Behind Their Words

Toothpaste and a Corvette and Godzilla and a Monkey: The Beauty of the Ordinary & Exceptional in Jay Nebel’s Neighbors

Your collection Neighbors aims at connecting all walks of life, from the author picfoodies in “The Food Network” to the drug users in “The Happiest Place on Earth is Norway.” What makes these pieces essential to your poetic neighborhood?

Like most writers, I tend to write about things that catch my eye. With that poem “The Food Network” I initially started the poem because the idea of watching a whole shitload of food waving before your eyes on television seemed a little absurd to me. The poem ends up eroding into some sort of a meditation on death involving monkeys in space and how we used them selfishly to discover a small piece of that great universe above us. In “The Happiest Place on Norway” I wrote about drug users because I have a lot of experience with drug users and because I used a lot drugs. I guess I can say that with impunity now because I’ve been sober for so long. That was a different life back then, one that I revisit (in my mind and in my writing) often. I like finding beauty in the ugly and the ordinary. I also believe that there are no limits to what you can put in a poem.  So in that way, everything is essential to my poetic neighborhood. If toothpaste and a Corvette and Godzilla and a monkey fit and make the poem better, then the writer should incorporate those elements in the poem.

It seems that you are a poet who does not shy away from human experiences, but you revel in the struggle of it. In your poem, “Robert Frank: The Americans,” the phrase “we’ve survived” is uttered, which got me thinking about surviving. What does survival look like to you, and do you feel like your depiction of survival in poetry captures this reality effectively?

First, before I answer this question, I’d like to take a moment to praise Robert Frank and his book of photographs. He captured America in a way that had never been done before. His book was essential to the American experience which is interesting given that he’s not American. Maybe he was able to create this miraculous vision of our country because he was from elsewhere.  I don’t know. When I first pored through his book, I was completely overwhelmed. There’s a photo in the book that I always think about of an actress at a movie premiere in Hollywood. The genius thing about the photo is that it’s a close up of the actress’ face except her face is not in focus. What is in focus is the crowd of onlookers in the background.  I always thought that was beautiful. Frank obviously felt that those “ordinary people” should be the primary subject of the photograph. And I agree with him. There’s a dramatic monologue that Randall Jarrell wrote where his speaker, an elderly woman who is struggling with the idea of feeling older and invisible, says, “I am exceptional.” Like Robert Frank, Jarrell was celebrating the beauty of the ordinary in his poem, or in this case the beauty of the exceptional. I guess I frequently write about people in their most vulnerable states because I find the human struggle to be captivating. You find out a lot about a person when life gets rough. (Sorry for the Hallmark quote there.) America in the 50s was a fucked up place.  Everything looked golden on the outside but inside shit was rotten as hell: segregation, racism, sexism, homophobia, paranoia about communism, awful treatment of people in mental hospitals, you name it, the model of oppression was there. In writing “Robert Frank: the Americans” I wanted to highlight that contradiction.

9780991545469Most of Neighbors seems to center on the collective “we,” as if we are all neighbors (lame pun intended.)  In “The Importance of Story,” specifically, you connect a lot of different images, suggesting that we all have the possibility for stories, and perhaps ours are not all so incredibly different. Could you elaborate on the importance of the collective “we” in today’s world?

I think it was Flannery O’Connor who wrote that by the time you’re a young adult, whoever you are, you should have plenty of material to write about. I have this tendency when I’m writing to think that for a poem to be worthwhile, shit has to blow up or someone has to die or a marriage has to end. But that is the furthest from the truth. Take that poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” as example. Nothing really happens in that poem. But it’s a beautiful and wondrous poem because it’s a memorable image. Every one of us has seen or felt or heard something that is worthy of a story is all I’m saying.

There seems to be an element of dark humor to your work, which I thought was beautifully displayed in “The Order of Things.” Could you elaborate on what you think humor adds to a poem, particularly dark humor? What do you think comedy adds to life’s dejection?

My son has now inherited my terror of spiders. I hope that it wasn’t my poem that ruined him. Growing up, I was always that kid that laughed when I wasn’t supposed to. Someone told an uncomfortable joke, I laughed. Someone got hurt, I laughed.  It was my way of making sense of whatever I was feeling in the moment. That’s the way humor works in poetry for me.  It’s just another way of connecting with the daily struggle. One of my favorite poets, Jose Chaves, taught me a ton about using humor in poetry. He has this poem, “Growing Up Latino,” about standing up in front of his grade school class in a giant sombrero for cultural appreciation day. I’m not doing it justice in describing the moment, but the speaker is mortified and self-conscious about this cultural obligation. The poem is heartbreaking and poignant and hilarious at the same time.

Lastly, in your collection you talk about family. What aspects of your experience with family has brought you to this place in your work?

Whenever I write, my kids and my wife are knocking on the door. Seriously, writing about family is totally unavoidable. A perfect example of a typical writing experience in my house goes like this: I sit down to write, and my eight- and five-year-old come storming into the room to announce that they’ve built a fort and I need to come and see it. Or, my wife yells at me that the dog pooped in the middle of the living room floor. Or one child comes in and complains of being scratched by the other child. And to be clear, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I love writing about my family. My kids say the craziest things sometimes. My five year old daughter told us the other day that when we die she’s going to watch whatever she wants to watch on TV. And she’s right. She will watch whatever she wants to watch when we’re gone. That’s the kind of material that drives me to write.  How could you not want to write a poem after hearing something like that?



