profile in lingusitics: Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

FrazierAuthorPic0714Soma Mei Sheng Frazier


I realize if we lived here we could be home by now. So how do you suggest we communicate? Do we receive and appropriately reciprocate the words of another? Do we communicate the internal gestures of our own healing or projection of trauma? How are we loved? In each encounter we address elements of verbal and nonverbal communication. Soma Mei Sheng Frazier is a writer who focuses on the rigidities and relaxations of our verbal and nonverbal cues and how this intimacy is shaped through the body of our words as well as our actions. In this interview we take a close look at Frazier’s fiction chapbook Collateral Damage: A Triptych, winner of the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize in where she intimates, “every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done?”

Some characters need to “hit rock bottom, in a way that [they] wouldn’t forget.” Some characters have found “peace, so there’s little left to write about”. There are gender tensions present in the work to which Frazier points out, “I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.” Gender aside we are reminded how, “as adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.” Perhaps it is more about the patience we have with others and how we learn to live in our sentences as well as our bodies.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s debut fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, won the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize of 2013 and earned high praise from Nikki Giovanni, Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Antonya Nelson and Molly Giles. Soma’s writing has placed in literary competitions including Zoetrope’s and the Mississippi Review’s, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, been named a Notable Story of 2009 by the storySouth Million Writers Award and won nods from Robert Olen Butler, Jim Shepard and others. Recent work is available in Glimmer Train (Issue 89) and online, at Glimmer Train (Bulletin 72) and Carve Magazine. New stories are forthcoming inZYZZYVA this year and Glimmer Train in 2015. Soma is at work on a novel that walks the line between traditional and urban lit.




1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

When I was four, I played boys’ games and wore boys’ jeans: Toughskins, and at least two pairs of dark denim monstrosities whose tag, “Husky,” stuck straight up from the ass. Given my odd interests, stout form and not-so-swank style, I found myself with plenty of alone time.

That year, I picked up the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series – asking my dad for help with larger words; persisting even after Burroughs cracked civilized Tarzan on the head with a rock so he could start from scratch again – and somewhere around Tarzan and the Leopard Men I started wanting to write too.

Once I devoured Grace Paley, Joy Harjo, Nikki Giovanni, Raymond Carver, Maurice Sendak, Judith Budnitz, Kiese Laymon, Kobo Abe, Louise Erdrich, Bob Butler, Tupac Shakur, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Yasunari Kawabata, David Foster Wallace, Stephen King, James Baldwin, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Denis Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Shel Silverstein, Molly Giles, Uwem Akpan, Richard Bausch, Paulo Coelho, Simone de Beauvoir, Sara Teasdale, Joy Williams, Thomas Hardy, Richard Wright, Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Ann Beattie, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Molly Giles. Many more. Nowadays I’m so fickle or time-strapped or both that I can barely make it through a book. I read a lot of anthologies, piecemeal, as well as poems by Charles Bukowski and Charles Simic (I do like me some Chuck). I have an enduring fascination with Daniel Handler, who was kind enough to blurb my little fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, and my favorite writer to talk with in person would have to be Arisa White.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Hmmm. Burgious Frazier; Shannon Williams-Zhou; Candice “Antique” Wicks, of Antique Naked Soul; Colleen Chen; Marty Rippens; Arisa White; Robert Mezey, who once told me I had “the ear;” Sarah Lawrence College mentor Myra Goldberg, who pointed out that if I was too stubborn to write accessible stories I might as well keep my work to myself; Lisa Schiffman, author and friend; Dartmouth professor Li Hua-yuan Mowry, AKA “Mom.”

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work was once vivid; striking. Now it’s factual and quirky, as I’m disenchanted with drama. What is it that Queen Latifah said in “U.N.I.T.Y?” “Uh, and real bad girls are the silent type.” I guess I like work that sneaks up on you to get its hand around your throat.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I have a hard time delineating genres, but I’m interested in translation – from gut feeling to motion, understanding to imperative, experience to page and screen.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

But of course, world domination. Muahahaha!

I’ll be completing a novel this summer. Shortly thereafter, I’m hoping to secure a full-time, tenure-track teaching gig someplace in the Pacific Northwest.

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I’m always getting surprised by women’s work – Lori Ostlund’s, last week – and I’m hoping that the industry will surprise me as well, by correcting the imbalance that leads to more men’s books being reviewed than women’s, and more males being commissioned write reviews. Women are, after all, the primary consumers of American literature. Another lingering disparity is the industry’s disproportionate whiteness.

7.)      Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Akemi Johnson, Muthoni Kiarie, Arisa White.

8.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Oriental Cracker Mix. (Delish!)

9.)      “leave,” is a short prose story about an aggressive abusive familial relationship. Jason we learn, “is an alcoholic; but it’s not the drinking that’s the problem. It’s the problem that’s the problem, and drinking is what he does to avoid thinking about it. […] The problem is that our government trained him, and neglected to untrain him.” The feminine persona here, Sarah, is first mothered by her child, Lilli. Sarah lost her breasts to a double mastectomy when she was eighteen. Her mentally abused passive personality regularly leaves their home to avoid physical domestic abuse when her daughter tells her, “Mama, leave”. But Jason is not a machine. Sarah tells us, “And that is how I knew that the military had left some part of him untrained, and that, if I ever needed to, I could touch that part and be rid of him.” And she does. She traces his humanity, insulting him and calling him a “sodomized friend-killing LOSER!” He hits her repeatedly; close to the point of death. She tells us, “Oh free oh free oh free. I smile up at him, just for a moment, and let my face fall slack.” And then it is she who tells him, “Jason, leave, […] evenly.” And she knows that these words will keep her safe. I am at point most attentive to the juxtaposition between Sarah and her daughter. The transfer of responsibility, and how both parents seem to have gone through degenderizing identity creates friction; Jason, through his military experience, and Sarah through the removal of her breasts. When you were creating Sarah as a character, what do you believe gave her the strength to sacrifice herself, to address Jason? And also why he knew, that what she spoke to him was in fact the pain he needed to face, in order to allow her to leave?

I think Sarah’s devotion to Lilli led her to provoke and abandon Jason. I’ve watched people kick bad habits when faced with a child’s reliance – even conflict-averse, starry-eyed addicts who aren’t fully sold on their own worth. A kid is a strong incentive. Hell, I’ve kicked a few habits myself for my daughter Zoe: people, substances, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. (Okay, I lied about the last one. But I eat them furtively now, and mainly in the winter so I can blame my red fingertips on the cold. Brrr.)

Jason – he needed to hit rock bottom, in a way that he wouldn’t forget.

10.)   When we enter into, “everyone is waiting,” we see how spectrums of suffering effects how we are able to relate to one another. The main character Dan is in a fruitious relationship that ends tragically and unexpectedly with his partner Lena when she vomits blood and passes away almost immediately. He is befriended by a woman who is the only one he feels can relate to his most intimate soft spots. Similar to “leave,” even though here the woman is only a friend, we see how the experience of trauma can unite people in a space that is alien to most. Ancanit, who we learn was in the LRA was kidnapped, most of her family was killed, and she was abusively held captive to save her family. There is a dissonance between Ancanit and Dan. While she is able to comfort him, we are left we a startling image of her with a gun at the end of the story. One that seems to haunt her. The women in both of these stories seem to assume responsibility for the pain of their male counterparts. Why do you believe the stories evolved this way, and why do we not hear more about the muted counterpart to the relationship?

Every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done? I wrote “Leave” as Sarah’s story and “Everyone Is Waiting” as Dan’s. The secondary characters are less visible, but in some cases more solid. For example, Acanit is practical. At thirteen, she’s withstood more pain than Dan. She handles business and lives with the repercussions, and she’s also a very direct person – whereas he’s tentative; skittish; prone to hiding in facts and figures, turns of phrase. No matter how precarious her situation, she’s found her peace, so there’s little left to write about her, whereas we can still speculate about Dan finding his.

I hadn’t noticed that both Sarah and Acanit took on more emotional responsibility than the men in the first two stories, so your question gave me paws. Meow. Perhaps I was writing from the experience of watching women step up to deal with emotional matters on men’s behalf. I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.

11.)   “charlie golf, charlie golf one” is the concluding story of this chapbook in which we meet Mike and Celeste. Mike narrates the relationship and describes, “I’m the one who enlisted at eighteen, shipped out at thirty for one last tour in a field artillery MOS and stepped on a goddamn pressure plate.” The story is one of a “perfect wife” relationship, until the trauma. And Mike cannot tell her, he does not want to tell her about his memory. That after the explosion he heard: “‘Holy shit! His legs! His fucking legs! Where the fuck is fucking Medivac?’ Over and over he shouted those words, but I heard what he was really saying. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you Mike.” He admits, “I want to tell Celeste this story. More importantly, I want to say that I need her—Charlie Golf, Charlie Golf, for God’s sake, don’t watch me sink—but it’s like I lost my language when I lost my legs. Both of us lost our language.” The language of disaster is loss. Communication is lost. He needs her to listen, but in a way he also knows just as in the previous stories that his words will somehow falter to the devastation of trauma. There is a shift in the story when both characters realize that language is not enough, but the relationship and love through eye contact is. They speak to each other through their eyes. Can you please speak to how we utilize language to intimate the trauma, where it stifles, and how bodies possess the ability to speak past language, to something perhaps more human that allows us to persist in love?

I have a Pit Bull. He’s sentimental: smiles up in the way that Pits do; leans into our legs without language. At night, the dog sits quietly at the window in our stairwell, listening to creaking trees and other questionable sounds that might harm us. His expressive ears twitch. They stand up and sometimes he does too and then, slowly, he sits back down. When friends come to the door he rolls over and submits – lets their children grab his tail. The kids hear him loud and clear,and take advantage. Yet when we go walking, there are always a few pedestrians who flinch away from my tail-wagging dog. Some step off the sidewalk entirely, right into the street with the cars.

My husband is a black man and people react to him the same way, sometimes even while saying Nice to meet you. So I’m guessing most folks who own dogs or are attuned to racism, classism or other under-the-radar isms already understand how bodies speak past language.

But for politically insensitive readers with dog allergies, I will simply defer to multiple studies indicating that human communication is heavily sight-based; less than 10% conversation-based. Even our speech is shaped by nonlinguistic elements: voice quality, pitch, volume, rhythm, intonation, accent and pace. When we’re babies, we’re fluent in all of this. As adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.

While some courageous, desperate, immodest or impatient people always take full advantage of language, most of us only gesture toward trauma with words.

My father was quick to use his hands, we might say, on both me and my mom. And then comes the rest of the communication, in micro and macro expressions; a slight lean forward or a slow lean back.

profiles in poetics: Caryl Pagel

Pagel-PhotoCaryl Pagel


From a tiny red notebook, Caryl Pagel watched “improvisational tales unfold in real time”. This act taught her to receive things that “stun her” in a thinking map delineated by structures of physical manipulation in which the brain tucks and pockets content. Twice Told,recently published by H_NGM_N Books, is a flexing flock of poems that gather “the vision and presence of another”.  She states, “To read or listen carefully is—at its best—to inhabit the vision … of another.” The present receiver is altered by the interaction; a multiplication of the self that bears memory, passion, and perspective simultaneously. This metamorphic narrative changes our tales, our recollection; the internal structure of our self-identity. Another associated circumstance with embracing other is empathy. These empathy exams can, if one is not careful, “eventually make a wreck of you,” although at the same time this act carves out parts of yourself for others to find comfort; essentially the same places that you yourself are seeking as well.

The concentrated loop of Twice Told has much to do with the life and death cycle. The repetitive notion of life in a concentric dream is each individual’s interpretative taste. So the reflection of our reception of these qualities shifts from each story, each evaluation; each interaction. As Pagel asks, “how much care is too much? And for what end, and to what purpose?” This “captivation” is savory, but also needs to be regarded with self-care so that the self is not swallowed up in the other. She asks, “Is care the clearest expression of love? How is it related to freedom? What is the right amount of care for someone who is sick, or in danger, or angry, or depressed? Does requited care matter? Can you harm yourself with care for others?” These questions are at the heart of Twice Told. The answers are by no means readily handed to you on your grandmother’s holiday china. They are ones of endless vision. Perhaps the central message is in the permutation of circles.

Caryl Pagel is the author of two books of poetry: Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012), and Twice Told (H_NG M_N Books, 2014), as well as the chapbook Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences (Factory Hollow Press, 2008). Caryl is a poetry editor at jubilat and the co-founder and editress-in-chief of Rescue Press. Her poetry and essays can be found in AGNI, The Iowa Review, Jacket2, The Mississippi Review, and The Volta. This fall she will join the faculty of the NEOMFA program in eastern Ohio and serve as the Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.



Ghost Towns-page-001
















. What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

When I was little my dad had, or I remember he had, a tiny red notebook that he’d scribble stories in. This is how I learned to read: by watching improvisational tales unfold in real time. We’d practice sentences as he invented them, creating a secret (so I thought) tether between the two of us. I was extremely disappointed when in kindergarten all of the other children began chanting the alphabet and I realized that language was a public and communal tool, not a private puzzle between me and my Pops. Once I recovered from this minor trauma I knew that I wanted to write. A few of my all-time favorites are Inger Christensen, Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker, and W.G. Sebald. They are compelling in part because as I have changed my relationship to their work has become increasingly bewildering and bizarre.

. Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

The teacher who altered everything was Dan Beachy-Quick, who I was lucky enough to work with at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about a decade ago. Others whose conversation, presence, and practice have transformed my approach to writing are Amy Margolis, Amber Dermont, Robyn Schiff, Emily Wilson, Elizabeth Robinson, and Madeline McDonnell.

. How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work shifts every time I read something that stuns me. I am frequently impacted by sentence structures or sound, by something that physically manipulates the way in which my brain receives content. Most recently an essay I was working on was affected by Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

. Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Absolutely. The poems in Twice Told engage the creepy gothic narratives that I (we all?) grew up re-reading and obsessing over: “A Death in the Woods,” Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Ethan Frome, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” The Haunting of Hill House, etc. These days I probably read more fiction and nonfiction than I do poetry and most recently I’ve been writing essays. I should also say that one of the greatest gifts to my practice has been the opportunity to work alongside visual and performance artists at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where I went to grad school) and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (where I taught some of the most inventive students I’ve ever met). The way the makers at both of these schools dealt with perseverance, chaos, humor, form, and difficulty continues to affect the way I write and teach.

. What are your plans for the future?

I’ve been working on a collection of linked essays for a few years now. The most recent one includes rambling on Sir Thomas Browne, addiction narratives, deception, Fleetwood Mac, Kurt Schwitters’ Mertzbau, George’s Buffet, ice patches, and a particularly bleak year I spent in Iowa City. I’m also in the process of boxing up my books in order to move to Cleveland at the end of the summer where I’ll join the NEOMFA faculty and serve as the Director of the CSU Poetry Center. I can’t wait.

