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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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—
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.”
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.”
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.
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 haveto 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 Ifeel 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 poemsunderscoring 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].
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 Review, Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, and Prairie Schooner. He lives and writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.
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.
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 Kemi Alabi about the communal work that is foundational to a poetry collection’s emergence, and challenging inflexible boundaries of the divine, of pleasure, and of love, all while crafting a new and invigorating lexicon which makes the Black queer body come alive.
In Kemi Alabi’s Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), heaven is already here and anywhere that black, queer folks can commune. In this stunning and other-worldly debut, Alabi’s vast entry to language is both enriched and underscored by the sonic registers that govern every poem. While the poems take on many forms, the true meat of the work is in its lyrical delight. Stretching the very boundaries of language itself, Against Heaven confronts a fraught relationship to the oracular in proximity to the sensual. At the center of all this is a remarkable journey of transformation, and frankly, a book I wish existed when I was much younger and still navigating what felt like an unreachable lexicon for my own body. Alabi’s work reminds me the writer is also one who envisions what was not possible before and gives us new eyes to see.
Against Heaven by Kemi Alabi: Practice-based Poetics
I. S. Jones: When you first held the final version of Against Heaven in your hands, how did you feel? I’m asking this question specifically because, least for me, when I held my chapbook, I felt very, I guess disillusioned might be the word though, but there was a way in which like now that it was a physical book, I felt very emotionally divorced from it now. Did holding the final product change experience for you?
Kemi Alabi: I opened it with some friends, and I immediately burst into tears. Then I became terrified of the book object. Its static nature is terrifying to me. Just the sense of finality. I understood that it wouldn’t be mine anymore, but holding the physical object, I realized, “Okay, this is actually not only not mine, but these poems aren’t even the poem in the air to me. A poem transforms to me, and these don’t do that.” This process split my distinction between the poet and the poem, but also the distinction between the poet, the Poem, and the poem on the page. Of course, my poems have been printed before. I’ve seen them as objects, but the long poem of the book being its own static object—yeah, that terrified me. And I talked to other first-book poets about it, including Xan Phillips, Jennifer Huang, and Chekwube Danladi, who told me she threw her book at the wall [laughs].
So, I was in good company with my shame [laughs]. But because I’m a person of many minds always, it was also kind of like a sacred object to me. As much as I thought I was estranged from it, I loved it still, but I couldn’t really look at it, so honestly what I did was I took the copy and I wrapped it in some cloth, and I put it on my altar so that I can’t see it. I have reverence for the work that went into it and for the poet I was when I wrote it. But sometimes I don’t want to see it.
So yeah, that was my complex relationship to it as an object, but I’m grateful for it as a vehicle. And then I guess lastly, I’ll say my kinky black queer friends have helped me use BDSM to infuse this relationship with a dom/sub dynamic. What if the book object is the sub, and the poem as it exists in the air is the Dom? You know, I’m not even really in that equation and the book object is serving its purpose as being objectified, it’s being abused, and it’s doing whatever it needs to.
IJ: How fitting of you to have done that ritual, that gesture of wrapping the book in cloth, but then also place it on an altar. It quite literally feels like the title itself, right? Spiritual heaven, but against the idea of a specific, Christian heaven, which is you putting it in a cloth and self-containing it. It feels like the cloth itself is the language that you have created within the book. Your unique lexicon that makes the book so decadent with language.
Often poets find themselves engulfed by an idea or several governing ideas that become the foundation for the collection of poems that becomes the book. I’m curious to know how your process led you to what would become the final product. Did you actively set out to put together this book, or did you just write poems over the years, and then realize, “Oh wait! These poems are actually in conversation. There’s a clear sense of connective tissue that binds them together.”
KA: The latter, definitely. And I resisted the idea that I even had a first full-length manuscript for a while because I was so fixated on the idea of a project book—that I needed to begin with an understanding of what the long poem of the book might be. That’s not what I’d been writing toward. My practice wasn’t project-based; it was really one loosie at a time. I love the individual poem and all of the worlds that it contains. It’s a practice-based poetics. I’m always just kind of experimenting. But at one point, I had a few realizations: one, I felt myself taking a turn with my poetic obsessions and craft concerns. And I felt like I had all of this work and I needed it away from me so that I could move on.
And then two, I did discover the Poem of the book, all the ways in which my poems were talking to each other. I went back to my old journals, and I saw a note from maybe a decade ago, that was just a shaming note to myself: “stop writing about God and sex.” I looked at all my poems and went, huh, well, that’s clearly been my obsession for a very long time. I wanted to understand how and why, and then I just wanted to get out of these poems’ way. I did some work, of course, to strengthen that connective tissue between the poems, but I also really did appreciate the range of the collection. It’s really sprawling, something I can continue to write into for a long time. But I found myself in this era of my practice where I needed to let the work loose.
I feel like Against Heaven is very much a collection in which all the poems are in conversation with each other, but they’re also contradicting each other. It’s such a grappling, and there are so many different throughlines. Honestly, it’s not what I expected for a first book. I almost didn’t send it out because I was like, “you know what? I actually want my first book to read like a different type of project.” I really landed on the dilemma of what it means to get in your poems’ way. And I didn’t want to be that poet who was like, “No, I need to be this perfectionist. All of my intentions needs to be mapped onto whatever this is before I feel comfortable stepping aside and letting the poems do their work in the world.” Through practice, I found the poems. Through practice, I found that throughline. And then I was like, “okay, let me give this a shot.”
IJ: I love what you said about getting out of the poem was way. I needed to hear that because I’m guilty of that, too. I also appreciate the fact that you resist this perhaps contemporary trend of needing to write a book governed by a specific project. Nicole Sealey talked about this in passing, how when she put together Ordinary Beast, she wasn’t interested in a clear, narrative structure. Rather, she had these poems that felt like they wanted to build a house together. So, she sought to build the house. She resisted other people’s vision of what they thought her books should be and followed her own heart about that. I really love that you two are of the same mind in that way.
In 2016, the Bajan visual artist Llanor Alleyne had their exhibit “WRITTEN IN THE BODY” in Barbados. All of their artwork is gorgeous and brightly colored, like your work, and you chose their piece “Seraphina” as cover art for Against Heaven. How does this piece speak to what Against Heaven seeks to translate to its audience as opposed to their other pieces such as “Lisha” or “Abbey + Saran” or “Kimba”?