When Cheryl was six her father went out
for a jar of mayonnaise
and never came home.
The reason could have been anything:
a pack of Lucky Strikes, a woman.
She told everyone in the neighborhood
her father was hunting
unicorns, his voice blood orange
and tentacled, echoing
through the bowels of the shot glasses
she lines up daily like prophets
on the bar. I want to tell her
that fathers have left their families
for far worse reasons.
What do you offer someone
who has lost half of her beginning?
Your father was a tyrant,
a minister of severed hands, a syphilis bringer
castrating the stones of animals.
Wherever he is, I promise you,
the natives are suffering.
Leaving crosses my mind, feigning
mental illness for a younger woman,
that tropical paradise of no responsibility
where mermaids reach up through silky waters
and pull off your boxers
and fire drugs into your veins.
Then a plate shatters in the kitchen
and my wife and son come banging
through the house like one of those furious parades
of dragons during Chinese New Year,
and I put my pants back on.
Once my son is asleep, my wife and I have sex
in the bedroom, not the wild
sex of Olympians thrashing around in the heavens,
but married sex, our shirts and socks
stuck to us like bandages, and, four feet from our window
the next-door neighbor strangling
the choke on his lawn mower, kicking the thing,
yelling, c’mon motherfucker, when the engine won’t start.


Jay Nebel‘s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, and Tin House, among others. He is the author of a chapbook, Loud Mouth. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and their two children and delivers juice for a living.

Blake Plimpton is a student of Eastern University and resident of the Phiadelphia area. She writes poetry, reads veraciously, and believes sleep is for the weak.  She is the Editor-in-Chief of Inklings Literary Magazine and looks forward to studying at the University of Oxford in the spring.

Reels of Film, Sylvia Plath, & Recordings on a Road Trip: Inspiration for Laurie Saurborn Young’s Industry of Brief Destraction

LSYoung_Author_Photo_21. You mentioned during the Saturnalia Books Poetry Reading at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia that voice recordings you took on a road trip you went on were inspiration for your “Patriot” poems from Industry of Brief Distraction. Could you tell us a bit more about these recordings of story and sound? Did they inspire any other poems in the collection?

I was driving on the highway a lot—from North Carolina to New York to Texas. The highway system is a great way to see a lot of this country, and driving is, of course, a fabulous way to be alone with your thoughts, whether you want to be or not. I made many voice recordings during 2009-2010, forgot about them, and when I backed up my iPhone a couple years later, they all transferred to iTunes. Suddenly I was in possession of a very particular archive, one of thoughts and ideas about what I saw while driving, as well as lines for poems and images I intended for prose pieces. The recordings themselves were jumbled and sporadic. I think it was the experience of driving, of being between homes and selves—my first marriage ended in 2006, I had several rocky relationships before I remarried in 2010, and I was moving every couple months—so my experience of the world was pretty fragmented and ungrounded. When the poems emerged, it was like writing a poem for every member of a chorus. To write a series of poems that was so inclusively a group was a new experience for me. I’d say that the energy that inspired the poems carries over into some of the others—“Drone,” perhaps—but generally it’s a closed circuit.

2. The setup of your poems varies greatly. For example, “Drone” moves through multiple pages with none of the lines touching, while “Pretty Girls Are Everywhere” is spread out in stanzas on the left and right sides of the pages. Can you talk a bit about poetic form and how it serves the poems? For example, in “Drone,” is form meant to help with pacing? In “Pretty Girls,” does it reflect the speaker’s scattered mind?

I love metaphor so I’ll revert to figurative language: I think of the book as moving through different rooms in an art show. As a writer and a reader, I need a degree of variation. Not as an end in itself, but as a way to introduce other possibilities. In poetry, how the work appears on the page is a pretty quick and easy way to introduce a visual variable. Line is my touchstone, the place all the poems spring from. I am a great believer in being patient and seeing where and how and what and why the poem wants to go. For “Drone,” I think the shorter lines, the centered text, and the spacing/white space do infuse the poem with a sense of distance or detachment—as if the poem were experienced from a great height, like a drone flying high above.

“Pretty Girls” I think of more as collage—the turns are abrupt, jumping so quickly it risks making no sense at all. If poems as they are written are a reflection of our lives at the time, some of our poems will be fiercely uncertain. More than a scattered mind, I think it reflects the speaker’s scattered life. Recently I saw a documentary of the dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Streb. In one of her pieces, a dancer is enclosed in a long, rectangular box built of clear plastic or glass. Because of the dimensions of the box, she cannot stand up, and so she moves through a series of carefully choreographed moves, which involve her hurling, stamping, flinging, and pounding her body from one end of the box to the other. Much motion and velocity can be created in small spaces.

97809915454433. It seems that poetry and photography have one important commonality: they both focus on specific images, images that aren’t necessarily tied to plot. What makes both poems and photographs work is a strongly felt point of view. Is this how you also feel about the two arts? Does photography have a specific influence in your writing? Does your writing ever inspire you to take a picture that perfectly describes your poem/ work or vice versa?

One way I see poetry and photography linking as of late is in a feeling of stasis and quiet invading some of my more recent poems, ones I’ve been working on since Industry was completed. A photo freezes a visual moment; a poem spills over its auditory boundaries. Point of view is tricky—it’s either yours, or you are assuming someone or something else’s. To what degree can we step out of ourselves? In writing poems, I like to think of viewpoint in terms of position or stance, which is conveyed, among other ways, through voice, tone, and subject. In photography, I think of it in terms of eye, or gaze. What is the focus? What is included in, and omitted from, the frame? Over time, a poet’s viewpoint can become richer and more certain, even as it courts instability in form, line, or sound. In the same way, a photographer’s eye becomes more empathetic and refined as the artist learns what she or he sees best.

