A Conversation with Dana Levin by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

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

 

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

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

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

WS: That’s the rub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DL: I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DL: Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

WS: Thank you so much.

 

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

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

BY EMILY FRISELLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

BY LEILA CHATTI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Brief God: A Review of Emilia Phillips' Empty Clip by Peter LaBerge

BY LUIZA FLYNN-GOODLETT

 Emilia Phillips'  Empty Clip  (University of Akron Press, 2018).

Emilia Phillips' Empty Clip (University of Akron Press, 2018).

Empty Clip, Emilia Phillips's staggering third collection, was the first in my (admittedly brief) reviewing history that I've read in its entirety before making any notes or underlining what jumped out at me. I simply couldn't slow down thanks to the immediacy of these poems—a breathlessness tempered by deep tenderness that's only possible in the wake of true reckoning.

During my second reading, I realized it's one of those books that arrives exactly when you need it most and begins speaking as if it's sitting beside you, ready to take your hand. I'd hazard that we're all feeling a bit vulnerable these days, beaten down by years of unending regression. And, for many, the unique horror of this historical moment has caused old traumas to resurface, and triggers we'd imagined had faded are flaring back to life. Phillips has called this her "book of fears," and she faces those fears unflinchingly, as in "One Year After Contemplating Suicide," where the speaker refers to "the future / into which you survive still, / a dirt road / mile-markered by loss." Phillips makes the case that loss is our true common language and acknowledges the ways in which we're indelibly marked by it in poems like "Apostrophe, Oregon Hill," where the speaker identifies "your absence dense inside me as a fulgurite / in sand after a lightning / storm."  Phillips also recognizes how powerless we are at keeping loss from ripping through our lives, as in "Campus Shooter PowerPoint and Information Session":

If a shooter
enters your classroom, there's nothing
I can do, he says, loosening his
tie. But I can help the classroom next
door.

But Phillips's eye lingers on spaces where horror and beauty, trauma and trust, brutality and gentleness rub against each other, throwing sparks, as in "facesofdeath.com," where the speaker notices "how the bullet / grooved clean into the skin below / her clavicle. A buttonhole, a baby's / mouth." This speaker clings to the world even as it shifts and bucks away, as in "To the Neighbor Boy with His Father's Hunting Rifle, Begging the Police to Shoot," where "I watched instead / the tree in your parents' yard / sway, turning out its leaves / like wrists." Or "Denouement":

The snow was up to my knees.
The shovel handle cracked in two.

The nuclear plant high-rised
steam. It was the most heavenlike thing

I've ever seen.

Ultimately, Phillips asks how we might be burnished by suffering, hammered until we're more pliable, and ultimately, oriented toward empathy, as in "The Days That Were Have Now," where the speaker imagines, "After the accident / one man will say to another, / She could be bleeding internally, / don't move her." This speaker looks to the almost imperceptible moments of grace that suffering makes possible, as in "On a Late-Night Encounter with a Barefoot College Student Wearing Only a Party Dress and a Man's Blazer," where the speaker relates that encounter, then shifts between it and a classroom incident in which a student inadvertently reveals she's been raped. At the end:

She cried in the back seat wanting

to know if I was going to fail her
I said I wasn't        I didn't

but in truth I really don't know.

That's a gutting acknowledgment of how we fail each other, how even the best intentions can come up short in the wake of trauma, but it's also a reaching toward, a witnessing of that failing, and a questioning of how we might mitigate it and somehow be better to one another.

The engine powering this book is possibility—the uncertain promise of tomorrow and the curiosity we muster to face it, and that's most evident in poems like "One Year After Contemplating Suicide," where the impulse toward self-annihilation "comes like desire, / the way the smell / of soap turns you / back into a body— / the body that wanted that body"; even when turning away from the world, Phillips's speaker pivots inexorably back into it. Phillips's gift for possibility leads to moments like this in "Overpass," where the speaker asserts, "I'm ready to say / that whatever / holds / our attention is a brief / god." And I'll take her at her word—this book, wrought from Phillips's attention, is a brief god whose gospel is empathy and whose rites bind us to our brief, uncertain lives.

 

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

Summer Opportunities for Young Writers: A Conversation with Alia Walston of the Chicago High School for the Arts' ChiArts Summer Program by Peter LaBerge

  ChiArts.

ChiArts.

Note: This is a sponsored post.

The ChiArts Summer Program is a three-week summer camp designed for students in grades K-5 and 6-8 to explore the artistic disciplines of Dance, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts in a joyful and nurturing environment, led by artists from the Chicago High School for the Arts. Campers will receive pre-professional training in the arts and create original pieces for performance and showcase.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with Alia Walston, one of the folks behind the program, to learn more about its mission and operation. Read on to learn more! 

Let’s start simple: We’d love to hear what led to the creation of the Chicago High School for the Arts’s summer programs for elementary and middle school artists. Is there a story there?

ChiArts is a relatively new school, we have only been open since 2009, and we came to be as an institution came to be as a way to fill the gaps in public arts education in Chicago. Before ChiArts’ opened, there were no public arts high schools in the city. By extension, our summer camps were started as a way to support the artistic growth of young people and to get our name out to our communities in Chicago.

 

If you could describe the ChiArts summer programs for young writers and artists in three words, what would they be, and why?

Intensive, joyful, and nurturing.

 

What, in your mind, is the biggest benefit of attending a summer program at ChiArts rather than, say, at another institution with writing opportunities for young writers? 

ChiArts is home to such an amazing team of diverse students, teachers, and alumni. We prioritize compassion, responsibility, and meeting our students where they are at artistically, academically, and personally. We pride ourselves on our social-emotional supports and all of this work absolutely extends to our summer camps. Our camps are led by current ChiArts instructors and alumni, which means that the folks who are working with us are truly dedicated to our mission and supporting the whole child.

 

Switching gears a bit, I often hear from young writers who are hesitant to call themselves poets, writers, or artists. This has always struck me as strange—in my mind, if you produce writing, you’re a writer—no matter your age, stage, or level of development. Then, of course, it becomes about developing your voice, and figuring out what you have to say. Do you agree with the notion that all writers are “writers”? If so, how do you think educators can better facilitate the claiming of this identity?

I love this question because it’s something that I think a lot about in my own practice. For the most part, I find that labels can be really limiting and ultimately do a disservice to people, especially young folks. Young people often believe they have to follow a regimented or strict plan in order to find success in their artistic careers. And if there’s anything I know from my own career, there is no one set road to success and curiosity rules everything. One thing we do at ChiArts is we encourage our scholar-artists to expand their vision of what is possible in their practices, whether they decide to pursue a career in the arts or if they choose to follow another path. Own your talents. Embrace your uniqueness. Celebrate your accomplishments. Those are the most important things, way more than any labels!

 

  ChiArts.

ChiArts.

Here’s a left-field two-part question: what was your biggest fear as a young writer or artist, and what’s your biggest fear as an educator?

As a young writer, I was terrified of not being understood. I really wanted to reach folks on an emotional level, but it took a lot of work to get to the point where I could feel safe in exploring vulnerability, which I think is a really key part of being an artist.

As an educator, I pride myself on being accessible, radically honest, and compassionate. If I am not doing any of those things, I am failing my students. So my biggest fears are wrapped up in making sure that I am present and available enough to always act with integrity and consistency.

 

I know back when I was a teen writer and I had the privilege of attending a summer writing program like the ones you host at ChiArts, I wish I’d known some things before I dove headfirst into writing for three straight weeks. What are the best words of wisdom you have for students debating whether or not to take that leap and seriously pursue an artistic discipline for the first time?

Three weeks is a long time and also no time at all. This program and what you produce in it do not reflect your worth as a person. You are inherently valuable. Think of our program as an invitation for you to play, stretch, and learn more about yourself. When you see camp ( or any other program you pursue) as an opportunity for expression and presence, and not just a task to check off on a “success to-do list”, all kinds of flow and creativity is possible.

 

Could you tell us what your favorite part of the summer programs is, and why?

It is so awesome to see our building filled with smiling young faces of all ages. It is such a joy to be present with our students in a low-pressure environment and while the sun is shining!

 

To close, do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice  by an artist or writer that’d you’d like to share?

Audre Lord once said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Being a creative is a perpetual lesson in vulnerability. It takes strength, care, and vision to bring forth things from your intuition. Believe in yourselves!

 

To learn more about the ChiArts Summer Program, you can click here!

A Conversation with Leila Chatti by Peter LaBerge

BY CHAYA BHUVANESWAR

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

RAISE YOUR GLASS: Congratulations to the Adroit Class of 2018! by Peter LaBerge

Every year, we at The Adroit Journal support a brilliant class of high school seniors apply and make the transition from high school writers into college writers. We're honored to share the matriculation list of this year's class of senior mentorship students and staff readers!

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This year, Yale University leads the pack, claiming nine Adroit seniors for its incoming freshman class. Harvard University follows, with six Adroit seniors packing for Cambridge. Next in line, Stanford University has four Adroit seniors Palo Alto-bound.

We wish each of the below forty-nine students the best as they embark on their next chapters, and hope they'll stay in touch! (We have a feeling they will.)
 

Staff Members

Jenna Bao (OH — Prose Reader), Harvard University

Peter Fera (TX — Marketing Associate), University of Pennsylvania

Kelly Han (OR — Editorial Assistant), University of California - Berkeley

Kinsale Hueston (CA — Poetry Reader), Yale University

Annie Li (NJ — Graphics Correspondent), Emory University

Mia Nelson (CO — Previous Poetry Reader), Dartmouth College

Macrina Wang (NH — Marketing Associate), Yale University

Becky Wolfson (MD — Marketing Intern), Brown University

Grace Zhou (GA — Previous Prose Reader), Stanford University

 

Staff Members & Mentorship Program Alums

Joseph Felkers (MI — Poetry Reader & Mentee '16), Harvard University

Aidan Forster (SC — Previous Blog Editor & Mentee '15), Brown University

Eileen Huang (NJ — Marketing Intern & Mentee '16), Yale University

 

Mentorship Program Alums

Fareena Arefeen (TX — '17), University of Texas - Austin

Margot Armbruster (WI — '16), Duke University - Angier B. Duke Scholar

Margaret Blackburn (MI — '17), Smith College

Emma Camp (AL — '16), University of Virginia - Jefferson Scholar

Yiwei Chai (Australia — '17), University of Pennsylvania

Emma Choi (VA — '16), Harvard University

Jisoo Choi (MD — '16), Yale University

Uma Dwivedi (WA — '17), Yale University

Annie Fan (United Kingdom — '17), University of Oxford (UK)

Farah Ghafoor (Canada — '16), University of Toronto

Lily Goldberg (NY — '17), Williams College

Yuri Han (NJ — '17), Rutgers University - Honors College

Jacqueline He (CA — '17), Princeton University

Lilly Hunt (MS — '17), University of Mississippi

Christina Im (OR — '15), Princeton University

Kara Jackson (IL — '17), Smith College

Masfi Khan (NY — '17), Yale University

Katherine Kim (NJ — '17), Middlebury College

Ezra Lebovitz (NJ — '17), Harvard University

Morgan Levine (TX — '17), Columbia University

Enshia Li (Canada — '17), Stanford University

Isabella Li (NC — '17), Yale University

Margaret Lu (IL — '17), University of Chicago

Kaley Mamo (NY — '16), Columbia University

Alyssa Mazzoli (SC — '16), Bryn Mawr College

Joey Reisberg (MD — '16), Goucher College

Tessa Rudolph (CA — '17), Wellesley College

Ashira Shirali (India — '17), Princeton University

Sahara Sidi (VA — '17), Wesleyan University

Griffin Somaratne (CA — '17), Stanford University

Shannon Sommers (NY — '15), Yale University

Stephanie Tom (NY — '17), Cornell University

Alisha Yi (NV — '16), Harvard University

Carrie Zhang (NJ — '15), Haverford College

Nicole Zhen (OR — '17), Yale University

Joyce Zhou (IL — '17), Harvard University

Lily Zhou (CA — '16), Stanford University

A Review of Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

 Tomás Q. Morín's  Patient Zero  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

In his second collection of poetry, Tomás Q. Morín takes to task some of poetry’s biggest questions—those of language, love, and myth–in his signature, playful style, which is awe-inspired and reminiscent of Mary Ruefle or James Tate, yet derivative of no one. Whether he is mythologizing, investigating the types of influence we inherit as members of culture and language, or sigh-singing the cyclical process of love lost and found, Morín manages to tell it all in a way that inspires open-eyed curiosity, or, in the darkest cases, disappointed amazement. Those readers seeking a lens through which the world appears both strange and amazing, despite and because of its brokenness, will love encountering this new book.

