Sonnet as Ghost: An Interview with Chanda Feldman

Chanda Feldman’s first collection of poems, Approaching the Fields, is exacting. Every image, every word is as precisely placed, creating poems that impress with each line but build into a complex, vivid portrait of a place and its history. Moving through time and through the stories of her own family, Feldman evokes the life along the Mississippi River—from the lush beauty of the natural world to the persistent racism that’s inextricably tied up with that landscape.

Feldman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College. I spoke with her via email about the challenges of writing a first book of poems; the relationship between place, landscape, race, and agency; and the generative capacity of poetic form, among other topics.

 

Ryan Teitman: “Forget the difference / between foreign and native. Anything / can take hold here and spread,” you write in the collection’s opening poem, “Native.” Can you talk about how the poems in this book engage with place?

 

Chanda Feldman: First of all, most of the places in this book are geographically specific to West and Middle Tennessee, so the imagery focuses on the landscape of those areas—flora and fauna, waterways, crops, and the arrangement of neighborhoods and communities. I’m concerned with Black lives and experiences in these landscapes, which include issues of segregation, racial division, othering, and erasure. In many poems, place is dramatized through imagery, and the land itself serves as a trigger and receptacle for personal and historical memory. Land ownership and working the land is important in the poems and is also a source of tension. A lot of the time I was thinking about place as a space of threat or protection and how the boundary between those two can be shifting and porous.

 

RT: Can you unpack the shifting role of place as either a space of threat or one of protection? That shift is how “Native” ends: while anything can take hold, ultimately “the ground takes us in / and decay makes us kin.”

 

CF: I’ll try. The shifting role of place revolves around agency. Who or what has the ability to influence or maintain space in the ways that serve their needs. I can point to a poem in Section III of the book, “13. On the Porch,” in the poem sequence “But We Lived,” where a white girl comes to the home of a Black family in the middle of the night over some trouble with her boyfriend, and she’s looking for help. Yet her presence becomes a danger for this family due to the issue of race. The security of their home and lives are suddenly acutely precarious due to the girl’s appearance in their space.

 

It’s a similar relationship in “Native” that I’m interested in. I was thinking at the level of the physical land and also at the level of language and American history. A lot of energy goes into upholding narratives and legacies of white supremacy, and how the rationales, narratives, and outright and veiled institutionalism of it is a kind of rot. In that pushing away from something, it actually entwines you very closely, very intimately in a struggle with what is considered the other. In the poem, death seals the deal in terms of that violent closeness. And, lastly, it’s the forced adaptability of place—it’s continuously shaped, used, and remade by power.

 

RT: You mentioned agency and the ability to influence and maintain space. What does the idea of owning the land mean in these poems? In the pantoum “Election Day,” the idyllic holiday atmosphere of the first five stanzas—“We filled our plates from the barbecue drum. / Balloons bobbed in the air around us”—shifts abruptly at the lines “Who knows where the votes went. / The men, one by one, signed their ballots. / The man you sharecropped for chose your say.”

 

CF: In the context of the book, land ownership conveys some security and autonomy when compared with a sharecropping system. The sharecroppers in “Election Day” are subjugated by the employer, who is the landowner. This boss manipulates the sharecroppers’ ability to work on election day, and thus their earnings; he manipulates leisure time and the sharecroppers’ voices and individual rights through disenfranchisement. The sharecroppers are beholden to the landowner for land to farm, which they rent, and for farming supplies, housing, clothes, groceries, which they buy on credit; their livelihood is under the power of the landowner.

 

After stanza five in “Election Day,” the abrupt shift you mention is also a manipulation of the form, making the sharecroppers’ subjugation formally embodied. The continuity of the pantoum is ruptured when the line “who knows where the votes went” disappears from the poem because it doesn’t repeat in pattern.

 

RT: You mention how the pantoum is ruptured in “Election Day;” you also have a crown of sonnets in “But We Lived.” How were you thinking about using received forms and changing them when you were writing this book?

 

CF: Sometimes I was relying on form and structure as a generative tactic—as a way to get the next poem written—and sometimes the form seemed to announce itself during the drafting process—a pattern of repetition or a rhetorical unfolding.

 

In writing “But We Lived,” the drafting of those fourteen poems happened very quickly in a couple of days. They were, at first, scraps of stories and memories, and I thought, what can I do with all of these? It occurred to me that a crown of sonnets would provide enough of a relationship between each story/memory and still let them stand apart. The poems also have a stripped-down quality in terms of the language; they’re direct, casual, quick, yet biting. I thought their tone suited a sonnet sequence. At first, in revision, I assumed I’d adhere to a traditional sonnet structure, but it became clear to me that in trying to do that the tone changed. I made an agreement with myself that the sonnet would be the reference point but not the measure, and this was useful for me in revising, so I used what I needed from the form and departed when I wanted. Perhaps I gave myself an easier free-verse out in this manner, but I ended up liking the tension this created in the sequence. The sonnet is a kind of ghost there, but it is not the master of the poems.

 

RT: Eavan Boland, who you studied with when you were a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, has made the argument that poets don’t get to have first books anymore. Because of the contest and submission process, poetry manuscripts get their rough edges sanded off, weird or unusual poems get excised, and first books end up looking more like second books. As someone who’s just published her first book, do you feel like it’s your “first book”?

 

CF: There were many iterations of the manuscript, and many poems traveled in and out over the years. For sure, eight years ago, the manuscript was less thematically focused than the final book. I was satisfied with the final version of the book that I submitted to LSU Press, and still in the review stage, they suggested removing some poems, and ultimately I agreed with them—the book was stronger without a clutch of poems that were thematic outliers. The wonderful impact of the tighter focus is that the book speaks its subjects and concerns more clearly and resoundingly, but there is a loss of some of the experimentation with aesthetics and topics that was part of the process of writing a first book.

 

RT: What are you working on now?

 

CF: I’m working on some ekphrastic poems that reflect on visual art, mostly contemporary art and mostly art by African Americans. I’m also continuing to think about place in my work and my experiences traveling and living abroad.

 

On Mercy and Justice: An Interview with Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson is a writer, professor, curator, activist, and the author of three books. Her essay collection, The Reckonings (Scribner, 2018), was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. She lives in Houston, Texas, where she teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University and is the Founding Director of the Houston Flood Museum. At Rice, Johnson advised Associate Review and Interview Editor Sophie Newman’s thesis in creative nonfiction. The two spoke recently over email about the creation of Johnson’s latest book, art and activism, intimacy with strangers, and joy as a form of justice.

Sophie Newman: Your memoir The Other Side tells the story of your kidnap and rape by a man you loved. In your title essay of The Reckonings, you explain how at readings of this memoir, audience members would often ask some form of the question, “What do you want to have happen to him, the man who did this to you?” We can frame this essay collection as a meditation on that answer, but it extends far beyond to encompass environmental and criminal justice, art, and politics. What was your process of putting all these ideas in conversation with one another?

Lacy M. Johnson: You’re right: I got that question a lot, but the thing that most surprised me wasn’t the question. It was how that question was always followed by a statement about the answer people assumed I would give: “You probably want him dead, right?” I was shocked that so many people thought I could want that, because it isn’t what I want at all. I don’t want him dead. I don’t even want him to suffer. What I want is for him to admit what he did, to my face, in public, and then to spend the rest of his life in service to other people’s joy. When I said that, people were so shocked, like it was a statement from another dimension or something, and I was shocked that they were shocked, and that feeling stuck with me. I mulled it over and over in my head: What’s with that question? What’s with the bloodlust? Then, I realized that of course people would want him dead because this is the only way we understand justice in this country: someone does something bad, something bad happens to them in return. Voila: justice! That definition of justice is a very old one, and not a particularly good one, since there are so many situations where retribution isn’t even possible, and even if it were, making someone suffer in exchange for having caused another to suffer seems like it amplifies injustice rather than cancels it out. So, the ideas and situations that I’m bringing together in this collection challenge me to think through that problem: if retribution isn’t justice—what is? What can be?

SN: A lot of the essays in The Reckonings required extensive research, which you’ve made accessible and transparent through indexed notes. Can you talk a little about how you approach research as an essayist?

LMJ: Research is part of my process as a writer and also just a tool I use to understand the world. Usually the writerly process goes like this: something bothers me enough that I start worrying about it, and the worrying about it leads me to do research in order to try to assuage the worry—as if by learning about what’s bothering me, I won’t be worried about it anymore. Sometimes I find the answer right away and the thing stops bothering me and I go on with my life. That worry does not become an essay. An essay begins when the research only partially assuages the worry, and in the gap left between the worry and the research, a question forms. Once I’ve arrived at a question, I know I’m on my way. Each of my three books has an extensive notes section because it’s not as if I just sat down and typed the book out. Each of the essays in The Reckonings, for instance, is the product of months of research, and each leans heavily on the ideas and writing of those who have come before me. My notes section is intended to honor that, and also to elaborate on secondary or tertiary narratives that were too much of a digression to appear in the primary text, but which I think provide an important and complicating layer of consideration.

SN: In addition to your writing, you’re also involved in community activism in Houston and beyond. Most recently, you were the Founding Director of the Houston Flood Museum. Does writing do the work of activism on its own, or is community involvement also essential to the process of effecting change?

LMJ: Writing is one tool for activism, but it isn’t the only one, and on its own isn’t as effective a tool for lasting, structural change as, say, organizing a community. In truth, we need both, because writing helps us to imagine ourselves as part of the same community as people we’ve never met but can imagine, and that collective imagination lends power and efficacy to the work of organizing toward our common health, freedom, and liberation.

SN: In “Art in the Age of Apocalypses,” you describe how your students struggled to find the energy to make art in what felt like end times. Could you share some of your strategies for creating when it seems at best overwhelming and at worst impossible?

LMJ: That feeling about the despair and futility of art-making is not unlike the feeling of writer’s block—and writer’s block is almost never an issue of not having anything to say but rather about the belief that what we have to say isn’t any good, that it has no value, or power, or potential. When I get that feeling, I have to remind myself of all the power and possibility art has unfolded for me. It helps to return to some of my favorite writers—those books or poems or essays that fundamentally changed the way I see the world—or to re-watch some of my favorite films, or revisit some of my favorite paintings. I am more likely to believe in the power of my own art when I experience that power in the art others have made: how art can unfold something in me I didn’t know existed, and how that brilliant unfolding thing can become a new source of power and strength.

SN: I was especially touched by your writing in “The Flood,” as I think it beautifully captures how we experience collective crises: how they can be isolating and terrifying and, at the same time, opportunities to celebrate humanity. In this essay, you touch on the idea of “the Stranger,” who, in everyday circumstances, consolidates fear, but in crisis, offers salvation. I’m curious as to whether we can re-think the presence of the Stranger in our everyday lives, and how this might relate to larger concepts of justice and mercy.

LMJ: I hope this essay does challenge all of us to rethink that idea of the Stranger, which comes to us from Georg Simmel, who writes that the stranger is not only a person who arrives in a group and does not leave, but who also represents liberation by “wandering” out of a previous context. The wanderer becomes the stranger by joining a social group that claims its boundaries are fixed, and the idea of that stranger’s presence challenges these boundaries in ways the group tends to resist. I think we see evidence of the dangers of that kind of social boundary-making in contemporary discourse about migration and immigration—“the wall” being the primary example of a fool’s attempt to fix our geographic and social boundaries in a specific space and time, as if such a thing were even possible; as if these boundaries were not shifting and changing and becoming penetrable all the time. What Simmel’s idea of the Stranger can teach us, in my reading, is how intimacy (many kinds of intimacy) challenges those boundaries, transforming the stranger from an idea—a threat, an intruder—into an actual human person, who resists the kinds of ignorant generalizations that those boundaries permit.

SN: This book covers a lot of dark and painful territory: the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the legacy of racism in America. Throughout these explorations, you maintain that justice is not only about hearing these stories but also about experiencing joy. Could you share some of the ways that you cultivate joy, or how we can create more space for joy in our own lives, and why that’s important?

LMJ: In the last essay in this collection, I come to the conclusion that if an injustice is anything that gets between a person and their joy, perhaps justice is anything that makes the condition of joy a possibility again. I’m not necessarily talking about happiness per se, but about experiencing one’s own power and possibility. In my own life, running has become a vehicle for joy, since running reminds me of the ways I am capable of doing and becoming more than I ever imagined, and certainly a lot more than seemed possible in the worst moment of my life, when a man I had once loved forced me to surrender my bodily autonomy to him. He was planning to kill me, but I lived. Running doesn’t simply restore that once-lost power to me but unlocks a potential I never knew I had; it teaches me to be more present in my body, and being more present in my body teaches me to be more present with my children, to laugh when they laugh, and to experience all the happiness that my life offers me. It is hard to explain what a revolution this has been for me. There is pain and sorrow and grief for the past all mixed in with joy, but also hope and momentum toward the future. When I consider the various injustices I write about in this book—racial violence, sexual violence, violence against the planet, violence that calls itself patriotism—no other model for justice seems to address all the harm that has been done. But if we believe that justice means finding a way to make the condition of joy a possibility again, then justice means we not only address the harm but also the structural inequities that made that harm possible in the first place. Working toward one another’s mutual joy would not only be a powerful act of resistance against ongoing injustices, but would also be profoundly healing for us all.

The Heart of The Drama: An Interview with Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott is a National Book Award winner and the author of eight novels. In 2013, she was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, and she is currently the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. In September, McDermott visited The Ohio State University campus to give a reading and teach a weekend writing workshop. During her visit, McDermott spoke with PhD student Christofer Johnson about her most recent novel, The Ninth Hour, which was a National Book Critic’s Circle Finalist for Fiction and a New York Times Book Review Notable Book.

