Crayoned Fire: In Praise of Book-Length Poems

Dante Di Stefano

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 190.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved long poems. My first introduction to poetry came from epics I read before I could possibly understand them, books my father owned and half-read: The Divine Comedy, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid, El Cid, Orlando Furioso. When I started writing poetry myself, I was drawn in by the modernist attempts at epic: the Cantos of Ezra Pound; William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, published in five volumes between 1946 and 1958 by New Directions; and H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (Grove Press, 1961). Then, as an undergraduate wandering the stacks of the Glenn G. Bartle Library at Binghamton University, I discovered A. R. Ammons’s Garbage (Norton, 1993) and Tape for the Turn of the Year (Norton, 1965). Around the same time, my poetry professor, Liz Rosenberg, assigned The Book of Nightmares (Houghton Mifflin, 1971) by Galway Kinnell. Kinnell and Ammons hooked me with their discursive, gamboling, digressive, ambitious, sprawling, yet unmistakably cohesive poems. I started writing poems too long to bring into workshops and too obscure to make sense to anybody but me. Later on, I would find Ruth Stone’s Who Is the Widow’s Muse (Yellow Moon Press, 1991) and William Heyen’s To William Merwin (Mammoth Books, 2007), two book-length poems that never cease to amaze me with their propulsive brilliance. At some point along the way, I also read Rachel Zucker’s “An Anatomy of the Long Poem,” which she recently included in the appendix of her book The Poetics of Wrongness (Wave Books, 2023). My thoughts on the long poem inevitably trace back to Zucker’s many insights; Zucker’s essay confirmed for me that I should continue trying to write a book-length poem. Reading The Poetics of Wrongness after the University of Wisconsin Press published my book-length poem, Midwhistle (2023), affirmed the conclusions I’d made through my writing process.

Before writing Midwhistle and reading The Poetics of Wrongness, I had assumed that writing a poem longer than a page-and-a-half Word document was beyond my capabilities. I had tried and failed for twenty years to write longer poems, while keeping in mind that writing a good poem of any length is an accomplishment, a thing that isn’t merely lucked into being. Book-length poems—or poetry collections that read like book-length poems—kept calling to me from my reading life: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (Graywolf Press, 2014), Derek Walcott’s Omeros (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (Vintage, 1998), Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel (Knopf, 2014). Add to that list a growing number of book-length projects or poetic sequences: Crow by Ted Hughes (Faber and Faber, 1970), Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) by Victoria Chang, Olio (Wave Books, 2016) by Tyehimba Jess, Sand Opera (Alice James Books, 2015) by Philip Metres, the many books of H. L. Hix. The list of long poems I admire could go on and on, including those by Ronald Johnson, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Melvin B. Tolson, and, of course, Walt Whitman and William Blake. These works are so disparate in their thematic concerns and technical approaches as to be almost unrecognizable as a category or type. What I love about long poems is what I love about poetry in general: Long poems are not monolithic; they thrive on acute heterogeneity and multivalent strangeness.

If I had to constellate the many long poems (and long-poem-adjacent projects) I love, I’d have to rely on Rachel Zucker’s brilliant observations. Zucker argues that a long poem (1) is extreme, (2) grapples with narrative, (3) takes time to read, (4) is confessional, (5) creates intimacy, (6) is “about” something AND is about nothing but itself, (7) resists “aboutness,” is instead muralistic or kaleidoscopic, (8) discovers itself, (9) allows the poet to change her mind, (10) changes the mind of the reader and the writer, (11) is ambitious, (12) humbles the poet, (13) highlights process, (14) is imperfect. I found all these observations to be true when writing Midwhistle.

I started writing Midwhistle without knowing I was beginning a book-length poem. I’d just watched a YouTube video of William Heyen reading his poetry. I had been corresponding with Heyen, who is in his eighties, and I found his work and life to be resonant with my own, reconciling as it did a kind of suburban conformity with a radical, quixotic ambition to make great poetry. My wife was pregnant with our second child. We were living through the pandemic and emerging from the chaos of the Trump presidency. I began writing a poem, a single column of seven syllable lines, addressed to both my octogenarian poet-friend and to my unborn child. Before I knew it, I had written ten pages in one sitting. A few days later, I went back to what I wrote and saw it was pretty good (as Larry David would say). I printed off a copy and sent it to Heyen. He wrote back telling me I should develop it into a book-length poem and suggesting I should break the stichic column into cinquains, or five-line stanzas. From there, I developed a stanzaic pattern that zigzags like a double helix. The poem unspooled like an umbilical c(h)ord from there. I felt like I could put anything and everything into this poem, even my own imperfections—all my wrongness and all my love. The poem was my way of saying everything-beyond-saying about poetry and the world—for the future adult my unborn son would one day be, and to the poet I revere.

I wrote the poem at intervals over a two-month period. I imagine I worked in the way an undisciplined novelist might work, incrementally and at odd intervals. Once I had around fifty pages done, I set it aside for a month. Then I reread it and began making initial revisions. I sent it to William Heyen. He sent back encouragement. I revised for several more months and then sent it out to University of Wisconsin Press. Fortunately for me, Ron Wallace and Sean Bishop saw the strength in what I had written and decided to publish it. I worked on revision intensively for the next couple of months and then proofread draft after draft along with the exceptionally diligent copy editors at the press. I spent more time revising the twenty-four sections of Midwhistle than I have with any poem in my life.

Dwelling in the long poem allowed me to understand better the tropes and thematic concerns that populate my body of work. My obsessions and my quirks fanned out before my eyes. I came to see all my poetry as an intimate conversation with my wife and kids and with the poets and poetry I love. I came to embrace my flaws, my extremities, my ridiculousness. Poetry became more intimate for me than ever, more sacred, and at the same time closer to the rhythms of the ordinary and the unvarnished. I felt that I’d accomplished something as epic as the crayoned fire in one of my five-year-old daughter’s 8.5 x 11–inch landscapes. I felt like a stick figure king arrayed in ROYGBIV and counting to one hundred. From that vantage point, even the briefest lyric fragment expands like a pocket universe, and the distance between short and long poem collapses entirely. For those daunted by the prospect of writing a book-length poem, I would offer the advice that I would give my younger self if I could: Be patient. Keep reading long poems that delight and undo you. Be prepared to fail many times. But gather the bouquet of those failures close to your heart, and let their aromas inspire momentum and ambition in you. Lastly, keep writing more and differently—for the love of writing, the way my daughter sketches her vibrant Crayola kingdoms and queendoms, letting the irrepressible, ancient, innate music of the self take shape on paper.


Dante Di Stefano is the author of four poetry collections, including the book-length poem Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016), Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019), and Lullaby With Incendiary Device, which was published in an anthology titled Generations (Etruscan Press, 2022) that also includes poetry collections by William Heyen and H. L. Hix. Di Stefano’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2018Prairie Schooner, the Sewanee Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. With María Isabel Alvarez he coedited the anthology Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and teaches high school English in Endicott, New York. He lives in Endwell, New York, with his wife, Christina, their daughter, Luciana, their son, Dante Jr., and their goldendoodle, Sunny.

Art: John Cameron

What Herbie Hancock Taught Me About Formal Poetry


Dante Di Stefano


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 189.

When I first began seriously writing poetry in the late 1990s, I was immediately drawn to formal poetry. Nineteenth-century poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins was, is, and will forever remain my North Star in poetry. When I first read his poems at nineteen, I was smitten, overwhelmed by his sprung rhythms and by the way he marshalled his daringly ebullient alliterations within traditional formal patterns. I spent the next few years writing curtal sonnets—an eleven-line variation of the traditional sonnet invented by Hopkins, exemplified by his poem “Pied Beauty”—then branched out into Elizabethan sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and thousands of lines of blank verse. None of this poetry was very good. My teachers in creative writing classes responded more favorably to my rawer, freer work (inspired by my other poetry crush, Allen Ginsberg). My teachers also made me aware of the conservative political charge surrounding neoformalism at the time. The poets my teachers admired (James Wright, Stanley Kunitz, James Dickey) had followed a trajectory shared by many American poets of the twentieth century; they began their lives in poetry by writing technically virtuosic formal poetry and eventually broke into a free verse of tremendous power. It’s a compelling arc: from formality to freedom. But in each of these cases, and in almost any writer’s journey, the arc is not as straightforward as it might appear at first glance.

In the twenty-first century, the arc described above has been atomized and absorbed into the bloodstream of countless poets. MFA graduates and amateurs, local poets and performance artists, poets laureate and professors are living through a golden age of American poetry, in which any given poetry collection displays an astonishing variety of forms. Look no further than the proliferation of American sonnets, pantoums, golden shovels, and so on, peacocking through the digital ether and across the pages of your favorite literary magazine. Recently, while reading Tim Seibles’s Voodoo Libretto: New and Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2022), my opinion was confirmed that his command of the villanelle equals that of Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and Dylan Thomas. Zeina Hashem Beck’s crown of sonnets, “Poem Beginning & Ending With My Birth,” in her recent collection O (Penguin Poets, 2022), is a formal tour de force. Terrance Hayes, through the intercession of Wanda Coleman, has reinvigorated the sonnet form as radically as anyone since Shakespeare. Seibles, Beck, and Hayes aren’t exceptions to the rule; most poets today shuffle through a multiplicity of forms and techniques.

In my early twenties, I had mostly abandoned my apprenticeship to form. I was working as a bellhop at a Holiday Inn and writing notebook after notebook full of bad poetry. One day I found out that jazz musician Herbie Hancock was staying at the hotel. I love jazz, and so, when I found out he was staying there and would be checking out during my shift, I made my way up to his room to collect his bags and the bags and instruments of his group members. I asked for his autograph, and he was surprised that a young bellhop in the middle of upstate New York knew his discography, from Empyrean Isles to The New Standard. I told Hancock at one point that I was really into “free jazz”(Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, late Coltrane). He chuckled and said, in the gentlest way, “You know, all jazz is free.” When he said this, I immediately thought of poetry. Saying “free jazz” is as redundant saying “formal poetry.” Just as jazz is contingent upon improvisation, so pattern is essential to poetry. Every choice we make in a poem, from diction to syntax to line length to enjambment, is a formal choice. The bottom line for beginning poets, and for poets who are anxious about formal poetry, is this: Don’t be afraid of inherited forms because all writing is an engagement with form. Not only was Hancock a generous tipper, but he offered me the gift of a new insight into poetry, which I’ve carried with me for over two decades.

Since this conversation with Hancock, I have continued my experimentation and romance with form. Much of my formal work has revolved around the ten-syllable line, writing in a kind of Miltonic blank verse and deploying those lines in sonnets, sestinas, and short lyric poems broken into quatrains or tercets. In my recent book-length poem, Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), I invented a stanzaic pattern I call the “stepped septasyllabic cinquain,” which is a fancy way of saying a five-line stanza built with seven syllable lines indented in a fashion that recalls a spiral staircase. Here are a few stanzas from a section titled “in the manner of Proust & Tolstoy” from Midwhistle:

            I am & was a deckle

                        edge, a drawing room, an iris

            blossoming distance under

                                    the eyelids of my unborn

                        child, who is & is not me.


