, Oh man, this is a poem?

MM: Nah, I don't usually know. I think if I do think, Oh, this would be a great poem moment, it usually turns out to be a really bad poem. You're usually making it too conscious of itself. Usually kind of thinking back, you'll stumble on something. And all of the sudden, it becomes something that could be a poem. And even then, it's not always going to happen, but you sit on it for long enough—years, decades go by—and you say, Oh yeah, remember that thing that happened? Let's see if I can get that down.

But especially stuff out of our youth, it's never a poem. It was just a fight. Or an argument that later on, perhaps, becomes something else by sitting on it and looking at it, trying to make it more than just some moment. It's just life happening. I just kind of look at it and think, No this is something worth looking at. Cause it is life happening.

AG: In a recent interview for an Exeter profile, you said, "Writing isn't therapy, but it can be therapeutic." Talk more about that and how it played out in this book, or how it plays out in your work right now. Just thinking about old childhood memories, some really intense memories—smashing your fist through the window, for instance.

MM: I feel like I'm quoting somebody who said that once, but I also kind of believe it. I had gone to college thinking about the idea of becoming a writer, but I got sucked into the script of just being a jock-football player kind of guy. And I was miserable. I didn't like playing, it was just easy to do it. I wasn't enjoying myself that much. I just felt sad all the time. And then when I got hurt my senior year, I starteud spending time in the library or standing on top of my apartment building, listening to the funk-jazz bands playing at the bar across the street and reading a lot. And I started writing again and realizing that's what I wanted to do. It made me less sad. I don't know if it was therapy as much as realizing that it was what I want I wanted to be doing. I'd been denying what I wanted to do.

But it's not always therapeutic, either, because you could be just there picking a scab, something you don't even want to look at. Like, Why don't you just forget about it and not deal with it? Gabby Calvocoressi was here at Exeter a couple months ago. They were saying kind of the same thing, that sometimes you don't want to look at this stuff. It's not always an easy thing, something you can easily get by without thinking about. If you decide to look at it, and you keep looking at it, you feel kind of terrible sometimes.

And that one poem you were just talking about, where I put my arm through a window after my father's act of violence against us—the second part of that poem is me being violent with my daughter. And I hate that poem. I hate that I wrote it, my wife doesn't ever want me to read it, but I couldn't not put it in there because that was also something that I needed to have there. I've thought, I'm going to come off as an awful person in this. And I'm doing a similar thing. You know, the sins of the father type of thing. I think to not put that in would be a cop-out. To make yourself look all nice and, you know, Oh woe is me, my dad was tough sometimes. So I gotta go, to myself, Well, you're kind of a prick, too.

That’s a tough poem for me. I flip by it in the book—I don't know where it is. It's there. "Of the Father," it's called. I do not like that that me is in there, but that is me, too. And I had to be honest with that. I don't feel like I walked out of a nice session. Having that poem in there? No, it's a terrible stain in that book that I have this, me slightly slapping my daughter about. God, I keep seeing it over and over again. And reading that poem makes me see it again and again and again. And even though I try to pull back from it in the poem, try to explain to her anger and what this word that set me off was—all she knows is her father betrayed her. He struck out at her. And I can never take that back. That's forever. I hate that poem so much. But it had to go in there, I think.

AG: You were talking about "Ordeal by Water" not being quite ready for the last book. For you, when do you know something is ready?

MM: You know, you never know. “You die without knowing.”

AG: But you can know it's not ready.

MM: Yeah, yeah. I still wonder on some of them. Like, I don't know if that's quite right. Or you look back at something you've written before and, even if you publish it, you're like, Oh, no... That shouldn't be out there like that. But you're not the same person who wrote that, either. Somebody else wrote it. Somebody else put it out there. The experience of writing, it changes the person who wrote it. And every other experience you have. You know, that idea of you can't stand in the same river twice because the water changes, but so do you. You can't take off on the same wave twice.

I mean, sometimes it helps, in some ways to throw them out there. To submit them to publications or to let people read them. That can give you a false sense. You might get two hundred rejections and think, This thing's terrible, it's the worst thing I've ever read. And then you read it to somebody and they cry. And you know it’s working on that level. Who's right? Who's wrong? And you're totally confused. You don't know.

But sometimes you get to a point where you’ve got to say, This is as far as I'm going to take it. I'm not going to do any more of this. I need to move on. We had a good time together, but it's not you, it's me. We have to go our separate ways. You go over into some other place where I'm not going to keep playing with you, tweaking you, changing you, because you’re just not going to change any more. You don't have that same space creatively or energy-wise.

AG: Are you one of those people who writes a draft and then puts it away for a while, then comes back to it? Or do you work on a piece in a chunk until you're done with it, sick of it, or ready to abandon it?

MM: I keep playing around with it, put it away. And then if I think it's really good, I might send it out, and then I'll get a bunch of rejections. And then go, Wait, why are they rejecting it? Oh, wait, this is terrible. And I'm right. And I know. You've gotta wait because, you know, you write something and the first couple weeks, you think, This thing's awesome! Look what I did! And then if you would have waited three weeks you would have realized, No, it's not there yet. Why did you send it out? But sometimes I'll send stuff out just so I won't look at it.

AG: You're the person who makes a copy of the poem and works on the newer version in the same document right above it?

MM: Right, I do that, yeah. A lot of times I'll start from a notebook, a first draft. Then I'll type it out. Copy it, paste it above it, so I have the same poem, and then I'll start to play with that one. And then I'll do that again and again so I might have twenty pages of a twenty-line poem that's only one page long, but I'll have twenty pages deep of it. I just keep playing with it. I don't want to lose something that might have been good, but I was just hasty, thinking Oh, that's terrible, but then a week later, I'll go, What was that other thing I did? That might have worked, actually. So I like to keep it around.

AG: That is exactly what I do now. Thank you, Matt Miller. You gave me that. It's so great. Because those older versions—sometimes I edit parts out and then I realize that I lost something.

MM: Yeah, that helps you get back to the original energy of it. Now the editorial side of you, the sculptor side, is writing the new drafts, but you lose some of the juice, the chutzpah, the just throwing-stuff-at-a-wall energy. You've gotta find a balance between craft and—I don't know what the other word is—

AG: The gut.

MM: The gut, yeah. The "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." I think Wordsworth said that. You wanna balance that. But if you lose all that, then it just becomes really kind of dry. But well-crafted! But it might just have lost any of the blood. You have to keep the blood.

AG: So I’ve got a nerdy question about verbs and adjectives: in many of your poems, you match adjectives with nouns that are unconventional pairs, but the adjective would fit conventionally with a different noun within the world of the poem. Like, "stubbled light," or "kettled bellies," or with a verb, "sweat beetles down his face." How do those happen? Does it just come out that way when you're writing? Or do you revise toward that?

MM: I think what I want to do is shorten things and get there quicker. I remember in my first book, Cameo Diner, I was thinking about the traffic helicopters flying over Boston. The original version was like, "Traffic copters flying like mosquitoes over the upper deck." And I'm like, Oof, flying like mosquitoes is so—So I just decided, I'm going to get there quicker, so "The copters mosquitoed over the upper deck." I just turned mosquito into a verb. Probably, you shouldn't do that, but it just felt better. Instead of relying on the simile, I just made it into a verb, and it had an energy. Something about a mosquito as a verb worked for me.

It might not work for people who might think you can't break the rules like that. I know I shouldn't always, but Shakespeare did it. I think maybe reading Kerouac when I was younger helped because I think he would do a lot of that stuff. He didn't learn English until he was about eight or nine years old because he spoke Patois French, and when he discovered English, he just played in it, I think. I maybe saw some of that and what he had done when I read him when I was younger. And I didn't know you weren't supposed to do it as much, and so it became fun to do it.

You know, "stubbled light"—that was just imagery. I just saw the early morning light and these guys' shaved heads and shaved faces. Here's the stubble. Here's the light coming off it. It just felt right to say "stubbled light." And that idea of a stubbled light—how does light stubble? I don't know.

AG: It works.

MM: It works. Major Jackson was looking at one of my poems once, and there was a phrase in there, "assignments of lightning." It was about the forest or something. And a person goes, "What does that mean? That doesn't mean anything." And he says, "Yeah, but sometimes somethin' just works." So I took that as permission. Sometimes if it works, it breaks the rules, but it just hits the right note. And it's just a surprise in the language, and I love when I see that in other writers. Like, Ooh, you did—? Oh, that's fun. You did something different. I hadn't thought of that. It's energizing. Language isn't completely dead yet.

AG: Another thing I love so much about your poems, and hearing you read them, is how musical they are. For you, where does that musicality comes from?

MM: I think I start with a rhythm a lot of times, in my head. Where my head will be bobbing a little bit, like, Here's the poem, this is what it's doing. I'll start writing with it. Sometimes words will be filler words that are going to change later, but it's just to get the tune down with words before I actually have the words. If that makes sense. Even if I'm writing sometimes in a more formal verse, I'll have a tune down, even if it's a sonnet or a villanelle. I know what to do here, I know what I'm trying to do anyway. Let's see if I can catch it, even in a stricter form like that.

AG: So you're saying you have the rhythm and the sound of what you're trying to say before you even have the words sometimes?

MM: Yeah, sometimes. And that's why maybe I need to change a noun into an adjective or a verb, it's because I need to make it match this beat in my head. There's probably a little hip-hop influence there, a lot of early rap—Beastie Boys, NWA floating through my head. From middle school. The line's too long, I gotta get the music right, so I'm going to mess with this word. I can't afford a simile right now, it's going to slow it all down, so I have to change it.

AG: I'm really interested in the poems that start in some lived reality and then shift into an imagined world. So, for instance, in The Wounded for the Water, "Under Blue Blankets," starts with a man trying to pick up the speaker (in a Subway!), then tells the possible love story between them that might follow.

MM: It was a poem I was really worried about missing or appropriating. I think I was going for a poem about love and the ways that if you're looking for it, it can show up. It's probably not a poem I could have written at twenty-five, when I thought, This is the way it is, these are the lines drawn.

In the poem itself, literally the narrator talks about a dream he had about a girl he met when he was in college, and then he runs into her. And they have this moment of connection, but then it kind of goes away. Literally, that was a dream I had freshman year of college about a girl, wearing black jeans and a red sweater. And I called up a friend the next day and said, Yeah, I just had this weird dream about Emily and me, but it wasn't sexual in any way. We were just hanging out at a party, and she was there. But all of the sudden, she became alive to me. Like I was aware of her womanness, or something about her. So then literally, maybe ten years later, I married her.

But in the poem, he meets someone else who he has a relationship with and it turns out to be a male, and that's just the person he falls in love with. Maybe it's just that the person you fall in love with is the person you fall in love with. You know, I think about that. I don't know …Actually, I ran this by Meg Day, this poem. And she said, I love this poem! It's about love. I thought, Oh god, thank god. I don't want to be this white, male, heterosexual, cisgender who's just like, Heyyy, I can do the gay thing, too! I'm not trying to do that—

AG: No, it's actually so great.

MM: I'm not trying to check off a box. I just thought—that's where the poem went, and I was going for the poem: He's with him. They have a fight. And then he runs into the girl he had a dream about. It's surreal how Emily shows up in this poem. But then, he doesn't go with her. He's in love with this guy. That's the relationship. They put in time, and he wants to be with him. And it's hard.

I remember I showed that poem to my wife. We were in a coffee shop, and she cried. She said, This is a love poem. And I tell her, Emily, it's a poem for you. And she says, I know it is. It's about working through the tough times. And it's not always going to work out, but you stay with that person because you love them. And I think that's what I was trying to do with these two people. They had a life together, and they didn't want to throw that away, off on a chance meeting with somebody who maybe you could have liked, whether they're male, female, whatever, you know.

AG: I think it's so beautiful. And it's even more endearing that you wrote it. You’re telling a story about love through this other narrator, through this side-step into a fictionalized world.

MM: If the narrator went home with that person, he could have had a wonderful life. Or if he went to a club that night and met some girl or guy. That other person, they could have had a life. It doesn't have to be one person, really. People are looking for love, you know. Maybe broaden your look. You might find it in places you didn't expect, or you weren't told to expect.

AG: I think a poem that deals with a similar topic—the idea of love and what's meant to be and who you're meant to be with—is "Three Center Two Electron Bond."

MM: [Laughs]

AG: What can you say about that?

MM: What can I say about that poem?

AG: How it came to be?

MM: That was a fun poem to write. That one, I just kind of let it rip. A three-center two-electron bond is a chemical bond… where there's… I can't remember now, but it's a—

AG: It's in your very generous notes in the back of the book.

MM: Oh yeah, I put a lot of notes back there. I was like, I gotta put a bunch of notes back here just for fun.

AG: I love it. [Reading:] It's "an electron-deficient chemical bond where three atoms share two electrons. The combination of three atomic orbitals forms three molecular orbitals, one bonding, one non-bonding, and one anti-bonding."

MM: Yeah.

AG: From Wikipedia.

MM: I am not a chemist. But there are three people in the story. And one of the people might be focused on the wrong person. I remember I read something that had that bond, and I was like, What's that bond? So I looked it up. Interesting. And then Bradley Cooper, the actor, was on the cover of People Magazine as the Sexiest Man Alive, right around that time. I think I was in a bookstore or a coffee shop and somebody had it. So I sat down, and I just started writing about this, having a drink with him and being fascinated by the person you shouldn't be looking at because you're just sort of drawn in by this appearance. Yeah, it was a weird poem to write, and sometimes I hate to explain it because I don't know where it came from or how it came about and then how I arrived at that end. In the poem, they totally got caught up in this whole other thing. And they lost the thing they had.

AG: Right, and it's almost like the opposite of what's happening in "Under Blue Blankets."

MM: Yeah. That's probably why it's toward the front of the book. I think I organized things so, hopefully, there's a lot of ups and downs, but the end of the book, I wanted to end on these affirmations of love in some way. Yeah, it's harrowing but it's possible.

AG: Speaking of the Sexiest Man Alive… I went on this memoir retreat with Garrard Conley, which was so great.

MM: [Screams] Ah! Garrard!

AG: It was amazing. It was on his birthday, a couple years ago. It was at the Holes in the Wall Collective which was then in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania and there was a lake and we had one-on-one writing conferences in a boat. Anyway, at one point—I hate to objectify you—but at one point during that weekend, we were just sharing about the common people that we knew, and how I found his book through you giving it to me after he gave Exeter a bunch of copies of Boy Erased. And then, we were all like, Yes, Sexiest Man Alive: Matt Miller. I have to admit, there was a moment where somebody pulled up a picture and showed it to other workshop participants.


AG: Is it difficult being handsome?

MM: There’s a poem in the book, "Bully Pulpit.” It’s an idea that I write a lot about—blue-eyed, blond men…

AG: “Our handsome / is a lie” you say in that poem.

MM: Yeah, well the handsome is luck of time and place. Like this Western or European ideal of, This thing is what looks pretty. It's temporary, and it's toxic as hell. And it's doing a couple things. In America most of the kids shooting up schools are blue-eyed, blond-haired kids. I’ve been writing a lot about how these kids’ baby pictures look like my son's baby pictures. These are my children. You know at the end of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," where the grandmother reaches out to The Misfit, and she realizes, “You were one of my own babies”? She's the reason he exists because her cruelty and meanness to the world has created something like that. And, so, I think to myself, I've created this. I'm complicit in this. Because I've benefited from a certain time and space. You've got these shooters, but on the other side you've got Brock Turner of Stanford, who uses his privilege to rape a girl and only have to do three months of prison for it. And all this violence. And it's that same idea of, We have a right to other people's bodies. Because we've always had a right to that.

AG: Lots of poems over the course of this book and in your last book Club Icarus, too, are about gun violence and having children in the world. What do you think is a poet's job in terms of shifting people's views or the political landscape?

MM: I think the poet's job is to show the world. Hamlet says, "Hold a mirror up to nature." And I think if you show it right, people might get something out of that. Especially in a capitalistic society when we ask, What's this good for? It can't make you money, it can't do anything. It has no use. To do something that has no use is terrifying in some ways. It's a political statement, I think.

I always think if you try to write a political view, it comes off as propaganda. If you're just trying to show something as it happened, or show the reality of it, it should be apparent what's right and what's wrong.

AG: Do you find yourself reading those political poems more at readings, or not necessarily?

MM: That's a good question. Sometimes it depends, I think, where I'm reading. A couple of those poems, like "Child's Play," that deal with gun violence right now, I feel like those poems are going to resonate. Because everyone has a stake in that.

Somebody was asking after the shooting in Texas, Did you ever expect this to happen at your school? And a student, Paige Curry, said, Yes, I did. The banal answer is supposed to be, I never thought it would happen here. That's the basic answer we've been giving for twenty years. But now, kids are like, Yeah, I did.

I think about it every time I drop my kids off at school. I think, This could be a day. Or every time I'm walking across campus—god, my gut seizes up for no reason. I think, There could be someone here. Or I was at a beach two weeks ago, and I thought, Wow, this would be the perfect spot. Someone comes over the dunes… And I'm older, so kids, teenagers now, that is the reality they live with. And I think we're all living with the trauma of that without necessarily knowing it. So when you read something like "Child's Play" or "Repose," even the person not thinking about politics feels it. That's an exhaustion that they're going through.

AG: So, what's going on right now? What are you working on? You're on sabbatical, you've got a new book out…

MM: I kind of started working on some stuff last summer that I'm going back to. I'm working on trying to look at my hometown and the river valley that I grew up in. Of the Merrimack, where the Industrial Revolution started in America with the mill girl and immigrant labor. Passaconoway was a sachem, an indigenous chief, who saw the Mayflower land. He was a major figure of this place. And then the Europeans came, and you've got King Phillip's War in this area, and then the Industrial Age, and then the mills go under, the Depression, the War, Creative Economy, new talent. I actually started with the Ice Age and I'm trying to build up in this one little space. This little bit of an area where all this stuff sort of happened, this microcosm of the country as a whole. And I'm writing all these poems about that place. Plus, trying to weave in personal narratives, little poems that show up of my own experiences growing up in this funky little mill town.

Individually, the poems are doing okay. I don't know if they're ever going to come together, so it might not even work. I think reading Tyehimba Jess' Olio gave me delusions of grandeur about what I could do with a project. I thought, Ooh, I could do this big thing about this area. He was here at Exeter and hanging out with us. And I'm like, Ugh, I'm totally screwed. I'm going to try to do that. Mix that with Hart Crane's The Bridge, and just do this kind of Small Place, Big Story. I don't know if it's going to work. Probably, it'll be one of those books that kills the writer.


AG: So you're doing a lot of reading and research going into that.

MM: Reading a lot of indigenous people, reading a lot of geological history, reading narrative accounts of mill girls. Dickens, his accounts of going there and watching this stuff. Obviously Thoreau and his Merrimack and Concord River essay, his take on it. And then it's just such an immigrant town, so there's an interesting take on that because immigration is a hot topic, it always has been. It's a thing where we say, We hate immigrants! We need immigrants. Or we dig in and go, Be American. What the hell is that?

As it gets bigger, I think, How can I get some other voices in here? And then the problem is appropriating voices. Not wanting to steal someone else's story, not wanting to take. Persona poems are fun, but I don't know if I have the right to speak in Passaconoway's voice, or speak in the voice of the Cambodian boy killed on his way home from school when I was in high school cause he was trying to quit a gang. Do I get to speak from his voice? Who am I to assume a teenage Cambodian kid's voice, or a mill girl's voice? Can I do that? How do I get into these places? Do I have a right to their stories? Which is, you know, interesting. Because the time we're in is just more, Just let them tell the story, dude.

AG: Right. That sounds fascinating and complex. And quite different from your other work that's out there.

MM: It's going to be less "I" and less family. My kids don't probably want to be in poems anymore.


AG: Can we talk about teaching and assignments for a moment? There are multiple poems in The Wounded For the Water where I thought, I could write a prompt that would generate this poem, or I bet he wrote this while he was teaching Moby Dick, or Was this a challenge to rewrite Walt Whitman's "This Compost"? Could you talk about the ways in which the prompt, the assignment, or other texts from class play into your own writing and discovery process?

MM: It's not just me, but a number of people in my department will write from prompts like, Try to write a poem in the style of Emily Dickinson. Or, Take any line from "Diving into the Wreck" and write your poem from there. Or, let's do, Find the missing chapter from Sula. Write the chapter that's not there. You know, that kind of thing where it becomes this imitative work. And it's fun to go from there. It gives you a start sometimes. And then you can throw that off. It becomes like a scaffolding, or the stone in the soup so that you don't need it anymore, but it can really be a great way to get into a piece. When a kid asked Jill McDonough what was her process, she just said, "Well, when I hear a poem I like, I rewrite it in my own words." Which is kind of brilliant. She was being kind of glib, but she was also saying if it's something that stirs you, you write from it.

When I was working on "Ordeal by Water," I was deep inside reading a lot of Hamlet and Milton and Moby Dick and Dickinson and Eliot. And all those things were just popping out as I was getting to them. And I thought, Oh my god, this is where I am. This is Ophelia. Or, like, I used "grendel" as a verb because I had been doing Beowulf. Yep, what's the monster that pulls you down? There you go. And then the Moby Dick thing was a lot because that opening chapter of the book where Melville says, "Whenever's a damp, drizzly November in my soul. […] I know I have to get to the water as soon as I can. It is my substitute for the pistol and ball." You know, I know that. When I am in a down place, I get to the water and it can switch things up. And then that poem becomes, What is the water? Literal water, but you're drowning in the water of the people you live with and love, and people in the world in general.

AG: As a writing teacher, what are some of the biggest hurdles you see young people struggle with as young writers?

MM: Some of the kids just not believing that they have a skill, a talent for this, or that they have a voice—they have a story—worth telling. Everyone has a story to tell and worth telling. You gotta get them to buy into that a little bit.

The tough part is, if the kids are trying to write for an A, they're just going to listen to what you say, like, Tell me how to get it down so it's an A. That's not how writing works, you know. This is all about writing and rewriting. You might have something that's terrible right now that in ten years might be amazing. It's not ready yet, so you've got to let it cook a little more. But you might write something amazing right away. They're like, What? I don't understand how that works. Well, that's just the way it is.

And then this idea as a teacher of writing, I think Richard Hugo had that great opening moment of Triggering Town where he says, "All the time, I'm not teaching you how to write; I'm teaching you to write like me. But I want you to write like yourself." That's the trick, to let them write like themselves and get away from your ego. You want to give them some guidance, but you also want to give them a voice that's their own. And sometimes you've just got to step back from yourself. Like, What are you doing, dude? You're trying to tell them how to write this like you would write it. So you've got to be wary of that. You've gotta get out of their way a little bit.