Christofer Johnson: So I’ve had a chance to read through The Ninth Hour, and I really enjoyed it. It felt like an optimistic—I read it as optimistic at least—portrayal of Women’s Religious Communities, especially. Where did that interest come into the process? The interest into women’s vocations?

Alice McDermott: Oddly enough, it came in the process of composing the novel, almost as a second or third thought. I was interested in the whole idea of self-sacrifice, of substitutes in the Civil War, when people could pay someone to go and serve in the Union Army in place of a favorite son or husband or father. Sort of metaphorically, I was interested in that whole notion of giving up of life so that others might live, and what we think about that in the 21st century. Do we really trust that anymore? Do we see it as a good, or as a mitigated good? “What’s in it for me” is really still the presiding question.

Thinking about those things thematically brought me to something I only knew vaguely from my own experience with the Nursing Sisters in the New York area, where I grew up and where my mother grew up. Sort of being there when there was no social safety net, especially to take care of women and children. And the idea that those women did indeed give up their lives for others with no “What’s in it for me?” except in the afterlife.

So as I said, I just had sort of vague recollections that those women were there. And then I started reading. As the story was developing, I realized that I had to make up my own order—there was no historical order that would fit the things I needed for the story. And then I started reading about religious women all over the world, but especially in the United States. The amazing things they have done and continue to do. And how they’ve been marginalized in the culture. You know, the culture’s portrayal of religious women is really flat. They’re either witches, or comics, or guitar strumming virgins. All of them are alike in some way. And the more I read about the orders, the founding of the orders, the way these women went into battlefields, they went into the inner cities, into tenements, into the homes of the sick and the dying, into epidemics, the more I realized it’s ridiculous to ever imagine that any one of these women is the same as another. And that’s rich material for a novelist. They are misunderstood, and yet they have to be so unique. So the novel, much to my surprise, started being about nuns.

CJ: That’s interesting that you say it just sort of developed that direction later, because some of the nuns you introduced very early on develop into larger-than-life characters in just a few pages. How did you go about making that transformation for the characters in such a short space?

AM: In some ways, it’s sort of basic as to what I think of as the duty of the novelist or fiction writer. That is, no stereotypical characters. You need to understand and then attempt to take the measure of every human character who appears on the page, with that notion of this one is not like any other. None of us is. It wasn’t so much that I thought I needed to enlarge these women and make them seem larger than life. It’s just all you have to do is pause and say, who would they be? What would have brought them to this? To this life? I mean, no power. No credit. And really the worst situations, the poorest of the poor, to go to places nobody wants to go. To leave your family, to leave your life before that, to know your future is only going to be this. You’re not going to become a cardinal, you’re not going to live in a gold-plated apartment, this is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. And it’s all about caring for others. It doesn’t take, I think, a lot of introspection or even research to say, “Wow, every single one of these people must come to this place from a different route.” And if you look at them carefully enough, they become larger than life. I think that’s probably true for everyone. We all think we’re larger than life in our own little dramas.

CJ: When you approach a character who’s in that kind of situation, who’s made that kind of lifetime commitment, are there any specific personality types that you think of as being attracted to vocations? How do you think about the process of moving into that particular kind of religious arena?

AM: I think the more that I read about the women who founded these orders, especially since the time that most of these women were active was the early part of the 20th century, it doesn’t take a great imaginative leap to think these are women who have some ambition. The route that was open to women when they were coming of age was pretty limited: marriage or spinsterhood. If you got married, you were just going to have a pack of kids and hope you survived every childbirth. And you were going to care for your husband. If you didn’t marry, you could be a school teacher. You could be a nurse, but even in those days there was some kind of suspicion about what kind of woman you were if you wanted to be a nurse and you were a single woman. And with those kinds of limitations, when you think about a woman who’s drawn to this kind of life, not only is there some kind of worldly ambition—you know, “I want to go out, I want to take care of the poor, I want to alleviate suffering”—there’s a tremendous amount of personal ambition in even positing the possibility that you might be a person who could alleviate suffering.

But also, it seems to me, these women must have really rich and complex inner lives because there is the huge spiritual aspect of it. And they must have great imaginations because really, they believe there will be a reward for them personally, after this life of hard labor. And they must believe in that very vividly. So, it just seemed to me it’s not a great surprise, if you just pause and think about it, that these would be very complex women, and each would be an individual. And some would be easy to get along with, and some would be difficult, just like all of us, and for some the ambition would be more apparent, and for some the humility would be more apparent—you know, that self-effacing feeling of “This isn’t about me, this is about you and what I can do for you.” Going back to that idea of selflessness.

CJ: That leads into my next question, which is about the spiritual nature of all this. The spiritual component features very prominently in the novel. Was that your initial drive to capture this spirituality, or is that something that came out through the process?

AM: Well, I think that being a born-and-bred Roman Catholic myself, I don’t think you can be a Christian, certainly not someone educated in a Christian church, without thinking about someone who sacrifices himself so that someone else can live. You’ve got to be like, “You know, I know a guy. I’ve heard that story before.” It was almost inevitable talking about self-sacrifice. Here’s a religion that is all about self-sacrifice. Its reason for being is self-sacrifice. So, it seems inevitable, again, to have this group of women, who did exist in a real time in the real world, who took that notion so seriously and modeled their lives on it. There was a point when I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to write about nuns. I’m going to write a Catholic novel. Uggghhh.”

CJ: It was honestly really refreshing to read because I was talking to my wife as I was reading through it; her mother is a youth minister at their local parish. She has a number of qualities about her and a kind of drive that I saw echoed in some of the nuns’ perspectives. But it was interesting to see how much her role in that community, and the way she lives her life and looks at her vocation, matches the way the nuns in the novel serve their communities. In different ways, because she’s not a member of an order.

AM: Right, but it’s that notion of service to others, without looking for what they would call earthly rewards. And that became really interesting to me, that notion of “Oh, well, what kind of reward are you looking for?” And is there such a thing as being so selfless that you say, “I don’t want any reward at all.” Then we’re out of Christianity, because Christianity is all about the next world. So, that became really sort of fascinating. Is there such a thing? Are we capable as human beings to make a sacrifice for someone else that we aren’t able to see any benefit to ourselves in?

CJ: So, when you were writing this novel, how much of our tumultuous times entered into the writing process and influenced the way you were thinking about the trajectory of the novel, but also character development?

AM: Very much so. I knew from the very beginning that this was not a historical novel about these women, or this time and place. I knew certainly that was a setting for things to happen, but I’m not a historical novelist, and I didn’t really have any interest in just trying to recapture. Which is a fine thing for a novelist to do, but it’s just not enough to keep me interested. I really wanted it filtered through a 21st-century voice, three generations down from the stories that are told. And I always had the sense that this is a voice both astonished and skeptical. Astonished that there was this kind of belief, that there could be this kind of faith, that people could be that selfless. And yet skeptical. Were they deluding themselves? I mean, again, do we really trust, in the 21st century, people who are selfless? We kind of say, you know, get a life. Or, what are you really doing? What’s in it for you? And we respect what’s in it for you. So, I had a real sense not that I wanted to come to any conclusions, but just to look at the notion with a 21st-century eye. Not with nostalgia, not like the historical novelist would do, you know—“That was another time and we don’t have to make sense of it”—but with a subtle and underlying voice that’s saying, “I don’t know if I get this.”

CJ: You know, as a folklorist I hear family stories all the time. Whenever I sit down with someone, I hear family stories. And all too often, there is that tendency to look back on things either with a sense of nostalgia, or a sense of not understanding, or not really wanting to try to understand. And in that way, I really appreciated the multi-generational approach you used. What led you to that initially? I know you mentioned that you wanted to have this 21st-century view looking back. With skepticism, not with cynicism, though it never quite reaches that level. How did the idea initially come? Or did you take inspiration from somewhere?

AM: I think for me, it was almost something—not to make this sound, you know, intercession of the Holy Spirit or anything, I’m not claiming that—but I do think, and I think this is something that separates fiction from nonfiction and memoir and creative nonfiction: there was a voice. The telling, it seemed to me, belonged to a voice. Not to a distant narrator. Not even to the people whose points of view were being looked at. I sort of heard a voice that said, “Okay, we’re going to imagine what happened. We’re going to re-tell what we know.” And sometimes that can be very vivid, when you apply imagination to stories and open them out. It kind of gave me the freedom to be free-ranging through generations. And I think as a novelist—and I’m sure you’re interested in this too, as a folklorist—not only what gets passed on, but what gets left out.

CJ: Absolutely.

AM: Yeah! What never gets told. What never is fully understood. The stuff that’s lost, it’s fascinating to me. So, it was just the sound of the prose, and the technical opportunity that voice gave to me. And again, one generation, even if they’re observing the generation before them, they are clueless about a lot of things. I think that’s exactly like what you say. Maybe one of the reasons that I sort of shy away from historical fiction is that there is a great risk of presentism. That we take our experience and think, well, a hundred years ago is pretty much the same. And you leave out the context; you leave out the sense that here are women who did not have opportunities. Some of them didn’t have an education. There were a lot of these women who were barely literate, and then they’re thrown in to teach. It’s that sense that you have to take in the whole context to begin to get a sense of what these lives might have been like.

CJ: But you still get to see these moments of pushback. Sister St. Savior, I get the sense reading her character that she bristled a little bit under the patriarchal rule of the Church.

AM: Yes, yes! Which, historically, I mean, you don’t have to go very deep into the research. A lot of the nursing orders for instance were founded by women, and they stayed independent. They were not associated with a parish, as the teaching orders were, so they did not have priests telling them what to do on a daily basis. They had to get approval from the bishop, and for a lot of them, they had to have a priest to help them rent a convent, and all the things that men could do that women simply couldn’t do. But the day-to-day living belonged to them.

You still see that kind of “leave us alone.” And I’ve heard from a lot of religious women; it’s been so much fun. One Sister of Mercy in DC, she said, “We get away with so much because the priests know we deal with women and children. And there’s a power there, so they’re not jealous.” And this is in the 21st century. They’re not envious, they’re like, “Go ahead. Women’s things… oh, go ahead. You take care of it.” It’s kind of what the Republicans did, having a woman ask [questions at the Kavanaugh hearing], you know, “We don’t want to mess with that. You go do it.”

CJ: Taking things back, your faith really comes through in this novel especially. How much of your Catholic upbringing has influenced your growth and development as a writer?

AM: You know, I think it’s inevitable. I’ve said it many times, and I’ve heard many other Catholics especially, but other Christians say it: when you’re raised in a faith tradition, prayer is your first poetry, you know? Hymns are your first songs. So, it shapes the way you use language. I mean, it comes down to your basic DNA as a writer. Pattern and repetition and chant. I think it’s all influenced by the Church. And then it does come down to the questions that a religious faith asks us to entertain. Whether we’re on our way in or on our way out of any institution. It seems to me that those are the kinds of questions great literature asks as well. It’s meaning-of-life stuff. I think in many ways, up until this novel—which I admit is a Catholic novel—just because I’ve had characters who are Catholic doesn’t mean they were Catholic novels. But I think I found an affinity with characters who had the Catholic faith because that’s material-at-hand for me. I understand the rituals. I understand the prayer-in-the-language and all of that. For me, any faith gives characters a vocabulary to ask the questions they might not have the vocabulary for without it.

A bunch of second-generation Irishmen sitting in a bar in Queens aren’t going to say, “Huh, you know, what’s the meaning of life?” But they might say, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, wasn’t that a terrible thing?” And, “Well, God is good.” “God will provide.” “God works in mysterious ways.” It’s just a vocabulary, not that it gives answers. That, I would not be interested in. I’m not interested in trying to convince anybody that here is the place for all the answers. But as a way to think about, why are we here? What’s a good life? Do we believe? Does anybody think we’ve got anything more than the time we have? Are we more than just biological entities moving around a piece of rock? Any kind of faith, I think, gives you access to those themes, and those are the ones that are interesting to me.

CJ: Those are the fundamental questions. The big questions.

AM: Exactly. Fiction and poetry is the place where you can say not only, “Look, that happened, isn’t that interesting?” but, “What does it mean? Why did it happen?” Why spend time making things up when we’ve got this crazy world full of things? Things that nobody would believe if you made them up.

CJ: That kind of leads into my next question. What is your perspective on the role and the power of stories in a 21st century? Because we do have everything all the time now—at least it feels that way.

AM: Yes, yes we do. I think in some ways we can overdose on stories, but not on that “Yes, but why?” question. And I think not only are our attention spans shrinking, our sense of things being meaningful is shrinking. I’m always hitting my writing students over the head with Frank O’Connor’s definition of a short story. He says, “It’s the moment after which nothing else is ever the same.” More and more because we are so bombarded, and because our attention span is shrinking, I’m not sure we believe there are such moments. It’s all, “You’ll get over it. That was last week.” The Supreme Court, you know, in two weeks we’re not going to be obsessed with it.

That’s the heart of drama, that there can be moments in our lives that change everything. That change the way we see things, and cannot be undone. And I think we’re losing faith in that. I mean secular faith, that there can be those kind of moments. Everything tells us, “Closure. Healing.” But I think in our human experience, we understand, “No. It’s not. I will not get over it. Everything is utterly changed.” That’s Yeats.

CJ: Do you have any advice for MFA students, or anybody really, who’s looking at writing as a vocation?

