2022 Disability Futures Fellowship Recipients Announced

Six poets and writers are among the twenty recipients of this year’s Disability Futures Fellowship, which comes with a $50,000 grant for each fellow. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford foundations and administered by United States Artists, the initiative supports the work of disabled writers, filmmakers, and artists across the United States—the only national, multidisciplinary award for creative practitioners with disabilities.

The 2022 Disability Futures fellows include JJJJJerome Ellis, a poet and composer from Norfolk, Virginia; Kenny Fries, a writer from Kauneonga Lake, New York, and Berlin; Camisha L. Jones, a poet from Herndon, Virginia; Wendy Lu, a journalist in New York City; Naomi Ortiz, a poet, writer, and visual artist from Tucson; and poet and writer Khadijah Queen. Other fellows include a choreographer, a screenwriter, a historian, and a music producer, as well as other artists and activists.  

“Created out of conversation, collaboration, and care, Disability Futures offers a chance to honor and learn from generations of artists,” Emil J. Kang, the Mellon Foundation’s arts and culture program director, said in a press release. “It’s wonderful to announce that this community just grew larger.”  

Launched in 2020 with an inaugural class of twenty fellows, the Disability Futures Fellowship aims to address the marginalization of disabled artists, who often face discrimination and struggle financially due to healthcare costs and other expenses that can limit access to cultural spaces. The fellowship was the culmination of a yearlong research project spearheaded by the Ford Foundation and conducted by United States Artists, which interviewed dozens of disabled makers about their experiences, needs, and professional goals.

Feedback from the first cohort of fellows has already led to some changes in the Disabilities Futures Fellowship program. Applications are no longer required, for example, a move meant to eliminate a barrier to entry. Potential fellows are nominated, with finalists selected by a panel and confirmed by an advisory council of disabled creative practitioners.

Fellows are free to use the $50,000 grants as they see fit, a benefit that uniquely empowers recipients: “[A] bit of financial freedom (money with no strings attached) goes a long way,” Christine Sun Kim, an artist and 2020 Disability Futures fellow, said in a press release.

In an article on the fellowship in the January/February 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—Grants Celebrate Disability CultureDeafBlind poet, essayist, and translator John Lee Clark praised the fellowships as a significant step toward fully embracing disabled writers and artists in the cultural sphere. Initially conceived as a two-year initiative, Disability Futures last summer announced an expanded commitment of five years.

“I think that the critical mass factor is key,” Clark told disabled writer M. Leona Godin. “Now we have twenty disabled artists as the recipients of what is the rough equivalent of winning a Guggenheim. That is quite a message.”

 

Grants Celebrate Disability Culture

by

M. Leona Godin

12.16.20

In October, twenty disabled artists were announced as the first class of Disability Futures Fellows and received grants of $50,000 each, to be used in whatever way is most useful in supporting their work. The new fellowships celebrate disability culture by honoring accomplished practitioners in a wide variety of fields, including writing, theater, dance, architecture, painting, and garment making. Developed by the Ford Foundation in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative is administered by United States Artists, a national arts funding organization in Chicago. 

The awards are part of ongoing research conducted by, for, and with disabled practitioners to understand what they want and need from such fellowships, from accessible applications to flexible funds disbursal, because for many disabled artists a monetary award can too easily turn into a punishment. “I will die without my benefits; I get my health insurance through Medicare,” says fellow Riva Lehrer, a painter and the author of Golem Girl (One World, 2020). Full-time employment that offers health benefits can be difficult to maintain for many disabled people for whom hospital stays are more frequent, and eligibility for federal health care benefits is often affected by fluctuations in income. “People need to understand that if getting an award means that you lose your basic benefits and especially your health care, then you’re in much worse shape than otherwise,” says Lehrer. 

“That’s something that we had to learn,” says Margaret Morton, director of the Creativity and Free Expression team of the Ford Foundation. “In that research and that work with disabled practitioners, we were able to gain a sense from their perspective of how they wanted to engage.” Individualized attention to the needs of each fellow is key, especially in terms of funds disbursal—some recipients opted to take their award over the course of several years to avoid jeopardizing life-supporting federal funds. The structure of the award is still being revised, and Morton believes it will continue on a two-year basis rather than an annual one.

As a blind writer I have noticed that it’s still quite rare to find disability mentioned in statements of diversity for grants, residencies, or literary journals. The Disability Futures award suggests that disability culture will become more overtly integral to arts and culture generally. Even if they have not been on the mainstream radar, “disabled, sick, Mad, neurodivergent and Deaf writers and artists aren’t new,” fellow Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha wrote in an e-mail. “We’ve been out here doing this work for a long time!” The author or coeditor of nine books, including Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories From the Transformative Justice Movement (AK Press, 2020), Piepzna-Samarasinha points out that for many people, disability is not about culture, but rather “deficiency,” which leads to situations wherein “you go to the bookstore and ask where the disabled section is and you get a blank stare and uncomfortable laughter.”

Ableism in the publishing industry can only be dismantled if people with disabilities are involved at every level of book creation. Disability activist, media maker, journalist, and Disability Futures fellow Alice Wong is one editor effecting this change. Of her work on Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century (Vintage, 2020), Wong writes: “It was a thrill and privilege to edit an anthology featuring thirty-seven pieces by disabled people who all have powerful and personal stories across different communities and fields. As a disabled editor, I intentionally curated these stories for us, by us and think of it like a Spotify playlist or mixtape from me to the disability community.”

Although the fellows are largely grateful for the award, some also voice misgivings. Eli Clare, author of Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure (Duke University Press, 2017), wrote in an e-mail: “As a white, disabled, genderqueer activist-poet, I dream of a world without police and prisons; without psych wards, group homes, and nursing homes; without capitalism and white supremacy. All of this leaves me unsettled about accepting money from private foundations that often have histories of supporting racism and eugenics and current funding practices that destabilize radical grassroots organizing.” As a result, Clare plans “to use and redistribute the money to create fierce survival, fierce beauty, fierce ugliness, and fierce dreams.”

No one can know what impact Disability Futures, the first major fellowship of its kind, will ultimately have. Disabled artists have occasionally won awards in the past, but not on this scale. “I think that the critical mass factor is key,” DeafBlind poet, essayist, and translator John Lee Clark wrote in an e-mail. “Now we have twenty disabled artists as the recipients of what is the rough equivalent of winning a Guggenheim. That is quite a message.” 

The 2020 fellows reveal the wealth of talent in the disability community, as well as the diversity within it. Considering disabled Americans make up approximately 20 percent of the population, we cannot help but intersect with other often-marginalized identities. For fellow Jen Deerinwater, journalist, memoirist, and founder of the Crushing Colonialism collective, intersectionality is at the core of writing and activism. “Who I am cannot be separated out. Yes, I’m Indigenous. Yes, I’m Two Spirit, I’m disabled. But those things all go together. They don’t exist within silos.”

Deerinwater hopes that the Disability Futures award will “make other people in the arts go, ‘Hey, we need to start working with and listening to and taking direction from disabled and Deaf and ill creatives.’”

 

M. Leona Godin is a writer, a performer, and an educator who is blind. Her first book, There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, is forthcoming from Pantheon in summer 2021.

From left: Writers and 2020 Disability Futures fellows Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Eli Clare, and Alice Wong. (Credit: Piepzna-Samarasinha: Jesse Manuel Graves; Clare: Samuel Lurie; Wong: Eddie Hernandez Photography)

Books Offer Lifeline in Incarceration

by

Alissa Greenberg

12.16.20

In the first letter Danny Harris wrote to Gary Fine from solitary confinement, he made what seemed to Fine like a simple request. “‘Books are like a window to the world,’” Fine remembers Harris writing. “‘I have no window.’” He wondered if Fine could send him one. 

Fine, who works at the Durland Alternatives Library on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York, responded that he was sorry, but his library didn’t send books into prisons. When, to his surprise, he received a follow-up soon after thanking him for writing to Harris “like I’m a real person,” it got Fine thinking: Maybe he could send Harris some books. The epistolary relationship they developed over the next several years eventually grew into something much bigger. Prisoner Express, the sprawling literature-by-mail program Fine oversees from his corner of Cornell, has provided windows to the world for more than thirty thousand people living in incarceration in forty-nine states since its inception in 2004. 

Prisoner Express doesn’t send its correspondents just any books; its packages are curated by a mix of Cornell students and committed locals, part of a team of some four hundred volunteers that also includes remote contributors. Skimming the multicolored multiplicity of used books the program collects for this purpose, a volunteer might first find titles to fit “bodyweight workout, exercise, atheism, and witchcraft/occult,” as one recent letter requested, then move on to “science fiction, historic fiction, tearjerkers, the classics, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The task also requires taking into account the particulars of prison mail regulations, which vary by institution and may require hard-, soft-, or no-cover books, or specify maximum numbers per shipment. If participants are writing from facilities that allow only one or two books at a time, for example, Fine might send them a Norton anthology—something juicy.

These days, dictionaries are Prisoner Express’s most requested books. They used to be hard to source, but with definitions as close as the nearest screen, Fine now finds hundreds of them at book sales. Other perennially popular genres include self-help, chess, ancient history, and philosophy. Once the head of a white-power prison gang wrote asking for Nazi history; Fine sent him a book by Elie Wiesel. Years later he received a letter from the man’s lawyer, along with a donation. His client, the lawyer wrote, had read the book and then told the members of his gang to have their swastika tattoos removed. 

Fine is deeply familiar with a book’s power, as a survivor of child abuse that saw him locked in a room and starved for days at a time. “If I could get a book wherever I was being held, it made all the difference in the world,” he says. So when prisoners receive their packages, each comes with a personalized, handwritten note, since many early book recipients told Fine that the mail they received was the most important thing in their lives at the time. 

As the program grew, Fine started asking his correspondents to respond to short personal prompts; he then collated the results and sent them to the group. Reading the narratives of other people’s similar experiences was powerful, particularly for those who wrote from solitary confinement or deep social isolation, and they told him so. 

Prisoner Express now runs a broad variety of educational programs on topics from meditation and chess to screenwriting and ocean science—all using this Socratic-dialogue-by-mail model, which Fine compares in its unifying power and rhythm to a church’s call-and-response. The program’s songwriting teacher figured out a way to have her students, scattered across prisons, write a song together. Last year Fine managed to get his hands on five hundred copies of Slaughterhouse-Five and led a book club. The science education volunteer named her newsletter “Plasmodesmata,” which refers to “channels to exchange information between cells” in biology. 

Fine says that although books can provide respite, Prisoner Express’s programming is not about escapism. Instead it is “material that takes you deeper inside yourself, a chance for reflection, exploration, and healing,” he argues. Dave Gordon, a participant for fifteen of his more than twenty years of incarceration for conviction of a sex offense, credits Prisoner Express’s journaling program (in which volunteers respond through letters to the innermost thoughts of people in prison) with the personal growth that allowed him to eventually be granted parole. In prison Gordon read continually—by his estimate, some sixteen hundred books during his sentence—and wrote twelve hundred pages in his first year of journaling. “I wanted to understand where I had failed in society,” he says. “How come my values weren’t strong enough to keep me from going to prison? Something was broken in me.” Gordon eventually used what clarity he found in his books and writings to educate others, preparing presentations about emotional development and vulnerability aimed at other sex offenders. 

He joins a chorus of people in prison all over the United States who credit Prisoner Express with not just their education, but their well-being and survival. Jonathan Holeman, who is serving multiple life sentences with no possibility of parole, recently wrote to Fine to say that Prisoner Express helped him to get his GED diploma and to encourage about twenty others to do the same. Prisoner Express “motivated me to keep learning during a time in life when I had little belief in hope for anything better,” he wrote. 

In a letter to Prisoner Express’s volunteers, Christopher Banks wrote, “You all become our families because you’re all there more than other people for us.” And Keith Pertusio put it simply: “Thanks for motivating me to write. It is a part of my recovery. I am a better person when I write.”

Gordon maintains that without Prisoner Express, he would have died by suicide long ago. He chokes up remembering a day when, after a prison presentation, a young man approached him. The man hadn’t known how to tell his mother about his crime, he said, and had been planning on killing himself. “I know now that something was broke inside of me,” Gordon remembers the man saying. “I can tell my mama that I know what it is now, I’m going to fix it, and that this will never happen again. That she can be proud of me.” 

Gordon pauses, taking a deep breath. “That emotional catharsis that happens between you and someone seeing the light is so powerful. And I couldn’t have achieved that without Prisoner Express.”

 

Alissa Greenberg is a volunteer editor at the San Quentin State Prison newspaper, San Quentin News; a staff writer at Nova on PBS; a contributing editor of Bay Nature magazine; and an occasional freelance journalist, reporting stories at the intersection of community, culture, science, and business. 

Gary Fine (center) and Prisoner Express volunteers at a 2020 book sale in Ithaca, New York.  (Credit: Courtesy of Gary Fine)

The American Prison Writing Archive

by

Gila Lyons

12.13.17

In the fall of 2009 writer Doran Larson put out a call for essays from incarcerated people and prison staff about what life was like inside, and five years later, in 2014, Michigan State University Press published a selection of them as Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America. But the essays never stopped coming. “I’m holding a handwritten essay that just arrived today,” Larson said in August. “Once people knew there was a venue where someone would read their work, they kept writing.” Instead of letting this steady stream of essays go unread, Larson decided to create the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), an open-source archive of essays by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers and staffers. Accessible to anyone online, the APWA (apw.dhinitiative.org) is a “virtual meeting place” to “spread the voices of unheard populations.”

With more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. But most Americans don’t know anything about life inside, which can leave them both indifferent to those who live and work there and divorced from the justice system their tax dollars reinforce. Larson hopes to rectify this disconnect with the APWA, and after receiving a $262,000 grant in March from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the archive is poised to do just that.

Larson, who teaches literature and creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, first became involved with the incarcerated population when a friend invited him to a discussion group at Attica Correctional Facility, a New York state prison. Larson listened to men speak about how they were coping with being in prison and was “floored by the honesty and earnestness of those conversations,” he says. A few months later he started a writing group at Attica and became interested in prison writing as a genre. “I spent two summers at the Library of Congress reading all the prison writing I could. I wanted to start an undergraduate course on it. There are a few anthologies of [work by] political prisoners like Martin Luther King Jr. and some small collections from prison writing workshops, but I couldn’t find a wide, national sampling from currently incarcerated people.”

With more than 1,200 essays from people all across the country, the APWA fills that need. The database currently holds three million words’ worth of writing, enough to fill more than eighteen volumes the size of Fourth City, which is a hefty 338 pages. “While reading individual essays can be moving and inspiring, it’s reading in the aggregate that’s valuable and instructive,” says Larson. “One of the extraordinary things has been to see the same themes emerging: staff violence, neglect and abuse at home, drug and alcohol addiction, police aggression.” These shared experiences are part of what inspired Larson to name the collection Fourth City—to represent the fact that the prison and jail population in the United States is larger than that of Houston, Texas, currently the fourth largest city in the country,  and that stories told from inside any prison in the nation can seem as if they’re all coming from the same place.

The APWA is part of Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative. With additional funding for the archive from the NEH grant, Larson plans to continue to solicit, preserve, digitize, and disseminate the work of incarcerated people and prison workers and to hire a part-time assistant. The grant will also go toward finishing an online tool that will allow anyone to transcribe handwritten essays into fully searchable texts and to improve the site’s search functions so users can search by author attribute (race, religion, age, ethnicity), keyword, location, and more.

Larson hopes the archive will be a resource that people will use regularly for academic, policy, and social research. “In the age of big data, we’re trying to help create the era of big narrative, people writing very concretely about what works and doesn’t work,” he says. “Policy-makers might consult this to investigate: How much human pain might be caused because of this policy? When does the law become little more than legalized suffering?” Larson published a book last July, Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration (Rowman & Littlefield), that compared prison writing in Ireland, Africa, and the United States; he is currently working on another book about the archive tentatively titled “Ethics in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

The APWA doesn’t espouse any political view. “The advocacy is done by the writers,” Larson says. “You read ten Holocaust or slave narratives and no one has to tell you what the message is. The difference is that there is a fixed number of slave and Holocaust narratives. But this collection will continue to grow.”      

 

Gila Lyons has written about feminism, mental health, and social justice for Salon, Vox, Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post, Good Magazine, and other publications. Find her on Twitter, @gilalyons, or on her website, gilalyons.com.

Doran Larson, founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. 

Lit Mag Gives Voice to Homeless

by

Adrienne Raphel

10.12.16

Every Tuesday morning, twenty to thirty writers gather in a meeting room in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street in Boston. Each member of the Black Seed Writers Group gets a pen and a yellow legal pad and, after catching up with one another, sits down and gets to work. The writing they produce will eventually fill the pages of the Pilgrim, a literary magazine celebrating its fifth anniversary this December. The Pilgrim looks like just about any of the small literary magazines lining the shelves of local bookstores and cafés, but it is different in one major respect: Its contributors are all part of Boston’s homeless community. 

The Pilgrim is the brainchild of James Parker, a contributing editor and cultural columnist for the Atlantic. In 2011, while on a sixty-mile pilgrimage with the MANNA ministry of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Parker was inspired to launch the writers group and journal with the idea of pilgrimage as a guiding theme. “Homelessness is a state of acute pilgrimage,” writes Parker on the journal’s website, “a condition of material and occasionally moral emergency, and thus a place where the world reveals itself under the pressure, or the pouring-in, of a higher reality.” When he returned from his own pilgrimage, Parker established the Black Seed Writers Group to give homeless people in downtown Boston an opportunity to gather, write, and share their work. The group is named for the nearby café where it first met, but its ranks soon swelled beyond the café’s capacity and it moved to the cathedral next door. Each week, Parker provides a few open-ended prompts to get the writers going. There is no formal workshop, and anyone who is homeless, recently housed, or transitioning into a home is welcome to join. Members of the group come and go, though each week there are at least a few regulars.

“If we’re the Black Seed Writers Group,” says Margaret Miranda, a writer in the group, “the people helping us are mission figs: They surround the black seeds at the center, they’re nurturing, and they’re on a mission. Besides,” she adds, “think of the literary significance of figs.” (When Miranda presented her metaphor to Parker, he asked her if that makes him a mad vegetable. Miranda replied, “In forty years, you will be.”) In addition to Parker, the other volunteers who help facilitate the workshop include Kate Glavin, an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; Libby Gatti, a diocese intern; and James Kraus, a graphic artist who refers to himself as “the other James.” 

Miranda and several other regulars set the group’s tone: After a few minutes of greeting and banter, they settle into their various writing processes and work diligently through the hour. A man named Joe dictates into his phone and transcribes his recording; Steven thumbs through a dictionary; Cody paces back and forth before plunging into his work. Rob, a wiry writer in a Red Sox hoodie, brews the coffee.

“This is the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever been part of,” says Parker, who first connected with the homeless community through music. At age twenty-two, Parker was immersed in Washington, D.C.’s independent music scene, and discovered the city’s Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a thriving facility for the homeless, through the liner notes of a music album. Parker lived at CCNV as a volunteer for several months, but soon moved to Boston and lost touch with the homeless community over the next two decades, until founding the writers group.

After each session, Parker gathers all the work and splits it among himself and the other volunteers to transcribe. He then prints the writing in packets that he distributes the following Tuesday. Within a week of attending the Black Seed Writers Group, therefore, every participant is a published author; additionally, the packet entices writers to return the next week. Parker then chooses work from these packets to include in the Pilgrim, which he publishes eight to ten times per year. The Pilgrim is printed right where it’s produced; the administration at the church lets Parker use its printers, and subscription fees—the journal has a circulation of a few hundred—provide funding for the paper and ink. 

As a writer himself, Parker believes fervently in the power of publication. While he was writing his first book, his wife had one of the chapters printed as a chapbook, and it transformed the way Parker approached his work: “It was so powerful to me to have something published,” he says. When he founded the Pilgrim, the heart of his mission was to publish as many voices as possible—particularly those that would normally go unheard. In 2015, according to government census figures, the homeless population of Boston was 7,663—a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year. Since it was established, in December 2011, the Pilgrim has published more than 150 different writers.

The Pilgrim does not have a specific style; instead, writers are encouraged to find their own style, and to push their voices deeper. Participants write poems, stories, memoirs, prayers, protests, and everything in between. One regular attendee, Rolando, is a journalist who catalogues various aspects of life at the shelter through a series of bullet points that create something between a list, a poem, and an essay. One week he wrote about lost property; the next week he categorized the various safety nets at the shelter. Cody writes prophetic images from his imagination. He describes a dream cover for his book, were he to write one: a rendering of the globe with a seven-headed serpentine monster crawling out of a deep chasm in the center.

In 2014 Parker expanded the Pilgrim to include a book imprint, No Fixed Address Press. Its first publication was Paul Estes’s science fiction novel, Razza Freakin’ Aliens, a madcap space opera featuring the intergalactic adventures of Dave the Spy, who encounters many multispecies creatures, such as rebel alien cats that yell, “Hairrbawlz, kill ’em all!” This year, the press published Miranda’s debut collection of poetry, Dressing Wounds on Tremont Street. The book is at once devotional and jocular, weaving together portentous subjects with light banter; think John Donne meets Kenneth Koch. 

 

Now, Parker says, No Fixed Address Press is concentrating on what he calls broadsheets—chapbook-length collections that are easier, cheaper, and quicker to produce than full-length books. Any profits that the Pilgrim and No Fixed Address Press might bring in from sales go directly into producing the next publications. Parker is excited to watch the group’s reach naturally expand, but is careful to avoid a “dissipation of essence,” as he puts it. As the group grows, it’s important for Parker to maintain an environment of openness, encouragement, and safety—an intimate space where members can nurture each other as writers. “We want growth that’s real growth,” said Parker. “Growth as writers.” 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University. 

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers

by

Tara Jayakar

6.14.17

For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing’s poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor.

(Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

Amanda Gorman Named National Youth Poet Laureate

by

Maggie Millner

4.27.17

Last night in New York City, at a historic ceremony at Gracie Mansion, nineteen-year-old Amanda Gorman of Los Angeles was named the first national youth poet laureate. The unprecedented title, to be awarded annually, honors a teen poet who demonstrates not only extraordinary literary talent but also a proven record of community engagement and youth leadership.

For Gorman, poetry and civic outreach aren’t separate interests. The Harvard University freshman knows firsthand that creative writing can build confidence and a sense of community among young people whose voices are often underrepresented in mainstream dialogue. In 2016 she founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit organization that provides an “online platform and creative writing programs for student storytellers to change the world.” She continues to serve as the organization’s executive director.

Gorman’s own writing often addresses the intersections of race, feminism, and adolescence, as well as the changing landscape of her native Los Angeles. For both her poetry and her advocacy, Gorman has been recognized by Forbes, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the YoungArts Foundation, and the OZY Genius Awards. She has also performed on The Today Show, ABC Family, and Nickelodeon News, and helped introduce Hillary Clinton at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards.

“For me, being able to stand on a stage as a spoken word poet, as someone who overcame a speech impediment, as the descendent of slaves who would have been prosecuted for reading and writing, I think it really symbolizes how, by pursuing a passion and never giving up, you can go as far as your wildest dreams,” said Gorman at the ceremony on Wednesday evening. “This represents such a significant moment because never in my opinion have the arts been more important than now.”

Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate.
 

The event represented the culmination of years of work by arts organizations across the country. In 2009 literary arts nonprofit Urban Word NYC, in partnership with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and Mayor’s Office, began bestowing the annual title of New York City youth poet laureate on one visionary poet between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, says the program was founded on a belief that “young poets deserve to be in spaces of power, privilege, and governance, and to have their voices front and center of the sociopolitical dialogue happening in our city.”

Since the inception of New York’s youth poet laureate program, arts and literacy organizations in over thirty-five cities have followed suit, launching their own youth laureateship positions. As it spread nationally, the program garnered support from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and PEN Center USA, among other major poetry organizations. Finally, in 2016, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities partnered with Urban Word to bring the program to the national level.

Last July a jury of prominent poets, including U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang, and Academy of American Poets executive director Jen Benka, narrowed the pool of local laureates down to five national finalists. Poets were evaluated on the caliber and subject matter of their poems, as well as their commitment to serving their communities through volunteer and advocacy work, and each finalist was selected to represent a geographic region of the country (Northeast, Southeast, South, Midwest, and West). Along with Gorman, Hajjar Baban of Detroit, Nkosi Nkululeko of New York City, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay of Nashville, and Andrew White of Houston were named the first annual regional laureates and finalists for the inaugural national youth poet laureateship.

Each finalist received a book deal with independent press Penmanship Books, which published Gorman’s first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. Over the past year, the finalists have also had the opportunity to perform for large audiences at renowned venues, including the Poetry Foundation, the Kennedy Center, and the White House. As the national youth poet laureate, Gorman will continue to give readings and participate in events across the country throughout her yearlong term.

“The role of poetry, especially in marginalized communities, is to provide a voice to those who are traditionally silenced,” says Cirelli, “and the best way to effect social change is to provide platforms for youth to tell their stories. We hope to leverage our work to allow these diverse stories to be told in spaces that have historically omitted youth voices, and to energize and engage the issues that they are most passionate about.”

The ceremony at Gracie Mansion featured performances by three of the finalists, as well as a roster of current and former New York City youth poets laureate. The performers were introduced by a group of acclaimed poets, including American Book Prize winner Kimiko Hahn and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith. Nkululeko recited a poem about his hair, a metaphor through which he discussed his relationship with his mother and collective African American history. Baban, who was named runner-up for the national title, recited a sestina on language, family, and her Muslim name. Finally, Gorman delivered a poem about how her speech impediment led her to discover writing.

“I am so grateful to be part of this cohort of young creatives who are taking up their pens to have a voice for what is right and what is just,” Gorman said in her acceptance speech. “I don’t just want to write—I want to do right as well.”

 

Maggie Millner is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.  
 

Q&A: Yang Inspires Young Readers

by

Dana Isokawa

2.15.17

In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.

What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.

What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.

What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.

Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.

Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.

Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.

What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Academy Establishes Web Resource for Teen Poets

6.18.09

Yesterday, the Academy of American Poets launched a new online poetry resource targeted at teenage readers and writers of poetry. The initiative was conceived after the organization conducted a survey of visitors to its Web site and found that 75 percent of users developed an interest in poetry before the age of eighteen.

The new home page features writing resources and a collection of poems for teens, as well as links to the organization’s discussion forum and a comprehensive index of Web sites and reference materials for poets. A “Leave Your Mark” feature prompts teen users to share indispensable lines of poetry, upcoming events, and to create virtual poetry notebooks of their own design featuring poems, writer profiles, and interviews culled from the Academy’s site.

Young writers are also prompted to sign up for the “Street Team” newsletter, which will notify them of poetry projects and contests in which they could participate. Planned programs include the Free Verse Photo Project, in which a line of poetry is written using a temporary medium and photographed before it disappears, the National Poetry Writing Month challenge and pledge drive, and Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The home page initiative was funded by close to five hundred Academy members, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports advancement of artistic inquiry and scholarship, and the graduating class of 2008 from Holmdel High School in New Jersey.

Little Libraries, Big Impact

by

Emma Hine

12.16.20

Early in March a box was erected outside the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans (AAMA) in Houston. Orange and with a slightly pitched roof, the box stands on a short post and bears illustrations by John Parra from the children’s book Little Libraries, Big Heroes (Clarion Books, 2019). It is large enough to hold at least twenty books for neighborhood residents to borrow and read.

This box is a Little Free Library, the work of the eponymous Wisconsin-based nonprofit that seeks to increase both access to and love for reading within communities. When the organization’s founder, Todd Bol, first placed a schoolhouse-shaped box in his yard in 2009 as a memorial to his mother, he wanted to foster book exchanges among his neighbors. In 2012, Bol founded the related nonprofit, and when he died in 2018 there were more than seventy-five thousand Little Free Libraries in eighty-eight countries. In Bol’s New York Times obituary, his brother Tony spoke of the program’s success: “What was powerful about it was that all you needed was the idea…. You just build it, or order it, then put it up in your yard, like a public art monument.”

The box outside the AAMA isn’t just any Little Free Library—it’s the one hundred thousandth Little Free Library in the world, and it was made possible through the Impact Library Program, an initiative launched in 2016 that has so far provided more than one thousand no-cost boxes to applicants in communities where books are scarce. Recipients commit to setting up the library and maintaining it for at least a year, taking a picture and sharing its story, and holding a book-related neighborhood activity. Applications are also frequently part of larger initiatives to build connection around books; Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, for instance, hopes to eventually erect numerous libraries along “walkable loops throughout the community for families to enjoy [for] walking and bicycle riding.”

Along with fostering community and a love of reading, the Impact Library Program seeks to improve literacy nationwide. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, forty-two million adults in the United States cannot read in English at a third-grade level—and a lack of access to books contributes to this crisis. This lack is often particularly pronounced in Native communities, and a special branch of the Impact Library Program, the Native Library Initiative, has so far placed sixty-nine book-sharing boxes on tribal lands. The poet Heid E. Erdrich says in a short video about the initiative, “Little Free Libraries are not just going to be in suburban yards and on street corners anymore; there are Little Free Libraries popping up on reservations and in Native communities across the United States.” An Impact Library Program application from Jamie P. in South Dakota, who received a box in 2018, described the need for a local book exchange: Their reservation the size of Connecticut had only one library, few families owned vehicles, the schools were overburdened, and not many people had internet access.

The Impact Library Program’s mission to expand access to books near children’s homes has only grown more important since the donation of AAMA’s orange box in March. In May the Associated Press noted an increase in Little Free Libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic, both in their original capacity as book-sharing locations and as “little free pantries” offering canned food donations, jigsaw puzzles, handmade masks, and more. Between March and September 2020 the Impact Library Program saw 40 percent more applications than during the same period in 2019, and according to Shelby King, the director of programs at Little Free Library, these applications frequently cite pandemic-related school and library closures as reasons a book-sharing box would make a difference. 

Candice Arancibia, a third-grade teacher and literacy coach who received a box for her home near the Mexico-California border through the Impact Library Program in September, applied after noticing that during distance learning her students have limited access to books—and those they do have “often aren’t those of the BIPOC experience.” She hopes her new box will make it easy for children from local schools to come by and find books that resonate with them. 

King says the importance of sharing diverse books has been a common refrain in recent applications. In response, Little Free Library has launched the Read in Color initiative, through which library stewards and others can pledge to share books that incorporate experiences and perspectives from people of many different identities. Distributing both diverse and anti-racist books is particularly important, Arancibia says, because “it’s not until we begin to share our stories that we can actually begin to be seen, and we start to understand people and build empathy.”

 

Emma Hine is the author of Stay Safe, which received the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and will be published in January 2021 by Sarabande Books.

Young readers at Jenks East Elementary in Jenks, Oklahoma, have access to books through the seventy-five thousandth Little Free Library, built through the Impact Library Program.  (Credit: Jenks East Elementary)

Homegrown Libraries

by

Alex Dimitrov

10.31.11

Two buzzwords that continue to be redefined in today’s connection-oriented culture are sharing and community, with social networking making the dissemination of literature, art, and ideas among friends and neighbors as simple as the click of an icon. But what happens when we want to share cultural objects outside the electronic box, in material form? Artist Colin McMullan, founder of the Kindness and Imagination Development Society (KIDS), has found one way to take this act of real-time exchange to the streets, literally, with his Corner Library project.

The original KIDS Corner Library, first installed in 2007 in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, is a miniature book depository about the size of a doghouse, complete with white clapboard siding and a bright orange door, and full of donated graphic novels, zines, pamphlets, and books published by small presses and artists, as well as CDs, DVDs, maps, and other curiosities—a small-scale collection of the literature and resources one might find at a local library. The structure, which served New Haven’s readers for six months, found a new home last April on the corner of Leonard and Withers streets in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. A message on its door reads, “Welcome! This library is meant to encourage us all to publish and share information about local resources, issues, events, the many personal matters we care about deeply.” Potential patrons are encouraged to contact the two librarians, McMullan and Gabriela Alva, for a library card and the code to the door’s lock.

The library operates on the honor system: Every object in the collection has a slip of paper attached, on which the borrower writes down her name and the date borrowed. The slip is then left in a box inside the library, and the item is due back two weeks later. To donate, anyone can bring an item to the library for processing, or prepare the book for borrowing herself and shelve it based on where she thinks it belongs. “These libraries are meant to encourage local exchange and to help neighbors meet, know, and help one another in physical space with issues and interests that matter to them daily, right here and now,” says McMullan. “The Internet is an incredible information tool, but it doesn’t satisfy a need we have for real-space interchange among people.”

As of this writing, the Williamsburg branch of the Corner Library has about fifty members and is attracting a growing interest from the community. “One day I walked to the library and found a box full of donations, very carefully chosen,” says Alva, who is working on a Tumblr blog featuring images of all the library’s holdings. “It had books, photocopied articles, CDs, and an amazing horror book. The reaction has been great so far.”

At a time when underfunded public libraries have been forced to cut staff and hours of operation, McMullan doesn’t see his project as having the potential to provide a replacement for such institutions, but as offering a meaningful alternative experience. “The idea of microlibraries challenging the public-library system is pretty far fetched,” says McMullan. “However, I can say that one mom I met at the Corner Library in Williamsburg was pleased that it was available to her and her kids 24/7, as opposed to the limited hours of the nearby Brooklyn Public Library location, because sometimes her family has a hard time getting there during open hours.”

McMullan has a few other New York City microlibraries in development, partnering with volunteer librarians such as Christine Licata in Manhattan. Located outside Taller Boricua/Puerto Rican Workshop at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, Licata’s EAsT Harlem branch specializes in recipes and seeds. He also envisions building a microlibrary in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, in cooperation with the Center for Book Arts, where he is a resident artist. And he has plans for a branch located between Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights and Crown Heights neighborhoods.

Norman Stevens, head librarian emeritus of the University of Connecticut, also recruited McMullan to help erect a Corner Library as part of a new downtown development in Storrs, Connecticut. “I was intrigued by Colin’s project as a means of extending some of the concepts of the original American public library into today’s too-electronic age, and returning to a smaller, more personal, comfortable, and user-driven—not just user-friendly—approach,” says Stevens.

The user-powered spirit of the Corner Library is the force behind a similar book-sharing initiative with roots in the Midwest. The Little Free Library project, founded in 2009 by social entrepreneurs Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, launched with a structure about half the size of McMullan’s, built to resemble a one-room schoolhouse and installed near Bol’s home in Hudson, Wisconsin. The project, which uses a “take a book, return a book” model, has since provided unique microlibraries to dozens of U.S. neighborhoods, and a handful of far-flung locales in Australia, Bulgaria, and India, among other countries. Anyone can participate in the project by ordering a prebuilt library or building a new one using blueprints provided on the website, www.littlefreelibrary.org.

McMullan is looking for community collaborators too. “If anyone is interested in being a librarian,” he says, “I would say, Get in touch.” 

For more information about the Corner Library and how to get involved, visit kidscornerlibrary.tumblr.com.

Alex Dimitrov is a writer in New York City. His first book of poems, Begging for It, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2013.

The Corner Library

Poets & Writers Magazine takes a look inside the Corner Library, a tiny book depository serving the community in Brooklyn, New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

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Poetry to the People Tour

by

Maggie Millner

6.12.19

For the past two years the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy has been bringing books to neighborhoods in and around New York City in the back of its bookmobile, a festive maroon box truck outfitted with bookshelves and movable side panels that serves as a pop-up bookstore and donation center wherever it’s parked. This June, in collaboration with storytelling organization Narrative 4, the bookmobile will undertake its longest journey yet, traveling fifteen hundred miles from New York City to New Orleans and making stops in seven states along the way.

During this expedition, called the Poetry to the People Tour, representatives from House of SpeakEasy and Narrative 4 will host events and donate books to local libraries, schools, and prisons. The truck will then roll into New Orleans on the first day of Narrative 4’s annual Global Summit, a five-day event for teens and young adults to share stories and build leadership skills. “I knew that we were heading to New Orleans for the summit, so I had a wild idea to drive there and give out books in underserved spaces along the way,” says Rob Spillman, who works with Narrative 4 and is more widely known as the editor and cofounder of Tin House, which published its final issue in June. “The House of SpeakEasy team and the Narrative 4 team both loved the idea, so we joined forces.” Spillman also contacted DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that connects potential donors with teachers in public schools, to identify classrooms with specific book needs and help map the tour’s route.

Running from June 13 to June 21, the tour will make stops in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Spillman will share driving duties with Jeff Waxman, partnerships director of House of SpeakEasy, and a few guest poets will even take brief stints behind the wheel. Over the course of their winding southward journey, the motorists will distribute more than four thousand books to prisons, libraries such as the Floyd County Public Library in Kentucky, and schools such as Plum High School in Pittsburgh.

While the donated books encompass a range of genres from self-help to literary fiction, according to the needs of each institution, events on the tour will emphasize poetry, which Spillman and Waxman agree is a particularly galvanizing outlet for young people today. “Right now poetry feels incredibly urgent,” Spillman says. “It is able to address the current, horribly unsettled moment better than most prose. The poets on the rise today—Morgan Parker, Danez Smith, Tommy Pico, Solmaz Sharif, Natalie Diaz, Kaveh Akbar, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis—are also reflective of the real diversity of our country. Their poetry connects with teens in an immediate, visceral manner.” The tour’s schedule of events reflects that belief: On June 14 the Free Library of Philadelphia will host a story exchange, a workshop, and a reading featuring local teens alongside Philadelphia poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera and writer and educator Rayna Guy. And on June 15 poets Jenny Johnson and Rickey Laurentiis will perform at the Carnegie Mellon Library in Pittsburgh.

The tour has naturally grown out of both organizations’ work to produce creative events that bring people together through stories or books. In addition to selling and donating books from the windows of its bookmobile, House of SpeakEasy hosts a series of literary cabarets in New York City that feature prominent writers and thinkers reading and riffing on a given theme. The organization also subsidizes tickets for teachers and students to attend literary events for free and sends working writers into classrooms and community centers throughout the city. Narrative 4, which has chapters in twelve countries on four continents, conducts story exchanges—events in which participants pair off to swap their stories and then retell those stories to the larger group—among people with different perspectives who wouldn’t otherwise meet, such as teens from public and private high schools or refugees and public opponents of refugee resettlement.

The organizers want the tour to bring this work to communities they have not reached before. “The mission of Narrative 4 is to harness the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, their communities, and the world,” Spillman says. “We are all about making connections through story, and the Poetry to the People Tour allows us to share stories and poems in person and make in-person connections across age, race, class, and geographic differences.” 

 

Maggie Millner is a poet and teacher from rural upstate New York. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, and ZYZZYVA. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine

The House of SpeakEasy’s bookmobile at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2017. 

(Credit: Jasmina Tomic)

Fractures Through Time: Our Eleventh Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Dana Isokawa

12.15.15

If you want to get a sense of where contemporary poetry is headed, there’s no better place to start than with recently published debut collections. Each year sees a rich, diverse lineup of debut poets whose work offers fresh perspectives, exciting new ideas and experiences of language, and unexplored subject matter. Even tried-and-true poetic topics—history, the beloved, nature, family, identity—are explored, interrogated, and lit up in new ways. This past year is no exception: In 2015, debut poets took on everything from Chinese unicorns and Mesoamerican shape-shifters to jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and The Real Housewives television franchise. They wrote sonnet cycles, erasures, conceptual poems, and lyric poems that skip across the page and open their readers’ eyes, illuminating ideas at turns thrilling, devastating, and always alive.           

For our eleventh annual look at debut poets, we selected ten of the most compelling debuts published in 2015. The work of these featured poets runs the gamut, though each book celebrates the ways in which language, as Hannah Sanghee Park says, “shifts, morphs, steals, and fractures through time.” We asked all our poets to share the stories behind both the genesis of their poems and the publication of their collections—how they navigate publication and how to, as Alicia Jo Rabins puts it, “forge ahead despite setbacks and rejections and silence while also holding the whole endeavor lightly.” Their answers prove that there is no single path from a manuscript to a published book, and that inspiration can be found in the most ordinary and unusual of places—from the former home of a much-admired poet or a yard full of weeds to a drive on the freeway along the U.S.­–Mexico border. But there is one common thread woven throughout: the invocation to submit to one’s obsessions, to write past the machinations of the publishing industry and the expectations of others and into the refuge of language.

Robin Coste Lewis
Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

Knopf

“Once, I thought I was a person with a body,
               the body of something peering
                              out, enchanted
                                            and tossed.”
from “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari”

How it began: Actually, I began writing poetry because of a very serious accident that left me with permanent traumatic brain injury. At one point in my recovery (because reading, writing, and speaking made me very symptomatic), my doctors told me I could only read one sentence a day, only write one sentence a day. After that shock began to wear off, I decided to use their prognosis as a formal writing restraint. I spent many months not trying to write a poem, but trying to write only one very fine line. It sounds romantic, but it wasn’t. At first, I was profoundly depressed. After years of teaching literature and writing, what was a life without books? Writing a line a day was an experience in tremendous discipline. It was thrilling to work again, yes, but to work silently in bed for hours, without writing or typing, working just inside my head, was also very macabre. Slowly, my illness became a sort of game. I’d find the milk in the oven and crack up laughing. It was pure poetry, brain damage. It was profoundly humbling.

In short, all those skills artists must acquire—stillness, concentration, discipline, compression, wrestling with the ego, all of it—walked in the door, hand in hand, with brain damage. That’s the real story behind my book. Poetry was the means by which I learned to reenter the world after traumatic brain injury. What compelled me to write was the desire to continue living an engaged life. Poetry allowed me to reenter my work, but from a different door. 

Inspiration: Epic literature, especially Sanskrit epics and comparative mythology. I’m also quite nuts about Sanskrit court poetry. Another court I love to visit is the royal kingdom of jazz. What both Sanskrit poetry and jazz have in common, I think, is their mysterious and masterful use of silence, their ability to achieve their goal by laying it on thick while pulling way back simultaneously. Any art form that can balance sublime expression with tacit restraint has me from hello. I’m also inspired deeply by individual, quiet responses to history. I love the historical nerd-freak no one wants to research because they are too strange or eccentric or unconventional to make anyone proud. I am compelled by people who simply do their work, whatever that might be, quietly. Quiet devotion is a primary source of inspiration for me, however that manifests. I usually find much of that in the colored ancient world. And then, of course, I swing the other way toward that entire, ongoing waterfall of post-modern, post-colonial, often queer, cultural production, which makes me just swoon.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Honestly, I have never reached an impasse with my writing. My impasse is that I can’t stop writing. It’s not cute. I’m completely hypergraphic. This is not to say, however, that any of the madness I write is any good. I merely mean to say that not being able to write isn’t my issue. However, what occurs before writing—that’s where my demons skip and play rope. I used to think the longest road I’ve ever traveled was from my bed to my desk. All of those voices inside my head that tell me, “No, you can’t say” or, “No, you better not…” or, “What would [fill in the blank] do or say or think?” I don’t know how to describe this, but I know it had something to do with being born in the sixties, being a child in the sixties and witnessing just heinous experiences without any true developmental ability to articulate it. We all had a profound sense of injustice growing up. It was impossible not to feel that, watching profound degradation so common it felt like air. Our education was a travesty. So just holding a pencil when I was younger was very difficult for me. No one took our minds seriously. As a child, all I had heard was that, historically, I, as an African American, was not believed to possess a real mind; or I, like my ancestors, only had three-fifths of a brain. I mean, lest we forget, our bodies were once dissected, literally. So my struggle has never been within language. Language has always, always, been a refuge.

What has never felt natural, however, is this sickening history wherein bodies like mine were positioned to play the role of buffoon. It’s a rare moment indeed that I pick up my pen and do not immediately remember that in America it was considered illegal for black bodies to read and write. Just holding a pencil for me is deliciously transgressive. So history is my impasse—nothing else. What keeps me going? The work of others. Others, definitely.

Writing Prompt: When I was at Harvard, Jamaica Kincaid once said in our workshop, “Write about that which most embarrasses you.” I think that’s profoundly good advice. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to climb atop a soapbox and recite a poem about the ways in which we believe the world is fucked up? When I write that way, I’m certain all I’m doing is insulting my reader. Who, for example, doesn’t know the whole world is in cinders? And so I believe my work can be more effective, can reach deeper inside the reader if I say, “It is I who feel profoundly fucked up,” and then explore why meticulously. I like to use tenderness as a weapon, a seduction, a door to leave ajar so that my reader will walk inside the poem and feel safe, even in the face of profound historical horror. Trust me, I’m not saying all poems should begin with shame or embarrassment as a motivation, not by any means. I like writing all kinds of poems in all kinds of forms. I’m simply saying that instead of using writing prompts, I sometimes ask myself, “Well, what are you most avoiding?” And for me that’s a good place to begin. 

Advice: I’m not sure I’m the right person to give advice about first books. I am fifty-one after all. Don’t get me wrong, I love my age, and I love that I’m just now publishing my first book, but it seems as if the “debut” has become a sort of genre, a particular ideal regarding what constitutes a first collection. I’ve known for a long while that my work has never fit into that schematic. My book, primarily, is about the history of race and Western art. It’s an experiment in archive. It’s not really what first-book publishers are looking for. Also, many debut prizes and grants have age limits or requirements. So by the time I settled into raising my son and finding my place in my work, my writing was already disqualified from even applying because I was older. Ultimately, it’s worked out just fine. And anyways, I don’t think I really had much to offer any reader when I was thirty-five. I was a mess. What could I have done with a page at thirty-five besides romanticize being a thirty-five-year-old mess? I am more of a tortoise than a hare. I like what taking my time reveals.

Also, I adamantly don’t believe that because one writes it follows naturally that one must also publish. I’ve written books for one person, and shared it only with that sublime audience of one. I’ve burned others. Virginia Woolf said rather famously that writing is a far greater pleasure than being read. I’m from that camp, I think. I’m deeply suspicious of the market.

So, I guess this is a long way of saying that if I have any advice to poets trying to publish their first book it’s this: Try not to look up too often at what others are doing. Your work is interesting because it’s yours, not because of where it lands in the publishing world. Ignore literary fashions and stay close to your own hand. Try not to please anyone or any particular audience. Find out what the real work is inside of you, then find the courage to do it well. Resist the temptation to be clever. It’s sexy, but it’s a sure sign that your mask has control of you, and not the other way around. Just do your work.

What’s next: I’m revising the other two manuscripts I finished while at New York University. The first, “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness,” is about the Arctic and its history of both colonialism and exploration. I use this history as an allegory for post-colonial desires for subjectivity. Besides the circumpolar diaspora and the history of expansionism, the book pivots primarily around African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson. Henson codiscovered the North Pole, but was reluctantly given historical credit, due to race relations not only in the United States, but in the sciences specifically. I’m also revising another collection that I also began at NYU, a project titled “The Pickaninny Wins!,” a double-erasure of a 1931 children’s book originally titled The Pickaninny Twins.

Age: 51.

Hometown: Compton, California.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: I’m a PhD candidate in poetry at the University of Southern California. It’s a hybrid PhD, so I do both creative and critical work. That is, I write poetry, and research-wise, I work on the historical relationship between African American photography and African American poetry.

Does your job allow time to write? Is this a serious question?

Time spent writing the book: All in all, the whole book probably took five or six years—with brain damage and a new child thrown in for good measure.

Time spent finding a home for it: Three years.

Three favorite words: pewter, black, pacific.

Robin Coste Lewis and Claudia Rankine: The Poet as Citizen from ALOUDla on Vimeo.

***

Alicia Jo Rabins
Divinity School

American Poetry Review (Honickman First Book Prize)

“Let me teach you about beauty:
a slanted shipwreck
draped in its own torn sails.”
–from “The Magic”

How it began: I am obsessed with a few consistent themes: how weird it is to live in time; the magic of teaching and learning; the closeness and distance between people; and the mysteries of living in a body, like sex, love, travel, food, beauty, death.

Inspiration: Ancient Jewish texts are a huge influence and inspiration for me: the practical, the mystical, and especially the intersection of the two. I also draw on yoga, ritual, and spiritual practice in general. Music is a big part of my life too—both the experience of making music in many different genres and touring itself have defined and marked my life. Kenneth Koch taught me, in college, not to take myself too seriously in my poems. New York City inspired me tremendously for years, and since moving to Portland I’ve been inspired by the forests and plants, the weeds in my garden. Having children is immense and mind-blowing and inspiring, and I draw a lot of inspiration from my dreams as well.

Influences: Anne Carson, James Joyce (Ulysses in particular), Sylvia Plath, Christopher Smart, John Donne, J. S. Bach, Pablo Neruda, Laurie Anderson, Harryette Mullen, Brenda Shaughnessy, Julio Cortázar, Lucille Clifton, Yoko Ono. And so many of my contemporaries and friends, whom I won’t name for fear of inevitably leaving some out.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Because I usually write in a stream-of-consciousness mode and edit later, I don’t really experience impasses. Something is always happening, even if it’s only the breath. I did stop writing for three years in my early twenties, though. I had studied poetry intensely in college and felt like I had strained my reading and writing muscle, and that my relationship to writing was too ego-based and needed a dramatic reset. I completely let writing go and promised myself I would only start again if it returned naturally, without any pressure or ambition or intention. I was glad when it came back a few years later, and my relationship to poetry was transformed. I guess it’s important to me to maintain some paradoxical mix of being stubbornly devoted to poetry, enough to forge ahead despite setbacks and rejections and silence, while also holding the whole endeavor lightly. 

Advice: The best advice I ever got was at an artist training from Creative Capital: If you aren’t getting rejected from 90 percent of the things you apply to, you aren’t aiming high enough. It flipped the script for me so that rejections meant I was doing my job, rather than failing at it. Along the same lines, I try to separate the work of being an artist into two parts: my writing self, who is sensitive and passionate and all that stuff, and my personal assistant self, who just sits down with a cup of coffee and submits poems without any emotional investment. Or, to put it briefly, play the long game.

What’s next: I’m writing my second book of poetry, about motherhood and giving birth and gardening and midwifery goddesses and how psychedelic the whole experience of pregnancy, birth, and early parenthood is. I’m also touring with my songwriting project Girls in Trouble (we just released our third album), and with my solo chamber-rock opera A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. And I’m slowly moving towards writing a nonfiction book I’ve been mulling over for a while now.

Age: 38.

Hometown: I was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in Towson, Maryland. I also lived in New York City and Northampton, Massachusetts, for years and they both feel like home.

Residence: Portland, Oregon.

Job: I patch together a living between my work as a writer, musician, composer, performer, and teacher of Torah. As Eileen Myles says, “There are so many different packages for the same energy to travel through.” 

Does your job allow time to write? This isn’t an easy question for me to answer. On the one hand, I’d love more focused time to write, but on the other hand, the line between “writing” and “job” is blurry in my life—songwriting is part of how I make my living, for example—and I have always written in the nooks and crannies of my day. Also, for the record, I find that being a parent of two young children demands more consistent presence of mind than any job I’ve ever had, and (alongside all the great stuff) is therefore more of a challenge for me in terms of writing time.

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poem in the book is eighteen years old and, amazingly, in exactly the same form it was in when I wrote it in college. It wasn’t originally part of the book, but I added it back in somewhere during the editing process. The rest of them were written over the past twelve or so years, though almost all of them were continually revised while I submitted and resubmitted the manuscript. It almost feels like two different processes—eighteen years of writing the poems and seven of intentionally editing the manuscript. Wow, that’s a long time.

Time spent finding a home for it: Five years, though I edited it throughout, so it was a very different book by the end.

Three favorite words: Amethyst. Sage. Antediluvian.

Alicia Jo Rabins reads “How To Travel” featuring the face of Alicia McDaid. Video by Zak Margolis on Vimeo. Check out another recent reading Rabins gave in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of the Poetry in America series.

***

Jay Deshpande
Love the Stranger

YesYes Books

“But we will never have enough
of being wrong about the other, not once.”
–from “Amor Fati”

How it began: The earliest pieces of the book came together during my MFA, but it had a very different form and was wrapped around a couple series of poems that ultimately didn’t belong. I’ve always been drawn towards the love poem and lyric descriptions of beauty, but in that period I began to experiment more with the unfamiliar and the disturbing. I found my poems coming alive at the moments when the erotic and the alien braided together. At some point I started to see how the loss of the beloved is not just an occasion for utterance, but also an opportunity for greater reckoning with what it means to be human, and alone, and therefore deeply connected. Following these themes, I wrote a chapbook called “Love the Stranger” shortly after grad school; it was another year before I realized that it held the keys to this book.

Inspiration: Visually, René Magritte’s work was an essential influence on the book. Also middle-period Federico Fellini. Denis Johnson’s poems have always been a major touchstone for me, and they helped to shape parts of Love the Stranger. Environmentally, I took great inspiration from a residency at the Saltonstall Arts Colony in upstate New York. A lot of unseen and necessary work happened there in the woods and on the trails.

Influences: Denis Johnson, Marie Howe, Timothy Donnelly, Ben Lerner, Lyn Hejinian, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, Bianca Stone, Richard Siken, Lucie Brock-Broido, E. M. Forster, Marilynne Robinson. Among visual artists, Dorothea Tanning’s work in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I have long conversations with my brother, who is a musician and writer, about why we do what we do. I reread Michael Ondaatje. I think about Frank Ocean’s songwriting. I play old standards on the piano and explore chords until I remember that some parts of experience stay blissfully outside of words. And then I go spend time with the people I love and try to learn from them. I’ve also found that I have trouble writing when my work has moved away from the physicality of pencil and paper for too long. Then I’ll print out a number of pages of poetry (mine and others’) and mark them up excessively.

Writing Prompt: Just to get the lede out and free things up, I like to take an old poem of mine and perform a phonetic English-to-English mistranslation on it. “I, too, dislike it” becomes “Why’d you ignite this?”; “A certain slant of light” becomes “The skirt and pants of night,” etc. The goal is to keep the music and change everything else.

Advice: Read widely and make it your job to really consider the character of different presses: what’s the range of authors they publish, what qualities and ideas do their books seem to value, how do their books feel in your hands.

What’s next: In addition to writing individual poems to push my voice in new directions, I’m at work on an essay collection and a book of translations of the Egyptian poet Georges Henein.

Age: 31.

Hometown: Boston.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I write for Slate and other magazines.

Does your job allow time to write? It’s a constant navigation, but at the moment it works pretty well.

Time spent writing the book: About five years.

Time spent finding a home for it: It took one year; I sent it to six places. It was a finalist for the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize, and then was accepted by YesYes Books during its open reading period.

Three favorite words: These kinds of lists always make me squirmy! But if it’s absolutely necessary: sandwiches; flensing; and, if it can count as one word, chocolate milk.

 

***

Hannah Sanghee Park
The Same-Different

Louisiana State University Press (Walt Whitman Award)

“Just what they said about the river:
rift and ever.

And nothing was left for the ether
there either.”
–from “Bang”

How it began: I had a lengthy first manuscript I was editing and sending out, and wanted a change of pace and page. I was aiming for concision. At the book’s inception, I was researching myth and folklore in Korea, in the hopes that I would write a manuscript about stories. I found that a lot of Korean stories had counterparts elsewhere (with its own cultural DNA), and that mix of universality and specificity was compelling. But at its simplest, the book is a paean to what comprises storytelling—language, in its words, sounds, imagery, and meanings. It was at the end of my research that I found H. D.’s Trilogy. I kept these H. D. lines on a Post-It above me as I wrote: “her book is our book; written / or unwritten, its pages will reveal // a tale of a Fisherman, / a tale of a jar or jars, // the same—different—the same attributes, / different yet the same as before.”

Inspiration: International folklore, fairy tales, and mythology—shape-shifters, hybrids, dualities, and metamorphoses. The same could be said about language as well—how it shifts, morphs, steals, and fractures through time. I’ve always loved form, prosody, and wordplay. When I started writing: H. D., James Baldwin, and Marina Tsvetaeva. The letters of Philip Larkin, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath. The bulk of it: everyone mentioned, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Merrill, Samuel Beckett, a physical dictionary and thesaurus. Poetry by my friends and mentors. The editing and the end—Don Mee Choi and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. And in full circle, I turned back to H. D., Baldwin, and Tsvetaeva in different forms—short stories, plays, and nonfiction. When I was finishing the book, I was also learning how to write screenplays, which was helpful in economy and setting. But the running fount has always been the communities I’ve been lucky to be a part of. Wherever I go, I have met brilliant people who make me a better writer: professors, colleagues, peers. The book was written in Korea, Washington, New Hampshire, and California, and the natural landscapes influenced the book’s backdrop.

Influences: This is an ongoing, disparate anthology, so to keep it short—other than the poets I’ve mentioned above, my immediate community is always influential. Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve been stunned by these local powerhouses: Kima Jones, Blas Falconer, Ashaki Jackson, Marci Vogel, and others. And the many poets I’ve met and hope to meet who are keeping poetry alive. Recently, the students in the 2015 Poetry Out Loud Competition inspired me—I experienced familiar poems in new ways.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I read, or watch films or TV. I used to be a night writer, and my excuse was that there were no distractions—I’m off work, everyone around me has gone to sleep. But sometimes I need to clean, cook, decide now’s the time to take up a new activity, and then write. As if expending all this other energy, or resting my mind allows the mind to reset. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and open dialogue is necessary. I call people—usually my writing partner, Jane Shim—to discuss ideas. What keeps me going is the belief that even if writing is frustrating or maddening, it’s ultimately worth it. Petrarch: “And so desire carries me along.” And caffeine, too. Getting the ball rolling in the right direction sometimes feels Sisyphean, but when it starts, the speed and the growth is euphoric. No distraction is great enough. Writing is like a labyrinth. Sometimes there’s a reward at the end of it; sometimes you’re pursued by Sallie Mae and her Echidna spawn Navient. But nothing feels better than actually moving through it.

