Search results: “star in the East”

A feast of small proportions

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can hardly be called a feast. More of a delicacy. But even that fails
++++++++++to describe the meager plates of meat set out on the long, dark oak.
The room glowed. From its corners, thorned branches

bloomed, and momentarily I was confused.
In my hand a clean fork, then my keys, then a snapped antenna
picked from the curb on a night-walk.
++++++++++All meal long, the brain tucked in its dome and the heart cubed,

presented on six white plates. The meat, almost raw, slid around,
and I grabbed one. I brought it to my mouth. Everything went metallic.
I ate and ate for I was starving; my hipbones tipped their empty bowls.
My hand pressed to my chest then curled into itself

++++++++++like the slowed shimmering legs
of a dying cockroach. But the heart, how delicate!
How marbled in the candlelight like a rotting honeycomb!

The head called for it as if it were a poem.
++++++++++The heart is filling, even when small.
Especially when. I finished and felt like the earth

resided in my stomach. Like if I moved it would come pouring out
in the form of an entire hive, in the height of spring when the field is set

++++++++++with hundreds of little feasts. Blossoms opened, glowing
like a body when the heart has been taken by another—licked until tender.


Brian Clifton

Poetry We Admire: Light

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For our December Poetry We Admire, we’ve curated some of the best recently published poems out there around the theme of “Light.”

This is the time of year when the days keep getting shorter and darker until the solstice finally arrives and the light begins ever so slowly its return. Light, and the return of it, is symbolic in myriad religious and cultural celebrations during the season. In addition to the winter solstice, there is the star that guided the shepherds by night in Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ and brightly colored Christmas lights on houses and in trees. There is the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, and fireworks and diyas during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.

This month we feature light-bringing poems from Salamander, Ice Floe Press, Black Bough Poetry, Raw Art Review, The Shore, and Rattle.

Drink in some winter moonlight. Let it shine.


 

 

For a long time I wanted

            to drink a cup of winter,

                      to become tipsy on early

                               dark & longer starshine.

 The thinning light

             my favorite ether.

 

from “Portent with Moonset & Blackbirds”

by Kelly Cressio-Moeller in Salamander

I love how this poem captures the full scope of the season’s moods, starting with its romanticism and wonder, moving through loss, then surrender to the darkness and uncertainty, and finally the  hope of new light. The whole poem and especially the line “I’m only a woman who con- / tinues to bury her dead” with the surprising line break in the middle of the word “continues” viscerally and rather brilliantly illustrates the particular surreal dissonance of grief when a loved one dies but the world and your life must continue, however broken. The speaker went to bed “feeling hope- / less & profoundly lonely” (another line break mid-word), but in the “morning’s early darkness” she woke to the soothing and “bewitching light” of the “fullest moon” poured into the “small bowls” of the room, and she “drank & drank.”


 

 

    my stomach is full with the

excesses of leaving & staying.

does it matter what we call a thing— the safety of shadows & how the ocean is a

safe place to begin. home is a ripe avocado on my tongue: sometimes darkness

offers you light.

i can’t afford to think like the moon—                     

 

from “Autumn Leaves”

by Ojo Taiye in IceFloe Press

Taiye is a young Nigerian poet and he’s definitely someone to watch. (Of note, his Twitter tag is “wild light.”) You will see why when you read his four wonderful poems in IceFloe Press. In his poem “Autumn Leaves,” Taiye gives us this memorable line: “forgive me i can’t repair my beginning— a body agonized by light in a bevel world /without a plot.” As he says, sometimes the darkness, the vast ocean, and the “safety of shadows” is its own kind of light.

Oh, and I should mention that Taiye won the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Poetry Prize for his chapbook All of Us Are Birds and Some of Us Have Broken Wings– available now!


 

 

Wolf-moon-light

 blooms in the dawn-dusk sky

 

from “The Star in the East”

by Iris Anne Lewis in Black Bough Poetry

The Winter/Christmas issue of Black Bough Poetry is a goldmine of poems about light. I admire this sturdy micropoem with its creative use of hyphenation/compounding to describe the winter sky and how the East Star looms, a bright light always present but hidden beyond the horizon. The way Lewis ends the poem by describing the star as shining “ox-blood-bright” simultaneously brings to mind pagan ritual and the ox and lambs beside the Christ child in the  crèche. This poem is so lovely and compact, yet somehow all-encompassing.


 

 

 you sliced up oranges, baked them hard

  until the house was scented with orange oil

  and they shone like stained glass

  among the fairy lights

 

from “Ornaments”

by Lucy Whitehead in Black Bough Poetry

In her poem, “Ornaments,” Whitehead recalls a winter when “we’d been evicted and you were let go.” With no ornaments for the Christmas tree, the poem’s “you” sliced oranges and baked them into baubles to decorate the tree, along with “a gingerbread family with icing smiles.” I  love how the narrator describes the way the gingerbread bodies were “strapped to the branches with satin ribbons” and looked like “people who’d lost their parachutes.” Perfect and profound.


 

 

Rough-strewn straw

doused with dense, lacquered black paint

splash of blood red

some ash

field aflame with white-yellow branches

wall of hair on fire

menorah, crematorium

To heap; to weld; to twist; to scorch

 

from “Shroud with Lead Wing”

by Heather Quinn in Raw Art Review

Quinn’s poem is a beautiful collage of metaphor and memory, an expression of trans-generational grief, and a powerful meditation on darkness and light. After the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre which occurred in the speaker’s hometown, she “walked one thousand steps / to the local temple / for a yahrzeit candle” and prepared to make her Grandma Irene’s beef stock from “cow knuckles, oxtail, marrow bones.” Then she visited the art gallery where she “received /Anselm Keifer’s paintings / like prayers,” paintings fashioned “on coarse linen / each work a shroud for the dead.” The poem shows how the speaker chose to respond to tragedy and its “impossible weight.” She made her grandmother’s bone broth, created and received art, and lit candles in remembrance of the dead. And as she and her beloved dip their “pinky fingers in the melting wax,” outside the “stars shimmer like ghosts.”


 

 

And what of your window?—where

the light fails me entirely, where

you read these lines

despite this failing. Friend:

let us tie each frayed photon

into a new, far-reaching braid.

Light needs such quiet, gentle work.

 

from “An Invitation to Light”

by Benjamin Cutler in The Shore

Another poet to watch is Benjamin Cutler, who has multiple Pushcart Prize nominations this year. His first full-length poetry collection, THE GEESE WHO MIGHT BE GODS, is available now from Main Street Rag Publishing Company. In his poem, “An Invitation to Light,” Cutler asks, “What is distance but a failure of light?” He describes “the third and fourth folds /

of mountain: how they pale / like lips bruised blue with need / of breath.” The poem is replete with gorgeous imagery. The narrator intimately addresses the reader as “friend” and invites us to share in creating a stronger braid of light so that we might together extend its reach.


 

 

You should know that the circus is holographic now—

whips are muted beams of light, the elephants,

like holy ghosts

 

from “Letter to My Mother, One Year After Her Death”

by Megan Merchant in Rattle

This poem is a moving and eloquent, imagery-laden exploration of how grief can sharpen you, how after a great loss the show must go on, but it will be different than before. The extended metaphor of the holographic circus is brilliantly handled and richly layered with images of light, grief, memory, loss, and longing. Merchant writes, “I’ve looked for you as leftover moon, on burnt toast, /in the wilting of leaves that hold a keyhole of light, / but mostly I pause for ravens that sling like a lasso / between the trees, anything that makes me feel alive.”


 

 

We dread the dark here, though

there’s light from some lampposts

and maple leaves reminiscing

how brilliant they were before

they dried and thickened in our gutters.

I miss what is lit from within.

 

from “Advent on South Hill”

by Abby E. Murray in Rattle

Sunday’s Poets Respond selection from Rattle has the speaker “walking the loop” of her neighborhood during Advent when she “can’t tell if the sun / is technically up or gone.” It’s the time of year where we are all waiting for the light, when even the “finches ditch what dazzles us / in favor of feathers grown solely / to keep them alive, a coat / the color of waiting, of slush,/

of sleeping and waking and pacing.” In her accompanying artist’s statement, I love how Murray says, “Light, like poetry, is something we can carry and wear like armor.”

As we wait for the light to return, let’s all try to remember “what is lit from within.”

Peace.


Kim Harvey

Legacy Suite #8

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The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones speaks at length with Gabrielle Bates about mothers, publishing, the intersection of tenderness and violence, and the immaculate yet richly imperfect circle of love. Gabrielle Bates’s debut collection Judas Goat is forthcoming with Tin House in January 2023. 


 

Judas Goat by Gabrielle Bates: Figures, Faith, & Tenderness

 

 

I.S. Jones: Having been in conversation with you through our own letters and intimate musings, I know that Judas Goat took roughly 10 years to write. How many versions of yourself moved through this book? When did you know the book was done?

Gabrielle Bates: Oh, they [my self-versions] grew skins and shed them in such slow and sneaky ways, I didn’t really notice them as they occurred. I’m a person who lives very much in the present, and I have a terrible memory, so occasionally it’s jarring to be confronted with a past version of myself, a previous way of thinking, believing, or relating—I appreciate, generally, the way poems can keep a sliver of a past self alive while also placing it in a separate container.

I graduated from college in 2013, and that’s the year I really started writing toward what would eventually become Judas Goat. I got married, moved away from the South, studied poetry much more rigorously, and found—through poetry-related endeavors—my very closest, dearest, beloved friends. My relationship to faith evolved. Both my grandmothers died. The biggest change, I’d say, that has occurred in me since 2013, among all this, and because of all this, is that I’ve learned, gradually, how to open myself up more vulnerably to love in various forms. Attachment does not come naturally to me, but I am learning bit by bit how to do it, and writing these poems, in which I attempt to reckon with the terrors and risks of relation on an intimate scale, has helped. It meant a lot when Aria Aber wrote in her blurb for the book: “through all the layers of large and little violences emerges a speaker who believes in love…” because I do, I do believe in it.

After I’d been actively revising the manuscript and sharing it with friends for about five years, I suspected I’d taken Judas Goat as far as I could take it on my own. Before that point, I’d hoped with a kind of pained, deranged desperation that it was done many times, but deep down I knew it wasn’t. Aria (I must shout her out again!) gave me some incredibly astute feedback on the manuscript in early 2021 about an element that might be missing, regarding the mother character, and I happened to receive that feedback on the first night of a week-long residency, so I was able to immediately spend several days drafting in the direction of that gap. Once that final piece was revised and placed into the manuscript, I felt Judas Goat was actually done done.

(That said: once I started working with my editor, we conducted several more revision rounds together, and I have been making edits up until the very last minute!)

Jones: My understanding is that at one point, there may have been an essay in the middle of this book..? In the process of ordering the book, what made you decide against an essay in the middle?

Bates: That was the final piece I drafted, when I was at the residency I just mentioned! It did start out as an essay. It was focused, primarily, on the work and legacy of the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, interwoven with vignettes inspired by other mothering presences in my life (my birth mother, a stepmother, grandmothers). While I was drafting that essay, I received news that my maternal grandmother was hospitalized with brutal, shocking injuries, so that news entered the essay in real-time. There was a lot going on.

I tried the essay out in the middle of the manuscript because it felt like a sturdy choice, structurally, and because then it could serve as the literal heart or core of the book, a kind of womb. However, moving from poems to the essay and back again ended up feeling like too much of a jolt, ultimately; it broke the spell of the book in a way that wasn’t very rewarding. After talking with my editor, Alyssa Ogi, about it, I agreed to revise the essay into a long poem instead and move it to later in the book. There was a lot of cutting, a lot of re-arranging, and eventually—at last—it became the long poem “Mothers.” My hope is that it lets mother figures into the book as presences, rather than absences.

Jones: I have to be frank and say Alyssa Ogi is a legend for snatching your book up before anyone else because she saw your greatness and knew what a shame it would be not to acquire your first collection. In negotiating your contract with Tin House, when did you arrive at knowing that this was the best home for how you imagined your book would live in the world? 

Bates: I have, if I may say so, pretty sharp instincts about where books belong, often, but Tin House was a toooootal surprise to me for Judas Goat! I’d never envisioned my book there. As far as I knew, there wasn’t even a way to submit poetry books to Tin House. At the time, they only took agented submissions, and I don’t have an agent (few poets do), and they don’t have a first book contest either, so Tin House wasn’t on my radar as a possibility. I’d adored the work of many of their poets for a long time (Morgan Parker, Hanif Abdurraqib, Tommy Pico, Bianca Stone, to name a few), but I had my eyes trained in other directions when it came to submitting.