AM: You know, I’ve been teaching at Hopkins for 20-plus years, and every year my faith in art and our need for story is renewed when I look at graduate applications and I see brilliant young people who could pretty much do anything they choose to do, and they want to write poetry. They want to write fiction. And they know the odds, they know it’s a tough row to hoe. But there’s that perpetual belief in it. I think keeping your eye on that as a young writer, reading everything, always keeping that fire of, “I love this stuff, I love this novel, I love this poem, I love this story. I love it!” It’s very easy to forget that when you enter the profession, and you’re thinking about who’s getting published and who’s not getting published, and about editors, and what’s popular, and “should I write something about that because everybody’s talking about it?” Just to constantly go back and see that nobody enters this profession because somebody asked them to. No one ever went up to someone and said, “I know you’ve never written a short story, but would you please write a short story for us?” It’s that fire to create, no matter what art you’re in—and I think it’s true of the sciences as well—that feeling of “Despite everything else, this is what I must do.”

CJ: It sounds almost like a faith experience itself.

AM: I think it has to be. A little bit delusional, there’s always that. A sense of inevitability, but joy, too. I don’t know anyone who becomes a writer who didn’t first fall in love with something somebody else wrote. And, you know, that’s a great gift. No matter how it all works out professionally or in other people’s eyes. I think the people who have that fire to do something in that way, no matter what it is, are very fortunate.

Review of Tunsiya/Amrikiya by Leila Chatti
Blue door on a white wall

It is an impossible task—to be safe in America when your neighbors are watching. It’s impossible to explain how your body is too large to protect, how history is also a place in the body. When I moved to the South, I became a danger. I made a disturbing sight flickering through the grocery aisles. I perpetuated uncertainty, and the townspeople, I affected them. At dinner with my partner’s family, only I hear the man asking that I pay attention to his body. And because I am listening, I am unreasonable, living with parallel facts: that I am American, that my citizenship is secondary to my neighbors’ perception.

Leila Chatti attends to this duality in her first collection, Tunsiya/Amrikiya, a title that identifies the feminine within a nationality, and then the feminine within a second nationality. Leila Chatti is a dual citizen of Tunisia and the United States, and her poems explore her identity through a powerful, directing lyric “I.” Hers is a speaker who demands dialogue, which in its most basic form is the structure for acknowledgement.

It’s easy to imagine the speaker must feel defeated, pushed to the periphery. After all, “Jane and William had / so many apples, but never a friend named Khadija.” Who, then, will extend the generosity of apples to Khadija or to the speaker? But Chatti’s poetry constructs a center. Her poems are architectural in their narratives, with speakers who can be generous, who can receive bounty, even if the reader has not imagined these speakers lucky in their histories or their geography. If Chatti narrates a history she cannot control, she still hands her characters the knife. They are feeding themselves in poems like “Momon Eats an Apple in Summer”:

She keeps each sliver
to herself. Her fingers draw

the blade through the flesh
up to the bed of her thumb

and stop
and there is no blood—she knows

Chatti creates the abrupt line break, the isolating “and stop,” but Momon continues. The speaker narrates Momon past obstacles of prosody, and the sentence continues, which is to say, Momon will keep living. The speaker, in her record, sustains those she loves.

Those she cannot sustain with speech, she seeks to identify, to make their bodies sufficient. And perhaps this is the nature of a speaker in motion. If she cannot settle between two countries, the body, too, must be a place. For such a speaker, Chatti constructs the poem like a proof. In “Upon Realizing There Are Ghosts in the Water,” Chatti’s speaker confronts the defacing violence of political borders and risks her own body to give shape to an invisible death.

I should have known but the water
never told me. It sealed its blue lips
after swallowing you, it licked my ankles
like a dog. I won’t lie
and say the ocean begged for forgiveness;
it gleams unchanged in the sun.
Some things are so big they take and take
and remain exactly the same size.

The speaker is in conversation with the dead, an act that extends her humanity to her listener. “I waded in / to your grave as if trying it on,” and “when the waves came, / they gave me back.” There is the risk that the speaker could well be another body we “should have known,” after it’s lost in the Mediterranean between so many borders. Instead, she becomes a vessel for recognizing the grief that hasn’t been expressed and the lost figure who hasn’t been identified. If the ghost can be seen, it can be seen as part of her body, which “wore its salt like gemstones.” The poem extends the body, provides a whole ocean asked to house it, and a speaker also vast enough to wear the ocean, to carry the body of another, another’s endless possibilities.

It’s this certainty that surprises in Chatti’s poetry. Essential to her identity-proof is that someone will listen. Her speakers structure their bodies and their loved ones in cumulative optimism. Chatti’s poems are not naive. By extending the body (the refugee coffined by the Mediterranean Sea, the mother with “four hearts / outside her body”), Chatti describes vulnerability but also pinpoints violence; she creates opposing scales where the brown body is central, not the harm done to it.

When reading “Motherland,” its opening question, “What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?” I return again and again to how Chatti’s “Okay When Are We Going” separates a mother and daughter remembering the aftermath of 9/11 while contemplating the consequences of a Trump presidency:

!200! !100!that summer after the towers sank
like a heart, she pinned the tiny striated flag to my breast
before my flight back there, the other land, as though it might protect me
from this one. My mother, looking the same
as she does now, white-lipped and terrified, in a Midwestern restaurant

Here is a mother struggling to disguise her child as herself. She disguises her child from her country by dressing her in the symbolism of her country. She is frightened, and her child is frightened: “I was a child. I cried. The flag shuddered on my chest.” Yet at the heart of this is a mother who will have her country recognize itself in her child. She’s willing to enact a string of signifiers so that every moment her child shakes, her country will have “shuddered.”

If we go back to the question, “What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?” with the knowledge that the child is more vulnerable than the parent, that “the country she gave / me could kill me,” or that the mother risks her “four hearts / outside her body, buried / in brown and fragile skin,” then we are praying for the wellbeing of our country. We hope for the sake of our country that the vulnerable will survive—because in Chatti’s beautiful America, the loss of any brown child is unbearable.

Interview with Danez Smith
Danez Smith

It’s impossible to speak of contemporary poetry without speaking of Danez Smith. The Black, queer, poz writer and performer from St. Paul, Minnesota, is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Forward Poetry Prize. Their first book, [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lamba Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Beyond the accolades, Smith is known to use their platform to invite outside voices—and outside readers—into the poetry world. In September, Smith visited Ohio State University to teach a weekend workshop, and spoke with Reviews & Interviews Editor Eliza Smith about balancing sorrow and light, their collection-in-progress, and the current state of poetry.

Eliza Smith: I was at one of your AWP panels last year, and during the Q&A you said something like, “I don’t think a book full of wounds makes a good book.” I’ve seen you tweet about this, too: “Your trauma is not what makes you a poet.” I was hoping to hear more about your thoughts on that, and how you navigate that in your own work.

Danez Smith: I see this a lot, especially with spoken word communities and how people teach young people, or when I visit some undergrad programs, and students feel like if they’re not exploring their deepest trauma, they’re not being what they consider to be a real poet. I think what writers are actually able to do is explore the wound but also find something different in there besides more trauma—to find light, to find levity. And also, to not explore the wound as well. We’re writers; we’re about craft. Sure, a wound is maybe one of the ways we first recognize ourselves as artists because it helps us dig ourselves out of that hole, but I don’t believe in the ethos that we must hurt ourselves in public in order to be legitimate. So, I just want to move away, and encourage folks to move away, from that.

I also think about readerly care from a writer, and not just wanting to offer up gore, even emotional gore, to our readers. Making sure that they’re okay. It’s important for us to balance all the emotions. And I think what actually makes sorrow or grief poignant is also the presence of joy. It’s that mix of emotions that actually creates good art, not just trauma porn.

ES: I teach an undergrad course, and we just read the recent Atlantic article you appeared in [“How Poetry Came to Matter Again”]. A big piece of that was the resurgence of the first-person lyric. Some of my students, especially people of color, spoke about the pressure to write from that “I.” Particularly in the spoken word scene—the pressure to blend the personal and political. The writer mentions an Aziza Barnes poem whose title is, “My dad asks, ‘how come black folk can’t just write about flowers?’”

DS: I think we all have to keep agency in our art and not feel any type of pressure to belong to any type of moment or school—unless we want to align ourselves to that, right? It happens in poetry so much. The language poets show up and say, “the I is dead,” and some people listen and some people don’t. The whole thing with “the I is dead,” “the I is alive”—just write what the fuck you want to write. I personally believe the political is better when the personal is present—when the writer allows themself to show up in their arguments and allows their real body to show up in these poems. I think the personal is stronger when we recognize that to be a living, breathing human is a political act.

But on the other side of that, yeah—if you want to write about flowers, write about flowers. I think there is a pressure, but nothing else is going to get rid of that pressure except for yourself. So, take up the agency to write about what you want to write about. I write about flowers, too. When you want to write about flowers, write about flowers. When you want to write about squirrels, write about squirrels. If you want to write about the crumbling, capitalist society, write about the crumbling, capitalist society. If you want to write your coming-of-age narrative, write your goddamn coming-of-age narrative. The call is just to stand firmly in want you do want to write about. If you want to write about the I, lean strongly into that I. If you want to lean away from that I, then go ahead and lean away. Just do everything with confidence, and with the knowledge that no one of us are doing anything new. I think maybe that can relieve some pressure, is that you’re never gonna be the first person to write about a thing. The only thing you’ll be the first person to write about is yourself. Once you realize that I’m not doin’ shit new, you can just revel in the old ways.

ES: I saw on Twitter that you turned in two books recently, and your editor [Jeff Shotts] said it was actually one book. Do you have two projects going? What are you working on?

DS: What I always do—and this has been for my last two books—is I think I have two projects, and Jeff tells me I have one. That’s what happened with Don’t Call Us Dead. I was working on one collection, and that was very much about black life in America, with a large focus on police brutality, and black death, and the ways in which America terrorizes black folks; and then another collection that was focused on my own sexual history and my diagnosis with HIV, and just thinking about when it means to be black, queer, and positive in America. Jeff helped me see there was a single conversation going on about mortality that was interesting and more complicated and grand when it was had together.

We’re often taught to think narrowly when we’re thinking about a collection we’re working on—you mine the narrow. But sometimes two narrow paths meet and become a river, and that’s what happened. So with this new book I’m working on, which is called—well, it’s two titles: it’s Homie on the outside and My Nig on the inside, for political reasons—I was working on this book, and then at some point in the process, I pulled out some of the poems that were speaking to living with HIV or suicide or gender that I was like, “Oh, maybe these are for another collection because the collection is really about kinship.” This time, it was Jeff telling me to put them back together and helping me to see maybe there was a richer conversation, not only about friendship but about what friendship does, and how friendship saves, and also adding some texture. I’m having a conversation about suicide—both a friend’s suicide takes center in the book, and also dealing with my own battles with suicidal thoughts—and now there are poems that I think help add that texture.

ES: Marcus Jackson visited our class yesterday. He’s an Ohio-based poet; he has a new collection called Pardon My Heart. He brought up how there might be a pressure for younger poets to turn out books quicker—because of the heat of this moment in poetry, and maybe it’s the current political environment, and maybe social media. Do you feel that?

DS: I’ve felt that, yeah. By the time my first book came out, I was 24. That pressure was a little weirder. I was coming from a very spoken word-heavy field, and in spoken word, I think the first book has a lot less weight than it does in the literary world because you’re kinda just looking to have merch. If you’re already touring, it’s like, I need a book so I can sell it. Everybody’s first book is indeed a grand event, but in the literary world, it has a different weight when you’re thinking about the market of post-publication prizes, a first book being your first entrée in this larger world, your announcement of yourself. My first book did well, but in some ways, I still wish I would’ve held on a little more. I know I felt a lot of pressure to have a certain book that did a certain thing, and it’s complete bullshit because truly it’s a long game. It’s better to let your first book live and breathe and be thrown away and completely rebuilt and changed, if you want to, to really have something you’re proud of instead of having the pressure to have a book that’s out when you’re young just for the sake of having a book.

But I think what’s also changed is there’s a lot of attention on young poets right now; maybe it is because of social media and just the way in which young poets are able to market themselves, or young people are looking for other young people to read. We need to relieve ourselves of a little bit of that pressure because it’s detrimental to us. It’s also just because people didn’t pay attention to first books. It’s not like people having books young is a new thing, it’s just that a couple decades ago, no one paid attention to you until your third book. And I think it’s actually a beautiful thing: when you look at many of the awards lists for post-publication awards, you see first books being a part of the conversation now in a way they weren’t before. It’s a great new day, but I also hope the people who are outside, who don’t have collections and are feeling bad on themselves, that they don’t. Airea D. Matthews is one of the best poets in America, and she was in her forties when her first book came out. She’s gonna have an excellent career from there. Toni Morrison didn’t have her first book until 39, and she’s fuckin’ Toni Morrison. So, everybody will be fine. And if you feel like you’re ready, then you’re ready. But I think folks can relieve themselves of that pressure to get out the gate before they have to.

ES: You read for the National Book Award Longlist recently. Can you talk about what you took away from that, and what it told you about the future of poetry?

DS: We read a shit-ton of books—hundreds. It really just taught me how great of a state poetry is in. It felt good to be able to steward that. I learned about so many poets I never would’ve known about, and I’m so excited to be lifelong fans of them and follow their collections. And now that the longlist is out, I can start talking about poetry again; I can say which other things I enjoyed from that process. But poetry is really in a good state. It’s such a diverse and wonderful field, not just in terms of the bodies and histories of the writers but in the work they’re creating. There is some wild shit out there. It’s really fantastic to see. I don’t see poetry going anywhere—I just see it getting grander. It’s good to see people who are able to tell their stories, and it’s good to see people who are not interested in telling their story, but they’re interested in doing really freaky shit. It is a large, wide, and amazing field. If anything, it taught me that now more than ever—I hate that phrase—but personally, now more than ever, I don’t know what poetry is. Because there is such a diverse amount of styles out there. It was a good reminder that we are a genre that defies category.