            & blooming, thus: I gather

                        my radiant manias

            & sweet regrets & hold them

                                    out for you, these details that

                        deepen into fond symbol.

For me, composing by counting syllables as I go forces me further into the rhythms of the individual lines and steers me into syntactical and dictional choices that I wouldn’t otherwise make. The felicitous enjambments in the first stanza above (“deckle / edge,” “iris / blossoming,” “unborn / child”) owe themselves to syllable count, as does the phrase “radiant manias” in the second stanza.

Formal constraints are almost always generative stimulants. If you find yourself resistant to experimenting with form because you find the constraints limiting, I suggest seeing the limitations of any formal stricture as hurdles to soar over, as diving boards to corkscrew off, as papier mâché walls to careen through. Also remember that much of the joy and work of writing comes from what jazz musicians call “woodshedding,” or practicing. You might take inspiration from saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who famously honed his craft on the Williamsburg Bridge, playing for the East River and the J train until he became a legend. For me, much of the excitement of a life in poetry comes from this kind of woodshedding: composing without hope of publishing, exploring the wrong notes, looking for the grace notes, dwelling in the music of lyric saying, tapping out melodies on an old piano in an empty room with a window open and no audience in sight for hour upon hour—like Herbie Hancock surely has done.

Nota Bene: Three books that have been incredibly useful to me over the years in deepening my understanding of form are The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody by Alfred Corn (Story Line Press, 1997), Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (McGraw Hill, 1965) by Paul Fussell, and Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms (Louisiana State University Press, 1986) by Miller Williams.


Dante Di Stefano is the author of four poetry collections, including the book-length poem Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016), Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019), and Lullaby With Incendiary Device, which was published in an anthology titled Generations (Etruscan Press, 2022) that also includes poetry collections by William Heyen and H. L. Hix. Di Stefano’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2018Prairie Schooner, the Sewanee Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. With María Isabel Alvarez he coedited the anthology Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and teaches high school English in Endicott, New York. He lives in Endwell, New York, with his wife, Christina, their daughter, Luciana, their son, Dante Jr., and their goldendoodle, Sunny.

Art: Rokenstreet

Approaches to Titling Your Poem


Dante Di Stefano


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 188.

One of my greatest teachers, David Bosnick, used to say, “A title is like a light switch in a darkened room.” I heard him repeat that phrase many times to the eighth graders he taught, and I carried that saying with me into my life as a poet and teacher. A title is often a light switch: the first place you go to illuminate the room of a poem. In my reading and writing life, however, I’ve found that a title can also be a dimmer-switch, a dial, a circuit breaker, a live wire exposed and sparking. Sometimes a title isn’t wired into the structure of the poem at all. Sometimes it’s a satellite orbiting high overhead. Sometimes it’s a dose of poison that contains its own antidote. And sometimes it’s just a title: an empty placeholder, a name tag, an easily guessed password. Thinking deeply about how titles work over the years, I’ve come up with a list of ten categories for poem titles. Many of these categories overlap, and the list is by no means exhaustive. But hopefully the different types of titles I explore below will open some new possibilities for titling your own work.    

1. Formal
A formal title calls attention to the form a poem is (and sometimes isn’t) written in; this is, of course, a metapoetic gesture. The poem might either subvert or strictly adhere to the form. Examples include: “Villanelle After Wittgenstein” by H. L. Hix, “Sestina: Travel Notes” by Weldon Kees, “pantoum: landing, 1976” by Evie Shockley, “Haiku” by Etheridge Knight, and any of Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets.

The sestina and the pantoum have a substantial tradition of including the form in the title. Wanda Coleman’s use of “American Sonnet” in her titles—a practice extended by Terrance Hayes in his book American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Books, 2018)—complicates, subverts, and invests with historical complexity the English sonnet tradition. Consider also Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Woods: A Prose Sonnet,” an early example of the American prose poem that adds to its frisson by invoking form.

2. Emblematic
In an emblematic title, a word or phrase works like a sigil or symbol for the poem. The emblem might introduce an abstract concept, a concrete subject, or a guiding metaphor that will be elaborated as the poem unfolds. Emblematic titles tend toward brevity and sincerity, and they tend not to be subverted in the course of a poem. Examples include: “Despair” by W. S. Merwin, “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks, “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, and “My Son, My Executioner” by Donald Hall.

Emblematic titles are useful if you want either to err on the side of simplicity or to call the reader’s attention to a central metaphor. These titles are not flashy, but they often do complicated work, as does Hopkins’s windhover (a kestrel, which is a metaphor for Christ) and Smith’s repurposing of real-estate jargon for a meditation on the human power to act in the face of a cruel universe.

3. Anaphoric
Anaphoric titles involve repetitions—either by quoting a line that appears within the poem or within the poetry collection itself. Examples include: “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, “Just Once” by Anne Sexton, “For the City That Nearly Broke Me” by Reginald Dwayne Betts, and “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrance Hayes.

Anaphoric titles might repeat within the poem, as in the first line of Sexton’s poem and the last line of Frost’s poem. Or they might establish a musical refrain within a larger work, as in Betts’s Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015), wherein eleven poems are titled “For the City That Nearly Broke Me,” and Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, wherein every poem is titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” Repetitions of this kind can emphasize obsession (obsessive confrontation of a difficult truth, perhaps) and create the effect of a litany.

4. Expository
Expository titles set a scene and provide narrative details about the situation explored within a poem. Poets like Robert Bly and James Wright were inspired by the expository titles in ancient Chinese poetry. Examples include: “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day” by Li Bai, “After Drinking All Night With a Friend, We Go Out in a Boat at Dawn to See Who Can Write the Best Poem” by Robert Bly, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright, “On the Fatal Consequences of Going Home With the Wrong Man From the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893” by Amy Gerstler, and “Black, or I Sit on My Front Porch in the Projects, Waiting, on God” by Jameka Williams.

I admit I’m biased toward expository titles—the longer the better, especially when the poem is short and succinct.

5. Allusive
An allusive title references another text, artist, or work of art. Examples include: “Note Blue” by Kyle Dargan, “Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting” by Frances Sterle, “Girls That Never Die” by Safia Elhillo, and all of the poems in H. L. Hix’s book Perfect Hell (Gibbs Smith, 1996), which are titled after quotations by philosophers.

Kyle Dargan’s “Note Blue” apostrophizes Teddy Pendergrass, who was the lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Francine Sterle’s “Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting” invokes Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of the nearly same name (“Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting”). Safia Elhillo’s title comes from a lyric by Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Allusive titles work like hyperlinks for meaning, summoning the world of another text or artwork and layering it into the frame of the poem. 

6. Subversive
A subversive title defies the expectations and clichés it invokes. Examples include: “Come In” by Robert Frost, “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, “acknowledgements” by Danez Smith, and “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” by Amiri Baraka.

Robert Frost was a virtuoso of subversive titling. Many Frost poems do what “Come In” does, which is to seriously probe the intersection of grief and reason. The prosaic welcome articulated in the title subtly takes on more ominous associations, with death and dying, as the poem moves to its close. Plath lacerates the paternal term of endearment associated with childhood, controversially metaphorizing the Shoah in this “confessional” poem (although “Daddy” reads less subversively today than it did when it was first published). Danez Smith’s title parodically conjures the lengthy acknowledgements pages in contemporary poetry collections, moving from the title into a nuanced exploration of love, desire, and identity. Baraka’s title playfully subverts itself as it moves between light and dark, between joy and grief, between innocence and experience, initiating its readers into a profound chronicling of what it was like to be a Black father in the late 1950s. 

7. Metapoetic
Metapoetic titles tend to be formal, emblematic, expository, allusive, and subversive all at once. Examples include: “Words Written Near a Candle” by Tess Gallagher, “Lines Written on a Splinter from Apollinaire’s Coffin” by Paul Violi, “Poem” by James Schuyler, “Prose Poem (“The morning coffee.”) by Ron Padgett, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” by Wallace Stevens, “Poetry” by Marianne Moore, and “Words” by Ruth Stone.

Metapoetic titles call attention to the poem as a written and aural artifact, as Gallagher’s title does. Metapoetic titles might engage some element of poetics and poetic tradition, as Violi’s surreally does. These titles might reinscribe or fabricate the circumstances of the poem’s initial composition. They might challenge or affirm a definition of poetry as Stevens’s does, and as Schuyler’s, Moore’s, and Stone’s do more simply and directly. A metapoetic title might also embody the expanding cartographies of genre it professes to delimit, as Padgett’s title does so well.

8. Perspectival
A perspectival title unironically introduces a persona or frames a dialogue in the poem. Examples include: “Ellen West” by Frank Bidart, “Carl Hamblin” by Edgar Lee Masters (and most of the poems from his Spoon River Anthology, first published by Macmillan in 1915), “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes, and “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Perspectival titles, like emblematic titles, function more like light switches than the other categories in this essay.

9. Fugitive
A fugitive title spills over, or “runs on,” into the opening line(s) of a poem. Examples include: “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams and “here rests” by Lucille Clifton. Clifton’s poem begins:

here rests

my sister Josephine
born in July ’29

The fugitive title collapses the artificial boundary between title and text. The title is subsumed into the organic structure of the poem, and it functions less as a label and more as a first line.

10. Absent
Some of the most famous poems in the English language do not have titles; think of Emily Dickinson’s lyric shards. Refusing to title a poem may inscribe a gap, a gulf, a chasm at the poem’s start.

Much remains to be said about the art of titling. The possibilities for titling are more numerous than the names of our ancestors and descendants, as luminous, or, at least, as multitudinous as the stars in the sky. To poets who have trouble deciding on a title, I say: Try as many kinds of titles as you can. These titling strategies are not all light switches exactly, but they do flicker with meaning in the many rooms of the poems I love.


Dante Di Stefano is the author of four poetry collections, including the book-length poem Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016), Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019), and Lullaby With Incendiary Device, which was published in an anthology titled Generations (Etruscan Press, 2022) that also includes poetry collections by William Heyen and H. L. Hix. Di Stefano’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2018, Prairie Schooner, the Sewanee Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. With María Isabel Alvarez he coedited the anthology Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America (NYQ Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and teaches high school English in Endicott, New York. He lives in Endwell, New York, with his wife, Christina, their daughter, Luciana, their son, Dante Jr., and their goldendoodle, Sunny.

Art: Dstudio Bcn




Family Stories: Alternatives for Load-Bearing Clichés


Laurie Frankel


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 187.

When I set out to write my new novel—Family Family, published this month by Henry Holt—I started with a very simple goal: Write about adoption. But make it non-tragic. But make it non-boring.

And just that quickly, this goal proved to be not simple at all.

As so often happens when I decide, usually smugly, to write against the grain, I quickly discovered that the clichés and timeworn tropes are load-bearing. Hackneyed though they may be, they provide readymade support and structure to the story. Getting rid of them is a worthy goal, but then we have to find a replacement, which is difficult but requisite: How else can we hold up the roof?