My philosophy and approach are more associative and Venn diagram-based, than an attempt to draw an obvious, overt link between image and text. I claim the artist’s right to be hazy in my intentions. Part of this is to save my own sanity, because when I set out to take pictures, I never know what I’ll end up with—the weather could change, the zoo could be closed, the film shop could ruin the roll of film. My goal is not to avoid or court accidents, but to move through them and make them work for me. It’s the same way I enter the process of writing a poem. At the inaugural Strange Pilgrims poetry reading in Austin, the poet Carrie Fountain read a poem about the realization that her two children would have a relationship as siblings that was apart from their individual relationships with her as their mother. With image and text, I can exert some control, but if I veer into over-determination, I risk forcing a connection that isn’t there, or worse, repeating the obvious. What I strive for in my work is room for possibilities, for connections and images and revelations to appear over time. There also must be space for readers to create their own relationship with the work. The closest I’d like to get is for my writing and my photographs to complement one another—to be attached by a cord of varying thicknesses and lengths. If either is forced into an explication of the other, something dies.

4. Who are some of your favorite poets? How do you see their aesthetics influencing your own?

It’s hard to say how the aesthetics of others influence my work. I read a lot—poetry, fiction, non-fiction—and I think that, in concert, what a person reads does end up, in some way, obviously or not, affecting either the work on the page, the writer’s approach to the work, or some combination of the two. Our brains, being the plastic things they are, love to soak up information. When reading it’s not a bad idea to note things you might like to try in your own work—turns of mind, form, approach—if only to figure out how they can work for you, or if they work for you. Overall, some of my long-term favorite poets (and a favorite poem), the ones I can’t shake, are Sylvia Plath (“Berck-Plage”), Anne Sexton (“Three Green Windows”), William Carlos Williams (“Spring and All”), and Robert Penn Warren (“Audubon: A Vision”).



Collarbone broken & then I am pushed

Hard off the boat. This is America.

If entry is not desired, take that door away.

You want to say I deserved it

Which is often what people think

When force is brought against a woman’s

Smaller frame. Diplomatic, I desire little

Cows in a range of shapes:

Miniature but representative

Lowing in a field outside Hershey, PA.

Faint purple smudges under his dark eyes.

Sound of a dog’s feet in the grass.

This is Humbert, taping a note to Rita’s belly.

Bioluminescence of the highway at night,

What is America?

Four years later she listens to the mixtape

In the parking lot at Snuffer’s Restaurant and Bar:

Girl, don’t go away mad. Girl, just go away.

Inside I pin my hair up & the bartender

Turns & says to my boyfriend, Oh, now I see.

Texas in winter is a silver caul stretched

Thin and babies born into not enough

Jobs not enough medicine not enough water.


Laurie Saurborn Young is the author of Carnavoria (2012) and a limited-edition chapbook, Patriot (2013). Winner of an NEA fellowship in poetry, Saurborn Young currently lives in Austin, Texas.

Kerry Dowd is a recent high school graduate who plans to attend the New School this fall.

Beyond the (Undeniably Urgent but also Undeniably Limited) World of Literature in Natalie Shapero’s No Object

natalie_photo1. Along with your MFA, you earned a JD from the University of Chicago and went on to practice law. How do you think going to law school and working in law have informed your poetry? 

I wrote my book, No Object, during law school, and even though it is not a book about the legal system, the actual poems are shot through with patches of what I was reading. For example, I spent a lot of time writing a seminar paper on the failed efforts of the federal administrative agency that was charged with converting the US to the metric system, and a fair amount of that research made it into the book, in its own refracted way. Even though the voice of No Object is a relatively interior one, I wanted the book to be outward-looking in its execution, to engage with texts and ideas and luminaries and adversaries from beyond the (undeniably urgent but also undeniably limited) world of literature. Law was (still is) an igniting force in my creative and analytical consciousness, so it seemed like a natural fit.

2. You love to follow scandalous, flash-in-the-pan, pop news stories. For instance, I remember you following the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend scandal. And, as a slightly more historical example in No Object, you reference John Hinckley Jr.’s obsession with Jodie Foster in “Invocation: The Third and Fourth Generation of Them That Hate Me.”  What sensational news stories are you following right now and what is it you find interesting about stories like these?

Yeah, I was totally captivated by the Manti Te’o story. Part of it, I admit, was the confluence of three factors: the details of that story emerged in dribs and drabs; Manti Te’o wasn’t actually famous enough to have it be national news from the start; and it was so convoluted that someone just glancing at a headline would have no chance of understanding it. Basically, even more than I was interested in reading about it, I was interested in telling it to people who hadn’t heard it before or didn’t have a full grasp on the thing — I like a good campfire as much as the next cowboy does.

But it’s interesting that you tie this story to the Jodie Foster one, because the poem you mention also pairs the Jodie Foster reference with a small story about Mozart. And the thing these three people have in common — Mozart, Manti Te’o, Jodie Foster — was that they were all famous as adolescents. And that is definitely a preoccupation of mine, the glamorizing / sexualizing / demonizing / etc of adolescents, how the larger culture can make and break people who haven’t yet quite reached adulthood. And so, to that end, I did indeed follow the recent story of the USC cornerback who, following a suspicious injury, got tangled up in a false story about having rescued a drowning relative. I can’t quite remember how it was resolved, but my general recollection is that it was kind of unresolved, which always seems like the right ending to those stories. NOfrontcoversmall

3. For creatives, putting in the time to get the work done can be half the battle. How do you make sure that you “show up” for work everyday?