Because I dared to believe my manuscript would eventually become a book one day, I set up a little pop-up form on my website, which people could fill out if they wanted to be informed when my first book became available. This led David Naimon to ask me if I’d acquired a secret book deal, and when I said no, we ended up chatting casually about various presses, and before I knew it, he was offering to reach out to Tin House and see if they’d be interested in considering the collection. It was a turn of events I did not see coming at ALL. And after that, things happened really fast: Alyssa Ogi reached out with the most thoughtful email, offering to read my manuscript, we got on a call to chat about potential revisions, and then Tin House made an offer. The ways the Tin House team has supported my book since that beginning has been beyond my wildest dreams. Of course, it would have been amazing to win a first-book contest, receive a foreword written by an epic poet, or get a castle stay in Italy (the way that Civitella residency calls to me in dreams, lol!), but I feel extremely lucky that I got to circumvent the contest lottery the way I did. Alyssa and everyone else at Tin House—their care every step of the way is flooring. I dream big as a rule, but even I had never dared to dream my first book would be cared for this way, with this sort of depth.


Jones: So much of this book situates itself between tenderness and violence. This is evident throughout Judas Goat but “The Dog” sets the emotional tone: “A man with the dog on a leash. The man ran and made it but the dog hesitated outside, and the door closed—no, not on his neck, on the leash trapping it.” The book begins and ends with the speaker’s love, as seen in the final poem “Anniversary.” There is a mother/daughter relationship which I see as another vessel for this intersection of tenderness and violence. Why did “The Dog” feel like the best poem to set the tone as opposed to “Effigy,” or “Little Lamb,” or even “How Judas Died?”

Bates: It was so difficult to know where to put “The Dog” in the book. I resisted putting it first for a long time because it’s just so intense, and I didn’t want to scare readers away. But ultimately, the poem just wouldn’t fit anywhere else. It’s the kind of poem that makes a lot of people need to stop and take a breath afterward, before reading on, so we made it a preface, set off by itself, to build in that break. The only other option was to put it at the very end of the book, but that didn’t feel true to the overall arc, which wanted to end in a more hopeful place. It felt more right to end the book on an homage, after all that winter, to spring.

Jones: I want to talk more about the book’s title and what I see as its companion poems. Yes, the titular poems, but also all the poems that make direct and indirect references to the Biblical. From the title, we know that a Judas goat is a “goat that leads sheep to slaughter as its own life is spared.” “We, of our ends, are perhaps all this oblivious: one goat / trained to live with the sheep, neck-bell jingling / in and out of the slaughterhouse. To the goat, / the shackling pen is no more than another human room.” In “How Judas Died:” “It was after dark, it was day; and on the other side of the world, / a soldier’s ear in the street, severed from the mind, could listen properly to dust.” In “Sabbath:” “I knew God listened. And I knew where to aim. / All the time, every second. I lacked / but with aim.” In “Conversation with Mary:” “What was the tenor of your joy then // Choiceless // Did it hurt // forever // Did you feel rewarded //I hallelujah I assented // How did it feel // Cold blood on the cock of God.”  In all of these poems is the act of listening by bearing witness, which one can argue is the same—to listen is to bear witness. How did the goat and Judas become one of the many guiding figures of the book? Were these Biblical landmarks, of sorts, staples from the book’s inception?

Bates: Poetry, like prayer, is speaking and listening at the same time. At least that’s how I experience it. And I love thinking about the relationship of listening to bearing witness. In many Christian contexts, to “witness” is to speak—to share a story of how God saved you, with the hopes of encouraging others to join or stay in a faith community, something like that. But there is also the notion of sight there, too; sound and image are linked, in the notion of witness, in a way that feels, well, poetic to me. Poetry being this art form that blends the ghosts of all other art forms together (music, visual art, cinema, dance…).

I think I became obsessed with Judas as a figure, and with animals that are given versions of his name, because I was grappling with my own relationship to Christianity and obedience, and in questioning certain practices and beliefs, I wondered if I was betraying God, but also if I was, perhaps, betraying a false version of God, in search of the real one. I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere but growing up I had an abusive stepmother who was a Christian counselor, and so while faith added beauty and depth to my childhood and adolescence, certainly, it was also wrapped up with a lot of anxiety and alienation from my body. In my early twenties, it felt necessary to write poems that felt fairly, brazenly sacrilegious, in some ways, to free myself from—or enact a hoped-for freedom from— the harmful aspects of that religious influence on my conscience, my relationships, my life. There are other reasons the Judas goat is a symbol of resonance for me, in both the context of the book and my lived experience outside of the book, but this is a major one.

Jones: Speaking more towards the mother figure that pervades so much of Judas Goat, I noticed the mother first mentioned in “Effigy:” “I almost didn’t recognize her / shape against the sun, but she waved and said my name. / I carry her on my back now.” The relationship translates as one of duty, love, yes, and one tainted with an almost resentment. In this also, the speaker draws their voice from the poets Linda Gregg and Brigit Pegeen Kelly who also seem like mother-like figures. This is evident in the poems “Mothers” and “I Asked // I Got”: “for a mother to be honest: // Sharon Olds / Lucille Clifton / Brigit (is it OK if I call you…).” More than a wound or a source of fraught nostalgia, what is the mother figure to the speaker? 

Bates: This book is, from my perspective at least, so much about the stories we tell ourselves and others to make sense of the world. The ways these stories help us survive and also the ways they circulate pain. Faith traditions, fairytales, superstitions—the characters in Judas Goat are often engaging with these things, living out versions of them.

In fairytales, the mother is almost always dead, and the frightening, instructive adventures and misadventures of children take place in the realm of her absence. Judas Goat offers versions of that fairytale trope, but the situation in the book, when it comes to the mother figure’s absence, is more complicated.

Auden says Yeats was hurt into poetry by Ireland, and I think, perhaps, I was hurt into poetry, to some extent, by the stepmother I mentioned earlier, by the ways she demonized my birth mother and kept us apart as much as possible. When I was a child, I didn’t have a lexicon for this—I also didn’t have siblings to witness or co-process with me—all I knew was that something was very twisted up. I loved my birth mother and was enchanted by aspects of the life she’d chosen to pursue as an artist, but I was being told the adoration I felt for her was wrong, that it should be replaced by feelings of fear, caution, pity. In writing my first book, I found it rewarding to reckon with that childhood experience and the imaginings it spawned, to create characters who could inhabit, dramatize, or dismantle various aspects of it.

Jones: The speaker throughout Judas Goat is often mining their memories to make language around their sexuality, which first appears in “Intro To Theater.” Throughout the book, the speaker’s sexuality teeters between delight and what feels forbidden, with inspiration drawn from Sharon Olds. Is your own sexuality a space of further exploration in your work or are you still making language around it?

Bates: I’ll start by saying I grew up feeling soooooooOOooooo much shame around sexuality, generally. To harbor sexual desire at all—and to want to be desired—represented, to me, complete spiritual failure. I used to pray fervently for God to take sexual desire and vanity away from me, and then I grew increasingly terrified that, to answer my prayers, God would send a man to throw acid on my face or cause me to be disfigured in a car wreck—! I stayed up entire nights when I was 16 years old imagining these sorts of horrible things happening to me and trying to frame them as blessings. Also, I thought sex was for a man and a woman in the context of marriage, period, and yet there I was, coming apart at the seams, having all these elaborate sexual fantasies involving girls as well as boys…I felt completely depraved.

Later, when I became friends with people who talked openly about bisexuality and I finally admitted to myself that this applied to me, I immediately segued into a different kind of shame silence. Part of me felt that, as a woman who’d married a man at a young age, for me to be vocal about my queerness would, somehow, harm queerness? It reminds me of Sharon Olds’ poem “The Worst Thing.” In finally articulating that fear, I could see it was a pretty foolish one, but I really felt it for a long time. People have helped me see the value of visibility around this, but I still have questions about my role in queer spaces, for sure, and I’m still learning so much about the gloriously varied range that is sexuality, in general. I have a feeling I will continue to explore that aspect of the human experience in my writing, but I’m moving away from unpacking sexual fears and threats of violence, towards an exploration of sexuality on the page that feels less menaced, and more life-giving. At least I hope so.

Jones: Judas Goat concluding on “Anniversary” is such a skillful choice because it creates a less obvious full circle moment (it reminds of the line from Jericho Brown’s The Tradition: “I begin with love, hoping to end there”) and because it’s a deeply satisfying end to a book carrying such heavy things. The speaker’s great love appears throughout the book, notably in “The Dog,” “The Lucky Ones,” “In the Dream in Which I Am a Widow,” and “Anniversary.” Meditating on the final line of the book, “When I said he hammered the ring to make it fit, / I mean the ring fits.” It reads as an affirmation and assurance of this love, one that pushes back against the opening lines of “The Lucky Ones:” “I am warned against marrying / early love.” How is the speaker changed by love from the first poem to the end? 

Bates: Thank you so much for this question (for all of these questions!), Itiola. The fact that you—a poet whose own poems inspire me so much—have spent time thinking so deeply about this collection is more of a gift to me than you could ever know. Before this interview ends, I just want to make sure I say that.

I hoped for the book’s structure to feel, once you reached that final poem, something like the ring image in “Anniversary:” an imperfect circle, one that goes all the way around and then some, extending further. A symbol of perfection filtered through reality, made grotesque. The image of the ring with an overbite is an echo, for me, of the leashed collar in the opening poem “The Dog:” both objects connote an attachment—devotion, trust, interdependence—between beings. At the beginning of the book, the circle image is a site of trauma; it tethers across a power imbalance and has grave consequences. But by the end of the book, the circle image is a site of tenderness. The risks of attachment are deemed, not only worth accepting, but worth celebrating, and the speaker is awake to more than just the possibility of harm. By the end, while all the same dangers exist, and she has not forgotten them, the vigilance and severity of her gaze has begun to thaw; there is wonder available to her—awe, softness, even joy.

 

Gabrielle Bates is the author of Judas Goat (Tin House, 2023), listed by Vulture as one of the most anticipated books of winter. A Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, Bates’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Ploughshares, and American Poetry Review, among other journals. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she currently lives in Seattle, where she works for Open Books: A Poem Emporium and—with Luther Hughes and Dujie Tahat—co-hosts the podcast The Poet Salon. You can find her online at www.gabriellebat.es, on Twitter (@GabrielleBates), and on Instagram (@gabrielle_bates_).

For more information on the poet’s forthcoming debut, please follow the audiobook pre-order link here, follow the link here to purchase a personalized copy, and tour events can be found here. 


I.S. Jones

Poetry We Admire: Indigenous Poets

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“In sand paintings the little geometric forms are said to designate mountains, planets, rainbows – in one sand painting or another all things in Creation are traced out in sand. What I learned for myself was that words can function like the sand.”
—Leslie Marmon Silko

“We are always becoming—: from somewhere. Desire is a blood-colored worm flexing the sand sea around me.”
—Natalie Diaz

“Have you ever been to Eastern Colorado, where the Sand Creek Meets the Arkansas River?”
—Julian Saporiti

“In Nebraska, aerial photos show the Platte River, which flows across the state and empties into the Mississippi, has almost completely dried up in some locations. The river has vanished near Kearney, Nebraska, and dry sand is all that’s left where water usually flows.”
—CNN, Before and after: See how the Mississippi River and its tributaries have dropped to record lows

.

My friends and I filtered between Al-Jazeera & MSNBC, watching the election results come in. After becoming a citizen, one of the most striking aspects of being a participant and witness to the (decreasingly) peaceful transfers of power in this country is the almost all-consuming effect these biennial events have on the psyche. And what this tunnel vision occludes.

I mean that regardless of who wins the Senate and the House, fundamental aspects of this country will remain unchanged, and watching the numbers come in, I’m ashamed to say at time I have failed to consider this. That whoever takes Arkansas, or Colorado, or Mississippi, the residents of those states and the sovereign territories within them will wake up in a colonial regime no closer to coming to terms with its own history, discarded treaties, and ghosts. 

To come to terms with this history and begin the long work of decolonizing, Mahmood Mamdani writes, the US must first acknowledge that it is a colonial state. It must survive the myth of itself.

Anne Carson: To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.

A perilous thing, to realize that whichever Senate candidate wins in Pennsylvania, both support hydraulic fracking in the state, despite the overwhelming evidence of its adverse environmental effects.

The Mississippi is drying, revealing the flats and bones beneath. 

In Egypt the COP27 is convening to decide our future on this planet.

When the ongoing US genocide of First Nations people began, the land so many of us live on now was taken not only from its original stewards, but from itself as well; Indigenous narratives that centered the land, in which environment was germane to the plot, in which it were “as if the land [itself] was telling the stories,” (Silko, once more) were overwhelmingly replaced by narratives that centered the colonizing populations, in particular white men — this had become the prevailing storytelling tradition in the colonizers’ countries of origin, and they brought it with them when they crossed the seas.

The idea of white personhood, and in particular white american manhood, was founded and remains dependent upon this centrality.