Wherever you locate literature’s origins—Sophocles? Homer? Fairy tales? Ancient religious texts? Folklore the world over?—the stories humans tell have always been full of adoptive families: orphans seeking parents, parents raising children to whom they are not blood related, small units we call families who share everything but genetics. Adoptive families lack not for literary representation.

But that representation—also from the origins of literature—is pretty relentlessly terrible. Cinderella’s stepmother subjugates her because she’s not actually her mother. Moses gets sent away by his birth family and adopted only because the other option is death. And let’s not even talk about what Oedipus suffers on account of being raised by adoptive parents instead of his birth ones.

We see negative portrayals of adoption across the board—in classic as well as contemporary literature, in books for kids as well as books for adults, in plays and television and movies, in documentaries and fantasy and horror, in superhero stories (like, most superhero stories). Sometimes the trauma of adoption is central to the narrative: The story is about a child raised by adoptive parents who abuse her, say, or a birth mother who travels the world searching for the child torn from her grasp, or adoptive parents struggling to love children who aren’t really theirs. Sometimes adoption is merely thrown off as a plot point or a bit of lazy character development: the reason the bad guy is so bad (he’s adopted!), the reason the mother is so cold (she’s an adoptive mom, not a real one!), or the reason the druggie is addicted (placing her child for adoption broke her forever!).

It’s not that there aren’t people who have horrible adoption experiences. Of course there are. It’s not that there aren’t people who go into adoptions wishing they didn’t have to. Of course that’s true too. The problem is that these stories aren’t the only ones. It’s important for us to talk about negative systems and negative experiences and negative feelings and the reasons for them. But it’s just as important that that’s not all we talk about.

There are all kinds of reasons the conversation surrounding adoption is so narrow, many of them offensive. You know who says families only count if they look a certain way? You know who says families are only strong or good for children if they’re made up of certain relationships? People whose agenda is antigay. People who imagine pure bloodlines they don’t want diluted. People whose message is that good and desirable women stay home to raise children and serve husbands.

But as I waded into my first draft of Family Family, I realized that in addition to these infuriating reasons, there was another kind of rationale entirely. A less offensive but more insidious reason portraits of adoption in literature are so narrow and negative has nothing to do with the constraints of family. It has to do with the constraints of narrative. Happy families may all be alike, but they don’t turn pages. Or to put it another way: Stories need plot. They need a beginning, a middle, and an end—characters who at first are ignorant then learn, struggle with flaws then rise above, encounter obstacles then surmount them. Stories need conflict to resolve, unknowns to reveal, wrinkles to iron out. Nuance if possible. 

My own kid is adopted, and I loved her to my toes before I even got her home. Love like that is great for babies, but boring for stories about them. At least one reason it takes adopted characters in novels 350 pages to find belonging is, if they have it to begin with, that makes for a very short book. If birth mothers don’t spend chapter after chapter mourning children they lost to adoption, there’s not enough room for them to grow as characters. If adoptive parents don’t struggle with infertility, then painfully settle for adoption, then slowly learn that that’s also a worthy option, the narrative arc is too flat to turn pages. So much of the strife that typifies adoption literature stems from the fact that literature needs strife.

Adoption is also an awfully good metaphor. You know who sometimes feel like they don’t belong? Adopted people. Also every other person who has ever lived on this planet. Everyone has crises of identity. Everyone questions the received wisdom of their parents. Everyone wonders where they came from and who they really are and how they’ll figure out where they’re going. Everyone experiences loss and walks around with holes it’s the work of a lifetime to fill. Everyone looks at their family sometimes and thinks, “Who the hell are these people, and what could they possibly have to do with me?” Which means if you want to write about feeling lost or alone or at sea, about missing something or searching for something or being different or wanting more—i.e. the human condition—adoption is a really good way to do it.

And so I found my simple remit—a non-tragic, non-boring story of adoption—surprisingly difficult to locate. I knew going in I wouldn’t write a tragedy about adoption. I knew I wouldn’t write a tragedy narrowly averted either, or a family who experiences hardship for four-fifths of a book then learns to love, or characters whose sadness surrounding adoption is the inevitable bit and their finding happiness, after all, is the surprise. But then I had to figure out what to write instead. What else could occasion an adoptive family’s learning and growth? How else to keep readers engaged and seen and learning about the world and turning pages? How to honor what’s hard about adoption while also honoring what’s wonderful while also honoring what’s ordinary?

It sounds impossible, remarking on what you want to insist is unremarkable. But at its core, it seems to me, this is what literature does. It reveals either what’s wondrous in the everyday or, alternatively, what’s common and shared in the extraordinary. It took three-and-a-half years, throwing out one timeline entirely and rewriting it from scratch, and a truly countless number of drafts before I figured out what worked. It turned out I needed not to tell one non-tragic, non-boring story but lots of them, not to depict a different kind of adoption but as many different kinds of adoption as I had room for, not to raise one different voice but a polyphony. Or maybe a medley. Family Family harmonizes a range of adoption notes and chords, bringing into tune an array of perspectives and reasons for adopting among the book’s characters. The end run around the clichés proved not to be a different kind of adoption story but many differing stories braided together.

What’s surprising is how long it took me to come to this solution. More stories and more diverse stories and more positive diverse stories are what we need under any circumstances. Exposure to lots of narratives helps us to identify our unexamined assumptions, then examine them—which is pretty much the reason we read.

Sometimes there are really sad things about adoption. Sometimes adoption seems sad for sad reasons: the racism, sexism, and homophobia that so often fuel messaging about family. But when we look closely, we see that sometimes adoption seems sad because telling good stories is hard. It’s hard to write beyond the clichés because it’s hard to write without the clichés. Since the clichés are so often load-bearing for the story—and since we can’t build anything strong without structure and support—when we lose the clichés, we must look in unusual places for material to bolster the narrative.

So: Writing well about adoption is hard. But its being hard, I want to argue, is, in fact, good news. Telling stories—like being a member of a family, like being a member of a nontraditional family, like raising children no matter how much blood you share or don’t with them—should be hard. Work isn’t supposed to be easy. And the work here—reading critically, sharing our stories, changing the tropes and challenging the clichés, questioning what’s handed to us—is hard. But it’s also cause for celebration.


Laurie Frankel is the New York Times best-selling, award-winning author of five novels, including Family Family (Henry Holt, 2024). Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, and other publications. She is the recipient of the Washington State Book Award and the Endeavor Award. Her novels have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and been optioned for film and TV. A former college professor, she now writes full-time in Seattle, where she lives with her family and makes good soup.

Art: Sandy Millar

Finding Your Crow


India Lena González


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 186.

“Let me begin with Crow. I first met Crow on the mountain. The mountain that changed everything. There’s always been a bird inside me. It used to sit outside my window when I was a girl, me feeding the hogs across the cornfields. Then that little bird was orange and bright, but it grew into Crow, black Crow. Crow who has always been with me, even now.”

So says the trailblazing, raw, seductive, forward-thinking, and enigmatic funk queen, singer, and mythmaker Betty Davis in Betty: They Say I’m Different, a 2017 documentary on the artistic life and disappearance of Davis from the music scene years ago. Davis, who died last year, was Black and Cherokee—like myself—and told the director of this film, Philip Cox, that Crow was her spirit guide. Images of black crows landing and taking off punctuate the film and stand in for Davis, alongside powerful images of her in the 1970s, as we learn about her path to becoming the wild thing that she was. We see her growling into the microphone, with her gritty rock and roll sound; her iconic outfits replete with sequins, feathers, colorful prints, and metallic boots; her sexually liberated dance moves. She was distinctly and uncommonly free, unapologetically Black and female during a time when civilized and genteel images of African Americans were in favor on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. As a performer, Davis was therefore seen as “indecent” (often synonymous, when it comes to women of color, with being fully empowered); she faced major backlash for being so undeniably herself, leading her to drift away from the music scene altogether, opting for a quiet and private life instead.

The tone and timbre of Davis’s voice, that Crow that was within her and encapsulated her artistic aura, still lingers in my inner ear, leading me to an intuitive feeling about what I’d like to become as a writer—purposeful, deeply authentic, and free in the way Audre Lorde described it in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”: “The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” For Davis’s music always elicits feelings from its listeners, and in feeling and hearing her freedom one also becomes empowered by a process of artistic osmosis.

I’m convinced by what Lorde and Davis have shown me, and what my ancestors have passed down to me in our beliefs and ways of moving through this world, that writing that originates from being as opposed to thinking is where authenticity lies—our real and most sincere selves, our inner crows. Creating art for me has never been an intellectual exercise as much as it has been a spiritual one, a deep exploration of who I am, where I come from, and where I’m headed. In finding and writing my true voice as a poet (and I tried on many voices during my undergraduate and graduate years to see what stuck), I have arrived at a ritual through which I create language from my subconscious, my intuition, my dreams, my body, my ancestors, but never truly from my mind—that final editing tool. For writing is far more than a mental activity; it’s a soul-searching pursuit. Crow was Davis’s “heartbeat,” as she says in the film, and I am committed to a poetics that originates from our inner selves, our heart caves, and, yes, our literal heartbeats.

Immersing myself in Davis’s world has led me to thinking about how we can be freer to present our truest selves in poetry, as true as Davis was to herself when she performed on stage. The way one sings across the page may differ from the way they speak in other settings: their office voice, their phone voice, their outside voice. After all, isn’t poetry our inside voice? Yet, even as that interior tone is some very real part of us as poets, writing is simultaneously a performance, aware of a readership that may potentially analyze, and judge, every word and line.

The architecture of self on the page, the use of voice and tone in building it—how does one find that? Some people go looking for their voices in others first, mimicking their favorite poets. Others claim to be born with a strong artist’s voice, their own bright-turned-black crow. The path is varied. Some people more carefully construct this sense of self, this literary voice, for a certain purpose. Maybe it’s to be liked, accepted, “cool,” published, or maybe it’s to counter that which is liked, accepted, “cool,” and generally published. Others give off the air of caring little about public perception at all and more about what feels right in the moment. What I’m mostly interested in is how much of ourselves we reveal and give to our readers through our voice. How much of our pain or mischievousness or family upbringing is found in our choice of words, the slang and vernacular we do or do not use. How much of ourselves do we give without reservation on the page?

Coming from a dance and performance background, I can say that there is a vulnerability to presenting yourself physically to an audience that you cannot hide from. In writing, to some degree, we can hide behind the page: Our bodies are not present, only our words can be seen. But I desire that same fullness, that same “here I am” quality on the page, and I can only assume other writers do too. I also understand the inauthentic voices that can show up in a written work when we conceal ourselves. How can one remain authentic, I have wondered for the better part of my twenties, when the poet, the page performer, acknowledges to some degree the audience, their readers? There’s something playful that can take place in that performance. So perhaps authenticity is a choice. Of course, one must know how to pull something true out of themselves before that choice can be made.

