The Good Stuff

Beneath the Surface of Empathy: A Review of Not That Bad, Edited by Roxane Gay by Peter LaBerge


  Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture , edited by Roxane Gay ( HarperCollins , 2018).

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, 2018).



The act of beginning this book was an act of facing an experience I knew would be enlightening, painful, stomach churning, powerful and resonant. I was excited by the prospect of being able to read and talk about this book, and yet I kept stopping and starting it out of fear and knowing. I knew that listening to each story had the potential to make me feel empowered and, at the same time, dig into my own traumas and feelings that are still difficult to face.

My experience with this book has been multilayered; I chose to read it and listen to the audiobook in which each author read their essay aloud. I wanted to consider whether there was a certain power that these authors could reclaim by telling their own stories aloud. Even in her introduction to the book, hearing editor Roxane Gay deliberately and clearly reading the names of each contributing author was powerful, like saying their names conjured a protection against an erasure of their stories.

In her introduction to the book, Gay describes the stories we tell ourselves as mechanisms for coping, or simply understanding trauma, even when coping hurts us as survivors. She describes the refrain she has often told herself, that her gang rape and the subsequent assaults and mistreatments were “not that bad,” and how, because of this refrain, “the surfaces of my empathy became calloused.” This feels important to read before spending time with the testimonies of the other contributors, as Gay asks readers to consider how rape culture and misogyny have limited our own sense of empathy for survivors of trauma. To call the authors’ stories ‘testimonies’ feels important too; testimony has a legal context, but many of these authors did not and may never have the opportunity to seek out justice through a system that often dismisses or renders survivors invisible, or else subjects them to extreme scrutiny that prolongs and amplifies trauma-as the country has seen played out during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. V.L. Seek describes this in her essay, “Utmost Resistance”: “We are trapped in a legal system that has never favored women and has never believed survivors. And we are mired in a circuitous and damning dialogue, so powerful that it invalidates our experiences, our traumas, our truths-a dialogue so powerful that we begin to doubt whether our experience was never there at all.” The act of telling these experiences is an act against erasure and for affirmation that it happened, as memory often fails survivors after traumatic events.

To call the authors’ work ‘testimonies’ is not meant to detract from the fact that each essay is carefully crafted and each one focuses on a different aspect of rape culture that largely impact women and femme peoples, though this collection spans genders and sexualities.

Some of the authors have chosen to tell their stories as linear narratives, while others have chosen to focus on a specific aspect of their experiences or their continuous path towards understanding and healing from these experiences. In Claire Schwartz’s essay, “& The Truth is, I Have No Story,” she grapples with the narratives that people have attempted to use to frame her assault, like “at least you weren’t killed.” By removing her experience from a comforting narrative structure, she disrupts these narratives of “not that bad” when she insists, “I want someone to watch me thrash and crumple because that, too, is the truth.” This is an idea that is echoed throughout the collection—that survivors do not owe the public or those hearing their testimonies a convenient or palatable narrative about their trauma. Sexual assault and harassment are pervasive and healing is work, not something that a survivor can simply achieve and move on from. Another contributor, artist Liz Rosema, has chosen to navigate the collective silence of youth impacted by an inappropriate coach in her comic, “What We Didn’t Say.” Some of the authors confine their stories to themselves, while others employ the direct address of “you” to confront a perpetrator, as AJ McKenna does in “Sixty-Three Days,” or to address other people who might have experienced something similar to their own experiences, like “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl,” by xTx. The diverse ways in which the authors choose to tell their stories speaks to the divergent yet relatable ways that many survivors navigate their traumas and their understanding of what has happened since.

The contributors to this book range from well-known, professional writers to academics to celebrity actors, yet all of their stories are treated with equal respect and care. In fact, it was stories from the writers who were less well-known that I gravitated towards, as they explored important ideas, like how intergenerational trauma begets more trauma and the ways that acts of sexual assault and harassment take away a person’s autonomy over their own body.       