Time can be tight, to be sure. But I keep notebooks — each one for about six months, I would say — and I try to write something every day, even if it’s just a single quotation or phrase or observation. I’m looking at my notebook now, for an example, and I see that I recently wrote an entry that was, in its entirety, “title a poem NIGHTMARE IS PUTTING IT MILDLY.” So there you go.

4.Throughout No Object as well as in the poem “Thirty Going” you have references to Woody Allen. For instance, in the poem “Four Fights” you quote Manhattan: “Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind–everything really valuable has to enter through a different opening” and needle the response of an audience captivated by conflicting male desire. In “Thirty Going” you complicate the figure of Allen as brilliant artist by asking your reader to “skip to the Soon-/Yi part.” What is it about Woody Allen that interests you? What are you exploring when you reference or write about him in your poems? 

Yeah, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi. Refer back here, maybe, to the earlier discussion here of famous adolescents … Woody Allen sort of emerged as synecdoche for some more generalized American uncertainty/unease about how to think of adolescents and family relationships, how to think about exploitation, how to think about sexual agency, etc. I should also say here that, in the time since I published those poems, a separate set of allegations against Woody Allen has become perhaps more prominently associated with him, and so I recognize that the Woody Allen references may ring differently in 2015 than at a different point in time.

5. Plot yourself on this graph:

natalie chart

Color, Ekphrasis, and the David Bowie Dilemma in Peter Jay Shippy’s A spell of songs

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Peter Jay ShippyYou begin A spell of songs in a startling way. “Untrimm’d” employs language which harkens back to the beginnings of epic poetry like Ovid and Milton. What follows are poems about intense personal relationships. Why did you choose to begin your collection in this register?

An earlier version of the book contained more poems like “Untrimm’d”—small pieces, lyrics, songs. I thought of them as a counterpoint to the other poems, which employ long lines and dubious punctuation. The title alludes to Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet—but it’s also a joke, calling attention to the book’s feral nature.

In “Blue, Stumbling Buzz” you mention Jan van Eyck. I was just reading that his Arnolfini wedding portrait has been poured over by art historians for decades. There is much debate in deciphering that image. I find that portrait akin to your collection. The symbolism and rich color add so much to the subject matter. Why did you mention van Eyck in this poem?

I’ve always loved his name—ike!—and the spider webs he painted on the vaulting of an imaginary cathedral. I think scholars call this “small time”—imperfections on paradise. Maybe he’s a proto-surrealist. The title is lifted from Dickinson, and the poem imagines another kind of signing away of keepsakes. A time when van Eyck might be exhibited on the walls of a village library.

You make an extraordinary and memorable use of color throughout the collection. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a “novel of color.” How does the writer use color to make impressions on the reader?

It wasn’t deliberate, which is just as well. If I had noticed—I might have washed them away. For the last few years, I’ve taught a course on ekphrastic literature. We read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Rafael Alberti’s To Painting, Gertrude Stein & Kevin Young’s To Repel Ghosts, among others. Maybe I ended up teaching myself something!

Along with color you make a fascinating use of symbols—their meaning is not immediately apparent, but like the symbols of medieval poetry, it takes some effort to decipher them. It is a very pleasurable experience! What is your approach to using symbols in poetry?SpellofSongsfrontcover

A few days ago I was reading a discussion between the novelist Rick Moody and the philosopher Simon Critchley. Their topic was David Bowie’s 1979 album, Lodger. Ostensibly, it was two middle-aged guys comparing who they were to who they are and how time reframes criticism. But, there was one moment that illustrated the poet’s dilemma—having to use words as opposed to notes or paint. Moody complained that the lyrics to “Fantastic Voyage,” the opening track, once bothered him because they were strange and unrhymed: “In the event/That this fantastic voyage/Should turn to erosion/and we never get old.” Now that he’s “desperately-middle-aged… I find it exhilarating.”

Critchley has no problem with the lyrics—then & now —because he had read the modernists. He describes Bowie’s lyrics as Pound-like.

So, always, the poet depends on a smart reader, an energetic reader, a patient reader—but even then, sometimes you have to wait for them to turn 50!


Nana slapped a phony Fabergé egg
with a black boa and my mother was born

filling the kitchen with the smell of first snow,
Grampus slipped out the window and raced

a greyhound to the coast, on the shelf, a jar
of white rice shook itself silly, like stoned lice,

I was there, her daughter, sipping sack, a witness,
don’t ask how or I’ll tell you how and then…

there’s no going back, in fact, it was me who wrapped
her own bawling mother in the Gazette while