As Dixa Ramirez D’oleo reminds us, “[N]o world is more terrifying for a white man than the one that decenters him, and, as such, destroys him.” 

This month, for Poetry We Admire, we are looking at work by Indigenous poets. Poems that decenter, that refuse stasis, that reveal the bones beneath. Like the land itself might tell them. Like Creation. Like sand.

Thank you to the poets who wrote these words, and to you who spend some time with them today.

PWA is only ever a fragment. For more extensive selections of writing by Indigenous poets, some good starting points are Heid E. Erdrich’s New Poets of Native Nations, and Joy Harjo’s When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.

 


to delineate one from another
is like pulling at centipede grass

from "Bird Dance"

by Tacey M. Atsitty in Shenandoah

I love this poem for the different lives it has had in my memory and on the page. The first time I revisited Bird Dance it was with an expectation of finding a confessional, only to be greeted by a poem of praise and voice. All I had remembered was how the piece made me feel, and something in this made me imagine selfhood in Bird Dance. To read this piece is to feel a special kind of joy, and to read it again is to learn (or be reminded) that joy stems not from selfhood, but something beyond.


ride with me in the shadowy afterworld
beyond the spider of a doubt

from "sky hammer"

by Julian Talamantez Brolaski in Poets

Brolaski’s poetry was first shared with me by a British pen pal in 2019. It’s the kind of writing that commands one’s attention, and I return to it often. I’m including “sky hammer” in this list of poems  because it is a new favorite, imbued with a freshness that is a quality less of the poem’s recency than the language itself, that moves “in space as a great auroral mist.” As Brolaski writes, this is a poem that works with all the tools it has at hand, in particular an inexhaustible imagination.


O firefighters of America,
Why are so many of you inmates?

from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Wildfire"

by Craig Santos Perez in Terrain

Perhaps more than any other poem in those gathered here, Perez’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Wildfire” refuses a centering, insisting from its outset shifts in perspective that generate an energy which takes on a life of its own. “Humans and trees / Are kin,” Perez writes. “Humans and trees and wildfires / Are kin.” This is a poem that listens even as it speaks.


I wished to be closer to my mother
To think of displacement in a different way.

from "Turning Back"

by Joan Naviyuk Kane in Poetry 

“I wish for my family to be its own refuge, for the sorrow to become something islandic,” writes Joan Naviyuk Kane, and I think of Eavan Boland’s “Atlantis—A Lost Sonnet,” another poem that seeks a place for grief to rest and comes up short. In many ways, in length and theme, the poems are in conversation with one another. But while Boland’s poem is about a loss that cannot be given form, Kane’s poem is about a loss whose precise form is understood all too well. “I wanted to stay near the shore of something familiar,” Kane continues, “but instead I trace the shape of tuqaayuk, sea lovage, wild celery, with something other than my tongue.” 


a brown box you braid, basket
you carve again and again, open
beneath the waves, graves

from "surrender, no, siren"

by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán in The Hopkins Review

The first time I ever fell in love with a poem for its sound, an uncle had gifted me a CD of 100 poems, read by their authors. Some T.S. Eliot poems were on there, and Rita Dove’s “Parsley”, but the reading I could not stop listening to was Kamau Brathwaite’s “Calypso“. So much of that poem, the glory of its sound, came back to me reading Bodhrán’s “surrender, no, siren,” a piece of such music and movement. “Fellows / gather with you below, blow the slapping / sounds of moons swoon crashing shores / before our finned fingers left so long ago,” the poem seems to defy time, tide, and space themselves, or perhaps more closely, do them justice, in a feeling that picks up from the title and doesn’t let up until that last line, “upon our obstinate obsidian souls.”

 

 


Benjamin Bartu

Benjamin Bartu is an associate editor at Palette Poetry and an editor at Literistic. His writing has appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Shore Poetry, The Tahoma Literary Review, Tilde, & elsewhere. He can be found on twitter @alampnamedben.

Legacy Suite #7

By

The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones talks to K. Iver about the grip of loss, nostalgia, and gender, all set in the backdrop of rural Mississippi in the early ’80s in their debut collection Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco, which won the 2022 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2023). Read on for a conversation about gestures of mythmaking, grief, the book’s arc, and more.


 

Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco by K. Iver: Memory and Mythmaking

 

 

I.S. Jones: First, congratulations on Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco being selected for Milkweed’s Ballard Spahr Poetry Prize by Tyehimba Jess. Walk me through the process of you sending out your manuscript. There is an extended period from when you write the book to when you find a home for the book. The turnaround seemed pretty fast. How many presses or prizes did you send Short Film out to for publication? Did you edit the book in between sending it out? How much time passed from when you finished the manuscript and felt ready to send it out to when Milkweed finally selected it? What was your journey like sending a manuscript out for a book prize instead of querying an editor or a specific press?

K. Iver: It was fast. I had submitted to three or four prizes the previous fall, and I don’t think the book was ready then. I reordered and edited some of the poems. I had workshops with Steven Espada Dawson, who also writes about grief, mental illness, and class. He helped me order the book differently.

I submitted to two more presses in the spring after a major reactivation of trauma in December, when every wound from Short Film had opened, every wound including denial of consent (informed, enthusiastic, immediate, and obvious) and abandonment. These events took place around the same time of year as Missy’s first disappearance in Short Film. I remember driving to Paige [Lewis] and Kaveh [Akbar’s] house the first week of December, thinking I’ll feel better around friends who’ve known me a long time, and then feeling worse every day. In the mornings, Paige was writing, Yael, their non-binary epic. I tried to write alongside them but had no room for poetry, not even for revising or editing. The thought of returning to “Short Film” and the themes of it and the vividness of it was unbearable. I thought, “I’ve gotta finish this, or at least make it decent enough to send out to contests.” When I submitted it to Milkweed in February, I was hoping never to have to work on it again. It felt like divine permission when I got the “Congratulations!” email from Milkweed, informing me it would just be another month of editing. I was so relieved to have that deadline and move on to my current projects.

 

IJ: I appreciate what you’re saying because so much of the book has lived in you, right? I mean, over the decades. Especially poems in which you moved through a different life before you transitioned. Now you’re alive in a new life where you are negotiating your gender in more complicated and immediate ways. All that manifests itself in the book, and by finally publishing the book, you’re allowed to let that go. So, thank you for that. How has your relationship with the editors over at Milkweed been? This professional relationship between you and the editors might be different if you had queried the press or engaged differently, right? Because Tyehimba Jess selected the book, and then after that, he, so to speak, passed on that relationship to the editors. How was working with the editors at Milkweed in general? Would you say it was an overall positive experience working with the press?

KI: Absolutely, yes. I mean, more than I could have dreamed of. Bailey Hutchinson held my hand through this process. I brought in a team of sensitivity readers who are trans and nonbinary that included KB Brookins, Jason B. Crawford, and Maya Carter. I got lucky with their generosity as well. Bailey was patient with my anxieties about how this book comes across. I’m an obsessive reviser and editor. In the middle of the night, I would email Bailey and ask, “How about ‘shake’ instead of ‘melt’?” She got so many emails like that, and her responses were affirming.

She wrote the description of the book as well. I shook when I first read it. For all the reasons I started writing—to see myself and my interior—that was its own affirming takeaway. 

 

IJ: The book’s cover is “Inside Sound. o2” by the visual artist Pace Taylor. You stated that the image best represents “A Short Film” because it looks like an old movie marquee. The relationship between the cover and the body of the book feels symbiotic for how you and the visual artist are both trans, but then also how the sharp pops of color, grainy lines, and the somber, protruding eyes effortlessly translate the book’s intention. Talk to me about choosing this piece specifically as opposed to some of Taylor’s other work. 

KI: I had a lot of dreams about how I thought the book would look. How it looks is very different than how I first envisioned it. A year and a half ago, when I submitted the book, I thought of Pace drawing an image of Missy or having some likeness. There wasn’t much time for that with this publication. I had other paintings in mind, but I had not communicated that to the design team, only design elements I liked: fonts from the 60s and 80s, minimalism, high contrast, easy-to-access geometry. 

And the designer, Mary Austin Speaker, took all of that into account. She chose a painting I wouldn’t have. When I first looked at it, I thought, “This is not what I expected.”

And then when I read over Tyehimba’s [Jess] blurb for the book, and he said something about the speaker wrestling with ideas of mortality and transgression, I thought, “The expression on that face is wrestling with a lot of something.” The book is about me and my grief, not necessarily another person, but how I built this memory of a person. And so, I’m very happy with the cover. It grew on me. I love the old sixties font, and I hope that readers can see a relationship between the visual rhetoric, you know, and the inside of the book. I’m thrilled that Pace is the artist for the book as well. They’re one of my favorite living artists. You and I have talked about tenderness a lot, and I think they’re good at capturing it in so many of their paintings.

 

IJ: Even if I didn’t know the book’s premise, a lot of that is captured in the cover, mainly because the eyes are the focal point of the cover itself, which I think is essential. The book begins with a self-creation myth, “Nostalgia,” but nostalgia is crossed out. Which I think is important for how the opening poem is meant to be read: “In the beginning, in a hospital in north Mississippi, a mother holds her new baby and calls this day her happiest. The baby is you. The mother is surprised you’re here with only a heart murmur. She says having lived through her bloodstream’s birth control and, later, tequila, you must be a fighter.”

Several very intentional choices are made in this opening, as, you know, an opening poem sets a precedent and tone for the entire book. The poems in this book seem to be ordered in a thematic way. I’m curious about the choice to use the second-person point of view. There’s a split between the person you were and the person you are coming into. There’s an active conversation between your past and future iterations. I’m curious about the choice to have “Nostalgia” open the book as opposed to some other poems such as “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name” or even “Short Film starring my Beloved’s Living Body.” Why did “Nostalgia” feel like the right choice when you were ordering the manuscript?

KI: I had ordered my other submissions that way. I had other submissions starting with “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name,” which is a request when I’m reading in front of people, and “Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Living Body.” This was my first submission where “Nostalgia” was the first poem. I think it came through after workshops with Steven [Espada Dawson]. Steven [Espada Dawson] got a good look at the manuscript and offered a thorough feedback letter with edits.

So much of what I’m trying to write about, then and now, is how our collective struggles for power can easily infiltrate our intimate and familial settings, and those seeds can germinate in our queer relationships.

In the so-called queer-chosen family, we often recreate the same family patterns in those early relationships—if we’re not careful and we’re not actively working on how we process early traumas. I think nostalgia, especially collective nostalgia, is such a dangerous space to inhabit, as it relies on fantasy. We’ve been inundated with so much nostalgic rhetoric in the last 10 years, especially in our public. And I was inundated with it growing up. This collective nostalgia was a great source of unnecessary pain that influenced how both Missy and I processed our desire and relationships. Because the book is so narrative, I did think it was necessary to begin here, to set up my queer origin story.

 

IJ: I’m curious about the intersection between what feels like more contemporary mythmaking. There is grief, desire, and the divine. All of this is situated in what feels very Southern, rural, and queer. The framework is meant to mirror quite literally a movie. In terms of how many of the poems are prosaic blocks or long streams of text, I don’t see different forms, but the poems stay very faithful to the movement of language as opposed to, maybe, other mediums. From the beginning, was there an intention to craft this origin story with the basis of a film as the foreground? Or did the book have different shapes or forms before it arrived where it’s at right now?

KI: It wasn’t the original intention. I had just decided to go with the way my brain works. Once I accepted it, after many years of workshopping with high-lyric poets and trying to use some of their techniques, my writing improved. I was in poetry workshops with Paige Lewis for five or six years. I was inspired by the surreal and constant experimentation of syntax in their poetry, but I couldn’t successfully use it myself, at first. When starting the book, I decided to go with the style in which my brain naturally processes memory and language, the way it’s constantly playing films. My memories have been tested as accurate and reliable. It’s tough to lie to me and I always figure out if I’m being lied about because I remember almost every conversation and personal experience I’ve had. Lying happened a lot in my childhood, and I understood very early on that when people were telling me this didn’t happen and you didn’t feel this way, I needed to start writing stuff down and making the archive of my brain visible. That’s what I’m still doing with this book: so many people told Missy and me that these things didn’t happen, and we didn’t feel this way. Writing poems for me was a way after being a journalist of my own life, and asking myself the questions I was asking politicians when I was a young reporter: who, what, where, when, and why, and what are you getting from it?

I had to ask myself: What am I getting from this grief? What am I getting from reliving this stuff so much?

