An Interview with Lee Upton

SB: We, of course, know and love you as a poet and our prize winner for your stunning work in “The Day Every Day Is”, but you have credits everywhere. You’ve published short stories, poetry, literary criticism, and a libretto (a libretto!). You also have a forthcoming comedic novel set for 2024 release — congratulations! What drives you to so many varied kinds of writing? Do they each speak to the same writerly itch, or do they satisfy different needs, be they creative or professional?

LU: I think I just like to have a good time. While my first and sustaining love is poetry, it’s a wild and unpredictable pleasure to attempt writing in different genres. Each genre allows for different experiences, different sensations, different apertures. It’s like being a perpetual beginner enjoying this wonderful sense of risk. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that experimenting with a new genre is like gaining an extra sense faculty—your perception changes as you’re summoning or warping a genre’s features. That yearning for language and beyond language, reaching forward and backward into history, continually interests me and, I suppose, provokes me. And different expressive modes allow for other ways to enact that yearning. Yet I always come back to poetry as my primary genre. It’s not like I’m being unfaithful or, as I’ve written elsewhere, a bigamist.

Almost always my entry in any genre is through voice, even when writing literary criticism about other writers and trying to find a voice that registers respect and some measure of understanding. What I learn in one genre translates into other genres, but I have to admit it can be frustrating. For instance, trying to enact cause-and-effect in fiction just about keeps ruining me. You mentioned “needs.” I guess I do need to write in at least two genres almost daily: mainly poetry and fiction. At this point, I’d be unhappy without multiple genres in my life.

Lee Upton’s The Day Every Day Is

SB: While I do want to ask you about the prevalence of martyrs, mythology, religion, and legends in “The Day Every Day Is,” what struck me was how you used them. Several poems feature a speaker reclaiming agency in their own story as opposed to what we’ve commonly come to know. What is it about myth, religion, and folklore and this reclaiming of self and story that led you to explore marrying the two in your poetry?

LU: As a child I attended morning Mass each school day, but at home I was perusing a little book about Greek mythology, with reproductions of oil paintings of naked gods and goddesses. The erotics of those images! Those early forbidden stories, so often bloody and ruthless, continue to be resonant, particularly as reflections on guilt and shame and coercion. Re-imagining the brutality of myths—the injustice and horror and the godly indifference of the powerful—is a way to think about human suffering across time. Those stories are about many things, including the desperate search to explain what resists explanation. The myths from multiple cultures keep happening, in a sense, and there are vulnerable personalities that we can disinter from the stories to let them speak.

SB: In many of your poems, there is a conviction on the part of the speaker that telling, forgetting, and rewriting are each integral to any given story. What drew your poetry to this interplay — the natural fluidity of retelling vs. the possibility that every version (mistruths and all) can be argued as concrete and faithful?

LU: It’s like there’s an imp within us that controls when forgetting begins and when forgetting stops. Suddenly a memory once safely consigned to forgetfulness can spring out to catch us. The returned memory may be corrupted, but there it is: this full-blown moment appears reborn. Or not. Years ago, I heard words that were so horrible I forgot them immediately. What I recall is the sensations of pain and the actual experience of forgetting, as if my mind erased the words. Or as if forgetting is an active force and opened a trap door and the words dropped. Something in my psyche protected me, I suppose. What I do remember, in high definition, is the room I was in when the words were spoken—a place to which I’ve never returned. Some of the voices I work with are harsh. The right to refuse what’s offered can be something to celebrate and even a marker of freedom.

SB: Something I particularly loved in this collection were those poems where the core witnesses to violence or death were the nearby flowers — the dog violets eyes fill with the blood of the skinned satyr, a mothers failing vision can only see sunflowers, the famous poet who says “let’s hear your pretty flower poems” and is buried by roses. That said, in the poem “After Blogging About Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’” we’re told that there could never be a tapestry of blooms in that world, that “Tessie Hutchinson cannot have a unicorn.” It also happens to be the poem from which this collection gains its title — The Day Every Day Is. Surrounded by poems full of flowers bearing witness to death and mythological characters given new agency, this poem intentionally has neither. All this to ask: Why?

LU: It’s tricky to write about flowers, given the common prejudice against them as markers of excess sentimentality, as if flowers aren’t just so achingly strange. They’re mysterious and stern witnesses; they remind us of beauty, and those that resurrect annually may recall our own yearnings for sustaining life. As you noticed, flowers don’t appear for the primary character in my poem referencing Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” In Jackson’s story, which enacts reflexive obedience to tradition, when Tessie Hutchinson joins her community to perform a ritual stoning she is herself stoned. (It always bothers me that she finishes the dishes before hurrying off to join the townspeople for what will be her own murder.) Tessie Hutchinson won’t see a unicorn or a tapestry’s blossoms not only because of the story’s setting but because of the curbs on her imagination. Duty, loyalty…those have to be re-examined in each context in which we’re summoned to practice them. What partly animates The Day Every Day Is in that poem and others remains a sense of how ideology surrounds us, invisible, conditioning and petrifying what we are able to perceive, let alone imagine. The elasticity of poetry allows for questioning that degree of inflexibility, given that poetry is an especially intensive form not only for paying minute attention but for paying “attention to our attention” and for re-imagining once again what we believe and what we are expected to believe.

As you noted, the title of my collection derives from the last portion of the poem:

How familiar it all is—

choosing what to ignore

and everyone expecting

us to be responsible

and to do our part

The entire crowd waiting

while we hurry

almost forgetting what day every day is

In a possible reading, the collection’s title appears partial: a word is missing. You could supply all sorts of possibilities: The day every day is violent, The day every day is unjust, The day every day ends, The day every day is a lottery… Or the title might be a complete sentence: the day every day IS—if we recognize and grant that each day has its own incalculable presence, its living power.

SB: What do you have going on that you would like to share with us? New projects? Old projects? Latest earworm? Favorite color?

LU: I’m in the process of putting together a manuscript of new and selected poems. It’s time I tried to do that, I think. And there’s the comic novel, TABITHA, GET UP, coming out in May from wonderful Sagging Meniscus Press. Tabitha, Get Up | Sagging Meniscus Press The novel concerns a biographer who hopes to restore her self-respect and pay her rent by doing the impossible: writing two biographies at once. Another novel, WRONGFUL, is forthcoming from the same publisher. It’s a twisty literary mystery dealing with duplicity and envy at two literary festivals and the ways we can get everything wrong, time and again, especially when we’re certain we’ve discovered the truth. I’m working on other manuscripts, and I’d say more about them, but that might doom them—it’s hard to know if anything will turn out. I can write the things, but they might have to stay home with me rather than meet strangers, as hard as I might want them to become more outgoing.