Again and again, the speakers in Morín’s Patient Zero seek to understand the terms of their existence—what it means to live in a world where so little is ever fully explained. One might think such a task would take the form of intense and widespread questioning, but there are extremely few questions actually posed in Patient Zero. Rather, Morín encourages us to indulge in imaginative instances of history, persona, and impossibility until a conglomeration of provisional and possible answers to the question of truth begin to emerge. Throughout the book, Morín employs various intellectual strategies such as ekphrasis, translation, and epistolary forms; but never does his speaker take him/herself unproductively seriously. In fact, Morín seems to take pains to ensure nothing is too neatly wrapped, undermining poems at their most conclusive points with fantastical and absurd assertions, such as “one could love a herring / I suppose if the timing were right and the moon / shone just so and the fish could order a pizza / for two in near perfect French.” In another instance, Morín’s speaker interrupts a desperate search for a runaway lover to comment on the appearance of 3s and 8s: “those conjoined twins / disastrously separated at birth.” No matter the context, there is always a willingness to let absurdity into the mental landscape; and in every case, the situation is rendered more artfully and truthfully because of the inclusion.

Always, Morín’s poems navigate a balance between fancy and reality. Sometimes a poem begins with a slightly impossible set of assumptions and proceeds logically from there, as in “Ai,” which imagines the Japanese American poet as an atomic element and proceeds with a faithful description according to those terms. In another way, the speaker in “At the Supermarket” describes the scene and all its characters to us as if they are “trapped in a Rockwell.” At other times Morín’s speaker will use facts and logical processes to reach delightfully unexpected conclusions. In “Gold Record,” for example, the historical fact that NASA sent a record of various earthly sounds onto the Voyager space shuttle lands us on “shag rugs,” listening to music with a “race smart enough to escape / gravity and cross the peacock-black / of galaxies.”

Consistently, Morín’s poems create a moment where the fantastical and whimsical butt right up against the mundane and the ubiquitous. It is often at their most absurd moments that the poems in Patient Zero reveal to us something deeply and undeniably true. When circus clowns cram into a tiny car in “Circus Pony,” this cultural epitome of absurdity becomes a way to speak authentically about performativity of the emotional self and the particulars of existence. In this way, Morín’s poems awaken us to the absurdity that exists within us and within our world to make it so we may delight in that absurdity, to make us more human.

Throughout Patient Zero, there are also many clear-eyed attempts to come to terms with what it means to be a modern person and to be influenced by a truly syncretic culture. Morín’s speakers claim both characters from the Old Testament and professional wrestlers from ‘80s television as sources of inspiration and cultural identity. We encounter attempts and non-attempts at translation, and we are asked to question the selective power language enacts on our consciousness. As mentioned above, the poem “Ai” imagines the poet Ai Ogawa as a periodic element, literally becoming one of the fundamental building blocks out of which Morín builds his book. Cumulatively, the reader receives a view of globalization and cultural relativity as processes of creativity and perspective building.

Similarly, Morín includes in this collection a brilliant translation of Pablo Neruda’s “Calle a calle,” which is more commonly translated as “Walking Around,” displaying a glimpse of the talent brought most fully to fruition in Morín’s translation of The Heights of Machu Pichu.

Amidst these homages to intercultural experience is a deep-seeded and ambivalently answered question: How much can honestly be transferred from one culture to another? What is lost in the process of translation? In the poem “Saudades” (saudade being a word that is imprecisely translated as nostalgic), Morín’s speaker warns us against translation “unless [we’ve] been a disciple of the rough grief / that lovingly wraps [us] in its wings.” However, Morín also invites us into such discipleship, saying it

is warmer
than one would expect, so much so that it’s easy
to forget for a moment something trivial like pigs
aren’t supposed to fly or that if you say saudades
with enough pain and heart the pigs of your past will come
trotting out of the dark, doing their little sideways dance
around you, shaking their hips to the drum
in your chest until you forget what a frown is
or why we need them.

In a similar way, the speakers in “Little Road” and “Red Herring” relish in the imaginative possibilities presented by misunderstood and poorly-pronounced languages. Here, a connection might be made to Morín’s willful obfuscation of mundane reality throughout Patient Zero. Just as a person less-than-fluent in French can walk around a French market pretending to be blown “so many kisses / with every r and l and w they speak,” there is a way in which Morín’s poems encourage us to resist perfect understanding so as to see the world with curiosity and awe.

This encouragement, however, never tends toward escapism or willful ignorance—perhaps because Morín acknowledges some of the world’s deepest sadnesses in his poems. Morín is not oblivious to the damage we do to each other, but he makes us see the “pitiful soul, hand at his punctured / side, trying to groan louder than the TVs / the neighborhood keeps turning up.” In a poem addressed to an aborted daughter, Morín’s speaker tells of “all the birthdays / I’ve celebrated but that haven’t come / to pass since that day long ago when we agreed / it would be better if you never drew that / first breath of air.”

Morín’s speakers do not close their eyes to sadness, but they do not close their eyes to possibility, either. We experience, as readers, a push-pull relationship with a world that does not yet know the best way to love us. On both grand and personal scales, Morín enacts the story of “love / gone cold, and its light, the clammy light we might spend / years saying we can’t live without and then do.” Whether told through the grandiosity of eternal space travel or the specificity of a weekend vacation, the poems in Patient Zero tell a story of love’s incompleteness, creating in us a longing in which the world seems beautiful. In the book’s titular poem, Morín imagines the moment that Adam and Eve fell into lovesickness. The speaker speculates as to the source of their affliction, and though a definitive “patient zero” remains unnamed, we eventually learn of lovesickness that it is “something, and divine, and endless.” For Morín, if the world has a stable state, it is this oscillation between love and disappointment, or the true expression of love together with its souring. In some cases, both of these oscillations occur simultaneously, as in Morín’s supermarket retelling of the Caritá Romana, as well as his longest poem, “Sing Sing,” in which a Muse is imprisoned for lovingly intervening in her poet’s life. In both poems, tales of love and imprisonment are knotted together and retold in an identifiably American landscape.

Morín takes us from the enormous to the minutiae and from the universal to the personal, always encouraging us to come to terms as fully as possible with what it means to be a person. What does it mean to inherit one culture, complete with its language and habits and qualitative assumptions, instead of another? What does it mean to admit the limits of our understanding? What does it mean to be profoundly disappointed by the same world that asks us in a million strange ways to love it? The poems in Patient Zero take as a central concern the belief that the stories we tell ourselves affect who we become, and in response, they offer us several marvelously unique narrative possibilities.

 

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

 

A Review of Ghassan Zaqtan's The Silence That Remains by Peter LaBerge

BY ALLY FINDLEY

  The Silence That Remains , by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

The Silence That Remains, by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Ghassan Zaqtan’s The Silence That Remains speaks to the truths that live in the gaps between the episodic and ephemeral, marked “history,” “tragedy,” and “trauma” before our collective consciousness sails on. Zaqtan examines the space that is left between these flashes, and the forced reckoning of those left after the news crews retreat—the episodic nature of history and how personal lives continue on between the bullet points. There is a delicate redirection of our attention in this collection to the lives of people, with all their intricacies and enormities, in the margins and footnotes of historical trauma. Look at the people, these poems tell us. There, we will find the true magnitude of the cost of devastation.

This collection was compiled and organized from many other collections by its translator, Fady Joudah. Ordered temporally, Silence reveals Zaqtan’s penchant for alteration and revision, a lack of reverence for the set text. Some poems exist in different versions than their previously-published forms, others share the same title. His poetry lives in a way that other poetry rarely does, as he resists the tendency to imagine poetry statically and instead insists on the journey of each poem continuing, lending a fresh, timely currency to his verse and to his subject matter. His poems wend along through history, both personal and communal, preserved and (nearly) lost. This quality makes Zaqtan’s work (and particularly this collection) increasingly transferable and insistent on its continued relevance. Now especially, as trauma in Syria fills our news feeds and newsreels, the ways in which we memorialize such tragedy take on a painfully timely resonance—and unavoidable visibility.

Zaqtan’s experience, however, stems largely from his experience with conflicts in his native Palestine and later with violence in Lebanon. Born a Palestinian poet near Bethlehem in 1954, he identifies with those certain elements of the diverse Arabic poetic tradition. He has lived and written in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia, and a sense of place informs his poetic approach. In “Fingers,” found toward the beginning of the collection, Zaqtan asks, “What’s that ringing in the brevity of silence, / delicate between destruction’s instant / and fire’s eruption?” His answer:

Unrelenting and wise
fingers disassemble the horizon
into houses and send it back
to the beauty of dirt, iron, and people

Zaqtan articulates through his poetry, and particularly through this collection, that what remains, and what is built in that space, is defined by what has been taken. And in that sense, he places great evidence on physical space, belonging to that space when your home, your territory, the land that your ancestors made their own, has been taken from you. That land, once you are robbed of it, becomes the factor that defines you and informs the emotional and psychological landscape around you. In an interview with PBS’ Jeffrey Brown, Zaqtan explained, “For this uncertain place, for uncertain life, which we have in this area, we have to protect our personal history. A complete people has lost its future, has lost the location, has lost its place. And, obviously, poetry is one of the most expressive forms in order to reach the people. This is why the poets were the first to remind these people of their identity.”

In the poem “Khalil Zaqtan,” which eulogizes his late father and was originally published in a 1988 collection, Zaqtan writes:

And I will gather the house of your chucked absence.
As if we were alone on earth
[...] you die
so I can fold the falcon's wings after its departure
and believe the silence that remains.

This image of the house made out of “chucked absence” builds into Zaqtan’s theme of loss creating space. He extends this concept of building out of emptiness in his emphasis of the poem as a built space or landscape, using the language of physical place to describe the intangible or abstract. In “Khalil Zaqtan,” this house is the loss of his father. The poem “A Swallow” applies this perspective to the process of writing poetry and perhaps reveals something of Zaqtan’s concept of the poetic process. The poem begins describing its author: “Maybe he came out of a hole / in the evening’s wall,” “he became a carpet for the poem.”

A great deal of Zaqtan’s power lies in his ability to overlay our mental high-resolution photographs of war zones (public trauma, media narratives) with people we recognize, faces we know. He writes, “Two faces in catastrophe: / my father and his horse.” The minute details of people and things render the true face of loss clearly. The poem “Another Death,” already devastating in its sense of devastation-as-routine, begins “Her corpse is in front of the door,” but continues:

her standing there, singing at night, the glare of her silver comb
her knee that darts lightning our way
her glass rings

her henna-washed hair and pagan handshake
her laugh by the door
her gist in throwing her hair back or letting it down

She is seen not just as a body, but as all of the moments witnessed and all of the habits of the woman herself, the individuality painted vividly where, otherwise, she would become a number. In this capacity, Zaqtan prevents us from being able to to abstract these events, tying our inevitable private and mundane similarities, our small individual habits, to these public narratives which otherwise can only evoke sympathy without empathy. He builds for us a physical landscape, layering it with the moments and the people it witnessed—in peace, in war, and after:

The metal
the metal that tumbled
and whistled and howled
and sparkled in the space of the abyss
and in the middle of the roar
exactly there, in that corner
where coffee windows used to open in your eyelids

The precision of place is emphatic: “exactly there, in that corner.” It is important to get that corner right. It further emphasizes the seemingly inconceivable coexistence of these peaceful moments with the trauma that followed and that, but for memories, erased them. Rendering them here is Zaqtan’s rejection of that erasure, and his refusal to separate the peaceful and the traumatic events that have inhabited these spaces, as he layers these experiences and sensations over the same physical space.