When I understood, you know, when I started seeing professionals who’ve pioneered research in my mental diagnosis, I understood that I need to work with what’s going on in my brain and understand that while I’m actively not trying to relive my past, there is a part of my brain that thinks a lot of the stuff that’s still happening. And the only way that I can reframe that is to watch the movie, understanding that I’m no longer in the film anymore, right? When I was writing some of the most mournful poems, however, I felt I was an actor. And, again, in December, when I had finished writing these poems, I was no longer in the theatre watching from a safe distance. I was back inside, and all the actors seemed living and breathing. There were mornings I’d wake up literally thinking I was 15 again, and Missy was alive, had disappeared, and I needed to figure out what I’d done, could have done differently. Now that almost a year has passed since the reopening of those wounds, I’m glad I can literally close the book, and other people can open it if they want to bear witness. It’s been healing for me to share it and have just a few other people watch the film alongside me and confirm that this happened, and I did feel this way.

 

IJ: There were two poems specifically I want to focus our attention on: “[Boy] Meets Girl” and then “Boy Meets Them.” When the book begins, we know that Missy is no longer with us because of the poems “Who is This Grief For?” and “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name.” I think with a book like this, what I find so satisfying is how, as a reader, I get to experience Missy as a living person.

For me, at least, that second title indicates that Missy did not live long enough to know their new name, to be able to grow into their second life, the life that they crafted in their image, right? It reminds me of something I read online a long time ago about what it means to move through a trans body and go through what some people often refer to as a “second puberty,” To be trans is to have a piece of Divine. To be trans is to be able to reimagine and recreate yourself in your image, which is why biblical references can feel so apt.

Going back to my original point, I love how the readers move backward and forward in this nonlinear timeline. In some poems, Missy is gone; in others, Missy is as alive as you and I are in this moment. Especially in the poem “[Boy] Meets Girl, ” the speaker and the beloved are literally talking back and forth with each other. I’m curious about the stylistic choices in “[Boy] Meets Girl” versus in “Boy Meets Them” and how the speaker is changed between the two of them, right? In “[Boy] Meets Girl, it feels as though K. and Missy are both the speaker, but in “Boy meets Them,” that is not the case. Can you talk about the choice between those two narrative styles? As a reader, they feel like sibling poems to each other in many ways.

KI: I wanted “[Boy] Meets Girl” to mirror the style of how we talked. Missy had this very quiet confidence about him, and I was hoping that poem could mirror that. He didn’t say much, but when he talked, it felt important, it felt significant, you know? And the way he spoke to me made me feel significant. I’m hoping the poem expresses that. We would often replay these memories to one another because both of us were in the closet. So we were doing what I’m doing right now with my poetry, saying, yes, this happened: we fell in love even though everyone around us said we weren’t in love. Because he is no longer here and can’t confirm how he would feel today about me or anything, I want it to be clear that it was my imagining of how he would feel and what he might want. And I’m doing similar things like in “Anti-Elegy.” I’m trying to establish that this is my logic, not his. So much of my grief now is filtered through my gender, my experience with gender right now. Today, I celebrated a month on testosterone, and I think about him every day when I put it on— the gel on my shoulders.

I had a long FaceTime with Haolun [Xu] the other night, and realized he was my only friend who asked me what it was like being on testosterone after grieving someone transmasc. He asked me, “Do you think about Missy?” It felt so good to hear that question. That poem “[Boy] Meets Them” was the start of that kind of grief, what it’s like to have my first teacher of another way to be, the first trans person in my life who, a trailblazer in the time and place he lived, not be here to witness my transition. I’ve been meditating on that particular grief lately.

 

IJ: The way “Boy Meets Them” begins: “You wouldn’t want me now. Not like that. / If you made it to 2020 instead of 2007, / we’d compare jowl lines & we don’t feel / almost 40, but the young somehow look younger.” There’s a way in which the speaker doesn’t self-aggrandize them in Missy’s eye. They come out and say: “Obviously if you were still alive, we would be in love and be together.” The speaker admits, “I don’t know what would happen, but I’m very confident that this is probably true: you probably would not want me as I am now.”

KI: Based on the Missy I knew in the early aughts, in the 1990s, he had a type, and it was not how I present now. I was in a very exaggerated costume of femininity, and I say ‘exaggerated’ because, for me, it felt like a performance that didn’t feel empowering. The mother that I had who is depicted in these poems had the traditional expression of hyper-femininity. I didn’t know how else to be, having watched my mother figure out her place in the world. I watched her get attention and power from her beauty. I grew up thinking beauty was unnatural because of the work she put in. Missy liked those markers of high femininity. He liked the product of that work. I couldn’t assume how he would feel now. It’s important to note that I wasn’t in love with him before he died. We were friends, and in his last year, he wasn’t himself. I was concerned about him. He had tried time and time again, even in his last year, to start dating me again. Because of the events earlier in the book, I knew how it would turn out. I knew that this was a dance we couldn’t do anymore. I was there for him as a friend and would’ve done anything to make him happy and feel good, at least in my presence. I imagine that if he had stayed alive, that’s how we would be now; we would be sharing notes about our careers and romances. I would tell him about recent trans lovers and how experiences with them have been tender in ways I never dreamed possible, not even a year ago. I imagine he would be proud of what I’ve done. That’s what, I hope, this poem gets at. I think a lot about how Claire Schwartz talks about grief and how she once said, “When someone dies, our relationship with them doesn’t stop. It just changes.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this because I don’t have a lot of ancestors I can call on for comfort. Missy has become one of those higher powers for me, not only when I experience grief but also joy. “Boy Meets Them” was the first time I tried to engage in that prayer.

 

IJ: Thinking about the book’s trajectory and arc, it was a very sound and smart choice to have that poem appear so close to the end. We hear from Missy, but also, there is a construction of who Missy would’ve been had he lived to be 38, 39, going into his forties. Previously you talked about the mother, and there were two poems I wanted to discuss to that end: “Jane” and “A Mother’s Advice,” which may not exactly be sister poems. Still, they feel like continuations of each other in ways that allow us to understand the speaker’s relationship with the mother figure. For me, as a reader, it was very satisfying.

In “Jane,” the speaker says: “as I do most animals who are more deserving of poems / than this mother whom I can love only // when imagining her scuffed mary janes / her double braids undone after she’d jumped // on Carolyn’s back after Carolyn had stolen her / ballet costume […]”. In this depiction of the mother, specifically in “Jane,” were you mindful or worried of the ethical ramifications when speaking about the mother figure? This poem is so successful because we’re given a window to all her complexities.

KI: So many people assigned female at birth have this relationship with their mother where they feel like they’re constantly being chiseled, right? Like a slab. We’re marble—perfectly beautiful in whatever shape we come in, but our mothers need to cut away at us because of the way they’ve been traumatized by how the world sees them, and they want to protect their children from that experience. 

So often the damage from that is a hard-to-shake inner critic. There were so many times when I saw my mother while I was performing high femininity, she would ask me, “Where’s your lipstick?” I would be looking plenty feminine in a t-shirt and jeans, but she had a hard time accepting me in any way. My appearance was just one. But as far as her representation of femininity, she enjoyed it. She seemed less “herself” without it. She didn’t go to college. She married young to run away from home as you would from a house like the one she grew up in. These poems about her were me trying to find her humanity because she put the speaker, and I have been put, in harm’s way many times.

She, more than anyone, has had me contemplating what it means to forgive the unforgivable and how challenging it is: the idea that anything worth forgiving might have to be unforgivable. The greater the harm, the harder it is to forgive. I’ve just been reading some philosophy on that; those ideas are Derrida’s, not mine. One way I can love the mother is to imagine her as she was a child trying to make sense of the world, of what was being done to her. I’ve thought about how she might feel if she reads these poems. I understand that without a whole picture of the way someone (myself) comes to be in the world, I would just be talking about the harm she’s done to me, leaving out the harm done to her by a very fascist, patriarchal system of thinking and behaving in a household. I would feel ethically compromised about that. Even though I don’t speak to her, I want to love my mother, and this is one way I can write into that love.

 

IJ: There’s a profound amount of empathy in the way you seek to understand why the mother figure in the poem is the way she is. You hold that in one hand but then in the other hand, acknowledging that she carried her wounds into motherhood and then tried to force her children to inherit those wounds. I’m thinking about these lines from “A Mother’s Advice”: “when you were on / all fours / I’d let you // crawl over me / on // hungover mornings // if I hadn’t rolled up // a newspaper / to swat // your head as if / a fly.” I agree that empathy allows us access to a complicated mother figure. The speaker’s attachment to the mother figure is further complicated by this history that exists in memory, even if some people try to tell them that their memory is not valid. These ruptures indicate how memory is moving through the poem even though the memories are marred by intimate violence. The speaker holds both truths simultaneously: “I know what happened to me, I was there, I felt it, and I saw it.” These poems are memories that are governed by feeling. There are facts, but feelings are at the forefront.

KI: I want to give her a chance to speak in a way she would. She wouldn’t speak in hypotheticals, but she always had some advice, some improvement for how I should live and be. The advice came to me as if none of the other things had ever happened. As if I had grown up in Leave It To Beaver land, which was like fantasy-driven nostalgia for how families used to be or should have been, but it’s not the family she grew up in. It’s not the family I grew up in. It certainly wasn’t the family my grandfather, who hurt us both, grew up in. She had this advice as if she was talking to someone who wasn’t damaged, as if she herself wasn’t damaged. Many movies about mother-daughter relationships and coming-of-age narratives hit on this idea. I also wanted it to end with a phrase that she would actually say: “Get up now, Kelly, it’s high noon!” She would say it in a long-drawn-out southern accent [laughs]. Whenever she said that I would always feel a sense of foreboding: Here’s the day. Here’s another day in which I have to be present in this house where unspeakable pain has taken place, still takes place.

 

IJ: What is the speaker’s relationship to masculinity in their own body and the external world? I’m thinking specifically about the poem “Body Mark:” “Whenever a man follows me too close, / I think of the nights my mother unrolled the day / with her pantyhose, having been chased around a desk / and the afternoons she insisted on posing outside the car / so fifth-grade boys would gawk, glazed as her hair frost.” There are different moments throughout the book in which the speaker negotiates the performance of masculinity as well as the performance of femininity. The speaker makes language for their gender identity and relationship to gender in real-time. How does the speaker negotiate their relationship with masculinity both internally and externally?

KI: One of the reasons it took me so long to medically transition was the fear of being like my father and like these men who hurt my mother, my grandmother, and me for so much of our lives. I’m only in my first month of T, but in the last couple of days, I’ve been starting to understand some things about men that I didn’t before.

I don’t know if I have the language for that yet. However, healing my own Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine has been something I’ve been actively doing this year. I attend five or six meetings a week with queer addicts across the country on Zoom. One of them is themed “Healing Masculinity.” There, I hear many origin stories about how our relationship with our masculinity feels broken or severed, or we have ideas of what masculinity means, and they’re often limited. I’m not even sure what it means anymore. I know that in my origin, in my family, in the culture that I grew up in, the state I grew up in, and in this country that I grew up in, there’s been an abuse of power that I’ve still yet to heal from. So much of that has come from male anger and male aggression. More and more this year, when I try to use the language of healing from the ideas of masculinity, the term becomes increasingly amorphous, as do ideas of femininity.

 

IJ: In the second installment of The Legacy Suite, I’m looking forward to returning to this question and seeing how your answers may or may not change, as you’re still living through the answer to this question. I’m looking forward to seeing how you negotiate the answers again and where you arrive when we return to this again.

There are so many grounding artifacts that move through the manuscript, especially the red Bronco. The place where it becomes most apparent is in the titular poem “Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco:” “Still, I need you to stay with it, / this wide frame of a salvage yard, / our Bronco’s new home of rust // eating red. Watch everything I love now // flattening.” Missy is moving through the manuscript as a pillar for the speaker to make language around their gender, grief, loss of time, etc… The red Bronco’s doing that too. Rust is a very apt way of measuring time in the poem. Did you always know that the Bronco would be a grounding artifact, or as you moved through the manuscript, did it just keep coming up naturally?

KI: I did not, Itiola. I think it’s partly because I decided to go with my obsessions and with my cognitive processing. That was one of the last pieces of advice I got from Kaveh [Akbar] in workshop at FSU, where he would underline the parts of my poems that registered as obsessive. He knew the way my brain worked. I’m grateful for that permission because I don’t think the things we obsess over are insignificant. I think they come up because there’s some energy; there’s something charged underneath them. So much of what we remember becomes our waking dreams trying to tell us something important. I think I figured out why this automobile is so important to so many of my poems because it kept coming up in them, naturally.

A thing about Missy is that he loved the uniform, and he often went through the world with so much discomfort and tension in his body. He came of age in a specific time, place, and cultural landscape that did not acknowledge his gender, but in uniform, he seemed different: in his ice truck uniform, in his army uniform (which I had a lot of grief about). I remember seeing him in so many places where he worked. From the outside, the work outfit became a way to modify something before the surgery that he wanted for so long. The car, the Bronco, was an extension of that. When he was driving, he seemed so comfortable, in both the ice truck and the Bronco. When he was around his car, leaning on it, his body just seemed more relaxed, centered, and protected in a way almost like another uniform. I also think about the Bronco as a horse and what we do to horses. What do we do to these wild, beautiful creatures who are just fine roaming the wilderness themselves, and how we break them.