And then they always want to know: am I any good at writing? And I always think of that Merwin poem by Berryman that ends with the lines—Merwin sort of asking his teacher Berryman, How do I know if anything I write is ever any good? You don't, he said. You die without knowing. If you need to know, don't write.

AG: Oh, that's such a good zinger.

MM: Yeah. You're writing for a different reason. And that's so antithetical to prize culture, to the culture even in writing, the capitalism of poetry. Like, What is it good for? What can it do? What prizes can I get? I mean, it's nice to get those things. It's nice to get into good programs, but is that why you're doing it? If you're still doing it for that reason… Maybe I'm totally wrong, and I could have been more capitalistic. I mean, you gotta write because what's the alternative, right? You gotta do it because you wanna do it.

AG: It seems stressful to navigate the world of writing: the prizes, the programs, the submissions. Just seeing what you do in terms of connecting with other people, being a good person, and just making friends in a way that does not seem motivated by capitalism is great to watch.

MM: You want those successes. It's nice to get those. But some days you sit back and think, Do I really care about it that much? What do I care more about? Is my daughter healthy? Is she being hurt at school? Is my son happy? Is he sad today? That's actually what I give a shit about. But you can get caught up in all that other stuff.

It's a different brain. It's not the writing brain, it's the PoBiz mindset. I can do that for a couple hours a week, you know. Just be like [Miller affects a nerdy but moneyed voice], Yes, I'm being a professional poet right now. I'm going to submit some stuff, look for prizes. Blah, blah, blah. You know? And then you go take a shower, get that off ya, and go do something else.

I feel gross every time I put something on Facebook. I ask friends, Is it too much? They say, No, it's a balance, it's good. It took me years just to get on Facebook. When Club Icarus came out, I once asked Emily, “Can you post that I published a book?” She was like, “Really? No. Come on.” So I've kind of come around. If you're, I think, a normal person, you don't want to do that stuff. But sometimes you can switch into a person who just does that stuff. Yeah, so find some way to check yourself. However you're gonna do it.

The whole thing of being a good person—if there's this little world you can be a part of, it's a little easier to just have fun with it. Give love, if you can. People like Jill McDonough and—I can name a ton of them—Brandon Courtney, Meg Day, Malachi Black, all these people who I've met who are just good. They're good people. You might read them on the page going, Oh, I'd probably hate them! They're so damn talented! And then you meet them and you're think, That's it. That's an awesome person. I love that person. You love when you love them as much as you love their poetry or their writing. When you think, They're even better than their poetry! And their poetry's freakin' great. For the most part, I think it's a lot of good people.

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Alexa Garvoille has taught high school English and Creative Writing for a decade. Her pedagogical work is focused on providing quality creative writing resources to high school students and teachers. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Virginia Tech.

Conversations with Contributors: Nancy Reddy by Peter LaBerge



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 or are forthcoming in 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.


Brandon North: Let's start with the title of your chapbook, Acadiana. Being from Ohio, I had actually never heard of the coastal, French Louisiana region called Acadiana, so at first glance the word looked vaguely like Arcadia, a place often idealized in art as an idyllic land lost to the forces of civilization and colonization. (The actual Arcadia was near water, too, being in the Peloponnese region of Greece). Considering that your chapbook starts with a poem called "Dirge," can you discuss whether Acadiana was inspired by the mythological version of Arcadia, as it relates to a lost place, a place that, once it’s gone, might be idealized?

Nancy Reddy: The title of the chapbook came pretty late, actually. (I find, in general, that I either have a title right away, or I really have to search for it!) When it won the Black River competition, the chapbook was titled Barataria, which is a small town in south Louisiana. I wasn’t quite satisfied with that—the sound is a bit clunky, and I worried the name was too obscure—and I was lucky that Kit Frick, my amazing editor, let me change it. I spent a long time searching for a new title and was really taken by the idea of a long, kind of mystical-sounding title that would set a tone for the chapbook. (I sent a bunch of those ideas in an email to my poet-girlfriends—I’ll spare you the specific examples—but let’s say that they were Not Good, and I was lucky those dear friends gently pointed me in a different direction.) In the end, I settled on Acadiana for some of the reasons you mention—it calls up Arcadia for people who aren’t familiar with south Louisiana, and for people who are (or people familiar with Google) it establishes the landscape of the chapbook. So, though the chapbook wasn’t explicitly inspired by the ideas about Arcadia that you mention, there are certainly resonances, and I’m so happy those came through.

BN: Acadiana is a very polyvocal book: there are sibyls as well as saints speaking, and there are also narrator-like personae that discuss characters like the Thibodeaux girls and sometimes speak with the "we" pronoun, as if in possession of knowledge about an entire community. Can you discuss how these varied points of view and personae relate to a place ravaged by natural disasters, as Acadiana has been? Are the perspectives meant to be blurred together in intimate ways? I'm thinking of how hurricanes and floods erode, shift, and replace boundaries, and whether those phenomena inform your poems.

NR: The many voices of Acadiana are tied to my interest in exploring different ways of knowing. The sibyls (women whom the ancient Greeks believed acted as oracles) speak with this absolute certainty that I’m rarely able to muster in my own everyday life. In “Dirge,” which opens the chapbook, they foretell the hurricane and the inevitability of disaster, and in “Town Anatomy II” (a bit farther down in the Connotation Press link above) they’re arbiters of the fates of the desperate men and pregnant girls who come to them for guidance—and they’re entirely confident in their judgments. (It probably helps that they’re literally inspired—breathed into—by the gods, at least in Greek mythology, though in my version, by the end, they refuse that forcible wisdom and speak for themselves.) So the sibyls represent a kind of divine wisdom, but one that’s troubling and violent.

The saints, on the other hand, are aligned to a more conventional Catholic and Christian worldview, though these saints are just as troubling, if not more so, than the sibyls. Saint James was the first saint I wrote, and while he says he left the girl unharmed, I’m not entirely sure about that.

Your question is making me realize that these ways of knowing—prophesy, prayer, received wisdom—also have a spatial component. The men leave town and turn to the sibyls only when they’re desperate, when the strategies of civilization have stopped working. So the knowledge of the sibyls belongs to the swamps, this liminal space between (so-called) civilization and a pre-modern way of life, between this life and the next.

BN: Polyvocality also seems related to how many poems reference "the god." With Catholic saints and Greco-Roman mythological figures sharing the same space (especially since Christian myths are historically entangled with Greco-Roman ones), could you discuss how this reference functions in Acadiana? It sounds ominously universal, yet feels like each speaker could be referencing a different, specific god.

NR: I was raised Catholic (that’s probably obvious) and one of the things I find fascinating about the history of Catholicism is how gleefully (as you note in your question) the early church absorbed the gods and the symbols and the traditions of the people they converted. (The Romans did this too, of course, so there was a solid precedent.) The monks who made illuminated copies of The Aeneid, for example, changed Vergil’s name to Virgil to make it look more like Virgin, to be more acceptable to the church. So they’re responsible for our having access to that remarkable, foundational story, but that access came at the cost of its alteration.

In terms of the god(s) of Acadiana: yes. I think all these gods—the pagan gods, the mortals touched by them, the saints—all move through this same space, all hobbled and imperfect. This is a world in which everyone’s praying and pleading, and occasionally they receive an answer, but it’s rarely a comforting one, and there are no answers that explain or even really alleviate suffering. (In that way it’s much like our world.)

BN: I'm very intrigued by how Acadiana's poems situate femininity and womanhood within the consciousnesses of its speakers. There seems to be a sustained consideration of how prophecy relates to labor. If, historically, women have not been encouraged to be designers of Western civilization, and yet there are many female seers and prophets in Western mythology, is there a sense in your poems that womanhood and femininity is therefore historically linked to the actual details of building societies, which in turn could provide visionary understandings of how tenuous and easily destroyed those societies can be? This is definitely a complicated dynamic, and thinking about it makes me return to the final poem in your chapbook, "After, the Sibyls Fall Out of Words,” which ends: "Saved and spared are different / and you will know that now." These lines seem to suggest that male-dominated cultures have tried to "save" so much (like women themselves, of course) that they miss the importance of what could be spared—left undisturbed—for the future, like entire ecosystems that are destroyed by the very attempts to "save" something else (climate change as fueled by societal attempts to sustain harmful human ways of life and the hierarchies that promote them).

NR: I love your observation about the connection between prophesy and labor. In the myths, prophesy is, especially when worked by the oracles, a form of bodily labor. (For other forms of prophesy, the labor is different—following the flight of birds in augury, or offering a sacrifice and watching the smoke of burnt flesh as its ascends to the gods. But there’s still a bodily component, rather than the primarily cerebral work of prayer and confession and absolution in the Catholic tradition.) There’s a complicated relationship between prophesy and agency in the myths: the sibyls are oracles, meaning that their speech is divinely inspired; it’s not their own. They’re momentarily possessed, and their speech has to be interpreted by (male) priests.

Speech is powerful, right? Its policing shows us this. There’s a reason women still can’t read the Gospel or give a homily in the Catholic church, though they’re now allowed to give communion. (After a man’s worked the miracle of transubstantiation, of course.) I’ll say that again: a woman cannot read the words of the Gospel from the altar, though deacons—men—now can. I sometimes miss the Church—it was an important force in my childhood and its rituals have given me enormous comfort over the years—and then I remember how hard it’s worked to ensure that women are barred from meaningful participation in its most important rituals.

In the end, as you point out, the sibyls refuse to be possessed—they “won’t have / the man’s hands on us now.” They’re able to work their own liberation, but only after enormous devastation.  

BN: That trade off—devastation as the condition for the sibyls’ liberation—has an apocalyptic feeling to it, and it definitely suggests Acadiana’s complex emotionality, which had me oscillating between senses of doom and senses of freedom. Could you address whether you see Acadiana as belonging to the genre of apocalypse literature? I often think poetry is well-suited to the sorts of imagining required for the genre, though maybe there isn’t a widespread sense that this is the case, despite there being some great books of apocalyptic poetry, like Inger Christensen’s Alphabet or Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render  / An Apocalypse, which came out more recently.

NR: I hadn’t thought of Acadiana in those terms—but I’m certainly interested in the transformation wrought by disaster, which is a common theme in the apocalyptic. And that’s something that many poets are engaging with, I think—Leah Umansky, Maggie Smith, Meghan Privitello, and Dena Rash Guzman had that great panel on Apocalypse Poetry by Women at AWP 2017 in DC, and I think also of the Afrofuturist strain in Eve Ewing’s stunning Electric Arches.

There’s an ecological component here, too, of course. The escalating intensity of hurricane season - which underpins both the landscape of the chapbook and the reality of life in the gulf south - is just one dramatic consequence of climate change and ongoing environmental disaster.

BN: Switching gears, could you discuss your process for writing the poems in Acadiana? The forms and rhythms are varied, so I’m wondering how you went about writing them. Did you have a lot of this work in mind, and then decided on many of the forms? Did some or most poems happen organically and eventually you started seeing them as interrelated?

NR: I wrote the bulk of these poems in a few weeks, in the summer between the first and second years of my MFA. During most of my years in graduate school, I worked at Teach for America’s Summer Institute, training new teachers in Houston, then Atlanta, then Tulsa, and it was intense, exhausting, and energizing work. (It also paid, for 6 weeks’ summer work plus prep time in the spring, nearly the same amount as my graduate student stipend. I add those details because I think it’s helpful for writers to be a bit more transparent about the practical considerations—income, healthcare, childcare, domestic/second shift work, the support (or not) of a partner, and so on—that support or impede the creation of art.)

So I’d spent the beginning of that summer working 80+ hour weeks in Atlanta, and when I wasn’t working, I was trying to get my head around the beginnings of this project. I’d written a few swampy poems (several of which didn’t make it into the chapbook; you have to be willing to shed the things that help you enter the project but don’t serve it in the end) and, to keep me moving in that direction, I bought a field guide to south Louisiana when I visited New Orleans for a few days before going to Atlanta to work. That field guide taught me the names of specific plants, the history of the Mississippi’s shifting delta—things that allowed me to write my way into the swamp.

Then, when I returned to Madison, I knew I had just a few weeks before the semester started again. I got a little carrel in the library, and I’d take the bus to campus early every morning and drink coffee from my thermos and visit the saints and sibyls and everyone else who lived in and around the swamp. I haven’t experienced that in quite the same way again, but I felt like each poem was pointing me toward the new poem. Early on, I wrote “Dirge” in the voice of the sibyls, then I wrote others, like, oh, what would they say about these men who show up in the swamp looking for help? What would they say to these pitiful pregnant teenagers? The same thing with the two Thibodeaux Girl poems—I’d written the first one, then I wondered what that speaker would have to say when she saw her neighborhood transformed by the hurricane. And I followed her into the next poem.

BN: To end on a related question, could you discuss how you decided that these poems should be in a chapbook as opposed to a full length collection? I’ve often thought that the chapbook length is good for intense, sequenced, “project”-like, etc., types of collections, but Acadiana feels more open than these kinds of chapbooks, and in a meaningful way. The many present voices—in such a compressed setting as a chapbook—seems to suggest both that there once were many more voices, now lost to natural disaster or simply time, and also that there could be more voices, whether in the form of ghosts or spirits or previously silenced perspectives that could now be shared. This openness feels welcoming to readers, too, as if the condensed form of your work asks readers to add their own voices to the landscape your poems inhabit.

NR: For a long time, I thought of these poems as just kind of an oddball project I’d written and abandoned. (I’d originally written them for inclusion in my MFA thesis, but it became clear that they didn’t fit.) I’d send a couple out every once in a while, and then, in the summer of 2016, a group of them were finalists for the Coniston Prize at Radar Poetry. I was so honored by that—Dara-Lyn and Rachel publish consistently excellent work, and in a visually beautiful journal—and I was like, hey, these poems are actually pretty well-published. So I put them together and submitted them to two chapbook contests, and I was beyond thrilled when they won the Black River competition at Black Lawrence Press. And, in an amazing bit of serendipity, I was able to work with Lise Latreille, whose artwork Dara-Lyn and Rachel had paired with my poems at Radar, to create the cover for the chapbook.  

I’m glad you perceive that kind of openness. For me, the shared landscape and time period (before and after a hurricane) holds these poems together. And so, in one way, I was mapping that landscape—going into town, then back out, talking to the sibyls, then watching Saint Charlene offer up one final prayer, watching Saint Catherine as she sat beneath her carport and waited for the hurricane to come in—but any map is necessarily incomplete. That’s part of why I named the poem “Town Anatomy II”—the suggestion that there’s a I and a III and perhaps even a IV that have been lost to time or water.

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Brandon North writes from Ohio, where he attended the Northeast Ohio MFA program (NEOMFA). He is the recipient of a scholarship to attend the Juniper Summer Writing Institute and has been poetry editor for Whiskey Island. Recent writing is forthcoming or appears in Ghost Proposal, Crixeo, The Bombay Gin, and Quarterly West.

All the Right Things: A Conversation with Mary Kovaleski Byrnes by Peter LaBerge


 Mary Kovaleski Byrnes, author of  So Long the Sky  (Platypus Press, 2018).

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes, author of So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, 2018).

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


Amanda Hodes: One of the main forces in So Long the Sky is Centralia, a Pennsylvania town that was essentially condemned due to an underground coal mine fire. No matter how far the poems seem to travel—from Paris to Russia to Santa Cruz—Centralia and its heat always seem to be swelling right beneath the surface. Could you discuss your relationship with the town and how that led to So Long the Sky?

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes: First, thanks for asking such a great opening question, as I think talking about my relationship to Centralia (and other places in the book) gets at some of the questions that arise when writing about place, or having place play such a central role in your work, as it has consistently in mine. I grew up in Lititz, Pennsylvania, which is in Lancaster County, about a 90-minute drive from the Coal Region of Pennsylvania where Centralia is. My parents grew up in towns in the Coal Region, and my grandmother and a good deal of my extended family still live there. I've spent so much time in this part of Pennsylvania, both during my formative years and now, when I travel home to visit everyone; it feels like a second home to me in many ways, but at the same time, I am and have always been a bit of an outsider, in that I didn't grow up there. When visiting the Coal Region, we'd often pass by Centralia, or visit when we had nothing else to do, and it loomed in an almost mythical way in the background of my understanding of this entire place—it was the town that had the forever-burning coal fire underneath, and when you tell people from outside Pennsylvania about this, they don't even believe it exists. It was unreal to me, too, as a child, that an entire town could be condemned and then become a ghost town, and then be torn down almost completely (there are actually still a few people living in this town).

As a writer, I needed to research and understand how this could happen to a place, and I've thought a lot about what that might mean to the people who grew up there; what kind of impact does it have on your identity if the place you called home literally no longer exists? What happens to people when they have to leave their hometowns/countries out of necessity? What happens to their identities, their language, their family? These are central questions in the book and in our world right now, where more people are experiencing displacement than in any period in modern history. Having your hometown destroyed by a mine fire, so that you can never go back, is dramatic, but in some ways, I think it offers some apt metaphors for the kinds of reforging of identities that people experience when their tethers to home are severed.

Additionally, I began to think a lot about the Coal Region and Centralia in particular when I got a job with a J-1 visa sponsor, which allowed me to travel to many of the countries in Eastern Europe, like Poland and Ukraine, where my ancestors originally came from. These ancestors left their homes fleeing economic collapse and abject poverty and ended up coal mining in the mountains of Pennsylvania. A few generations later, with the coal industry gone, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now live in a place that doesn't provide enough economic opportunities, and many have migrated to other parts of the U.S. There was this interesting cyclical thing happening, with multi-generational young people traveling and search of something, and these seemingly disparate parts of the world were way more connected than I had originally thought. I wrote about these ideas through a historical/familial lens, and through the experiences of people I met or were connected to me through shared geography, but in writing about this place I was also hoping to bear witness to and explore some of what so many people from all over the world experience when they are forced to leave home for any reason.

AH: In these poems, there's always a strong sense of movement, both in the subject matter of immigration and in the form itself. For instance, in many of the poems, the lines of the tercets are increasingly indented, creating a pull to the right-hand side of the page that reminds me of lapping flames or even "memory's pull," to borrow your own line. "Triptych with Excerpt from Coal Miner's Industrial Handbook," too, has such a striking visual presence on the page. Could you speak to your approach to form, or form in general, when writing?

MKB: To me, form is extremely helpful in that it can do what you're saying here, adding layers to the reader's experience and to the visual presence of the poem on the page. I love what enjambment can do for the integrity of a line. And when I'm stuck with my writing, I often revert back to more rigid forms to help generate work; sometimes, the rigid rules of say, a villanelle, can provide enough boundaries for me to actually get something surprising out. More often than not though, I end up pushing out of rigid forms when revising, and let the language, imagery, and ideas motivate the form. For example, the lines of an already beautifully unstable tercet form can give the kind of experience that you're describing—a pulling, a migration, etc. At times, the form pulls the reader along more quickly, or, in the case of some of the poems that are in couplets, you get a slower, more deliberate pace. I found the triptych an exciting form to work in, in that I could work on juxtaposing voices through time and space, in this case utilizing a handbook written in the 1920s for unionized immigrant miners, which was just a fascinating find in and of itself.

I think a lot about form, obviously, and could geek out on this for a while, but I will say that a lot of the poems in the book were in different forms at various stages of revision, and that can perseverate and obsess over this, like many poets do. Hopefully the forms these poems ended up in are the right ones.

AH: What led you to choose the title So Long the Sky?

MKB: I wish I could say that title, which I love, came to me in a fit of inspiration, but actually, this book had a number of clunky titles, and I never felt any of the literally dozens of titles I came up with were right. The wonderful people at Platypus found that line "so long the sky" in one of my poems, and suggested it to me as a possible title. For me, one of the biggest joys of this whole process of publishing this book has been working with the people at Platypus, and having their critical eyes on my work. And I think the title lends itself to a lot of different interpretations and speaks to many of the themes in the book, like migration, longing, memory, loss, desire, and place.

AH: One of the (many) lines that lingered with me was "I want to apologize— / I think I've remembered / all the wrong things." When you're writing a poem like "X, 1926," which reaches back through time and layers of cultural memory, what is the experience like for you? Does it feel like a form of remembering, and do you ever feel like you've "remembered all the wrong things"?

MKB: Yes. All the time. That line is one of the most important in the book for me, so I'm glad you've located it. As you're noting, much of the book does reach back into time and reference family history, but most of this history was told to me in pieces, in fragmented stories, or indirectly, when I was listening to a story being told to someone else. In many ways, some of the stories told, especially by my grandparents’ generation, seem so otherworldly, even if they took place in Pennsylvania. There are stories and legends and characters—like my coal mining immigrant great-grandfather who died of black lung—who never really make it out of the shadows. In some ways, this is a question that's been discussed at length through the genre of memoir. There's an understanding in that genre, and in poetry that's based in personal experience and memory, that your memories are replayed through your own consciousness and your own filter on the past. And I think if I asked my family what they'd want me to remember about them, or about this place, the Coal Region of Pennsylvania, they'd have different things to say than what ended up in the book. But it's not a memoir, nor is it a family history, so the things that made it into the poems might seem strange or random or even mis-remembered. Additionally, I'm exploring the idea that memory is so powerful but also so selective. And when you miss a place, or feel nostalgia, memory can rewrite places and people for you in ways that might be interesting or problematic or both.

AH: One of the things that I find so powerful about your book is its ability to discuss immigration, borders, coal mining, and rural America in a way that avoids moralizing or didactics. Rather, we're offered an intimate window into individual lives and subjectivities. Yet, it's particularly relevant in this day and age, considering the national conversation surrounding both immigration and mining. How did this context influence—or not influence—your writing?

MKB: Well, thanks for that. It was so important to me that this book, which is political in many ways, wasn't moralizing or objectifying. And even in answering this question I worry about this. I've been working on this book for a really long time, and the narrative about coal mining towns/the Rust Belt became much louder conversations in the media as the book was heading toward publication. When Trump won, I actually panicked (for a million reasons) that I needed to now re-write or reconsider the whole book. But then I looked back on the work and found that it didn't need to change in light of Trump's win. There's a poem in there, that I added during revision, that discusses Trump more directly, "At the Mall with the Anthracite Queens." It was one of the latest additions to the book, and I felt I had to try and write from a post-Trump knowledge about this place that largely supported him and believe that he will revive their towns. I was horrified by Trump's win, and I didn't want to write out of frustration, but rather questioning, and with a critical and honest eye, and consider how it's possible that anger, isolation, and loss can be manipulated in some cases, into xenophobia and racism.