This depiction gives the devastation a tangible human cost, and the contrast makes the loss more sharply felt for the fact that it was not, and never was, inevitable. Zaqtan uses the pinpricks of the quotidian, the peacefully banal, to sketch the outlines of the ineffable last reality of loss, deftly inserting his realities into the mental and emotional landscapes of those who will never physically witness those truths. In its telling of those truths, one of the poems that strikes me is “Their Absence.” It begins “and what remains,” bringing to mind the title of the collection, and its answer: silence. What remains is their absence, and this absence is stated in the presence of what have left. The poem reads:

And what remains
but little little
and their shirts
fabric that spreads on trees

banners that tug
only at trees

and are not received
a triumph

The banner of a nationalist conflict loses any honor in victory as it hangs from the body of a child. Objects lose their identity without the people they are connected to: a shirt becomes mere fabric without the child who once wore it. Humanity infuses these objects, and that humanity is then preserved in those same objects as evidence that humans lived. They were there.

Only a great poet can make you feel such grief and shame with the description of a small cotton shirt, can make you see the suggestion of a body and of a whole life lived inside of it—how the shirt fit against warm skin, present and dynamic. We don’t know what has happened, not overtly (in the sense that we, most of us, weren’t there—and none of us, living, reading, were the child). The context, however, is transferable, in the sense that this is what war does, what natural disasters do. This is what inhabiting these spaces, post-devastation, is like—living in the ringing silence of after. We are never told why the shirt flaps, deserted in the tree, but the weight of context resolves the final image. Zaqtan elevates this silence as the most pure form of communication, the most universally and instinctively understood. In his introduction to Silence, Joudah writes, “If silence is sacred language, golden, then everything else is inferior translation.” Rather than the absence of communication, it is instead the most pure form of it.

Formally, Zaqtan deftly crafts in short, delicate lines. His words would weigh too heavily and hang too simply for the sustained, breathy, and ornate line; each line says what it needs to say and says enough with little. Zaqtan’s manuscript is measured and cut into simple, observational truths which are constructed to reveal but not to dictate. He relies on the collective ability of an audience to fill the silences he leaves for us, knowing our innate similarities will guide our realizations. His language is sparing but not sparse. It is pared down to its densest core, the most suggestive words alone and undiluted in their force, darkly suggesting to us what we already know but perhaps do not yet see. We, unlike the people Zaqtan gives voice to, are not forced to make our lives in the aftershocks of this history. He paints for us life after the dust settles.

Silence resists our tendency to abstract history, news, and distance. Zaqtan’s poems read as necessarily internal, but they externalize distance, be it physical, emotional, psychological, or the distance of privilege—or lack thereof. The invasion of Lebanon, for example, took place as he was writing—a rocket literally burned down his Beirut apartment and many copies of his own poems. For me, this recalls Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “The Cure for What Ails You”: “cruelty, after all, is made of distance.”

Formally, Zaqtan refuses finality in his poems—an absence of final punctuation. Whether or not we can chalk such formal decisions up to difference in cultural or linguistic conventions, this absence creates the effect of a denied ending, a resistance to comfortably folding these scenes into the past or separating these stories from ourselves. As a poet,  Zaqtan is never finished with the poems, and we, as members of a global society, are never finished with his subject matter. In “Always,” he writes:

Seven days ago was Thursday afternoon
I read the poem
the one that was supposed to have been finished
that morning
and it wasn’t finished
For seven years
I finish it every morning then doze off
and by evening
I always catch it
opening its doors on the sly
and calling talk in

This volume is beautifully produced by Copper Canyon Press with the Arabic (verso) printed alongside its English translation (recto). As each script is read in opposite directions (English left to right, Arabic right to left), Zaqtan’s words stream outward from the center. The Silence That Remains is a collection to reflect on and return to, a thoughtful meditation delicately rendered.

 

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Ally Findley is currently the Assistant Editor at David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston. She holds a B.A. in English from Cornell University.

Conversations with Contributors: Franny Choi (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Five.

By Nina Coomes, Guest Interviewer.

  Franny Choi , featured in  Issue Twenty .

Franny Choi, featured in Issue Twenty.

Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and the Helen Zell Writers Program. Her poems have appeared in PoetryAmerican Poetry Review, the New England Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow, Senior News Editor at Hyphen Magazine, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark Noise Collective. 

 

Interviewer's Note: In 1910, Japan began a long history of imperialism in Korea that persists today in ways both explicit and subtle. As a Japanese writer interviewing Franny about Death By Sex Machine, this interview is necessarily contextualized by the role of Japan as colonizer and eraser of violent history, specifically towards Korea.

Nina Coomes: Congratulations on the publication of Death by Sex Machine! Thank you so, so very much for writing this book. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a really long time, and I know I’ll be listening to the Spotify playlist that accompanies it even longer.

First, can you tell me a little bit about how you chose to title the chapbook? One of my favorite experiences while reading your book on the Boston bus lines was watching the person across the aisle from me spelling out the cover text—Dea-th-By-Sex-Mac-hine—and then watching how their faces would shift, changing into curiosity or horror or barely-suppressed laughter. It’s an arresting title and an equally arresting image (illustrated by Gel Jamlang) taken from a line in your poem "Kyoko_Inquires." Why this line? What did you want to convey to your reader?

Franny Choi: I think the reaction you describe (some combination of curiosity, horror, and giggles) is pretty much the ideal for how I hoped a reader would respond to the title—and I love the idea that the surprise comes out of the need to look a little closer. I really cherish that (hopefully brief!) moment of not understanding that makes someone say, “Wait, what? What is this?” and then want to keep investigating.

As for the title Death by Sex Machine, I think it’s a little capsule of some of the things going on in the project: the strange consequences of gender and sexuality that come out of our relationships with machines, humanity’s fear of its own inventions (including race and gender), the violence of being made into a tool for pleasure, the pleasures possible in language. And I hoped the double resonance of “death by chocolate” (capitalism making women eat things) and “sex machine” (James Brown making liberatory joy through art) would translate into something that feels lively and complicated and also fun to say. It’s a funny thing, though, to have a book with the word “sex” in the title. It puts some distance between me and younger students, my mom, the generally squeamish, etc.

 

The Turing Test is a test constructed by Alan Turing in 1950 that asked the question, “Can machines think?” But the test constructed that question in such a way that, basically, a human and a machine are in conversation—if the human can’t reliably distinguish that it is talking to a machine, the machine passes the test. You use the Turing Test frequently in this book, playing it against concepts such as love and weight. What do you think it means for machines to pass the Turing test? Are your poems the communications of machines that pass or fail?

FC: I think in many ways, people of color, immigrants, women, queer/trans people (and so on) are always trying to pass the Turing Test—to fool people into thinking we’re human, or at least indistinguishable from humans. I grew up thinking it was one of my greatest strengths to not have a Korean accent; I even remember studying the speech patterns of other Korean-American kids so I wouldn’t sound like them. I have a tendency now, too, to slightly adopt the accent of whatever region of the U.S. I’m in, as a subtle way of communicating, “I’m from here, I’m like you” (read: “I’m not like them”). Recently, I watched a video I’d taken of an incident of police brutality at a protest and felt this huge wave of shame because I heard myself pronounce “th” like “d” as I was shouting at the cop—at the latent bit of foreignness my voice betrayed in that moment of crisis, when my guard was down.

Of course, the project of passing as human is much vaster and deeper than accents. People who have historically been denied humanity are constantly taking tests to prove they experience the full range of human experience, not to mention all of the formal tests that allow or deny them access to resources, status, mobility, etc. Poems are technologies of consciousness; and so yes, maybe these poems are machines I use to—without the presence of my physical body—try to convince someone that there’s a person here.

 

Why did you choose to use Chi from Chobits and Kyoko from Ex Machina as the sister voices or sister experiences in your text? Sisterhood, daughterhood and motherhood—relationships centered on womanhood (or perhaps non-manhood) feature prominently. Why do you think these relationships emerged in your poetry, especially in the context of machines, which some might say have no family or familial relationship? Why are they important?

FC: Donna Haraway, in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” talks about cyborg relationships as occurring along lines of affinity rather than biological kinship. There’s plenty to say about how this plays against Haraway as a white woman writing, in much of the essay, about women of color consciousness—how saying “never mind my identity, it’s my politics that matter”—is nothing new when it comes to white women waltzing into rooms that women of color built.  But. Yes, calling someone “sister” is naming a line of solidarity, and of course it’s maybe the queerest thing to make family outside of traditional kin relationships. 

I think, also, that calling Kyoko “sister” is a way to name that moment of excitement and anxiety I feel when seeing an API woman on a Western screen. The stakes of representation are high; there are so many ways to fuck up. But I can’t help but love the API femmes I see on screen, no matter how troubling they are—there are too few of us not to. Maybe something that’s not super obvious to some readers is that the two figures I’ve called into conversation are both Japanese women, and as someone with roots in a country that was colonized by Japan for 35 years, there are stakes to identifying with Chi and Kyoko. So the relationship between the book’s speaker and these figures isn’t uncomplicated—but of course, sisterhood never is.

 

“Chi_Conjugations” employs an experimentation that reminded me of Pussy Monster in that I think you beautifully use experimental forms to give readers a hidden or larger truth. “@FannyChoir” is another such poem, where you process tweets sent to you through multiple languages in Google Translate. What was the experience of writing “@FannyChoir”? Did it feel triumphant—to rearrange the words of others that seemed like they had origins in hate? In the multi-translation and mistranslation, did you find anything that surprised you?

FC: I’m not sure if it felt triumphant, though that was maybe the hope. What it felt like was this: over a period of a few days, a wave of trolls tweeted terrible things at me. (This happened when something I said about whiteness showed up on a white supremacist website and, it turned out later, in a slideshow for a lecture by Richard Spencer. Weird times.) And I was surprised at how put-out I was, considering I pretty much spend all day reading and writing and thinking about how racist, sexist violence operates. You know, you learn to survive in very Ravenclaw ways, reading articles, writing triumphant poems, etc., and then you spend a day trying not to look at your phone while strangers call you a gook and threaten to rape you for hours. Initially, I was totally fascinated by all the violent tweets; I was obsessed and really wanted to play with that language. But after a while, I found I couldn’t do it without feeling really, really awful. Feeding those tweets into Google Translate was an attempt to break the language, to make it uncanny and funny, to make a way to engage with it without being wrecked in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure if it worked. These days, I can read that poem aloud without being dropped back into the panic of that day; and I hope, moreover, that the language is so garbled that I can read it aloud without triggering anyone else.But it doesn’t always feel great, and it doesn’t escape me that a part of my book is still a preserved space for those voices to live.

 

“Turing Test_Weight” is a poem that physically made me feel like someone knocked the breath out of me. The way you set up the poem, the way the interrogator’s question lands (“what is….your country of origin”)—it brought the semi-sci-fi hypotheticals of the entire chapbook sharply into focus. In particular, I’m thinking about the Turing Test and learning English (or any other normative language) as a second language, and the different signals we give to try to pass societal interrogations meant to determine worthiness. In a parallel fashion, I think your poem “Choi Jeong Min” and its questions about naming are also related. How do you see immigranthood intersecting with the themes of your book?

FC: I think foreignness is one of the many things that can place a person in the uncanny valley—that horror/humor of perceived emulation of humanity. I know that in some ways, no matter how perfect my English is, no matter how I sound on the phone, no matter how annoyingly good my grammar is, I’ll always be seen as someone doing, at best, an extraordinarily good job at emulating a native speaker. But I think it’s a beautiful gift to have grown up with the understanding that all English is broken; all English is breakable. I have no respect for the sanctity of English. Neither do Chi and Kyoko, and I think knowing that allowed me to write their voices with a kind of wildness that I might not have otherwise. I remember someone describing Gertrude Stein as writing poetry “as if she had never read any.” That’s the kind of brand-new-ness that I wanted their voices to have—the wild disrespect of someone who’s always been an outsider to the rules of a thing. The project is, of course, about the pain of being relegated to the outside, but for me, it’s just as much about the wisdom and the pleasure that come with it.