One of the compulsions of writing these poems came from the need to build and preserve the memory of who he was in his wildness and his trueness, because it was erased from his funeral and his obituary. In the way people talked about him when I went back home, his funeral was about someone I didn’t know. There was no arguing with how he looked in his Bronco, how he leaned on it. There was no arguing with those images, but we didn’t see that at the funeral. His obituary is about someone I had no idea existed. I don’t want to project how they felt, but I know other people who loved him saw him for the self he wanted us to see. I mean, even strangers saw it. It’s just the people who needed him to be someone else—his mother and people at his church—who refused to see. Again, I think there’s just no arguing with these objects that he touched and that held him. One of them was the Bronco, which was one of the most significant for me.

 

K. Iver is a nonbinary trans poet from Mississippi. Their book Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco won the 2022 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. Their poems have appeared in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, TriQuarterly, The Adroit, and elsewhere. Iver is the 2021-2022 Ronald Wallace Fellow for Poetry at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. They have a Ph.D. in Poetry from Florida State University.


I.S. Jones

Poetry We Admire: Legacy & Elegy

By

“A word is elegy to what it signifies.”
—Robert Hass, Meditation at Lagunitas

.

It’s October and we’ve just reached the end of Pearl, my friends and I. The lead-up to halloween grants me legitimacy like no other to convince my loved ones to participate in a slew of horror movie bingo nights, and this may well be the last for 2022. I’m trying to cherish it.

Pearl is a flaneur of her own imagining, a character who longs to escape the ordinary conditions of her farm country life but is bound to them by her twin inheritances, fate and circumstance. She is determined to be exceptional in the same way that the United States is determined to be (the year is 1918, and time will prove neither country nor country girl succeed), though Pearl certainly has an all-American capacity for bloodshed.

The movie’s campy, and full of scares, and awful things happen to good people, but there’s also this pervasive sense of empathy that runs through the work. About an hour and twenty minutes in, the camera, moderately steady throughout the film, comes to rest upon a single shot of our protagonist’s face.

It’s October, I know, and the frame holds steady on Pearl (played, unnervingly convincingly, by Mia Goth). We forget the bingo sheets. For a moment, life’s in technicolor, it’s 1918, influenza is reaving the United States. She’s talking about the things that never happened for her she wished did. The list is long. The shot stays on her for six minutes, which is how long the monologue lasts. She’s trying to learn to make the most of what she has. 

The sentiment, at least, is relatable, however misguided the actions of the title character may be. All the work of elegy and legacy, of blood and circumstance, seems to be a learning of how to make the most of what we have. As Hass gestures in Meditation at Lagunitas, language itself is a making do with absence passed, preserved, and yet arriving.

The poems gathered here do this for me. They are poems that say yes to the truths of the world, and make the most of them. I love them for their craft, their music, and for this. I hope you enjoy these pieces as much as I have.

 


You are covered in dark
Feathers. Nearly

Reachable.

from "Song of Grief X"

by Alex Webster in Frontier Poetry

I love the plainspokenness of this poem, the procession of images that unfurl across its lines, “Traceable as stars.” I read poems where I’m uncertain of what could be done differently all the time, but it’s not often I feel so sure, as a reader, that I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, Song of Grief X is one of those poems.


he was his mother’s 
child. her name is Sayida. Sayida.

Sayida rolls of my tongue, pinches
my cheeks.

from "I Am My Father's Child"

by Karo Ska in Glass: A Journal of Poetry

Perhaps more than any of the poems selected this month, Karo Ska’s I Am My Father’s Child  surprised me for its vulnerability and honesty. There is this moment that comes halfway through the poem where the speaker, seeming to address themself, says, “[my father] // laughs, calls himself a confirmed / bachelor, but i breathe a sigh // of relief when he doesn’t deny me, / doesn’t say, i have no children.” Legacy is nothing less than the tissue that connects here to there. As I first read this poem, I felt it bridging this distance so well I knew I had to include it.


I’m a butcher lost in the forest,
reading the stained map of my apron.

from "Condition of Flesh"

by Ioannis Kalkounos in Bath Magg

This poem of Ioannis Kalkounos’ seemed like an obvious fit for this October’s PWA for all sorts of reasons — not only for its gesturing toward both legacy and elegy, but also the horror undertones that emerge throughout the piece (“deer drinking from a pond – // their teeth are pomegranate seeds / rooting fast in fractured bones.”). This is a poem that takes hold of the imagination, invites us to interrogate our relationship with the non-human world, and whose imagery will linger long after reading.


My mother has already done
the impossible, making it here.
What have I done? I want to believe
that I can be someone else.

from "Impossible Deer"

by Susan Nguyen in American Poetry Review

Impossible Deer joins the internal and external world together with such a tender precision it wasn’t until I made it to the end of the poem for the third or fourth time (and it is such a wonderful poem that rereading feels inevitable) that I began to realize just how many themes were being braided into this piece. Ideas of motherhood, daughterhood, what a gift can be, the limits of language, the necessity of translation, how our own instincts betray us, survival against all odds. This poem does so much for the mind and the heart. I’ll be reading it again soon.


Look at where the outline of the water
chases the toes of the land
can you not see it?

from "A Triple Sonnet for the Lost"

by jason b. crawford in Honey Literary

crawford’s poem begins with light (I’m one of many with a weakness for all such work) and digs immediately into the materials signifying elegy — skulls, husks, tails belonging to animals driven near extinction by industries whose existence was predicated upon the annulment of life: rapid agricultural expansion in the West, poaching, the fur trade. In this way, from its start crawford’s triple sonnet pulls me, “spiraling backwards,” into history, to a place where legacy and elegy exist as one. 

Techniques come and go in the poem, appearing, asserting themselves, then giving way to something new. The use of slashes appears suddenly (“a boi/a dress/a frozen tongue”), then of caesura “to hold them close,        wield them”), and, at the end a quoting (“‘we are free’ ‘we are free’ ‘we are home’”). This poem isn’t afraid to take risks or break cycles. And, it seems to suggest, neither can we be if we wish to end where this remarkable piece does, home, free.

 

 


Benjamin Bartu

Benjamin Bartu is an associate editor at Palette Poetry and an editor at Literistic. His writing has appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Shore Poetry, The Tahoma Literary Review, Tilde, & elsewhere. He can be found on twitter @alampnamedben.

Legacy Suite #6

By

The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones speaks with poet Luther Hughes about the governing principles of his debut, A Shiver In The Leaves (BOA Editions, 2022). Read on for a conversation (before the book came out!) about process, tenderness and violence, the domestic setting, and literary lineage. 

 


A Shiver in the Leaves by Luther Hughes: Tenderness and Violence

 

I.S. Jones: I wanted to begin with your initial feelings toward the book. I’ve noticed this trend where a lot of debut poets will often have mixed reactions towards physically holding it as an object. How did it feel holding your book for the first time?  

Luther Hughes: Yeah, I actually have the galley here with me. To sum it up, it’s weird. It’s a desire I’ve had since wanting to be a writer, right? To say, “I have a book out.” So to have a galley of it, before the book is actually out, is wild. Flipping through it is wild. Seeing how the poems talk to each other in a book form is something that nobody talks about, I think. People are often just like, “A book! Celebrate! Yeah! Da, da, da.” But no, this shit is weird. 

It’s in the world now. From writing to publication there are years in between, so when the book is finally out it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Despite that, it’s also pretty exciting to think about having something that you put together in the world people are excited about, and to see a dream come to fruition. It’s a weird feeling that I think I will never get over.

IJ: I think a lot of poets share the same sentiment regarding the weirdness that comes with publishing a first book and how it’s not really talked about enough. Publishing and writing are two different beasts. I think that some of us fear being made to feel like we are ungrateful for feeling this way, or for feeling anything other than gratitude. 

As a result, we shy away from these frank moments of realization: “I feel strange having this book in my hand that once lived in my head, in my heart, that I stayed up with at 2:00 AM crafting.” You lived with this collection, forming it for years, and then one day, it’s over. How do you reconcile with what is a very abrupt loss—with what is a loss and a celebration at the same time? I imagine it’s a complex emotional space to be in.

LH: There is such a phenomenon as the “First Book Blues,” where, you’re right, you’ve been working so long for this object to be in the world. Now with it in the world, you have to ask yourself, what’s next? Do you write another book? Do you do something else? What do you do after that? It does feel like a death in a sense. One might see it as a death, but also a celebration because now others can enjoy the fruits of your labor. You accomplished this milestone, and it was recognized as such. Being where I am now, I do wonder, “Can I even do this again?” Do I want to do this again? 

I do feel very honored and grateful that BOA wanted to publish it, a press I’ve been calling my dream press. I feel very humbled that BOA liked the book and wanted to publish it when you consider the manner that I went about even contacting them to do it [laughs]. It is a dream come true to be a part of this press’s legacy.

IJ: That’s a great segue to my next question. My understanding is that you queried an editor at BOA Editions asking if they would be interested in picking up Shiver. Was this before or after you won the Ruth Lilly? Given how much you’ve accomplished already, you are, in my opinion, an impressive, prominent poet. You care very deeply about community, and you do amazing work to show up for other poets, and that’s one of the many things I love about you. Apart from the fact that the writing speaks for itself, would you say that getting the Ruth Lilly made it easier for you to query a press, or was this exchange already underway by the time you won this fellowship? Are those two things separate from the trajectory of your career?

LH: Actually, separate. Honestly, that was the craziest week in my life because both of these things happened in the same week. That’s why it seemed like they are so closely related. I remember joking with Gabrielle [Bates] and Dujie [Tahat] saying, “I’m gonna email so and so because I’m tired of waiting!” They both were like, “Yeah. Email them. Do it.” I was like, “You know what? Okay.” I was feeling ballsy.

So I emailed another press at the same time that I emailed BOA. I contacted both of their PR persons because they both had previously emailed me, “Do you have a book?”

To be honest, I only emailed BOA because Gabrielle [Bates] was talking to one of my now pressmates. She was telling BOA, “Luther’s talking to other people!” I wasn’t—I emailed one other press [laughs].  She was pushing the press to snatch up my book. So I email Peter at BOA and he responded, “I’m currently on vacation with my kids. I’ll get back to you when I’m back.”

I was thinking, it’s going to be so long before they get back to me. But then he emailed me a couple of days after I found out I got the Ruth Lilly, and he was like, “Hey, let’s talk about your book!”

He says, “Can you call me?” I give him a call. And he said, “Yeah, I love it. Let’s publish it. It’ll be a couple of years before we publish it, but you know, if you’re down with that, I’m down with that.” I had somebody in my corner saying, “If you don’t pick up his book, at least hear him out, or you will miss out.” I informed the other press that the book had been accepted elsewhere and they asked, “Who picked it up?” and I was like, “BOA got it” and they just said, “Oh, okay.” I mean, they were late. Not my fault.

IJ: Wow, what a story. I love that you created hype around yourself. Granted, the hype was already there, but you made it very apparent that you won’t be waiting on someone else. So were you just tired and didn’t feel like going through the gambit of the contest model? And a related question: for folks who maybe would prefer to query a press, what advice would you have for building that professional relationship? 

LH: I think the answer might be two-fold. For me, it felt a bit easier because I think presses that know who I am know that I really love their books. Not just because I want to be published by them, not just because I’m seeking professional growth or development or some kind of forward movement, but because I really do love their books. I think the best way to start building that relationship is to express how much you love their books.

Say how much you admire their poets, who they’re publishing, say how much you love the work they’re doing, and genuinely mean it, right? I feel like there’s a way to be genuine about the level of care you show to people and to presses, that when you do reach out to them, they’ll respond in a positive way. By that time, they’re already going to know you care for their press beyond just the idea of wanting to publish with them. That was how I was able to gain the confidence and momentum to even be audacious enough to say, “hey, publish my book” because I was genuine, I really did love the work they were putting out. When presses send me books, I tweet about them. I talk about them. I say, “Yeah, everyone should read this book!” Because it’s an earnest admiration for the press’s labor.

Being genuine goes a long way. And I don’t know if people who are fresher to poetry understand that, in a sense. Right now, a lot of the industry is based around the hype of publishing and putting out a thousand poems a year.  I love the increase in publishing that’s occurred over the last several years. But just one side of the poetry business, right? The industry. But the other side of it is for us to be genuine people and to foster community and show love to the folks that you admire and adore. This includes presses, magazines, journals, and bookstores. It’s a whole ecosystem at work.