Simultaneously, there are a good deal of people from these places, like my 95-year-old grandmother, who loathed Trump's message and saw right through it. So I wanted to make sure that was represented, too. My grandmother sees direct parallels between her own parents' immigration and oppressive labor circumstances a century ago, and what today's immigrants are experiencing. For example, her mother-in-law came here when she was seventeen with her siblings. They were all separated at the border, half of them shipped to Argentina, and they never saw each other again. As I'm writing this, as you know, there are over 2,500 children, babies and toddlers who have been separated from their parents at our border. This is so horrifying, grotesque and cruel, and a direct result of an administration who does not view the humanity of these parents and children fleeing violence and war. While my book does discuss migration and immigration, I think there are many books of poetry that have been written that more directly discuss current immigration in ways my book didn't or couldn't. Of course, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied comes to mind first. Sasha Pimentel’s For Want of Water and Other Poems absolutely floored me. Dancing in Odessa, by Illya Kaminsky, was life-altering for me when I first read that over a decade ago. And I've been in awe of the work of Safia Elhillo, Ocean Vuong, and Eloisa Amezcua... I feel like I could keep going, but I'll stop there, and end with my deep gratitude for the work of these and so many other poets.

AH: Is there a time, event, or feeling that made you decide to pursue poetry?

MKB: I credit my former teacher, poet Claudia Emerson, with my pursuit of poetry. In college, she urged me to try writing a poem, even though I insisted I couldn't write poems well and that I really wanted to write fiction. But it took no time at all under her care and instruction to discover how much I loved this art form. It fit me: I grew up in a very musical family, had played piano since I was five, and had also toyed with the idea of being a visual artist. Poetry mixed all those loves together. Claudia's encouragement and teaching allowed me to see that. She and I stayed in touch until her death in 2014, which was devastating. I so wish she were here to read my first published book.

AH: With a debut collection as stunning as this, I have to ask: is there anything else in the works for the future? Where do you see your poetry taking you next?

MKB: Having my first book in the world is wonderful, terrifying, and freeing simultaneously. When Platypus accepted the manuscript, and once the biggest revisions were made, I felt I had permission to finally stop working on So Long the Sky and get writing the next book with more intensity. So I have a manuscript in the works right now that's really young and new, that I'm excited about it. I have two kids, ages 5 and 2, who require all of my physical and mental energy, so everything I think about is through the lens of mothering right now. In other words, it's probably going to have even more babies in it than my first book, so there's that. And I'm not traveling as much as I once was, so I'm finding inspiration differently for this next book. I'm still extremely interested in how the ideas of family and land can be politicized, and how language functions in this. And I'm always examining the interactions and clashes between humans and our natural world/geography, so I'm sure some equivalent of an underground coal mine fire will end up in there, too.


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

Lures and Hooks: A Review of Lee Conell's Subcortical by Peter LaBerge


  Subcortical , by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Subcortical, by Lee Conell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

“There’s a science to certain mysteries,” the narrator of the short story, “The Afterlife of Turtles,” declares. Midway through Lee Conell’s debut short story collection, Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), the protagonist’s uncle—a man who loves science fiction and “worries about the state of his soul in a way intense enough to allow him to receive money from the state”—is missing. His absence forces her to question destiny, heaven, hell, mental illness, and belief, itself. This wrestling with belief, the give-and-take between the impossible and the possible, the desperately wished-for dream and stark reality, pervades the collection. Characters’ desire for transformation, the return of the dead, the ability to traverse social class or afford a college education, is deeply felt and deeply real, even as Conell situates many of her stories among ghosts, phantasms, and science fiction. Subcortical urges the reader to take fantasy and fiction seriously, to consider how belief in the supernatural or the unlikely is not only an emotional touch point, but also a potential form of salvation.

Winner of the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award and an Independent Publisher Book Award for Short Story Fiction, Subcortical’s stories often feature characters on a moral or psychological precipice, balancing between their past and an uncertain future, when visions of the monstrous or the uncanny drive them to face their guilt and fear. In “What the Blob Said to Me,” a grandmother relives her role in the construction of the atomic bomb among the backdrop of the 1958 film, The Blob. Soon, she associates the creature with her own silent complicity: “an oozing hush of havoc, a mucousy muteness surrounded by the sounds of others, by human screaming.” In “My Four Stomachs,” high school student Carley struggles to cope with her boyfriend’s debilitating mental illness. As Carley attempts to digest her confusion and grief, she recounts their relationship from the perspective of the four chambers of a cow’s stomach: “A place of entrapment, a place of softening. All at once. As if entrapment and softening were synonyms. They’re not synonyms.” Carley uses her encounter with the bizarre—in this case, the digestive tract of a mild-mannered, fistulated cow named Buttercup—to try to comprehend tragedy, puberty, first love and its disappointments.

Even “The Lock Factory,” a story anchored in realism, hints at the mysterious. Awarded the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and named a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2017, its protagonist is spellbound by the idea of freedom. She is especially invested in her vision of how her mother’s past co-workers escaped from or succumbed to their Midwestern hometown. Though gripping throughout, it is the present day scenes that most captured my attention, perhaps because of the far reach and pull of the mother-daughter relationship:

With my mother calling after me, I sprinted . . . Until then I’d always imagined an invisible tether linking me to my mother—if I got too far away, I was sure that tether would snap me back to her through some kind of mysterious maternal physics . . . And there, coming after me, was my mother. But not my mother like I knew her. I had never seen her run so fast. I had never seen her move with such strength.

Throughout the collection, Conell never loses touch with the reader; the passion and sense of loss in these stories, their beat and pulse, is never distant. Whether transported to New York or Nashville, the 1940s or the present day, she does not lose sight of what lures and hooks our hearts.

The lyrical control of Conell’s sentences allows her to transition smoothly from grief and bitter anger to sharp, quirky humor reminiscent of the fierce wit of writers like Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley. In fact, Paley’s dictum, “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious,” seems to apply particularly well. In their attempts to understand pain and love, characters grapple with the mysterious head-on. In “The Rent-Controlled Ghost,” mystery takes the shape of a lonely young boy worried he “might become a ghost in the new apartment” of his renovated complex and subsequently befriending the ghost of a past tenant. In the haunting story, “The Sextrology Woman,” mystery assumes the form of a mold specialist in a relationship with a PhD candidate who disapproves of his career. This career, however, allows him to look at mold “the way some people might gaze up while inside a cathedral, as if serious Mystery were whooshing around a sacred vaulted space.”

Whatever the reader chooses to call it—mystery, magical realism, the glimmer of possibility—there is an overarching theme of the dream of reaching forward and above where you are at the present moment. These stories are brimming with the potential energy of each character, to join “beings that live on the margins, outside of any logical dimension, any successful design,” as the teenage protagonist of “Hart Island” earnestly hopes. After all, in a world in which Elizabeth Taylor is a genetic mutant, perhaps it is also possible to climb to a wealthier and more powerful social class, like the protagonist in “Mutant at the Pierre Hotel” dreams, or to pull a live rabbit from your hat for your former boss, like the narrator instructs in “A Magic Trick for the Recently Unemployed.”

Dreams, hopes, the unreal-made-real and vice versa, weave and tighten these stories together, rewarding the reader with perspectives that captivate and confound, whirl you around and yet fasten you to the solid reality of the human body. A persistent motif that sounds throughout the collection is, as one might suspect, the subcortex, the part of the brain responsible for instinct, memory, pleasure, and fear. Here, one might think of Frank, the protagonist of “A Guide to Sirens,” who fascinates honeymooners with fabricated myths about the island they’re touring. Such a task is both freeing and unsettling for Frank, who remembers his own troubled marriage:

Frank has packed all his memories of her away in what he likes to think of as the cerebral cellar of his brain. He imagines those memories decomposing down to their more basic bits, fusing to other forms: fairy tales, myths, legends, the stuff of tacky tours, the stuff that makes his living, the stuff that allows him to live.

It is this small, memory-laden “cerebral cellar” that Frank credits for his particular construction of the mystical or ineffable. Science and mystery, legend and loss become, to a degree, synonymous, and their gorgeous tangle is simultaneously dangerous, heartbreaking, and life-giving.

Sheila, a grieving college student in the story, “Unit Cell,” likewise places a stress on the importance of the subconscious for emotional survival. Confronted by images of her dead sister, she begins to think that, “instead of trying to keep the memory back, she should allow it to repeat until that higher-order structure emerges.” For Conell, the power of the human mind to provide structure and take it away is absolutely vital in the pursuit of self-knowledge. This dual nature, for instance, allows the narrator of the titular story, “Subcortical,” to begin to process how she was manipulated into taking part in a horrifying gay conversion experiment masquerading as science, as well as to address her own collaboration. Unable to sleep at night, she imagines the patient free and happy, “finally recognizing the person on the other side” of the two-way mirror she watches him from. Conell’s dexterous, smart treatment of these characters, her willingness to reveal their mistakes, flaws, humor, weirdness, and love, occupies a landscape both intimate and surreal, one the reader has “never seen before, a place that exists just beneath the surface of her waking mind.”


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: Ben Purkert by Peter LaBerge


Ben Purkert is the author of FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Tin House Online, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, he teaches at Rutgers. He is also the editor of Back Draft for Guernica.


Erica Bernheim: As I was reading For the Love of Endings, one of the first poems that I returned to was about midway through your collection: “Setting Bear Traps for Myself.” I think of the loss articulated in this poem, particularly when the speaker describes the doomed salmon leaping out of its skin and wants a love as powerful and transcendent as that. For me, this also describes part of the editing process, the cutting away of connections in order to liberate a poem. How do you whittle the poem down to becoming the knife itself?

Ben Purkert: Hm, I’ve never conceived of a poem as a knife before! Truthfully, I don’t love thinking about editing in terms of violence, though I’m into the idea of liberation. The salmon leaping out from its skin—that, to me, is the ideal form of revision. The shedding of what’s close but unnecessary, in order to pick up speed. A greater fluency, freedom of movement. It’s interesting to me, if unsettling, how commonly we turn to metaphors of violence when discussing revision. It’s always about whittling down, cutting fat, slicing away, killing darlings, etc. To be clear, I’m all for revising rigorously! But I’m not sure why we frame the relationship between author and text as a confrontational one. I started Back Draft for Guernica precisely for this reason: to better understand how different poets revise, so we might expand our editing vocabulary in new ways.

EB: You list some incredible poets as your mentors and teachers. As an instructor of poetry yourself now, what value do you place on obtaining a formal education in poetry?

BP: To me, the education is what matters, less so the “formal” part. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to the academy, or anti-MFAs, or anything like that. I love teaching creative writing at Rutgers, but that’s because of the community there, not the campus or the institution. A group of poets hanging out in a garage somewhere… That could potentially be the best classroom you’ll ever find. A garage is a form, if not a formal one. But maybe your question is more about grounding oneself in certain poetic traditions, reading “the classics,” stuff like that?

EB: Could you talk a bit more about the "form" part of the question, and how you approach it, which forms you use most often in class, how you navigate form with your students. I know from my own experiences that students can be incredibly resistant to trying form themselves or, conversely, incredibly resistant to writing poetry without form.

BP: You're right, it's an interesting contradiction: how is it that the same student who believes Poems Must Rhyme is also resistant to form? The first thing I usually stress with my students is that every poem has a form; even the word "poem" constitutes a formal imposition. I also think there's this perception that form is necessarily stodgy. Which, of course, it can be! Neo Formalism is its own thing. But form can also be liberating, it can free the mind to do other things. I love to juxtapose these two poems: Shane Book's "Sestina" and Ciara Shuttleworth's "Sestina." The two are different in every way, yet they both exist within a given set of constraints. Same birdcage, wildly different birds.

EB: Maureen McLane describes your work as “compact, yet aerated,” which can apply as much to the content, perhaps, as well as the form. How do you envision your poems before moving towards committing them to the page?

BP: I don’t really! I like what Donald Hall says: “There is no poem inside the head.” For me, the poem is a collaboration between me and the page. Whenever I try to conceive of a poem and then write it as envisioned, it always fails. The page sees right through me! It’s like it senses that I’m trying to transcribe, rather than participating in a genuine creative process. It has to be a kind of mutual arrangement, give and take. In that way, every poem is a group effort, even if it’s a lonely one.

EB: One of the questions I hear most frequently is about knowing when a piece of writing is complete, but I’m also interested in how other writers read texts until we’re “done” with them. Are there writers who were once crucial to you, but that you don’t return to anymore, or that you view differently now? What has been most recently on your reading list? And what texts do you find yourself continually returning to? 

BP: I’ve been thinking recently about what we do when we finish reading books, how we tend to place them on bookshelves, which are usually found along the walls of a room. And so there’s this centrifugal thing that happens: we consume the books, and then they get relegated to the perimeter of our lives, in a way. I think my answer is informed by the fact that I have a pretty bad memory… I’ll read something, profoundly love it, but then once it’s on the bookshelf, it’s out of reach somehow. I’d almost prefer to keep my books scattered all over the floor, so I could just stumble over them/into them constantly. There are some books that I carry with me pretty much everywhere. Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees has been in my backpack since it came out in 2011. Too many recent favorites to choose, but here’s a few: Eye Level by Jenny Xie; Bridled by Amy Meng; Equilibrium by Tiana Clark.

EB: Your website says that you do freelance writing work for branding agencies, and that you are working on a novel about branding. As someone who spent a few years working in the marketing and PR side of publishing, I’m fascinated by branding and am hoping you can describe that part of your writing life in a little more detail, without giving away trade secrets, of course! I also wonder if you see any overlap in developing a poetic “voice” and the idea of branding, especially in your students’ work and in the literary world. 

BP: I wish I had trade secrets to give away! I find working as a branding copywriter to be fascinating/bewildering in a bunch of ways. In terms of overlap, there’s no shortage of poets who have worked on Madison Avenue (Ogden Nash, Stephen Dunn, Matthew Dickman, many more). I’ll be honest and say that I think applying the logic of branding to poetry (or any art-making) is dangerous. David Remnick wrote this piece recently about Philip Roth where he noted how most writers experience a burst of originality early on, and then self-imitate for the rest of their careers. He’s arguing that Roth didn’t follow that model, but it still bummed me out to read. Because what is self-imitation if not the glorification of one’s own brand? It’s an awesome thing when a writer—or a student—finds their voice, so to speak. But it’s no less awesome when that same writer discovers a multiplicity of voices, even discordant ones. Art offers an escape from the tyrannical constraints of brand, this notion that everything Coca-Cola does must feel Coca-Cola. My novel tries to explore this stuff, looking at the self as a mix of artificiality and authenticity.

EB: In her blurb for your book, a poem unto itself, Brenda Shaughnessy writes about an era to come when human life may be extinct, and how this collection might reach “future and existing forms of intelligence—to let them know there was at least one beautiful/difficult, dark/brilliant side to us earthlings.” What’s your next poetry project?

BP: I’m hesitant to describe in too much detail, because the new poems are still so malleable, you know? But the ones I’ve been writing recently are born out of the kinds of anxieties Brenda is articulating. We’re living in a time of great inequality, growing scarcity. And so these new poems seek to confront—if at a slant—that urgent reality. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how the various changes imperiling our planet will change how we read. You put a rose in a poem and it’s automatically a cliché. Too many roses in poems, damnit! But what happens when there’s widespread blight or sustained drought? What happens when roses die out entirely, and then poems are the last remaining place for them to live? It’s risky to characterize any image as cliché. You never know how much longer it will appear.


Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review, Hobart, and Burnside Review.

Conversations with Contributors: Michael Bazzett by Peter LaBerge


 Michael Bazzett, author of  The Interrogation  (Milkweed Editions, 2017) and   contributor to  Issue Thirteen .

Michael Bazzett, author of The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions, 2017) and contributor to Issue Thirteen.

Michael Bazzett is an NEA fellow & the author of three books of poetry: You Must Remember This, (Winner of the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry); Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books); and The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and The Iowa Review, among others. His translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Minneapolis. You can find out more at


On April 12th, 2018, poet Michael Bazzett and I had this conversation over Skype—him in Minneapolis, me in Toronto. We discussed his latest book, The Interrogation (Milkweed, 2017), as well as his work as a whole. The following is a transcription.

Doyali Islam: Hello! We made it!

Michael Bazzett: [Laughs] We did! I’m very impressed that I figured this out.

DI: How’s your morning going?

MB: So far so good. We’re having coffee together. I stopped at a café on my way in to work. I’m one of those bike commuter people. Are you familiar with Minneapolis at all? I’m at The Lynhall; it’s a nice place.

DI: So let’s jump in. I really enjoyed The Interrogation. It wasn’t what I expected from the title and the cover. It felt wider and more capacious, which I loved. There are so many facets to it, and I liked that you explored the idea of ‘interrogation’ in different ways.

MB: That’s neat to hear. I love the cover because it’s so arresting. And captures the idea of interrogating the self.

The cover’s actually an Alec Soth photograph, and I believe that’s his face that’s been digitized. So the photographer is photographing himself, and, of course, given the fact that it was used as a target, it all seemed to fit metaphorically. It’s striking how many people, when they first hold it, they put a finger—they reach toward the bullet holes, so there’s something tactile and almost three-dimensional about them where they want to go into the book.

I’m a huge fan of his work. My first book, You Must Remember This, has a photo from him as well, which was a project where he was trying to capture—essentially—men who go off the grid, men who disappear. So he was trying to photograph the unphotographable. And the image was just a simple knife that someone had fixed using wire. Rather than going in to buy a new one… So almost like a natural history of all of this guy’s possessions that had been retooled and fixed and rehashed... But a friend of mine said they weren’t sure it was a knife; they thought it was a whaler’s harpoon dipped in ink, and I was like, “Okay.” I definitely judge my book by its cover, if that’s the case.

I was really excited to go with Alec Soth again, but I do think the book maybe has a range. I think that there’s a masculine energy it brings, and also a kind of… I mean, there is a fair amount of brutality, and it’s looking at cruelty and violence and our capacity for that, but I think there’s also a lot of tenderness in the book.

DI: Yeah! I was just going to say that I did sort of feel the masculine energies from it, but also these lovely little moments of tenderness. That was exactly the word I was thinking about. It’s funny that you mention the debut cover with the knife, because one of my questions about this book was the recurring images of knives, in different ways.

MB: Yeah.

DI: Sometimes women are cutting carrots or cucumber, or knives are used to kill pigs. And then the poem about the light, with the wound, and the interrogation, how did this happen? The speaker’s saying, “It was the light.” I was wondering, what is your preoccupation with knives?

MB: I think, well, poems can serve as blades, yeah? And I like the fact that you’re looking at the duality; the knife’s not always an agent of violence there; it’s also used to cut bread; we don’t just tear it off in hunks with our hands. And I’m thinking a blade is something that opens up. I remember being really young when I first encountered that Emily Dickinson quote where she’s reading poetry and feels the top of her head has been taken off. And I do love when poetry does that, opens you up without surgery [laughs], and I think that duality and also humor—which is a technique I enjoy, and sometimes I’ll employ joke structures in poems that aren’t even funny— almost always has a blade in it; it’s got an edge. And so much of how the knife is used depends on… I mean, I think you can extend the metaphor: a really well-honed blade hurts less, goes deeper, can perhaps be more useful but also more deadly, and I think that idea of craft as opposed to the dull blade when you’re reading just flabby prose [laughs] doesn’t do quite as much. I’m one of those people that’s acutely aware that the surfaces of things aren’t real; they’re just the surfaces of things. So that desire to get into the depth, I think, is probably muddied a lot by… I almost think of it as ‘blade’ as opposed to ‘knife.’ Because that’s what needs to be honed and have the edge.

But it was interesting when I saw that catalogue of references. You’d run through the quotes you noticed, and I was like, “Oh my goodness; it’s strong.” I wasn’t even totally aware of the pattern.

DI: Yeah, I guess it’s sometimes easier as a reader, because one is completely new to the work.

MB: I’m still carrying around the 60-80 pages of poems that were cut, so the book still has the nimbus of that energy a little bit.

DI: I was thinking about that yesterday, because I’m working on a book of poems that comes out next year, and I’ve cut a lot of poems as well, and a lot of verses from certain poems. And I was thinking that, in the end, it’s not necessary to have certain things, because I think every poet has a different energy—almost this tangible thing that, even if certain diction doesn’t get into the text proper, I feel almost like it still carries forward from the work as a whole.

MB: It somehow maintains that energy. Like the last thing you cut, you know, it’s like the pit of the peach. You know you’re not going to eat it, but it needs to be there for the fruit to grow. And you see that concavity and that redness that’s bled into the flesh that’s often the sweetest part of the fruit. No, I completely agree with that. Poems are like little bodies. They carry energy with them.

DI: That’s beautiful. I like what you said about ‘surfaces’ just now. I can’t remember the name of the poem, but there’s a poem where you say that we are human, but we all think we’re individual…

MB: “The Fact.”

DI: That was an interesting poem for me, because I do feel that we’re all interconnected in so many ways—like our physicality, what we’re made of… We eat something, and it’s true, we do become it. But then, also, I have chronic/recurrent pain, and for me at this stage… Like, maybe there are some mindfulness techniques or something to think about pain differently or experience it differently, but I feel like that pain is mine—so, again, it’s a weird tension where we’re all connected, and yet we still have to bear these individual sufferings. So that poem made me think a lot.

MB: Yeah. Well, I think, too, of that line, “What arises from the body is irrefutable.” And the fact that I think so much of the individual agency we have in the world really is an extension of social constructs and post-enlightenment thinking where the smallest possible unit of human society became the individual. But for, what, a quarter of a million years, homo sapiens have been around, and, generally speaking, the smallest viable unit has been a family, a tribe, a collective—some gathering. At the very least, our identities have always been relational. So this is the new aberration, thinking of ourselves as these autonomous atoms and forgetting that there’s gravity, that there are forces that are always at play on us. So, it’s an idea that I’m really very fascinated with.

An editor, I think it was Melissa Crowe at Beloit Poetry Journal, said that poem was my accidental ars poetica.  And I think it’s kind of true. I wasn’t thinking about it in that way at all, because it’s kind of like Philip K. Dick-replicant Blade Runner territory. I am also fascinated with artificial intelligences—Plato’s allegory of the cave and all of that epistemological stuff, too—so if you think you’re an individual, you’re an individual, in your mind, and of course you might not be at all. It would be a great way to program clones. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] So how do you think that might play out in your future poetic endeavors? Do you think you might move toward collaboration, or what might it mean?