Lee Upton’s books include her seventh collection of poetry, The Day Every Day Is (Saturnalia); Visitations: Stories (Yellow Shoe Fiction Series); Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems (Cleveland State University Poetry Center); and The Tao of Humiliation: Stories (BOA). She is also the author of four books of literary criticism; a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo); and the novella The Guide to the Flying Island (Miami University Press). Her novel, Tabitha, Get Up, is forthcoming in May 2024 from Sagging Meniscus Press. Another novel, Wrongful, will be out in May 2025. 


2022 News and Updates

We’re thrilled to announce the winner of our 2022 Malinda A. Markham Translation Prize: Cutting the Stems, written by Virginie Lalucq and co-translated from French by Céline Bourhis and Claire McQuerry.

We read many amazing manuscripts and are grateful to everyone who shared their work with us.  A special congratulations goes to our finalists: Susan Afterman (work translated by Linda Zisquit), Gabriela Aguirre (work translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin), and Lidija Dimkovska.

Our fall books have arrived! Visit the Bookshop for Michael Robins’ The Bright Invisible, Jacob  Sunderlin’s This We in the Back of the House and Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto’s Dolore Minimo, translated by Gabriella Fee and Dora Malech.

We are ecstatic to announce the winners of our 2022 poetry contest!

  • Jared Stanley | So Tough |  Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, selected by Roberto Tejada
  • Andrea Jurjević | In Another Country | Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, selected by Roberto Tejada
  • Travis MossottiApocryphal Genesis |  Alma Book Award
  • Katy Lederer | The Engineers | Alma Book Award

As always, we read countless amazing manuscripts and we are so grateful to everyone who trusted us with their work.  A special congratulations goes to our finalists: Christopher Brunt, Brian Clifton, Sara Akant, Nancy Miller Gomez, Gabriel Gudding, Makmak Faunlagui, Michael Chang, Dorothy Chan, Lance Larsen, Philip Schaefer, Stephanie Brown and Aerik Francis.

New year, new staff – an announcement from Founder Henry Israeli

Dear Saturnalia Books readers and fans,

I founded Saturnalia Books in 2002 with the desire to bring new voices into the American poetry landscape. In the past nineteen years, I have fulfilled that dream beyond my wildest expectations. The authors we’ve published, the poetry that has contributed to national dialogues, are among my proudest achievements.

Which brings me to 2021. I am thrilled that we are bringing in two new staff members to guide Saturnalia Books to its next iteration. Timothy Liu and Sarah Wetzel, both accomplished poets in their own rights, will be Editor-in-Chief and Editor-at-Large respectively. I’m sad to announce that Chris Salerno will simultaneously be transitioning out of his role as Editor. It has been an honor to work with him over the past 5 years and all of Saturnalia Books wishes him the best in his future adventures and sends a gigantic thank you.

I have full confidence that Timothy and Sarah will be able to keep Saturnalia Books relevant and expand its aesthetic vision for years to come. To ensure a smooth transition, I will remain on staff as Founder and consultant through 2022. I am excited to see how this transfusion of fresh blood will invigorate Saturnalia Books.

May 2021 bring you all much needed joy,

Henry Israeli


Timothy Liu is the author of twelve books of poems, including Vox Angelica (1992 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America), Say Goodnight (1999 PEN Open Book / Beyond Margins Award), Of Thee I Sing (2004 Publishers Weekly Book-of-the-Year), and three titles from Saturnalia Books. His journals and papers are archived in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, and his poems have been translated into ten languages. A reader of occult esoterica, he divides his time between Manhattan and Woodstock, NY.

Sarah Wetzel is the author of the poetry collection All Our Davids, recently released from Terrapin Books. She is also the author of River Electric with Light, which won the AROHO Poetry Publication Prize and was published by Red Hen Press in 2015, and Bathsheba Transatlantic, which won the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and was published by Anhinga Press in 2010. When not shuttling between her two geographic loves—Rome, Italy and New York City—she is a PhD student in Comparative Literature in the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. She holds an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and a MBA from Berkeley. More importantly for her poetry, she completed a MFA in Creative Writing at Bennington College in January 2009.

“Language comes to life when we let our bodies sync up with a poem:” An Interview with Derek Mong

Derek Mong’s The Identity Thief

You write a lot about nature and the environment, both its beauty and the tragedy humans have wrought on it. How do you see poetry both as a means of warning and mourning for readers and as an avenue toward better futures? 

I’m afraid that environmental poetry is more an act of mourning than warning right now, to borrow your lovely rhyme. This has everything to do with poetry’s slowness and the urgency of the climate crisis. As a recent United Nations panel on climate change put it, humans have just 11 years left before they irrevocably alter their planet. That’s less than a generation, and at a moment like this—when time is limited, when inertia remains—journalism, activism, and politics serve us better than poetry.

Don’t get me wrong, though: poetry’s important. I don’t buy W.H. Auden’s famous line, written on the eve of another crisis, that poetry “makes nothing happen.” Or I don’t buy it in the literal way that it’s often quoted. Poetry makes a lot happen, but it takes decades to see the results. Look at the National Park System. I’m not the first person to say this, but those are a result of poetry. The British Romantics influenced Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau influenced John Muir; Muir influenced Teddy Roosevelt. And it was Roosevelt who, in 1906, established the first National Monuments—Devils Tower in Wyoming, the Petrified Forest in Arizona—which formed the core of the NPS.

So Shelley’s right: poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” They’re just really slow legislators. And today we need real ones to act swiftly and decisively in the planet’s best interests. As another Romantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote, nature’s “serene order is inviolable by us” (“Nature,” 1836). That’s no longer the case.

Many of your poems seem informed by ancient religious figures and practices, such as the precatio terrae, the Roman prayer of praise to the earth goddess and your inspiration for “Litany,” the elusive Christ in “Hide and Seek,” and your “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt.” What is your connection with these older expressions of faith? Why do you find them so ripe for your writing? 

It’s a great question, and as an atheist, I don’t have an easy answer. Let me say this, though: it’s not faith so much as faith’s trapping that I find appealing. I’m drawn to prayer as a rhetorical form. I find the imbalance of its direct address so compelling. And I envy poets like Gerard Manly Hopkins or George Herbert who have, in Helen Vendler’s great phrase, an “invisible listener.” Whitman found that listener in the reader. John Ashbery found it in a painter, Francesco Parmigianino (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”). Berryman found it in another poet, Anne Bradstreet (“Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”).

In The Identity Thief, I borrow the voices of various Jesuits or Romans—in poems adapted, not translated, from Latin—to reimagine their invisible listener. Sometimes it’s Christ; sometimes it’s not. In “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt,” I address Mary, a mostly forgotten desert saint. With her comes narrative, a rich symbology, and the pleasure of retelling a life that’s so often altered as it’s retold. This is all to say that my connection to this faith tradition is appropriative. It’s another of my thefts.   

Speaking of St. Mary, what’s the story behind your interest in her? How did a historically questionable prostitute-turned-saint become a personal symbol of the tension between reality and imagination’s freedom? 