Engaging in other art forms helped me to find and establish my authentic voice, and it also taught me how to pull something true out of myself, for finding our own inner crows and our voices is, for me, one and the same—the purest part of our being. In college I fell in love with acting around the time I committed myself seriously to writing (yes, I was still dancing). Pushing myself to find my own crow within the voices of scripted characters who looked, sounded, walked, and thought nothing like me helped me nail down my authentic voice with each costume and character change. It also helped me feel the full wingspan of my inner self. Yet acting initially felt anti-India. I was a shy child growing up, and I am still an introvert today (though I masquerade as an extrovert when I absolutely must). Not having to use my voice during dance kept some part of me safely tucked away off stage. Knowing that about myself, I forced myself to audition for an acting class in college as a way of pushing past my comfort zone. Who was I if I proved to myself that I wasn’t so shy, that I could get up in front of an audience and cry without feeling uncomfortable? I feared acting would make me unhinged or overly emotional, because it created a version of myself that couldn’t control what happened next, what my scene partners said and how I reacted to them. And control is the very antithesis of acting, of art in general, which thrives on flexibility and spontaneity.

While I won’t be so prescriptive as to recommend that every writer take acting classes as a sure method of finding their own authentic footing and voice, I will offer the suggestion to do something that feels antithetical to how you generally think of yourself. Dear reader, is there something you’ve secretly desired to engage in but were terrified to do? Maybe it’s taking a pottery class or dressing and presenting yourself in a certain way that feels truest to you. Give yourself the grace to explore something you’ve avoided or, more simply, something new you never thought you’d do. What becomes of you if you put yourself in a totally new context?

Just this summer one of my dearest friends asked me to paint his nails while we were on vacation together. No doubt this was a huge moment for him, as it surely would be for any heterosexual man in America working actively to break free from certain brassbound ways of being a “man” that don’t serve them. After a half hour in the nail polish aisle of some drugstore in the Southwest, he chose the most beautiful, shimmery pink polish, and slowly, very slowly, fell in love with his painted nails throughout the rest of our week together. It was a wonderfully tender time for his self-discovery. So make yourself tender, and see who you really are. Think of whatever new task or way of living appeals to you and what has stopped you from doing it. Maybe you’ll fail at first when you try it. Lord knows my mother and sister candidly told me that the monologue I prepared for my first-ever acting audition was a very low starting point (lovingly, of course, always lovingly). But if you push yourself to keep at it, you’ll find your grit, your inner rock and roll, your truest self that can then be brought back to the page for you to strengthen your writing practice.

“There it all began, the beginning of being different, like a piece of sugar cane, sweet to the core,” utters Davis in her distinctive Southern voice. In finding our voices as writers—who we are and what we stand for, the symphony of sounds that add up to our distinct utterances, the song of our particular crows—we can search deeply by implementing one new action or way of being in our lives that terrifies us. Why not push into the deepest corners of your being and feeling (not thinking, remember) to expand your conception of who you are and what you can become? I wonder what power, what growl, we can find within ourselves if we commit to not trying to sound like anyone else but being that someone else. There must be the push beyond what is readily known. In that push, that search, I wish for you to find your bird-like voice, your song, and sing it until a new melody blows your way, until that song has said all it needs to say.


India Lena González is the features editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, a poet, and a multidisciplinary artist. Her debut poetry collection, fox woman get out!, was released this fall as part of BOA Editions’ Blessing the Boats Selections. India is also a professionally trained dancer, choreographer, and actor and has had the pleasure of performing at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, St. Mark’s Church, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York Live Arts, and other such venues.

Art: Bianca Ackermann

Page as Stage


India Lena González


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 185.

Can a poem become a body in motion? How about several bodies, a company of dancers moving about the page in synchronicity (sometimes not), taking up as much space as possible from the curtain to the scrim?

Why not reimagine the blank page as a stage for a performance to take place, where our personal joys and troubles can be expressed through language that leaps in front of the reader, even lunges at them?

What if the visual aspect of language is used to add emotional depth to a poem and becomes just as important as what we’re saying, adding to how we’re saying it?  

My mother often tells this story from when I was three or four years old and my father had one of his musician friends over. They were listening to classical music in the living room. It was early nighttime, and my twin sister and I had just taken our baths. Our sweet mother had washed our hair and clipped it in buns on top of our heads, put our Lion King nightgowns on, and was just about to tuck us into bed. Somehow amid this bedtime ritual, I snuck downstairs, unclipped my long, wet hair, and started dancing with closed eyes and gesturing limbs to the dramatic music, with my father and his friend—and eventually my mother—looking on in astonishment at my innate need for and immediate expression of movement.

Though I have no recollection of this moment personally, this memory feels right to me. I started studying ballet shortly thereafter, gradually adding more dance classes until I was taking lessons nearly every weekday and training on the weekends. Throughout my adolescent years, I traveled from my home in Washington, D.C., to New York City during my summers to study at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

All this is to say, my body has almost always been in motion, and that is what feels best to me: jumping, sliding, bending, arching, sweating, stretching, marking dance moves, running, tiredly walking. By the time I chose creative writing as my major in college, poetry could not be stagnant or static for me; it couldn’t always be left-aligned.

Imagining poetry as a linguistic dance performance that takes place on the space of the page can open the door for one’s creativity to explode, for the dispersing of energies as each word becomes a body shooting across the stage before the gathered and quiet audience, pushing us forward in both thought and feeling. A good deal of the poetry I’ve read and studied over the years uses only a tiny portion of each page, but a poem can fill up the entire page; it can mimic the movement of the human body or bodies (no matter the limitations or capabilities of the body doing the writing), enlivening the poet, the page, the poem, and the reader.

In choreography, the arrangement of dancers on stage and the quality of movement required of them create a world of action that contributes to the message or story being communicated to the audience, that core idea that is the impetus behind each look, arm gesture, or flexed foot. Generally speaking, though not always, it is the lack of language in dance, the patterns of bodies on stage—dancers moving into and away from one another, or exiting stage left for a duet to begin—that give the art form the capacity to touch us emotionally. As poets, we have the gift of words at our disposal; focusing on choreographing them, as opposed to merely writing them, allows us to attune more deeply to the buildup and release of tension and momentum that lies between those words, or lines of verse, both of which can be crammed together or pulled apart. Composing this way, making language more active than passive, can prompt the reader to wonder about the intimacy between words that have the pleasure of staying grouped together, about why other phrases are worlds apart, about the length of a line or the rush of the next one, words tumbling across or down the page, one after another.

The arrival of words in front of the reader’s eyes and their movement across the page do more than convey a literal message. They create an undercurrent to the work—I’m thinking of tectonic plates and how their movements reshape the Earth’s landscape—that is changing the continent of the poem: complicating it, subverting it, agreeing with it, pushing against it. This movement also says something about the music of the poem, it gives a tempo to the dance, a pulse affecting how someone will read your words; it tells the reader where the crescendo lies, where the bass and cello come in, and just how high the next note will be. In this way, we can achieve something multifaceted in choreographing language that isn’t entirely true for the choreography of bodies. In dance we often rely on music as the sonic backdrop for our movement, to complete and amplify the mood of a given piece. This music often dictates when and how we move our bodies. In poetry, language is both the dancers and the musicians; the more your words dance across the page, the more you are creating a musical score for your work (quite literally). The dance and music are one and the same, totally intertwined, for your words are jiving to the music that they are creating in real time, shimmying beside one another.

If you are, at this point in your reading, craving examples of such movement-based writing, stay with me for a while longer and see how far we can go without such literary leads. For the sake of remaining playful here (for this is what movement begs of us, to play and move and play and move until we absolutely must rest) and disrupting many of the academic ways of speaking about craft—if just for a moment—let’s not refer to another’s work as a way of learning how to create our own. Let’s start and move from within, from our own place of knowing and intuition. I will never forget my middle school English teacher and the one day he told us to write an essay on a book we had just finished reading as a class, but for the first time ever he gave us no question to prompt our essays. He made us independently choose what aspect of the text we wanted to write about and come up with a thesis from there. I complained to him after class that day, having admittedly no idea where to begin, and he responded by saying that we were all paralyzed by this freedom, yet constantly seeking liberation. So, with no literary references to guide you, try to allow this concept of language-as-dance and the page-as-the-stage to shake loose, unravel, and alter your understanding of how text can work for us; allow it to liberate your personal definition of what a poem is and how it can behave.

The best way to learn how to utilize the page entirely is to move your body gently, following it wherever it takes you in the air or on the floor, to dance in front of the mirror, to move with your siblings or close friends, to lie down and let your body melt into the carpet or wood or rug or bedding beneath you, to focus on your breathing with one hand over your stomach and the other over your heart, to attend a dance performance and sit at the highest point in the audience to see the small ant bodies moving and swirling about on stage below you, to take part in a yoga or Pilates or zumba or masala bhangra class. There are so many ways to write from an embodied place. Try jumping as high as you can for one whole minute or walking in lunges across the room, then writing from the soles of your feet or the soreness of your thighs. When you lay down to sleep at night, what part of your body feels relief or feels the blossoming of dull pain? Don’t ignore that; write from that, or even about that, and use that physical feeling as the impetus behind moving your language around until the (s)pacing feels authentic to all parts of you. In talking about craft, one can only set the stage for your idiosyncratic movements, patterns, and rhythms to reveal themselves to you through introspection and self-exploration.

This engagement with movement of the body can allow our minds—those often-rigid structures—to move and adapt as well, to form new neural pathways for exploring fresh ways of thinking and writing. That way, when we return to the page, we might have a more expansive understanding of how much space can be used and how fully utilizing that space can alter our work and move our readers. If you expand the body through movement, or expand your awareness through watching dance, you expand the possibilities for how you move your words on the page; you can uncage some necessary aspect of your creative self. The best way to choreograph language is to be fully in your body and your feelings, to experiment and play with language on the page, constantly trying to surprise yourself or actively do something you would normally never do to test your own understanding of what a poem can look like for you.

I’m remembering now all those cringe moments in high school when our contemporary dance teacher would turn off the lights in the studio and tell us to close our eyes and improvise to whatever song she put on next. I understand firsthand how repulsive exploration can be at times, how terribly vulnerable it is to get outside of one’s neat conception of who they are artistically, and to not move from a place of learned, textbook examples but instead from who you are at that moment in time.

With your stage now set and ready for you to enter as and when you please, let’s make a circular movement and finish as we started:

What if our performance of language became more fully embodied? What does that look like for you? How might that change your writing practice? How might it change your reading of the work, your relationship to the poem?

Is it uncomfortable? Is it freeing? Is it neither?

What is the emotional score of your poem as told through movement of the written word?

If the reader is your audience, then show them the true formations of your thoughts, show them how to feel you (beyond the heavy-duty, line-break work of poetry) pressed deeply into each individual letter and intentionally blank space on the page.  


India Lena González is the features editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, a poet, and a multidisciplinary artist. Her debut poetry collection, fox woman get out!, was released this fall as part of BOA Editions’ Blessing the Boats Selections. India is also a professionally trained dancer, choreographer, and actor and has had the pleasure of performing at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, St. Mark’s Church, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York Live Arts, and other such venues.