MB: That’s a good question. These first three books, they feel like siblings to me. And they’re of a piece. I was 48 when my first book came out, so I’d been writing solidly and seriously for more than two decades. And Our Lands Are Not So Different is very much the companion book to You Must Remember This. But The Interrogation contains the poems that were made in the flush of those books landing in the world and my seeing a poetry audience for the first time, and realizing that it was this animal that actually exists; it’s not one of Borges’s imaginary creatures. And also hearing responses. Because I do have a storytelling bent, and I will use humor. I was kind of writing on my own. I didn’t get an MFA. I didn’t really have a community. So my first reading in Minneapolis at the book launch was one of the first poetry readings I’d ever done in my life, so I’d truly never met eyes with a poetry audience. And I didn’t go to a lot: I’m a high school teacher. I’m busy. I’ve got a full-time job. I have two young children.

DI: Yeah, you have a family!

MB: Yeah. When Seamus Heaney was in town I would go see him, but it often took someone of that stature to kind of penetrate the stupor, the busyness of having kids. Now I’m suddenly at this point where I’m like, “What’s next?”—but in a good way. It seems plausible that there will be another book. I’m intrigued by the idea of collaboration, but I also just finished a translation project that was really ten years in the making: The Popul Vuh is the Mayan creation epic. It was a book-length project. It’s gonna be coming out in September from Milkweed as well. I’m really fascinated with mythology.

I don’t know why, but I’ve been doing a ton of re-tellings and refractions of the myth of Echo and Narcissus which seems to me just perfect for 20th century late-stage capitalist culture. But I think I’m gonna just take my time with that. I have that kind of restlessness… that all my poems don’t sound the same. And letting something be polyphonic, where I can be inside Echo’s voice and inside Narcissus’s voice. I think it would be very fascinating to tell that story in a 21st century context, so we’ll see.

DI: I really look forward to hearing more about how that progresses! It sounds great.

MB: I look forward to reading your book, too!

DI: Thank you. I’ve been working on it since 2010, so it’s been a long time, and I feel like I’ve been very patient with it—letting it unfold slowly, and I’m okay with that.

You mentioned your family, which reminds me of that poem, “The Meat of It.” [Laughs]

MB: [Laughs]

DI: Because you mention—or, the speaker mentions a son, and so I don’t want to assume that that exact moment happened in real life, but it was such a great poem for the humor and metadiscursive aspects of it, and also it made me kind of hungry. [Laughs] This is such a random question, but what’s the best burger you’ve ever eaten?

MB: I love that question and, I think, coming up in the context of the poem it makes me think of a moment I had with my son, almost ten years ago now. We were playing pond hockey on a Saturday afternoon. He was very young—probably six or seven. It was about the first time he could go out and be in the mix and not get run over, you know. And we ran into some folks who were very good, including a couple of Swedish women. I don’t know who they were. They were speaking Swedish, and they were ridiculously skilled players, and they had Bruno, my son, on their team and they kind of adopted him. They kept setting him up for these beautiful tap-in goals. It was this amazing moment for him as a little boy. And afterward, we kind of had that glow, and I said, “Let’s go get a burger.” I took him to a place in Minneapolis called Matt’s, which is really kind of a dive bar, not really where you take a six, seven year-old boy. But they make a burger called the “Jucy Lucy,” where it’s two patties, and they put American cheese on the inside, and then they crimp the edges. So the cheese is melted on the inside of the burger—

DI: Yum.

MB:—and there’s a griddle that I don’t know has ever been properly cleaned in the last 40 years, with that kind of accumulation of chopped onions… And you have to be careful when you bite into the burger, ‘cause it’s this molten experience. It is a great burger, but the look on his face—[laughs]—was remarkable. They don’t even have dishes. They serve it in a basket of wax paper, and if you order a drink, you get a can of root beer, you know. It’s a kind of dive-y place. It just comes with onions on it, and it’s got the cheese on the inside of it. There’s no frills, but it’s a remarkable burger. It was a nice kind of almost-accidental ending to a perfect day.

DI: Oh, that’s lovely. I think soda always tastes better straight from the can. I don’t know why. It’s like a weird—

MB: Yeah. Well, he was pretty excited about it.

DI: [Laughs] That grill is well-seasoned. [Laughs]

MB: [Laughs] Exactly. Seasoned. That’s such a lovely word. [Laughs] Or, hasn’t been properly cleaned. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] Trust a poet to have all of the euphemisms.

What else shall we talk about? What do you wish somebody would ask you in an interview that you’ve never been asked? Is there something that always seems missing that you’re sort of hoping an interview approaches?

MB: Well, I think you touched upon it with the cover, and maybe it’s… I just feel there’s poems in the collection that I felt quite vulnerable about, in terms of how they take risks with points of view. A poem like “They,” for instance, that is thinking of whiteness as absence or being drained. Or “Miles,” where the speaker is kind of inside this—not liberal guilt exactly, but it’s in that voice, where it’s like, “Oh I get to meet Miles Davis,” sort of missing the entire racial context. Or “On the Subway,” where there’s this voice that’s using a sort of humor, but what’s happening is creepy. You’re giving something to someone that they don’t want, which made me re-think that poem a little bit in the context of #MeToo. But I think the reality of the book is that it’s polyphonic enough that that element, generally speaking, people don’t comment on. It doesn’t come out.

One of the main things the book is interrogating is a certain version of masculinity that I grew up inside. Someone who is straight, who is white—that cis-gendered football-playing poster boy for privilege, in some respects. And I think the ways in which poetry is trying to address and question and sometimes dismantle that, to me, right now, in the poetics of the 21st century, is really intriguing.

Many people are confronting this idea of how we—I’m almost tempted to use the word ‘perform’—perform race. We assert and recognize race as a social construct, sure. But it’s also profoundly real, with profoundly real consequences—i.e., that assertion doesn’t undercut it. And in some demographics, in the zeitgeist—you see white people becoming aware of the fact that they’re performing race, too; they’re not the default. But it’s a slowly creeping, quiet thing, and some of the poems inhabit voices or explore liminal spaces where those ideas are stirring…. That was kind of a wayward answer, but does that make sense?

DI: Yeah, for sure. It’s reminding me of two things: first, your e-mail comment. We were talking about how the book went missing—[laughs]—twice in transit, and you said something like, “The border is a construct,” or, “Borders are constructs, but they’re also a pain in the ass because the construct does have real effects on bodies and whole communities.” But the other thing I was thinking of was, I always think it’s so funny how, in an interview situation, it always seems the burden of a person of color to talk about oppression—

MB: Right.

DI:—and how their ‘heritage’ has affected their writing.

MB: [Laughs] Yeah, and if you’re writing a poem about gardening, everyone’s like, “When’s the rest of it going to arrive?” and you’re like, “No, I’m writing a poem about gardening.”

DI: [Laughs] Right. And you’re always, I feel, called upon to talk about race and other things, and I always think, maybe able-bodied, white, cis-gendered men don’t get asked these questions. So that’s an interesting dynamic. It’s like, I don’t think the interviewers should be asking me; I think the questions should go somewhere else.

MB: I think that’s well-said. In a way, your question’s saying, what’s the absence in the book? It’s not like that’s necessarily the predominant thread in the book, but it’s certainly present, and I think once it’s pointed out, people are like, “Oh yeah, I see it there.” But they see the funny stuff, or they see the human cruelty and brutality… They see the themes that are present in the book that almost always come up. Surrealism comes up every time. I mean, obviously, that’s one of my defaults.

DI: I was wondering if maybe we could turn there, just to go back to the poem “Rain” and to your use of surrealism. What I love about “Rain” is, first, the music. It’s almost intuitive the way I read a poem. Even if I’m not reading it aloud, which usually I do, I can instantly hear when there’s music there. It always feels like a current that’s pulling me under the surface of the text, and in “Rain” I really feel that prominently. And the imagery is beautiful. There is such a gentleness in that poem, and then its audacious ending, “like a lover”—I was like, “Whoa, who does that?!” [Laughs] 

MB: [Laughs]

DI: Could you talk a bit about why you use surrealism? Was it conscious, or did you start to do it and then sort of interrogate the turn toward it?

MB: It was integral to me finding my voice as a poet. Because I think everyone is profoundly a weirdo. It’s that paradox that unites us all, because we’re so utterly our own weirdos. Yet the world will assign that much more readily to some people than to others. I think that notion of the inner weird, of carrying that around inside… The way we experience the world is so utterly internal. And it’s filtered almost immediately through all sorts of lenses, but also the imagination. So for me, surrealism is a way toward honesty. The way some of Russell Edson’s fables sometimes read like beautiful little dreams that reveal something very profound—about family or gender or about suburban life in late 20th century America—that well-observed lyric poems couldn’t achieve.

I think my poems didn’t fully start to sound like me until they became weird. And my imagination is a huge part of how I experience and interpret the world. And so then you take a poem like “Rain,” where the rhyme became internal and the music’s there, because it had a different line length…

A lot of my poems I will write formally and then they shift, or, I loved how you said ‘a current that pulls you under,’ because that’s what happens with a lot of my poems. I don’t feel fully comfortable with the formal chops, or I’ll run into some kind of issue with prosody and I feel like I can’t solve it, so I’ll let the poem melt out of that form, but it will hold the husk of it. And with that one, I think it’s still quite strong where the rhyme starts to be a little syncopated as opposed to regular.

So on the one hand, I am sometimes really driven by music and sound, but then there’s that pull toward the one weird element that gets to the truth. ‘Cause once I find that, I usually tell everything very straight. French surrealism will sometimes lose me, because it’s so out there. It’s so out there. It’s so anarchic. I think I still probably have a bit of faith in language to convey a story and to build bridges between people, and I understand how power and authority intersect with that, but that’s just me being an artist looking at poetry almost as a form of prayer among people, not to any sort of divine.

DI: That’s beautiful.

MB: [Laughs] Oh, it was your question! [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] This is so great; I’m having such a lovely time talking with you.

MB: I’ve not done a ton of interviews face to face. It’s so nice. It’s better—as opposed to me just staring at questions and generating a paragraph for each one, which feels perilously close to writing an essay; it’s like someone’s tricked you into writing an essay. [Laughs]

DI: For sure. Well, I’ve been thinking more and more about the times we’re living in, and how it’s more urgent for us to figure out how to come together in various ways, and I just think that being together and, like, being in somebody’s presence as fully as you can be, is important—so Skype if we’re not in the same city, but you know, trying to get out, and being together with humans. There’s something deeply nourishing and… I want to say it’s an act of resistance, I guess. Like, the most basic kind. [Laughs]

MB: Yeah, yeah.

DI: What else…? You mentioned that you feel like your books are all siblings to one another.

MB: The first three? Yeah.

DI: So I had asked you, do you perceive each of your books as a kind of person that you encounter every time you pick that book up? And are you still happy with your debut? I know a lot of authors ‘get over’ their debut—[laughs]—maybe within a year. They’re just over it; they want to move on to the next thing. So how do you feel about all of these works?

MB: I love the idea of the book as a person. You know, when I think of books that I return to again and again, it’s like they’re old friends. Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand, or The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, or Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, or Lucille Clifton’s Selected Poems

DI: Book of Light?!

MB: Yeah… Where you can just go into it like, “[sigh of relief] I’m home.” It’s like those friends you get back together with and you don’t catch up with them in the interim, and you’re immediately talking about the light coming through the window, and what’s happened. You’re just present. You’re in the now. And then there are those books that could be really marvelous, and you’re in the moment, and then sometimes they’ll evaporate for a while, and it takes you a long time to rediscover them.

There are times when you’re in conversation with somebody, and it’s just marvelous. It’s magic, and it is the light through the window, and the coffee you’re drinking, and there’s Thelonious Monk in the background, and it’s all kind of perfect. And then there are other times when you’ve got a slight headache from looking at a screen too long, you pick the book up, something’s pulsing behind your left eye. It’s the same poem. [Laughs] I like that way of thinking about it.

I’m lucky. I didn’t feel this way at the time, but not having a book come out until you’re 48, I think helps. If I had what I had thought was my first book come out so long ago, I might feel a little estranged from it. There’s still some proximity, because it only was, what, four years ago, but, honestly, I feel gratitude and a lot of affection [laughs], you know, for the fact that this was the little book that finally broke through somehow, and connected with Kevin Prufer as a judge, and suddenly I was a writer. It was coming out. It had won [the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry]. And it was interesting because my wife assembled the manuscript.

DI: Leslie?

MB: Yes. she’s really a partner in all these endeavors. It’s a funny story, but I guess we’ve got time.

DI: Yeah! Please.

MB: I’d been a finalist the year before; it was the only time I’d ever been a finalist for anything, and the prize at that time—this is no longer true—demanded exclusivity. And the majority of what eventually became Our Lands Are Not So Different had been a finalist before. So I had submitted it to like 8 or 10 places, which is you know, that’s like $250-300 in submission fees and 6-8 months of waiting, sometimes.

DI: Yep. [Laughs]

MB: So, the deadline rolled around for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize, and I wanted to act with integrity. They’d been good to me, I’d come close. I had about 200 pages either that were new or that I felt were good… And she offered to do it—she took some of those favorite collections and read them and said, “Okay, I’ll put together a book for you.”

DI: Wow!

MB: She came up with the title, You Must Remember This. It actually came out of a conversation we had a couple of days prior, when... I’d been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with my students, and I just said [to her], “You know, it occurred to me today in class that the opposite—the etymological opposite—of the word remember is dis-member. It’s not forget. So when we’re remembering something, we assemble it; we’re making it whole again.” It just made the word more tactile.

It was one of those cool things where you realize there’s this profound truth inside a word you’ve said 10,000 times, and you’re hearing it for the first time. It was the convergence of that little moment of us having a drink in the evening and me sharing a little anecdote, and then she did: she put the book together. She sectioned it, she ordered it, and that’s the manuscript I took literally through the snow to deliver to Milkweed by hand, you know, on the day that it was due. She included poems in there that I felt really vulnerable about or that I hadn’t submitted. I’d put them in there because I’d somewhat wanted to make her laugh, or—I don’t know. She was my only audience.

DI: Wow…

MB: And so my first emotion was utter delight—but my second one was kind of terror, like, “Oh my god, I’m being honest, and this is what’s going to go into the world.” [Laughs]

DI: I totally understand that.

MB: I think there was a profound lesson in it, though, that you have to go to that place, even if it frightens you.

DI: Yeah, I’m at that place now, ‘cause I’ve started writing about my body and chronic pain and just… My first book, which was in 2011, was a little too ethereal and not grounded enough, and this one is so much more personal, and it’s very scary, because basically every night I go to sleep thinking, “Oh my god, this is what’s going to go out into the world, and you can’t take it back; it’s irretrievable at that point,” but I have to do it, so I just block it out and I’m like, “These poems are meant to go in this direction.” So yeah. That’s wonderful.

MB: Yeah, yeah. And when you’re really following the work, it is a little scary. I always have this idea of, like, you know, seeing footprints in the snow. You don’t quite know what it is. You see the tracks of something you don’t fully recognize. Those are good poems.

DI: Yeah. It’s funny, with this manuscript I’m doing now, I feel like… I don’t know if you felt like this, but, I felt like the manuscript, up until recently, was within my control, and that I could see almost the whole of it as like a broad cloth or something that I could hold up, and now it almost feels like it’s passed beyond, um, my… I don’t know… My sense of it as a whole. Like it’s become so large it’s impossible to hold it all in my mind. And I like that. I’ve never had that before. I wonder if you experienced that with your manuscript.

MB: That’s a good question, but I almost feel like, in some ways, because Leslie writes fiction—she’s a novelist—so she’s got that gift of seeing the big narrative arc and holding it together, so I’m really blessed to be in the partnership. It’s a fantasy to bring 200 pages to someone, and then they hand you a book 3 days later, like, “Oh! Here it is.” I have folders that are usually titled with preoccupations; I don’t really compose books, per se, and that was really true of the first one. This new project—the Echo and Narcissus thing—might look different because it has a narrative shape already, but often when I read books—especially initially—I start in the middle. I move around. I must be a little maddening, because people spend all this time ordering to get this beautiful narrative arc. It is a box of chocolates, and if I’ve read seven or eight and say these are all really good, then I’ll sometimes go back and say, “Okay, I’m gonna read the book, you know, and see them in their context, in their natural habitat.” I’m that same way with journals when I’m composing.

DI: Oh!

MB: Someone will give me a beautiful bound journal, and I start writing in the middle and the back and sometimes it’s upside down. I just am not a linear person in that sense. And I think it’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward poetry. So for me, I write poems more than books. But I think people being who they are, you’re still always probably writing books. You just sort of gather them.

DI: The word ‘preoccupation’ made me think of my first question [when I formed them], about truth and the limits of knowing. What do you teach in high school?

MB: Eleventh- to twelfth-grade English. The kids are 16, 17, 18 years old.

DI: Uh-huh… I was just thinking back to my favorite class in high school, which was a Philosophy class, and how we talked about metaphysics, epistemology… But I was wondering about these wonderful lines like, “Scent / cannot lie” in the poem “Lazarus,” or “It was the first handshake of my life / that did not feel contrived” in the poem “Confessions.” And so, how do you think these preoccupations began? Maybe that’s a hard question, I don’t know!

MB: That’s a good one. I mean I think some of it is an awareness of one of my favorite ways to access the world. I was a big reader as a kid. The illusions contained truth. That right there is already a riddle, right? Sitting in the cool of my basement on a hot summer day, completely lost in another world… I read pretty widely and idiosyncratically: the magazines that my parents had, a lot of science fiction. I was a big Ray Bradbury fan. I remember finding all of these late Leo Tolstoy fables that he wrote after he renounced the aristocracy and went back to the land. Robinson Crusoe. It totally took off the top of my head. I read whatever was around. Reader’s Digest books. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan. It’s unbelievable how racist that book is, but it’s something I didn’t see at the time, because I was inside of reading these amazing adventure stories.

All the reading created this buried awareness that you make stuff up and put it in a story and that’s somehow going to access deeper things. And then, there’s the fact that I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic schools for twelve years. The Nicene Creed, “All things seen and unseen”—you have an entire religion based on the idea that what you see is not what you get. You know, the real world is beyond this one. That’s just the price of admission. If the real world is beyond this one, you’ve got to get good at looking. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs]

MB: I think that leads me to that place that you’re talking about, all those epistemological moments—whether it’s The Matrix or the Allegory of the Cave or The Tempest—that’s just the same story in different clothing, you know, again and again. And it’s a story that I like, just because there’s that sense of being always at the limits of our knowledge, right? We’re always like, “We know now more than we ever have.” That’s the human condition. That was the truth 20,000 years ago. The fact of what really matters is probably just beyond the horizon—I mean, in 300 years, god knows what people will be, but I’m sure there will be a lot that we look back upon and realize how wrong we were.

DI: This is a terrible analogy, but it makes me think of shampoo commercials—

MB: [Laughs]

DI:—or, you know, like skin-care products. They’re always, like, “New and improved!” And you’re like, “So you were trying to sell me the crappier version, and now you’re telling me this is the one.” Anyway, I sometimes think about scientific knowledge like that.

MB: [Laughs]

DI: You mentioned a lot of authors. One was Lucille Clifton. For me, if I had to choose one poem only that I could only live with forever and remember forever, it would be Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” and I wonder if you have one. If you had to only keep one poem.

MB: It’s funny, I just re-read that poem a few days ago and pulled out that chunk about the bridge, that section…

DI: “starshine and clay”

MB: Yeah… That one would be in my top ten.

I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. As an undergrad, I went to Carleton College, and I encountered “A Blessing” by James Wright in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and he name-checks Rochester, Minnesota in the first line. I didn’t know you could be a poet from there. And that ending, “I would break / into blossom,” I think I may have re-written that poem in different ways for, like, the first ten years of being a poet, again and again and again. That would be a big one for me.

DI: I don’t know that poem!

MB: “A Blessing.” James Wright.

DI: I’ll have to look it up.

MB: That would be a big one for me. And probably closest to my poetic heart. Well, I have a picture of Wislawa Szymborska on the buffet in my house, and another of Saramago—kind of in the hopes that people will mistake them for my grandparents—[Laughs]

DI: [Laughs]

MB: Saramago, I just loved his novels. I think I’ve started off every summer—and you know how important summers are to teachers—maybe for the last ten or 11 years reading a Saramago novel in my hammock. And Szymborska, it would be very very hard to bring it down to one poem, but I’m tempted to say “The People on the Bridge.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?

DI: No.

MB: It’s an ekphrastic poem where she’s looking at a wood carving by Hiroshige Utagawa from 19th century Japan, and it’s got this framing device, where this person is looking at other people looking at this painting. And as they’re looking at it, there’s this sudden downpour. All the laws of physics have been broken. Time has been stopped. They’re actually feeling raindrops, even though they’re in a museum. It captures a lot of what we’ve been talking about in all of 30 lines. The whole body of her work—her sardonic sense of humor, the fact that she had such a twinkle in her eye when you think about what it means to live in Poland during her lifetime. What she saw, what she lived. And the persistence and endurance and liveliness. Her work just seems so deeply human to me.

And I think her approach appealed to me as a mid-westerner. You know, Minnesota… Wisconsin… the Dakotas... where it’s not ‘the’ mid-west; it’s more of this northern thing—particularly in Minnesota, there’s this Scandinavian reticence. There’s a lot more implied than is ever said. So the late 20th century Cold War poets…The Polish poets, folks like Simic—I get them completely. You can’t say it straight. It has to be buried, or come out sideways. So in a weird way, I feel very at home in that aesthetic. When I discovered those poems, I was like, “I’m home,” which is weird, but, you know, it just shows what poems can do.

DI: For sure. Yeah. I forget where I was reading it—it might have been another interview—but you mentioned Zbigniew Herbert, and I love his work. In Against Forgetting, there’s a beautiful poem called “The Wall.” (It’s very short.) And I love how he works with time in the poem, and it’s such an enduring poem. And so I think I understand what you mean about feeling at home, even though you’re crossing cultures and time. I don’t know… I mean, I guess we can’t think—I won’t go there. Never mind. [Laughs]

MB: Yeah this could crack wide open. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] Yeah. …Okay, checking the time. We have ten minutes. Do your children write poetry? Are they drawn toward any artistic discipline?

