Conversations with Contributors: Elizabeth Metzger (Poetry) by Aidan Forster

By Eileen Huang, Interview Correspondent.

We asked Chen Chen, our last interviewed contributor, to give us a question to kick things off: If you weren’t a writer, what other path could you imagine taking?

EM: I think I would like to be another kind of artist, the more performative the better. I often think of poems, of writing, of words as surrogate selves. The poem-self is truer than any “autobiographical” self, this made artifact, this written voice that captures not one facet of a self, but the cusp of a moment of being. In this way, poetry satisfies me because it involves that translation of inner to outer, that contradiction, that revelation “this is who I actually am, no this.” And poems of course are objects in time, which is something I love about them. They’ll evolve and change beyond the page, beyond myself, my intentions.  They are the voices in our heads. They are selves to try on. I don’t mind the spy-like secretive feeling of dancing or shouting inwardly and tugging out the reverb, the disembodied mind-ore, making the inner echoes into some semblance of a self, a single true moment of selving maybe, on the page.  I do like being sneaky, becoming something surprising even to myself, recording a self in flux—that great espionage! So I’ve thought about being a spy but I’m way too fearful. A psychoanalyst would be fun, to explore and expand another’s mind and sense of self in the world. 

But, what if I could make something with my body that was as true; what if my body could fold and turn as lines do? The vulnerability of an enjambment I could communicate without words, without approximation, or the restrictions of language. The stage as page. What if my speaking/singing voice could carry a poem’s multiplicity of meanings in one tone? I’d love to sing, to dance, to act—something where I could feel no segregation between mind and body, self and world, art and being. I would be able to create in company, to become and be witnessed at once. I could feel so known in the moment—unlike writing, performing or making art with the body seems to achieve an intimacy with others, with the world of space and time and people that language arts can only achieve through the creator’s absence, through disappearing. I leave my self for you to try on, like the sisterhood’s “traveling pants” or a Dickinson dash—we can all fill it, bring it to life, make ourselves more present, but only one at a time.


Your poems “Tinsel Demon” and “Grown Daughter” appear in our latest issue. I was struck by the beautiful, haunting imagery that you employ in both of them. Tell us the story of these poems—where did you find the inspiration for their images and turns?

EM: Both of these poems appear in my first book, The Spirit Papers, which just came out through the Juniper Prize with University of Massachusetts Press. Both poems anticipate loss—or recount loss as an exercise in anticipating it. Tinsel, I remember poet Timothy Donnelly saying in a conversation we were having about material culture. The word itself was enchanting, and I was thrilled by the idea of a poem using “research.” Of course, poems resist my intentions so my exploration of tinsel took me far from my research into the actual history of tinsel. I was disappointed by its real origins and began instead to imagine my own history for it, a kind of destructive creation myth. The fluttery spiritlike silver stuff out of its contemporary holiday context began to tell me its own story. So many of my poems consider future children before birth and myself and those I love and fear losing after death.  In “Tinsel Demon,” I imagined a pre-world for those fears, an anti-apocalypse apocalypse, a kind of substitute big bang theory in which a demon shreds space and creates light and color as a kind of curse or infection. When he finally exhausts himself, he scatters not space but his own drained-of-color self across his invention, our new world. His suicide becomes our tinsel—reflective, silvery, tangled—that kitschy beautiful thing. I keep accidentally writing tinself as I write this. That sonic/spelling slip is such a big part of how I learn my own sense in a poem: Isn’t selfhood as multifarious, reflective, messy and tacky?

“Grown Daughter” involves less intention, less intention gone awry. Even though it stays in one scene, nearly narratively, more than many of my poems, I wrote it very stream-of-consciously. The contextual story is that I spent an evening after some writer’s block doing rituals in Los Angeles with my spirit-friend, the poet Max Ritvo. We went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant and shared three dishes. We tasted everything mindfully at the same time and discussed the sense of taste, which led to synaesthesia, and ultimately the way the eye perceives color, depth, and scale. Then we took a nightwalk, a rare event it seems in this drive-everywhere culture. We somehow started discussing our friendship and relationships in general, how like vision, there’s a selectivity, a trickery really by which we name and define what we see, fill in what we can’t see. Like the senses, every relationship contains every other. Max and I often joked about being each other’s mothers and one of our first writing prompts was to write morbid poems to each other called “for my dead mother, Elizabeth” and “for my dead mother, Max.”

Beyond blurring life and death (which unfortunately was something we were often imaginatively doing in both terrible and self-preserving ways because Max was dying even as he was so radically alive), we were also interested in blurring the “yous,” the identity of the intimate others in our lives and poems. If a friend or relative or beloved is addressed in a poem, they cannot remain other. They become half-mirror, half-curtain—maybe pure catalyst—for the speaking self. I came home from that evening inspired, bleary-eyed, overwhelmed. After months of complaining about my lack of inspiration or privacy or a writing routine that was feasible in Los Angeles, I sat tilting my chair back at a round dining table beside an empty chair. In the same room, Dan (my now-husband) was reading (a no-no for my usual writing process). I decided to see what would happen if I wrote without thinking or announcing (even to myself) that I would be writing. What came out was a conflation of my fear of losing Max, my fear of losing my own mother, my desire for a new loving stranger to become my surrogate mother, and my desire to become a mother. The poem’s mother-daughter relationship is more than bidirectional; it seems in retrospect almost erotic. The mix-up of other and self was liberating I think. It allowed me to stay interested, to follow this odd, sort of oppressive pair and learn what we were becoming, what we loved and resented in each other, what we were afraid of becoming—which turned out to be time more than anything else.


I ran a quick search on the title of your new chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (forthcoming from Horsethief Books), and I found out that it’s the name of a series of experiments done by a forensic scientist—she recreated crime scenes as miniature dioramas that could be used as crime scene training tools, which I think is super fascinating. What led you to this name, and how do you think it applies to your work (or, more broadly, poetry as a presented art form)?

EM: I think you’re right—this appropriated title (the series directly responds to those dioramas) also speaks to a larger theme or question about death in my work. In my first book, The Spirit Papers, I consider death metaphorically through the voices of posthumous speakers, fantasies of heaven and hell, and the imagined or impending departures of those I embody and love: Max, my future child, my miscarried siblings, my mother, even myself. In this way, I am haunted by spirits of the dead but also of the spirits we each already carry as mortal beings—the essence we can’t really examine until we are somebody else’s memory, someone else’s imagination. The spirit is the thing we hand over for the other to keep, not unlike the poem. After all, we can only explain death as an outsider—there are no firsthand accounts. The loss is missing only to us, kept only by us. The loss becomes the survivor’s to possess. It is a strange absence we all carry and I think anticipate—it motivates us to create but it also lurks behind all fear and dread I think. As a fearful person who loves to imagine all the possibilities, I think of death (in poetry and beyond) as the living test of Keats’ negative capability. To dwell in it can be creative and self-destructive.

The unexplained death of the nutshells allowed me to think about death from a new perspective, to remove myself from the death of my loved ones. Instead, I had to think about death scientifically but also materially. Murder. Measurements. I felt I shared an obsession with Frances but where she adored the precision of evidence, of recreating a scene, I couldn’t stop imagining the imprecision and uncertainty of who these dolls were or what it meant to gaze on the deaths of inanimate models. The relationship between objects and material art and death, especially crime and the backstories and psychologies of the dolls fascinated me. I do think the use of a creative act to help explain our most destructive acts as humans is a lot like poetry. Even the line break is a kind of internal violence that leads to order. Even the white space between stanzas, in any form, suggests the silence, the absence, the inexplicability between rooms.

Today I think many adults fear poetry because they look at poems as if they are supposed to understand some clear message or lesson, when often they are as much handmirrors as microscopes. A poem is in many ways a miniature. A compressed world. We are so used to the disorder and uncertainty of being human beings, individuals with only one brain to access, in a world that is inexplicable, huge, daunting, and full of wonder. But in a nutshell, a miniature, we become the gods of our world—we can see so much more at once so it seems we have more control and authority, that there may be order and understanding. On second glance, consuming it all at once is overwhelming, more stimuli than we are meant to take in even if the scale is smaller—and of course the kicker is that, while illuminating, miniaturizing our environment renders it unusable. It is art. It cannot change without our moving the parts (like a dollhouse) or at least imagining into them, projecting our stories. The meticulous physical replica awakens us to all that is metaphysical and missing, impossible to approximate. A poem embodies a similar paradox. It is useless as a thing without us, but it can guide us by expanding our perspective, our power. We learn from globes early how much of earth is water, but we cannot swim. We can spin and spin it and our world turns no faster. The miniature is a power game. It instructs and affirms our selfhood, but we are still subjects of a gigantic and unknowable world.


I feel as if the question “How did you start writing?” is a bit vague. To change it up a bit: Was there ever a time when you wanted to stop writing? If so, how did you overcome that urge?

EM: Sort of. I used to like hiding that I was writing. I wanted everyone to know I wanted to be an actress and my poetry was very private (I’m talking during childhood/early adolescence). When I first felt my mom’s desire for me to share my poetry with teachers and others, I had the desire to appear to stop writing. My mother encouraged me forcefully to submit to a poetry contest in middle school. I swore never to write again. I may have even torn up a notebook in rebellion. For me, the feeling of not writing is one of not living (sometimes as a result of needing to focus on life; sometimes as a result of not wanting to live much at all). I become half ghost and half traitor. I experience it a lot and it feels interminable but then I’ll write in a burst and often these blank periods feel longer than they are—often they are periods of dramatic and immediate change—a new relationship, a new environment, a new role such as teaching, a new schedule, most recently a bedrest pregnancy. The self-consciousness (in time, in body, in space) that such living requires can stall my writing, but the experience always contributes to some growth or change in the writing when it does return.

