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

Saturnalia Poetry Prize is NOW OPEN!

Just like last year, we have opened our submissions for our poetry prize and look forward to seeing your manuscripts!

UNLIKE last year, we have not one, but TWO PRIZES available! We hope that the Saturnalia Poetry and Editors Prizes will support the poetry community by publishing two fantastic bodies of work.

This year our contest is judged by poet Natalie Diaz.

Submissions will be accepted until April 1st at 11:59PM.

Review our guidelines and submit here.

Small Presses Are Built By Communities: We Need Your Support

We love our work, our poets, and our readers and want to continue supporting poetry. Will you help us do that?

Donate to Saturnalia Books and choose from a wide variety of perks including signed copies of your favorite books, Saturnalia merch, writing consultations and more! Click here to see all of our exciting perks and support Saturnalia.

See what our poets and editors have to say about the press, and get a sneak peak at what to expect from Saturnalia this coming year!


“Fall” in Love With Our New Books

With fall comes new books and events from Saturnalia. As previewed in our last newsletter, Hadara Bar-Nadav’s The New Nudity and Sebastian Agudelo’s The Bosses are soon to be released. Find out what else has been happening with Saturnalia.


Come see us at the fourth annual Philalalia! We will be there selling books and saying hello to everyone. Please come see us and all of the other wonderful presses and poets who will be in attendance.

Thank you to everyone who came and saw us at the New York Poetry Festival! Our interns had a great time and we hope you enjoyed our books.

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:

Saturnalia Summers are All Work (And Some Play)

We hope you have all had a fabulous summer thus far! With so much going at Saturnalia, we figured it was time to check in: we have some upcoming events and new books to share with you. From our upcoming fall books, here is a taste from BOTH Hadara Bar Nadav’s The New Nudity and Sebastian Aguledo’s The Bosses. Once you soak them up, read on to find a review on Hadara’s previous work, and more about where we’ll be this summer/what’s coming up next!

[Hadara Bar Nadav]

A zombie is a head
with a hole in it.

Layers of plastic,
putty, and crust.

The mindless
must be sated.

Mottled men who will
always return

mouthing wet

You rise already
harmed and follow

my sad circle

as if dancing
on shattered legs.

Shoeless, toeless,
such tender absences.

You come to me

in linens and reds,

eternal, autumnal
with rust and wonder.

My servant, sublimate
and I am yours

(the hot death
we would give each other).

My dark ardor,
my dark augur.

Love to the very open-
mouthed end.

We are made of
so much hunger.



Political Animal
[Sebastian Aguledo]

This poem has no politics in it.
People cast their vote.
There is in it an elected official,
a Sheriff strutting
like a would-be cacique
through something like a new frontier.
He’s not the one in the news.
Though the off the record
small print benefice of office
and the invisible ink wrote
his ticket, there is of a piece.
I want him at his cinematic best
with Wyatt pull on boots,
a Stetson in a train yard
not there to scavenge evidence
meet an enemy or take bribes,
just scale him against late afternoon.
He is policing a county that’s like
the country’s paysage moralisé
with, on the one hand, boredom,
ammo rooms and anger,
on the other, nothing
at least during the working week:
three gateway Polo ranches
executives fly in for weekends
to hang out with a star or politician.
Ah, also the Mexicans that tend
and groom, stashed midway
between town and ranches.
He’ll keep their volume down
and the townspeople know it.
They like the good boy done good
yarn even if some heard otherwise,
that from honorable discharge
to damned near untouchable,
the trajectory might’ve had
more than a few sordid stops.
Someone makes him as the bouncer
who disappeared from the scene
downstate a few years ago.
A buddy of his has been heard tell
he drives the red head and the Thai
on his cruiser to the mansion
where they lezzy-up for senator
in town and he is capitalizing
on the overtime and the discretion,
is getting tips on what cheap
fallow lands state is eyeing
for its principal industry these days,
pop-up presidios everywhere.
There is a parable here somewhere,
though none of this might be true.
I want Sheriff  in the train yard
backlit amid old grass and fence,
so much the makeup of America
no hinterland, no back wood
empty maybe but with major
congressional sway and pawns
turned venture capitalists
from nothing and with nothing
but obsequiousness and guns.
Freeze-frame him till sun sets,
sunset can swallow him whole.