KA: I so appreciate that question. And to begin to answer it, I’ll explain how it was chosen, because that was not the first piece I selected. It was a very quick process. It was the first thing I needed to do once I started: I connected with Graywolf, and they were like, “great, what’s your cover art?” I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know! You just told me about a week ago that my book is being published, and I’m still dumbfounded.” I went on this hunt, and I first found this amazing piece by local Black queer artist Brittney Leeanne Williams, “Blood Baptism 2.”
I was obsessed with it. It’s of a very different intensity, this black figure engulfed in red tongue-like flames, which is different from “Seraphina,” a softer, livelier image of a more ambiguous figure entwined with floral arrangements. You know, one was giving hell, right? I’m still very obsessed with that image because it does capture a valence of Against Heaven, which is this underworld journey. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the rights for that artwork. Of course, that broke my heart, but it was crunch time. Graywolf tells me, “okay, you have two weeks. Can you find something else?” I don’t know anything about visual art, how am I supposed to do this?
Another shoutout to Xan Phillips because it was through one of their recommendations that I stumbled on Alleyne’s work. Shoutout to Chantz Erolin at Graywolf, my editor, who gave me the opportunity to make the collection more molten again—that’s when I understood it wasn’t all an underworld journey. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten about my own poetry is that the blood is there, right? But through other folks’ lens and my re-entry into the work, I understood that it was as much about rapture, an impassioned aliveness, as it was about the ways that we are obstructed and destroyed by systems. All the elements are present in Against Heaven, but I was too focused on the flames and not the water and not the earth.
I began to understand that there is a lushness here. There is a sensual embrace that I’m curious about, not just the underworld journey, which had become my laser focus. I loved the oppositional idea of Against Heaven and I still do. Half of the collection is also this idea of against, as in, “right up against,” a cheek-to-cheek tenderness. The redirection allowed me to explore that more, and then I stumbled on Alleyne’s “Written On The Body” collection. My mind didn’t make the decision, my body did. It was recognition of that tender valence that through my too-cerebral understanding of my own work, I had discarded. I’m like, no, the blood, the blood! [laughs].
I needed that visual art to ground the work. The long poem of this book is taking us through these different worlds and then turning us [the readers] towards something else. And “Seraphina” is that something else. I gravitated towards that piece in particular because of the embrace. There’s this figure without some of the gendered characteristics of the other bodies in the collection—which was important to me as this enby person who is trying to think about gender more expansively—in this embrace of a wild, colorful explosion that could be coming from within, that could be exploding from the figure’s body. It’s not super clear, the origin. Because of the intimacy and interiority of Against Heaven, that felt really resonant. And then there is this white background, this intense contrast, and it reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” That contrast felt really crucial to the heaven the speakers are against and the heaven they are seeking and trying to embrace: this kind of blank whiteness that will swallow them versus this rewilding earth that’s embracing them and that they’re embracing back in all of its chaos and bounty and pleasure.
IJ:I’m fascinated by the word “against,” because of course, there are a lot of ways in which the book is against heteronormativity, against a rigid binary of what romantic love looks like. Your Polyamory Defense poem is against empire, but it’s also in praise of community and love. I’m thinking here of your poem, “We Would Hex The President but.”
I’m also thinking of “Love poem -1: Chicago (CST) to Bangalore (GMT +5:30)” with the understanding that it was written in praise of a dear person in your life, fellow poet Sanam Sheriff, who was influential, not only to that poem, but to the collection as a whole. I’m curious about how much of the book you wrote within community, in close proximity to your people, and how much of the book you wrote by yourself, so to speak. I think there’s this pervasive myth that as poets, we work in silos. There’s some truth to that, but at the same time, we need community—to refresh us, to replenish us, and for us to pour back into. Community expands the range of our internal landscape and shows us what’s possible. I feel in part that that’s what Against Heaven is doing.
KA: I love that question. It’s making me think of Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist organizer, who says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” I find that my poetry practice is so much richer because of community. I can access more pleasure when informed by other people’s work. Right now, I find myself in a state of poetic isolation, which I hate. I’m like, these are horrible working conditions. Most of my poetic practice has been in spaces where I can generate with other people, even when I’m thinking about when I was back in college with my poetry group, Speak for Yourself; on Tuesday evenings, we would have workshop. We would write toward each other.
Even in high school, I moved from writing alone to my senior year creative writing class—suddenly, I found my people. At lunchtime, we would write and share with each other. We would go to the coffee shop on weekends and write with each other. Even from my very early poetry stages, I was moving from a very lonely poetic space to a more exciting, more experimental, exploratory, and generative practice with other people.
I think it’s always a toggle. Against Heaven emerged in so many different spaces. Some of those poems go back to the Boston Poetry Slam, they are poems I wrote for their open mics. Some of those poems go back to Tin House, Pink Door, Winter Tangerine, and Shira Erlichman’s In Surreal Life workshop. All of the work is in the shadow of my time with Echoing Ida, a group of Black women and non-binary writers who were writing primarily op-eds and other journalistic pieces rooted in reproductive justice. My role from 2014 to early 2021 was coordinating and leading this group through monthly trainings and annual retreats. I was so steeped in that work with them as organizers and writers who were trying to honor Ida B. Wells, who once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
I can point to a person who was integral to every poem, for the most part. But I also think that some of the most potent poems in this collection were written from a place of extreme isolation. Because that’s just how we end up living our lives. But there’s no poem that I haven’t first read to a person or a group of people—all of the poems lived in the air and were shared with others before they were printed in a journal or in this book.
To your question: I’m not a writer without community, even when I’m in short-term isolation or feeling estranged from an active writing community. Even if I’m solo, there are still the books that I’m always referring to and communing with to understand what it is I’m trying to do with this work.
photo courtesy of ally almore
Kemi Alabi is the author of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award. Their poems and essays appear in The Atlantic, Poetry, Boston Review, Catapult, Guernica, them., the BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2, Best New Poets 2019, and elsewhere. Selected by Chen Chen as winner of the 2020 Beacon Street Poetry Prize, Kemi has received Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and Brittle Paper Award nominations along with support from MacDowell, Civitella Ranieri, Tin House and Pink Door.
Kemi believes in the world-shifting power of words and the radical imaginations of Black queer and trans people. As cultural strategy director of Forward Together, they built political power with cultural workers of color through programs like Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers, and annual art campaigns like Trans Day of Resilience. The Echoing Ida Collection, coedited with Cynthia R. Greenlee and Janna Zinzi, is available now from Feminist Press.