Isn’t she amazing? An ascetic who, in some sources, began her life by indulging in appetites; a penitent who got her start in sex work. And then there’s her burial by a lion; her floating on the Jordan; and this passing monk, Zosimas—as if monks routinely strolled the desert, talking up strangers—who becomes her amanuensis. For me, her two lives offered twin virtues that I, a new parent, newly desired: erotic freedom and extended solitude. I still keep an icon of her over my writing desk.

I met her, as it were, in the manner described in the poem’s first section: “A man whom I made speak had made you speak / till we three fled      that tattered crime scene.” That man was Jacob Balde; the crime scene was my apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. An ice storm had knocked out the power. With my laptop battery drained, I spent three days translating Balde by hand into notebooks. He had a poem, “Maria Aegyptica Poenitens” (“Mary of Egypt Repentant”), that I toyed with and then forgot.

Years later, after my son was born, I returned to it, finding Balde’s subject matter more engaging than his language. I needed something, in those early years, when fatherhood hit like a hurricane, to jumpstart my poetry. Mary became that. I liked talking to her. I liked how I could—through her voice—harangue my then-fragile self.

In “The Second Year,” you write of how passing time allows the distortion of memory to replace the present reality, and “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt” explores your connection to your representation of a person remembered within a cultural consciousness. How can poetry, like memory, both preserve and distort a moment? 

There’s this marvelous Wallace Stevens poem—that’s almost redundant, “marvelous” + “Wallace Stevens”—that I adore: “A Postcard from the Volcano.” It opens with kids, which always surprises me because I forget that Stevens was a dad:

            Children picking up our bones

            Will never know that these were once

            As quick as foxes on the hill

The poem maintains that posthumous voice, noting what else our children will miss about our lives when we’re dead. They’ll miss “what we felt // At what we saw” and how—this is my favorite line in the poem—what we saw “became // A part of what it is.” That’s a lot of pronouns, a lot of “what” and “it,” but the message spears me in the gut: we see the world, and, in seeing it, change it in our minds. Then we write it down.

I suppose that is the point I’m getting at—that and a big bolus of paternal guilt—in “The Second Year.” In a way, I’m trying to get at it in everything I write. Poems preserve us and distort us. To write one is to cry “out in literate despair,” as Stevens says in that same poem. To write one is to shake your fist at the abyss and say, “you don’t get this memory—this memory is locked here for good.” Ovid says as much in the last word in his Metamorphoses: “vivam,” which translates as both “let me live” (first person subjunctive) and“I shall live (first person future). Both become true. 

You and your wife, Anne O. Fisher, translated the poems of Russian poet Maxim Amelin together and have separately translated several other works. In what ways has your work as a translator influenced your relationship with writing? 

It taught me to distrust originality. It taught me that poems inspire other poems. It taught me to reimagine what counts as a good day of work. It taught me that there’s a selfishness implicit in trying to write a great lyric poem. We tell ourselves, as poets, that poetry “helps people to live their lives,” to quote Stevens again (The Necessary Angel). I still believe that’s true, but I’m aware enough of my own ambitions to know that my primary reason for writing a poem is to help me live my own. Translation brought me that realization, and though translation isn’t self-less—my wife and I are proud as hell that we won the Cliff Becker Translation Prize for The Joyous Science—it does serve others. That’s particularly true for those of us in the Anglophone world. As I recently wrote at the Kenyon Review Online, translation can “deepen one’s reading, diversify it,” while also benefiting the marginalized voices of the world’s 6000+ languages.    

In “The First Heartbeat,” you write of your son, “Your broadcast broadens/our tiny/kingdom” and, in “Letter in a Bottle for When the Seas Rise,” you address him and his role in the Earth’s care. How has being a parent broadened your understanding of poetry and the interconnectedness of generations and of all life? 

Nothing changed my writing more than becoming a parent. Initially, fatherhood brought with it silence—I didn’t write anything for, what, nine months? A year? I can barely remember. In the months that followed, I had to relearn how to write, sneaking in thoughts or lines in the margins of my life. Most of it amounted to nothing. Much of it felt rehabilitative, like a gradual reacquaintance with a shocked limb. Perhaps that’s because my real body had turned to the care of another. I felt needed as both a dad and a partner. My bodywent elsewhere. Poems were a luxury that simply had to wait.

But when they returned, they returned with a thirst. Kids dislodge you from your generational primacy. They remind you—particularly while your own parents live—that you’re just an integer, one person keeping it together between infant and elders. That thought always puts me in an elegiac mood, and many of the poems in The Identity Thief have an elegiac air, even if they’re born from new life. That sense of loss and longing remains a great motivator for poems. You mention “Letter in a Bottle”: that’s one of the few poems, at readings, that has a laugh line in it. Or half a laugh line: “your parents have retired to a garbage flotilla.” But even that image is black humor. The garbage, as I describe it, is the only island that’ll rise “above the high tide we’ve made.”

Speaking of human interconnectedness, you discuss the isolation people often create or pretend to have in “The Identity Thief.” Elsewhere, you refer to the things that draw us out that isolation: mortal tragedy, environmental tragedy and family, for example. Can you speak to the ways poetry both affirms isolation and creates connection — and to the necessity of balance between these? 

Ah, that’s a lovely question, premised on a keen insight. Poetry does affirm isolation while also forging connections. In that regard—and very few others—it’s quite like social media. Meanwhile, I adore poetry and loathe social media, even as I find myself spending more time with the latter than the former. So: contradictions abound. Still, I’ll stand by this: poetry affirms isolation, but so does any reading. There’s the reader; there’s the author. The reader accepts the author as an ersatz companion. He forsakes the company of others for the comforts of the book. That isolation is lonelier still when reading lyric poetry. With a lyric, one voice usually holds you in its sway. Novels gang up on you—they populate, they swarm. That’s what heteroglossia is all about, as my grad school cohort, mostly novel scholars, tried to teach me. I’m not sure it stuck.

And yet poetry does connect us over space and time, using the body as a conduit. “It is you talking just as much as myself,” Walt Whitman writes, “I act as the tongue of you” (“Song of Myself”). I love those lines because they’re figuratively and literally true. Speak them out loud and you prove Whitman right. Say them just once and your tongue mimics his circa 1855. Your lips move like his lips. That creates a connection. That language comes to life, almost magically, when we let our bodies sync up with a poem.

To balance these opposite impulses—toward isolation, toward connection—we must reach out to others after we read. Is there anything more lovely than talking about a favorite poem with a friend? I’m incredibly lucky in my occupation; as a poet and professor I’m surrounded by colleagues who care about poems. We gush over Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” We squabble over Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. (I’m against.) And then I’ve got my students, who are generally eager to read new poems. Again: I’m really lucky. I find some of that balance at work.

Derek Mong’s Other Romes

You studied Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in your doctoral work. How have each of their lives and writings shaped your creative work? What other authors have influenced you? 