MB: No, not in an extended way, although I think they both have their own lovely relationship with language. My oldest, definitely, has written some poetry and gravitates toward, really, like, Victorian, Lord Byron-type stuff. And my youngest, he just turned 15, so writing, with him, right now, is very much associated with schoolwork, yet when he has a chance to… I’m trying to think… They were doing a poetry thing a year or two ago. I remember he came home and told me he referred to fire as “the Devil’s shag carpeting,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty good,” and was delighted that he felt like he wanted to share that with me. But they’re both creative in their own ways. I think given that my wife, too, is a writer—that’s a lot of people scribbling and staring at screens and talking about books in our house. [Laughs] It’s sunk into them somehow. The meat always takes on the flavor of the marinade. [Laughs]

DI: Did any of your ancestors write? Do you have anyone in your lineage?

MB: My grandmother was an English teacher. My father was one of six kids, so she was only an English teacher for a year or two. Because she married my grandfather, and they had this enormous family—a good share of it was on a farm on upstate Michigan in a small town. But one of my father’s brothers began writing when he retired. Three or four novels by now. Yet it was always kind of post-retirement. So there are inklings of it, but I think, for the most part, there was, I guess, a sense of work getting in the way. Does that make sense?

DI: Yeah. For sure.

MB: Yeah. Like, “Oh, well, that would be nice, but I have to go, you know, hoe beans,” or whatever. What I do come from, though, is big readers: all of my uncles and aunts, my mom and dad. The fact that there were just books littering the house… Saul Bellow has this quote that I love: “the writer is a reader who is moved to emulation,” and I love that. The river’s always flowing, the current just changes direction. So I think if you really raise someone who’s reading—especially in the non-distracted way—to sit down with a book and have that feeling of looking up when the sun is setting, and it feels as if you’ve been hit by a frying pan and you forgot you had a body, and you’re like, “How did it become 5:30?” That, I think is a gift.

DI: That’s beautiful. I liked how you said [in your e-mail] that you don’t have a cell phone. I was like, “You’re so cool!” [Laughs]

MB: [Laughs] For a long time people didn’t think that was cool. It’s started to come out the other end now. It’s not really as much as an ideological move as I was just lazy. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs]

MB: I was a late adopter. Like, “Oh, I have a landline. It works!” My teaching persona and working at school takes a lot of work and energy. So I’m kind of a closet introvert, you know, in the sense that there are times when it’s nice not to be reached.

DI: Oh, yeah!

MB: I have two teenagers. I do have an iPod, so I get on the wi-fi and I can text them, you know, but I only have three contacts: it’s my wife and my two kids. [Laughs]

I bike pretty much year-round. In Minnesota that means a lot of snow biking, winter biking. It’s certainly better than taking the bus. From the outside, this stuff can look sort of ideological, but so much of it is accidental, organic. It’s what happens. But I’m very happy not to have a phone now.

DI: I’m thinking about how I always turn my phone on silent when I’m working on poems. It’s just so intrusive to have something pinging. I’m glad we managed to Skype successfully.

MB: Yeah, this was very fun! I enjoyed the conversation immensely. It felt really organic and easy. Your questions were wonderful. You’re so thoughtful. You’ve clearly given the book such a generous reading. I was just happy to hand myself over to them.

DI: Well, have a wonderful day!

MB: Thanks again for the lovely questions and the kind, generous reading, and I’ll hope for our paths to meet finally in the flesh, and then I can buy you a cup of coffee. [Laughs]

DI: [Laughs] That would be cool. Maybe I’ll make it to Minnesota one day.

MB: [Laughs] Well, it was very nice to meet you.

DI: You too! Take care. Bye!

Doyali Islam. Sepia Headshot.jpg

Doyali Islam’s second poetry book is heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019). Poems from this collection can be found in Kenyon Review Online; CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition; and The Best Canadian Poetry in English: 2018. Doyali is an award-winning poet, a 2017 National Magazine Award finalist, a Chalmers Arts Fellow, and the poetry editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. She lives in Toronto, Canada. Hear some poems at

Like a Knife: A Review of Fatimah Asghar's If They Come For Us by Peter LaBerge


  If They Come For Us , by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

If They Come For Us, by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

The experience of reading Fatimah Asghar’s debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, is one of being gripped by the shoulders and shaken awake; of having your eyelids pinned open and unable to blink. If They Come For Us is a navigation of home and family, religion and sexuality, history and love. The speaker of these poems appears at once old and incredibly new, a dichotomy that is upheld as the narrative jumps from past to present and all over the last century. And yet, even when we’re told some of these memories and experiences are not the the speaker’s, they still are, somehow. A homeland, even one never seen, sticks in her blood; the trauma endured by her ancestors lives within her DNA. The cultural memory is lodged in the speaker like a knife—one that she may not be able to remove, but one that she could choose not to twist. But twist she does, and by doing so, opens herself to everything, from painful truths to the kindness of strangers. The cultural memory that lives in the speaker’s body is inescapable, but rather than run from it, she faces it boldly, writes it down, and shares it. In these poems, Asghar invites us to stare into the wound and—hopefully—learn from it.

Asghar’s book opens with invocations of history. Epigraphs from Korean-American poet Suji Kwock Kim and Rajinder Singh, a survivor of the India/Pakistan Partition, and an explanation of the Partition prepare us for the painful, but necessary, poems to come. (The Partition was the division of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947, which, Asghar writes, resulted in the forced migration of at least 14 million people as they fled genocide and ethnic cleansing. It’s estimated that 1-2 million people died and 75-100,000 women were abducted and raped in the ensuing months.) Multiple poems, all titled “Partition,” navigate not only the literal and historical meaning of the Partition, but also the divisions of the home, of gender, family—and, at times, how those divisions might be reconciled, if possible.

The book’s opening poem, “For Peshawar,” immediately draws the reader into the lasting conflict and fear with an epigraph that reads, “December 16, 2014 / Before attacking schools in Pakistan, the Taliban sends kafan, / a white cloth that marks Muslim burials, as a form of psychological trauma.” Likewise, the first stanza unsettles, introducing readers to the threads of grief and uncertainty that weave through the rest of the poems: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” More than grief, though, this poem, and the poems that follow, drive the narrative into questions of home: Can a place be home if the people who live there, as “For Peshawar” questions, are meant to bury their children? What is home if it’s a place you’ve never been to and can’t touch? And what is home if the place where you are—both in public and in private—rejects critical pieces of who you are?

In America, the place that is ostensibly “home,” the speaker faces that rejection both in her family life and in society at large. In the poem “Microaggression Bingo,” Asghar uses the physical image of a bingo board to highlight the frequency of those microaggressions the speaker faces on a daily basis. Examples include both visual and verbal instances, like the first square, which reads, “White girl wearing a bindi at music festival,” and another on the bottom row where an unnamed speaker says, “I love hanging out with your family. It always feels so authentic!” Readers are also given a glimpse into the frequency of these occurrences via the text of the middle square, which reads: “Don’t Leave Your House For A Day – Safe.” In the same vein, the poem “Oil” walks the reader through the speaker’s experience as a young Pakistani Muslim woman in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. She writes of her heritage, “All the people I could be are dangerous.” The speaker, whose parents have passed away, learns of her heritage from her relatives, who are “not-blood but could be,” further muddying notions of home, or where she truly belongs—often, this results in the idea that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere.

The speaker’s feeling of un-belonging continues even at home, as she comes of age without the guidance of a mother and father. This is true not only of race and heritage, but also of gender identity and sexuality, and many poems attempt to navigate those complexities—in terms of a relationship with the self and a relationship with religion. In “Other Body,” Asghar writes, “In my sex dreams a penis / swings between my legs,” and mentions how her moustache grew longer than anyone else’s in her class at school. She refers to herself, not unlovingly, as a “boy-girl.” Towards the center of the poem, that desire for a guiding maternal figure enters with the lines, “Mother, where are you? How would / you have taught me to be a woman? / A man?” And again, in “The Last Summer of Innocence,” questions of the role of the body, and of gender norms, resurface. In the same poem, the speaker’s sister defies Islamic law by shaving her arms, and Asghar writes in response, “Haram, I hissed, but too wanted to be bare / armed & smooth, skin gentle & worthy / of touch.” That is, until the sister’s body betrays her with an ingrown hair that lands her in the hospital. These poems return to the question of what “home” means, asking what it is to be in a body that doesn’t always feel like a safe place.

If They Come For Us gives readers lyrically beautiful but painfully true glimpses into a world we may not be familiar with and asks us to reckon with our place in it—whether that’s a place of commiseration, understanding, or of recognizing our own hand in upholding power structures that thrive off racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. But as important as those revelations and experiences are, the feeling I’m left with after reading through these difficult but necessary poems is one of optimism. If the speaker, who comes from a lineage of heartache and violence, and who lives through her own kinds of violence, can still look at this country that “has failed every immigrant to enter its harbor” and find kindness in the cracks, how can we not too have hope for a better, more inclusive, kinder future? Asghar’s book is many things: defiant, subversive, grief-stricken, angry—but it’s also full of things like bravery, friendship, family, and love. Amid the hurt and darkness that exists in this world, Asghar’s poems prove that hope is out there, if only we have the courage to look for it.


Raye Hendrix is a poet from Alabama who loves cats, crystals, and classic rock. Raye is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she serves as the Web Editor for Bat City Review. Raye was a finalist for the 2018 Keene Prize for Literature and received honorable mentions for poetry from both Southern Humanities Review’s Witness Poetry Prize (2014) and AWP’s Intro Journals Project (2015). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Indiana ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewShenandoahThe Pinch, and elsewhere. 

Conversations with Contributors: Katie Willingham by Peter LaBerge


 Katie Willingham, author of  Unlikely Designs  (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and contributor to  Issue Nineteen .

Katie Willingham, author of Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and contributor to Issue Nineteen.

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


During our overlapping time at University of Michigan’s MFA program, Katie Willingham and I had many ongoing conversations about  poetry and literary citizenship. I was excited for us to build on those conversations for this interview, which we conducted when she came back to Ann Arbor following the publication of her debut book.

Marlin Jenkins: Before we really jump in to talk specifically about your book, I want to start a little bit outside of it, and then we can funnel in. I just want to ask about the things that are bringing you joy recently; or, what things are you fascinated with—what is Katie Willingham thinking about?

Katie Willingham: I really like that you're starting our focus around joy. There is a lot of humor in this book, and I think humor is related to joy. It's often about finding joy where it doesn't belong and how that's where the laughter happens. Lately where I've been finding joy is—I've been getting back into reading plays, and that's been bringing me joy. I actually think theatre is more related to poetry than I've previously thought, but I routinely keep plays on my thought shelf, which is where I keep all the books that I'm currently thinking about. And I kind of think about my writing as, like, if I could channel my entire thought shelf at once, that would bring me the most poetic joy. I don't know if that's ever possible, but that's how I think about it.

MJ: Tell me more about the thought shelf. What else is on it?

KW: There's always poetry on it, and often they’re books that surprised me. So I might read a book that's really beautiful, but it won't make it onto my thought shelf unless I'm, like, I don't know how you made this and I want to keep learning and write into that space—write into the space of discovering for myself how that thing happens. I think that's why other genres make it onto the shelf a lot, although rarely fiction. Often, there’s nonfiction theory, which I think could be close to poetry, the way theory uses language and turns it over and tries to define and find terms for things feels very related. With the plays it's more about simultaneity; I'm really interested in simultaneity. And, oh! Angels in America! I always have Angels in America on my shelf! Because of the way it has multiple scenes happening at once (which if you watch the film, FYI, it doesn't exist that way, ‘cause that looks really silly on camera: to have simultaneous scenes next to each other). But on stage many things are actually happening simultaneously, and that has a really different effect.

MJ: I think that gets us thinking about genre, but I think genre is a very loaded term, so maybe a better way to think about it—to funnel it—is medium. It's interesting to me that you mentioned theatre and poetry as closely related, and you also mentioned learning and discovery. I think your book is very much making the argument that learning and discovery are present in poetry, in the way that you explore it—but then also through science, through technology, through various forms of logic. Can you talk a little bit more about those relationships?

KW: Yes! So, I have no idea if this book does this, but what I care about in poetry are poems and books that answer “Why poetry?” Like, “Why is this a poem?” And that's when I think about genre and medium. Like, “Why is this a painting?” And, “How is it doing what it's doing because of that medium?” And I do think poetry thinks differently from other genres. It moves differently and, because of that, it has a different mode of discovery, and I think that you can find different things by writing poems than you can by writing fiction. A part of that reasoning exists, because if you don't have a “plot” in the same way, then you have different things, right? You have different things that are recurring or circulating or creating a thread or a line that's leading you somewhere.

MJ: That idea of being led somewhere is really interesting, too, because it seems like your collection is very invested in forward movement. We have this idea of the past coming into the present, we're thinking about evolution, we're thinking about technology—both inherently have that forward movement. And if I can pull a couple of quick quotes: the first poem “Terrifying Robot Update,” for example, ends with with, “again and again the sound like plastic gears clicking forward forward.” A moment I think resonated, too, was just a few pages later in the poem “Eight Years Ago,” in which you write, “and the search is ongoing.” It seems like this collection is really invested in setting us up to think that way. Can you talk to us more about that process and those themes?

KW: Yeah! This is definitely a book that's interested in time because it's really interested in preservation. I actually spent a lot of time thinking that it can be somewhat oriented towards the past, that it's about picking stuff up that's already there and bringing it into the present. Like, “What is it you want to hold onto?” But another way of thinking about that is actually to think about it as an investment in the future. What will you want to have? What will you want to be thinking about or have written down? That forward motion seems important to that, but it also becomes really interested in our failure to recognize what that future will look like, what it will bring. That we could ever finish the process of deactivating landmines, or that we could ever finish the process of un-doing violence, or that we could ever finish knowing—that we could ever have complete knowledge of what we would have wanted to save—I think the book is interested in these unimaginable futures.

MJ: I think it's really interesting that the further the book gets into those futures, especially in that last numbered section, we’re introduced to a lot of artifacts. I want to ask about the process of research for the book. As you said, you’re very interested in theory, but then also we’re also given a lot of news references, like current events, and speculation as to whether those things are present or in the past and being brought into the present. What's that process of research like for you?

KW: I love research, although I didn't go seeking for many of the things I included in the book. I saved them at various times and then returned to them—they came up again, and then I re-read them in the process of writing. But at the time that I was writing this…. We're concerned with all sorts of other fears now than we were, but the huge thing in the media at the time that I was writing the book was that technology is going to ruin us. And I think now the vibe is like, technology has ruined us. And at the time it seemed like a lively discussion of inquiry around science and technology, and I wanted to bring us back to the fact that we've generated all of it. If technology destroys us, it will be we who destroyed us; it won't be that technology destroyed us. And what I wanted was to bring that humanness back to technology.

MJ: I think that human element really speaks to the way that you have a real relationship with the figures in this book. Most present, we have Darwin—not only as a scientist, or as a theorist, we have Darwin as keeper of journals and as somebody with whom you're interacting, with his personhood. I think your process also resonates in your poem “Honey Locust.” I believe you’re quoting Brian Nash Gil when you write, “‘I find a lot of materials by accident.’” I love that we have these parallels within the book, seeing your process mirrored. Does that feel accurate to the process of writing about these figures?

KW: I found myself quoting a lot because someone said something that was a spark for me, and instead of trying to translate that, I just offered it and moved on. Sometimes there's a tension, there are things that are conflicts in the book. Like, the Pac-Man poem was sparked by a conflict. It was inspired by a lecture by Jonathan Blow, the video game designer. Offhandedly, in a lecture, he made this comment that Pac-man has nothing to do with the human condition, and I was like, “Challenge accepted! I will write that poem!”

Another example is “Correction: Tonight is Not the Longest Night in History of Earth.” Frank O'Hara is kind of mis-quoted there because Frank O'Hara insisted pain doesn't produce logic, that it produces something else. And I was like, No. Pain of course produces logic. It produces discussions of causality, and it seemed so clear to me that the opposite of what he said was true.

And with Darwin, I really felt connected to the opposite of his success story: he is remembered as kind of a scientific hero, and he spent a lot of time ill, and he spent a lot of time struggling, and he also spent a lot of time bored on a boat sailing around with, you know, a terrible diet, probably. I’m interested in bringing that humanness to his (and others’) stories and exploring the record for sentiment.

MJ: I want to talk more about that idea of pain producing logic. It feels like your book is making an argument against logic as this singular, monolithic idea. And instead, it seems like there are logics, plural. In the poem “Dear Charlie” you write, “Forgive me sir unlike evolution / I find I prioritize symbolic logic / over functionality.” Can you talk more about what that means to you, what you feel about symbolic logic?

KW: I think it relates to how we were discussing genre—like, “Why poetry?” It's a way of answering that question for me. What is offered? What can you learn? What is the discovery process that takes place when you offer some other method or path? The scientific method is a method. It’s not the only method or way of being, and I think poems are extremely flexible in that way. They offer a lot of methods, a lot of logics. But also, it's something I struggled with in making this book, getting the right tension around logic. Logic is also tied up in rhetoric, and there are ways that a sentence can sound really logical without having a lot of content going for it. Or you can feel really against something and still get caught up in the syntactic logic. I was really interested in that and in producing that feeling that the rhetoric or logic has gotten ahead or away—you've somehow leaped, and it's like, “How did I get here? Where’s the logic? The logic is gone.” And it’s kind of pulling the rug out from under that, as well, and saying, “This is symbolic. This is artifice.” We're already functioning in this space all the time, and if we're already in that space, what else can we do when we make it visible?

MJ: I can’t help but think about the relationship between creative work and composition. Many of us who have gone through the whole MFA thing have been required to teach freshman composition. You were hired by the University of Michigan to teach after your fellowship year, as well. Can you talk about the relationship between teaching composition and writing creative work?

KW: One thing I can say about teaching creative writing is that I wanted to bring in that idea of argument, and maybe returning to composition was a given, in that I didn't have to put pressure on my students. But I did prioritize questions over statements or claims in a way that was not only unusual for my students entering college but is also unusual for many teaching composition. The questions are sort of at this early stage of the process, and I encourage my students to stay there and live there and refine their questions and move towards inquiry, as opposed to figuring out just enough to make a claim. That's not the only way to process something; the scientific method, again, works with claims: you make a claim, and then you figure out if your claim is right. That's actually a thesis-driven method. But that's not the only way, and I really wanted to offer a different way of processing, and that, I think, is really alive and well in this book, in these poems, because there's kind of a chain effect. A lot of the poems seemed to leap, but there's these little links that tie everything together and create that movement. We did that a lot in my composition classroom. I often insisted on the transitions between paragraphs or ideas, and I weighted that really heavily compared to, maybe, the organization of a whole essay and where it might go or where it might lead. Instead, it's like, “Just show me how you get from place to place.”

MJ: That makes me think of the way that you chose to end the book. In the last poem we have, “the sound / like stroking for backwards against the eagerness of all things / to dissolve to cohere.” Can you talk a little bit about that relationship between dissolving and cohering?

KW: First of all, “cohere” is a really weird word. It's one of those words that works like “scan.” When you scan something, you can read it really carefully or you can kind of rush through and pull out the main parts, so it means both things: it means the opposite of itself. Cohere works that way too, because even though it means to collect, that could mean to create boundaries and separate from something, or it could mean to cohere and stick and become part of something. It works both ways, and I really wanted that sense of double-ness at the end. That felt very right for me. This wasn't always the last poem in the book, though; I should say that too. Once I imagined it as the end, it made sense for me because of that double-ness.

MJ: One thing that we've talked about before is how you felt like a lot of the poems in your book gained momentum in their timeliness: when they were written or when they were originally published they meant something different than what they meant by the time they made it into this book, considering current events.

KW: There's a poem in the book about smallpox literally discovered in a warehouse in Maryland. There was a box of vials in this back office, and it's like, “Oh! It's smallpox! Oops!” And there was a big discussion in this side article, very low on the list on, like, BBC News (I read a lot of BBC News because it puts weird things in conversation—if you want to have the experience of weird things in conversation with each other, BBC news is your media outlet). Back to the smallpox—the United States has refused to destroy its smallpox, even though (and I put a note about this in the back of the book because I think it's important) the World Health Organization did a study and determined that there's no reason to keep smallpox for vaccine purposes. But the United States and Russia have not destroyed theirs. And, of course, now there's a lot more discussion about Russia, and that mood feels very different, right? Like, the only reason to keep these things is biological warfare. That seems pretty obvious, but now it seems pressing and not just in the background.

MJ: Especially because a lot of the material in this book is very heavy, even though the book is very interested in humor, and is very interested in kind of a sense of the personal as well as the macro, big picture: how do you practice self-care within doing the work?

KW: Scale is really important to this book and my future book. I don’t think that we're ever going to deal with climate change, first of all, unless we can figure out how it feels. How does climate change feel for you? That seems impossible to answer without poetry to me. So I'm trying to do that in poetry, in that poetry acts as its own method of self-care in that way.

But I think, too, you have to live in stuff that's really hard, and how do you leave those spaces? What do I do? I continue to read people who are good at doing things that I can't do, to be amazed at what writing continues to offer. I have to keep asking that because I definitely forget in my own writing. When I'm really bogged down and feeling like I don't know if this poem is going anywhere, I don't know if that poem is going anywhere, I don't know if these poems go together, reading really helps with that. And talking to people about work abstractly, which most people hate, I actually really enjoy—for someone to tell me, “I'm working on a new thing and I'm writing this.” And I'm like, “Cool!” I don't need to know what it's about. The fact that you feel motivated and have energy and have questions and are writing is helping you go there—it’s magic to hear about. I like to ask people if they're writing: Are you doing stuff? That's great. That's so great.

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Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and studied poetry in University of Michigan's MFA program. His writings have been given homes by Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and Iowa Review, among others. He is an editor for HEArt Online.

A Conversation with Natalia Sylvester by Peter LaBerge



Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four. In 2006, Natalia received a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her work has appeared in Latina Magazine, Bustle, Catapult, Writer’s Digest, The Austin American-Statesman, and Her first novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is out now from Little A Books.


If you follow Natalia Sylvester on social media, you know that she is an outspoken advocate and activist for equity in publishing and immigrant rights. I have followed her work since hearing her read an excerpt from her first novel, Chasing the Sun, at Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, TX. She has been a strong supporter of my work and the work of other women of color in our community, always pushing for more room in literary spaces for voices that are still going unheard.