I hope one day I’ll learn to trust that the urge and ability always does return. During these silences, I don’t keep notes—at the very worst, I don't even have interest in reading—but somehow the mind keeps storing and transforming so as much as it feels like I am abandoning poems and they are abandoning me, nothing really vanishes for good. Writing is actually a lot like not writing. They both are states of adaptation, helping me make meaning or transform the meaning of things I can’t quite grasp. Even the not writing states serve the writing, and I think the writing states make richer the life moments of not writing. Even in the most intense period of writing, twenty-two hours of the day at least require no pen, no computer. I like writing, that feeling of finishing a poem, even radically revising it, but I often prefer the feeling of waking up in a world where a poem is possible, where language visits. In my writing periods, beyond the everyday tasks and obligations, ideas come and go like passersby that may at any moment inspire an inner guest, a companion. The suspense can be painful, but there is always a possibility to live toward. It sounds almost parasitic, but I live for that intensity, the company of an unwritten poem.

Whether I’m writing or not, the key is that I do want to be writing. It means being, wanting to be in this world. That said, there is within the writing of every poem, the dread and pressure before starting, before ending too and sometimes somewhere in the middle—like is this really worth it? What if I fail? That present is scary to me. But even then, it’s not really wanting to stop, it’s an in-the-moment kind of learning, not knowing. I want to begin again in safety, I want to survive the end.


What’s one piece of advice you’ve heard that’s helped you the most as a writer? And/or, what’s the strangest piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

EM: In high school, I was quiet. I loved writing anything—stories, poems, essays—but one day junior year I quietly ran for an assistant editorial position at the school magazine and lost. I was devastated. A senior beat me, but to rub salt in the wound, another talented senior who hadn’t even run actually got a position as assistant editor, too! Christine Schutt, my English teacher and the faculty advisor at the magazine, an exquisite novelist and short story writer who may as well be a poet, wrote to me: “a writer knows enough to raise her hand.” She wasn't reprimanding me, but she also didn’t pity me. At first I was baffled, even angry. Eventually, her words made me realize that being a writer began with being able to identify oneself as a writer. A writer didn't have to hide behind, but could be a voice in the room as well. I think this idea of authority over time tempered my shyness or at least gave me the confidence to assert myself beyond the page, to look at the world as a writer even if no one else noticed or cared.

Another piece of advice Christine gave us when we began writing personal essays, learning how to use digression, avoid explication, craft a sentence: “never be the victim.” I can see her hands pushing forward through air with each cadence as if to break down the invisible classroom boundaries. Her advice always came with gravity and mischief and rhythm. This mattered. “Never be the victim.” She read us some stories of Amy Hempel and maybe Lydia Davis, too. I realized that even in a memoir-essay, a first person account, the voice must be human, complex, vulnerable but NOT pure. The advice helped me understand grit and avoid sentimentality. I think she followed up by advising us to write the last thing we’d ever want to record on paper. I'm a blusher in life, so the idea of using my sacred writing space for my embarrassment and shame was non-intuitive, thrilling. I love that advice because art isn’t about conveying a message, telling it how you want it to be, how you want yourself to appear. The power to write comes with the willingness to be prone, transformed, excavated, rediscovered both by yourself and the reader.


Since a lot of our readers are younger writers, do you have any advice or insight for aspiring writers?

EM: The importance of a mentor, a peer, some kind of first reader—a pair of hands that will hold everything and anything. It’s more important than any workshop. Even if he or she is silent or not a writer, I believe a writer needs a human audience to imagine, preferably an audience of one. I think this trust is essential, a destination that allows one to want to be clear, to be precise, to be understood while also tricking the writer into becoming her own first reader. It’s like the dreaming brain, mysteriously moving between the store of conscious memory and our unconscious and involuntary mind. The real but imagined reader forces the writer to oscillate (without awareness) between her own expressive needs and the impressions she will leave on another. Strangely, having a reader in mind can allow more openings, more space in a poem for negative capability, for self-surprise, and also for the particular to become universal.  

My other suggestion may seem to contradict this companionship: solitude. Being alone not writing, not trying to write. It turns on the voices in the head. It allows us to welcome visitations, to invent rituals, to become others, to rest on the border of wakefulness and dream. It forces us to make our own company, to take in the world around us. It forces us to feel uncomfortable and at ease, afraid and hungry, unnecessary and sometimes omnipotent. We humans gestate pre-verbally, and I think every poem does too. Poets need this sacred mammalian time to doubt themselves completely. To destroy and recreate, phoenix-like, their sense of self. We learn the world before language. We have to let ourselves get to the point of need, of desperation for words before using them. They need to recharge to become essential. You will begin to feel the metallic of a syllable, a quenched alchemical thirst. I think for me and probably many young writers, there needs to be some care in creating boundaries, hibernation periods, in order to find freedom, to become “the writer self” before writing. You can become as the poem becomes rather than writing the poem from outside it. The poem must be both an other and a self, a stranger and a self-portrait. It’s kind of like a lived version of form: we have to make meters and constraints for ourselves, in time and space, to let ourselves become new, free. Being alone leads to a different use of language than the language we take for granted in social communication. Language becomes a different beast, not just a means to communicate or exchange information, but an extension of oneself, like building a body, a fossil, a monster that exists out of time and will be read.

Oh and lastly, revise as an alien, a violent and impatient alien. Meaning comes from forgetting any source or intention, the “trigger” as Richard Hugo would call it. To allow new meanings to emerge, cut away anything that feels too familiar, too easy, too painless. Clarity is about transparent emotion not wrought explanation. Be a masochist, let the poem confuse you, change its mind, hurt you. Trust disorder before order. Experience the poem as an unexpected planet rather than an explicable thing. You are now the poem’s purpose…it is not the other way around.


What authors and books have got you inspired & writing right now?

EM: Emily Dickinson—her posthumous speakers above all—is my first and final go-to, but it’s more what I have stored within me than reading her on the page right now. Keats, Rilke, Mandelstam, Donne, Hopkins, these are some of my constants. I adore and always return to Franz Wright (Walking to Martha’s Vineyard) who really gets that the stakes can never be too high, that suffering and irony are one, that belief and doubt are one. Mary Jo Bang offers me a new pace of thinking, not my own, all while wrapped in the most lavish textile, a new language that is somehow already mine. Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” I always go back to for its ability to talk while somehow teaching.  Jorie Graham’s early work I especially love for the fullness of questioning, a metaphysics paved by its music. I wrote and put together The Spirit Papers in large part alongside my soul friend, the exceptionally talented Max Ritvo. We had a lot of cross-pollination, not in voice, but in obsession maybe? He died in August and I have been rereading his genius collection Four Reincarnations ever since. It reminds me that entertaining a reader, making her laugh is a way to live again, to make energy (and often beauty) of suffering.

Much of my writing is more directly inspired by the visual than by written art—the lighting of an old film, the photographs of Francesca Woodman. Most recently, I have suffered a bout of silence, not writing because of a terrifying pregnancy, and to some extent the element of blank in my grief. I’ve just started looking at some gorgeous paintings by Egon Schiele that Max sent me before he died, paintings of pregnant women and blind mothers nursing. Non-poets, their plays, letters, memoirs, fiction, criticism: Kafka, Beckett, Gaston Bachelard, Maggie Nelson. John Berger’s fragmented essays, And Our Faces, My Heart, Deep as Photos; Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors; Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness. The stories of Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Amy Hempel, Christine Schutt.


Lastly, give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor. 

EM: Where do your poems begin and end—in other words, what are some typical entry or inspiration points and how do you know when the work is finished, ready to be abandoned? For instance, what does revision look like and does your relationship to your work change throughout the writing process?



Elizabeth Metzger is the Poetry Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal. In 2013, she won the Narrative Poetry Contest and was listed as one of Narrative’s 30 Under 30. Her poetry has recently appeared in The New Yorker, Poem-a-Day on, BOMB, Yale ReviewKenyon Review Online, and Best New Poets 2015. Her essays and reviews appear in PN Review, the Southwest Review, and Boston Review. Her debut collection, The Spirit Papers, won the 2016 Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press in February 2017. Her chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, will be published by Horsethief Books in 2017. She has taught writing at Columbia University, where she received her MFA. 

Eileen Huang is a junior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. She served as the 2015-2016 Northeast National Student Poet, the nation's highest honor for youth poets presenting original work, and has been recognized by the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards, the Kenyon Review's Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize, and the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In her free time, Eileen enjoys reading and shamelessly watching B-list romantic comedies. She serves as an Interview Correspondent for The Adroit Journal. 

Conversations with Contributors: Chen Chen (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Audrey Zhao, Interview Correspondent. 

  Jess X. Chen.

Jess X. Chen.

Let’s begin simple: who and what have you been reading lately? What’s got you excited?

