Behind Their Words

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.

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.

Favorite Video Snippets of Saturnalia Books’ Authors Reading at AWP 2015

Missed our fabulous off-site reading at the New Century Theatre at AWP this year? Here are a few snippets of what you missed. Be sure to join us in LA for AWP 2016. Stay tuned for our list of readings/events.

Catherine Pierce reads “She Considers Trading Her Secrets” from Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia Books)

Hadara Bar Nadav reads “Lullaby (with Exit Sign)” from Lullaby (with Exit Sign) (Saturnalia Books)

Jay Nebel reads “Paradise” from Neighbors (Saturnalia Books)

Natalie Shapero reads “Stars” from No Object (Saturnalia Books)

Timothy Liu reads “This Too Shall Pass” from Don’t Go Back to Sleep (Saturnalia Books)

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

Saturnalia Authors Win NEA Grant

An enormous congratulations to Saturnalia Books authors Natalie Shapero and Laurie Saurborn Young for winning two of thirty-six coveted National Endowment for the Arts Grants for Creative Writing Fellowships.

natalie_photo  LSYoung_Author_Photo_2

Laurie Saurborn Young’s latest collection Industry of Brief Distraction is due out in Fall 2015 from Saturnalia Books, and Natalie Shapero’s book No Object can be purchased here.

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Way to go, Saturnalia poets!

Please help us continue to publish nationally-recognized poetry by donating to our Indiegogo campaign. Thanks for your support!

Saturnalia Pushcart Prize Nominees Announced

SB logoSaturnalia Books is pleased to share

our Pushcart nominees for this year:


decoloThievesCoverfinalBy Kendra DeColo:
“The Strap-On Speaks”
“God is a Capitalist”

From Thieves in the Afterlife


By Kristi Maxwell:
“To Keeping We Did Not Forget”

From That Our Eyes Be Rigged

By Timothy Liu:
“A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits”

From Don’t Go Back to Sleep



By Martha Silano:
“The Untied States of America”
“God in Utah”

From Reckless Lovely

bumblebee  close-up






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

Love our interview series? Consider donating to Saturnalia Books Indiegogo campaign, so we can continue to bring you this behind-the-scenes content. Support great poetry by clicking here.

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.