Interview with Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

Before joining the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas was a visiting professor at The Ohio State University, where she advised Cade Leebron’s MFA thesis. Now, Lina lives in Richmond and Cade is still in Columbus, and sometimes they text. In February, Lina—author of the essay collection Don’t Come Back and 2016 recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award—returned to Ohio State as a visiting writer. Lina and Cade spoke in-depth about writing and translation, carnivorous household plants, and much more.

Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: I interviewed Ian Frazier once, did I tell you this?

Cade Leebron: No. Did you? Maybe.

LF: I was just this little nothing kid and I had a list of serious questions, like what’s it like being a New Yorker writer, and what’s the environment? The best question I asked him was, what’s your favorite color? Because he knew immediately. I don’t remember any other answers, but that he knew the answer to immediately. And I said, why do you know? He said because when you have kids, the things that become important are constantly asked to shift a little bit.

People talk about having kids and how your world changes. This moment makes me understand that better. You need to know your favorite color. I remember as a child asking people, what’s your favorite number? Now I have no concept of what that was about.

CL: I had that question, too. And “what’s your favorite color.” Favorites are important.

LF: I like red and I like black; I like high contrast and I like clean lines and I don’t like rounded edges and things that I can’t very easily clean.

CL: What’s your favorite animal?

LF: I could not pick. I actually fall in love with animals very frequently because I’m writing this novel about the devil, which means that I have two shelves worth of maps of the Amazon jungle. My devil lives in the jungle. There was a lot of me considering where Eden might have actually been, like the concept of biodiversity—like where is the beginning of life, the highest intensity of life. I thought I might know about the jungle and then realized I don’t, I’m from the Andes. I know what it’s like to get altitude sickness. That’s the thing that I know best and nothing else. So, I had to go to the jungle recently and spend a week there. It was fascinating.

CL: Is that when you were interviewing witches, and you emailed me from an airport?

LF: I spend a lot of time in airports.

CL: We were emailing about guinea pigs.

LF: I recently nearly purchased a guinea pig because they were essential in exorcisms.

CL: So, a guinea pig to kill?

LF: Well, if you are with bad air, or heavy air as one would say, then the guinea pig will die. If you are without, then the guinea pig will be fine. I called PetSmart and was like, can I get an all-black guinea pig? I was writing this essay about this exorcism—well, it’s not quite an exorcism. It’s the reverse of an exorcism. So this kid lost his soul. He just misplaced it for a while, and it made him very sick because bodies are not meant to live without spirits, is what I’ve been told.

I started writing this, I was in Richmond, and then I realized I don’t remember ever holding a guinea pig. If I did, it was as a child. I think I ate one as a child as well. So, I went to PetSmart to hold one. They’re adorable. They’ve been domesticated for 7,000 years—I saw their wild cousins, they’re far more rodent-like—and there has been a natural selection for the most rotund version of this animal. So, they’re basically spherical. And they’re delicious, I’m told.

So, I like the guinea pig. There are some snakes that are just phenomenal. And the black caiman is an amazing creature, it pre-dates us. I have a carnivorous plant that is the loveliest thing in the world. It’s a pitcher plant.

CL: What do you feed it?

LF: Here’s the thing—your house is full of insects regardless of what you do. So, you just let them eat that. Venus flytraps are a little bit more finicky and require live things, or you just don’t feed them, and they grow a little bit slower. That’s fine, too.

My favorite animal? No idea. I really like the condor. When I talk to people, I start complaining about how hideous it is, but it’s a farce. I’m from a place, Bogota, that is in Cundinamarca, the land of condors. And I have a fondness for this hideous being that can fly so high. I feel pretty confident about the condor. I have a lot of animals I really like. Oh, the potoo is fantastic. I will show you. You will enjoy this potoo. Everyone should have a picture of the potoo. It has the most hideous call.

In Colombian Spanish, in the slang, they call it a bird in good standing. El bienparado. And they sleep all day, and there’s so many pictures of it where you see the slit of the eye going like, are you still taking my picture? And it just closes and goes like, fuck that, I’m just staying here because I don’t care. In Colombia we call them pajara estaco or bienparado, so a bird in good standing, or a stake bird. Took like an hour to find one; I was dead set on finding one. It’s so much of the eye of the beholder on it. I like any culture that can appreciate a bird like that.

CL: Wait, I need to ask you real questions. I was reading your essays and thinking about something you said to me last year, that people who appropriate other people’s stories in nonfiction do so because their own lives aren’t interesting.

LF: Oh, did I say that?

CL: Yes. It was my favorite thing! But I was thinking about that while reading your essays, because a lot of your essays are telling stories of other people, but they don’t feel appropriative. How do you navigate that?

LF: I think that probably goes back to the definition of what appropriation is. And I write nonfiction. Nonfiction is a little bit harder to appropriate, if you’re transparent. If I told you about the time I lost my soul and a witch got it back via guinea pig, like that would be straight up appropriation. But that’s not my intention. I think my life is probably pretty uninteresting, but the people I talk to are really interesting.

A thing that I do remember saying is the worst lies come from vanity. I think that’s probably where appropriation comes from as well. Shallow people tell bad stories because they walk into a room and they can tell you things about themselves in the room. I was interviewing someone recently, and she could tell me what she was wearing and what she was thinking and how she felt. And then I said, so how big is the room? Because these are the details you absolutely need when you start writing. Where are the exits? How many people were there? Is there a carpet? When you speak, would there be an echo? I want to be able to write, “When she speaks, it echoes across a hallway.”

She couldn’t tell me a single thing about anyone else but her in the room, and I was so frustrated. Everyone’s an unreliable narrator, but most people try not to be. And this person was just like, I am the center of all things, why do you need to know anything else? I’m like, okay, if I keep following the story, the best thing I can do is write about your organs. That’s as much interiority as I’m going to get.

I tell other people’s stories because I love these people, and they’re so frequently overlooked, and I hate that. A lot of my projects come out of sheer rage. I dislike the notion that we don’t have good stories, we don’t have literature, we don’t have art. We are, you know, either rapists or starving children, nothing in between. I think that’s where we exist for so many people. And just because the story of this boy misplacing his soul doesn’t fit your idea of literature, it doesn’t sound like a sonnet, doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely beautiful. I’m hoping that by bringing the stories of these people I love and culture I love, the beauty of it, I’ll be able to at least put a dent in the dehumanizing forces of the world. How much has been done to take that away from us? We don’t need permission to be human. We are, and we don’t need permission to make art. We have, and we have been, and we will, and it’s going to outlive any notion that we can’t.

CL: Do you feel like your poetry translation project, 100 Refutations, was also inspired by rage?

LF: Oh god, yeah. But it’s not just rage, it’s grief. I was talking to a former classmate of yours yesterday about struggling to write more of the joy. How do you write more essays with joy, especially when you deal with subjects like this, loss and war and devastation.

I keep going back to Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m going to botch the quote—get the quote right. [“This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it.”] It’s from The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I don’t want to join those ranks, obviously, but I do write sad, angry books. But I don’t think that’s all of it. And I don’t think that’s the intention. The joy is present. It has to be. It’s the loss of joy that hurts. That’s the emptiness of certain literature, where you don’t understand the stakes because everything is terrible. Everyone is terrible. No one is worth saving. The recognition that there is something worth saving is what deepens the grief, but it’s also a celebration.

I understand that with 100 Refutations, at least the essays are going to feel pretty angry. But I love the poetry. And I write a lot about women because they’re very frequently the ones who are overlooked; especially in a country that has been at war for so many years, they’re the ones who have stayed at home. They’re the ones who are sending their children off to war and surviving them. There’s a poem that I recently translated from Almafuerte, an Argentine poet, and he said it’s the weight of a hundred cities for a hundred years. That’s what it felt like when people talked to me about certain losses. I want people to see these poems and read these poems and see they’re not full of rage. Most of them are this constant celebration of beauty. I think that’s the counterpoint. I do think that’s the delight: the recognition that we still have something to lose is hopeful and depressing.

CL: And you do a lot of finding beauty in visceral and violent things.

LF: You don’t seem to like that, though.

CL: No, I do! Your placenta essay is beautiful. It’s only made me almost pass out twice. But I was also thinking about that essay, specifically when you choose a piece to read. I’ve read your essays, and I feel like a lot of them don’t have as much viscera and violence, but I’ve heard you read the placenta essay twice.

LF: There are some things that read better than others. I tend to read things that have a quickened pace because it’s easier to follow. And I do adaptation. So even though you’ve heard me read the placenta essay twice, I read two versions of it. For yesterday’s reading, the essay that I read, “A Man Walks In and Takes Off His Hat,” was an adaptation of a much longer essay, and the meditations—which are a little bit harder to follow—are intimated in scene. I prefer intimating something, alluding to something, rather than being blunt about it, because the bluntness is earned through the pace of the essay. And I need you to stay with me so that on page 23 I can say, here’s my heart, here’s the thing. There are certain things that can’t be said in certain places in certain times in certain moments. When somebody tells you “I love you,” for example, if it is empty or completely meaningful, it depends on the relationship you had before that moment, and the essay reflects that. I need you to know how difficult it is for me to say this thing before I say it. If I just blurt it out, it’s going to be taken away.

The reading can’t quite replicate that. And for this one, I felt that I needed something that moves quickly and has a little bit of strange humor because I open with such a heartfelt rant [about 100 Refutations] that if I followed with, “and now we’re going to talk about the death of Laika and how I idolized her as a child,” that’s too much. This is the third time I did this reading with a poem at the beginning and then switched off into something a little bit lighter, and I think this one went the best because I timed things correctly. You have to flip the switch and be able to read the room. But that’s a lot of wiring in the back. No one cares about that, nor do they want to hear about it. Just dance for us, puppet, and then go away.

CL: We’ve talked before about nonfiction as a transaction of vulnerability, and it sounds like what you’re saying is it works differently on the page than when you’re in front of an audience.

LF: [When writing] I spend a lot of time alone with people without them. And alone with me. So, it’s just me in a room alone with the most painful parts of myself. And then people spend time with me alone [when reading my work], away from me, with the most painful parts of me. That loneliness of experience is very different from, “We’re all in a room together, now let’s be vulnerable!” That’s rough. And I’m not an actor. I’m going to feel things publicly, and it’s going to be horrifying and honest. It’s easier when the reading is the last thing I do for the day, but when I do a reading and then I have to talk to other people afterwards, it’s challenging. I have to meet enthusiasm with enthusiasm that I no longer have the ability to muster.

I’ll tell you the weirdest thing that’s happened after reading was recently: a man approached me and started speaking to me in Spanish right away. We had a conversation for a little bit, and then he looked at me and said, “I wanted to make sure you were actually fluent.” I’m like, oh, I don’t know how to respond to that.

CL: Oh my god. It’s like a test.

LF: It was a test, and it was a weird test because English is my second language. The other weird thing that happened during that reading is that somebody approached me on an essay I have in This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. I’m so happy and proud and honored to have been asked to be in there, and I was asked because I read the placenta essay at AWP, and then Kelly McMasters asked me at the end, do you ever write about home? And I’m like, almost exclusively, that’s the only thing I write about! She gave me this flyer, and then I spent four hours finding out if she was a real person because I’m like, that’s a scam, right? Like no one hears me read about my desire to cannibalize someone’s placenta and then goes, you! I want you for my gentle anthology about women and home. And it’s not a gentle anthology. It’s brutal and it’s devastating and it’s lovely.

[In the anthology], I talk about meeting a man at a shelter. I was volunteering. I believe in the social contract and volunteering and doing the right thing and expecting nothing. I didn’t have a home at the time; I was living with my friends, and I don’t know if I had a job. Maybe I was going to Ohio? I didn’t have a visa, and I didn’t quite have a country. But you should volunteer if you can and you have the time, and I had the time. So, I was there, and I met this man who was very excited that I was Colombian in a way that people don’t get excited. He was there with his girlfriend and his daughter and he was clearly in distress; I was there helping him find a job. That was my job, to make sure the listings were clear and help people write resumes. And he was excited in this way that seemed unusual, and I said, “I’m from Bogota.” He’s like, “I was just there.” And I’m like, “Oh, were you on your way somewhere else?” Mainly you go to Bogota and then you go somewhere else because there’s little oxygen and it’s cold. People don’t go there for a holiday. And he’s like, “No, I stayed in Bogota.” And I’m like, “That’s unusual, did you do research or whatever?” And he said, “No, I was just there for three days. I didn’t really leave the hotel room that much.”

As he gave more details, I realized what he had done, why he had been in Bogota. He’s a U.S. citizen, and he can go in and out easily, and he was carrying. I know this because he asked me if I knew anybody in the cartels that I could hook him up with. Which was happening in public, in this room full of people on computers looking for jobs. It’s hard because he’s in distress, and I’m in distress. I’m in a very different type of distress because I still have more possibilities. I don’t know what his prospects are, and I understand the race divisions in the United States as well. I’m very conscious of that. He sees me as pale, and there is a class element to that, but it’s also different where I’m from, and here’s his child, and he needs to provide. And I’m sort of stuck in this really complicated scenario, where I’ve spent so much of my life hating how a first world country, quote unquote, funds the war of a third world country, quote unquote. And I see this is where it’s coming from, and it’s not what I want it to be.