Chen Chen: Jennifer S. Cheng’s book House A moved me so deeply. The poems use epistolary and essayistic techniques to excavate Chinese diasporic identity on a sensory level. Reading it is like seeing a map of my own heart unfold on a warm surface made of oceanic currents. I see the bodies of water my parents have crossed. I see the homes they’ve constructed. I see the homes I’ve been trying to build. How filled with memory and grief and mung bean soup, these homes.


Your poem, “Nature Poem” in Issue Sixteen is full of fabulous imagery such as tall post-apocalyptic pineapples growing out of heads and deer who are “supreme headache(s) of beauty.” How do these images come to you? Is it visceral or do you have a message you craft your images towards?

CC: I don’t know. I’m probably like most poets, in that a poem for me starts from a windy scrap of a phrase, a hairy fragment of an image, a smelly sneaker of an impulse. I just follow the stench, the screech, the sudden hue. Of course, like any person who thinks they’re hot shit from time to time, I get ideas. I try not to be too attached to any one vision of where a poem’s headed. I try to remember what the philosopher Avital Ronell says: get rid of the hot and just be shit.


After reading your upcoming book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), Sherman Alexie had this to say: “Chen Chen is already one of my favorite poets ever. Funny, absurd, bitter, surreal, always surprising, and deeply in love with this flawed world. I’m in love with this book.” Can you tell us a bit about the collection? How did it come about? And what, in your mind, is the significance of the ‘further possibilities’?

CC: The collection began as my MFA thesis at Syracuse University. It changed significantly before I sent it out to contests. It changed radically after it won the Poulin Prize and the judge, Jericho Brown, gave me his wonderful suggestions and insights.

Of course, being the obsessive maniac reviser that I am, I really went for it. I took out about fifteen pages. I rewrote the title poem sixty times. I reordered the first section every way I could imagine. I revised a long poem that I had started in college, in my first ever poetry workshop. I fretted over contradictions. I fretted over contractions and commas and semi-colons. I drove my friends nuts, showing them one slightly altered version of a poem and then another, another. After I turned in my final proof corrections, one friend suggested that I put everything having to do with the book on its own external hard drive and then put that hard drive in a safe and get my boyfriend to come up with a combination for the lock.

But working with Jericho has been an amazing gift. He understands what this book is about. He saw its shape before I really did. The book is about my mother. My messy, messy relationship with her. And it’s about “further possibilities,” yes—in relationships, in selves. The book explores what happens when we refuse to stop desiring and becoming. 

I am also indebted to Peter Conners and everyone at BOA for the care and enthusiasm poured into making this book a reality. A million gratitudes.


To what extent do you find that your poems are in conversation with each other?

CC: Well, I only write about cute boys and snowy streets, so my poems are always in tune with each other. Seriously, though, I find myself returning to the same subjects. I try to vary my approach to these subjects. Then, while assembling a collection, I try to see where it’s important to emphasize the overlaps and where it’s good to highlight the differences. I want each poem to live and behave and dress whichever way it likes best. But the poems have to find some way to live together in the same house! Sometimes I have to kick a poem out. It’s tough. I write them an excellent reference letter, though.


How did you stumble into writing poetry—was there a collection, a friend or family member, or an educator that particularly intrigued you? And what led you to stick with it?

CC: I think the first collection of poetry I read that wasn’t for school was Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House. I remember checking it out from the Newton Free Library in Newton, Massachusetts, and just falling in love with the language. I don’t know why I was drawn to that book in particular when browsing in the library. I was in high school. I was lonely.

My third year of college, I took my first poetry workshop, led by Martín Espada. I had been writing poems and stories for years, but Martín opened up poetry for me in the most stunning way. For Martín, the political is inseparable from the artistic. He gave me permission to write unapologetically outraged poems that grappled with injustice and asserted resistance. He also gave our workshop some helpful publishing advice. The fact that he believed in us enough to give us real publishing advice moved and encouraged me.


In that same vein, do you remember the title of your first piece of writing, and/or what it was about? (Mine was something about seashells.)

CC: I used to keep diaries. I still have all of them somewhere. They are super embarrassing. I was very honest in my diaries. I felt like I had to be, like my diary would know if I was lying. Now that I think of it, I was a superstitious child. I believed all sorts of objects had agency and that I had to do things in a highly ritualized fashion to avoid Bad Stuff. Anyway, I wrote about boys I had crushes on but I didn’t know I had crushes on them. I just knew they were really cool. Like, SO COOL. I also wrote about my action figures and what happened in the latest episode of Captain Planet. You know, the timeless subjects of lyric poetry.


As a mentor for the 2016 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, you already know we as a publication have a sizable youth audience and following. What do you think you needed to hear back in high school, and what advice would you offer students currently in high school?

CC: I think I needed to hear that I wouldn’t always have all this acne and that I would grow up to have more important enemies than my orthodontist. I had braces for a very, very long time. My parents would joke: we could’ve bought a new car with the money we’re spending on your crooked teeth! But what I would tell students currently in high school is this: you are 100% valid and 200% beautiful and no one gets to define you but you. Keep doing what you love. Keep finding supportive people. If you don’t know what you love yet, that’s okay. Challenge authority!! Make things. Try to give people really thoughtful, personal gifts. Learn to cook a few simple dishes well. Do a somersault every now and again. Don’t listen to any advice, including mine, that doesn’t sit right with you.


Thanks so much for answering these questions! To close, do you have a question for our next installment of Conversation with Contributors?

CC: If you weren’t a writer, what other path could you imagine taking? 



Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow, Chen’s work has appeared in two chapbooks as well as in publications such as PoetryThe Massachusetts Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. Chen helps edit Iron Horse and Gabby. He also works on a new journal called Underblong, which he co-founded with the poet Sam Herschel Wein. Chen received his MFA from Syracuse University and is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, with his partner Jeff Gilbert and their pug Mr. Rupert Giles.


Audrey Zhao interviews contributors of the Adroit Journal for the Adroit Blog. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Fissure Magazine, the Rattle Young Poets AnthologyWords Dance, and Vinyl. She is a Bay Area native.

Conversations with Contributors: Raena Shirali (Issue Seventeen, Poetry) by Aidan Forster

By Clare Boyle, Guest Interviewer.

Let’s begin with a question from the contributor with whom we last had a conversation, Molly McCully Brown. Molly asks, “What was the last poem you read that really changed things for you, that altered something about how you see yourself or the world, or made the ground shift underneath you? 

RS: This semester, I taught “Lettuce” by Nick Sturm as part of a lesson on anaphora (shout out to Mikko Harvey, whose lesson I totally stole), and since then, it’s been one of those poems I chant lines from to myself almost daily. Formally, “Lettuce” altered the way I thought about anaphora, and I so admire how it leans on obsession in order to make a point about excess in this world—that even our excess is never enough, that, “There is / so much still to be done.” I die in the best way every time I read this line: “He tells you how bad it is for the lettuce / that we talk about art like work and love like economics.” Before this election, I was moved to tears by what’s articulated after that line break; I was at a point where I wasn’t writing poems often, and was much more focused on cultivating love actively in my daily life. So those lines were affirming, but they also served to remind me that the language we use to discuss art and love matters; because that’s the language with which we construct the stories we tell ourselves. It means something to say, “This year, I was a sponge. I absorbed all I could of this world and left my comfort zone in my reading practices,” instead of, “I only wrote X number of poems and could have written so many more.” Really, that one line of poetry made me so much more mindful. And now that we’re here—a week away from the inauguration—I’m fixated on what happens before the line break. Lettuce is transcendent, essential, and, obviously, subject to decisions humans do or don’t make concerning the environment. “Lettuce” is an insistent call for us to be better to our natural world, even as it reminds us that “the world is us kissing / under a sheet lettuce.” We can’t be part of the transcendent if we don’t “start / giving a shit lettuce.” This poem makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to love beyond my all-too-human capacity.


You’ve described poetry itself as an empathy machine. Is there a metaphor through which you consider poetic process? 

RS: Hmm. I don’t think this is a metaphor, so much as an observation from both teaching poetry and writing across genres myself. But my sense is that empathy doesn’t simply involve imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes. It involves really leaving your own experiences and attempting in whatever way to embody the experience of another. I think writing poems works much in the same way, especially when we’re writing personal poems. We can’t write through personal experience when we’re “too close to it” (that’s an oft-used teaching adage that used to really rile me up as an undergraduate)—and I think that’s because, to reach our experiences on the level of art and aesthetics, we have to be able to dissociate. To imagine we are someone else who is then imagining our own experiences. For me, at least, the poetic process is much more convoluted when I’m writing in the personal or confessional mode. I almost take on the persona of someone I’m not to reach the person I am—to move past fact and toward truth. I didn’t used to write poems this way, of course. It came, as all things do, from practice, and from reading widely, and from leaving myself behind every single time I came to a page. Meryl Streep, in her Golden Globes acceptance speech this week, said the most basic job of the actor is to embody the other, to acknowledge structures of privilege at work in doing so, and to seek to foster empathy. I think the same is true of poetry. 


This fall, a lot of very conceptual poets visited Brown University (where I’m a freshman), and I’ve grown much more willing to approach a work on its own terms. What is your personal definition of the purpose of art? Do you think it is the work’s responsibility to invite its audience in, to give them context or explain itself in order to better communicate its message, do you think it’s the reader’s, or does it fall somewhere in-between? 