One contributor, Vanessa Martir, an accomplished writer and teacher of creative nonfiction, wrote a piece about her relationship with her mother’s trauma and how it affected her ability to navigate her own in her essay, “What I Told Myself,” which is from her memoir and took seven years to write. When I asked her about her experience of recording herself reading her work, she said, “When I was asked if I wanted to record the essay, my immediate answer was yes. I knew that no one could do my story justice the way I could. To say I was nervous is an understatement, but I certainly walked out of there feeling fierce and unstoppable...and yes, empowered.” Martir’s work as a community educator is to empower others to tell their most necessary and difficult stories, and so her words ring true to others: the act of telling our stories can be a part of the healing process. While the act of listening to her words and to the words of the other contributors can be difficult, it feels to me to be an act necessary to fully experience this book.

Sharisse Tracey, whose essay, “Picture Perfect,” is one of the more graphic and disturbing ones to read, spoke to me about how it felt for her to have her essay included in this collection: “I knew, should my essay be chosen, in what I knew would be thousands of entries—that said to me, you matter. Your story matters and people care. Not only do people care, but they are pissed off, hurt, outraged, angry, horrified and they want to help to secure that these stop at the source and those perpetrators be brought to justice.” Tracey continues to affirm how powerful this experience has been for her when she describes the act of recording her piece, saying how difficult it was and how her voice cracked and she fought back tears. When listening to her audio recording again, she said that, “I braced myself to listen when I first received the audio file. It was painful to hear the story of a twelve-year-old girl being raped by her father. I tried to listen as if it were not me...but that was impossible. Although I’ve lived with the story, hearing it still brought me to tears. I believe the experience of listening to stories can often be more powerful, especially when they are read by the authors. In this case, with Not That Bad, I feel that all of us had to read our own stories. We own those stories. We live and breathe our words daily. Unlike readers, we can’t put the book down when it gets too painful or turn off the volume. Each of us paid for all of our words. Most of us are still paying.”

These stories are for the authors themselves, allowing them to work through their own processes of healing. They are for other survivors who need to read these stories in order to feel seen and to feel less isolated in their own silences.

But the stories of the people in this book are also working to name that which patriarchy and rape culture seeks to make unnamable, because to name an act levies power over it. These stories are directed at a society that is sustained by survivor’s silence and fear in the face of rape culture, and that seems insurmountable. The fact that this book exists speaks to the notion that it contains only a handful of stories among countless others, and that is a statement the book is making too. As Zoe Medeiros writes in her essay, “Why I Stopped,” “The more of us who come out as survivors, the harder it gets to ignore that there is too much to survive, the harder it gets to pretend that this doesn’t happen or it only happens to certain kinds of people.”

It feels too big to assign this book the job of “fixing” something for any of the contributors or for readers. Rather, the book seeks to create a conversation that is too loud to ignore. The subtitle, “Dispatches from Rape Culture,” is very deliberate. Rape culture, as it exists across spaces and cultures, creates a battleground between those fighting to dismantle it, those unwilling to interrogate it and those actively working to uphold it. These are some of the stories from that battleground.

There are times that, as a survivor, it feels difficult to know where to channel my anger and what the next step is within growing movements towards justice like the #MeToo movement. As Lyz Lenz writes in her essay, “All The Angry Women,” “my anger still feels homeless and without a direction forward.” Not That Bad may be a way forward; it draws on the work that activists have done and engages in a conversation that I hope will not soon end.


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Karin Schalm is the Office Manager at Submittable.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fighting the Silence: A Conversation with Alexander Chee by Peter LaBerge


 Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  (Mariner Books, 2018).

Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018).

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.


Alexander and I discussed his essay collection while seated outside on a hot day at the Tin House’s Summer Workshop at Reed College in July, where Alexander was faculty for one of the novel workshops. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kirin Khan: In your essay “On Becoming a Writer,” there’s this moment where you talk about how in the U.S., there is an insistence that the measure of success for an artist is becoming middle class, and that failing that means your art has failed. How would you describe success outside of that middle-class aspiration?