They’re foundational to most of what I do. I write about Whitman constantly. He’s an instrumental part of my criticism, how I think about poetry, and simply how I navigate the 19th century. I gauge dates based on his birthday: May 31, 1819. I’ve got a penny in my house—it gets misplaced constantly—that was minted in 1892, the year he died. Right now I’m writing about the new beers that Bell’s Brewery is releasing to celebrate his 200th birthday. I love to explore how he intersects with consumer culture. His poems teach me to take risks, be generous, and write long (when appropriate).  

Dickinson is equally profound. Her irreverence and skepticism sustain me. I envy her experimentalism. I admire her foresight. About a year ago, I taught our senior seminar for English majors, calling it “Emily Dickinson & Lyric Theory.” I finally finished all 1789 of her poems and came to the conclusion that she saw us all coming—by us I mean readers, scholars, critics—and prepared accordingly. Thus all the mysteries in her life. Why the white dress? Why the late-life seclusion? Who’s the Master? I had an exquisite time with that class, reveling in our uniqueness. My institution, Wabash College is one of just three all-male colleges in the U.S. Who better for us these young men to read than Dickinson, this feminist icon? What other American classroom looked like ours?

To these titans, I’d add many others, writing today or since passed: Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Bradstreet, Deborah Landau, Frank Bidart, Philip Larkin, and plenty more.

Derek Mong is a poet, essayist, and translator whose books include Other Romes (2011), The Identity Thief (2018), The Ego and the Empiricist (2017), and The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin (with Anne O. Fisher, 2018). The Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College, he holds degrees from Denison University, the University of Michigan, and Stanford. He has held poetry fellowships at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Louisville. His work appears widely: the Kenyon ReviewBlackbird, Pleiades, Two Lines, Poetry Northwest, and in the recent anthology, Writers Resist: Hoosier Writers Unite. He blogs at the Kenyon Review Online and can be reached at or @derek_mong. 

Step into Her Office: Reviewing 2010 Saturnalia Poetry Prize Winner Martha Silano

immaculuate conception.jpg

“Any man can go without food for two days,” Baudelaire said, “but not without poetry,” and how true this quote is for the horror of these days. Between bouts of influenza and caretaking for the words I’ve been buoyed by—no, made alive again by—by an incredible poetry collection: Martha Silano’s The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception.

Silano is a madcap genius, and the poems in The Little Office… showcase her amazing ability to mix the mundane and cosmic, or better yet make us, us people—in all our fallible forms—into some star-dusty part of the cosmos. From parenting and praying with the aliens “for a gleam to remain on our lips // long after the last greasy French fry is gone,” to a hateful litany and even gravy, this book’s list of delightful aspects is endlessly long. Silano’s poems are superb with music and lexical texture and they never fail to gloriously push and pull the mind—from the intimacy of homework and parenting plane rides to the existential intimacy of the collection’s first poem “My Place In the Universe.” The poems can be playful in one deftly crafted line and stone cold serious in the next. They are impeccably titled (“I Wanted to Be Hip,” “Your Laundry On the Line Like A Giant Breathing Beast,” or, among so many others, “It’s All Gravy.”) and the movements into the early lines of Silano’s poems (the gesture from title to the first lines) is so engaging, it makes nearly every poem impossible to put down.

The magic of The Little Office of Immaculate Conception is not that so much is happening, so much is packed inside of these 90 pages works—the true magic of Silano’s 2011 collection is that so much works and works brilliantly. It’s fully alive lushness is wonderful. From the incredible long lined wit of “In Praise of Forgetting,” where the poet says “we need a verb: to art! To take the ho hum mundane, / to sparkle-ize it,” before asking “Catch my glittery drift? Mine glimmering eye?” to “Love,” that begins so wickedly

I hate your kneecaps floating free

in their salty baths. I hate your knees,

both of them, and I hate your eyelashes,

especially the ones that fall out, the ones

you’re supposed to wish on:

and torques and twists over so many lovely couplets until the sense-making heart clang of the final lines:

At the China Palace the plates piled high with Mu Shu

Hate, the plates now a busboy’s burden of hate,

the only sound the dumpster’s clanging hate hate hate.

Silano’s poetic eye is wide open, wryly, to the complicated ecstasies of being—of motherhood and our small place in this universe among the nebulae in the Milky Way, that just might also be a cookout on our street. She tells us that it is thorny and dense to be alive, to stare at the stars while the slugs eat the pole beans and one is blessed/burdened with bringing someone else into the world and not only that but keeping them alive. Life is as crazy and knotted as it is joyous, but Silano’s world is one I want to be alive in.

After spending the last months with Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, I will follow Martha Silano wherever in the cosmos her poems take us because I know whatever glittery edge this poet brings me to, I will open my own eyes, try to take it all in, and it will be beautiful.

                  -Alex Lemon, author of most recently of Wash Your Hands

Reflective Reviews: Looking Back to Lullaby (with Exit Sign)

I’ve long been a fan of Hadara Bar-Nadav’s wondrous writing. From her first collection of poems A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight through Fountain and a Furnace, her 2015 chapbook, Bar-Nadav continues to write dazzling poems that showcase her immense talents—the grace with which her poems whirlingly accrete sound and image, and, among numerous other marvelous elements, the vibrant intellect that scaffolds her work.
And my favorite book of hers—one everyone should read—is Lullaby (with Exit Sign), winner of the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, a collection I return to again and again—and each time I open it I’m wowed by something new.

Lullaby (with Exit Sign) is a stunning book. Framed and studded by lineated verse and even an erasure, Lullaby (with Exit Sign) is mainly comprised mainly of prose poems (Bar-Nadav is a new master of the form) that take as their titles lines from Emily Dickinson. Lullaby (with Exit Sign) is a journey that is terrifying in the ways in which it navigates death and even more powerfully tender in the way it loves. But no matter the dread or sorrow found in the dying or loss, these poems are always pleasure-grounds—sonically brilliant and as luminous as they are sensitive.
Take the first half of my favorite poem in the collection:

I Don’t Like Paradise 

though the candy is nice and all things broken are whole again. Father
unpins his raveled limbs, repairs the impairment of paralysis and blot of
stroke. The clot now eased, the blood released, wanders the heart,
humming. And there is mother’s puzzled face.  The maze of surgical welts
dissolves. Melanomic swirls like cinnamon melt. Our juicy mouths gloss
sweet. We are sugary plastic, a shiny Paradise.