RS: This is such an interesting question, Clare. It seems to me that art should always try to push us forward—that is, toward something unarticulated, unsayable, and true. For art to do that, it has to push the reader beyond their comfort zone. Even poems that make us happy, that move us to joy or praise—or poems that are conceptual and seek to challenge us intellectually—do so by, well, moving us. I think readers have to be willing to be moved toward the uncomfortable, the in-between. As readers, then, we can’t engage with art, or poetry, without doing the work—or, as you say, approaching the work on its own terms.
Honestly, though, I think this question is also one couched in the political, which is what makes it so compelling to think about in our current moment. Recently, I was listening an episode of Code Switch (a podcast by NPR that everyone should listen to), which highlighted the explanatory comma and this idea that people of color feel like we have to constantly explain our culture—or the cultures of others—to white Americans. And man do I feel with those podcast hosts, especially in terms of my poems and their subject matter. During my MFA I was told constantly to define Indian terms or phrases that appeared in my poems, and I felt very strongly—and still do—that that sort of explanatory comma is detrimental to the poem and can even be construed as insulting to the reader. I think readers should be willing to work—at least on the level of Googling terminology—for the poem at hand. But I also believe that the act of reading poetry or practicing art in any form is inherently a statement, political or otherwise. It seems to me that we want the same thing from our “ideal authors” that we do from our “ideal readers” and “ideal citizens.” We just want one another to be engaged, to be willing to do the work of active listening, to be open to learning something in the process of engaging with the text. So, yes, the responsibility definitely falls in between, I think, especially for those of us writing across cultures, across national boundaries, and toward a poetics that is more inclusive, more intersectional, and with the goal of spreading understanding and empathy.


You’ve cited lineation and enjambment as aesthetically important to your poetry. What do you personally try to accomplish in each line? In your opinion, what makes a successful line?

RS: Very early on in my poetry education, I encountered the idea that if a poem’s enjambments are effective, each line of the poem is a unit, and reads as its own little poem. That stuck with me, and dictates my approach to lineation and enjambment to this day. I love the idea that once you reach the end of the line, you can either move on to the line below it, or jump back to the beginning of the line. The notion of the line as fragmented yet cyclical is appealing to me—especially as an Indian American who is fascinated by the idea of reincarnation, yet wholly skeptical of it simultaneously. I’m similarly obsessed with the ampersand, because it approximates the form of an infinity symbol, while simultaneously breaking, undermining the notion of continuity. I also think that successful lines in a free verse poem vary in their strategies. If line one destabilizes, line two might serve to lyricize. Barbara Hernstein Smith says in Poetic Closure that reading a poem is an engagement with constant instability. I treat my line breaks accordingly.


Let’s talk about your debut collection, GILT, forthcoming from YesYes Books (congratulations!). How did the book come together, and what’s one thing it’s made you realize about your work? 

RS: (Thank you!) GILT began as my MFA thesis during my time at The Ohio State University, but it includes poems that date back to my sophomore year in college. So it’s been in the works for quite some time, and really none of the poems in the book were generated with the “goal” of belonging in a manuscript. In that sense, I think it’s a book that could only have been written as I grew to embrace my identity as a first generation Indian woman. Really, writing these poems—owning my experiences as a survivor of sexual assault, as someone who grew up completely imbued in systems of supremacy, as someone who once tried desperately to be seen as anything other than an “other”—has completely changed me as a person. And more than that, it’s changed how I view art, what I value in art, and what I strive for in my own work. It’s made me realize that the personal and the political can’t be parsed out cleanly, and that for those of us (so many of us) whose identities are inseparable from the way we navigate this world, our art is often a reflection of that truth. And furthermore, that art engaging with those issues—issues like trauma, assimilation, immigration, and violence—can serve as a vehicle for change. It made me realize that my work isn’t about being comfortable, and that instability is its/our very strength.


You, of course, are also a photographer. How did you become interested in photography? What do images accomplish that words can’t (and vice versa)? What are the similarities and differences between how you approach your poetic and photographic practices?

RS: Because I attended an arts high school, I was exposed to a wide range of art forms early on, and photography was one I fell in love with long before I fell for poetry. Though I took the class on a total whim, working in the dark room at the young age of sixteen really fueled my obsession with and patience for process. Making tens or twenties of a print just to get the lighting right, or to accentuate that one highlight above the subject’s cheek—that feels so much like the work poets do in revision. You tweak, then you delete, then you tweak again and throw the poem or negative in a drawer for a year. Both mediums take dedication, patience, and an anti-capitalistic view of productivity. You may only make one poem, or one print, every few months, so you have to be comfortable with using your time for something other than monetary gain. I guess maybe I’ve always loved getting obsessed & wasting my time.
Really, though, I love this question about story: what stories images can tell that words fail to, and vice versa. When I applied for graduate school, I thought that very question would be central to my work, and to my eventual thesis. What I found, though, the more I wrote ekphrastic poetry, and the more I considered the individual poem as a fragment, an attempt at rendering a holistic experience, is that photography and poetry are in fact quite similar. Both offer a glimpse, a moment, of or within a broader experience or narrative. Both engage lyrically (imagistically, briefly) with the world. Both provide the artist with limited tools with which to render their subjects. For me, the question is less about how one medium fails, and more about their shared attempt to hold so much of the world inside such a small space. I suppose poetry is the medium I’m favoring at this moment because access is an issue with photography that is less inconvenient with text is one’s tool. I can write poem after poem engaging with my heritage without having to foot the bill for a ticket to India (which I definitely cannot afford right now); but I do have to work harder to recall, sitting at my desk in South Carolina, the exact nuances and details of the landscape I’m imagining. So much of my photographic practice relies on immediate engagement. Poetry allows me to delay & distort & deviate from the actual.


When you are sitting down to write, how do you block out—or, perhaps, honor—critical voices or thoughts about what you can and can’t say? Have you developed strategies over time? 

RS: Because so much of my work involves reconciling my own trauma alongside (and as a result of) systemic trauma—as in work that engages with the torture and rape of women accused of witchcraft in rural India, or work addressing gang rape cross-culturally—my hardest job when I come to the page is to honor voices, whether they’re internal, cautionary voices, or those of the women whose experiences I’m attempting to access. Something I’m always cautious of is lyricizing violence, even as I’m trying to bring the lyric and the violent into a shared space, for the reader to consider how the two coexist—how music sometimes is the only solace, and we shouldn’t search for further justification (I’m thinking specifically of poems like “Stasis,” wherein writing a poem of, about, and out of rape is a lyrical battle cry, more than anything else; wherein music is necessitated by violence, even when the speaker who has experienced great trauma wishes for nothing but silence). But in terms of strategies when considering critical voices, or the voices I’m engaging with through persona, or through apostrophe, I’ve gotta say: I don’t have one. To me, it’s more important—and largely more respectful—to meet each voice and each poem on their terms, much in the sense I referred to earlier when discussing readers and where we meet the poems we encounter. For example, my poem, “Holi: Equinox Approaches” is an elegy, through and through, for a woman who was gang raped as public display in her village. Writing that poem, my inner critic was cautious of romanticizing or casting that fucking awful event as linguistically “pretty” in any way. On the other hand, my second book, summonings, includes a series of persona poems from the perspective of an accused witch in India. My inner critic as I’m writing those poems cautions against appropriation, and is constantly thinking about how to balance the portrayal of my self in the persona poem with the accurate and research-based portrayal of these women and their actual experiences. I guess one strategy I’ve developed while writing the new poems is to leave the realm of persona when the level of violence I’m exploring becomes overwhelming—to recast the rhetorical approach of the poem, such that I’m writing towards an absence. I really believe that poetry’s job isn’t to shy away when we arrive at those moments. If all poems did is engage with what we know, and stop short of trauma or grief “we simply can’t imagine,” how can we ever reach the point where we actively empathize? I think it’s far more productive to write into that space of incomprehensibility, to use language as a weapon to combat the silence my fellow women and POCs are being forced into across this globe.


Last summer, you served as a mentor for the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. What was your favorite thing to teach, and what was your favorite thing to learn? 

RS: Oh man, that whole experience was a complete blast. My mentees were (and still are!) so intelligent, engaged, passionate, and visionary. But enough gushing (for now). My favorite day, no matter the student demographic or age range, is the day I teach persona. Obviously, I have a penchant for persona as a tool in my own writing, but I think that especially for young writers, it provides this sweet spot in terms of distance from their own experiences, while simultaneously allowing them to reengage the personal on terms that don’t seem so, well, personal. And every time I work in an intimate capacity with younger poets outside of the classroom, I’m reminded just how valuable one-on-one instruction is, especially in this field. Interestingly enough, I wound up restructuring my poetry syllabus for the following fall semester based on the progress of my mentees, and delayed workshop until the very last weeks of the class. In the future, I’d like to delay workshop until the second level of poetry classes at any level. Mentoring reminded me that what’s most important is getting students—and ourselves!—to generate, to write our truths fearlessly and bravely. I think critique can undercut that current detrimentally at times, especially when writers are at a relatively young stage in their development.


