The Good Stuff

Courting Sadness: A Conversation with Aaron Smith by Peter LaBerge

BY AIDAN FORSTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY AMIE REILLY

 Image by Blythe King from  Issue Seventeen .

Image by Blythe King from Issue Seventeen.

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

from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it comes, how will we describe it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay good: A Conversation with Tommy Pico by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRAN BATH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY HEIDI SEABORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HS: Do you experience drought as a writer?

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

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

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

HS: Was it Mabel’s spirit at work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY MIKE GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

 Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

Excerpt from "wax" courtesy of Shira Dentz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This body is an inheritance: A Conversation with Elissa Washuta by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Elissa Washuta, author of  Starvation Mode  (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta, author of Starvation Mode (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.

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Meredith Doench: Your memoir, Starvation Mode, was an interesting read, and I was fascinated with the chosen structure. It covers a large span of time—early childhood into adulthood. I think it can be difficult to write about long stretches of a life so clearly and so succinctly, but your memoir does so beautifully, in large part because of its clear framework. It’s written in three parts and uses a collection of 36 rules as section breaks for Part I and four lies in Part II. Why did you choose such a structure for the book, and how long did it take you to find it? How did the use of vignettes as oppose to lengthy narrative highlight the message of the book?

Elissa Washuta: In beginning to write this book, I presented myself with a structural challenge: to, within a span of about twelve thousand words, using linear chronology, recount my entire life’s history of eating. I was driven by my anger at a review of my first book: the reviewer faulted me for, among other things, failing to apologize for my eating disorder and dysmorphia. I knew responding directly wasn’t the classy thing to do, so I responded with this book in which I tried to dig in further and even more unapologetically. I wanted to experiment with linear chronology because my first book is non-linear. Segmentation and quick glimpses allow me to span a lot of time without rushing: the focus is sharp and fast-moving, without transitions. Using transitional connective tissue would bore me, and so I hardly ever do it. I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.

I was struggling with that project, though, because the idea of being bound within linear time bored me. I believe I’d just heard Claire Vaye Watkins give a lecture on “craft transgressions,” ways of raising the stakes by breaking the rules set by the piece. Part II halts the progress of that recounting of eating that I undertook in Part I.

MD: “I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.” I love this, and I have also given it a lot of thought to this in my own writing.  I like how this method engages readers in a way that invites them to participate in the prose rather than being spoon-fed the ideas. Do you see this as something that designates [creative nonfiction] as literary (as opposed to genre writing)?

EW: I’m not actually sure I know what the distinction is—not in a concrete, detailed way, anyway, not well enough to delineate a designation. I think it’s possible that the method and purpose of inquiry separate the different approaches to nonfiction, but I’m just as willing to believe that the separations are arbitrary and flimsy.

MD: As someone who has struggled with disordered eating since my early teens, I could relate to much of what is written in Starvation Mode. The part that really smacked my gut with recognition was “Rule 9. YOU MUST EAT ONLY SIX HUNDRED CALORIES PER DAY.”  This section so clearly and accurately describes what I’ve always referred to as the betrayal of my body (the moment I grew breasts and my hips widened). You write about how quickly these changes occurred for you and the idea that starving the body would stop these changes. For many of us, this is the moment that changed everything regarding personal relationships with our bodies. It also intersects, in some ways, with issues of gender. Did you find this emotional topic difficult to write about so openly and honestly?

EW: This book was hard to write, craft-wise, but it wasn’t difficult emotionally. Writing My Body Is a Book of Rules was so hard I had to pummel myself with alcohol and cigarettes to get through it—I was remembering acts of sexual violence that I’d forgotten about or remembered only partially. The same is true for the book I’m working on now. But Starvation Mode felt like an opportunity to explore the interior that was responsible for the public acts people around me saw: my weirdly fast and focused eating, my denigration of my own body, my strange and hard-to-keep-up-with dietary restrictions. I felt like I had a chance to explain myself.

MD: Another aspect of the memoir I found fascinating was the discussion of meat (whether to eat it or not), and how the body, despite the mind’s knowledge of its needed protein, made it difficult to swallow/ingest the meat. I’m fascinated by the “mind” of the body, and it’s depicted so clearly in your work. In many ways, I found these references to be reminiscent of Roxane Gay’s Hunger and the way she writes about her extensive nutritional knowledge that is overpowered by the physical body’s hunger. In your own memoir, do you see the body working against the mind or the other way around? How do these polarities in your work add to the larger discussion of bodies and their hunger/starvation?

EW: I think it’s possible that my difficulties with meat are the result of inadequate stomach acid, which can be caused by stress. I mean, that’s what the Internet says. I think in this way, the body is working with the mind: I feel constantly stressed and anxious, and my body behaves accordingly, focusing less on digesting food and more on responding to the stressor. I wrote Starvation Mode about three and a half years ago, and at that time, the Paleo Diet still had quite a hold on me (not that it doesn’t at all now, but I don’t follow it, even if its rules still run through my head), and I really thought I needed meat in my diet, so on top of the ever-present life stresses of trying to make enough money to survive and trying to stay safe while living among men, I was stressed about the fact that I thought I should be eating meat but couldn’t.

I don’t really know how my work is situated within the larger discussion of bodies and hunger. I don’t read other books about disordered eating. I still have patterns of disordered eating, and I can slip back into a full-blown eating disorder very easily.

MD: The fear of slipping back into a full-blown disorder at any moment is stress-provoking in itself! As I was reading, I wondered if this memoir served as a release for you in regards to disordered eating. Do you feel like your life is different now? Have you let go of some of these issues that plagued you in the past?  