This poem is so goddamn alive in the ways it brings the dead father back to life. From the very beginning, and the accelerating movement from title to first words, to its sonic virtuosity—stoking our mouths and ears through “unpins his raveled limbs, repairs the impairment of paralysis and blot of stroke. The clot..” It vaults and converges sonically—bringing even more life to this imagined paradise.
Like most of her poems, the tapestry of sound in “I Don’t Like Paradise” is white-hot, as if Bar-Nadav can starlight into her the lines of her poems, but the beating heart at the center of her work is just as admirable as the deft craft of lines: the unflinching truth of the title is almost forgotten in the beautiful twirl of sensation and image, traveling, almost like a film watched backwards, as the signposts of pain dissolve like “cinnamon melt.” But we are yoked back to the emotive space of the title as the poem begins to turn; and “We are sugary plastic, a shiny paradise,” because the poem knows that on the other side of all lives there is always a nearly unbearable darkness.
There is so much to love in “I Don’t Like Paradise,” so much to speechlessly adore in the second half of the poem, in all of Lullaby (with Exit Sign) but I’ll leave it to you, Dear Reader, to find the pleasures in the way “all things broken break again.”
-Alex Lemon


PS: I know I’m not the only one who is excited for her next collection, The New Nudity, which Saturnalia will publish this fall, when it comes out, tell me what you think:

Speaking Louder and Farther Than Our Great Social Inertia: Cortney Lamar Charleston’s TELEPATHOLOGIES

The title of your book, Telepathologies, is extremely attention-grabbing, especially as you use the word’s different meanings to introduce each section of the book. For instance, you define it as the “internalization of implied falsehoods” and you mention media and sociology as sub-terms, or even aggravators of telepathology. What has your experience been with telepathology and your own identity, particularly within our current political climate?

author-photo-cortney-lamar-charlestonFirst, before I can even begin to truly address your question, it’s important for me to call attention to the traditional definition of telepathology. Telepathology, as you can gather from a routine Google search, is the practice of pathology at a distance; it is the leveraging of telecommunications technologies to enable transfer of image-rich pathology data between distant locations for the purposes of education, research and diagnosis. In other words, it is the application of technology in order to improve the study of disease. And, as flipping through the collection shows, I’m also obsessed with the study of disease, in a sense, but my fixation is on social diseases―racism, sexism, classism, etc.―and their relationship to one another in addition to the ways media (read: technology) both allows us to study those diseases and simultaneously relays the pathogens through its images and writings. Likewise, I also acknowledge in choosing this title how innocuous harmful messages are. They aren’t merely encoded in media but observable in the smallest, most routine of human interactions; I can see so many things at play in the way people simply respond to my body’s observable blackness and maleness occupying the same space of them. That’s all a part of this. That’s all a part of my existence, from birth until this exact moment. Simply put, this collection is both an interior and exterior study of why my life is what it is: why I define myself along a certain prism and am likewise defined by others along certain prisms, why I experience things such as pride or anger or fear, why I always see something hiding behind, well, everything. In our current political climate, I believe such inspection is completely necessary, not solely in regards to the ways we understand racial identity and racial conflict, but looking at the range of human experiences all together. This is merely my offering of one example of how that work was and is being done. This is the compiling of some of my “research findings,” though my research is still ongoing. I want people to do their own as well, and for us, collectively, to know the value in doing so and what that process of discovery can mean for you or me individually, for all of us as citizens of the world.

You dedicate many of your poems to specific people– “Facing the Music,” “Meditation on Black Death Ending with an X-ray,” and “Six Shots on Ferguson, Missouri,” just to name a few– and several of the individuals for whom you write are not in the past at all. In regards to “Charleston,” especially, that horrific event has continued to be covered by the media. How do you cope with these losses through poetry and in real-time?

The murder of the Charleston Nine (a large part of which was the political assassination of State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney) has been something I haven’t been able to escape and, quite frankly, never will. For me, there’s just so much… there: the fact that the church, an irreplaceable cornerstone not only of African American culture but of African American politics and resistance for so long could be defiled in such a calculated manner, the fact the Black church served such a pivotal role in my own personal development and self-definition, the fact that it happened in a city that shares my name and the fact the fate of the nine slain that day could, at any moment, be mine for the exact same reasons it was theirs. It’s a lot to process, and the onslaught of publicized murder after murder after murder of Black men, women and children stirs me into a frenzy of blue emotions and hyperconscious thought. Poems help mediate the madness, for certain; they slow me down and get to the heart of what my heart is at that time, but it takes tremendous effort to pen them. Interspersed with the writing of word after word, line after line, I take pauses to indulge in simple pleasures. I watch creative programming (not the news), I eat comforting foods, I dance to songs in my head. Sometimes I just sit in silence, because that, for me, is therapeutic. The only way to continue to be rightfully outraged at the loss of life is to also remind myself why life is worth living, why loss matters or means anything at all. So, really, it’s the gaps between the written work that is the most important work I do. It’s the work nobody sees, except for a few who share intimate moments with me.

While reading your poems, there are incredible amounts of fear and rage, whether that be directed at the police, at the proverbial “other,” or at one’s self. What has your experience with these emotions and the way society receives their expression, especially from people of color?

Being a person of color (or perhaps, of any marginalized identity) means that the full range of human emotion is not to be afforded to you by social convention; in the same way our normalized codes of behavior limit the political freedoms of certain populations, so too are those same populations’ emotional freedoms limited (it makes sense, dehumanization is an attack against the entire being, after all―mind, body and soul). If I put forth anger, I am met with an oppositional force that tries to explain why it is unjustified. If I put forth fear, I am met with the suggestion that I am delusional. If I put forth, say, pride, I am met with the charge that I am resentful, hateful even, of those who are not like me. If I put forth love, I am met with rhetorical praise but physical and emotional indifference. There is never any path for me to relay a message that is completely palatable on a massive scale. The consequence of being born into a system that oppresses you is the reality that there will always be a force acting against your progression in any context; it’s just there, like gravity. As such, and as with Newtonian Law, I am left only with the option of pushing harder, speaking louder and farther than our great social inertia: this is the learning from my living.

Sexuality plays a huge role in some of your poems. Particularly in “The Barbershop,” “Homophobia: The Fear of Sameness,” and “I Think I Know One When I See One,” there is a strong negative view, it seems, of homosexuality within certain cultural contexts. Where would you say that comes from?

Well, let’s get a little more specific in regards to your question. Given the content/context of the collection, we’re talking about intolerance within a larger Black, American body (politic) for the fluidity of sexual expression. I don’t have a causation to expound on here, but I do have a correlation, a theory that I’m speaking to by inviting this into the collection through certain poems: I find it unsurprising that one would find the instinct to marginalize within a population that is likewise being marginalized by the outside. Removing the influence of Abrahamic religious dogma, removing the impact of a larger American culture that is far from queer-friendly on the whole, I think the oft-discussed homophobia of the Black community and its hold to traditional gender roles is driven by the need of Black men to exert and affirm their humanity and power while living underneath a racist system that has and continues to emasculate them, and the way by which power (as Black people see it used against them) is expressed through the ability to control the freedoms of others to your advantage. This is at the core of masculinity and patriarchy―which speak first and foremost in the language of violence (which I’m speaking of as not exclusively physical in nature). This characteristic obviously cuts across race, cuts across class, and yes, even sexual orientation and gender identity. But within this collection of poems, we’re at least taking a peek at what consequences have arisen from a specific group of men not having full access to their male privilege due to racism, as the collection, taken in the whole across its three sections, is very much oriented by the Black hetero-maleness of its author. Toxic masculinity, coupled with racial oppression, I’m arguing through verse, contributes to the normalization of a toxic hypermasculinity that escalates violence further at the margins of an already marginalized grcontent_telepathologiesfrontcoveroup (and this can be extended to other communities as well, obviously). The adverse impact is that it makes organizing a collective racial resistance that much more difficult; it’s the society’s macro-design ensuring that it’s carried out in the places where that design most needs to be challenged. That seems to be in line, to me, with discussion of intersectionality, though I’m only beginning to understand the full weight of what that word means. Stated differently, I’m still uncovering and diagnosing all the ways I am both endangered and endanger others. I’m trying to make myself less of a weapon to be used against others and used against myself.