Uncle Maxim greased his balancing pole and split
his pants for work, I read the funnies, specially

the strips with animals that wouldn’t exist
when I was a girl, I loved the one with Bugg,

a mustachioed cockroach from Bohemia
who broke English into confetti when he professed

his love for Clarice, a beetle from Rio
with question marks on her wing covers, so

we daubed-on whiteface and donned smoked glasses,
Nana latched the baby to her breast and ordered

a dozen long-stemmed American Beauties
and used the box to construct a pinhole projector,

at first light we were off to watch the cortege
carry the body of Atlas, our strongman,

to his resting place on the spinning stool
at the end of the bar, we rode the boneshakers

to the river and skipped stones at kids until
they handed over their lunch pails, her pupils

were black as pips, snake-eyes, the dog throw,
my mother’s eyes struck my eyes like matchsticks,

the sun whistled white as bone, Uncle Maxim
dipped a Kaiser roll into the warm water

then molded it into a dummy and plugged
my mother’s red yawp, years later, he would lead

a crack camouflage unit during the war,
they managed to conceal hundreds of clouds

from enemy zeppelins, years later
Grampus’s shadow came home and stained the carpet,

years later Nana stuck me to her old tit
and taught me to steer robotic mitts with my thoughts,

years later Bugg’s moustache grew into two queries,
as my mother grew older she stopped stomping

the floor like Trotsky, the amazing counting horse,
and so the circus ran away from her,

don’t ask how or I’ll tell you how and then…
I was there, her daughter, sipping sack, a witness,

Nana slapped a phony Fabergé egg
filling the kitchen with the smell of first snow.



Peter Jay Shippy is the author of Thieves Latin, winner of the 2002 Iowa Poetry Prize, Alphaville (BlazeVox, 2006), and How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic (Rose Metal Press, 2007). He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2005 he received a Gertrude Stein Award for innovative poetry. He teaches writing at Emerson College.

Jordan Rothschild hails from Philadelphia and is a graduate of Temple University. He is currently completing a M.A. degree in English. He enjoys exploring the rich cultural heritage of the City of Brotherly Love.

Kendra DeColo on Gender, Sexuality, and “Loving the Fuck Out of One Thing” in Thieves in the Afterlife

decoloYou do so much throughout Thieves in the Afterlife. For example, there are some poems that respond to the work of other poets and artists, and others that challenge commonly held beliefs about gender and sexuality. But in the midst of this intricate dialogue, you still manage to craft your poems expertly, layering unique images on top of each other and including intricate sound patterns throughout the collection. Where do you usually begin when writing a new poem–with an image or phrase, or with the underlying meaning or idea?
Right now, I’m reading the Best American Poetry series edited by Terrance Hayes, and he begins his introduction with the line, “What we end up making, whether it’s something we do by ourselves or with others, is always a form of conversation” (from Eugene Gloria’s “Liner Notes for Monk”). His whole essay/interview is incredible. I love the idea that poems are conversations—with our obsessions, shadow selves, the constant negotiation of trying to stay human/decent. My poems usually begin with trying to capture a mood or tone, the desire to embody a feeling, to speak back to what fills me with reverence, rage, or awe. I want to be in my body when I write, so I try to begin with the concrete and then hopefully elevate it through tension and dissonance. The poem is a way to hold the feeling: a vessel for keeping what I love and a prism to reflect complex and simultaneous experience.

Gender is especially important in this collection. Many of the poems throughout Thieves in the Afterlife take instances of female degradation and transform them into moments of empowerment (as in the first poem, “Anthem,” where the phrase “I Heart Pussy” carved into a bench becomes a declaration of praise instead of remaining crude graffiti). How did you become interested in writing about gender in your poetry?
I’ve been interested in writing/talking/making art about gender for as long as I can remember—maybe starting in middle school when it became clear that girls and boys were treated differently, and no one talked about it or seemed to care. Or when I was 20 and realized that the number of women I knew who’d been sexually assaulted couldn’t be counted on both hands. I have always wanted to write what feels urgent and relevant—gender is always there at the forefront of my experience, shaping the way that I see the world. In poems, I’m able to go to another space that I can’t access in daily life or in a Twitter feed—to complicate the experience of being this body and hopefully create space for others to see themselves and respond. My husband has this phrase —“You just have to care about one thing.” I think this is so true—that all you need for a full life is to love the fuck out of one thing and this will be enough to open your heart and help you connect to the world. An obsession/interest in gender is so woven into everything that moves me, and it drives me to create poems that make people feel alive in their bodies. For me, writing about gender is another way of celebrating the body and claiming the right to be who you are.

In addition to gender, you also write poems about female sexuality. Where many people might gloss over the “messier” or “more graphic” parts of this–like orgasms and clitorises and even pleasure, depending on who you ask–you don’t ever seem to shy away from these topics. Did you find it difficult to write about subjects that some people consider to be inappropriate or even taboo? Was censorship ever a problem, whether from yourself or others?
I feel lucky to have grown up in an open and accepting environment. Despite being from Massachusetts, I never had any ThievesCoverfinalreal shame or Puritanical baggage. I spent a lot of my childhood in Provincetown, Massachusetts where the expression of sexuality is out in the open and celebrated. When I was young, it was clear to me that there were so many ways to exhibit/perform/embody one’s sexuality, and it was a beautiful and liberating thing. So writing about sexuality never felt like a transgression or subversive act, but a natural expression of who I am and the way I am in the world. I want to say that at times, in my poems, the body/sexuality is just a medium, a context for writing about other themes. Why should writing about a clitoris be inappropriate or taboo? But then again, I know that the female body is also a battleground, and it would be naïve to think that writing about it—no matter what my intentions are—isn’t going to trigger or engage with other people’s hang-ups. And the truth is, I want to be provocative in the sense that if someone is uncomfortable with (or threatened by) vaginas or bodily fluids or female sexuality, I would like my poems to challenge them. I’m thinking about the Lars Von Trier movies, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and 2, which were criticized pretty heavily for trying to be “provocative.” The scenes are graphic and sometimes hard to watch, but ultimately it’s about a person owning and reckoning with her desires—completely on her own terms and excluding the male gaze… I guess that’s what I hope to do, to push against whatever tries to keep us feeling powerless, no matter what ideas or images I’m exploring.