Art: Hulki Okan Tabak



The Poetics of Temperature


India Lena González


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 184.

I am admittedly a cold-blooded creature, which is to say I run chilly naturally and am therefore always following the sun, wherever its rays land. I am grateful when I sit next to someone on the subway, especially during the piercing frigidity of winter, and a bit of their warmth transfers to my person. I need that fire to keep me going. It should therefore come as no surprise that when writing my debut poetry collection, fox woman get out!, published by BOA Editions in September, I sought to create a very large fire to warm both me and my readers, as I see that as an act of survival and, beyond that, care.

This idea of temperature in writing came back to me recently when I was giving a poetry reading hosted by one of my undergraduate professors. He said that when he first encountered my work he thought I came from a desert landscape, somewhere like Texas, because he found the climate of my poems to be dry and hot. I’m from Washington, D.C., originally, but my former professor aptly sensed the innate blaze within my work. He then asked me and the other readers at the event: What is your psychic climate? I offer this question to you now, dear reader, to help ground you even more in your creative practice. For paying attention to temperature and climate within our work puts us in touch with the natural world around us and within us.

Marguerite Duras is a writer I would characterize as having a frosty psychic climate. In high school I first encountered Duras’s The Lover (Pantheon, 1998) and was astonished by the cold precision of the book’s language. The adolescent French girl at the center of the novel was unusually tough and in control of her lover in a way I had never before read regarding a young, female character. “One day, I was already old,” the book opens. Reading those words, I knew I would be ravaged by this melancholic, young girl who rushes into adulthood. Duras’s language is terse at times. Abrupt and short, rhythmic sequences revealing the protagonist’s thoughts—in both first-person and third-person narration—keep the reader at bay, yet make them just curious enough to continue. “The story of my life doesn’t exist,” the narrator says near the beginning of the novel. “He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why,” writes Duras right before the narrator’s first intimate encounter with her beloved. Duras teeters between giving the narrator a certain aplomb and mysterious air, while also allowing the reader in on remarkably intimate moments, the desire of her younger self, which adds a necessary fire throughout.

Later, in college, my sister recommended that I read Richard Siken’s debut poetry collection, Crush (Yale University Press, 2005). The electricity of each line moved through me on a physical level; the book was a necessary gut punch. In her foreword to the book, Louise Glück even remarked on her physical, temperature-based response to the collection, citing Emily Dickinson’s words as a point of reference: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry.”

In Siken’s poem “Dirty Valentine,” which narrates the speaker’s fantasy of a film starring him and his deceased lover, Siken uses serpentine stanzas to add to the emotional urgency of the speaker’s longing, this ruptured performance of love. The zigzagging lines create a path for us to keep moving along or get sucked into, like some sort of winding tornado; as we read, we hope that the deep sentiment behind this dizzying film performance will lead the couple to a more innocent and present love. Every thought is a quick rush of heat, too high-voltage to be grouped in longer lines, adding to the emotionality of the language, which is amplified by the surrounding scenery:

                                                                           There’s a part in the movie
         where you can see right through the acting,
                               where you can tell I’m about to burst into tears,
                    right before I burst into tears,
                                         and flee to the slimy moonlit riverbed
                                                                           canopied with devastated clouds.

Then there are moments of tenderness within the collection, a body of water to allow for sorrow, the feeling of drowning in one’s longing. In the poem “Saying Your Names,” Siken, in left-aligned verse, offers the reader and the speaker a moment of rest, allowing the movement of his language to settle down and his tone to become remarkably soft:

… Please keep him safe.
Let him lay his head on my chest and we will be
like sailors, swimming in the sound of it, dashed
to pieces.

The temperatures of those two books have not left my body to this day.

Let’s now turn this topic inward, exploring our own writerly temperatures: Does your poetic degree of hotness or coldness match the natural temperature of your body, of where you were born, of where you currently live, of where you hope to live? Look at the length of your stanzas, where you choose to break lines, the musicality of your language (your pacing, use of rhyme, consonance, and assonance), how you utilize form on the page, how distant or present you are emotionally, how much the “camerawork” of your poems zooms in on the speaker and what they are witnessing, how you might turn the camera away before revealing too much, where you choose to locate your poems in space (outside or inside), and what the climate of that location allows for. See what temperature you may be transferring to your readers.  

A more embodied, and less literary, way of understanding our poetic temperature involves taking time to be more actively present in our bodies throughout the days, seasons, and years. Take note of whether you prefer a blanket on top of you to fall asleep, need the air conditioner on at night or a window open in your room to feel the outside air. If you’re walking, hiking, or working out, how soon do you begin sweating? Do you sweat at all? How fast or slow is your heart rate throughout the day? What’s your natural talking pace? All these details can manifest as a certain temperature in our poetry, and the more aware we are of our answers to these questions the more aware we can become of ourselves—and the more present and knowledgeable we can become when showing up to the page.  

There are myriad ways to think about and write into one’s poetic temperature, including how you go about building a certain climate or mood before turning the thermostat of your poetry down or up to maintain a sense of balance throughout. However cold-blooded or hot-blooded you may be (let’s not forget that temperature and temperament are linguistic relatives), use your innate and literary temperatures to move your readers, so that they too will carry your words in their minds and bodies for years to come.


India Lena González is the features editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, a poet, and a multidisciplinary artist. Her debut poetry collection, fox woman get out!, was released this fall as part of BOA Editions’ Blessing the Boats Selections. India is also a professionally trained dancer, choreographer, and actor and has had the pleasure of performing at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, St. Mark’s Church, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York Live Arts, and other such venues.

Art: John Fowler

The Myth of Realism: Belief and Incredulity in Fiction


Jennifer duBois


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 183.

One of the more interesting experiences of teaching creative writing is encountering students’ varying definitions of “realism.” Individual senses of what’s likely, possible, or plausible diverge more than might seem obvious, and those instincts are bound up in religion, culture, personal history, reading experience, and personality.

In class I sometimes draw a chart with two axes—physical and psychological—to break down the notion of “realism” into four quadrants. Physical realism seems the most straightforward: On one end we have stories that take place fully within uncontested external reality (as in the fiction of Alice Munro); on the other we have stories that flagrantly violate the laws of physics (the ghosts and zombies of George Saunders, for example). Somewhere in the middle might be speculative fiction, which adheres to the laws of physics while positing events beyond our current social reality (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind). Yet, inevitably, trying to define physical realism will inspire some ontological debate: What to do with ghosts, extrasensory perception (ESP), the astrological concept of “Leo season,” or the resurrection of Christ?

Even with stories situated squarely within the realm of consensus physics, we often run into conflicting beliefs about how the social world works. People have different individual experiences—my own family life has offered up enough twists to leave me with an inflated sense of credulity as a reader—and operate under different systemic realities. I’ve seen white students, for example, respond incredulously to accounts of racism in work by Black colleagues; these white students believe they have never seen white people behave as the characters do in these stories, and perhaps they really haven’t. But that doesn’t mean that white people don’t behave in these ways sometimes, or that the stories are at all unlikely. As Alexander Chee has put it: “A fiction writer’s work is limited by his sense of reality, and workshop after workshop blows that open by injecting the fact of other people’s realities.”

Psychological realism gets even trickier: How do we define what’s psychologically “realistic” without immediately resorting to wildly subjective intuitions or straight-up tautology? There may be some key indicators that a writer’s primary project is not to interrogate the depths of the individual human soul as he or she has observed it: In their books, everyone sounds alike, no one is particularly curious about anything, or all characters react in a similarly muted way to some supernatural event. (Compare Don DeLillo’s White Noise to Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Although both books contain extraordinary events, I’d argue that Ward is interested in something much closer to psychological realism than DeLillo is.) But beyond these general observations, we often find that our sense of how psychologically realistic a piece of work is—and how psychologically realistic our own work is—is a private, highly individual reaction, unlikely to be precisely shared by others. 

In writing The Last Language, published last month by Milkweed Editions, I was attempting to convey an extraordinary event—and an extraordinary mind—within the realm of realism as I understand it. The book follows Angela, a linguist-turned-speech-therapist, who uses a controversial new device to communicate with Sam, a nonverbal patient; Angela and Sam apparently fall in love, but Angela is eventually arrested over questions of consent. It was important that the book felt grounded in physical reality, since the mechanics of what is actually happening with the device is the basis of the entire moral mystery: Is Angela channeling Sam’s own writing through a process too subtle for others to perceive? Or is she unconsciously guiding his hands, like a person with a Ouija board? Readers must be able to imagine that both interpretations are physically possible—or at least that a character might believe they are.

To my mind, The Last Language can only work if it reads as psychological realism. If everyone in the novel seems bonkers, the question of whether Angela is loses its salience. With Angela I wanted to explore the mind of an unusual person—intelligent, idiosyncratic, only possibly pathological—which meant offering indications that other characters may not see the world in quite the same way she does. I peppered Angela’s early narration with suggestions that her perspective might be in some ways unusual—the way she tries to invoke September 11th as a partial excuse for her behavior, the flat tone she takes when discussing her husband’s death, her inept interactions with her small child. Later I give side characters dialogue that expresses their surprise and skepticism about Angela’s approach, allowing us to see around Angela’s perception of herself to the way that she’s perceived by others. My goal was never to make readers believe Angela’s interpretation of events—only to believe that she believed it: that her particular life and personality and backstory, her intellectual tendencies and her emotional needs, had given her a personal sense of realism that might include her love affair with Sam.

But maybe this points to the insufficiency, or irrelevancy, of realism as a category in the first place. As Donald Barthelme put it, “In fact, everybody’s a realist offering true accounts of the activity of mind. There are only realists.” By this generous definition, Angela is a realist. So am I, so are you, so are we all—quite regardless of our proximity to what anybody else might call the truth.


Jennifer duBois is the author of The Last Language (Milkweed Editions, 2023), The Spectators (Random House, 2019), Cartwheel (Random House, 2013), and A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press, 2012). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in Austin.

Art: Mo


Hearing Voices: Characterization and Language


Jennifer duBois


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 182.

Much of what makes a fictional voice compelling comes from authorial imagination rather than technical competence: A narrator needs something to say and some reason for saying it. Figuring out what exactly all this will sound like involves many considerations. A writer must contend with inflections of dialect as well as the particularities of idiolect: favorite words, tics, malapropisms, and idioms that characterize a speaker’s personal language.

When I talk about idiolect with my writing students, I use myself as an example: Imagine a person from Western Massachusetts (“soda,” not “pop;” “rotary,” not “roundabout”) raised by an ancient father who was himself raised in poverty (“They’re gonna send us to the poor house!”) in upstate New York (“He’s got the nerve of a canal horse!”) before volunteering for World War II (“That’s enough for the whole Russian army!”). She spent many, many years studying and teaching in MFA programs (“What are the stakes?”) and swears a lot—even in the classroom (probably partly because she’s never been made to feel she doesn’t belong in one). She doesn’t understand the definition of “belie” and so avoids using it in conversation. She can’t pronounce “elegiac” but sometimes says it anyway. She never uses the phrase “beg the question” wrong because pretty much all she remembers from her undergraduate study of philosophy is how not to do that. After living in Texas for ten years, she very occasionally attempts a “y’all” but never, never makes it sound convincing.