Writing Prompt: How much a word can be dissected, rearranged, and reimagined—imagined etymologies, defamiliarization, constraint-based writing. In short, the intersection of structure and play.

Advice: Keep reading, writing, rewriting, and sending, even when it seems like there’s a void. Dream big (a bromide that’s useful), and go there. That’s what I needed to hear in the publication process. Every time my writing boomerangs back to me, there’s a chance to reassess my work and my thoughts. I know form rejection boilerplate, but I also know the generous people in my life who have cheered me on. Having both rejection and support provides a kind of ballast. Knowing why you write despite x is invaluable—the pure joy of creating is as powerful as the final creation.

What’s next: Writing scripts, rewriting scripts, treatments, short stories, and starting a new poetry book.

Age: 29.

Hometown: Federal Way, Washington.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: Freelance writer.

Does your job allow time to write? Yes, but personal writing requires juggling. It’s a constant turning of a lazy Susan—a little here, a pass there, but all that matters is movement.

Time spent writing the book: For this book specifically, about one and a half to two years. It was fast because I had the luxury of a fellowship and a residency. I did a two-month residency at the MacDowell Colony (paradise) where I kept to a tight schedule. I woke up early, ate breakfast, and went back to my Internet-less studio and wrote. As I ate lunch, I read. Then I wrote until dinner. When I came back from unwinding, I’d write until I needed to sleep. Rinse and repeat. I’m naturally lazy, so I need this kind of structure. The bulk of the book was written then, because most of the day could be devoted to writing. However, a poem I wrote about five years ago made it in as well—a long-lost relative finding her family. 

Time spent finding a home for it: Before this book, I sent my first manuscript out for about four to five years. When I was satisfied with The Same-Different, the plan was to send to a few places each cycle, as I was on a tight budget. But I lucked out, and The Same-Different was accepted in its first submission round.

Three favorite words: Cleave, move, empathy.

Hannah Sanghee Park reads from The Same-Different at the Academy of American Poets’s 2014 Poets Forum Awards Ceremony.

Jonathan Fink
The Crossing

Dzanc Books

“The bodies hang like chimes within the boughs.
Perhaps the height is welcome to the dead”
–from “The Crossing”

How it began: What poetry offers, and what set me off writing this book, is the visceral engagement with language that welcomes attention to imagery, tone, rhythm, narrative, metaphor, politics, ethics, humor, myth, and justice, among many other things. Like a painter who simply likes the smell of paint or a potter who likes the feel of clay, the pleasure of embarking on a writing project, for me, always resides in the tactile pleasures of language.

Inspiration: W. H. Auden has a great line, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings,” and I often feel inspired to write about personal, imagined, or historical material about which I have mixed feelings. The poems in The Crossing vary from an eighteen-section poem about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to individual poems about myth, art, and my personal experience growing up in West Texas. In all cases, I was inspired to write these poems not because I knew what I wanted to say about the subjects, but because I felt compelled to explore and investigate the complicated material through poetry.

Influences: Too many to name, of course, although I would say, of contemporary poets, Jane Kenyon for the singular, resonate image; Marie Howe for book structure and thematic commitment; and B. H. Fairchild for lyrical, narrative expansiveness. I’ve also been immensely fortunate to work with wonderful writing mentors and teachers, including Natasha Trethewey, Mary Karr, George Saunders, Junot Díaz, Brooks Haxton, Michael Burkard, and Robert Flynn—all stunning writers who are unfailingly generous, constructive, and kind. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: Raymond Carver defined a writer as someone who is willing to stare at something longer than anyone else. For me, that experience has been true; there is no trick to overcoming a writing impasse other than continuing to return to what I’ve written, looking for unexplored possibilities and/or unfulfilled expectations.

Advice: Submit to your obsessions, whatever they are. Resistance is futile. An honestly obsessive collection always resonates much more fully with a reader or editor than a collection constructed with an eye toward the market or some imagined palatable consensus. Remember that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. 

What’s next: Dzanc is bringing out a finished second collection of my poetry, a book-length sonnet sequence titled, “Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Siege of Leningrad.” I’m also nearing completion of a nonfiction collection primarily consisting of place-based immersive and investigative essays. Some topics include the fracking boom in Midland, Texas; the D. B. Cooper plane hijacking and parachute jump; the changing scope of U.S.­–Cuba relations; and the failings and successes of the criminal justice system as seen through the lens of an assault trial in Pensacola, Florida; among other essays. I’m also working on new individual poems. 

Age: 40.

Hometown: Abilene, Texas.

Residence: Pensacola, Florida.

Job: Associate professor and director of creative writing at the University of West Florida.

Does your job allow time to write? Yes, in the sense that my job contributes to the conditions that help make writing possible, but no job has ever prevented me from writing if I felt compelled to write.

Time spent writing the book: Approximately six years.

Time spent finding a home for it: Another six years after finishing and publishing the individual poems.

Three favorite words: Yes. No. Maybe.

Jonathan Fink reads from The Crossing, published by Dzanc Books.

***

Rickey Laurentiis
Boy With Thorn

University of Pittsburgh Press (Cave Canem Poetry Prize)

 

 

“I want to be released from it.
I want its impulses stunned to lead.
This body. Its breath.
Let it. Let the whole pageant
end.”
–from “One Country”

 

How it began: I think about a friend and fellow poet, Phillip B. Williams, with whom I shared a suite at my first Cave Canem retreat in the summer of 2008. He had a manuscript then (actually several), but wouldn’t share it with me to read until I had something manuscript-length to share with him. So, that’s what I think Cave Canem must mean by fellowship: that kind of camaraderie, support, and push, however hard. I eventually did produce a manuscript and shared it with Phillip, but it was one very different in many ways from the Boy With Thorn that would eventually find publication. We helped shaped each other’s books along through the many years, but more importantly we helped compel each other’s poems. Poems first.

 

 

Inspiration: I’m likely to be inspired by anything in the right context: an overheard conversation on the street, a song, literary criticism, philosophy, a personal experience or, as is most present in my book, visual art. I was profoundly influenced and inspired by a course I took while at Sarah Lawrence College—queer theory, with Julie Abraham. That course threw a hammer into my ways of thinking. And not because it attempted to rebuild the pieces (although, in some ways, it did), but because it made me more aware of the pieces themselves and the various social/political discourses that have shaped them.

 

 

Influences: Here are some artists: Glenn Ligon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Björk, Piero della Francesca, Wangechi Mutu, Georgia O’Keeffe, David Bailly, Kara Walker, Edgar Degas, Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono, Jay DeFeo, Caravaggio, Auguste Rodin, Romare Bearden, Frida Kahlo, Anonymous. And I remain deeply influenced, in particular, by Jessye Norman’s rendition of “Deep River,” which she sung at a special concert with Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall in 1990 and most of which you can find recorded on YouTube

 

 

Writer’s Block Remedy: My obsessions keep me going. I think about visual art and how, in the example of an artist like Mark Rothko, who explores the same terrain canvas after canvas, or at least seems to, I learned to recognize and trust my obsessions: the images, concepts, figures, and motifs that repeat in my head. Obsessions are ideas that I can at least remember are there at those anxious moments I’m willing to believe in a thing like “writer’s block.” But writer’s block, simply speaking, doesn’t exist if one’s willing to look back at all one has done and, realizing knowledge is always limited, thinks, “Nope, I need to try this again.” I still believe that.

 

 

Writing Prompt: Outside of what I offer to my students, I’m not sure I think about writing in terms of prompts, at least not thematic ones. If I chose any, they’re usually prompts that put restraints on the form or structure of the poem. A part of me vaguely remembers diagramming sentences as a young Catholic school student and so, in some ways, that finds itself in the pleasure I get from trying to sustain a single sentence over the course of a poem, or at least over several lines. There’s something about that exercise that seems dancerly to me, rhythmic.

 

 

Advice: So, there are thirty-three poems in my book—but that doesn’t mean I only wrote thirty-three poems. Of course I wrote way more than that at various stages in my growth and education as a poet—some that made the cut; some that I realize were the equivalent of a pianist practicing her scales; some that only exist as a single ghost line in another poem; some that might eventually find a home in a future collection, who knows. My point is to say that the process takes time, so much time, and, while I’m a fan of putting artificial restraints on a poem so as to get to more creative uses of language, I’m not a fan of artificial time restraints on publication. Just as I think that there’s something potentially problematic in knowing too much about what a poem is about when starting, so too I think there’s a problem in trying to know or demand when you should publish a book. Let the book tell you. And when it does send only to places that carry books you can’t live without.

 

 

What’s next: What they don’t tell you is that the second your first book is accepted for publication at a press (or wins a contest), let alone when it is physically published and released, all the poems you begin to write suddenly sound in a slightly different key, so to speak. The poems are suddenly working under the slight burden of knowledge that they may one day become (or that you need them to become) a second (or third or fourth) book. I am working hard now to try to get back to the kind of specific ignorance one writes from before the first book gets published: when you’re simply writing poem by poem because of some insistence that you have to; this poem must be written, alone, individual, not as a sequence necessarily, not because of some “theme” or “project,” but simply because it demands itself to be written, and for you to write and learn by it.

 

 

Age: 26.

 

Hometown: New Orleans.

 

Residence: New York City.

 

Job: Currently, I teach a course at Columbia University and at the Saturday Program at the Cooper Union. I’m also the director of an after-school writing and literacy program at the Harlem Children’s Zone.

 

Does your job allow time to write? No—but that’s a good thing. When I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to some residencies, for instance, I’ve found that the sudden surplus of free, unstructured time can do harm to my writing process, insofar as I begin to occupy my time in other ways besides writing new work. Residences are great for editing older drafts or for ordering a book. But it’s in the gaps, in the minutes I steal when I’m on a crowded subway, when I’m in a less-than-exciting meeting or when I should be asleep, for example, that I find myself writing the most new material.

 

Time spent writing the book: The earliest poem in the book I wrote as a first-year at Sarah Lawrence College for a class (my first poetry class ever!) with Suzanne Gardinier. That was in the fall of 2007. The last poem I wrote that was also included in the book was written somewhere in late January/early February of 2014, after having seen one of my favorite Basquiat paintings in the flesh in a exhibit in New Orleans earlier that Christmas. So it would seem, then, that it took seven years to write all thirty-three poems that comprise Boy With Thorn (it took two years, alone, to complete one in particular). I was born on February 7. Seven’s always been my favorite number.

 

Time spent finding a home for it: Maybe about a year after Phillip first brought the idea to my mind that I could write toward a manuscript, I sent it out to a handful of contests. To my surprise, the manuscript was honorably mentioned for Red Hen Press’s Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. But I’ll remind you that this manuscript I’m referring to was, in significant ways, still very different from the book I would come to publish. After that, somehow, and quite suddenly, I wasn’t interested so much in rushing towards book publication. I concerned myself with the quality of the poems themselves, and with seeing them enter the world individually. So there was a large gulf of time when I didn’t submit a single manuscript to any contest or publisher, which mostly paralleled my graduation from Sarah Lawrence and matriculation into the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis. A year after I had received my MFA and had moved back to New York City, I sent my new manuscript to at least two publishers and four contests—four specific contests that either had a history of awarding books I admire or were being judged by poets I greatly enjoy. I didn’t get as much as a nod from three of them but, again to my surprise, I won one! And that it was the Cave Canem Prize just seemed so coming-full-circle perfect! Anyway, depending on how you read this narrative, you can say it took several years to find a publisher, or only a few months.

Three favorite words: Womb, whom. Dark.

Rickey Laurentiis reads two poems from Boy With Thorn, published by University of Pittsburgh Press.

***

Natalie Scenters-Zapico
The Verging Cities

Center for Literary Publishing

 

 

“You forgot to weed your eyes, so brush
has grown wild in your stare.”
–from “When the Desert Made Us Visible”

 

 

How it began: Homesickness. I wrote most of these poems while I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I felt deeply haunted by things in my past that I had spent a lot of time ignoring: femicide, narco-violence, and the effect our broken immigration system had on me and the people around me. Suddenly, I felt compelled to face these things in a way I had never had an interest in before. For some reason, being away from the site of my liminality gave me the bravery to voice what had been silenced in me for so long. I also became very interested in the ways that people who are not from El Paso–Juárez were representing my border cities in art and pop culture. I wanted to write down my love affair with a place so often depicted as violent and corrupt.

 

Inspiration: The drive from Albuquerque to El Paso, Texas, and from Ciudad Juárez to Chihuahua was a huge source of inspiration. I would also drive the border freeway and take in that space, that in-between space, that illusion that is so physically damaging. And, of course, late-night conversations with my husband who is a border-rhetorics scholar, and who for most of our relationship was undocumented. When we fell in love, we also fell in love with each other’s pain, and the two cities that held us suspended in that pain. 

 

 

Influences: While working on the collection: David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Norma Elia Cantú’s Canícula, Alejandro Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 spent a lot of time on my desk. These books deeply influenced the way that I conceive of borders and of my sister cities, El Paso–Ciudad Juárez. I also spent time with Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Anna Kamieńska’s notebooks, Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, Rigoberto González, Alberto Ríos, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz. 

 

 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I cook something that takes a while to make, but that I know how to make well. The repetitive motions of cooking keep me grounded in the body, but allow me the freedom to let my mind wander. I also like knowing that many women before me spent so much time in that domestic space, and I remind myself how important it is that I choose to be there, but that I don’t have to be there.

 

 

Writing Prompt: I spend a lot of time looking at the art books for the Bienal Ciudad Juárez–El Paso art shows, and then writing ekphrastic poems or flash fictions. It keeps me connected to where I’m from while helping me to see the border in new ways.

 

 

Advice: It is as important to know what you’re trying to accomplish in your collection as it is to know what it actually accomplishes. Sometimes placing your own will on a collection is the worst thing you can do.

 

 

What’s next: I’m in the early stages of working on the next book, which deals with border-security technologies, surveillance, and weapons. I’m interested in depictions of violence, how we consume that violence, and render that violence in art.

 

 

Age: 27.

 

Hometown: El Paso, Texas.

 

Residence: Salt Lake City.

 

Job: I teach high school English and creative writing.

 

Does your job allow time to write? It is always a struggle for me to write as a high school teacher. I have to schedule time for me to physically sit at my desk and write.

 

Time spent writing the book: It took me four years of obsessively writing and revising in constant rotation.

 

Time spent finding a home for it: One year.

Three favorite words: Sobremesa, cariño, and teeth.

Natalie Scenters-Zapico reads from The Verging Cities, published by The Center for Literary Publishing.

***

Corina Copp
The Green Ray

Ugly Duckling Presse

 

 

“Let rest here my lyre and
Hear soon the moon’s fair
Lecture in black”
–from “Pro Magenta”

 

 

How it began: I was reading Mark Ford’s biography of Raymond Roussel when I first came across mention of the green ray. In the same month, I saw Éric Rohmer’s Le rayon vert, and I attended a François Laruelle lecture. The notes from all three came to be the poem “Pro Magenta,” which set me into thinking about synchronicity and how I compose. The wheels of the actual manuscript were put into motion a few years later, when Ugly Duckling Presse editor Abraham Adams proposed a book project.

 

 

Inspiration: These poems range in composition date from 2010 to 2015, so what resonates now as far as inspiration goes is a list that I’ll spare you—but they are distinct, and each poem holds one or another source (or many simultaneously) in (I hope) different ways. Jean Day’s Enthusiasm: Odes & Otium was formative for me when thinking about devotion and source materials and how to think and write alongside inspiration itself, to construe it as an interlocutor, or a threat, or a friend, or a fetish, etc.

 

 

Influences: When I first started seriously writing poetry, I was reading Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Laura Riding Jackson; and I was obsessed with Alice Notley and Carla Harryman. Then Miles Champion introduced me to Tom Raworth and Jean Day—they both had a big impact. I had another turn when I really read Lisa Robertson, who led me to read Hannah Arendt. Richard Maxwell, the playwright, was another turning point; and the work of Big Dance Theater, Thomas Bradshaw, Kristen Kosmas. For a few years now, Ingeborg Bachmann, Marguerite Duras. And my friends are influential. They’re all brilliant. Can I say brilliant?

 

 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I’m easily comforted and astonished. By that turn from feeling like New York City’s rag doll, in particular; from that real desire to leave my life and start a new one; from that exhaustion; from walking into a diner or taking a train. I have to be in that place to write; I have to have a connection to future good feeling in general if I expect myself to write. Also: film and bibliomancy, both. Or Robert Ashley, an example. Opening to pages/sounds/images of work that I love will always help. Going to the library, feeling overwhelmed. But I can go for months without writing; I am often waiting to feel angry, or any emotional event, or just a deadline to push me. But accepting the stretches of not writing is okay, too. I mean: If I feel alert and awake and thoughtful and without remorse, then I am listening, which for me is also writing. I compulsively transcribe overheard dialogue or I note exchanges between people or how they are physically positioned. If I’ve gone months without this sort of openness, then I’m probably depressed and not writing. To help me accept that, I remember something Doris Lessing said—to paraphrase, you must use these energies while you have them, you will lose them; you are more clever now than you will be later. Terrifying.

 

 

Writing Prompt: Feeling constrained.

 

 

Advice: I took a strange route, and had faith I’d eventually get to work with people who cared about the poems. Having faith in those relationships is important.

 

 

What’s next: I’m working on an essay/score that reads and writes through the reading of the painter Alan Reid. The piece will appear in a monograph of his work that should be out in the spring.

 

 

Age: 36.

 

Hometown: I was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and New Orleans.

 

Residence: New York City.

 

Job: I usually have two to three part-time jobs. I am currently a staff writer for the Poetry Foundation, I freelance copyedit and proofread, and I coordinate a master’s program in international finance and economic policy at Columbia University.

 

Does your job allow time to write? I’ve made it this far. But the answer is no, not at all. I would always prefer to be writing, to put it gently.

 

Time spent writing the book: About four or five years.

 

Time spent finding a home for it: I was very, very lucky in that Ugly Duckling approached me for the book. This was initially around 2012 or 2013, but I still had to finish writing it. We changed the date of publication a few times. They were patient with me.

Three favorite words: “Mom” and “or” and “Dad.”

Corina Copp reads an early version of her poems from The Green Ray, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, for the sixth Antibody Series in 2014.

***

Morgan Parker
Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night

Switchback Books (Gatewood Prize)

“If I hear you’re talking shit about me
in your confessional interview,
please know
seven birds have fallen dead at my feet
right out of the sky.”
–from “If My Housemate Fucks With Me I Would Get So Real (Audition Tape Take 1)”

How it began: This book started as my MFA thesis at NYU. It was embarrassingly large—something like 120 pages—so I spent the summer after graduation editing it, reordering it, and trimming it down in preparation for sending it out to contests and presses. The first book is a weird thing—mine contains some of the first poems I ever wrote, back in college. Of course, when I was writing those, I had no idea I was writing a book. I was playing around with new forms and registers and confessions, and it was only in grad school that I started thinking about the poems as a collection. There isn’t a “project” in this book, there isn’t a linear narrative or one central event, so in conceptualizing the book, I spent a lot of time thinking about my obsessions, taking in a lot of art and TV and movies and music and poems, and meditating on the themes they have in common.

Inspiration: Television. The Real World and The Real Housewives franchises have been particularly inspirational for me—something about the strangeness and boldness of reality TV, its dark comedy, is a really important lens in my work. Jay Z and Beyoncé are also super important figures in my work—or rather, symbols of them, the idea of them. In general, media and pop culture always have a lot of space in my poetic brain. They’ve got everything I want to talk about: loneliness, performance, representations of femininity, insecurity, family, sociocultural inequity, glitter.

Influences: My collaborator Angel Nafis; my peers Danez Smith, Charif Shanahan, Nate Marshall, Natalie Eilbert, Rio Cortez, Monica McClure, Wendy Xu (I could go on forever here); my big brother Matthew Rohrer; my poetry auntie Eileen Myles; Terrance Hayes, Tracy K. Smith, Evie Shockley, Matthew Zapruder, Cate Marvin, Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes; visual artists Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Keith Haring, Glenn Ligon, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, William Pope.L.

Writer’s Block Remedy: If I feel stuck, I stop writing for a while. Or I write in another genre for a bit. I read. I go look at art. I have good conversation with friends over wine. Lately I’ve been trying to honor silence rather than being anxious about it. The itchy, restless feeling always comes back; the poems always emerge. I’m realizing more and more that “writing” is only a tiny aspect of writing poetry.

Writing Prompt: Formal poetry. Specifically sonnets and pantoums. Usually, I edit the drafts until they’re unrecognizable as formal poems, but constraint really helps my writing process. Honestly, I see prompts as rules to break, something to rebel against.

Advice: Submit widely, but also be strategic and thoughtful: Don’t submit to a press you aren’t familiar with or whose work you don’t love; don’t submit to a press whose aesthetic isn’t up your alley. A press is really a home for a book—and for you, the poet, as well—so I think it’s important (and often neglected in conversation) to remember the relationship continues past manuscript acceptance. It’s an intimate thing. Also, know that as you’re submitting, you should keep editing. Don’t be so stubborn you can’t see room for improvement. Finally, make the waiting time productive. Write new poems, go to readings, meet new writers, build community.

What’s next: I’m editing my second collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and getting it ready for publication with Tin House Books in 2017. I’m also at work on a young adult novel loosely based on my teen years spent coming to terms with my identity and depression in a conservative, religious suburb—it’s my first foray into fiction, and an exciting challenge. There’s also a rumor floating around that there may be an essay collection in my future.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Highland, California.

Residence: New York City.

Job: Editor for Little A Books and Day One, adjunct assistant professor of undergraduate creative writing at Columbia University.

Does your job allow time to write? Sometimes. I write at night, on the weekends, and in transit (buses, trains, planes). I wish I were one of those people who could wake up and write before work, but I’m a snooze-button person. Ideally, I block out a day each weekend to write or edit. I’ve also been known to take vacation days to hole away uninterrupted.

Time spent writing the book: They were written and edited over the course of five years.

Time spent finding a home for it: A year.

Three favorite words: “There’s free wine.”

Morgan Parker reads two poems from Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, published by Switchback Books.

***

Richie Hofmann
Second Empire

Alice James Books (Beatrice Hawley Award)

“I have nothing
to confess. I don’t yet know that I possess
a body built for love.”
–from “Idyll”

How it began: I began writing the first poems in this book while I was working on the book collection at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut—a magical, haunted place full of Merrill’s things, his furniture, his books. It was inspiring to inhabit that physical space with the spirit of someone whose art had meant the world to me. His “The Book of Ephraim” was one of the first contemporary poems I loved. To be showering in his shower, sleeping in his bed, staring into that mirror. There, among his art and belongings, my desire to write poetry was given new dramatic force.

Inspiration: Love; sexuality; history; music, especially opera and art song.

Influences: My teachers, foremost. Jorie Graham’s Erosion. Benjamin Britten’s operas and song cycles. Daniel Mendelsohn’s essays. French and Italian poetry in translation. Stephen Sondheim lyrics. Installations by Félix González-Torres.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Sometimes it’s important for me to get outside of poetry, or outside of literature altogether. To listen to music, look at a painting or sculpture or installation, see a concert, attend a lecture on something strange but intriguing. These other arts not only provoke new subjects, but they might offer new ways of thinking formally as well.

Writing Prompt: Write a poem in which your own name is invoked and explored.

Advice: Cut almost everything. Make your book as lean and dynamic as possible. Give yourself time to grow toward and away from poems, and see what new object you can create by subtracting and pruning and chiseling away.

What’s next: My new manuscript of poems explores my family’s history in Germany: my ancestors who owned a small bakery on the Rhine and my own childhood years spent in Munich. It’s about inheritance, history, power, violence, privilege, gender and sexuality, childhood, bookmaking, typography, and Mozart.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Haddon Heights, New Jersey.

Residence: Chicago.

Job: PhD student in English at Emory University in Atlanta.

Does your job allow time to write? It often does—in that reading and researching and working through critical questions is an essential part of writing poetry for me. Though I’d have to say, I like teaching even better, because I find interacting with people (usually) more stimulating than solitary research and writing.

Time spent writing the book: Four to five years.

Time spent finding a home for it: A year and a half.

Three favorite words: Exquisite, please, future.

 

Dana Isokawa is the assistant editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Dana Isokawa

12.14.16

The debut has a certain allure: an air of freshness, the promise of an exciting, original voice. Here is the new. Here is something you haven’t yet heard. And while that certainly might be the case with a poetry debut, it can also be true of a poet’s second, fifth, or tenth book—artistic innovation can happen at any stage in a writer’s life. What does make a debut uniquely exciting, though, is its sense of beginning—that the arc of a poet’s career has just begun, that the ball has just been tossed into the air. For our twelfth annual look at debut poets, we asked ten poets to share the inspirations and processes behind their first collections, and what emerged were stories of beginnings: how a book begins and how a poem begins, certainly, but also how a writer’s attraction to poetry begins. “I wanted to know if my sadness could ever be useful,” explains Ocean Vuong. “[It’s the desire] to get closer to whatever it is that’s always just beyond reach or sight,” says Justin Boening. “It was fun,” says Phillip B. Williams.

The ten poets in this year’s feature wrote some of the most compelling debuts published in 2016 and represent a range of styles and backgrounds. From the sparse, demanding elegance of Eleanor Chai’s lyrics, to the irreverent, kaleidoscopic roaming of Tommy Pico’s book-length poem, to the linguistic opulence and sheer nerve of Safiya Sinclair’s work, these ten encompass many of the impulses and registers of contemporary poetry. We asked for their insight on inspiration, publishing, and writing through impasses, and two commonalities—among many—surfaced. One: that inspiration might lie in paying attention to what appears small or insignificant—how Carolina Ebeid will listen to every “little bell” of an Arvo Pärt piano piece for inspiration, how Ari Banias will pursue the feeling elicited by something as minor as the behind-the-knee wrinkles in someone’s pants. And two: the advice to not be in a rush to publish. To take one’s time and question, as Solmaz Sharif does, what it means to be an artist and not just a person who publishes a book. Or to wait, like Jana Prikryl, for the poem to emerge that helps the others fall into place. These poets’ words are a reminder that it’s not a race, but a process of fashioning poems that can connect with the world, that can confront the “roots and wide-ranging shadows of words,” as Safiya Sinclair puts it, and explore language as we know it.

Ari Banias

Ari Banias
Anybody
W. W. Norton

“Mostly a name feels like the crappy overhang I huddle under
while rain skims the front of me.

I admit it keeps me visible, the cool compromise
of efficient lighting, the agreement to call this that.”

—from “Recognition Is the Misrecognition You Can Bear”

How it began: I wrote Anybody out of the conditions of my life, and out of a will to connect more than divide. I was writing into loneliness and the social, and as a way to be alone with myself while also being and thinking with others. It was a process of concretizing and externalizing those conversations I was having in my head and out loud, with people dead and living, in my life or not, with the culture at large, and with other selves—past, present, future, parallel. As a younger queer writer especially, there were books I needed but couldn’t find, either because no one had published them or because they hadn’t yet been written. So I was probably writing this book, however unconsciously, to address that self, those selves.

Inspiration: The need to counter alienation and death. Humor, my immediate surroundings, memory. Sometimes just wanting to figure out how I felt about something could be enough. Poems could come from a question, an irritation, or even from a desire to get at my response to an object—like, Why does this tree, that I’m fairly certain doesn’t know I exist, evoke deep feeling in me? It’s embarrassing! And, What am I bringing to it—I mean all the baggage (cultural, historical, and otherwise) I’m carting around when I look at a tree (or a broken chair, or the behind-the-knee wrinkles in someone’s pants in front of me in line, or, really, anything) and find myself thrown off by unexpected feeling. As long as I’m attentive and willing to follow through, past what’s easy or comfortable, a poem can start almost anywhere.

In her piece “The Untroubled Mind,” the painter Agnes Martin writes, “Nothing that happens in your life makes inspiration / When your eyes are open / You see beauty in anything.” I’d add that I think of “beauty” here not in the classical sense but more like meaning, importance. Martin [writes later in] this same piece: “The wiggle of a worm as important as the assassination of a president.” They happen in the same world, never entirely independent of one another. And maybe the one I think of as small is in fact enormous. Even if a poem doesn’t directly point at these connections, to keep them near, to refuse to forget or evade them—that did and does inspire me.

Influences: More than I could possibly name. Some voices: Nina Simone, Arthur Russell, Odetta, Elizabeth Cotten, and the rembetika singer Roza Eskenazi. Some books: Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses, James Baldwin’s essays, George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, Brenda Hillman’s Loose Sugar, Lorine Niedecker’s Paean to Place, June Jordan’s Collected Poems, Joy Ladin’s Transmigrations, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets,” Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Hilton Als’s The Women, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, Guy Davenport’s translations of Archilochos and Sappho. And Roland Barthes, Elizabeth Bishop, Fred Moten, Frank O’Hara, Yannis Ritsos, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Conversations with others ignite and recalibrate me, without fail. A few winters ago I came to a sort of crisis point with poetry. I wasn’t sure how or why, but poems began to repel me—I couldn’t write them, and I could hardly read them. Lineation looked melodramatic and grotesque. I couldn’t stomach even a whiff of solemnity. Poems were like giant echo chambers. Not coincidentally, that was my third year in a row living in fairly isolated circumstances away from loved ones, and I was feeling disconnected. I didn’t know what else to do so I started writing letter-poems to close friends. Immediately detail, texture, and volition returned to the act of writing. It was like the electricity came on again. Somewhere I’d lost the sense of purpose and direction created by that fundamental exchange of one person speaking to another. A good lesson.

Advice: It seems obnoxious to tell people not to get discouraged by how long it takes to publish a book, because it can be a very long time, and who wouldn’t get discouraged? For me publication never seemed a given—only writing did. What I told myself, and still do, is this: Keep working. Follow the shape of your mind’s particulars (its rhythms, its oddities) like a bloodhound, and take the poems as far as you possibly can, so that they are utterly yours, so that you’re writing in that singular way that singular thing no one but you can write. Each time. As Hopkins (whom I’ll take way out of context here) said, “more wreck and less discourse.”

What’s next: Along with writing new poems, I am translating contemporary poets from the Modern Greek. It’s a relief to get outside my own head and work out problems of language and expression through someone else’s poems, while still being in music. And I welcome the different sense of responsibility. Finding my way back into Greek, which was my first language, is also its own private homecoming, with all the associated awkwardness and joy of that.

Age: 38. Ari Banias Cover

Hometown: I was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.

Residence: Berkeley, California.

Job: I work at Small Press Distribution.

Time spent writing the book: Nine years.

Time spent finding a home for it: I started sending out a mess of consecutively numbered pages I thought was a book nine years ago. The early drafts look very little like what came to be published. It took about four years of sending out versions of what’s now the book before it was accepted.

 

Ocean VuongOcean Vuong
Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press

“There is so much
I need to tell you—but I only earned
one life.”

—from “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952”

How it began: I wanted to know if my sadness could ever be useful.

Inspiration: Fire escapes. I was walking in New York City one day years ago and saw this big, white fire escape. And I thought to myself, “That’s it. That’s what a poem should do. Be a place where we can move further toward ourselves, which really means moving further toward our fears.” And medical marijuana. And Gushers fruit snacks.

Influences: Li-Young Lee, Federico García Lorca, Frank O’Hara, Yusef Komunyakaa, Arthur Rimbaud, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, 
Matsuo Bashō, Gwendolyn Brooks, Garrett Hongo, Amiri Baraka, Troye Sivan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Thomston, Thao Nguyen, Kobayashi Issa, Etta James, Ben Lerner, Luther Vandross, Michel Foucault, Alexander Chee, Little Richard, Virginia Woolf, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Maggie Nelson, Mark Rothko, Frank Ocean, Bad Future, Whitney Houston, Patsy Cline, Lyoto Machida, C. D. Wright, Amy Winehouse, Yoko Ono, Al Green, Sinn Sisamouth, Childish Gambino, Ralph Stanley, Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Joel P West, James Blake, and Vince Staples.

Writer’s Block Remedy: When I am stuck, I don’t like to force out work or words. I just walk away from the desk—sometimes not returning for weeks at a time. I find a quiet place in the day and stop. If I’m at home, I lie down on the carpet. Then I do this thing where I just say thank you to all the things and people who have helped me. Of course, simply saying thank you does not awaken any creative force; it just reminds me that the work I am doing is not validated by quantity, but rather by the connection it builds between the world and myself. When my own work is not coming along, I try to stop and recognize the people doing the same challenging, at times unforgiving, art—and I feel happy. I think it’s hard, in our day and age, not to think, It’s me against the world, or, I have to do this for my career because everyone else is hammering away and if I stop now, I will fall behind and be forgotten. But that’s a toxic and self-defeating gaze. I think we are more productive—even in stillness—when we can recognize one another, when we say to each other, Thank you for doing this with me. Thank you for carrying on when I cannot.

Advice: Hustling can be good—but make sure what you’re pushing is gold (to you).Ocean Vuong Cover

What’s next: I’m working on being a better son.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Hartford, Connecticut.

Residence: New York City.

Job: Writer and teacher.

Time spent writing the book: Eight years after believing that I could be a poet. But I think really it took me all of my life.

Time spent finding a home for it: Eight months. I was lucky.

 

 

 

Jana Prikryl

Jana Prikryl
The After Party
Tim Duggan Books

“To all the girls Bernini loved before
I’d say, caveat emptor.”

from “Benvenuto Tisi’s Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta Pulling a Boat with the Statue of Cybele”

 

How it began: The book started as individual poems written over about a decade. I was finally galvanized into bringing some of them together by the long sequence that forms the second half of the book, “Thirty Thousand Islands.” The sequence gave me a new way of thinking about loss and literary history and nature and men and Canada and Europe; as it grew I sensed it was a foil to the more ad hoc poems I had written up till then. So the book emerged from this encounter between different forms of poetry, which seems apt since many of my poems tend to spark from the friction between different voices or points of view.

Inspiration: There are some ekphrastic poems in The After Party—one about a great, overlooked Buster Keaton movie, another about a not very good Renaissance painting. I like taking in all kinds of art—especially paintings, photographs, movies—and thinking about its implications, formal and historical. But I’m also taken with something Frank O’Hara once said: “Sometimes I think that writing a poem is such a moral crisis I get completely sick of the whole situation.” What kind of experience or vision or formal experiment can really justify taking up the reader’s time? Parts of my book attempt to think about European history and the ways my own ancestors experienced it; what gives me the authority to speak for those individuals? In other words, what kind of poem could do so? I find these sorts of questions inspiring.

Influences: I don’t feel qualified to name my own influences—and the writing I revere most seems too distant a beacon to enter into my own stuff—but there are writers I’ve loved over so many years they feel like family. I’d include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë, John Berryman, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and Don Marquis.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I tend to sit with the impasse, partly because I have a day job and write essays as well (and recently had a baby) so life can throw me off course very easily, and partly because I think impasses are trying to tell me something so it would be imprudent to ignore them. But when I really must go on I get energy from hazelnut gelato; whiskey; the Metropolitan Museum; swimming; dips into Flann O’Brien or Jane Austen or Laurence Sterne; dips into Twitter, which so far is the clearest source of dissent I’ve found against the fascism that the Republican Party is happily riding into power; dear friends whose work is new and great, and conversely random lines in magazines that irritate me. Getting pissed off is, in the absence of anything else, a reliable stimulant.

Advice: Every voice needs something different so it’s unlikely my experience will apply to anyone else. But what’s been most valuable to me is time—to let the words stew, and let myself stew, and in fact resist publication for as long as possible. Once you’re ready I recommend an Excel spreadsheet. Maybe this is common knowledge but it was a revelation to me: A spreadsheet helps to compartmentalize the painful chore of sending things out and really cleanses it of emotion. You just record rejections and can very clearly see where else something might be sent.

What’s next: Mostly diaper changes and tummy times. Occasionally noodling away at things that may or may not make it into a second book.

Age: 41. Jana Prikryl Cover

Hometown: My teens were spent in Ancaster, Ontario, which feels hometown-iest to me. I was born in Ostrava (in what was then Czechoslovakia), and when I was five my family fled and lived in an Austrian village for a year. From the age of six I grew up in a few towns in southern Ontario—so it’s complicated.

Residence: New York City.

Job: Senior editor at the New York Review of Books.

Time spent writing the book: Too long. But the too-longness varies a lot: One of the poems is around fifteen years old, some started almost a decade ago and had to marinate for years before they were finished, and some were written in half an hour, with minor revision. In general I revise heavily and take long gaps between glances at poems, so I can hear them afresh when I return. 

Time spent finding a home for it: I spent a decade avoiding gathering my poems into a manuscript—it felt somehow presumptuous. About a year after I started bringing the poems together, Tim Duggan read my work in the London Review of Books and the New Yorker and got in touch, asking if I had a manuscript. I took a few more months to revise it and once I sent it to him he got back to me quickly. So I’ve been very lazy and very lucky.

Carolina EbeidCarolina Ebeid
You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior
Noemi Press

“We live in a copy
            of Eden, a copy

that depends on violence.”           

—from “Albeit”

How it began: The book isn’t defined by a unifying project. Many of its poems did not begin with a particular book in mind. However, when I was placing the poems side by side to see how many pages I had, I noted an orbital pull forming. They were already set in a certain orbit of tone, subject matter, and high-lyric style. Identifying this motion allowed me to see more clearly which subsequent poems would be accepted into this circle.

Inspiration: For a few years I listened to a musical piece by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt called Für Alina. It is a composition for the piano, spare and slow. It sounds like little bells being struck. Pärt has said that, when he was making this work, he “had a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.” I have thought the same about poems. Also, the visual vocabulary of certain films has inspired many of these poems, deeply. Movies such as The Spirit of the Beehive, Ratcatcher, In the Mood for Love, and Days of Heaven hold something arcane, a strange quietness. Perhaps they withhold (it’s a better word). What has moved me to write after seeing these films is how much they withhold. I am drawn to poems that can dance like that, in a relationship of what is said and what is left unsaid.

Influences: The books of Lucie Brock-Broido, Anne Carson, and Briget Pegeen Kelly have been early and lasting influences. In my PhD work, I’ve delved into the fragments and letters of Emily Dickinson, the poetry of Raúl Zurita and Cecilia Vicuña, the multimedia art of Caroline Bergvall, as well as the various adaptations of Antigone—which I hope will all be future influences. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: Always, the engrossing work of translating poetry from Spanish is a spark. I also turn to looking through old lexicons, field guides no longer in print, medieval bestiaries or glossaries of birds, and early photography. 

Advice: Three things. One: Listen to your innermost self—a self that has been forming aesthetic principles by the books you’ve read, by your various 
experiences and identities—and try to lower the volume of well-intentioned critiques that stifle your work. Two: If you are fortunate, you will find a trusted reader-editor-confidant-friend, one who will open your work and imagination. Take care to develop that relationship. My primary reader also happens to be my partner, Jeffrey Pethybridge. Three: Try not to send out your manuscript blindly, which can deplete one’s inner and outer resources. Rather, choose presses whose author lists exhilarate you, and remember that small presses are in a golden age; they’re making vital and sparkling books.

What’s next: A long sequence of small poems called “The M Notebooks,” M being a character made up of various persons, such as the biblical Saint Miriam (a myrrh-bearer), the Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, and Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam. The sequence is a convergence, confluence, conflagration of speakers. Also, a couple of essays on the work of Ana Mendieta, as well as research on the literature of sleep, descent, and dream-space.

Age: 40. Carolina Ebeid Cover

Hometown: West New York, New Jersey.

Residence: Denver.

Job: I teach while I also pursue a PhD in the creative writing program at the University of Denver.

Time spent writing the book: The bulk of the poems were written in Austin during my three MFA years at the Michener Center. 


Time spent finding a home for it: About three years.

In Lieu of Flowers, Palestine the Metaphor from Carolina Ebeid on Vimeo.

 

Solmaz SharifSolmaz Sharif
Look
Graywolf Press

“It matters what you call a thing.”

—from “Look”

 

How it began: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—namely, how quickly the nation mobilized to invade these countries when just months earlier we were living in the myth of indefinite and obvious peace. That peace, of course, did not exist then, either, but I remember, for example, an Army recruiter visiting my AP Government class in spring 2001 and saying, as part of his pitch to join the Army and see the world, that were we to join the Army, we would not be fighting in any wars, anyway.

Inspiration: Conversations with friends—especially Samira Yamin, Ari Banias, and Brandon Som. The various books and artists they have pressed upon me. The stellar work they put into the world.

Influences: June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, Mahmoud Darwish, C. D. Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, Adrienne Rich, Leonel Rugama, Walt Whitman, and Claudia Rankine.

Writer’s Block Remedy: If the causes are perfectionistic, I pull out the collected poems of a poet I greatly admire and flip through to remind myself how many mediocre poems their oeuvre contains. It is my duty, I remind myself, to write even those mediocre, messy poems. These failures are the ones that create openings in the conversation for subsequent writers and poets to enter—I’m not trying to kill the conversation, after all. I pull out journals—André Gide’s, Franz Kafka’s, Susan Sontag’s—to remind myself how long the process is and how often the sense of failure or impasse hits. I watch a movie.

Advice: Write a book you want to fight for. Fight for it. I am, after all this, though, a little hesitant to keep the conversation on first books or debuts. I am a product of an industry that emphasizes first books—it’s where the prizes are, it’s what the MFA programs are gearing you up for with your thesis, it’s what our conversations with our peers are about, it’s what we buy because we want to support our friends. I’m not entirely sure who this “we” is, as someone both inside and outside of it, as someone not wanting to presume you are a similar product, fellow writer. But there is something, something shifting the collective attention (of presses, of journals) to younger poets—an attention that does not exist for a poet’s second or fourth book and that doesn’t again until I don’t know when. A blessing, maybe, that turning away of the gaze—it’s likely due to sales. We are not necessarily taught how to be artists, how to commit to artists and attend to their failures, their sustained conversation—a conversation that would undoubtedly challenge and even dismantle said industry. We are taught instead how to publish our first books. Product, not process. I don’t have answers about “how to be an artist”; I’m not trying to make it sound like I do. But I do want to have that conversation. What do you want to do as a writer in the world? What do you see the arc of your writing life to be? How is your first book a launch to that arc? To discuss the book itself, the writers themselves—myself included—is a misdirection. Or as Forough Farrokhzad said: “Remember the flight / the bird will die.”

What’s next: Translations of Forough Farrokhzad. And some secret stuff.

Age: 33. Solmaz Sharif Cover

Hometown: I haven’t worked out the answer to this question for myself. Los Angeles is probably the closest I will get to a hometown.

Residence: Oakland.

Job: I’m a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University.

Time spent writing the book: I started working with the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in earnest at the end of 2007. The earliest poems in the book are from 2008. But some of the pieces and images are reworked from 2003, even. By 2012 or 2013 I had pretty much worked out all the conceptual elements and the general frame of the book, though I added and removed poems up until the last deadline. The most freeing realization was that I could ditch poems that had been previously published in journals and that I liked, generally speaking. I could create a book rather than a collection, I mean.

Time spent finding a home for it: I started sending the book out in 2009, which was massively premature, but I don’t regret it. I drew up a very short list of dream first-book prizes and vowed to continue sending out yearly until I was disqualified from doing so.

 

 
Phillip B. Williams

Phillip B. Williams
Thief in the Interior
Alice James Books

“I’m listening to Alice Coltrane to feel Blacker than God”

—from “Eleggua and Eshu Ain’t the Same”

 

How it began: It was fun. I used to write several manuscripts at a time. One year I was working on three books simultaneously. My first attempt at a book was in 2008 (“I Empire,” read as “first empire”), the second was in 2009 (“Thief in the Interior,” which was not the same book as the one that was eventually published), and the third was in 2010 (“In Vulnerabilities”). Eventually I released a chapbook called Bruised Gospels in 2010, and because I do not want poems in chapbooks to appear in my full-lengths, I was “forced” to restructure the main manuscript, “I Empire,” which remained the backbone of my debut. It had many, many names, to my friend Rickey Laurentiis’s entertainment. He and I exchanged different versions of our books for years. I distinctly remember two titles he had before Boy With Thorn that I do not think he would mind me sharing. The first was “Mirror God” and the second was “Down Atlantis.” If there were any others, I cannot remember. My failed titles were “Grace,” “Grace and Empire,” “Dancing on an Upturned Bed,” “Darling,” “Shame No Tongue,” “Lie Down,” and “Witness. Going through this process with Rickey over the course of four to five years helped push me along. All I knew is that I wanted a book before I turned thirty. My book was published a month before my thirtieth birthday.

Inspiration: The book On Black Men by David Marriott was always on my mind while writing. The work of my peers. The work of those who have become ancestors.

Influences: Essex Hemphill, Jorie Graham, Terrance Hayes, Sonia Sanchez, the racism of Wallace Stevens seems its own kind of artist or shadow of the artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mary Jo Bang, Wangechi Mutu, Nina Simone, Leontyne Price, Björk, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Kerry James Marshall, Federico García Lorca, Lucille Clifton, Henry Dumas, Carl Phillips, Douglas Kearney, J. Michael Martinez, Dawn Lundy Martin, Octavio Paz, Camille T. Dungy, Evie Shockley, Frank Bidart, Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, Alonzo King, Clifford Williams, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Sylvia Plath and her fascination with the word nigger, Claudia Rankine, Carolyn Rogers, Thylias Moss, James Baldwin, afropessimism as a theoretical framework, Mahmoud Darwish, Toni Morrison, Meshell Ndegeocello, Suji Kwock Kim, Larry Levis, Sunni Patterson. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I go for months without writing and then write nonstop for about a month or so. An impasse for me is a sign that I simply have nothing to say, and that is fine. I had to learn that it was fine not to write. As far as what keeps me going, I’m still not sure. Something just clicks on and stays on until it runs its course. I frequently add to a Notes document any lines I come up with or words I need to look up. My memory is very poor, so I do not retain what I read. Sometimes, in order to assist with retention, I have to activate the knowledge, meaning implement it into something tangible like a poem. The joy in this is that most things I read are fresh when I return to them. The downside is that it takes me forever to do scholarly work and I’m not the best person to speak with about books or even single poems unless they are in front of me.

Advice: Just write. Study first, then write. We cannot control the reception of our work, but we can decimate our imaginations by trying to write “for the people.” Who are these monolithic people? Why think so little of them and call that kindness? Recently, there seems to be this idea that one has to write for someone else or a specific group. So many folks want to be mouthpieces for a community for which they’ve set low standards reminiscent of the oppressive forces they claim to want to counteract. In that writing, it is assumed what these potential readers will and will not understand. In the same instant that this idea wants to be communal and welcoming, it is also condescending and ostracizing. We have enough low expectations set on us by others, especially if we are persons of color, women, part of genderqueer and LGBT communities, and/or any other marginalized group. Almost every poem I’ve written my mother has seen. She may or may not understand each one but she has read those poems and encouraged me to keep going. She tells me what she loves and what touches her. So do my nonliterary friends and family members. It’s not up to me to assume there are restraints on their ability to understand me. My poems aren’t a standardized test that my friends need help cheating on, or that can even be “passed.” Though we have limitations, language barriers, literacy barriers, and other factors, we are also complex and capable if allowed to be.

What’s next: I’m working on trying to eat right and go to bed on time.

Age: 30. Phillip B. Williams Cover

Hometown: Chicago.

Residence: Bennington, Vermont.

Job: I am a visiting professor in English at Bennington College. I try to make some kind of living off my work but not to the point of distraction. Writing does keep me alive, even during those times it does not make money.

Time spent writing the book: The longest poem in the book I started in 2005 and it was a single-page poem. It continued to grow across different iterations of the book until it became a twenty-page poem while I attended Washington University in St. Louis for my MFA. I was convinced to shrink it down to fourteen pages and officially finished it in the spring of 2014, nine years later. Many of the poems I wrote that were originally in the book did not make the final edit. Most of the poems that made it I wrote during my MFA, so about two years.

Time spent finding a home for it: It depends on which version of the book we’re talking about. In my naiveté I submitted manuscripts to contests as early as 2009. They were unready projects that I would have regretted if they were published. It only took a few months for what was to become Thief in the Interior to find a publisher. When it started finalizing for prizes and open submissions I knew it would eventually get picked up. 

 

Eleanor Chai Eleanor Chai
Standing Water
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“This, I’ve seen. I see it always. I carry it
in my torso as surely as a Buddhist lives
     in the skin of his own corpse.”

—from “Little Girl’s Auricle”

 

How it began: I can’t say I was compelled to write a book. I was compelled to write poems. I am not a native speaker of English, but I no longer speak my native language (Korean) for complicated and disorienting reasons. Finding shapes in language that hold for longer than the instant of speaking has always felt crucial to me.

Inspiration: I am happiest when I am completely and obsessively engaged. Nothing absorbs me as thoroughly as trying to get a poem on the page. So I suppose living the life I wish to live is what inspires me.

Influences: I spent years transcribing the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. For a few hours each night for six years I was dropped into their intimate “Dear—.” Their devotion to their poems and to poetry continues to move me. Alongside one of her letters, as an afterthought, Bishop wrote: “And did you like the 4 Quartets?” exactly so, with the number 4 and the word Quartets. The “And,” the casual usage, the numeral 4—not the word Four written out—thrilled me. It felt spontaneous, in real time (which it was) and I felt a sliver of how it may have been to read the Four Quartets as a newly made thing, without the edifice of criticism bracing it. The Four Quartets constitutes at least one of my Ten Thousand Things. To see it considered before it aged into its full regalia made me feel closer to its nascence, its being made. I’ve also had the great gift of deep friendship with Frank Bidart. He is one of the finest, most exacting makers I know. His obsessive devotion to the needs of a poem stuns me.  I love T. S. Eliot too much. I love Louise Glück. I love James Baldwin. I love Ezra Pound. I love Clarice Lispector. I love Mark Strand. I love Walt Whitman. I love Frank Bidart. I love Marguerite Duras. I love Winnicott and Freud. I love Bishop. I love Robert Frost. I love Louise Bourgeois. I love Toni Morrison. I love Van Gogh’s letters. I LOVE The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I love ethnographies.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I turn to silence, or rather, I surrender to it. Silence, and superior voices. And panic.

Advice: I wish I had some useful advice. Mine was a strange path.

What’s next: I am working on one new poem. Hopefully I will be able to write it and hopefully more will come. I am also trying to compose, or rather assemble, Mark Strand’s oral memoir from tapes we made in Nova Scotia and some of his unpublished writing. I am following the practice and principles he used in making his beautiful, singular collages from paper he himself made. I think of his sentences as his “paper” and I am trying to tear that material and place it on the page into a compelling narrative of his life. It’s such fine material; the task is daunting but animating.

Age: 49. Eleanor Chai Cover

Hometown: My hometown is a complicated question. I was moved around quite a lot as a child. I suppose I would say Seoul, South Korea, though I’ve not been home in many years.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I started a school in Westport, Connecticut. My daughters are now both in college so I am trying to give myself the time and space to write poems, finish editing the Bishop-Moore letters with the meticulous Saskia Hamilton, and work on Mark Strand’s oral memoir. Working at the school demanded all of my energy when I was there.

Time spent writing the book: I have no idea how long it took me to write this book. Decades. I knew that my daughters’ time in my everyday care would not last forever. I’ve always been achingly clear that I had eighteen years to share our days, to participate, even shape what would be our holy, our minute particular (William Blake). I am devoted to the minute particular. Much that I value in life resides there. I did not have a childhood with my mother, so being a mother to my children every day and night seemed a privilege and a miracle.

Time spent finding a home for it: I was very fortunate that Jonathan Galassi, my editor [for the Bishop-Moore letters], liked my poems and took my book.

Justin BoeningJustin Boening
Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last
Milkweed Editions (National Poetry Series)

“does sadness leave us?
Is that the source of sadness?”

—from “Banquet”

 

How it began: The book’s title is taken from the thorny end of a Kafka parable called “The Coming of the Messiah.” It finishes: “The messiah will come on the day after he is no longer required, he will come on the day after his arrival, he will come not on the last day, but on the very last.” I’ve seen others attempt to negotiate these paradoxes by changing the definition of last day or very last. I guess that makes as much sense as anything else. But for me, this is a portrait of a savior who comes, not belatedly, but by not coming at all. I think it may have been this parable that put me on the road toward writing a book of failures, of mistakes, which is how I’ve come to understand the collection—a book where one learns to become a god by being unrecognizable, for example, or where one rules the world by being the only one in it. I don’t know. I’m probably the last one who should be talking about such things. More generally, though, I think what compelled me to write this book may have been distance from God. For me, poetry is an expression of this desire to reach out, not to communicate per se, but to get closer to whatever it is that’s always just beyond reach or sight. Maybe that sounds too lofty, but it’s a longing I’ve felt all my life, and a longing I’ve often associated with the essence of whatever it is I’ve called “human.” Stevens finishes his poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by saying, “We make a dwelling in the evening air / In which being there together is enough.” I think that about sums it up for me—what compelled me to write these poems.

Inspiration: The unshakable belief that poetry is absolutely necessary, that it’s inextricably linked to language itself, and that, therefore, it’s one of the most human things we’re allowed to participate in.

Influences: As far as writers go, I return most often to Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, Clarice Lispector, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Mark Strand, and Lucie Brock-Broido.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I almost never push it. If a poem is frustrating me I walk away, watch some YouTube, read writers who know what they’re doing. Distraction is good for poetry, I think, maybe because it breeds uncertainty. In fact, I feel I do my best writing when I’m not writing at all.

Advice: Hold off as long as you can. And once you lose your patience, only send the work to people and presses you already respect and trust. 

What’s next: Lately I’ve been putting a lot of my energy into a new magazine and press called Horsethief Books that Devon Walker-Figueroa and I have started together. As far as my own poems go, with the loss of so many friends and luminaries I’ve been writing elegies as of late.

Age: I’m 35 and will be turning 36 on February 13 (yes, I was born on a Friday).Justin Boening Cover

Hometown: I was born in Saratoga Hospital, on a holiday down to see the ponies. I call Glens Falls, New York, my hometown though, since I ate my first corn on the cob there, stole my first bike there, etc. I moved to New York City when I was six—pretty young—so that’s a home for me as well, though not my origins. Recently, I was eating a 1:00 AM chicken fried steak in Missoula, Montana, at a dive called the Ox. Two guys, who had just finished playing poker at the front card table, stood up suddenly from their counter stools. One guy walloped the other guy in the eye, snatched up his rucksack, and hustled out the front door. No one called the cops. Few were alarmed. That’s the place I’ve lived the longest, actually—Missoula is another home.

Residence: Iowa City.

Job: A living? Maybe you could call it that. I teach and edit, mostly.

Time spent writing the book: Well, there are some whispers from poems I wrote while I was a graduate student, but they’re really only whispers. The oldest poem in the book is one I wrote the moment after I handed in my graduate thesis—that was in 2011. The newest poem is one I wrote in 2015. So I guess that means four years?

Time spent finding a home for it: I sent out bashfully in 2013, and then in earnest until the book was taken in 2015.

 

Safiya SinclairSafiya Sinclair
Cannibal
University of Nebraska Press (Prairie Schooner Book Prize)

“Tell the hounds who undress
me with their eyes—I have nothing
to hide. I will spread myself

wide.”

—from “Center of the World”

 

How it began: I began writing poetry as an act of survival. Faced with the silencing exile of womanhood in an oppressive household and a patriarchal society that discouraged me from speaking and thinking, the only way to make sense of my burgeoning selfhood was here on the page, by writing it down. Then, plagued still with the strange linguistic exile of writing in English, the language of the colonist, while dancing wildly in the brazen self of Jamaican patois, the only way to unfracture this amputated history was by making a home for myself on the page, and building new modes of language by writing poetry.

When I was younger I was very dismayed by how little of myself and my family I could trace into the past, and was very inspired by the oral folklore and storytelling tradition passed down by my mother and my aunts. It became very clear to me that this oral folklore and storytelling was a matriarchal tradition—a way of preserving our history, both family history and Jamaican history. This not only incited and inspired me to write Cannibal, but it was also a way of saving my own life, of making a record of our songs and mother tongue, and paying tribute to the women who have woven our words and days into existence.     

Finally, it was imperative for me to confront the macabre history of the Caribbean itself—to expose the postcolonial roots of violence here; to explore how being “Caribbean” was so closely linked to being “savage,” being cannibal. By confronting the ugly language and prejudices that continue to plague all people of the African diaspora, I hoped to renarrativize the toxic gaze of white supremacy at home and abroad, to shatter its fictions through the shared ritual of poetry.

Inspiration: Always in my ear is the ghost meter of the Caribbean Sea, its old rhythm and singing. The possessed tempo of Pocomania, and the fire-root of duende. I am continually inspired by the fertile landscape of Jamaica, which fevers my dreams—our lush hills and blooms, our heavy fruit trees. The way nothing here grows politely. The wild animal of my childhood and its green river of memory.

I’m fascinated by Goethe’s lifelong search for the “Primal Plant,” from which grew my own notion of the black woman’s body as that elusive Primal Plant, the first site of exile. Early on in college I was very startled by Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which showed me the wild possibilities of breaking form, how I could build my own labyrinth of mythification as a way to honor and transfigure family, a way to alchemize our folklore. I’ve also been writing from a desire to dismantle Western texts like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to repossess Caliban as a throat through which the poems could sing, our one-drop rhythm transgressing violence and its lingering exile, a linguistic rebellion forged here through the music of linguistic mastery. 