Praise for Telepathologies

“Cortney Lamar Charleston’s “How Do You Raise a Black Child?” is a poem for today and every other day. It’s brutal and hopeful, truthful and sad. And more important, the poem invites us to all the other raw, necessary, and commanding work in Charleston’s debut,Telepathologies.”- Michael Levan, American MicroReviews



New York Poetry Festival
On July 29th and 30th, Saturnalia Books will make their way to New York’s Annual Poetry Festival– AGAIN! The festival takes place on Governor’s Island and runs from 11am to 6pm– stop by to say hi and get your hands on new books!
Get Caught Up on Our Author Interviews
Need something to read this the summer? Visit our blog to catch up on our Author Interviews, including past interviews with poets Cortney Lamar Charleston, Robert Ostrom, and Sandra Simonds. Listen to the poets read some of their own work as well.

Saturnalia Annual Contest is Here!

Since AWP, we have kicked off our annual Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize! This year, our judge, Ross Gay, will be reading through the best that Saturnalia has to offer. All of our guidelines and our Submittable link can be found here. Winners receive $2,000 and publication by Saturnalia Books. We look forward to receiving your submission!

We have some extremely exciting news regarding our annual reading, our latest Saturnalia Poetry Prize winner, and our NEWLY RELEASED BOOKS! Make sure to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook for the most up-to-date information on everything Saturnalia Books is doing!


NEW Saturnalia Books Out NOW!


Our latest books, Telepathologies by Cortney Lamar CharlestonThe True Book for Animal Homes by Allison Titus, and Sweet Insurgent by Elyse Fenton are ALL OUT NOW! Get your hands on them today!


Cortney Lamar Charleston: Breakout Poet 


Since winning the 2016 Saturalia Books Poetry Prize, Cortney has seen great success with his bookTelepathologies. He has been featured on the cover of POETRY and just received a fellowship from the New Jersey Council of Arts. While he continues to receive recognition for his poetry, he has not gotten comfortable– he has begun work on his newest manuscript.


Annual Saturnalia Poetry Reading in Philadelphia


Saturnalia Books hosts its annual poetry reading. Join us this year at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, April 6th from 6pm to 8pm!
This years poets include: Saturnalia poets Cortney Lamar Charleston (Telepathologies), Allison Titus (The True Book of Animal Homes) and Stephanie Rogers (Plucking the Stinger). Fritz Ward will also be reading (author of Tsunami Diorama). We look forward to seeing you there!

Get Ready for the Annual Saturnalia Poetry Reading

Saturnalia Books is excited to announce to host its annual poetry reading at the Philadelphia Art Alliance! This year’s program includes Cortney Lamar Charleston, Cave Canem fellow and winner of the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize selected by DA Powell for Telepathologies. In Cortney’s own words: “Telepathologies is an uncompromising exploration of the violences surrounding the singular and collective black body, and consequently, is an excavation intent on finding the soul of a nation, our nation, that has yet to come to terms with its bloody past and present.” His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry JournalGulf CoastHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Iowa Review, The JournalNew England Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Spillway, TriQuarterly and elsewhere.

Also reading will be Allison Titus, author of the poetry collections, The True Book of Animal Homes (Saturnalia Books, 2017), Sum of Every Lost Ship, and a novel, The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire. Her poems have been published in A Public Space, Tin House, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. In 2011 she was the recipient of a fellowship from the NEA. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is at work on a book of poems about tears and the history of crying.

The other two poets reading this year include Stephanie Rogers and Fritz Ward, recipient of the Cecil Hemley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America. Stephanie Rogers is the author of Plucking the Stinger (Saturnalia Books, 2016), and her poems have appeared in journals such as Pleaides, Ploughshares, Southern Review, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast, among others. Three of her poems were selected for inclusion in the emerging writers anthology Best New Poets (2013, 2009, 2006.) Last but not least, Fritz Ward is the author of Tsunami Diorama and his poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Best New Poets, Blackbird, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere.

The event will be held at the Philadelphia Art Alliance (251 S 18th Street) on THURSDAY, APRIL 6TH from 6PM TO 8PM and NO ADMISSION FEE is required.

Feel free to reach out to us on our Facebook page (Saturnalia Books) or on Twitter (@SaturnaliaBooks) with any questions regarding our reading! We look forward to seeing you there!



Philadelphia Art Alliance

Saturnalia Facebook

Author Pages/Book Links:

Cortney Lamar Charleston, Telepathologies

Stephanie Rogers, Plucking the Stinger

Allison Titus, The True Books of Animal Homes

Fritz Ward, Tsunami Diorama


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.