Born in Wisconsin on a Sunday in July, Kemi now lives in Chicago, IL.
“Theodicy” by Grace MacNair is the winning poem for the 2022 Emerging Poet Prize, selected by Safia Elhillo. We’re honored to share this urgent poem as well as an interview with Grace about her work both on the page and beyond it.
I’ve heard many times throughout my life that a good ending should feel both inevitable and truly surprising, and I maybe never fully understood that until reading this poem. It covers so much ground but with such stunning economy. I loved and trusted the unadorned language, which makes me think of Baldwin talking about writing a sentence “clean as a bone.” The vividness of the images was emphasized for me by the straightforwardness of the diction, and the effect was like having this poem injected directly into my heart. —Safia Elhillo, guest judge
Yesterday I overheard a woman speak of Mary,
specifically her eyes, always cast up
toward the angel or down toward the baby,
how she never looks at you straight —
a posture I’ve assumed myself,
a posture I’m trained to watch for.
About our bodies, strangers in white
deliver the news; in some places, the only option
is the option Mary had.
And Eve? She didn’t ask for death,
only knowledge, but death is what god gave her
and what he gave his son.
Last week I stood in front of Alice Neel’s Well Baby Clinic.
Grotesque mothers juggle infants, metal beds askew.
Clad in white, a nurse towers over a woman with bloodied nipples.
A doctor holds what looks like a diaphragm in his skeletal hands.
On Neel’s lap, a ghostly alien. When people would mewl over little kids, I just wanted to paint them. I should have had some birth control thing.
Neel had a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide by eating glass.
Once I wrote out the Lord’s prayer, added an r to father. Farther. God as distance makes sense.
Distance can describe space, time,
disposition — realms in which violence lives
concrete, unseen, inextricable.
Years ago I watched a woman who’d impaled herself
with a sharpened stick collapse to the hospital floor.
Two days on an oxcart. Hysterectomy.
Blood poisoning. She lived but barely.
Years later, an American senator speaks on rape:
The female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.
Interview with Grace MacNair
by AT Hincapie
AH: Part ekphrasis and part criticism, your winning poem “Theodicy” makes direct reference to Alice Neel’s Well Baby Clinic, where “grotesque mothers juggle infants, metal beds askew.” How do you see this homage to visual art informing the written word, or how might this kind of ekphrastic voice give context and clarity to your own observations?
GM: The materiality of visual art helps me discover language, clarify emotion, and explore my subconscious. “Theodicy” is my attempt to tell the truth about what Neel and so many others experienced, and what I’ve seen and experienced in both my personal and professional life in support of reproductive health. Lucille Clifton spoke to the importance of this when she wrote “…poetry teaches us that everything is connected…There is so much history that we have not validated.”
A therapist once theorized that the severe insomnia I suffered until about two years ago was a symptom of my inability to express anger. When I first stood in front of Well Baby Clinic I was overcome by a sense of rage and claustrophobia. In “Killing Plato,” the poet Chantal Maillard (translated by Yvette Siegert) said that she writes “because someone forgot to scream/and now a white space/exists inside of them.” This white space haunts me – it is an absence created by rage, and from what I know of Neel I think it haunted her too. Well Baby Clinic vehemently rejects its placid title and portrays a disturbing power dynamic. A white-clad nurse expertly holds the only calm baby in the room, a moment of quiet disquiet amidst the clinic’s chaos, while a doctor with well-defined features balances a cervical cap* on his skeletal fingers just out of reach of a woman with a vandalized face and bloody nipples.
This power imbalance is a recurring theme in my poetry and in reproductive and child health. Between 1927 and 1928 when Well Baby Clinic was painted, Neel was living in relative poverty and receiving healthcare from free/low-cost, desegregated clinics. These clinics disproportionately subjected Black women to invasive and humiliating STI tests before providing them with care. Neel herself was screened for syphilis via an excruciating and debilitating spinal tap. In 1927, Neel lost her first child to diphtheria, which by that time mostly affected people who lived in under-resourced conditions. Well Baby Clinic sharpens all this history to a point. To write successful ekphrasis, Mark Doty says that writers must “see beyond the art and say what it means to them…take us into the work in a way we don’t expect.” Neel’s work helped me to describe a white space inside me that was in need of language, especially in light of current events.
*correction: in my poem, I described the cervical cap as a “diaphragm.” This is a mistake and an anachronism. Diaphragms were not invented until the 1940s!
AH: Similar to descriptions of Alice Neel’s painting, this poem also emphasizes religious iconography through visuals of Mary and Eve, and even reworkings of language in the Lord’s Prayer, where “God as distance makes sense.” What relationship do you find between faith and healthcare, and how might these images and traditions influence the speaker’s mindset in this poem?
GM: Religious iconography and references make their way into the poem by way of my upbringing in a rural, evangelical Christian household with limited access to education. As a child, I was obsessed with how a perfectly good and omniscient God could coexist with evil. When I was nineteen and living on a commune in Switzerland, I began studying theodicies that attempt to explain this question. For example, Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress and mystic, proposed that the ecstasy of the second coming would be felt when God finally explained what the fuck he was thinking. The line “God as distance makes sense” is me time traveling back to my younger self who once agonized over Christianity’s gaps in logic. Prior to becoming an atheist, I’d begun to believe that God must only exist in absentia.
At this particular moment in history, the relationship I see between faith and healthcare is highly fraught. Despite many notable exceptions, there’s no denying that Christianity used and still uses healthcare as a will to power and a form of biopolitical control. One needs to look no further than colonial medicine, missionaries, and government reliance on religious charity to supplement an inadequate health care system. America’s war on reproductive health is built on decades-long campaigns by Christian nationalists to gain legislative, judicial, and political power. This effort extends globally. In 2019, the Trump administration blocked Title X funds from reaching domestic and global clinics that provided abortion information. The woman in my poem who nearly died of a botched abortion lived in Malawi, which retains one of the most restrictive abortion laws in all of Africa: a 1930 penal code that criminalizes anyone who has an abortion, unless their life is at stake, with 7-14 years in prison. It’s worth noting that the British brought Christianity to Malawi in the 1880s, and that Malawi did not achieve independence until 1964. In 2021, Malawi’s parliament withdrew an abortion bill that would have legalized abortion in cases of rape and incest. A Catholic group that opposed the bill with donated funds from the US claimed victory.