. What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many of our contemporary game changers—the most compelling formal innovators, risk takers, experimenters, and thinkers—have been women. I think of the rangy, genre-bending, thoughtful and inventive work of Chris Kraus, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Dara Wier, Renata Adler, Abigail Thomas, Lauren Slater, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Lucy Lippard, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Robison, Sabrina Orah Mark, and Lia Purpura, to name a few. And, too, distinctive first books by wonders like Rachel Glaser, Andrea Rexilius, Suzanne Scanlon, and Hilary Plum. I’ll also say that while I (and every woman I’ve ever known?) have encountered the peculiar horrors of gender bias (such silly insult!) in writing and publishing (M v. W!) my spirits are buoyed by the brilliant lady editors who work so hard to shepherd strong writing into the world—people like Emily Pettit, Sandra Doller, Rusty Morrison, Janet Holmes, Kathleen Rooney, and Joyelle McSweeney, again to name only a few.

. Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Some of my recent favorite books are: Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years, Amina Cain’s Creature, Anne Germanacos’ Tribute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Kiki Petrosino’s Hymn for the Black Terrific, Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer, Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, and Michelle Taransky’s Sorry Was In the Woods.

. If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?


. The opening poem, “Old Wars,” in your manuscript TWICE TOLD, negotiates how memory, sense of self, and communication fracture in stifling societal climates. The rupture follows repressive measures. We read, “They were on a dusty / black road being marched to death / and you know this because the / narrator is delivering this information within / a story via another story—a / story told by the same old / woman who may or may not / have existed whom he may or / may not have met on a / train who may or may not / but most likely was a part / of the war             She was not / a hero […] There are no / heroes here.” Could you please allude to how the poem expresses multiplicity in identity, memory as story, and the puzzle as not one of “heroes,” but of “monster and master”?

To read or listen carefully is—at its best—to inhabit the vision and presence of another. Through this process one necessarily multiplies the self and bears many memories (or passions, or perspectives) at once. One can be, in fact, possessed by a story; their very body taken hold of, which is simultaneously a gift and curse. Empathy, although rightly associated with a certain kind of bravery and courage, can also eventually make a wreck of you. A many-selved monster. When writing “Old Wars” I was thinking about (or am at least now thinking about) the ways in which we are transformed by the narratives we read and recall, the ways in which stories become us, and us them, and how one might begin to remember (or suffer) others’ tales as if their own. I’ve long been enamored with writing that acknowledges this act of captivation.

. In “The Traveler,” the opening stanza reads, “The only fact to continue to / bear is suffering and the suffering / itself is what one requires to / exist—it is purely grief that / prevents one from vanishing completely.” Some of us our survivors, some of us are not. The traveler evaluates this wisdom from a stranger, but the intimate encounter surpasses the definition of someone we do not have physical personal history with. How is this poem addressing the personal / public sphere of intimacy and how does this relate to suffering?

I’m fascinated by the role of the traveler, often the first indication in gothic fiction of a framed narrative. In so many 19th century novels, for example, the reader receives the story through a stranger’s point of view. In Wuthering Heights we learn of Heathcliff and Catherine’s tumultuous romance through Mr. Lockwood, a stranger, who hears of it from Heathcliff’s housekeeper. In Ethan Frome, too, the narrative is conveyed by an outsider passing through town who hears it from, if I remember correctly, a shopkeeper. Story as rumor or hearsay; as something that necessarily includes both the personal and public spheres of intimacy.

. In the poem, “Four Dead Men,” we meet four individuals. One man, “He needs someone to circle his / sickness He needs you and only / you to circle his circles and / he needs you and only you / to attend to his sickness.” But the “you” in the poem does not. One man dies from a suicide and returns to help is friend. He has the hope that, “the third dead man— could inhabit again the tone and / humor and luminous brilliant beautiful significant / wonderful loving tortured sorrowful stagnant angry / awesome puzzled tragic hurtful magic difficult / mind of his dear friend during / the time in which he still / survived—when this man was not / yet ill but lived instead to / write about architecture and remarkable buildings.” The juxtaposition of these two life stages presents the desire to embrace the remarkably complex stifling and incredible beauty of our darkness and our light, love and madness, linear and dissonant multifarious experience of both life and death. I am interested in how you pair patriarchy to this conversation? How do you believe the fear and embodiment of death to also be the stimulus to “circle his circles,” not in the approach towards death, but as a vehicle later negotiated in death towards life?

The various circles—“the first of forms,” so says Emerson—that occur in “Four Dead Men” via repetition of subject matter and phrasing mimic an obsessive sense of looping that I found inescapable when writing this book. The cycle of life and death of course and also the circling that occurs in the at-times faulty and obsessive logic or repeated narratives of those who struggle with mental illness or addiction, and how easy it is to—purposefully or not—slide into someone else’s orbit of anxiety. Dependency shifts one’s experience of time, whether that dependency is on another person (many new mothers, so I’ve heard, experience an alternate sense—or speed?—of time after giving birth) or on a substance or idea. I was curious about this manipulation of time as well as the relationship between dependency and care, which is perhaps an idea related to your question about patriarchy. How do women—willingly or accidentally or reluctantly or forcefully—inhabit care-giving roles that threaten independence or creative autonomy? I have no answers, only more questions, some of which were the impetus for “Four Dead Men,” such as: how much care is too much? And for what end, and to what purpose? Is care the clearest expression of love? How is it related to freedom? What is the right amount of care for someone who is sick, or in danger, or angry, or depressed? Does requited care matter? Can you harm yourself with care for others? And on and on. You see the loop. I was also at this time steeped in the work of Thomas Bernard, who I find to be a fascinating writer, and whom I had just discovered was a hero of my hero, W.G. Sebald. In part this poem responds to fictional relationships in his novel Correction. I was interested in investigations of the disturbed, addicted, possessed, and pathological, and how those investigations might be expressed through relentless and oppressive sentences, creating—through endurance, doubling, recollection, endless revisions of thinking, second-guessing, and duplication of phrasing—ripples of paranoia and a sort of frenetic or frantic engine.

profiles in poetics: Tamara J Madison

in discussion colorTamara J Madison


Historically intact structural architecture promotes the climate of our values & bias. The courageous act of deliberating these conservative and experimental systems takes courage and empathy. To converse with dialogue of the past means that we are confronting aspects of ourselves that may affront the traditional view of our perception. In this interview with poet Tamara J. Madison, we access the structural boundaries of her own past, as well as how this creatively motivates the way she is able to address the post traumatic environment of slavery in America and the ramifications of this volatile attack on the most intimate of humanity, family.

Madison states, “Despite the progress and change, it will obviously take continuous personal, social, spiritual, emotional and creative commitment across cultures, races, for decades, scores, and maybe even centuries to heal and eradicate that ripple effect.” This responsibility is personal and public, daily and universal; one that requires continual evaluation of our stories.

Madison accesses her passion for performance and spoken word to extend the conflicting emotional sphere of racism, mother-child relations, violence, and what this means in both the mental health of those who experience the trauma and the way the world is shaded by these warping perspectives. She uses music as a way to break down the emotional urge to reject the uncomfortable. The jazz soaked musicality of her line breaks pause, stretch, and reflect, with syncopation, silence, and melodic lyric. The invitation promotes a communal space for the reader/listener to embody both the message of the idea and the destructuralization of thought.  This illuminates the need to address the whiteness of skin, what the visibility of color and trauma means pertaining to the past, and movement to adjust the spectrum of light to restructure our world with empathy.

Tamara J. Madison is an internationally traveled writer, poet, performer, and instructor.  Her critical and creative works have been published in various journals, magazines and anthologies including Poetry International, Web del Sol, Tidal Basin Review, Temba Tupu (RedSea Press), and SisterFire (HarperCollins).  She has performed and recorded her work for stage, television and studio. She holds a BA from Purdue University and a MFA from New England College and is a former English instructor of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.


4Women's Quarterly Poem - Madison TJ (1)-page-0


From Kentucky Curdled


1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Writing seemed to be a pretty natural ability for me early in school.  I understood the magic and power of it at an early age. As a teen for community talent shows and local beauty pageants, I often wrote and performed a dramatic poem for my talent. Everyone else was singing, dancing or roller skating.  I knew that if I wrote my own piece, it would be unique and attention-grabbing.  THAT WAS FUN!  I was doing spoken word on stage before I knew there was such a thing as spoken word!

My favorite writers have definitely changed over time.  I loved the work of Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange very early on when I stumbled upon them at my neighborhood library.  I later fell in love with the fierceness of Sonia Sanchez and the dense imagery of blues poet, Sterling Plumpp during my years in Chicago. I love the elegance of Poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the wicked risk of Ai.  Home is Lucille Clifton for me.

I am absolutely in awe of the work of francophone poet, Aimé Césaire from Martinique. The density and intricacy of his imagery and the commitment of his life to poetry and the culture of Martinique are a continual inspiration to me. I am a big fan of Toni Morrison, Bernice McFadden, Tananarive Due, and Octavia Butler as well.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Poet Sterling Plumpp of Chicago was a definite mentor in my youth.  I related to his southern background and mannerisms and his creative focus on the blues. His intensity of imagery blew me away, and I knew that was something that I wanted to do as a writer.

Music was a very potent influence in my writing in the early years and remains so.  During grad school, all of my instructors served as mentors to different dimensions of my being a writer.  I know that is rare, but it is so very true for me.  Poet Carol Frost challenged me to see observations in poetry as brilliant. Writer/Poet Paula McLain strongly encouraged me to “surprise” myself rather than play it safe.  Poet Ilya Kaminsky insisted that I question my feelings about language and be clear about my intimate relationship with it.

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

(Laughing) My first response to that is that my work has changed greatly over time because I have changed greatly!  Thank goodness!

In my earlier years, my focus was rhythm, music and the stage. I even traveled with a band was the featured, bilingual (French/English) vocalist and performance poet.  Later, I longed for a different type of intimacy in my work. I also realized that I needed other tools to craft certain stories.  At that point, I committed myself to the page.

On the page, the focus of craft is different. I began to focus more on line breaks, white space, and intentional imagery with clearer purpose. The music remains ever present, but it is less predictable complimenting stronger imagery in my work.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I have a thing for the paranormal/fantasy, but it has to be rooted in in something earthly and accessible to me.  That’s why I love Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due.  Those fantasy and paranormal elements show up in my writing as well.  I have written poems and stories where inanimate objects talk and people fly away and babies sprout from plants.

Musically speaking repetition, call and response, and rhythm patterns of gospel heavily influenced my earlier work. In later years, jazz, juxtaposition, and syncopation became much more of an influence.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

My plans are to publish more and travel much more widely with my work. I have two poetry manuscripts that I want to complete within the next 5 years. I have a companion recording planned for one of them as well. The other project, I would like to do a film adaptation of it. In my travels, I want to share my writing and do workshops with others who feel they have a story to share, whether they are professional writers or not.

I love to inspire “the art of story.”  I feel that the intimacy, power, and magic of stories are slowly being lost to our culture.  Many people feel that their stories are not valid or worthy of sharing without the backing of Hollywood or celebrity bling! NOT TRUE!  We come here to experience this life and share our stories with one another whether at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, in the beauty/barber shop, or across the pillow or pulpit. Our stories uplift, heal, inspire, and encourage us to continue dreaming.

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Women are continuing to be more and more adventurous with their own personal writing as well as with the business of their writing and supporting other women writers. Many are no longer waiting for traditional publishing houses and institutions to honor and support them. Women are starting their own networks to grow, support, publish and produce their work. Women’s Quarterly Conversation is an example of that. (Thanks, Jillian.)

7.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

At the risk of possibly not understanding this question, I am going to say “gypsy/griot/cat-o’-many-lives/adventure-poet”…

8.)      Kentucky Curdled grew out of a brutal, tender and gritty story from your true Southern lineage. Can you describe your interview process? How did you poise the illuminative heart of the work: family? How many of these sources are still living and did you find it difficult to unearth non-conflicting concrete sources? How did the research component of this experience evolve your creative process?

I learned the story of Kentucky Curdled (a tragically mother murders her child) as oral history from a relative who shared it with me.  The same relative also had a photograph and portrait of the main character. I later researched and found evidence of the life and death of this woman by way of an obituary.  There were very few details about her life and the crime other than the dark skin of the child.

I decided at that point to follow the advice of writer/poet, Richard Hugo (The Triggering Town) and his quote, “Knowing can be a limiting thing.”  I allowed myself to use the little that I did know as a catalyst or starting block. The rest I embraced as an adventure allowing the muse of the poem to chart and oversee the rest of the journey.  From there, characters came as visions and voices like puzzle pieces slowly forming and finding their place.  Not having “concrete sources” encouraged me to step into very new territory:  persona poems, personification of animals and inanimate objects, and even more intricate form.

As far as managing the darkness of the subject matter, the greatest darkness was the lack of compassion in the way that the story was shared with me. When I asked the storyteller/family relation, why the crime, I was told that the elder auntie was merely, “mean, evil.” That response felt felt heartless and dismissive to me.  It was far too simple.

Illumination came with each new poem in the sequence.  Each poem/persona and the journey of its crafting shed light on the subject matter and on me.  It lightened the burden of carrying the story, which I had done for many years before writing the first poem.  Each new voice, no matter how painful the testimony, lightened the load and carried a bit of the story along with me. The whole process was so new and dynamic for me as a writer that I didn’t have the time or need to be lost in the darkness or grieving of it.

From my research I believe the story happened in the late 1800’s (post-slavery) yet in the heat of post-traumatic slavery disorder. I also believe that the story relates to oppression, depression, and trauma of all kinds that weaken mental health.  Such has existed in various cultures around the world, ancient to the present.  We often simply do not know the stories of those who have been traumatized. Because of death, madness, illness, etc., many were/are unable to articulate and record their own histories.  Many others have had their history erased or crucially revised.

9.)      Kentucky Curdled is a chapbook and spoken recording. I am particularly interested in how the experience shifts from the spoken word to the written word for both the reader and the listener. As a listener, it was easier to digest the emotive spectrum of the work. Was this intentional? What inspired you to create a recording? I am also interested in why you did not choose to add music, only sparse sound effects?

The aural and oral nature of poetry come natural to me and continue to influence in my work.  Even when revising poems that I may never read to an audience or record, I read them aloud to see/hear if the music and voice I hear in my head are translated effectively on the page.  At various readings, a number of people suggested that Kentucky Curdled would make an interesting performance. Before adapting the poetry for a script or looking at anything on stage, I heard it first, so I wanted a recording or audiobook to be the next stage of development for the work.

When I first heard one of the final stages of the recording, I experienced it differently as well.  I have recorded a number of times before and am used to hearing my voice recorded, but this was different.  It affected me.  This caught me by surprise because I am the writer and was the one in the sound booth.  All that I can say is that this project feels to have a life of its own, and I am blessed to be a part of it.

I agree that there is some “ease” in digesting the project audibly.  Something about the sound ushers you through the pain.  That was not at all intention, but I am most grateful for it.  That is part of the magic of poetry for me. It is a multi-dimensional language in whatever language it is spoken or written.