 

And I’ll leave you with this last question: throughout the book, there were many words that appeared more often than not—mouth, fish, ghost, stink, slug, please. Please in particular stood out to me, because, while your chapbook’s primary cyborg speaker is constantly having things taken from her, she is also exhibiting a hunger that in some instances is depicted as uncontrollable and monstrous, and in others tender-hearted and sorrowful (“sometimes / when the sidewalk opens my knee / i think / please / please let me remember this”). Please, then, takes on many tones. In that same vein, what do you think the cyborg ultimately wants? What do you want for this book? What do you want for your writing more broadly—for yourself as both artist and human, now, and in the future?

FC: There’s a poem in the full-length book called “What a Cyborg Wants,” and the first line is “What a cyborg wants is to work perfectly.” Which of course isn’t all the way right, but maybe that’s part of it, at least: to be a thing that happens the way it’s supposed to. Oof, what a dream.

As for the rest of your questions: oh, I don’t know. But I think about that line by Hannah Sanghee Park: “the layers / comprising me are, reductively, soft / hard, soft.” About what it might look like to live and write with that knowledge. Today, I asked a question at a Q&A with the poet Robin Coste Lewis—a roundtable with only about twenty people in the room—and something in her answer opened up a little part of me, and to my total horror, I started weeping. Just staring back at her, wearing probably my butchest flannel, and fully weeping, not able to stop. And though it was totally embarrassing, maybe that’s all I’m trying to make, really—a little aperture of softness. A room where the hard rules and histories that made us are on equal footing with the things only tenderness can teach.

 

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Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, performer, producer and artist. She was born in Nagoya, raised in Chicago, and currently resides in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The CollapsarEATER,  and The Margins, among other places. She is a 2018 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow.

 

Conversations with Contributors: Eve L. Ewing (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Five.

By Ashunda Norris, Guest Interviewer.

 Dr. Eve L. Ewing, author of  Electric Arches  (Haymarket Books, 2017).

Dr. Eve L. Ewing, author of Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, 2017).

Dr. Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. She is the author of Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the year's best books by NPR and the Chicago Tribune. She is also author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side and the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. She is a scholar at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other venues. 



Eve L. Ewing's debut poetry collection Electric Arches is a stunning hybrid work of art that encompasses poems, short stories and visual images. An award winning text, Electric Arches explores Black girlhood and womanhood in a blend of futuristic and magic realism prose that skillfully erupts from the page. Dr. Ewing took a moment to chat with me about the formulation of the work, how childhood influences her poems, Afrofuturism, and the lure of ideal writer lives.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ashunda Norris: What specific book, person or action led you to poetry?

Eve L. Ewing: I don't have an answer for that because I don't really remember a time when I wasn't writing poetry or reading poetry. The first poem I wrote I remember writing when I was six years old. Poetry has always been my life. I'm sure a major influence was that my parents used to read to me a lot. In my family, we have a big tradition of silly rhymes and word play. My mom used to make up really funny, silly songs for us that used repetition and rhyme and sing them for us when were little. That was the first thing that led me to poetry. It's something that has been in my life for as long as I can remember.



This collection seems childlike—and I don't mean that pejoratively—in its brevity, clearness, hybrid art forms, innocent speakers. While reading, I placed myself back into specific ages of my girlhood: 10, 12, 16, 18, etc. Can you talk about how the text came to be and how you formulated worlds within the worlds of the poems?  

EE: Thank you so much. That's a huge compliment because that was definitely my intention. I wanted to write a book that could tell a coming of age story but in a way that left space for a possibility in the past and in the future. I think of the book as a series of tellings and retellings of memories and flashbacks that I'm inviting people to inhabit with me. I'm somebody who, in many ways, [laughs] is very childish in nature. A lot of my work is centered around thinking about futures for children and how to make the world better for children, working with children directly and indirectly. That definitely influences the way I write. I used to be a middle school English teacher, and I thought a lot about my students as a very specific imagined audience as I was writing. I think childhood is really important. Often, people think of poetry as this really serious adult thing. For most Americans, their youth is the height of poetry consumption in their whole life because poetry is read in school. A lot of adults don't necessarily go on to keep poetry as a part of their reading habit. A lot of the ways people perceive and recall poetry are influenced by childhood, and children really play an important part of shaping the literary canon. I like to celebrate and lean into that notion.



A great deal of your poems speak to the nuances and idiosyncrasies that make up the Black woman. You've included pieces that pay homage to very complex women—namely, Zora Neale Hurston in "what I mean when I say I'm sharpening my oyster knife," Erykah Badu in "appletree," and Marilyn Mosby in "one good time for Marilyn Mosby," each poem focusing on a different aspect of Black womanhood. Was this deliberate? Can you speak to the conception of these poems?

EE: I think we, as Black women, although this is something that is changing and improving, we (Black women) are given really limited models of how we get to be and how we get live with the expectations placed upon us. I'm intrigued by the many examples of Black women, both famous people and everyday people, who defy conventions. All of us, every single one of us, is an individual in ways that are not acknowledged and not portrayed in media and in books. When I was younger, I felt pressure as a Black woman to write about certain topics or to write in a certain way or have a certain tone. For example, the idea that I had to write about—especially with me coming from a performance background and spoken word culture, that my poetry had to be like, sad or like had to be about trauma stuff or it wasn't good Black woman poetry. And I just wanted to resist that. Of course, with all recognition to and appreciation for people who have used their poetry to write through trauma. I also think there needs to be space for us to be our full selves. I wouldn't say I see each of those women as representing a different particular part of Black womanhood, necessarily, but that I hope that the book presents many different facets and idiosyncrasies of Black womanhood. There is no one such Black womanhood. There's no homogeneous vision or idea of what it means to be a Black woman. The sooner we understand that, the freer we can be.



Visual art is character in the collection. A great number of the poems appear on black paper—an unorthodox choice but quite effective, especially in the piece "why you cannot touch my hair." How did you initially build this poem? Where did the choice to change up the paper emerge in the process?

EE: I wanted to make a book that was going to be visually striking as an object as well as in the content that it presents. When people are presented with words or literature or art in general, our society tends to be hyper-verbal and focuses on the words themselves. There is something about visual presentation that allows people to access the information on a quick level. Even if it's somebody who can't read or who doesn't know all the words being used in the poem, or a maybe it's young child or a person who doesn't speak English. There is something valuable in thinking about the book as an object itself. Even people who consider themselves readers of poetry, we underestimate sometimes about how much the visual impacts and compels us, or doesn't. It's almost taboo to admit that ugly book covers are not compelling or interesting. I was really excited to work with the designer at Haymarket. To think about, what does it mean for this book to be a visually compelling object, and what are the ways that we can do that? The black paper is a part of that. As for the poem, the line or idea I thought of first was the line about the hair being technology from the future or being somehow dangerous. My hair as, like, a menace to society. Thinking about all the times when I was a kid when people would say, "Oh, your hair is so crazy." Playing with the idea of hair being seen as unruly or difficult or a problem. When I was a kid, my hair would not look the way people thought it should look. Babysitters and random people thought they could come up to me as a child and ask me about my hair or try to touch it—or want to play with my hair, braid my hair, just do something to it. It was always understood to be this thing that didn't belong to me, that it was seen as a threat. As I got older, I learned the language and the history to understand that our hair is considered dangerous and has to be tamed or controlled. I think that's where the poem initially came from.



What is your current writing process?

EE: It really varies depending on what I'm working on. I'm very deadline- and goal-oriented in the sense that I'm not a person who sits around waiting for inspiration to strike. Writing is my job. As a scholar and academic, writing is definitely my job. My promotion and whether I get tenure is based on my ability to write well. I don't have the option of "Oh, I don't feel like it." I have to really set deadlines to get it done, power through and hustle, which is not the most eloquent or romantic answer, but it's my work, and I have to do my work. When I need to write, I'm trying to create a space that is as free from distractions as possible. My ideal writing process is creating an environment where I wake up in the morning, walk to the computer, and start writing. I may have to make breakfast in advance or drink tea and close all of the open tabs that don't relate to the writing. I return to things. I revise them. I usually like to give my work a bit of space or finish a draft or a bigger project before returning to revise it.



Afrofuturism is a theme throughout the collection. In this work, alternative worlds don't seem as far-fetched or endlessly out of sight; that is, Afrofuturistic nations are a plausible reality, as in the first poem of the collection, "Arrival Day" which opens with a quote by Assata Shakur. For me, the piece names or imagines an optimism within the proximity of human thought—it provides an entryway into the poems that follows and commands the question, What is home? How does it manifest for you as a poet? 

EE: For me, home is really about people and the stories we construct. It's about the people that we love and how we became the person that we are and how we're continually engaged with the process of becoming. The reason I write about Chicago so much is because the city made me who I am as a person and as a writer. I have a lot of love for people who are serious about where they're from, and it also doesn't even matter where they're from. It's about being a person who is attentive to the relationships that are being formed, including the relationships you form with yourself and understanding the role that place has to play in that. The streets that you walk, the tree that you see and the dogs in your neighborhood and the person who cuts your hair and the person who takes care of you when your mom is sick and the person who taught you to ride your first bike. Those people a part of how you come to be as you are, and that is inextricably bound up in place.  



Those who are reading this may be living or attempting to live full writer lives, which can be a tricky balancing act of many responsibilities. What advice would you give those who see you and believe that you're living a seemingly flawless writer life?

EE: [Laughs] Well, whether you want to be a writer or an athlete or musician or entrepreneur, no one should ever believe that someone else's life is flawless or feel like you understand even one percent of what a person's life is like from what you see on social media or from what you assume based on these cultural tropes that our society has. The purpose of social media is to take the stand-in of photo album or a note to a friend or a diary. These are things that represent fragments of a person's life. None of them represent a totality of a person's life. People don't understand what came before. I've been really blessed that the book is doing well, but that doesn't tell you about all the times the book was rejected before somebody agreed to publish it. I started blogging when was fifteen years old and practiced writing every single day. I did freelance when I was nineteen or twenty. I would get paid $20 to write something. That would be hours of work with me getting paid very little money. Those are the things that helped me hone my craft. You don't see me working in a restaurant writing poems on napkins. Those forms of labor are not visible. You don't see a person's whole life through any one fragment of a portrayal of them. People underestimate the regular, everyday work of being a writer.



And finally, name five books and five works of visual art you'd recommend to readers.

EE: Five books: Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde; Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith; Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler; madness, by sam sax; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay. Five works of visual art: Tehran Taboo, directed by Ali Soozandeh; the “Vetiver Night Women” series, by Brianna McCarthy; the poster collection from the Justseeds collaborative; “Little Miss Sunshine,” by Hebru Brantley; and “Color(ed) Theory,” by Amanda Williams.

 

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Ashunda Norris is a fierce feminist, filmmaker, poet and teacher whose most recent work as a filmmaker has screened internationally, including Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya. She was born and raised in the heart of rural Georgia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, Huffington Post, The Rush Magazine and elsewhere. She is a proud alumna of Howard University and Paine College and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mount Saint Mary's University. Ashunda is a Cave Canem fellow and has received a residency from The Lemon Tree House. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

 

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A Review of Diane Seuss' Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Peter LaBerge

BY E.B. SCHNEPP

 Diane Seuss'  Still Life with Two Peacocks and a Girl  (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Diane Seuss' Still Life with Two Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A story presented through still life, Diane Seuss’ fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, exquisitely layers self, art, and language, while struggling with femininity, violence, and the question of the gaze. A collection set primarily within paintings, we see both self and painting only in fragments: the folded hands of a girl, the tail feathers of a dead peacock, a basket of fruit. Only at the collection’s conclusion do we see Rembrandt’s painting, from which the collection borrows its title, and arguably the self of the poems, whole. By this point, we know the painting and, indeed, the story Seuss is trying to tell, all the better for its slow approach to completion. This slow reveal doesn’t come from a desire to conceal or from a coyness, but rather from a well-crafted intention to draw the reader in—all the while making the reader question precisely from where they are viewing the image and the speaker. Are we in a gallery surrounded by paintings, viewed at one’s own leisure, led by an eccentric guide? Or are readers themselves bound by canvas and frame, being as much the viewed as the viewer?