What I want it to be is Elton John, whose music I appreciate. I quite like “Rocket Man,” but I have mostly hated him for one comment he made. He was flying over the Alps, and he looked down and said, “Oh, that’s like all the cocaine I’ve snorted,” and it’s just, it’s that same grief. Like, do you know how many people died? How much of a war you personally funded? And then there’s the flip of that. There’s so many artists who get to drive Priuses and still be part of something that brings so much grief and death, but he’s not that. This man in the shelter is not that. And yet I know if he gets another chance, because of the way he’s speaking to me, he’s going to do it again. And is it better that it’s him and not us? It’s not. And is it worse that it’s him, and that he might get caught, and he might become part of another statistic of black men in prisons? Does it make it any less or more acceptable? It’s just terrible. Every part of it is terrible.

The question that I was asked [after reading an essay about this] was, “Why didn’t you punch him?” I did not quite know how to react. After I do the readings, it’s kind of hard to be quick on my feet about the whole thing. All I could say was because he wasn’t the problem, and I wasn’t the solution. I just feel grief for him and for me and for us, and how we’re stuck here, and the people who are actually profiting from our grief are the ones who will never suffer in this life.

But I have looked at other Latinos, Chicanos, people who are first generation in the U.S., and they might not speak Spanish, and I have turned my nose. Then I go back home, and I’m no longer Colombian enough. There are all these divisions, and even if you stay in Colombia, you might be too pale to be whatever it is. And it just makes me so sad that my cousins, my Latinos, my hermanos, that we’re so quick to jump to that. To make even greater divisions when we have a common enemy. So, I’m trying to figure out better ways to respond to people that will make us aware of it. And I’m not qualified. I’m just from one Latin American country. But I want people to know more about our humanity and the art we’re capable of making. That our human value is not equivalent to the GDP of our country.

CL: There was a reading, where a white man during the Q&A asked you, “Why are you here?” in an aggressive way. And I remember you answered in this elegant way, explaining how you got the job you had at the time. That was a situation where I might have felt like, “Why didn’t you punch that dude?”

LF: Well, there is an element of I’m very aware of my status in this country. I am a little bit worried when I do some of these readings that someone is going to come up to me. I think you might have read a poem that I translated by Demetrio Korsi that is about the Statue of Liberty, it’s called “New York.” That is a poem I was a little bit hesitant about, even though I think it’s brilliant and fantastic and it was written in the 1940s, so it predates all of this, and it just goes to show, there’s this notion that things for immigrants are only hard now. They’re only becoming visible now. I hope awareness doesn’t die down, and I hope we can compete at least a little bit with Stormy Daniels.

And I am a firm believer that you’re only bored if you’re boring, and you’re only gonna be boring if you’re bored. There’s no question that you can’t answer with lunacy. That’s the essayistic thing, being alone in a room and still finding something to say and some connection. But the best way to answer [a question like that], like in “sor Filotea,” is by playing the game and playing it better. I don’t think punching Nazis is as useful as it might be cathartic. It’s not doing a service to what we’re trying to do. Which is not to say that [punching Nazis] is not helpful and cathartic, or that art isn’t supposed to be those things. I think there’s a place for blasphemers, and there should be. That’s part of the whole thing. My hard lines are cocaine, consent, and censorship, as you probably know.

CL: The three C’s?

LF: The three C’s! I think the problem is that I do have opinions that sound very serious. Because I’m very loud, people think I’m very passionate about everything I say, but I’m not really; I’m just loud. I feel very passionate about very specific things, and they tend to involve exploitation of humans. That tends to be the one thing that I mostly care about. I don’t really care that much about Captain America. I watch terrible movies too. I’m a big fan of the Resident Evil franchise. It’s very objectionable in many, many ways. I watched all of Pretty Little Liars and felt deeply betrayed by the last episode.

CL: I finished it after we last spoke about it. God, I can’t believe we both spent time this way.

LF: I’m not a believer in high art and low art. And the turning up our noses at romance novels, for example—which I know nothing about, and it’s not my thing. It’s not my cup of tea. And I don’t say that in a dismissive way. I just hate happy endings. Why doesn’t everyone die?

CL: Any last words?

LF: I’ve had a good life. That’s the last thing that [William] Hazlitt is known to have said before he died. Like, well, I had a good life. Which, according to all evidence and his own writing, is not true. It’s fantastic that all that time everybody thought he was utterly miserable, he was kind of enjoying his misery. I feel a kinship with Hazlitt, even though I know that’s not allowed. It’s not kosher for me to have a kinship.

CL: Well, there’s that whole magazine named for him. It’s Canadian.

LF: The next thing that I’m obsessed about is the facts about alternative facts. Because the way we’re approaching it is wrong—telling people the thing you’re feeling is not real. People felt disenfranchised. The Normal School essay [“Whistling,” published in their Fall 2017 issue], which I really love, was me and my friend Amanda Dambrink talking about the grabbing back pussy part, but also what was happening with DACA at the time. [Amanda] wrote this beautiful essay about whistling that I kept pushing her to finish. I feel like that’s my job for most people: if you write something beautiful, I’m just going to nag you until it happens. She finally wrote me and said, “I can’t feel so petty. All of this is happening, and the grief is so big. I can’t concentrate on anything like this Montaignean meditation on whistling.” So, I told her, let’s have this conversation in essay form.

James Baldwin made an appearance [in that essay]. He said, you think you are alone with the grief in the world, with all the sadness you feel, and then you read a book and you realize your pain is the thing that connects you to everyone else. I can’t tell you, well, let’s talk about girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram. This is how much pain they felt. How much pain have you felt? This much? You don’t get to talk about pain. You don’t get to feel pain; you don’t get to acknowledge it. That’s ridiculous, right?

I think that’s the line we’re constantly walking. And we’ve not done a great job of it. You can’t say to somebody who has lost their job, “Actually, the U.S. has added 400 jobs just this month.” That has beaten people down and told them, well, if I’m not part of your statistics, then I reject your statistics and I reject your facts, and facts became the sort of toxic thing.

I think the only way we can approach it is to listen more and reject less. And do less of the self-righteous confrontation because that has gotten nowhere. Instead of talking so much about the bubbles in a bubble to each other, as we sit comfortably in said bubbles, we need to actually go and talk to somebody else. I wish that I had spoken more to that man in the shelter, but I was so taken aback by it, and I was just so desperate to try to help him because if he did get that job, he wouldn’t have felt like he was being compelled so much to it. That was maybe the hardest part. He said, “We think we’re poor, but then the things I saw in Bogota, you guys are poor.” And I’m thinking, I’m trying to help you because you don’t have a home and I have more prospects, but you feel sorry for me and my people. I wish that I had said more to him.

I don’t know when it’s time to start giving up on each other, but I’m pretty sure that 99 percent of people who may not think how you think or vote how you vote are not the enemy, and even if they were, I don’t know how much we stand to gain by just telling them, “You’re the enemy! You’re the reason for my pain, and your pain isn’t real.” I don’t know. I have no idea what you asked me. I’m very tired. It’s been weeks since I’ve been home, essentially.

CL: Dude, you need to sleep.

LF: People tell me that. A doctor told me once, “You’re just gonna die young.” I’m like, “How young? Put a number on that. I’ll address it after this semester. Let me finish 100 Refutations, then I’ll sleep.” Do you know why it’s called 100 Refutations? It’s 100 arguments essentially against the idea that there are some countries that are shit and some countries that aren’t. I had 100 Reasons [as a title], and then somebody said “113 Reasons Why Not,” and it was too much.

CL: It was a terrible show.

LF: Was it? I think it’s worth a conversation about how they tried to represent suicide. I think they wanted to make it horrifying. I struggle with this all the time. You know the work of Michael Haneke? He did Funny Games, Benny’s Video, and Caché. Funny Games is specifically the one I keep going back to because he does such a good job at punishing his audience. I write so much about war, and so many people die. If I leave the climax as the most explosive, horrifying image, that’s exploitation. That’s the type of thing I’m really worried about. So, I’ve been working a lot toward punishing the reader and punishing myself for having the expectation that the most violent moment is the thing. With specifically nonfiction, that the worst thing that ever happened to you is not the most important thing that ever happened to you. I write about people I love and people I admire, and I don’t want you to remember them solely because of the worst thing that ever happened to them. So that’s the difficulty—how do we remember people and forget what happened to them, because it deserves to be forgotten.

Review of Immortal Village by Kathryn Rhett
House in a tree near a river

Any reader of poetry is familiar with the way theme constellates across a book, building a product that is much more than the sum of its parts. And yet each time I read Kathryn Rhett’s Immortal Village, I remain amazed: this collection manages something I haven’t witnessed before. Although initially Rhett’s use of theme seems familiar, she gradually intensifies the repetition of phrases and ideas until they become the driving force of the lyric’s “narrative.” Repetition acts as a wormhole in space-time, allowing the reader to exist in several moments, and poems, at once.

If that sounds complex, Rhett’s technical control of language makes it simple. Recurring phrases such as “white nightgown,” “with a war on,” and “lay down some” send the reader forward and back across the collection, like a wind stirring chimes at every house on the street.  Consider the use of repetition in “Slip”: “But it’s always 1776. / It’s always 1972. / We’re always wearing white nightgowns. / He’s always saying, let me / tell you a story / In a confiding tone / And the story will always destroy us.”

Amidst the revolving themes of art, family, and selfhood, the collection relies on the narrator’s voice as a constant. This allows the poems to take risks they would not otherwise be able to. The poems can move seamlessly from moments in the narrator’s childhood to moments spent with the narrator’s own children. The book inhabits many spaces, including but not limited to a honeymoon apartment in Mexico, a cornfield outside a juvenile boys’ home, the Uffizi Gallery, and the glass airspace above San Francisco. Literary allusions add another element of depth, spanning from Elizabeth Bishop to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Gothe. Rhett understands how to arrange image against image, text against text, in a way that brings out the best qualities of each.

Rhett comes to poetry from prose, having previously published two books of nonfiction; as such, the ease with which she builds character in these poems comes as no surprise. What truly astounds, however, is the superb musicality with which she manages the task. These poems are driven by sound, and Rhett is masterful at pacing. Her narrator is recognizable by voice and breath alone, as in “In Bed”: “If only you would with your hand / cover my mouth, lay down some violence / like what we watch with satisfaction on TV— / lay down some violence against me / while we wait for / death what what they say we’ll get.”

Rhett is able to alter tone without rushing the reader, even—and especially—at moments when the poems intensify. Each line is given appropriate time to reverberate. The poems are resolute, uninterested in softening the world. But despite that darkness, there is delight in each turn of language, each time a sentence manages more than it rightly should. For example, from “Book of Hours”: “The child growing larger by the hour, as if birth were endless. / She traps her small flying hand with her mouth.” In this manner, Rhett’s poems alchemize joy where the reader least expects it. The collection is as energizing as it is precise, and the ideas continue to echo in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

Although this is Rhett’s first full-length collection of poetry, its finely-tuned craft speaks to her years of experience. She is able to transform the ordinary over and over, making a mythology which becomes larger than even the immortal village or the richly painted angels. At a time when literary forms continue to be more hybrid, this collection is a model of how a book within a single genre can innovate through cross-genre technique. Rhett’s whirled collage, her balance of characterization and lyricism, and her musicality make this book a true wonder. The magic of Immortal Village is subtle, but I have the feeling this book is a preview of literary conventions to come—and what a future that promises to be.

Interview with Christine Kitano

Joy Grace Chen: Most of the poems in Sky Country have a clearly identified narrator, and I think it is only in section II that the speakers remain relatively nameless and faceless. Who did you imagine to be the narrator(s) in this section? I was also wondering if you could talk more about the process of writing about the concentration camp in Utah. Did it require any research?

Christine Kitano: The speaker in the second section is an imagined character, loosely based on my grandmother. I imagine her as a young, first-generation Japanese American immigrant, who leaves her home country in search of a better life, only to have that life upended by the WWII incarceration. My family was incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah, so I set these poems there. Initially, I did a lot of research (including reading personal remembrances by my father) to find out details about camp life. But when I started writing the poems, I had to let go of the research and trust the voice of the speaker.

JGC: Something that I personally am very interested in, as a second-generation Chinese American who has lost most of her Chinese language skills, is the role that language and bilingualism play in cultural assimilation or, conversely, in cultural displacement. I love your poem “Persimmons,” which ends with the lines “Persimmons / the word in the only language I own.” Were you ever bilingual? How has your relationship to language informed your sense of identity? And how has it informed your writing?

CK: I wish I were bilingual. My mother is a first-generation immigrant from Korea, so she spoke to me in Korean when I was growing up. My father, however, as a second-generation Japanese American, only spoke English. So it was difficult for me to maintain a grasp on Korean, since the primary language in our household was English. And after moving away from California, I began to lose my ear for Korean. But growing up in this way helped me understand how language works from an early age. I knew that language shaped the way a person thought, and that there are words in one language that will not translate to another. My mother would often complain that English was inadequate. From there, I deduced that language itself is always inadequate, but the poet’s job is to manipulate it to communicate that which cannot otherwise be communicated.

JGC: In a Poets & Writers feature, you described how you use translated poems to inspire your own work. Could you talk a little more about this process and, if this applies, how it shaped some of the poems in Sky Country?

CK: I find there’s a different texture in poems translated into English. I always begin a writing session by reading other poems, and there’s something about the slight strangeness of a translated poem that I feel opens my brain in a different way, that allows me to approach language from a different perspective. Many of the poems in the second section of Sky Country came from reading translations of Eastern European poets (Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Swir, Paul Celan), poets who suffered through the worst of history. Though my subject matter was different, I still learned a lot about how to describe suffering from these masters.

JGC: I read in a recent interview that you are working toward a collection of short essays. What drew you to begin writing creative nonfiction? How do you think your poetry informs your nonfiction, and vice versa?