Indian American poet Raena Shirali lives in Charleston, SC, where she teaches English at College of Charleston. Her first book, GILT, is forthcoming with YesYes Books in 2017. She received her MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University. Shirali's poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Better: Culture & Lit, The Boiler, Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, Four Way Review, Indiana Review, Muzzle Magazine, Ninth Letter, The Nervous Breakdown, Pleiades, and many more. Her honors and awards include the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Most recently, she was awarded a 2016 Pushcart Prize for her poetry, recognized as a finalist for the 2016 Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, and won the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize judged by Claudia Rankine. She was recently awarded the 2017 spring Philip Roth Residency at the Stadler Center for Poetry, & currently serves as a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. Her obsessions include coasts, gold, & red wine. 

Clare Arlington Boyle is a freshman at Brown University, where she plans on concentrating in Comparative Literature and Education. She started a poetry collaborative at Brown and conducts workshops with New Haven middle school students when home. Last year, she served as Editor in Chief of Daystar, the arts and literary magazine of the Hopkins School. She has recently discovered a passion for Lisel Mueller.

Conversations with Contributors: Molly McCully Brown (Issue 17, Poetry) by Aidan Forster


By Eileen Huang, Interview Correspondent.

As per tradition, we asked our last featured contributors, Muriel Leung and Hieu Minh Nguyen, to give us a few questions to ask you. So, to kick things off: Is there anything you are too afraid to do in your writing but would like to accomplish in your lifetime? What do you think is the place of fear in writing?

MMB: I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the kinds of holes we felt still existed in the manuscript I’m currently working on, and I caught myself responding to her question by saying: I know, but I’m afraid to write those poems. For me, that fear is the clearest signal that those are the poems I ought to be writing. The best poems, I think, are acts of discovery, and we never discover anything if we aren’t willing to wander toward what seems difficult, or unknown, or fraught, or tangled, the edges of the map where there might be dragons. And what’s waiting over the edge of the map is different not just for every person, but for the versions of yourself you are from one year, or day, or minute to the next. Having just finished a book that is in one way very personal, but also centrally concerned with lives and histories and experiences that aren’t my own, the thing that seems scariest to me right now is writing very clearly and unblinkingly and directly into my own individual experience, and so that’s what I’m trying to do.


Let's talk about the excerpt from your series "Another Dormitory," which can be found in Issue Seventeen, and in your book The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, forthcoming from Persea Books in March (and a recipient o the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry--congratulations!). The book is centered on the Virginia State Colony--an institution deeply involved in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. What led you to this setting, to this topic?

MMB: The simplest answer to this question is that I was raised about 15 miles from the grounds of the Colony. I also have a neurological disorder called Cerebral Palsy, which effects my balance and my muscle-tone. Growing up in Central Virginia with a disability, I knew the basics of the Colony’s fraught history—that throughout the early and mid 1900s people with mental and physical disabilities were forcibly committed and sterilized there-- and it hung around on the margins of my consciousness. In college, having moved far away from rural Virginia, I found myself thinking a lot about its history and landscape, and so the Colony was frequently on my mind. One summer, a friend and I decided to drive there and look around. I spent a long time on its grounds and in its cemetery, and kept thinking that if I had been born in the same part of the world even fifty years earlier I might well be reading my own name on one of those headstones. I knew from then on that I wanted to write about the place, although it took me a few years to figure out how to manage it.  Patient accounts from the 30s and 40s, when the book is set and sterilizations were at their height are incredibly few and far between. The book is almost entirely in the voices of imagined Colony patients and staff, but I don’t intend at all for them to stand in for the actual lived experiences of people who were committed to the Colony. Instead, I hope they might draw attention to the violence of having sterilized and silenced such a large population of people, and make a space to acknowledge not only the things those people might have done if given the chance, but also the whole and complicated lives they lived behind Colony walls.



 To zoom our, for a second: When and how did you first start writing?

MMB: My parents are both writers and I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I made whoever was around take dictation for me when I was too young to actually write things down myself— apparently I often woke my family up in the middle of the night with an idea I wanted them to transcribe, which I’m sure lost its charm very quickly— and then, as soon as I could hold a pen, that was it for me. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. My parents are novelists, though, and the joke is that my great rebellion was to be a poet and not a fiction writer. I can remember discovering my mother’s copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems at maybe seven or eight years old and, of course, not really understanding any of it, but reading: The soul has moments of escape - / When bursting all the doors - / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, and feeling the music, and the strangeness, and the kind of desperate compression of it. I can remember thinking: That. I want to do that. The fact that poetry’s been with me my whole conscious life is this huge luckiness. I have no idea who I’d be without it.



 What poets are you reading right now? Which three poets would you most highly recommend to our readers (many of whom are in high school, and are hungry for your suggestions!)?

MMB: Over the holiday I got to sit down and read Donika Kelly’s Bestiary which I’d been wanting to get to since the second it came out and which is an absolute knockout. I also finally read all the way though Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval, which I adored, and reread work by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Lucia Perillo, both of whom died this fall, and whose poems I’m reencountering with renewed wonder and gratitude in the face of their sudden absence.

And, Oh, Lord, the three poets I’d most recommend? From all of time? This is an impossible question, and I think my answer to it would change depending on the hour when you posed it to me. I’m going to cheat a little and just talk about three great poets who’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I just re-read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s A Few Figs From Thistles to prepare for my graduate school exams, and honestly I think everyone kind of forgets about Millay a little bit, but that book is so strange and wonderful. Maybe that seems like an odd place to start, but I was so surprised to remember how much I love her, and how much I felt like I had to learn from her.  In terms of contemporary poets, I think Ada Límon is doing some of the loveliest and most urgent work out there right now. Her poems are equally unafraid of darkness and of joy, and they teach me something every time I read them. I want to put them into everyone’s hands. I’m also crazy about Tyehimba Jess’s work. I think he’s doing something really exciting and significant with persona poetry and his poems are deeply intelligent, and energizing, and moving.



Speaking of which, do you have any advice for those interested in pursuing poetry as a career?

MMB: Honestly, it’s only in the last year or so that I feel like I’m starting to approach having anything close to a career in poetry, and every time a literary journal accepts a poem or I take care of a piece of business that moves my collection a little closer to publication I still brace momentarily for someone to jump out from behind a corner and tell me this is all an elaborate prank. It all feels more than a little bit magic to me, and I don’t know much useful practical guidance I have to give. That said, the best advice I have for any young person who wants to be a writer is to read, read like your brain is on fire: widely, wildly, and hungrily. Read outside of the contemporary moment, read work in translation, read work that you love at first blush and work that at first feels impenetrable to you. Read generously and ready to find something about every poem to learn from or fall in love with. If I feel certain of anything, it’s that the skills which make a good writer are the same as those which make a good reader-- attention to detail, consciousness of both form and content, the ability to think analytically and creatively simultaneously—and that everything you read is like a little more fuel you’re adding to your own tank.

The natural extension of that advice, I think, is to start paying attention to which presses and journals are publishing work you really love and identify with and are doing a really beautiful and careful job with their product. When you’re ready to send out work, send it there: to venues you whose vision you respect and whose authors you admire. Out of all the places where I sent The Virginia State Colony for consideration, Persea was the one publisher whose recent catalog I could tell you about in detail, and I don’t think it’s an accident that my book ended up there. They’ve published the couple of collections in the last few years that have maybe meant the most to me personally—Alison Seay’s To See The Queen and Susannah Nevison’s Teratology—and I’m so glad I paid enough attention to know to send my work to them. I trust them completely to take care of my poems, and I feel incredibly honored and lucky that my work is keeping company with the writers they publish. I want that for every young writer.



You've previously written some stunning essays, two of which can be found here and here. There's a sort of unifying power between poetry and prose--do you choose a particular medium to express different ideas? What has drawn--and continues to draw--you to both genres?

MMB: I think, for me, the difference between writing poetry and prose is less a question of wanting to express different ideas or experiences than a question of wanting to express ideas or experiences differently. That is to say, it’s more a matter of scope and angle then of content. A poem is like a pressure cooker, and I think I will always be most in love with the little worlds that their necessary compression and lyricism produces. A poem is somehow always both whole and fragmentary, and something about that feels like my first language. But I write essays when I want a little more breathing room, a little more space to unpack something, to provide context, to make digressions, and tell stories, and work my way from my usual essential uncertainty toward solid ground. There’s a lot of overlap between my prose and my poems, and I like to think they’re always to talking to each other. I’m so grateful to be able to write—and read—both. 



We've, of course, just crossed the threshold into 2017--a year that seems critical and nerve-wracking in so many ways. What--if you believe in them, and don't mind sharing--was your resolution?

MMB: I’m simultaneously really suspicious of resolutions and always making and revising them, which maybe says something about a general lack of self-discipline. I do think you’re right, though, that 2017 will be a critical year, the kind that calls for meaningful intentions and commitments, whatever you call them. I’ve promised myself that I’m going to be especially attentive to really showing up and supporting the institutions and the people I believe in—I mean this in smaller ways: subscribing to literary journals I admire, and being better about checking in regularly with all the far away people I love—and in larger ones: figuring out active, tangible ways I can be of service, and be a better listener, at a time when so many and so much seem at risk. I’m also going to better about not leaving my laundry until the hamper is towering, because doing it is never as bad or unpleasant as I think it’s going to be, and there’s really no excuse for it.



Lastly, give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor. 

MMB:  What was the last poem you read that really changed things for you, that altered something about how you see yourself or the world, or made the ground shift underneath you?


Molly McCully Brown is the author of The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017), which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Image, TriQuarterly Online, The Kenyon Review, The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Raised in rural Virginia, she holds degrees from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Stanford University. Currently, she is a John and Renée Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi.