You use biblical imagery significantly throughout your poems. Why do you choose to integrate aspects of religious texts into your work, especially given the culture and the experiences you are speaking about?

I touched upon this somewhat in an earlier response, but I believe my incorporation of religious texts into the collection really ties back into the church being a cultivator of my fascination with the world. I was raised in a Black, Baptist church, and so its customs, its language, its imagery are second nature to me and color my lived experience, and will do so for the remainder of my life. In drawing from personal experience for at good amount of the content here, and in acknowledging the unique perspective I have of the world, there was no way some of that religious imagery and sentiment wouldn’t creep into the writing. Likewise, given the aims I have of connecting the contemporary and the historical across these poems, I thought it vitally important that I interrogate what role religion in general and Christianity in particular have played in the Black American experience. Religion (generally) has been savior to many in the Black community and also a sword wielded against us to all (Christianity, used to uphold racial subjugation). Thematically, I like the duality that presents, the reality it presents, actually. It reminds me that nothing is inherently good or evil, even the construct of organized religion. It reminds me there is a limit in importance or relevance of one’s “good” intentions. It reminds me we are all implicated when something is wrong; it makes me responsible, in part, for the well-being of others (which sounds ironically Christian in this discussion right now…) .

With the current threats being made to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, a major funding source for many writers, how would you articulate poetry’s role in American society today?

I, like so many others, am deeply alarmed at the Trump Administration’s plans calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA makes it possible for many of the great works of art that we appreciate, and which compel us toward a more just and empathetic society, to exist; it provides organizations and individual artists through those organizations and beyond the financial flexibility to devote themselves to creation. The loss would be tremendous, and I believe these plans are being made in order to silence political opposition and critical thought, but art lives on because it must. Poetry lives on because it must. We appear to be heading into an increasingly oppressive era, not only in the United States, but across the globe; this is precisely when people are going to turn to art in general, and poetry in particular. Poets have always had a way of explaining the unexplainable, of mapping what we experience as human beings on a different plane that is just as real, if not more real, than any other. Poets never have more power than in a time of human crisis. Poets are never more sought out, never listened to more than in times of human crisis. And so, while we must fight to preserve visibility and vital financial support for the arts and for poetry we likewise must dedicate ourselves even more to craft and to creation. Even if we are not sure we can give anymore of ourselves to it, we must. Wounded, fatigued: we must. This is our moment. The world is counting on us even more than we already know, and it’s scary to have that sort of responsibility, but we’re capable. We are beyond capable.



for the innocents massacred at Mother Emmanuel AME Church

Nine confirmed dead:                   the blue backlighting
from the computer screen underscores their black faces
and the rows of teeth therein lit like vigil candles.

Tonight, genuflect seems the fool’s gambit —
I recite their names one by one in the shape of a circle,
but I don’t receive an acknowledgement in thunder
from above; I’m left only with the begging of two palms
pressed together and the proof it wasn’t enough.

My body, a stack of mirrors, falls through itself.
I am several nouns over the course of descent:
her silver whistle, her public library card,
his set of starter hair clippers humming
into the darkness with no plugs in a wall.

I crash through the grey of the matter, go
cleanly through the roof of the church without
making a hole tracing a curious sparrow,
but like a holy bird, I land softly on my feet.

All the expected ornaments are here, I see —
the stained-glass windows overlooking the pulpit,
and two paintings of Christ on the adjacent walls,
Crucifixion and Resurrection, and all nine
of their bodies on the ground, not quite cold.

I pick up an annotated student Bible, looking
for Jesus’ words for Lazarus, but struggle
because all the text inside is red, still fresh.

I move through the heart of the building, noting
the belongings that will house their ghosts.

Here are the church fans for Sunday service
next to her foot. Here is the sentimental wallet,
holding the pictures of two blossoming girls.
Here is a small wooden cross affixed to a ring
of keys that could open any of many doors.

Here, their scuffed glasses. His navy backpack,
his Chicago Bulls snapback, his black and red Sony
headphones, familiar-looking, looping lyric — Nina,
voice strained through wire, singing blood on the leaves
blood on the leaves, blood on the leaves
, the bright
face of his jukebox glowing unattended:

Missed call: Tyrone.
Missed call: Torrence.
Missed call: Dominique.
Missed call: T.J.

I pick up all their many things
and lay them in a line at the altar.
I find cloth that had been reserved for clergy
and choir in a closet close by, draw them over
the six women and then the three men. I weep,
and I weep and I weep. And I ask the rhetorical
question why?, but this time, receive an answer:

I’m here to kill
black people, he says —

standing behind me. I sweat a bead of blue light.
The thunder enters the back of my head and exits
my mouth in a manner of prayer. I disperse
like a cloud split like lightning, charged electrically
by race: I’m erased. Surely. Completely. Gone.

Like I wasn’t even there
like I wasn’t


Cortney Lamar Charleston completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and has earned fellowships from Cave Canem and The Conversation Literary Festival. His poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Journal, Pleiades, River Styx and many other publications. He is originally from Chicagoland and currently resides in Jersey City, NJ.

Blake Plimpton is a student of Eastern University and resident of the Philadelphia area. She writes poetry, never sleeps in, and hopes to study robots forever. After studying at the University of Oxford last spring, she is looking ahead to graduation while serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Inklings Literary Magazine.

Alex Lemon On Jason Zuzga

In this new series our friend, and Editor-at-Large, Alex Lemon will celebrate books from the Saturnalia backlist — we hope you’ll fall in love (perhaps all over again) with these books like we continue to do over and over again:

heatwakefrontcoverfinalThis August, after spending the evening hours watching the Olympics with my family, I startled awake in the middle of the night with a line from Jason Zuzga’s Heat Wake ricocheting around my head: No Olympic sport involves the tongue, from “On Being Held.” For weeks, preparing to teach it this fall, I’d been rereading Heat Wake so I found it on the coffee table and that night read it again from cover to cover.

I love Heat Wake because of the many ways it loves.