CK: I had started writing creative nonfiction when writing Sky Country. The longer prose poem sequences (“Sky Country” and “A Story With No Moral”) began as creative nonfiction essays. But I still felt more comfortable working in a poetic mode, relying more on imagery and paratactic association rather than narrative to tell the stories, so they ended up as prose poem sequences instead. But I want to learn how to craft an essay. Writing is writing, and there are definitely similarities between a poem and an essay, but ultimately I see essay writing as a challenge to myself to learn something new.

JGC: What is one valuable piece of advice that you think more emerging poets and writers need to hear?

CK: The work itself is the reward. Especially with social media, it’s too easy to feel like you’re falling behind or not measuring up with someone else who got that great publication, fellowship, residency, etc. The cure for this, at least as far as I can tell, is a steady writing practice. When I’m working (and through this work learning more about my craft), the external validations hold much less power.

Review of Sky Country by Christine Kitano

“Sky country,” as explained by the title poem of Christine Kitano’s second poetry collection, is the Korean word for heaven. It is a word used to describe the United States, and a word that underlies this book’s framing conceit of the immigrant experience. Kitano, the daughter of a Japanese American father and a Korean immigrant mother, delves intimately into her family’s history to explore and challenge this notion of paradise across the five sections of this collection.

Opening with a series of linked prose poems, the first section of Sky Country paints in lucid detail the poet’s relationship with her Korean grandmother, as mediated through language and narrative. When her grandmother tells stories of her past, Kitano writes, “My Korean is weak. I understand only pieces of what she says.” The American world which the poet inhabits also resists neat translation across a generational and cultural divide, and Kitano expresses this frustration: “I want to tell her it’s not that kind of war, but I don’t have the words.” However, in the same breath, these poems forge a connection between the two women through images, if not through language. Kitano describes her grandmother reenacting biblical stories, “rais[ing] her arms, as if in victory, to summon the Pillar of Fire and split the Red Sea”—an image that echoes the “boat, a river, and a fire” that recur in the older woman’s storytelling.

Section II of the collection is situated firmly in place: Utah’s Topaz Concentration Camp, circa the 1940s. Here, Kitano uses persona poems to imaginatively explore the internment experience of the Japanese during World War II. The collection’s third section continues to adopt the unique voices of different narrators—ranging from a prostitute, to an insomniac, to a dental assistant—and in the fourth section, the poems delve into the poet’s relationship with her parents. A series of prose poems, grouped under the title “A Story with No Moral,” links Los Angeles in 1990 with South Korea in 1958—connecting Kitano’s own childhood discomfort about her physical appearance with a story of one of her mother’s mixed-race classmates.

The fifth and final section in Sky Country circles back to the poet’s grandmother, whose experiences living in both Korea and the United States ground the collection’s narrative (and thematic) preoccupation with immigration and belonging. In the concluding poem, Kitano muses gently as a way of exit, “It is here, the bus that will ferry / you home. Go ahead, / grandmother, go on.” The collection ends planted firmly in concrete visual details, echoing and responding to the poems in section I that first introduced images as a potent form of communication within the larger, often failed, framework of language.

An essential component of the immigrant experience is the slow erosion of one’s cultural and linguistic identity, and Sky Country subtly interrogates this sense of erasure. Writing about her grandmother in section I, the speaker observes that she “knows how history can wipe away a person’s language,” and this observation is juxtaposed both directly and indirectly with the speaker’s own loss of the Korean language. In “Fireflies,” a mother teaches her daughter the Japanese word for “firefly” but wakes up the next morning to “find the characters gone, / the name on the earth already erased by the wind.” Kitano’s examination of absence and loss converges with the sense that this collection in no way tells a complete story. In writing about her father, the poet admits, “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true. / It is a story without an ending. / And when I open my mouth / to speak, it continues.” Both the father’s narrative and a more general immigrant’s narrative take shape through Kitano’s poems, yet also spill beyond them, too much for one narrator, one author, or one book.

On a more intimate level, Sky Country is driven by a current of longing felt tangibly in every section. Kitano conveys desire in flashes of imagery, like “a light that fails and fails to reach us” in “I Will Explain Hope,” or the men in “Lucky Come Hawai’i” who “crave your breath, your cool hands / smooth as abalone shell, your fine feet . . .” Kitano also speaks of a powerful ache, writing about dreaming of her dead father and desiring to please her mother. She encapsulates what is perhaps the heart of the collection in “Autobiography of the Poet at Sixteen,” when she states, simply and beautifully: “we are built for life, / for love, which means / we are built for pain.” Life, love, and pain converse with and long for each other across the poems of this collection. Under the unifying notion of “sky country,” Kitano invites readers to ache in the same way she aches as a woman and a daughter, in the same way Koreans ached dreaming of America as heaven, in the same way immigrants have ached trying to belong in this country. Sky Country offers pain and delight, heartbreak and love, through poems which—while rendered in exquisite language and imagery—still gesture to what is incomplete, what is unwritten, and what is lost.

Interview with Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You (FSG, 2016), received the British Book Award for Debut of the Year and was longlisted for the National Book Award. He is currently working on a short story collection that follows the unnamed narrator of What Belongs to You beyond the events of the novel. Greenwell recently visited Ohio State University to teach a weekend workshop on voice in fiction; there, he met with MFA student Scott Broker for the following interview, which focused on place, transgression, and the “real life of literature,” among other topics.

Greenwell began with a consideration of MFA programs themselves: their advantages, limitations, and potential spaces of improvement.

Garth Greenwell: The single reform I would make of MFA programs would be a serious and rigorous language requirement. Every major advance in English literature has happened because of a collision or a creative encounter with another language [and] it does worry me a little bit that when I talk to American writers, I don’t feel that there’s the same kind of openness to the kind of breadth of reading and linguistic competence that allows you to see that the game being played in mainstream American fiction is one game among many.

Scott Broker: This idea of collision ties in well with your own creative practice, as What Belongs to You and the new story collection both emerged from your time living in Bulgaria. I’m curious about this relationship and how much of the import, for you, is in Bulgaria being Bulgaria, and how much of it is in Bulgaria simply being somewhere other than the United States.

Review of Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s new book, Difficult Women, is a deeply moving collection of short stories that are by turns tender, heartbreaking, and chilling. Gay’s characters, “difficult” thought they may be, are rendered with a profound sensitivity that affirms their humanity, alongside their wounds and flaws. Gay herself claimed an affinity for so-called “unlikeable characters” in a 2014 piece for Buzzfeed, describing them as “those who behave in socially unacceptable ways and say whatever is on their mind and do what they want…and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”[1]

Difficult Women is replete with such complicated characters: women and men who make selfish and self-destructive decisions, often in response to past trauma. These stories explore the ongoing effects of that trauma in language both lyrical and intimate. In “North Country,” an African-American woman who recently lost a baby during childbirth takes a job as a professor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she finds love with a patient and plainspoken Yooper. The story details the many microaggressions she experiences in her mostly-white small town and conveys the way these actions weigh on her as she works through her grief. In “Break All The Way Down,” a woman whose child is killed by a motorist punishes herself by leaving her husband for an abusive lover. When the lover’s ex-girlfriend abandons her own baby in the woman’s arms, the woman is finally able to return to the house she shared with her husband to begin to come to terms with their loss.

Scenes of domestic abuse and sexual violence abound in these stories, but these moments are never sensationalized. In the case of “Break All The Way Down,” Gay depicts the desire for violence as yet another intrusion of past trauma on a character’s present life. When the protagonist finally returns to her husband, she begs him to “hold [her] to the ground;” though he readily accepts this request to temporarily take charge of her life, he patiently refuses to give the physical punishment she demands of him. Many of Gay’s characters who “survive” trauma never quite finish “surviving” it, and her plots often hinge on the ways characters navigate a hostile and dangerous world while nursing wounds that never fully heal.

While several of Gay’s protagonists invite punishment in heartbreaking ways, occasionally characters’ masochism brings them closer together. In the brash and energetic “Baby Arm,” Gay explores the strange and touching intimacy between two young women who co-host an all-female fight club, an environment where a cathartic sort of misogynistic self-abasement sits uneasily beside affirmations of female companionship.  In the middle of a melee, the narrator catches her friend’s eye across the room and sees her “[mouth] ‘I love you,’ and I smile even though it hurts and another set of knuckles connects with my face, running the moment—bitches ruin everything.”

Throughout this collection, Gay takes risks not only with content, but also with style and form. The title story is written as series of vignettes that present a satirical taxonomy of diverse types of “difficult women,” including “Loose Women,” “Frigid Women,” “Crazy Women,” “Mothers,” and “Dead Girls.” Though somewhat fragmentary, the story is nevertheless clever and engaging. “La Negra Blanca” productively inhabits an uncomfortable space between realism, satire, and the grotesque. In this story, a mixed-race woman who is putting herself through college by working as an exotic dancer is stalked by a wealthy white racist obsessed by hip-hop culture and the bodies of black women. This villain is no less terrifying for being cartoonish, and the story is by turns tender and deeply disturbing.

Several stories in the collection are explicitly surreal or speculative. “Water, All Its Weight” and “Requiem for a Glass Heart” allegorize depression and vulnerability via magical realist conceits. In the first, water seeps from the walls and ceilings around a recent divorcee, warping and staining any room she occupies; in the second, a “stone thrower” married to a glass woman handles her with care, but is reckless and carefree with his flesh-and-blood mistress. Though thought-provoking and beautifully-written, these speculative stories are ultimately  weaker than others in the collection. The strength of the stories in Difficult Women derives from Gay’s remarkable ability to tease out and explore the humanity of her unusual and complicated characters, and this deep empathy is inhibited in tales in which emotions are transformed and externalized through allegory.

Published in January, this collection takes on new resonance in the aftermath of an election in which a man who once bragged about sexual assault won the presidency over a female candidate he notoriously derided as a “nasty woman”—a bit of nomenclature that seems right at home in Gay’s titular taxonomy. The dystopian premise of Gay’s “Noble Things” is especially striking in this light. In a version of America divided against itself, in which southern states have seceded after a divisive election and a border fence has been built along the former Mason-Dixon line, Parker, the son of a Southern general, longs for unity. When his young son inspects a map of the Balkanized former United States and asks “Why aren’t these states together?”, Parker responds, “They used to be,” then continues: “they ought to be.” He explains that “once, there was an election and smallminded people couldn’t handle the man who won.”

The premise evokes the racist divisions of the Obama years, in which the election and re-election of our first black president led to petitions for secession across the nation, as well a “birther” challenge to the president’s citizenship championed by the very man who would eventually succeed him. But the longing for unity expressed in “Noble Things” takes on new implications in a post-45 America that has also heard half-serious calls for “Calexit” alongside jokes from anxious progressives about moving to Canada. Abandoning the American project may have consequences (both for those who leave, as in Gay’s story, and for those who are left behind), but the imperative to stick it out takes its own toll.  In “Noble Things,” the North remains prosperous after Southern secession, while Parker’s South suffers under the austerity brought about by its “smallminded” decision. In the closing paragraphs, Parker and his wife nostalgically recall the days when there was only “one nation, indivisible until it wasn’t” and marvel at “how quickly it all came apart.” Maintaining unity means striving to heal divisions, but may also mean persisting—as the characters of Difficult Women do—in a world that feels on the verge of breaking apart.

 

[1] Gay, Roxane. “Not Here to Make Friends: On the Importance of Unlikeable Female Protagonists.” Buzzfeed, 3 January 2014, https://www.buzzfeed.com/roxanegay/not-here-to-make-friends-unlikable?utm_term=.vhW0reyjd#.svKAD7VJm. Accessed 24 September 2017.

Review of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

A skinny volume with a bright red cover, Sonya Huber’s new essay collection is vibrant and loud from its first pages. The collection details the speaker’s diagnosis of and life with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain, and addresses both the physical realities and the metaphysical concept of pain. In the opening essay, “What Pain Wants,” the speaker says, “pain resents being personified or anthropomorphized.” Of course, this statement is itself a clever and strange contradiction, hinting that the speaker is comfortable living in complex, imagined spaces. The relationship between this speaker and her pain is complicated. In the same essay the speaker converses with pain: “Pain prefers any texture in which tiny seeds are embedded. Pain shakes its head—no, it says, that is you that likes that texture—and will have nothing to do with spheres.” The imagery here is dense and evocative (those spheres, yes, but also glowing skeletons, egg yolks, cough drop wrappers, lumpy casseroles, nautilus shells), drawing attention to sensation and the response of pain at each turn.

In the essay, “From Inside the Egg,” there are moments in which the effects pain has on the process of writing are visceral, visible. “There’s a theory about the ‘gates’ of pain in the brain that shuttle signals, / but I can’t look it up right now. / I can only do certain kinds of thinking in pain. I can think through a keyhole.” Here, the simple act of not returning to ‘look it up,’ to add in the missing research is political, is the point. The speaker challenges the supposed laziness of sick and disabled people, and allows the absence of information to speak louder than any citation. In a collection incorporating so much research, this moment where the source is purposefully omitted stands out. “From Inside the Egg” is also one of the collection’s more lyrical essays. There are line breaks and sections that are right-aligned. The use of the field of the page almost ‘crips’ it, forcing the reader to contend with the language Huber has broken.

One of the longer and more explanatory essays, “The Alphabet of Pain,” covers an exceptional amount of terrain. The essay uses the foundation of the speaker’s body to engage diverse subjects, including queerness (“Pain sex is queer sex”), labor (“As a woman worker, I have had to speak up to resist the expectation that I will be endlessly available”), and the flaws of the United States medical system (“…only four medical schools in the country have a required course on pain management”). Pain is made both specific and universal, and is called out as political, as when Huber writes, “if pain were not political, we wouldn’t have torture and jails, both of which manipulate and use the body’s instinctive aversion to pain to instill fear and compliance.” This essay comes early in the collection, and lays an explicit foundation for the vocabulary (or alphabet) of pain that later, more lyrical essays (including “From Inside the Egg”) build on.