Her latest book, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is a beautiful touchstone for the ways in which narratives surrounding migration and familial bonds sometimes need to be wrenched from the mouths of pundits and reporters to return them to the world of flesh and blood, to the daily lives of the people living these stories. This was one of many topics we discussed in a conversation we had last spring.

Leticia Urieta: Where did this project (Everyone Knows You Go Home) begin for you?

Natalia Sylvester: I like to say that there is the spark of the idea and then what sustained it. The spark of the idea was that my husband and I were married on the Day of the Dead and people used to say, “Oh, that’s so interesting,” or they’d say, “Oh, that’s so funny,” and so I just took that to the next literal place. And what became interesting to me was that idea of, What if it was a spirit that came on that day, but no one would speak with him? And then, who would? And I thought, maybe this daughter-in-law. I thought also of the very special bond that would develop year after year, but also the strain that bond would have on a new marriage—if she is developing a special bond with this father-in-law that no one else wants to speak with, and he is visiting on every anniversary, at a time which is supposed to be all about her and her husband. That was the spark of it, really, but what ended up sustaining it (the project) for me, or where I feel the heart of the book came from, was the many stories that I have heard over my life that people had shared with me, whether family or friends, or even just people who I would speak with growing up. We moved a lot, first to Miami and then to the Valley (Rio Grande Valley), and I would talk to people and learn about their different experiences as immigrants, from all over Latin America, and they are just trying to make a home here. There are many different ways that those experiences have so much in common and also ways that they have very unique perspectives, as well. In some ways, I had always carried those stories and thought about them my whole life, and as a writer you wonder sometimes, Of all the things that I carry, will I ever find the right story to hold them? I was waiting for the right story to come along that would bring all of these stories about immigration together in a way that felt truthful and that could, in some way, honor those experiences. I wanted to explore the invisible spaces, the in-between spaces, how we often feel their presence so much. It became this story about how, once you’re here and you’re trying to make this home and you don’t know where you fit, there can be a lot of life and richness in that in-betweenness, too.

LU: As the novel moves back and forth in time to Omar’s crossing in 1981, there are many moments when he inhabits a space that is not a space. I wondered how place, both in this novel and perhaps in your first, is an engine for storytelling?

NS: I think I’ve always been fascinated by place and how we are connected to them even after we’ve left them. When I was very young, there were many years that I couldn’t go back to Peru because I was going through the immigration system, and it’s almost like you’re stuck. But even when I was little, I was very aware of migrants being people who had moved, and yet, in order to find out if we can or can’t stay, we can’t go anywhere. And so, it was a weird thing to have experienced. Most of my memories are of the U.S., and my idea of home was in the U.S., but I remember that it still felt, if not temporary, then fluid and a place that had not committed to us, though we had committed ourselves to it. That’s a weird thing to navigate, and when we did go back to Peru, I was struck by how much I didn’t remember, but that this was the place I came from, and the question of belonging was no longer there, at least initially. There is a very different connection there that was almost unconditional. Here [in the U.S.], it always felt that we had to prove ourselves. And so I thought, Is there a difference between a place you call home and a place that you are from?

LU: Do you feel that there is a spiritual in-between place in the book, such as in the desert crossing, when the characters often feel that they are in no place?

NS: I think that came out of a place of feeling lost and the physical and spiritual borders of these characters who are risking everything for the chance to reach the end of that path, but the in-between is where you can really not know if you will come out on the other end.

LU: Can you speak a bit more about the reasons why you chose to move back and forth in time in this narrative, especially considering Omar’s origin story?

NS: One of the questions that was really driving this story for me was the understanding that when my parents left Peru, it was a choice that seemed impossible to make and one that required them to leave everything they knew and loved. Can we really call that a choice? And so throughout my life, I wondered how bad things could have gotten for them to have made that decision. I ended up asking that same question about Omar and Elda. He leaves her, and in my mind I know he loved her and his family deeply. I wondered what would it take for that to happen, and in order to figure that out, I had to go back to find out what they had been through together. It became important to me because I have been frustrated with the conversation around dehumanizing immigrants—like, we just up and left, como si nada, like it was an easy thing to do, to take the easy way out. And it’s never like that. It’s probably the hardest decision anyone ever has to make. Omar’s story came out of me wanting to fully see what the sacrifices were that came from my own family, and [those sacrifices were] expressed through this love story.

LU: Does this help to humanize Omar?

NS: I hadn’t thought of that at first because, in my mind, I already knew him. His voice always came through pretty clearly for me. For a reader it might be a different experience, but in my mind, I thought, This is who he is, because, though I didn’t know his whole story, I knew enough to understand him and to not start out by judging him.

LU: Are the questions that this book is asking distinct from your first novel, or are there questions that you think they are both are asking?

NS: I think it’s a mixture. Both came out of a desire to see and witness the sacrifices of my parents and people like them. There are many things I will never know. There are so many things about why we are here, how we got here, that my parents will probably never tell me or that they will protect me from. That’s how families go—we keep so many secrets. That came out a lot more through Elda’s character. She would rather not talk about her sacrifices and would rather protect her family. Both books came out of that, in a sense.

I can usually step back after I finish a book and see what I was interested in, or see obsessions that come back, like marriage, family, immigration stories. This story felt more personal to me. The first one (Chasing the Sun) was more about uncovering the history of my family, which I didn’t grow up knowing fully, whereas this one felt more personal because it did come from experiences that I had or I had seen from other people around me, and it felt closer to me. I can’t separate that [fact that] I am an immigrant from the way that I see the whole world. It might not be the only part of my identity that is important, but I can’t deny my experiences. I never thought I was “important” enough to tell these stories (migrant stories), only that I wanted to. The difference is whose voices are being amplified and who is given a platform. As writers we have incredible privilege to tell these stories, but there are people living them, and that is valid and heroic in itself. I don’t feel that I am any more heroic than someone else. We each carry these stories in our own way, and I am just carrying this story. I process things by writing about them. Someone else might carry their story differently, just by making sure that their children have the life they hoped for, or in everyday ways that don’t get that spotlight. The everyday is what is so rich in bravery, in triumph and joy, and that is what is overlooked so much. Immigration is politicized, but that conversation overlooks the daily moments of our lives we are just trying to live.

LU: What does it mean to you to depart from realism and explore forms of haunting in this novel—both the literal haunting of Omar, and the haunting of things unsaid from the past of this family?

NS: So much of this was about the unknown of my own past. Even though the story only crosses two generations, I was interested in the idea of crossing generations and ancestry. Especially when you come from a history of roots that are actively oppressed and erased, to me what haunts me is the amount of names and stories that I will never know, which is very much a result of colonization and of knowing about my European ancestry, the Italian ancestors, but not of the indigenous ancestors, and how much of that has been erased. Unknowing has haunted me for a long time, because I struggle with how much I can claim when I don’t know so much of the cultures I come from, but then, I can’t deny that they exist. I do not want to turn away from what they (my ancestors) worked for that made me.

It wasn’t as important for the characters to know all of the family secrets. Even in the end, not all secrets that a person carries are revealed—sometimes they are taken to the grave. Do they have life beyond? Do they cross over? This is the way intergenerational trauma and silence works. You can still feel the pain and the scars. Even when the characters don’t know the full stories, they feel the presence of them, and they carry it inside them. We have these borders that are invisible spaces that, day by day, are made more tangible and difficult to cross, and they affect us, but they are still very much manmade.

LU: What have you been reading that is asking the same questions, or that influenced you as you were writing this book?

NS: I will say that one book I read a year or two before was Anatomy of a Disappearance, by Hisham Matar. That absence is such a presence in that book was so beautifully done. I instantly memorized the first sentence: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”

LU: How have other Latinx people or Mexican/Mexican American people been reacting to the book?

NS: This is a question that means a lot to me. What has meant a lot is that a lot of people have told me that they connected to it and related to the characters and that they felt seen by a particular character. Some people have even said, “Oh, I see myself in this particular character,” which is kind of surprising—like Claudia, because she is a more peripheral character. I like getting these responses from Latinx people, and I want to listen more for their responses. People often ask, “What do you hope the audience will get out of this story?” and I always ask, “Which audience?” because that matters. We can’t always assume a default white audience because if we do, then people will think of the story as a plea for humanizing these characters, which I have such an issue with because we shouldn’t have to plea for our own humanity. I hope that other Latinx people can relate, too. It is a multifaceted experience as it is, but I think that there is something powerful in us being able to see each other and to feel seen and heard at times when we usually don’t. People have even said, “We liked your first book, but we loved this one,” and I say thanks because you hope that you grow as a writer over time, that you’re putting better work out each and every time. I’m grateful for that.

LU: How do you see this book fitting into the current, and turbulent immigration debate in the U.S.?

NS: I began writing this book in 2013. What surprises me is when people seem surprised by the threats that the immigrant community faces today because the xenophobia and racism that fuels it—and that our administration has been stoking since day one of the campaign—is deeply rooted in our history. None of it is new to us. And though I wrote this book first and foremost out of love, as an act of simply witnessing the love and sacrifices and struggles and strengths of our community, I couldn't do that without also writing the oppression. And in doing so, of course there’s an element of hoping to protect, of calling oppression out in hopes of fighting it, or, if not killing it at least weakening it. I think this highlights the biggest disconnect between how the publishing industry treats books by POC or any marginalized groups and why we write. We do it out of protection, out of hoping to prevent our realities from becoming nightmares. But we are not heard as much when we give warnings, only when we are proven, too late, to have been right all along. And then suddenly our books are called timely and necessary, and suddenly only our pain seems to matter, not the full lives we’ve been trying to uplift all along. What a privilege it must be, to not have to exist in a world where brown babies are kept in prisons, for your work to be deemed necessary.

LU: Is it important for you to be identified as a Latina writer?

NS: Actually, yes. Because we live in a time where to not take someone’s identity into account is to automatically assume they are white. I don’t want that part of me to be denied or erased. I hope that we can get to a place where we don’t see these aspects of our identities as ways to be pigeonholed or niche, but that’s not on us. That’s something we have to hold people (publishers and readers) accountable for. Yeah, I’m Latina. Does that mean you can’t relate to my work? I’ve spent my whole life relating to yours. I think the Latinx identity is an interesting one, because it doesn’t exist in the same way outside of the U.S., and so it is very much tied to our existence in the U.S. as people who came from all over Latin America. That’s a specific space that is worth claiming and that I want to claim. 

LU: How are you balancing promoting the book with what you are working on now?

NS: I have kept writing during this book tour. For my first book, I stopped writing for months and months and didn’t start this book for a while. As soon as this second book sold in 2016, I was already working on something else. Air travel has been great for me to write a bit here and there. I want to try to check-in with the manuscript, even with one sentence, or some journaling. It’s not balanced, but it’s about surrendering myself to process, and there’s times in which I just keep living and know I’ll come back to it.


Leticia Urieta is a proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

A Necessary Emptiness to Grow Into: A Review of Traci Brimhall's Saudade by Peter LaBerge


 Traci Brimhall's  Saudade  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall's Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Traci Brimhall’s third poetry collection, Saudade, with its blending of family narrative, myth, and magical realism is, in many ways, the love-child of Anne Carson’s novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Throughout, Brimhall’s attention to the architecture of poetry, on the line, stanzaic, and collection level, provides this book, which dazzles and baffles in turns, sufficient narrative clarity to fully enter into the ornate and heart-breaking world she shapes.

Saudade grows out of and complicates many of the preoccupations Brimhall explores in her prior collections, Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins, in its examination of spirituality, faith, desire, myth, and the interplay of humanity and landscape. Set in Puraquequara, a village in the Brazilian Amazon and also the birthplace of Brimhall’s mother, each section of the collection is told from the perspective of a different family member, beginning with (and returning to) Maria José, arguably the book’s central figure. In addition to Maria José, Brimhall includes sections in the voices of Maria José’s husband, Thomas; her mother, Sophia; and her grandfather, Don Antonio. In each section, a chorus of Marias offers commentary, encapsulating the collision between Western colonizers and indigenous peoples by bringing together motifs of Greek theater, Catholicism, and traditional indigenous beliefs to provide narrative continuity and exposition. The Marias make sure we know, as in “In Which the Chorus Provides a Possible Chronology,” that “history began but did not write itself,” and that they “sing history in reverse so the story might end in birth.”

While its characters’ concerns frequently overlap—dead loved ones are as inescapable as the rubber plantation, the fruits of the Amazon, and a sense in each character of being haunted by restless desires—each voice in Saudade is rendered in different poetic form. Maria José, for instance, speaks in tercets, whereas her husband, Thomas, speaks in long stanza blocks. As Claudia Emerson notes in an interview with Sarah Kennedy, “the tercet always feels that it’s searching for its missing line, pulling the eye down with urgency, and that imbalance” infuses Maria José’s search for her lost daughter, her memories of her affair with a boto (a dolphin that inhabits the Amazon), her marriage, and the role masculine figures have played in her life.

Of these issues, Maria José is most haunted by her grief and longing for her dead daughter, whose severed hand is found “in the mouth of a dead jaguar” and blesses the village with miracles (“The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara”). In “How I Lost Seven Faiths,” Maria José is consumed with impossible longings: “I wanted my daughter back. I wanted to live back / in the before. Before love possessed me. Before grief.” This backwards gaze is reinforced by the structure of the entire collection: we move through Maria José’s life and family tree in reverse chronological order, beginning with her daughter’s death and moving toward her grandfather’s life, as each character tries to return to his or her own “before.”

In contrast to Maria José’s aching tercets, her husband Thomas’ single stanzas convey his reluctance to accept various absences in his life. A colonist, Thomas arrives in the Amazon certain of his faith in a Christian god, and, even as his faith mutates, he resists its complete dismantlement. In “Better to Marry Than to Burn,” Thomas’ first poem in his section, which charters his arrival in South America, he has “the knowledge of God / like an apple in the mouth. I faced my temptation,” which includes his own wife as well as the lives and ways of the people he now lives among. However, his wife’s grief and her affair with the boto change him. Later, in “Sanctuary,” he admits, “I understood / my sorrow over the world does not change it” and that “better this choice to be powerless, / enthralled, to forgive God’s ambition to be free of us.” Here, we witness Thomas’ shift from certain knowledge to certain sorrow; from the belief he is a vector of change to his acceptance of his powerlessness.

Maria José’s second section deepens our knowledge of her, examining her marriage as well as her relationship with her parents: her father is imprisoned and her mother is dead. In an interview with Sierra Nevada Review, Brimhall comments on the “twined grief” that bleeds across generations—in life as well as in Saudade, which she considers a work of “autobiomythography.” Thus, the grief Brimhall felt in mourning the loss of a child and her mother’s death informs Maria José’s experiences in this section. Maria José addresses both her dead mother and an imprisoned man who is not her father, but for whom she can “imagine love, and then…feel it” (“When I Go to Prison to Meet my Father”). In “Revenant,” Maria José catalogues her parents’ romance and her mother’s death:

My mother of gold carnival mask, of green feathers
sprouting from her shoulders, of glittered body, candled dusk.

Let me inherit her fevered hips. Let me be all wing and stolen
and saved. Mother, rise up as July, as tempest, as God in his night
sweats and be tender. Hold the curtain back while I enter.

In reaching backward, toward her parents, Maria José finds indirect solace for her sorrow over her daughter’s death. This yearning for consolation in the arms of the dead is at the heart of Saudade, which, while revealing the impossibility of fulfilling that longing, also suggests there is comfort in the act of reaching.

Sophia, like her daughter Maria José, also struggles with the ways desire intersects with and disrupts faith. In the opening poem of her section, “Rapture: Lucus,” Sophia recounts the story of a “missing kapok tree,” which she knows

[…] woke from her stillness one equatorial summer
evening as Adão pulled parrots from her branches.

She dreamed an amorous faun chased her, which was a memory,
which reminded her that in another form she had legs

From the poem’s title we learn the tree has a spiritual dimension as “Lucus” is a Latin term for a forest or grove, but with some sort of “religious designation,” and even a past life. In Sophia’s view, the tree is not so much lost as awakened, rapture here not only pointing toward the Christian idea of believers rising to join Christ on the last day, but also to “a feeling of intense pleasure or joy.” In her poems, Sophia finds herself at the frustrating intersection of these definitions: on one hand, marked by a mole that resembles “a pink Madonna with her robe open,” she’s become a figure of worship and intrigue; on the other hand, she pines, “O miracle, abandon me.” (“Virago”). In “On the Feast Day of Our Lady Hippolyta,” Sophia wants “to write in my diary—Dear, there are some things / I would not do for pleasure. I want it to be true.” In these moments, we see that the insatiable and contradictory urges with which Maria José wrestles have their roots in her mother’s experiences, suggesting that, while genealogy may not offer explanation, it can help us see the patterns from which we emerge and which we (often) perpetuate.

Sophia’s sorrow segues into those of her father, Don Antonio, who also mourns for the loss of Sophia’s mother, going so far as to wish his beloved were alive and his daughter dead: “I want to barter with Heaven. It took the wrong love,” he pleads in “After Seven Lullabies Vanish from the Library.” While Don Antonio’s sorrows and desires reverberate with those of his descendants, his poems also offer insights into the collection as a whole. In “Sibylline Translation,” he notes “fiction is one way of knowing. Dreams are another.” In “Belterra Exodus,” he suggests “we should invent a new / history of fact and fancy, where life is hard but courage / is easy because the dead do not resurrect themselves.”

Saudade is this marriage of fiction and dream, a “history of fact and fancy.” Through pairing invention with research, Brimhall excavates not recorded history, but lived history, seeking an authenticity that encompasses but is not bound by facts. This results in a collection that is at times confounding, at others enchanting. Its value, however, lies in its ambiguity: there are limits to invention, limits to what we can fathom about ourselves and our ancestors. As the untranslatable title suggests, ‘saudade’ is the longing for something absent. By its nature this longing can’t be fulfilled; we can only seek. As Brimhall states in the penultimate poem, “there is no fairy tale here to invite you to meaning, only the fantasy of the past you have made in your own image.” Saudade posits absence as irrefutably present in the fabric of human life: it provides us a necessary emptiness to grow into, to fill with our joys as well as our sorrows.


Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

The Body and Its Various Types: A Review of Samantha Zighelboim's The Fat Sonnets by Peter LaBerge


  The Fat Sonnets , by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

The Fat Sonnets, by Samantha Zighelboim (Argos Books, 2018).

How serious notorious and public a form, to think you could find the solution to a problem or an ending to an observation in one brief moment—a fraction of an abreaction or the science of the pattern of crumbs appearing on the table from the eating of a loaf of bread.
— Bernadette Mayer, in the 25th anniversary edition of Sonnets


No bread crumbs appear on the cover of Samantha Zighelboim’s first poetry collection, The Fat Sonnets. Instead, three unnaturally greenish, glazed leaves float above an empty pink plate, (part of “Piehole,” a larger installation by Simone Kearney). The leaves are meaty and thick, congealed even, irregularly-shaped, marbled and menacing, reminiscent in their ominousness of the three seal men in Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II,” visiting that speaker in her bathroom, their “eyelashes like sharpened tines,” their eyes the shape of “dinner plates,” conflating food, femininity, and fear. Below the leaves in “Piehole” wait childishly large, pink-handled renditions of a fork and knife on either side of a dainty pink plate, the kind a child might use before transitioning into the world of the adults around her, one which is already familiar to her through exposure and observation. The concerns Zighelboim navigates in this collection are essential when we interrogate what it means to inhabit a body, to witness the body’s manifestations of turmoil, and to be helpless in the face of the body’s desires towards excess and self-destruction.

In the poem “Pie Hole,” Zighelboim’s speaker draws directly from that cover image, itself entitled “Place Setting,” placing it in the poem, reminding the reader how the “lettuces are toxic,” and the speaker’s ultimate wish is to “to end the lettuces into a fine and shining dust.” In this conversation, mastery over food—including the power to refuse it or to destroy it—symbolizes a larger sense of having agency in one’s own life and outward relationship to the gaze. The Fat Sonnets simultaneously controls and interrogates the body, emphasizing methods in which Zighelboim’s content seeks to pressurize its received form, resulting in the creation of multiple interpretations for the language itself.

In “Historiography,” for instance, Zighelboim employs various uses of “body,” the word made flesh, but also made into a catalyst that allows the reader the pleasure of peeling off other layers of meaning. The body began in an untroubled state, but “Then body fattened, deformed,” recalling Simone de Beauvoir’s own description (from The Second Sex) of how the evolution of a woman’s body can also be the catalyst for a desire to erase that body, to reduce it and its impact when gazed upon: “She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.” As “Historiography” progresses, readers are introduced to the speaker’s body in its current position, as a patient in a doctor’s office, the speaker ‘disembodied’ from her own form. In this sonnet, however, the argument moves forward and makes the body into the body, the speaker’s own familial legacy included in the troubling description of how this particular body exists and the spaces in which it is and is not permitted to exist: “Definitely no space for body in the family / plot.” Not only is the speaker foreseeing herself (and possibly her own direct lineage) excluded in the future from her family’s burial site, but she is also not part of its history; she will not be contributing to a legacy, perhaps because there was “No space for body on the barstool. No space for body / in the plus-size store…No // space for body at the cool kids’ party.” The body is excluded, removed from the social-romantic landscape of possibility, and violently erased, both from the present and the future.

By the end of “Historiography,” the body has gained some measure of status, at least syntactically, appearing at the beginning of the lines with a capital letter, even if it is an illusion of control: “Body stops trying… // Body all those nights and all those pizzas. Body binges / and body purges.” For the reader and the speaker, the end of this poem is not a victory, but a surrender to disappointment, rather than to acceptance, a giving up, rather than giving in, but the honesty of it, the conventional late turn in the sonnet, allows this to happen. In The Second Sex, de Beavoir also acknowledges the honesty with which women can live in the later years of their lives once they are no longer subject to the pressure to perform femininity or to conform to its standards.

The value of form—why this dialogue between outsiders and the self matters so much—manifests in other poems, such as “A Sensible Lunch,” which, in part, responds to “concern trolling,” a form of rationalized cruelty. The first line, “I’m eating brown rice and a single turkey meatball,” is an austere response to a presumed question to which there can be no “correct” or satisfying answer, control masquerading as concern, invasiveness disguised as participation in a process of purification and diminishment: “Are you having a sensible lunch?” The space between the first line and the rest of the poem continues the motif of exclusion and erasure, even as the remaining thirteen lines are crammed with sensual descriptions of meals remembered as part of a “we,” as opposed to the “I” in the first line. The last line of “A Sensible Lunch” may also be a nod to the cover image, the lettuce leaves transformed through desire into “three tiny edible flowers.” Whatever Kearney’s leaves are, they are clearly neither square, nor meals, but they haunt both reader and speaker throughout the trajectory of this collection, weightless and terrifying in their presumed virtuousness.