Still Life both opens and closes within a painting titled Paradise, wherein Seuss introduces readers to the painting as self: “I have lived in a painting called Paradise, and even the bad parts / were beautiful.” In this first poem, the speaker shows readers around her world, piece by piece, the same way we are brought to the art and to the speaker herself. But it is also an exploration of borders and boundaries, a journey we do not take alone as we wander through the world of the speaker, getting to know her through the art she lives within.

[…] I am told some girls
slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it,
and some even climb over the edge and plummet to wherever

Before we can reach this point of understanding, we have to take time to live in the painting, within the frame, to wander in and out of the lives given to us on canvas, and occasionally to slip behind the eyes of the men and women who created them. Mid-collection, painters find themselves painted into the quintessential Midwestern landmark, Wal-mart. “Like you, we enter the store. Like you, we exit. The light outside will not relent.” All of these figures—the real imagined in a new space and the imagined presented as real—are treated with such tenderness and reverence it’s impossible to look away, impossible to not imagine Georgia O’Keefe, for example, standing beside you in a Wal-mart parking lot:

from above, we’d like to believe, it’s made of the same bone that we are.
How high would we have to go to see it as the skull of the deer we found
summers ago in the creek bed? Deep down we know it was not born and
cannot die.

This journey through painting and representation to the real also comes with loss and considerable harm to the speaker. The tangible “Real” that the speaker ventures toward and ultimately escapes into means inhabiting a body and the baggage that comes with that existence.

[…] I flew when I was five. Levitated, I guess.
                                                    […] Floated

there as if in a warm sea. It happened often
until I was ten, when I had the thought
that human beings can’t fly and was dropped,
As if from the beak of a large owl, onto the floor.

I was banged up. Cuts and bruises.
From then on, inhabiting my body felt shameful,
like I’d been ejected from the Garden and was
sentenced to a life of peeing and wiping,

But more than the raw shame of being a body, Seuss gets to the core of the daily violence of inhabiting the world; she gets to the daily maintenance and indignities of those bodies. She reminds us that “to belong to the land / and the people that made you is itchy / as hand-knitted wool.” This never negates a deep love for those same people but merely acknowledges the irritation and ache of it, which in the end makes the tenderness she has for the characters and figures of this collection all the sweeter and more meaningful.

Seuss and, indeed, her speaker are testing the boundaries of the body and frame—both a literal picture frame, the frame of a poem, and the more metaphorical frame of existence. The literal picture frame in which the recurring female painted figures find themselves contained is also being toyed with in a more literal fashion, the itchiness of inhabitation and the tenderness toward the figures on the other side of the idealized Paradise measured—until, finally, she finds the courage to leave:

                                                          […] I remembered
 
it all: my yellow room, my little crib with decals of butterflies
and a black-and-white dog and a gold cat on the headboard,

how I’d compose stories about them in my head before I could
speak, and the yellow bird we kept in a cage […]

                                                          […] I wanted
my mother, and this is why I left Paradise.

In traveling through these poems, we are slowly exposed to the literal painting that haunts this collection until, finally, we can see the full image at the same time that the speaker finally escapes her frame. These concepts speak volumes to the palpable constraint of the poems, as well as to the gaze. With the figures of the painting stepping beyond the frame, they become a little more real—whole individuals (typically female and, as such, more likely objects gazed upon than active participants) given more direct agency. The empowerment and revitalization of these typically-female figures—the perspective shift, each gazing at the world from their frame—shifts our perspectives and expectations as much as Seuss’ speaker stepping directly out of the frame and back into the “Real.”

Throughout Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, Seuss demonstrates remarkable tenderness toward her figures and speakers, exquisite control over form and design, and has given us, her readers, another exquisite collection, where visual art and poem are combined into an inextricable whole. Readers can’t help but be drawn into the frames the figures occupy, joining the speaker post-expulsion from the constrained but safe world of the painting into the sweet ache of reality upon its close. The world outside the pages seems fresh and leaves the reader questioning what or which frames they occupy, who they are gazing upon, who is gazing upon them, and most terrifying of all, what they might find if they took the leap, if they were to fully occupy and embody whatever lies beyond.

 

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E.B. Schnepp is a poet hailing from rural Mid-Michigan who currently finds herself stranded in the flatlands of Ohio. Her reviews can also be found in the Mid-American Review, and her poetry can be found in QU, The Evansville Review, and Roanoke Review, among others.

 

 

A Review of Eric Pankey's Augury by Peter LaBerge

BY BEN LEE

 Eric Pankey's  Augury  (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Eric Pankey's Augury (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Speculation—the foundation for all things literary and scientific—harbors the ambiguous no-man’s-land between curiosity and truth. In poetry, speculation offers the incredible capacity to alter perception and shed new light. Speculation is hope; it is risk, and to be perfectly clear, speculation is everything. Eric Pankey’s newest collection of poems, Augury, brings speculation to the forefront of his literary adventure and offers the reader a chance to step into a surreal and uncharted realm of explication.

Centered around the conflation of metaphysicality and seemingly mundane objects, each line in Pankey’s book shape-shifts. In his poem, “Another Time,” Pankey exhibits such fluid adaptations in imagery to give dimension to a chipped flower vase at a funeral for someone’s mother: “[She] felt the flaw on the vase’s neck: / A crack as fine as fishbone in the glaze / […] The past, she’d learned, is like a fishhook— / Curved and barbed” (43). Suddenly, the fractured vase at the mother’s wake—seemingly mundane and insignificant—arrests the protagonist like the way a tiny but sharp hook latches onto a fish. In other words, Pankey’s sentences are like minefields, cunningly ridden with trap doors and explosions where one least expects.

Often taking the form of concise conjectures, his poems also leave the reader with a hint of mysterious distrust, as many of them contain a dissonance that can only be resolved by reading further into the book. His poem “Vespers” literally culminates in a final note on the evening prayers in question. In a final breath, the speaker remarks, “The drone upon which harmony hangs” (40). The fragmented sentence, coupled with its physical separation from any other line in the poem, emit an actual feeling of dissonance. Amazingly, Pankey recreates a musical setting within poetry, striking a final chord that, while poignant, begs to be continued. Furthermore, Pankey’s poems act like puzzles, as they challenge their beholder to make new sense of both how they appreciate the space around them and how they interact with their confines. From ponderings on celestial allure to the gritty reality of Midwest alcoholism, Pankey slyly intertwines an area of reality with dreaming. In his “Speculation on Immanence,” he explicates the implications of confinement, noting:

The room is
Unnoteworthy
Except for the dreams…

And Magdalene’s face

Still illuminated
By the skull
She consults (27).

In essence, Pankey clouds the difference between mental and physical captivity. One’s own head space becomes synonymous to a cell-like room, as if to say that internal thoughts can be just as enclosing as a physical internment; what may happen in a dream interchanges with reality.

Although many of his poems consist of two to three line stanzas, Augury also contains a more lengthy piece with a singular nugget of prose on each page—often made poignant by the delicate use of paradox. In a speculation on melancholia, the speaker self-reflects, asserting that he is “Distracted, attached / To an absence, / Attentive to only distractedness” (17). Instead of writing about distraction outright, Pankey toys with the duality of attentiveness and distractedness, utilizing paradox to blur the convention that a person can only exist in a state of one or the other. Additionally, in an emphasis on the importance of speculation in creating poetry, Pankey admits, "At a loss of words, I write poems" (38). Here, Pankey remarks that poetry lives to explicate the inexplicable; in order to make sense of what is unfamiliar, a poet must draw from and transmute what they already know. As a result of this rationalization and subsequent experimentation, paradox bubbles to the surface.

Aside from paradox, some of Pankey’s poems also employ elements of wonder, as to create a whimsical awe that disrupts otherwise dark images. The speaker in his longer prose piece, “Souvenir de Voyage,” recalls a fantastical journey, laced with outlandish imagery: “Don’t expect to find there votaries of a vestigial cult of Dionysus, twin falcons rending the flank of a gazelle, or a shroud of jade squares held together with copper wire” (68). Dionysus, the Greek god of grape harvest and wine-making, connotes a luxurious sentiment. In corroboration, the likeness of two falcons on either side of a gazelle embodies a graceful but mythical scene. To top it all off, the jade and copper add a material regalness, resulting in a wholly fanciful section of the poem. As a whole, Augury simultaneously grapples with dark paradox along with fantastic imagery. In the employment of both truth and abstraction, he blurs the lines of thematic conflict, leaving the reader to make sense of a void in which what is real and what is not are open to question. Essentially, Augury enforces not only meditation, but speculation.

 

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Originally from the Twin Cities area, Ben Lee is the 2017 National Student Poet for the Midwest and a two-time national medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. He attends The Blake School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Raise Your Glass: Mentorship alums Aidan Forster, Jacqueline He, & Alisha Yi named U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts by Peter LaBerge

We couldn't be more excited to share that mentorship alums Aidan Forster (of Greenville, S.C.), Jacqueline He (of San Jose, Calif.), and Alisha Yi (of Las Vegas, N.V.) are this year's three U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts for the Writing discipline, in the genres of Creative Nonfiction, Short Story, and Poetry respectively. 

 

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Aidan Forster

Aidan Forster is a high school senior in the creative writing program at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina. His work has been honored by the National YoungArts Foundation, the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards, and the Poetry Society of America, among others. His work appears in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2017BOAATColumbia Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, and Tin House, among others. Aidan will be a freshman at Brown University in the fall, and his debut chapbook of poems, Exit Pastoral, is forthcoming from YesYes Books.

Aidan has a long and rich history with The Adroit Journal. After his freshman year of high school, Aidan participated in the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program for high school writers, during which he studied poetry with poet Cody Ernst. Aidan then joined our staff as a Blog Editor, where he led the execution of our interviews, reviews, op-ed's, and other forms of blog content. Aidan then traded in his editor hat for his contributor hat, landing on the editor's list for the Adroit Prize for Poetry in 2016, being named both the runner-up for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose and a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry, and being named a finalist for the 2018 Gregory Djanikian Scholars Program. This summer, Aidan will serve as a poetry mentor in the 2018 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program.


Jacqueline He

Jacqueline He is a high school senior and writer from San Jose, California. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, Bennington College, Princeton University, Columbia College Chicago, John Hopkins University, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the Claremont Review, Gigantic Sequins, and Radar Poetry. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Jackie studied fiction with Dana Diehl in the 2017 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, after being named a semifinalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry. She will be the Prose Summer Assistant for this year's summer mentorship program, and will be a freshman at Princeton University in the fall.

You can click here to read a wonderful suite of poems by Jackie published in Radar Poetry.


Alisha Yi

Alisha Yi is a rising senior at Ed. W Clark High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Princeton University, and Hollins University, among others. She has work in or forthcoming from Slice Magazine, the Miami RailHermeneutic ChaosUp the Staircase Quarterly, and elsewhere. When she isn't writing, she is running free in desert lands.

Alisha studied poetry with Cody Ernst in our 2016 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, and was a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Poetry, selected by Safiya Sinclair. She will be a freshman at Harvard University in the fall.

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Congratulations to all students recognized by the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program! The 2018 ceremony will be held June 24th, when each honoree will receive a Presidential Scholar Medallion.

Review: Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer Cara Dees.

  Darling Nova , by Melissa Cundieff (Autumn House Press, 2018).

Darling Nova, by Melissa Cundieff (Autumn House Press, 2018).

As the title suggests, Darling Nova explores both the intimate and the infinite, documenting the brilliant, immense fragility of human and animal life immediately before and after it has dimmed. Melissa Cundieff’s first full-length poetry collection announces its obsessions from the first poem: “reminiscence is an augury / backwards, a slow bullet returning to us, now.” Here, speakers mourn not only those whom they have lost, but also the futures that will never come to fruition, consumed alongside the dead. Like the return of the “slow bullet,” reminiscing is a form of retroactive self-destruction. In this space, Cundieff seeks to warn, remember, and record, “To show the crows / that coins can be plucked after all from our friends’ eyes.”