The collection as a whole may center around pain, but an almost equally present thread is that of the digital space. In “The Status of Pain,” Huber writes of a friend who mentioned the prominence of pain on Huber’s Facebook page. Researching her own life and digital history, Huber finds that this prominence simply doesn’t exist; she’s only posted explicitly about pain three times in the year before the conversation. On the decision to be ‘out’ with her illness and pain, Huber then writes, “will people automatically associate our whole beings with those moments when we are at our weakest?” The title essay, “Pain Woman Takes Your Keys,” speaks to the narrowing effect of pain on Huber’s writing process, almost confessing that “some days in the last year, all I could make was a blog post.” But then, a shift: the blog post is reframed as powerful and significant, a piece that goes viral. The essay ends with the speaker speaking in the new voice of ‘Pain Woman,’ saying “You have more options than the writerly self you think you should be writing through.”

In “Peering into the Dark of the Self, with Selfie,” Huber examines her own “pain selfies…pale olive ovals,” and the motivations behind this documentation. Much has been written about selfies. (Are they narcissistic? Do only millennials take them? And really, are they causing the downfall of modern society?) Huber engages with this conversation, through the lens of disability. “I am seeking the best light and the best side of the woman who does not have to pretend she is not in pain,” she writes. For her, these selfies and their presence on her phone are meaningful, as is the phone itself, which we’re told in “The Alphabet of Pain” serves as a conduit between the speaker and a close friend with the same illness.

“Cupcakes,” a beautiful essay about motherhood and the cupcakes the speaker doesn’t bake for her son, includes Huber again mentioning digital spaces, this time writing “I have been trying to support my new reality by following more disability activists on Twitter.” In Pain Woman, the digital space is where the speaker connects with other disabled people in ways she can’t in her ‘real’ life. It’s a space for research, it’s a space for creativity, and it’s a space for disclosure, which leads to critique from the nondisabled people around her. Just as Huber makes pain explicitly political, so does she unpack the everyday conversations with nondisabled colleagues and friends. When a friend says Huber ‘looks good,’ or a colleague mentions disapprovingly that she’s been ‘very open’ about her disability on social media, these moments are not neutral. They are moments of small but noted violence. They are microaggressions.

In Huber’s collection, pain is ceaseless. It is present in every essay. Pain’s constancy is the point. Pain is relentless, but we’re also told (in the short essay “Prayer to Pain”) that it “is not other than you.” Pain and illness are reframed as strength, as the foundations of a prosperous and privileged community excluding the nondisabled. “We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible,” Huber writes in “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick.” This collection does important work to lead a nondisabled audience to the water of revelation, illuminating the barriers of systemic ableism and a health care system designed to lessen time and money spent on patients. Equally, this collection does not pander to ableism. It is not always for its nondisabled readers.

Pain Woman contains moments of fantastically dark humor (“I have tried and I enjoy yoga. But if you tell me to try yoga, then I will have to fight you,” in “The Alphabet of Pain”), moments of tightly-controlled rage (“Thank you for reminding me that the world of persona and star-creation is one that excludes bodies with illnesses,” from “Dear Noted Feminist Scholar”), and moments of straightforward declaration (“I refuse to be at war with myself,” in “From Inside the Egg”). In the age of Trump, an age when the Affordable Care Act (which the speaker mentions as the reason she can access healthcare) is threatened, this book is even more important, luminous, and necessary than it was when it was published a few months ago.

Review of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya

In an unbroken monologue sustained for over 80 pages, Edgardo Vega, the narrator of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion skewers every aspect of Salvadoran culture he can summon—from pupusas and football to the archetypal Salvadoran character. Moya channels Austrian writer and luminous curmudgeon Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), whose own style eschewed both paragraph breaks and generosity of judgment, and whose work is more often compared to the symphonies of his contemporaries than their novels. Bernhard’s Austria is a failed state, both culturally and politically, a country whose citizens cannot collectively produce a soul worth admiring. Moya’s El Salvador is no different.

Bernhard’s narrators often live abroad, are forced to return to Austria and confront their hatred of their motherland. Moya’s narrator, too, lives abroad, in Montreal. “I left,” he says, “because I never accepted the macabre joke of being destined to be born in this place.” The joke, for the reader, lies in the breathlessness of his assault on El Salvador. Indeed, it is impossible not to laugh, if only from sheer exhaustion. His indictments compound and spin out into manifestations of their own bombast. Vega tells his interlocutor that El Salvador “is a hallucination…it only exists because of it crimes.” Crimes here are shorthand for the atrocities associated with the twelve-year Salvadoran civil war. Because of these crimes, and because of the country, this slim book also exists.

Edgardo Vega lives the life of a grateful expatriate. An art history professor at McGill University, his Canadian passport immunizes him from the indignities visited on émigré Salvadorans. “Even so,” Vega says, “I came because my mother died, Moya, the death of my mother is the only reason I felt obliged to return to this filthy pit.”

Where the reader might expect an epigraph, Moya provides a disclaimer: “Warning: Edgardo Vega, the central character of this report, exists. He lives in Montreal under another name that’s not Thomas Bernhard. He surely relayed his opinions more emphatically and with more carnage than this text contains. I’ve softened perspectives that may have offended certain readers.” First published in 1997 as El asco, readers were indeed offended by its attack on Salvadoran culture and politics. Moya received death threats after the book’s release and friends urged him to remain abroad. In the afterword, he explains that his little book was conceived only as an exercise in style, a game of mimicry. He adds, “El Salvador isn’t Austria. It is a country where, in 1975, its own leftist comrades assassinated the country’s most important poet, Roque Dalton, after accusing him of being a CIA agent. I thought it would be better to go into exile than play the martyr.”

For those, Salvadoran or not, inclined to take offense, there is no dearth of material in Revulsion to do the job. Edgardo Vega’s irascibility is tireless—given a willing listener, he will bemoan “the idiocy of being Salvadoran” eternally. In the Afterword, Moya seems less concerned than amused over his countrymen’s offense. To contextualize Vega’s revulsion further, or attempt to mitigate its effects, would be like explaining a punchline, something from which Moya gracefully refrains.

The author is himself a character, present only as Vega’s silent companion. Both reporter and consummate listener, Moya sits with Vega between the hours of five and seven, in the only bar in San Salvador that Vega can tolerate—the bartender pours heavy drinks and allows Vega to choose the music. “This evening,” Vega tells Moya, “I want to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-flat Minor, which is why I brought my own CD with this stupendous concerto for piano and orchestra, which is why I came prepared with my favorite Tchaikovsky.” This moment depicts Vega at his least vociferous, subdued before plunging into another diatribe.

Vega is foremost paranoid. Suspicious and terrified of his countrymen, he sees everywhere “guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war.” Everyone is guilty but those who fled; namely, Vega. When Vega is generous, he’ll add Moya to his list of nonparticipants. Moya is too busy, he says, writing “famished little stories about sex and violence” to actually engage in it.

Vega’s diatribe belies his fear that he, too, despite his Canadian passport, despite his hatred of violence, is guilty of the same crimes. In order to cancel his own guilt, everyone else must be made culpable. Every bus driver, football player, and bartender is, to Vega, complicit in the most horrible war crimes. He doesn’t stop, though, with accusing citizens of El Salvador. It is their culture, too, their dietary habits, their prejudices, and their leisure activities that are responsible for the war’s atrocities. This unsparingness bleeds into hyperbole and comedy. Moya’s Vega is certainly funny, though because of the form of Revulsion, his humor is best appraised in its accumulation. It’s impossible not to laugh when everything is guilty.

The appearance of Vega’s brother, Ivo, signals the arrival of a plot to support further diatribe. Vega says of his brother, “[W]e don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte.” Ivo owns a chain of locksmith shops across San Salvador. An arriviste with aspirations beyond his social station, Ivo’s tastes are decidedly lowbrow. He loves football and binge drinking. He “has three televisions in his house,” says Vega, “you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is.” Here, there is a barely perceptible increase in generosity never present in Bernhard’s work, as if Vega, or Moya, is uncomfortable directing his rage at individuals.

Diatribes erect a formidable edifice in Moya’s book, but their indictments are allowed to stand unsupported. San Salvador is a stupid city. Why? Because its people are stupid. Why? Vega answers that question in a number of ways, and few of his answers are sufficient. San Salvador, he writes, is “a culture with the memory of a gadfly, crashing every two seconds against the same window glass because after two seconds it’s already forgotten that the glass existed.” Because the form of the monologue lends itself more easily to exposition than scene, Vega conveys his observations in lists, similes, and hyperbole. Anecdotes would better serve a story, but Revulsion is not a conventional story.

In the afterword, Moya notes that “the wife of a writer friend threw her copy [of Revulsion] into the street, out of her bathroom window, indignant, thanks to Edgardo Vegas’s barbaric talk about pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador.” (Vega claims that the popularity of pupusas can only be explained by “hunger and ignorance.”) Despite death threats and book burnings, Revulsion continues each year to expand its Spanish publication. Moya writes that strangers beg him to write a Revulsion for Mexico, for Guatemala, for Costa Rica, a book “that would critically demolish their country’s cultures,” that would plainly articulate their revulsions for them.

In 2016, New Directions published the book in English, as translated by Lee Klein. Nearly ten years after its initial publication, Revulsion is as timely as ever, and not only for El Salvador, Guatemala, or Costa Rica. As political backlash threatens to undo years of progressive advancement in the United States with a public resurgence of white supremacy and xenophobia, Vega’s type of paranoia is all too relevant.

Review of Phrasis by Wendy Xu

 

The poems in Wendy Xu’s new collection, Phrasis, are kaleidoscopic, forged of fragments.  As the title describes, these are poems of phrasis, a portmanteau of phrases and phasis—or phase. Linguistic and episodic moments of the speaker’s life are the primary building blocks in this collection, and from Xu’s combinations, the reader observes a world almost as if looking through a shattered, but still whole, window.  As the speaker of the titular poem states of “preemptive necessity,” these poems are made of “phrase[s] I’d like to unframe.” To do so, Xu contorts common phrases, moving them away from their conventions: “Happy birth upon a time, Nation!” she writes in “Task Force,” or, “in this trying, these times,” she reorders in “Phrasis.” These, however, are not syntactic games. The twisting in Phrasis is more violent, perhaps akin to “the war” of Xu’s opening poem “Recovery,” that is “a syntatactical construction pointing back to itself.”

And it is true, one feels a linguistic war in these poems. Xu routinely employs atypical sentence structures; elides subjects, verbs, objects; and uses comparative forms of adjectives when the comparison seems to be absent (for example: “I appear myself in public brimming nearer the bronze fountain” from “Music Box”).  However, in “Poem for our Fathers,” Xu concludes, “surely a face formed there / purely by will” and suddenly, it seems that instead of by violence, these poems are constructed by an act of will. Though an act of will requires determination and force, and can appear violent for those reasons, the goal of these poems is not to do damage, but to construct—as does “a face formed there”—a self.  Through language, as Xu states in “The Window Rehearses,” she is “driving both / hands into the space I / am allowed.”

In a 21st-century United States marred by war, oppression, commerce, inequality, capitalism, greed, love, lust, consumption, and technology “the space I am allowed” can be very small. To unframe the phrases and phases that appear to define one’s self, to reapportion them towards one’s own ends, is then an act of reclamation. Xu writes in “Theme Song”

 

mucking poorly

the clean slate, it was only how we

 

say tragic.

 

Tragedy is only tragedy because we say it is tragedy. Xu resists group-defined truths, and even resists the group of “we,” writing in “Phrasis,” “I / am telling you I speak from the representative we but / do not fill me in.” The individuality of the speaker continuously revolts against being defined by mere kinship to others. For this reason, relationships are hardly places of stability, and overflowing New York City provides an oppressive background, where only occasionally does the speaker experience such luxuries as quietly watching a boat come into harbor. One of the greatest tragedies in Phrasis is, on the train in “Five Year Plan,” to “worry a stranger’s / jutted hip and miss / that country view.” In the same poem, Xu also writes, “Out all day I wish more bars / and restaurants unto nobody.” Urbanity, and its twin, technology, strangle the mind. In “Some People,” Xu writes “Something I thought / today was system error” and in “Phrasis”—of herself? of a beloved?—“After a particularly long period of hermitage / you reek again of industry.”

In “Diagonal Sun,” the speaker simply exclaims, “I wanted so bad all that rustic shit.” But when, in “The Forecast,” “leafy nouns” appear, something like solace might emerge from language. The poems of Phrasis are filled with references to the mechanics of poetry: lines, white space, verbs, nouns. They are works of determination to write the self into a fragmented world. Not to defragment it, but rather, as Xu writes in “Phrasis:” to “refer… to the self in thirds, he there of the bent / frame, she shaded in multiplicities of orange, red,” because in divvied-up people, sewn together by color and frames, is reality.

Review of I Am the Beggar of the World by Eliza Griswold

How to endure the unendurable? Perhaps it comes down to wit—keen intelligence cutting to the heart of things. Truth-telling wit may bestow power—however briefly—to the powerless. Think of the rawest blues song, the bawdiest limerick, Shakespeare’s Fool, the anthropomorphic mouse in the old poster, middle finger raised at the bomb looming over his head.