Influences: The poets, artists, and writers who feed the fire and bloodroot of my family tree are Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Frida Kahlo, James Baldwin, Federico García Lorca, Caliban, Aimé Césaire, Caravaggio, Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez, Paul Celan, Rita Dove, Wangechi Mutu, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I can’t say I’ve ever truly reached an impasse in my work. There’s still so much unwritten of Jamaican history, folklore, and culture, still so much of our rich lives that I need to give voice to, in my own small way. Because I read so feverishly, and am always engaging with topics outside of my field—mostly science, history, and philosophy—I’m always finding new ways to enter into a poem, then discovering how many ideas are already in dialogue with each other in that lyric space. I am often so possessed with language, with the roots and wide-ranging shadows of words, that I’m always chasing one word or another down a new corridor of inquiry. If I hit a wall, I’ll listen to music that opens a window unto memory and centers me in a specific time and place, or I’ll reread authors who’ve dazzled and nurtured me, who take the top of my head off. Both English and Jamaican patois are two deep oceans ready-made for diving. And I dive, unabashedly. There, I find the far-reaching tentacles of naming and wording in our society so expansive that I would have enough material to interpret for a lifetime.

Advice: Take your time. Read widely, expand your references and vocabulary; make the poems sing. Nowadays I think there is such a rush to publish a first book, and many poets might feel pressured to send something out that isn’t quite ready. My strongest advice is to be unafraid of waiting, to sit with your words and work until you’ve cultivated them into something flourishing. Live inside the book until you’re certain you’ve grown something lasting, a bloom of your absolute best self. You only have one first; make it count.

What’s next: I’m currently working on a memoir about growing up in a strict Rastafarian household in Jamaica, and feeling estranged in my own country (Jamaica is a heavily Christian country, and Rastafarians are an oft-ostracized minority.) At that same time, I began feeling exiled by my blooming womanhood, and eventually had no choice but to rebel against a religion and a home that made no room for me.

Age: 32. Safiya Sinclair Cover

Hometown: Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: I’m a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern California, where I’m getting my PhD in literature and creative writing.

Time spent writing the book: The bulk of the poems were written in the three years I was in the MFA program at the University of Virginia. The book was my final thesis, and I spent a few months after that rearranging, focusing, and editing the manuscript. One poem snuck into Cannibal that was written in college six or seven years ago. After the book was accepted, I was still tinkering a bit with structuring, and I knew it needed three more poems (circling around a specific theme) to make it cohesive and complete in my mind, so I slipped three new poems into the manuscript, right down to the wire. Those last three poems were completed in September 2015.

Time spent finding a home for it: I waited to send out the manuscript (and most of its poems) until I felt certain that it was ready to breathe on its own full-bloodedly. The fall after I graduated from the University of Virginia I started submitting Cannibal to prizes, and was really fortunate to have the book accepted to a couple of places by the summer of 2015. Cannibal won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry that June. So it was a year or less of sending it out into the world until it was accepted—a fitting nine months.

Tommy PicoTommy Pico
IRL
Birds, LLC

“The stars are anxious.
What version of yrself
do you see when you
close yr eyes?

—from “IRL”

How it began: I was torn between a stable relationship and predictable future with a boring dude, and an exciting but uneven fling with a pretty young thing. It kind of broke open all the similar divisions inside me: how to transition into my thirties; hailing from the foothills of rural California but living in the busiest city in America; being a modern, queer, indigenous person with a lot of inherent self-love in a world that tries to deny me life, dignity, liberty, etc.

Inspiration: Survivors, femininity, experiences that happen within the span of ninety minutes (like movies [sometimes sex]).

Influences: A. R. Ammons, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Amy Winehouse, Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, Jeffrey Yang, Sherman Alexie, James Welch, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, Chun Li, Storm, etc.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I watch a movie—or a film, if that’s your vibe. Seeing something begin, build, and end in a certain amount of time gives me faith in a creative faculty.

Advice:  Keep the faith, b, keep the faith.

What’s next: I’m working with Tin House to finish up the final edits on Nature Poem, the follow-up to IRL coming out May 2017. I’m about halfway through writing book number three, Junk, and have started Food—the final book in the four-part series I started with IRL. Also a roundtable-discussion-type podcast called “Food 4 Thot” about four multiracial, queer writers in New York City discussing literature, sexuality, and pop culture (hashtag elevator pitch) whom I met at the 2016 Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Teaching long-poem workshops. Also being a good friend, a good lay, and a good human.

Age: 33.Tommy PIco Cover

Hometown: The Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I have approximately sixty-nine side piece jobs, including teaching/touring/freelance stuff, and a main thing that involves writing—but I’m not at liberty to talk about it just yet. If I told you I’d prolly have to kill you.

Time spent writing the book: Officially, I wrote the book from May to August 2014 in an office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, facing the entire trunk of Manhattan, but in a way I was writing the book for thirty years.

Time spent finding a home for it: I sent it to allllll the book contests and once or twice even got a personalized rejection, but mostly sturdy no’s from everybody. I don’t blame them, it’s a weird nonstandard poem and the initial manuscript was probs 70 percent realized. Sampson Starkweather at Birds, LLC saw me read one night in the city and asked me to send him something. Thankfully they had enough faith in my voice and work ethic to help me guide the book toward its final form.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

The Whole Self: Our Thirteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Dana Isokawa

12.13.17

The ten poetry collections featured in our thirteenth annual roundup of debut poets offer a glimpse of the wide range of contemporary poetry. Each of the books, published in 2017, shows just how much poetry can do. Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches tells stories that reckon with history and imagine a better future, while Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS and sam sax’s Madness reclaim language that has been distorted by governments and institutions of power. Emily Skillings’s Fort Not reveals the tendencies of our culture and society through the trappings of modern life, as does Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf and Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet both give voice to the interior—Akbar to the ongoing work of faith, Johnson to the vagaries of the heart and desire. Joseph Rios’s Shadowboxing and Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra create personas and alter egos that argue and spar with one another, while William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind clears a path for understanding others. And all ten collections do what poetry does best: inhabit the many possibilities of language and form as well as attend to, as Seamus Heaney put it, “the lift and frolic of the words in themselves.”

We asked the poets to share the stories and influences behind their books, and they responded with a list of inspirations as varied as their collections, from the food of April Bloomfield and music of Flying Lotus to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and words of Adrienne Rich. When we asked the poets to offer advice to writers who are stuck or looking to publish their first book, however, their answers coalesced around some common 
suggestions: Take a break when you’re struggling with a piece. Permit yourself to write one or two or thirty or a hundred lousy poems. Most of all, reach out to the people who can keep you afloat. Listen to your family’s stories, as Chen and sax do, or talk with your kids, as Matthews advises. Or, as Johnson and Rios suggest, call up your friends, encourage one another, and then hold one another accountable for getting the work done.

Writing poetry can often feel lonely or frustrating or even futile—especially during a year of political turmoil and soul-searching—and these poets remind us to turn to whatever will protect our capacity for wonder and allow each of us to be our “whole self on the page,” as Rios says. They remind us to be attentive to the world, and they urge us to be ready for whatever scrap of language or feeling might help us pass from silence into speaking and jolt a poem into being.

 

Kaveh Akbar | Airea D. Matthews 
William Brewer | Chen Chen
Eve L. Ewing | Jenny Johnson 
sam sax | Emily Skillings
 Joseph Rios | Layli Long Soldier

 

Kaveh Akbar
Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Alice James Books
 

I try not to think of God as a debt to luck
but for years I consumed nothing
that did not harm me
and still I lived, witless

as a bird flying over state lines.

            —from “Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)”

How it began: When I got sober, poetry became my life raft. Every poem in Calling a Wolf a Wolf was written from a few months to a few years after I got sober. I had no idea what to do with myself, what to do with my physical body or my time. I had no relationship to any kind of living that wasn’t predicated on the pursuit of narcotic experience. In a very real way, sobriety sublimated one set of addictions (narcotic) into another (poetic). The obsessiveness, the compulsivity, is exactly the same. All I ever want to do today is write poems, read poems, talk about poems. But this new obsession is much more fun (and much easier on my physiological/psychological/spiritual self ).

Inspiration: The searching earnestness of the people I’ve met in recovery. They’ve taught me how to talk about myself without mythologizing, without casting myself as some misunderstood hero maligned by the world. I think (hope!) that resistance to flattening my narrative into some easy self-serving hero’s journey is one of the central features of Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

Influences: Franz Wright, Abbas Kiarostami, Mary Ruefle, Kazim Ali, Daniel Johnston, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Carl Phillips, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Nicholson Baker, Dan Barden, Kathy Acker, all writers for The Simpsons from 1990–1999, Fanny Howe, Eduardo C. Corral, Jean Valentine, francine j. harris, the verve of Marc Bolan, the voice of Kate Bush, the sneer of Justin Pearson/The Locust, the frequency of Eric Bemberger’s guitar, Sohrab Sepehri, Russell Edson, Lydia Lunch, Zbigniew Herbert, Joanna Newsom, Heather Christle, Patricia Smith, Anne Carson, Robert Olen Butler, Bruce Nauman’s neon art, Vic Ketchman, my mother.

Writer’s block remedy: I don’t really believe in writer’s block. If I sit down to write in earnest and give myself enough time, eventually I’ll walk away with something. Even if it turns out to be nothing (which is usually the case), I’m still training and preparing my instincts for the next poem. Even bad poems that go nowhere provide compost for the good ones to come. That said, I do believe in refractory periods, periods spent rebuilding one’s relationship with silence. Ellen Bryant Voigt talks about how in order to strike, a cobra also needs to recoil. I have recoil periods in which I throw myself into my reading, a kind of active listening. So much of Calling a Wolf a Wolf works by hypersaturation, by these breathless rushes of language. It’s been immensely useful for me to go back into silence, to reclaim a bit of psychic quiet to take back into the poems.

Advice: Be kind to yourself and to other poets. There are so many people in the world who would conspire against our joy, who would mistake our reverent wonder for idleness. Against everything, we have to protect our permeability to wonder. That’s the nucleus around which all interesting art orbits.

Finding time to write: I’m one of those people who wakes up obnoxiously early to get in my hours before the world really starts up. I like to get into my poem-writing while my brain is still gummy with dream logic, before the mundane argle-bargle of the everyday comes in.

What’s next: Rebuilding a relationship with silence. Being the best professor and mentor I can be. Orienting myself toward gratitude despite a political moment working very hard to prevent that. Being in love and planning a wedding. Being an uncle. Touring with the book. Staying alive one day at a time.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Not sure exactly—I was born in Tehran, Iran, then moved to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, to Wisconsin, to Indiana, to Florida, and now back to Indiana.

Residence: Lafayette, Indiana.

Job: I teach in the MFA program at Purdue University.

Time spent writing the book: The honest answer is twenty-eight years, maybe even longer than that, but to answer the question I think you’re actually asking, the oldest recognizable poem in the book is about five years old. That’s fairly fast, actually. There are a number phrases and images I cannibalized from poems much, much older than that, though.

Time spent finding a home for it: Not very long. Carey Salerno, my editor at Alice James, saw a poem of mine published by the Poetry Society of America and wrote to me asking if I had a manuscript. I actually wasn’t really done with Calling a Wolf a Wolf yet, but I sent her what I had with the caveat that I still needed time to continue building and rearranging and reimagining. She liked what she saw and took the leap. I couldn’t imagine working with a smarter, more generous, more compassionate editor. So much of what is good about the book is the result of her patient guidance and mentorship.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast (Ecco) is a collection I think people will still be reading in fifty years. Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press). William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions). Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra (Yale University Press). Cortney Lamar Charleston’s Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books). Safia Elhillo’s The January Children (University of Nebraska Press). Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS (Graywolf Press). Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches (Haymarket Books).

 

***

Airea D. Matthews
Simulacra
Yale University Press (Yale Series of Younger Poets)

but I knew it was a winged thing,
a puncture, a black and wicked door.

—from “Rebel Prelude”

How it began: My life and the lives of the people who have affected me were the impetus for the book. I’d had undiagnosed mental illness for a very long time, and I wanted to get to the root of it. It started with a question, actually. I asked myself if I had inherited hunger and instability. As I wrote the book, the universe handed me small parts of a very complicated answer.

Inspiration: Books, people, and technology—Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Books, Albert Camus’s The Stranger and The Rebel, Franz Kafka’s absurdity, Greek and Sumerian myths, the wit of Twitter and Facebook, the days of Motorola Q, Anne Sexton, Gertrude Stein, my family and friends. In short, everyday life—private and public.

Influences: Aside from the nods in Simulacra to my poetic lineage, Nora Chassler, Vievee Francis, Rachel McKibbens, and Ladan Osman are some of my greatest artistic inspirations. They’ve all taught me more about community, poetry, and history through their generosity and friendship than I could ever hope to learn in a book. As literary exemplars, I’d have to say Rita Dove, Simone De Beauvoir, Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Haruki Murakami, Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Muriel Rukeyser, Marina Tsvetaeva, Carl Phillips, Louise Glück, Antonio Porchia, Cecília Meireles, Wisława Szymborska, Heraclitus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Hayden, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Writer’s block remedy: When I lose language it’s almost entirely because I am too focused on myself at that moment. And so, I step back. I consciously get outside of myself by unplugging and planting myself in public spaces at odd hours of the day. My perspective shifts because, in public, my gaze moves toward other forms of subjectivity—nature, outside conversations, cityscapes, etc. I am also a big fan of stepping away from work to listen to my kids’ observations about life and/or ask them how they’d work through a problem. Young souls are closer to Edenic wisdom. They understand human nature and the journey in a way that seems to elude the more grizzled traveler.

Advice: Listen to yourself, your hand, your gut, your pen, your mind. Be authentically who you are as a writer. Your work has its own logic and its own tools; honor them. And, finally, wear comfortable shoes because the journey toward making the impossible possible is rugged, long, and lovely.

Finding time to write: I suppose I don’t find time as much as I make time. I have long practiced jotting down at least one observation every day—anything from watching a child play to documenting arguments. I find that those observations help me sustain focus when I sit to write in longer form. 

What’s next: I am trying to gain fluency in my body’s primitive language, my instincts. The next collection, “under/class,” will be driven entirely by those instincts and will almost definitely be outside of definition and genre—social criticism, poetry, and short stories.

Age: 45.

Hometown: I grew up in Trenton, but I spent twenty years in Detroit. Detroit is the place where I matured into a writer.

Residence: The City of Brotherly Love (and car horns), Philadelphia.

Job: Assistant professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. The college was voted one of the most beautiful campuses in the country (and not just the grounds); the people are exceptional humans.

Time spent writing the book: The poems were in my body my whole life, perceiving and altering the way I interacted with the world. Somatically, I would say it took me forty-plus years. But, in a more linear view, it took a solid five years to commit them to paper and have them coalesce into a collection.

Time spent finding a home for it: I heard “no” and “not quite right” so often, I started to answer to them. Interestingly, I had a hard time getting individual poems published, which explains why my publishing acknowledgements are fairly lean in the book. I sent the manuscript out thirty times in some form or fashion, under two different titles. It was rejected twenty-eight times. It was accepted twice, and I went with Yale.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: ALL OF THEM! It’s hard to name only a few, but here’s my feeble attempt: Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa’s Rummage (Little A), Chelsea Dingman’s Thaw (University of Georgia Press), Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS, sam sax’s Madness, Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, and Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing (Southern Illinois University Press).

William Brewer
I Know Your Kind
Milkweed Editions (National Poetry Series)

All the things
I meant to do are burnt spoons

hanging from the porch like chimes.

—from “Naloxone”
 

How it began: In the broadest sense, I saw the opiate epidemic start to swallow up my home state. Eventually it made its way into my life in specific ways, including a day when someone came to me and my partner and told us they had developed a heroin addiction. I was extremely angry with them and brushed them off, but quickly after that—by which I mean within a matter of minutes—I was overwhelmed with repulsion toward myself for how quickly I had slipped into such a damning, limited, and unsophisticated view of what this person had just confessed. Here they were at their most vulnerable, and I couldn’t be less humane. I was enacting the shame and stigmatization that is our culture’s default. I hated that and wanted to push against it.

Inspiration: There are maybe five hundred books and writers I’d like to name if I had the space and time, but I Know Your Kind is particularly indebted to Virginia Woolf, Carl Phillips, Denis Johnson, the Inferno, Paradise Lost, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Timothy Donnelly, John Berryman, and Walt Whitman.

Influences: I am constantly nourished, refreshed and challenged by Herman Melville, Don DeLillo, Caravaggio’s paintings, most of Stanley Kubrick, early Terrence Malick, LCD Soundsystem and Radiohead, the food of April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, and the Joe Beef cookbook. More recently I have been nourished, refreshed, and challenged by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Louise Glück, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Karen Solie, Isaac Babel, Teju Cole, and Blade Runner (new and original).

Writer’s block remedy: If my writing is stuck, it’s because I haven’t read enough. Sometimes I pretend this isn’t the case, but I’m always wrong.

Advice: I’d suggest thinking about what your book is doing as a composition. How does it read? What are its sources of heat and thrust? Does it have an arc? An architecture? A book can be a kind of random collection of poems and still be organized in such a way that creates drama, tension, interaction, and a greater composition.

Finding time to write: The Stegner affords me a great deal of writing time, for which I’m extremely grateful.

What’s next: A new book of poems and a novel.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Morgantown, West Virginia.

Residence: Oakland.

Job: Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poems in the book are about four to five years old, though a large chunk was written in a fit of about eighteen months. It’s hard to say because some poems existed in a kind of shadow form for years before they were fully realized.

Time spent finding a home for it: Long answer, five years; short answer, approximately eighteen months.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast. Elizabeth Metzger’s The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press). And I’m excited to read Emily Skillings’s Fort Not (The Song Cave).

 

***

Chen Chen
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
BOA Editions (A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize)

My job is to trick

myself into believing
there are new ways
to find impossible honey.

            —from “Spell to Find Family”

How it began: The book happened poem by poem. I didn’t have a very specific project in mind. I wanted to write poems that excited me sonically and formally, that surprised me in their turns, that grappled with a wide array of subjects, such as: family, immigration, queerness, race, misrecognition, labor, pop culture, mortality, love, and “growing up” in a really broad sense. “Growing up” as something ongoing, unfinishable—not a linear process but a messy, multidirectional one. This theme of “growing up” became clearer the more poems I wrote and the more I saw them as being in conversation with one another.

The process of putting together my MFA thesis and working with my advisor, Bruce Smith, helped me take the step from a pile of poems to a poetry collection. After the book won the Poulin Prize, the judge, Jericho Brown, was so generous with his time and insights and helped me reshape and reenvision the manuscript. “Write the book you want to read,” Jericho said. It was the deepest encouragement as well as the most daunting challenge. And I felt that Jericho had inhabited the book in its ideal form, its most compelling state. He saw the potential, and he got me excited to revise.

I cut out about fifteen pages—poems involving this complicated relationship between a queer son and his unaccepting mother that were getting in the way of the book’s main movement. The book went from four sections to three, with that one poem (“Self-Portrait as So Much Potential”) set off on its own at the very beginning (a suggestion from my poet friend Jess Smith). And many poems underwent significant revision, mostly cuts and tightening up of language. I tend to be expansive and want to throw everything in, including the kitchen sink and everything from every kitchen on the planet going back to when kitchen sinks first became a thing; I’m fortunate to have such smart readers and editors who will tell me when my maximalist tendencies are working and I need to pull back. 

Inspiration: Robert Hayden. Jean Valentine. Walt Whitman. Joseph O. Legaspi. Nikky Finney. Paul Celan. Audre Lorde. Allen Ginsberg, especially Howl. Richard Siken’s Crush. Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. My former teachers Aracelis Girmay, Martín Espada, Deborah Gorlin, Bruce Smith, and Michael Burkard. Sarah Gambito, especially a poem called “Immigration,” which includes the line, “So what if I don’t love you.” Marilyn Chin’s Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Pablo Neruda, especially his odes, his poems about the Spanish Civil War, and his book The Book of Questions. I love the range of Neruda’s work. In the United States he’s known for his early love poems, but he wrote so many different kinds of poetry, including some of the most moving political poems. Other inspirations: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; my mother (who is a fabulous storyteller); Tegan and Sara; Paul Klee paintings and their delightful titles; cross-country running; the trees of New England; the Texas sun; the Japanese gay porn star Koh Masaki; guanacos (an animal related to the llama); reduced-sodium soy sauce; Frank Ocean; my high school French teachers; my partner, Jeff Gilbert; our dog, Mr. Rupert Giles (named after the British librarian character in Buffy).

Writer’s block remedy: I have to take breaks. Walk around. Talk to people I like. Watch some TV. Eat a snack. Do a different form of work. I really like doing my laundry; I don’t know why, but I find it meditative and satisfying. It’s weird how much I like doing laundry because I’m not super cleanly when it comes to other things, like my desk, where I do the actual writing. But, nine times out of ten, doing laundry and then putting away all my clothes in a very organized fashion helps me return to the writing with a fresh mind and a sense of calm. When that doesn’t work, I have to accept the draft isn’t going anywhere, at least not at the moment, and I have to will myself to stop staring at the computer screen. And then it’s wonderful to realize that I have a totally different draft or at least some bundle of notes I could attend to. The well doesn’t dry up. I just have to look somewhere else and stop fixating on what I thought was going to be the next poem.

Advice: Believe in your work. Don’t write what you think will get you published. My book got picked up quickly, but it took a longer time for many of the individual poems to get published in journals. Rejection will continue to happen after your book comes out, so really know, for yourself, what you like about your writing. You don’t want to feel like you’re experiencing success from something that doesn’t fully belong to you. It’s so satisfying when someone does (finally!) appreciate the weird thing you’re doing, your weird thing. I’m going to sound Hallmark-y, but I’m serious: Don’t compromise on your heart.

Finding time to write: I’ve found that I’m a much happier person when I make time to write, so I try to do that first. Before answering e-mails, before checking the news and social media, before getting up to take a shower sometimes. First thing. Then I feel like I’ve had at least this small moment to tend to my spirit, to honor what’s most alive or mysterious in how I’m seeing or engaging with the world. I like to try getting a whole draft out, but even a couple lines or one image can make the moment glow, and I can carry that with me into the rest of the day. But, to be honest, much of the time I just try to squeeze in some writing here and there.

What’s next: A second collection of poems, tentatively titled “Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency.” A lyric craft essay on Asian American poets and the politics of humor. Some personal essays, but who knows if they’re actually poems, not essays.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Amherst, Massachusetts, by way of Fort Worth, Texas, and Xiamen, China.

Residence: Lubbock, Texas.

Job: Doctoral student at Texas Tech University.

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poem is about six years old, but that includes a year of not even looking at it. I started it in college, then sort of abandoned it. This is a poem called “Race to the Tree,” which is probably the most narrative piece in my book. It took a long time to figure out the structure, though it ended up being pretty simple. Simplicity can take years, I guess. I was making edits on this poem up to the last minute before I had to turn in the final manuscript to my publisher. The other poems didn’t take quite that long. Most of my book was written during my MFA, and then I didn’t look at it for a little while after submitting it to contests and reading periods. I revised and revised after the book was picked up in Spring 2016. I work well with deadlines, so I’m glad that I had about five months (and not more than that) until the final manuscript was due last fall. It was a good amount of time for revisions—not too short that I felt rushed and not too long that I felt like I was overthinking everything. Well, I still overthought and over-obsessed, but not for terribly long!

Time spent finding a home for it: I was extremely lucky. I sent my book out to only seven places. One round of submissions in Fall/Winter 2015. I was mentally preparing myself to keep sending it out for many rounds. When I’ve submitted chapbook manuscripts, it’s taken more time and perseverance. When I apply for fellowships and residencies, it often takes a couple attempts at least. So I was stunned to learn that my book was a finalist for Waywiser Press’s Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize and then the winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize at BOA Editions. I was stunned and continue to feel deeply grateful to the readers and editors who’ve responded with such enthusiasm for my work. And it’s been a dream working with BOA.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS. Keegan Lester’s this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it (Slope Editions). Nico Amador’s Flower Wars (Newfound), which is one of the best chapbooks I’ve ever read; I’m excited to see what’s next for this poet. I’m painfully behind on new poetry collections, but I’m especially looking forward to reading Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied and E. J. Koh’s A Lesser Love (Pleiades Press). 

Eve L. Ewing
Electric Arches
Haymarket Books

they mailed me from Mississippi
in a metal ice chest

—from “how i arrived”

How it began: It started as a collection of mostly autobiographical poems that were varyingly interesting but not really cohesive. I talked with the publisher of Haymarket Books about the possibility of doing something with them, and it became one of those great iterative conversations where, through the process of talking something through with an active and curious listener, you have a chance to articulate for yourself what you’re really interested in doing. I realized that I wanted to write a book that would enter my own autobiographical coming-of-age story through a rewriting of my city’s past and future, through joy and magic, and that I wanted the book to speak to adolescent black girls and young adult black women. After that I was able to revise the manuscript into something with a lot more focus.

Inspiration: Reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine and seeing its use of visual art and prose. Walking around Chicago, driving around Chicago, biking around Chicago. Seeing visual art—for instance, the poem “The Device” was inspired by a series of masks I saw in the African art gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. Going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and seeing “the Mothership” that used to land onstage when Parliament-Funkadelic and George Clinton performed. Watching the film that Beyoncé made to accompany Lemonade and listening to A Seat at the Table by Solange; both pieces engage in elements of magic and world-building and, in the case of Solange’s album, a cohesion and clarity of aesthetic that I find inspiring. Listening to the album Heavn by Jamila Woods. Listening to Flying Lotus. A million other things.

Influences: Gwendolyn Brooks—I was writing the show No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks when I was editing Electric Arches. Ross Gay. Fatimah Asghar. Jamila Woods. Kevin Coval. Nate Marshall. Hanif Abdurraqib. Patricia Smith. Studs Terkel. Danez Smith.

Writer’s block remedy: I write in multiple genres, so often I just try to turn my attention to something else or step away from a project if it needs a little more time to incubate—although I often find it helpful to interrogate myself somewhat about the nature of the impasse. Am I tired? Hungry? Distracted? Is this idea bad? Is it something I’ve lost interest in? Am I trying to make an argument that I don’t actually have the evidence to make yet? Do I need another pair of eyes? Reflecting and being honest with myself about what’s going on usually helps me move forward. I’m also patient with myself. Everything doesn’t have to be written just this minute. Sometimes it’s okay to go read a book or ride a bike.

Advice: I think I was so eager to publish my book—and also perhaps somewhat lacking in confidence in myself—that I was at risk of going with any press that came along. I’m so grateful that I ended up with Haymarket, which I think was just perfect for me for so many reasons. If that hadn’t happened, I think there’s an alternate universe where the book is out on some other press in a much diminished form. I think it’s worth it to be patient and find the right press that believes not just in your book in the abstract, but in your entire vision for how you’d like it to live and operate in the world. I also think it’s worthwhile to ask yourself, “Which of these poems really are exciting to me?” and try to figure out which poems serve as the core thematic foundations of the book, and then edit and cut mercilessly around those foundations.

Finding time to write: It’s my job, which means it’s nonnegotiable, and we have to find the time for things that are nonnegotiable. I clear a path for it in whatever ways I can. Sometimes that means having a very disciplined morning writing session or a daylong retreat, and sometimes that means doing things the old-fashioned way—scribbling notes on a train or a bus.

What’s next: I recently finished my second book, When the Bell Stops Ringing, a work of nonfiction about the mass closure of public schools in Chicago and the history of racism in the city. I’m working on kicking off some new research projects that I hope will result in my second academic book, though that’s a very long process. And on Sunday mornings, little by little, I’ve been working on some fiction. 

Age: 31.

Hometown and Residence: Chicago.

Job: Professor at the University of Chicago and writer.

Time spent writing the book: Three years.

Time spent finding a home for it: About a year.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Three collections I both enjoyed and learned from were Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, and sam sax’s Madness.

 

***

 

Jenny Johnson
In Full Velvet
Sarabande Books

Let us speak without occasion
of relations of our choosing!

—from “Gay Marriage Poem”

How it began: There’s a scene in a somewhat dated film from 1983, Lianna, directed by John Sayles, in which the protagonist goes to a lesbian bar for the first time with her lover. The next morning, as she’s walking down the street, she is newly able to integrate a private way of being, seeing, and desiring into her public sphere. Through an exchange of looks, you see her recognizing that all along there existed a community of other queer folks. Suddenly she’s moving through a space where future friends or lovers are newly possibly everywhere—choosing a plum at the fruit stand or on the far side of a street smiling at you as you smile back. Kind of like an audience for a poem that you weren’t sure existed but who you kept writing and revising for just in case.

Inspiration: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality by Gayle Salamon.

Influences: Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde are poets I read when I know I could be living and writing more courageously. A few other writers whose poems have been especially strong mentors are Rita Dove, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marilyn Hacker, and Larry Levis.

Writer’s block remedy: I often turn to my dear friend and fellow poet Soham Patel, who always reminds me that it’s okay to play. And then we do—though we live in different cities, we get on the phone, laugh a lot, give each other exercises, and hold each other accountable.

Advice: Don’t listen to the voices of those who fear the power in what you have made and will make. Trust your closest readers and the reciprocal spaces that nourish you and give you strength.

Finding time to write: Like many poets I know, I am resourceful. I memorize poems that I love by others, which helps me think through my own while walking home along a busy road muffled by traffic. I carry a pocket-sized notebook when I go for a run. I have a little desk in an attic by a third-floor window where I slow down to revise. But many poems begin in the interstices of the day, when my mind is in motion.

What’s next: I recently cowrote a one-act play with playwright and friend Paul Kruse. It’s called Boundary Layer. The play takes place in a mysterious world covered in the most humble of life forms—moss. The last two people on a lonely planet, Sam and Dusty, are left to negotiate unexpected desires, relationships, and boundaries as they step outside of what is safe, familiar, and human.

Age: 38.

Hometown: Winchester, Virginia.

Residence: Pittsburgh.

Job: I teach at the University of Pittsburgh and at the Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program. Before I taught college, I was a public school teacher.

Time spent writing the book: Eight years. In “Invisibility in Academe,” Adrienne Rich says that when someone “describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors.” I share this because I spent eight years writing, but also eight years working through some sort of “psychic disequilibrium.” Often I was writing, but at the same time I was teaching, loving, showing up for others, organizing, dancing: choosing to be in spaces where I could better see myself. To write my book, I had to widen my sense of my work in relation to others.

Time spent finding a home for it: I was quite lucky—I sent my book out for about a year. Then I won a Whiting Award. The weekend of the awards ceremony in New York City, I gave a reading from my unpublished manuscript. After the reading, I was approached by an editor at Sarabande.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta Press) by Lauren Russell, Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora, and The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books) by Molly McCully Brown.

sam sax
Madness
Penguin Books (National Poetry Series)

you either love the world
or you live in it

            —from “Warning: Red Liquid”

How it began: The seed for this book was actually just an exercise I gave myself. I’d come across a list of reasons for admission to a mental asylum in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in the 1800s that included examples such as “kicked in the head by a horse,” “tobacco and masturbation,” and “novel reading,” which I thought would all make lovely titles for poems. So I went to the woods (a residency at the Blue Mountain Center) but found I couldn’t write poems within that stricture. Instead I refocused my attention on the precise moment in history when homosexuality was taken out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and how that act of depathologizing has affected the way we think about and embody queerness and desire today. I began to work sequentially, incorporating my own relationship and my family’s relationship with mental health as both patients and practitioners. Through this process I discovered how clearly you can draw a line between so much of the inherited, lived, and systemic violence we experience and perpetuate today back to those early diagnoses. 

Inspiration: Some of my research materials were The Birth of the Clinic and Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault. The DSM-I from 1952. The collected paintings of Francisco Goya and Hieronymus Bosch. Freud’s idea of the pleasure principle. Talking with my grandpa. The Sawbones podcast.

Influences: My friends. The folks I started writing with and have grown alongside over many years have unequivocally had the most impactful and life-altering affect on my writing and personhood. Some of those folks are Franny Choi, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, as well as countless other geniuses I’m lucky enough to be around. I’d also say there’s a litany of smart, politicized, literary, sad homosexuals from the present back to Hart Crane flinging himself off the deck of that ship who have made my work possible. 

Writer’s block remedy: Give up and start something new. There are many poems to be written. If something isn’t working, I feel totally fine putting it aside and writing toward what has the most urgency and energy around it. Another thing that frees me up from the internal and newly external pressures of writing poems is being a-okay making terrible ones. I try to think of each new piece of writing as an experiment until it transcends that and becomes a poem. There’s something about the lack of preciousness around this process that helps me think of them as disposable until they become indispensable. Also each experiment and almost poem that doesn’t meet the world helps me accrue knowledge that will inform the next thing I write.

Advice: Everyone’s journey is different, and I can’t think of any catchall prescriptive advice outside of: Don’t be a jerk. It can be a really crummy process. For the longest time not having a book made me quite sad, and I always found it mad frustrating when someone who was already established told me to take my time and that it would work out how it’s supposed to. Although that turned out true in my case, I don’t necessarily think this is good advice. If you’ve finished one project, move on to another. You can always return to edit what you’ve already written. The doldrums that sometimes arise from not having a book can be dangerous. Madness is the sixth or seventh full manuscript I put together over eight or so years of writing, and to be honest, had any of those initial books been published, it would have been bad news. The time it took to get these books into the world has been invaluable for their life as books and for mine as a writer. So if you can stomach the patience, go for it. If not, publish chaps! Self-publish zines (I made like twenty as a younger punk writer.) There are lots of ways to get your work out into the world that isn’t as precious, lauded, and seemingly impossible as the first book object. Fuck it up. Make your poems indispensable to the world and let publishers fight over the privilege of supporting your work.

Finding time to write: I find time to write in the mornings before other obligations, during a spare hour at the coffee shop, on trains, buses. I’ve been trying to broaden my notion of what writing is to include the passive moments—a shift in perspective where looking at the world is just as important as writing it down.

What’s next: I’ve got two books in the works. There’s a collection of poems that’s currently circling around a sequence of Anthropocene / Apocalypse poems that attempt to celebrate queer joy in community and loneliness as the world burns. I’m also working on a novel, which is a queer Jewish coming-of-age story told in nonlinear fragments from the perspective of someone who’s just lit their self on fire outside of Trump Tower.

Age: 31.

Hometown: Born in Manhattan, went to high school in Mamaroneck, New York.

Residence: Brooklyn, New York.

Job: I teach poetry and give readings.

Time spent writing the book: A little over a year. I wrote the drafts and skeletons for two-thirds of the book in the month I was up at a residency, and I spent the next year editing and refining. The rest of the book I wrote in and out of graduate school.

Time spent finding a home for it: Well, I’d just had my first book, which will be published second, picked up by Wesleyan University Press. The process of writing and sending it out took five to six years, although the book is wildly different from earlier versions I’d sent out. I had finished writing that first book and was tired of waiting for it to be accepted, so I decided to write a second book. I sent Madness out on a whim to the National Poetry Series and was expecting to have a multiyear journey of searching for a publisher, but amazingly Terrance Hayes selected the book. We had to push back my first book, Bury It, by a year so that the two books wouldn’t be in competition with each other.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Oy. This year has been ridiculously plump with incredible and dangerous first books. Here’s my list of poets whose first books this year took the top of my head off: Nicole Sealey, Kaveh Akbar, Erika L. Sánchez, Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa, Tyree Daye, Meg Freitag, Chen Chen, Eve L. Ewing, Layli Long Soldier, William Brewer, Chelsea Dingman, Javier Zamora, and I am SURE I’m leaving some wonderful books off this list.

 

***

Emily Skillings
Fort Not
The Song Cave

I was never here.
I’m not coming back.
I’m at sea.

            —from “Crystal Radio”

How it began: This book is a collection of mostly discrete poems that I wrote in graduate school (a handful were written in the time before and after). I never set off to write it; I looked back and gathered things I’d previously written and arranged them and drew out connections among them. It’s more of an act of returning. I think many first books begin this way, by remembering what’s been done already. Some of the shared attentions and themes of the book include depression, gender, color, painting and visual art, toxic white femininity, cloudiness, somatic experience, cantankerousness, jealousy, sex, light, America, collage, feelings without names, looming dread, boredom, water. I think in a larger sense I wanted to create a space where a state of not quite knowing felt expert, delightful, powerful.

Inspiration: I feel a little corny saying this, but my friends are my greatest inspiration. I am about to coteach a class on the poetics of refusal with a friend, the poet and artist Simone Kearney, at Parsons School of Design. Our conversations around this subject, around phenomenology and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, and other texts that draw out these “slow states,” have really helped to create an environment for my work to emerge. The workshops and seminars I attended at Columbia were also instrumental. My students inspire me every week with their risk-taking and generosity. John Cleese’s character, Basil Fawlty, in the 1970s British sitcom Fawlty Towers shaped a lot of my early fascination with language, as did my father’s yellow legal pads, my mother’s excellent malapropisms and non sequiturs (“mind like a steel sieve”/ “letting the can of worms out of the bag”), and my brother’s baroque prose and steady diet of cyberpunk novels. I am a dedicated follower of a Twitter account of Yiddish proverbs.

Influences: John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Marcella Durand, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Eileen Myles, Francis Ponge, Sei Shōnagon, Mary Ruefle, Douglas Kearney, Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim, Ariana Reines, Claudia Rankine, F. T. Prince, Emily Hunt, H. D., Harryette Mullen, Adam Fitzgerald, Alice Notley, Fernando Pessoa, my teachers Timothy Donnelly and Dorothea Lasky, Wayne Koestenbaum, Tracie Morris, Édouard Levé, Kim Hyesoon, Jorie Graham, Lucy Ives, Lyn Hejinian, Elizabeth Bishop, Jorge Luis Borges, James Schuyler, Lisa Robertson, Ali Power, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, my dance teacher Alexandra Beller.

Writer’s block remedy: I usually reach an impasse because I need to take a minute to recharge, so I listen to that. I quiet down my writer mind and enter a reading-seeing phase that may last weeks or months. I use a lot of repetition and anaphora in my work (some of which gets cut later) because I find the experience of repeating oneself to be both necessary in our times and deeply clarifying and stimulating. To repeat a phrase is both to stabilize it in the memory of the writer and reader and to question its soundness, as in Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” The rose is both etched in our mind and transformed, transmogrified. When I still made dances, I was obsessed with repetition and resultant exhaustion, and I often repeat as a way of entering or reentering a poem. I think I learned how to do this by listening to Anne Waldman and Dorothea Lasky.

One question I am still grappling with is how to negotiate a balance between “innovation,” constraint, and intuition. The painter Jane Freilicher put it best, I think, when she said, “To strain after innovation, to worry about being on ‘the cutting edge’ (a phrase I hate), reflects a concern for a place in history or one’s career rather than the authenticity of one’s painting.” There’s also, I think, a quieter quote somewhere about her letting go of the pressure to be innovative, and that she felt she could really paint after that, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

This sounds a little strange, but I like to think of my life so far as a writer as a kind of oscillation between states of openness and movement and states of stillness and solitude. There are islands of production, productivity, and then pockets of…nothing. I think I am grateful to my depression in this way, in that it often forces me to be still. 

Advice: Support other writers by editing their books, teaching their work, inviting them to read, publishing them, letting them sleep on your couch, etc. Put your work in the hands of only people you know to be caring and dedicated. I am grateful that being a poet is perhaps more of a career path than it once was, and I know that being heard and read is vital to the form. That being said, I do find the professionalization of poetry (in which we all engage) to be in some ways hurtful to the writing itself. It’s okay to turn it off sometimes, this drive toward productivity. When you are writing, you are not involved in career making; you are being a poet. You are also a poet when you are teaching or walking around or doing your day job or looking at art. Don’t partition off your daily life from your writing life.

Eileen Myles once visited an undergraduate poetry workshop taught by Jennifer Firestone that I was taking, and she said something like: “There is something to being a poet that has nothing to do with writing poetry. It’s an identity.” This was such a relief for me when I heard it almost ten years ago, and yet I’m still not sure what it means. Perhaps what it means to me keeps changing. I like that.

Finding time to write: I am a very slow writer. I only sit down to write a poem a handful of times per month, but I find I am constantly jotting down fragments, recording phrases, and “puttering” (to borrow one of my mother’s favorite terms) over lines. I usually use my phone to record these, either as a note or in a voice memo. These scraps gleaned from daily life become the scaffolding of many of my poems. I’ve been commuting to teach this semester and have also found that being on a train (with no Wi-Fi!) and gently zooming through a landscape is very conducive to writing. I just have to stay ahead of the motion sickness.

What’s next: I’m working on a book-length poem sequence called “Mother of Pearl” about the environment and whether or not I want to eventually have children. It uses fragments of language from the anonymous Middle English poem “Pearl,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, lyrics from Roxy Music’s song “Mother of Pearl,” and probably a few more sources. It is a very different experience than writing Fort Not, both because it is more of a project book than a collection, and because it relies on and is building itself around found language. I also want to start writing a novel but don’t quite know how.

Age: 29.

Hometown: Brunswick, Maine.

Residence: Brooklyn, New York, and sometimes Hudson, New York.

Job: Assistant to poets and an adjunct professor.

Time spent writing the book: Five years. I wrote the poem “Canary” in thirty minutes before a poetry reading at the Center for Book Arts in 2013 and didn’t change a word. I began the poem “Parallelogram” in 2014 and didn’t finish it until 2016, revising it well into 2017.

Time spent finding a home for it: I think I had a pretty rare experience in that the Song Cave (run by the incredible Alan Felsenthal and Ben Estes) was the first and only press to which I sent the manuscript, so not long. The deadline for the Song Cave’s 2016 open reading period (and my partner Danniel Schoonebeek’s gentle nudging to put it in my calendar) was one of the primary motivators for getting the initial manuscript together.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: William Brewer’s incredible I Know Your Kind comes to mind, and Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast. Tongo Eisen-Martin’s second book, Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights Books), is one of my favorite books of the year, along with Alan Felsenthal’s debut, Lowly (Ugly Duckling Presse). I am incredibly excited for Samantha Zighelboim’s The Fat Sonnets, which will be coming out in 2018 from Argos Books. 

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Joseph Rios
Shadowboxing: Poems & Impersonations
Omnidawn Publishing

I am the American, güey

            —from “Southpaw Curse”

How it began: It was a long while before I started thinking about a book. Willie Perdomo helped me with that at a Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation workshop. That’s when I found my alter ego, Josefo. Willie got me to conceptualize a project that could be built around this character. That was in 2012. It took another three years to mold the work into something that felt whole. I read John Berryman’s Mr. Bones character [from The Dream Songs] and Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito and fell in love with the notion of characters living full lives inside poems. It’s a thin veil, of course, but it worked for me. I was able to hide behind this character that looked and sounded like me, had the same memories and experiences as me, but was allowed to live apart from me.

Inspiration: My grandmother’s stories, my grandfather’s stories, the dudes I dug trenches with, the packinghouse where I used to work, wrench turners at my uncle’s airplane shop, jornaleros I picked up at Home Depot in Cypress Park, in Oakland, Marina del Rey, Daly City. My cousin Gabe’s vinyl collection, Dro’s Navy stories, dysfunctional romantic relationships, regret, mistakes, degenerate behavior, survival, and healing. You know, all that stuff you talk about when you and your cousin Erica are drunk and crying at four in the morning. Also, watching people I love get sick and pass away. All that loss, too much loss. Mourning, of course.

Influences: Javier O. Huerta, Michele Serros, Richard Pryor, Douglas Kearney, Warren G, Andrés Montoya, Rafa Cardenas, John Berryman, Zbigniew Herbert, D’Angelo, Art Laboe, and the Rocky films.

Writer’s block remedy: My poetry community, without a doubt. As I write this, I’m sitting across from my poet-cousin Sara Borjas. We met up to get some work done. I really couldn’t do a damn thing without these people.

Advice: Keep writing. Keep grinding. Send to presses that are publishing work you give a shit about. Don’t water down your voice because you think that’s what it takes to get a book. My homie Chiwan Choi asks us, “Why sell out in a zero-dollar industry?” It might sound corny, but be your whole self on the page. There isn’t much out there more terrifying to the powers that be than a bunch of people being their whole damn selves on the page. They straight up ban those books in places like Arizona. We need more of those books.

Finding time to write: I have to make time or it doesn’t happen. I get lazy. I work nights and weekends. Weekdays are usually free for poet work. I have people around me who keep me accountable.

What’s next: Tough question. I feel so far away from anything that resembles a second collection. I’m trying very hard to resist the producer mentality and to just enjoy this book and reflect on the journey I took to get here.

Age: 30.

Hometown: Clovis, California.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: I work at a venue called Civic Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles.

Time spent writing the book: Seven years, give or take.

Time spent finding a home for it: I submitted a previous version of the book as early as 2011. It was premature, without a doubt, but sending to contests kept me engaged in the work. I’m deadline driven that way.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: For real, 2017 needs to calm down. Where do I begin? Mai Der Vang’s Afterland (Graywolf Press). Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied. Vickie Vértiz’s Palm Frond With Its Throat Cut (University of Arizona Press). Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast. Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On/Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press). Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridian (Noemi Press).

 

***

Layli Long Soldier
WHEREAS
Graywolf Press

Now
make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses

            —from “Part 1: These Being the Concerns”

How it began: The first half of WHEREAS is a collection of poems that date back over the last decade. There was no particular setting off or intent for those poems except the desire to write. The second half of the book is a response to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. For those pieces, it was a kind of frustration and outrage—lifelong and on slow boil—that propelled me.

Inspiration: My daughter, motherhood, and watching the younger generation. The land—the artfulness of the land, its endurance and change, its nonverbal lessons. And people—unexpected encounters as well as long-term relationships. I am always profoundly struck by the surprising things people say and do. People are poems, in themselves.

Influences: My daughter’s dad, the poet Orlando White, was as an important influence on my development as a writer, as were the poets he introduced me to—bpNichol and Aram Saroyan—whose works I return to over and over. Frida Kahlo and Zitkala-Sa speak to me as women artists of mixed heritage who elevated indigenous art, philosophies, and histories within contemporary considerations of art. And definitely the Native poets of my generation, previous generations, and the upcoming; their works are my touchstones. I turn to their pages both for inspiration and as conversation; I look and listen to how they handle language, form, line, and the big, sliding boulders of content.

Writer’s block remedy: Conversation—e-mails and phone calls—with other poets. Talking things out really helps the energy start moving again. There’s also conversation with the page: I will open a book of poems and keep the pages turned upward, next to my laptop. Sometimes just a glance toward the page helps invigorate my belief that whatever I’m working on, it can be written. I have others to hold my hand, figuratively speaking. And, when a piece has stopped and won’t move no matter how much I try, I need to take a break and do nothing for a while. Relaxing my brain is very important! I need to watch Netflix or hang out with my daughter; I need to laugh and not think about poetry at all.

Advice: Write as honestly as you can. Write what’s most important to you.

Finding time to write: I work at night from around 10 PM to 4 or 5 AM. I sleep in, in the morning. But it’s worth it. The night is an uninterrupted block of time that I really need.

What’s next: A new manuscript titled “2.” In this, I am working with ideas of duality, multiplicity, mixed heritage, failure versus success (the illusion of both), love and its failure, love and its necessity. Mostly, I am working with “2,” even at the most basic biological level, as the beginnings of pain and, likewise, belonging.

Age: 45.

Hometown: I grew up in the Southwest; I don’t have a single hometown. But I have lived in Santa Fe the longest and feel most at home here.

Residence: Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Job: Write, make art, do readings.

Time spent writing the book: A few of the poems date back ten years or so, not long after my daughter was born in 2006. And I began my response to the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans—the poems in Part II—in 2010 or 2011. Altogether, the response pieces took me about six years.

Time spent finding a home for it: A number of years ago, Jeff Shotts from Graywolf Press read my poem “Ȟe Sápa” online at the Kenyon Review. He messaged me about the poem and asked if I had a manuscript to read. At the time, I didn’t, but I told him that I was working on one. It took several years after receiving his message for me to finish WHEREAS. But we kept in touch and, although I was prepared to send my manuscript to other presses if Graywolf did not accept it, Graywolf ended up being the only press I submitted to when the manuscript was ready.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Mai Der Vang’s Afterland and Bojan Louis’s Currents (BkMk Press).

 

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Breaking Into the Silence: Our Tenth Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Melissa Faliveno

12.16.14

Ten years ago, Poets & Writers Magazine launched its annual Debut Poets series—a feature that aimed, quite simply, to highlight some of the best first books of poetry published in the previous year. In the decade since then, the series has grown into something all its own, bringing to light some of the most inspired, and inspiring, emerging poets from across the country—along with the ambitious, vital, and lasting collections they create. A number of the poets we’ve featured have gone on to become familiar names in the national writing community—Dan Albergotti, Todd Boss, Jericho Brown, Victoria Chang, Michael Cirelli, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Aracelis Girmay, Dana Goodyear, Tyehimba Jess, Dorothea Lasky, Joseph O. Legaspi, Alex Lemon, Ada Limón, and Justin Marks, to name just a few from the early years. But what’s most remarkable, when looking back through this list of poets (which you can see in full starting on page 90), is that all of them, regardless of how prolific or well known, made a commitment to writing, dedicating themselves to bringing words to life despite the jobs, everyday obligations, and myriad challenges that inevitably arise as time ticks along.

In celebration of our tenth annual Debut Poets roundup, we reached out to those poets—all 111 of them (one, Landis Everson, sadly, passed away in 2007)—and asked them to recommend their favorite debut collections of 2014. A good number responded, building for us a longlist of some of the year’s most exciting books. From that we selected the ten poets featured in the following pages. The task was not easy: We looked at both the work within those collections and at the poets themselves, in an attempt to curate not only a broad range of voice, style, content, and form, but also a diverse list of poets representing a unique breadth of age, background, and experience. These ten poets find inspiration in everything from neuroscience, outer space, black holes, and race to Anglo-Saxon elegies, Vietnamese musicals, honey badgers, and Nina Simone. Despite their many differences, though, they all point to a sense of wonder, exploration, curiosity, and community as essential to their writing—and they are all creating urgent, powerful, and important work. And what connects them even more fundamentally is that regardless of where they come from, what they do for a living, or where they draw inspiration, they all do it for the same reasons: for love of the work, and, as Sally Wen Mao puts it, to break into the silence, disarm the solitude, and find a place where poetry lives.

Sally Wen Mao
MAD HONEY SYMPOSIUM
Alice James Books

Abandon hive. If the hornet breaks the heat net,

save yourself. Abandon yen. Abandon majesty.
Spit the light out because it sears you so.
from “Apiology, With Stigma”

HOW IT BEGAN: In early 2012, I decided that the poems I had collected needed to transform into a manuscript. What compelled me? Probably the naked trees on Linn Street, my tiny yellow living room full of books and ghosts, or the radio silence of the days. Those winter days were short and frigid: Every day I walked past a frozen waterfall and slipped on cracked ice. I knew I had to write to break into that silence, disarm that solitude.

INSPIRATION: The earliest incarnation of this manuscript was a thesis project I titled “A Field Guide to Trapped Animals.” In this manuscript, I sought trapped animals: the honey badger, Laika the space dog, endangered flightless birds such as the kakapo, taxidermists’ specimens, disgruntled pandas in captivity, a flock of doomed pigeons. I admired the honey badger for its inane yet marvelous tenacity to sate its appetites for dangerous animals. From that obsession I found bees, and the magical honeys that they can make, including mad honey (meli chloron), a noxious honey made from rhododendrons or azaleas or oleanders that causes drunkenness, hallucinations, and heart palpitations in humans. There I was able to find the manuscript’s spine—humans who poison themselves for the sake of their desires.

INFLUENCES: Ai, for her poems are fire escapes into the terrifying psyches of others. Lorca, for his theory of the duende, and his poems that wander through the darkest and loneliest spaces in New York City. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, for Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, one of my earliest introductions to poetry. Most recently Cathy Park Hong and Bhanu Kapil, women writers whose hugely exciting works transgress boundaries and shift borders in terms of subject, syntax, and form.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m working on a new manuscript, Oculus, that maps out the border between exposure and invisibility: ghosts, cinema, digital life, and Internet voyeurism. In this manuscript, Anna May Wong, the Chinese American film actress who peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, acquires a time machine and travels through time searching for her perfect role. Along the way, she meets some of her contemporaries (Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston), and some of her successors (Bruce Lee), and she is dismayed to see some of the future films that continue to cast Asian Americans in a stereotypical light. Other poems in this manuscript are about magnetic levitation trains, Chinese bodies exposed in the Bodies Exhibition, a model who wears a homeless man’s pants, and girls competing for a national singing competition.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: Sometimes the writing stops, but there is never enough material for a poet’s arsenal. I look for high places and vantage points, new spaces to invade and interrogate. I look for old books in science libraries. I research poetic obsessions or I try to look for new ones. I visit contemporary-art museums, natural-history museums, planetariums, space museums, botanical gardens, science libraries, bookstores, parties, concerts, or arboretums. I love the feeling of movement, of being on a train heading to someplace unknown. My entire self is built around this wonder, this movement, this search for adventure. I seek adventures, and they float back as poems eventually.

ADVICE: Be impermeable. Research your presses: Read their books, see if you like their covers, get to know their submission and evaluation process. It’s like finding an apartment, really: Send your manuscript to those presses that you could envision as a home for your poems to live. The key is to find a place where your poems live.

AGE: 27.

RESIDENCE: Brooklyn, New York.

JOB: I’m an instructor in the Asian American Studies program at Hunter College in New York, where I teach Asian American Poetics, and a teaching artist at several sites around Brooklyn.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Yes, thankfully, but who knows for how long. In the mornings I write, or late into the night with a cup of milk tea.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About five years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Ten months.

Sally Wen Mao reads five poems from Mad Honey Symposium, published by Alice James Books.

***

Charlotte Boulay
FOXES ON THE TRAMPOLINE
Ecco

As much as I wanted that boy saved,
I wanted him eaten.
—from “Watson and the Shark”

HOW IT BEGAN: I’ve written poetry since high school, and graduate school helped me think about ways a disparate collection of poems might become a more or less co­hesive whole. Foxes isn’t a book “project,” although it has some themes and inter­ests that run throughout. These include exploring ideas associated with journeys, both concrete and abstract, as well as ques­tions about desire and loss.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: I’ve joked that in almost any of my poems you can find references to animals and weather, but I think these are less inspirations than touch points that help me structure my concerns. I spent time in my early twenties living in India, and that was certainly an education, as well as an inspiration. I’m also continually inspired by visual art—paintings and photography and sculpture can do things that words can’t, but poetry can create a dialogue with them. This book owes a debt to Cy Twombly, whose work continues to fascinate me. In working on Foxes, I particularly relied on and admired the work of poets Saskia Hamilton, Nancy Willard, Robert Hass, and Susan Hutton.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m working on both poems and essays. I’d love to write a second book more quickly than this one, but we’ll see.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I try to get outside and take a walk, if I’m smart, and if not I try to turn as far away from my own obsessions as possible, to get out of my own head. That may be how I discovered the YouTube home video of foxes jumping on a trampoline in someone’s backyard—aimless Web surfing. What keeps me going is reaching for the moment when a poem comes together, when it becomes itself and something separate from me.

ADVICE: Keep going. Cycles of feeling good about your work that alternate with doubt that any of it is worthwhile are completely nor­mal. Listen to the judgments and suggestions you get from readers you trust, test them out, and then throw them away if they don’t feel right. Submit to all the places where you’ve always dreamed of being published. Don’t hold anything back.

AGE: 36.

RESIDENCE: Philadelphia.

JOB: I’m a grant writer at the Franklin Institute science museum.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? This is something I continue to struggle with. I thought that leaving teaching and entering a 9-5 job would leave me freer to write without the burdens of grading and office hours, but in fact I’m pretty invested in my day job, and it often occupies my thoughts both inside and outside the office. I do make more money than I did as an adjunct, though, so that’s something, but I have much less time off. I’m still figuring out how to make more room in my daily routine for poetry. I’m not very good at writing in small snatches of time, but I’m working on it, and hoping it will help me in ways I haven’t discovered yet.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: I worked slowly on the book for about seven years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I sent it out to contests two years in a row, but had to withdraw from a few the second year after Ecco took it. My editor contacted me to ask for the manuscript after seeing a poem of mine in print, so that can still happen.

Charlotte Boulay reads the poem “Fleet” from Foxes on the Trampoline, published by Ecco. For more of Boulay’s work, visit www.charlotteboulay.com.

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Hieu Minh Nguyen
THIS WAY TO THE SUGAR
Write Bloody Publishing

Sometimes
you don’t die when you’re supposed to,
and sometimes you do.
from “Flight”

HOW IT BEGAN: For a long time, I didn’t know how to write about my traumas. I found myself writing the same poems over and over again, even if they didn’t make any sense to the world, even if I was the only person who would understand the significance of something as basic as a peach. I guess the hope was that if I could write the poems, if I could speak about my trauma in a way that didn’t seem careless, I could stop trying to explain myself. It is stupid to feel the need to explain yourself at all, but I spent a lot of time being ashamed of my experiences as a son, a body, a survivor, and I believe in the importance of confession as a tool to combat shame.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: So many movies! Since a lot of my book talks about my childhood, I spent a lot of time archiving my past, which meant interviewing my mother, visiting old neighbor­hoods, and watching movies from when I was younger. I spent end­less nights watching and rewatching cai luong, which are essentially Vietnamese musicals. I was obsessed. Because my start in poetry began in spoken-word and slam poetry, many of my earlier influences came from performance poets, often poets who could transcend the arbi­trary boundaries between the performance world and the written one, such as Rachel McKibbens, Bao Phi, and Patricia Smith. Through my participation in the performance world, I was lucky enough to have been introduced to the work of poets outside of spoken word, including Li-Young Lee, Anne Sexton, and Philip Levine.