I purposefully chose not to have a lot of music and background in the project.  I wanted the sparseness to reflect the time period. I also wanted the raw feel of the project.  The final product is reminiscent of an old school radio listen where the family is gathered around and glued to their seats until the story is finished.  It is a sacred and powerful space that our culture has lost. I hope that this project revives some of the power and fellowship of those kinds of moments.

10.)   The processional unfolding of the character Rachel is at the core of the sequence. Rachel kills her child because he is “too black”. We read in “Beulah”, an interrogation of “black”. How black is “too black”: “ass-black”, “ink-black”? We are asked to consider what the linguistic focus is actually masking: the invisibility of white.  We hear from Rachel. In the poem “Rachel:” we listen to her monologue: “What you ‘spect me to say?  Sorry? / Sorry was snatched from me the day / the devil yanked me from my mama’s bed, / from her arms. // Before I could even see my own blood, / the devil seent it, / snapped my body like a twig / as kindling for his fire. / He broke me, bed me, / come with 12 different faces.”  How did working the violence of your family history affect you? How do you believe language has to shift in order to illuminate and make visible the “white” dialogue? How much do you think that the linguistic component of racism constructed in language has shifted from Rachel’s voice to the present? What steps do you believe we have taken and which ones are we missing?

As a person of color growing up in the United States, “white” is always visible in everything. What you describe as the “’white dialogue” is always loudly audible and remarkable for me as a person of color. Part of the intention behind Kentucky Curdled is that it is not at all matter-of-fact or simple. Such circumstances are never that black and white, right and wrong with regards to the human brain, human behavior, and trauma. Add the intensity of slavery, oppression, and racism on top of that and the “matter” is all the more complex.  I don’t believe any of us can fully understand such matters, but we have to try.

With centuries of oppressive and violent racial history, the linguistic and other effects of racism are still painfully existent around the world.  We see the residue of such all over the media, in conversations, and behavior of people of all races. Even within the Black/African American community there is the term, “color struck” which describes a person of color having color prejudices and not wanting to associate with a person who is too dark or too light-skinned.

Despite the progress and change, it will obviously take continuous personal, social, spiritual, emotional and creative commitment across cultures, races, for decades, scores, and maybe even centuries to heal and eradicate such a ripple effect.  I think that understanding is what is missing—the fact that it is ongoing, daily personal, interpersonal, cultural, social, political, etc. work and commitment to change these things. It does not disappear because we have “friends” of a different race or because legislation changes. It takes more work than most of us are willing to imagine.

Kentucky Curdled’s process was enlightening and invigorating.  The lack of compassion around such stories was/is the most challenging for me.  Rachel might have been abused or traumatized, especially given the time period in which she lived. How might that have affected her choices?  What about the possibility of post-partum depression or mental illness?  For us in this age to not consider such regarding our ancestors and their challenges is absent-minded and irresponsible. We can and should afford to be more thoughtful and informed regarding their histories simply because they survived in order that we might be here.

I had a very prominent literary journal send me a rejection letter telling me how respectfully they read Kentucky Curdled but ultimately refused to publish it because it reminded them too much of Toni Morrison’s, Beloved.  I was initially offended because it said to me that we should only be allowed one such story when in reality for everyone that we may catch a glimpse of, there are hundreds that we may never know, yet they haunt us.  Kentucky Curdled is poetry, not a novel. There are no slave catchers hunting this woman down at the time of this act.  There is no jealous or vengeful ghost here. This is not a reminder of Beloved, though it reminds us all of the horror in our collective history. One story is simply not enough.  Many thanks to aaduna and And/Or for taking the risk and publishing very generous excerpts of this work.

My intent is to honor those who endured such horror, to give them all a sacred space to come forth without my judgment or anyone else’s.  I wanted to share and release the story and those haunted by it without exploiting anyone or anything.  I also wanted to creatively illustrate how our choices affect the environment (living and inanimate) all around us, thus we must move responsibly.

I hope that somehow the story inspires productive conversation and behavior around the issues of racial/cultural oppression, domestic violence, and mental illness and moves us to greater health and wholesomeness in our human experiences.

Lastly, I pray that it makes the souls of my ancestors smile and the souls of my children enlightened.

profiles in poetics: Arisa White


Arisa White


Seeing is an act of love. Arisa White is a writer of empathic impulse seeking to break down destructive cultural perceptions and personal conduits as they take place in speech and language. She views women writing to be “more daring, more vulnerable, more rational, more chick, more dick, more mindless, more mindful, speculative and absurd, funny and thorny, ugly and navel-gazing and it is reaching into various corners and ways of being woman in this day and age.” In a similar manner, White establishes her own, “emotional rhythmic-textures” in style and content. The outcome enables her to simulateously traverse trauma and empowerment. This shared love and loss permits the extremity and mutual narratives of our private and public spheres.

In this interview we focus on White’s latest book out from Willow Books, A Penny Saved, motivated by one of the worst documented cases of domestic violence in the United States. Her inspiration becomes a vehicle of wonder, “about [Penny’s] daily life, surviving torture, creating family, and continuing, how best one can, in such circumstances, to cultivate love.” She states: “It all felt so contradictory to me. Confusing.” The story allows her to unwind notions of intimate violence and how this affects personal and civil liberties.

When we take responsibility for our common fear, nostalgia, desire, failure, and triumph, we are able to witness movement; change, and accessibility to difficult tangibles of historically shattered and abrasive actions. She intimates, “I think this is the conversation we are having and needing to have across cultures and countries.” This dialogue manifests the transformative power of personal healing. Self-compassion, “is a part of being an adult. No longer are we children, expecting the unconditional love of those around us. That time is over—begin the necessary grief work, so you can go about the world being more responsive/responsible and less reactive, acting from old beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you, and all of humanity.” This means actively seeking the courage to be vulnerable and speak to the vertigo and calm experienced in both balance and imbalance. We awknowledge the rips and thread back together bits and pieces of our world. If left unaddressed, according to White, writing “[misses] out on what their mamas gave them. And that intelligence is vital.” Active witness has the power to heal a world; much smaller and larger than ourselves.

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon (which is being made into an opera), as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival. One of the founding editors of HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and the editorial manager for Dance Studio Life magazine, Arisa has received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, an advisory board member for Flying Object, and a BFA faculty member at Goddard College; her poetry has been widely published and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. Arisa is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her partner.


Will know nothing-page-001 (1)

1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer?

Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton—“go anywhere, be anything.” That’s the perfect invitation for this restless spirit of mine. For this body that has been told it cannot do or it will have to concede in order to justly be—the written word offered an escape, so the writer must be Harriet Tubman.

I was a 4th grader—I recently transferred from another public school in Brooklyn—and I decided to run for school president. Another girl from my class ran too, and for her election-day speech, she beautifully rapped it, in front of the entire school, K-6, faculty too. And of course she won—who wouldn’t vote for her after such a grand performance! (It also worked in her favor that she attended the school since kindergarten and everyone thought she was so dope.)

My 6th grade teacher, Ms. Williams, had us write stories every week, using words from our Vocabulary List. Plus, this large cardboard fabricated treasure chest, filled with treats and goodies, which she gave to those that read the most books each week. I was sure to be the one with the most golden stars.

For a borough-wide contest, I wrote an essay for my brother, who was in 5th grade at the time, so I was in 8th, about diversity. I used a garden metaphor, and my brother won! (I also wrote a similar essay for my grade, and didn’t make the cut.)

Spending summers as a young kid bored out of my mind, curled up on the couch reading whatever was on my mother’s book shelf: Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillian, Agatha Christie, Ishmael Reed, Iyanla Vanzant, Gloria Naylor . . . and my brother’s comic books, which I wasn’t supposed to be touching. I liked X-Men the most.

2.) Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Including the writers mentioned above, there is, in no particular order, Nikki Giovanni, Saul Williams, Hart Crane, Jessica Care Moore, Audre Lorde, Toi Dericotte, Pema Chodron, Rebecca Seiferle, Tyehimba Jess, Terrance Hayes, Dara Wier, Harryette Mullen, bell hooks, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, angle Kyodo williams, Alice Walker, Nikky Finney, Reginald Shephard, Adrienne Rich, Bob Kaufman, Medbh McGuckian and the list continues to expand, in all sorts of ways, over time. I keep meeting writers who point me in the direction of other writers and I keep looking and reading and being willing to encounter what I did not know before.

3.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Nila Grutman, India DuBois, Tracie Morris, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Regina Arnold, angel Kyodo williams, Dara Wier, Rebecca Seiferle, Nikky Finney. Dear friends: Darrell, Sulay, Geimy, Serena, Matthew, Alicia, Rosebud, Soma. My family. My fiancée is quite a muse! She reminds me to pay attention, and sometimes that isn’t so easy, but always rewarding. All these folks have offered me ways of seeing and distinct ways to language it.

4.) How has your own work changed over time and why?

Nikky Finney once asked me, after reading my graduate thesis project: “What is Arisa’s natural swimming style?” To find out, I had to accept that I wasn’t really swimming. When I got in the water, I panicked, let fear instruct, and did whatever strokes that would get me to safety. Over the years, I have learned to pay attention to what I do, why I do it, and learn to accept more of my natural impulses when I write. I’ve embraced more of the rhythms of my voice and the quirks of my imagination and given myself more permission to be, let go, and let down the censors. I think each time I’ve pushed through or knocked down a wall within myself, a new pathway for speech was formed, and I considered new ways to approach it (and define and reimagine what it is) and with that came the confidence to write and say it.

5.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Fiction, for its use of narrative and plot—I like story. I think about how to take the time to evolve the telling.

Short-form playwriting has made me consider how the poem occupies space. Or how can the poem occupy the reader—how does it emotionally shape inside her? Thinking in this way, I try to create emotional-rhythmic textures that make the body/reader consider one’s presence, place, and time.

6.) What are your plans for the future?

Currently, I’ve adapted my chapbook, Post Pardon, published by Mouthfeel Press in 2011, into a libretto. NYC-based composer Jessica Jones is developing the score. All of this with a cultural funding grant from the City of Oakland; and in July 2014, for two nights, we will have a concert of songs. Although having to do a little fundraising for this event is daunting, I’m excited to be doing this. Jones and I have never done opera before, and she’s a great collaborator to make discoveries with.

This fall I was awarded an Investing in Artist grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to write a collection of poems inspired by my estrangement from my father who currently resides in Guyana. I’m taking what tidbits of story that was shared with me over the years about him and making my own mythologies. It is my way to make sense of his absence; to construct a grand story of why he’s not here that’s rooted in histories of Venezuelan slavery, Guyanese police culture, and U.S. immigration and extraterrestrials.

With this grant, I will invite the public to participate. This is the first time I’ve ever thought to do something like this—to incorporate other voices in my writing process. But there was something about this project that made me wonder, how have others made sense of their fatherlessness? If given the chance, as I was, to write your father, what would you say? How would you say it? Midway through this project, I will send out a call for submissions for letters addressed to estranged fathers. I will select 33 letters, and mail each a copy of the poetry collection. Using the letters, I will do an epistolary mash-up for a later manuscript.

7.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I’m speaking in a general sense, with no specifics in mind, the writing is what it is. I don’t have much of an opinion about what has occurred or hasn’t occurred. I can say, the writing is more daring, more vulnerable, more rational, more chick, more dick, more mindless, more mindful, speculative and absurd, funny and thorny, ugly and navel-gazing and it is reaching into various corners and ways of being woman in this day and age.

8.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Rosebud Ben Oni, R. Erica Doyle, Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, Natalie Baszile, Roxanne Gay, Kiki Petronio, Kamila Aisha Moon, Remica L. Bingham, Emily Pettit, Emily Kendal Frey, LaTasha Natasha Diggs, Lauren Allende, Camille Dungy, Karen Rigby, Sharon Suzuki-Martinez, Cassandra Dallet, Minal Hajratwala, Katherine Hastings, francine j. harris, Metta Sáma, and so many, many more.

9.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Lyrical writer.

10.) We begin A Penny Saved out from Willow Books with a quote from David Richo: “When God is seen as a rescuer or parent in the sky, we may depend on him for protection and lose our faith if he does not come through. When we give up the childhood version of life, we stand on our own surrounded by others but not necessarily defended by them against life’s disturbing threats. With no “parent” on the lookout, we notice that we sometimes have to bear more than we can handle, and we may fold under the pressure. This too requires a yes. Our purpose in life is not to remain upright at all time but to collapse with grace when that is what has to happen. The fact of impermanence gives us the hope that we will rise again.”

Can you please describe your motivation for writing a book inspired by Polly Mitchell’s story? She was held captive for 10 years in her house by her husband David with whom she had a family of four children with. Her story is documented as one of the worst cases of domestic in the history of the United States. Many of these stories remain undocumented. Many of these women do not survive. We hear stories from Penny herself, her daughter’s emotional bereavement, and later in the story from her husband himself. Here, as you say in the title of a poem, “Questions are rabbits”: … one leads to many more”. Everyone wants to know why she stayed. On her Larry King interview she says she stayed because she loved him. The layers of emotional complexity I know here are in a way unanswerable, so as a poet, how and why did you choose to illume this particular story? How do you see this conversation interacting with other cultures?

Mitchell’s story is one that is extreme and because it is extreme, we pay attention to it. My attention was captured and with that came the questions, the wondering about her daily life, surviving torture, creating family, and continuing, how best one can, in such circumstances, to cultivate love. It all felt so contradictory to me. Confusing. How to live with those contradictions? Having grown up with a mother who was in abusive relationships, Mitchell’s story was another way to investigate intimate violence. To create a persona that must find ways to survive in these extreme circumstances. Even though, as a culture, we may act as if our lives are OK, we are living intimately with violence—the constant erasures of our and others civil liberties, the distractions of race and class and all those isms that force use to view ourselves and others as separate, we learn each day how to be in radical denial of what’s going on around us and the failure to accept, is violent. What is going on in our homes, in the personal, in the private—does it match up with the face we wear in the world? So I wonder, what has patriarchy taught us, showed us how to be, and how are we showing up for others and ourselves in this? And I think this is the conversation we are having and needing to have across cultures and countries.

11.) A good portion of the poems are dedicated to the exchanges that we have with Lizzybeth, the daughter and Penny concerning her imaginary friend Jewelie. In the poem, “Jewelie can’t be her friend anymore” we listen to Lizzybeth, “[Jewelie] was doing it all night. She had sweat on her. She put it in my nose too. Then she put dead bodies in there like I was a grave.” How did these stories develop and why are they most focused on the make-believe world created by the daughter?

I can’t really say how the stories developed—most of them just came to me and during the first draft. I was on retreat at Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island, and having a lot of uninterrupted time in nature to daydream, trained my brain to see things differently. . . . I knew I was working with a persona who was using her imaginary friend as an interlocutor. This enables Lizzybeth to gain authority over her voice, to feel empowered to speak and speak out against the violence she is witnessed to in her home, as well as do some creative problem solving about how to deal with the things she hears and sees. How to make sense of her father’s aggression and her mother’s perceived passivity.