Just as the discussion of a body’s form often evolves into a discussion of bodies at large, poems in form can comment on the usefulness of adhering to the conventions of form, the traditions of the sonnet itself in the case of The Fat Sonnets. The sonnet is immediately recognizable and easy to classify, as can be the body and its various types (plus-size, petite, pear-shaped, willowy, etc.), willingly or not. While not every poem in The Fat Sonnets fits the textbook definition of a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet, each becomes a conversation with the form, and, as Richard Howard says, “Zighelboim gave to any and all of her poems the Sonnet’s intensity of Purpose.” Is it, as Bernadette Mayer asserted in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her own collection of sonnets, impossible to solve a problem in such a small space as provided by the sonnet? These are poems written for a world in which most of what we do is prepare ourselves to leave it behind: “I am an artifact / of myself. It’s time to move  now. It’s time to starve.” There can be no ending to these observations, nor is there any one form that can contain the problems of any body—private or collective—made flesh.

As I write this, I’m also fostering five very young kittens for a local animal shelter. Two of them are smaller than their brothers, and I am continually monitoring the weights of all five, delighted to see their tiny potbellies grow, encouraging them to gorge themselves on the kibble I provide for their nourishment. It is a relationship based on the purity of desire: the kittens must eat and grow “fat” as a way of surviving and because they are growing and changing so quickly.

The bodies of the poems in The Fat Sonnets ultimately challenge and stretch the constrictions of their own forms and limitations, and—through their visibility on the page—contain the element of performance, inhabiting form as we inhabit our own human bodies, often imperfectly, but—at best—continuing to change and to take from each moment that which we need in order to thrive.


Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a
chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at
Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has
recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review,
Hobart, and Burnside Review.

Conversations with Contributors: Rachel Heng by Peter LaBerge


 Rachel Heng, author of  Suicide Club  (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-Three .

Rachel Heng, author of Suicide Club (Henry Holt & Co., 2018) and contributor to Issue Twenty-Three.

Rachel Heng’s debut novel Suicide Club will be published on July 10, 2018, by Henry Holt, Macmillan (US) and Sceptre, Hachette (UK). Suicide Club will also be translated into six languages. Rachel’s short stories have appeared in The OffingPrairie Schooner, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has won Prairie Schooner’s Jane Geske Award, was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been recommended by the Huffington Post. Rachel graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature & Society. She is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, pursuing her MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting.


Alana Mohamed: Suicide Club, aside from being a pleasure to read, can also be very funny. A lot of that comes from the contradictions of wellness culture. I wanted to start by asking for your definition wellness culture. How do you see that as relating to the Ministry’s lingo?

Rachel Heng: I don’t know if I have a definition, per se. Thank you for appreciating the humor. It’s weird, I always have this conversation with my husband, and he asks me when I’m going to write something funny, and I’m like, “I think I am writing stuff that’s funny!” He’s like, “That’s not funny.” We have very different ideas of what constitutes funny.

I think the book definitely deals with the absurdity of some of this controlled, sanitized existence. It’s not like I think everyone should be unhealthy, or not take care of their bodies, but I do think wellness culture in overdrive has a comic element to it. What the latest super food is and what the latest hot exercise is, because the previous one was not as good; the short attention span we have for products and treatments and how it’s always about fads and the next new thing. I tried to get that into the book as well.

AM: I was fascinated by the language the Ministry employs. “Life-loving” vs. “antisact,” the coded language of their Directives. Where did you pull that language from, and were there any real-life things you were influenced by?

RH: I was working in the corporate world at the time and I’ve always been fascinated by corporate lingo. Have you read Station Eleven (by Emily St. John Mandel)? There’s this moment in it—it’s about this post apocalyptic world, and people are escaping this flu—and there’s this moment where there’s a bunch of executives sitting around, looking at their emails, and they’re sort of speaking in their corporate lingo, but also realizing that they talk that way. I remember when I read it, I thought I had never read anything like that before, but it spoke so well to my daily life and what was going on in my head. Even reading government websites and newspapers, you see the euphemisms for things and the way that language can hide so much. It encodes so much inequality and violence, and just the ways in which we talk ourselves into things as a society, by calling them certain things.

A more extreme example is if you look at the kind of documents that were deployed in WWII, or anything like that. Any kind of war documents, any propaganda. I recently read Solmaz Sharif’s collection Look, which is based on, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s the American military dictionary. What she does is she writes poems around the definitions of different terms in the military dictionary to try and do that precisely and shake that language out of its formal, supposedly value-free terms that actually encode so much violence. And how do we think about the ways in which we use language to hide that?

All of the directives, the names of programs, the numbers, all of that to me was something I had fun with, but also is something I think about a lot in our daily lives as well.

AM: I started to wonder about what happens to institutional memory when people get to live for so long. How does that function in a world shaped by government double-speak? How do people preserve that knowledge? Do they get to? The relationship between Lea and Kaito seems to point to the importance of that.

RH: Institutional memory and collective memory as a society was really interesting to me. I’m someone who’s a hoarder and really obsessed with losing things, as you might be able to tell from reading the book. But I’ll keep receipts and tickets and all those types of things. And because of my deep fear of loss—and death, but loss generally—my reaction to that has always been to preserve and keep memories. I write journals, I write stories. That’s why I write so much, it’s a recording exercise. What was really interesting to me was in this world where people essentially no longer fear loss—because they no longer fear death, because they can live forever—what that does to memory and the conscious preservation of stuff. What I came to, unconsciously, because it’s not like I had a thesis I was putting into the book, but unconsciously something that emerged was this day-to-day self-obsession. There’s this weirdly long-term thinking, while still being very much in the present, because it’s kind of about preserving one’s self and maintaining this ritual of wellness and health, but also never really reflecting on it. So in a way the absence of death leaves them in a suspended state of immortality, and that suspension is also the suspension of collective memory.  

AH: I got the sense of a claustrophobic world, but you go to lengths to point out that this obsession with immortality, the way it’s institutionalized in people’s lives, is not a global thing yet. It seems to be based mostly in New York, so why did you choose New York for the setting of this novel, and what makes New York so integral to the lives of the Suicide Club that they couldn’t leave?

RH: I was living in the U.K. when I wrote this book. It seemed natural at the time that it would be set in New York, and upon reflection I think it’s because I associate that kind of drastic inequality with the U.S. In many ways it’s because of the lack of social safety net, the fact that health insurance is so expensive, while in the U.K. you have this universal healthcare system, which, despite its flaws, provides free health care. No matter what happens you are going to be able to see a doctor, you are going to be able to have surgery or get treatment for cancer. You’re never going to be out on the streets because you can’t afford these things, which to me seems like a very sensible thing to do and I’ve never understood that about the U.S.

I’m from Singapore, and while there isn’t the same level of universal health care, there are subsidies and government hospitals and so on. The fact that in America there isn’t that kind of government subsidized health care, or a social safety net more generally, always struck me as deeply fascinating—like, this incredibly rich country that just doesn’t do that. And I’m not an economist, but I feel, intuitively, that America can afford these things since so many other developed countries can afford them.
I was thinking about the implications of that sort of deep inequality, and New York seemed to embody that. It’s a city of such extremes, of claustrophobia in many ways, but also housing the mega-rich with people who are really poor and what that means to have all those contradictions in one place.

AM: There’s a moment when you write about Kaito having to carry his son, who’s supposed to be younger or healthier, 30 blocks to the hospital because he’s ailing. It’s so powerful, because it’s such a reversal. I was wondering what’s at stake when these norms have shifted, or when we view health as an investment as opposed to a general good?
RH: There’s another great book by Michael Sandel called What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets. I really love that book. He writes about the market-ization of sectors like health care, and what he argues is that when you put something into a free market, you are changing the way we think of that public good, regardless of whether it results in more economic efficiency, because now it's regarded as a commodity. One example he gives is people trying to get more blood donations. They started paying people a fee to donate their blood in order to increase the rate of blood donation. And what happened, actually, is the rate of blood donations dropped. Because people started to regard it as, “Oh, this is something I get money for,” and you start thinking about how you value that. And you’re like, “Oh, well I’m only earning $10 from this—is it really worth it to go all the way there for $10?” Whereas previously, you would donate blood out of altruism and because you wanted to. It wasn’t to earn anything. By making that a financial product and something people could make money off of, it changed the way we view it as human beings. And taken to the logical extreme, thinking about, as you say, the investment in other people’s health, that seems very terrifying to me. Just having a financial interest in other people's life spans. It changes the way we regard humanity and other people in society, and it is very scary and dystopian.

AM: There are so many wide-ranging effects of that. Part of what struck me as sad about the novel is that Lea has all these deep-seated issues with rage and violent tendencies. There’s this whole system structured to encourage her to keep that locked away, as opposed to getting treatment. As readers, who are we supposed to sympathize with here?

RH: The dystopias that I’m most interested in are the ones in which we don’t know who’s at fault. You have this feeling of helplessness and you wonder, “How did we get to this point?” Because in real life, it’s never that straight forward. In a dystopia where you have the oppressed and the oppressor, you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. But I think in life, so often everyone is propagating these systems and these harmful structures of power, so what I wanted to do in the book was create exactly that type of situation where you can’t tell who you are supposed to sympathize with.

Lea has kind of bought into this system. She is not the most likeable character and has a lot of flaws. But at the same time, you do sympathize with her because she’s just a human being caught up in this society, who has a sad and dysfunctional relationship with her dad. At the same time, she wants to prolong his life so she can spend time with him, but she also recognizes his wishes as a human being.

And thank you for pointing that out, because its something I think about a lot. People ask me, “Why is she so dislikable,” and I’m like, “Because I didn’t just want to write someone who’s likeable, and have the system against her!” To me, it's an easy answer. It's like, “Oh, okay. The problem is the system.” I wanted her to be invested in it and also accountable for propagating the very system that harms her.  

AM: You do a great job of following Lea down this rabbit hole, essentially because she has this complicated relationship with her father. With Anja, she’s already suffered significant enough loss to become disillusioned with the entire system when we meet her. I know that she’s from a foreign country with socialized medicine. Do you think that changes the way she views the system that’s cropped up in America?

RH: In the book, Anja’s from Sweden, and when she left, they didn’t have the same system in place as the U.S. But at the point we meet her in the book, the rest of the world has gone the same way as the U.S., but is just a few steps behind. So she doesn’t really have an exit option anymore. I think she is more disillusioned with it. She wasn’t even born into it. Her mother became obsessed with this American way of life, and Anja went along with that. Eventually she got sucked in and then stuck in the situation she’s in today. I would say she’s definitely bought into it less, and that accounts for her role in the Suicide Club. She feels like she has to do something but doesn’t know quite what to do, and that’s her way of taking action.

AM: Anja and Lea’s relationship seems so interdependent and I feel like part of that is because they are both artists surviving in an artless world. I was wondering if you could talk about the ways art keeps people connected in dystopias; or, what is art's role in this kind of mind-controlling society?

RH: I recently re-read A Brave New World, which was a book that I loved when I was a teenager, and I realized just how much I unconsciously borrowed from it. [Laughs] The absence of art in that world was definitely a big aspect of it. In A Brave New World, art is banned, music is banned, and all they listen to is this synthetic, really calming stuff that’s meant to keep people happy and floaty, but not really thinking about stuff or having deep, compassionate emotions. So I think that was the inspiration for [my dystopia]. And similarly, in the [Suicide Club’s] world, art is outlawed and certain types of music aren’t allowed. The kind of music that they listen to in office buildings and so on is triangles and birds and wind songs, sort of spa music. Because art is dangerous in many ways. Making art and consuming art is the stuff that unsettles people and jolts them to action, and that’s not what the society wants.

AM: I wanted to talk about the Suicide Club itself for a moment. It’s such a weird indulgence in richness and levity, but it also uses such grim language to extol their mission (“They leave us no choice”). I was struck by that tension. Do you think that tone is necessary in the world that they’re dealing with, or is it a choice they’re making?

RH: Because of the title of the book, people have asked me about mental health issues, and I didn’t write this book about mental health issues. The people in the book are not
depressed. It’s very divorced from the broader conversation around suicide. Suicide in the context of this novel is very much the terrible and logical conclusion to the world I have set up— one of a sanitized existence. Immortality is almost becoming the norm, and mandatory, and people are almost unable to die natural deaths. So in a way, it’s two polar opposites, both of which are horrible and, ultimately, Lea doesn’t choose either one. That grimness, I didn’t want to shy away from it. I felt like if I was going to include it, it had to be what it was. It was better to include it with all of its grim depictions within this highly sanitized world, so you do see the two polar opposites and so that you can see Lea being torn between them. The decadence is the counterweight to this sort of sanitized, sterile, immortal existence.

AM: I wanted to ask, because we’ve been talking about dystopias you’ve been influenced by, what, in your mind, makes a good dystopia?

RH: I like dystopias where you get a sense that it’s pervasive and everyone is accountable to it and it’s not just one party. It’s complex and holds people accountable. I think that’s why I love the Hulu remake of The Handmaid’s Tale, seeing it from the Commander’s perspective and from the Commander’s wife’s perspective. What’s really interesting is, seeing that, you almost understand where they’re coming from. It’s not just that you are the good guys and these are the bad guys. You can still tell that some people are more morally aligned than others, but at the same time, they are human beings. They’re not just dismissed as evil anomalies. You can see how society actually got there. Those are the types of dystopias that I really love. They feel realistic and even more inevitable in some ways.

I always feel like my favorite dystopias have at their heart a utopia that’s failed. That’s always really fascinating to me. You can say, “Oh, what if the world was this terrible place?” but the thing is, that feels like an action movie. But if you say, “This world is terrible, but you can understand why they got there,” that’s different. I think the most heartbreaking dystopias are the ones where you see why the people are convinced into doing what they’re doing. In A Brave New World, when the commander in chief is like, “Well, everyone’s happy now! What’s wrong with that?” that to me is so terrifying, because it seems like it could happen so easily. And it’s so heartbreaking, because people are just trying to do their best and things sort of spiral out of control.

AH: I don’t want to ask about the future, since we’ve already talked so much about the future. I wanted to ask, in writing Suicide Club, what have you learned about your writing and your attachment to certain themes. Going forward, has writing the book encouraged you to explore other themes further?  

RH: It made me realize just how obsessed with death I am. [Laughs] I always knew that I guess, but writing an entire book about it, I was like, “Oh, I should probably see someone about this.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things, which probably helped the book. I think those themes will always be present in my work, because even in my short fiction, implicitly, there is some theme of loss or the passage of time and aging, and it’s still popping up but in different ways. I’m working on another book right now, not dystopian, it’s kind of realist and historical. I already see similar themes starting to creep in. As a writer there are certain things that you’re preoccupied with, and they haunt your writing all of your life. For me, it might be aging and loss. [Laughs]

Before I wrote this book, I was always worried that I wasn’t doing it the right way, or that I wasn’t planning well, or the outlining was really all over the place and it wasn’t proceeding logically. It was so messy and so much trial and error. At the time, I thought this meant I was doing something wrong and that it wasn’t going to be a book, that I was never going to find the story. But now, after having gone through that, the many rounds of edits, the cutting of hundreds of thousands of words, I’m realizing that is my process. Which is, on one hand, depressing and stressful, but at the same time it’s quite reassuring. Even as I start this new book and feel that this is hopeless, I know from my experience writing Suicide Club that even if it feels that way, it can still turn out to be a cohesive piece of work that I’m happy with.


Alana Mohamed is a freelance writer and librarian based in Queens, NY. Her criticism and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, BuzzFeed and Mental Floss. Her fiction has most recently appeared in wildness and BULL Magazine. She is the founder of Anxiety Dream Zine and previously edited fiction and essays for the Coalition Zine. She writes about books, history, and culture, and tweets about everything else @alanamhmd.

Conversations with Contributors: William Evans by Peter LaBerge


 William Evans, author of  Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair  (Button Poetry, 2017) and contributor to  Issue Twenty-One .

William Evans, author of Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair (Button Poetry, 2017) and contributor to Issue Twenty-One.

William Evans is a writer from Columbus, Ohio, the founder of the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam (September 2008), and a Callaloo Fellow. In addition to being the editor-in-chief of, William has published three collections of poetry with his latest, Still Can't Do My Daughter's Hair, on Button Poetry. His work can be found online in or forthcoming from Winter TangerineMuzzle Magazine, the OffingUnion Station Magazine, and other online publications.


Shannon Brady: You have a strong slam poetry presence. You founded the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam, have made it onto national teams, and have had National Slam finals appearances. How did you begin writing slam pieces? Is there a difference in your process when writing pieces that are written toward a live reading versus those that are written for the page and a book reading?

William Evans: When I began writing, I was definitely writing with the intent to perform, but not necessarily to slam. I was pretty oblivious to what slam was, even after I had been performing at my preferred open mic for a couple of months. Naturally, though, the competitive person that I was (having played sports all my life), slam was a natural fit for me now that I had this newfound passion for performing. But I never angled myself towards writing for slam, though I think I edited for slam. I want to be clear on the difference. I could discern that I could structure a line around clarity or digestion to a live crowd in the editing process, but I always wanted to maintain that the content of the poem wasn't determined by an audience scoring rubric.

I don't think I've changed my writing to better accommodate the page as much as I hope I've become a better writer, period. I truly believe that developing the tools of making you a more effective writer is a way of physically building the thing you are actually trying to say. I think that's a relentless and unending journey, but hopefully one I continue to progress.

SB: You mention The Black Panther and use other pop cultural references in your poems, and you also started the website Black Nerd Problems. How did that begin, and how has it evolved—both in your own work and as the moderator of a larger forum?

WE: Black Nerd Problems began in May 2014 after my co-founder Omar Holmon and myself came up with a vision to house a lot of our pop culture and nerd commentary in one spot. We felt that the content we digested and the way it was covered lacked our perspective. So we added ours. I think for myself and for the community that we've built with Black Nerd Problems, all of it pushes forward the idea that there was not only an audience for the things we had to say, but a yearning for that perspective as well. I'm not sure what we expected, but the response was a validation that we were both welcomed and necessary in these spaces that don't always make room for us. That's a responsibility I don't take lightly.

SB: Your title, Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair, and your cover—an illustration of a small, black girl, one of her pigtails braided and neat, the other not, with a crooked part—set me up to expect a conflicted and lighthearted exploration of parenthood. Yet that was only the tip of what you explore. What led you to choose your title piece and cover? How do you describe this collection?

WE: When I wrote the title piece (probably about half way through the process), I knew it was going to be the title of the book. It was my closest attempt at surmising my insecurities and outright fear of being father and the implications of what my unpreparedness could bring. I don't think it's an unique feeling in parenthood, but for me it's also colored in my journey through masculinity and maturation. And I knew that if I was going to write a book about my experiences in the present as a father, then I needed to show my work and demonstrate the events that delivered me here. I definitely wanted readers to see the tension of my adolescence, especially in how my experiences with intimacy were either pathways or challenges for me in becoming a father. I think something I learned early on is that to write about these experiences, such as raising a daughter or trying damn hard to be a good husband/partner, meant I couldn't be the hero of these stories, because I'm not. I'm really just a dude trying to make sure the folks in my life know how they impact me and have saved me, and I wanted the poems to reflect that.

As for the cover, that was the easiest part of this whole process. Once I knew the title, I knew that I wanted Keturah Bobo, an artist I am lucky to share a city with, to draw the cover. She has done so much profound work on representation and portrayals of black girls and women, that she was my first choice. I am beyond honored that she agreed to do it.

SB: In your poem “Auribus Teneo Lupum,” which is about your daughter being the minority in a private school, it seemed that there was a certain freedom to talk back on the page where you were not able to speak publicly. The title is Latin for “I grasp the wolf by the ears” (I had to Google it), signifying a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This sense of ambivalence runs throughout your work, along with a leitmotif of fear, violence, and death. As a white woman, I don’t experience that level of fear or risk of harm, but I see it in your work and in our society. For example, people were just arrested in Starbucks for being black. It’s also evident in the unending shootings of young black men. What do you think can be done against institutionalized racism on a poetry level? Or in other words, how can poetry be used to raise awareness about institutionalized racism?

WE: So many folks far smarter than I am have tried to unravel the placement of art in social justice and its real world impact. What I can say is that the most powerful tool in my arsenal is reminding people that I'm still here. That I didn't fade into the shadows of someone's biased fear. That I didn't blink myself awake in some other plane where everything is better. I write to keep the lights on, in the sense that I'm always visible to the folks that would feel more comfortable forgetting I was there. My wife and I both graduated from a huge Predominantly White Institution. We both work in corporate-like environments, both of us with responsibilities of managing other people. I think we are both very determined to show that this game, one that definitely was not designed for us—who occupy not only predominantly white spaces, but gatekeeper institutions—can be played in the way we see fit and on our own terms. Vievee Francis has this amazing term, which is Radical Normativity. It essentially means, in this context, that I try to write about things that seem like typical day-in-the-life events, except they’re not typical because I am black and visible in a hostile landscape. Going for a run around your neighborhood sounds typical unless people feel you are running for nefarious reasons. Dropping your daughter off at school is about as routine as it gets, unless you're worried about the relatability of the teachers to your young black daughter's experiences. So that's what I try to show.

I have a video of a poem called "Bathroom Etiquette" that begins as a funny and ridiculous interaction I had with a coworker about some of the weird things going on with maintenance at our employer. But the poem turns much more serious in how I interact with things in comparison to my white co-worker. A number of people have commented, "Oh, I wish the poem just stayed funny," or "why does race have to come into it?" And that's my point. White supremacy and its legacy are not gentle nudges when you have the time. It interrupts the narrative. It reshapes the story already in progress. That's what I hope to accomplish in my writing, that these things that pull me away from bliss are ever present.

SE: I chose a few of your poems to present to some of my high school students. Your language, images, and emotional expression helped them engage. How are your poems being used to teach in your community?

WE: I think my proclivity towards being a storyteller and a visual storyteller are things I hear most often. I'm a big fan of efficiency in my writing, when I can afford to be. So I'm obsessed with letting the devices I have at play do multiple things to earn their keep. And it’s more interesting to me that way. I don't want to tell you what someone said that left an impact on me, I want you see what I felt immediately after. I want to be shown how human emotions mirror the most mechanical or gentle things we interact with, so I try to bend towards those types of irony. My hope is that readers are generous enough with me to indulge my story and see how it relates to them.