WHAT’S NEXT: Currently I am applying to college. I abstained from going to college directly after high school, but now it seems like the right time. So basically a lot of my time has been spent writing college admission essays and studying for the ACT. It’s pretty terrifying; I haven’t done math in six years. As for poetry, I am currently working on poems about time travel.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I spend a lot of my time alone in my apartment writing, so when I come to a block, I feel like I’ve taken all I can from that space and need time to let it recharge. Usually, it requires engaging in something visual and half-social, like writing alone in a public location.

ADVICE: Give yourself permission to not explain everything.

AGE: 23.

RESIDENCE: Minneapolis.

JOB: Right now I am on a book tour, but when I’m back home I work at a haberdashery, selling fancy hats to fancy people.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? My job has been incredibly supportive; I’m very lucky. I’ve been able to take large chunks of time off of work to focus on writing or traveling, and am always welcomed back.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Most of the poems in the book were less than two years old, some even a few months old, by the time it was released.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I started submitting the early version of the manuscript about two years before it got accepted.

Hieu Minh Nguyen reads a poem from This Way to the Sugar, published by Write Bloody Publishing. For more videos of Nguyen’s work visit www.hieuminhnguyen.com.

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Saeed Jones
PRELUDE TO BRUISE
Coffee House Press

in this town everything born black
also burns.
—from “Anthracite”

HOW IT BEGAN: The poems exist in the space between the reality of my life as a gay black man from the American South and the mythology I often dreamed of in my isolation. With that said, I wrote about half of the poems in the book before Boy, the character we follow throughout the col­lection, appeared to me. I wrote a poem in which a boy wakes up from a beautiful dream to find his father standing silently in the doorway of his bed­room. The silence of that moment—the interior and exterior worlds colliding—stunned me. Prelude to Bruise exists in the form it does now because I wanted to know what happened next and why.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: Homer’s The Odyssey, the last few collections Alexander McQueen designed before he took his own life, the way Toni Morrison involves landscapes and weather in the plot of her novels, and Nina Simone’s music. The poems of Lucie Brock-Broido, Patricia Smith, Rigoberto González, Anna Journey, Eduardo Corral, Jericho Brown, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Audre Lorde. The es­says of June Jordan, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Susan Sontag.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m writing a memoir that charts a course from 1998, when I was 12, the year Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. were killed in hate crimes, to 2008, the year a straight man invited me into his bedroom, stripped down to his boxer shorts, and tried to kill me.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: When I’m struggling to write, I tend to begin reading in even more earnest than usual—earnest in the sense of pushing myself to read work beyond what I regard as my intellectual home and artistic neighborhood. I read to find work that will jolt me out of my usual habits and ways of approaching whatever I’m working on. Usually this works, but now and then it doesn’t. I’ve yet to be blocked in the sense of not being able to write for an extended period of time. Much more likely, I get frustrated because I hate what I’m writing and can’t tell if I should keep going or go in a different direction entirely. Reading then is like consulting a map for the best path forward.

ADVICE: Read five poems for every one poem that you write. You have to understand the broader landscape and community in which your work exists.

AGE: 29.

RESIDENCE: New York City.

JOB: I’m the editor of BuzzFeed LGBT.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? I’ve essentially finished one book and started another in the two years I’ve been working at BuzzFeed. 

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: I worked on the book for five or six years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I submitted my manuscript to two contests; it was a finalist for the 2012 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. A few months later, Erika Stevens from Coffee House Press e-mailed me and said she wanted to talk. I was thrilled because Coffee House has published work by writers I love and respect, Patricia Smith among them. In retrospect, it all happened pretty quickly. I know I’m very lucky. Friends had told me to brace myself for a long haul so I tried to resist expectations. I’m glad my book wasn’t picked up as soon as I started submitting it; the act of being rejected and having to wait forced me to keep working at it. 

Saeed Jones reads five poems from Prelude to Bruise for BuzzFeed. For more of Jones’s work visit theferocity.tumblr.com.

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Bianca Stone
SOMEONE ELSE’S WEDDING VOWS
Tin House/Octopus Books

What man does is build whole universes out of miniscule
disasters and educational degrees.
—from “The Future is Here”

HOW IT BEGAN: After I graduated from NYU’s graduate writing program in 2009 these poems just flooded in. I thought I’d be publishing my thesis, but that was just a stepping-stone to this book. When I look at Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, I realize that so many of these poems speak to past poems I’ve written. That’s important to me, to have my work never be static, moving forward but with those older poems still vital. For this book I wanted to write out the complexities of human love; how rich, but also how destructive it can be—and always somehow deeply inspiring. Being loved by someone is a great responsibility. And loving someone can be very hard, if part of their love is problematic.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: I’ve always been drawn to science, especially neuroscience. I feel that poets look at the world so differently because of something to do with the way their brains are wired: It’s not the normal, happy, healthy brain. It’s something else entirely. I also find inspiration in art—from reading comic books to sitting for hours in the Byzantine section of the Metropolitan Museum—as well as space travel, religion, and mythology. In addition, Vermont, where I’m from, is very important to the landscape in my poems, and I’m endlessly inspired by my friends and colleagues, all the amazing poets I know: listening to them, reading their books, collaborating with them. That’s really what keeps me going sometimes. I grew up spending a huge amount of time with my grandmother, the late poet Ruth Stone, and her poetry is ingrained in me. As is the work of my mother, novelist Abigail Stone. But of course I paved my own way too. I fell in love with Sylvia Plath and William Butler Yeats early on. Contemporary poets like John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, and Mark Strand have been hugely influential.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m writing a lot of poems, some of which feels like a kind of memoir-essay-elegy-poetry hybrid book. I’m exploring narrative storytelling within the surreal. I’m also working a lot on what I call my Poetry Comics: that’s visual art and the lyrical working together, without one explaining the other. I use pen and ink with watercolor to do this. I find combining the text and image one of the most challenging things, but one that can be very exciting. We’ve been seeing a lot more of visual art in the writing world. I think it’s generative for students, too, to think about other means to express themselves and break out of the institutional bubble. Lastly, I’m in the (massive) process of rescuing and fixing up Ruth Stone’s house in Goshen, Vermont, and turning it into a nonprofit writers retreat and artist space.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: Sometimes I’m not feeling anything and I take a break from myself, find a well-written, engaging book of poetry and immerse myself. Getting out of your own head is just the key. Drawing or painting, too, lets my mind rebuild.

ADVICE: Be patient. Rather than focus on book contests, focus on making a community of support. Do readings, start magazines, take classes; make connections with like-minded poets and use those connections. Once you have a good, solid, thriving community of contemporaries, everything follows.

AGE: 31.

RESIDENCE: New York City.

JOB: I think this is a great question for writers, because usually it’s not as simple as saying, “I’m a poet!” Although, I always say that first, bluntly, without apology or pretention. I love people’s reactions. Usually they say, “Not a lot of money in that, huh?” and I say, “We actually make it work!” Really, there’s always so much more to being a writer than people think. Being a writer means you usually do many things, all of which is informed by your creativity. My livelihood comes from being a personal assistant to a poet at NYU. I also teach online classes in poetry and the visual image, guest lecture and teach, and do poetry-related freelance illustration. I’m also the chair of the Ruth Stone Foundation and editor-cofounder of Monk Books.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? I work from home mostly, and my work involves lots of multi-tasking. It’s a blessing and a curse because everything I do is self-motivation based. It’s hard sometimes to pick which task to focus all my energy on. But yes, compared to everyone else I know, I have lots of glorious writing time. I just have to make myself do work-work and poetry-work equally.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About four or five years. It went through so many revisions, editing, cutting, and adding. I was editing poems right up until the last second. It’s a lot of deciding what’s working, and what you’re clinging to that perhaps should be let go.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Four years. I submitted to a lot of contests, which is really a crapshoot. I started to realize I needed to find other ways to get it in someone’s hands. A lot of times that happens at poetry readings, when you get along with someone who is a publisher, and they like your poems, you’re like, “Well, guess that I have this book you can look at!”

Bianca Stone reads a poem from Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, along with original illustrations and animation by the poet, for Tin House. For more of Stone’s videos visit vimeo.com/tinhouse.

Sara Eliza Johnson
BONE MAP
Milkweed Editions (National Poetry Series)

all moments will shine
if you cut them open,
glisten like entrails in the sun.
—from “As the Sickle Moon Guts a Cloud”

HOW IT BEGAN: The book began as a sea­faring narrative—influenced in part by a stormy winter in Provincetown, Massachu­setts, on Cape Cod—and expanded outward into the world of Bone Map. As the poems expanded outward, as they further consid­ered the contemporary American moment, they also became more visceral and brutal, and eventually I realized I was writing an organic and ancient violence into the book, that the book was in some sense about violence as origin.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: I immersed myself in the materi­als of strange, old worlds (ones often as alluring as they are terrifying): Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the 1967 Czech film Marketa Lazarová, the Anglo-Saxon elegies and riddles, the sixth-century voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator, Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise. The poets and artists who have particularly influenced me include Lorca, Plath, Celan, Ingmar Bergman, and the Polish artist Zdzisław Beksinski, who said, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.”

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m still in the early stages of the next book, but it’s one preoccupied with the apocalyptic moment. I’m writing a lot about human annihilation and alien or inhuman spaces, such as primordial earth, future earth, outer space, and deep sea.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I’m always looking for new sources of fascination to spark my imagination: a book on black holes or human evolution, a visually exciting film, a visit to a museum or the aquarium. If I’m experiencing writer’s block or feel stuck in a comfort zone, I’ll more aggressively seek those sources out. It’s in part this curiosity—and the potential to transform my curiosities into art—that keeps me writing and creating.

ADVICE: Don’t be afraid to cut the dead weight. Beware of nostalgi­cally clinging to poems that marked artistic milestones for you. And just because a piece is good—or has been published in a grand venue—doesn’t mean it belongs in the project you’ve undertaken. If you think of the book as a dynamic, breathing thing, or as a unique textual place, every page should seem indispensable when you read through it.

AGE: 30.

RESIDENCE: Salt Lake City.

JOB: I’m a PhD student in the creative writing program at the University of Utah, where I also teach.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Though often my academic and creative work intersect, it is not always easy to balance work obligations and writing, especially because it can be a challenge to switch on the creative regions of the brain at will. It is not only necessary to carve out the time to write, but the mental space as well. To get myself in the right headspace, I usually clear my desk of papers and books, put on some music (headphones are essential), and pour some coffee if it’s daytime or (just a little) bourbon if it’s night.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About five years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Bone Map was selected for the National Poetry Series in its first round of submissions. The NPS was the fourth book contest to which I submitted the manuscript.

Sara Eliza Johnson reads the poem “Dear Rub” from Bone Map. For more of Johnson’s work visit saraelizajohnson.com.

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F. Douglas Brown
ZERO TO THREE
University of Georgia Press (Cave Canem Poetry Prize)

my body, rain drenched on the inside
and you arriving faster
than the next song
—from “The Talk”

HOW IT BEGAN: What initiated this book was the birth of my son, then that of my daughter, five years later. It really came to­gether thanks to the Cave Canem retreat and the influence the writers gave then and continue to give. I am both a Cave Canem and Kundiman fellow, and the folks who are connected to these two phenomenal organizations are generous, intelligent, and the best advocates for poetry that I know. They all helped me push and delve deep into the work. When my father died five years ago, so many poems erupted. When I stepped back and looked at the body of work, a book made sense.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: My kids and father were the im­mediate sources for this. As I mentioned, the poets of Cave Canem and Kundiman really push all of us involved to believe in the work we’re doing. However, back in ‘99 or so, I was in the MA Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University, where I took a class called “What the Body Knows.” Toni Mirosevich and the rest of the class helped push me to see my father body as a vehicle for exploring my growing baby who was walking, talking, and figuring out the world. Music also factors into my work. I recently wrote a poem trying to imitate the cadence of Beyoncé’s song “Flaw­less.” Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water and Yusef Komun­yakaa’s serial poem “Songs for My Father” were also big inspirations. Both helped me take mere observation and make it stand up to the duty of fatherhood. Later, Natasha Trethewey’s books helped me reexamine pain, and [learn] how to open the voices of fatherhood that had been surrounding me as a parent.

WHAT’S NEXT: I am working on two projects: first, more fatherhood poems, and second, my namesake. The fatherhood poems are a collaborative work with poet Geffrey Davis, who I met at the Cave Canem retreat in 2012. At that time he was a new father, and what we shared regarding fatherhood—mostly our attempts to be better fathers—inspired us to continue via poetry. We are conducting workshops together, discussing poems on fatherhood from seminal poets, and doing our own work to complete what we hope to be a manuscript. Whatever it becomes, the work is good thus far, and liberating. 

My complete name is Frederick Douglas Brown. How could one named after such a remarkable figure avoid it? In my work I am specifically responding to the paintings of Frederick Douglass’s life by the Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence. My ekphrasis poems have been a pleasant journey for me. I have been able to do plenty of research, but I hope to view the Lawrence work face-to-face before releasing a final manuscript. As it is, I have completed fifteen poems.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: Reading is the best cure for me when the words are not coming together on the page or are nowhere near the page. Reading gives me permission to try new approaches. If I’m stuck or in a rut, an imitation poem helps. To see my friends publish work helps too. There is a bit of competition in every poet, and I don’t want to fall behind. I let that happen before, but Cave Canem teaches us how valuable our voice is.   

ADVICE: Two things were told to me that really helped me finalize the work: 1) This is not your thesis. Approach it as a means to speak to a larger audience. 2) Friend and poet Jenny Factor told me, “Doug, this is not the only book of poems you’ll write about your kids or your dad.”

AGE: 42.

RESIDENCE: Los Angeles.

JOB: I’m an English teacher at Loyola High School of Los Angeles. I’m also a deejay on the side.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Most of the time is does not! I have been a teacher for twenty years. From my experience, teaching and writing dip from the same well. When I am “on” in the classroom, rarely does that translate to being “on” in my writing. I am accustomed to having my hands in as many projects as possible: parenting, writing, teaching, deejaying, etc. When I am at my best as a writer or teacher, my job is singularly that. This, of course, excludes fatherhood, which asks/needs me to be whatever my kids need.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: This work took sixteen years to complete. The poems about my kids took a while, mostly because I did not want the book or any individual poems to be a slideshow of my family. Also, many of the poems explore the mystery of fatherhood, so the logic of the poems, like parenting, had to be thoroughly sifted. I was learning how to be a father as I was writing the poems (and still am). The poems about my father came rather quickly: I waited a year after his death, and then started writing them. The drafts were strong and needed minor tweaking, but tweaking nonetheless.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I submitted the manuscript on three separate occasions. The first two submissions were a year before I won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2013.

F. Douglas Brown reads two poems from Zero to Three, published by University of Georgia Press. For more of Brown’s work visit fdouglasbrown.com.

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Cindy Williams Gutiérrez
THE SMALL CLAIM OF BONES
Bilingual Press

Garland my bones with those who have gone before, colli,
And the ones who have gone before them, colli. Return,
Return.”
from “If I Were a Nahua Poet”

HOW IT BEGAN: When I entered the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program (graduation was a gift to myself for my fiftieth birthday), I knew I wanted to explore two things: Mesoamerican poetics, specifically Aztec “flower and song,” and the poetry of feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who secured a cell of her own 250 years before Virginia Woolf insisted on her own room. I realized later that this was my way of bridging borders as well as history. I was born and raised in a Texas town on the border of Mexico, and my father worked for the U.S. Immigra­tion Service on the bridges in Brownsville for more than thirty years. Though he is the “Williams” in Williams Gutiérrez, he was raised in a Mexican mining camp in Santa Bárbara, Chihuahua. Primarily of Welsh and German ethnicity, he was also one-quarter Cherokee and had an abiding respect for native peoples and their way of life. My mother’s heritage (the “Gutiérrez” in Williams Gutiérrez) can be traced to a sixteenth-century land grant from the King of Spain. In exploring Mexico’s history as a backdrop for my own mixed heritage, I realized that I was not bicultural (Anglo and Hispanic), as I had thought growing up, but rather multicultural—braiding together my father’s indigenous and Anglo roots with my mother’s Hispanic heritage.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: My father has been my muse. He was a history buff and loved telling stories about Mexico. He was also always fascinated by women’s lot throughout history: He read voraciously and spoke often about the misogynistic treatment of Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Sor Juana, even Marilyn Monroe. Early on, he made me believe I could do anything, that the world was mine.  In high school, he’d return from his shift on the bridge after midnight and read my English papers. I would awaken to a full, handwritten page of thoughtful remarks. I reference this in the poem “The Gift,” which is the seminal poem in the first section of my book. I would also have to say that Charles Martin, my first mentor at Stonecoast, inspired (and terrified!) me when he suggested I create poems in the voices of Nahua poet-princes. This book would not have been born without his provocation. Aside from Sor Juana and Nezahualcoyotl and other Mesoamerican poets, my literary guiding lights are Yeats and Lorca—both tapped into ancestral memory and revived the local imagination. I draw inspiration from the silent and silenced voices of history.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m searching for homes for my manuscripts that have remained tucked in my computer for the past two years. I also have an idea incubating for a play inspired by a Rumi poem. And today I awoke with an idea for a chapbook inspired by—no surprise—women’s lot. Though my father passed away a year and a half ago, he still speaks to me in my sleep.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I haunt cafés. All I need is the aroma of coffee and a strong dose of people-watching (and the accompany­ing eavesdropping) and something (some image, line, dialogue, idea) will emerge.

ADVICE: I have found that the more I write about my writing, the better I can shape my collections. An abstract is a beautiful thing: It encapsulates your inten­tion for the book in less than a page. More than once, this has helped me perform the hardest task of all—prune poems from a budding manuscript.

AGE: 56.

RESIDENCE: Oregon City, Oregon.

JOB: I split my time between my careers as a business consultant and as a literary artist. My firm, Sage Marketing Associates, has provided strategic planning and marketing consulting services to West Coast–based global technology companies, regional healthcare organizations, and local nonprofits since 1997. I am also a poet-dramatist, producer, and educator. I have taught poetry (mostly in English, sometimes in Spanish) to every grade from kindergarten to twelfth through the Portland Art Museum, the Right Brain Initiative, Wordstock, and Writers in the Schools. I also teach poetry to adults at my home in the country and at Studio 410 in Portland, Oregon, where I offer an annual ekphrastic poetry class in response to Russell J. Young’s photographs. 

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? I have striven to piece together a writing life since 1997 when I left my job as a marketing executive in Silicon Valley (I have a Bachelor’s degree in Computing Science and a Wharton MBA). Consulting has afforded me the flexibility to become a serious writer as well as to return to graduate school to earn my MFA and, afterward, to teach. It continues to be a challenging balancing act, particularly because I am equally devoted to theatre, which is incredibly consuming, especially in the role of producer. My most recent production was Words That Burn—a dramatization of World War II experiences of William Stafford, Lawson Inada, and Guy Gabaldón (in their own words), which I created and coproduced in commemoration of the William Stafford Centennial. The show was featured in Milagro Theatre’s 2014 La Luna Nueva festival, which celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month in Portland, Oregon.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Two years. I wrote the poems during my first two semesters at Stonecoast and then spent the last semester editing and shaping them into a collection. But the collection wasn’t in its finished form for another few months after graduation.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: During the 2009 AWP book fair, I shopped my manuscript around and received interest from Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press. I followed up three months later with a book proposal and my manuscript. About a year and a half after that, I received the press’s letter of acceptance. In the meantime, I received fifteen rejections.

Cindy Williams Gutiérrez reads the poem “Micacuicatl, Or Song For The Dead” from The Small Claim of Bones. Original pre-Hispanic music by Gerardo Calderón (www.grupo-condor.com). For more of Gutiérrez’s work visit grito-poetry.com.

***

Danniel Schoonebeek
AMERICAN BARRICADE
YesYes Books

The question of whether the idea of America is dead is not a
question.
from “Correction”

HOW IT BEGAN: There’s this feeling in the United States that the country is somehow finished. I wanted to peel off that scab, and peel off the scabs I found underneath, which for me were family power dynam­ics, the American workforce, taboos of love, the rifts surrounding gender and class, the problem of having a name and a history, the misnomer of the word America. I wanted to dig into that American disgust.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: In place of inspiration, which I don’t think I feel, what I feel instead is ca­maraderie. And to that end the names can be endless. But Rukeyser and Woolf, global protest, James Agee, the Clash, running in winter, August Wilson, gunpowder tea, Eileen Myles, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, postcards, the Anti-Rent War, anxiety, Poet in New York, C. D. Wright, Pieter Brue­gel the Elder, the Occupy movement, Paul Thomas Anderson, living in a cabin, Claudia Rankine, rush hour, Allyson Paty, percussion, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Frank Bidart, night walks, Austria, Walker Evans, Sarah Kane, Camus, shaving, Simone Weil, Jules Renard, Marina Tsvetaeva.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m finishing a book of prose, a travelogue called C’est la guerre. It details a two-month reading tour I did in support of American Barricade last year. C’est la guerre will be published by Poor Claudia in 2015. (I sometimes hear grovelers say that certain poems feel like prose broken into lines, and I think C’est la guerre is maybe poetry broken into prose; I want to see who’ll grovel at that). And I’m also, every day, writing poems that will be my second book of poetry. Which so far appears to be about problems of capital.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: It helps me to think of a poem as a house you can demolish. When the lines aren’t budging but I know they can move, I like to start knocking down walls and prying up floorboards and putting the rooms back together the wrong way, with new lighting and banisters. Experimental editing is something I urge upon myself, and more times than I can count it’s resulted in a radi­cally different poem that I had to essentially destroy in order to make.

ADVICE: Any advice people give only distracts other people from writing the book they need to write. In my life and in my writing I’ve been grateful when I can stop and remind myself to revolt against what revolts me. Always un­settle myself into myself, if you will. I’m always asking myself to write the poem and the book and the sentence that I don’t want to write.

AGE: 28.

RESIDENCE: Brooklyn, New York, and the Catskills.

JOB: I write books and read poems aloud for a living. I publish poems written by other people and I have conversations about art and politics for a living. At some point we all have to make our own distinctions between living and money. To make money I work as an editor, a booking agent, and an occasional book critic.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? It’s a little war every day, and you have to antagonize the conflict in a new way every day. The simple answer is never. I find that most jobs are the opposite of writing, or creating any art that will matter to people. I felt this for the first time when I was young, and ever since then I’ve written poetry from a place where the poems want to jam themselves into the gearworks of this problem.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About four years. Some of the poems were drafted and edited for years. A few poems were written in a fever pitch and finished within a week or two.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: My publisher was actually the one who found me. I read a poem in a really crowded basement bar in Boston about two years ago and she was in the audience; she got in touch with me a few days later and asked if I’d written a book. I wish that scenario happened more in poetry. Before that I mailed the book around to publishers for about a year.

Danniel Schoonebeek reads five poems from American Barricade. For more of Schoonebeek’s work visit dannielschoonebeek.tumblr.com

***

Tarfia Faizullah
SEAM
Southern Illinois University Press (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award)

How thin
the seam between
the world and the world:
a few layers of muscle
and fat, a sheet wrapped
around a corpse: glass
so easily ground into sand.
from “Reading Tranströmer in Bangladesh”

HOW IT BEGAN: I learned about the wide­spread rape of Bangladeshi women by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War. I wanted to know more, and I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to go to Bangladesh and interview the women. A number of them are still alive. Seam emerged from my time there.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: The courage of other artists who share beautiful and difficult stories about the conversations taking place between their interior and exterior lives. I’m in awe of Detroit poets: Vievee Francis, Nandi Comer, francine j. harris, Jamaal May, Matthew Olzmann, and Tommye Blount. I’m moved by Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows and David Tomas Martinez’s Hustle. I always return to poets in translation such as Rumi, Hikmet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Anna Akhmatova, César Vallejo, and Tomas Tranströmer.

WHAT’S NEXT: A second book of poems, Register of Eliminated Villages, and a memoir, Kafir.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I try to get into the physicality of what the vastness inside and around me looks like. I listen to the train going past our house and wonder at the science and magic that collided to cre­ate its vibrations. I wonder who decided to write the informational signs at the top of a mountain during a hike, and what that person looks like. The world isn’t material for my poems; it’s its own fabric and when I’m not writing, I’m disconnected from it. For me, what keeps me going is mindfully rolling around in the world and feeling it in my whole body.

ADVICE: Let yourself be surprised. Relentlessly do the work of mak­ing every word of every line of every poem sing. Make mistakes and let them lead you into unexpected and wondrous places. A quote that has become my mantra is by the poet Russell Edson, who said, “Desire and patience takes us where we want to go.”

AGE: 34.

RESIDENCE: Detroit.

JOB: I teach at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor in Poetry, and codirect the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series with Jamaal May.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Absolutely. Even when it doesn’t seem like there’s time, there’s always more.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Five years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Two years.

Tarfia Faizullah reads the poem “Instructions for the Interviewer” from Seam, published by Southern Illinois University Press. For more of Faizullah’s work visit tfaizullah.com.

 

 

Melissa Faliveno is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

[Credits]

Ilustrations by Eugene Smith; books by David Hamsley

Instapoets Prove Powerful in Print

by

Maggie Millner

6.13.18

Since its inception in 2010, Instagram has spawned whole new genres of visual entertainment. From tattoo artists to cookie decorators, savvy users of the photo- and video-sharing platform have attracted viral followings that often galvanize lucrative commercial ventures offline. The same goes for poetry: Not only has the platform served as a launchpad for some of the most widely read poets in recent history, but it has also helped them sell thousands—sometimes millions—of books.

In fact, books by “Instapoets” constituted nearly half of all poetry book sales in 2017, which, according to NPD BookScan, nearly doubled since 2016. Leading the sales roster was Rupi Kaur, whose debut collection, Milk and Honey (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015), sold more than a million copies in print last year and who boasts in excess of 2.6 million followers on Instagram, including pop star Ariana Grande. Kaur’s second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, also published by Andrews McMeel, debuted at the No. 1 spot on the New York Times paperback best-seller list when it was released in October 2017; it stayed there for twenty weeks and has sold more than 1.2 million copies. Kaur’s poetry epitomizes the prevailing Instapoetic style, with its epigrammatic brevity, plain language, and empowering messages, and she also supplements her verse with glamorous selfies and hand-drawn illustrations. But while Kaur may be the highest-grossing poet of the moment, she is hardly alone in making the successful transition from social media to print; twelve of the twenty best-selling poets of 2017 got their start on Instagram.

Other writers on that list include Amanda Lovelace, r.h. Sin, and the pseudonymous Atticus, whose debut collection, Love Her Wild, was published last year by Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books imprint. The book was a national best-seller and landed Atticus among the top ten best-selling poets of 2017. His Instagram following has also more than doubled since the book’s publication, currently comprising more than 700,000 fans. Like Love Her Wild, most commercially successful books by Instapoets contain a number of poems that don’t appear on the authors’ social media pages, incentivizing serious fans to buy a copy, and the books differ from most traditional poetry collections in their inclusion of photography and illustrations, maintaining the visual quality that has helped make Instagram so popular. Social media can also serve as a free marketing tool; Instapoets often advertise book deals, discounts, new editions, and tour dates online.

Still, as Sarah Cantin, senior editor at Atria Books, points out, “Viral online followings do not guarantee commercial book sales.” Instead Cantin attributes the success of Love Her Wild to Atticus’s talent for storytelling across a range of mediums, as well as the book’s pleasing design and the cultural hunger for pithy, motivational writing that “makes the reader feel seen.”

Sara Sargent, executive editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, echoes this sentiment. “Instapoetry is the height of feeling that your lived experience is shared,” says Sargent, who recently edited Light Filters In, the debut collection of eighteen-year-old Instapoet Caroline Kaufman, published in May. Sargent sees books like Kaufman’s straddling several markets; they’re poetry but with a young adult spin, supplemental artwork, and even dimensions of the self-help genre. “Instapoetry is part of the growing cultural trend around self-care and self-discovery,” she says. “Journaling, coloring books, self-help: It all has to do with our commitment to figuring out who we are.”

No publisher has cornered that market more effectively than Andrews McMeel, which, in addition to being one of the first companies to produce adult coloring books, published eleven of the top twenty best-selling poets last year, including Kaur, Sin, and Lovelace. Kirsty Melville, McMeel’s president and publisher, ascribes the wild success of the Instapoets in her catalogue to “the emotional intensity, passion, and message of their work, which resonates with us at a time when many young people feel disaffected from the mainstream.” She adds: “I think the digital age has facilitated a connection between writers and readers. In addition, although these poets share their work online, publication in book form is also cherished. The book is one of the oldest, most successful, and most valued inventions for sharing ideas.”

But as Instapoetry has taken up more and more space on poetry shelves at bookstores around the world, the craze has also had its fair share of detractors, who consider the writing trite and unrefined, bearing a tenuous relationship to poetic traditions before and beyond the Internet. (A 2017 article from Deadspin calls Kaur’s poetry “pitiful, vapid, exploitative, and possibly plagiarized.”) When asked whether Instapoetry might function as a gateway to other kinds of poetry, editors and writers give mixed responses; many think the Internet subgenre is helping to reinvigorate a cultural interest in poetry in general, while others consider Instapoetry a pop phenomenon with little connection to the literary world. Still others refute the distinction altogether.

Related or not, book sales are up for both traditional print poetry and Instapoetry. “Poetry on the whole feels revitalized right now,” says Cantin. “If more bookstores create table displays featuring poets of all backgrounds, if more young people, in particular, feel that poetry is relevant to their daily lives, so much the better for the publishing industry and for readers alike.” When asked why he thinks people continue to buy poetry in an age when new technologies threaten to replace the old, Atticus replied with his signature Instapoetic brevity: “There’s a magic there you can’t find online.”  

 

Maggie Millner holds an MFA from New York University and lives in Brooklyn. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine

Rupi Kaur

(Credit: Nabil Shash)

A Revolution in Listening

by

Thea Prieto

4.11.18

In 1952 in New York City, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney recorded Dylan Thomas reciting a few of his poems, including the famous villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Released on vinyl later that year, the recording offered a rare chance to hear Thomas, who worked for years as a radio broadcaster, read the poem and its memorable last refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It also marked the launch of Caedmon Records, a label dedicated to restoring the spoken tradition of poetry and stories and creating, as its slogan read, “a third dimension for the printed page.” Caedmon Records became Caedmon Audio when it was acquired by HarperCollins in 1987 and made the switch from vinyl to CDs. To this day, the label is still often credited as having laid the foundation for the audiobook industry.

Caedmon’s vinyl recordings seemed to be a thing of the past until January, when HarperAudio/Caedmon announced a new series of literary vinyl, to be released throughout 2018. The imprint’s first title, a recording of actor Nate Corddry reading Joe Hill’s story “Dark Carousel,” came out in April, and records by Nikki Giovanni, Neil Gaiman, and Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket) will be released later this year.

HarperCollins isn’t the only big publisher to venture into vinyl. In February Hachette Audio launched a new vinyl audiobook series with its first title, David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. Later this year the imprint will release recordings by David Sedaris, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Amanda Palmer, among others. Both HarperCollins and Hachette are looking to capitalize on the unexpected revival of vinyl in recent years, despite the format’s near-demise in the 1980s with the introduction of CDs. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, revenues from vinyl were as high in 2015 as they were in 1988. Jeff Bowers of Wax, the independent record label partnering with both Hachette Audio and Harper Audio, said in a January press release, “This well-curated, thoughtful series of spoken-word releases is a response to the tremendous growth in audiobooks and vinyl, part of a new moment in what has become a listening revolution.”

In the foreground of this revolution are Third Man Books and Fonograf Editions, independent literary presses committed to recording language on vinyl. Even as music streaming dominates as a listening format, Third Man Books and Fonograf Editions aim for a literary listening experience that is both meaningful and tangible, that necessitates the physicality and fuller sound of a vinyl record. “People were saying fifteen, twenty years ago that records were going to go away,” says Chet Weise, cofounder of Third Man Books. “People said paper books were going to go away too. The craze is settling down, and paper books are still a majority of what people read. There is something to [their] tangibility. It isn’t just rationalizing that these things we love are worth something and should stay around.”

Third Man Books is the partner publisher of Third Man Records, launched in 2001 by multi-Grammy-winning musician Jack White in Detroit. In 2014 Third Man Records claimed the best-selling vinyl album since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy in 1994 with White’s Lazaretto. The label also boasts “the world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities” in Nashville, where writers as well as musicians can record their work straight to vinyl. “For me, poetry has to exist in the audio spectrum—got to hear those words with some breath behind them,” says Weise. “It’s music, and if we believe that music sounds best on vinyl and is best presented on vinyl, we’re going to put poetry on vinyl too.”

Third Man Books released its inaugural title, Language Lessons: Volume 1, in 2014, a box set that includes an anthology of contemporary poetry and prose by writers and musicians such as C. D. Wright, Adrian Matejka, Richard Hell, and Tav Falco, plus two vinyl LPs of jazz, psychedelic punk, poetry, blues, and pop, and five poetry broadsides. Since then Third Man Books has maintained a multimedia aesthetic; its April release, Destruction of Man, a book-length poem about farming by Abraham Smith, includes photography and an audio flexi disc of Smith reading his own poetry.

Jeff Alessandrelli, the director of Fonograf Editions, shares Weise’s reverence for literary vinyl. “It allows for a listening experience that is also an emotional experience,” he says. “When I listen to an MP3, I don’t get the same emotional sensation that I get when I listen to a record.”

Fonograf Editions, an imprint of Portland, Oregon–based independent publisher Octopus Books, was established in 2016. Since then the vinyl-only poetry press has quickly garnered national attention by releasing records featuring readings by Rae Armantrout, Eileen Myles, and Alice Notley, who performed her work live in Seattle. Fonograf’s latest record, Harmony Holiday’s The Black Saint and the Sinnerman, released in March, features poetry by Holiday along with music sampled from Charles Mingus’s 1963 album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

“We live in a digital age, and I think in a lot of ways that’s great; it streamlines a lot of experiences,” says Alessandrelli. “But I think increasingly there’s going to be both the desire and a need for things that are tactile and for things that you can hold on to, and that means something greater than an MP3.” For more and more readers, listeners, record labels, and publishers, that something can be found with a needle traversing the grooves on a vinyl record. 

 

Thea Prieto writes and edits for Portland Review, Propeller Magazine, the Gravity of the Thing, and Oregon Music News. Her website is theaprieto.com.                              

Ten Writers Reading Ten Short Stories for Short Story Month

by

Staff

5.11.17

In celebration of Short Story Month, we’ve assembled ten of our favorite audio recordings of authors reading from story collections featured in Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin over the past five years. All of them were recorded exclusively for Poets & Writers Magazine and illustrate the irresistible and inspiring power of the short form. 

Roxane Gay reads “Florida” from Difficult Women (Grove Press, 2017). 

 

 

Mia Alvar reads “Legends of the White Lady” from In the Country (Knopf, 2015). 

 

 

Kelly Link reads “Light” from Get in Trouble (Random House, 2015). 

 

 

Kyle Minor reads “The Question of Where We Begin” from Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books, 2014). 

 

 

Laura van den Berg reads “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name” from The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). 

 

 

Aimee Bender reads “Appleless” and “Tiger Mending” from The Color Master (Doubleday, 2013). 

 

 

Rebecca Lee reads “Bobcat” from Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin Books, 2013). 

 

 

Jessica Francis Kane reads “Lucky Boy” from This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013). 

 

 

Manuel Gonzales reads “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” from The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead Books, 2013). 

 

 

Marie-Helene Bertino reads “Free Ham” from Safe as Houses (University of Iowa Press, 2012). 

 

Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin

by

Staff

4.12.17

With so many good books being published every month, some literary titles worth exploring can get lost in the stacks. Page One offers the first lines of a dozen recently released books, including Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody With a Little Hammer and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, for a glimpse into the worlds of these new and noteworthy titles.

“Manacled to a whelm.” Fast (Ecco, May 2017) by Jorie Graham. Fourteenth book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Daniel Halpern. Publicist: Martin Wilson.

“On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness.” The Dinner Party (Little, Brown, May 2017) by Joshua Ferris. Fourth book, first story collection. Agent: Julie Barer. Editor: Reagan Arthur. Publicist: Carrie Neill.

“I’ve been dreaming about my violin.” Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung (Crown Publishing Group, April 2017) by Min Kym. First book, memoir. Agent: Annabel Merullo. Editor: Rachel Klayman. Publicist: Rebecca Welbourn.

“That year, toward the end of my childhood, I was living in Jacmel, a coastal village in Haiti.” Hadriana in All My Dreams (Akashic Books, May 2017) by René Depestre, translated from the French by Kaiama L. Glover. Fifteenth of twenty-seven books, third of four novels. Agent: None. Editor: Johnny Temple. Publicist: Susannah Lawrence.

“Specialist Smith gunned the gas and popped the clutch in the early Ozark morning.” The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press, April 2017) by Jay Baron Nicorvo. Second book, first novel. Agent: Jennifer Carlson. Editor: Elisabeth Dyssegaard. Publicist: Dori Weintraub.

“Ezinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: Her father as a boy when he was still tender, vying for his mother’s affection.” What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (Riverhead, April 2017) by Lesley Nneka Arimah. First book, story collection. Agent: Samantha Shea. Editor: Rebecca Saletan. Publicist: Claire McGinnis.

“I did not have a religious upbringing, and for most of my life I’ve considered that a good thing; I’ve since come to know people who felt nurtured by their religious families, but for a long time, for me, ‘religious upbringing’ meant the two little girls I once walked home with in the fourth grade who, on hearing that I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, began screaming, ‘There’s a sin in your soul! You’re going to Hell!’” Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon Books, April 2017) by Mary Gaitskill. Seventh book, first essay collection. Agent: Jin Auh. Editor: Deborah Garrison. Publicist: Michiko Clark.

“Descending the subway stairs / in a crowd of others, slow / steps, everyone a little / hunched in their coats, probably / as unhappy as I was / to have to go to work.” The Others (Wave Books, May 2017) by Matthew Rohrer. Eighth book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Matthew Zapruder. Publicist: Ryo Yamaguchi.

“I’ll begin our story with that afternoon, after we hadn’t spoken for a year—like so many years when we didn’t speak—when you pulled up next to me on my walk to work and offered me a ride.” Sunshine State (Harper Perennial, April 2017) by Sarah Gerard. Second book, first essay collection. Agent: Adriann Ranta. Editor: Erin Wicks. Publicist: Martin Wilson. 

“It was summer.” Woman No. 17 (Hogarth, May 2017) by Edan Lepucki. Second book, novel. Agent: Erin Hosier. Editor: Lindsay Sagnette. Publicist: Rachel Rokicki.

“Every turning toward is a turning away: / poets have always known the truth / of this.” The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions, April 2017) by Craig Morgan Teicher. Fourth book, third poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Peter Conners. Publicist: Ron Martin-Dent.

“When Albert Murray said / the second law adds up to / the blues that in other words / ain’t nothing nothing he meant it” Field Theories (Nightboat Books, April 2017) by Samiya Bashir. Third book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Kazim Ali. Publicist: Lindsey Boldt.

Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin

by

Staff

4.11.18

With so many good books being published every month, some literary titles worth exploring can get lost in the stacks. Page One offers the first lines of a dozen recently released books, including How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee.

“By some concoction of sugar, prescription painkillers, rancor, and cocaine, my father, Gregory Pardlo, Sr., began killing himself after my parents separated in 2007.” Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America (Knopf, April 2018) by Gregory Pardlo. Third book, first memoir. Agent: Rob McQuilkin. Editor: Maria Goldverg. Publicist: Jessica Purcell.

“I am running late for the airport, trying to catch a cab on my street corner.” Look Alive Out There (MCD Books, April 2018) by Sloane Crosley. Fourth book, third essay collection. Agent: Jay Mandel. Editor: Sean McDonald. Publicists: Jeff Seroy and Kimberly Burns.

“Between Hanoi and Sapa there are clean slabs of rice fields / and no two brick houses in a row.” Eye Level (Graywolf Press, April 2018) by Jenny Xie. First book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Jeff Shotts. Publicist: Caroline Nitz.

“I spent the summer I turned fifteen on an exchange program in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, in Mexico, some three hundred miles north of the Guatemalan Border.” How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, April 2018) by Alexander Chee. Third book, first essay collection. Agent: Jin Auh. Editor: Naomi Gibbs. Publicist: Michelle Triant.

“Strangers are building a new house next door.” Negative Space (New Directions, April 2018) by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika. Eleventh book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Jeffrey Yang. Publicist: Mieke Chew.

“Tucker had been walking for six hours through early morning ground fog that rose in shimmering waves.” Country Dark (Grove Press, April 2018) by Chris Offutt. Seventh book, second novel. Agent: Nicole Aragi. Editor: Amy Hundley. Publicist: John Mark Boling.

“Riley wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair—which he worked with gel and a blow-dryer and a flatiron some mornings into Sonic the Hedgehog spikes so stiff you could prick your finger on them, and sometimes into a wispy side-swooped bob with long bangs—and he was black.” Heads of the Colored People (37 INK, April 2018) by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. First book, story collection. Agent: Anna Stein. Editor: Dawn Davis. Publicist: Yona Deshommes.

“The book lied.” That Kind of Mother (Ecco, May 2018) by Rumaan Alam. Second book, novel. Agent: Julie Barer. Editor: Megan Lynch. Publicist: Sonya Cheuse.

“It’s a love story, the famous violinist had said, and even though Jana knew it was not, those were the words that knocked around her brain when she began to play on stage.” The Ensemble (Riverhead Books, May 2018) by Aja Gabel. First book, novel. Agent: Andrea Morrison. Editor: Laura Perciasepe. Publicist: Liz Hohenadel.

“Frenching with a mouthful of M&M’s dunno if I feel polluted / or into it—the lights go low across the multiplex Temple of // canoodling and Junk food” Junk (Tin House Books, May 2018) by Tommy Pico. Third book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Tony Perez. Publicist: Sabrina Wise.

“When I was five years old, back when my old man was still sort of around, I watched a promotional video for Disneyland that my mom got in the free box of VHS tapes at the library.” Lawn Boy (Algonquin Books, April 2018) by Jonathan Evison. Fifth book, novel. Agent: Mollie Glick. Editor: Chuck Adams. Publicist: Brooke Csuka.

“There is a hole.” The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press, April 2018) by Jenny George. First book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Michael Wiegers. Publicist: Laura Buccieri.

The Endangered Poetry Project

by

Maggie Millner

2.14.18

Nearly half the world’s languages are endangered to some extent, with one language becoming extinct roughly every two weeks, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Barring swift revitalization efforts, more than 2,500 of the nearly 7,000 tongues spoken in the world today are predicted to disappear by the end of the century. More than two hundred, such as Peru’s Panobo and Angola’s Kwisi languages, have become extinct since 1950.

Losing a language is not like losing a precious ancient artifact, such as a piece of jewelry or a Grecian urn. A language is not a synchronic object, encapsulating a culture at a single moment in time, but rather a dynamic force that binds people together within a shared, ongoing history. When a language vanishes, it takes with it something intrinsic and irreplaceable about human experience in general and a marginalized culture in particular. Chris McCabe, the poetry librarian at Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library in London, had this in mind when he launched the Endangered Poetry Project, which seeks to collect poetry written in endangered languages and archive it in the library’s permanent holdings.

McCabe first conceived of the project, which launched in the fall, after coming across a striking bit of literary trivia: Instead of the official Latin expected of him, Dante composed the Divine Comedy in a medieval Tuscan vernacular. “That got me thinking about how many great poems there might be out there in dialects and endangered languages,” says McCabe. “After looking into endangered languages more closely, I realized how many languages are under threat.”

At the time, Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library already included poems in more than two hundred languages. Within its first three months, the Endangered Poetry Project had ushered in over a dozen more, including the Shetlandic dialect of Scots as well as Kristang, a severely endangered creole language spoken in Singapore and parts of Malaysia by a community of mixed Portuguese and Asian descent. McCabe and his team crowdsource poems from around the world, and encourage anyone familiar with a well-known poem in an endangered language to submit it through the project’s website (www.southbankcentre.co.uk/endangered-poetry). After collecting both written and audio versions of each poem, staff members at the National Poetry Library then print them on handmade paper and store them in a specially made conservation box. Although the foremost goal of the initiative is to gather poems in their original languages, McCabe also strives to procure English translations whenever possible. There are also plans to make some poems accessible online, and McCabe says that the initiative will “continue in perpetuity to gather poems from languages under risk.”

The fear of losing language—and specifically losing the poetry of a language, which can often help crystallize and communicate the experiential and linguistic information of a given culture—is part of what motivates McCabe, who is also a widely published poet and writer. “Poetry has a place in most cultures and languages where other art forms might not have gained traction,” he says. “This could easily have to do with economic factors—poetry costs nothing to create, especially in oral forms—and also with the fact that when a language comes into existence, it becomes the material for the human imagination to capture events, ideas, and emotions.”

The Endangered Poetry Project owes some of its early success to a rousing inaugural event in October during the fiftieth anniversary of Poetry International, a biennial poetry festival in London founded at the Southbank Centre by poet Ted Hughes in 1967. During the event, called “Seven Thousand Words for Human,” multinational poets Joy Harjo, Nineb Lamassu, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, and Nick Makoha read pieces they had written for the occasion in languages such as the Ugandan Luganda and Muscogee Creek. Southbank Centre translator-in-residence and festival organizer Stephen Watts furnished English translations of each poem, and a member of the public even volunteered to recite a poem in the Logudorese dialect of Sardinian.

Another highlight for McCabe was the moment, a few weeks later, when he received a selection of poet Claude Vigée’s “Schwàrzi Sengessle Flàckere ém Wénd” (“Black Nettles Blaze in the Wind”), a long Alsatian requiem written in tribute to the language, which was banned in schools in the Alsace region after World War II. The poem is special to McCabe because it captures the anguish of losing one’s native tongue: “Our hoarse voices, broken long ago / Suddenly stopped: / Already, on our school bench, / In the thrall of the forceps of language / We felt like tongue-cripples / Tangled up in our songs.”

 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at New York University, where she is pursuing an MFA in poetry. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.

The National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in London.

(Credit: India Roper-Evans)

Literature and the Environment

by

Maggie Millner

8.16.17

In 1992 in Reno, Nevada, a group of scholars and writers founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) to promote interdisciplinary research and conversation about the connections between humans and the natural world. Comprising professionals in both the humanities and the sciences, ASLE encourages collaboration, supports environmental education, and convenes a community around the twin goals of literary excellence and ecological sustainability. Now, twenty-five years later, the organization is more robust—and necessary—than ever.

The intersections of poetry and conservation biology, or speculative fiction and environmental activism, may not seem intuitive. But in the early 1990s many scholars working at the crossroads of these increasingly siloed disciplines sought a way to share ideas and enlist creative, scientific, and ethical advice from specialists in other fields. With the advent of ASLE, members gained access to a directory of multidisciplinary scholars, as well as environmental studies curricula, a list of awards and grants, mentoring programs, and a bibliography of ecological writing, among other resources. In 1993, ASLE launched the semiannual (now quarterly) journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which publishes academic articles in addition to poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews.

Since 1995, ASLE has also hosted a biennial conference, each event held in a different U.S. city, at which intellectual cross-pollination and collaboration can happen in person. The twelfth conference, titled “Rust/Resistance: Works of Recovery,” took place in June and doubled as a celebration of ASLE’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Hosted by Wayne State University in Detroit, the 2017 conference featured more than eight hundred presenters as well as keynote addresses by writers and environmentalists such as poet Ross Gay and historian and novelist Tiya Miles. According to ASLE copresident Christoph Irmscher, these conferences serve as “sustained intellectual experiences in which an array of amazing speakers complements the serious conversations that take place in individual panels.”

ASLE’s quarter-centennial comes at a critical moment. As an organization committed equally to literature and to environmentalism, ASLE and its membership are doubly threatened by the massive rollbacks in arts and climate spending proposed by the Trump administration. The White House’s 2018 budget plan, unveiled in May, would slash funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly a third, eliminating 20 percent of its workforce and leaving the agency with its smallest budget in forty years, adjusting for inflation. Predicated on a staunch denial of the urgent reality of climate change, the plan proposes crippling reductions to programs that clean up toxic waste, determine the safety of drinking water, and research and predict natural disasters, among others.

In June, President Trump announced that the United States will also be withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, an agreement between nearly two hundred nations to reduce emissions and mitigate global warming that was adopted by consensus in 2015. “As we have known ever since Rachel Carson, the environmental crisis can only be addressed globally, not within traditional national boundaries,” says Irmscher. Branches of ASLE have been established in nearly a dozen countries or regions outside the United States, including Brazil, India, and Japan, and this year’s ASLE conference drew around a thousand members from twenty-five countries. Irmscher describes the organization’s international, interdisciplinary conferences as its “pièce de résistance against Trumpian unilateralism.”

The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget would also eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Though such cuts seem unlikely at this point—Congress thus far having upheld federal funding for both agencies—the proposal itself is indicative of an attitude that devalues the importance of art and literature to American life and culture. In light of such threats, Irmscher looks to literature for models of political environmentalism. “Panels and presentations on Thoreau’s Walden—to mention one of the intellectual progenitors of ASLE—can no longer ignore the fact that his philosophy of resistance has assumed new importance in an era when the government systematically suppresses scientific evidence,” he says.

In a sense, the joint disavowal of both environmental protection and the arts can be seen as a confirmation of what ASLE has always known: that these disciplines are deeply linked and even interdependent—that, as Rachel Carson once said, “No one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” In the face of these most recent threats, ASLE will continue to serve as a meeting point. “In a climate that discourages innovation, scientists have adopted new roles as dissenters and protesters,” says Irmscher. “As they unite and march, they find new allies in the arts and humanities that have long spoken truth to power. ASLE, whose core mission is to promote collaboration and public dialogue, provides an organizational framework for such new alliances.”
 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at NYU, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. Previously, she served as Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.              

Writers, Editors Resist

by

Sarah M. Seltzer

4.12.17

The Wednesday morning after Election Day delivered a political shock for just about everyone, including writers—but hot on the heels of the electoral surprise came an existential dilemma: How could writers attend to the quotidian concerns of sentence structure, agent-hunting, and sending out work when America was so divided on seemingly every major issue—from reproductive and LGBTQ rights to immigration laws and the environment? Like much of America that morning, many writers turned to their friends and colleagues for answers. “On Facebook, everyone was saying, ‘Now more than ever we need fiction, art, and books,’” says writer Anna March, who had spent time in Pennsylvania that week, knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton with her mother. “I got a little bit panicky. I thought, ‘Oh my God, are people really thinking that art is going to save us?’ Because it’s really about organizing and getting out the vote.” Similarly, fiction writer Paula Whyman, based in Bethesda, Maryland, described the morning after the election as a rare world-changing moment. “As a fiction writer I had a lot of questions in my mind about what would happen to fiction and how we would go on working,” she says. “Does it really matter now?”

Both Whyman and March reached for similar outlets to channel their doubts and reassert the power of writing. Whyman answered a call on Facebook by her friend, the writer Mikhail Iossel, for help launching a new publication and with a small group started Scoundrel Time, an international online journal intended to foster artistic expression in the face of political repression and fear. March, eager to harness the energy of the arts community for political activism, decided to start Roar Feminist Magazine, an online publication that would provide a platform for politically informed fiction, poetry, and essays—as well as a way to strike back against an election that frequently devolved into disrespectful language, most notably the leaked Access Hollywood tape showing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women. “We wanted to do something that was both literature and revolution,” says March. 

These efforts are part of a growing number of projects and events started by writers, editors, and literary organizations in response to the election and the current political climate. Poet Erin Belieu and PEN America organized Writers Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the presidential inauguration, to “defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.” Poet Major Jackson started a collaborative poem, “Renga for Obama,” at the Harvard Review, while the Boston Review released the poetry chapbook Poems for Political Disaster, and Melville House published What We Do Now, an essay collection focused on “standing up for your values in Trump’s America.” 

Roar and Scoundrel Time both launched in late January—Roar on Inauguration Day and Scoundrel Time ten days later—and have since produced an impressive body of work and attracted large followings in just a few short months. “The idea of starting a new journal would be laughed at otherwise,” says Whyman. “There are so many excellent journals doing beautiful work that I in no way want to compete. But I think of this as something entirely different.”

Indeed, the interest both magazines have received in terms of financial support and submissions suggest that the audience is engaged. With a very small inheritance from her grandmother, who died shortly before the election, March was able to launch the Roar website and with her collaborators held a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised $12,000 in just a few months. The Roar staff includes Sarah Sandman and  Bethanne Patrick as executive editors, Jagjeet Khalsa as production editor, and several section editors, including novelist Porochista Khakpour and humor writer Cynthia Heimel. The title is a play on the “pussy” motif that appeared on posters and signs, and in knitted hats, after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood remarks were made public. According to March, the journal’s mission involves “roaring, not meowing.”

The most prominent feature of Roar, which publishes three new pieces each day, is a section called “My Abortion,” in which women relate their experiences with abortion. The daily column serves to remind readers of what’s at stake under the strongly antiabortion Trump administration. Other columns include the Roar Meter, which uses numbers to tell a story: “Number of votes by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote: 2,864,974 / Number of Americans who receive Planned Parenthood services: 2,840,000” reads the beginning of one entry. A column called Fight This Hate highlights “a small selection of hate crimes and/or harassment,” alongside fiction, poetry, and art sections. “Think about if Guernica met the Nation or VQR met Mother Jones,” says March. “We want to be at the intersection of the finest writing and political activism.” The editors plan to expand in the spring by publishing six pieces a day and bringing on more explicitly political writers.

Scoundrel Time (named for the 1976 book by Lillian Hellman about the McCarthy era) is, in Whyman’s words, “a place for artists to respond as artists” to the postelection reality. “There are wonderful and thoughtful journalists and commentators, people at think tanks, and activists in every realm doing important things,” says Whyman. “But this is a place for artists to speak to what’s going on from their particular perspective. We can keep telling one another stories, and those stories will draw people in and give them some relief.” The journal is a registered nonprofit organization, and the all-volunteer staff plans to look into nonprofit partnerships. Slightly less confrontational in tone than Roar (though no less political), Scoundrel Time publishes fiction, photography, poetry, essays, and dispatches from around the world, with a focus on content that’s current. “The strongest argument I can think of for satire and parody is that despots and authoritarian regimes of all stripes hate it so,” Tony Eprile writes in a February essay tying recent Saturday Night Live sketches to a long tradition of political subversion through mockery. Fiction writer Jodi Paloni also spearheads an Action section, encouraging readers to make calls and show up to protests.

Scoundrel Time and Roar also drummed up support at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. in February. Whyman and her fellow Scoundrel Time founders gathered in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and read aloud from James Baldwin, Emma Lazarus, and Claudia Rankine. Meanwhile, Roar supporters wearing pink “pussy hats” handed out pink Roar-branded condoms and stickers at the bookfair. They weren’t the only ones making a statement at AWP: Split This Rock, a D.C.–based organization focused on poetry and social change, collaborated with organizations such as VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and CantoMundo to hold a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression outside the White House, during which writers such as Kazim Ali, Ross Gay, and Carolyn Forché delivered speeches about the importance of writing and art.  

Scoundrel Time plans to organize similar actions in the future, but for now it carries on that spirit of standing together and holding space, albeit online, for writers to freely speak their minds. With their new journals, both Whyman and March hope they can help writers to, as Whyman says, “hang on to our humanity and feel like [we] can gain understanding.” 

 

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and ill-advised tweets. A lifelong New Yorker, she is the deputy editor of the culture website Flavorwire.com.

Protesters march on Trump Tower in New York City as part of the Writers Resist rallies in January.

(Credit: Ed Lederman)

Dear President: A Message for the Next Commander in Chief From Fifty American Poets and Writers

by

Staff

8.17.16

In a little over two months, we the people will choose the forty-fifth president of the United States. Between now and then, the nominees will present their policy proposals and debate the issues, shaping a national conversation about some awfully big and important topics. But before we get to those televised debates (the first of three is scheduled for September 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York) we wanted to give some of our most thoughtful and articulate citizens—poets and writers—a chance to offer their perspective. Because, as former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove remarked, “Our nation needs to learn to value its independent writers and artists as the heralds of a richly textured, inclusive national identity.”

The request was simple: Imagine you are face-to-face with the next president—whoever that may be—and, in a few sentences, write about what you hope to see addressed in the next four years. It turns out something pretty great happens when you ask writers to convey, without a lot of political grandstanding, what is most important to them. The contours of some of America’s biggest issues—education, health care, gun violence, racism, immigration, and the environment among them—start to come into sharper focus, the collective discourse rises above the rhetoric of political pundits, and the pomp and circumstance of the political process falls away, so that we are left with a discussion of real problems, real concerns, and, if not solutions, then at least some honest ideas that may inspire action of real, lasting value. 