Cundieff’s attention to the transient and the evanescent echoes throughout the many elegies piercing the collection, whether it portrays a child mourning the loss of “a floating pinpoint of dust” or a speaker’s first experience with death after watching a hawk’s “pupil turn...so black / I felt as though I had been blindfolded and led high up / a cliff, then pushed.” Settings range from a John Wayne movie set seeped in carcinogens, to a mass killing in Oklahoma State University’s homecoming parade, to the island of Kos. The latter is the backdrop to “Ellipsis,” an unblinking lament for Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy made famous in the photograph depicting his drowning:

Trying to think of a next, selfish line,
I’ll hear his breath like white noise.
(Looking past the water’s surface, pennies

in blue sleep. Is it not built into our eyes
to be sorry?)

Most often, the elegies of Darling Nova focus on the deaths of children and the “never-born” from the poem, “Hurt Music.” The voices of the dead disappear and reappear, a “living ghost to my edges,” reminders of the adult’s ironic outliving of the young existence she cannot shield from harm.I cannot help but think of Joanna Newsom’s gut-wrenching song, “Baby Birch,” the lyrics of which serve as the epigraph to the collection: “And at the back of what we’ve done / There is the knowledge of you.” Though only mentioned once, “Baby Birch” haunts the book, whether in the unflinching portrayal of abortion (“The bell’s emptied space / has no name”) or within the immeasurably delicate tissues of a man receiving the news of his terminal illness in “A Scene”:

When told decay
has made its way into his absolute,

where thinnest vessels flicke
in synapse and in remembered birdsong...

In this poem, the subject’s future is suddenly amputated, any prospect of survival cut short. The speaker is left to recognize and contemplate what the man “doesn’t recognize...all those losses / parading the bone-white god’s breath / of x-ray with its careful promises.” Like the image-driven lyricism of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, in which “the dead can mother nothing...nothing but our sight,” Cundieff is concerned with the act of witnessing death, the survivor’s consequent trauma, and the unreliability of written accounts of that witnessing.

Cundieff speaks to this witnessing with an incisive, luminous detail that permeates elegies like “Poem for Infinite Returns,” in which the speaker vows to “not make a metaphor of you,” or in the poem, “Hoping Wherever You Are, You Are Not Watching”:

                    In this trial of willing
you and your dogs to the widening, altered sky, I will call,
but you will not answer, because you, like our father, cannot,
could not ever, bear the asking noise of my voice.

Though often confronted with silence, abandonment, or the dark, laconic responses of household objects and animals, the speaker insists on finding answers in the voices of the past, even though she warns the reader of the danger of this undertaking, as in “Adam in Love”: “The risk of remembering is guilt, my friends, / and the clock’s beating lockstep, real.” There is real consequence in this struggle against forgetting; remembrance carries with it both guilt and the fixed grind of time.

Cundieff’s insistence on mourning, despite its certainty of guilt and pain, recalls Larry Levis’ declaration: “Every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory / Someone remembering her diminishment & pain.” As in Levis, the voices that answer the speaker—if they do answer—tend to be brutally, bitingly honest, as in “Eyeteeth”:

                  So often I ask my house
for its honesty. It answers back: stacking doll, rind, bitch,
chanteuse, fist. I ask again. This time, what is memory made of?
The house answers: compass, compulsion, headlights fugitive at night,
teeth speaking their white, a birthday cake on fire, a mirror’s
ten thousand scraped and silver darlings.

If remembering is an act of revolution or defiance, it is also an act of love, one that insists on praising the “silver darlings” of the smashed reflection alongside the bright ferocity of fire, teeth, and bone.

At times Cundieff moves into the realm of prophecy and myth, with speakers centered between the living and the dead, the spoken and the unspoken, the past and the present. These aphoristic interjections, typically set off in italics, are a trademark of Cundieff’s work, as in the never-born’s command to “Carry me in the bell, betrayer. / In the apogee of your voice / to my voice.” In “Indexical,” both the “necessary message” of the leaves and the speaker’s thoughts take on an oracular weight:

                                             October leaves
assemble a necessary message, the bright red

of their dying a symptom of denial.

The weather knows there is no such thing
as the absolute absence of hope.
I doubt

in a year we will even be talking.

The speaker is not only a reader of signs; she is also a translator and messenger, even if that message is one of silence or of the unspeakability of love or grief. Poetry and song have within them the potential for both ecstasy and transcendence. In Darling Nova, that transcendence is less about rising above the human realm and is more dependent upon confronting and staring down decay, transforming it into the human. “I sang my old / language with a worm in it,” the speaker of “Rebirth” intones. “[A]nd the worm dangled / with every exhale it took to conjure the distant / vowels of humanness.”

In the second half of the collection, “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” and “Paradox” mark a shift in focus; while continuing to contemplate mortality, humanness, and language’s incapacity to fully encompass the two, there is a growing concern with desire and the living body. In “Paradox,” the heart, which “cannot speak at all without / metaphor,” bursts beyond human expression, compelling the speaker to “realize I’m not dead yet, / that I can come back from fading / into the body’s old routine / of being alive.” The heart offers the physical pulse and rush of blood, but it is also uncontainable, powerfully elusive, and a testament to the limitations of language, “just a tongue not knowing / not even touching, / another tongue.” Later, in “As Beginning, As End,” the mother speaks to the daughter who wishes to travel back in time to reclaim her infancy, “We have left each other / for each other. The body wishes. The body is a wish.” The mother and daughter have, by necessity, separated into two solitudes, and the infant daughter, “all tangle / before word” has disappeared. The body is more than the vessel of a soul, spirit, or consciousness; it is its own hymn to vitality in all its devastating impermanence.

Darling Nova conjures a deep loneliness, the ache and anodyne of motherhood and daughterhood, and the finite scope of language, itself. There is much that distinguishes this collection from others—its subtle musicality and fierce, fearless imagery, for starters—but part of what makes these poems tick is also the incandescent steel of the voices underpinning the universe Cundieff creates. Her speakers do not shy away from “our anxieties / over death, over divorce and children, / [that] stare out like fallen fruits.” Rather, they “hold the rotten pear” and “stab...the wolf / in its yellow iris.” They fight tooth-and-nail to praise the body, to name suffering, to “tell the leaves above me that I've come here / to watch them change.”

 

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Cara Dees holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and teaches at Vanderbilt and Fisk University. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and was named a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, The Journal, GulfCoast, and Southern Humanities Review. Recently, her first manuscript was listed as a finalist or semifinalist for the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award.

Review: Music for a Wedding by Lauren Clark (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer, Irina Teveleva.

Note: Reviewer Irina Teveleva and Adroit Interview and Reviews Manager Lauren R. Korn have created a Spotify playlist to accompany your reading of this review and subsequent (and inevitable) readings of Music for a Wedding. You can listen to "Music for a Book Review" here.

  Music for a Wedding , by Lauren Clark (Pitt Poetry Series, 2017).

Music for a Wedding, by Lauren Clark (Pitt Poetry Series, 2017).

 

The epigraph to Lauren Clark’s debut poetry collection Music for a Wedding, the winner of the 2016 Donald Hall Prize, comes from The Kinks’ song “Strangers.” The lyrics that open the collection suggest a love song rather than a dirge: “’til peace we find, tell you what I’ll do: / all the things I own, I will share with you.” The song, though, is about grief. The Kinks’ guitarist, Dave Davies, wrote the song for a friend who had died young of a drug overdose. In a 2010 interview with Stay Thirsty Magazine, Davies said, “It was like, what might have been if he hadn’t died so tragically.”

As the epigraph suggests, Music, too, is a book that catches the light at different angles. It is a book about a marriage ceremony, but it is also about a journey through the American heartland. It is a mixtape that features poems written after songs by Derek & The Dominos, Adele, Whitney Houston, The Mamas & The Papas, and the Lonesome Sisters. Most of all, it is a book about moving through grief and about searching for love, community, and connection—even when you feel the most lost.

If Music were an album, it would feature train signals and church organs, party noise and birdsong—Clark’s voice drawing everything together. One can hear the harmonic structure in “Mother’s Day,” the second poem in the collection. The speaker’s mother is digging through backyard dirt, searching for her dead husband as if to exhume him. One might expect the speaker to intervene, but instead they encourage her:

You have to pick up every shovel
and keep turning the ground. You
have to move soil until your hands
curdle. […] They will tell you
it’s wrong to keep shoveling, but
shovel forever. We all do.

This poem becomes an extended metaphor for the necessity of unearthing family secrets and airing skeletons hiding in closets. Clark’s speaker is telling the reader, you must talk about loss. Others will tell you that it’s wrong to keep grieving. They are wrong.

From this overturned soil, Music travels by train through rural America, past dark hills and lakes, farms and water towers, past daffodils old and new toward “the place / that is bigger than loss. The place that is big enough to hold every absence.”

In college, an archaeology professor taught me that in traveling, you should tune yourself to the local landscape in the same way that you would turn the dial in your car to the local radio station. In this way, he said, you should be able to recognize a small brook or a nameless hill in the landscape as a site of revelation, as much as a mountain or a canyon. When I read Music, I finally understood the metaphor; in this book, a field of corn can take on spiritual meaning. In “Listening to ‘Rolling in the Deep’ for Twenty Hours Straight,” Clark’s speaker describes how they watched as, outside of the train window, “All the people I love were standing in a mass in the middle of the spring / cornfield.” The field becomes a stand-in for human connection; “the cornfield taught me how much / can be mistaken for the touch of a human.” At this poem’s conclusion, the loved ones turn from each other, walking away in different directions. The poem ends, and the train and the speaker, too, are carried away.

In Music, the landscape becomes transformed by loss. Several of these poems gesture at a relationship between domestic violence and the violent history of westward expansion in the U.S. This collection resists easy answers about abuse. In “Parable,” a young child likens their body and that of an alcoholic father’s to a leg partnered with a shorter leg that others might see as deformed:

                     Who says both legs
have to be totally the same. Leg,
I can love your shortcomings.
Think of us as a set that walks.

It seems apt that a marriage ceremony is intertwined with the cross-country journey—two melodies in counterpoint. Over its course, small animals burn in a field and flower pots shatter; kitchenware is left outside and is filled with rainwater. This is a book of love poems—for people and for places—from a speaker who knows violence but holds hope for healing. And yet, so often, the speaker is also confronted with the limitations of what language can accomplish. In two poems about falling in love, sentences end with “and” unexpectedly, and. Then carry on again. In Clark’s translation, Catullus 101 is carved down to “I love you and I can’t prove it. / I love you and you don’t know.” The last poem in the collection, “Illinois in Spring,” concludes with the lines, “The wonder of watching a flying bird land / on water. The end of the line will always give you that feeling.” It is the end of the poetic line and, because this is the last poem in the book, the last stop on this train ride. This is as far as you can go; poetry can’t prevent an ending. One can anticipate that the dead will stay dead and that the lover might leave for good.

There is so much that Clark’s poetry can do for its readers. I read Clark’s poem about a road trip through the West, “Western Zuihitsu,” last spring, before it was reprinted in Music. Two weeks later, in the midst of life changes, I bought a train ticket to visit a friend in Indiana. It felt right to be physically moved by a poem, but as the train I was on rolled through the Midwest, I also thought about loss.

In these moments of transformation, Clark’s poetry is a source of strength and comfort. These dream-like poems are enough to stand on. Their promise is not that you will not lose anyone, but rather that you will move through the loss. In Music for a Wedding, as Clark writes in “Western Zuihitsu,” “The ground is made of soft stones and clay. It is like standing on the most enormous heart.”

 

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Irina Teveleva is a poet and writer. She was born in Moscow and lives in New York.

Review: Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out by Grant Kittrell (Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By Guest Reviewer, Mike Good.

  Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out , by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out, by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

A bear is arrested by a policeman for walking too slowly, a favorite plaid shirt begins to bleed, and fictional places like The Gallimaufry Goat Farm collide with Jacksonville, Florida. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, Grant Kittrell’s debut poetry collection, leads its reader through unpredictable, surreal, and slapstick scenarios. Comprised of short prose poems, the collection often troubles the genre line between flash fiction and poetry. In much of his work, Kittrell reveals a fascination with idiom and strikes a conversational tone, showering his reader in speech, often imagined.