With the help of native speakers of Pashtun, and Afghan scholars of the tradition, Eliza Griswold has compiled and translated a book of landays — a two-line form of folk poetry perhaps five thousand years old — from Afghanistan. Her piercing, matter-of-fact commentary on the poems and their historical and cultural contexts, coupled with Sean Murphy’s stark and beautiful photojournalism, adds a new chapter to the ancient story of human indomitability.

Landays are typically sung, and in all but rare cases sung by women without prompting or occasion. Traditionally, they embody sexual longing or delight, and some of the most affecting of Griswold’s collection do so without explicit acknowledgement of war or oppression, mention of which would undercut the ironic humor of the landays. “Your eyes aren’t eyes,” begins one, setting up the immediate payoff: “They’re bees.” The second line concludes, “I can find no cure for their sting.”

In her commentary, Griswold situates the landay within a rigidly patriarchal culture. In this context, the landay is inherently subversive—dangerous and hidden in plain sight, yet elusive. Consider the poem that opens the book’s introduction:

I call. You’re stone.


One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.


A dozen one-syllable words, three full stops. By means of strong stresses (“call” and “stone”), the first line makes us feel the power of the poet’s need and her lover’s implacable response. The second line plays on “look” and “find,” embodying a hope whose futility the speaker can’t quite admit. Likewise, the permanence of “stone” rhymes with the finality of “gone.” “One day” issues a threat the speaker of the poem wills herself to carry out, but not yet.

A young woman who “called herself Rahila Muska” phoned this landay to an Afghan radio program. Unlike most of the “twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Griswold explains, Muska had some formal schooling, but “poetry, which she learned from women and on the radio, became her only continuing education at home.” Because in Afghan culture “women singers are seen as prostitutes,” they sing in secret. After finding out Muska wrote poems, her brothers beat her. In protest, she committed suicide by self-immolation.

I Am the Beggar of the World documents the private, anonymous wars these singers wage, mirroring the wars that have ravaged Afghanistan for generations. In one of many stunning juxtapositions, a photograph by Sean Murphy shows five fighters on a barren piece of land, a truck in the near background, mountains in the distance. Four of the men stand, one bending over the fifth, who kneels on the ground, an automatic rifle to his right. Is the bending man helping the kneeling one shed his coat? Starting to treat a wound? Tying him up? Are they allies, or enemies?

The landay on the facing page reads:

In Policharki Prison, I’ve nothing of my own


except my heart’s heart lives in its walls of stone.

The photograph and landay play with lethal uncertainty and duality. The singer herself is not held in Kabul’s infamous Russian-built prison. She is alone with absence: her heart’s heart, her beloved, lives in the prison, and also within the “walls of stone” themselves, his being infusing stone. Because the singer can’t be sure her beloved is alive or dead, the poem supports and rewards multiple readings.

Wit infuses even the bleakest landays. For instance, confronted with “My lover is fair as an American soldier can be,” we notice the ambiguity of “fair”: is he just? Does he have a light complexion? The first line of landay plays on the variations and limits of American fairness, and the second line provides an unambiguous reading: “To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.” The singer is revealed as a voice from the grave and the lover, fair or not, soldier or not, her killer.

In her selection of these landays, Griswold works to explode the notion of Afghan female helplessness. These tough-minded, heartbroken, defiantly funny poems reject tail-swallowing irony and narcissism characteristic of some contemporary verse. Like any living tradition, the landay is simultaneously timeless and of-the-moment. It does what all poetry attempts to do: sing what’s most fundamental in human existence.

 

The Light Changes in Every Moment: A Conversation with Carl Phillips

Poetry Editors Jacob Bauer and Daniel T. O’Brien discuss poetic pauses, “musculature,” risk-taking, and restlessness with Carl Phillips. 

JB: I was hoping we might talk about the different kinds of pauses you employ in your poetry—obviously the comma, the em-dash, the ellipses—but also the line break, and how you see those functioning differently. In particular, I’m thinking about the line break—sometimes your punctuation aligns with the line breaks, and sometimes your line breaks bisect the sentence. What do you see the role of those different pauses being?

CP: I guess it’s not something I’ve consciously thought a lot about. Earlier, I spoke about muscularity, and I think of poems as being very physical experiences as opposed to objects. It’s almost like the difference between photography and videography—one seems a more static image, but you get three-dimensionality. In videography everything is moving. I feel as if these pauses—different kinds of pauses and line breaks—start to flesh out a more honest body of the poem. You get to see it almost in motion. It’s why a lot of poems sort of disappoint me. I feel as though they’re just standing there, and they look kind of beautiful, but I want to see the light changing as the body turns and catches different elements of it. I want to see the parts that are embarrassing or surprising that we don’t expect beyond the initial surface beauty. If you can think of a poem that way, maybe the different kinds of pauses and lineation create that experience.

DTO: I think that’s so interesting, particularly because it reminds me of a line of yours that I love, and it almost sounds like what you’re saying: “It’s as if/a side of me that he’d forgotten had forced into the light,/briefly, a side of him that I’d never seen before/and now I’ve seen it.” I guess if reading the poem is like watching the light changing—and you want to see it, and you can’t forget it—that’s how a poem really sticks with you. It’s the muscles and the body, the poem, and the person.

CP: Yeah, I think there is a real similarity to it. Often when I think of it that way, or I feel as if when I tell people that, they think of it as something sexual. But I think it’s more physical, or bodily.

DTO: Speaking to that, I’d like to talk about how you kind of build your poems. I’m thinking about the poem “Black Swan on Water, in a Little Rain,” specifically the way it builds momentum, which to my mind, happens in the manner we’re discussing. This poem is a single sentence, and last night you read a poem of Brigit Kelly’s, before which you said you think it is admirable to write a poem that is a single sentence. I’m curious if you’ll expand on that.

Review of One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman

Ernest Hemingway claimed that all true and good books share one common trait: “[A]fter you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, the good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people and weather.” In his first book, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, Dustin M. Hoffman adds another category to Hemingway’s list of “true” experiences: hard work. His painters (“Sawdust and Glue”), construction workers (“One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist”), salesmen (“Pushing the Knives,” “Everything a Snake Needs”), refinery workers (“The Fire Chasers”), ice-cream truck vendors (“Ice Cream Dream”), and poor folk (“Can Picking”) navigate the mundane realities of laborious lives while dealing with their own tragedies and insecurities. This is a world where fathers take their sons to street fights, as in “Sawdust and Glue.” It is a world where, in “Subdivision Accidents,” painters consider dousing themselves in turpentine to support their families with worker’s compensation.

But these characters are more than representation of labor ground down by a capitalist economic system. Hoffman avoids the pitfall of Socialist Realism, in which the working-class are idealized and the narrative often obviously didactic. As the narrator of “Can Picking” proclaims, revolutions don’t make much of a difference: “Nothing changes for good.” Hoffman’s men—and they are almost all men—struggle to survive lives of endless and honest work without reprieve, and it is in this work that Hoffman foregrounds his exploration of larger concerns. Within this collection, Hoffman’s characters experience loss and regret, suffer crises of identity and masculinity, and learn to navigate modernity. They are men who have failed as fathers and sons, friends and lovers, men who flee from the past even as the past catches up.

These men have also triumphed over the quotidian and banal, decoding simple yet profound truths about existing in a gendered space. “Everyone pretends they’re bigger than they are,” Smiley observes in “Sawdust and Glue,” “and they end up looking smaller, buried in their too-large shirts.” Or as the narrator in “Ice Cream Dream” discovers, one finds freedom on the path “that didn’t need a past, only a will to drive down any new road.” With delicacy and skill, Hoffman delivers a profound and sympathetic vision of American workingmen learning to cope.

In many ways, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist feels like an intimate book because it deals most prominently with patrimony and bloodline. Many of Hoffman’s most touching stories consider the complex and evolving roles of fathers and sons. In “Fire Chasers,” a father tries to relate to his son by taking him to watch local fires against the backdrop of a failing refinery and loss of employment, but his attempts only seem to result in the emasculation of a son he can’t understand. “Sawdust and Glue” features a father whose only remedy for the past is to give his meth-addled convict son a painting job and act as second when his son fights the biggest man on the job. “Ice Cream Dream” features a father-narrator who hates kids working as an ice-cream-truck driver to provide for his estranged children. In these stories, Hoffman considers the uniquely challenging dynamics of the father-child relationship. One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist considers the question of what makes a father good or bad in a world where happiness, and even survival, is not guaranteed.

Most stories in this collection are narrated in the first person, placing the reader squarely within the consciousness of Hoffman’s workingmen. Hoffman reconciles often-conflicting impulses of literary style and realistic content, infusing his characters’ perspectives with gritty realism and transcendent epiphany. In “We Ride Back,” a group of unemployed laborers steal tools from half-finished suburbs in the hopes of pawning them for a few bucks. The unnamed narrator describes the search for tools in language that is simple yet evocative:

We hunt closets. We hunt basements. We hunt cabinets and garages and behind the furnace. We hunt alone, but there’s Lizzy’s flashlight sparking up the basement window next door, or maybe that’s Cal’s house. Neighbors of the absent. Not so much alone as apart. Not so much apart as departmentalized, delegated, defined by what we don’t do anymore, defined by what we find. And we find lots. (86)

These thieves are victims of the economy, the Recession, the loss of jobs and identities. Stealing is a way to fight back, to take revenge, to find an identity, even as an outlaw. In passages such as these, Hoffman inhabits the consciousness of everyday people, expertly and subtly infusing their observations with broader truths.

One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist offers fiction as truth. Here, Hoffman proposes a philosophy of work and identity that transcends the realities of the work-a-day world without crossing into the unbelievable, thus grounding his “working” philosophy in the pragmatic reality of daily life and its ordinary profundities.

Review of The Red Parts By Maggie Nelson

In 1969, Jane Mixer, a University of Michigan law student, was found dead: shot twice through the head, strangled, and abandoned in a cemetery. Jane was thought to be one of a series of young women murdered by a man known as the Ypsilanti Ripper, who was caught and sentenced to life in prison in 1970. However, in 2005, Jane’s family received a call from a police detective, explaining that Jane had not, in fact, been murdered by the Ypsilanti Ripper, but by another man. The detective had spent the past five years revisiting Jane’s case, and now felt that there was “every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.”

The Red Parts is an attempt by Maggie Nelson, Jane’s niece, to examine and understand the feeling of trading one tragedy for another, and of living with the loss of someone she never had the chance to meet. This mulling-over includes chapters of Nelson’s own life—her own “red parts”—that raise questions about inherited trauma, about unhappiness, about conflation of experience. Nelson remains preoccupied with the notion that she is not the best person to be chronicling Jane’s story—that she may not, in fact, have the right to do so— even though this is the second time she has undertaken such a chronicling.

In 2005, when the police detective contacted her family, Nelson was on the cusp of publishing a poetry collection, Jane: A Murder, a lyric response to the lingering questions surrounding her aunt’s death. “Jane is about identification, not fusion,” Nelson explains, continuing, “In the book, I don’t try to speak for her, but rather to let her speak for herself, through her journal entries.” In The Red Parts, which followed in 2007, Nelson’s voice and perspective take center stage. This new edition, a reissue from Graywolf Press, is a return to the pressing question of how to relate a true story that comes with a new preface, which asks, “What effect do years, even decades, have on a piece of writing that self-consciously attests to the turbulent, raw, and rushed circumstances of its composition and publication?”

Summer Reading: Jackie Hedeman

Reviews & Interviews Editor Jackie Hedeman on reading (so, so many) books outside this summer.

My approach to summer reading is best described as Catholic Guilt meets All You Can Eat Buffet. I attempt to make up for the disappointing trickle of mid-semester pleasure reading by going on a rampage. Do I distinguish between fried chicken, broccoli, and chocolate-dipped strawberries? Only in terms of whether they fit on my plate, by which I mean: in my tote bag for a walk, in my carryon for a flight, on my Kindle as one of the ten checkouts permitted by the Columbus Public Library. So I’ve been reading YA. Middle-grade. Essays. Comics. Memoir. Plays. Excruciatingly realist fiction. Horror.
Here are the books I’ve read so far this summer:

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The Hot l Baltimore by Lanford Wilson
George by Alex Gin
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Carry On by Rainbow Rowel
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
The Quick by Lauren Owen
A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

I read nearly every book outside. Reading outside is what elevates summer reading from summer pleasure to summer joy. (In my case, this involves nail polish-stripping sunscreen and a mental list of shady benches.) I read outside in Columbus: on the OSU oval, in tiny Miller Park in Upper Arlington, at outdoor tables at Stauf’s and Starbucks, in the arboretum. I also read outside in Paris: in the Jardin des Tuileries, in the Place des Vosges, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, in the Luxembourg Gardens, at Versailles, and in the Jardin du Palais Royal, which happens to be my favorite place on earth.

Summer Reading: A.E. Talbot

Associate Poetry Editor A.E. Talbot on the power of poetry for all ages and surprising word origin stories!

This summer, I’ve been working at Thurber House, a museum and creative writing education center which runs week-long writing camps for kids. Though one camper was convinced that a guest (the old woman who swallowed a fly) was NOT me in a costume, these are smart, smart kids. One obvious reason I love the MFA is that I get to work with others who are passionate about writing, and it was gratifying to watch second and third graders make those connections at their own level. Phone numbers were exchanged. Playdates were set. Who says writing is always solitary?

That’s all to say that part of my summer has been focused on writing prompts for eight- and nine-year-olds. And you know what? When I needed example poems, it was surprisingly fun to do the exercise myself. I’m not saying that I’ll be hitting the acrostics next time I get writer’s block, but it forced me to write in a direction that I normally would not, such as a poem with elaborate metaphors in every line. It’s out of control, but not in the worst way, and I got ideas from that exercise that might ferment into another poem.