Dear President,

“The countless complex problems facing the world require complex critical thinking. Please reinvest in public higher education systems like UC, SUNY, CUNY, and the other once-strong and accessible state systems of higher education. Restore and privilege humanities and arts education at the K–12 and higher-ed levels. Reduce the military budget and make a real commitment to social and educational infrastructure.” —Kazim Ali

“Please listen to the stories being told right now by the scientists who study, and the citizens who live, amid the catastrophic changes taking place across the planet. They are not fiction; without courageous leadership they will become fate.” —Steve Almond

“Your critics, most of them, would have called me a superpredator back then, when the memory of the pistol was heavy in my palm—so that’s not my focus. But now, unlike then, you have power, and I’m left to wonder what you will call the young men and women lost in the system, those who walked down paths they regret. Do they earn your scorn, your mercy?” —Reginald Dwayne Betts

“I would like President Clinton to know that I support her and her agenda fully, especially as it relates to education, the arts, and the environment. The single greatest problem facing our species is the erosion of the environmental conditions that allowed us to evolve and thrive and tap out messages like this one on our phones and computers. We are doomed, yes, but later rather than sooner, I hope.” —T. C. Boyle

“Once the body arrives in the world it immediately becomes fragile—fragile in that it needs nourishment, protection, education, and endless chances; bodies of color, in particular, have had these basic human rights revoked, and it continues. I call for a protection of these bodies through a reassessment of the justice system and retraining of authorities who violate the civil liberties of citizens of color through racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and abuse; human life is at stake, and my wish is that the next four years will reflect back the beauty and not the wreckage of our existence.” —Tina Chang

 

“America has often seen itself as a beacon of democracy, but the American project has always been about a settler project of inclusion and exclusion: democracy for those imagined as real Americans, and inequality for slaves, immigrants, black and brown bodies, and those who live in places the United States has colonized or destabilized, most recently Iraq and Libya. I hope that you can see yourself not just as a standard-bearer for a global economic elite, but as a force for equality and justice for all.” —Ken Chen

“There’s so much I could ask of you—a list of demands—but first to ensure our safety as citizens. Too many lives have been lost to gun violence—mass shootings, gang related, and otherwise—and now it is more than a false dilemma, it’s a reality that can no longer be ignored.” —Nicole Dennis-Benn

“There is no present or future without immigrants; white supremacy (and all of its sequelae) is one of the gravest threats to our democracy.” —Junot Díaz

“I want an America with tougher gun laws. I want an America that nurtures and embraces diversity.” —Chitra Divakaruni

“Eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year. Our government has to get involved in legislation that reduces one-use plastics, invests in alternative-packaging ideas, and dramatically decreases pollution in the oceans, or by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.” —Anthony Doerr

“If we are ever to attain our forefathers’ aspirations for ‘a more perfect union,’ educating our young—not only in the sciences, but also the arts—cannot, dare not, be neglected. If our children are unable to say what they mean, no one will know how they feel; if they cannot imagine different worlds, they are stumbling through a darkness made all the more sinister by its lack of reference points.” —Rita Dove

“I would say to the president that she should work to dismantle the global culture of corruption present at all levels of society, which prevents any meaningful change or accountability, and whose primary victims are the powerless and disenfranchised. This complicity is a symptom of larger systems of discourse and economy that exist to preserve the status quo, and I would say that in the absence of means to transform those systems outright, she should start, at the level of the law and of media, to model ways of addressing concrete problems with transparency and tenacity, showing that even at the most entrenched levels of corruption, change can be effected.” —Robert Fernandez

“The stakes are too high for you to ignore the grievances voiced by those of us who believed you when you spoke of progress and equality. We can’t afford for you to go slow.” —Angela Flournoy

“Climate change—stop dicking around. War—use only as the ultimate last resort.” —Ben Fountain

“I’d like our next president to know compassion and compromise. I’d also like her to know how thrilled I was when I received a thank-you note from her husband after I sent Chelsea a birthday card when I was fifteen.” —Carrie Fountain

“The occupation of Palestine by Israel—mass incarceration, presumption of guilt, withholding of resources, wanton destruction of human life, all underscored by the creation of physical barriers and the emotional propaganda of persecution, exclusion, mythmaking, and fear—are mirrored, one by one, in the policies of institutionalized racism in the United States. Unless we face this singular fact, and acknowledge our collective culpability as architects and sponsors of state terrorism here in our American cities, and in our foreign policy regarding Palestine (which is the bedrock of all other foreign policy), we will continue to be unable to fulfill the potential of our democracy for our people, and remain excoriated abroad for our impotence and hypocrisy.” —Ru Freeman

“Dear Madam President, our undocumented families are not silent or invisible in our hearts. May they be just as present in your actions as we continue to build this home, this country, together.” —Rigoberto González

“None of the problems of this country will be solved without things getting messy, and without your commitment to listen, truly listen, and to govern for the people who have the least in this country—black and brown women of color, undocumented women, trans and lesbian women, poor women, the people you usually wish to have behind you at a podium but rarely invite to the room where decisions are being made. Invite us in and listen and then act.” —Kaitlyn Greenidge

“President Clinton, after celebrating with a tall flute of Prosecco, please make gun reform your first order of business. In four years, I hope to live in a country where the pen is mightier than the gun (and the money that keeps it in power).” —Eleanor Henderson

“Ms. President, I want you to know that the power of having our first woman as president doesn’t escape me; I’ve been waiting for this my entire life. And I want you, as the first woman president of the United States, to place the liberation and justice of historically marginalized people at the center of your work—
terrifying, hard, necessary work. We need this more than ever.” —Tanwi Nandini Islam

“I would like the next president to know that the 2016 presidential campaign has awoken a sizable portion of this country’s electorate to the limitations of a two-party system that is beholden more to its own status quo than the interests of its constituencies; that we are more awake than ever to the corruption of politicians who claim allegiance to ‘the people,’ but whose votes and policies are purchased outright by producers of weaponry and manufacturers of economic disparity. I would like the next president to know that we will be watching and taking note of their promises to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex, that we will call out their positions on trade deals that betray American workers, their complicity with a prison-industrial complex that seeks profit from incarceration, their commitment to a justice system that frees criminals in uniform while killing people of color with impunity, and that we will organize beyond their scarecrows of fear to create a movement capable of replacing this oligarchy with the highest of this nation’s ideals: democracy.” —Tyehimba Jess

“Madam President, thank you for sparing us your opponent’s dismal and clownish stupidity, his blind and blinding hate. I’m still scared, though. I’m scared that you think beating him will be the hardest part of your job, and I’m scared of what’s happening to the environment, to our schools and water supply and our tolerance, scared of people being out of work and people being hooked on painkillers and people not being allowed to use the restroom where they feel most comfortable. I don’t give a rip if you’re honest or transparent or running a thousand different e-mail servers, but I need you to be compassionate and smart and clear-eyed, to be decent and flexible and open-minded, to be afraid with me—with all of us—and despite our fears, not least yours, I need you to be brave and resilient and, well, hopeful.” —Bret Anthony Johnston

“I’d like to talk about government subsidies for mental-health care. We tend to speak about mental health after some extreme event, like a shooting spree, but mental health is an everyday thing. So many people—especially poor people and minorities—are suffering in silent pain.” —Tayari Jones

“Make fighting bigotry a priority—bigotry of all sorts, from race to sexuality to gender to class. I feel it’s especially the responsibility of our candidates this time around, as this very election unleashed a whole new wave of intense bigotry directed at all sorts of minorities—so I feel like it is the urgent responsibility of the elected official to face this and work to increase the dialogue, education, and awareness required to heal and advance.” —Porochista Khakpour

“I watch my students invest in cultural, economic, and financial change despite their pessimism and frequent belief that we live within a system that profits from their disenfranchisement. How do we convince the next generation of thinkers that their engagement and participation in the political system matters as they watch so much of the progress facilitated by activists of the past dismantled?” —Ruth Ellen Kocher

“Madam President, please pay more attention to, support, and build up public education. Our schools are the democratizing cornerstones of our communities—and this country’s future.” —Joseph O. Legaspi

“I’d like to trust that the voice of any suffering person, regardless of category, had as much currency with you as some power broker. I’d like not to doubt you knew that suffering was of a piece with the planet’s emergency, the ongoing story of oil, water, war, animals.” —Paul Lisicky

“Your country is complex; it is hard to imagine a foreigner being able to fix it for you. Keep this in mind when you consider invading another nation.” —Karan Mahajan

“What’s really important to me is the radical reconceptualization of our broken criminal-justice system that targets young black and brown people—increasingly girls and young women—for arrest, detention, and incarceration, thereby continuing the program of relegating generations of people of color to second-class citizenry. It is clear to so many of us that the increased presence of police in daily life, alongside the militarization of police forces, is the wrong path to go down, and that we have to think progressively in our imagining of the future we’d like to create.” —Dawn Lundy Martin

“Please put climate change at the front and center of our national conversation, and follow up by funding initiatives toward developing and using sustainable energy.” —Cate Marvin

Peace is a good word for politicians to look up, understand the meaning of it, use it once in a while, learn to practice it. You are committing environmental child abuse by poisoning our food, polluting our air, and totally destroying the environment so that a few of your cronies can make a few extra billion or two while the rest of us will not survive even to serve you.” —Alejandro Murguía

“The blight on ‘American exceptionalism’ is the recurring cycle of black youth raised in communities where poverty, inadequate education, and insufficient recreational and job opportunities exclude too many of them from the promise of the American Dream. It is urgent that you fund programs now to address this shameful problem.” —Elizabeth Nunez

“Dear Madam President, help us lift up the least advantaged among us. Put your strength and determination behind education, jobs, and equality. We have benefited greatly from the moral guidance of the last administration. Please keep the spirit of ‘yes we can’ alive. God bless you.” —D. A. Powell

“What the world wants, demands, deserves, and needs from you is that you guide your leadership and base your decisions on just one principle: love. Because isn’t that the whole point to it all—love? Isn’t that why we all keep on going?” —Mira Ptacin

“Madam President, the influence of the Israel lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many Palestinians who have been living in degradation and increasing terror under the Israeli occupation for the last half century, just as the influence of the NRA lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many U.S. citizens who have been injured and killed due to gun violence.” —Emily Raboteau

“There should be a new cabinet post—Secretary of the Arts. For the inaugural six poets: European, Hispanic, Asian American, African American, Native American, Muslim.” —Ishmael Reed

“I want the president to know that we are tired of having our voices silenced and our needs unmet. I want the president to know that we want better gun control, higher minimum wages, recognition of women’s rights, better education, and most of all a greater sense of our shared humanity—unity, not division.” —Roxana Robinson

“President Hillary Clinton, I live in Portland, Oregon, where every day I watch our homeless camps grow in size. Homelessness is a national crisis that has barely been discussed this election season. You’ve pledged ‘to direct more federal resources to those who need them most.’ As you do so, please don’t forget about some of your most vulnerable constituents: homeless Americans. It’s an issue at the nexus of economic inequality, joblessness, rising housing costs, lack of affordable housing, health care accessibility, and systemic racism. Please make connecting all Americans to safe, stable homes and services a priority.” —Karen Russell

“Madam President, where has all the funding gone for arts in the schools? Could those kuts be the reesen we are all getin dummer?” —George Saunders

“The growing disparity in wealth in this country undermines any hope we have for achieving social justice. Changing this won’t be easy, and will require more courage, conviction, and political leadership than you have exhibited in the past.” —Dani Shapiro

“Since arts and humanities programs enrich our American lives beyond measure, connecting and inspiring people of different backgrounds and inclinations better than anything else does, it would be reasonable to support them threefold or more, without question. The fact that Bernie Sanders, a Jewish American, found it possible to be frank about the injustice and criminal oppression that Palestinian people have suffered for the past sixty-eight years suggests other politicians might be able to do this too—injustice for one side does not help the ‘other side’ and everyone knows this but does not act or speak as honestly or honorably as Sanders did.” —Naomi Shihab Nye

“I would like you to know that we do not have any more time—at all—to postpone addressing the issue of climate change. And while you’re working to ensure the survival of the planet, please remember that some of us are dying at an even faster rate from poverty, lack of health care, gun violence, police brutality, war, and twenty-seven kinds of intolerance—so please use your authority to help ensure that we live to see (and help implement) the climate-change solutions you set in motion.” —Evie Shockley

“I want the next president to shout from the housetops that violence is not a source or sign of strength but of weakness, whether inside a home or between nations. I want us to address violence at all scales, from domestic violence and gun violence to our endless, failed, one-sided, expensive foreign wars to the subtle violence against the poor and the unborn among our species, against more fragile species, and against the earth and the future that is unchecked climate change and the brutal fossil-fuel industry.” —Rebecca Solnit

“Did you know we need to find more jobs for the unemployed? Also, Palestine and Israel need to work it out.” —Tom Spanbauer

“If you can’t do everything, at least do what you say. I just wanna live in a country that knows the difference between love and hate.” —Ebony Stewart

“Our public-education system is in desperate need of resources, specifically in marginalized communities, as well as a more learner-centered, diverse curriculum emphasizing perspectives across race, gender, class, nationality, sexual orientation, ability, and the multiple intersections therein to challenge all of us to be better human beings on this planet. And, Madam President, if I can focus our last few minutes on my beautiful, complicated city: Your support of Rahm Emanuel terrifies me. Thank you for listening. Please, keep listening. To all of us. Not some. All.” —Megan Stielstra

“Free Leonard Peltier. Free Chelsea Manning.” —Justin Taylor

“No language is neutral. To speak is to claim a life—and often our own. If more Americans speak to one another, in writing, in media, at the supermarket, we might listen better. It is difficult, I think, to hate one another when we start to understand not only why and how we hurt, but also why and how we love.” —Ocean Vuong

“The greatest threats facing the United States are not terrorism and illegal immigration but rather injustice, bias, inequality, and fear. To be a great nation we must focus on criminal-justice reform; the eradication of the vestiges of slavery; education; and human and civil rights for all.” —Ayelet Waldman

“Please stop separating families through deportation; let it be understood that they did not want to be in this country to begin with (which reminds me, please stop bombing children, stop invading countries, stop sending the young and poor onto the battlefields). Please create a path toward citizenship for everyone, not just the ‘dreamers,’ because we all learn to dream from our parents.” —Javier Zamora

 

Bullets Into Bells

by

Maya Popa

12.13.17

It has been just over five years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, during which twenty first-graders and six educators were killed. Since then, more than 150,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of gun violence, and the public debate about guns in America—recently magnified by a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October and at a church in rural Texas in November—rages on. But a new anthology of poetry and essays aims to offer a different perspective on an issue that is so often oversimplified by the media.

Published a week before the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting and coedited by poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press) is a powerful call to end gun violence in the United States. The anthology includes poems by dozens of celebrated poets—including Billy Collins, Ocean Vuong, Natasha Trethewey, and Juan Felipe Herrera—paired with nonfiction responses by activists, political figures, survivors, and others affected by gun violence. The anthology’s “call and response” structure showcases the direct relationship between specific acts of gun violence and the poems that were generated as a result. In the book’s foreword, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—who survived being shot in the head at a 2011 meeting with constituents in Arizona—and her husband, retired astronaut and Navy captain Mark Kelly, write, “Survivors, advocates, and allies can change hearts and minds—and move more people to join our fight for solutions—by telling stories about the irreparable damage that gun violence does to families and communities across the country.”

When they began compiling the book, the editors knew it would have a political purpose. “We agreed that the anthology would do more than simply collect literary responses to a political issue—it would need to be a political artifact in itself,” says Clements, for whom the anthology has a personal thrust. His wife, Abbey, worked as a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and has since become an outspoken activist for gun control. Clements and his fellow editors envisioned the anthology as both a tribute to those who die by guns every year and a way to find common ground in the discussion about gun violence.

Several poets the editors invited to contribute, including Robert Hass, Tess Taylor, and Yusef Komunyakaa, chose to write new poems for the anthology. “These poems tend not to respond to specific events but are, instead, often deeply personal meditations on the poet’s relationship to guns or their individual experiences with shootings,” says Rader. He points to two poems in particular: one by Brenda Hillman about her family’s gun, and one by Bob Hicok that revisits the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where he was a professor at the time and even had the shooter, who killed thirty-two and wounded seventeen, in one of his classes. “Both of these poems move beyond mere ‘anger’ and toward some larger notion of individual and communal ethic,” says Rader.

With more than fifty poems and fifty responses, the anthology brings together many perspectives on a complicated issue. “A big part of the impetus for the anthology was that conversations in the media about gun violence often become a loop of the same few sentiments, without the range of voices that poets were offering,” says Teague. “Christopher Soto’s ‘All the Dead Boys Look Like Me,’ for instance, written in the wake of the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, draws together personal experience with the often fatal dangers that queer brown bodies face in our country, as well as with family connections, activism, and a call for reimagining this legacy of endangerment and death.”

In another of the anthology’s pairings, Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy who was shot by police in Cleveland in 2012, responds to Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” which opens:

 

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of Tamir Rice & shed tears…

 

Rice responds, “When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America…Tamir was an all-American kid with a promising and bright future…. Who will govern the government when they continue to murder American citizens?”

In another pairing, Po Kim Murray of the Newtown Action Alliance responds to a poem about the Sandy Hook shootings. Antonius Wiriadjaja, who survived being shot on the sidewalk in New York City as he walked to the subway in 2013, responds to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “A Morning Shooting,” about a young man who is shot in a driveway on his way to work. “The poems themselves are exceptionally powerful, but the combinations of poem and respondent results in another order of emotional impact,” says Clements.

“Throughout the collection, the poets and respondents imagine how the lives of those killed by gun violence, and their survivors, could have been different if not for racial discrimination, homophobia, and other forms of violence that have replaced listening and supporting the lives and potentials of all our citizens,” says Teague.

The Bullets Into Bells editors hope to expand the project’s reach beyond the book. In the coming months, a number of events will be held across the country, featuring readings and panel discussions with the poets and essayists from the anthology. A related website for the project (beacon.org/bullets-into-bells-p1298.aspx) includes additional poems, statements from activists, opportunities for action, data on gun violence, interviews, and more. “One of my hopes,” says Clements, “is that this project—the book, the web content, the events around the country—will be part of a perhaps slower but more direct and more personal approach, bypassing the national media, that will encourage poets, readers of poetry, and literary audiences who might not otherwise have become involved in this movement to get more involved.”

Colum McCann echoes this hope in his introduction to the book: “The conviction behind this anthology is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope. It is, in the end, an optimistic book. The poems assert the possibility of language rather than bullets to open up our veins.”       

 

Maya Popa is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017). Her website is mayacpopa.com.                  

Abbey and Brian Clements (holding an orange sign) at the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America march across the Brooklyn Bridge in May 2016.

The Radius of Arab American Writers

by

Marwa Helal

8.16.17

When poet Glenn Shaheen first started writing, he had little sense of community as an Arab American writer. He felt constrained from writing about Arab American issues or identity, and his undergraduate writing professors scoffed at “identity writing,” telling him it would be “a cheat to write like that, because you’d immediately get published.” But when fellow poet Hayan Charara introduced Shaheen to the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), Shaheen found a community that supported and empowered his artistic freedom. “RAWI helped me be proud of my Arab heritage. Knowing there was a thriving community of Arab writers of all backgrounds and genres made me realize I was actually a part of that community,” says Shaheen. “I feel free to write about anything now after meeting so many other Arab writers—some working on science fiction novels or ecopoetry or experimental dramatic works. It helped me see that there isn’t a specific mold of an Arab American writer that I should aspire to or avoid.”

Shaheen is not the only writer who has found community through RAWI, a nonprofit organization that for the past twenty-five years has worked to support and disseminate creative and scholarly writing by Arab Americans. RAWI—a word that means storyteller in Arabic—was first established in 1992 by journalist and anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz as a seven-person group of writers that met in Washington, D.C. It has since grown into a thriving community of nearly 125 writers, artists, and journalists all over the world, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. Members include literary heavyweights like Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, National Book Award finalist Rabih Alameddine, poet and translator Fady Joudah, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The organization now hosts workshops and a biennial conference that features panels, readings, and workshops for Arab American writers. The last conference, which focused on a range of topics including craft, publishing, and the effects of Islamophobia, was held in Minneapolis in June 2016 and cosponsored by Mizna, a nonprofit that promotes Arab American culture. The next conference will take place in Houston, Texas, in June 2018. In the meantime, RAWI has also launched In Solidarity, a series of daylong workshops and craft talks for people of color, members of marginalized communities, and allies in various cities throughout the United States. The series was spearheaded by fiction writer Susan Muaddi Darraj, and the first workshop, which took place in March in Washington, D.C., gave writers space to talk about identity, publishing, and being a writer in the margins. The second was held in San Francisco in April, and more are in the works around the country. “We hope these workshops foster communication and a feeling of solidarity among various communities,” says Darraj. “At least one writers circle has been formed as an outcome of these daylong workshops.”

In the coming year RAWI will be doing even more. In March the organization began advocating for the first-ever Arab American caucus, to be held at the next Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, and is currently planning a twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration. In October the University of Arkansas Press will publish Jess Rizkallah’s poetry collection the magic my body becomes, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, a new award given for a first or second book of poetry by a poet of Arab heritage and cosponsered by RAWI. “Leading RAWI has always been rewarding and challenging, but it is especially so this year,” says executive director Randa Jarrar. “I’m dazzled by our community’s literary output—we have so many excellent books out this year and next, and on and on.”

RAWI’s growth hasn’t been without some pains. “The challenge is often fund-raising, and belonging to a nation that often doesn’t celebrate our work alongside us, but picks and tokenizes, or silences,” Jarrar says. Both before and after 9/11, Arab American writers have had to balance the desire to be read and recognized for the quality of their work with being hyper-visible spokespeople for their homelands while struggling to live and work amid ongoing hostility toward Arab people. With the president’s recent ban on travelers from several Arab-majority countries, Arab Americans face increased challenges. “More than ever,” Jarrar says, “I hope that RAWI can be a solace and provide its members and the Arab American literary community support and a sense of belonging and connection and resistance.”

For many writers, RAWI has done just that. “It has shown me that we exist,” says Palestinian American poet Tariq Luthun. “I think, like any population, we are at least vaguely aware of the fact that we aren’t the only ones of our kind. But seeing and experiencing this community firsthand is so vital to one’s resolve in continuing to do this work.” Emerging poet Kamelya Omayma Youssef agrees. For her, RAWI provided the foundation she needed as a writer. “Imagining that I can eventually read to a room full of people and be heard without the threat of reductive thinking or fetishization or demonization should not be as radical as it is for me today,” she says. “But it is totally radical. RAWI is that room.”        

 

Marwa Helal is a poet and journalist who lives and teaches in Brooklyn, New York. She is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest and the author of the poetry collection Invasive species, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2019. Her website is marshelal.com.        

Hayan Charara addresses attendees at the 2016 RAWI conference in Minneapolis.  (Credit: Makeen Osman)

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Singapore Unbound

by

Melynda Fuller

2.15.17

Every month in New York City, thirty to forty writers and literature enthusiasts gather at the home of a fellow writer for a potluck and reading of American, international, and Singaporean literature. Established in 2014 by Singaporean writer Jee Leong Koh, these salons, called the Second Saturday Reading Series, have featured dozens of emerging and established writers from around the world and allowed Singaporean and non-Singaporean writers alike to connect over literature. Koh now hopes to expand on that cultural exchange with his new project, Singapore Unbound, which will celebrate and raise awareness about Singaporean literary culture. “We want to expand the idea of who is Singaporean,” says Koh. “You’re not Singaporean just because you’re a citizen. You’re still Singaporean if you move away, or you could be a guest worker in the country. We want to encompass both groups.” 

Launched in February, Singapore Unbound serves as the umbrella organization for the Second Saturday Reading Series and the biennial Singapore Literature Festival, which was created in 2014 by Koh and writer Paul Rozario-Falcone and was last held in New York City in Fall 2016. Under the same umbrella, indie poetry publisher Bench Press will join forces with the blog Singapore Poetry, which features cross-cultural book reviews (Americans review Singaporean books, and Singaporeans review American books). Koh hopes that by aligning these projects under one organization, he can provide Singaporean writers with a “prominent and independent platform for open and free expression of their views.” 

That platform is important to protecting and advancing the literary culture of a country that has not always supported free speech. While Singapore boasts a rich stew of cultures with four official languages—Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English—and a burgeoning indie literature landscape that showcases a diversity of cultures and ideas, literature is still restricted by the government. Although the state grants large sums of money to publishers and writers, giving them greater freedom to take risks on young writers in particular, the money comes with stipulations: The work cannot undermine governmental authority and must not advocate for what the state deems “objectionable lifestyles”—namely, those of LGBTQIA writers. In response, Singapore-based publishers like Ethos, Epigram, Landmark, and Math Paper Press have been pushing censorship boundaries for the past few years, and Koh himself doesn’t accept government funds. Kenny Leck, owner of the popular Tiong Bahru–based bookstore BooksActually, says, “At the bookstore, and with our publishing arm, Math Paper Press, we sell the titles and publish the content that most compels us. In that way, our government, the state, has no say in what we choose to do.” 

Singapore Unbound is committed not only to freedom of expression, but also to the idea that cross-cultural exchange leads to a healthier literary culture. Alfian Sa’at, who participated in the 2016 literature festival, where a portion of his five-hour epic play Hotel was performed in the United States for the first time, notes the positive impact of the kind of exchange Singapore Unbound fosters. “Having links with writers from other countries helps us learn from one another’s experiences,” he says. “For a long time I think we’ve looked toward a place like the United States for guidance on issues such as freedom of expression, how institutional solidarity in the form of something like the PEN American Center can aid writers who struggle with censorship and persecution.” Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean writer living in New York City, agrees. At the 2014 festival Tiang worked with the political arts collective Kristiania to organize a panel of two Singaporean poets alongside writers in exile from Indonesia and Nigeria. “I think the best conversations happen when people from different contexts are able to exchange ideas in this way,” says Tiang.

With the introduction of Singapore Unbound, Koh plans to further those conversations. He hopes to start a scholarship program that will pay for Singaporean writers to spend two weeks in New York during the summer to experience the culture of the city and collaborate with local writers. This past fall Koh also created a fellowship program designed to bring more voices to the organization, help it reach a wider audience, and build its online presence. “With Singapore Unbound we want to bring outstanding literature to a wide audience,” says Koh, “and by doing so liberalize our politics and sentiments.”

 

Melynda Fuller is a New York City–based writer and editor. She received her MFA from the New School and is at work on a collection of essays. Her website is melyndafuller.com. Find her on Twitter, @MGrace_Fuller

Correction
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2016 Singapore Literature Festival included both a performance of Alfian Sa’at’s play Hotel in English and a panel organized by Jeremy Tiang. Alfian Sa’at’s play is actually multilingual and Jeremy Tiang organized a panel at the 2014 festival, not the 2016 festival.

Jee Leong Koh speaks at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. 

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Making Connections Through Books

by

Jonathan Vatner

12.13.17

Goodreads, the social networking website and app for readers, celebrated its tenth anniversary in September. With sixty-five million users and sixty-nine million book reviews, it is among the hundred most visited websites in the United States. Owned by Amazon and headquartered in San Francisco, the company is not just a platform to catalogue, rate, and review books, it’s also a promotional force in the publishing industry—one utilized by the Big Five publishers, independent presses, and authors alike.

In 2007 journalist Elizabeth Khuri and software engineer Otis Chandler, who were married the following year, created Goodreads to answer two needs book lovers often face: how to decide what to read and how to keep track of what you’ve already read. Social networking was in its infancy—Facebook had just hit fifty million users—and the couple wanted to bring the social aspect of reading, recommending, and discussing books to the Internet. “Most readers find the amount of books being published overwhelming,” says Khuri. “And there is something deeply satisfying about being able to track the books you’ve read.”

A teeming community of book bloggers and critics quickly latched on to the platform. Chandler says that publishing “the best reviews on the Internet” helped secure its success. Khuri adds that the reviews published on Goodreads are more personal than those of traditional book-review outlets, which enhances the site’s appeal. “Goodreads users are writing for their friends and for the community, so the reviews feel more authentic.”

Goodreads offers numerous tools for cataloguing and discussing books. As with Facebook and other social-networking sites, readers can set up a profile and connect with other book enthusiasts. They can create and label “shelves” to keep track of what they’ve read, what they want to read, and their favorite books; they can rate books, write reviews, and comment on other readers’ reviews. They can also join any of the thousands of public and private discussion groups and book clubs—or create their own. Users can even ask authors questions and post their own writing. In 2011 the Goodreads team introduced a book-recommendation engine to the platform, which delivers informed suggestions to users for further reading based on the books they’ve read and rated. Chandler notes that three to five books in a given subject area enables the algorithm to make smart picks—often a mix of best-sellers and lesser-known surprises.

In 2013 Amazon purchased Goodreads for an undisclosed sum, allowing Goodreads to bolster its team (now at 130 employees) and implant Goodreads reviews and recommendations into the Kindle reading experience. Users can also share Kindle notes and highlights with friends on Goodreads, to facilitate deeper discussion. “We’re building magical experiences for the Kindle,” Chandler says, before adding, “We’re still full-guns-ahead on Goodreads the site.” Though Goodreads makes it easiest to buy books on Amazon, a drop-down menu lists other online options such as Barnes & Noble and Better World Books, as well as links to WorldCat, a centralized library catalogue.

While Goodreads started out as a useful tool for readers, it has also become an important promotional platform for authors and publishers. Considering that publicity departments have been scaled back in recent years, social networking has played a growing role in the success of many books and authors, whether traditionally or self-published. “Online discovery has become the biggest challenge for authors and publishers,” says Chandler. “How do you stand out online with all the self-publishing and digital publishing? Goodreads sits at the intersection of word of mouth and online publicity.”

Writers Paulo Coelho, Neil Gaiman, Kathryn Stockett, and Roxane Gay have long used the site. Chandler and Khuri were humbled when John Ashbery joined Goodreads a few months after the site launched. Novelist Celeste Ng joined Goodreads in its early stages to keep track of what she’d read. When she published her 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, she created an official author page, which contains a bio, a list of books she has written or contributed to, quotes from her writing, discussion topics, and her reviews of other books. Ng also answers reader questions and participates in interviews on the site. But she warns against responding to reader reviews, good or bad: “For the author to be listening in can dampen the conversation,” she says.

Everything I Never Told You resonated with readers on the site and was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, so Ng’s publisher, Penguin Press, embraced the site in its promotional campaign for her 2017 follow-up, Little Fires Everywhere. The publicity team raffled off galleys to Goodreads users, mailed them to influential reviewers on the site who had loved the first book, and shipped a box to the Goodreads office. When the book hit stores, Penguin paid for an e-mail with a note from the author to be sent to Ng’s fans and placed targeted ads on the Goodreads home page. Ng came in at number three on a BuzzFeed list entitled “21 Books Goodreads Users Are Damn Excited to Read This Fall,” and Goodreads featured an interview with Ng in its e-newsletter in the lead-up to her new novel’s publication. After each of these efforts, more users added the book to their “want to read” shelf—which often converts to sales.

Ng’s second novel debuted in September at number seven on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list. “It’s safe to say that this community helped make Little Fires Everywhere such a big success,” says Matt Boyd, the associate publisher and marketing director of Penguin Press. “I think the site has helped people discover the book,” Ng says. “My sense is that it’s an amplified version of friends recommending books to other friends.”     

 

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. His novel, The Chelmsford Arms, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books in Fall 2018.          

Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri, founders of Goodreads.

(Credit: Nick Walker)

Squirl App Maps Literary Hot Spots

by

Rachael Hanel

2.10.16

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has inspired countless works of literature and art, but now, thanks to two literary-minded entrepreneurs, the iconic novel has also inspired an app. “I was reading On the Road, sitting there with my laptop next to me, book at my side, looking up all the places Kerouac mentioned,” says Jef Van der Avoort, cofounder of the new literary search-and-discovery app Squirl. “I told my business partner, Serie Wolfe, and she said she had the same experience.”

The pair’s literary curiosity sparked the idea for Squirl, which allows users to find nearby literary locations wherever they are. The app pins locations on a map that correspond to scenes in books. There’s a pin for the University of Texas in Austin campus, which is featured in Elizabeth Crook’s novel Monday, Monday. There’s a pin for South Park in Billings, Montana, which appears in Carrie La Seur’s novel, The Home Place. And there’s a pin for the Brooklyn Bridge, which plays a part in Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. Each pin features a relevant passage from the book, as well as links to the author’s profile and a summary of the book that also includes links to booksellers.

Squirl works by first inviting authors to post locations from their books. “We developed the app because we think too many great books remain undiscovered,” Van der Avoort says, noting that the app is geared mostly toward independent and emerging authors who need help getting the word out about their books. “If you’re a smaller indie author, you can tell your friends, then friends of friends—but what’s the next step? It levels the playing field. Whether you have a marketing budget or not, it’s the same for everyone.” Writers then set up an author profile, on which readers can find out more about their work. Readers can search locations for a specific book, or they can search by locale to discover what literary places might exist in that area—and in doing so also find out about new books. Users can also search by author, from self-published writers to Arthur Conan Doyle, in order to find out where the characters in that author’s books have been and the places that have inspired their works.

Van der Avoort and his team began developing the app in late 2014. They launched the brand, complete with people dressed in squirrel costumes, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March 2015. The app, which is free for readers and authors, went live later that year; by the end of January it included more than five hundred authors and a thousand  locations worldwide. The project has so far been independently funded, but Van der Avoort is looking for external support to develop new features. In the future, he hopes readers will be able to create their own maps of favorite literary locations and that authors will be able to create virtual journeys for their characters that readers can follow.

For now, Van der Avoort sees Squirl as a tool to enhance the reading experience and connect readers with authors they might not otherwise discover. “My personal goal would be to one day see a book that was discovered through our app featured on the New York Times best-seller list,” Van der Avoort says. “That would be success.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

 

 

Catapult Launches More Than Books

by

Jonathan Vatner

10.14.15

Considering the number of steps it takes for writers to turn their work into a published book, it’s no wonder that the literary world is partitioned into so many components: workshops for writers to hone their craft, literary magazines for emerging writers to share their first pieces, and both indie and mainstream presses for new and established authors to publish their books. Catapult, a new literary venture launched in September and led by a team of industry veterans—with significant financial backing—offers all of the above.

“Catapult conceptually mirrors the ecosystem in which writers and creatives exist right now,” says Andy Hunter, Catapult’s publisher and the cofounder of the popular website and digital publisher Electric Literature. The new operation, headquartered in New York City with a satellite office in Portland, Oregon, evolved out of the independent press Black Balloon Publishing, which was established in 2010 by Elizabeth Koch and Leigh Newman. Koch—Catapult CEO and daughter of billionaire conservative industrialist Charles Koch—provided the seed funding for the company, which is operating on a budget in the high six figures. “Since the inception of Black Balloon, part of the vision was always to create a mechanism for writers to find one another, support one another, and share their work,” says Koch. “Both Catapult and Black Balloon sprang from a deep-seated belief that a well-told story can be an accidental training ground for empathy, for expanding our minds and developing personally.”

Koch enlisted Hunter, who then recruited industry veteran Pat Strachan to take the role of editor in chief. Strachan has worked as an editor at the New Yorker; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Little, Brown, and is known for acquiring Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, as well as books by Tom Wolfe, Lydia Davis, and Seamus Heaney. Meanwhile, Newman has been named the company’s editor-at-large.

Catapult’s editorial focus will be broader than that of Black Balloon (which will continue to publish more experimental books as an imprint of Catapult), with twelve titles published in both print and e-book format each year. Strachan says Catapult is seeking “American and international fiction and narrative nonfiction that is alive, insightful, illuminating, stirring, and surprising by way of unique voices—whether emerging or established—who honor the craft of writing.” The press will open its doors to unagented submissions every April and October, and released its first titles this fall: Padgett Powell’s short story collection Cries for Help, Various, in September; and Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, Mrs. Engels, in October.

The company’s website (catapult.co), meanwhile, publishes original short fiction and nonfiction that complements the press’s editorial focus. Web editor in chief Yuka Igarashi and associate web editor Mensah Demary say they are more concerned with a compelling story than genre distinctions. “We’re thinking about stories very widely,” says Igarashi, the former managing editor of Granta. “Hopefully that includes graphic pieces and stories told in multimedia.” Catapult also publishes pieces with original art by its in-house illustrator, Tallulah Pomeroy; recent works have included Nao-cola Yamazaki’s story in translation about amoebas, “False Geneology,” and Joy Williams’s story about a daughter visiting a nursing home, “Cats and Dogs.” Submissions for the website are open year-round, and contributors are paid for their work.

The Catapult website also hosts a Community section, which allows writers to self-publish stories and comment on one another’s work. Readers can promote pieces they like, and the web editors will choose their favorite pieces, which will then be published on the curated site; those writers selected will be compensated for their work. With this type of community engagement, Hunter hopes the site will eventually attract a million unique visitors a month (by comparison, Electric Literature attracts three million unique visitors a year)—an audience that will help build and sustain a readership for Catapult’s books.

In addition to its publishing platforms, Catapult offers a robust series of writing classes in New York City. The program offers six-week workshops (limited to six students each), as well as daylong publishing and writing boot camps, taught by both established and emerging writers such as Mary Gaitskill and Julia Pierpont. While the Catapult team doesn’t have plans to host courses outside of New York City, it will offer online courses starting in 2016.

With such a comprehensive array of publishing and educational efforts, Hunter believes the new endeavor could eventually become its own publishing ecosystem. In other words, beginning writers might take a Catapult class to learn craft and find readers, then publish a piece on the community site, and then be chosen for the curated site. And finally, Hunter hopes, some Catapult writers might even publish a book through the press. “Nothing that we do hasn’t been done before,” Hunter says, “but we’re the only ones who are doing all of it together in exactly this way.” Koch agrees. “This multiarmed structure—that’s our Catapult. It’s our flywheel, generating its own growth and momentum as it blurs traditional boundaries—between student and teacher, established author and up-and-comer, publisher and audience.”                 

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Correction
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that many staff members of Black Balloon Publishing have joined the Catapult staff. No former Black Balloon staff members currently work at Catapult.

Searching Indie Bookstore Shelves

by

Rachael Hanel

8.19.15

When looking to buy a particular book, one has a couple of options: Either go online, punch in a few keystrokes, click a couple of links, and a book will be immediately on its way; or call several bookstores, track down a copy (or wait for it to arrive in stock), and then walk, drive, or take a train to the shop. The first option is quick and easy; the second is time-consuming and inefficient, but supports more local booksellers—an increasingly important act in the age of Amazon, the company whose business model has made it difficult for many independent bookstores to compete.

Ben Purkert, a poet who lives in New York City, grappled with this dilemma. Like many readers, he wants to support his local independents and enjoys the experience of browsing through a physical store, but in the end he wants to know whether a specific book is on the shelves before he makes the trip. Purkert grew frustrated, however, with calling individual stores to confirm books were in stock. “I thought that maybe there were other people getting frustrated in the same way I was,” he says. In response, he founded CityShelf (www.cityshelf.com), a new digital tool that allows users to search the inventories of local bookstores on their mobile devices. A user can simply enter the title of a book, and CityShelf offers a list of local bookstores that carry the title, including the book’s price and in-store availability as well as each store’s location and phone number. Launched last December as a mobile site, CityShelf initially only covered seven bookstores in New York City. This summer, however, Purkert and the CityShelf team rolled out a new app and desktop site that covers stores in New York City as well as in five new locations: Boston; Chicago; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle.

Purkert describes CityShelf as a “passion project.” He and his partners—technologist Eric Weinstein, designer Liz Oh, and product manager Javier Lopez—created the site in their spare time with no funding. Once they built the platform, they approached bookstores and included those with a searchable inventory on the site. In the few months since the mobile site’s launch, Purkert reports that more than a thousand people have used CityShelf, with about 50 percent of the site’s traffic representing returning users. Ultimately, Purkert would like to see the number of users grow exponentially, and he hopes to add more cities to the site and more developers to the team.

As CityShelf continues to expand, Purkert believes the platform will complement what he sees as a resurgence in indie bookstores and will encourage more readers to choose local brick-and-mortar shops over the convenience of Amazon. “A lot [of bookstores] are not just surviving, but thriving. What that suggests to me is that people are buying local. People love talking to booksellers, they love browsing, and they love getting suggested picks,” he says. “You can buy lightbulbs and diapers online, but a paperback is a bit more sacred.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, published in 2013 by the University of Minnesota Press.

Whitman, Alabama

by

Maya C. Popa

6.14.17

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall first visited Alabama in 2013 on a short-term assignment for Alabama Media Group, a digital media company that produces television and video programming and publishes three of the most prominent newspapers in the state. Though she was living in Amsterdam at the time, Crandall was so inspired by Alabama that she moved to Birmingham, became the company’s first artist-in-residence, and began developing a documentary project that would showcase the state’s citizens. But rather than use a traditional interview format, Crandall decided to center her project around Walt Whitman’s iconic 1855 poem “Song of Myself” for its celebration of American identity. She has since spent the past two years traveling throughout Alabama, filming people reading from the poem. The resulting series, Whitman, Alabama, captures the spirit of the state and its people while illustrating the many themes of the poem—race, religion, politics, sexuality, and immigration—that the nation continues to wrestle with today. 

The first installment in the series featured ninety-seven-year-old Virginia Mae Schmitt, who has since died, reciting the poem’s famous opening lines. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” reads Schmitt from an armchair in her living room in Birmingham. “And what I assume you shall assume.” Since that initial shoot, Crandall, with the support of Alabama Media Group and the help of fellow filmmakers Bob Miller and Pierre Kattar, has filmed around forty of the fifty-two planned films; she posts a new video to the project website (www.whitmanalabama.com) each week. The project features a diverse group of Alabamians, including Bob Tedrow, a concertina maker in Birmingham; Mariam Jalloh, a fourteen-year-old immigrant from Guinea living in Birmingham; and Demetrius, Frederick, Patricia, and Tammy—all inmates at prisons in Montgomery. 

Acquaintances and friends introduced Crandall to several of the project’s readers, but she approached many people at random too. Crandall was surprised by how readily Alabamians agreed to being filmed. Each subject is asked to read from one of the poem’s fifty-two verses. “No matter what way we went about it, people just said yes,” says Crandall, who notes that the project is not about making the audience into Whitman experts. “Most people have heard of Whitman, from Alabama to anyplace else I’ve been, but they are not really conversant in his work. Fundamentally, it’s a project about getting Americans more conversant about who we are as Americans.” 

Crandall strives to make the videos intimate reflections of the subjects and to film them in environments where they can be fully themselves: a living room, for instance, a front porch, or the woods. Each video juxtaposes candid moments alongside the recitation. A group of teenagers skateboard, dance, beatbox, and tease one another in a vacant lot while taking turns reading verse 21. One participant, Beth Spivey, recounts getting into her car in the middle of the night to chase a vandal down the road before reading the opening lines of verse 34.

Crandall embraces spontaneity in her process. She filmed verse 43 by driving along Route 43 and seeing whom she might encounter. While passing through the small city of Union Springs, she met Anthony Stewart, who was sitting under a tree. When she asked him to read a portion of the poem, he explained that he has a hard time reading. In the video, Crandall can be heard feeding Stewart the lines from behind a tree. The result is moving: Stewart repeats complex language with composure, lines Crandall herself stumbles over. “I’m not a good reader, but I’m a good singer,” Stewart says. The scene closes with Stewart singing as a thunderstorm breaks over Union Springs. “That is the stuff I live for,” says Crandall. “Each of these verses has its own fingerprint, which has to do with the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, and the Whitman verse chosen. This project is 51 percent serendipity, 49 percent planning. It’s a gamble, but part of what we do is in the spirit of the moment. We work with what people give us. Everyone is a coauthor in that they feel some sense of ownership.”

In the opening verse of “Song of Myself,” Whitman proclaims, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This sentiment lives at the heart of Crandall’s series, celebrating the disparate lives of individuals while emphasizing our unity as a nation. “Whitman wrote the poem at a pretty divided time,” Crandall says. “He did a lot of work to help us empathetically understand who we could be and didn’t restrain himself to the time and place he was from. He offered us guidelines for how to think of ourselves as Americans. We are inextricably linked to one another and no one particular thing. Today we’re struggling with that.” 

The irony of using the words of Whitman, a Northerner, to showcase the South does not escape Crandall. “Bringing this poem to life by Southerners was an attempt to remind us that if you’re a Northerner, you’re also a Southerner. We are part of each other.”  

Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher based in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017). Her website is www.mayacpopa.com.

Bob Tedrow, a concertina maker in Birmingham, Alabama, plays the banjo as part of his reading of verse 7 of “Song of Myself” for the Whitman, Alabama project. 

The Shakespeare Sonnet Project

by

Maya C. Popa

10.12.16

In 2013 actor and director Ross Williams, founder of the nonprofit New York Shakespeare Exchange, set out to film all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, each performed by a different actor in a New York City location. After raising nearly $50,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, filming began. The original deadline was Shakespeare’s 450th birthday (April 23, 2014), but the project’s aim—to merge the literary and visual arts, and bring the poetry of William Shakespeare to the poetry of New York City—quickly proved more ambitious than expected. 

As Williams and his team—made up of producers, a copy writer, and text coaches—began to film the sonnets, it became clear that the project transcended a mere collection of recitations. Each video became an artistic object in its own right. “This project is unlike any I have seen before,” says Mark Karafin, who directed Sonnet 108, which won runner-up in the annual Shakespeare Short Film Competition in 2015. “I read Sonnet 108 and it spoke to me immediately.” Filmed at the John T. Brush Stairway in Harlem, where the Polo Grounds, the original New York Giants baseball stadium, once stood, the sonnet explores “the first conceit of love, and its agelessness.” “I felt strongly about this location,” says Karafin. “It had substance and relevance to New York. There was history here.” Billy Magnussen, an actor who earned a Tony nomination for the Broadway production Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, stars in the film, and recites the sonnet in a voice-over. “My favorite part of this project was the opportunity to collaborate with such talented and inspiring artists in every department,” says Karafin.

Each of the project’s short films, released online and through a mobile app, offers a unique stylistic take on the sonnets: The adaptation of Sonnet 73, which opens with “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” depicts a gray, blurry image of a man sitting beneath a wintry arbor in Central Park while another man plays the saxophone. Sonnet 116—“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”—features a couple walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade in the rain. Sonnet 44—“If the dull substance of my flesh were thought”—uses special effects to portray a man walking in an abstract, geometric landscape as his skin morphs into different metals. 

The Sonnet Project app, which was launched in May 2013, has been an integral part of the project’s success, offering a catalogue of the filmed sonnets and a mapping feature that shows the setting used in each production. This allows the project to highlight locations in New York City that tourists and locals alike might otherwise overlook. “That’s been a part of the project that really makes people notice us,” says Williams, who adds that the interactivity of the project “could really make an impact” in terms of its reach. Additionally, each video provides a transcript of the sonnet, including a brief analysis and explanation of the wordplay. “It’s a unique platform to learn and expose all parts of Shakespeare,” says Karafin.

Ultimately, the project aims to nurture the next generation of readers and artists, helping them gain confidence with Shakespearean language and inspiring them to take on creative projects of their own. “We are currently deep in the creation of the Sonnet Project educational tools,” says Williams, who, by the end of the year, plans to unveil a two-week curriculum for high school students that teaches Shakespearean language and encourages students to create their own Sonnet Project films on their mobile devices. “We have had a number of educators tell us that they like to use the Sonnet Project in their classroom because it’s the one time of day they can stop telling their students to put their phones away,” says Williams.

So far, the Sonnet Project has engaged more than five hundred artists and produced videos for all but approximately thirty of the sonnets. Filmmakers and directors are invited to apply to create an original video adaptation of any of the remaining sonnets; if accepted, the Sonnet Project will work with that filmmaker to assign a New York City location, actor, and text coach for the film. In his plans for 2017, Williams hopes to launch a second series of videos of the 154 sonnets, this time filmed in locations all over the United States and abroad. The team also hopes to add several new mapping features to the app so that it can support walking tours and even scavenger hunts. “Our goal is to create a global conversation about Shakespeare,” says Williams. “By existing in a cinematic space, Shakespeare can feel alive and present.”

 

Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher based in New York City. Her website is www.mayacpopa.com.

Calling Ishmael

by

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

12.15.15

A phone rings, but it’s not the one in your pocket; you realize the sound is coming from an old-school rotary pay phone in a corner of your favorite bookstore. You look around. It’s just you and this softly ringing relic of a bygone era. You pick up the phone. “Hello?” you say. “Ishmael, what’s going on, man?” a smooth-talking stranger says on the other end. “I just wanted to tell you a little bit about my experience with The Catcher in the Rye.”

Welcome to Call Me Ishmael, perhaps the most celebrated opening sentence in literary history and now an innovative and irresistible new tool for discovering books and sharing stories about them. The project began in 2014, when founders Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent were exchanging favorite opening lines of books in a bar in New York City’s West Village. One of them wondered aloud, “What if Ishmael had a phone number? What if you actually could call him?” In an instant, the idea for Call Me Ishmael was born: a phone number, an answering machine, a website, and an invitation to “readers around the world to tell us stories about the books they love.”

The process is simple: If a reader has a story to tell about a particular book—how it was a source of inspiration, maybe, or how it was life changing—that reader can call Ishmael at (774) 325-0503 and leave the story as an anonymous voice mail. Those who just want to listen can visit the website (callmeishmael.com) and hear more than a thousand stories about books of all types: literary fiction, fantasy, mystery, poetry, nonfiction, and everything in between. Smalley and Kent select their favorite stories and share a few each week on the website and via social media. When the pair discover a particularly wonderful story, they transcribe it on a typewriter (yes, a real manual typewriter) and share it as a video.

But they’re not stopping there. Now, in the form of a rotary-style pay phone produced this winter, Call Me Ishmael will soon be found in bookstores, libraries, schools, coffee shops, and even homes around the world. A small placard on the phone provides a directory of books. Dial the number for, say, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Mary Oliver’s Thirst, and moments later a caller is listening to a stranger’s journey with Kerouac or, in one of Smalley and Kent’s favorite calls, a woman’s recollection of serenading trees with Oliver’s verse in a Nashville park.

To fund the project, Smalley and Kent, who both have day jobs—Smalley is the director of TED Education and Kent works in community and marketing at Astrohaus—conducted a Kickstarter campaign in early November 2015. The campaign exceeded its ten-thousand-dollar goal in the first two days, and the project’s first phones will be produced early this year, including one that will be installed in Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. The phone is portable, requires minimal space, and can be plugged in or powered by a rechargeable battery. It can be purchased outright (the cost is still being determined) or rented for events such as festivals or readings. Owners can also track the number of listens for each story on an app that manages the phone.

Owners of Call Me Ishmael phones can also use the app to assign any voice mail in Ishmael’s library (or stories that the phone owner uploads) to any button on the phone. “A bookstore might want to make all buttons correlate to stories about a visiting or local author, or a librarian might want to feature stories sourced from a fifth-grade class,” says Smalley. “It’s just a simple and, hopefully, delightful way to discover and celebrate books.” The phone’s app even has a “mysterious button”—when an owner presses the button on the app, the physical phone will start ringing. When someone answers, a message will play.

The response to Call Me Ishmael so far has been positive—not least, the founders believe, because it taps into why people so deeply love books. More than two thousand readers have called in and left messages, and the recordings have been played over a million times. “Ishmael is a really unique way to talk about books and to get people talking about books,” says Smalley. “It isn’t a review of books, it’s a way for people—writers, readers, teachers, anyone—to share stories about the stories that have touched them.” Kent agrees: “Books affect us in profound ways. Ishmael provides readers a way to share that experience, and it’s fascinating the range of people who call and the books they tell us about. Sometimes people call and instantly start crying. More often than not, they share intimate stories from their own lives.”

In one message, about Shirley Conran’s book Lace, a woman says, “I was adopted at birth. And at the time when I read this book, I wanted desperately to find my birth mother. And I found her.” In another, a man talks about his experience with Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches. “I was born about five months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate by definition is not equal,” the caller says. “My Sunday school teacher told us that God wanted us to be separate.” Another: “I feel like I grew up with Harry Potter, as crazy as that sounds.”  

Ishmael also gets his fair share of prank calls (one caller asked Ishmael to pick up toilet paper for him, another declared her love for him). “The calls are just absolutely hilarious,” Kent says. “We compiled them for April Fools’ Day this year. It’s quite a treasure to wake up every day and hear what people have to say.”

Call Me Ishmael has also bridged the gap between readers and authors. Last March Cheryl Strayed posted a response to a Call Me Ishmael voice mail about her book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, on her Facebook page, saying that the message made her day. John Green tweeted “I’m in tears” in response to a compilation video of readers who called Ishmael to share their experiences with Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. This is precisely why Call Me Ishmael was designed, Kent says: “to build community via narrative and to share books. Strayed and Green are just two examples of how it can do this. We’re super excited to see where all of this goes.”

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a poet, an editor, and a lecturer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is the author of a poetry collection, Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014). His website is andrewmk.com.

   

Dear Readers, You Are Not Alone

by

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

12.14.16

When you walk into a bar full of people silently on their phones, no one thinks anything of it,” says Guinevere de la Mare, founder of San Francisco–based Silent Book Club. “But when you walk into a bar full of people silently reading books? Now that’s an arresting image.” It’s also an image that’s becoming more common, as a new literary trend gains traction around the country: silent reading parties.

Here’s how it works: A group of friends and strangers meet at a bar or library or private home once a month and read together. They don’t read the same book. They can come and go as they please. They’re not even expected to discuss what they’re reading. All they do is read, in a shared space, together, as a community. And while some show up, read, and leave without saying a word, many pass notes, laugh out loud, or share paragraphs they particularly love with one another.

“A lot of people end up hanging out all night,” says de la Mare, whose organization helps people start their own clubs across the country and overseas. “It’s a community-driven movement to get people out in public and switch out their phones for a book.”

The original silent reading party was held in 2009 by Christopher Frizzelle, who hosts a monthly meeting at the historic Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. “This is literature standing up for itself,” says Frizzelle, who is also the editor of the Stranger, an alternative weekly published in Seattle. “TV is so good now. Breaking Bad and The Wire are basically novels, and TV is an easier, more social act. Reading, on the other hand, no matter what it is, isn’t something you typically do with other people. Silent reading parties change all that.”

Since that original party eight years ago, writers and book lovers around the world have followed suit, launching their own silent reading parties in places like Bangalore, India; Brooklyn, New York; Portland, Oregon; Evansville, Indiana; and Spokane. This past April, writer Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket), started a silent reading party at a hotel bar in San Francisco, and donates a portion of the bar proceeds from each meeting to local libraries.

“The beauty of the parties is that they’re so easy,” Frizzelle says. “People interested in starting a reading party somewhere call me for advice. Nothing actually happens at the series, I tell them. People just get together and read. So I give them my blessing and tell them to keep it simple.”

De la Mare’s Silent Book Club goes a few steps further. In addition to hosting regular reading parties in San Francisco, the organization publishes a blog on reading and books, curates an international Silent Book Club event calendar, and offers tips on how to start a club. They even send an event kit to people looking to host their own club, which includes table signs, bookmarks, and coasters. Since establishing Silent Book Club in 2012, de la Mare has helped launch fifteen Silent Book Club chapters, with monthly events in more than twenty cities worldwide, including Washington, D.C.; Birmingham, Alabama; Des Moines; Phoenix; Oakland; Andover, England; and Melbourne, Australia.

Why are these groups where “nothing actually happens” so popular? Frizzelle thinks it’s obvious: “Reading is such an isolated activity,” he says. “You’re alone. The room is quiet. You don’t have anyone to share what you’re reading with. Which is all great, it’s part of why we read. But sometimes you want to be where things are happening too, like a bar.”

Ryan Molden, a regular attendee of Frizzelle’s silent reading party, echoes this sentiment, but with a twist: “When I first started going, I had just gone through a really hard breakup and was looking for new ways to meet people. I love to read, so I thought I would check it out. Long story short: I didn’t meet my girlfriend Jessica there, but when I asked her to join me, about a year and a half ago, we fell in love, and we just moved in together.” Molden adds, “The readings provided a great way to get to know each other. And seeing so many people engrossed in reading, in a time where reading is not exactly considered cool? That’s inspiring. We’re both so glad for the opportunity to share that time together. It’s the kind of thing the world needs more of.”

For de la Mare, silent reading parties help her carve out time to read in a busy schedule. “Being a mother,” she says, “you’re often completely alone. All day. And though I’ve identified as a reader my entire life, it was really hard to give myself permission to do something for me when I was raising my toddler. The silent book club gave me that permission. That’s a gift I wouldn’t, now that I have it, go without.” 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. He is the acquisitions editor of Upper Rubber Boot Books, founder and editor in chief of poemoftheweek.org, and founder of the Colorado Writers’ Workshop. His poetry collection, Ghost Gear, was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2014. His website is andrewmk.com.

Barbershop Books

by

Christine Ro

6.13.18

Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the nineties, Alvin Irby wasn’t much of a reader. “Reading books for pleasure wasn’t a part of my childhood,” he says. It wasn’t until high school—when Irby “started to understand the political and societal implications of reading,” and more specifically which groups of people tend to be excluded from reading—that the activity became something more than a chore. Today Irby is committed to making books and reading fun for children, in particular black boys—who report some of the lowest reading scores among children in the United States—through Barbershop Books, a literacy program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops and also trains barbers and other adults to help teach early literacy. 

Irby, who now lives in New York City, began installing shelves of children’s books in Harlem barbershops in 2014. He chose barbershops because he wanted to find black male–centric spaces to promote a love of reading among young black boys. The statistics, after all, are startling: In 2010 the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of seventy of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, reported that while 38 percent of white fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, the number for black boys of the same age is only 12 percent. Through Barbershop Books, Irby hopes to reach kids before the fourth grade. In the program’s early days, Irby spent his own money to buy books for all ages. “When I put the books in a barbershop, I observed for hours and hours that it was the young kids who were most likely to engage with the books,” he says. He realized that books for readers ages four to eight, a period critical for reading development, seemed to be the most useful. 