Tony Hoagland reflects on the potential and uses of idiom in poetry in an essay that first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 2014, writing, “The dictionary says that there are twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in common American use. Our speech is rife with idiom; we use it in the way that animals deploy various smells and glands—to tell others who we are, and whom we are with. Or, conversely, maybe we use it the way chameleons use color: to blend in.” With lines like “…I, laughing, long with the thought kept driving” in the short poem “Nana,” Kittrell seems to signal a Southern cadence. Aside from shading the collection in regionalism, Kittrell plays with idioms, setting up runways to take off into more surreal or abstract landscapes. In Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, the world is much like ours, but through language, possibilities beyond observed realities multiply.

Take, for instance, “Papa’s Crispies,” the fourth poem in the collection. The shared syllable in “pop” and “papa” creates onomatopoeia and, alongside “crispies,” immediately recalls the “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” mascots for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. The collocation of “snap,” “crackle,” and “pop” feels like an idiom deeply rooted within the cultural zeitgeist of the U.S.; these adverts first appeared in the 1920s. For me, the allusion evokes brief moments at the breakfast table with siblings before school. I imagine the white noise of a television flashing from another room alongside morning commotion. Thus, I feel as though I am already sitting down with the poet when “Papa’s Crispies” begins via a run-on line from the title, “[…] are still popping. But at the kitchen counter he’s getting soggy and she’s getting all soggy and they know it and sometimes they do not pop at each other like they used to.” “Soggy cereal” also arguably holds a place in our idiomatic word stock. Functionally, the phrase pulls the reader into the poem, piquing the imagination while Kittrell refreshes the image by applying “soggy” to the human body to suggest stagnancy. Meanwhile, the idiom “to pop off,” meaning to speak spontaneously and angrily at length, also lurks beneath. The implied violence becomes both playful and unsettling, and the popping continues. The speaker worries over their father, questioning, “I wonder what happens inside him when he finishes all those crispies, if the popping inside him has something to do with his keeping going.” This dreamy, childlike imagination coalesces at the ending in wonder and horror: “I take a mouthful, hold the crispies on my tongue and tilt my head back like I’m screaming. I’m not screaming, I’m just trying to understand.” In the end, the poem may have very little to do with cereal, but instead touches a universal nerve of isolation and concern. Idiom enriches many of these poems and invites its reader into the poet’s world.

As the collection’s title might imply, the act of understanding and reflecting on matters of the body and spirit are central to the whole, even if through a screwball lens. Often, in these reflections, humor explodes into violence, sadness, or longing. James Tate once wrote, according to a Paris Review interview with Charles Simic, “It’s a tragic story, but that’s what’s so funny.” As the reader moves with the author between tragedy and comedy, one device Kittrell utilizes to navigate this challenge is dialogue. Perhaps, unlike lyric, conversations are often more able to veer in unexpected ways while remaining true to their form, and the use of dialogue seems to me uncommon in contemporary poetry.

“Would You Rather” is one such piece that incorporates dialogue and offers morbid entertainment. The poem plays with the comedic, party-game construction as the speaker converses with a character named Molly Jean. In this piece, no quotation marks or italics offset the speech, blurring what is described with what is said. Molly Jean asks, “Would you rather kill one cow or thirty chickens? I’d rather kill a cow, I said. Suddenly, out of nowhere a cow appeared.” If a more lyrical or metrical underpinning were expected, as compared to the more relaxed and loose nature of the prose poem, I might beg for more precision—for instance, is it necessary to preface a cow appearing from thin air with “Suddenly, out of nowhere…”? But conversation is rarely precise, and in the poem, the rhythm of the revelation feels right. The would-you-rather dilemma escalates as the speaker debates with Molly Jean about the logic or illogic of the world and, at her command, attempts to stab and kill the cow. The speaker describes in unbroken deadpan, “I noticed there was cotton hanging from the cow’s severed neck and I thought, this does not make sense at all.” At this moment, the conflict deflates as the cow transforms, yet the conversation proceeds. Molly Jean continues, “Would you rather be a woman for a year or win 10,000 dollars? I said, I’d rather be a woman, and she raised her eyebrows again.” In this moment, “Would You Rather” continues beyond its conclusion and leaves its reader with an image of perhaps scrutiny or incredulity.

Though the collection feels thin at just 53 pages, it is perhaps in-part due to its relative brevity that it also never appears beleaguered by the prose poem form. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out manages to be playful but does not arrive without gravity. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein in her reflections on the prose poem in her essay “A Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem,” Natasha Sajé writes, “…prose is about verbs and poetry is about nouns: ‘Poetry is doing nothing but refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.’ Prose gets somewhere, but poetry is wherever it is” (The Writer’s Chronicle, June 2012). If that is the case, poems in this collection are. They are catalogs of a reality told slant. They are sitting down and figuring themselves out one word at time and rarely reaching tidy conclusions. Readers will have the delight of sitting down with this unique collection as it takes risks and catapults them into different worlds.

 

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

Review: The Undressing by Li-Young Lee by Peter LaBerge

By Jason Myers, Guest Reviewer.

 Li-Young Lee,  The Undressing  (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Li-Young Lee, The Undressing (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Listen is the first word in Li-Young Lee’s rapturous fifth collection of poems, The Undressing. It is both invitation and invocation, a question and a command. Every word in Lee’s verse has this charged quality, a way of being many things at once. The book is “For The Lovers/And The Manifold Beloved,” and the love that Lee inhabits in these poems ranges from the close to the cosmic, as he addresses—and undresses—partner and Creator. “Beloved” is what God calls Jesus following his baptism, and God instructs those present to “listen to” Jesus. In Christian theology, Jesus is saturated in all being—he is manifold. Manifold is an operative word throughout these poems: many and folded. “Five in one body, begotten, not made,” he writes in a later poem called “Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet.” In the collection's first long poem, which shares its title, he declares, “A word has many lives.” Listen conditions both the reader and the speaker of the poem, as the speaker is engaged in foreplay, while the beloved is more interested in conversation than coitus.

There are the stories we tell ourselves, she says.

There are stories we tell others.

Then there’s the sum

of our hours

death will render legible.

Dialogue, in Lee’s hands, serves as both seduction and sacrament, a means of communication and a means of communion. “The Undressing” is about being naked both physically and spiritually. Dressing means putting on clothing as well as tending a wound, so the undressing Lee performs has erotic, psychoanalytic, and medicinal qualities. The voice of the beloved is sometimes playful, sometimes corrective: “I want you to touch me / as if you want to know me, not arouse me.” Still elsewhere it comes from that place where the psalmist said deep calls to deep: “One and one is one, she says. / Bare shineth in bare.”

Born to Chinese parents in Indonesia before his family fled from persecution to the U.S., Lee’s work has been imbued from the beginning with the compressed, ideogrammatic lucidity of classical Asian poetry, as well as the oracular expansiveness of prophets ranging from Isaiah to Whitman. “The Undressing” is his most mesmerizing long poem since “The Cleaving,” the final poem in his second collection, The City in Which I Love You.

As in “The Cleaving,” Lee finds pleasure and pain in close proximity, sometimes inseparable; he recognizes that those who wound us are often those who heal us. His poetry is haunted by family and world history, and also demonstrates tremendous tenderness for both. “Nothing saves him who’s never loved,” he writes, leaving ambiguous whether salvation is denied one who doesn’t give love or doesn’t receive it. It could be that love and salvation are symbiotic. In the next line Lee declares, “No world is safe in that one’s keeping.” He could be speaking of Trump, and/or he could be speaking of Mao, as he upholds Pound’s criterion of poetry being “news that stays news.” At the end of his long poem Lee writes, “For 20,000 years, human groups have thrived / by subtle and not so subtle mechanisms / of expulsion, exclusion, rejection, elimination, and murder.”

This tone is a rare lapse from the supple, enigmatic one that sustains most of the poem. No longer engaged in lovemaking, the speaker has put on his professorial robe and spectacles—though he does return to his original impulse. “If love doesn’t prevail,” he asks after descrying the decadence of our American moment (“One nation under the weapon”), “who wants to live in this world?” He then predicts the effort that will be required for love to prevail, “Ratifying ancient covenants. Establishing new cities.” In lines like this Lee makes clear that, like D. H. Lawrence before him, he composes under the spell of the Book of Revelation, with its visions of a new heaven and a new earth.

The incantatory nature of Lee’s work also owes something to St. Francis (“He is / my sister, this / beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite, / keeper of Sabbaths”) and to Sylvia Plath (“Seraphic herald of the ninth echelon, / pleromatic eon demanding a founding gnosis, her voice electric tekhelet, Septuagint, a two-leaved door”), yet his tendencies toward combining the intimate and the vatic, the personal and the political, have forged a new vernacular. Only Lee can conjure lines like “The menace of the abyss will be subdued,” “your body is the Lord’s pure geometry,” and “It was even before there were numbers, / those fearsome first angels.”

As Rilke, one of Lee’s acknowledged inspirations, once wrote, “Every angel is terrifying.” Yet Lee, fearless and devout, goes in search of dialogue with angels. The long, penultimate poem of The Undressing is a report of one such dialogue. Lee writes,

What’s The Word! she cries

from her purchase on the iron

finial of the front gate to my heart.

These are the opening lines of “Changing Places in the Fire,” an apocalypse in which a “sparrow with a woman’s face / roars in the burdened air.” The Word is, of course, one of the figures applied to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Surely the sparrow-woman knows this, yet she is intent on getting Lee to confess or testify.

I tell her, I sang

in a church choir during one war

North American TV made famous.

Such songs make The Undressing a psalmody, a prayer book of uncommon wit and beauty. “Say what’s The Word or we both die!” the sparrow-woman demands later, echoing Auden’s line at the end of “September 1, 1939.” For Lee, the work of a poet is to summon, say, wrestle with, dress and undress the divine. “An exile from the first word, / and a refugee / of an illegible past,” he continues to produce from the materials of his life love songs for the body and the soul. Listen to him.

 

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Jason Myers is the poetry editor of The EcoTheo Review. A National Poetry Series finalist, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, West Branch, and numerous other journals. He received an MFA from NYU and an MDiv from Emory University in Atlanta, where he was licensed to the ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he works in hospice.

Conversations with Contributors: Hala Alyan (Fiction, Poetry) by Peter LaBerge

By John Stintzi, Guest Interviewer.

 Hala Alyan.  SALT HOUSES  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017),  The Twenty-Ninth Year  (Mariner Books, 2019).

Hala Alyan. SALT HOUSES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), The Twenty-Ninth Year (Mariner Books, 2019).

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and is currently longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

John Stintzi: While reading your debut novel, Salt Houses, there are definite moments in the prose where the language does something—usually something figurative that breaks out of the narrative mode into a purely evocative moment—that reminds me that you’re also a poet. Your fiction reads quite differently than your poetry, though. How do you find yourself working in either form? Do you go through phases of writing either poetry or fiction, or does it vary day-to-day?

Hala Alyan: I’ve always worked in both forms simultaneously, usually tackling a few different projects at once. I find that to be the most refreshing way to approach writing in general, because if I find myself burnt out with one project, I can busy myself with another. It can sometimes be a little distracting, but more than makes up for it in terms of feeling engaged with the work. Each process feeds a different part of myself: I can be more reckless with poetry, asking less of myself and more willing to leave it up to feeling inspired. I can leave poetry alone for months at a time, then write feverishly for weeks. But fiction demands more precision and discipline for me; it’s required me to build more of a muscle and dedicated practice. I’ll usually write poetry when I feel like it and write thirty minutes a day of prose no matter what.

 

Do you find that there is a difference in what you end up expressing with either form? Do you find either form better suited for certain kinds of work?

HA: I definitely think so. For me, if what I’m trying to say feels incomplete in poetic form, it means it’s time to try prose. Salt Houses is a good example of that; I wanted to tell a multigenerational story that spanned time and space. Poetry didn’t seem like the best fit for that sort of narrative. I think I also tend to rely on poetry to process more intrapsychic emotions and experiences, while fiction is a place I can imagine those of others.