IJ: I appreciate what you’re saying because I was a huge, huge fan of Frontier Poetry before I joined as editor. In that regard, I really agree with you that so much is about being a literary citizen. Yes, publish your own work. Yes, get your own work out there. Do all these other things for your own career growth, but how are you showing up for your community? Who are you in service of? That is so important, and I really appreciate you for highlighting that. 

Before we get into the book itself, I really want to ask about this gorgeous cover. Luther—you did well. It’s very haunting, which pairs well with the book’s overall tone. The cover is this image titled “Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave” by Robert Marks, which also sounds like it could be a title for many of your poems. It feels, from the outside, like it was a very serendipitous union.

LH: The image which would become the cover came from a database of other art that BOA offered for me to peruse. For a while, I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted my cover to be. I didn’t know what the cover needed to portray to be the first entrance into the book. I knew I wanted something that expressed a duality in some sense. But I didn’t know what that would look like. I picked this image alongside another by the same artist. That kind of, in and of itself, expressed a duality. It really is just so haunting, as you aptly stated. It really does the work to create a visual expression of the book itself.

When I landed on the cover, something about it was just wrenching. I couldn’t look away. I felt very… ‘possessed’ is the wrong word but it works in this context. Possessed by the cover, by the artwork. The more I looked at it, the more I played around with how the title of the work and the book were in conversation, the more I fell in love with it. I showed my boyfriend two of the different options. I showed him one picture of the other art I was considering. He said, “I don’t know.” Once I showed him the now-cover, he said, “That’s the one.” 

And you know, I don’t really write poetry, I told myself, for people. But the more I started crafting the book, the more I wanted people who aren’t poets to understand the book. It was really important for me that my boyfriend liked the cover because I wanted him to be able to enter the book without being a poet. I felt more comfortable and confident this was the actual cover. Learning who Robert Marks was and about his relationship to BOA made it even more important for me. It made a lot of sense then to be like, “Okay, this is the right cover for this book.”

IJ: Can you speak more to that, to, Robert Mark’s relationship with the press itself?

LH: If I remember correctly, his gallery is close to BOA’s building [laughs]. They have a close relationship actually. Mark and BOA have a tightly-knit professional connection. Learning that after I had picked the cover, I thought, “Ah, this is great.” On top of that, the designer of the cover is the creator of BOA’s daughter. It all just came together in a nice way. 

ID: I want to hear more about the process of putting together A Shiver In The Leaves. Is this book the remnants of your MFA thesis project, or might this be a whole other project together? Did you find yourself writing a bunch of poems and then discovering they are in conversation with each other, or something else?

LH: The idea of the book came during undergrad. I knew I wanted to write a book of poems about a black boy in the city. I didn’t know it would be this. I just figured I wanted to do something like that someday, and I began writing poems toward that. In undergrad, I was writing a lot of father poems, to be honest, and thought the book was trending in that direction. I was solid on that for many years. However, that did not become the case, even though he is in the book, obviously in various ways. 

Then came grad school. My thesis is in Shiver in a sense, but a lot of those poems are no longer a part of the book. I will say my thesis was called, You’ll Never Love Me, which is now a title of a poem in the book. I had Carl Phillips and francine j. harris on my thesis committee and they both were like, I don’t know about that title. I just don’t see it happening. And I was like, “Ah, what do you mean?” I don’t know if Carl remembers this, but he actually said the title should be called A Shiver in the Leaves. I was thinking that that was too close to Carl’s own work and that I wouldn’t do it.

The title poem came in and out through many different versions of the book over so many years. This told me that it needed to be the title. It became what held the book together. I’ve been writing toward this book since undergrad. I knew it was going to be a book; I just didn’t know it was going to be this book—this manifestation as it is now.

IJ: For me, as someone who previously hadn’t yet published anything, the question I always had for poets who would eventually publish their first full-length collection was “How did you know what to edit in between rejections or querying? I was always tickled by the fact that the answer was always, “Oh, I have no idea.”

But then it happened. And now having been on the other side of that, yes, that is how it often comes together. One day, you are in a state of unknowing and then something clicks into place.

LH: [Laughs]. Yes. Literally.

IJ: It sounds like a ridiculous answer, but unfortunately it is correct. I want to talk to you about the title poem of the book. People have different philosophies about the function of the title poem, and how it’s meant to speak to the book as a whole. In Shiver, you have these series of lines that really stick out to me: 

I rest my head against the tree, sleep 
and walk in his call.

Like legs of a spider, his nature extends, 
saying,
         Like you, I once harbored beauty 
saying, 
        Like you my beauty takes the kingdom of blackness. 

It is dawn in the man’s eyes. 
A cavern, a slow thaw to memory. 

The poems often negotiate death, but the book as a whole situates the speaker in proximity to beauty, intimacy, and tenderness. What do you feel is the function of the title poem? And do you feel like Shiver does that?

LH: My answer will likely change in two days if you ask me again, but I do believe title poems are, in a sense, the thesis of the book. The word thesis can be taken however you want to take it, but I believe that if you were to sum up the book in one act, the title poem can kind of act as that summation. Which could be a good or bad thing depending on the book’s function. For A Shiver In The Leaves, the poem itself, is the thesis of the book in that it does reckon and wrestle with this idea of wanting to hold somebody who was dead, to be a comfort to them, to be tender with them while also talking about the beauty of multiple ideas. It also uses the framework of hanging, of what that means for blackness, the black community, and the black body. And also, using a song to enter that realm. All of that is what A Shiver In The Leaves is about. Using the outside, using the beauty of something to reckon with tenderness while reckoning with death, that’s the duality of the book and the duality of the title poem itself. The lines you reference specifically, leaning my head against the tree sleeping, awake in this call, the idea of wanting to be so close to nature while also so close to a dead body. Even the title, A Shiver In The Leaves, thinking, what does a shiver mean, right? What does that sound mean? What is in the leaves? Of course, it’s the hanged man, but it could be so many other things. It is a place of beauty and also a place of death for black people. The title lends itself to multiple interpretations. The title poem reckons with so many dualities because the book itself reckons with the tension between beauty and violence.

IJ: Even the idea of “shiver” also seems to come from a source of tenderness. Which is something that this book, but also all of your work negotiates. I’m also thinking back to Touched, your chapbook.

LH: My baby.

IJ: Yes! So much of your work negotiates that proximity of intimacy and sex—What it means to physically connect to another person, how that transforms the body, and how the body continues to transform even after. I want to ask about crows and how they return in this collection book. I love how they emerge in your individual poems and how they made their way in Touched. I’m curious though, between the chapbook to the full-length, has the reoccurrence of crows, of this motif transformed in meaning? 

LH: I just know I will be asked about crows all my life from now on [laughs]. In the chapbook, crows present themselves as a manifestation of trauma. In “Self-Portrait As Crows,” the idea of crows, black bodies, and death is there. And then there’s the poem “Tenderness” which talks about a crow watching the speaker have sex, and that’s a manifestation of child abuse and molestation. So, in Touched, crows represent trauma, history, and memory.

My adoration for crows has grown between the chapbook and the full-length [collection of poems] in ways that are more than just trauma. Now they reflect home because Seattle is the city of crows. Now they reflect beauty, reflect intelligence, reflect omens. I think that those are mini manifestations of what comes out in the book through beauty, through the idea of why am I not living like a crow to a crow dragging me for living how I’m living. They have mini faces in Shiver that I’m surprised by, to be honest. I didn’t really realize that was going to be the case until I started crafting the book together. Actually, the poem in the book, “Leave the Crows Out Of It” was actually a nod to myself to like, “Leave the crows out of the poem, girl. Let it go.”

I just couldn’t let it go, obviously. But that was me dragging myself. By saying, leave crows out of it, I then invite crows into it, right? Crows are a big part of my life, and it’s honestly because of Seattle. Seattle has a lot of crows. It is ridiculous. You see crows literally everywhere. They do follow you around. They do remember faces, they recognize you, and they will attack you. Because of that, I think my obsession with crows heightened upon moving back to Seattle. I was living in St. Louis at the time for graduate school, and wasn’t seeing a lot of crows anymore, so I was missing home, too. It’s kind of how this crow obsession began. I told myself (and am still telling myself) there will be no more crow poems from Luther Hughes, but they have nested.

IH: I understand how obsession can be both a delight and maybe a slight source of embarrassment for poets to find themselves gripped by. Safia Elhillo talked about this in an interview, how she felt embarrassed for being obsessed with Abdel Halim Hafiz, and how all of her poems during her MFA were about him. But I imagine when she looked at her work holistically, she realized she was negotiating a wide spectrum of governing themes.

Going back to how much of the book speaks towards blackness and death, I appreciate that yes, the book situates itself between both of these heavy subjects, but you as the speaker of the poems, and you the author, hyper-resist a particular narrative of expectation. That because you are a Black poet, you have to write about death. More importantly, you hyper-resist making black death something enjoyable, right? The poem that I love which I think does is so exquisitely is “(Black) Boy, Revisited:”

The hole in your head is like any old hole, you tell yourself,
a man slides in. Any old hole, you remember, you watch
the news, you tweet. Your cell phone dies before you send
the picture. You’re not like them other niggas you
whisper in his ear. You’re alive. You’re not Tamir or John
or Michael or Jamal, or Oscar or Fred. Look how God shows
his grace when you breathe, heave when being run through.
You count to three before clicking: 

In the process of writing poems like this one where you directly confront Black death, how did you take care of yourself? Also, did you have any internal conflict in confronting these subject matters such as “Am I contributing to this narrative? Or am I rather trying to illuminate the unique ways that affect me?”

LH: I did have a lot of conversations with myself about how to write poems that talk about Black people dying. When reading poems of this nature that did what I was trying not to do, which was to rehash violence for the sake of rehashing violence, I felt uncomfortable. I felt I was being made to witness something cruel. I wanted to write poems that did two things: one, make the speaker vulnerable in the process of talking about Black death. It was important to have myself beyond the page—laid bare and naked. This is probably also why I also tend to couple black death and sexual activity. I need the body, my body, to be naked while I’m talking about this. It seems unfair for me to rehash somebody’s death as I don’t know them personally.

Two, I had to think about how someone’s death has been rehashed by the media over and over and over. Writing these poems was about making sure I’m being careful and tender, and not making the reader feel uncomfortable or, you know, be made a witness to the death. Because ultimately, the poem’s about me. The poem is about myself and the poem “(Black) Boy, Revisited” is really about me thinking I’m going to die. I’m using my body to talk about these other people who have actually died to get back to me again. I will say, there are times in the book where I feel like I don’t do it as successfully as say the poem you just were talking about. I do hope that when people encounter those poems in the book, they feel closer to the speaker and not closer to the dead bodies, if that makes sense.

IK: That does make sense. I appreciate you doing what I love to see in a good poem, which is implicating yourself. I want to talk about one of the strongest poems for me in the book, “Making the Bed.” Looking to stanza five: 

What god gave him sovereignty 
over ordinary things of my life? 
I have endured much this tenure. 
I stomach a panther of pills 

and was relieved. You know 
what else persuades me? Rain 
fingering the open window, 
my mother’s voice singing 

In the morning, we’ll be alright. 
In the morning, the sun’s gonna shine. 

Did you have fun writing this poem? How did you strike that balance between the tender and the soft and what is often jagged and violent? I don’t know if this was on purpose, but it feels like the violent world is left outside of the bedroom scene or outside of the world, and the intimate spaces are inside the bedroom, which feels like an alcove away from the world. The domestic setting in the book is the space where the Black boy can reimagine tenderness without having to justify or explain to folks who are outside, in the world, if that makes sense.

LH: I never thought of it like that, but I think you’re spot on. A lot of the tenderness is inside the home, inside with the beloved, or even with themselves. I never thought about it like that but let me circle back to that thought. I had a lot of fun writing this poem. I wrote it at ComicCon, my second year attending. That was before this book became what it is now. I just knew I was gonna write a new poem for a new book. This was part of a new set of poems. My thinking was that the second book was gonna be about this. As it turned out, the first book was about this. Initially, I felt there was not enough happening—as though there were not enough stakes in the poem. 

I’m watching my beloved make the bed and then I realized those are the stakes. That’s pretty much it. Because it’s a queer relationship, because it’s a black body, the stakes are already there. I had to reassess, “What do I want from this poem?” So to answer your question, yes, I had fun writing it because I felt like it was one of the first poems that really allowed me to just be my little Cancer self, just be tender, just be kind of sweet.

I also challenged myself to distill what was maybe a five-minute moment into a poem of 10+ stanzas. And to your question about balancing tenderness, intimacy, and violence: I will be very frank that I don’t know how I’m able to do that. All I can say is I pretty sure I picked up the skill from Lucille Clifton. She is a mastermind at doing that, specifically in her book Mercy. I was able to glean how to do that because of that book. However, when it comes to my own poems, one thing I was reckoning with is that I’ve always had to couple the two growing up; there was always violence and tenderness in my home setting. The tension was always there. Someone was always arguing. Somebody was always fighting. And at the same time, there was always food on the table.