SB: With a full-time job, a young family, a website to moderate, and other projects, when do you find time to write? How has your writing life changed over time? Do you have any suggestions for readers struggling with finding time and space to write?

WE: My most honest answer to that is that I don't sleep a whole lot. But in all seriousness, I'm incredible at (read: in the terrible habit of) multi-tasking. I find a lot of ways to find overlap in a lot of my writing, but more than anything, you have to commit. Committing doesn't necessarily mean that you should be writing for two hours every night no matter what (though some do, and if you can, you should). But really it means you have a focus when you move into those spaces of being productive. If I say, Well, I'll go work on the site for two hours, I'm going to end up reading gaming articles for 90 minutes and about 3 minutes playing on my phone. So being task-oriented helps me more than anything. Have a goal, move into that space, work towards that goal. I do this for writing poems as well. I usually have 10-12 poem ideas bouncing around in my head at a time. Some of them are dormant, some are pounding at the walls to be formed. So I know that when I carve out that time to write, I'm making progress on one of those. The second part of that matters, progress. Producing one poem out of the dozen ideas I might have had sounds like failure on the surface, but it might be zero if I didn't make time for it. So it all counts, every time.

SB: Thank you so much for your generous responses!


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

Stories Abound: A Review of Natalie Shapero's Hard Child by Peter LaBerge

 Natalie Shapero's  Hard Child  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Natalie Shapero's Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Natalie Shapero's second collection, Hard Child, opens with “Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous // body parts, stories abound.” The collection closes with “God, of course they didn’t survive.” Her poems are distinct units with their own logic and tension but reference one another and borrow language (the last line of the book sounds like it could directly follow the first) in order to build on the book’s overall themes—or to land a joke, the way a comedian might in a standup set. These poems are taut and controlled, while appearing to make effortless leaps and connections.

Broadly speaking, Hard Child is about pregnancy and motherhood, confronting the way having a child changes one’s sense of memory and history. In two parts, more or less of equal length, the book’s arc follows the beginning of a pregnancy (“A blip in utero”) in the first, through the birth and early months of having a child (“To my young daughter, I sing…”) in the second. Throughout, Shapero’s poems try to reject history while embracing it: “I typically hate discussing the past,” the title poem claims; a few pages later, another says, “I swear to God I hardly think about the past.” And yet, throughout the book are references to historical events and people: Rasputin, the Iran–Iraq War, the Lindbergh Baby, the Kennedy assassination, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others.

This tension between denial and acceptance of history is deeply political, but Shapero remains present, always as culpable as the rest of us. In a poem called “Passing and Violence” she writes, “Watching football, I need / to see a man die.” But that’s hardly the most striking line of the book. One poem, “Monster,” begins in a birthing class before making a hard turn to genocide:

I recall
with ill feeling the curator, viewing a meager

tribute with disdain: CAN’T CALL YOURSELF A HOLOCAUST

The internal rhyme of “disdain/train” twists the knife. There’s a joke there, but it’s caustic, like The Onion’s headlines about mass shootings. Shapero isn’t pointing a finger at anyone; she’s holding up a mirror.

The speaker’s memories also figure heavily, as in one of the standout poems of the collection, “Radio Science.” The poem opens with the speaker disbelieving a story on the radio—about babies in utero sensing the mother’s past trauma—until she is startled while out for a run. “[M]y blood arrested, foamed, / and troubled the dark in which the child formed.” As is typical in these poems, Shapero doesn’t confront the memory head on—“It isn’t right,” she writes. “I hardly / think of the past” (again, a denial of history)—choosing instead to tell us,

only the better times at that bar: recoil

of springs in the pinball corner,
pool table that accepted only quarters,

the floor too small and mobbed,
all of us always in range of getting jabbed

by a cue.

In describing the “better times,” she gives us an idea of what might have happened, the kind of man who would have been there, the way the speaker might recoil from him, the way the cue isn’t a cue at all. Throughout, the couplets are slant rhymed—like the speaker ducking the issue—until the very end when a repeated phrase and a full rhyme slam the poem home.

While history and memory are major motifs, the book is ultimately wrestling with the identity crisis that can happen when a person becomes a parent. Throughout, bodies change form or disappear in ways that are sometimes funny and sometimes unsettling, as in “Home Scale” in which parents are told to find their baby’s weight,

by stepping

onto a home scale holding
the baby, then you just subtract
your body from the scene.

In some cases, the speaker actually desires this subtraction, as in “Form, Save My Own”:

My mind has made
an enemy of my body;
it’s all I can do

not to quote Kissinger
on the Iran–Iraq


In three consecutive poems Shapero writes about wanting “to know what kind of a dog I would be, were I ever a dog.” At first, it’s a demand; then “it’s ridiculous to opine on what kind / of a dog I would be”; then her lover asks her to stop talking about turning into a dog. As in “Radio Science,” this desire to transmute or vanish reads as a way to talk around an issue in the interest of trying to more accurately illuminate it. Is this postpartum depression? Does the speaker both want to be a parent and also desire a return to being childless? Perhaps. “It wasn’t for love of having / children that I had a child,” she writes. Shapero’s poems are rich, referential, and readable. That they remain indirect ultimately makes them more pointed.


Timothy Otte is a poet and critic. Poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Denver Quarterly, Fence, Sixth Finch, SAND Journal, and others. Book reviews have appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter, Colorado Review, Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis, where he works at Coffee House Press, but keeps a home on the internet: Say his last name like body.

A Conversation with Dana Levin by Peter LaBerge



Dana Levin is an author, essayist, and teacher. Her most recent book is Banana Palace, which was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016, and she teaches as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She has been the recipient of several prestigious honors, such as the Whiting Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.


I recently had a conversation with Dana about technology and teaching that came to a point of, “maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs.”

Wesley Sexton: In places in Banana Palace, you seem to be arguing (or at least pointing out) that technology’s goals are often immensely spiritual. When technology attempts, as it often does, to exceed the bounds of the body, it puts itself in a camp with other spiritual processes, namely poetry and religion. But what does that mean? For poetry? For technology? Are they speaking out of the same mouth and should they be?

Dana Levin: Wow, those are the questions, right? Okay, here’s what I think: Art and Religion were born the first time the living came in contact with the dead. The first time our primordial ancestor found her friend dead on the ground, touched him with her hand and shook him, was the beginning of our central realization: the body and the animating spirit are not the same, for in death the spirit vanishes and yet the body remains! Our technological innovations have always been in service to making work easier on our bodies, to accomplishing tasks with greater ease and greater speed. What would be easiest and speediest of all? To not have a body, to not be bound by time and space, to move and change all things simply by thinking it. Hence: hands-free communication tools, self driving cars, increasing automation in all areas of manufacturing, and soon: every day access to virtual reality, which I fear more than anything else, because it will make it even easier and more attractive to ignore the karma of being an embodied spirit on earth.

WS: That’s the rub.

DL: Most of the time, I think we’re embodied because we are supposed to be. I don’t think the goal is to leave our bodies behind, despite what many major religions tell us. Humanity seems hell-bent on ridding itself of its pesky body—both the personal body, and Earth. So there are other moments where I think: well hey, we’re tool-making animals: maybe we’re destined to become cyborgs, what do I know? And we may be taking such bad care of Earth that cyborgification may be our only hope for prolonging our species.

Poetry has always been sparked by the body/spirit problem. It is the central thing it sings about, whether in love poetry, religious poetry, or poems of resistance. Even in surrealist work, in poetry that seems driven primarily to explore and express the Imagination’s circus, the underlying tension is the way such poems sing against the Imagination’s annihilation, inevitable because it is housed in a mortal body (cf. Keats’ Urn). Technology and Poetry sing out of the same mouth because it’s the only mouth we’ve got.

WS: I love how what you say makes sense of so many large and disparate forces in society (religion and technology and even politics). I’ve heard before that, in terms of subject matter, there are only about four or five poems that one can write; but your response really makes me think that every question attempts to come to terms, in one way or another, with “being an embodied spirit on Earth.” In a way, that is what we are always talking about, as poets and as people. Everything is a response to that question.

DL: Yeah. I’m always interested in getting to source.

WS: Some of your poems tend toward a journalistic accounting of events, or a poetics of witness. I’m thinking about that rhetorical move in conjunction with your line, “information about information was the pollen we / deposited.” Is there something contemporarily important about taking stock of our experiences and saying what actually happened?

DL: Your question suggests that there is something extra going on in our contemporary times that makes “saying what actually happened” especially important. But “saying what actually happened” is always necessary to the history of human civilization, with its comings and goings of wrack and ruin, the rising and falling of silencing forces. One thing poetry has always done is bring us the news. But it brings it slant, it brings it with all its shadowy interiors intact. I often tell my students that, especially in the twentieth century, American Poetry offered a shadow history of the United States: Ginsberg’s HOWL and Plath’s ARIEL being crucial books of the 1950’s Silent Generation, books by Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and Wanda Coleman bringing us the news of black women in the 1970 + ‘80s, when the Women’s Movement was first trying to reckon with its own white supremacy. But even beyond the cultural and political, poetry has always brought us the crucial news of the Unsaid and the Unseen, which is often news of the SOUL, which is the most undervalued, under-broadcasted news we get.

WS: I think that’s great—thinking of poetry as bringing the news of the soul! I also love what you said about poetry’s slant-ness being a way to keep “shadowy interiors intact.” I think if there is one reason people struggle with or choose not to read poetry, it is this slant-ness, so I am often looking for ways to articulate the utility and importance of complexity in poetry. Many people (initially) explain poetry’s slant-ness as an authorial trick that intellectually shows off by creating some uncrackable riddle or something, but of course poetry must present itself to us in a mysterious way because that is how the world presents itself to us. That is how we present ourselves to ourselves.

DL: I agree.

WS: You recently said in an interview with Divedapper that you’ve been teaching poetry to many non-poets and that in that experience, you feel like a “missionary bringing the word of weird.” I love that moniker, and I wonder what ways you have seen poetry’s weirdness impact the uninitiated.

DL: A student recently told me she recommended another student take my class by saying, “Dana’s classes will make you feel like you’re going insane—” When I asked, with some alarm, how this was an endorsement, my student explained that, before my classes, no one had ever opened up the unconscious to her as a creative source. Poetry gives wildness a shape, poetry says: your dreams and daydreams might be trying to say something worth hearing. Poetry says: your imagination has value! Pearl beyond price!

While this is not foregrounded in my classes, it’s inevitable for the psychotherapeutic to rise up in workshop, which I think is of great aid to undergraduates, especially those who don’t have much experience tracking their minds, or feelings: writing and reading closely and inevitably lead to aha! moments of revelation and reflection. Last year I had a very quiet student, who I could tell was in the midst of personal difficulties, write a heart-wrenching response to Michael Dickman’s first book, The End of the West, and the way it evokes drug addiction, which was something her family members were struggling with. This student had no idea that poetry could engage this territory: speaking about the suffering of body and soul in the grips of addiction, and how this suffering affected loved ones and communities. She’d thought poetry too formal and polite to do this: she responded not just to the subject matter in Dickman’s book, but also *the way* he worked with language to talk about it. Poetry offered this student a double epiphany: first, that she was not alone in her suffering, and, second, that Poetry was open to the full range of spoken and written speech.

WS: That’s a great story! It happens so often that people have such a limited view of what poetry is and can be, that it is often such a great experience to show them how variously strange the practice of poetry truly is.

DL: It really is! I mean, come on—poetry is such a weird and powerful technology.

WS: For years there has been a deep skepticism about the workshop setting. What do you find are the wonders and limitations of a poetry workshop?

DL: Workshop, as a teaching tool, has the capacity to help students of any age encounter language anew, and as material: its sonic capacities, its nuances, the wondrous effects of diction and figuration. If a workshop is not spending time discussing these things, it’s not an educating workshop. Workshops can also create learning and artistic communities. To go back to the class referenced above, it was really meaningful to these students to have a place where we could discuss the secret, the unsaid, the inmost heart. And the closeness they began to feel as their poems told their secrets, their thoughts, their doubts, their angers and confusions, made the workshop experience all the richer: they really wanted to help each other figure out the most artful way to get at the truths they were trying to tell. Workshops fail when they devolve into focus group, thumbs up/down experiences, where clarity and immediacy win every time. It’s important for creative writing teachers to bring up, again and again, the complex nature of experience and how that complexity informs poems; to model patience with what at first seems opaque and inaccessible; to help students gain access to complex work.

At the graduate level, I have more ambivalence about workshop. Sometimes the hungers and necessities of career-building, hyper-awareness of poetry fashions, thrum under workshop discussion. The facilitation of the instructor is paramount here to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball, which is to help each student more strongly and sharply express their vision and linguistic palette, no matter how fashionable or unfashionable that vision and palette may seem to be.

WS: Yes, I suppose I’m wary sometimes of workshop imposing too much onto a writer instead of helping one say most artfully what it is they want to say. It sounds like that is a danger you are very aware of as a teacher.

DL: Thanks.

WS: You have done a lot of essay work exploring and explicating some of poetry’s most canonical authors (Homer, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, etc.). What is the importance of some of these writers to you, and do you think the canon is dangerously under attack?

DL: Hmm. I recently had someone studying with me express surprise and gratitude that I assigned him to read the canonical Modernist poets: Eliot, Williams, Stevens, etc. He said he had had no real idea how many of the craft approaches he was using in his own work came not from the contemporary but from poets working more than a hundred years ago. To truly be an informed citizen, one must familiarize oneself with the history of where they live. This is true for all citizenry, including citizens of the country of poetry.

Maybe we’re over-prescribing the debut on our reading lists; maybe censure or avoidance isn’t in the best interests of the students in our classrooms, when it comes to the sins of the canonical fathers (and mothers). And what a thorough and necessary education!-—-to confront, with a real spirit of inquiry, the paradox that some of poetry’s influential and innovative works of the past were produced by anti-semitic, racist, sexist, classist writers. It can be deeply uncomfortable and very challenging, for student and teacher, to have these conversations, but it seems the ethically and aesthetically sound approach.

WS: What you say makes a lot of sense out of a complex issue. I think the issue with having a canon probably emerges when canonical works become the only works being prescribed and read in academic settings. Given the way canonizing often ignores and silences voices and aesthetics from the margins, to treat canonical works as the model of “good” poetry would continue to silence those same voices and aesthetics.

DL: Totally, totally true. Because, as you said, the canon has ignored or silenced voices at the margin, we question, even deny, the value assigned it. The questioning is crucial. The denial, if knee-jerk, can get in the way of considering what the poems plunked on the canon’s gilded, ivy-strewn pedestals offered to the development of the art. For myself, I think the promoters of  the “canon” are hierarchical and exclusive, but the poetries inside the “canon” are merely a set of aesthetic artifacts, saying something about their moment in space and time. They offer a set of aesthetic suggestions. Power says “canon,” but the canonical poems are, simply, poems. Best to acquire knowledge of both the Power and the poems, their history of influence, and be free to absorb, embrace, rebut, reject, synthesize, mutate this influence, create anew.

WS: Thank you so much.


Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, Literary Juice and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Conversation with Leila Chatti by Peter LaBerge



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


Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Can you reflect on the process by which you came to realize you were a poet, when it became central to you to write and publish your poetry? Are there significant relationships (mentors, teachers, early readers, friends) that helped you understand you have this gift, and are there ways you now seek to form those relationships with emerging poets to support them, now that you have a body of work and a readership?

Leila Chatti: I’ve always been drawn to words. My parents like to remind me that even as an infant, I was fascinated by books; there are photographs of me propped up in my crib surrounded by them. I think that’s very interesting, and I’m not sure why I was attracted to books before I could make sense of what they were, or even of language itself. Perhaps predictably, I began reading early, at the age of three, and writing shortly thereafter.

My parents encouraged these pursuits, though they were not big readers themselves. My siblings, too, don’t really read. I think I was a curious child and I knew reading allowed me access to an endless store of information. I was also curious about myself, and other people, and writing is where I worked to discover what it meant to be alive in the world.

When I first realized I was a poet, with the same certainty and absoluteness as the fact of my brown hair or the city of my birth, I was in early adolescence. I was a cliché in that I thought a lot, felt more than I could bear, and used poetry as a container for what I carried too much of. There’s a line by Lisel Mueller I always think of when I am asked why or how I began writing poems, because it comes from a poem in which she addresses the same question (it’s how the poem begins). As Lisel says, I “placed my grief / in the mouth of language, / the only thing that would grieve with me.” I had a difficult, extremely painful young adulthood. I wrote to make sense of my suffering. I still write to make sense of my suffering, the suffering I encountered then and the suffering I’ve since amassed. I write now, too, for and about other things, but this remains my primary impulse.

I was lucky to have had teachers who saw both that I was in pain and that I had a talent for rendering that pain into language. In particular, my high school English teacher, Marianne Forman, encouraged and nurtured my love of poetry. She first introduced me to the work of Naomi Shihab Nye by handing me a stack of her books, and ten years later, Naomi has written a blurb for my chapbook. And now that Marianne has retired, I’ve offered her what I know about publishing and her poems are making their way into the world. There’s a lovely circling back in all of this that touches my heart in a way I can’t fully articulate.

I’ve had many wonderful mentors on my path, including Kim Addonizio, who gave me the courage to leave my job and chase this dream, and Dorianne Laux, my poetry mother who, as a mother does, taught me everything I know. Now that I know anything at all, I try very hard to pass that knowledge along. It can be difficult to do this from afar, as it almost certainly requires the Internet (while I think it would be wonderful to send letters, I haven’t seen much of that in practice), and I withdraw frequently from social media to focus on my work and protect my health. I’ve found what I like best is direct mentorship—either through e-mail exchanges or in person, during workshops of varying lengths and contexts. I will be teaching my first online workshop this spring through The Speakeasy Project, which I think will be a happy melding of the two. And while I love to build long, deeper-knowing relationships, I’ve found that mentoring can also be as brief as answering a question, providing resources, or sending a note of praise and encouragement. I believe strongly in opening doors, particularly for writers from marginalized backgrounds/identities, because there is plenty of room for all of us wherever we’re trying to go.

CB: Your work involves such a gorgeous calibration of the mythic and the personal—it is a great comfort to read poems about prayer, characters from Ovid, the Q'uran, reproductive health, and questions concerning motherhood, instead of being swept into the pettiness and ugliness, the unbelievable headlines of certain recent political events. In particular, the scenes from ordinary Muslim life are what move me to tears—the life my partner and I are striving to give our kids. (My partner is a non-observant, but still deeply religious, Turkish and Q'uran-literate son of a cleric in rural Turkey.) The ordinariness of the prayer rug, the counting, the calls to prayer, knowing lines from Q'uran, knowing about holy days. Knowing things by their proper names, without letting hateful rhetoric in any way touch or define/defile them.

Have you felt compelled to respond to Islamophobia directly in your work? The incredible line “I have never felt in my bones a bomb's radius of light” gave me such joy, because it's so human and so compassionate, yet at the same time it glories in the "beauty of the world that has two edges, one of laughter, one of sadness, cutting the heart asunder" (per Virginia Woolf).

LC: I love that Virginia Woolf quote—I hadn’t heard it before, and now it’s going in my notebook. To answer your question, yes, I have felt compelled to address Islamophobia head-on. I was 11 years old when the Twin Towers fell and so came of age in the context of a country that despised me. I wonder sometimes what my life would look like if I hadn’t learned early the possibility (reality!) of deep, pervasive hatred; I cannot recall a time when I was not acutely aware that what I was was the wrong thing to be. That sense of being “bad” and an outsider rooted in me, and I suspect it had a greater hand in my development and self-esteem than I realized. If we all see the world through a particular lens because of our circumstances, this certainly tinges what I see.

Despite this, I originally resisted writing head-on about being Arab and Muslim. When I began my MFA, I was very sick—I had a tumor that was thought to be cancer, and suffered from daily, intensely unpleasant symptoms because of it. I, as you might imagine, thought of little else, and so wrote about this illness regularly. I was discouraged from doing so by an instructor and told my success would be found in writing about “Arab things,” advice which deeply unsettled me— not because I didn’t want to write about “Arab things,” but because I thought I already was (if I, an Arab, have written a poem, is that not an Arab poem?; and Arabs also get sick, and write about it—), and because I feared tokenism. I think many, if not all, writers of color experience at some point this dread, this doubt, that they may not truly be as talented as their white peers, that they wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the bright flag of their identity—that being nonwhite is the only interesting or valuable thing about them. I certainly did. I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t want success that wasn’t earned. Too often during those early years, it was implied—or said outright, by friends even!—that I was lucky to be Arab/Muslim because it was an easy ticket to publication and awards. Never mind that I was almost always the only Arab/Muslim published in an issue, or in a year’s worth of issues, of a journal, or that I had never been taught Arab or Muslim literature and had to seek it out on my own. Still, it haunted me, so I kept my most clearly “Other” poems to myself, which is a perpetuation of silencing. I sent out work that obscured my identity—work about the ubiquitous experiences of desire and grief—to prove that I did, indeed, deserve “to be there.” Once I acquired that proof, I sent out the rest.

So, all that said, I have a complicated relationship to writing about identity—or, rather, publishing that writing. It is interesting to me that Tunsiya/Amrikiya will be my first book-object out in the world, as I think even three years ago I would have been nervous about debuting with “Arab things.” At some point I internalized the idea that “serious writing” was writing where identity was in the background, because I had been raised with a canon composed of writers whose whiteness/Westerness/Christianity was so centered that it wasn’t even considered an identity, it was considered human experience. Of course, this is not true. I didn’t set out to specifically challenge this, however; Tunsiya/Amrikiya arose naturally, out of necessity. 2016 was a brutal, terrifying year to be Arab and Muslim in the United States. I wrote to process and to speak back. I hoped, of course, to educate and challenge, but I was mostly writing for myself and other Arabs and Muslims, so many of the poems in the chapbook are celebratory and domestic. It’s my life: where I came from, how I came to be the person I am, and a small glimpse of what life as someone like me might look like. I like to think that these poems may also push back against Islamophobia, though they are not explicitly political; hatred is often the failure to see a stranger as fully human, and in these poems I reveal my full self.



Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, Quiddity, Natural Bridge, and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. She recently received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize with her debut story collection, WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS, due out October 2018. She has received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, Henfield award and several Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77.

NOTE: This interview was originally posted under Conversations with Contributors. Leila is not a contributor to The Adroit Journal, but she is a former poetry reader.