Eileen Huang is a junior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. She served as the 2015-2016 Northeast National Student Poet, the nation's highest honor for youth poets presenting original work, and has been recognized by the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards and the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In her free time, Eileen enjoys reading and shamelessly watching B-list romantic comedies. She serves as an Interview Correspondent for The Adroit Journal.

Review: Green Migraine by Michael Dickman (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) by Peter LaBerge

 Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

By Jackson Holbert, Poetry Editor. 

            Michael Dickman’s new collection, Green Migraine, explores chronic pain, fatherhood, and the poet John Clare through intense, fleeting images that evoke a sublime and sublunary landscape. The book is formed around five different migraines, represented by colors—white, red, yellow, green, and black.

            Dickman’s first two collections—The End of the West and Flies, both published by Copper Canyon Press—focus intensely on the lives of others: friends dead in the Oregon heroin epidemic, Dickman’s mother, and Dickman’s brothers. In these early collections, Dickman fuses the fractured, alienated language of Franz Wright with a phantasmagoria unique to Dickman’s particular blend of northwestern American surrealism. The poems in Green Migraine—especially early in the book—pile images on top of each other and create a structure in which the violent shines out of the surreal. The best of these recall the late James Tate’s ability to follow almost meaningless sentences with pronouncements of intense, profound grief. The closing lines of “Red Migraine” best exemplify this:  

My brain is a cutter

Scrubbed down to zero
by the rubies
in the halo

I whispered your name into the red air

and you answered.

In this excerpt, Dickman’s speaker himself seems surprised that the name answers.

            The weakest poems in Green Migraine, like the weakest poems in Dickman’s first two books, pack so many violent images together that the violence becomes expected and unremarkable—but Dickman’s highs wouldn’t be possible without these lows. A style that is brilliant in part because it risks failure must, from time to time, come short.

            The triumph of Green Migraine is the long closing poem, “Lullaby.” Written for Dickman’s son, August (to whom the book is dedicated), “Lullaby” not only exhibits the violent, surreal quality and overall oddness of the early poems in the book, but also introduces new elements into this constellation: gentleness and joy. This change is born first in the speaker—“My pregnant wife one two my brain and how can you be more than one thing // But I am!” Over the course of the poem, the gentleness begins to belong to the world.


Michael Dickman is the winner of the 2010 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for his second collection, Flies. His first book, The End of the West, was published in 2009. He has received fellowships from the Michener Center for Writers, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Vermont Studio Center. His poems are regularly published in The New Yorker, and his work has appeared widely, including in American Poetry Review, Field, Tin House, and Narrative Magazine. He was born and raised in Portland, and now teaches poetry at Princeton University.


Jackson Holbert's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2016, VinylThrush Poetry JournalMuzzle MagazineWhiskey Island, and the minnesota review, among others. He was raised in Nine Mile Falls, Washington and is currently an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. 

Green Migraine
by Michael Dickman
Copper Canyon Press, 2016
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-5-55659-451-9
75 pp.

Sixteen Adroit Moments of 2016! by Peter LaBerge

1: Nine Adroit-affiliated high school students attended the 2016 National YoungArts Week in Miami, Florida, as 2016 YoungArts Finalists. 

 National YoungArts Foundation.

National YoungArts Foundation.

Congratulations to Olivia Alger (Writing - Short Story), Lindsay Emi (Creative Nonfiction), Caroline Fairey (Creative Nonfiction), Ava Goga (Poetry), Ashley Gong (Poetry), Rhiannon McGavin (Spoken Word), Isabella Nilsson (Short Story), Rachel Page (Short Story), and Polina Solovyeva (Short Story). Congratulations also to the thirteen Adroit-affiliated high school students who won YoungArts honorable mentions and merit awards, and thus qualified to attend regional programs in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.


2: We released five issues of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art.

Congratulations to Pushcart Prize nominees Kaveh Akbar, Carolina Ebeid, Marty McConnell, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Kimarlee Nguyen, and Brian Russell; Best of the Net nominees Fatimah Asghar, Alex Dimitrov, Randall Mann, sam sax, Shane Jones, Jenny Xie, Patrick Chambers, and Barrett Warner; and PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize nominees Jaclyn Grimm, Rachel Page, Anna Rowser, and Polina Solovyeva, among other Adroit nominees.


3: Three Adroit high school seniors were named 2016 United States Presidential Scholars in the Arts.

Prose editor Isabella Nilsson, Poetry reader (& previous mentorship student) Audrey Spensley, and contributor Rachel Page were invited to attend a prestigious ceremony at the White House to accept the appointment. And Rachel was also recognized as a United States Presidential Scholar in Academics, representing the District of Columbia! 


4: Two Adroit students were recognized as honorable mentions for the 2016 Davidson Fellow Scholarship! 

 Davidson Fellowship Foundation.

Davidson Fellowship Foundation.

In 2012 & 2015, poetry editor Kamden Hilliard and prose reader (& previous mentorship student) Oriana Tang were recognized as Davidson Fellows in Literature! This year, blog editor (& previous mentorship student) Aidan Forster and poetry reader (& previous mentorship student) Audrey Spensley were recognized as Honorable Mentions for the scholarship. 


5: Adroit students took the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards by storm, ultimately claiming an unprecedented 68 national medals. Highlights include two National Gold Medal Writing Portfolio winners (the top recognition offered!) and four National Silver Medal with Distinction Writing Portfolio winners; four American Voices (Best-in-Region) Award recipients; four Best in Grade Award recipients; and a Gedenk Award for Tolerance recipient. 

 Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

To put this in perspective, approximately 2,000 National Awards are distributed each year... from more than 320,000 submissions.


6: The high school class of 2016 graduated! Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania snagged the most Adroit students this year, with five seniors headed to each. In their wake, Stanford University, Princeton University, Brown University, and Yale University each snagged three.

To view the complete list, click here.


7: Our 2016 Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prizes, for students in high school and college, were awarded to Ohio Northern University student Rachel Cruea and homeschooled high school student Brynne Rebele-Henry

Click here to view the total results of the 2016 Adroit Prizes. And click here to submit to the 2017 Adroit Prizes, open until February 15th! 


7: The Adroit Journal visited the New York City Poetry Festival for the fourth year in a row! 

Pictured from left to right, readers Elizabeth Onusko & Lucy Wainger, editor-in-chief Peter LaBerge, and readers Brandon Courtney & Eduardo Martinez-Leyva put on a great show.


8: Sixteen out of the fifty Best New Poets 2016 selections were Adroit-affiliated writers. 

The collection of staff members and contributors was selected this year by Mary Szybist. Click here to see the full list.


9: We held our third annual Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, a free online program that pairs high school students from around the world with established poetry or prose mentors. 

Click here to learn more about the program, and click here to learn about some mentees! 


10: Adroit swept the 2016 Teen Sequins contest, sponsored by Gigantic Sequins

Congratulations to the 2016 class of Teen Sequins: mentorship students Carrie Zhang, Aidan Forster, Ben Read, Margaret Zhang, and Talia Flores, and business development associate Bradley Trumpfheller.


11: Contributors Kaveh Akbar and Javier Zamora received 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships, while contributors William Brewer, Charif Shanahan, and (again!) Javier Zamora received 2016-18 Wallace Stegner Fellowships.

The former are sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, while the latter are sponsored by Stanford University.


12: Alex Dimitrov won a Pushcart Prize for his poem "Cocaine," originally published in the Fall 2015 Issue of The Adroit Journal.

The win marks the first Pushcart Prize receipt and anthology inclusion for a poem published in the journal. Click here to read an interview between Alex and our interview correspondent Audrey Zhao!


11: Adroit filled nearly a third of the seats in the Best Teen Writing 2016 anthology! 

 Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.

The Best Teen Writing of 2016 (ed. Madeleine LeCesne) features selected stories, essays, and poems from the body of writing nationally recognized through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.


14: Mentorship students Maya Eashwaran (of Alpharetta, GA) and Joey Reisberg (of Towson, MD) were selected as two of five National Student Poets, representing the south and the northeast respectively.



A ceremony welcoming Joey and Maya hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama was held today at the White House. They join fellow appointed poets Stella Binion (Midwest), Gopal Raman (Southwest), and Maya Salameh (West).


15: Fourteen Adroit students were recognized by the 2016 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards, sponsored by the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom.

Each year, an acclaimed pair of judges select fifteen Overall Winners and eighty-five Commended Winners. More than 10,000 entries from over 6,000 poets poured in this year, and judges Malika Booker and W.N. Herbert made the selections. Congratulations to Letitia Chan, whose poem "Making Glutinous Dumplings with My Mother" was selected as an Overall Winner. Letitia, a student at Milton Academy from Hong Kong, studied poetry with Nancy Reddy as part of the 2016 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program.


16: A truly spectacular bunch of eight Adroit-affiliated writers claimed 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature - Creative Writing Fellowships!

Congratulations to contributors Michael Bazzett, Landon Godfrey, Amorak Huey, Matt Morton, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Danez Smith, and Jeanann Verlee, and 2016 Adroit Prize judge Corey Van Landingham, among the other stunning 2017 recipients! 


As 2017 begins, no matter where you find yourself, we hope you're encountering the new year with equal parts light and strength. It'll likely be a tough one, but it will be this light that will get us through.