12.)   One of the most the most simultaneously chilling and evocative moments emits from the narrative of David. He says, “I ashed you. Your scalp birthed red dots – I smelled the hair I ripped. You removed from the force of constellations, obeyed the temperaments of my bursts – I loved you for that.” In this space we view the body and negotiation of intimate and universal pain and violence. At once we are placed in a binary of trauma and compassion; ambiguity and the specific. The goal of this piece is not necessarily redemption, but rather the fracture of the wound and the power of survival. What do you believe is the message of this book?

We need to make personal transformation. Take time to heal our personal wounds, those deep, dark, shadowy parts of who we are—embrace them. Be a compassionate witness to yourself and love you in the ways you need to be loved—that is a part of being an adult. No longer are we children, expecting the unconditional love of those around us. That time is over—begin the necessary grief work, so you can go about the world being more responsive/responsible and less reactive, acting from old beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you, and all of humanity. Be vulnerable. Lets stop resting in our comforts, thinking we are a-OK, because our failure to look critically at our selves, is the reason we have so much violence going on around us.

13.)   Have you tried to connect with Polly, and what does she feel about her story?

No, I haven’t. I have taken her story as inspiration to create A Penny Saved, which is by no means Polly Mitchell’s story. Only Polly knows and can write her story.

14.)   How does sharing her story affect you as a writer?

My debut book, Hurrah’s Nest, was a collection of memories in verse. It was important for me to share my story first, so that I could write about other people. That appeals to my sense of fairness. So, when I am sharing, I’m sharing an expanded part of myself. A broader I/eye. I feel like my voice houses a chorus, echoes, and bottled notes.

15.)   I would also like you to take some time to describe how your work and how you identify yourselves in the world affects the work that you do for VIDA.

I’m trying to be a better citizen with my work (as poet, editor, teacher), a part of something larger than myself. It’s a way to balance all that time I spend alone, writing away. When a manuscript is completed, I really think I’ve done something for the greater good. (It’s the Aquarian in me—which is why I get offended when I’m told that what I do is nothing, a waste of time, or stupid.) As a black, queer woman to speak often feels like “I’m chewing on rocks”—and to push up against all those master narratives requires a fluid language, and finding your own way, that validates your multiple selves. We are all on those individual journeys, so it’s good to share field notes, the experiences life has offered so far. VIDA is this opportunity to create a community that supports women who are developing a public writing voice, finding their style, alongside those who have one, and to put into praxis that all women’s words are heard and welcomed.

16.)   How do you see the literary community changing to include more voices for women and how and why is this so vital?

Critical look at the conditions, systems, and beliefs that make the community lacking. Honest assessment of whether or not more women voices is wanted and why. . . . Changes in technology is changing the way we make, identify, and name community, women will create the communities they need to sustain them . . . There will be some dedicated activity involved. A commitment to go the miles, to seek, search out, to go beyond what is known and convenient, comfortable. Look, find, discover, and be active in, across, and between communities: give workshops, forge collaborations, and honor what is important to the voices you want to attract. (More verbs to be used, I guess.) But all that activity is going to remind the literary community that it’s a living body, with living consequences, and when it’s not functioning from the whole, it’s missing out on what their mamas gave them. And that intelligence is vital.

17.)   What in your point of view needs to happen in our larger cultural communities to continue to address these topics and promote change?

To slow down so we’re not so reactive, take the time to recognize your privileges and how you benefit from them and are limited by them each day. Identify your powers and decide how you will use them. And there is no half-stepping. You need to commit. You need to see how your behaviors may not align with your missions, visions, goals, objectives, beliefs, thoughts. Do you take responsibility for your words? Know how corruptible you are and what silences are deadening up your truth.


Photo: Photo by Samantha Florio

profiles in linguistics: Amber Dermont

Amber Dermont for Inprint 2Amber Dermont



As a child, Amber Dermont grew up in the resonant renaissance of rare book dealers. Poems, she intimates, “taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness.” This intrinsic revelatory relationship between story and text nurtures her admiration of, “writing that doesn’t give up its secrets”. Take for example one musing inspiration she had for her book Damage Control, out from St. Martin’s Press; Bette Davis. Dermont describes her affinity towards the, “beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it.” These sentiments reflect her personal linguistic style, dreaming brightly in a wildfire.

Dermont’s view on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years? She states: “In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same … Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.” For Dermont, “Being a woman is a political act.” There is an advantage sitting in the reams of marginalization: “I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening, but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.”  This is a position one cannot take for granted.

Damage Control is a political pro-choice investigation highlighting the geometric tensions evident in domestication and women’s bodies. Our landscape takes place in an etiquette school between a teacher and his three passion stricken girls who refuse to quiet their desires. Mr. Foster falls for the girls he fosters. He falls for their intellect and their permissive humor. Ultimately, we learn, “the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice, but I also wanted to complicate the narrative.”

Dermont reflects, “Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned … Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger.” The story is one that honors and respects the courageous act of exalting flaw and freedom.

Amber Dermont is the author of bestselling novel, The Starboard Sea, and the short story collection, Damage Control. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Amber received her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Damage Control was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and The Starboard Sea was selected by the New York Times as one of the top 100 Notable Books of 2012. Amber lives in Houston, Texas where she serves as an Associate Professor of English at Rice University.
Amber Dermont Excerpt Damage Control-page-001Amber Dermont Excerpt Damage Control-page-002Amber Dermont Excerpt Damage Control-page-003.

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer. My parents are rare book dealers and I grew up in a home filled with first editions. As a child, I spent most of my vacations hunting for literary treasure in red barns and antique fairs all over New England. We’d speed around in the family Fiat listening to books on tape—short stories by John Cheever, Saki, Guy de Maupassant. A semi-charmed literary upbringing but one that made me take the business of books and writing seriously from a very young age.

Even though I write fiction, my first love is poetry. Many of the poems I have memorized are the ones my father read to me as a child—“The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” “The Bat,” “High Windows.” My father is a fan of subversive verse. When I was nine, my Daddy actually handed me Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” then asked, “So, what did you think? Pretty cool, right?” Poems taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness. My mother specializes in children’s books. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of stories and if you tell her the half-remembered plot of your long-forgotten favorite childhood tale, she will know the title and the author. My parents taught me how to care for and about books and I am forever in their debt. They are my first inspirations.

I’m less interested in playing favorites with writers and more invested in what I can learn about storytelling, craft and narrative complexity from authors who take real risks in their writing. As a reader, I’ve come to greatly admire difficulty and am particularly engaged by writing that doesn’t give up its secrets. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum, Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec, Holiday Reinhorn’s Big Cats, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity, Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart, Melissa Ginsburg’s Dear Weather Ghost, Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide To Being Born are books I return to over and over again. These are complex, ambitious texts that warrant multiple readings. Ideally, I want a book to invite me back; to demand more from me as a reader.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My friend Amy Margolis has taught me the most about storytelling, pacing, word choice, dramatic enactment and defamiliarization. Amy is the director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and when I was a grad student at the Writers’ Workshop, I sat at her feet and listened. Amy’s lessons were always immediate and life changing. She understands how to turn/detonate/deliver a story and she has a singular relationship with language. No one is a better storyteller. No one. At the moment she’s working on a memoir and it’s the one book I crave daily and cannot wait to read.

As a child, I watched a lot of classic Hollywood cinema. Bette Davis was my ideal. Here was a beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it. “Number One Tuna,” a story in my collection, Damage Control, is an homage to Bette Davis’s incomparable filmography. Barbara Stanwyck’s sadness and her unhappy childhood—actually, her entire unhappy life—are a source of constant concern and amazement. She’s my current muse and I long to honor her work. Jean Seberg haunts me and moves me beyond measure. Her political activism probably cost her her life—a gift of basketball uniforms to the Meskwaki nation sent the FBI after her—imagine that.

A dear friend and a cast of Hollywood icons all taught me how to dream brightly and warned me about the dangers of doing so.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I never want to write the same story twice. Though writers are the crummiest and most dubious authorities on their own work, I might hazard that my novel, The Starboard Sea, is different in style and tone from my collection, Damage Control. Hopefully the short stories are each their own animal. Maybe my greatest wish as a writer is to escape all categorization. Yes, I wrote a novel about a prep school (a guilty pleasure for most) but writing The Starboard Sea was like setting my childhood on fire. A controlled burn is often the only way a writer can create new worlds but sometimes you need a wildfire. With Damage Control, I challenged myself to learn something new with every story. Each narrative pays tribute to someone I love or loved and lost or loved and temporarily misplaced then found hiding under my bed. The stories are an attempt to reconcile this longing.

Most writers are strange people and I am no exception. I am riddled with contradiction. I’m incredibly shy but I feel most at home on a stage. I would give my shoes to a stranger and walk home barefooted but would prefer to never put on shoes or leave my home. I loathe humanity but an enthralled by the human condition. I admire profound and complex human intelligence but nothing is more moving to me than a wild, open heart. My writing will probably always reflect these contradictions.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

When I was a child, you could sit me down with a stack of Archie’s comic books and I’d be very happy. Over time, I’ve tried to heighten my reading powers—though I would still feel at home at the malt shop with Betty and Veronica. I’ve always had eclectic taste and am inclined to read books that others might dismiss as pulp or genre—not for hipster cred but rather for serious appreciation of form, plot, world creation. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Phillip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler have been claimed by the academy as literary writers but I loved them first when they were marginal mavericks. I adore British novels about class and privilege especially those by Evelyn Waugh, Martin Amis, Alan Hollinghurst, and Edward St. Aubyn. Their books play with satire and point of view in daring ways. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the power of fairytale especially Kate Bernheimer, Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. Ultimately, I just wish I could be Alice and write through my own looking glass.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

I’m drafting another novel. It’s terrifying and literally keeping me up at night. Last week, I was doing research and discovered a fact that actually confirmed one of my fictional details. I felt invincible for two glorious days and wrote with conviction. Don’t worry: all of that glory has worn off by now and I am back to my old terrified self.

Recently, I’ve been developing an original screenplay with the novelist Teddy Wayne. I’ve also written with the author and screenwriter, Mark Jude Poirier. Film is a collaborative art and passing drafts of a screenplay back and forth is particularly challenging and invigorating. Most of the time, writing is isolating and no one knows if you’re keeping honest working hours. It’s comforting to have a comrade in arms—someone who urges you on, helps you meet deadlines, fights your worst instincts and benefits from your minor gifts. Mark and Teddy are both blisteringly funny and sharp but they also have big hearts. It’s a curious thing to be able to write with another person—we enjoy shared sensibilities but we also each need to have something the other doesn’t. Mark and I had been friends for over a decade before we wrote together and the intimacy of that friendship made collaborating a real pleasure. Neither of us has any ego so we both wrote in service to the script. Teddy and I barely knew each other when we began our project but we share a similar drive and instinct for storytelling. Teddy has an extraordinary work ethic. You need to sustain that level of commitment if you hope to write a film worthy of production.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same. Prior to that the color black was used to distinguish a widow or woman in mourning and dresses were meant to hide a woman’s body and hinder her movements. Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.

I’m looking for a literary equivalent.

In the past twenty years, seven women have won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and nine in poetry. Ten women have won the National Book Award in Fiction and five in Poetry. Seven women have won the Booker Prize. In that time, six women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. What does any of this mean?

Women buy/read more literature than men (this is a fact) and female writers often top the best sellers lists. More women are being heard but I fear we are still losing voices especially in terms of race, class, ethnicity and sexual identity. For years, I taught at a women’s college and I encouraged my students to not only be writers but to infiltrate the publishing world and make significant changes in terms of who and what is published. All too often when women achieve some degree of power, they give that power away to a man—either by championing his work or privileging his heart and mind over their own. I write this as someone who has worked with male writers and supported their efforts (at great sacrifice to my own) so I myself am guilty as charged.

Writers benefit from maintaining an outsider status. Women, as a rule, are outsiders. We may make up more than 50 percent of the population but we hold 10 percent of the world’s wealth (who knew that this answer would include so much math). For me, the advantage of being marginalized is that I can observe the world and no one really expects me to comment. “Oh, we didn’t see you there with your notebook writing down all of these terrible things we’ve been saying. How dare you?” I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.

Being a woman is a political act. Writing, speaking in public, telling stories are all acts that can result in a woman’s death. I take my position as a writer very seriously and try not to take my privilege for granted. This past year I gave a reading with Jesmyn Ward and I remain in awe of her storytelling, her lyricism and her capacity to understand the good and evil we do. Ward’s writing is one of the great gifts of the last twenty years. She gives me hope.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I’m a big fan of Madeline McDonnell’s novella Penny, n. and her short story collection There is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out (both from Rescue Press). McDonnell’s writing is all razor wit and wild heartache. No one has a better command over language or double entendre.

Kelly Luce has just published a dreamy and daring collection Three Scenarios in Which Hanna Sasaki  Grows A Tail (from A Strange Object) that I recommend to anyone who loves magical toasters, imaginative leaps, outrageous honesty and miracles, miracles, miracles.

Melinda Moustakis won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for her collection, Bear Down Bear North and her writing is in direct dialogue with O’Connor’s work. Moustakis is fearless. She will take you into the darkness then teach you to love the white nights of Alaska.

A. Naomi Jackson has two novels that are about to be published and her words will light

up the sky. Her writing carries the wisdom of the ages.

Laurie Watel writes with profound strength and narrative authority. Her sentences contain a clarity and purity that readers hunger for but Watel never makes easy choices. She complicates her narratives in brilliant and surprising ways.

Megan Mayhew Bergman dazzles me on all fronts. She understands the natural world better than anyone and draws on our relationship to animals in surprising, harrowing and delightful ways.

Periel Aschenbrand is one of the funniest, dazzling and most uncompromising memoirists around. Her two books, The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own and On My Knees will keep you laughing, screaming and reeling but they will also teach you how to take better care of yourself.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I am searching, always searching for the next story.

9.)    In your short story “Damage Control,” there is a triangulation between the relationship to Landon, the boss’s daughter, and the girls in the Sis and Hasty Breedlove School of Southern Etiquette. The school is based around the curtsy; the performance of the comfortable. As the main character, teacher, and boyfriend Mr. Foster elucidates, “manners are neither commonsensical nor elitist, but rather an inclusive, complex methodology for making people feel comfortable.” The established frictive pull to the girls is intensified by their utter lack of manners. Can you describe this tension, why it feels solidified in a genuinity that contrasts Mr. Foster’s statement, and how this relates to the connection he has with his lover Landon?

I’m very grateful for these questions but I also want to say at the start that I do not believe that my opinion regarding any of my stories is any more valid or informed than any other reader’s. What will follow are merely thoughts—not explanations.