America’s pro-life movement continues to rely on bad science and specious theodicies (“God uses evil for good,” etc.) to force people to carry unwanted/unsafe/nonviable pregnancies to term. I recently learned that in 1994 Joe Biden wrote: “Please don’t force me to pay for abortions against my conscience.” By “conscience,” he meant Catholicism. I know my answer to your question must make me seem anti-religion, but I’m not. I find many aspects of religion to be edifying and profoundly consoling, but like anything powerful, it can be unpredictable and dangerous.
AH: A recurring theme here comes from measuring and observing time across generations and across disciplines–from religious, artistic, medical, and even political perspectives when “Years later, an American senator speaks…” Can you speak to your perspective of the progress that humans have made over the thousands of years that are traced in this poem? Is it possible that our generation could hope to achieve what our mothers have worked toward?
GM: I wish the poem traced progress, but I’m not sure it does. If anything, it highlights centuries of various countries, powers, and cultures failing to provide people with bodily/reproductive autonomy. The comment that ends the poem was made in 2012 by former Senator Todd Akin. Prior to Akin, several Republican politicians made similar claims. James Leon Holmes, a former federal judge in Arkansas, claimed that “Concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.” Stephen Freind, former Pennsylvania State Representative, said that “when a traumatic experience is undergone, a woman secretes a certain secretion which has a tendency to kill the sperm.” These arguments are reminiscent of the medieval theory that conception was only possible if orgasm was achieved, and since a physiological pleasure response was (incorrectly) assumed to be impossible during an assault, pregnancy invalidated rape.
I’m grateful to be surrounded by people who are fighting the good fight, committed to recognizing and unlearning patterns of harm, and helping me recognize these patterns in my own life. But truthfully, I don’t know where our generation is headed. In healthcare, I regularly deal with men who are intent on exerting control over the bodies of their partners and their children. Many of these men identify as feminists. I think the power that reproductive bodies manifest—especially before, during, and after birth, and while nourishing another human through bodyfeeding or other acts of care—triggers many men to act in insidious ways even if they claim to know better. Meanwhile, our country is being run aground by people who blatantly oppose science, the environment, and basic human rights. It’s bleak. I hope we can achieve a future in which survival is possible.
AH: Maybe the answer to this problem comes in service to others, which is something that has become an important part of your life and career. How has your work as a teacher and health care professional been influential to your writing?
GM: While I’m deeply passionate about healthcare and the opportunities for direct action it provides, writing poetry is how I cope with the world and find joy. Teaching inspires and deepens my work as both a poet and healthcare professional. Nothing is more fulfilling than learning alongside others, whether I’m teaching poetry, clinical skills, or mentoring practitioners in my field. Again and again, teachers have appeared in my life at just the right moment. Their wisdom, guidance, and kindness have sustained me. “Theodicy” belongs to a body of work that’s grounded in my study of women’s contemporary and historical experiences as medical practitioners and medical subjects. The poems are meant to teach, incite, and viscerally disturb the reader in the same ways my work in healthcare teaches, incites, and viscerally disturbs me.
AH: In regard to sources of inspiration, how has your work in translation influenced your personal writing, perhaps from your time with the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference?
GM: Right now I’m working on two projects involving forms of translation. The first project draws on the lives and archives of midwives who lived between the 4th-century BCE and the 20th-century. Although I’m not literally translating their work, I am writing poems that draw on the records they left behind. I’m currently at work on a book-length poem called “I Tarried All Night.” The poem is an episodic, fictionalized retelling of the life of an 18th-century midwife named Martha Moore Ballard whose uncommon literacy allowed her to keep a consistent yet cryptic diary from 1785 to 1812.
The second project is an unconventional translation of poems by the 20th-century Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. I’m not the least bit proficient in Russian, and the project strays very far from literary translation. I went to the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference with some trepidation about whether or not my project was permissible. To my relief and delight, many people were having rich and generous discussions about unconventional approaches to translation. I’m grateful to Madhu Kaza who introduced the term “transcreation” in her lecture. According to Madhu, “transcreation” is an Indian term that describes an approach to translation that “is not extremely concerned with accuracy and fidelity” to the original text. I now use this term to describe my translations of Tsvetaeva’s work. Tsvetaeva was openly queer, intensely passionate, and politically complex. My poems investigate her fraught relationship to caretaking and motherhood and her drive to prioritize poetry above everything else. Of translation, Tsvetaeva wrote: “I tried to translate, but decided—why should I get in my own way? …The result was I rewrote it.”
The Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference was everything I hoped it would be and more. I love reading work in translation—it’s how I’ve discovered many of my favorite authors, and I find it to be one of the best ways to jump-start my own writing. Spending time with and learning from professional literary translators was a dream come true.
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 Anthony Cody talked to artist Josué Rojas about the cover of Borderland Apocrypha (Omnidawn, 2020).
A Conversation Between Anthony Cody and Josue Rojas
Anthony Cody: Hi Josué, I know you’re running around and hustling, so I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. Ultimately, while I want to talk about Borderland Apocrypha’s book cover, I am almost more interested in highlighting you, what you’re doing right now, what you’ve been thinking through, the importance of community, and even the abstract and concrete of what’s swirling around for you at this time. Is this too much?
Josué Rojas: This sounds like my comfort zone.
AC: In preparing for our conversation and because of our own twelve-year-old old friendship, I wanted to dig around and think through what people had already said about you. A way to see you in another light. But instead, I read what I knew since we first met in 2010– you’re a good dude and soul. It was great to read other folks recognizing your big heart, your generosity, and your willingness to give back to others. In this sense, where do community and collaboration begin for you?
JR: I think you and I are similar kinds of artists in that we can kind of give a lot to others because we’ve received a lot and feel blessed. I feel very blessed. I think life has given me a lot.
Firstly, with my family. Secondly, with my community, and thirdly, I think you might be able to relate to this—I hit the lottery with my mentors. I had the opportunity to spend time with some of the world’s best mentors, and I take that pretty seriously. You know, I think mentorship is pretty serious. It was kind of sewn into me and I feel like it is its own kind of impromptu education. It’s as valuable—in many cases more valuable—than a degree to have known established artists or people who I admire, creatives, that have really given me some direction in life. My mom always told me growing up, don’t be afraid to ask for help. And so I had to follow people who are where I want to be, and I really followed both those pieces of advice.