Alexander Chee: It’s often unspoken but it’s something I’ve definitely experienced so regularly over time that I started speaking about it. For my first novel I was paid $4,000 out of a $6,000 advance before the house went bankrupt. I saw the paperback rights get sold, ended up getting half of half of that money because of the bankruptcy. It was probably significantly less money than a lot people make for a novel, so it was funny that one of the first reviews that would come up when you google my name was by someone who had taken my poetry career very seriously and accused me of ‘selling out.’

It’s been very moving to me over that last two years to have so many young writers who are so different from each other tell me how much my work has meant to them. How it’s helped them connect to themselves, to write the stories and poems that they have been wanting to write. I think for me the definition of success is making space for other writers, especially at this point in time in our history as a country and culture.

A friend of mine (Noel Alumit) sent me these postcards from a prisoner who had read my first novel. The prisoner, a convicted pedophile, described himself not being able to speak for the four days that he was reading it. He went on to say it was the first thing he’d ever read that ever showed him how what he did was wrong. I didn’t realize that I had written my first novel to do that, but that strikes me as a measure of success.

KK: That moment was incredible to me, just reading about it in the essay “The Autobiography of My Novel.”

AC: It’s what you end up meaning to people that is the real marker. You should want to get paid, even paid well, but we’re trying to change people’s minds, trying to illuminate, to help people reconnect to themselves and others. That’s the marker I use to see if I’m succeeding or not.

KK: In the essay “After Peter” you talk about being a minor character in this story, and that you tell it because the people who would tell that story are all dead. That devastated me. How do you write about large scale loss? In the collection, you confront it again after 9/11 (“On Becoming an American Writer”), this massive scale loss, and how paralyzing it can be as an artist.

AC: It’s important to remember that your despair is a gift to them—not to ones who were lost but to the ones who took them. In these conflicts, they want you to feel like their win is inevitable, they want you to give up on fighting back or succeeding. It’s interesting to see things like the cultural production that we have in the U.S. that is much richer and more diverse than it has been in a while. At an age when we have more and more Black filmmakers, POC filmmakers, writers, thinkers, critics doing astonishing work, at the same time, we have this white supremacist takeover of our three branches of government. It points to the way they really are a minority and the country is not with them. This is their revenge on us. They are trying to act like they are the majority and that their wins are legitimate—and they’re not. It’s on all of us not to give up in the face of that, not to give this country to them in the process.

KK: Do you view writing about the people we’ve lost is a way of resisting that?

AC: Yes. I think one of the biggest challenges we face is the loss of intergenerational knowledge. I had a student last year doing an assignment for a writing class. She was a Black Lives Matter activist and she started doing some research into her family and discovered she came from a family of Black Panthers. None of them had told her. She was stunned to discover this, like, “Were you just going to not tell me?”

That’s very rare, not common at all, but in that silence, there is something to investigate. Why would they watch her doing what she was doing and not tell her about their own experiences? That silence, whether it’s born out of death, loss or fear, it’s something that we have to reach into and fight so that we can have those lessons of, how did we fight before this? How did we find courage before this?

The thing that’s very moving to me now are the intergenerational conversations that are possible with internet and social media. One of the things that’s been most gratifying to me is connecting to young queer writers and young writers of color, hearing from them, the work they are producing. I’m still part of a very small group of out gay Korean American writers—for a long time I was an only one, and the first. Then there was Sam Park, who died just as James Mattson debuted last winter, this sad mix of debut and loss. Sam died of stomach cancer; his posthumous novel is coming out this fall. I’m waiting for there to be so much more than there is, and I can see it coming. I feel myself still trying to hold that space for people. I’ve been funding fellowships at Jack Jones Literary Arts and Lambda Literary and am looking at creating one in Sam Park’s name at Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.

KK: When you say you’ve been waiting for it, what do you mean?

AC: The writers who are arriving are the ones that I’ve been waiting for.

KK: Like a queer, POC revolution?
AC: Yeah, exactly. Patty Yumi Cottrell. Franny Choi, especially.  She’s amazing. One of the reasons I’m still on Twitter is that I get to see her tweets. It’s a delight to me. Chen Chen is fantastic, too.