Years ago, I was struck by the relationship between gender and etiquette. I was teaching a class on gender studies and used an old etiquette book to illustrate the social construction of gender. If there’s an etiquette around a subject matter then that subject can and will be discussed according to the rules of etiquette. However, if there is no etiquette, there is no discussion. I wanted to write a story with a happy ending where the happy ending was not just one but three abortions. The girls in the story refuse domestication. They are audacious and reckless but they are also smart and funny and in control of their bodies. Mr. Foster believes he can control the world through etiquette and charm but he is merely a servant to these girls and their desires. It’s a strange story; one that I never thought would actually be published (never mind turn out to be the title story in my collection.) I thank Jill Meyer from American Short Fiction for taking a chance on a coven of untamable teenaged girls.

Love stories require triangulation and conflict. Mr. Foster has to choose between his lover Landon and the girls he fosters. I hope he makes the right choice.

10.)    The dialogue of the girls in the etiquette school is robust, overtly sexual, and encompassing. We ruminate between lines such as, “my mom knows how to swim. She thinks I’m a lesbian,” to “Molly showed us her bikini wax. Want to see it?” to “Molly thinks I’m polymorphously perverse”.  And as he himself admits, draws him into their world. The relationship is reciprocal; they need each other. One student tells him, “Mr. Foster, we should all sleep with a picture of you at the bottom of your beds. If your face was the first thing that we saw every morning our lives would, like, totally improve.” Does he want them to improve though and what does that mean? Is he, not in a way improving, further seduced by their inappropriate nature? Can you please describe how you utilize the dialogue of the girls to present this unraveling?

I believe that characters should only speak when they absolutely have to and only when they have something revealing to say. I love a great one-liner, a bawdy non sequitur. From Mae West and Moms Mabley to Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, so many women in stand-up comedy have made heroic advancements in feminism by saying smutty, outrageous and transgressive assertions regarding our bodies, our desires and our disappointments. I love that Mr. Foster falls for these girls—not for their bodies but for their good humor and wit.

11.)    These girls, Mr. Foster admits, “are a mystery to me. Their rituals and desires terrify me, and I feel myself getting lost among them.” He goes on to say, “Everything will go as planned, as ordered and conceived by me. These girls are my future and my family, my destiny, my choice.” But are they really his choice? The connection to the girls seems an unswayable trance yet he remains in a position as facilitator. Can you elaborate on this relationship? How do you see Mr. Foster and the girls participating in the teacher student dynamic? Who is in fact the guiding factor and how does this relate to the title of the story?

Ultimately, the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice but I also wanted to complicate the narrative. Mr. Foster isn’t entirely reliable—he has his illusions/delusions.

Frequently, rumors emerge about anti-abortion politicians who have secretly arranged for and insisted that their partners or mistresses have abortions. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a classic patriarchal rule of etiquette. I feel obligated to call out hypocrisy wherever I see it. Years ago, I heard a story about a famous ex-president who (allegedly) arranged for his girlfriend (pre Roe V. Wade) to have an abortion. It’s an extraordinary yet all-too-predictable story, well-sourced and most likely true and it speaks to a particular culture of American hypocrisy. I had that story in mind when writing “Damage Control.”

Abortion is legal but states make it harder and harder to achieve access. I wrote this story while living in Texas and—at the time—if I’d wanted to get an abortion, I would have had trouble finding a doctor willing to perform one. Yet again I find myself in Texas and yet again reproductive freedom is under siege. (Wendy Davis for Governor!) Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned. Hospital administrators don’t want abortion protesters on their front lawns and so we live in a world where a medical procedure is criminalized.

Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger. A pregnant woman is most likely to die at the hands of the person who made her pregnant. I wanted to write an unapologetic story about abortion but I also, more importantly, wanted to create a world with wounded, complex characters willing to exercise and exalt their freedoms.

profiles in poetics: Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni 2013Rosebud Ben-Oni


How much does language and cultural influence affect the unique visibility of core identity? You know, those surreptitious elements of ourselves we romance into the most endearing and particular parts of our self?  Poet Rosebud Ben-Oni’s first creative stimulus was musical; “electricities and soporifics … something between sleep and meditation.” This exonerates her personal mosaic. Ben-Oni explains, “I grew up hearing English, Spanish, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew and each seemed impossible to claim as my own.” The explicative spread of perspective enumerates the weight of history and how this affects one’s own sense of self. The stipulative task, “[unpacks], all the misunderstandings, fears and questions that I still harbor from my youth.”

Ben-Oni’s work SOLECISM out from Virtual Artists’ Collective provokes perspective-painted-supple-threaded strokes; ones she describes as, “that wiring, went awry since birth”. Ben-Oni accepts the displacing diversity of this music. It is how the complications and alternative experience of different languages occurs, stating, “the only weight that exists after experience is her language— what else could she carry, in order to make her own? She takes another’s perception of her skin, her family, her way(s) of speaking, and responds. She had to begin there.” The act of reclaiming one’s own language and perspective is necessary to how we connect and encounter others. There are historical elements whose visibilities alight important aspects of our identity.

This is how we communicate and accept otherness. She continues, “I don’t know why we need one voice to identify a country [America] that’s multicultural and divided in so many ways. Rather than try to conform or copy, we should be open to ideas beyond singular definition.” A particular emphasis in this interview is how, what is “quintessentially American,” is a fabricated false construction, which many times becomes authoritative and leaves diversity out. HER KIND addresses how some use these strains to overt power over others in questionable positions of authority. She says, it “has been a wonderful experience in honoring the diversity of women’s voices,” just as we listen to and honor Ben-Oni’s own respective story.

Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2010, her short story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize for Best Short Story in Camera Obscura: A  Journal of Contemporary Literature and Photography. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Bayou, B O D Y, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Lana Turner Journal and Puerto del Sol. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, her debut book of poems SOLECISM was published by Virtual Artists Collective in March 2013. Rosebud is a co-editor for HER KIND ( at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts ( Find out more about her at


If Cain the Younger Sister -page-001.jpg111

If Cain the Younger Sister -page-002.

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?\

My first inspirations, I suppose, are a mosaic of electricities and soporifics inducing something between sleep and meditation. Hearing Max Janowski’s arrangement of Avinu Malkeinu for the first time. The chill of the synagogue on the morning of Yom Kippur. Reclusive, unproven beings like Bigfoot and the Yeti. The decadence of poinsettia red, whiskey on my grandfather’s breath as he sealed a kiss on my forehead and each cheek, Naomi Campbell in George Michael’s “Freedom.” I had so much desire as a child. At the same time I had this distrust of desire and languages. I grew up hearing English, Spanish, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew and each seemed impossible to claim as my own. I wanted to strip something bare one moment, and another I wanted to wrap the same thing in gossamer, make a secret, only to unwrap it again, slowly, hoping for some kind of metamorphosis. I turned to Edmond Jabes often; he was the first poet that inspired me to write. Every few years The Book of Questions changes for me. Its words weigh heavier now. I internalize further the frustrations, the skepticism, the faith in the blank page and the marks we make in word and action. And the weight of history that’s carried over in my faith and in my own experiences. My family also inspired me to write, although that was not the intention. My father is a riddle that unfolds into another riddle without an answer, and it takes some kind of woman to accept this My mother raised her brothers and sisters because her mother was ill; she didn’t have a childhood. I never gave much thought to their dynamic, my parents’ commitment to each other, when I was younger; coming from two different races and faiths, I only knew her family was from Mexico and his, mostly absent from our lives, was Jewish. I didn’t see until later that kind of love and history can be hard to explain to a child who they just want to look forward; only recently have I decided to reflect on the history we built together, and not together, as a family.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Norma Cantu, one of the founders of CantoMundo, is a mentor for me; she reached out to me at a time when I was filled with doubt. She reminds me listen to those little grey areas between waking and consciousness when the spirit level is alive. I’ve been doing a lot of unpacking, all the misunderstandings, fears and questions that I still harbor from my youth; this was Norma Cantu’s advice to me at my first CantoMundo retreat this summer.

I like the work of a number of CantoMundo founders and poets including Eduardo C. Corral and Carolina Ebeid. Charles Simic, Gwendolyn Brooks and Orhan Pamuk were the poets I consumed in college; Pamuk’s “On Living” was a truth the instant I read it. Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest is incredible; it tells a story and moves beyond it at the same time, and her use of language is exciting. Metta Sama is both an inspiration and a guiding light. I really like Amy King’s work. Jared Harel is hilarious— I just discovered his work after reading with him here in New York. The Body Double is brilliant and I’m trying to read it as slow as possible because I don’t want it to end.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

Yes. There’s more humor in the poems for my second collection. I think I’m also taking stronger ownership of biblical narratives, retranslating them into the narrative of being mixed, in the post-Benetton era. My first book SOLECISM already feels ages ago to me, and some of those poems were written in 2011 or 2012. It’s strange how a single year can bring so much insight; I got engaged this year, became a CantoMundo fellow, and did quite a bit of traveling with my fiancé Brian; we went to Hong Kong, China, Toronto and many places in the U.S. in less than a year’s time. I became part of his family. I spent one night in Hong Kong drinking sake with his mother and talking for hours; we both ended up tearful and happy and gripping each other’s hands. It was an electric night. It is an electric city. All of that makes me excited about the rest of my life. For the first 18 years of my life I had friends but felt very alone. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Only recently have I really opened up, and I’m so glad I met Brian and his family now, at a point in which I’d already tried to live in a place like Jerusalem and failed. That I’d addressed that failure myself, that it’s part of my identity to question things like, what is a Jew without practice?, to not have an answer, to present that to them candidly. These experiences affect my work. Sometimes these experiences are my work.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Absolutely. I’m working on my first full-length play after success writing one acts, and I return often to August: Osage County; I had the good fortune of seeing it on Broadway a few years back, and was devastated by what I’d witnessed, the complete disintegration of a family in three acts. I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction as well; I’m reading Ha Jin’s A Free Life at the moment. I’ve just finished Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It left me breathless. The North Korean defectors she interviews for the book all faced incredible obstacles, especially in trying to assimilate to South Korean culture. It’s important to tell these stories, so that they are remembered, that these things really did happen in the 21st century.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

In the near future, complete the final revisions on a novel I’ve been writing for the last five years. It centers on the migrations of a young woman of mixed heritage and a man from Fuzhou, China who meet in New York City just they are both at the end of their respective rope. I’m fascinated by family dynamics, how they shift in place, time and cultural norms, and the novel explores how two very different people live in constant motion, always on the move, even when they are still. I’m also writing a play about the influence of the drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexican border. In the next 2 years or so, I’m planning to move Hong Kong for a while, and travel around Asia as much as possible with my soon-to-be husband. We’d be there now if it was possible.

6.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Tara Betts and Rachel McKibbens who are already off the charts; their performances will blow you away. I love the Belladonna Collective, which published both LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ TwERK and R. Erica Doyle’s Proxy. LaTasha’s book is a treat if you love languages and all its possibilities. As for Erica’s book, I need a cigarette after I read Proxy. It’s another one I can’t put down. And watch out for Kamilah Aisha Moon; she’s absolutely brilliant.

7.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Labels are tricky when you’re mixed and dip into different genres. I am many things, a Chicana/Latina/Hispanic, bisexual, Jewish skeptic poet who also writes plays, fiction and nonfiction. I adore my neighborhood here in New York, and all the neighborhood along the 7 Train. I do my best writing whether I’m home in Sunnyside, or in Woodside, Jackson Heights, Flushing. I guess then you could say I’m 7 Train Love. Does that work?

8.)    The opening poems of your book, Solecism, have shifting collocative values that displace cultural affects of worth and tradition. We read about “the jellyfish outlining beer bottles,” moving to “shells gather like cemetery flowers,” and “the ashes / fed to our mothers in molasses”. The enchanting myth entangles us with mermaids “accessible as the savage / wants some howling / girl against a narcotic wire.”  This archetype is addressed further as it juxtaposes the poem, “The Mixed Child with Pale Skin”. Here we read, “always too sexy–off–the–shoulder / even in suits— your mentor interrupts: // writing this makes you rather juvenile. She tells you race / is no longer taboo.” The self-beliefs placed upon her here are invisible as the weight they assume in language. Why is it so important for her to write and in what ways do you see her addressing these archetypes? Is she successful?

I don’t think she’s worried about being successful; her mixed heritage, that wiring, went awry since birth. The composite of her experiences is unruly. She tries for understanding, but knows that she has to tell her narratives in the most real way, and each time as they occur (red) and exist within her. The only weight that exists after experience is her language— what else could she carry, in order to make her own? She takes another’s perception of her skin, her family, her way(s) of speaking, and responds. She had to begin there. This is a lot of frustration in those poems, at the different hierarchies of literature, social class, even love; this is both a response to and an exorcism of those places that aren’t as static as they seem. In SOLECISM, she is just beginning to see that.

9.)    The term Sal Si Puedes translates to leave if you can and is often ascribed to colonias and other neighborhoods found in the US and other parts of Latin America. We converse with this neighborhood. In, “Over the river from Sal S. Puedes,” we unwind musical lines, “swarms of mosquitos and matted beds / of water,” between “hyacinth and hydrilla.” And then fiercely, “The Reply of Sal Si Puedes,” who is fierce; “I’m not a foreshadow of the divine. / Quit photographing my children … I am not in your worldly terms. // Your first word was remembered. / I was born a muerto. / You— / Have yet to let me finish a sentence.” There is a tendency to romanticize tradition in a manner that assumes an othering gaze. Feminism breaks open the argument and allows the othered to have voice. Alternatively, ascribing the word “Feminism,” also boxes in the opening of this cross-cultural communication because it is largely misunderstood. Do you think that this is changing? Why or why not is it significant to attribute Feminism to this change? Do you see the world globally listening to more of her sentence?

When I wrote these poems, I was thinking of my own experiences as much as those of my mother and her sisters, as they related them to me. In college I remember a professor telling me that writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Americo Paredes were “supplemental” and not necessary to understand the Western Canon, much less American Literature. That they were “regional” writers and wrote in specific dialects that did not accurately reflect the American experience at all. I also remember this same professor saying he had “read books about Mexico” and then citing D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and Malcolm Lowery’s Under the Volcano. He could not see the problem with that thinking. I wrote those poems in response to that thinking, and certain things I had seen happen to the women in my mother’s family, things that I escaped perhaps because I was different. You know, my mother and sisters would not call themselves “Feminists;” my mother always brought up the point that Mexican-American women were largely left out of the Feminist Movement in the 1970s. I think now there’s more awareness when one invalidates another’s experience as not “quintessentially American.” I don’t know why we need one voice to identify a country that’s multicultural and divided in so many ways. Rather than try to conform or copy, we should be open to ideas beyond singular definition.

10.)    I would also like you to take some time to describe how your work and how you identify yourselves in the world affects the work that you do for VIDA. How do you see the literary community changing to include more voices for women and how and why is this so vital? What in your point of view needs to happen in our larger cultural communities to continue to address these topics and promote change?