One thing I really liked in this collection is how often you used other creative works as inspiration. For example, you titled one poem, After Watching The Misfits,” a few others draw on Rodney Dangerfield for material, and there are others still that use a line, style, or form from another author’s poem. Even though some of these references are a bit older, your poems still comment on present attitudes and current events; you weave the past and present together seamlessly in your work. In what ways do you see poetry as being essentially part of a larger dialogue with other artists, poets, and pop culture icons?
I love that as poets we’re always responding, pushing back, digesting, interrogating, collecting information and influences, and finding a new language for our themes. Pop culture feels especially charged and potent to write about because it is alive, performing and mirroring identity. Think of “Mr. T.” by Terrance Hayes, Marcus Wicker’s love letters, poems by Tim Seibles, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Michael Mlekoday and Sally Wen Mao. Going back to the idea about just needing to love one thing, I find that the most compelling poems are sincere in their infatuations, a way of paying tribute, no matter what they’re about. The hope is to take forms/genres and subvert expectations—to create dissonance, bringing together our obsessions and vocabularies, and articulate our jumbled, tumultuous daily lives through an equally rich and complicated mode of lyric and consciousness.



from Thieves in the Afterlife by Kendra DeColo

Let’s get wasted as avocados,
solemn and shapely
in their alligator skins, lucid, sweet-talking

lovers laid bare on rough blankets,
two-for-a-dollar magic
sacked and clutched

in a child’s alleyway
hand. Let’s get foamed, salty-eyed,
dismembered into smoothness,

gilded and glyphed
onto a retired stripper’s back, smoked
and spooled, shucked

to a mineral glow. Let’s get stupid. Opalescent.
God-complexioned. Viscera strangled
to a shimmer. Ghosted, vanquished,

sticky as hashish, lacquered and whispered
into the Guadalquivir’s ear. Let’s get squalid and romantic
in the squid-pink light

roughing up the tulips, then let’s stumble
down the throat of 3 a.m.
to the titty bar

where Magda will stroke our faces
before breaking our jaws
with those ungodly breasts

and we will cry out with a tenderness
that betrays our hunger, our voices
thatched onto a roof

that collapses under her weight,
twinkling like half-formed
hearts terrorizing

her vastness, green and wild as
another country. Bearable
music wincing between moans.


Kendra DeColo has taught creative writing in prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, and middle schools. She is the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and residency awards from the Millay Colony and the Virgina Center for Creative Arts. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she is founding poetry editor of Nashville Review and Book Review Editor at Muzzle Magazine.

Courtney Kuntz is a recent graduate of Eastern University and soon-to-be resident of Philadelphia. When not packing boxes, she writes poetry and fiction, both of which have appeared in Inklings.

Martha Silano on art, corporations, religion and the American Dream in Reckless Lovely

Martha-SilanoSome poems in your collection Reckless Lovely use scientific language with great lyrical power. Could you explain the relationship between poetry and science and perhaps, more generally, art and science?
Poetry and science go together for me because I grew up in a home with a scientist father and a literature/language-loving mother. One parent, my dad, was very passionate about helping us observe crystals, or showing us how to turn potato peels and cantaloupe rinds into “black gold.” Meanwhile, the other parent, my mom, was taking us to the library, sharing her excitement about a book called Hailstones and Halibut Bones, making us fall in love with language. The first poems I wrote were haiku about grasshoppers, caterpillars, and the like—I was always curious about critters and their doings. When I began reading poetry in high school, I enjoyed those of Whitman and Dickinson—especially the ones with grass and birds and snakes in them. For me, the best way to explain the relationship between art and science is to use Leonardo da Vinci. as a model. Here’s a man who invented the helicopter, calculator, and solar panel, along with positing the theory of plate tectonics, but is best known for painting The Mona Lisa. My parents embodied both forces; they taught me through example that anyone could be both a scientist and an artist – all you had to do was be passionate about what you loved.

The title of your collection comes from your poem therein: “The Untied States of America.” Does this fact give this poem a special significance within the collection?
Yes. America breaks my heart because it’s founded on admirable ideals—life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness—and yet my rational brain tells me that more often than not, nepotism, not meritocracy, determines economic success. Am I shocking anybody when I say that you need to have money, family money, in order to make money? And yet, our beautiful rags-to-riches lie serves as a beacon of hope around the globe. Also, America’s in the sack with her posse of corporations; she is always more than ready to irreparably deplete and blemish herself to keep Boise Cascade and Monsanto satisfied. The only way this makes sense is if corporations are more powerful than countries. It is a sobering thought, but why else would a country plow up native prairie to plant a crop that is inedible unless it passes through the belly of a cow or is chemically concocted into high fructose corn syrup? It’s nuts. Either that, or it’s reckless. Unchecked greed is reckless: the draining of wetlands to build golf courses and five-star resorts. The lovely part is two-fold: what remains pristine (the place the scythe misses), and also, let’s face it, the five-star resort. The title is purposely oxymoronic, a paradoxical conundrum: “I am large; I contain multitudes,” says America, as does this book. Religion is reckless and lovely too. How many have died in the name of a savior or a crusade, and yet aren’t those hand-carved wooden altarpieces from the Middle Ages gorgeous? Finally, in the effort to heat the homes of many, to run their blenders and dishwashers, we have nuclear power. Reckless or lovely? Hard to say…bumblebee  close-up