KK: In “Girl,” you explore the shame of being misgendered as a kid and what’s underneath that. I was often mistaken for a boy as a kid. When I was a bit older, I’d get these sexy, cheap costumes for Halloween, and I’d wear a wig and high heels, but then I’d get mistaken for a man in drag. It was really disorienting that there was no way for me to be perceived as female, whether I performed this kind of hyper-femininity or wore my brother’s hand-me-downs.

AC: You were always trying to be a woman and not quite getting there.

KK: Right. I just am what I am. I thought it was interesting that in your essay, you explore that childhood shame of being mistaken for someone that you can be much more comfortable with later. I was wondering if you had things to say about that, that moment of being mistaken for a girl as a kid versus looking really hot as a girl and passing in that moment as an adult.

AC: One thing I like about what’s happening with gender now is that we’re thinking about it more as a relationship to the self rather than a relationship to others, making self-identification more important first. A panoply of identities is making that possible. What makes me interested in say, queer liberation, is that it makes room for other people whether they are queer or not. It allows young children to feel the freedom of identifying as a boy but wearing hot pink shoes to school and butterfly wings.

KK: And getting to be pretty.

AC: Yeah, getting to be pretty. Nail polish and what not, all these things that were so risqué as a teenager in the ‘80s, that are so mainstream now.

KK: You write about the excitement and potential violence there.  I felt that.

AC: That’s the thing, especially for men who do drag for the first time, who pass. It’s a vision of the reality of being a woman in a way that nothing can prepare you for, which is the constant threat of violence.

KK: Do you think writing about large scale loss, such as the AIDS crisis and 9/11, is different from writing about individual loss, like your father or Peter, specifically? Does it feel different?

AC: Grief and grieving are never really over, because they’re born out of love. So long as the love is there, the grief is also there. You learn to live with the loss, and it becomes this long-term meditation. One of the great wounds of the AIDS crisis was that the Gay community finally had this tremendous victory for pleasure in terms of sex, so many different kinds of sexual explorations were happening. The other was this way in which it was a warning, for those who were able to take it, about what this country would face under healthcare for profit. It was happening just as that change was happening in healthcare. When I look at this friend of mine who just got 185K bill for this cancer procedure she had—it’s just a crazy way to think about trying to live a life in this country where 40% of Americans would have an emergency if they needed more than $400.

KK: That reminds me of how, in the book, you talk about there being three decades worth of wealth accumulation for the rich, and that this was literally letting the poor die and determining our value.

AC: Right, acting like its natural.

KK: That it’s a reflection of our worth that we are poor in the first place. Therefore, our deaths are justified.

AC: In the aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s win, it was funny to see this renewed attention to the sorts of values that she is putting forward: healthcare for all, a climate change proposal that’s aggressive and confronts what’s actually happening to the earth, and suddenly, there was a lot of discussion of whether these kinds of values would work in the rest of the country. At the same time, there are polls that show that Democrats are favored at 49% versus Republicans at 37%—this massive leap has opened up. These issues are supposed to be hurting Democrats and Americans, but what if this is what people want? Healthcare for all has been widely supported by a majority of Americans for a very long time, going back to Obama’s election. The only place where it hasn’t had widespread support is in Congress.

KK: Noel Alumit previously said, in conversation with the 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellows, that one thing he wanted us to know is that “your novel will not fix you.” And that that is something he wished he knew with his first novel.

AC: That’s funny.

KK: In “The Guardians” you talk about your novel waiting for you to reach where it is, in terms of speaking out. What are your thoughts, do you agree with Noel?

AC: You’ll still be the same person after you publish your first novel. It won’t magically fix any of the problems you have with your personality or government or any of those things. The cognitive process of being able to reconcile that which was not reconciled before certainly was a profoundly, psychically transformative experience for me, and that was part of what I write about in the collection, in both “Autobiography of My Novel” and in “The Guardians.” I don’t know that it was the writing itself that was the recuperation, as much as the writing was how I was able to see what needed to be recuperated and how I was able to chart that for myself.