Working with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts really opened up my eyes to gender disparity in publishing, especially for women of color. I’ve gained invaluable experience working with VIDA, and I realize now that my experiences with gender and race date back to when I was in college at NYU. I remember taking a Literature of India class back in 2000, and my professor, an American woman, opening the class with Orwell, Kipling and Forster. She couldn’t understand why a particular classmate of mine, who was Indian-American and female, was outraged that the class began from a colonialist perspective. Where was, for instance, the Urdu poetry? The professor replied that the student was “cherry-picking.” They argued all semester. During our last class, the professor had the “final word” stating that she believed she was right, that she had no regrets about the way she had taught the class. My classmate raised her hand, but we were out of time. I remember the tension walking out of the room, of seeing this young woman fuming in the elevator next to me, of being silenced. That left quite an impression of me. Women silencing other women. The questionable use of authority. I wished I had said something, but I was young in many ways. Now, as much as I concrete on my own work, I want to create numerous spaces for honest conversation and as fairly as possible—VIDA (and Cate Marvin particularly) gave Arisa White and I the space to do this as editors. It has been a wonderful experience in honoring the diversity of women’s voices.

profiles in poetics: Renee Angle

DSC_0064Renee Angle


The Volta

Renee Angle’s poetics ground immanence in a braid of corporeal plateaus that are connected to the fable and non-sequential congruence of the soul. Here we question what it means to witness. Can we possess witness or the voice of a child? And in the field of the poem how are interchangeable freedoms unable to “lose their souls”? These questions, Angle describes are at the center of her manuscript The Orphans.

The Orphans poems cohere because they don’t fit. This interview identifies the trauma that one can experience in language and how this merges fluidly into a Deluzian denial of transcendence. Here, “truth and absurdity (the absurdity of truth),” are distinctly malleable from the inside out. In this respect, “childhood is no longer of the future, each thought is or is not an orphan, ‘parents,’ if they exist, are interchangeable, temporary, fragmented, gutted of their middles, which is middle too.” There is admittedly “insufficiency” here and yet, the soul is retained. The witness is not a choice, yet it exists.

Renee Angle resides in Tucson, Arizona where she works for The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Her poems have been published in The Volta: Heir Apparent,DiagramPractice New Art + WritingSonora ReviewEOAGHI’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women, and in the chapbook Lucy Design in the Papal Flea (dancing girl press).




1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I know it gets said a lot, but I didn’t desire to be a writer, I just sort of was.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Wallace Stevens, Stevie Smith, Frank O’Hara, William Carlos Williams, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Djuna Barnes, and many, many others.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I hope that my work has become more focused, crystalized, and intentional. In terms of process, I now spend time devising contratints/methods to thwart ingrained habits whereas before I was cultivating habits. I spend time trying to forget what I’ve learned.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I try not to classify books by genre when I read and when I write I try to have the same mindset. I don’t think texts have genres—we give texts genres–and so in that way, while they can be helpful classifications, they are very artificial and more about marketing than anything else. I’ve thought about how both of the words genre and gender come from the same root. They both mean “kind.”

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

I’m working on a play about motherhood as an act of plagiarism, a YA novel about child labor and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and a novel based on a 7 hour movie based on a novel in Hungarian.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I’m very pleased and inspired that there is so much wonderful work being written and that I have so many good examples to draw from even before I sit down to write.  My general reaction is “more,” I want more.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Honestly, I read mostly dead poets. I also think most third and fourth graders have a lot of contemporary poets already beat.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Writer. I sometimes like artist.

9.)    In the poem, “WITNESSED,” we pull the poem apart in the fashion of a fairy tale. For instance, “the way the blade can cut the length you like. and then there’s red. red can cut the same. crop circles with circumference built in, or the line established to help you do the math.” The poetic line manifests a feeling of linearity while it is also alluringly an invitation to untriangulate and play with the message. The poem ends, “climb in the bed made of the alternative comfort of the hearted. her circle skylight. able to wish water or sand. // exclusively ours!, exclusively ours!, exclusively ours!,”. To witness can always be “ours” if we choose this path of wander. Can you please discuss how the architecture is structured to rest the mind of a child and how the poem interacts with this both in the melopoeia and syntax?

I don’t know if “witnessing” can be “ours.” I’m thinking of the Celan poem “AshGlory” and the line “Nobody / bears witness for the / witness.” I also don’t think witnessing is something that is chosen. I align myself more with the fable and its important differences from the fairy tale. As G.K. Chesterton suggests, “fables repose upon[…]the idea[…]that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself[…]It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.” The concept articulated here by Chesterton is at the center of this manuscript. In terms of the syntax and the melopoeia, I write with my ear and I have an interest in sound poetry. A question I’ve been thinking about a lot is why children’s literature isn’t written by children. I find it inauthentic to present the voices of children as rendered by adults, though that is the task of any writer, in large part, to make voices, characters. My intention wasn’t to present the mind of the child in any of these poems, but to cultivate playfulness that can evoke childhood for some readers.

10.)    The form is comprised of wonder and terror. Take for example, “SCORPION, BIT PART,” that begins, “the hardest piece to make was / my boyfriend // who limp headed / and exit with / love and boldly draw / it was a piece i found on his / floor his exit his scalp hint Whitman / i started and stooped a dozen like / i was baking a leem long longer longest time / i had concern i would no hurry up or heat.” Boyfriend turns to heat turns to scalp turns to baking. Archetypal figures are submerged spirits in the dark. Why are these poems as the title seems to suggest, orphans?

The title of my manuscript is The Orphans because it speaks to the lack of formal similarity between the sections as well as its obsession with names and the unnamed in children’s literature. It is a group of poems that coheres because of what is absent and what doesn’t fit. The parents of these poems have been discarded because of their unsuitability. The learning and coming into language is traumatic and that experience correlated, somehow, with the narrative of the poem.

11.)     The poem, “RADIO DREAM: THE INDIAN CHILDREN ARE TOLD; CONCLUSION OF THE MYSERY,” utilizes the Deluzian plane of immanence. We read, “except the mermaids dry                        inside as dreams // a layered record of the Christian symbol                     all stories slipper the fish // the drying stream                        filling with silt and ash from fire // issued fear light                     to send the children through.” Can you describe how this poem in addition to the book unhinges ethical boundaries and aesthetics?  

I’ll talk about what you refer to as the Deluzian plane of immanence which dove tails nicely with what Chesterton is saying about fables (“It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.”) Deluze “denies transcendence as a real distinction” and I think the fable is basically an example of that. I greatly admire the idea that, “It is only when immanence is no longer immanence to anything other than itself that we can speak of a plane of immanence.” It is true, at the same time it feels completely absurd to me. Truth and absurdity (the absurdity of truth) are also qualities of fables. This particular poem you are quoting from is highly fragmented and is essentially the story of a group of women who serve as guardians of an ocean that is quickly becoming a desert. Gilles Deluze’s theory on the rhizome which states that there is no beginning and end, only a middle or plateau is another way to look at this poem. (And many contemporary poems for that matter). There is a narrative arc but it’s more like a series of plateaus. Any plateau can be related to any other plateau “its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature.” Deluze says “never send down roots.” I couldn’t agree more. To consider everything as coming from the middle has changed my concept of time and time as it is represented and happens in the poem. If everything is a series of middles, childhood is no longer of the future, each thought is or is not an orphan, “parents,” if they exist, are interchangeable, temporary, fragmented, gutted of their middles, which is middle too. Agamben claims, “one cannot write sufficiently in the name of an outside.” I try to grapple with that insufficiency in these poems.

profiles in poetics: Annmarie O’Connell


Annmarie O’Connell


Verse Daily

Thrush Poetry Journal

How do we write about love without being caught in a stagnant displaced and generic gestation? How does technology enable or deter our efforts to find true connection? Is this a manifestation of our commonality? At times we feel alone, we find intimacy, and we are utterly surprised by the individuals that reach out to us in the times we least expect it. We are at once unaided and enveloped, desiring deeply to find light in a world with much dark. Annmarie O’Connell is a poet who is witness to these moments of access and personal connection.

In her book, Her Last Cup of Light, out from Aldrich Press, we delve into the intrinsic aspiring desire to honor poetry, “for new love”.  There is redemption here, one she describes as “a fighting chance”. The moments we share our true selves with others include those willing to share their “last cup of light”. “Beauties,” she says in a world that demands this necessity. In this place we never want to wait to leave, a moment between that breathes, that poem, for new love.

Annmarie O’Connell is a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago. Her work has appeared in Slipstream, Whiskey Island Magazine, and several other journals. Her first chapbook, Her Last Cup of Light, was published this summer by Aldrich Press. And she also adores you. I swear. 




1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I started writing what I considered poetry at a really young age. I remember my first poem I ever wrote was in 5th grade about Jesus wiping the face of Veronica and how beautiful I thought she was. I didn’t really stop writing ever since. I think a lot of that had to do with my siblings. I come from a big family and they often encouraged me to do anything that would keep me out of trouble. And my teachers. I had a lot of pretty great English teachers. I went to a community college on the South Side of Chicago and studied with Eugene Bender who had earned an MFA from the University of Iowa. He introduced me to Sexton and I read her obsessively. He was so convinced I had a story to tell. I think I grew away from that confessional kind of writing as I started telling it. I then moved on to reading a lot of the New York School poets. There was a freedom in them that I really needed in order to write in a non-restrictive way. So Ginsberg and Koch were a dream to me. Now I love reading Malena Morling, Adelia Prado and Roberto Bolano. There is a sense of meditative silence in their work. And compassion. I want to be right there with them for all of eternity.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

I feel I have had this tremendous blessing in my life to have such incredible mentors at New England College. Jeff Friedman has always been an incredible source of creative inspiration and support for me. He has the ability to get you obsessive about your own work and to actually feel like the work itself deserves it. He gets me moving. I also worked with Paula McLain and she is like a God send to me. She gets it. She just gets what I write and makes me feel like it is necessary. Like the world needs it. You can’t ask for anything better than that. I’ve also worked with Malena Morling and her poetry has really inspired me to write and view the world in a different way. In an almost elevated way. As poets I think we do that—navigate the world on a different plane. I love it. I live for it. Her poetry gives me permission to.

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work has gone from this really sort of inner place that wasn’t really saying what I really wanted to say in the way I felt it working on the inside. Or maybe it just wasn’t quite there. Maybe I wasn’t all there. I think my work has changed as I have changed. I think there needed to be a moment of acceptance for me in order to get to the next place in my writing. Acceptance of this lifestyle. Because I really think being a poet is a lifestyle. And it’s now everything to me.  Once I did that, I was able to get outside of myself and pull from the world around me in a really balanced way. In a really compassionate way. I want my poems to speak truthfully to how I genuinely feel and live. Almost in a spiritual sense. Which, now that I’m saying that, is sort of how it all started for me. With Veronica and Jesus’ face.  I think we have to save each other. The world is beautiful and terrifying but I love you all anyway and fearlessly. Here’s my poetry.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I really just focus on reading and writing poetry. Lately I have been reading some prose and creative non-fiction.  I am amazed by the skill. I like to keep my eyes open and pull from all of that—especially the way it ties up all the loose ends so quickly. What it does in that tiny space. It blows me away.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

I recently published a chapbook, Her Last Cup of Light, with Aldrich Press. Now I’m working on writing and submitting a full length manuscript to several places. Aside from wanting to publish more poetry, I want to continue to adapt and grow and move forward with this lifestyle. I think that’s a huge part of it, too. Maintaining that sense of who you are. And as women I think we struggle with identity at times. We’re friend, mother, wife, sister, etc. We have so many roles we are expected to play. But we are also poets and writers. And our environment should be one that creates a space for that and fosters it. I guess I just want to make sure I am living my poet life to the fullest. If I’m not, then who will do it for me?

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I want more!  I want women writer’s to be at the top of my sons reading list when they get into school. I want that future.

7.)      Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I would definitely say Lauren Gordon, Joanna Penn Cooper, Sara Lefsyk, Anchia Kinard, Mary-Catherine Jones, Nikoletta Nousiopoulos. I know of many more but I am (so luckily) pretty much continuously exposed to their work. And it’s just brilliant. Each woman has a unique language that shapes the poem into something that is so exclusively them.  And they’re beautiful.

8.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m a South Side girl living in a heartbreakingly gorgeous world.

9.)      In your chapbook Her Last Cup of Light, “the first afternoon after the day” we humidly coalesce a fleeting moment. Too easy to sweep by, we read, “You will get on the bus and tell the mother / who wipes the corners of her baby’s mouth / something about the hardest part / of beginning again”. After vast ruin it is both difficult and expounding beautiful to live in the world and find hope. Unwound further, “I will be the passing shadow / across your knees / loving you.” Who is the “you” in this poem and is that critical to how we interpret the piece?

As I was writing it, I really had this back and forth range of crazy emotions about my son, my unborn son, and their father. I think I really pictured it being all of them in a way. I think we all have moments in our lives where we deeply question our place in the world. And we fall so in love that we don’t ever want to leave, especially by way of inevitable death. I think that’s what new love is—that breathless moment. I think we’ve all had that to a degree. I wanted to write a poem for new love.

10.)   The hope in the poem “When you lean your head on my back” here is thick, and so is the loss. We read, “I remember how you stepped / into the world early, / shouting / it is not lonely / dragging us off our knees.” Is this a conversation with redemption, and if so, where does the loneliness stop? Is loneliness learned absence, can redemption only live in childhood, or in the dirt? To further this thought, do you suppose that loneliness is a culturally inferred construct promoted by the tools that we use to connect?

Technology enables us to connect on the surface to many people, but does this draw us away from what we most desire; the redemption able to pull us out of the position we define cradling our knees?   I think it definitely is a conversation with redemption. But maybe only a fleeting redemption that is fluid in a way. The loneliness I was referencing was the complete loneliness I think we all feel from time to time—like we are sort of beautifully lost in the world with no one to really get us and we really feel, simply put, alone. And you’re right, there’s a specific kind of redemption that is particular to having a child. It’s almost like a fighting chance. Technology is something that definitely hinders us from achieving any sort of truly, passionate, palpable existence. It’s the block in the road to togetherness. I am not made for the future.

11.)   In “Compared to the sweet lilacs,” we are dead stars and still the speaker wonders “what stops you / from leaping into the arms / of the stuttering man on the street, / his body a distant shadow … I’m going to tell you to kiss his narrow mouth.” What stops us? In the poem, “The boy drags his doll,” the boy’s heart turns, “into whispers / for mile after mile.” How does he get his heart back and why was it left with the boy and the doll?

When I was writing “Compared to the sweet lilacs” I wanted to convey the fact that we are often terrified to do something as crazy as kiss the man on the side of the road. Or do anything we actually feel like doing right in the moment. I think we plan too much and shut down a spontaneous part inside of us that’s just so desperately the real us. People deserve the real us. I also wanted to convey that I think we should love him and talk to him and learn him and experience him. So what does stop us? Ourselves? Fear? Standing in line? I don’t really know. But I don’t want to ever stop loving. That’s what I know.