Voice, in a real sense, contains an entire biography.

I tried to keep this in mind while writing my fourth novel, The Last Language, published last month by Milkweed Editions. The book follows the story of Angela, a linguist-turned-speech-therapist who uses a controversial technology to communicate with a nonverbal client, Sam. Angela and Sam fall in love; Angela is arrested over questions of Sam’s ability to consent. As the novel’s sole first-person narrator, Angela has a stranglehold on the reportage and interpretation of events, and the whole book hinges on the question of how much readers should trust Angela’s perception of reality. Are she and Sam tragic lovers, as Angela fervently believes, or has she exploited a severely disabled man? Angela’s voice had to not only characterize her, but provide subtle context about her trustworthiness. When she tells us who she is, she tells us who she wants us to think she is—while also letting slip some things that she isn’t aware of (or maybe doesn’t want to be).

When thinking about voice, I often turn to the work of Zadie Smith, particularly her novel NW (Penguin Press, 2012), which showcases her masterful ear for languages and the interesting ways they jostle against each other. Every character’s speech in NW is astoundingly well-heard: Francophone Michel’s English-as-a-second-language (“more easy, some bullshit like this”); working-class Leah’s mispronunciations (“St. Loo-shun. St. Looshee-yan?”); aging addict-heiress Annie, whose half-ironic, elevated diction (“ludicrous,” “terribly bright,” “don’t be such a bore”) sounds straight out of Evelyn Waugh. Even the nonhuman entities in NW are given deeply characterizing language: The television speaks in cliches, passive constructions, and bullshit; the Madonna statue speaks with the precision of written language, using words and phrases like “exempt,” “mealy-mouthed,” and “simpering.” She speaks like she is not speaking at all.

I tried to keep this variance in mind while writing The Last Language. Angela’s diction is often stately and elevated when she speaks about her intellectual commitments in narration. In dialogue, however, her register shifts with the context. She begins her first conversation with Sam’s mother, Sandi, in a professional, anodyne language, then begins to ape Sandi’s more casual tone as she sees this first way of speaking isn’t effective. Sandi is informal and a little vulgar from the get-go (“Fuck the shart weasel,” she says of her ex); Angela is more cautious and evasive. She hides the fact that she, like Sandi, smokes, and—unlike me—she doesn’t really swear: Angela is a person who has been made to feel out of place in the academic and professional world.  

Yet the differences between the characters’ voices may be less important—and less revealing—than their similarities. Readers will probably quickly notice the fact that Sam, once he starts to communicate through experimental technology, sounds much more like Angela than his mother—which could be a telling clue about who is really speaking. Then again, Sam is more widely read than his mother; his sister, Moira, a college student, sounds pretty academic too. Does Sam speak like a person Angela could have invented—some precise analogue of her—someone who is not Angela, but somehow of and belonging to her? Maybe so. But whether this is because she’s invented his language or found true love with a person who speaks her own is the central question of the novel.


Jennifer duBois is the author of The Last Language (Milkweed Editions, 2023), The Spectators (Random House, 2019), Cartwheel (Random House, 2013), and A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press, 2012). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in Austin.

Art: Pavan Trikutam


Withholding and Revelation: Managing Information in Fiction


Jennifer duBois


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 181.

“Truth is not an unveiling which destroys the secret, but the revelation which does it justice.” —Walter Benjamin

Writing my new novel, The Last Language, published last month by Milkweed Editions, was an exercise in managing mysteries. The book follows the story of a linguist-turned-speech-therapist, Angela, who uses a controversial new technology to communicate with a nonverbal client, Sam. The two fall in love, and Angela is arrested for alleged sexual assault. The book’s moral puzzle hinges on the question of whether Sam was ever genuinely communicating at all.

The Last Language is narrated entirely from Angela’s point of view, which gives her airtight control over information and interpretation: She believes completely that she and Sam are misunderstood lovers. But in order for the book to be interesting, I needed to find ways to suggest that Angela might be wrong about this, maybe disastrously so. In considering how to conjure this ambiguity, I was conscious of the distinction between what Angela knows that the readers don’t versus what the readers know and Angela does not. I tried to keep in mind the difference between what my late, great creative-writing teacher Michael Downing called a “hint” versus a “suggestion.” A hint, according to Downing, has one possible explanation: A sympathy card on the mantel, for example, would hint that someone close to the homeowner has died. A suggestion leaves open the possibility for multiple interpretations: A black dress could be worn to a funeral or a cocktail party, for example. In The Last Language I tried to make Angela’s distortions feel more like suggestions than like hints. I wanted to make sure that her evasions felt authentic to her psychology and that her eventual disclosures felt impelled by the narrative, not my own convenience. (George Saunders says that there’s an inverse relationship between a reader’s tolerance for a coincidence and a writer’s need for it, and I would argue that something similar goes for big, juicy revelations.) And although I don’t love the term “unreliable narrator”—because I think all narrators are unreliable to some extent—it is true that some narrators are more unreliable than others: Their cognitive biases are more extreme, their moral judgements more self-serving, than the average person’s. And some of them, of course, will straight-up lie to you. I had to decide which kind of narrator I believed Angela to be.

I wanted Angela’s voice to raise this question from the get-go, even as her characterization and context provide possible explanations. She is grandiose and emotionally stilted—but then again, she’s a Harvard-trained linguist who, we learn early on, has just suffered significant trauma. She is obviously self-serving, but also strangely self-aware about how self-serving she might appear to be. Her first-person narration is addressed to an absent “you”—Sam, we understand—which grounds the narrative in a sort of defensive crouch; Angela’s fundamental human bias in favor of herself is compounded by the fact that what she is writing in the book is both a love letter to a lost beloved and also, potentially, a legal document. Maybe it makes sense, then, that she’s vague about some important elements of her backstory, including the circumstances surrounding her ejection from the linguistics program and the nature of her husband’s death.

She has, it turns out, left out essential, meaning-altering context from her accounts of both of these episodes. The first indication that there might be more to the story of Angela’s husband’s death actually comes more than halfway through the book, in dialogue. Sam’s mother, Sandi, asks Angela how her husband died. ‘“It was an accident,’ I said. ‘With some pills.”’ Sandi then crosses herself. It made sense to me that Angela might tell Sandi a truth she’s withheld from her own thinking—an event she’s thought around but never looked at directly and narrativized. She’s grown close to Sandi, and Sandi has just shared an awful story of her own. At the same time the context invites some ambiguity: We know what Angela has said, and we know what Sandi assumes she means, but we still don’t entirely know if Angela has told the truth or if Sandi has interpreted her words correctly. Angela has a lot of reasons to court Sandi’s empathy; maybe that’s all she’s doing.

This, I felt, was an interesting question for readers to consider, an uncertainty that was worthy of their patience—a “necessary” mystery, as one of my graduate-school professors once put it. An “unnecessary” mystery, he argued, is essentially just confusion, the kind of obscurity that occupies a reader’s attention to no particular end. A necessary mystery is a meaningful question the text is pondering—maybe narrative, maybe moral, maybe psychological—and it is in considering these that the reader will be rewarded.

One unnecessary mystery in The Last Language that needed clarifying: how, exactly, the device that Angela uses to communicate with Sam works. Over and over I revised these sections, trying to convey the physical details of the process—how the characters sat, where and how they touched, what cues from Sam guided Angela as she stabilized his hands. Honestly, revising this part was boring. I was much more interested in other things. But that was the whole point: I had to give the reader as clear a picture as possible of the prosaic so that they could have an unobstructed view of the mysterious. So again and again, I reworked descriptions of scenes involving the device, trying to help readers understand exactly what they’d feel and perceive if they were Angela. I wanted to give a full account of the physical realities, then I wanted to walk away and let readers decide what they meant. Because that’s a mystery that belongs to them, and not to me.


Jennifer duBois is the author of The Last Language (Milkweed Editions, 2023), The Spectators (Random House, 2019), Cartwheel (Random House, 2013), and A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press, 2012). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in Austin.

Art: Pascal Muller

Write Like a Translator


Heather Cleary


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 180.

Wait, you might say. Why would I want to write like a translator? Fair enough. Translation isn’t usually among the first things that come to mind when we think about the craft of writing, but maybe it should be. For many writers translation is an integral part of their creative practice, offering an intimate perspective on a range of stylistic and conceptual approaches to poetry and prose they might never have encountered otherwise—Langston Hughes, Julio Cortázar, and Elizabeth Bishop, are just a few twentieth-century examples. And just as great writers (often) make great translators, great translators generate powerful linguistic effects, creating vivid images, vertiginous rhythms, tonal shifts, and silences charged with meaning. Which is to say that translation is a form of creative writing in its own right—one that operates within a unique set of constraints.

One of the things I love most about translating fiction is that it demands my total immersion in someone else’s narrative sensibility. I need to understand how character, setting, pace, and tone are constructed in the text I’m translating, then figure out how to render these using an entirely different set of linguistic tools. The only thing I don’t need to do is decide what happens next in the plot. This means that each project becomes a master class in the effects different linguistic choices can produce in a text. Below are three of the many lessons I’ve learned from the practice of translation that can be applied to all forms of prose writing.

Lesson 1: There’s meaning in sound.

When I began to work on Luis Felipe Fabre’s Recital of the Dark Verses, published last month by Deep Vellum, I quickly realized that everything in this novel of picaresque misadventures, sexual awakenings, and stolen corpses (well, just the one) hangs on the rhythm of its prose. (Read Fabre’s earlier Craft Capsule: “Dis-Identity Poetics.”) This makes sense: It’s a novel written by a poet about a poet, the Spanish mystic San Juan de la Cruz, whose poetry is woven throughout. Fabre’s control of Spanish is virtuosic. On the one hand, he combines archaic syntax and verb forms with crisp contemporary phrases; on the other, like the landscape across which his protagonists travel, the terrain of Recital ranges from easy, loping narration in service of the plot to baroque passages in which the devout are whipped into religious fervor or the libidinous are whipped into orgiastic frenzy. In one scene, for example, while the court bailiff charged with stealing the dead body of San Juan de la Cruz—then known as Fray Juan—is arguing with the prior of the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Úbeda, the friar guarding the front gate regales two men with the story of Fray Juan’s death and the startling reactions sparked by the holy odor given off by his corpse:

The scent quickly spread throughout Úbeda like a rumor, waking its people and waking within them unfamiliar yearnings and excesses and making them rise from their beds and wander through the pitch-dark night, for they knew, without knowing how, that Fray Juan de la Cruz had died, and they knew they needed to come see him. And come they did, wandering through the night to gather here at the doors of the monastery. And here gathered did they implore and demand entry, but I was not allowed to allow them such.