Happy New Year from the staff & editors of The Adroit Journal!

Presenting: Adroit's Best Books of 2016! by Peter LaBerge

Every year, we have the privilege of publishing and teaching the works of talented and diverse authors of poetry and prose from around the world. Though in many ways 2016 was a degrading and difficult year, it was also a year of profound and intense art. We asked student members of our staff and mentorship communities what their favorite books of the year have been. Here's what they had to say...

BEST BOOKS OF 2016.png


Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal
University of Nebraska Press

There are poets you love and poets you envy. Safiya Sinclair certainly possesses the intelligence and lyric innovation that I envy. After every page of Cannibal, I felt the urge to kneel and bow to the queen of haunting imagery, arcane and innovative vocabulary. Cannibal is a fervent book that shackles me to read, reread, read out, and perform its poems. A truly magical, hypnotic, and devastating re-imagination of Shakespeare’s The Tempest focused on the perspective of colonized Caliban, who happens to be one of my favorite characters by the bard. But Sinclair’s words reach beyond the transmogrification of an old play—her poems bend the boundaries of the English language itself: “All night the world bled on my fang / like a language and we unsmiling // our narrow gape / our space unslanging…” If language is a house, Sinclair has built a linguistic palace of delicious, lush and opulent architecture. Her style, which Cathy Park Hong aptly identified as “afro-futuristic,” bubbles with feminism and mythology. Every poem, every line even, feels like a mirror house seething with secret plants and selcouth music while exposing the vulnerability of womanhood. In an interview, she mentions her belief in Lorca’s duende. There are only a few contemporary poets who showcase the spirits of duende, and luckily, Cannibal is seeped in it. My life was awaiting her genius. If only Sylvia Plath were here to read this.



Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press

I don’t know if I’ve ever anticipated a release as excitedly as I did Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Simultaneously expansive and gorgeously taut, the book shattered my lofty expectations and established itself as one of the most gripping poetry collections of 2016. Vuong writes bravely and clearly about his experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant and a gay man, both of which are incredibly important in the wake of (and amidst) the bigoted violence which swept & sweeps the country this year. In the first poem of the collection, “Threshold,” he recalls a man he overhears singing in the shower: “I didn’t know the cost//of entering a song—was to lose/your way back.//So I entered. So I lost./ I lost it all with my eyes//wide open.” Night Sky with Exit Wounds is my shower-song, the music throbbing constantly in my head. It’s the book I can’t, and don’t want to, leave behind. 



Solmaz Sharif's Look
Graywolf Press

Solmaz Sharif's Look is a reminder of why poetry matters and my favorite book of 2016. It's about the way that war settles into the people who experience it, both immediately and at a distance. It's about seeing violence, and about the violence people refuse to see. In one poem, a military dictionary defines "Destruction Radius" without considering "the brother abroad / who answers his phone / then falls against the counter." Everything ripples outwards. In addition to military vocabulary, the poems bring in Wikipedia articles and redacted letters and family conversations. Records stand in for people who have been killed. There are Prince songs, and there are cluster bombs. "Daily I sit / with the language / they've made // of our language", says one poem. "Each photo is an absence," says another. For me, reading Look made me witness some of the worst things that people are capable of and also understand the ways that seeing or refusing to see makes me complicit in them. The poems never settle into a single style or a predictable tone. Instead they are always shifting, requiring their reader to constantly renegotiate their own assumptions, perspective, and responsibility. Look is amazing and heartbreaking and necessary and imperfect and, I think, the best book for a very bad year. It doesn't turn from the evil in the world, and it doesn't give in. It ends "We have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter. // I am singing to her still."



Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You

I wish I had read What Belongs to You in the first month of 2016. After a year of overexposure, of feeling flayed and sunburnt from unrelenting reminders of the election, climate change, sexism, car crashes, kill-shelters, celebrity deaths, Islamophobia, all at once, all the time—this slim novel felt like life as we want to be living it. Deliberate, considerate contemplation. On the first page, the unnamed narrator, an American teacher in Bulgaria, meets a man named Mitko in a public bathroom and pays him for sex. The rest of the novel unfolds in real time along with their relationship, which Mitko calls priyateli—a word that the narrator loosely takes to mean “friend,” but just as easily could mean “lover” or “acquaintance.” The language barrier between the two men serves as an active metaphor for the paradox of desire: the endless, valiant, futile attempts to exactly translate someone else’s life into your own. What I loved most about What Belongs to You was the intense focus of the prose; one significant moment could take up pages, and years of insignificant action takes place off screen. As Greenwell himself wrote, What Belongs to You reads like “a peculiarly lyrical account of the past, free of the usual narratives of triumph and loss.” It supersedes a thick plot for the intricacies of one man’s thoughts and words about another man. It is simple, fluid, alive. It is what we should be doing right now. 



Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's The Crown Ain't Worth Much
Button Poetry

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s debut collection is heartrending and raw. In a Juniot Díaz-esque style of blunt, sharp prose poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much explores the pain of black souls and black bodies: how blackness shapes memories and how memory shapes blackness. Willis-Abdurraqib crafts a map of Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, in stunning, tiny stories. His poems talk of mouths and concerts, beer and high school, lust and pervasive death. The titles - “DUDES, WE DID NOT GO THROUGH THE HASSLE OF GETTING THESE FAKE IDS FOR THIS JUKEBOX TO NOT HAVE ANY SPRINGSTEEN” or “THE GHOST OF THE AUTHOR’S MOTHER HAS A CONVERSATION WITH HIS FIANCEE ABOUT HIGHWAYS” - will hit you with an unyielding urgency. These poems are as fragile as they are piercing, unraveling the author’s grief for and devotion to his mother who passed away when he was only 13 (“I saw my heart in the eyes of my mother. it was too small to save her”). With imagery of graves, blood, and micro-aggressions as commonplace as the barbershop or Fall Out Boy, Willis-Abdurraqib’s poetry sparks a craving for change. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much will knock you on the floor, raise you back up, and knock you over again.



Garrard Conley's Boy Erased
Penguin Random House

Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased is an absolutely gorgeous work of lyric prose. Rather than thresh the lyric from the narrative, Boy Erased works towards their intersection, blurring the two into a thriving result. The memoir focuses on Conley’s struggle with his sexuality in a Missionary Baptist family and small Arkansan community, and the way conversion therapy affected his relationship with his family and himself. The book interrogates the queer condition—particularly its connection to religion, shame, and self-acceptance—and is a testament to queerness as a forced subterranean state, as well as the strength and power it takes to elevate oneself out of said landscape. If you must read only one book of prose in 2017, Boy Erased should be it.



Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn

The epigraph and dedication to Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years convey Another Brooklyn’s quiet brilliance very well. The dedication has its own page, and rightly so: “For Bushwick (1970-1990) / In Memory.” Woodson’s narrator, August, recalls growing up as a girl in the neighborhood, remembering all the companionship, love, and trials she experienced. She says in the first paragraph: “I now know that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It’s the memory.” Yet the memory seems healing for Woodson, who creates a poetic and moving vision of August’s adolescence. The limitations of gender, race, class, family, and August’s own grief remain as she grows up, but through the act of telling her story, she faces her memories: her dad turning to women and religion, her friends supporting her and then drifting apart, and her own dangerous navigation through Bushwick as a young woman. The epigraph, a quote from Richard Wright, rings true: “Keep straight down this block, / Then turn right where you will find / A peach tree blooming.”



Daniel Borzutzky's The Performance of Becoming Human
Brooklyn Arts Press

I am always on the prowl for Latinx writers, and when I saw The Performance of Becoming Human among the winners of the National Book Award winners I knew I would have to read it. From the sudden codeswitching and cultural references to every gruesome detail, each line contains a bullet. The book draws from the author’s relationship with Chicago and Chile, but its themes are purposefully universal. Borzutzky’s world is full of broken borders: the border between bureaucracies, the border between countries, the border between one neighborhood to the next, the border, the border between life and death, or between two different kinds of living. An ape can become human by learning “how to spit and belch” while a Jewish man can be dehumanized by having his insides forcibly stuffed with horsehair. But while the ape’s transformation is merely a performance, the speaker and those around him are stripped of their humanity by the violence they face, transformed into mere bodies:

Was I a disappeared body, tossed out of an airplane by a bureaucrat-soldier-
compatriot or was I a migrant body who died from dehydration while
crossing the invisible line between one civilization and another

Borzutzky believes that poetry can act as a means of resisting “the kind of thinking that seeks to destroy the humanity of individuals by turning them into nameless, faceless numbers that can be quantified and disaggregated into minute bits of data”, and I think he has certainly accomplished that in these poems.



Solmaz Sharif's Look
Graywolf Press

Before the poems of Solmaz Sharif’s debut book Look begin, the reader is given an important epigraph, a definition:

look— (*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine
circuit is receptive of an influence.

Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
United States Department of Defense

This frame and its obvious and subtle multiplicities begins a promise with the book’s readers—and I don’t mean, plainly, the premise: a book of poems which seeks to present, define, decode, and vary words of warfare with colloquial language, for such a premise offers a play on politics and poetics. Sharif’s book contains no theater whatsoever. Instead, the promise made upon entering these pages is that language is not to be trusted. When in poetry the directive is listen (to the voice of the speaker, to the oral tradition of reciting and hearing poetry, etc.), from the onset, Sharif and the speakers of her book instead demand that we look. That each word is a mine—an object receptive to influence, or an object that can cause destruction, leaving a pit—a vacancy that cannot be filled. And that each word can be mine—can be claimed or reclaimed by a given speaker. So when the book itself begins with the title poem, “Look”, and the speaker begins with “It matters what you call a thing”, the reader must meet the speaker and the book with such rigor. Every location from Iran, to America, to Guantanamo, must be seen anew. At every turn, something could be lost. Every word used to describe war is a weapon used to shroud and normalize how gravely it threatens to end the period of time in which we exist.

            Look and the poems in it will be long taught for their political veracity, ability to advance the discourses of docupoetry and poetry of witness, and for their deft criticisms of contemporary issues such as war in the Middle East and America’s role in it. These claims about Look have already been made, perhaps. They are true, already, because the poems know better than we do that politics are noise, but death and art have a space between them, which becomes history. If we are so lucky to read this book at its prophetic word—to look at each page and the words on it, to reflect upon our languages and our selfhoods, then perhaps we may receptive of its influence. And if we do—if we finish this circuit—perhaps we will land in the same place we began, changed by such currents therein.  



Jennifer Givhan's Landscape with Headless Mama

Jennifer Givhan’s first book, Landscape with Headless Mama, transports its reader into a world where the lines between real and imaginary, literal and mythical, and individual and generational are blurred. Set in the desert southwest, this collection builds a landscape of many forms: physical, temporal, cultural, mythological – even the body becomes landscape, “a dwelling from which he never / came.” With deep wit, kick, tenderness, and humor, Givhan deftly navigates both familiar and alien terrain: girlhood, memory, marriage, miscarriage, adoption. At its core, Landscape with Headless Mama explores the journey of motherhood – and so intimately, for Givhan interweaves the voices of girl, young mother, and miscarrying artist before settling on a final form whose presence has already been felt throughout: Ariel Mama, a woman who gives “us song as gesture / for the pain.” It’s a world both welcoming and dangerous, starved and lush with love. Lines and stanzas twist in the most daring ways – “call it home, bellyache, unsafe” – and bite before nursing each tender wound. And through it all, you’re left with the unshakeable feeling that these are more than poems – these are ways to stay alive. 



Brynne Rebele-Henry's Fleshgraphs
Nightboat Books

Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Fleshgraphs is nothing short of a masterpiece, the best kind of fever dream. Without a doubt the most striking feature of this book is Rebele-Henry’s ability to quite literally embody an incredibly wide range of characters, in a way that doesn’t feel appropriative or forced. Reading Fleshgraphs had me in a sort of trance, every fragment flowing into the next, pages turning constantly. I read the whole book in one sitting, and it would be difficult not to—with themes ranging from addiction to religion to sex and sexuality, Fleshgraphs is visceral. I found that I could relate to some of the emotions and ideas explored within these fragments, while some were completely foreign to me. I suspect that there is something about Fleshgraphs that really hits home for a lot of people; I’ve already lent my copy to friends and they’ve sent me iPhone photos of their favorite passages. The book strikes a perfect balance between emoting and storytelling, two perfectly complementing aspects of poetry.  Its range is broad enough to make it appealing to most readers, yet its specificity demonstrates a particularly strong poetic voice. Rebele-Henry doesn’t hesitate to take risks, often inching towards the taboo (“Catholic school is like one long gangbang, Lisa says”). Her tone is composed and sophisticated, yet also raunchy and cutting, which I find has an often humorous but humbling impact on the reader. Fleshgraphs is definitely one of this year’s books to remember.



Joshua Jennifer Espinoza's There Should Still Be Flowers
Civil Coping Mechanisms

I first encountered Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s poetry in The Offing, while procrastinating on a paper on a book written by a dead white man. As I generally do when reading poetry to procrastinate, I scrolled swiftly to the bottom of the page in an attempt to convince myself that I was merely taking a very brief break from my work, and instead wound up reading Espinoza’s work at least fifteen times over.

I wear my clothes. ends the poem. I wear my body. / I walk out in the grass and turn red / at the sight of everything. 

This vulnerability– baldly presented, without a sign of there ever having been hair– characterizes much of Espinoza’s second collection, There Should Be Flowers. Every poem startles; here, more than ever, the experience of trans humanity is presented so viscerally, so delectably, that it is impossible to regard it as though an outsider. All that womanhood / caught in the roof / of my mouth was like honey, Espinoza writes in ‘FIRST LOVE’. I knew it would never / go bad / so I never / said anything about it. And again, in ‘I HATE THE POEM’ she writes, end-stopped and enjambed, The moon eats itself. 

Espinoza performs her sadnesses with such artfully shameless clarity that it is easy to worry that the collection will devolve into wallowing at any moment. However, the sorrows of Flowers belong as much to Espinoza as they do to her people and her land, and this galvanizes the book to its triumph. How long can I keep tricking you into thinking what I’m doing is poetry, Espinoza writes, and not me begging you to let us live? 



Max Ritvo's Four Reincarnations
Milkweed Editions

There is no doubt in my mind that Max Ritvo’s first and only poetry collection is among my favorite books that I have ever read, to say nothing of only 2016. Harnessing the full magic of language, the poems in this collection contain a multiverse of small weirdnesses, which range from the outwardly absurd (such as the fake memory of a man feeding birthday cake to his goldfish) to intimate and heartbreaking addresses to the speakers’ beloveds. I can honestly say that while reading (& re-reading) Four Reincarnations, I felt intense joy and sadness side by side with one another, a feeling I’ve only ever gotten from a handful of things in my life ever – though Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, comes to mind. In terms of poetic comparisons, the only one that I feel does Ritvo’s poetic mind justice is Emily Dickinson. Four Reincarnations is a book of brilliant meditative thought, engaging with subject matter that ranges from mortality in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis to the small ecstasies of love and laughter within our relationships to one another. Ritvo’s voice in these pages is beautiful, charming, darkly hilarious, and deeply wise. If you’re anything like me, you will gasp, giggle, weep, and have your mouth fall open in awe of what he has created here. 



Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry
FSG Originals

Ben Lerner’s enthralling new book, The Hatred of Poetry, is one of the best pieces of criticism I read this year. Written in an approachable style, the book discusses many questions I have as a poet: Where does non-poets’ contempt for poetry come from? What makes poetry so special? Why should a poet be a poet and not something else? Lerner fills these questions out, mapping (and critiquing) the hatred of poetry from Plato to contemporary times. Using examples from Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, and Rankine, Lerner explores arguments common to the anti-poetry camp before dismantling them. Lerner handles his subject with both nuance and humor, and in spite of our culture’s prevailing hostility towards poetry, his book persistently searches for (and finds) poetry’s gifts. It’s a great (and quick) read for anyone interested in poetry criticism—or for a poet who wants to defend themselves from accusations that they don’t have a “real job.”

Conversation with Contributors: Hieu Minh Nguyen and Muriel Leung (Issue Sixteen, Poetry) by Aidan Forster

By Audrey Zhao | Interview Correspondent.

Let’s kick things off with a series of questions from our previous featured contributor, Joel Hans. Joel asks, “If you could hand-pick or delineate the ideal audience for your work, would you? If so, is it a particular individual, a certain collective, or something you can’t quite explain? What do you think this audience, in particular, has to gain from reading your work? If you feel like you have that audience already, can you talk about how you got there, and if not, what barriers are keeping you from reaching them right now?”

HMN: Wow. That’s a great question. I’m not really sure if my poems have just one audience, but I often joke that my poems are like a bat signal for lonely people. But honestly, I really do hope there’s a little truth to that. I guess I hope my work can offer people little escapes from their loneliness. 

ML: In a nutshell, when I write, my audience is queer, women or nonbinary, of color, cognizant of immigration histories, and believes in ghosts. I’m happy when the work resonates with many different bodies in the room that identify otherwise, but these are the bodies I picture. There’s a certain amount of control one does have over their audience, and a lot of it boils down to language – the particular lexicon one uses, the references, whether or not a text exists in multiple languages, etc. These decisions ensure that some may “get” the work more than others at certain points and the rest will just have to deal. I think the joy of reading poetry (or anything, really) is when you stop thinking about difference as a foreign or strange encounter, but work to learn the language of the text and the author’s position. My ideal readers, in addition to the ones who read the work already and share in my communities/identities, are those who try to read beyond the contexts of their own bodies despite occupying different spaces in the world.

I think it’s easy to absorb the blame as a queer writer of color for not writing in such a way that is palatable across the board. Critiques about obfuscation, being too sentimental, too narrative, not experimental enough, too many inside jokes requiring specific cultural contexts to completely understand—I seem to have gotten it all in writing workshops. But at some point, one realizes that what wasn’t being understood was an issue of my immediate readers’ limited purview. On the other hand, I’ve acquired such a wide bag of knowledge of white canonical writing and references—the James Joyce quote, the references to a famed character in a Flannery O’Conner short story, and the particular narrative structures of different William Faulkner novels. How is it fair that while others can scrape by reading only white writers, my education includes the study of literature of my own marginalized communities in addition to the white male canon, which I only have access to by acquired privilege of sticking it out through cycles of graduate study? I’m doing the work – still doing the work to read as widely as possible. In terms of my audience, I ask that they do the same.