12.)   The conversation shifts in the poem, “In the vacant lot”. We read of the speaker’s desire to heal ideological wounds split into the palms of a man. She says, “I want to smear love / into the grooves of his palm // sometimes you can see the light turn on in things that are alive.” And then she continues, “just to say hello / notice when you’re a pile / of torn bits / offer you her last / cup of light / tell you the honest to God truth / about breaking apart?” Why does she want to offer her last cup of light and where is his agency? Her message at the end of the book is, “you want to tell him / that at the exact moment of death, / we’re navigating / in the weeds,” where is his light?

All of the people in the poems are people I actually encountered walking around the South Side with my son in our neighborhood. The man on the bus stop was so surprised that I spoke to him and offered him a hand onto the bus as he struggled so much. It was like watching something become alive in both of us. A validation to continue living and helping for me, a change in him maybe? It seemed that way. The woman I was describing, the one offering her last cup of light, is really a lot of the women you would meet here. Very loyal. Very willing to suffer for your happiness. Very honest. Very, very honest. Beauties really. In the last poem, I really wanted to wrap up the chapbook in a way that conveyed the fact that we are all grappling in horror and pain and shabbiness and things we can’t control, but we can still find the beautiful things. Look for the beautiful things. And love with all your might.

profiles in poetics: Emily Motzkus

photo (2)Emily Motzkus


Manor House Quarterly

The Offending Adam

Poet Emily Motzkus capsulates us in the wings of baby blue sunglasses and the starting of yellow. How change is inspired in the body and movement shifts us to awe, the reason why she writes. Her poetics round anatomical research to matter. She extends these to mathematics, “like suppleness and intimacy with the divinity of consciousness and spacetime tanks.” This awe importantly, “[wears] your flesh off, so you might as well let it,” and let go of fear.

Motzkus explains the movement toward innocence as physics. She describes, “neurologically speaking love distorts memory … Now a little bit of our encounter just transferred to these cherry pits in the sand. The best memories bleed on forever this way.” External and internal forms translate body to the page. The encounter of the desert, Chicago, and Denver is the medium of experiment. Female bodies align numerically structured to the moon’s frequency. As we move closer to the infinite, structure becomes “intensely fragile,” but never disappears. This challenges our perception of chance and how structure sinews chaos. In this way, “the end is always there and never there,” on the page intuitively as something we feel as whole.

Emily Motzkus is a PhD student at The University of Denver. She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has appeared in Manor House Quarterly and in a chapbook by The Offending Adam. She lives in Denver with her cat.


I want to be fruit and blossom simultaneously.docx2-page-001


1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

My first inspiration was poet Derek Henderson.

I never read books with any alarming regularity. I never dreamt about becoming a writer, or really even thought of it. With some synchronizing luck I found myself writing in Derek’s class at the University of Utah. It was his ecstatic presence and vision for poetry that opened me to the infinity in certain breaks of the line and folds of the page. We read Cole Swensen’s book Park—that was the first time I’d ever read something that physically changed me, changed my bodily vibration and chemistry. It’s safe to say I fell in love that day, but with what? That’s why I write.

It’s easy to fall in love (but I prefer awe). Like right now I’m in awe with my green tea, an overly attractive man wearing babyblue sunglasses, also a few leaves starting to yellow. I’ll always love Swensen’s book. As for my favorite writer…I suppose it’s whoever I am reading. It changes too often for me. My favorite writers are my friends.

I will say the first poem that ever made me cry was Ronald Johnson’s Beam 4 (the enormous purples part). Today I adore Clarice Lispector: “Everything in the world began with a yes.”

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

This is a tough question because everyone who’s ever read my work and discussed its form remains an important voice, even the dis-likers. I’m going to have to answer this question keeping in mind the all-elusive word soul, although I could use the word knowing.

My brother is first and foremost my artistic mentor. Nick works harder than anyone I’ve ever met and graciously shares his soul without fear—it is my greatest intention to work and love in this way. I always show Nick my poems first and he gives me courage.

Donald Revell, Janet Desaulniers, and Bin Ramke are my literary heroes. These three marvelous beings are dearer to me than they can ever possibly imagine. The closest thing I can think to compare them too is my own mom and dad, but it’s a different kind of bond; with them I share the transformative awe of language, which is where I eye. They are my poetry mother and fathers. They’ve helped raise my soul. Everything I write, I write it because they’ve given me love, encouragement, and faith to trust my vision. I want nothing more but to make them proud and happy. Of course I also want to make my real mom and dad proud and happy too.

Kelli Anne Noftle is my poetry soul mate, there is an incredible level of trust that I have in her “reading” of my poems because I feel connected to her poetry and vision.  If she tells me a poem is off, I know it’s off. KA might be the only person in the universe who knows my work better than I know it.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I think the form of my work has changed in response to the various locations and circumstances surrounding my body. In the desert my poetry had more space. In Chicago it had more frequency. I can’t quite articulate what these Denver poems are doing just yet/ I think they might be having dispersal situations.  Everyone I love and hold dear is scattered across the United States, it’s like having your centers away from you, this displacement affects my work. I miss my sister a lot.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I love modernism, does that count as a genre? Hybridization enthralls me. Science is often pleasurable. Mostly I find that I am influenced by singular moments—genre aside. If genre can be an author I have been influenced by the genre Kathryn Cowles, the genre Eleni Sikelianos, and the genre Jack Spicer. If genre can be a poem I have been influenced by the genre One Art, the genre In Memory of My Feelings, and the genre Meditations at Lagunitas. If genre can be a book of poems I’ve been influenced by the genre “Crush” and “Commons”.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

Here’s the short list (I can’t be entirely sure about the order). I’ll travel to Turkey and take a Turkish bath. In Greece I’ll ride a donkey. In Japan I’ll follow the cherry blossoms. I will publish beautiful book after beautiful book. Meet the most phenomenal man that finds me to be the greatest creature/specimen he’s ever encountered. I will collect enough art to be termed an art collector. Beauty will surround me wherever I go. I’ll teach experimental poetry by a large body of water (preferably an ocean). I will raise a couple of incredible, talented, and well adjusted kids, and hopefully inspire others to recognize their genius and divinity along the way. I have no idea what’s coming, I’m open to anything, but I know it’s going to be good.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Women have been and continue to be individually brave. This spring I sat in chocolate shops and backyards studying écriture feminine with a group of women varying in age, race, sexuality, and aesthetics. We pondered for many months whether or not there was a discernible difference or characteristic of “women’s writing.” In the end I’m not sure we could decide on any hard and fast rule or singular quality. Mayer and Hejinian. Braveness. Lucinda Williams, Lana Del Rey (who actually cares about SNL). Bravery. Yes, our body’s experience of the world is always present in the text and meanings we create, but before we are gendered we are whole. For me contemporary women’s writing is steeped in simultaneity. There are no dichotomies, it’s never and always at the same time. Read the short story Never, Ever, Always by Janet Desaulniers. Read Amy Bender’s The Rememberer.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Erin Kautza, Shannon Salter, Nan Burton and Sarah Boyer are all outright brilliant. The world needs their work.  Erin’s for its goddess embodiment, rawness and sonic boom. Shannon’s for its overflow of joyful insight, truth, and unbounded play. Nan’s for it’s utterly astonishing aesthetic beauty and starry brilliance (yes like a star), and Sarah’s for its peripheries, norm crashing, and medicinal impact. These women are going to be hot.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

As a writer I’d want my label to read open, just open. As for my poetry maybe a research inspired poetics that worships plant life, anatomy, and the mathematics of veils and thresholds. The poems like birds. The lines in the poems like suppleness and intimacy with the divinity of consciousness. And spacetime tanks. I’d want my label to be exactly what Twombly said about his own work: “It does not illustrate. It is the sensation of its own realization.”

9.)    We open with a poem, untitled, performed across the page. “I am a fish then, thrust into wanting a lung I have no memory for //// cartilage skull spine caged against her / tiny-boned pelvis /// a crushing how love reverses itself.” How does love affect memory, furthermore the body, how does trust affect extravagancy?

Neurologically speaking love distorts memory. The memories we cherish the most are furthest from our actual experience—replay them enough and their pathways first alter then disintegrate. This disintegration happens through a series of additions. Say I’m remembering the first time I met someone, but as I remember our meeting I’m eating cherries on the beach. Now a little bit of our encounter just transferred to these cherry pits in the sand. The best memories bleed on forever this way. Just like my finger did.

Emerson wrote “Love is our highest word and synonym for God.” In meditation or “flow”states connecting with the force of love/god/the universe/whatever-your-into can move your body into an unbounded state. When you love someone you want for his or her body what you want for your own. After awhile body stops mattering. Don’t wait for death, I say transcend while you’re alive. Love can wear your flesh off, so you might as well let it.

This poem is about birth; the first one, and every subsequent one. The second time I was born into field of hot air balloons. Excess is our natural state. I’m thinking suddenly about something Donald Revell said in a lecture, he said an “uncontrollable birth of heavens,” in this state of extravagancy there is no need for memory. My instinct is that trust and true extravagancy are really the same thing: knowing there will always be enough.

On the next page, “your eyes honeycomb holes / (i was) afraid I’d eat your brains / invited pollinators/ to plug— / every orifice.” Is this obsession as wanting to devour, dependent, or transitory? How do you see the transitions; how do you view body/passion/love?

Transitory. But I’d like to say that in this case it’s actually fear of devouring. I imagine the transition here is to fill or allow outside creation to enter, to ensure consumption can’t/won’t happen—but I think fear suffocates any chance of love. For me this is a love poem with sad problems. The body is for entering and exiting; love and passion do this, your spirit does this, food/air/water do this, good art (in all its subjective glory) does this. You can’t be afraid, if you are, you’re in hot trouble. I get afraid all the time, that’s when I “phone home.”

10.)    If time is a matter of light, how do you view the body? The poem, “Phenomenology: Sectors & Airy Tangles,” begins, “1. // inside the body is dark) / even light’s smallness cannot permeate all the skins.” So we use “radioactive” dyes to make visible these internal mechanisms. When we dream about how time illuminates the body, how is this different from movement?

For me the body is a medium for experiment. Time, matter and light make up the conditions for this experiment. Time illuminates the body by moving it away from innocence. Movement illuminates the body moving it toward innocence. Movement is essential. Time in an imagined construct. Motion is physics.

11.)    Poetically, if movement demands light, how does the body perform in this sphere? You say, “took too long to figure— / how bugs attract the flood of light … when we pick up speed in the night / all this had to do with mantels / and the pull of the / moon.” Can you further the discussion of this invisible “pull,” and how does this manifest in your own creation of the poem?

For me writing a poem can happen in 10 seconds or take months (even years). I am waiting for an “invisible pull” to move me from one image to the next.  I observe until I experience/find/imagine what feels like a vibrational match slightly altered—I guess I could say the body performs movement when the lighting is right. I like that, I’ll probably put it in a poem.

12.)    In the poem, “Adverbial Conjugation, Labial Geometries & A line by George Kalamaras,” we read, “but loving that is how I’ve come to know these parallel points of ache inside my chest which are—going to cross. I’ve charted their likenesses.” I’m interested in the site of the female body as it intersects with mathematics. The structure of math insofar has recently accredited an order to random numbers, specifically prime numbers which are supposedly indivisible outliers. This would mean a structured place upon a structurelessness; linear blueprints to coincidence.

The female body aligns most directly with the mathematics of the moon, a cycle every 28 days. Coincidence? Maybe?

I don’t know much about prime numbers but yesterday I met a man named Moses who was charting prime numbers while I struggled to plug my computer charger into the wall.  He offered to trade me tables and told me that when he saw my orange shirt (the healing color of sunset/sunrise) the math he was looking for came to him. This he said was not a coincidence. He told me that as you move closer to infinity, prime numbers become less and less, but, Moses said they never disappear i.e. their structure becomes intensely fragile but not obsolete. Perhaps this means coincidence does indeed have a blueprint! Perhaps this means there is really no such thing as coincidence–I view this as really good news. I like Jung’s idea of synchronicity or “meaningful coincidence” : “a simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to the momentary subjective state,”  the simultaneity of “two or more events, where something other that the probability of chance is involved.” I believe we have the power and ability to create meaningful simultaneity in our lives, the blueprint for this isn’t female or male though, as far as I can understand it, it’s simply thought without fear–I’ve found the Universe responds well to brave thoughts.

13.)    The poem continues, “I’ve charted their likenesses / which are at a point unconjoined, but near the end a labia always loses itself into itself.” This “random” end site is the female body, and also at once loving. If the end was not inherited, but a part of an invisible structure, how do you suppose this would change the inherited view of the female body and how the body interacts in our everyday lives?

If it were possible to chart the point where a labial geometry joins itself would you/or could you call it an endpoint?

Any point will do then, pick one. Pick a random point and point to it: say this is where it happensthis is where it ends and where love happens.

Suddenly this point exists as dawn or dusk exists, perfectly exact in inexactness. The end is always there and never there. Maybe because female bodies are connected to the moon they are able to comprehend this intimately. I think when this realization happens the inherited view of the female body dissipates; in fact, the inherited view of any body dissipates; now our daily interactions are full with love and awe.

I just want to say one more thing, don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s no fun. The best poets I know listen to Drake and eat fancy cupcakes, they have dance parties, you know.

profiles in poetics: Leah Umansky

smallLeah Umanksy

Websites: Leah Umansky


How does propaganda both solidify and sterilize the emotional virility of language? How does the domestic sphere inflect the body onto the page? In this interview, poet and teacher Leah Umansky in her book Domestic Uncertainties out from BlazeVOX Books presents, “I think writing by women continues to be as intriguing and as honest as it ever was.” She shares, “there is fear in emotionalizing language, but I think it’s intrinsic to who we are and how we were raised.” For Umansky, every inflection, verbal cue, sensitivity to the “whole package” allows the speaker to find her own “glory” through a sense of self.

Upon reflection we are able to see how this affects the propaganda we share and retain in social media. Umansky states, “I think the body is important to think of in terms of language because they are connected. Sometimes it freaks people out and writing something down, especially online, makes it permanent. One has to choose their words carefully.” But the open process of sharing self in community can become a “recognition of one’s own strength. We are manipulators of language, we are reinventors. We are able to find our own.” As inventors it is important to acknowledge not depletion of intimacy as propaganda models, but faith in self voice. She continues, “The heart is something I believe in. The heart “uproots” and “replants” because it rebuilds.” The heart needs intimacy; honoring close connection, voice, and the ability to be alone.

Leah Umansky is currently working on her second collection of poems focusing on being a woman in the 21st century, social media, nostalgia and Don Draper. She is a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and Tin House; a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus, and a Live Twit for the Best American Poetry Blog. [Read more at: She received her BA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Binghamton and her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the host/curator of COUPLET: a poetry and music series on the Lower East Side. Flavorwire called her #7 of “23 People Who Make You Care About Poetry” in 2013.