Some of the best advice that I’ve received was from one of my mentors, John Walker, an amazing painter who I studied with at Boston University. He said, “If you’re not generous, you’re not going to be a very good artist.” I took that to heart, and it’s true. You know, I think in many ways, we’re giving away stuff away. We’re giving away our thoughts, we are trusting people with our most intimate actions, with our most intimate ways of looking at the world, and there’s a level of courage in kind of giving it all away. And that’s what makes for some of the greatest artists. I think he was right about that.
AC: I love that! I think that’s true. I think that is definitely an area where you and I kind of overlap, our experiences being blessed with a bounty of mentors. And, also, having wonderful moms. Moms that are down, that offer insight, that go to the events, that paint and imagine alongside us. I love the fact that right now during this interview you are in your car and driving with your mom. I think that’s important. Now, in this stage of your career, do you feel like you’re at a place where you’re mentoring others? Or, how do you feel about that process now, about paying it forward to others?
JR: Yeah, I absolutely feel like I’m a mentor, which feels wild to say. The act of passing down or helping people access their creative DNA. I think to be in our spaces, the sacred spaces within a community, spaces where art heals, spaces where we’re intimate enough to really touch on any kind of art making, that’s a very special thing. People are really craving that these days. It doesn’t happen by accident. I think we have to be very intentional about creating. Creating is truly a way of passing on our most intimate values.
I was sharing this idea with a group of kids today. It’s like, you can’t really build with other people until you’ve actually built with yourself. Knowledge itself is really what’s going to help build community. You can’t really have a culturally relevant potluck until you get your own culture’s recipe right. You get that recipe right, then you can share your dish with other people. I feel that it’s important for us to know ourselves and know our stuff, and then be able to share that with other people in a relevant and meaningful way.
AC: That’s such a great moment, sharing that knowledge with youth, with students. Do you feel like there was that kind of moment for you, if we circle all the way back to young Josue? A moment in your development when and/or where you felt like art could be a possibility for you? Because I know for me, that’s something I have always struggled with. I don’t know if I ever had the thought “I’m going to be a writer.” all of a sudden one day. I was doing it, and doing it, until at some point I realized I wasn’t going to stop.
JR: Yeah, I think I think I was always inclined to do it. I was always very hungry for it. And for me, a career as an artist ended up being kind of an easy decision in one way. I’d decided I’d much rather go to college than not go to college, and it ended up being very, very enriching for me. It was not until later that I realized that I was good at other things. I just had a different approach to them.
At one point in my life, I thought there was only one certain way to be. You know, I was about 15 years old when my dad passed away, and I became the man of the house. I was very angry, very sad. I had a lot of emotion. And that combined with regular teenage angst made for a volatile little cocktail. I was leaning towards what I saw in my community, and what I saw was toxic masculinity. The examples that I had in the community were in many cases violent, or at least just not positive. But when I stepped into a community space that had artists, positive male artists, I found a different vision of masculinity and that really led to a different version of me. It helped me to imagine a different outcome for myself. It truly was a moment where in community with others it clicked: I could be an artist.
It was a real moment of clarity and it was a real moment of being able to give myself to something that I could really dive into, that I could use to push myself.
AC: YES! All of this is so important. Especially in the face of working through or against anger. An anger that is inside and could lead someone in a completely different way. This came up in a separate conversation with me recently. Someone said to me and a group of Fresno poets and artists, “You are so happy and funny.” My response was, “That’s because I’m angry on the inside.” Now that I reflect on that moment, what you said, and your art, I see that very much in your work. There is vibrancy, there is difficulty, there is cause for both celebrating and organizing. This is a very long way of asking, do you feel like there is anger in your art, or within you? And how is that expressed?
JR: I totally apply aggression into my artwork. I think from the early days I used art as a way to channel my competitiveness. I think from the graffiti days it always had that element in there. There was a competitive drive to being a creator and I think that really always afforded me a way to harness that anger.
While I was at Boston University, a well-known woman artist, Ophrah Shemesh, came to me and said something like: You know, you’re here, you’re making art, and this is still very much a man’s man world. There is a way that people have historically perceived male artists, artists like Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso. He is seen as the womanizer, the tough guy that is smoking a cigar while painting. But that’s not aggression. This isn’t that aggression. She told me to tap into my feminine energy when I’m making art because that is the nourishing power, that’s where you give birth. And that is where, in her words, “the true aggression lies.”
I never forgot that and I try to be genuine, assertive, and true when I’m sort of “giving birth.” I try to tap into my tenderness and to my feminine side. As a man, yeah, I am pretty secure in my own way. So for me, a key component of my creative process is trying to tap into that tenderness in a way that expands beyond gender.
AC: I definitely see that tenderness when I see you work. I have witnessed you make murals, like the one I loosely assisted you with in Fresno, California. You invite others, you collaborate with others, and if people show up, you make space for them. So there is definitely that tenderness, but also an openness, right?
JR: Absolutely, absolutely. No lies, life is short. The moment of clarity that I had was great, and I love witnessing that in other people, particularly young people. Though you’d be surprised, I’ve witnessed that moment in older people too who have lived full lives, who have lived creative lives. To be there and to witness that moment with older folks is so great.
AC: I think this is a good place to segue toward what you are working on right now, because I know you’ve been busy.
JR: At the moment, I am running around a lot. I feel like I’m doing three or four million things. This has never happened in my entire career. There’s this one project with 22 other graffiti writers and we’ve got two lifts operating at the same time. That was last week, and we worked on it five days straight. And there’s another that I’m working on that is about ten stories tall. Some days, I’ve been doing both. All of these are in the Mission district of San Francisco. Then one more at a high school that is about 300ft long and two stories tall.
AC: This is a perfect place to keep our conversation going. I say this because I feel the same way. Right now, I am working on 100 things, and those things have an additional 100 small things that need to happen. Every day I wake up, I have to figure out which things I am juggling and which of those things are about to hit the floor.
JR: It’s fun.
AC: Yeah, it’s fun.
JR: But then you realize you haven’t seen your mom in almost two weeks.
AC: That was me yesterday! I went and got coffee with my mom before a virtual event. I think it was almost a month since I’d seen her last. Then when she goes to start her car, it won’t start, because the battery is dead. And there is like a brief moment where we are in the car, waiting for my dad to come give us a jump, where I was just completely stressed out with the idea that I was going to miss the event. Which is to say, being so busy is great, but how do you take care of yourself?
JR: Right now, I’m in a very different space just because I am having to abuse myself a little bit, just to get it all done. But generally, I really do try to treat myself. I try to be good to myself. I try to, you know, make sure I have all the equipment that I need to have and just enjoy that aspect of it. I enjoy having the stuff that’s part of doing the hard work to make art, and smelling the roses as I go. For me, I have no qualms with treating myself, or spending quality time with people that I love.