A group of poems in the collection—to name a few—“How to Read an Italian Renaissance Painting,” “Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows,” and “Leonardo Da Vinci’s Gran Cavallo” speak beautifully about art. Could you talk about some of the difficulties and pleasures of writing about art?
Writing about art is easy. All you have to do is walk around a museum until a piece of art demands your full attention. Once you’ve given it, take notes. What do you see? How do you feel? What was the artist’s intention? Mainly, it’s about lowering expectations, sharing what the art is saying to you. Most importantly, I steer clear of what critics have said about the artist or his/her art, concerning myself only with accurately describing how I see or feel it. I usually conduct research—that’s my favorite part about writing about works of art—but it’s not required. The only difficulty for me right now is I have very little time to visit art museums, and art museums are the best places to view/write about art. Revising is also tough—deciding what needs to be described more clearly, what can fall away, where and if the logic of the poem went south—but it’s pretty much the same process as with any poem.

In your poems you use very precise language as well as airy, other-worldy, poetic language. Could you talk about the tension between these two uses of language?
Sometimes an image needs to be precise and exact; sometimes what you’re going for is more suggestive, less obvious, or you want what you have to say to come out more like a whisper. I remember early on one of my teachers, Henry Carlile, told us about his teacher, Elizabeth Bishop, how she used to admonish them: Don’t underestimate your reader’s intelligence! He’d end by saying “your reader is smart; let him or her connect the dots; you don’t have to do that for them.” Maybe that’s why I smudge out exactness in places –I’m not exactly sure. When it came to revising, I always paid close attention to what my teachers said, often following their advice.

In Reckless Lovely you write about the religion of the old world such as in the poem “Saint Catherine of Siena” and religion in America explored in “Easter Drama” and “God in Utah.” Could you talk about the American religious experience—where it is and where it is going?
Oh, that’s a tall order! I was raised Methodist by two lapsed Catholics. There was plenty of New Testament in the weekly sermons at church, but also quite a bit of Old Testament at home. I was trying to come to grips with the unanswerables in this book—where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we headed? But also, do any of the organized religions provide satisfactory answers? I happened to visit two areas of the country—Utah and Arkansas—where Mormonism and Christianity are a bit more pronounced than up here on the left coast. I meant to include poems about Krishna and Buddha, but they never fully materialized. I don’t know where religion is going in America. If I attempted to come up with an answer, it would come off as narrow-minded, judgmental, clue-less. There are others—historians, journalists, wise sages—who are more suited to answer this question. My religious knowledge is very limited, but it does not seem to keep me from poking around where I shouldn’t be poking. I guess that’s one of the jobs of the poet.


Ode to Frida Kahlo’s Eyebrows
from Reckless Lovely

Cult of the brow ascending like a condor,
of refusal to bow to the whimsy of busy tweezers.
From follicle to follicle, freedom unfurls.
Brow most buxom. Ferret brow.
Brow channeling Hieronymus Boschian shenanigans.
Brow championing Duchampian high jinx.
Brow side-skirting ye olde pot o wax.
Brow hobnobbing with Salvador Dali’s mustache.
Mink stole brow; brow I-stole-it-from-a-rodent.
Brow suggesting a profuse, gargantuan beard.
Circus-circuit brow.
Brow that never shook hands with laser.
Most inexplicable brow, most unpixelated.
Bad luck black kitten brow on the prowl.
Mercury in retrograde brow.
Brow undaunted by a John Deere tractor.
Brow the embodiment of national glory.
Brow the mystic mestiza, but brow also
weeping with dislodged fetus, with loss and forlornness.
Brow a come-hither furry viper.
Brow the little known Black Shag Slug.
Brow the unretractable bewhiskered tongue.
Brow the fleecy fluke, tufted cobra, downy leech.
Brow the dark secret of the fastidiously plucked,
that perpetual raised-brow surprise.
Brow surprising, but unsurprised.
Brow the prismatic lion in the wardrobe when you were expecting beige scarves.
Brow adding a bristly flourish to bright Tehuana dress.
Sing holy praises to the insistence of the brow.
Sit down and write a letter to the core beliefs of the brow.
Knit a sweater to the milagro-like votivity of the brow.
Conjure new words to praise the liftingness of brow.
Flamenco to the mural-worthiness of the brow.
Praise god for the untamability of the brow.
Brow most steadfast. Brow on endless loop,
brow most perennial, most acanthus.
Brow aching, yet soaring like an unruffled raven.
Unamputated brow.
Brown never renouncing its femininity.
Feminine brow donning its midnight suit.
Brow the corpse that proves the path to the next.
Brow never resting in peace.
Long live the flourish of the stalwart, seaward sooty gull in every self-portrait.
Long live the childlike exuberance of the feisty, the feral. Long live the monkeys
and parrots, perched beside the unwieldy, the emblematic.
Long live those wooly-bear wonders worthy of worship, like two black wings—
signature smudges left by the pig twirling on a spit.
todas las dias, todas las noches.


Martha Silano is the author of three previous collections including the winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize selected by Campbell McGrath, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia Books, 2010), Blue Positive (Steel the Books, 2006), and What the Truth Tastes Like (Nightshade, 1999). Her poems have appeared in over a dozen anthologies and The Best American Poetry 2009.