One of the strategies Fabre employs to convey the people’s breathless fervor, their teeming mass, is interlocking one clause with the next through repetition. The account almost sounds like a religious litany as it builds toward its climax over the course of several pages. To render the scene in English, I had to respect this repetition and pay attention to consonance and assonance, reinforcing the sense of linguistic braiding present in the original. I also looked at where the natural emphasis fell in the sentences I was constructing, with an eye toward creating an incantatory effect.

Toward the end of the same passage, Fabre conveys the chaos of the scene with the overlapping images of people from different professions carrying blades, one clause bleeding into the next, one verb serving varied subjects:

Persons of all ilk clambered over one another in the church and in the streets to approach and touch or at least see the body. And drunken on that celestial odor arrived the butchers with their knives, and with their daggers the pimps, and the cooks with their skewers, and the blacksmiths with their tongs did arrive. With their saws arrived the carpenters, and with their clippers the seamstresses, and with their needles the noblewomen, and with their razors the barbers did arrive. And the people arrived in uncountable throngs at the ready with blades suited to their office and, standing but notwithstanding their office and standing, all desired the same thing, which was their slice of saint.

In contrast, later in the novel, a moment of relative peace on the road to Madrid offers the travelers a chance to breathe, and the prose follows suit. The text is still playful and baroque, but there’s more air in it, and we can feel the travelers’ forward movement.

The restfulness of those days was aided by the flatness of the road through Castile, where at dusk the sun rolled across the sky like an orange across a country table, nudging [the travelers] along their way. But to say this is to say too much, for the flatness of Castile allowed neither ornamentation nor rhetorical flourishes, much less the luxury of metaphorical Andalusian oranges.

How can we activate this attention to sound in our own writing? One exercise I’ve found helpful has been to write a simple scene of four or five sentences (a person waiting for the bus, for example) four different ways. What happens to the language if your subject is very hot versus very cold? If they need a bathroom? If they’re angry about something that just happened? How does the phonetic landscape shift?

Lesson 2: Check your work.

This might mean confirming that you haven’t included a term that, historically, was first used centuries after the novel is set (unless you’re deliberately playing with anachronism, as Fabre does in Recital). Or reading your draft through with a specific focus on continuity: Did an old version of a character’s name sneak in there somewhere? Did you accidentally cut the transition between your character sitting inside on the sofa and them sprinting down the street? Or it might involve a visualization of physical spaces and objects that appear in the text, using online image searches or even a trip to your local library or archive. If you’re talking about a coat of arms that existed four hundred years ago, to borrow an example from Fabre’s novel, it can make a huge difference in the specificity and believability of your description if you’ve seen it with your own eyes. Or—to linger with this extremely niche example—if you’re inventing a coat of arms, look up its possible components and sketch it out in the medium of your choice.

I grew accustomed to this process as a translator, particularly through reconstructing, in English, spaces that had been imagined by another writer in Spanish. This practice has served me well in my own writing: The notebook for my current fiction project is peppered with hand-drawn blueprints and sketches of a character’s favorite trinkets—there’s even a paint chip in there. This is not to say that every space, object, and emotion needs to make perfect sense or be completely explicit, either in translation or non-translational writing. Experimentation is great; expectation-busting is great. Ambiguity is great. But withholding information or deviating from a linguistic norm tends to work best when the hand sketching the image or writing the phrase knows every contour of that choice and can render them with precision.

Lesson 3: Choose your verbs carefully.

It might be a product of the languages I work with or the brain I use for translating, but I’ve found that the process of rendering text across languages can distort how things come out on the other side. I remember Natasha Wimmer—who has translated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño—describing the early stages of translating as “getting a snail’s-eye-view” of a text. Working from Spanish to English, this might mean finding a gratuitous “the” or “that” here and there in a first draft, as well as countless appearances of “to be” and “to have” and “to get,” all of which needs to be audited in second, third, fourth drafts of the text.

This awareness has led me to be particularly vigilant about those little elements that slip over from our thought processes or the way we speak, which can dilute a passage of prose: the little habits we each have in our forms of expression, or the multiple adverbs we use to build toward an action when there’s usually a more direct road to get there. It’s always striking to watch a text come to life as I begin to select more specific, evocative verbs to take the place of “to get” (tired, hungry), “to be,” and so on, even though I know from experience the difference this makes. Which is not to say that efficiency is always the goal—not at all. Circuitous expression can be a very powerful strategy, too, particularly in voice-driven narratives. But, just as in Lesson 2, this strategy works best when used with precision and intentionality, and I’ve found that there’s usually room somewhere to trim and polish word choice.

In any case, practicing translation—even if you never intend to publish your work—can be an excellent way to explore the mechanics of other narrative or poetic strategies and to learn more about your own habits as a writer. (I didn’t talk much about translating poetry here because that practice offers different lessons, which I hope you’ll explore if you feel called to do so.) If you don’t have a second language to work with, you can always apply the principles outlined above directly to your own writing.

One caveat: You may not want to trot out your inner translator for a first draft—we translators love obsessing over details, but we can be great company as you edit.


Heather Cleary is an award-winning translator of poetry and prose from Spanish into English. The author of The Translator’s Visibility: Scenes from Contemporary Latin American Fiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), she holds a PhD from Columbia University and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently writing a hybrid novel about translation and murder.

Art: Mounzer Awad

In Bad Faith: Notes on Fidelity in Translation


Heather Cleary


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 179.

Translations are often described as being “faithful” to the original, but rarely discussed is what, precisely, a particular translation is being faithful to. Because no two languages will ever map perfectly onto one another, there will come a time (in fact, there will come many times, early and often) when a translator will need to choose some aspect of a layered word or phrase over another. Often what is lost can be recovered elsewhere. For example, if a noun in the original language carries a negative valence—as “hovel” does, compared with “home”—but no such nuance exists in the language into which the word is being translated, that tone might be applied (with great care) to a nearby noun; sometimes this creates an overall effect that is closer to the spirit of the original text. These kinds of calculations underlie every word of every translation. So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about fidelity? The translator might focus on how the original sounds, privileging rhythm and alliterative effects over, perhaps, lexical equivalence. Conversely the translator might focus on finding the most literal match for a specific term, sometimes at the expense of lyrical effect. In other cases tone or formal conceits might be given priority.  

I found myself thinking about these questions even more than usual while translating Luis Felipe Fabre’s Recital of the Dark Verses. (Read his earlier Craft Capsule: “Dis-Identity Poetics.”) Published by Deep Vellum last month, Fabre’s novel is a raucous account of the (very real) theft of the body of San Juan de la Cruz at the end of the sixteenth century. Fabre weaves lines from three of the saint’s best-known poems throughout the text; these lines also serve to structure the action of the plot. Because the novel plays with the exegetic tradition of the declaración, or commentary—in which a single line of religious poetry is expounded upon in pages of (often quite esoteric) prose—each chapter features a brief introduction that cites a line from one of San Juan’s poems, framing the protagonists’ adventures. The line sets up the action that will unfold in the chapter itself, the body of which will often feature other little snippets from San Juan’s oeuvre. In other words, the verse not only needed to work in English as whole poems but individual lines and phrases also needed to work in the varied contexts into which they were inserted in the novel.

One of the most exhilarating challenges of working with Recital of the Dark Verses was figuring out what to do with this embedded poetry. Because I wanted the novel to resonate with the literary history from which it draws, I had planned to cite existing translations of the three poems that appear in the book. To be completely honest, I was also crushingly intimidated by the idea of translating the Spanish mystic. Unfortunately the versions of San Juan’s poetry I found in English were all quite somber. This is the beginning of “La noche oscura,” or “Dark Night of the Soul,” the poem at the heart of Fabre’s novel:

En una noche oscura,
con ansias en amores inflamada
¡oh dichosa ventura!
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A oscuras y segura,
por la secreta escala, disfrazada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!
a oscuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the poem—in addition to the female poetic voice, a detail that figures prominently in Fabre’s novel—is its gait: The lines seem to dance on air. They are formally precise in rhyme and meter, but there is a breeziness to them that comes from their down-to-earth register and clear connection to the poetic tradition of recital, to the tradition of the poem as song. Though San Juan took the subject of the soul’s union with God very seriously, he chose a popular, accessible form to express it.

The English versions, however, are weighed down by the desire to present the Spanish mystic with gravitas. The standard translation read today is one produced by the British scholar Edgar Allison Peers in the 1930s; it is what most English speakers think of when they think of the poem “Dark Night of the Soul.” Here are the first two of eight stanzas from the Peers translation: 

On a dark night
Kindled in love with yearnings
—oh happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By secret ladder disguised
—oh happy chance!—
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now at rest.

Peers chose to translate the poem in free verse; many editions don’t even include San Juan’s line breaks. Peers’s words have a markedly elevated register—a common, though fraught, strategy for adding “olde-tyme” flair to a translation. The half dozen or so English interpretations I consulted in my search for the holy grail of an extant translation were similarly problematic. Where the Spanish is as light and sweet as a string of tiny meringues, all the English versions I found felt leaden, despite felicitous phrases here and there. While these translations are all valuable in their own right, they did not align with Fabre’s reading of San Juan—or the novel he constructed on the basis of that reading. Which meant that I needed to roll up my sleeves.

In my version of “Dark Night,” the meter is a bit more even, and near-rhymes in a more colloquial register form a rhyme scheme that, while not exactly the same as the one employed by San Juan, is at least internally consistent throughout.

On a pitch-dark night,
by love’s yearnings kindled
—oh wondrous delight!—
I slipped out unminded
for my house had gone quiet.

In darkness, without fright,
down hidden stair I snuck
—oh wondrous delight!—
in darkness, with fine luck,
for my house had gone quiet.

As so often happens with translation, the only way to be faithful was to be unfaithful. In this case, in order to be faithful to Fabre’s novel, I had to be unfaithful to the San Juan that English speakers have known for decades. This is not to say that I was brave and dove headfirst into retranslating one of the most revered poets in the Spanish language. No. Initially I cowered behind versions of the poems cobbled together from existing translations, adding a few of my own cosmetic adjustments. But that approach wasn’t working, so I went back to the drawing board, retranslating the three poems by San Juan that appear in the novel. Though in the case of the “Spiritual Canticle,” I only rendered the parts of the poem Fabre cited (making my version like the set of an old Western—only the visible parts of the “town” were ever built).

By being willing to throw out what was comfortable and familiar, I was able to get much closer to the playful, sensual spirit of San Juan that had captured Fabre’s imagination and inspired Recital of the Dark Verses. I guess that’s something translators and other kinds of writers have in common: the need to sometimes kill your darlings—or to kill someone else’s. Because there’s nothing more sacred than not holding anything too sacred.


Heather Cleary is an award-winning translator of poetry and prose from Spanish into English. The author of The Translator’s Visibility: Scenes from Contemporary Latin American Fiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), she holds a PhD from Columbia University and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently writing a hybrid novel about translation and murder.

Art: Joshua Earle

Dis-identity Poetics


Luis Felipe Fabre, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 178.