This Could be nostalgia-page-001



note: this poem is a “mash-up’ of phrases from Teddy Wayne’s 2013 NYT article ” Youth’s New Wilderness”


1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

My first inspirations were probably the Bronte Sisters. I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in 10th grade English class and they changed my life. I remember reading Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and was just blown away. How had I never read these books today? In terms of poetry, I was always drawn to writing poems. I can still remember when my first poem, “fireflies” got published in my high school literary magazine, KEN. It was a poem about  catching fireflies  but also about the my first childhood crush. As a teenager, I was always drawn to the confessional poets. To this day, Sharon Olds still just dazzles me.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

I always feel inspired by someone or something. Maria Mazziotti Gillian was and still is a huge influence on my writing. She took over the English department at SUNY BINGHAMTON my senior year. Once I heard her read her own work, poetry was never really the same for me. She’s someone who gives 110% to her students and her fellow poets. She’s someone I really strive to be more like as a teacher and poet myself. Her readings are powerful, stunning but also intimate. When I saw Sharon Olds and students lined up to have their books signed, I stood frozen. I couldn’t believe I was going to look her in the eye and have her sign my books.

In graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, I really learned a lot from Marie Howe, Victoria Redel, Kate Knapp Johnson and Paul Lisicky. I’m grateful that I’m someone that has stayed in touch with her teachers. One of the biggest mentors in my writing life is Patricia Carlin, whose workshop at the New School I’ve been in for the last six years or so. I think in life, if you’re lucky to meet someone who really “gets” your work, you need to do what you can to savor that relationship. So many of my friends are writers and we all sort of motivate each other; I think social media helps a lot, too, and for that I’m thankful.

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

My first book, Domestic Uncertainties, is out now from BlazeVOX Books. Though I’ve published poems in literary journals that I worked on in both undergrad and graduate school, none of those poems are in this collection. I think I grew up writing more narrative poems because most of the poets I admired wrote in more a narrative style, like Marie Howe, for example. I remember reading my first snippets of flash fiction in Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, Carole Maso’s Aureole, and being like, “oh, I can use fragments when I write?” and “fiction can be lyrical? Fiction can be poetic?”  It sort of shocked me and thrilled me. I think I was afraid to venture into that field of writing, but eventually, when I was ready, I did.

Somewhere along my graduate school years and my years as a married woman, the narrative in my poem split and re-grouped. Ironically, it was when my marriage first fell apart and I was having discussions about separating that I found this new voice with which to write. With the voice came a new way of seeing my writing as my form changed. I started writing prose poems, and I started playing with the page, the margins and with fragments. I used all of it and climbed out of the chaos that was unfolding around me. My first poem that I wrote at this time was a prose poem and it was based on my favorite book, Wuthering Heights. Is there a correlation between the new way of writing and the new marital status? I’m not sure, but it makes sense to me. I think I stopped being scared of my voice, and started tapping into my own agency as a woman. Soon after, I felt more confident.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Absolutely and it’s something I love. I remember when I first started to read Virginia Woolf I fell in love with all of her long sprawling sentences. I like experimental novels because to me, they read like poetry. Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion is probably my favorite for many reasons. I love her use of repetition and I love how the way her book is divided into sections with repeating narrators. I’ve also dappled in historical fiction; I love Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley and Dreamland, but as a whole I’m the most influenced by experimental novels, memoirs, or the diaries and journals of writers. The journals of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf are always a key source of information for me.

I steal a lot in my writing. I take phrases from newspaper articles; I jot down notes at readings, or at museums when I’m reading the curator notes to exhibits. Lately, I’ve been writing poems that are inspired by TV shows like AMC’s “Mad Men,” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and that’s another genre in itself. It’s also a rewriting of society.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

Presently, I’ve just returned from small book-tour that I put together in the Pacific NW.  I’m a teacher, so I’m off for the summer. This month consists of weeding out the poems that don’t work in my second collection, and putting them into some sort of order. September will mark the two year anniversary of my reading series, COUPLET, and I’m glad to see it is still being received so well. I have a new chapbook of Mad Men inspired poems coming out in the winter of 2014, so the annual AWP conference in Seattle is something I’m looking forward to.

As a teacher, I love introducing my students to new works of literature. I taught a “confessional poetry unit” this year, for the first time, and I was so envious of the students who read Anne Sexton for the first time. (Discovering her was such a treat.) I look forward to continuing to find ways to inspire my students. I just want to keep writing and reading, to be honest. I’d also say that I pride myself on supporting my fellow writers, and poets. As a woman and a writer, I think it is important to feel as if you are part of a community and part of starting my own reading series was to help get my footing in the literary community here in NYC.

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I think writing by women continues to be as intriguing and as honest as it ever was. Obviously barriers are broken down each day, and each year. I’ll say that I think that our digital presence now in the 21st century, is something we need to use to our advantage.  It’s never been so easy to reach people and not just people in your neighborhood, but people across the country and people across the world. It’s thrilling and our voices need to be heard. I think more people should embrace creating blog, tumblrs, twitter, and using online writing workshops, because we can now. It’s important to have a community of writers who can support you and encourage you, whether it’s online or in real life. Having a support system gives you confidence. I’ve been trying to get one of my best friends to write for years and she finally has written her first personal essay for an online journal. It was wonderful and I’m proud of her.

7.)      Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Some of my favorite people are writers that are either publishing their first books this year, or next, or are still at work on their first books. My friend, Julia Fierro, who runs the Sackett Street Writers, in Brooklyn, has a first novel coming out in the next year which I’ve heard her read excerpts of. Another friend, Mira Ptacin, founder of Freerange, who just welcomed her first baby into the world, has a memoir in the works, which I can’t wait to read.  In terms of women’s poetry, I really admire the work of Rachel McKibbens, Lisa Marie Basile, Mary Flanagan, Rosebud Ben Oni, Laura Cronk, Kristina Marie Darling, Kiely Sweatt, Jackie Clark, J Hope Stein, Jillian Brall, Dena Rash Guzman, and Cassandra Dallett.

8.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I always say I’m an experimental poet because if you don’t label yourself, someone else will. I’d rather take ownership of that labeling. I’m a feminist, and I’m Jewish, even though my poems don’t typically deal with Judaism. (some do). I actually didn’t think too much about the “labeling” until I started building my listing in the “Directory of Writers” at the Poets and Writers website and realized I needed to label myself. I don’t see the harm in it.

9.)      Let us begin with your poem, “I. AND THEN IT CAME UPON HIM THAT HE WOULD MARRY HER AND SHE WOULD BE HIS LIFE.” Sitting on what I can only imagine as a white starched couch: “The woman occupies the supreme position: a songstress; a slave; a harbinger.” This egalitarian position, “was drowned … It was meant to be murdered … The larger vessel was love … I was the larger vessel.” We witness metamorphosis between “she,” “the women,” and ultimately “I”. A typical under the radar subjectivity removes the feminine from the female. As writer then, quill possesses subject. How does female possess her feminine without painting the domestic space in charcoal binaries? Where does this color balance the masculine?

I love this question and love that poem. Yes, I guess the feminine is removed from the female because she sort of crosses into what is typically deemed as, “masculine.” She realizes that she was never free and is now free even though she didn’t necessarily want that freedom. The question is, what is she free from? Marriage? Gender roles? I think maybe both. The binaries ARE charcoaled because the domestic realm here is not so “black and white”—it’s grayed. I have trouble with binaries because I never thought much about them, and then, over time, I realized that life isn’t that cut and dry, and either are relationships. They’re complicated. When my marriage failed, I learned that I could possess the feminine in the domestic space, and also be and do whatever I wanted. I also recognized that it had to be with a sense of self and a sense of what being female means to me. I don’t think I ever gave that that much thought in my twenties.

In the poem, the speaker is putting herself first and she is surviving the wreckage of the marriage. She may be marooned but she knows it’s not forever. The marooning is a shock, but she accepts the binary and moves past it. I’m not sure where this colors the masculine, other than to say that the masculine is triumphed by the feminine.  I see this poem as a sort-of reckoning. The speaker is trying to figure things out; she’s beginning to realize her truths. She says to herself, “I am still a romantic. I am still a romantic” because she is not let the devastation ruin her belief in love or change the way she sees herself. She’s putting herself before the husband, which is a first for her.

This poem has a lot to do with the expectations of marriage, and actually relates to the first poem in the collection, “What Literature Teaches Us About Love.” I think most women go into marriage with a vision of how it will be, and this poem talks to that vision. It sees it shatter. Not only did the marriage fail, but “[It] was drowned. No flotsam or jetsam.” The marriage doesn’t even exist in fragments. It dies.  The speaker controls what happens next, “I was the larger vessel/ I controlled the wondering.”   She thought she’d be the husband’s whole life – that she’d be enough. She felt that love would be enough to keep the marriage afloat, but it isn’t.  She controls “the wondering” because she is the stronger of the two. She carries the love regardless of its failure.  She survives the drowning, and the husband doesn’t. He falls away. This is relevant in Section III of the poem, “The Men Will Do No More. They Have Lost the Capacity For Doing.”   The husband is renamed the “left-husband” because there is nothing left to do. There is no name for what is left after the drowning.  So, I think the binaries shift because of the agency that the female speaker gains in the poem.

10.)   “The Art of Unloving,” is accompanied with a clothes iron in hand. The unending giving and reputed receiving is folded and unfolded. To spill is to “soot” is to “unlove”. Elucidate this then, “We humans, love other humans and sure, pets too, places even, but that emotion has a name and its name is love. … It’s the same with indentation. We can unindent a word, so why not unemotionalize the word, or the whole story?” Is this not what takes place in the language of law? In your opinion does emotionalizing language absorb idiocracy in its inability to present unemotionalizing positive or negative opinions? What is the fear of emotionalizing or placing the body back into the language of the laws that govern our linguistic structure? Movements of oppression use emotive linguistics to shift energy and emotion as you delineate in “appositives”. To change the energy of the linguistics is to shift the energy. But is bland not the same toke as apathy? Where is the body? How is this translated to the letter?

This is a complicated question. I’m not necessarily concerned with the language of the law in this poem; it’s more about what is implied by language, or what is hidden in language. This poem is built around suffixes and prefixes. Look at how two little letters, “un” can do so very much. Inflections matter and, even, non-verbal cues matter. There’s a whole package. It’s the same with Love. Yes, it’s a feeling and an emotion, but there’s more there. It’s involved.

I absolutely think there is fear in emotionalizing language but I think it’s intrinsic in who we are and how we were raised.

In terms of placing the body back into the language of the laws that govern our linguistic structure, I think the body is important to think of in terms of language because they are connected. Sometimes it freaks people out and writing something down, especially online, makes it permanent. One has to choose their words carefully. I actually think this is one of the dark dangers of our digital age: when something is out there on the internet, it’s OUT there!

Look, as a teacher, I‘m really fascinated by the topic of propaganda. I teach two Orwell novels in the classroom. Just last month, in summer school, I was having a casual conversation with a student about something as we walked to get some ice cream and I said something like, “Oh, well that’s just them using propaganda,” and she said, “You even teach when you aren’t teaching!”  It was funny, but really, I’m just aware of language.  It can be so easily oppressed, and twisted. Your thoughts can be so easily manipulated, so it’s important that one has a sense of self. If you do, then you can hold onto what you value. In Domestic Uncertainties, I am manipulating language, and I am also reinventing language. It all relates to the new found glory of the speaker.

“The Art of Unloving,” came out of a New York Times article that I read about language, and, ironically, from teaching a lesson on “appositives” to my 10th graders. I started thinking of relationships, specifically marriage, and the use of appositives in the everyday conversations of couples. I thought about pet names, about email salutations, etc. In using an appositive, you can also cover up the truth; you can reinvent the truth; but you can also negate it. So suddenly, grammar took on a more important role in my writing.  

11.)   In “The Mischiefs and Mistakes or (Mis)takes are Real,” there is a passage that reads, “Give me a real time. / Give me real. / Give! // I am barely the wounded one. / I am the / blooming.” So we experience a transition from the beginning of the piece focused on recapturing self in language to the nutrients of soot where self is not through an excavation of pain, but of growth after the fire. In the preceding poem, “A Very Small Life,” we read, “no one saves the diminishing … There are so many great words that come out of partners; / So many words that come out of please, / and patronize. / :: yes, patronize::.” “Partners” is rounded to “patronize” as suggested in patriarchy. The punctuation becomes as saturated and “tangled” to a stanza in the poem “How We Make Ourselves.” “This sense of nothing is inconceivable. / History always repeats itself, but the heart, / the heart uplifts and uproots. The heart / replants. / I have done my gardening.” There is beauty in this space of self, and also loneliness; one that is able to understand self. But where does this mend the domestic? In the last poem, “Domestic Uncertainties” you write: “I will not define Love for you … though my hand is cleaner in the end.” How do you see this message transposed in our present sociopolitical climate surrounding sexuality, equality, and partnership?

Yes, the “self” does experience growth after the fire. There’s a sense of realizing what exactly that devastation is, or what exactly brought about the fire, and then there is the sense of rising up from it. The rising-up relates back to your earlier question. The speaker is not making apologies, or feeling sorry for herself. She’s using what she knows and what she’s learned and bettering herself. In these poems, she’s really just doing her best to persevere. The self at any given point could just crumble. It’s easy; humans are fragile at times, but I knew I was stronger than that. I knew I wouldn’t crumble. It wasn’t an option for me and certainly wasn’t an option for the speaker, here.

In terms of the poem “A Very Small Life,” I used a lot of wordplay. I’m talking more about being patronizing. “Partners” turns into “patronize” through the lens of a marriage. A partner in a marriage is more than a companion; they should be part of a partnership: something fair, honest and equal. Partners and patronize share some of the same letters. Here, the wordplay insinuates that one partner patronized the other. In “How We Make Ourselves,” I think the “domestic” is healed through realizing one’s sense of self; through community and the recognition of one’s own strength.

The heart is something I believe in. The heart “uproots” and “replants” because it rebuilds. What I feel is in my heart and in my body and I made a decision to keep that sacred when my marriage failed.  I could’ve just fallen apart, but the heart doesn’t just deflate. I think that love is defined differently for different people by different people.  I’m not exactly sure how the message connects with society, but what I do know is that the speaker of that poem is satisfied with what has happened. She’s okay with the divorce. In my experience, it seemed that divorce was a taboo topic among women my age and I really felt I was alone, and ashamed. All I had was my writing. Don’t get me wrong I have the most amazing friends and family, but no one else I knew my age was divorced. At times I felt like an outcast. I wrote my way through it and I hope my book opens a door of conversation among women because divorce is not a dirty word, and I’m certainly not ashamed.

Recently, on my book tour, a woman in her early 30’s approached me and said she was going through a horrible divorce. She said that my poems really resonated with her and asked if I thought my book would help her get through it.  I said that it isn’t a self-help book by any means, but all books help us. I said that writing it helped me find myself and uncover my own truths. It also gave me a sense of purpose. I think it is important for women to recognize that other women are going through similar experiences all of the time.