That’s really it: spending quality time with my wife, you know, time with my family. Really, really. You know, it’s important to soak up that time with the ones you love, because you have to be full in order to give with your art. Sometimes, you forget that you can’t be spent to make art. And, it helps to know what zaps you of your energy and what gives you energy. There are two kinds of work: work that gives you energy and toxic work that takes from you.
AC: I think that’s true. I think about Borderland Apocrypha and how that book was filled with heaviness. Yet, when I was trying to exit the book, I wanted to make sure to save something for myself and the reader, because tomorrow there is going to be something else to grapple with and address. And you have to know there is energy within so you’re not burnt out, so you can imagine and make your work.
On the subject of my book, it feels like it has been so long since you and I talked about the book and the book cover. I tell people a story about the book cover because it’s very meaningful for me, not only because it’s made by you, but because there is so much to unpack. You intuitively made a piece that still moves and haunts me. What was that process like? Me sending you a bunch of my new poems, and then you went through them with your gut response and process?
JR: Something very special happens with me and my relationship to poetry. I had a kind of visceral response to your work. We’ve collaborated before so luckily, we are able to easily collaborate, and we don’t have any issues or disconnect with each other. We know each other. I mean, my whole graduate thesis was really inspired by your piece “llegando al toldería.” Your voice and mine are kin in that way, and we are doing parallel work. I think it also comes from the fact that I really appreciate hanging out with and speaking with writers in very different ways than I do with visual artists. I’d say you’re one of my chief collaborators as a poet. Also, another writer, who probably doesn’t consider himself a poet, Russell Morse.
But you, your work spoke to me in a moment of solitude and a moment of separation from my community when I was away for graduate school on the East Coast. Your work was able to take me out of that space into a different space. When you sent me the poems from your book, all our prior conversations led to that moment, led to seeing what you were doing in the book. How you’re experimenting with the way that you write and sequence information, that reading isn’t always left to right. How can you remix that? You took some very bold and creative steps. I think you truly changed the way people read. And those poems brought it back to something very modern, but also concrete and sort of ancient and intuitive.
I was just playing with these concepts for the book cover. I looked at the words, but also looked at their placement on the page, their layout and their design, which is one of the first things that I noticed. Graphic design is about the hierarchy of information, and usually, you have important things on top in a bigger size and bigger font. But you broke it up into a wave and completely upended things, you changed that whole concept. I was actually just trying to keep up with you. The work was your own.
Your work had me thinking of my own most intimate moments, particularly within my sketchbook. I took some of the imagery and paint textures from some of my favorite pages of my personal journal, and then I juxtaposed that with the way that you’d laid the words out on the page, your layout. And then I added the third element, with symmetrical takes, like, clouds and sky. And then creating the mixture of all that digitally. I think I sent you I sent you at least four options.
AC: It was more like eight or nine.
JR: Yeah. And then you and Omnidawn made the selection and I was at peace with that because I really want the artists that I collaborate with to have agency in the process. Then you get to express yourself by deciding which of them was going to be the final cover.
AC: I will say that one of the things for me, just about that image that ended up speaking to you and being utilized for the cover, is that you didn’t know what was underneath the box that I had blacked out. And when you opened that black box and placed the sky there instead, I remember being in this sublime space between awe and sadness. The reality is that underneath was a photo of children in an ICE detention facility. In some ways, it feels like the tone of the poem, the visceral elements of the page, and our friendship helped you intuit that you had to put the clouds there. That you had to open up the space for what was being held back.
I remember sitting and looking at my screen, feeling as if we had been swimming around in one another’s subconscious. And, ultimately I was feeling grateful that you had applied a tenderness to people who were being detained. And that’s an act that I am forever thankful to you for having done. And really, this entire interview is me wanting to answer your gift in creating such beautiful art and being such a caring and open human in this world.
We’ve talked so much, and covered so much ground, I do want to close this time together, as I know you have places to go and meals to eat. So I want to ask you two small questions.
The first one is what do you want to make next?
JR: Oh, that’s a very easy one. Yeah. I actually have a list of what I want to make happen. I have been thinking about this book by Robert Greene called Mastery. In it, he talks about how the final stage of being that you enter is this moment called the creative act. And entering that is the only way you can make your mark and leave your legacy. So, if look at all of this ‘overworking’ that I am doing in the next few weeks, that is what I am doing: I am feeding my creative activity.
I’m putting some goalposts on my journey of where I wanted to go. I’m really happy to be doing things that I’ve never done. And that’s what I always want to do when I’m making bigger things or more ambitious things. I think it’s my moment to do that right now. And I have to say this, I’ve never really been in this place before where I’ve lived off of my art, entirely as an artist.
I remember living as a teacher and an artist, a journalist and an artist, an administrator and an artist, and a cameraman and an artist. On and on and on. But right now, I love being able to just make art. I like having the ability to teach myself to do these things, but really, just being an artist is a dream come true.
At first, I told myself that I’m going to do this for a year and see if I make a living off of it, and now I am midway through my second year, and I’m making a solid living. I’m a happy person. And I’m really feeding and nurturing myself again, this moment of this creative activity, so I just want to be here and do that.
AC: I feel close to that same place. Because in reality, I am doing 100 things, and they are all tied to the primary reality of poetry and writing. And it’s frightening. It is completely frightening and I’ve never, not once, thought to myself, “Oh, I’m doing this!” It’s more akin to an out-of-body experience watching myself do it. And that can be a bit of a shock. It’s a shock, but also at the same time, it’s definitely a privilege and a blessing that is the result of the grind and belligerence of diving into things and helping create more space and more opportunities for others.
JR: It’s huge.
AC: My final question, because we will definitely do this all night if I don’t say it’s the final question: Where does the beginning of an idea come from for you, what inspires your creative ideas? What’s the genesis of it for you?
JR: More and more these days it’s journaling. I like to write down what I want and what I’m thinking through. To think about what I’m doing right now, to have a feeling and communicate it on the page.
Also, have you seen the show The Queen’s Gambit?