It reminds me of when I was a yoga teacher and was learning about chanting. Chanting was a way of observing your breath through the sound that your voice makes. Writing was also like that, a way to observe the mind. It is not therapy, and I think that people who think it is therapy are putting a lot at risk. I was talking with another friend who writes memoir about the importance of doing the private writing for the self—many of these essays were born out of or reliant on journals that I’ve kept. Journals allowed me to reflect and tell myself things that I needed to tell myself. Out of that, I was able to figure out what I needed to put in an essay. If I was using the essay alone to do that, the success or failure of that essay would weigh too heavily on the recuperative process, and would be an incredible violation of it as well. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to think that your writing can fix you, as Noel said. It can’t fix you. But it can show you how to be fixed.

KK: In “The Guardians” you also talk about being in a video/documentary where you lie about how abuse hasn’t harmed you. I felt that there’s this desire to say that, even when it isn’t true.

AC: Your feelings catching up to you can take so long.

KK: Which isn’t something people tell you. In the same essay, you discuss repetition as a form of forgetting. Can you ever really write the trauma? Do you feel like you go back to it and are writing about it in different ways? Or do you feel like at one point you’ll be done, or is it more like grief, where it transforms as you grow?

AC: It’s a Freudian idea, Freudian repetition trauma. With this book, I do have this feeling of having concluded something. There may be more to write later, but I think now I’m really excited about turning to other projects.

KK: In “Girl” you write that sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask. You repeat the idea of the mask: in “Girl” you put on the mask and find out who you are without it, and then in “The Guardians,” there’s another mask, whether it’s behind the novel or in the documentary, of pretending to be okay. That idea is also talked about as passing as whole. There’s passing as straight, passing as white or by race, and then there’s passing in relation to trauma, passing as “okay.”  Can anyone really pass with respect to trauma?

AC: Lots of people are fooled, and they can’t be faulted for being fooled if you put all your effort into it. I should add that, unfortunately, people have some pretty horrific opinions about how you should handle sexual abuse and rape.

KK: And whether it was bad enough.

AC: Yeah. I went through that with one interviewer recently who was like, “Well what you describe in there, it wasn’t that bad, right?” It was a woman. I was just like, “Yeahhh, I don’t know how to talk to you about this, it was really clear in the essay.”

KK: It’s a scale used to silence people. I’ve heard that the fewer details about rape that you give, especially when pressing charges, the more likely it is that someone will sympathize with you. Because the more they find out, the more likely it is that they will say, “I would have done something different.”

AC: Yes, yes. I remember that. Even when I was very young, seeing how my friends who had been in this choir with me had to leave school, because they were harassed once the story of the crimes came out. No one was empathetic. At least if they didn’t actually have to be, and even then, empathy was its own fraught situation. So, it didn’t seem like there was any reward in trying to talk about what was left.

It’s the strangest thing. I was teaching the novel Agostino by Alberto Moravia to my students in Italy.  The story is of a young boy who is on vacation with his mother, who is this beautiful widow, and he falls in with this very rough crowd of boys while she is enjoying herself with a new lover. They introduce him to the ringleader of the child gang, this older man who is a pedophile. They trick him into going on a boat ride with the man—that is essentially how he inducts boys into this gang. My students were really horrified by the novel and by what they saw as the misogyny in the novel—the mother is treated constantly like an object of desire by everyone, including her son. Her value is always focused on her looks; she’s always judged on her desire to have a sex life. And I kept trying to push the conversation further, and finally I had to lay out—in the novel if you look carefully, the pedophile eventually becomes this boy’s mentor on how to be a man. This mother is considered an enemy of his manhood, and I said, “The mother has only ever supported him, the pedophile is the one who abused him. Why in this world is the mother the one who is hated? I know you’re struggling with the misogyny but I need you to look all the way in. What does the structure of the novel communicate? It’s the depiction of a world that’s gone wrong—what is it saying that’s wrong, and that, finally, was what you could see when you pull back from all the rest.” It’s a slim novel, but it lays bare a structure that we see again and again in terms of what’s happening along the border with children being separated from their parents and being essentially pushed into situations where they are in the hands of abusers. And we’re being asked to treat the kids as criminals, as the trespassers and blame their parents as well. It’s a lot.

