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

Dear Saturnalia Books readers and fans,

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

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

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

May 2021 bring you all much needed joy,

Henry Israeli


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

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

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

Derek Mong’s The Identity Thief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Children picking up our bones

            Will never know that these were once

            As quick as foxes on the hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Mong’s Other Romes

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

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

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

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

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

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

immaculuate conception.jpg

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

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

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

I hate your kneecaps floating free

in their salty baths. I hate your knees,

both of them, and I hate your eyelashes,

especially the ones that fall out, the ones

you’re supposed to wish on:

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

At the China Palace the plates piled high with Mu Shu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Don’t Like Paradise 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



for the innocents massacred at Mother Emmanuel AME Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

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