Unlike many early reading programs, Barbershop Books focuses not on reading skills but on what Irby calls “reading identity.” This means building boys’ motivation to read and helping them form a self-image as readers. Developing a reading identity is key to increasing literacy, Irby says, and is a different approach than that taken by most schools, which often focus on assessment, test scores, and skills development. The fun is lacking, Irby says, so reading becomes tied up in pressure and judgment rather than pleasure. 

Barbershop Books attributes the low reading proficiency among black boys in part to schools and educators that are not responsive to individual learning styles, as well as to a lack of black men involved in black boys’ early reading experiences. In 2013 the U.S. Department of Education reported that less than 2 percent of teachers were black men. “There are literally young black boys who have never seen a black man reading,” said Irby in a 2017 TED talk, “or never had a black man encourage him to read.” By working with local community partners to organize training for both barbers and parents to teach kids how to read, Barbershop Books works to address this deficit.

Irby and his team stock the barbershops with books that appeal to the kids who visit. A 2013 report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of  Wisconsin in Madison showed only 10.48 percent of children’s books published that year featured characters of color, and Irby also notes that a significant number of titles about black children revolve around the same few topics, such as slavery. Although such books are important, he says, it is equally important to supplement those books with more lighthearted stories, like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Maribeth Boelts’s Those Shoes—books about kids with whom children can identify. (Irby’s own children’s book, Gross Greg, which he self-published in 2016, is a humorous story about a boy who likes to eat what he calls “delicious little sugars”—his boogers.) While Barbershop Books titles aren’t limited to those about black boys, Irby asks boys what kinds of books they would like to read, allowing them to help with the decision of what to stock. The organization also gives books away: On July 18 it will host a giveaway of three thousand books at the Boys’ Club of New York in East Harlem.

Since its founding Barbershop Books has been adopted by more than a hundred barbershops in twenty-eight cities across the United States and reaches more than four thousand boys each month. In the next three years Irby hopes to raise $1 million to set up reading spaces in eight hundred more barbershops throughout the country. Eventually he’d like to expand to include Latino barbershops and digital initiatives as well. For now Barbershop Books has already made an impact. Irby reports that before he launched the program, 73 percent of barbers he spoke with never saw a boy reading in their shop. Now 64 percent say they’ve seen a boy reading a book in their shop almost every day. Irby believes that regardless of children’s reading abilities, it’s a step in the right direction. “Whether or not kids can read the books,” he says, “even if they’re just looking at the pictures, that’s a positive reading experience.”

 

Christine Ro writes about books regularly for Book Riot and occasionally for Literary Hub, Vice, and other publications.

Three boys reading at Denny Moe’s Superstar Barbershop in Harlem in New York City.

At the Center of Hip-Hop and Poetry

by

LaToya Jordan

4.11.18

What began as a hashtag to celebrate black womanhood, Black Girl Magic quickly leapt off social media streams and into the lexicon of writers, politicians, celebrities, and activists. What is Black Girl Magic? No two people will define it the same, but a new poetry anthology released by Haymarket Books in April, The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic, is allowing black women who grew up in the hip-hop generation to deepen the conversation through their poetry.

Mahogany L. Browne, who edited the anthology with fellow poets Idrissa Simmonds and Jamila Woods, says the book challenges stereotypes about black women. “We’re not allowed nuance; we’re not allowed to be angry and sad and loving—we’re supposed to be strong, stand up for everything,” says Browne. “This is about how we create ourselves, how we re-create ourselves…how we rename ourselves, how we bring our ancestors into the room, and how we invite those that don’t serve us out. Black Girl Magic as a whole is a resilience, a celebration, and a reclamation of the black woman body.”

The idea for the anthology was born a few years ago, when Browne was the featured poet at Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry festival in Chicago cofounded by poets Kevin Coval and Anna West. Browne read a poem called “Black Girl Magic,” which she wrote specifically for the event, and the audience response was immediate and visceral. “To see a poem hit the air like that,” Browne says, “after that response, I said, ‘This is bigger than me.’” (Browne later performed the poem on a 2016 episode of PBS NewsHour’s “Brief but Spectacular.”) After the festival, she mentioned to Coval that there should be a Black Girl Magic anthology, and a few months later he phoned her to move forward with the idea.

The anthology features more than a hundred poems from new and established voices, including Elizabeth Acevedo, Syreeta McFadden, Morgan Parker, Aracelis Girmay, and Angel Nafis. Poet Patricia Smith, the 2018 winner of the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, contributed a foreword to the collection. “I relentlessly love my sisters,” she writes. “We have taken back the right to name ourselves.” Each section of the anthology is named after an excerpt from the work of a notable black woman writer or activist. It begins with a section focused on the black woman’s body in all its forms, “Collector of Me,” inspired by poet Sonia Sanchez, and ends with a section centered on joy and resilience, “Jubilee,” inspired by novelist Edwidge Danticat.

The poems in the collection, influenced by the rhythms, lyricism, and expressiveness of hip-hop music and culture, speak to the many dimensions of black womanhood. In “My Beauty,” Justice Ameer writes about gender identity and self-love: “And ain’t that being a Black woman / Being forced to destroy herself / To make a man more comfortable / Me and my beauty stopped looking for him one day / And suddenly / I saw my body / My beauty saw a woman.” In “#SayHerName,” Aja Monet writes about the campaign to remember black women victims of police brutality: “I am a woman carrying other women in my mouth.”

Black Girl Magic continues the work of the first anthology in the series, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, published by Haymarket Books in 2015 and edited by Coval, along with poets Quraysh Ali Lansana and Nate Marshall. Focusing on black women was the perfect next step in the series, Coval says. “Black women have been and remain at the center of hip-hop culture and poetic practice. This anthology is some of the receipts and a peek into the future. Here are some of the most important and freshest of voices on the planet rock.”

The anthology series will continue to be a space for marginalized voices, and work is already under way on the next volume. “Halal If You Hear Me,” edited by poets Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo, will be focused on writing by Muslim women and LGBTQ Muslims and will be published in 2019.         

 

LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @latoyadjordan.

I, Too Arts Collective

by

LaToya Jordan

2.14.18

For nearly ten years the brownstone at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem was silent. Once the home of celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, who lived there for twenty years until his death in 1967, the three-story row house sat vacant, its dark stone walls overgrown with ivy, the paint of its once grand interior chipped throughout. The only evidence of the building’s literary history was a small plaque on the facade bearing Hughes’s name and designating it a landmark.

But today, thanks to the I, Too Arts Collective, the brownstone is once again bustling with creativity. On any given day one might hear the voice of a teen writer reciting Hughes’s poem “I look at the world,” or a community member reading at an open mic for the first time, or a distinguished author in conversation about the practice of writing. Established as a nonprofit organization by award-winning author Renée Watson, I, Too provides arts programming in Hughes’s house to underrepresented and marginalized voices. The collective takes its name from Hughes’s famous poem “I, Too,” which opens with the lines, “I, too, sing America. // I am the darker brother.”

“People need spaces where they can seek justice and stand up for what they believe in, spaces where they can be their full selves,” says Watson. “Often they are not able to do that in the world, so I wanted to have a space where they can come and create and engage with their community—that was really important to me.”

Watson, who lives in Harlem, walked past the vacant house for ten years, disappointed that nothing had been done with the space. She was inspired to take action in the summer of 2016, after hearing that Maya Angelou’s Harlem brownstone, located just a ten-minute walk from Hughes’s house, had been sold for $4 million. Determined that another piece of Harlem and African American culture wouldn’t be lost, Watson contacted the owner of Hughes’s brownstone and shared her vision of a space dedicated to preserving the writer’s legacy. The owner also didn’t want to see the building become gentrified, turned into condos or a coffee shop, but told Watson she’d need to come up with a year’s rent to turn her vision into a reality.

Watson, who in addition to publishing several well-received children’s books—including most recently Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury, 2017)—has years of experience in business and nonprofit arts administration; she established the I, Too Arts Collective in July 2016 and launched #LangstonsLegacy, an online fund-raising campaign to lease the brownstone. In just a few months, with the help of the literary community and private donors, she raised $150,000 toward the lease, renovation, and programming costs. Watson signed a three-year lease in October 2016 and along with the I, Too team and a group of volunteers, cleaned, painted, and restored the building. On February 1, 2017—Hughes’s 115th birthday and the beginning of Black History Month—the Hughes House opened to the public.

I, Too now hosts weekly open hours at the Hughes House, during which the community and tourists can visit the space, walk the same parlor floor Hughes did, and snap photos of his piano and typewriter. Watson says the brownstone is less of a museum, however, and more of a space for people to create. I, Too runs a number of special programs and events at the Hughes House, including creative writing workshops for adults and young people, a recurring poetry salon with an open mic, a monthly social event for writers and artists, and discussions with writers about their process and work. I, Too also rents the space to other artists and nonprofits to hold workshops, readings, and performances. Writers who have visited the brownstone include Kwame Alexander, Tracey Baptiste, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Angela Flournoy, Nikki Grimes, Ellen Hagan, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and Ibi Zoboi.

Watson and her I, Too colleagues— program director Kendolyn Walker, social media director Jennifer Baker, and graphic designer Ellice Lee, as well as working and honorary boards of directors made up of writers and artists—want to empower artists as well as honor Hughes’s legacy. “I wanted something that would add on to what he left behind,” says Watson. “I think that is a powerful thing, to not just celebrate his work in theory or by reading but also saying, ‘This is what he wrote, this is what he said—what do you want to say, and how are you continuing his legacy?’”

The program closest to Watson’s heart is the Langston Hughes Institute for Young Writers, which hosts writing workshops for young people during school breaks and throughout the summer. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the workshops allow teens to learn about Hughes’s work and share their own poetry. “I always say whenever young people are in the space, that’s when I get emotional and feel like this is why I am doing this work,” Watson says. “What moves me is when I see young people writing and finding their voices and expressing themselves.”

After a successful first year, the collective is working toward its long-term goals, including restoring the second floor of the house to create studio space and a library, as well as raising money to establish a fellowship program for writers. As part of the program, fellows would receive a residency in the Hughes House and hold workshops and readings in return.

The organization’s ultimate goal is to raise enough money to purchase the brownstone. “I want this to be a place that lives far beyond me or anybody involved with it now,” says Watson. “This is not just a trendy thing to do, but a sustainable space with roots in the ground for everyday artists to develop their craft and for established artists to share their stories and their voices.” 

 

LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @latoyadjordan.

Renee Watson, founder of the I, Too Arts Collective, next to Hughes’s typewriter.

(Credit: David Flores)

A New Center for Black Poetics

by

Tara Jayakar

8.17.16

From late nineteenth-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes to contemporary poetry stars Rita Dove and Toi Derricotte, the influence of African American poets on America’s literary culture cannot be overstated. But until recently there was no center that had significant institutional support and was specifically dedicated to sharing and studying the legacy of African American poetry.* Earlier this year, poets Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey decided it was high time to start one. The trio launched the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) as a creative think tank to spark conversation and collaboration among poets and other artists, and to promote and archive the work of African American poets for future generations.

“We recognized that there was this huge impact that African American and African diasporic poets were making on American arts and letters,” says Martin, who codirects the center alongside Hayes. “We wanted there to be a place where we could really think and work through what that means.” Housed at the University of Pittsburgh, where both Martin and Hayes teach in the MFA writing program, the center held its first event in March—a set of conversations and readings about race, poetry, and the humanities—and will host similar events throughout the academic year. Its first course on African American poetry and poetics, led by Lauren Russell, the assistant director of CAAPP and an English professor, will be offered to undergraduate and graduate students during the 2017–2018 academic year and will feature visiting speakers each week. Hayes and Martin also plan to launch a residency and fellowship program, through which poets, artists, and scholars can work at the center for periods between a month and a year.

Part of CAAPP’s core mission is to archive and document the work of African American poets, which will be accomplished through both a physical collection of books and an online archive of lectures, readings, and discussions. While organizations like Cave Canem create space to nurture new work by African American poets, and other university centers such as Medgar Evers College’s Center for Black Literature and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center work to promote black literature, CAAPP will focus specifically on the research and scholarship of black poetics, particularly as it relates to historical, artistic, and cultural repression, as well as corresponding social justice movements. “Cave Canem is twenty years old, and there still hasn’t been a large body of work about how it came into being or archival work around it,” says Hayes. “Our organizations historically haven’t had an opportunity to take care of our own information, to build our own insights around that work…. Now we are in a position to be our own historians and our own archivists, and write our own biographies about the importance of these roots.”

The University of Pittsburgh has long been a home for the work of African American poets. The university press, with editor Ed Ochester at the helm, has published notable titles by both emerging and established African American poets, recently Derricotte, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis, Nate Marshall, and Afaa Michael Weaver. Hayes and Martin hope to work with the press on a book prize, and harness other university resources. “What a university can do is provide infrastructure, in a way that’s just not set up in most sectors of our society,” says Hayes. “Infrastructure and research capabilities.” The pair have enlisted faculty from other departments, including English and Africana Studies, to advise CAAPP and possibly teach future courses. “We think of ourselves as a start-up,” says Martin. “And like innovators in tech, we want to be open and inclusive as we generate new ideas about what it means to work in the fields of African American poetry and poetics. This seems especially important in these trying and divisive times.”

A significant part of CAAPP’s work will also intersect with the university’s MFA program. Graduate writing students will be able to take courses offered by the center and have the opportunity to help curate, design, and teach these courses. This goes hand in hand with how Hayes sees the MFA as an opportunity to teach students the tools and skills needed to hold positions of power in poetry and arts organizations. “A person who is interested in getting an MFA and being a poet can learn how to live in the world, whether they are directing centers or working as librarians, archivists, or critics,” says Hayes. “Just to alert and inspire a poet to do that is a possibility. Maybe you want to run a press or be an editor of a press. I don’t see why the MFA can’t be an opportunity to begin that conversation, as opposed to assuming that all you can do is write or teach.”

*Editor’s Note: After this article went to print, it was brought to our attention that a center dedicated to studying African American poetry was already established before the launch of CAAPP. The Furious Flower Poetry Center, housed at James Madison University and founded by Joanne Gabbin, has been cultivating and promoting African American poetry since 1994. We regret the error.

 

Hayes and Martin hope that the center will also help make the university’s MFA program a more welcoming space for writers of color, an important effort in light of increased discussion about race and diversity in MFA programs. For Martin, this means creating and maintaining a space of cultural inclusion. “Pittsburgh is a place where there are other students of color, and the graduate faculty is extremely diverse. There’s already some understanding between folks who are there, so you can start from a place of not having to work through your values and struggle to articulate your cultural perspective.”

The CAAPP directors plan to offer courses that intersect with visual art and music, in order to explore how thinking across disciplines can parallel thinking across cultures and perspectives. “Certainly, we feel like if anyone is prepared to build those new conversations, it would be African American poets and poets of color in general,” says Hayes, adding that CAAPP aims to include non-black people of color and other marginalized communities in the conversation. “We talk about collage and hybridity—that’s what people of color are. [We’re] not thinking about segregation, not thinking about fences around what we do, but looking across those bridges, saying, ‘Well, how are these people across the street interested in what I’m doing?’ even if they’re not poets. They might be architects, they might be scientists.”

Moving forward, the center will hold a community workshop, reading, and exhibition from November 9 to November 11 on poetry and politics titled “Black Poets Speak Out,” featuring Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, and Amanda Johnston. The directors also hope to host a reading by emerging women and trans poets. Martin and Hayes are optimistic about the social impact of the center’s work. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Martin, “especially given the state of violence in this country—violence against queer people, violence against black people, violence against women—it makes sense to take up things like African American literature, African American culture, African American history, African American poetry and art as a part of making the world better.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

Q&A: Thomas’s App for Young Readers

by

Jennifer Baker

6.14.17

In the summer of 2014, eighteen-year-old Kaya Thomas launched We Read Too, an app that offers a comprehensive database of multicultural books for young readers. Thomas had been frustrated with the difficulty of finding books by and about people of color in libraries and bookstores, so she designed and wrote the code for the app (she recently graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in computer science), which now has information on hundreds of books and more than fifteen thousand users. “I knew that if my app had even helped one person feel represented and showed them that their stories are being told too,” wrote Thomas in a piece at Medium about starting the app, “I had done my job.” Word spread further about We Read Too in March after Thomas launched an Indiegogo campaign to expand the app and raised $15,000. In the next several months, Thomas plans to launch a website for We Read Too and expand its catalog to more than a thousand books. As work on the app progresses, Thomas spoke about her larger mission and hopes for We Read Too. 

How has the We Read Too app evolved over the years?
When I first released We Read Too, it had a directory that included 300 children’s and young adult titles. Each title had a detail page where you could view the book cover, title, author, and description. There was also a suggestion feature where users could send me titles they thought should be included. Since then the directory has expanded to more than 630 titles, and you can search by author or title. You can now share any of the books via text message, e-mail, or social media, and you can view the book on Safari to purchase it. There’s also a discovery feature now that allows you to see one random book at a time so you don’t have to search through the entire directory.

Was it a purposeful decision to include both self-published and traditionally published books in this list? 
I wanted to include self-published works because it can be hard for those authors to get readers to discover their work. A lot of authors who are self-published have reached out to me in hopes that We Read Too can be a place for them to get more reader discovery for their work. I know that for authors of color it can be hard to get into the publishing world, so I want to support those who haven’t gone through the traditional routes. I want all authors of color to have their work highlighted in We Read Too, regardless of how they got their work out there.

Do you have plans to include adult fiction in the app?
I eventually do want to include adult fiction in the app, but it would be a larger undertaking because there are so many different genres within that category. I want to make sure I have a significant number of titles in each genre before I add them to the app. 

We Read Too is free. Do you think you will ever charge for it so you can continue updates and expansion? 
We Read Too will always be free for individual users. I never want to charge users to access the directory of titles because that would be counterintuitive toward the mission. I want titles written by people of color to be easier to discover and all in one place, not blocked by a paywall. I want users to discover titles they can share with the young people in their lives and community. I want users to know that these titles exist and, more specifically, for users who are people of color, I want them to see that there are authors who share their background and are creating work that reflects their culture in some way.    

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, the creator and host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, the panel organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and the social medial director and a writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018).

Kaya Thomas

(Credit: Faith Rotich)

Q&A: Nicole Sealey Leads Cave Canem

by

Tayari Jones

4.12.17

Cave Canem was established by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in 1996 to nurture black poets both on the page and in the publishing marketplace. The Brooklyn, New York–based organization’s many programs include writing workshops, master classes, a reading series, publication prizes, and an annual retreat, which brings together more than fifty poets, or “fellows,” each year. In January Nicole Sealey, previously Cave Canem’s programs director, became the organization’s new executive director. A veteran arts administrator (including a previous role as the assistant director of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program), Sealey is also a poet; her first full-length collection, Ordinary Beast, will be published by Ecco in September. A couple of months into her new position, Sealey spoke about the future of Cave Canem.

Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to Cave Canem?
Almost ten years ago I participated in Cave Canem’s eight-week fall workshop in New York City, facilitated by Marilyn Nelson. I was a very young writer and it ended up being a formative experience in my life. We got serious about craft and made lifelong connections in the process. I’ve met many of my closest friends through Cave Canem, the closest of all being my husband, John Murillo. The very least I can do for an organization that has served me well for the last decade is to return the gesture. 

How does being a writer influence the way you will lead the organization?
Cave Canem has always had a “poets first” philosophy, which has served the organization well for the last twenty-plus years. Remember, the organization was founded by rock-star poets and directed for the past decade by Alison Meyers, also a poet. In that tradition, I plan to lead with both head and heart, which are the qualities I value most in poetry. 

What’s ahead for Cave Canem and for you as the new executive director?
In May we’ll be capping off our twentieth-anniversary year with Cave Canem 20/20: A Panoramic Vision of Black Poetry, a two-and-a-half day poetry forum at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. The forum will offer readings, skill-building panels, artist conversations, and more. I’m also looking forward to my first retreat as executive director. The retreat takes place in June at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It’s our flagship program, and where, as Harryette Mullen says, “black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness.”

So much has changed since Cave Canem faculty member Elizabeth Alexander recited “Praise Song for the Day,” the inaugural poem for Barack Obama in 2009. What do you see as the role of Cave Canem, and poetry more broadly, in the new political climate?
“So much has changed” is a very gracious way to describe the political climate in which we now find ourselves. In “Praise Song for the Day,” the speaker asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” I have no doubt that it is love, but the new administration would have me believe that the mightiest word is fear or, worse yet, the president’s name. It is neither. It is love. And what is love if not a society based on justice and equality? With this in mind, the role of Cave Canem in particular, and poetry in general, is and will be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With love. Bigly. 

Are there any outreach programs on tap to connect poetry with readers?
Cave Canem’s Poets Tour, a nonprofit speakers bureau, connects national audiences with Cave Canem fellows through readings and workshops. This year we hope to increase the number of participating fellows and reach out to presenting institutions, including high schools, universities, museums, libraries, and prisons. We want to bring black poets to diverse communities.  

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.         

Nicole Sealey

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

A New Center for Black Poetics

by

Tara Jayakar

8.17.16

From late nineteenth-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes to contemporary poetry stars Rita Dove and Toi Derricotte, the influence of African American poets on America’s literary culture cannot be overstated. But until recently there was no center that had significant institutional support and was specifically dedicated to sharing and studying the legacy of African American poetry.* Earlier this year, poets Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey decided it was high time to start one. The trio launched the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) as a creative think tank to spark conversation and collaboration among poets and other artists, and to promote and archive the work of African American poets for future generations.

“We recognized that there was this huge impact that African American and African diasporic poets were making on American arts and letters,” says Martin, who codirects the center alongside Hayes. “We wanted there to be a place where we could really think and work through what that means.” Housed at the University of Pittsburgh, where both Martin and Hayes teach in the MFA writing program, the center held its first event in March—a set of conversations and readings about race, poetry, and the humanities—and will host similar events throughout the academic year. Its first course on African American poetry and poetics, led by Lauren Russell, the assistant director of CAAPP and an English professor, will be offered to undergraduate and graduate students during the 2017–2018 academic year and will feature visiting speakers each week. Hayes and Martin also plan to launch a residency and fellowship program, through which poets, artists, and scholars can work at the center for periods between a month and a year.

Part of CAAPP’s core mission is to archive and document the work of African American poets, which will be accomplished through both a physical collection of books and an online archive of lectures, readings, and discussions. While organizations like Cave Canem create space to nurture new work by African American poets, and other university centers such as Medgar Evers College’s Center for Black Literature and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center work to promote black literature, CAAPP will focus specifically on the research and scholarship of black poetics, particularly as it relates to historical, artistic, and cultural repression, as well as corresponding social justice movements. “Cave Canem is twenty years old, and there still hasn’t been a large body of work about how it came into being or archival work around it,” says Hayes. “Our organizations historically haven’t had an opportunity to take care of our own information, to build our own insights around that work…. Now we are in a position to be our own historians and our own archivists, and write our own biographies about the importance of these roots.”

The University of Pittsburgh has long been a home for the work of African American poets. The university press, with editor Ed Ochester at the helm, has published notable titles by both emerging and established African American poets, recently Derricotte, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis, Nate Marshall, and Afaa Michael Weaver. Hayes and Martin hope to work with the press on a book prize, and harness other university resources. “What a university can do is provide infrastructure, in a way that’s just not set up in most sectors of our society,” says Hayes. “Infrastructure and research capabilities.” The pair have enlisted faculty from other departments, including English and Africana Studies, to advise CAAPP and possibly teach future courses. “We think of ourselves as a start-up,” says Martin. “And like innovators in tech, we want to be open and inclusive as we generate new ideas about what it means to work in the fields of African American poetry and poetics. This seems especially important in these trying and divisive times.”

A significant part of CAAPP’s work will also intersect with the university’s MFA program. Graduate writing students will be able to take courses offered by the center and have the opportunity to help curate, design, and teach these courses. This goes hand in hand with how Hayes sees the MFA as an opportunity to teach students the tools and skills needed to hold positions of power in poetry and arts organizations. “A person who is interested in getting an MFA and being a poet can learn how to live in the world, whether they are directing centers or working as librarians, archivists, or critics,” says Hayes. “Just to alert and inspire a poet to do that is a possibility. Maybe you want to run a press or be an editor of a press. I don’t see why the MFA can’t be an opportunity to begin that conversation, as opposed to assuming that all you can do is write or teach.”

*Editor’s Note: After this article went to print, it was brought to our attention that a center dedicated to studying African American poetry was already established before the launch of CAAPP. The Furious Flower Poetry Center, housed at James Madison University and founded by Joanne Gabbin, has been cultivating and promoting African American poetry since 1994. We regret the error.

 

Hayes and Martin hope that the center will also help make the university’s MFA program a more welcoming space for writers of color, an important effort in light of increased discussion about race and diversity in MFA programs. For Martin, this means creating and maintaining a space of cultural inclusion. “Pittsburgh is a place where there are other students of color, and the graduate faculty is extremely diverse. There’s already some understanding between folks who are there, so you can start from a place of not having to work through your values and struggle to articulate your cultural perspective.”

The CAAPP directors plan to offer courses that intersect with visual art and music, in order to explore how thinking across disciplines can parallel thinking across cultures and perspectives. “Certainly, we feel like if anyone is prepared to build those new conversations, it would be African American poets and poets of color in general,” says Hayes, adding that CAAPP aims to include non-black people of color and other marginalized communities in the conversation. “We talk about collage and hybridity—that’s what people of color are. [We’re] not thinking about segregation, not thinking about fences around what we do, but looking across those bridges, saying, ‘Well, how are these people across the street interested in what I’m doing?’ even if they’re not poets. They might be architects, they might be scientists.”

Moving forward, the center will hold a community workshop, reading, and exhibition from November 9 to November 11 on poetry and politics titled “Black Poets Speak Out,” featuring Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, and Amanda Johnston. The directors also hope to host a reading by emerging women and trans poets. Martin and Hayes are optimistic about the social impact of the center’s work. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Martin, “especially given the state of violence in this country—violence against queer people, violence against black people, violence against women—it makes sense to take up things like African American literature, African American culture, African American history, African American poetry and art as a part of making the world better.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

Activating Public Space With Books

by

Morgan Jerkins

4.13.16

The Uni Project, a New York City–based organization that has created hundreds of pop-up reading rooms throughout the city to encourage reading and inspire learning, particularly in underserved communities, is marking its fifth anniversary this year by doing the kind of work that has made its first five years so successful. “It has always been about activating public space with meaningful ways for people to gather,” says Sam Davol, who, with spouse Leslie Davol, started the project in 2011.

The idea for the Uni Project began to take shape two years earlier, in 2009, when the couple became frustrated that Boston’s Chinatown, the neighborhood where they lived with their two kids, had no library. In response, they created the Storefront Library, a temporary community library in a borrowed storefront. Emboldened by their work, the Davols, who moved from Boston to New York in 2011, began to research how to create library experiences in city parks and plazas.

Inspired by a library branch in Stockholm’s metro station and the New York Public Library’s Bryant Park Reading Room, they commissioned architects to help them design a “reading kit”—a transportable reading cart complete with stackable shelves and chairs, which would serve as the basis for pop-up libraries. “The mission was less about access to books and information than about creating a great experience for urban people, something that could let people express a value of learning and education, right at street level,” says Sam Davol.

The Uni Project debuted its first reading room in New York City’s South Street Seaport on September 11, 2011, and has since installed nearly three hundred pop-up libraries in over fifty neighborhoods. Most of the reading rooms are assembled outdoors for a few hours at a time, their shelves stocked with books donated from libraries, publishers, and individuals. The Davols estimate they’ve reached more than twelve thousand New Yorkers through the program, with reading rooms stretching across the city’s five boroughs—from Clinton Hill in Brooklyn to Ozone Park in Queens to Morrisania in the Bronx. And the project isn’t just confined to New York: The Davols have sent their reading kits to the Seattle Public Library and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston, as well as to international sites, such as the U.S. Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the Médiathèque Départementale du Haut-Rhin Library in Colmar, France.

As part of the project’s mission, the Davols try to create pop-up reading rooms in neighborhoods where books and libraries are scarce. “We’ve discovered that our reading rooms significantly increase feelings of community safety in some neighborhoods, which is especially important for women and families who want to be out and about,” says Sam Davol. “Reading together creates a way for people of all walks of life to linger in a public space, activating it, enlivening it.”

Not only does the Uni Project provide books to communities that need them most, but the Davols also try to curate collections that reflect the demographics of the neighborhood. “We have lots of books in Spanish, and some in Chinese,” says Leslie Davol. “We have a few books in Hebrew, Arabic, and French…. In Ozone Park, the Queens Library came through with a loan of books in Bengali. Some of our collection has been donated by institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Chinese in America, the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and the New York Hall of Science.”

The reading rooms offer more than just books—their open-air locations on bustling city streets spark conversations and encourage a more interactive environment. They are staffed by approximately twenty active volunteers, who help people find books and lead other educational activities, such as writing flash fiction, drawing, and even learning how to use a microscope. The volunteers reflect the diversity of the city: Some have come from Ecuador, Thailand, or China, while others have been middle-schoolers who just love books and want to get to know the city.

The project shows no signs of slowing down: More than a hundred reading rooms are scheduled to pop up in New York City this year. The project continues to expand its partnerships with the city’s libraries and parks, and the Davols are looking for new ways to reach more neighborhoods and grow their book collections. “A city,” Sam Davol says, “can never have too many books.”

Morgan Jerkins is a writer and the web editorial assistant at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, and Fusion, among many others.

 

Little Libraries, Big Impact

by

Emma Hine

12.16.20

Early in March a box was erected outside the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans (AAMA) in Houston. Orange and with a slightly pitched roof, the box stands on a short post and bears illustrations by John Parra from the children’s book Little Libraries, Big Heroes (Clarion Books, 2019). It is large enough to hold at least twenty books for neighborhood residents to borrow and read.

This box is a Little Free Library, the work of the eponymous Wisconsin-based nonprofit that seeks to increase both access to and love for reading within communities. When the organization’s founder, Todd Bol, first placed a schoolhouse-shaped box in his yard in 2009 as a memorial to his mother, he wanted to foster book exchanges among his neighbors. In 2012, Bol founded the related nonprofit, and when he died in 2018 there were more than seventy-five thousand Little Free Libraries in eighty-eight countries. In Bol’s New York Times obituary, his brother Tony spoke of the program’s success: “What was powerful about it was that all you needed was the idea…. You just build it, or order it, then put it up in your yard, like a public art monument.”

The box outside the AAMA isn’t just any Little Free Library—it’s the one hundred thousandth Little Free Library in the world, and it was made possible through the Impact Library Program, an initiative launched in 2016 that has so far provided more than one thousand no-cost boxes to applicants in communities where books are scarce. Recipients commit to setting up the library and maintaining it for at least a year, taking a picture and sharing its story, and holding a book-related neighborhood activity. Applications are also frequently part of larger initiatives to build connection around books; Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, for instance, hopes to eventually erect numerous libraries along “walkable loops throughout the community for families to enjoy [for] walking and bicycle riding.”

Along with fostering community and a love of reading, the Impact Library Program seeks to improve literacy nationwide. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, forty-two million adults in the United States cannot read in English at a third-grade level—and a lack of access to books contributes to this crisis. This lack is often particularly pronounced in Native communities, and a special branch of the Impact Library Program, the Native Library Initiative, has so far placed sixty-nine book-sharing boxes on tribal lands. The poet Heid E. Erdrich says in a short video about the initiative, “Little Free Libraries are not just going to be in suburban yards and on street corners anymore; there are Little Free Libraries popping up on reservations and in Native communities across the United States.” An Impact Library Program application from Jamie P. in South Dakota, who received a box in 2018, described the need for a local book exchange: Their reservation the size of Connecticut had only one library, few families owned vehicles, the schools were overburdened, and not many people had internet access.

The Impact Library Program’s mission to expand access to books near children’s homes has only grown more important since the donation of AAMA’s orange box in March. In May the Associated Press noted an increase in Little Free Libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic, both in their original capacity as book-sharing locations and as “little free pantries” offering canned food donations, jigsaw puzzles, handmade masks, and more. Between March and September 2020 the Impact Library Program saw 40 percent more applications than during the same period in 2019, and according to Shelby King, the director of programs at Little Free Library, these applications frequently cite pandemic-related school and library closures as reasons a book-sharing box would make a difference. 

Candice Arancibia, a third-grade teacher and literacy coach who received a box for her home near the Mexico-California border through the Impact Library Program in September, applied after noticing that during distance learning her students have limited access to books—and those they do have “often aren’t those of the BIPOC experience.” She hopes her new box will make it easy for children from local schools to come by and find books that resonate with them. 

King says the importance of sharing diverse books has been a common refrain in recent applications. In response, Little Free Library has launched the Read in Color initiative, through which library stewards and others can pledge to share books that incorporate experiences and perspectives from people of many different identities. Distributing both diverse and anti-racist books is particularly important, Arancibia says, because “it’s not until we begin to share our stories that we can actually begin to be seen, and we start to understand people and build empathy.”

 

Emma Hine is the author of Stay Safe, which received the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and will be published in January 2021 by Sarabande Books.

Young readers at Jenks East Elementary in Jenks, Oklahoma, have access to books through the seventy-five thousandth Little Free Library, built through the Impact Library Program.  (Credit: Jenks East Elementary)

Q&A: Akbar Edits Poetry of the Nation

by

Devon Walker-Figueroa

12.16.20

In September the Nation, a bastion of progressive journalism since 1865, welcomed Kaveh Akbar as its newest poetry editor, succeeding Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith. To say Akbar lives poetry is an understatement: The author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017), a collection that explores addiction and recovery, and the forthcoming Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021), he serves as a poetry professor in the MFA programs at Purdue University, Randolph College, and Warren Wilson College; pens the column PoetryRx for the Paris Review Daily; and is editing The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 100 Poets on the Divine (Penguin, 2022). Akbar spoke about the intersection of his writing and editing life and about his new role at the Nation.

What calls you to the art of literary editing?
I love reading poems, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who takes up the inherently doomed task of trying to set any of this—I’m gesturing right now toward this whole world and the ones beyond it—into language.

As the Nation’s new poetry editor, what role do you think poetry can play in effecting social and political change?
The Nation is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the country. It was founded by abolitionists in 1865, and the first poem I published in my tenure was called “After Abolition” by the poet Kyle Carrero Lopez. I literally gasped when I first read it. The poem imagines the world after prison and carceral abolition, and I cannot put into language the profound honor of getting to publish it, of getting to be a tiny bit of wind at that poem’s back, the work it does to imagine better realities into being. I’ve solicited and accepted work from incarcerated poets, international poets in translation, disabled poets. I reject the notion that the poetry in a serious weekly need be ornamental, subordinate to the magazine’s “true” content. Lopez’s poem dignifies and distinguishes the work around it, not the other way around. Dunya Mikhail writes that “poetry is not medicine—it’s an X ray.” I can’t improve upon that.

What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities you think a literary editor faces in this moment? 
One of my favorite things to do when I’m in New York City is to just hole up with a pal somewhere and watch movies, sit around, and do nothing. The opportunity cost is so high in a city where you can do pretty much anything you want at any moment that choosing to pass it all up to stay in watching Netflix with a beloved feels especially intimate. Maybe poetry is like that now, when the opportunity cost of reading a poem—when you could be watching Hulu, learning a new language on Duolingo, Zooming your mother—has become so great that the relative intimacy of the experience of reading poetry has risen in measure.

Graywolf will release your second and much-anticipated poetry collection, Pilgrim Bell, in August. What was the editing process like for that collection as opposed to Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Calling a Wolf a Wolf felt like I was strapped to the masthead of my disease, my recovery, just jutting through the stormwater and straining to get down what poetry I could on scraps of torn sail, bits of driftwood—I’m also straining this metaphor. With Pilgrim Bell I have matured as a poet, and also maybe—probably more important—I’ve been able to look a bit past my own all-encompassing psycho-spiritual pathologies. The partition between me and an early preventable death is a couple fractions of a millimeter thicker now seven years sober than it was when I wrote my first book, and while I can still clearly and constantly hear the voices calling from the other side of that membrane, the voices on this side seem louder now, more urgent. I hope that makes sense. I hope that urgency is reflected in the poems.

You play so many different roles in the literary community. How do you balance the demands that attend these various roles? Or, put differently, how do these pursuits interact with and support each other? 
Poetry very literally, unhyperbolically saved my life. It was a place to put myself when just about everywhere else I knew to go was actively killing me. I think it’s an honor to get to spend my life in service to the thing I love best, paying back a bit of that gratitude debt. I’m grateful to be trusted with any of it.

 

Devon Walker-Figueroa is the author of Philomath (Milkweed Editions, 2021), which was a National Poetry Series winner. She teaches at Saint Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York. 

Kaveh Akbar (Credit: Noah Baldino)

Q&A: Kuipers Leads Poetry Northwest

by

Sarah Neilson

6.10.20

In January the oldest literary magazine in the Pacific Northwest welcomed a new editor to the helm. Former senior editor Keetje Kuipers succeeds Aaron Barrell and Erin Malone as editor in chief of Poetry Northwest, which was established in 1959 and is based in Everett, Washington. Kuipers, who previously worked at Southern Humanities Review, has published three books of poems with BOA Editions, most recently All Its Charms (2019). In her three years as senior editor at Poetry Northwest, Kuipers has already brought compelling and sometimes playful innovation to the journal, including a series of essays on failure, the Native Poets Torchlight Series, and the Line Cook feature, which pairs a recipe with a literary podcast that lasts as long as it takes to make the dish. Kuipers discussed her ideas for the journal and the creative ethos she brings to her editorial stewardship.

What plans do you have for the magazine?
In January I went to Under the Volcano, a writing retreat and conference in Tepoztlán, Mexico. It’s a really special gathering of writers because it’s bilingual. One of the things that’s most important to them is that neither language is privileged, which made me think a lot about translation. I came back knowing that I wanted to begin to publish non-English work in Poetry Northwest, and without an English translation. There was a young poet at Under the Volcano who writes in Tzotzil, an Indigenous language in the Chiapas region of Mexico. We’re going to publish her work in Spanish and Tzotzil, without an English translation. I see that as the first step toward doing more publishing of that kind. Poetry Northwest is an English-language magazine, but I don’t think that every poem we publish has to privilege English or even give English a place in its publication. I’m interested in seeking out more work in translation where English is not one of the languages into which it’s being translated. 

We’re also going to be partnering with Circumference, which was a magazine for a long time and then became a book publisher. We will be spotlighting work from [some of their] forthcoming books of translation. They’re translating new, fresh voices from all over the world. So we want to spotlight their work as well.

One of the things I feel is missing from poetry right now is more joy. A lot of times it’s hardest to write poems that are joyful and celebratory, and that dwell in a moment of gratitude, and specifically gratitude that isn’t bittersweet. So we’re going to introduce a poem of joy on the inside back cover of every issue. I want to give that as a little gift to our readers. We’re also going to start a humorous, tongue-in-cheek poetic advice column: how to pack for AWP, what to wear when you’re giving a reading—sort of the silly parts of being a poet. And then the last thing I’m cooking up is a prize at the magazine. I’m looking forward to having it debut next year.

How does your new role as editor in chief allow you to innovate at the magazine?
As senior editor I had a ton of freedom to bring new ideas to the table, and I got lots of support for those ideas. I think the difference is that now, instead of injecting those ideas into the conversation, I get to really steer the conversation. 

Every editor has a place where they want to put the pressure. I want to take the conversation I’m facilitating to a riskier place. My new editor role allows me to take more chances. I want features that feel more like questions to which we’re trying to figure out the answers together. I also want to publish more poems that I’m not sure about. I’m interested in accepting poems that I struggle with, that I don’t understand, that I might even fundamentally disagree with in terms of either their craft or simply the argument that they’re making about the state of the world. But I’m excited that, as editor, I am going to have the freedom to take those chances and to hopefully make myself uncomfortable and make readers a little uncomfortable.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about the magazine and its future?
One of the first things I asked myself when I joined the team was, What does it mean to have the word Northwest in our title? What does it mean to have that regional label right there up front as the first thing that a reader, or a poet who might submit, sees? The Northwest is an area of incredible migration. The West is this incredibly dynamic, shifting place. Being a magazine rooted in the Northwest means we are married to this land, but it also means being of many lands, many languages, and having to be open to change. Our landscape is shaped by fierce forces of weather, from wildfire to torrential rains. Our culture in the Northwest is also shaped every day by dramatic shifts. I want the magazine to reflect that, to reflect change and migration. 

 

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work appears in Literary Hub, the Believer, and Bookforum, among other outlets. Her website is sarahneilsonwriter.com.

Keetje Kuipers (Credit: Fiona Yates)

Q&A: Kevin Craft’s Northwest Territory

by

Catherine Richardson

10.31.11

Established in 1959 by Nelson Bentley, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, and Erol Pritchard, Poetry Northwest is a brilliant example of a literary magazine’s capacity to endure despite—or perhaps because of—its regional focus. Before the Internet enhanced connections within the national writing community, the Seattle-based magazine was one of the few nationally distributed venues for voices from the fairly isolated northwestern United States. Though the road to the magazine’s present incarnation hasn’t been altogether smooth—Poetry Northwest was on hiatus from 2002 to 2004, was revived in Portland, Oregon, and is now back in the Seattle area, housed at Everett Community College—it is still going strong. While working on his fourth issue as editor, Kevin Craft, who succeeded David Biespiel in January 2010, discussed the importance of community, as well as a measured approach to editing, to the magazine’s success.

Poetry Northwest moved from Portland back to Seattle when you became editor. What did that mean for the magazine?
The magazine was part of the University of Washington from 1963 until 2002 and was losing money, as most journals do, so it went under. David Biespiel, who lived in Portland, adopted it and ran it there from 2004 to 2009. I like to think of those years as our years in the wilderness, wandering. You have to go through that period in order to find your true self, but our coming back to Seattle in late 2009 was greeted with cheers by the community.

So returning was like beginning again. Do you have advice for a lit mag start-up?
My advice is to surround yourself with good people, good readers. Also, know what you’re looking for. You get a lot of good poems, but you have to have a shaping instinct. I’m not thinking of the magazine as a random collection of poems. I want them to have a loose thematic coherence, so the magazine becomes a pleasure to read, like a book.

Despite a brief hiatus, Poetry Northwest has been around for a long time. What’s the key to its longevity?
Partly it’s the distinct personality of this part of the world and the poets here who have been involved in the magazine. It’s a voice for the community, a forum for dialogue between this region and other parts of the world. We’re all so socially networked now that Seattle and Minneapolis and New York City seem part of the same circuit, but when you’re out here you do feel a long way from the East Coast. Being a flagship magazine calling attention to what’s going on out here has always been an important part of the magazine’s success.

How is the magazine taking advantage of the connectedness of today?
We’ve been doing more online features, but our website is not as busy or frenetic as some—digital burnout is something that I hope to avoid. I don’t want to overpower people with our online offerings. I want them to be something that people look forward to receiving.

Do you have any advice for people looking to submit to Poetry Northwest, or any journal for that matter?
The classic answer is, “Make sure you read the magazine first.” The other bit I always say is, “There is no rush to publication. Choose carefully where you want your poems to appear and wait until they are ready.” In the younger generation especially there’s the feeling that you’ve got to get out there, and frequently. That’s a burnout model. Good poetry takes time to accrete in the imagination as well as on the page. So my main advice is don’t rush it. There’s no place to get to. Even if you win the Pulitzer Prize, the next day you’ve still got to wake up and try to write the next poem.             

Catherine Richardson is a writer, reviewer, and the managing editor of Washington Square. 

Q&A: O’Rourke to Edit the Yale Review

by

Dana Isokawa

4.10.19

In July poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke will take over as the editor of the Yale Review, Yale University’s quarterly of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. O’Rourke, who has been an editor at the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Slate, succeeds acting editor Harold Augenbraum, who stepped in when the publication’s editor since 1991, the late poet J. D. McClatchy, retired in June 2017. A few months before her official start date, O’Rourke discussed her plans for the review and her approach to editing. In addition to numerous pieces of criticism, O’Rourke has published three poetry collections, most recently Sun in Days (Norton, 2017), and one memoir, The Long Goodbye (Riverhead Books, 2011).

When will your first issue come out?
October. It coincides with the two-hundredth anniversary of the review, which is a wonderful occasion for me to start as editor. It’s fun to begin with a beginning and celebrate a very long period of time at the same time.

Does a two-hundred-year legacy feel overwhelming?
It’s so overwhelming that it’s freeing. Seventy-five years might be more overwhelming, but two hundred years is so capacious and broad, it reminds you that a magazine is a made thing that reflects the passions and currents and ideas of its time and is shaped by the people who work there. There’s a kind of permission in that two hundred years. So the expectation I bring is not so much to maintain a particular identity but to make the journal be to its time what it has been to its time at some of its highest moments. Also, although the magazine is not oriented toward Yale, it is incubated at Yale; I want the magazine to be to its world what Yale is to its world, which is a place of rigorous, creative inquiry that holds itself to the highest standards.

What do you think is a journal’s ideal relationship to its time?
The answer is different for different journals. But the Yale Review is uniquely situated to be a space for the best creative and literary writing to be side by side with passionate, personal, and political criticism—the review has always had a robust back-of-the-book, where the critics’ section is housed. The relationship between the creative enterprise and the critical enterprise is exciting because they are two almost antithetical modes of inquiry. Poems and stories can offset the tendency of the polemicizing, op-ed culture we have around us—not that we’re going to be running op-eds. But there’s something wonderful about modes that coexist in the same journal as oil and water to each other; there’s something exciting about that tension between those modalities because it can add up to a larger world of exploration.

When you’re putting together an issue, will you take that literally? Will you, for example, publish a poem that addresses a topic and a review of a book about that same topic? Or how might the creative and the critical speak to one another in the review?
Less literal than that. We will have theme issues where we use a word—almost the way a poet might—to riff editorially in our thinking. For example, I’m thinking about an issue focused on documents and documentation. Right now, because of the news, we’re all thinking about what it means to be undocumented in America in a specific way. It’s led me to think about literature as document: What does literature document? What goes undocumented? What does it mean to try to document not only what we know about ourselves and our time, but what we can’t know about ourselves and our time? And how does a journal situate itself in that space? It’s also this moment where both fiction and poetry have this fascination with the claims of nonfiction—I’m thinking of Knausgård, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and the current of autofiction. Novelists are saying, “I’ve gotten tired of making things up.” We also have poets who are using found documents and exploring docupoetics, so it seems like a moment to think through the relationship between imaginative literature and literal documents.  

The great challenge of editing a literary journal—or a political and literary journal, which I hope the Yale Review will be—is to figure out how to publish an assortment of really good pieces that add up to something more than a slightly incidental aesthetic. That point to aspects of our cultural experience that we know but maybe haven’t named or aspects of the discourse that are hypocritical or unrigorously explored.

Having many different modes of considering that same question will hopefully lead to a richer understanding, yes?
Yes, and complicate an understanding we might have. As the culture editor at Slate in the early 2000s, where I essentially ran half a magazine and helped build that section and what it meant to be writing cultural criticism on the web, that was still a new question—what are the cultural phenomena we think we understand but don’t look at very closely or have only looked at a little? That’s also what interests me as a writer and led me to write about grief in The Long Goodbye. Grieving had radically changed in American culture, and while we had this idea of grieving, no one had fully unpacked it. Scholars had, but it hadn’t been fully looked at in cultural criticism. And suddenly there was a wave of us all saying, “Hey, this is really strange. Let’s look at how we grieve.” So I’m interested in the journal being a space where that looking a second time can happen. 

What other topics besides documentation do you want to cover in the journal?
I’m starting to figure that out. Another thing on my mind is the word antisocial—what does that even mean? We live in a moment where we are bombarded by the social. And there’s been a lot of discussion about Facebook’s role in the last election. So is antisocial an interesting word from which to begin thinking about modes of literature? And in my own work I’ve been writing about chronic illness, so I’m interested in intersections between the medical world and the world of literature, as well as medicine as a culture in itself. I expect that interest will find its way into the review somehow and not just because I’m interested in it—all these people are writing books about the experience of having a poorly understood illness, as well as the social context of medicine and what it means to be a woman and/or person of color searching for answers in a system that comes with a lot of unconscious bias. That narrative is emerging in the culture. 

One of the great pleasures of editing a journal like the Yale Review, which comes out four times a year, is that there’s not a pressure to be timely like at Slate where I was publishing daily. I have this wonderful opportunity to take the long view as an editor. But it’s important, as I was saying before, that we’re not merely collecting good pieces that come together in an incidental way, but finding a way to curate them so that there’s some sense of the urgency of the moment, but not in a way that feels merely timely. Hopefully it could also feel timeless. How do we collect the artifacts of our moment and also assign and encourage and facilitate the writing of pieces that will speak to us deeply about what’s happening right now in the world we live in? Sometimes pieces of poetry or fiction do that by not seeming to speak at all to the world we live in—so we’re not going to publish poems that have an expiration date of 2019 or 2020. I hope we’ll publish lasting poems and lasting fiction that somehow reflect something about us in our moment.

Are you planning other changes to the format or coverage of the print review?
I’m planning to revamp the back of the book. Right now it’s a wonderful group of reviews of poetry, music, books, and film, but I want to shake it up a little and publish an idea in review, where we’ll talk about something like the antisocial or culpability—there was a lot of discussion about culpability last fall around Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing: How do we think about culpability? Who is culpable and when? So maybe we’ll have a few different people write about this theme, and let those pieces not respond, but resonate with one another. And I want these pieces to touch down in actual lived cultural and political experiences. So there will be real texts under review, but it might be a text like the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings alongside a novel, alongside Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, alongside Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. It is important that we put together the pieces of our experience that are often left separate.

What tone do you want the journal to strike?
I think of the journal as a house I’m building into which I’m inviting a very dynamic, creative, playful, whimsical, argumentative group of people who are all going to be having a conversation. And the journal has the tone of that party. A tone of voluble and passionate conversation.

What are you planning to do on the digital side of the review?
We are planning to launch a new website by early 2020, which will publish original content alongside work from the journal. More broadly we are rethinking how the Yale Review can use different platforms for the delivery of ideas, criticism, and dialogue. To that end we will be developing new columns and podcasts for the website, albeit in a highly curated way, since we’re a small staff. To me the digital review will be as important as the print journal, and it offers a fresh and exciting set of possibilities, precisely because it is a medium different from print. But it serves the same mission: A twentieth-century journal, if you think about it, was just a technology for the delivery and dissemination of passionate, excellent criticism and literature. The question is, What does the web allow us to do better and differently?

What writers or trends in writing are you excited about?
Now is a true moment of fertility in American literature, partly because the nature of gatekeeping has changed. That change allows for a much greater diversity of voices that desperately needs to be there and also brings a great diversity of style and stance and position from which to make formal aesthetic exploration. Sometimes the media can talk a little too reductively about diversity; one of the things that gets overlooked is that diversity of people brings diversity of aesthetics and diversity of approaches. What more could one want? Right now is a wonderful moment to be an editor.      

Do you think the editors of a journal should be backstage, or should they be out in front? How open and transparent do you want to be as an editor to your readers?
Because the Yale Review and its readers form a kind of imagined community, especially as we move ever more online, I’d like our readers to know the people behind this enterprise—to get to know our staff, who, I hope, will be doing interviews and editing and writing too. I will sometimes write an editor’s letter to frame issues and share our goals and the questions raised for us, say, in assembling a special issue. In terms of transparency, which I take to refer to questions of how we select what we select, or why we publish what we publish, I’d just say that, of course, there are certain issues where transparency is especially called for. In general, finding ways of representing different points of view is really important to me—far too many literary journals and general interest magazines still have lopsided representation, to put it mildly—and that includes being clear about our mission of engaged dialogue and our hope of discovering valuable new voices.

When you’re editing a piece—this is probably very different for a piece of criticism versus a poem or story—are there a certain set of questions you ask?
In criticism it’s important to have a certain muscularity and flexibility of thought. As a reader and writer of criticism, I want to know that even if one is writing in a passionate, argumentative way, everything has been considered. That I’m not writing or reading a piece that has been written only reflexively. I say that carefully because we live in a moment where we all feel a fair amount of outrage. We all see a certain amount of passionate engagement from all directions about the political moment, and the Internet is a place where we can indulge in that. I’m not saying that’s not important, but if we want to bring that level of passionate outrage to written criticism, there has to be a sense of consideration too. It’s the job of the editor to be an interlocutor for the critic and make sure the critic is saying what they mean as precisely as possible. When you edit criticism, you’re trying to make the argument as clear and sound as possible. There’s always a moment of arguing with yourself as a critic, which doesn’t necessarily need to be on the page but probably needs to happen to write the piece. 

When editing fiction and poetry, it’s more about trying to help the writer make a persuasive aesthetic object from nothing. As an editor, my role is not to be an interlocutor, but a mirror. To say, “This is a moment in the poem where I feel the poet making it instead of the object that has been made. The mystery disappears and the effort shows through.” Or, “The tone slips mysteriously,” or, “This section is actually unclear.”

When I started working as an editor at the New Yorker, I would always pretend like I understood everything. It took me a long time to realize as an editor it’s okay to be—in fact, you have to be—an honest reader. You have to say, “I really don’t understand this,” or, “I’m really bored on page four, and I kind of fell asleep there for a little bit.” You have to do it with the humility of your own personhood—it could just be you—but you’re trying to reflect back to the writer as honestly as possible something about your experience. You’re also trying to think as you read it, “Is this an experience others might have while reading this text? Am I identifying something that is getting in the way of it as a persuasive aesthetic object, or is this my own predilection?” Because those are two different things. We can never fully disentangle them, but we can try.

I’m curious about your use of the word “persuasive” in “persuasive aesthetic object”—persuasive of what?
Of its own madeness. I have this sort of spiritual relationship with poems and fiction—I think about Emily Dickinson saying, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I don’t mean that a piece makes an argument that I agree with and I’ve been bullied into submission as a reader, but that it gives me that feeling. It’s that chill; it’s that sense of encountering a vision of the world that uncovers things you knew were there but never named before. I’m thinking of Taeko Kono’s Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, a fascinating book of short stories published in translation by New Directions. Many of the stories feature narrators that have deeply disturbing relationships with young children, and there’s something about the book and the way these women experience loneliness in the world that feels like it’s opening an aspect of experience that I knew was there, but I never had a name for. I don’t have the same sort of relationships that these characters do, but when I read it, I’m totally persuaded of its reality. That’s the kind of persuasion I mean. And that the poem or story has to be the way it is. Original literature is strange, and it often makes choices that another piece couldn’t make.

I love that as a description for how you feel when you read a great poem or story, but how do you feel when you read a really great piece of criticism?
There are different ways I feel. There’s the kind of criticism where you think, “Ah, I agree with every single thing here—thank you. You have named something and provided a structural framework for an intuition, a feeling, or argument I’ve been making but not as well.” Then there’s the piece that slightly changes your mind as you read it. Criticism is important because it gives us language for change, and it gives us language for reevaluation of long-held positions, which is crucial in the moment we’re living in. Especially as you get older, you have some reflexive positions, and good criticism can make you rethink something you’ve long believed, maybe without a lot of critical interrogation. Good criticism can be very uncomfortable to read. But you know it’s good if there’s a soundness to its own structure, its own architecture. And then there’s a kind of criticism that proceeds more associatively and is exciting in how it finds formal freedom in a genre that can be very conservative. There are some critics who can turn a piece of criticism almost into a work of literature. I love reading all these kinds of criticism—criticism that’s formally radical as well as criticism that’s not.

What do you find satisfying or exciting about editing?
As a writer and an editor, I’ve toggled between periods of more solitary writing and periods of more outward-oriented editing. There can be something very lonely and solipsistic and deranged about being a writer alone at your desk all day—the minute can become major, and the major can become minute. It’s like being a candle that burns itself up. So it’s satisfying to use my passion and knowledge and experience of having spent so much time with words on behalf of other people. 

A big thread in my nonfiction work is a resistance to a culture of individuality—I believe in a culture of care and community. It’s something we struggle with as Americans: how to figure out the relationship between individual ambition and the humanist mode of actually caring about one another. So I like the humanistic aspect of editing: being there for somebody and helping them because I have a knowledge base of thinking about this stuff for so long.

What kinds of editors inspire you?
Those who make a space for writers to be the best versions of themselves. I also learned a huge amount from Bill Buford, who was my boss at the New Yorker when I started. We’re very different temperamentally, but he cared so deeply about the pieces he worked on. Sometimes as an editor you’re tired, and it can be easy to read a piece and think, “This is great.” And sometimes that’s not the fidelity that the piece needs—sometimes it needs you to enter it and read it more deeply. And that can be exhausting. As a writer, my best editors have made me better but not changed me, which is a kind of magic. I aspire to that—not to impose my aesthetic, but to illuminate what’s there. Make you a better writer and thinker on the page. 

Is there anything from J. D. McClatchy’s approach or practice you hope to adopt yourself?
He was a wonderful champion to writers. I think Sandy published my first published piece, so I feel a wonderful sense of gratitude toward him. He believed in young writers and gave them a chance to write serious criticism and publish their poems and fiction. He believed passionately that the review needed to exist and continue existing, and he came on at a moment when there were some doubts about the review’s future. So every day I think about him in that sense—I don’t think it would be here without him. And I feel a similar passionate conviction already that the review should exist and continue existing for many years.