KK: It really is. In “The Guardians,” you get down to the “this is what happened” piece and you take us through it, which is incredibly hard and incredibly brave. In the #MeToo movement, there are narratives about women being abused as adults, but I don’t see as much about childhood trauma, and men and boys are just beginning to step forward publicly as survivors—it’s rampant for all genders. I just wanted to emphasize that that’s no small thing that you’ve spoken out so boldly about it in your essays. People are going to ask you about it and that’s got to be hard. What were your thoughts when you decided to really write this essay?

AC: I was trying to get at the ways in which you turn yourself into something else in the attempt to hide the pain. How you engage in a second kind of erasure after the first erasure that was the trauma itself, and how hard it was to reconnect to that boy who was so alone back then, and who built these baroque defenses that turned out to long outlive their capacity to protect me, and that I had to dismantle in order to engage in the kind of recuperation that I desperately needed.

KK: Which is something that people don’t talk about with PTSD—these tools saved your life at one point.

AC: Right they got you through something. Being hidden got me through something. The thing is, it was time to stop hiding.


Kirin Khan is a writer living in Oakland, CA who calls Albuquerque, New Mexico her hometown, and Peshawar, Pakistan her homeland. Kirin is an alum of VONA, Las Dos Brujas, and the Tin House Writers Workshop, and she is a 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2018 Steinbeck Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Margins, Your Impossible Voice, 7x7.LA, and Foglifter among others. Kirin is working on her first novel.

We Want What We Want: A Review of Genevieve Hudson's Pretend We Live Here by Peter LaBerge


 “5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from  Issue Twenty-Five .

“5 Arguments” by Qianqian Ye, from Issue Twenty-Five.

Desire drives every story, in one way or another, but few writers capture white-hot want like Genevieve Hudson. Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books) features characters obsessed with obsessions: how we are always trailing them, struggling to give them names, justifying them as we go along. Each of the wide-ranging voices in these stories—vegan activists, teenage skateboarders, a patient recovering from a harrowing surgery—are seekers at heart, unified by their sticky, boundless compulsions. “Anything I’m not supposed to have I want,” confesses the lesbian narrator of “Adorno,” who has, for reasons murky even to herself, recently slept with her beloved sister’s much-older husband. Hudson’s characters can’t always explain their actions, and they rarely know what’s best for them. Perhaps this is why they feel so nuanced and relatable. The world they walk through—flooded with lust, saturated with longing—is familiar to anyone who has ever had an insatiable ache.

Articulating desire is tricky—we want who we want, mostly without knowing why. It’s elusive, a chemical dance between bodies. Still, the characters in Hudson’s collection make half-hearted attempts to justify their urges. In “Bad Dangerous” the narrator laments her astrological predisposition for fixation: “I’m a Cancer after all. I reach out my crab claw and snap someone in my pinchers…It’s compulsive. I just keep pinching the shit out of this new thing until one day I lose interest and let it go.” Though many of these characters are in deeply chaotic situations, they are off-kilter and frequently funny, sarcastic and self-deprecating. They study crystals; they visit psychics and have their feet rubbed with sage; they have their birth charts read. Each of them is looking, in their new-age-y way, for gentle answers, or at least for alternative methods of rumination.

Rather than directly interrogate her characters’ jagged impulses, Hudson shows longing at the sentence level, bakes it right into the syntax. The language is corporeal and completely unexpected: a dirty floor “sprout[s] a kind of hair” and monotonous tasks “jiggle” a janitor’s heart. A filthy van is described first as smelling like “muscles and open wounds” and later as having a “menstrual stench.” The prose itself seems full of blood, the syncopation like a pulse.

Hudson’s careful attention to detail also makes her a master of evocative setting. In “Cultural Relativism” a young professor leaves Amsterdam for a teaching job in Alabama. Hudson is as deft at describing ivy-covered buildings and Southern “monuments of horror” as she is the icy waterways of the Amstel, but she never strays far from the body—where desire lives:

Conjure something that looks Ivy League—colonial mansions, wide lawns shaved to the height of an army crew cut, phallic chimes…Now, bring in a vicious Southern sun and burn everything so it walks with a limp. There, perfect.