I’ve always had a coupled mentality when it comes to tenderness and violence because of my own upbringing. So it makes sense then that my poems express themselves with that same coupling. Do I think my poems from now on will do that? Probably not. But I am obsessed with beauty, and because of that, I’m probably going to always have inklings of that coupling.

When it comes to taking care of myself, I’m always mindful that the poems are autobiographical. I think that’s also why I’m able to write about these certain things—because they happened in my life, and I did those things to get over other things. Tenderness and violence, I think, are things that I just can’t escape. I think it’s important to say that violence isn’t just physical violence. Violence can also be emotional. It can be mental or spiritual. And so even though the violences in the book are no longer happening to me, I still encounter other types of violences in the world.

IJ: I wanted to do a deep dive into the poem “Passed Down.” When I read this poem, it reminded me of the most perfect poem ever written, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. Specifically, I imagine that if the speaker got older and wrote a poem, that poem would be “Passed Down.”

To that end, who is in your literary lineage? And also, who are artists in your lineage? I’m thinking of the visual artist Shikeith. A lot of his visual work reminds me of what Shiver is doing as well. 

Hughes: Yes, Robert Hayden. I love Bob, as he calls himself. I will never get over that: Bob Hayden. But yes, Hayden, for sure. Carl Phillips, of course, and Lucille Clifton. Natasha Trethewey is in my family tree. I’m being very particular about naming only Black poets. I just need to say that. Then, my siblings: Philip B. Williams, Justin Phillip Reed, Camonghne Felix. As far as artists outside of the literary scene, I’ve never thought about this. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Jean-Michel Basquiat. Solange, specifically her EP. SZA, given one of the poems is named after her music. I will also say gospel artists like Mary Mary.

IJ: I want to look at the final line in the last poem: 

The rain is clearing. 
I hold out my hand 

I’m of the opinion the final line is just as important, if not more so, than the opening. In Kaveh Akbar’s debut Calling a Wolf a Wolf: “This boat I’m building will never be done.” How important are last lines to you?

LH: I think last lines of books are very important. It tells your reader where to go next. Should your reader go back to the very beginning? I know with Phillip B. William’s first book Thief in the Interior, he was intentional that the book means for you to go back to the beginning again. Same, I think, for the second book too. I think it’s a hint, like, this is what you’re supposed to walk away with.”

For A Shiver in the Leaves, the hint is that there’s nothing to walk away with because there’s nothing resolved. There are a thousand questions in the book being asked by the speaker, being asked by their environment, and what happens at the very end. The rain is clearing and then the speaker is holding out their hand. And you would think it’s like, “Oh, it’s stopped raining. I can go out and about.” That’s not the case. It’s more like, Okay, well if the rain has stopped, if this is the end of the season, what do I do next? Gabrielle [Bates] asked me a question when she read a version of it. Her question helped me realize when the book was finished. She asked, “Luther, many of the speakers in the poems in the book reckon with suicide, and we don’t know if the speakers ever actually commit suicide. Are they dead?” And I was like, That’s it. The book is finished because that’s the question I want the reader to be asking. In a way, they are dead because the book is finished. It’s complete, and I’m moving along with my life. 

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Luther Hughes is the author of the debut poetry collection, A Shiver in the Leaves, (BOA Editions), and the chapbook Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the founder of Shade Literary Arts, a literary organization for queer writers of color, and co-hosts The Poet Salon podcast with Gabrielle Bates and Dujie Tahat. Recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and 92Y Discovery Poetry Prize, his work has been published in various journals, magazines, and newspapers. Luther was born and raised in Seattle, where he currently lives.


I.S. Jones

Legacy Suite #5

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The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones spoke with poet Saddiq Dzukogi about his new collection, Your Crib, My Qibla. Read on for a conversation about loss, hope, & the page as a place of possibility.

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There are some griefs that move through the body, there are some griefs that live inside of it. Grief that one must make space for, a commuter train swelling with passengers. In a sonically lush debut, a father mythologizes the sudden loss of his daughter, Baha, twenty-one days after her first birthday. What could have been a site of anguish and despair becomes paired with hope. Baha lives and she gets to live a thousand lives, she is the “girl who looks like her father.” Grief in Your Crib, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi is a passageway toward more intentional living. Here, Dzukogi fully understands how finite our time on this earth is and in that understanding has nothing to hold back. This book is no small undertaking. Some people live and die with their sorrow songs still inside them. In his singing, Dzukogi fosters safe passage for us to grieve our own intimate losses.

 


Your Grief, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi: The Page as Possibility

 

I.S. Jones: Saddiq, what a book you’ve written. I only have a few questions, and I’m not trying to keep you here all night. First, I want to acknowledge that it takes a lot of skill to write a book as brutal and as marred with loss as My Crib, Your Qibla. But I also want to recognize the hope and the courage involved in undertaking such a project. 

I’m curious to hear about how writing a book like this has become a way to keep her alive, possibly over and over? Because I think what is a great miracle about this book is that she gets to live a thousand different lives, instead of just one. In the process of writing, what did this book teach you about grief?

Saddiq Dzukogi: When the whole thing started, it was right after I heard the news of her passing. I had a pen and I just started scribbling in a notebook that I stole from my brother-in-law, because I wanted to just write. I prefer writing long-hand, and unfortunately I had to write this book in a new world where my daughter and I would have conversations on blank pages. Losing her, of course, was something that I wasn’t prepared for. You never think about losing your child. You hope that your own life will be a legacy that you hand over to them when you are moving out of the world. And before that time, I’d always thought about grief in a very weird way.

I asked myself once if I had ever lost anyone close to me in terms of familial ties. My parents are alive; my siblings are alive. Right after I’d asked that question, the very next year, I lost my aunt who, incidentally, Baha is named after. Her name is actually Hauwa. So, when I lost them both, I start thinking what it really means to lose someone. And not just anyone, because what that loss taught me was to see other people more. To acknowledge what’s happening out there in the world. Once, somebody who had read some of the poems I had published in journals was making a comparison between them losing something and my loss. And they said something like, “Oh, I don’t know what losing a child is like.”

After losing Baja, I gained a kind of insight into loss that is immaterial, because loss itself is just an experience. I’m not in the habit of comparing griefs and all of that, but it gave me a insight into what loss itself might mean, regardless of what kind of loss one faces. The book has built a fellowship between myself and people who have lost something in the world, and the world is a constant loop of losses. We are always losing things. 

I mean, we are even losing ourselves as we move through the world. When it was all happening, the loss I mean, it was like a lot of chaos, a lot of noise in my head, a lot of regret because I hadn’t even spent a lot of time with her. I was working in another city. But in writing the book, it gave me perspective about life and trying to see people more, trying to understand more, trying to listen more. It might seem weird to describe grief as a gift, but in a way, it has been a gift to me. Despite the hurt, despite the chaos. It continues to teach me to be a better person in the world. A person that at least attempts to really see others, both their joy and in their sadness.

IJ: What you said before about life being loops and loops of grief—it reminded me of the end of Toni Morrison’s Sula where the final line is, “No top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” As I was going through your book, there were a lot of Morrison parallels that I noticed. I don’t know if that was intentional, but I’ll return to that thought.

What I was struck by throughout the book was the narrative style. I’m thinking here of “Song To A Birdwoman,” in which the speaker reflects: “He hungers for her cry, / her first-time voice, but she opens her eyes / instead, eyes like she has taken from mother’s sockets.”

I’m also thinking of “So Much Memory”: “He opens his mind 

and lets the leaves be his skin and lets the song fall inside another song. / It mimics his daughter’s voice.” This is also reflected in “Marshmallow”: “His image of love pronounced in a way / she holds onto his big toe rubbing her finger / across its nail. Grandmother says wherever he willed, would become.” This choice of narrative style is a very distinct third-person voice and it feels emblematic of the speaker’s persistent grief. As though the only way the speaker is able to confront the grief is through distance as well as memory. When we get to the second half of the book, Baha opens My Qibla, the second section, with “Don’t despair. It reflects on me. / I am anchored to your feelings. / Inside your body, it spikes when you despair. I think of you in the household and quiet down like a seed in an ovule, / quiet, like a ghost armed with knowledge of death / for the first time.”

For me, reading this poem held the same anguish I felt reading the second half of Tony Morrison’s Beloved where Beloved speaks for the first time. I’m curious about that exchange that happens in the second half of the book, but I’m also curious about how you were able to capture Baha’s voice. Because she was so young when she died, I’m sure she had a personality, but she probably didn’t yet have a voice. And yet the way you captured her, it feels like she got to live the full spectrum of her life through this exchange, which was really apt.

SD: A lot of the writing itself wasn’t by design because I wasn’t really trying to be a poet. I was just trying to find a voice, to scream sometimes. I was looking for a voice to sing, a voice to tells tales that obviously I didn’t get to experience with my child. I take imagination to be an act of rebellion against death. Because even though she is dead, the act of imagining allows for her to persist and to create experiences with me that we otherwise don’t have access to. We just exist in in different existences, for lack of a better word, but even the act of memory, which sometimes is heightened by imagination, is a rebellion against death. The mind shapes the most important part of our existence, which is the ability to create stories. The book is full of yearning for stories. One lost, one that would have been created, and one that’s been created by way of imagination. It wasn’t by design. I am thinking about the parallels that you’re talking about with Beloved and Tony Morrison, which is a huge honor, but I am ashamed to even tell you that I’ve never read anything by Tony Morrison. [laughs]

IJ: [Laughs] You have to remedy this immediately! Goodness. 

SD: I should, yeah. This actually reminds me of a conversation I was having with Philip [B. Williams] the other day and he was like, “Yeah, you have to read everything by Tony Morrison.”

IJ: As usual, Phillip is correct. You cannot leave this earth without having read everything she’s written. Sir, you got a PhD, what are you doing? [laughs]

SD: Honestly, I was busy reading a lot of Lucille Clifton. So, I’m doing a lot of catching up which is an exciting journey. Through the PhD, I was exposed to Baldwin and goodness, there is just a lot of catching up to do! But yeah, it’s really good to know that the work is already generating conversation with important voices in the writing community. 

And that’s one thing that I am learning about the book, that it’s able to speak to different people, you know, to converse with voices that I didn’t intend to be in the book. The other day I was thinking about what a poem should be. Perhaps, the poem is just a universe that continues to stretch beyond the point of itself, and also stretch in meaning, you know, depending on who it is interacting with.

IJ: So in addition to the parallels between your work and Morrison’s, I’m also struck by the parallels between your work and the poet Douglas Kearney, notably his book Patter. The obvious parallel I see is that you’re both men who are negotiating the sudden loss of a child. The difference is that in Patter, the child was stillborn. In My Crib, Your Qibla, Baha lived to see some part of her life exist in the world.

You both negotiate grief from a perspective that’s not nearly explored enough: how do men negotiate the loss of a child? Especially when you also have to carry both your grief and also Baha’s mother’s grief as well. In the process of writing this collection, I’m curious to know who the other writers are in your lineage that you turn to? If there were other writers, or other kind of artists such as visual artists, musicians, or maybe movies that you watched during the writing process. I’m curious to know how all those influences found their way into My Crib, Your Qibla.

SD: There’s a particular poem [from the book], I think it’s “Wineglass,” that speaks to your question. The process of writing the book…well, at first, it was just one poem every single day for seven months. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted a quiet space to engage with my own memory, my own grief, and the loss of this child and what it meant to me.

Every day, for ten minutes, I would scribble down words about the subject, about her. And I remember when writing “Wineglass,” I had written down three pages of just words earlier in the day. Later that night, I was reading a poem by Sam Roxas-Chua, and I came upon this particular line: “If he had known the sky would inhale you out of him so quickly.” And I was like, “Oh, this speaks to my feeling about this child.” It seemed like something that could go into the poem that I was writing. So I took that line and started from there in the middle of the poem.

I had lines by Phillip B. Williams in the book. I had lines by Jean Valentine, and a couple of other writers but it was the same, it was all in the same spirit. It wasn’t as though I was in the moment thinking about influences or even, writers that I could borrow from, could borrow lines from. In most cases, it’s that when I’m writing the poems or even after drafting, I’ll chance upon a line. When this happens, when I  feel like a line speaks to my experience in a weird way, I’ll plug some of those lines into the poems, which is an interesting kind of conversation to be having. I also have a poem after Paul Celan. It was actually a poem that almost didn’t survive the book. The poem is “Elegy,”  and it almost didn’t survive because it was driven more by music than meaning, in the literal sense. But then mimicking “Death Fugue,” a famous poem by Celan, gave it meaning in the way that it’s interacting with a different kind of grief, right, one that I haven’t experienced, but the language ultimately is the same. 