Do you think literary journals are in trouble? I’m thinking, for example, of Tin House announcing it will no longer publish a print quarterly. Is it getting harder for literary journals to sustain themselves?
I don’t know about “harder” or “in trouble,” but any literary journal in 2019 has to think deeply about what it is and what it is in relationship to the culture. The advent of the Internet as a technological change is probably similar to the printing press. We’re looking at a really massive, really fast, wide-scale change in communication. It has to affect literary journals. It would be foolish to say it didn’t. But it affects them in all kinds of ways. Publishing online is not the same thing as publishing in print; [both modes] have brought with them different kinds of conversation and communication. 

To give an example: When I starting working as an assistant at the New Yorker in 1997, if someone wanted to write a response to a piece, we chose whose words got published. We reflected back to the world what the world thought of a piece we ran. We reflected what the world thought of the New Yorker. That is not true anymore. Right now I could write a response to anything. Anyone could write anything in response to anything published. And though there’s not totally equal access because of things like search engine optimization, it is much easier for many voices to be heard. That’s a great thing, but the question then becomes: Now that so many voices can come into the conversation, how do we have that conversation in a way where we’re not all yelling at one another? We have to think about this as editors—what does it mean if we’re in a much more democratic space? What are the opportunities there? For the Yale Review, I’m thinking about how to build in a space for conversation and response. So are magazines in trouble? It’s hard in ways that it wasn’t before, and it’s important to think about what kind of editorial reckoning has to happen around this shift. It’s challenging but also exciting.

 

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Meghan O’Rourke

(Credit: Tony Gale)

Q&A: The New Editor of the Paris Review

by

Dana Isokawa

10.10.18

In April, Emily Nemens, then the coeditor of the Southern Review in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was named the new editor of the Paris Review. Nemens started the new position at the Paris Review’s New York City office in June and succeeds Lorin Stein, who resigned in December 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct toward female staffers and writers. Nemens takes over a storied publication that is much more than a print quarterly—the magazine regularly runs online content, produces videos and a podcast, hosts events, and publishes books through Paris Review Editions. A few weeks before the Fall 2018 issue, her first, came out, Nemens spoke about her plans for the Paris Review and her approach to editing.

Are there any new series or forms of coverage for the print quarterly in the works?
The guest poetry editor program is really exciting. The Winter Issue, which comes out in December, will be with Shane McCrae picking the poetry. I’m really excited to work with him. I think the magazine does so much really well, and I don’t want to close the door on that—I really just want to support it. So I think there will be incremental growth across all the sections of the magazine. I’d really like to reengage with the essay, which wasn’t always in the magazine, so making a point to reconnect with that form is a priority. I have a visual arts background, so I’d like to collaborate with the arts community to not just figure out striking covers, but to really engage with what’s going on in the art world. For fiction, I’m trying to broaden the kinds of stories that are featured and the emotional motivation and narrative arcs of the stories. There’s a lot going on in fiction now, and the magazine of course reflects my taste and my staff’s taste, but it’s exciting to broaden the kinds of stories told.

How do you want to broaden the review’s fiction? 
I think there are different kinds of motivations for stories. Reading the archive, I felt like we hit on the same notes too often in terms of what motivated characters to set out on their journeys. I want to think more about different emotional needs and motivations. There is definitely a theme of loneliness in some of the stories [in the Fall 2018 issue], which I think might be the cultural moment. I read a lot of stories about social media and isolation—to the point where I actually had two really good stories that revolved around the same thing, so one will be in [the Winter 2018 issue]—but I want to think about different inspirations and aspirations for characters in different forms. My personal taste is towards a very long and complicated short story—something in the lines of a Deborah Eisenberg or Adam Johnson story where there’s an entire world—but the Fall issue also features an eight-hundred-word story and a four-hundred-word story. So I’m really thinking about the mechanics of the form and how they can be stretched or compressed and what happens when you do that. 

What notes do you think were hit too often in the fiction archive?
There are so many good stories in the archive, and I don’t want to discount that. I do think that there were a lot of New York stories, and there were a lot of romantic attainment stories about finding a partner. That pursuit is a huge part of life, but it’s not the only part of life. There’s also family, there’s also career, there’s also travel, there’s also adventure, there’s also physical attainment in terms of mountain climbing, or whatever it is. There are a lot more things than winding up in the sack, to put it a little too crassly. So I was just reading with that in mind. 

How many stories did you read for the Fall 2018 issue? 
A few hundred, I’d say. Which is pretty normal. When I was at the Southern Review, I put eyes on every story. And it was about 1 or 2 percent acceptance, so right along those lines. 

The Southern Review and the Paris Review publish writers from all over the country and the world, but both seem like journals very tied to a region—the Southern Review to the South and the Paris Review to New York City.
The Paris Review is a real New York institution and that’s really exciting, but I don’t think it needs to be exclusively that. I think it can maintain its ties and relationships to the engine of New York but also bring more people into the fold. 

From working at both these journals, do you think the region where a journal’s office is located affects the aesthetic of the journal?
I don’t think it has to. I think it’s really in the perspective of the editors. In certain times of the Southern Review’s history, it was run by Southern scholars who every five years—more often that that—would edit special issues that were just on the state of literature in the South. And that was great and important for the magazine at the time and did a lot to establish it as a powerhouse in regional literature. But when I was there, for the five years I was editing the magazine, my focus was really more on the short story and finding the best short stories and featuring them and celebrating the form. So I wasn’t distancing myself from the legacy, but I wasn’t emphasizing it. So I think the same can happen here, where I don’t want to distance myself from the city and the literature here and everything that’s happening culturally in the city—but know that we can do something else too. And we’ll still exist in this universe. We’ll still be doing programming in the city, but I think we’ll bring the magazine to other events. I’m going to be at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Portland and doing some public programming in Philadelphia and out in California. I don’t want to turn my back in New York and all the wonderful things happening here, but I think having lived and worked in a place where there aren’t as many cultural opportunities makes me want to spread the wealth.

When you were at the Southern Review, you were coeditor with Jessica Faust, and it seemed like the two of you had a really great collaborative process from start to finish. What is it like adjusting to being more on your own?
I’m at the top of the masthead, but I’m still working with a really talented group of colleagues. The buck stops with me, and the editorial selection stops with me, but my editorial assistant, for example, shared a story that ended up in the Fall issue, and my associate editor did, as well. It’s different. It’s definitely reorienting. I love the coeditor structure just in terms of my personal approach to hierarchy—so I’m bringing some of that collaborative spirit and collegiality to the magazine, which feels really good, and I think is refreshing here. 

After Lorin Stein resigned in December, the journal’s board members released a statement saying that they had “revised [the Paris Review’s] code of conduct and anti-harassment policies.” How do you hope to build on that?
The board did a lot of good and important work before I ever got here. I was brought up to speed on all of those new policies, and there was great workplace sensitivity training and a lot of other resources brought in this spring. So I feel like a lot of the hard work was done before I arrived. But understanding really what it means to be in a safe and collaborative and collegial work environment and emphasizing that every day—that’s where I come in.

How do you think you can achieve that?
It starts and ends with respecting everyone in the office no matter what their role is or how long they’ve been here. I think it’s being sensitive and empathetic to people’s work, but also to their lives outside of work without prying. And understanding that we’re all colleagues, but we’re also people, and just having that be my baseline as a boss. I’ve been trying to systematically work my way around the office and figure out with people what they’re working on, what they want to be working on, and what their short- and long-term goals are. I think starting with that and making sure we’re having regular check-ins sets a precedent for this as a dynamic and caring place.

Emily Nemens

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

What does a good relationship between a writer and an editor look like to you? 
I approach relationships with my writers with a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity. I’m a pretty—I’m not going to say tough—but I’m a pretty engaged editor, and I do a lot of edits. I think the only way for those to go over well is if you deliver them with kindness. And usually that works—it doesn’t always work—but usually that works. I also bring that sort of relationship on the page to conversations and relationships [in person]. And even if I don’t connect with a writer on a particular piece, I try to support the work and the person making the work. I spend a lot of time saying, “No, but please keep in touch,” and, “No, I’m not going to publish this, but I care about your work, and I’m excited about it, so let me keep reading it.”

What do you think is the most helpful thing you can give a writer?
The platform of the magazine is huge, and I know that, and I’m so excited about that. We just lost Philip Roth, and we published him at twenty-five, which really made his career or started it. So I’ll acknowledge that. But on a personal level, I really love taking a story that is amazing and that I love and spending some time with it and making it just a smidge better. And showing the writer ways they can grow and improve. I was recently at the Sewanee conference, and a writer I’d published five or six years ago said, “You know, the way you line-edited made me think about the way I write, and I’ve written differently ever since that interaction.” And that melted this editor’s heart. But giving people a new platform or encouraging people to keep going even if they’re not quite there—that’s an easy grab for me, to just be honest and enthusiastic about people’s work. And I don’t know that the writing community always has that generosity.

How would you describe your editing style? It sounds like you’re a really close line-editor.
I am. If I see a really big structural issue I’ll generally ask about it and send more general notes. I always want to test the water if I want to do an overhaul—someone might feel that their story is perfect the way it is, and that’s fine—but if they’re up for it, I’ll send notes broadly. I don’t have time to do that with every story, of course, so I have to be kind of judicious about developmental edits. Usually it’s just one story an issue, or if I see two or three things that [have] developmental issues, I might space them out across a few issues. And then when a story feels close, that’s when I get in there and really think about each line and the pacing of every scene. I learned how to edit from Jessica Faust, a poet and a poetry editor. She was my mentor when I was in graduate school, and we then became colleagues. When you’re editing poetry you’re really considering every piece of punctuation, so I brought that over to editing fiction and interviews and everything else. It’s tedious, but I love it. 

It’s hard to think about the Paris Review and not think about George Plimpton. Is there anything from his vision or editing style that you hope to adopt or carry on?
He looms so large. This is Sarah Dudley Plimpton’s rug [points to rug beneath her desk]. This was at the Plimpton home. I feel like I have a strong feeling of his work, but I’m still really learning the details of his legacy. One of my favorite things about this past Spring, and after my appointment, was hearing all the Plimpton stories from all the writers who had encountered him and whose careers he’d helped. That was so much fun to get these stories. I feel like I’m still gathering those and talking with other editors who worked closely with him and getting to know more of his leadership style. That’s an ongoing project. I read his book Paper Lion years ago, and as a person who likes literature but is writing about sports, he was a guiding light for me before the Paris Review was on the radar as a place I could work. So I feel really fortunate to be carrying on that tradition of writing. But that’s secondary to learning how he ran this magazine and how he built this magazine from a really ambitious place. I feel like the journal has been able to carry that ambition and thrive.

Speaking of yourself as a writer, you recently signed a deal with Farrar, Straus and Giroux for your book about spring training, The Cactus League. As an editor, writer, and visual artist, do you find that the roles complicate or complement one other?
I’m an editor first. I spend most of my time doing that, so when I have the opportunity to write or draw I’m sort of a snake and I just gobble—I have a really big meal and get a lot of work done. Because I’m not one of those writers who sits down and writes every morning. I wish I was, but I edit every morning! And that feels really good. But the thing is, working with language makes your language better. Working on other people’s stories—of course it takes away in terms of number of hours from my writing practice—but I feel like every time I do sit down to write I have a bigger tool kit. So I’m really grateful for that interplay. And the visual arts practice that I love—it will always be part of my life, but it’s sort of tertiary right now. And that’s fine.

At Poets & Writers we have a database of literary journals, and right now it lists almost 1,300 journals, which to me seems like a very daunting number to both writers and editors. Does that number surprise you or seem too high? 
That is a really big number, but I think it’s fine. Every journal is run by people who want to make a thing and put it out in the world, and I don’t think there’s any reason to stop that or hinder that progress. Obviously that’s more than I can read in a year. But I think with elbow grease, some strategy, and the right mix of editorial leadership and resources, those journals will find the right audiences—and if they can’t find those audiences, maybe there will be 1,250 next year. I don’t mean that in a glib way; I think that every experiment is worth it. Having seen a lot of great journals close for reasons of resources or lack thereof, I’m really excited that the Internet and other means have reinvigorated the form.

 

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Q&A: Baker Seeks Multiplicity of Voices

by

Namrata Poddar

8.15.18

In August Atria Books will release Everyday People: The Color of Life, an anthology of short stories by emerging and established writers of color and indigenous people. Edited by Jennifer Baker, a writer and longtime advocate for minority representation in literature—she has worked for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and hosts the podcast Minorities in Publishing—the collection features work by more than a dozen writers, including Courttia Newland, Yiyun Li, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Nelly Rosario. Baker took on the project after Brook Stephenson, the writer and bookseller who conceived of the anthology, died in 2015. While Stephenson planned for the anthology to feature only Black voices, Baker expanded the project’s focus and began soliciting other people of color and indigenous writers for stories shortly after the 2016 presidential election. The result is a collection of stories that depict the modern lives of people of color as they struggle with contemporary social, political, familial, and personal issues. Just before the book’s release, Baker discussed her work on the anthology and her connection to its mission as a writer and editor of color.

Everyday People highlights the universality of human experience while also mostly adhering to contemporary social realism. When you were soliciting stories for the book, did you intend for this? 
It was difficult for me to ask writers of color and indigenous writers to contribute to Everyday People so soon after the presidential election. It was and is a bad time, especially for marginalized people. The contributors are writers I contacted because their work contains a multiplicity of voices and topics. The fact that, in an increasingly tumultuous moment in history, people who are directly affected can create a high level of work in a finite amount of time that continually reflects our humanity speaks to their talent and professionalism. I gave no firm parameters to the writers for their stories, which may have helped them in the end to write broadly or tap into subjects that really speak to them.

Do you think social realism will continue to dominate the future of the short story?
That depends on the author. In Everyday People, Courttia Newland’s and Allison Mills’s stories have speculative and fantastical elements rooted in culture and place that are political, personal, and real. To me those stories also encapsulate our society today by focusing on elections or sudden loss and how to get through loss. They may not be what publishing defines as “contemporary” or “true life,” yet they are identifiable, especially to a person of color or indigenous person.

The 2017 VIDA Count shows that in most of the U.S. literary magazines surveyed more than two-thirds of women and nonbinary contributors were white. Within this landscape, what do you see as the future of multiethnic American short fiction?
The lack of representation in the industry prevents more marginalized stories from being seen by a wider audience. It wouldn’t, I hope, curtail the fact that marginalized folks are constantly creating and finding new routes for this. That said, unless we see some paramount change from the top down and from the bottom up in all areas of the industry, we won’t see a real change. 

In the wake of #MeToo controversies within the literary community, Junot Díaz’s story was dropped from the book. How did you come to this decision? 
Editors have a responsibility, in any and all capacity, to do what’s morally right and also what is right for the work they’re editing. As editors we have a hand in the titles we publish, and I quite literally have my name on this product. This is also an anthology; I’m not acting out of self-interest but for all those whose work is tied to this book. Hearing other women of color speak out about assault is not something I take lightly or something anyone should readily dismiss. As I told Atria when I made my decision, “This isn’t a PR move. It’s a moral one.” A friend suggested I replace this story with a list of writers of color, namely women, which I expanded as much as I could with nonbinary and transgender writers of color. It seemed the best course of action to not remedy a problem but to make use of the space in a book to further highlight writers of color and indigenous writers. It serves as a resource that reflects as many people as I could find—and while I know I missed so many wonderful artists in my scramble to create this list in two weeks, I hope it’s at least an indicator of how we can further uplift those who don’t have the platform.

What were some of the biggest joys and challenges in compiling an anthology like Everyday People?
The biggest joy was finishing it. Once contributors’ stories were finalized, I mapped out where the stories would go. Seeing first-pass proofs was rewarding because then the final contributors saw the entirety of the book and how it came together. Receiving positive reviews for Everyday People has also been incredibly heartening. The challenges were constant problem solving and also feeling the weight placed on Black women both personally but also nationwide during this time. Yet another challenge was when I experienced misogyny or hesitation to recognize privilege or when I recognized I should’ve done things earlier like utilize sensitivity readers for stories because something felt off to me.

How does wearing the editorial hat impact your own creative writing?
That I’m a very precise person makes me a strong editor and a slow writer. The inner workings of the editorial mind can be [preoccupied with]: “What does it all mean?” And in the framework of a story that doesn’t mean a narrative gets tied together with a bow, but that it culminates in an experience that seems honest for the work. So, in a way, my work as an editor complements my writing because it means I come to the page with purpose and am aware of when things aren’t working. At times it can impede upon my process because I may continually wonder: “Well, is that good enough?”

 

Namrata Poddar is the interviews editor for Kweli, where she curates a series called “Race, Power and Storytelling.” Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, VIDA Review, the Progressive, and elsewhere. Her debut story collection, Ladies Special, Homebound, was a finalist for Feminist Press’s 2018 Louise Meriwether First Book Award and is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger Books.

Jennifer Baker

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

Q&A: A Merger of Literary, Legal Minds

by

Jonathan Vatner

6.13.18

Having run her eponymous literary agency since 2005, in February Gillian MacKenzie joined forces with Kirsten Wolf, a publishing lawyer and the president of Wolf Literary Services, an agency providing legal consultation to other agencies, publishers, and independent artists. The merger resulted in MacKenzie Wolf, which offers all the services of a traditional literary agency plus legal and strategic advising that can be uniquely important for authors, who often face questions ranging from copyright disputes to television and film rights. MacKenzie Wolf, which is currently open to queries, boasts clients such as novelists Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and Patty Yumi Cottrell, as well as nonfiction writers Michael J. Casey, Virginia Morell, and Henry Fountain. Shortly after the merger was complete, MacKenzie discussed the partnership, the state of the publishing industry, and the challenges of reaching readers today.

Why did you decide to team up with Kirsten Wolf in this new venture? 
Kirsten and I worked in the same office while I was working in film development and production at Jane Startz Productions, before I founded Gillian MacKenzie Agency. Since she started Wolf Literary Services ten years ago, a literary agency and consultancy for other agencies, she and I have shared an office and assistant, with whom I’d sometimes coagent projects. Our merging officially into MacKenzie Wolf was a natural extension of how we’ve always worked, and it has allowed us to more officially and effectively grow the agency arm of the company.


Why pair an agent with a lawyer? 
It is surprising how often an attorney’s perspective is useful beyond negotiating the contract. Questions come up about writing partnerships, disputes with publishers, the legal implications of including particular content in a book, various subsidiary rights and how they can be exploited in new ways, and so on. While Kirsten isn’t representing any of our clients—in intricate legal matters, an author should have his or her own attorney—her expertise helps guide decision-making greatly.

How is an agent’s job changing?
The consolidation of publishing houses has reduced submission opportunities. And on the publishing side, it is harder to get a reader’s attention. With fewer physical bookstores, how does a reader come across a book? There is so much noise out there, and what once might have compelled a person to purchase a book—a stellar review, an interesting op-ed by the author—doesn’t necessarily lead to that outcome anymore. The sort of quirky, fascinating midlist books I love seem more challenging to get published these days as well.

So how do readers discover and read books now?
That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Of course, big traditional media coverage still helps. Stellar review attention and awards still can help. And to state the obvious, social media seems to matter much more. Today publishers hope to have “influencers”—prominent names with large and active social media followings—push the book; even better, for the authors themselves to have those sorts of followings. However, it is still not entirely clear to me what sort of mention of what kind of book and by whom and where actually pushes someone to go out and make a purchase. I think it is important we all keep thinking of creative ways to help people discover books and authors.

What are some ways you help your writers reach more readers?
We explore avenues that our authors and illustrators may not have originally considered. We are starting to pitch more of our illustration clients for animated commercial work. More and more we encourage our adult-nonfiction writers with suitable material to think about adapting their work for a younger audience. Our agency is also handling more of our clients’ speaking engagements, because not all clients garner fees large enough to attract traditional speaking bureaus, and yet their talks help sell books and generate word of mouth.

Who are you trying to reach with these tactics?
People find themselves so busy and so distracted these days, and even those who were once avid readers have trouble finding the time and bandwidth to read full-length books. I am convinced that if we can compel lapsed readers to take the time to be still for a spell and to read a book from cover to cover, they will be reminded of the addictive and transformative power of books. Yes, there will be other modes of “content delivery” that cater to one’s scattered attention span, but nothing will be able to replace that inimitably rich experience one gets from reading a book. In this way, good books are perhaps the best promotion for other good books.

Have you seen any bright spots?
I am heartened that quality books on not-overtly-commercial topics that matter still do find their way to the shelves. For example, in April my client Alisa Roth had her book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness come out—a book about not one but two difficult themes that Basic Books smartly saw important enough to publish. And one of the biggest titles on my list, The Path by Harvard professor Michael Puett and journalist Christine Gross-Loh, is a book about ancient Chinese philosophy and how it informs our lives today—again a book on a serious topic one might not immediately expect to be best-selling and yet has been translated into more than twenty-five different languages and counting. 

What kinds of work are you looking to represent?
I am fairly catholic in my tastes: By nature I can find myself excited by stale toast if it’s presented in a certain way. I guess I gravitate toward things that surprise me by coming at an idea through a new perspective, a multi-disciplinary prism, a surprising voice, an unusual format, etc. I want to work on material that I think matters, that might make the world a better place, or at the very least, that will offer readers an entertaining diversion. I’m always interested in seeing book ideas about intriguing discoveries or ways of seeing the world backed by science, journalistic exploration, or personal experience, coupled with the right person behind them. I also have a soft spot for illustrated works and think there are opportunities out there for unusual and winning visual books. Recent projects range widely, from humorous illustrated middle-grade books to books about the blockchain to mountain climbing to dog intelligence to loose nukes. I also gravitate towards strong narrative nonfiction, business, sports, current affairs, and memoir.
 


What do you love to see in a query from a writer?

I have a full slate; fairly or unfairly, many of my clients of late have come through referrals. But I do read the queries that come in to me, and occasionally one will grab me. One of my favorite slush pile discoveries, for instance, is the talented Cat Warren, whose cover letter started, “My name is Cat, and this is a book about my dog.” As I kept reading, it was immediately clear that her story and talent backed up her compelling letter. Her book, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, ended up being longlisted for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award and is a best-seller for Touchstone, under the guidance of editor extraordinaire Michelle Howry. Cat is now working on a middle-grade adaptation of the book, which we recently sold to Krista Vitola at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. My colleague Kate Johnson, who primarily represents fiction, recently discovered Patty Yumi Cottrell from the slush pile. Patty’s stunning debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace—everyone must read it!—went on to win a 2018 Whiting Award in fiction and the 2017 Barnes & Noble Discover Award in fiction. 

What advice do you have for writers?
My advice is to do your research on who might be a good fit for your kind of writing, and when you make contact, let that person know why you have chosen specifically to reach out. And don’t give up!          
 

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Yonkers, New York. His debut novel, Carnegie Hill, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books in 2019.

Q&A: Kulka Curates America’s Library

by

Adrienne Raphel

4.11.18

In November the Library of America (LOA), the nonprofit publisher of classic American literature, named John Kulka its new editorial director. Succeeding longtime editor in chief Geoffrey O’Brien, who retired at the end of 2017, Kulka previously worked at Yale University Press, Harvard University Press, and Basic Books. In his new role at the LOA, Kulka oversees all of the publisher’s titles, including the Library of America standard series, which comprises more than three hundred volumes of classic and historical literature and scholarship and has been called the “de facto canon of American literature” by the New York Times. A few months into his new position, Kulka discussed editing the series and what’s ahead for LOA’s editorial program.

What are your responsibilities at the LOA?
The LOA has always been a special publisher with a special mission. Our broader, nonprofit mission is to reconnect readers through education programs and community outreach. I’m responsible for guiding the editorial program: the Library of America standard series, which issues essential American writing in authoritative editions, and our special non-series books, like David Foster Wallace’s tennis essays, String Theory. The LOA publishes reliable editions. They are uncluttered. The mission is to build the national library of American writings—canonical, neglected literature, historical writings. It’s one of the most important undertakings in the history of American publishing.

How do you choose what to publish?
How we publish any given author is always a tricky calculus. Looking at a writer with a voluminous body of work, are we better off being selective or comprehensive? It varies from author to author. Sometimes it’s not an issue. Flannery O’Connor, for example: The stories, novels, and all the nonfiction—if we exclude the letters—fit neatly into a single volume. But I’m thinking now about publishing an edition of Constance Fenimore Woolson, wrongly neglected, whom Henry James saw as a significant nineteenth-century writer. Woolson is a revelation to me: I had always known who she was because of James, but do yourself a favor and look at her short fiction. Is the LOA better off publishing one volume, two volumes, or everything we have of hers? That’s a question I’m faced with. Though a larger selection might be of interest to scholars, I’m not entirely sure that it’s the right thing to do in presenting her work to a general audience.

How does the LOA remain relevant today?
This is a weird time we’re living in. The proliferation of fake news, inequality, a presentist disregard for the past—in such times, we need the LOA more than ever. Our history and literature still have much to teach us. We ignore it only at our peril. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I believe that. Here’s an example: When Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing Hamilton, it was the LOA’s edition of Hamilton’s writings that Miranda used as a resource. The musical in turn brought readers back to Hamilton. We published a brief paperback, The Essential Hamilton, in 2017 that we then put gratis into the hands of educators around the country.

What has been the most unexpected thing you’ve learned about LOA since you arrived?
I’ve been repeatedly impressed by the amount of research and scholarship that sometimes goes into these volumes. Literally at my feet right now are three or four oversized cardboard boxes that represent the outtakes from the American Poetry Anthology—and just the two volumes devoted to the twentieth century. There’s so much research and scholarship that goes into production. It’s kind of a humbling thing. 

 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review Daily, Lana Turner, Prelude, and elsewhere.

  

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

Q&A: Sarah Browning Splits This Rock

by

Nadia Q. Ahmad

2.14.18

Ten years ago, Sarah Browning and a group of fellow poets founded Split This Rock, a literary nonprofit that works at the intersection of poetry and political activism and hosts the biennial Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness in Washington, D.C. Browning recently announced that she will step down from her role as executive director of the organization at the end of the year, and that the search for her replacement will begin after this year’s festival, which will be held from April 19 to April 21. With her final year at the organization underway, Browning discussed her past decade at Split This Rock, the continued need to consider poetry a form of social engagement, and the upcoming festival. 

What changes have you seen in the literary world since starting Split This Rock?
When we started this organization, there were very few literary organizations engaging in activism. I went to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in 2003, three weeks before the United States invaded Iraq, and I could find only two sessions that engaged political questions at all. We were actively being told not to write political work fifteen years ago. That’s why we started D.C. Poets Against the War [a movement in 2003 to protest the war in Iraq] and then Split This Rock, which emerged from that movement. Split This Rock brought the activism piece into the picture. Now, of course, everybody is focused on making change with their poetry and doing so more explicitly. But I’m telling you, ten years ago, there was no home for it. And that’s why we built it.

The name “Split This Rock” comes from a poem, doesn’t it?
It does, from a Langston Hughes poem called “Big Buddy.” It ends with, “When I split this rock, / Stand by my side.” So it’s about splitting the rock of injustice but also the solidarity that’s needed—that need for community.

How does Split This Rock make poetry and activism accessible?
We try to bring poetry into as many spaces as possible and encourage everyone to write. We host community writing workshops twice a month in D.C. They’re free, drop-in; all you have to do is show up. The room is physically accessible, with transcription service for people with disabilities. You don’t have to have an MFA or any educational experience or introduction to poetry. We believe that, as Roque Dalton wrote in a poem, “poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” And our programs prove it. People are hungry for the imaginative language of poetry and for the authentic voice of one another, the heart-language, because so much of our experience is mediated now by propaganda, by commerce, by social media. We’re being sold to all the time. So we’re hungry for more authentic experience, and that’s what poetry is: It’s idiosyncratic language; it’s weirdness and wildness.

What would you say to those who might suggest that poetry and activism are incompatible?
Writers have always engaged the world around them. And as a writer you have to write what’s pounding up inside you. And if what’s pounding up inside you is injustice—if there’s a mother who has to work two jobs just to get food on the table, or if you are that mother, and you’re writing late at night and hoping there’ll be enough food to get you through the end of the week to the next paycheck—then that’s what you’re writing. That’s the poem. That’s what’s going to have power: What is the fire in your belly?

Nobody should tell anybody else what to write. I’m not telling anybody what to write. These poems were always being written; they just weren’t finding a wide audience because journals weren’t publishing them. The guidelines were saying, “No causes.” The contests weren’t awarding these poets the awards. The universities weren’t giving these poets the jobs. Because of racism, and because of conservatism. And homophobia and sexism. Split This Rock was founded to help these poets, like myself, feel less lonely and be more effective as poet-citizens, so that we could join together when we wanted to do activism—but also to amplify our voices and to create our own platforms.

Split This Rock cites Federico García Lorca’s concept of duende as one of its core values, which is described on your website as “recognizing the potential imaginative power of fear and embracing poets and activists who grapple with difficult issues and take risks in their writing and public work.” Why are fear and risk both necessary to move things forward?
It ain’t easy. None of it. We’re not going to make change if we stick to platitudes and simplicity, either in our poetry or in our social justice work. So we have to go to dark places, difficult places, in ourselves and in our relationships with one another and in our society. And that’s hard. I think it certainly helps us to sometimes be patient with one another. Split This Rock is one of the few places in the literary world, but really anywhere, where folks who are twenty-one and folks who are seventy-six are hanging out in the same room, having conversations. And maybe they have radically different cultural references and life experiences. So duende informs that because it’s scary to say, “You know, I don’t actually know anything about what you’ve just said.”

I’ve never studied poetry formally, so even when I’m with a bunch of academics and they use terms that I don’t know, I have to say to them, “Guess what, I don’t know what you’re saying!” [Laughs.] Which is a scary thing for me to say. I try to face my fear. But it’s at all levels, and we have to do it at all levels: personal, creative, collective, national. I’m the descendant of slave owners. I write about that in my work and I’m trying to push that, hard. I don’t know how my extended family’s going to feel about it, let alone other white people from the South. I wasn’t raised in the South, only half my family is from the South, so I’m going to be treated as an outsider, but that’s an issue where I feel like we have to face our fears as white Americans.

What guests and panels are you excited to feature in this year’s Split This Rock Poetry Festival?
Sharon Olds has been added to the lineup, which is really great news. She was supposed to feature at our very first festival in 2008 but was unable to come. Likewise, Sonia Sanchez kicked off our first festival and she will be back to mark this tenth anniversary. But also we have young poets like Paul Tran and Terisa Siagatonu. We always try to honor voices of all ages and in all places in their writing lives.

This being the first festival under the new political regime, we are particularly interested in how poetry is being used in resistance and in how poets are taking care of themselves and one another. We’re all feeling a lot of despair, I think, and we heard that in the proposals we received. There are a lot of sessions about using sadness, about using rage—in our poetry, but also in our community building—and acknowledging these things as real. Crying. Holding one another in celebration and in support.

What’s next for you—writing?
Yes. I don’t do well without structure, even this late in my life. I’m thinking about grad school. But at the very least, I would like to have more time for my own poetry and creative nonfiction. My second book just came out, but it was ten years between books. It would be nice not to have ten years till the next one.

 

Nadia Q. Ahmad is the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.  

Sarah Browning

(Credit: Kristin Adair)

Q&A: Sokolowski’s Inspiring Word Work

by

Adrienne Raphel

12.12.17

As the editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster, Peter Sokolowski contributes to the dictionary’s print and online content, which, in addition to word definitions, includes podcasts, videos, and blogs. In August Sokolowski and his fellow editors rolled out Time Traveler, a tool that organizes words according to when they were first used in English. He recently discussed Merriam-Webster’s newest features, the changing ways in which people use the dictionary, and the Word of the Year, feminism, which the editors announced today. 

How does Time Traveler work? How does it affect the way we think about language?
With Time Traveler, by organizing [words] a different way—that is, rather than alphabetically, chronologically—you get a three-dimensional experience with the dictionary. I do think it’s profound to think of language chronologically. Alphabetically, the ordering is arbitrary. Chronologically, it’s not. Time Traveler shows layers of cultures as they are expressed in the language when they come into the language. English is such a peculiar language in this way. French, for example, is almost entirely derived from Latin. The French Academy founded the language with an ethos of contraction. But English is a mongrel language, with an ethos of expansion. This ethos of expansion has a political component, too. England is establishing colonies all over the world. So, due to exploration, India is a very rich source of words. We first put dates into the dictionary in 1983, with the release of the Collegiate ninth edition. Dictionary entries have always been organized in chronological order: The first sense was always the oldest sense, and the last definition was, chronologically, the most recent. The thing is, that’s a little counterintuitive. By adding dates to entries, we felt we were giving more specific info about when each word entered the language. And now, collectively, because of organizing principles of the Internet, we can connect these words by date. Time Traveler allows imagination to combine with history. It gives a poetic sense of what the dictionary really is—a new and different kind of way of organizing our language.

How might people use Time Traveler?
Here’s one banal example: There’s a wonderful linguist, Ben Schmidt, who rates the language of Downton Abbey, illustrating how many of the words [used on the show are] anachronistic. Contact, for example, was not a verb in 1912. Another example is when Lord Grantham says “You’ll have to step on it” in 1912. You just have to think: This guy had probably never driven a car, so why would he use this very slangy idiom? The idea of speeding didn’t even exist yet.

What does the online version of the dictionary do that print can’t, and vice versa?
When Samuel Johnson, in 1755, wrote his dictionary, a woman came up to him and said, “I’m so pleased that you have omitted the naughty words.” “Madam,” Johnson replied, “I find that you have been looking them up.” Before the dictionary went online, the people who wrote dictionaries never knew which words were looked up. We’re learning enormous amounts about what drives people to a dictionary and what people are looking for from a dictionary. The dictionary is not just used for novel and arcane words—it’s mostly used for words that are a little abstract. There are cyclical things: Love is always at the top of the list in February. There are back-to-school terms: cultures, diversity, plagiarism. And there are the evergreens: integrity, ubiquitous, affect versus effect. Whatever sends us to the dictionary is a private moment. Looking up a word in the dictionary is an intimate act, something between ourselves and our language. The dictionary is this little intermediary—it orchestrates and organizes that relationship. That’s what it’s for. When people are looking up love in February, they’re not looking for spelling—they’re looking for philosophy.

In 1996 we started offering the dictionary online for free, and in 1997 we started following word trends. What had become a static list became dynamic, and we could see what people were looking up in real time. So, for example, in 1997, Princess Di dies; paparazzi is a very natural word to look up. During 9/11, first there were concrete words—rubber, triage—then more philosophical words, such as surreal, succumb, spontaneous. Surreal is always looked up after tragedies. In 2009 I started putting these things on Twitter. We’re often criticized for being political, but we’re responding to the data. We’re good at reading data—we’re not good at reading minds.

Why keep the print edition around at all?
The dictionary we search online is a different experience than the book. The print dictionary is a great piece of technology: It’s really fast, and it really works. And the print way of organizing information means that you always see certain things together. That’s no longer really the case online. The big thing online is, there’s space. Almost every decision for print dictionaries had to be made by the tyranny of space. We are no longer bound by that. What had been tyranny of lack of space is now tyranny of too much space. I always tell people, keep your old dictionaries. The old ones have different information that might be interesting. There is no spreadsheet for when definitions change. You just have to take the book down and look it up and see. For the first time last week, I looked up the word dictionary in Webster’s unabridged second edition, from 1934. I was fascinated. It’s an article on the history of the dictionary. That’s the kind of material that would be dropped in print today, but that’s some of the reason you go to a dictionary. We’re trying to answer those questions that might be asked when you’re looking up a word in the dictionary: Does a Cobb salad have chicken or turkey? The online dictionary is a contemporary magazine of language—let’s be the one-stop word website.

How do you choose the Word of the Year?
The Word of the Year goes back to 2003, and it was always based on the data. However, there’s an asterisk. If we went by raw tonnage, we would have boring words, abstract words that adults feel responsible for. We’re looking for what words spiked this year, not last year. That tells us something about the language today. We also look at what words were looked up in far greater numbers this year than last year, which we call year-over-year numbers. We look at that figure, and then we see a list of words that are typically much more apposite to the year we just experienced. In other words, it tells us something about this year that we’ve lived through, as opposed to words that tell us something about the general curiosity about the English language.

What do you think 2017’s Word of the Year tells us about the world in this moment?
The word of the year is feminism, which is pretty striking given the news. On the one hand, you might say that this is a fairly common word, one that is not really the subject of the news. In point of fact, this is a word that has been rising for the past several years to the point that it’s almost in our top twenty of overall lookups in the history of our website. We saw a 70 percent increase in lookups in 2017, and then we saw these spikes throughout this year. In January we saw a spike after the Women’s March on Washington and the other marches all over the country and the world, which got a huge amount of attention and were historic in various ways. The word feminism was used in particular regarding questions of whether or not the March was feminist or what kind of feminism the organizers and the attendees represented.

In February we saw another huge spike—and this one is in some ways more pointed and more dictionary-oriented—when Kellyanne Conway gave an onstage interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference and said she didn’t consider herself a feminist in the “classic sense.” She explained that she thinks being feminist, in her words, seems to be very “anti-male” and very “pro-abortion.” She was using the word in a very specific way, and that kind of specific use sends people to the dictionary for the definition, because the definition of the word itself was put into question, was itself the subject of the news story. Which is also true with the word fact, when Kellyanne Conway, also in the earlier part of the year, used that term “alternative facts.”

Later in the year we saw two entertainment reasons for the word’s popularity: The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu TV adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel, which got not only a huge amount of positive reviews, but also a huge amount of think pieces using that series as a point of departure and a contemporaneous cultural critique; and the film Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot in the title role, who was viewed as a feminist character in a feminist film with a female director, Patty Jenkins.

And recently of course, subsequent to the accusations made against Harvey Weinstein and a long list of others, the word feminist has been in the news a lot. Just today I happened to click on the New York Times story about Lena Dunham and her warnings to the Clinton campaign about being too close to Harvey Weinstein. The word feminist was not only used several times in the article, but there’s also a quote from Dunham where she says she wears underwear that has the word feminist on it. That’s not necessarily the kind of use that will send people to the dictionary, but it shows you that this word is part of the national conversation—to the extent that there is such a thing as a national conversation. I think it’s sometimes too facile to say that there’s a national conversation; I sometimes think that’s shorthand for people who don’t want to be very specific about context. However, if there is such a thing as a national conversation—and there surely is right now regarding, for example, sexual harassment in the workplace and presidential politics—Merriam-Webster has a front-row seat because we see the words that are being looked up as the stories progress. That’s a fascinating thing that I’ve been watching for years and that we present on our home page and on Twitter, in a feature we call Trend Watch, which is simply the words that are most looked up at a given moment. And that word right now is feminism.

Have you recently changed or tweaked the definition of feminism, or has it been consistent for the past several years?
The first English language dictionary to ever include this word was Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1841, which was the last time Webster revised the dictionary before he died. He added the word feminism with the definition, “the qualities of females.” Clearly what he meant was femininity or femaleness; there was no political connotation to the word. This was a word that appeared to him somewhere, but we can’t actually find what he was looking at; we don’t know where he got it. In the 1864 edition, after Webster died and the Merriams had taken over, they dropped the word entirely because it was not used very frequently. It was not included in the next edition, published in 1890. And then in 1909 it was added with two definitions—one, “feminine character or characteristics,” and two, the medical definition, “female characteristics present in males.” So this medical definition precedes the political one. Finally, in the famous unabridged second edition of Webster’s from 1934, the political sense was added: “the theory of those who advocate such legal and social changes as will establish political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” That’s pretty much the way we define it today. The important word here is equality—equality of the sexes could almost stand as the definition. It’s interesting that we’ve dropped both the medical sense and the femininity sense, which is archaic at this point. The political sense we associate with the word basically begins around 1895, and that’s exactly when the suffragette movement was beginning. So the term feminism is more closely associated in political terms to the fight to get the vote, which makes perfect sense.

Also notable is that it’s a very modern word for English—we have a lot of words that are over a thousand years old, and this one is just over a hundred. That’s a very short time in the history of the English language. It seems to me that feminism is a word that has shifted over time. I think it was taken to be more aggressive in the past and is maybe taken much more positively today. Just like a lot of ideas, it’s a word that has shifted in meaning as the times have changed. That’s as it should be.

What were the runners-up for Word of the Year?
The nine runners-up tend to represent individual spikes that were very striking. The first one is complicit. That came from Ivanka Trump who said in an interview with Gayle King, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.” When you are a newsmaker and you say “I don’t know what x means” on live television, you better believe it sends people to the dictionary. What sends people to the dictionary even more is when people are having a lot of fun with it, and Saturday Night Live made a skit based on that interview, which kept it going. So that word really had a lot of hits, and it’s a fascinating word. The word is two parts, com and plicare or plek—the com means “together” or “with” in Latin, and the plek means “fold,” so it means “folded together.” It’s the same etymon of two other words that are much more common, complicated and complex.

The next one is the word recuse. Those lookups are all attached to Jeff Sessions. There was a recusal to look into Hillary Clinton; there was a recusal to look into the Trump campaign; there was a recusal involving the Russians. The word recused kept bobbing up and it was always connected to Jeff Sessions. Recused is a classic legal term, and he’s the attorney general, so it makes perfect sense that a legal term would be associated with him.

The next word is one that we don’t associate with a particular story; it just simply went way up in lookups, and we’re not really sure why. It’s the word empathy. Part of it was attached to the #MeToo campaign, with people talking about empathy towards women. And of course there was a lot of criticism of the Republican Party, Trump in particular, for lacking empathy. So this word is being used in both positive and negative ways. It was also in the news January when Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian film director who won two Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, said he wouldn’t come to the Oscars because of Trump’s proposed travel ban, and that he was making a call for empathy between us and others, “an empathy which we need today more than ever.” And then in July at the Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan was highly quoted using the word when he said, “Real social progress is always a widening circle of concern and protection. It’s respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference.” When newsmakers utter the word, it does tend to send people to the dictionary. But we can’t say any one of those stories is the simple reason it makes our list.

Here’s the one that’s interesting from a percentage point of view: dotard. It’s a very unusual word. It was the word used by the Korean Central News Agency as a translation of Kim Jong Un’s statement where he referred to Donald Trump as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Because it’s such an unusual word—it’s essentially an obsolete word—we saw a 35,000 percent increase in lookups from 2016. We have 250,000 pages of words in the dictionary and some of those pages are looked up a thousand times an hour, others only a few times a year. Dotard was a word that was probably never looked up last year. It comes from the same word as dotage, which means a state or period of senile decay. So dotard originally meant imbecile, or stupid person, but now it just means an older person who is losing mental acuity. And this is a great thing about what the dictionary does—it gives a vocabulary lesson to the country when words like this are in the news. It’s also notable that this word is in the news probably because the Korean translators must be using very old bilingual dictionaries, because no contemporary speaker of English would use this word.

The next word is a science word from the solar eclipse, syzygy, which means the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse. The solar eclipse was an international story, and it cut straight through the United States and was a big teaching moment for a lot of people.

The next word is one that is looked up for pronunciation. We know that some words are looked up for their phonetics; typically they’re foreign words like schadenfreude or niche. This year the word was gyro. This was because of one simple event—Jimmy Fallon did a sketch on The Tonight Show with Luke Bryan, the country singer, and it showed them out on the streets of New York City getting a gyro. They ask each other, “How do you pronounce this?” and they turned it into this big musical number. It turns out there are three pronunciations for the word.

Federalism spiked because of the Congressional debate about the Affordable Care Act. Lindsey Graham said, “Here’s the choice for America: socialism or federalism when it comes to your health care.” What’s interesting to me about this is that socialism, as well as fascism and capitalism, are some of the most looked-up words in the dictionary. The problem with federalism, is that in America, we very unusually call our national government the federal government; however, the word federalism refers very explicitly to state rights. So the word itself is very confusing. You can see why it would send people to the dictionary.

The next two words are very simple, news-related words: hurricane—we had Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria—all these hurricanes that affected the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. Storm words always looked up when there’s a big storm, and we’ll usually see an echo—if hurricane is looked up, we’ll also see spikes in cyclone and tornado, because people are comparing them like recipes, the definitions all specify wind speed and geography. These are words where you can really learn something about the world, not just the language.

Finally, the last of the runner-up words goes all the way back to the Oscars in February—the word gaffe, which of course refers to the mistake of the wrong envelope that was opened for the Best Picture announcement. All the crew and cast of La La Land came up on stage, and while they were thanking their mothers, it was revealed that in fact Moonlight was the winner for Best Picture. Gaffe is an interesting word because it’s one of these journalistic words, it’s a word that’s used much more in headlines than in conversation. It’s a word that sends people to the dictionary quite regularly, since I’m sure when people see a headline that uses the word gaffe, they wonder if there’s something very specific about this kind of mistake, as opposed to just the word mistake. But of course headline writers like it because it’s short. And English has that kind of flexibility.  

 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor-at-large.

(Credit: Joanne Watson, Merriam-Webster)

Q&A: Wilson Leads the Feminist Press

by

Jennifer Baker

10.11.17

In July writer, activist, and media commentator Jamia Wilson was named the new executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press (FP), a forty-seven-year-old nonprofit known for highlighting feminist perspectives and prose. Located at the City University of New York, the press has published books by writers such as Shahrnush Parsipur and Ama Ata Aidoo and public figures such as Anita Hill and Justin Vivian Bond. Wilson previously worked as the executive director of Women, Action, and the Media, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Elle, Bust, and many other publications. As she becomes the youngest person and first woman of color to direct the Feminist Press, Wilson discusses her aims to advance the press’s mission.

How has your experience helped you prepare for this new role, and what do you hope to bring to the Feminist Press? 
I grew up reading FP books that I borrowed from my mother’s shelf, like I Love Myself When I Am Laughing: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader and But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. These books taught me about my literary and activist lineage and helped provide a road map for the present and the future. I’m honored to work with FP’s intergenerational team to both enliven and deepen our intersectional vision of publishing unapologetic, accessible texts and multiplatform content that inspire action, teach empathy, build community, and shift culture. FP will continue to deepen our engagement with communities of color, indigenous folks, the LGBTQ community, and the disability community. Representation matters, but it must be coupled with systemic change. We will elevate and amplify the voices of the most marginalized members of our community because we know that none of us are free unless we all are.

How do you plan to apply your knowledge and experience in the social justice field to the job of executive director and publisher?
My engagement as a movement maker and media commentator brings FP closer to our community. It helps us connect with new readers because we’re involved in conversations out in the world and contributing to the cultural narrative via social media; TV; at conferences, panels, and marches; and in movement spaces. Until more gatekeepers do the work to disrupt habits and practices of patriarchy, economic injustice, and white supremacy in the publishing industry, we won’t transform our cultural narrative. My goal is to help contribute to the movement to put these values into active practice at all levels of our organization and work overall.

In this political and social climate, what kinds of books are pushing this conversation forward and promoting action?
This has been a consistent part of FP’s mission, and that’s why we’re prepared to speak truth to power through our books and voices in the midst of attacks on free expression and the rise of authoritarianism, misogyny, and racial violence. We publish books other publishers deem “too risky,” “controversial,” or “radical.” We’ve made efforts to lift up queer voices with our Amethyst Editions imprint and women and nonbinary folks of color with our Louise Meriwether Prize. Our nonfiction books are mainly activist-based. We resist the reinforcement of respectability politics, as well as the promotion of narratives that appear to promote social progress but only in a way that’s palatable or validating to oppressive power structures—and only at the price of continuing to marginalize communities that are often silenced, invisible, or undermined. Some of our recent titles include Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down, a novel about growing up gay in 1980s Alabama, and Juniper Fitzgerald and Elise Peterson’s forthcoming How Mamas Love Their Babies, a picture book that shows how diverse mothers work in different ways to take care of their children, from domestic labor to sex work.

What kinds of books have been most influential to you personally?
The books I’m most enamored with have moved my heart in both personal and political ways. As my feminist foremothers taught us, “The personal is political.” I’m both an activist and a writer, and these identities have affixed themselves upon my soul. I love fiction, especially dystopian fiction, but I’m mostly a reader of nonfiction, historical fiction, legal history, and memoir. Although I tend to lean towards writing grounded in “truth,” I’m finding I’m even more drawn to this genre in the “post-truth” era.

There has been an increase in online-only feminist publications. Do you foresee potential partnerships to bring further visibility to FP’s work?
We reach out to writers or artists who have gotten their start online if we’re interested in creating a book with them, like with Makeda Lewis’s Avie’s Dreams: An Afro-Feminist Coloring Book and The Crunk Feminist Collection. Many of the feminist writers and artists we work with have robust online communities and serve as natural ambassadors for their labor and wisdom. We have other upcoming collaborations with the Well-Read Black Girl Festival, Soul Camp, the Together Live tour, the SisterSong conference, Howard University, and the March for Black Women. We want to be a part of feminist conversations on- and offline and to lift up remarkable and stunning storytelling.   

 

Jennifer Baker  is a publishing professional, the creator and host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, a contributing editor at Electric Literature, and the social media director and a writing instructor for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018).

Q&A: Lena Dunham’s Lenny Imprint

by

Kevin Larimer

8.16.17

In 2015, Lena Dunham, along with her producing partner, Jenni Konner, created an online newsletter that would provide “a platform for young female voices to discuss feminist issues.” In its first six months Lenny Letter, also known as Lenny, attracted an impressive 400,000 subscribers. Building on that success, last year Random House, publisher of Dunham’s 2014 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” announced that Lenny would be the basis of a new imprint, overseen by vice president and editor in chief Andy Ward. The imprint’s first title, Sour Heart, the debut story collection by poet Jenny Zhang, is out now. In the months leading up to its publication, Dunham spoke about her vision for Lenny Books.

There can never be too many platforms for new and emerging literary voices, but still: Why Lenny Books and why now?
It was essential to Jenni and me that we use the gift of our platform to give voice to a diverse group of women who need to be heard. It has never been more important that we hear from every kind of woman and understand the specificities of her experience—and that happens to be the goal of Lenny.

Will the imprint be fueled by the same ethos as the newsletter?
We want the imprint’s logo to be a symbol that lets you know you’re about to read something that plays with the feminine in a fascinating new way. We want you to see the spine and think, “Oh, thank the Lord, I know what will thrill me tonight.” We want our readers to trust that our imprint is selecting books that will enrich them and make them laugh. Books allow for a deeper, more sustained exploration that the newsletter doesn’t—and that, too, is thrilling.

You and Jenni are already successfully publishing new voices in your newsletter, so what is it about print books in general, and Random House in particular, that led you to this new project?
We are book nerds. We read to learn. We read to relax. We read to get inspired. It’s honestly selfish: We want a hand in helping produce the kinds of books we want to read, and we want to get first crack at reading fantastic authors and groundbreaking feminist works. So far, it’s been wildly fun. It’s interesting and inspiring that our partner in crime is Andy Ward, a man who understands our mission. So we aren’t for girls only, even if we are always thinking of our reader as a busy woman who needs to be able to trust that a Lenny book means her precious time is not being wasted.

What made Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart a good choice for the first title from Lenny?
Jenny is a writer of uncompromising honesty, complete originality, massive wit, and real skill. Her stories show us a part of the world, a part of the human experience, which most of us have never encountered. She’s enigmatic and compelling as a person—there is no one who more clearly represents our mission.

How will you and Jenni work together to make decisions about whose books to publish?
It’s all instinct. Along with Andy, we try to fill our slate slowly but enthusiastically with writers we admire. Ultimately, we want the Lenny list to be an exciting kind of “collect ‘em all” where our books as a whole tell a story about what it feels like to be female now.

How closely will you work with Random House? Do you have autonomy in terms of editorial decisions?
Andy was my editor on my first book, and we are currently at work on my second. He is my creative collaborator on a deep and abiding level. So we don’t just accept his thoughts, we demand them. And we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have such a special relationship with Random House. My literary agent Kim Witherspoon is also a remarkable force who has helped authors like Anthony Bourdain build their own imprints, and her business instincts are impeccable. It really takes a village, and Jenni and I are happy to admit what we don’t know.

Will you be editing the books yourself?
We know that editing is a specific and challenging job and one that people work their whole lives to get great at. So we read everything and give our notes but we really trust that editors should edit.

You’ve published poetry issues of Lenny. Any chance you and Random House have a poetry imprint in the works?
We would love to publish poetry and not relegate it to some musty back room. We just need to find the right poet who we think will spark with readers who may be new to the pleasures of poetry. Jenni and I are both liberal arts grad poetry nerds who find the form completely enthralling. We’d love to add that element to our list.

You’ve written a book, Not That Kind of Girl, so do you have any advice for writers who are working on their own?
Work. Work. Work. There’s no substitute for actually rolling up your sleeves and getting it done.
 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

(Photo: Stephanie Keenan.)

Q&A: Sherrod Celebrates Amistad Press

by

Dana Isokawa

8.17.16

Founded in 1986 by Charles F. Harris, Amistad Press is one of the country’s leading publishers of multicultural voices. Originally established to publish anthologies of African American writing, Amistad has since grown into a prominent literary fiction and nonfiction imprint of HarperCollins, having published novels by Edward P. Jones, Yvvette Edwards, and Jacqueline Woodson, as well as books of nonfiction by cultural icons such as Steve Harvey and Venus Williams. As Amistad celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, Tracy Sherrod, who has served as the editorial director since 2013, talks about the press’s history and the challenges it faces today.

How has Amistad changed or grown in the past thirty years?
It’s grown in the number of titles, it’s grown in prominence, it’s grown in respectability, it’s grown in creativity. The foundation is the same, which is to publish multicultural voices and to let them express themselves freely. At the time when Charles F. Harris started Amistad, you didn’t feel that the publishing industry could fully see black culture. When Susan L. Taylor’s essay collection In the Spirit came—Taylor was the editor in chief of Essence—people in the publishing industry didn’t recognize how popular she was, so she was rejected all over town. But Malaika Adero, who came to Amistad as its first official editor outside of Charles Harris, acquired that book and it sold in best-seller numbers. And then they followed it up a few years later with a book by John Johnson, who founded Ebony and Jet. These people were praised in our community and celebrated—we all knew their names, we all wanted to know their stories—and Amistad published them. That’s how Amistad has impacted publishing: by helping the industry recognize how important and profitable these voices are.

What are the challenges for Amistad now?
Nowadays, people in the industry recognize how important African American voices are in contributing to literature. The authors can be published by any imprint they choose, so that makes it more competitive on my part. It’s always been competitive, but not this competitive. I’m glad to see it. There should be huge demand for those voices.

Do you find authors are reluctant to join Amistad as opposed to an imprint that doesn’t have a multicultural focus?
I find both. I find authors who prefer the focus, who have been published elsewhere and have maybe felt “culturally assaulted” by their editors—that’s one way a writer described what happened to her in the editorial process. And there are authors who are perfectly happy where they are and are published brilliantly where they are. Some writers are reluctant and ask me to publish their book on the broader Harper list. But we have the same marketing and publicity team, so I don’t think the logo on the book makes much of a difference.   

Do you think publishers run the risk of pigeonholing or sequestering writers by creating multicultural imprints?
No, I don’t think there’s a risk of doing that. It’s been proved that when Random House closed down One World/Ballantine and Harlem Moon, the company as a whole published less work by multicultural voices. So I don’t think that they’re sequestered—it’s an opportunity. Some people see it as ghettoized. But that’s not the case at all—these books are published with great care, they’re given the same marketing and publicity opportunities, we offer the same competitive advances.

Amistad publishes both literary and commercial titles—how do you balance the two?
I go with my taste. I think every editor acquires to her personality, and I have a broad range of interest. I’m really trying to do books that address the community’s needs—depression and emotional issues are heavy on people’s minds these days with the economy. We published Darryl McDaniel’s book, Ten Ways Not To Commit Suicide. Since it’s by someone who’s rich and obviously successful—but who also suffers with depression from time to time—it might make the layperson feel more comfortable coming forth and talking about these issues. We also published this book The Mother by Yvvette Edwards and it’s delicious, let me tell you, but delicious in the sense that it’s rich in the pain the mother feels after her son is killed by another child. And I think that’s an issue in our community. That’s what I mean by publishing to the issues—things that are very particular to us. Not too particular to us, but something we’re dealing with in overabundance.

Can you speak more to what issues are important now?
Financial issues, the economy. I’ve published several books that allow people to inspire their creativity to become entrepreneurs. Like Miko Branch’s Miss Jessie’s: Creating a Successful Business From Scratch—Naturally. And some of our memoirs have practical elements that you can take away, like The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City by Luther Campbell. In his book, he writes about how he made a financially successful life for himself, ran all the way to the Supreme Court to fight injustice against the first amendment, and won. I think that’s pretty incredible. He shares with people that you need to stand for something and you need to work hard. And a lot of the memoirs we publish have that theme running through them: entrepreneurship, hard work, and the use of your God-given talents.

What as an editor do you find most challenging?
There comes moments in one’s publishing career—or in one’s publishing day, week, month—where a book will come along and you’ll feel like you need to acquire it, because it’s going to be extremely popular and sell really well. It’s only once in a while that you’re going to say, “This one is the one. This one is going to work.” And a lot of times if the people around you don’t know that person’s name in the same way that they didn’t know Susan Taylor’s name, the same way they didn’t know Zane’s name, they’ll say, “Oh no, we can’t do that book. We’re not going to invest much of an advance in that book.” Those moments are painful, because I know—sometimes you know—you’re not guessing, you’re not estimating. Once in a while you know. And I need to work better at conveying when I know, so that those books don’t end up with another publisher.