Heat Wake is filled with wondrous poems that speak directly about love/being love/the misfirings of love, but there is so much more adoration in this collection. These poems love language and verbal play, the panoramic intellect, humor, moments of doomsaying and this complex and fractured world that is slipping through our hands.
I’ve spent hours with the many lenses through which we see Eros in Zuzga’s book: the speaker addressing Rimbaud in “Homage,” the sensuality of cleaning someone’s ear in “Ear,” or “I was angry at myself for being a teenage mermaid,” the awesome beginning to the Tilt-A-Whirl movement of “Love Poem,” or one of my favorite’s, the speaker alive beside an intimate inside the body of an extinct Stellar’s Sea Cow in “Extinction Narrative,” where:

I feel the warm flesh on my face.
I can feel your arm around
me. I can feel thumps echo from
other Sea Cows, nuzzling ours.

Here come those intrepid explorers.
Let us be pointless.

But today, I’ve been spending all of my time on two poems where Zuzga directly addresses the reader: the book’s first poem “Elegy,” and the poem that begins the final section, “Lullaby.”

The last stanza of “Elegy” is so good it makes me want to howl. The first half of it plays with iterations, remixing the line “The rocks are not…” until in the stanza’s fourth line “The rocks are ignoring their edges,” before “The rocks are full of vibrational music” in the fifth, and then in the sixth, “The rocks move in your mouth,” before the waterfall and big hearted torque of the poem’s close:

You say Antlers. Alcatraz. Abyssynia.
With rocks in your mouth. Atlas.
Argon. Aluminum. Alabaster. 
Say these words with rocks in your mouth.
Arginine. Able. Africa. Assortment.
Aspire. Aorta. Australia.
I love you. I do. I love you

Because I love you, too, Dear Reader, I will let you go read “Lullaby” so you can see Zuzga’s deft passions at work for yourself, where “there is a house inside your medulla oblongata,” so you can feel its beauty and burden.

Heat Wake is one of those rare books that works in manifold ways—it gives to the reader, on every level—it is energizing, alive and deeply layered with knowledge and sensuous. This collection thinks and breathes in ways that make impossible not to feel, impossible not to read a poem and smile or sense the start of something burning in the chest.

-Alex Lemon

Bone Maps, Pine Barrens & Self Exploration in Robert Ostrom’s “Ritual and Bit”

As a whole, Ritual and Bit seems to blend past, present, and future to create a pseudo-tense in which the reader is submersed in all three at once; that is, that the reader is forced to reflect with the poet, pray with the poet, and look forward with the poet constantly.  You open the book with this sort of amalgam in “In the Garden,” mentioning “loved ones disappear like fog,” “children laughing, dragging, kicking,” and that “I will be a reward in the cellar.”  Is this idea reflective of your process?  How do you draw on past, present, and future as influence for your poems? 

That pretty much sums up my life: resisting change, feeling ambivalent about the future, Rob Ostromobsessing over all of it; it’s unceasing, and therefore plays out most when I sit down to write. I don’t think I’m consciously drawing on it; if anything I’m trying to exorcise these obsessions. There’s a whole industry of self-help propaganda telling us to forget the past and, as the Bible says, “strain toward what is ahead.” Sure, that would be nice. I would love to do that.

But it’s bullshit.

Without getting in over my brain talking about physics and eternalism, whether we like it or not, the past is with us; I think all points in time are real, and they’re always changing. I’m particularly interested in how this functions when it comes to trauma. Current trauma is contingent upon past trauma and visa versa, but the past has the upper hand: it besets the present. The fabric of time as it functions in our imaginations is patchwork, pinned and stitched and always getting torn and repaired. Art allows us to try to hold it all up to a light.

It seems that you pay very close attention to crafting images in your poems.  For instance, “In Pine Barrens” invokes a very specific place in the title, but the poem travels through many different spaces, “shoulder high grass” and a “parking lot.”  Do you find place plays a significant role in your poems?  Do you draw on place as a means for reflection, or ties to specific memories?

I have a gut feeling, however erroneous, that in order to be a person, I must be in a place. But this is complicated because I left the place where I was raised a long time ago, the place I refer to as home, where much of my family still lives. For various reasons, I escaped that place, but escape can also be self-exile.

Since I left home over twenty years ago, I’ve felt placeless and I think that on an unconscious level, that makes me question whether I’m still a person. I think this relates to your last question—poems can enact the imagination mulling over the debris of the past. The reoccurring images in my work, which I keep trying not to put into poems, are often the images of where I grew up. There’s definitely an urge to safeguard these memories inside the poem (inside the stanzas, the poem’s locked rooms), and maybe this is also an attempt at self-preservation.

The first poem in my first book is called “Bone Map.” (Things are about to get dark.) When I was a kid, my girlfriend’s mom was missing, and later they found her body in the woods outside my hometown. And ever since I left home, I’ve been obsessed with it. In grad school, I came upon this term “bone map” when reading the court transcripts from the trial. In forensics, these maps record all the bones, clothing, jewelry, and other evidence at a murder scene.

Poems can act like bone maps. I hope they’re not murder scenes, but all these fragments of place, each image that you cull from your memory, hold meaning for you even if they’re all disarticulated, maybe put in the wrong landscape, much like they might occur in dreams. I have to believe that the collection, combination, and placement of these images in a poem adds up to something meaningful, and for me, when I’m writing the poem, I hope it solves something.

Of course, writing only about the place you know might get pretty boring. I think it can be more fascinating, more revealing to write about places you’ve never been to. I heard that after writing the poem, Yeats tried to row out to the Lake of Innisfree but couldn’t find it. I hope that’s true; I don’t know if it is, but to me that factoid makes the speaker’s unfulfilled longing sting a little more.

It’s interesting that you use “In Pine Barrens” to ask about place in this book. I’m infatuated with the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. They’re picturesque and eerie in all the right ways: ghost towns, pitch pines, the Jersey Devil… c’mon. The Pine Barrens are everything a poet could ever need. And I’ve never been there. (Full disclosure: I did go to Six Flags in high school, but that doesn’t count.) I don’t want to indulge in explicating my own work, but I think that poem addresses what I’ve been talking about: the speaker has lost his companion—his familiar has abandoned him in unfamiliar territory— and he is left with only himself.

I hope he makes peace with that. I hope he’s a person. Also, I have every intent of going to the Pine Barrens.

The section entitled “Cross the Bridge Quietly” is taken from the Estonian myth.  Did this myth play a role in the inspiration for the poems, or was it after the section was written that you decided on that name?  There are clear divisions throughout this section, yet none of them are titled.  Presumably, this reflects the title of the section, in that the reader is indeed crossing a bridge of sorts.  What was your intent with this section?  Is it meant to be read as one long poem taking different forms, or rather individual poems? 

Instead of a single voice mulling over memory, I wanted to get two people’s perspective of a shared past. So I imagined these two people who used to love each other standing in the setting of their love affair. For most of it, the setting was Estonia, and I drew on traditions, stories, and images from that place. I wanted to get these two people to reflect candidly with each other, which we rarely do because it can be so painful to find out how differently we experience common experiences.