There’s another type of yearning that moves alongside the physical in these stories: the search for home. We’re introduced to these characters in moments of dislocation—they are running from bad decisions, making new lives in foreign places or else traveling, living in liminality. But you get the feeling that no matter where they are, no matter how moored or forgiven or how loved, these characters would still feel adrift. The title reminds us that these are characters pretending to belong. For them restlessness is constant, and desire itself—even if it is fleeting, risky, or unrequited—is the closest approximation to feeling at home.

But the stories in Pretend We Live Here are certainly not tragic. Following desire, Hudson reminds us, can be blissfully life-affirming—it makes you bold, even as it drags you through dangerous places. “The wanting was a shake that started in my toenails and moved up toward something that wasn’t my brain,” says the narrator of “Possum,” after “innocent” dirty dancing at a Halloween party leads to full-blown fascination. The narrator’s crush, known only as “the possum,” tells her that if they lived in the same city, they would get into a lot of trouble. “The way the possum said trouble made me want to have it,” she says. “It made me want to eat drugs from the palm of her hand and follow her down the interstate on a motorcycle at 4 a.m. I wanted to turn a dollar into a straw and suck the possum up my nose.” This is precisely what the stories in this collection do: they take you off guard with their certainty and their strangeness—they grab your hand and lead you to unexpected, beautifully dark places. They make you greedy for more.

IMG_7929 3.jpg

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage in 2019, and the novel The Boiling River, forthcoming from Knopf.

Geography of Translation: A Review of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River by Peter LaBerge


 Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of  The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border  (Penguin Random House, 2018).

Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Penguin Random House, 2018).

A nation’s geographical border can define its identity as much as its politics. No book is as much an examination of this idea as Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. A memoir that is primarily journalistic but also deeply personal, the narrative provides a series of snapshots into Cantú’s work as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, while also drawing from Cantú’s own academic background in U.S.-Mexico relations.

Yet the central idea of The Line Becomes a River does not address immigration policy, but the humans that are directly impacted by it. Throughout the book, Cantú emphasizes that the border serves as a microcosm for greater economic, racial, and human issues—issues that manifest themselves in the interactions along the geographical boundary of the United States and Mexico.

A vulnerability is present in Cantú’s writing that lends itself to his setting. Cantú is struck by the almost surreal quality of the landscape, juxtaposed with the very real violence that occurs there; the duality is one that Cantú will explore throughout the memoir.

Much can be explored regarding the function of Cantú’s own character as aggressor and advocate; at first, it is revealed that he joins the border as a real-life application of his academic knowledge. Yet, as Cantú ruminates on his time at the border, it appears that the decision to become a Border Patrol Agent was motivated by a desire to reconcile with his third-generation Mexican-American identity. By bearing witness to what occurs at the border, he begins to recognize that there is an inevitable connection between himself and those he has been taught to view as “other.”

It is at this intersection of a tangible geographical border and a figurative linguistic one that Cantú starts to understand the complexity of the situation. It is not just a matter of lines, but those on each side. Life and death are as compounded by human factors as they are by political ones. Those with the most deportations, Cantú says, become criminals in the eyes of the American government. But it’s this insistence on crossing for opportunity that reveals the commitment to family values—what is perhaps the primary facet of American identity.

Throughout his time on the border, Cantú struggles with the idea that his work as a Border Patrol Agent is defeating and destroying the migrants’ hope. At the same time, he believes that he is saving them from further pain. So when the agents “slash [the migrants’] bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze,” they are actions of love. The reader witnesses the toll this takes on Cantú’s physical and mental health; he begins to grind his teeth. His dreams consist entirely of ferocious wolves and faceless men. Cantú’s mother, a former Park Ranger, is no stranger to the implications of Cantú’s role on the border for both the migrants and himself:

You spent nearly four years on the border, she said. You weren’t just observing a reality, you were participating in it. You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison. And let me tell you, it isn’t something that’s just going to slowly go away. It’s part of who you’ve become. So what will you do? All you can do is try to find a place to hold it, a way to not lose some purpose for it all.