JR: There is a moment in there where the main character is staring at her ceiling and playing chess, like a full-blown visual and mental chess game. It’s very visual for her throughout that show. I really identified with that scene in the show, because in my mind, I see painting in a very similar way. I was really taken aback because that’s kind of how I make my art. I’ll stare off into space and really start to compose a piece in my mind. So before it becomes a drawing or a painting or composition, I see it in my mind first and I kind of compose that way. A feeling transfers to that vision, and then that vision drives the realization of the piece. And this is also where you have to be a good communicator, where you have to try and explain that the thing you thought of makes sense, and this is how we can make this cool idea come to life.
AC: To be honest, that’s kind of how my brain works on poems. Sometimes I see a shape and I sketch it out and hold it for a line or poem to enter into that shape. The entire time, I am thinking through that and assembling things in my mind. Your process and that scene in The Queen’s Gambit are hyper-relatable to me.
JR: This has me thinking about something Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our imagination is a political space. It is a spiritual space for you to create.
I always tell my students, “If you show up to class without your imagination, what are you doing?” If you show up to any project, even if it’s just working on your yard or baking a cake, or driving somewhere, if you show up to anything with a little bit of imagination, the world will be better for it.
Imagination is to showing up what love is to a relationship. Imagination is to showing up what faith is to religion. It is the mover and shaker within me. Showing up with some imagination means that what you are doing has your intention. How many people have said to me that painting is dead? How many people have told you everything has been said and written already, or that poetry is dead? Where would our paths lead if we accepted what we were told?
When you apply some imagination and think about things in a different way, with a new perspective, it will take you somewhere entirely new. Your imagination says painting isn’t dead, that poetry isn’t dead. And that’s exciting. I love painting, I love words. And when you love something in that way, you’re going to want to see it push forward and toward the next generation. I think it’s courageous. It is courageous.
Artist Josué Rojas is a practicing visual creator and an educator who relishes in learning and teaching the articulation of a potent human language – by using art as a response and celebration, not simply to life’s inequities but to its bounty as well. He is a Salvadoran-born American Citizen, a Californian, and a teacher. His work is informed by his bicultural and bilingual experience. Part of a continuum, his work and personal creative vision contribute to a visual heritage of creative critical consciousness. You can find more of his creative work on Instagram @josue.rojas.art or visit his website http://www.josuerojasart.com/.
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 Jenny Qi spoke to graphic designer Hilary Steinberg about the cover of Focal Point (Steel Toe Books, 2021).
A Conversation Between Jenny Qi and Hilary Steinberg
Jenny Qi: Can you talk about how you decided to go into the arts and then visual art in particular?
Hilary Steinberg: Growing up, I always enjoyed the arts as hobbies, especially drawing. After playing cello in my middle school orchestra, I enrolled in the local performing and visual arts high school as a music major. During my sophomore year, I took an art class as an elective and was sold. I switched to art as my major starting junior year. I ended up getting accepted to an art college for illustration, but made the decision to attend my local university as a graphic design major. I originally made this pivot for familial and financial reasons, but I’m so glad I did. I feel that my abilities became more well-rounded by studying graphic design.
Now that I’m ten years into my professional career, the answer to why I’m in this field is pretty simple… I enjoy it. Despite all the frustrations I’ve had with different jobs, managers, and work environments, I still enjoy designing. I can’t really see myself wanting to do anything else!
JQ: We have a rather unique relationship in that we’ve been friends since middle school. Because we’ve been friends for a long time, you knew so much about me and this book before I even approached you to design this cover (which I absolutely love, thank you!) I think this book cover process is also unique in that you were working with a photo that I’d taken. Can you walk me through your design process and what you were thinking about?
HS: Well, first off, it’s a really cool photo. There’s a lot of interesting detail and movement in the clouds. So having this strong imagery to work from was a great advantage.
courtesy of Jenny Qi
When I read Focal Point, I feel like a lot of the poems relate to memory, time, and grief. And then, looking at the photo again, I was visualizing the clouds as this stream of memories, thoughts, and feelings that originate from a person’s birth and flow outward across time. Maybe the older memories are further away, more spread out, and harder to distinguish. And then there are little spots in the clouds that are so sharp and detailed—like when we remember certain things people say, certain smells and textures are so strong in our memories years and years later.
I didn’t do much editing to the photo itself aside from increasing the contrast a bit. But I added these blurred light textures which created some interesting shifts in color and I especially wanted this to be visible around the edges. I was thinking about these old family photos my grandparents had in their house, many of which are now in my dad’s house. At one point I scanned some of them for my aunt and uncle’s anniversary and had to do a lot of editing because of the light and color degradation over the years. So by adding the textures to your photo I was trying to make the cover feel like these old photos—where the memory is still there but there is a bit of age, fading, and change. But these changes in the photos wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t on display in frames and exposed to light, looked at, and well-loved.
JQ: Let’s hone in on the text on the cover. I love how you wove it into and mirrored the image. How did you decide to incorporate the text in this way? How did you choose the font?
HS: There is so much rich imagery in the poems that feel like a detail in a memory that can be mentally revisited and still feel so tactile and present. So when I thought about the text I wanted there to be a physicality about it, like it was holding real space in the composition and not just floating on top. The idea of the perspective came naturally when I was thinking of the clouds as this stream of memories because I wanted to emphasize the distance in the image and how it relates to the passage of time.
For me, choosing typefaces is a pretty intuitive process. Depending on the project I can usually have an idea of what will work. I know I wanted the letterforms to be on the simpler side because I didn’t want the text to fight with the image, but I also wanted to make sure that everything remained very readable. I ended up using Bebas Neue, which is popular for good reason because it’s attractive, modern, and clean.
JQ: I’m also curious about how you might have approached this project if I didn’t already have a photo in mind?
HS: That’s a really tough question to answer. I think I would’ve read through the book slowly while doing some stream of consciousness sketching just to see what comes to mind. Then, I probably would’ve refined several ideas and presented them to you for feedback. My first instinct is that I would create imagery through drawing or painting, but it could’ve also been fun to play with some photos of cells under a microscope. There are a multitude of directions this could’ve gone!
JQ: Going back to the subject of fonts, I’m going to adapt Dorothy Chan’s very fun question and ask what are your favorite and/or least favorite fonts and why?
HS: Y’know, everyone likes to shame Comic Sans but I find it to be very inoffensive. It can work well for things designed for kids, and there are so many worse options out there, like Curlz MT. Curlz MT is like the PT Cruiser of typefaces, and by that I mean it’s an abomination and shouldn’t exist. It’s incredibly ugly, it’s unreadable and it’s obnoxious, and frankly, I don’t care if my Curlz MT opinion offends anybody. I don’t know if I have any favorite typefaces off the top of my head, but lately, I’ve been enjoying working with and lettering slab serifs.