I didn’t want to pick sides. I wanted them to lead me. The logic of that RitualandBitfrontcoveronlyallowed me to try to push form and language in each section. Although fragments of it had been written earlier, the whole thing was one of the last poems I wrote for the manuscript, and I was surprised by how it felt like an actual bridge in the landscape of the book.

Speaking of form, you utilize a number of different poetic forms, from prose to couplets to a sort of dialogistic style, to name a few. What does poetic form mean to you and how does it relate to content? For instance, “The Six Swans” is a prose poem of a man chasing a beast and then freezing to death as he sees the beast. Are your poem’s stylistic elements predetermined, or do you allow the form to find itself?

The poem’s form is almost never predetermined when I write. There’s something in me (maybe it’s OCD) that wants control, wants symmetry— neat stanzas with even lines— and I think it’s important for me to push against this. I love prose poems; on the surface, they don’t flaunt their artistry, yet they’re filled with trails and warrens, they can mislead and come back. Almost all of the poems I write, I try in prose at some point.

I’ve also learned a lot from erasures; I erase most of my poems. Sometimes I leave these gaps on the page but most of the time I don’t. Still, the act of erasing often changes the form.
Why did you choose to end the collection with “Introduction to What You Are About to Read”?  Is the poem alluding to what the reader will encounter after reading Ritual and Bit, or is it reflective on what has already been read?  I found that it seemed to be a bit of both of these things, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this paradoxical choice.

I’m more interested in how readers might interpret the placement that poem, but honestly, for it to stay in the book, there was nowhere else it could go. There are a series of litanies spread throughout the book, and many other poems use anaphora or epistrophe; the final poem is a part of those while breaking away from them. In a book that struggles to find ways to control, the speaker of this poem has taken over. I hope there’s more to it than this, but it seemed to work as a coda that might propel you into the future or back to the beginning or into nothing.

In Pine Barrens

We’ll wade
through shoulder high grass

like this he said  and held out
his arms  until we reach

a parking lot Recited to each
other our birthmarks: anything

if a lake and then if what
was said    We made logic
out of 40s   thought up nuanced

narratives of what our lives
would be    mostly our
lives were should I wear
shoes or boots

Then my favorite

ran off  I couldn’t
hold on to him

not even with teeth  I went looking with

unripe apples I tried to call him

but his name what was

his name

stuck in my windpipe
I know

He could hear me

choking and could smell
the apples but he raced toward
something that would make
my insides burn  Past pine

in the parking lot now

I’m all I can tell you

Rob Ostrom is the author of The Youngest Butcher in Illinois (YesYes Books, 2012). He teaches at New York City College of Technology and Columbia University, and lives in Ridgewood, New York.

Nick McMenamin is a student in the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University, where he studies English with a concentration in creative writing.  He is a resident of the city of Philadelphia.


Alice Escapes the Rabbit Hole: Liberation in Sandra Simonds “Steal it Back”.

There’s this draw to France, French, and French history in Steal it Back, specifically inSandra Simonds poems like “The Lake Ella Variations” and “Journey of Marie De Medici.” Where does that come from for you? And could you talk about how you see it functioning in your work?

Part of that is that my mother is from France and I grew up bilingual so I think that France just comes into my work because there’s a sense that France is sort of the “mother country” for me. But, of course, the mother-daughter relationship is complicated!

There are many long and/or sequenced poems in Steal it Back such as “Alice in America,” “Occupying,” and “Glass Box.” What appeals to you about those forms? Have you always been drawn to them or did you find them along the way?

These longer forms happened because I wrote this book entirely at work and commuting, so I would start a poem and then I would need to teach or go pick up my kids from school or change a diaper. I was constantly being interrupted and I think that my book tries to address the way we make art when we have limited amounts of time because our lives are stolen from us by wage labor or other forms of labor. But, I began to piece together these bits of writing and realized that I could create longer poems out of these smaller segments.

Who are your favorite poets to read? Were there writers who you felt influenced Steal it Back in particular?

I have so many poetry crushes. I tend to go back to a lot of the same poets. I love Paul Celan, Langston Hughes, Mina Loy, Jack Spicer, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, John Wieners, Claudia Rankine, all the poets at Commune Editions, Bob Kaufman….there are just too many to name.

You have said elsewhere that you love the poems in Plath’s Ariel. Could you talk about 9780991545490what the word “confessional” means for you? How do you see your poems embodying the conventions of confessional poetry and also pushing its boundaries?

For me “confession” has moral overtones that I don’t totally get. I think that my poems use the personal to say something about class and gender. I think as a single mother who works outside of the home, I have very little in common (materially) with a lot of my poetry peers but I think as an artist and writer, I have a lot in common with people outside of the poetry world because there are a lot of single moms in the world, in general. When a single mom or mom comes up to me at a poetry reading and says that she can relate to what I’m talking about in my poems, I feel deeply gratified. So, in the end it’s about connection with people like me. I want them to know that I understand what they are going through because I am also going through it.


I am Inside the Humanities and
          if I step
          too far out of it,
               I’m dead. The figure
       at the top left corner is Securitas.
     No rent! No work! No wages!
       No more!  For those thinking
 of disturbing the peace, let
      the hanged man be your warning.
 In order to write this poem,
      I paid daycare $523
              for the week. Make sure you premix
        the bottles, bring diapers. Make it worth
                   something, this time. Mayan
             countdown clock to Mayan
   countdown clock, two bodies,
            in a bed wanting
        the water of the world to
 give them back a pyramid.
       Also, the bronze head of Adam.
                 Also, the world of children,
         their toys, the plastic imitation food—eggs,
         miniature cereal boxes, deformed mirror
             to the real. I could not keep working
 to make money for the people I despised,
      nothing is right, but I couldn’t afford
 not to either. Late at night, Craig
             said “I hate my job.”  The hydrologists
                 have to give permits to Gulf Oil
                                    for more water or someone
                      will get fired. It was winter
                  in Florida, the path to all principles
                      of all inquiries led back to this
    one statement, like a receipt
 from Publix: I was teaching
     the humanities again.
In the garden of fallen
       aristocrats, where no one sits
 on the lawn, it is as if heaven is on
       one side, hell, on the other,
 and somehow I have slipped very far
       into the abyss between the two,
 an abyss that contains suns
        the way black holes
 do not give back the history
    of light, the way a galaxy
                turns like a clock
          into the desperate desire
 for water and these flowers --
    what can I make of them?
          They bloom like idiots,
                 live as thieves.
                  I get Craig’s cryptic texts
 from West Florida
          on my walk at Lake Ella: “No coffee.
Nuclear power plant” and then he sends
                a picture of some industrial
                      map of rust.
O Apollinaire, eau-de-vie,
            in this garden, which is a mockery
                   of all gardens,
      in this Bed, Bath and Beyond
 of the intimate, remember me.
                       My daughter is 43 pounds.
        I know what is real
 and I know how to steal
        back what is mine.