EW: No, I don’t think it was a release. Maybe temporarily, but years later, I’m still struggling with it. I just drank a bottle of Ensure instead of eating a meal. My eating and appetite problems are basically the same as they’ve always been. I think the difference, now, is that I’m older and I’ve accepted it and I’m not hiding that I sometimes struggle to stop eating Doritos and sometimes struggle to eat anything at all. I drank the Ensure in my colleague’s office. I think now, I’m more willing to let people in to see it in life and not just on the page. Maybe now that it’s been dealt with in narrative, I’m able to detach it from one.

MD: I found the pairing of binge eating and mental health/medication interesting. Many of the descriptions regarding food during this point of the memoir feature such an urgency to binge, such a deep starvation and hunger within the body: “I would rip [the bag] open at the seams on my kitchen counter and devour the contents like a jackal with her face at a mess of entrails.” Could you explain your thinking about the weight gain that occurred during this period? Was it simply primal need of the body or was the weight a form of protection?    

EW: I don’t think it was either, exactly—I don’t know the mechanism of action of the drug that caused the weight gain, but when I began taking an antipsychotic drug, I gained weight quickly, probably in large part because it made me so ravenous. So in a way, the body did suddenly have this need, but I think of it not as primal but as manufactured and imposed.

I know that other people have spoken to the emotionally protective effects of fat, but that has not been my experience. I constantly find myself—even now, in my house, having not been in the proximity of another human for almost 24 hours—contorting my body to make it smaller. I wrap my legs around each other twice when I sit, I keep my elbows close to my ribs, I often try to gather myself when I’m in public and somebody walks near me in an enclosed space. I am always trying to take up less space. Taking up more so suddenly, without time to adjust, was hard for me.

MD: Your speaker makes a clear point throughout the book that food, no matter how good it might be, doesn’t fill her: “What can I tell you? I am full of holes. I have found many ways to stuff them full.” This idea has been part of a much larger cultural narrative regarding hunger, the body, and women’s identity with the flesh they inhabit, particularly for obese individuals. How do you see your memoir expanding or joining the larger conversation on a “starving” American society? Do you see this as an issue for all genders and races?            

EW: I can only speak to my experience as a Cowlitz woman. I’ve been thin for most of my life. I definitely don’t believe that my problems are necessarily representative of anyone else’s experience of their own body, so it’s hard for me to speak to the larger conversation—I tried to tunnel into my own brain and my experience as deeply as I could.

I think Starvation Mode is really a book about the ways that hunger and romantic or sexual desire have gotten tangled up for me, about boys and men looking at my body and thinking it should be different, and that look is the thing I was devouring. But I’ve been single for years now. Now, if a man thinks my body should be different, he doesn’t get to touch it. My god, I’ve wasted so much of my life listening to broken men tell me to start running or eat Paleo because I needed to be “fit.” Speaking to other Native women about our shapes has helped—I’m never not going to have a thick waist (even at a size zero, with my ribs showing, I had belly fat) and I’m never not going to have a bony ass. This body is an inheritance. Eating has become a lot less charged for me. I mean, I’m still full of holes, and I have more ways than ever to stuff them full, so I keep having things to write about.  

MD: I love the idea of the “body is an inheritance.” It’s not something I’ve given much thought to regarding my own body. Do you see any connection with this quote and your statement that eating has become a lot less charged for you?  

EW: I think so, at least in part. As I said, the eating problems have remained, but I’ve come to (usually) accept and even appreciate the appearance of my body as it is, so I’m not deliberately restricting my intake anymore at all. I’m not sure what changed, but I know that I look at my mother and my ancestors and see clearly that they are and were beautiful, and that I look like them. It’s hard to talk about the period after the end of tension, because as a person who builds narratives, I’m following and modulating the tension. In real life, I wish my ass weren’t bony some days and don’t think about it on others; I notice the lack of definition in my upper arms in a photo and promptly forget about it. I suspect that the answer is as simple as the fact that I realized a few years ago that wearing dresses makes me stop feeling the constant nagging of a waistband digging into my belly, so I hardly wear pants, and I’ve been able to let go of that ever-present, back-of-mind feeling that something with the body isn’t right.

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

 

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

BY CARA DEES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    extra hidden life          among the days

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

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

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

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

BY LEAH JOHNSON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LJ: What sustains you in this work?

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

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

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

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

 

Conversations with Contributors: José Olivarez by Peter LaBerge

BY DUJIE TAHAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DT: Please do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JO: That’s true. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY CHELSEA DINGMAN

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

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

I.

Let’s start with why I wrote this poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

The definition of Fugue (from Merriam-Webster):

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

  • The organist played a four-voiced fugue.

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY JACOB PAGANO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY JOHN STINTZI and LAUREN TURNER

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

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

Lauren R. Korn
Director of Content
The Adroit Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations with Contributors: Gala Mukomolova by Peter LaBerge

BY ALI SHAPIRO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS: Can we listen to that Hole song again?

GM: Yes. Come over.

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

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

BY AMANDA HODES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BY LYNN MELNICK

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

Leonid,” by Maggie Chiang, from Issue Fourteen.

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

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

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

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

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

BY ARIEL KUSBY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us say
I fell from the sky

Let us say one night I reached

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

And later in the poem:

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

my round wounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations with Contributors: Meg Freitag by Peter LaBerge

BY LAUREN R. KORN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LRK: What is your day job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MF: Five and a half years.

LRK: Is that pretty typical?

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

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

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

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

MF: Absolutely.

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

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

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

MF: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LRK: I get that, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MF: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MF: That’s high praise.

LRK: Good. It was meant to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scar Tissue: A Conversation with Catherine Lacey by Peter LaBerge

BY SPENCER RUCHTI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

BY KATIE WILLINGHAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.