And so those moments were really exciting for me, to be in conversation with other people who are grieving other things. 

IJ: One thing that really surprised me while reading the book is for all the poems  underscoring the anguish, what’s also running through them is hope, right? I’m thinking about nostalgia and hope. Going back to what you said about the imagination being a radical act, I’m thinking of the poem, “Measurable Weight”: “In your hands, Baha, your father stands / watching the world. Each cop crows the path / until it blossoms”. And then also in what is probably my favorite poem in the book, “Learning About Constellations”:  “Today, Baha is not dead; she is twelve years old, sits beside her flower vase, pressing her thumbs to / the clay, her heart buds into a magnificent sun / waterfalls its warmth all over her satin face.”

What is the function of hope for this collection, and also in your life? I imagine in a way, you have to reimagine your access to hope or what hope looks like for you now in your life.

SD: Each time that I read any of the poems, say in readings or before the book came out in literary journals, there was often a devastating state of fear for me, because I would always be overcome with this great sadness that wounded me. But after a while, especially when the book itself came out, I realized that each time that I read any of the poems, it’s a way of manifesting her presence in the world. And I’m immensely grateful to have that, to be able to hold the book as a kind of extended part of her body that still exists in this world. 

What does it mean for a loved one to leave this messed up world? The grief is because I miss her. I miss what we were able to share when she was still present here. But given that I learned so much from that loss, I think of it as a light, and I am keeping her light present in my body. In a book that speaks of great sadness, that light is something to be celebrated. It’s my hope that the mere presence of these poems in the world, even though they speak often of pain, retains that memory is an act of celebration itself.

IJ: Book covers do a lot of work to translate the complexity of a book before it’s opened. I’m curious about the decision behind the cover image of what looks like a brown kaleidoscope, or maybe a prayer mat. What were some of the choices and decisions behind the cover art?

SD: The cover is something that I cannot take credit for [laughs]. It was all Kwame Dawes. I recall that before the book came out, I was concerned about the cover because I’ve seen a lot of covers by Muslim poets in America. Often the covers are something that evoke maybe a minaret, maybe a crescent moon, maybe a picture of a mosque.

And I said, “I don’t want any of that [laughs]. I don’t want anything on the cover that would scream, “He’s a Muslim!” I made sure to communicate that. So, Kwame showed me what he chose for the cover. I saw it and he asked, “Do you like it?” I was like, “Absolutely, I love it.”

Sometimes, you pick up a book and, you know, it’s a great book of poems, but it has a cover that is disharmonious with the poems or the design choices just aren’t working. From then on, I understood, “Oh, it starts from the cover.” You don’t write a great book and then not pay attention to the cover or the book’s font. All of it matters, all of it. Because it’s also a visual artifact. I know that we read them, but you know, it has to speak to the whole work and the book starts from the cover.

IJ: I want to ask you about the choices made in the poem “Observations,” which appears in the second half of the book. There are a series of subheadings that I found really interesting. I’ll be honest that I did my best with Google Translate, which is probably why I was confused about biyu which titles the second section,:“From past, Ba / dying is like moving into a future, / past the street bursting with voices / of people you know, /  I am the girl who looks / like her father…”

That moment is very soft, very visual, but I’m curious: what does biyu mean, and what are the other subheadings in this part of the poem doing?

SD: So, this is a place where I was trying to create a form for the poem. I wrote it in bits and pieces. At first they weren’t all part of the same poem, but when I was revising, I looked at this set of small poems, which seemed to be speaking to one another. How could I unite them? I decided to present them as a sequence, as opposed to having them scattered throughout the book. The subheadings are just sections. “Daya” means “one” in Hausa. “Biyu” is “two,” and it continues for 3, 4, 5. I wanted to introduce another language.

IJ: The last poem where Baha speaks in the book is “December.” I’m fascinated with this idea of the speaker creating another life where she could be older. She could be old enough to be lost in a crowd, looking for her father, and something about that is just so beautiful. It goes back to what I said about hope underscoring the grief. “Every weekend, mother washes my clothes and / spreads them on a washing line as if I had worn them / and would do so again.” That’s the last thing she says before we get to the last three poems in the book: “One Year After,” Waterlog,” and “Inner Song.”

I’m curious about the choice you made for those to be her last words, but also why she doesn’t end the book. Instead, the father figure, Aba, returns.  I’d love to hear about both of these choices.

SD: So again, there’s just a lot of things that I wish I could take credit for, but [laughs] ultimately, I cannot. Honestly, it just happened, and I wasn’t intending to have the father figure be the one to close the book. I think the book wasn’t finished, right. I wasn’t finished writing it, but I realized that it was finished the day after her death anniversary. I woke up one morning like, “Okay, I’m not going to write any poem again in this sequence.” All of it happened chronologically, by design. There are a lot of things I want to take credit for, but, ultimately, I can’t. I don’t want to say when I was writing some of the poems, it was as if I was possessed by something, but it’s similar, right? Possessed by wanting, possessed by grief, possessed by the chaos of losing someone. 

All of the poems, or at least a majority of the poems are a response to those emotions that I was feeling. The only poems that were intentional are the poems where she’s alive. I think they’re about five of those, if I’m not mistaken, that start “Today Baha is not dead.” So those are the only poems that I went into with the intention of writing poems and to specifically try to achieve a certain objective before actually beginning to write.

I wish I could take credit, but, alas, I, can’t, because until you said it, I didn’t even realize that was the last time that she spoke [laughs].

 

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Saddiq Dzukogi was born in Minna, Nigeria, and is the author of Your Crib, My Qibla (University of Nebraska Press, 2021). His poetry is featured in various magazines including Kenyon ReviewCincinnati ReviewGulf Coast, and Prairie Schooner. He lives and writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.

If These Covers Could Talk #6

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In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects. This series is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.

This month, poet Mira Rosenthal talked to editorial director Alex Wolfe about the cover of Territorial, forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in November 2022.


A Conversation Between Mira Rosenthal and Alex Wolfe

Mira Rosenthal: When I received your cover design, I was stunned by how striking it was and how well it captured the essence of the book in an utterly perfect but completely unexpected way. Can you tell us about your process?

Alex Wolfe: Let me start by saying that I absolutely LOVE this book. I read the whole thing before starting on the design and another time as I typeset it. My first reading of Territorial was unsettling but rewarding for the way that it exposes the patterns of abuse we inflict upon one another and the places we live; more specifically, I was taken by how it explores the lives girls and women live while under the constant threat of violence from boys and men on a planet facing ecological ruin. Undeniably dark, but through that darkness comes wisdom, clarity, and a need to discover and rediscover the self in relation to and in the absence of others and the world.

I focused on specific imagery and themes in the book and then studied your cover design questionnaire. I knew that you wanted the cover to address repetition, hiding, exposure, proximity to violence and trauma, vulnerability vs. strength, and resistance vs. giving in. The covers you like that you shared really gave me a sense of the tone you wanted: edgy and dark. I also looked at your previous books. I often find that to be a helpful exercise, as it gives me a sense of what the author may like—or at least what they have accepted.

 

MR: Indeed, at least what they have accepted. The experience of designing the cover for my first book was rather fraught and filled with a lot of misunderstandings. I wanted things to be different this time around. On my end, I tried to give you a lot of ideas to work with. But I didn’t want to suggest anything too specific or influence you too much—to give you a sense of freedom of vision and ownership. The fact that you clearly connected to the book really put me at ease. And I never in a million years would have come up with a Polyfoto. How did you hit on that idea?

AW: My first designs revolved around the Chaparral landscapes of California, long exposures of bodies in motion, and I even tried to work with Alfred Stieglitz’s image The Net Mender that you mention in the book. None of these designs felt right. I considered early motion photography and photo booth portraits, as you get repetition and a grid structure that lends itself to design. From there I encountered British Polyfotos—a portrait service offered from the 1930s and 1940s in British department stores. A person could sit in front of a Polyfoto camera and have a series of forty-eight images taken in rapid succession. What you would get were contact sheets with the images, and then you could pick an image or two to have enlarged.

 

MR: I think it’s also really interesting that, since the Polyfoto camera came into use shortly before WWII, the small photos were popular keepsakes for soldiers. The subtle invocation of war feels important to the themes of the book. As Gloria Steinem has pointed out over and over, a society’s willingness to go to war is not determined by poverty or access to resources, or even religious or political conviction; rather, it’s how pervasive violence against women is within that society.

AW: I also think that the tone of the imagery of the defaced and faced woman connects with your focus on the accumulation of gender-based aggression—but in a manner that’s not direct or overly graphic. 

 

MR: I did a double-take the first time I saw it. Only on second look did I realize that the woman’s facial features were missing in some of the portraits. We never get a full glimpse—and neither does she, peeking out as she is from behind the defensive block lettering of the title. How did you come up with that alteration?

AW: Once I found a particular set of Polyfotos to use, the design itself quickly came to me, but I realized that simply obscuring the unidentified British woman’s face with the letters of the title was not quite enough—it didn’t have the tone you wanted. That’s when I decided to leave most of the faces blank—the imagery of the defaced and faced woman, hiding behind the “I” and “O,” connects with the idea of vulnerability vs. strength, exposure and hiding, and with the book’s focus on gender-based aggression and violence in a way that is not overtly triggering.

 

MR: The nuance and sensitivity of the design work so well! I also find myself thinking about how the Polyfotos we still have out of each sheet of 48 are the “rejects,” those not given away. They’re the ones, I like to imagine, where the woman is less posed or poised, more vulnerable and real, in possession of herself. I only wish we could trace this particular woman’s story and share it. Is there any hope of that?

AW: I, too, wish it were possible to know who this woman was. But, alas, I have not been able to find any more information. It’s a found photo circa 1930–1940, that much is certain, and I am even now still trying to track down anyone who may know more. If I ever happen to get more information, I’ll certainly share it.

 

MR: You started out in university press publishing when you were an undergraduate creative writing major and had an internship at Carnegie Mellon University (where you also got a Masters in Rhetoric). How did you transition from a focus on writing to the design side of things?

AW: As a kid I loved drawing, painting, and working with clay, and I did pursue an artistic track through middle school and high school, attending the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities for visual arts during several summers. So, I did have a background in art and basic design principles, but nothing like a university-educated background. At CMU, I found my home in the Creative Writing Program, mainly focusing on fiction and screenwriting, but my love of making art never went away. After finishing my masters, I knew I needed a break from academia and the incredible volume of reading and writing. 

I was lucky enough to find a local opening at the University of Pittsburgh Press, being hired as a production assistant, working with printers, designers, and authors, and doing a little design work when needed. I ended up moving to the manuscript editorial side of things, working with many of our poets, and then, through a series of people leaving, retirements, and promotions, I became the director of our manuscript editorial and production department, finally being able to fully pursue what I thought were my talents in cover and book design. 

I guess I don’t see it as a clean transition from one thing to another but more of a winding path toward combining all the things I loved—art, reading, writing—and somehow being able to turn it into a career in publishing. I’ve been extremely lucky.

 

MR: I’m enamored by and drawn to so many of your covers: Little Pharma by Laura Kolbe, Blessing the Exoskeleton by Andrew Hemmert, Banana [] by Paul Hlava Ceballos, Gumbo Ya Ya by Aurielle Marie, to name just a few recent ones. How would you characterize your style, or what do you think makes an Alex Wolfe cover recognizable?

AW: Thank you so much, Mira, for highlighting and praising some of the other recent covers I’ve done! I loved working on all the covers you mentioned, and each one of those authors is an amazing person. I honestly don’t know if my covers have a recognizable visual style to them, as I’ve never thought about any kind of personal style when it comes to cover design. I will say that the process I outlined above for your cover is the same process I follow for every cover that I work on: close reading, taking notes, consulting a design questionnaire if possible, seeing what covers they like, what covers they have had designed for previous books, and then pursuing many different possibilities simultaneously. Perhaps keeping my process similar is a sort of style. Admittedly, I’m clearly pursuing designs that interest and satisfy me, but it’s always in the context of best serving the book that someone else wrote.

 

MR: Thank you so much for giving me a cover that I’m proud to flaunt!

AW: And thank you for being so gracious in your immediate love of it.

 

 

 

Alex Wolfe is the Editorial and Production Director at the University of Pittsburgh Press. He enjoys working with authors and colleagues to design books that showcase outstanding literary and poetic artistry and scholarship. You can find more of his work via his Instagram, @hey_mom_i_mean_dad.


Mira Rosenthal

Mira Rosenthal is the author of The Local World, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and residencies at Hedgebrook and MacDowell, she is an associate professor of poetry at Cal Poly. She also translates contemporary Polish poetry.