When Cantú addresses the institution, it is through the lens of an academic. He quotes the psychologist Carl Jung, saying that it had become “a political and social duty” to perceive “the other as the very devil, so as to fascinate the outward eye and prevent it from looking at the individual life within.” What he refers to here is the transformation of all migrants into “other,” but the fact that they are the same, all of them Americans. These migrants, Cantú states, were born into different circumstances, but they are just as human.

Towards the end of the book, Cantú focuses on the specific case of his undocumented coworker José, who is deported and unable to return to the United States after visiting Mexico for his mother’s funeral. This is a moment of clarity in Cantú’s life when he realizes that what occurs at the border has a ripple effect away from it; the implications of an action on the border are far-reaching and evident in the separation of families. It is a startling reminder that deportations are not just occuring along the line between the United States and Mexico, but in our own communities.

The book does not directly seek to address the economic implications of illegal immigration, nor does it enforce a political stance. Instead, it chooses to display the raw, human side of what occurs along the border. The line is defined not so much as its geographical boundaries as the people it represents. By prioritizing stories over statistics, Cantú allows his readers to develop their own relationship with the people on the other side. It is in fact this acknowledgement of migrants as humans that creates a basis for empathy, a means of solidarity that is paradoxically both universal and specific.

For Cantú, this realization of boundaries being imaginary occurs when he stops to fully acknowledge his surroundings as not a “border” but a bridge and river. “As I swam toward a bend in the canyon, the river became increasingly shallow...I stood to walk along the adjacent shoreline, crossing the river time and time again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood,” he writes. “All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.”

As Cantú emphasizes, there is no textbook way to solve the issue of the border. It is not an issue of policy so much as it is the reasoning behind policy; the ability to perceive these immigrants as human beings is what informs our policies. Translation of the immigration experience does not occur through headlines and harmful rhetoric. It occurs through empathy, which speaks to all.


Valerie Wu is a high school senior in San Jose, California. She is a two-time National Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and has presented her writing and literary research at Stanford University, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Manzanar Awards Committee, and the Columbia Political Review, among others.

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



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

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

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

                                    Leslie Scalapino

                                        Ron Silliman

the Black Arts Movement continues to          grow       Sonia Sanchez       Amiri Baraka

Nikki Giovanni       Etheridge Knight


                            and later

                                             be challenged by younger poets    Ishmael Reed            

Cecil Brown     “confessional poetry”        sparks       both followers

                                           and reactionaries            

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

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers                                1974

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

    Audre Lorde              besmilr brigham Lawson Fusao Inada     Adrienne Rich

June Jordan                   Mei-mei Berssenbrugge    John Ashbery Joy Harjo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now he gets up.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TianaClark_cropped headshot.jpg

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

Conversations with Contributors: Anna Rose Welch by Peter LaBerge


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

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

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


Samantha Seto: Congratulations on your book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS: Is another poetry collection in your future?

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Against Assimilation: A Conversation with Nicole Chung by Peter LaBerge


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VYAS Author Photo.jpg

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

Melanie Finn: How I Wrote The Underneath by Peter LaBerge


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luiza Flynn-Goodlett Photo copy.png

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SB: Do you have favorite teen literary characters?

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

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

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

SB: Do you have a favorite genre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[My Bathtub Pal]

And once more:

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

[December 29]

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

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

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

[The Final Voicemails]

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

Likewise, here’s Ritvo:

…my baldness is not wisdom


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

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

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

[Nobody Asked Anything]

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

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

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


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

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

[The Soundscape of Life is Charred by Tiny Bonfires]

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

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

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

[My New Friend]

It’s wonderful, and sad. Once more:

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

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

[Quiet Romance]

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

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


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

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

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

[My New Friend]

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[December 29]


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

Courting Sadness: A Conversation with Aaron Smith by Peter LaBerge


 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.


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.


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.