How do you know when a title is one of those books?
For nonfiction, it’s straight-up practical reasons—the community has been waiting for a book from this person forever, so things are all lined up. There are so many people behind it that it doesn’t really matter what it is that they do, but chances are that they’re doing something smart and it will work. For fiction, it feels like a warmth that overwhelms you—it’s a sensation. When there are so many elements to a story that embrace where you come from that you know it’s going to work. Like Edwards’s The Mother and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn.

Are there more specific challenges you encounter as an editor of color?
The number one thing is that I think most of the publishing industry looks at African American editors as one and the same. They believe that our tastes are going to be the same, that we’re going to want the same books, that we’re building identical publishing programs—but that’s not really true. We all have very different tastes. Some are more literary than others; some are more interested in books that have historical relevance; some only want to do books that will make a difference. And it goes across the board. Everybody has different tastes. And we’re friends—even though we sometimes compete against one another, we’re friends and support one another and recognize more than anything that if one book fails, it could jeopardize all the books. We face more pressure because we can only acquire a few books. So if you pay a lot for one and it tanks hugely, there’s no telling what might happen. So we’re all very careful and very smart and think of publishing multicultural books as a whole, not about our careers. It has nothing to do with our individual careers. And I think this was shown when Chris Jackson was given the opportunity to start his own imprint, and he decided to resurrect One World [at Random House] instead, which shows that he was concerned about the multicultural publishing community.

Do you sense that the publishing industry has adopted the view that black readers have diverse interests and read across racial and cultural lines?
I don’t think it’s adopted by the industry as a whole. Someone once said to me, “Are all of your books about race?” And I said, “No!” Multicultural writers write about various aspects of their lives. Even though racism has shaped all of us, unfortunately, and I’m not sure it has shaped us to be our best selves. I do believe that something special is going on right now, where all of us are questioning our biases and racism in a more serious way. I also believe there’s another segment of the population that is embracing their hostility towards other races, and they are really speaking loudly. So those of us who are trying to do better and [create] a more beloved society need to speak louder. And perhaps show some love to the other people who are really having a challenging time, and maybe then we can make America great again.

It’s a scary time, right?
It is, it is. But I think it’s going to be a productive time. I remember back in 2008 and 2009, there was a drought in multicultural literature. There were great books, but there were very few in terms of the number of books that were coming out. I remember telling a friend in publishing, “Believe it or not, this is a really good time, because I know that people are in their homes writing and creating and in the next few years, it’s going to be an explosion of just amazing, amazing literature.” And I think that is happening now.

What are your plans for Amistad’s future, and how do you hope to grow the list?
We plan to grow the staff, to find someone who specializes in marketing and publicity. As for the list, I’ve learned from the success of Edward P. Jones winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Known World, the reception of Another Brooklyn, the reception of The Mother, that literary fiction is the route for Amistad. As for nonfiction, [we’ll be looking to publish fewer] celebrities and more serious narrative nonfiction. That’s how we’ll grow the list. We have some really great books coming that reflect that. We’re doing Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination by Herb Boyd, and Making Rent in Bed-Stuy, which is a memoir by a young man, Brandon Harris, about gentrification. And we have a book called The Original Black Elite by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor that’s a history from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Jim Crow era of the really wealthy class of black people and their philosophies and ways of life.

Does Amistad have a target audience?
I definitely want our books to reach people of color in addition to everyone else. I think it’s the same hope that we have for every book: We want our books to reach everyone. So my goal is that I’m publishing for people of color, but I hope that everyone is interested.

What would you like to see in the industry in terms of increasing diversity?
I would like for the industry to see that it’s wonderful when all the cultures come together and do things together. There’s so much joy, there’s so much pleasure, there’s so much excitement to be found there. And I think that we should try to achieve that more often—because it’s a beautiful experience, and we all learn so much, and what we learn provides joy.

In what way would we be brought together?
In making books! And not thinking that books are for a particular audience, or that when we go to market that only women or only whatever the “only” is buys books. Don’t think of it that way. Because we’re sharing a story that we’re all a part of. This is supposed to be some melting pot, so let’s see what’s in the pot! I’d like for us to see that bringing things together is joyful and not work. Inclusion is not work. I think living in isolation is work.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

 

Q&A: Lena Dunham’s Lenny Imprint

by

Kevin Larimer

8.16.17

In 2015, Lena Dunham, along with her producing partner, Jenni Konner, created an online newsletter that would provide “a platform for young female voices to discuss feminist issues.” In its first six months Lenny Letter, also known as Lenny, attracted an impressive 400,000 subscribers. Building on that success, last year Random House, publisher of Dunham’s 2014 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” announced that Lenny would be the basis of a new imprint, overseen by vice president and editor in chief Andy Ward. The imprint’s first title, Sour Heart, the debut story collection by poet Jenny Zhang, is out now. In the months leading up to its publication, Dunham spoke about her vision for Lenny Books.

There can never be too many platforms for new and emerging literary voices, but still: Why Lenny Books and why now?
It was essential to Jenni and me that we use the gift of our platform to give voice to a diverse group of women who need to be heard. It has never been more important that we hear from every kind of woman and understand the specificities of her experience—and that happens to be the goal of Lenny.

Will the imprint be fueled by the same ethos as the newsletter?
We want the imprint’s logo to be a symbol that lets you know you’re about to read something that plays with the feminine in a fascinating new way. We want you to see the spine and think, “Oh, thank the Lord, I know what will thrill me tonight.” We want our readers to trust that our imprint is selecting books that will enrich them and make them laugh. Books allow for a deeper, more sustained exploration that the newsletter doesn’t—and that, too, is thrilling.

You and Jenni are already successfully publishing new voices in your newsletter, so what is it about print books in general, and Random House in particular, that led you to this new project?
We are book nerds. We read to learn. We read to relax. We read to get inspired. It’s honestly selfish: We want a hand in helping produce the kinds of books we want to read, and we want to get first crack at reading fantastic authors and groundbreaking feminist works. So far, it’s been wildly fun. It’s interesting and inspiring that our partner in crime is Andy Ward, a man who understands our mission. So we aren’t for girls only, even if we are always thinking of our reader as a busy woman who needs to be able to trust that a Lenny book means her precious time is not being wasted.

What made Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart a good choice for the first title from Lenny?
Jenny is a writer of uncompromising honesty, complete originality, massive wit, and real skill. Her stories show us a part of the world, a part of the human experience, which most of us have never encountered. She’s enigmatic and compelling as a person—there is no one who more clearly represents our mission.

How will you and Jenni work together to make decisions about whose books to publish?
It’s all instinct. Along with Andy, we try to fill our slate slowly but enthusiastically with writers we admire. Ultimately, we want the Lenny list to be an exciting kind of “collect ‘em all” where our books as a whole tell a story about what it feels like to be female now.

How closely will you work with Random House? Do you have autonomy in terms of editorial decisions?
Andy was my editor on my first book, and we are currently at work on my second. He is my creative collaborator on a deep and abiding level. So we don’t just accept his thoughts, we demand them. And we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have such a special relationship with Random House. My literary agent Kim Witherspoon is also a remarkable force who has helped authors like Anthony Bourdain build their own imprints, and her business instincts are impeccable. It really takes a village, and Jenni and I are happy to admit what we don’t know.

Will you be editing the books yourself?
We know that editing is a specific and challenging job and one that people work their whole lives to get great at. So we read everything and give our notes but we really trust that editors should edit.

You’ve published poetry issues of Lenny. Any chance you and Random House have a poetry imprint in the works?
We would love to publish poetry and not relegate it to some musty back room. We just need to find the right poet who we think will spark with readers who may be new to the pleasures of poetry. Jenni and I are both liberal arts grad poetry nerds who find the form completely enthralling. We’d love to add that element to our list.

You’ve written a book, Not That Kind of Girl, so do you have any advice for writers who are working on their own?
Work. Work. Work. There’s no substitute for actually rolling up your sleeves and getting it done.
 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

(Photo: Stephanie Keenan.)

Q&A: Wilson Leads the Feminist Press

by

Jennifer Baker

10.11.17

In July writer, activist, and media commentator Jamia Wilson was named the new executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press (FP), a forty-seven-year-old nonprofit known for highlighting feminist perspectives and prose. Located at the City University of New York, the press has published books by writers such as Shahrnush Parsipur and Ama Ata Aidoo and public figures such as Anita Hill and Justin Vivian Bond. Wilson previously worked as the executive director of Women, Action, and the Media, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Elle, Bust, and many other publications. As she becomes the youngest person and first woman of color to direct the Feminist Press, Wilson discusses her aims to advance the press’s mission.

How has your experience helped you prepare for this new role, and what do you hope to bring to the Feminist Press? 
I grew up reading FP books that I borrowed from my mother’s shelf, like I Love Myself When I Am Laughing: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader and But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. These books taught me about my literary and activist lineage and helped provide a road map for the present and the future. I’m honored to work with FP’s intergenerational team to both enliven and deepen our intersectional vision of publishing unapologetic, accessible texts and multiplatform content that inspire action, teach empathy, build community, and shift culture. FP will continue to deepen our engagement with communities of color, indigenous folks, the LGBTQ community, and the disability community. Representation matters, but it must be coupled with systemic change. We will elevate and amplify the voices of the most marginalized members of our community because we know that none of us are free unless we all are.

How do you plan to apply your knowledge and experience in the social justice field to the job of executive director and publisher?
My engagement as a movement maker and media commentator brings FP closer to our community. It helps us connect with new readers because we’re involved in conversations out in the world and contributing to the cultural narrative via social media; TV; at conferences, panels, and marches; and in movement spaces. Until more gatekeepers do the work to disrupt habits and practices of patriarchy, economic injustice, and white supremacy in the publishing industry, we won’t transform our cultural narrative. My goal is to help contribute to the movement to put these values into active practice at all levels of our organization and work overall.

In this political and social climate, what kinds of books are pushing this conversation forward and promoting action?
This has been a consistent part of FP’s mission, and that’s why we’re prepared to speak truth to power through our books and voices in the midst of attacks on free expression and the rise of authoritarianism, misogyny, and racial violence. We publish books other publishers deem “too risky,” “controversial,” or “radical.” We’ve made efforts to lift up queer voices with our Amethyst Editions imprint and women and nonbinary folks of color with our Louise Meriwether Prize. Our nonfiction books are mainly activist-based. We resist the reinforcement of respectability politics, as well as the promotion of narratives that appear to promote social progress but only in a way that’s palatable or validating to oppressive power structures—and only at the price of continuing to marginalize communities that are often silenced, invisible, or undermined. Some of our recent titles include Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down, a novel about growing up gay in 1980s Alabama, and Juniper Fitzgerald and Elise Peterson’s forthcoming How Mamas Love Their Babies, a picture book that shows how diverse mothers work in different ways to take care of their children, from domestic labor to sex work.

What kinds of books have been most influential to you personally?
The books I’m most enamored with have moved my heart in both personal and political ways. As my feminist foremothers taught us, “The personal is political.” I’m both an activist and a writer, and these identities have affixed themselves upon my soul. I love fiction, especially dystopian fiction, but I’m mostly a reader of nonfiction, historical fiction, legal history, and memoir. Although I tend to lean towards writing grounded in “truth,” I’m finding I’m even more drawn to this genre in the “post-truth” era.

There has been an increase in online-only feminist publications. Do you foresee potential partnerships to bring further visibility to FP’s work?
We reach out to writers or artists who have gotten their start online if we’re interested in creating a book with them, like with Makeda Lewis’s Avie’s Dreams: An Afro-Feminist Coloring Book and The Crunk Feminist Collection. Many of the feminist writers and artists we work with have robust online communities and serve as natural ambassadors for their labor and wisdom. We have other upcoming collaborations with the Well-Read Black Girl Festival, Soul Camp, the Together Live tour, the SisterSong conference, Howard University, and the March for Black Women. We want to be a part of feminist conversations on- and offline and to lift up remarkable and stunning storytelling.   

 

Jennifer Baker  is a publishing professional, the creator and host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, a contributing editor at Electric Literature, and the social media director and a writing instructor for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018).

Q&A: Sokolowski’s Inspiring Word Work

by

Adrienne Raphel

12.12.17

As the editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster, Peter Sokolowski contributes to the dictionary’s print and online content, which, in addition to word definitions, includes podcasts, videos, and blogs. In August Sokolowski and his fellow editors rolled out Time Traveler, a tool that organizes words according to when they were first used in English. He recently discussed Merriam-Webster’s newest features, the changing ways in which people use the dictionary, and the Word of the Year, feminism, which the editors announced today. 

How does Time Traveler work? How does it affect the way we think about language?
With Time Traveler, by organizing [words] a different way—that is, rather than alphabetically, chronologically—you get a three-dimensional experience with the dictionary. I do think it’s profound to think of language chronologically. Alphabetically, the ordering is arbitrary. Chronologically, it’s not. Time Traveler shows layers of cultures as they are expressed in the language when they come into the language. English is such a peculiar language in this way. French, for example, is almost entirely derived from Latin. The French Academy founded the language with an ethos of contraction. But English is a mongrel language, with an ethos of expansion. This ethos of expansion has a political component, too. England is establishing colonies all over the world. So, due to exploration, India is a very rich source of words. We first put dates into the dictionary in 1983, with the release of the Collegiate ninth edition. Dictionary entries have always been organized in chronological order: The first sense was always the oldest sense, and the last definition was, chronologically, the most recent. The thing is, that’s a little counterintuitive. By adding dates to entries, we felt we were giving more specific info about when each word entered the language. And now, collectively, because of organizing principles of the Internet, we can connect these words by date. Time Traveler allows imagination to combine with history. It gives a poetic sense of what the dictionary really is—a new and different kind of way of organizing our language.

How might people use Time Traveler?
Here’s one banal example: There’s a wonderful linguist, Ben Schmidt, who rates the language of Downton Abbey, illustrating how many of the words [used on the show are] anachronistic. Contact, for example, was not a verb in 1912. Another example is when Lord Grantham says “You’ll have to step on it” in 1912. You just have to think: This guy had probably never driven a car, so why would he use this very slangy idiom? The idea of speeding didn’t even exist yet.

What does the online version of the dictionary do that print can’t, and vice versa?
When Samuel Johnson, in 1755, wrote his dictionary, a woman came up to him and said, “I’m so pleased that you have omitted the naughty words.” “Madam,” Johnson replied, “I find that you have been looking them up.” Before the dictionary went online, the people who wrote dictionaries never knew which words were looked up. We’re learning enormous amounts about what drives people to a dictionary and what people are looking for from a dictionary. The dictionary is not just used for novel and arcane words—it’s mostly used for words that are a little abstract. There are cyclical things: Love is always at the top of the list in February. There are back-to-school terms: cultures, diversity, plagiarism. And there are the evergreens: integrity, ubiquitous, affect versus effect. Whatever sends us to the dictionary is a private moment. Looking up a word in the dictionary is an intimate act, something between ourselves and our language. The dictionary is this little intermediary—it orchestrates and organizes that relationship. That’s what it’s for. When people are looking up love in February, they’re not looking for spelling—they’re looking for philosophy.

In 1996 we started offering the dictionary online for free, and in 1997 we started following word trends. What had become a static list became dynamic, and we could see what people were looking up in real time. So, for example, in 1997, Princess Di dies; paparazzi is a very natural word to look up. During 9/11, first there were concrete words—rubber, triage—then more philosophical words, such as surreal, succumb, spontaneous. Surreal is always looked up after tragedies. In 2009 I started putting these things on Twitter. We’re often criticized for being political, but we’re responding to the data. We’re good at reading data—we’re not good at reading minds.

Why keep the print edition around at all?
The dictionary we search online is a different experience than the book. The print dictionary is a great piece of technology: It’s really fast, and it really works. And the print way of organizing information means that you always see certain things together. That’s no longer really the case online. The big thing online is, there’s space. Almost every decision for print dictionaries had to be made by the tyranny of space. We are no longer bound by that. What had been tyranny of lack of space is now tyranny of too much space. I always tell people, keep your old dictionaries. The old ones have different information that might be interesting. There is no spreadsheet for when definitions change. You just have to take the book down and look it up and see. For the first time last week, I looked up the word dictionary in Webster’s unabridged second edition, from 1934. I was fascinated. It’s an article on the history of the dictionary. That’s the kind of material that would be dropped in print today, but that’s some of the reason you go to a dictionary. We’re trying to answer those questions that might be asked when you’re looking up a word in the dictionary: Does a Cobb salad have chicken or turkey? The online dictionary is a contemporary magazine of language—let’s be the one-stop word website.

How do you choose the Word of the Year?
The Word of the Year goes back to 2003, and it was always based on the data. However, there’s an asterisk. If we went by raw tonnage, we would have boring words, abstract words that adults feel responsible for. We’re looking for what words spiked this year, not last year. That tells us something about the language today. We also look at what words were looked up in far greater numbers this year than last year, which we call year-over-year numbers. We look at that figure, and then we see a list of words that are typically much more apposite to the year we just experienced. In other words, it tells us something about this year that we’ve lived through, as opposed to words that tell us something about the general curiosity about the English language.

What do you think 2017’s Word of the Year tells us about the world in this moment?
The word of the year is feminism, which is pretty striking given the news. On the one hand, you might say that this is a fairly common word, one that is not really the subject of the news. In point of fact, this is a word that has been rising for the past several years to the point that it’s almost in our top twenty of overall lookups in the history of our website. We saw a 70 percent increase in lookups in 2017, and then we saw these spikes throughout this year. In January we saw a spike after the Women’s March on Washington and the other marches all over the country and the world, which got a huge amount of attention and were historic in various ways. The word feminism was used in particular regarding questions of whether or not the March was feminist or what kind of feminism the organizers and the attendees represented.

In February we saw another huge spike—and this one is in some ways more pointed and more dictionary-oriented—when Kellyanne Conway gave an onstage interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference and said she didn’t consider herself a feminist in the “classic sense.” She explained that she thinks being feminist, in her words, seems to be very “anti-male” and very “pro-abortion.” She was using the word in a very specific way, and that kind of specific use sends people to the dictionary for the definition, because the definition of the word itself was put into question, was itself the subject of the news story. Which is also true with the word fact, when Kellyanne Conway, also in the earlier part of the year, used that term “alternative facts.”

Later in the year we saw two entertainment reasons for the word’s popularity: The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu TV adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel, which got not only a huge amount of positive reviews, but also a huge amount of think pieces using that series as a point of departure and a contemporaneous cultural critique; and the film Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot in the title role, who was viewed as a feminist character in a feminist film with a female director, Patty Jenkins.

And recently of course, subsequent to the accusations made against Harvey Weinstein and a long list of others, the word feminist has been in the news a lot. Just today I happened to click on the New York Times story about Lena Dunham and her warnings to the Clinton campaign about being too close to Harvey Weinstein. The word feminist was not only used several times in the article, but there’s also a quote from Dunham where she says she wears underwear that has the word feminist on it. That’s not necessarily the kind of use that will send people to the dictionary, but it shows you that this word is part of the national conversation—to the extent that there is such a thing as a national conversation. I think it’s sometimes too facile to say that there’s a national conversation; I sometimes think that’s shorthand for people who don’t want to be very specific about context. However, if there is such a thing as a national conversation—and there surely is right now regarding, for example, sexual harassment in the workplace and presidential politics—Merriam-Webster has a front-row seat because we see the words that are being looked up as the stories progress. That’s a fascinating thing that I’ve been watching for years and that we present on our home page and on Twitter, in a feature we call Trend Watch, which is simply the words that are most looked up at a given moment. And that word right now is feminism.

Have you recently changed or tweaked the definition of feminism, or has it been consistent for the past several years?
The first English language dictionary to ever include this word was Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1841, which was the last time Webster revised the dictionary before he died. He added the word feminism with the definition, “the qualities of females.” Clearly what he meant was femininity or femaleness; there was no political connotation to the word. This was a word that appeared to him somewhere, but we can’t actually find what he was looking at; we don’t know where he got it. In the 1864 edition, after Webster died and the Merriams had taken over, they dropped the word entirely because it was not used very frequently. It was not included in the next edition, published in 1890. And then in 1909 it was added with two definitions—one, “feminine character or characteristics,” and two, the medical definition, “female characteristics present in males.” So this medical definition precedes the political one. Finally, in the famous unabridged second edition of Webster’s from 1934, the political sense was added: “the theory of those who advocate such legal and social changes as will establish political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” That’s pretty much the way we define it today. The important word here is equality—equality of the sexes could almost stand as the definition. It’s interesting that we’ve dropped both the medical sense and the femininity sense, which is archaic at this point. The political sense we associate with the word basically begins around 1895, and that’s exactly when the suffragette movement was beginning. So the term feminism is more closely associated in political terms to the fight to get the vote, which makes perfect sense.

Also notable is that it’s a very modern word for English—we have a lot of words that are over a thousand years old, and this one is just over a hundred. That’s a very short time in the history of the English language. It seems to me that feminism is a word that has shifted over time. I think it was taken to be more aggressive in the past and is maybe taken much more positively today. Just like a lot of ideas, it’s a word that has shifted in meaning as the times have changed. That’s as it should be.

What were the runners-up for Word of the Year?
The nine runners-up tend to represent individual spikes that were very striking. The first one is complicit. That came from Ivanka Trump who said in an interview with Gayle King, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.” When you are a newsmaker and you say “I don’t know what x means” on live television, you better believe it sends people to the dictionary. What sends people to the dictionary even more is when people are having a lot of fun with it, and Saturday Night Live made a skit based on that interview, which kept it going. So that word really had a lot of hits, and it’s a fascinating word. The word is two parts, com and plicare or plek—the com means “together” or “with” in Latin, and the plek means “fold,” so it means “folded together.” It’s the same etymon of two other words that are much more common, complicated and complex.

The next one is the word recuse. Those lookups are all attached to Jeff Sessions. There was a recusal to look into Hillary Clinton; there was a recusal to look into the Trump campaign; there was a recusal involving the Russians. The word recused kept bobbing up and it was always connected to Jeff Sessions. Recused is a classic legal term, and he’s the attorney general, so it makes perfect sense that a legal term would be associated with him.

The next word is one that we don’t associate with a particular story; it just simply went way up in lookups, and we’re not really sure why. It’s the word empathy. Part of it was attached to the #MeToo campaign, with people talking about empathy towards women. And of course there was a lot of criticism of the Republican Party, Trump in particular, for lacking empathy. So this word is being used in both positive and negative ways. It was also in the news January when Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian film director who won two Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, said he wouldn’t come to the Oscars because of Trump’s proposed travel ban, and that he was making a call for empathy between us and others, “an empathy which we need today more than ever.” And then in July at the Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan was highly quoted using the word when he said, “Real social progress is always a widening circle of concern and protection. It’s respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference.” When newsmakers utter the word, it does tend to send people to the dictionary. But we can’t say any one of those stories is the simple reason it makes our list.

Here’s the one that’s interesting from a percentage point of view: dotard. It’s a very unusual word. It was the word used by the Korean Central News Agency as a translation of Kim Jong Un’s statement where he referred to Donald Trump as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Because it’s such an unusual word—it’s essentially an obsolete word—we saw a 35,000 percent increase in lookups from 2016. We have 250,000 pages of words in the dictionary and some of those pages are looked up a thousand times an hour, others only a few times a year. Dotard was a word that was probably never looked up last year. It comes from the same word as dotage, which means a state or period of senile decay. So dotard originally meant imbecile, or stupid person, but now it just means an older person who is losing mental acuity. And this is a great thing about what the dictionary does—it gives a vocabulary lesson to the country when words like this are in the news. It’s also notable that this word is in the news probably because the Korean translators must be using very old bilingual dictionaries, because no contemporary speaker of English would use this word.

The next word is a science word from the solar eclipse, syzygy, which means the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse. The solar eclipse was an international story, and it cut straight through the United States and was a big teaching moment for a lot of people.

The next word is one that is looked up for pronunciation. We know that some words are looked up for their phonetics; typically they’re foreign words like schadenfreude or niche. This year the word was gyro. This was because of one simple event—Jimmy Fallon did a sketch on The Tonight Show with Luke Bryan, the country singer, and it showed them out on the streets of New York City getting a gyro. They ask each other, “How do you pronounce this?” and they turned it into this big musical number. It turns out there are three pronunciations for the word.

Federalism spiked because of the Congressional debate about the Affordable Care Act. Lindsey Graham said, “Here’s the choice for America: socialism or federalism when it comes to your health care.” What’s interesting to me about this is that socialism, as well as fascism and capitalism, are some of the most looked-up words in the dictionary. The problem with federalism, is that in America, we very unusually call our national government the federal government; however, the word federalism refers very explicitly to state rights. So the word itself is very confusing. You can see why it would send people to the dictionary.

The next two words are very simple, news-related words: hurricane—we had Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria—all these hurricanes that affected the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. Storm words always looked up when there’s a big storm, and we’ll usually see an echo—if hurricane is looked up, we’ll also see spikes in cyclone and tornado, because people are comparing them like recipes, the definitions all specify wind speed and geography. These are words where you can really learn something about the world, not just the language.

Finally, the last of the runner-up words goes all the way back to the Oscars in February—the word gaffe, which of course refers to the mistake of the wrong envelope that was opened for the Best Picture announcement. All the crew and cast of La La Land came up on stage, and while they were thanking their mothers, it was revealed that in fact Moonlight was the winner for Best Picture. Gaffe is an interesting word because it’s one of these journalistic words, it’s a word that’s used much more in headlines than in conversation. It’s a word that sends people to the dictionary quite regularly, since I’m sure when people see a headline that uses the word gaffe, they wonder if there’s something very specific about this kind of mistake, as opposed to just the word mistake. But of course headline writers like it because it’s short. And English has that kind of flexibility.  

 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor-at-large.

(Credit: Joanne Watson, Merriam-Webster)

Q&A: Wilson Leads the Feminist Press

by

Jennifer Baker

10.11.17

In July writer, activist, and media commentator Jamia Wilson was named the new executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press (FP), a forty-seven-year-old nonprofit known for highlighting feminist perspectives and prose. Located at the City University of New York, the press has published books by writers such as Shahrnush Parsipur and Ama Ata Aidoo and public figures such as Anita Hill and Justin Vivian Bond. Wilson previously worked as the executive director of Women, Action, and the Media, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Elle, Bust, and many other publications. As she becomes the youngest person and first woman of color to direct the Feminist Press, Wilson discusses her aims to advance the press’s mission.

How has your experience helped you prepare for this new role, and what do you hope to bring to the Feminist Press? 
I grew up reading FP books that I borrowed from my mother’s shelf, like I Love Myself When I Am Laughing: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader and But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. These books taught me about my literary and activist lineage and helped provide a road map for the present and the future. I’m honored to work with FP’s intergenerational team to both enliven and deepen our intersectional vision of publishing unapologetic, accessible texts and multiplatform content that inspire action, teach empathy, build community, and shift culture. FP will continue to deepen our engagement with communities of color, indigenous folks, the LGBTQ community, and the disability community. Representation matters, but it must be coupled with systemic change. We will elevate and amplify the voices of the most marginalized members of our community because we know that none of us are free unless we all are.

How do you plan to apply your knowledge and experience in the social justice field to the job of executive director and publisher?
My engagement as a movement maker and media commentator brings FP closer to our community. It helps us connect with new readers because we’re involved in conversations out in the world and contributing to the cultural narrative via social media; TV; at conferences, panels, and marches; and in movement spaces. Until more gatekeepers do the work to disrupt habits and practices of patriarchy, economic injustice, and white supremacy in the publishing industry, we won’t transform our cultural narrative. My goal is to help contribute to the movement to put these values into active practice at all levels of our organization and work overall.

In this political and social climate, what kinds of books are pushing this conversation forward and promoting action?
This has been a consistent part of FP’s mission, and that’s why we’re prepared to speak truth to power through our books and voices in the midst of attacks on free expression and the rise of authoritarianism, misogyny, and racial violence. We publish books other publishers deem “too risky,” “controversial,” or “radical.” We’ve made efforts to lift up queer voices with our Amethyst Editions imprint and women and nonbinary folks of color with our Louise Meriwether Prize. Our nonfiction books are mainly activist-based. We resist the reinforcement of respectability politics, as well as the promotion of narratives that appear to promote social progress but only in a way that’s palatable or validating to oppressive power structures—and only at the price of continuing to marginalize communities that are often silenced, invisible, or undermined. Some of our recent titles include Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down, a novel about growing up gay in 1980s Alabama, and Juniper Fitzgerald and Elise Peterson’s forthcoming How Mamas Love Their Babies, a picture book that shows how diverse mothers work in different ways to take care of their children, from domestic labor to sex work.

What kinds of books have been most influential to you personally?
The books I’m most enamored with have moved my heart in both personal and political ways. As my feminist foremothers taught us, “The personal is political.” I’m both an activist and a writer, and these identities have affixed themselves upon my soul. I love fiction, especially dystopian fiction, but I’m mostly a reader of nonfiction, historical fiction, legal history, and memoir. Although I tend to lean towards writing grounded in “truth,” I’m finding I’m even more drawn to this genre in the “post-truth” era.

There has been an increase in online-only feminist publications. Do you foresee potential partnerships to bring further visibility to FP’s work?
We reach out to writers or artists who have gotten their start online if we’re interested in creating a book with them, like with Makeda Lewis’s Avie’s Dreams: An Afro-Feminist Coloring Book and The Crunk Feminist Collection. Many of the feminist writers and artists we work with have robust online communities and serve as natural ambassadors for their labor and wisdom. We have other upcoming collaborations with the Well-Read Black Girl Festival, Soul Camp, the Together Live tour, the SisterSong conference, Howard University, and the March for Black Women. We want to be a part of feminist conversations on- and offline and to lift up remarkable and stunning storytelling.   

 

Jennifer Baker  is a publishing professional, the creator and host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, a contributing editor at Electric Literature, and the social media director and a writing instructor for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018).

Q&A: Sarah Browning Splits This Rock

by

Nadia Q. Ahmad

2.14.18

Ten years ago, Sarah Browning and a group of fellow poets founded Split This Rock, a literary nonprofit that works at the intersection of poetry and political activism and hosts the biennial Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness in Washington, D.C. Browning recently announced that she will step down from her role as executive director of the organization at the end of the year, and that the search for her replacement will begin after this year’s festival, which will be held from April 19 to April 21. With her final year at the organization underway, Browning discussed her past decade at Split This Rock, the continued need to consider poetry a form of social engagement, and the upcoming festival. 

What changes have you seen in the literary world since starting Split This Rock?
When we started this organization, there were very few literary organizations engaging in activism. I went to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in 2003, three weeks before the United States invaded Iraq, and I could find only two sessions that engaged political questions at all. We were actively being told not to write political work fifteen years ago. That’s why we started D.C. Poets Against the War [a movement in 2003 to protest the war in Iraq] and then Split This Rock, which emerged from that movement. Split This Rock brought the activism piece into the picture. Now, of course, everybody is focused on making change with their poetry and doing so more explicitly. But I’m telling you, ten years ago, there was no home for it. And that’s why we built it.

The name “Split This Rock” comes from a poem, doesn’t it?
It does, from a Langston Hughes poem called “Big Buddy.” It ends with, “When I split this rock, / Stand by my side.” So it’s about splitting the rock of injustice but also the solidarity that’s needed—that need for community.

How does Split This Rock make poetry and activism accessible?
We try to bring poetry into as many spaces as possible and encourage everyone to write. We host community writing workshops twice a month in D.C. They’re free, drop-in; all you have to do is show up. The room is physically accessible, with transcription service for people with disabilities. You don’t have to have an MFA or any educational experience or introduction to poetry. We believe that, as Roque Dalton wrote in a poem, “poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” And our programs prove it. People are hungry for the imaginative language of poetry and for the authentic voice of one another, the heart-language, because so much of our experience is mediated now by propaganda, by commerce, by social media. We’re being sold to all the time. So we’re hungry for more authentic experience, and that’s what poetry is: It’s idiosyncratic language; it’s weirdness and wildness.

What would you say to those who might suggest that poetry and activism are incompatible?
Writers have always engaged the world around them. And as a writer you have to write what’s pounding up inside you. And if what’s pounding up inside you is injustice—if there’s a mother who has to work two jobs just to get food on the table, or if you are that mother, and you’re writing late at night and hoping there’ll be enough food to get you through the end of the week to the next paycheck—then that’s what you’re writing. That’s the poem. That’s what’s going to have power: What is the fire in your belly?

Nobody should tell anybody else what to write. I’m not telling anybody what to write. These poems were always being written; they just weren’t finding a wide audience because journals weren’t publishing them. The guidelines were saying, “No causes.” The contests weren’t awarding these poets the awards. The universities weren’t giving these poets the jobs. Because of racism, and because of conservatism. And homophobia and sexism. Split This Rock was founded to help these poets, like myself, feel less lonely and be more effective as poet-citizens, so that we could join together when we wanted to do activism—but also to amplify our voices and to create our own platforms.

Split This Rock cites Federico García Lorca’s concept of duende as one of its core values, which is described on your website as “recognizing the potential imaginative power of fear and embracing poets and activists who grapple with difficult issues and take risks in their writing and public work.” Why are fear and risk both necessary to move things forward?
It ain’t easy. None of it. We’re not going to make change if we stick to platitudes and simplicity, either in our poetry or in our social justice work. So we have to go to dark places, difficult places, in ourselves and in our relationships with one another and in our society. And that’s hard. I think it certainly helps us to sometimes be patient with one another. Split This Rock is one of the few places in the literary world, but really anywhere, where folks who are twenty-one and folks who are seventy-six are hanging out in the same room, having conversations. And maybe they have radically different cultural references and life experiences. So duende informs that because it’s scary to say, “You know, I don’t actually know anything about what you’ve just said.”

I’ve never studied poetry formally, so even when I’m with a bunch of academics and they use terms that I don’t know, I have to say to them, “Guess what, I don’t know what you’re saying!” [Laughs.] Which is a scary thing for me to say. I try to face my fear. But it’s at all levels, and we have to do it at all levels: personal, creative, collective, national. I’m the descendant of slave owners. I write about that in my work and I’m trying to push that, hard. I don’t know how my extended family’s going to feel about it, let alone other white people from the South. I wasn’t raised in the South, only half my family is from the South, so I’m going to be treated as an outsider, but that’s an issue where I feel like we have to face our fears as white Americans.

What guests and panels are you excited to feature in this year’s Split This Rock Poetry Festival?
Sharon Olds has been added to the lineup, which is really great news. She was supposed to feature at our very first festival in 2008 but was unable to come. Likewise, Sonia Sanchez kicked off our first festival and she will be back to mark this tenth anniversary. But also we have young poets like Paul Tran and Terisa Siagatonu. We always try to honor voices of all ages and in all places in their writing lives.

This being the first festival under the new political regime, we are particularly interested in how poetry is being used in resistance and in how poets are taking care of themselves and one another. We’re all feeling a lot of despair, I think, and we heard that in the proposals we received. There are a lot of sessions about using sadness, about using rage—in our poetry, but also in our community building—and acknowledging these things as real. Crying. Holding one another in celebration and in support.

What’s next for you—writing?
Yes. I don’t do well without structure, even this late in my life. I’m thinking about grad school. But at the very least, I would like to have more time for my own poetry and creative nonfiction. My second book just came out, but it was ten years between books. It would be nice not to have ten years till the next one.

 

Nadia Q. Ahmad is the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.  

Sarah Browning

(Credit: Kristin Adair)

Q&A: Sokolowski’s Inspiring Word Work

by

Adrienne Raphel

12.12.17

As the editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster, Peter Sokolowski contributes to the dictionary’s print and online content, which, in addition to word definitions, includes podcasts, videos, and blogs. In August Sokolowski and his fellow editors rolled out Time Traveler, a tool that organizes words according to when they were first used in English. He recently discussed Merriam-Webster’s newest features, the changing ways in which people use the dictionary, and the Word of the Year, feminism, which the editors announced today. 

How does Time Traveler work? How does it affect the way we think about language?
With Time Traveler, by organizing [words] a different way—that is, rather than alphabetically, chronologically—you get a three-dimensional experience with the dictionary. I do think it’s profound to think of language chronologically. Alphabetically, the ordering is arbitrary. Chronologically, it’s not. Time Traveler shows layers of cultures as they are expressed in the language when they come into the language. English is such a peculiar language in this way. French, for example, is almost entirely derived from Latin. The French Academy founded the language with an ethos of contraction. But English is a mongrel language, with an ethos of expansion. This ethos of expansion has a political component, too. England is establishing colonies all over the world. So, due to exploration, India is a very rich source of words. We first put dates into the dictionary in 1983, with the release of the Collegiate ninth edition. Dictionary entries have always been organized in chronological order: The first sense was always the oldest sense, and the last definition was, chronologically, the most recent. The thing is, that’s a little counterintuitive. By adding dates to entries, we felt we were giving more specific info about when each word entered the language. And now, collectively, because of organizing principles of the Internet, we can connect these words by date. Time Traveler allows imagination to combine with history. It gives a poetic sense of what the dictionary really is—a new and different kind of way of organizing our language.

How might people use Time Traveler?
Here’s one banal example: There’s a wonderful linguist, Ben Schmidt, who rates the language of Downton Abbey, illustrating how many of the words [used on the show are] anachronistic. Contact, for example, was not a verb in 1912. Another example is when Lord Grantham says “You’ll have to step on it” in 1912. You just have to think: This guy had probably never driven a car, so why would he use this very slangy idiom? The idea of speeding didn’t even exist yet.

What does the online version of the dictionary do that print can’t, and vice versa?
When Samuel Johnson, in 1755, wrote his dictionary, a woman came up to him and said, “I’m so pleased that you have omitted the naughty words.” “Madam,” Johnson replied, “I find that you have been looking them up.” Before the dictionary went online, the people who wrote dictionaries never knew which words were looked up. We’re learning enormous amounts about what drives people to a dictionary and what people are looking for from a dictionary. The dictionary is not just used for novel and arcane words—it’s mostly used for words that are a little abstract. There are cyclical things: Love is always at the top of the list in February. There are back-to-school terms: cultures, diversity, plagiarism. And there are the evergreens: integrity, ubiquitous, affect versus effect. Whatever sends us to the dictionary is a private moment. Looking up a word in the dictionary is an intimate act, something between ourselves and our language. The dictionary is this little intermediary—it orchestrates and organizes that relationship. That’s what it’s for. When people are looking up love in February, they’re not looking for spelling—they’re looking for philosophy.

In 1996 we started offering the dictionary online for free, and in 1997 we started following word trends. What had become a static list became dynamic, and we could see what people were looking up in real time. So, for example, in 1997, Princess Di dies; paparazzi is a very natural word to look up. During 9/11, first there were concrete words—rubber, triage—then more philosophical words, such as surreal, succumb, spontaneous. Surreal is always looked up after tragedies. In 2009 I started putting these things on Twitter. We’re often criticized for being political, but we’re responding to the data. We’re good at reading data—we’re not good at reading minds.

Why keep the print edition around at all?
The dictionary we search online is a different experience than the book. The print dictionary is a great piece of technology: It’s really fast, and it really works. And the print way of organizing information means that you always see certain things together. That’s no longer really the case online. The big thing online is, there’s space. Almost every decision for print dictionaries had to be made by the tyranny of space. We are no longer bound by that. What had been tyranny of lack of space is now tyranny of too much space. I always tell people, keep your old dictionaries. The old ones have different information that might be interesting. There is no spreadsheet for when definitions change. You just have to take the book down and look it up and see. For the first time last week, I looked up the word dictionary in Webster’s unabridged second edition, from 1934. I was fascinated. It’s an article on the history of the dictionary. That’s the kind of material that would be dropped in print today, but that’s some of the reason you go to a dictionary. We’re trying to answer those questions that might be asked when you’re looking up a word in the dictionary: Does a Cobb salad have chicken or turkey? The online dictionary is a contemporary magazine of language—let’s be the one-stop word website.

How do you choose the Word of the Year?
The Word of the Year goes back to 2003, and it was always based on the data. However, there’s an asterisk. If we went by raw tonnage, we would have boring words, abstract words that adults feel responsible for. We’re looking for what words spiked this year, not last year. That tells us something about the language today. We also look at what words were looked up in far greater numbers this year than last year, which we call year-over-year numbers. We look at that figure, and then we see a list of words that are typically much more apposite to the year we just experienced. In other words, it tells us something about this year that we’ve lived through, as opposed to words that tell us something about the general curiosity about the English language.

What do you think 2017’s Word of the Year tells us about the world in this moment?
The word of the year is feminism, which is pretty striking given the news. On the one hand, you might say that this is a fairly common word, one that is not really the subject of the news. In point of fact, this is a word that has been rising for the past several years to the point that it’s almost in our top twenty of overall lookups in the history of our website. We saw a 70 percent increase in lookups in 2017, and then we saw these spikes throughout this year. In January we saw a spike after the Women’s March on Washington and the other marches all over the country and the world, which got a huge amount of attention and were historic in various ways. The word feminism was used in particular regarding questions of whether or not the March was feminist or what kind of feminism the organizers and the attendees represented.

In February we saw another huge spike—and this one is in some ways more pointed and more dictionary-oriented—when Kellyanne Conway gave an onstage interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference and said she didn’t consider herself a feminist in the “classic sense.” She explained that she thinks being feminist, in her words, seems to be very “anti-male” and very “pro-abortion.” She was using the word in a very specific way, and that kind of specific use sends people to the dictionary for the definition, because the definition of the word itself was put into question, was itself the subject of the news story. Which is also true with the word fact, when Kellyanne Conway, also in the earlier part of the year, used that term “alternative facts.”

Later in the year we saw two entertainment reasons for the word’s popularity: The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu TV adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel, which got not only a huge amount of positive reviews, but also a huge amount of think pieces using that series as a point of departure and a contemporaneous cultural critique; and the film Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot in the title role, who was viewed as a feminist character in a feminist film with a female director, Patty Jenkins.

And recently of course, subsequent to the accusations made against Harvey Weinstein and a long list of others, the word feminist has been in the news a lot. Just today I happened to click on the New York Times story about Lena Dunham and her warnings to the Clinton campaign about being too close to Harvey Weinstein. The word feminist was not only used several times in the article, but there’s also a quote from Dunham where she says she wears underwear that has the word feminist on it. That’s not necessarily the kind of use that will send people to the dictionary, but it shows you that this word is part of the national conversation—to the extent that there is such a thing as a national conversation. I think it’s sometimes too facile to say that there’s a national conversation; I sometimes think that’s shorthand for people who don’t want to be very specific about context. However, if there is such a thing as a national conversation—and there surely is right now regarding, for example, sexual harassment in the workplace and presidential politics—Merriam-Webster has a front-row seat because we see the words that are being looked up as the stories progress. That’s a fascinating thing that I’ve been watching for years and that we present on our home page and on Twitter, in a feature we call Trend Watch, which is simply the words that are most looked up at a given moment. And that word right now is feminism.

Have you recently changed or tweaked the definition of feminism, or has it been consistent for the past several years?
The first English language dictionary to ever include this word was Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1841, which was the last time Webster revised the dictionary before he died. He added the word feminism with the definition, “the qualities of females.” Clearly what he meant was femininity or femaleness; there was no political connotation to the word. This was a word that appeared to him somewhere, but we can’t actually find what he was looking at; we don’t know where he got it. In the 1864 edition, after Webster died and the Merriams had taken over, they dropped the word entirely because it was not used very frequently. It was not included in the next edition, published in 1890. And then in 1909 it was added with two definitions—one, “feminine character or characteristics,” and two, the medical definition, “female characteristics present in males.” So this medical definition precedes the political one. Finally, in the famous unabridged second edition of Webster’s from 1934, the political sense was added: “the theory of those who advocate such legal and social changes as will establish political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” That’s pretty much the way we define it today. The important word here is equality—equality of the sexes could almost stand as the definition. It’s interesting that we’ve dropped both the medical sense and the femininity sense, which is archaic at this point. The political sense we associate with the word basically begins around 1895, and that’s exactly when the suffragette movement was beginning. So the term feminism is more closely associated in political terms to the fight to get the vote, which makes perfect sense.

Also notable is that it’s a very modern word for English—we have a lot of words that are over a thousand years old, and this one is just over a hundred. That’s a very short time in the history of the English language. It seems to me that feminism is a word that has shifted over time. I think it was taken to be more aggressive in the past and is maybe taken much more positively today. Just like a lot of ideas, it’s a word that has shifted in meaning as the times have changed. That’s as it should be.

What were the runners-up for Word of the Year?
The nine runners-up tend to represent individual spikes that were very striking. The first one is complicit. That came from Ivanka Trump who said in an interview with Gayle King, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.” When you are a newsmaker and you say “I don’t know what x means” on live television, you better believe it sends people to the dictionary. What sends people to the dictionary even more is when people are having a lot of fun with it, and Saturday Night Live made a skit based on that interview, which kept it going. So that word really had a lot of hits, and it’s a fascinating word. The word is two parts, com and plicare or plek—the com means “together” or “with” in Latin, and the plek means “fold,” so it means “folded together.” It’s the same etymon of two other words that are much more common, complicated and complex.

The next one is the word recuse. Those lookups are all attached to Jeff Sessions. There was a recusal to look into Hillary Clinton; there was a recusal to look into the Trump campaign; there was a recusal involving the Russians. The word recused kept bobbing up and it was always connected to Jeff Sessions. Recused is a classic legal term, and he’s the attorney general, so it makes perfect sense that a legal term would be associated with him.

The next word is one that we don’t associate with a particular story; it just simply went way up in lookups, and we’re not really sure why. It’s the word empathy. Part of it was attached to the #MeToo campaign, with people talking about empathy towards women. And of course there was a lot of criticism of the Republican Party, Trump in particular, for lacking empathy. So this word is being used in both positive and negative ways. It was also in the news January when Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian film director who won two Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, said he wouldn’t come to the Oscars because of Trump’s proposed travel ban, and that he was making a call for empathy between us and others, “an empathy which we need today more than ever.” And then in July at the Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan was highly quoted using the word when he said, “Real social progress is always a widening circle of concern and protection. It’s respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference.” When newsmakers utter the word, it does tend to send people to the dictionary. But we can’t say any one of those stories is the simple reason it makes our list.

Here’s the one that’s interesting from a percentage point of view: dotard. It’s a very unusual word. It was the word used by the Korean Central News Agency as a translation of Kim Jong Un’s statement where he referred to Donald Trump as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Because it’s such an unusual word—it’s essentially an obsolete word—we saw a 35,000 percent increase in lookups from 2016. We have 250,000 pages of words in the dictionary and some of those pages are looked up a thousand times an hour, others only a few times a year. Dotard was a word that was probably never looked up last year. It comes from the same word as dotage, which means a state or period of senile decay. So dotard originally meant imbecile, or stupid person, but now it just means an older person who is losing mental acuity. And this is a great thing about what the dictionary does—it gives a vocabulary lesson to the country when words like this are in the news. It’s also notable that this word is in the news probably because the Korean translators must be using very old bilingual dictionaries, because no contemporary speaker of English would use this word.

The next word is a science word from the solar eclipse, syzygy, which means the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse. The solar eclipse was an international story, and it cut straight through the United States and was a big teaching moment for a lot of people.

The next word is one that is looked up for pronunciation. We know that some words are looked up for their phonetics; typically they’re foreign words like schadenfreude or niche. This year the word was gyro. This was because of one simple event—Jimmy Fallon did a sketch on The Tonight Show with Luke Bryan, the country singer, and it showed them out on the streets of New York City getting a gyro. They ask each other, “How do you pronounce this?” and they turned it into this big musical number. It turns out there are three pronunciations for the word.

Federalism spiked because of the Congressional debate about the Affordable Care Act. Lindsey Graham said, “Here’s the choice for America: socialism or federalism when it comes to your health care.” What’s interesting to me about this is that socialism, as well as fascism and capitalism, are some of the most looked-up words in the dictionary. The problem with federalism, is that in America, we very unusually call our national government the federal government; however, the word federalism refers very explicitly to state rights. So the word itself is very confusing. You can see why it would send people to the dictionary.

The next two words are very simple, news-related words: hurricane—we had Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria—all these hurricanes that affected the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. Storm words always looked up when there’s a big storm, and we’ll usually see an echo—if hurricane is looked up, we’ll also see spikes in cyclone and tornado, because people are comparing them like recipes, the definitions all specify wind speed and geography. These are words where you can really learn something about the world, not just the language.

Finally, the last of the runner-up words goes all the way back to the Oscars in February—the word gaffe, which of course refers to the mistake of the wrong envelope that was opened for the Best Picture announcement. All the crew and cast of La La Land came up on stage, and while they were thanking their mothers, it was revealed that in fact Moonlight was the winner for Best Picture. Gaffe is an interesting word because it’s one of these journalistic words, it’s a word that’s used much more in headlines than in conversation. It’s a word that sends people to the dictionary quite regularly, since I’m sure when people see a headline that uses the word gaffe, they wonder if there’s something very specific about this kind of mistake, as opposed to just the word mistake. But of course headline writers like it because it’s short. And English has that kind of flexibility.  

 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster editor-at-large.

(Credit: Joanne Watson, Merriam-Webster)

Q&A: Kulka Curates America’s Library

by

Adrienne Raphel

4.11.18

In November the Library of America (LOA), the nonprofit publisher of classic American literature, named John Kulka its new editorial director. Succeeding longtime editor in chief Geoffrey O’Brien, who retired at the end of 2017, Kulka previously worked at Yale University Press, Harvard University Press, and Basic Books. In his new role at the LOA, Kulka oversees all of the publisher’s titles, including the Library of America standard series, which comprises more than three hundred volumes of classic and historical literature and scholarship and has been called the “de facto canon of American literature” by the New York Times. A few months into his new position, Kulka discussed editing the series and what’s ahead for LOA’s editorial program.

What are your responsibilities at the LOA?
The LOA has always been a special publisher with a special mission. Our broader, nonprofit mission is to reconnect readers through education programs and community outreach. I’m responsible for guiding the editorial program: the Library of America standard series, which issues essential American writing in authoritative editions, and our special non-series books, like David Foster Wallace’s tennis essays, String Theory. The LOA publishes reliable editions. They are uncluttered. The mission is to build the national library of American writings—canonical, neglected literature, historical writings. It’s one of the most important undertakings in the history of American publishing.

How do you choose what to publish?
How we publish any given author is always a tricky calculus. Looking at a writer with a voluminous body of work, are we better off being selective or comprehensive? It varies from author to author. Sometimes it’s not an issue. Flannery O’Connor, for example: The stories, novels, and all the nonfiction—if we exclude the letters—fit neatly into a single volume. But I’m thinking now about publishing an edition of Constance Fenimore Woolson, wrongly neglected, whom Henry James saw as a significant nineteenth-century writer. Woolson is a revelation to me: I had always known who she was because of James, but do yourself a favor and look at her short fiction. Is the LOA better off publishing one volume, two volumes, or everything we have of hers? That’s a question I’m faced with. Though a larger selection might be of interest to scholars, I’m not entirely sure that it’s the right thing to do in presenting her work to a general audience.

How does the LOA remain relevant today?
This is a weird time we’re living in. The proliferation of fake news, inequality, a presentist disregard for the past—in such times, we need the LOA more than ever. Our history and literature still have much to teach us. We ignore it only at our peril. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I believe that. Here’s an example: When Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing Hamilton, it was the LOA’s edition of Hamilton’s writings that Miranda used as a resource. The musical in turn brought readers back to Hamilton. We published a brief paperback, The Essential Hamilton, in 2017 that we then put gratis into the hands of educators around the country.

What has been the most unexpected thing you’ve learned about LOA since you arrived?
I’ve been repeatedly impressed by the amount of research and scholarship that sometimes goes into these volumes. Literally at my feet right now are three or four oversized cardboard boxes that represent the outtakes from the American Poetry Anthology—and just the two volumes devoted to the twentieth century. There’s so much research and scholarship that goes into production. It’s kind of a humbling thing. 

 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review Daily, Lana Turner, Prelude, and elsewhere.

  

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

Q&A: Sarah Browning Splits This Rock

by

Nadia Q. Ahmad

2.14.18

Ten years ago, Sarah Browning and a group of fellow poets founded Split This Rock, a literary nonprofit that works at the intersection of poetry and political activism and hosts the biennial Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness in Washington, D.C. Browning recently announced that she will step down from her role as executive director of the organization at the end of the year, and that the search for her replacement will begin after this year’s festival, which will be held from April 19 to April 21. With her final year at the organization underway, Browning discussed her past decade at Split This Rock, the continued need to consider poetry a form of social engagement, and the upcoming festival. 

What changes have you seen in the literary world since starting Split This Rock?
When we started this organization, there were very few literary organizations engaging in activism. I went to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in 2003, three weeks before the United States invaded Iraq, and I could find only two sessions that engaged political questions at all. We were actively being told not to write political work fifteen years ago. That’s why we started D.C. Poets Against the War [a movement in 2003 to protest the war in Iraq] and then Split This Rock, which emerged from that movement. Split This Rock brought the activism piece into the picture. Now, of course, everybody is focused on making change with their poetry and doing so more explicitly. But I’m telling you, ten years ago, there was no home for it. And that’s why we built it.

The name “Split This Rock” comes from a poem, doesn’t it?
It does, from a Langston Hughes poem called “Big Buddy.” It ends with, “When I split this rock, / Stand by my side.” So it’s about splitting the rock of injustice but also the solidarity that’s needed—that need for community.

How does Split This Rock make poetry and activism accessible?
We try to bring poetry into as many spaces as possible and encourage everyone to write. We host community writing workshops twice a month in D.C. They’re free, drop-in; all you have to do is show up. The room is physically accessible, with transcription service for people with disabilities. You don’t have to have an MFA or any educational experience or introduction to poetry. We believe that, as Roque Dalton wrote in a poem, “poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” And our programs prove it. People are hungry for the imaginative language of poetry and for the authentic voice of one another, the heart-language, because so much of our experience is mediated now by propaganda, by commerce, by social media. We’re being sold to all the time. So we’re hungry for more authentic experience, and that’s what poetry is: It’s idiosyncratic language; it’s weirdness and wildness.

What would you say to those who might suggest that poetry and activism are incompatible?
Writers have always engaged the world around them. And as a writer you have to write what’s pounding up inside you. And if what’s pounding up inside you is injustice—if there’s a mother who has to work two jobs just to get food on the table, or if you are that mother, and you’re writing late at night and hoping there’ll be enough food to get you through the end of the week to the next paycheck—then that’s what you’re writing. That’s the poem. That’s what’s going to have power: What is the fire in your belly?

Nobody should tell anybody else what to write. I’m not telling anybody what to write. These poems were always being written; they just weren’t finding a wide audience because journals weren’t publishing them. The guidelines were saying, “No causes.” The contests weren’t awarding these poets the awards. The universities weren’t giving these poets the jobs. Because of racism, and because of conservatism. And homophobia and sexism. Split This Rock was founded to help these poets, like myself, feel less lonely and be more effective as poet-citizens, so that we could join together when we wanted to do activism—but also to amplify our voices and to create our own platforms.

Split This Rock cites Federico García Lorca’s concept of duende as one of its core values, which is described on your website as “recognizing the potential imaginative power of fear and embracing poets and activists who grapple with difficult issues and take risks in their writing and public work.” Why are fear and risk both necessary to move things forward?
It ain’t easy. None of it. We’re not going to make change if we stick to platitudes and simplicity, either in our poetry or in our social justice work. So we have to go to dark places, difficult places, in ourselves and in our relationships with one another and in our society. And that’s hard. I think it certainly helps us to sometimes be patient with one another. Split This Rock is one of the few places in the literary world, but really anywhere, where folks who are twenty-one and folks who are seventy-six are hanging out in the same room, having conversations. And maybe they have radically different cultural references and life experiences. So duende informs that because it’s scary to say, “You know, I don’t actually know anything about what you’ve just said.”

I’ve never studied poetry formally, so even when I’m with a bunch of academics and they use terms that I don’t know, I have to say to them, “Guess what, I don’t know what you’re saying!” [Laughs.] Which is a scary thing for me to say. I try to face my fear. But it’s at all levels, and we have to do it at all levels: personal, creative, collective, national. I’m the descendant of slave owners. I write about that in my work and I’m trying to push that, hard. I don’t know how my extended family’s going to feel about it, let alone other white people from the South. I wasn’t raised in the South, only half my family is from the South, so I’m going to be treated as an outsider, but that’s an issue where I feel like we have to face our fears as white Americans.

What guests and panels are you excited to feature in this year’s Split This Rock Poetry Festival?
Sharon Olds has been added to the lineup, which is really great news. She was supposed to feature at our very first festival in 2008 but was unable to come. Likewise, Sonia Sanchez kicked off our first festival and she will be back to mark this tenth anniversary. But also we have young poets like Paul Tran and Terisa Siagatonu. We always try to honor voices of all ages and in all places in their writing lives.

This being the first festival under the new political regime, we are particularly interested in how poetry is being used in resistance and in how poets are taking care of themselves and one another. We’re all feeling a lot of despair, I think, and we heard that in the proposals we received. There are a lot of sessions about using sadness, about using rage—in our poetry, but also in our community building—and acknowledging these things as real. Crying. Holding one another in celebration and in support.

What’s next for you—writing?
Yes. I don’t do well without structure, even this late in my life. I’m thinking about grad school. But at the very least, I would like to have more time for my own poetry and creative nonfiction. My second book just came out, but it was ten years between books. It would be nice not to have ten years till the next one.

 

Nadia Q. Ahmad is the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.  

Sarah Browning

(Credit: Kristin Adair)