JQ: You do a lot of different kinds of visual art and design work, and this was actually your first book cover, which is amazing. Can you talk a bit more about your other work and how designing a book cover was like or not like those other projects?
HS: I took Publication Design twice in college because it was one of my favorite focuses, so I have actually designed a few “fake” covers! I think the main similarity between designing a book cover and something else, like a postcard or a social media graphic, is that you have to grab the viewer’s attention in literally one second. It’s such a tiny window of opportunity, and it can be frustrating because you could spend hours on a project for it only to get scrolled past because it’s missing that special ingredient that makes someone stop and digest the piece. That’s also the biggest difficulty with design, whether it’s a book cover or something else, even a painting or drawing. The trick is to accept it as a challenge or a puzzle to solve, because when you nail that element that makes people stop and look, it’s exciting. As far as what makes designing book covers different from other projects, it’s definitely the content of the book itself. It gives you a wealth of inspiration to draw from, which is a refreshing difference compared to a lot of other design projects. When I finish a book, it’s always fun to reexamine the cover because then you can understand why the cover looks how it does, and what elements from the text inspired the design.
JQ: What have been some of your favorite projects? And/or what are you excited about working on next?
HS: Since most of my professional career has been in working for various companies, my favorite projects are ones where I really get to stretch my design legs and have more freedom. One of my favorite projects that is more recent is working on a show at my station, Vegas PBS, called STEAM Camp. It’s a science show for kids that combines easy experiments and interviews with local experts. I worked with the producer/director and education specialist to develop the branding for the show as well as graphics for social media and lesson plans for teachers. Designing for kids is a really fun change of pace because you can really have fun with it, especially for a program that is so interesting, exciting, and optimistic.
JQ: In addition to your professional design work, I know you do a lot of illustration challenges and things like that. Can you tell me more about your motivations for those and what that adds to your creative life?
HS: I retained my love of drawing and illustration over the years but after college, I started struggling with that side of my creativity. I think having to use my creative brain in my day job makes it hard to want to be creative for fun in my off time. I also started wrestling with imposter syndrome which made me doubt my own ideas in my personal art-making. Prompt lists and ‘draw this in your style’ challenges are a great way to get yourself drawing with less pressure. Plus, it’s a great way to connect with other artists online and see how other people approached the same challenge. The more I do these challenges and work on my self-confidence, the more I want to create my own drawings and illustrations. Hopefully, with time and practice, I will be able to regain balance between both sides of my creative passions.
JQ: I love that and totally relate to a lot of what you’ve said. Where can people reach you if they want to follow your work or work with you?
HS: You can follow my work on Behance, Twitter, and Instagram @hildosaur. If you’d like to work with me, shoot me an email at email@example.com.
Hilary Steinberg is a graphic designer based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Outside of work she enjoys drawing, movies, video games and exploring new places. She received her bachelor’s degree from UNLV and has worked in entertainment, gaming, stationery, e-cigarettes, and currently public media. She goes by the moniker “Hildosaur” in online spaces as she equally loves dinosaurs and wordplay.
Poetry We Admire: Asian and Pacific Voices in America
Recently, I set foot in a movie theater for the first time in three years (thanks to the encouragement of my MFA cohort). The lure: Everything Everywhere All at Once. I won’t even try to describe the film, other than it is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it made me laugh, flinch, cry, breathe. I will say that there is nothing like encountering a cinematic representation of the multiverse to make you think about every tiny decision you make at any given moment.
Just its title, however, does feel like an apt gesture toward the current state of affairs—or, so as to not generalize, at least to my own headspace. Even inside my little grad school bubble, I’ve been finding it difficult in the face of, well, everything, to do things like grade student assignments. Walk to the store for eggs. Sit down and finish a letter I started two months ago.
But something I have chosen and managed to execute this month is to spend time with Asian and Pacific American poetries. This is actually something I try to choose every month, and every month I find myself unlearning any ideas I might have held about what, exactly, it means to identify as or have other people identify you as an Asian or Pacific American writer.
Back when I was in high school, I remember encountering a New Yorker article on Ocean Vuong that compared reading his poetry to watching a fish move. It’s such a vivid, almost dizzying way to talk about writing. Slippery. Hard to pin down. I hope that the poems I’ve chosen to include here, out of so many poems I might have chosen, feel something like that. Not in the sense that they align with a prescribed sensibility, or resemble Vuong’s in any way. But rather that they reveal the endless movement and possibility within these voices and more importantly, that each poem leaves its own particular ripples, heading places we may not expect, both on the page and beyond.
Death is the same in both directions.
It wants to go somewhere. It wants to come back.
This poem by Hua Xi captivated me in part by the way it seems to hover outside of linear time, its speaker locating themself in a specific moment (“once, I…”) only on occasion, then fading in and out of the poem’s center. It is a dexterous poem, turning over and over on itself, and yet the element that struck me first is what feels to me like a stillness to its voice. I leave feeling in some way transformed, and quietly.
the one that’s always there when people talk about the war
the one that wants to disappear when people don’t talk about the war at all the one that plugs itself into your lungs when you leave a country for good
I have not stopped thinking about Cariño’s catalog of silences since I first read it. The poem paradoxically resists silence by giving each particular silence a description, a name. They range from tender to devastating, from comfortable to violent. One silence the speaker names is “the one you’ve gotten too used to,” and I feel like this is a silence that is overturned here, where we are asked to be acquainted with them particularly and slowly, line by line.
my girls and i talk about most things & yes
my girls and i don’t talk about some things
Yes, this happened, the speaker tells us again and again, insistent. Or no, this didn’t. This poem is a powerful deployment of parataxis, like an answer being revised or extended over and over. &, &, & generates a lack of hierarchy within the poem’s many pieces. Sometimes, the assertions are on behalf of the “we” and sometimes they are reserved for the “I.” I admire this poem for the way it generates such a nuanced tone while never straying from its simple formula.
I said it, “i forgive you” slipping like a key beneath a door, where never was a house attached.
Wo Chan’s blooming sonnet is ripe with sensory wonders and opens up into something solid, something generous. It has the structural bones of a Petrarchan sonnet, broken into an octave and a sestet, but with the chatty directness of O’hara, or a friend you might sit across from in a cafe. This is a poem that has stayed with me since I first encountered it in Poetry, and I hope it will stay with you.