 

Salt Houses is set in the middle-east and is a family epic about the Yacoub family, a Palestinian family who—at the beginning of the book—are displaced by the Six-Day War. Did you find that, knowing a majority of your western audience was likely unfamiliar with the particulars of that region of the world (and particularly that conflict), that you had to act as a sort of ‘translator’? Did knowing your audience might not be familiar have any effect on how you decided to tell this story?

HA: I have to say, I wasn’t thinking much about audience at all, which is probably the best way to get through writing a first novel. Otherwise, I would’ve been crippled by it. Whenever I did envision a reader, it was usually my brother or another family member. I think that freed me up to just tell the story of the Yacoub family, paying attention to whatever details regarding the political realities I wanted to. Of course, once the book was in the editing process with the publishing house, I had to clarify certain details. I never did put a glossary of Arabic terms in the back, though, because we live in an age where these things are fairly easy to research. It might require a little more of the reader, but I feel okay asking for it and grateful when it’s done.

 

Do you find that living in New York, at a remove from cities in the novel, like Kuwait City or Beirut, makes it a harder job to place your work there? Did you find yourself needing to revisit some of these cities when writing the book?

HA: Not so much harder as more nostalgic. I found myself yearning for a lot of those cities, and spent a lot of time looking at photographs and listening to music. I even found some ambient street noise! It helped that I was able to visit nearly every city I reference in the book in the years I spent writing it. I wasn’t always writing about the particular city I happened to be visiting, but even just sitting in a café or wandering around the streets at night helped recharge my emotional and cultural memory.

 

As well as a writer, you’re also a clinical psychologist. In another interview you talked about how this helps you develop your characters, but I’m interested in how emotionally taxing that job must be and how that aspect might affect the work. Is it ever a challenge to put your patients’ troubles aside when you sit down to write?

HA: That’s a great question, and not one I’ve thought a lot about. I suppose there’s a lot of emotional labor put into learning to separate clinical work from personal life, and I actually think that the bulk of that work happened during my training years. I definitely found myself inundated by clinical material, particularly traumatic stories of displacement and asylum seeking, and had some brilliant supervisors and peers along the way who helped guide me to a place where I can be present for my clients but also recognize the need to keep my private life separate. Of course, some days I’m more successful than others!

 

In Salt Houses, I find a lot of the characters have these moments where their emotions swell up and they either are washed over with them, or—more often—the characters tamp the feelings back down. It feels like there’s a lot of denial of reality, which is not surprising for characters dealing with the grief and displacement many of your characters are. These moments in the book feel very real, and seem like things you’d either hear about or see a lot as a psychologist. Do the ways your characters in Salt Houses exist with their emotions come partly from your work as a psychologist?

HA: Of course I can’t take the actual experiences of clients and then fictionalize them, but I suppose there is a certain “lifting” that happens when thinking about what trauma does to memory and emotional processing. In both my clinical work and in “regular” life, I see and experience the ways in which displacement, loss, and intergenerational trauma impact the way emotional regulation takes place (or doesn’t) and how emotions-as-currency are dealt with in general.

 

I found the choice of writing Salt Houses chronologically an interesting one because it pulled us through the lives of characters who are increasingly further from the family’s displacement from Palestine, a conflict that ripples throughout. Was that structure there from the start? How did you find it?

HA: The story began as a short story about Mustafa, as I was interested in his experience living between 1948 and ‘67, experiencing young adulthood issues alongside occupation and displacement. From there, I decided the narrative should be told chronologically, which, yes, pulls the characters further from the original displacement, but also shows the ways its impact plays out intergenerationally. The truth is, I found most of the structure accidentally. I’m a messy writer and rely a ton on editing. So for the most part, I just stumbled along in the dark. I wrote sections based on which character I was most interested in hearing from at that time.

 

What can you tell us about your forthcoming poetry collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year?

HA: The new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. It’s a way of looking to the past to determine my future: making sense of my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath. It was the most difficult collection to write, and the most gratifying so far; I feel very thankful for where these poems took me.

 

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John Stintzi is a non-binary writer who was raised on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. A selection of their poetry and fiction can be found in Los Angeles Review of Books, Humber Literary Review, PRISM international, Black Warrior Review, and the chapbook The Machete Tourist (knife | fork | book, 2018). John currently lives with their partner in Kansas City, MO, where they are at work on their first novel and their first collection of poetry.

A Conversation with Victoria Chang by Peter LaBerge

By Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Guest Interviewer.

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Victoria Chang's fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss (McSweeney's) won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017. She lives in Los Angeles and works as Teaching Faculty at Antioch University's MFA Program. You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.

 

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Over the course of about five weeks I exchanged emails with Victoria Chang, leading with my practical and admiring question of how she manages to balance her poetry career with such concentration and focus while maintaining her demanding day job as a business consultant.

What are some ways you move between the corporate consulting work you do and thinking about/shaping poems? Were there periods of time when you wrote less often or conversely wrote more because of stressors or events from your day job?

Victoria Chang: Definitely.  So I've worked in business-related things for nearly 20 years, maybe more.  I just recently stopped/retired from that work just this past summer.  There were periods (depending on the job I had) where I didn't have time to write and when I was in business school, and the years before where I was working a lot, I never wrote and wasn't in the right mindset.  I wasn't around the right kinds of people to generate creativity.  I hadn't yet found my “tribe.”  But once I got a more flexible job in my early to mid-thirties, I was able to dedicate morning time maybe from 7-8am to working on poems.  And that flexibility allowed me to go back and get a low-residency MFA and to occasionally attend AWP and go to writer conferences like Napa, Kenyon, Breadloaf, and Sewanee.  After I had children, I changed my writing habits again and only write in small short bursts—very intense bursts and then I revise for years on end after that at my leisure.  

 

This notion of community brings to mind how, not long ago, you leapt to another poet's defense on Twitter when someone implied he was doing something wrong by "posting so many poems"! I love that poet, too, so I applauded when you became unexpectedly fierce.  That notion of community, your mention of “tribe” and its linkage to creativity is fascinating on multiple levels.

Do you think Asian-American poets are pressured to be part of a preordained “tribe,” and can you think of times when you've really NOT wanted to identify or be identified that way?

Your poems have been described as striking for their incredibly inventive, assured, and distinctive voice that, at the same time, calls to mind voices of other lauded poets (e.g. W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich—for the Barbie image, the barely-stifled but self-examining anger at times, the ability to produce incredible tension within a poem).

What does having or not having a "tribe" do for a poet's developing voice? Is there a merit in being alone in the wilderness, or do you think there is some positive relationship between MFAs and "voice." (In fiction, programs are seen as "the death knell" of distinctive voice.)

VC: Well, for the record, I usually don't leap to the defense of anyone on social media, but this case was different. I won't say anything more about it because given what I know now, I would not have engaged that person. So... Moving on.

I think I understand what you are saying—that others might clump Asian Americans into a certain tribe or group—that we are somehow all the same and/or we are all great friends and naturally connect.  I grew up in the Midwest and was forced to assimilate, so, in many ways, I don't identify with a lot of Asian Americans.  Sometimes I connect with particular Asian Americans, other times we couldn't be more different.  I'm just me and I have a very unique background, so while I speak Chinese, grew up in a very Chinese household, eat a lot of Chinese food, know a lot about the history of my parents' cultures, I don't necessarily identify with someone simply because they are Asian.  In fact, growing up in the Midwest (where there weren't a lot of Asians) kind of had a double identity effect on me--I was clearly the kid of immigrants for one, and secondly, I wasn't like the coastal Asian Americans who had the luxury of having more Asians around them.  It's easy to criticize myself for not being more X or more Y or for not being outspoken enough of political enough, etc., but I look back at my background and the amount of overt racism and discrimination my family, and I experienced growing up in the Midwest to be a clear reason why I am the way I am.  And I don't make apologies for the way I am either. It's just the reality of my background.

And yes, definitely. There's a huge merit to just being your own person. I am very very very independent. I have a strong will to be independent.  I also am attracted to visual artists and writers and frankly anyone in any field who has a lot of vision-—and I aspire to be like those people. I like to go my own way and do my own thing. I've never spent a lot of time caring what people think of me or my work. I just do what I do—like it or not. I love the MFA. I think it's a great time to do a lot of reading you might not do otherwise, to get exposed to different kinds of writing (by your faculty), and to learn everything you think you know but really don't.  It's the perfect place to get training and background.  You might spend those two years mimicking other people, but like the artists who learned from the masters, that's what writers are doing too.  It's only after you learn that you can go off on your own path and write the poems or prose only you were meant to write.  If you don't learn (and you can learn on your own, but good luck—it's a lot easier to learn within an intense environment), then you will just write the poems or prose you were meant to write badly (most likely—unless you are like the 1% of gifted people in this world, which most of us, including myself are not).

 

Which poetry or poems did you find yourself most in dialogue with when you started writing, and which do you find yourself turning to after having published multiple critically-lauded books (either mentally or literally, in terms of picking up their work or reciting it out loud)? Do you feel your own relationship with poets is different now that you have succeeded as a poet vs. when you were just starting to write poetry?

VC: I read a lot of books, especially contemporary poetry and during the year, I also try and read older poems and poets, so there are always a lot of things happening in my head.  I'm always interested in the most out-there writers in any genre, whether appreciated or not because I think those people are really pushing the envelope and trying new things.  I like to try new things too.  I think of poetry writing as play and so I enjoy playing with language from one project to another, and I tend to write in projects because of my obsessive personality. 

I don't know how "lauded" any of my books have been, but thank you for saying that.  I always think about all the great visual artists and how their work wasn't lauded while they were alive because they were doing such different things, so my goal isn't necessarily to be lauded by anyone.  And I certainly don't think I have "succeeded as a poet"—to me to be a real artist, a pure one, you never "succeed" because that's not what you are necessarily going for.  But I understand what you are saying in that I have published some books of poetry.  I think the minute you start chasing success as a writer, you're in for a rough road because so much is out of your control.  

 

“Lines like, “parks next to Soroptimist Park,” “paid her tuition by intuition,” and “One night    the power   in your house    will/disappear” all represent the way you play with words. What relationship do you have to emotional excavation and the tone shift such excavation can cause? How does this word play dictate your writing practice?

VC: I enjoyed word play in The Boss and Barbie Chang because it was fun and it made writing poetry fun for me.  It's not always fun to be in the sometimes harsh and unfriendly poetry community—people can get kind of mean sometimes, so for me, it's all about the writing and enjoying myself as much as possible.  I like the challenge of writing and trying new things.  Really pushing myself.  So, I allowed the language to propel the poems forward instead me trying to control what they were doing.

 

And just to spend a moment on The Boss and a book that resonated with so many readers. Not only does the boss dominate those who work for her/him, but the boss conveys to them a sense of their inferiority. It reminded me of Ed Park's novel, Personal Days, and I wonder whether you’ve read it and if you have, what you thought of it.

 

VC: I haven't read Ed Park's book, but I just looked it up and it looks interesting. I try and read all the poetry I can and then only have time left to stay on top of a few books of prose a year.  I like to read widely AND deeply.  But yes, I have had a lot of great bosses in my life and have had a few truly truly horrid bosses who were universally hated, but they are oddly still in their same positions—that shows you how the entire system doesn't always work!  It was fun to write about hierarchy and the slippage of hierarchy. One minute we are the boss (of our children), the other moment, the boss is the boss of us, and the children could suddenly be the boss of you, and then your dad is the boss of you. That was interesting to explore. Of course, this only came to my consciousness after I wrote that book.

 

Finally, I loved the "Dear P." poems in the book. Can you speak to those poems specifically?

VC: In the fourth section of the book, I "wrote in" those poems after the manuscript was finished—meaning the middle Dear P. poems were from an old manuscript and I felt that there needed to be more Dear P. poems at the end. But they needed to be different with caesuras and should feel more alight and haunting.  So I wrote all of those in section four when the book was mostly done.  

 

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