Jordan Rothschild hails from Philadelphia and is a graduate of Temple University. He is currently completing a M.A. degree in English. He enjoys exploring the rich cultural heritage of the City of Brotherly Love.

Sebastian Agudelo on sociology, place & metaphysics in Each Chartered Street

PhotoEach Chartered Street is, in many ways, both a critical and lovingly hopeful song for Philadelphia. How did place come to be so important in your recent work?
Place in Each Chartered Street is mainly incidental. I do admire poets who’ve given us great, textured portraits of place, particularly cities. Anne WintersNew York, Roy Fisher’s Birmingham and Ciaran Carson’s Belfast come to mind. Though if they inform my work it is rather from long acquaintance and not from deliberate borrowings. The poem “Corner,” looks at kids from a ritzy private school driving a Mercedes going one way and a neighborhood kid in a pimped-up Impala going the opposite way—a spectacle one gets to see quite often if you walk around the time school lets out. The poem argues at some point that any other places would be equally legitimate to explore that rift. So to me the book is not a portrait of Philadelphia—though I’m flattered when readers find the portrait compelling or well rendered. What I wanted to deal with was my neighborhood and its social tensions and by extension the concept being a neighbor. In that context, the different social classes that share the space were more important. It’s a weird place where less than a block walk will take you from that last, high-rise project standing in the city, to eight-room Victorian houses with more than a quarter million dollar price tag. Within that huge range, you also have many property-owning folk sliding up and down different income brackets but somewhat middle class, and each and every one of them has a different claim: you have the conservationists, the guys obsessed with crime, the parents, the dog rescuers. So many of these claims are incompatible. I hope at the heart of the book, the central question is whether this domestic, bourgeois society is sustainable at all, while at the same time trying to write what it feels like to be uncertain and yet reasonably stable while surrounded by instability.

Many of the poems in this collection are quite long and take us in so many directions: from the crack house down the street, to your daughter’s play room, sometimes ending in a completely different place. Could you tell me a little bit about your poetic process, and how these poems come to take their form?
The easy answer is that I like poems to be both capacious and layered. My poems I think are often reconciling or working out different possibly contradictory impulses. I like narrative but find much of narrative poetry to be too anecdotal, so if I’m working in a narrative poem I resist the anecdote and try to short circuit it with other suggestive material. “Testimony” is a case in point, with the Chinese woman whose husband kidnaps their kid. It started as a straight narrative and had the first line from the outset, and it felt like one of those poems where you know you are reading about a victim, so you’ve got to feel something. Then just an OED search sort of opened the poem up and allowed me to place the character in a larger and sonically more interesting canvas. Some other poems begin—or I think I begin them—as well-argued Metaphysical poems. I like how the Metaphysical poem feels more argued than others. What I end up with most of the time though are poems that are too densely packed, crabbed and gnarled, so I try to inflect them with detail to let them breath a bit. “Knowledge,” the opening poem is a case in point. It began as this dense thing where the focus was these two kinds of knowing, the middle-age’s guy and the kids doing homework. It became a lot more interesting as I got the kids to do stuff in the poem.

Each Chartered Street often takes a sociological attitude, critiquing the political and economic tensions of urban life and the broader structures that create them. Your previous collection, To the Bone, shows a similar inclination towards the critical. How did social commentary become such an integral part of your poetry?
I gave a copy of the book to a sociologist, friend/colleague of mine mainly because he had been incredibly supportive at some point and did not expect him to read it. He actually read it and recognized the sociological bend but praised—and I take any praise I can—that Each Chartered Street knew better and different than sociologists because the latter are only interested in models and not in people. I write poems because they help me understand things that I find perplexing. I’m interested in discrepancies between those sanctioned narratives we tell ourselves and what is actually going on. To the Bone for instance began as I was working in and living through a sort of glamorization of food, chefs, etc. Each Chartered Street also tried to tackle the more rosy-eyed versions of community. Within that framework, I try to get things as they really are.EachCharteredStreetAgudelo

In a similar vein: for you, does poetry have a place in the call for social change, and if so, where is it?
No. Not at all. I know people don’t want to hear it, but poetry is too elitist and its audience too narrow for any social change to take place. Moreover, it doesn’t matter in what time zone poets fall—anywhere from formalism to experimental, most poets share similar political values. So to write poems for social change would be like preaching to the choir. I distrust most calls for social change—though I guess I’m a meliorist of sorts, a pessimistic one. Still poetry as a tool for social change seems antithetical to me. If poetry is good at anything, it is good at zeroing in on our ambiguities and sound the emotional resonances there, so ambiguity and social change seem like a recipe for disaster. Not that certainty and calls social change have done any better historically.

To the Bone and Each Chartered Street are both works built from constant observation of your surroundings and imagination of their backgrounds and histories. Any current projects in the works?

I’m writing. I know the evidence is against me but I really don’t work on projects or don’t set to do so in any case. Some poets do like that. If I ended with thematically coherent books, I did so because of my work load. As the poem “Commute” makes clear, I adjunct and am running from place to place. Its not a good thing for sustained writing of any kind. So the reason the two books got written, the incentive to get up and write, was really that I could revisit a single place I’d grown fond of for a few hours every day. That’s more or less what Coetzee says about writing novels.


Sebastian Agudelo is the author of Each Chartered Street (2013) and To the Bone (2009), winner of the 2008 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, selected by Mark Doty. He teaches at University of the Arts and lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia.

Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania and an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was the 2014 recipient of the David and Jean Milofsky Prize in Creative Writing. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spillway, and other journals.