I have long been drawn to the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, whose lines are woven throughout my novel, Recital of the Dark Verses, published by Deep Vellum last month. The book considers the theft of the saint’s remains from a Spanish monastery in the sixteenth century. One of my favorite moments in San Juan’s poems appears in his “Spiritual Canticle,” in which the saint reinterprets, in a mystical key, the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus: The Bride, in search of her Beloved, comes upon a fountain, and the mirrored surface of its waters offers her the image of her Beloved’s eyes in place of her own reflection.

Oh crystalline fount!
May your silvery surface
reveal now the sight
of those eyes most desired
which are sketched upon my heart!

Look away, my Beloved,
for I take to wing!

Unlike the Narcissus myth, San Juan’s Bride does not fall in love with her mirror image. Instead she becomes disidentified with herself and experiences a dizzying, boundless identification with the Other. Somewhere between the expression of desire and the horror of its fulfillment (“Look away,” she exclaims in terror before fleeing the gaze of those beloved other eyes), an epiphany takes place that the poem never manages to express, because it belongs to the order of things that cannot be put into words. 

Though I could never aspire to the mystic heights achieved by San Juan de la Cruz, I’ve included his lines here as something like an epigraph because writing is, to me, precisely this: desiring the Other. It is leaning over the fountain, over the waters of the page, hoping my Other will be revealed to me. I toss my words at the page like someone tossing coins into a fountain while making a wish. And sometimes, (very) rarely, my wish comes true. Sometimes I witness the miracle of the Other. Then and only then, when I don’t recognize myself in what I’ve written, do I feel I’ve written something real—when the paragraph or line of poetry feels disturbingly unfamiliar, as if it had been written by someone else. When what I’ve written seems so strange to me, so Other, that I worry I unconsciously plagiarized something I had read somewhere and then forgotten I’d read it.

Of course, friends who know my work will say under their breath, “Another one of Fabre’s poems.” To them, it will sound just like me; they’ll recognize me in it and yawn, as if they’d read it before. But I know I’m not capable of writing a poem—all I can do is wish for one.

How does the poem get written, then? I wish someone could tell me. My life would be much easier. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe it’s better not to know. In any case, I couldn’t tell you because I don’t know. I might have known once, for a moment while writing, but each time I sit at my computer to write a new poem, I realize I’ve forgotten how, if I ever actually knew. It’s as if I’d never written a word before. Like in San Juan’s stanza about the fountain, somewhere between desire and the strangeness of seeing that desire fulfilled, between attempting to write a poem and having written one, there is a vast, empty expanse for which there are no words. The key term there might be “empty.” I suspect it is. Writing to empty oneself of words, to empty the self of oneself and one’s discourse and ideas, and at the same time to conjure the voice of the Other. At least, that’s what I tend to do, more as a ritual than as a method: I write appalling lines and failed stanzas, make embarrassing attempts, and then I try to have patience with the limitations of being a self that is trying to write. (When I was in psychoanalysis, I was always uncomfortable with how intently my analyst focused on the things I said and perceived: It seemed like a crude falsification of reality, that outsized emphasis on what a self might say, a self under the microscope—a therapeutically-mandated narcissism and a self chained to itself, completely the opposite of San Juan. Frankly I find being myself impossibly boring when there are so many other things or selves I could be. But maybe my problem is that I read Ovid’s Metamorphosis at such a tender age.)

That self-trying-to-write is, nonetheless, a self in conversation with others—or, rather, engaged in an exchange among verses. Because in order to reach the Other, I usually take the writing of poets I admire as my point of departure. I’ve been told that what I do could be described as parody; I accept that description, as long as “parody” is understood according to its etymology, meaning an ode set alongside another. A self that is not alone on the road toward the unfamiliar. Writing has never felt to me like a solitary exercise. It’s when I’m not writing that I feel alone.

This is perhaps why translation has long fascinated me as a process of dis-identification: What was written becomes Other through the language of the other. If, as Robert Frost once said and has been so often repeated, “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” then I celebrate that loss. Because it is, in the end, a win: “you might say I am lost, / that, wandering love-struck / I lost my way and was won,” in the (translated) words of San Juan. In its infinite rewriting in other languages (luckily there is no such thing as a definitive translation), poetry ceases to be just poetry and becomes something bigger that we might call “culture.” A process of socialization: the transition from an individual process of writing to an orgy of collective rewriting. An exercise in defamiliarization. Distancing oneself from the original text in order to leave behind an identity and lose oneself in otherness.  

The biographers of San Juan de la Cruz tell a story, which, though I’m not sure how true it is, has been like an amulet to me in moments of writerly crisis. A nun, astonished after reading his poems, asked him if those extraordinary lines had been dictated to him by God, to which San Juan responded: “God dictated a few, and the others I came to on my own.” I love this slight boastfulness, this vanity, in someone always so austere. But above all, I’m fascinated by San Juan’s understanding of the self as the origin of the strangest and most inspired—the most “other”—verses ever penned in Spanish.

In the end “I is another,” as Arthur Rimbaud asserts in his Letters of the Seer, and poets, as John Keats states in one of his letters, have no identity of their own. I set out from the writings of others in an attempt to arrive, through my own writing, at the mystery of what I am not and what I do not know. Poetry as the path to unknowing. Maybe, I realize now, this is why Diego, one of the characters in Recital of the Dark Verses recites, as if possessed, San Juan’s poems: lines he does not know and through which he comes to unknow himself.

Which is to say: I’ve never been interested in writing a diary.


Luis Felipe Fabre has published six volumes of essays and poetry and is a recipient of the Punto de partida and José Revueltas prizes. His poetry collections in English include Sor Juana and Other Monsters and Writing with Caca, both translated by JD Pluecker. His first novel, Recital of the Dark Verses (Deep Vellum 2023) received the prestigious Elena Poniatowska Prize and was translated by Heather Cleary. He lives in Mexico City.

Art: Marc Olivier Jodoin


Bugging People: A Guide to Research


Michelle Wildgen


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 177.

I used to dread research. Well, I liked reading. If I didn’t have to talk to anyone in order to complete a manuscript, that was fine by me.

But there are drawbacks to relying on books and web searches: You can’t control what someone else chooses to write about, and you may do a lot of sifting in order to find mere snippets of what you’re looking for, an offhand mention in an article about something else. If you’re fascinated by, I don’t know, the smells that permeate an immunology lab, maybe you’ll find information about that and maybe you won’t. There are things a writer wants to know that the expert herself may not realize are actually compelling—and therefore has not written about. I like to imagine my characters in particular spaces, to know what they are doing in their offices or kitchens until I figure out what I need them to do. But Googling what, say, a doctor does upon entering an exam room may or may not help you out. What will help is a half-hour conversation with a doctor, who can tell you what she notices about a patient’s posture, expression, and conversation. Or if your character’s kid has a rare health condition, a chat with a person who has actually raised a child with that condition can reveal small but meaningful details that wouldn’t show up in a newspaper article about the illness.

My point is that sometimes even writers have to talk to people. Once I tried interviewing, I discovered it’s my favorite kind of research. I’ll give you an example of how it’s come in handy. In researching my novel Wine People (Zibby Books, 2023), the first thing I did was talk to someone like my characters: a woman who’d worked in wine importing. She gave me reams of invaluable information, but one of the best tidbits was about what kept her from returning to the business. I thought she’d say the obstacles were her family, her kids, the travel. Instead she said, “My teeth.” The harsh young wines she had to taste are murder on teeth, it turns out, a detail I included in my book that readers mention to me again and again. I’d never have gotten it from Googling.

So what do you need to get started as an interviewer? Begin by asking around. E-mail the people you know who might have direct experience with the subject you’re interested in or might know someone who does. I began my primary research for Wine People by interviewing a friend who owns a wine store, which was a low-stress way to figure out what I wanted to know. Then I asked her who else I should talk to, and she sent me to three others. Those people later connected me to still more people. Another strategy is to put out a call on social media for the people you hope to connect with. I posted on Facebook that I was seeking wine professionals of all stripes, and that alone yielded at least half a dozen replies. Depending on how esoteric your topic is, you may find that the challenge is not finding people to interview but finding more than you have time for.

Once you have scheduled an interview, you have to decide how to conduct the conversation. If you want to meet in person, great. But a call or Zoom meeting also works well, especially for busy people who don’t have an extra hour to drive somewhere and back. Make it easy on your subjects! Be sure to record your interview (and to ask permission to do so ahead of time). You can do this on your phone’s voice memos, on Zoom, and so on. The benefit of recording is that you can focus on the conversation in the moment and not have your head down while you’re scrawling notes. By all means, jot down a word or two to highlight key points. But tech is your friend here.

You may feel as if you have no credentials to do this, but that’s okay. Just say what you’re there for: I’m a writer working on a short story, and I don’t know where it’s going yet. I’m getting to know the world of the narrative and just have some open-ended questions. And so on. Be honest about how you might use what interviewees tell you: If you’re writing an article for a newspaper, for example, you should let the person know whether you intend to quote them using their real name. If you’re going to write fiction, will you disguise everything except a small detail or anecdote?           

There are pitfalls to interviewing people, which I have generally learned by falling into them. For instance, even though you are having the time of your life asking question after question, and your interlocutor may enjoy telling you about her life, you have to watch the time. Try to aim for thirty minutes, confirm the duration before the interview, and stick to it. You can always ask if the subject is amenable to a follow-up call or e-mail, but try to get what you need from that first conversation, and don’t assume another is forthcoming.

Try not to waste your precious interview time on anything you can read about. Books and the internet are perfect for the boring and bureaucratic stuff. I literally bought a book called How to Import Wine, and it was my go-to for basic process descriptions. But I focused my interviews on more experiential questions. Understand your characters and the situation they’re in. What are the blank spots in your story? That’s a good place to start. Ask the subject about the little things: sensory details, tiny moments that signal something is wrong, what success looks like in their field, or any random memory that comes to mind as they talk. Tell them not to worry about whether what they say is useful. Maybe it won’t be—but it might take you somewhere exciting. Sometimes you luck out and a person offers up exactly what you want. Other times the person might not have what you need. How they think, what they recall, or their experiences simply are not what you’re seeking. If this happens, try a few more questions, thank them profusely for their generosity, and save the file in case it yields something you may grasp later.

Interviewing wine insiders made my novel stronger by giving me a much clearer sense of the world in which my story was set than I could have invented on my own. It helped me figure out what the story would be and informed my characters. And it was more fun than I’d expected. The only true struggle was to stop interviewing and start writing.


Michelle Wildgen’s fourth novel, Wine People, was published by Zibby Books in August. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; the New York Times’ Modern Love column and Book Review; and other publications.

Art: Michal Czyz

Falling in Love With Setting


Michelle Wildgen


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 176.

For many years, I thought I hated setting. The mere mention of a tree species on the page was my signal to flee, and I never saw the point of describing the land, the city, or the architecture surrounding my characters. A coffee shop was a coffee shop, a house a house, so why belabor the points? My writing teachers were forever penning affectionate margin notes in my stories, like, “Where the hell are these people???” 

In retrospect I can see two clear reasons for my unfortunate bias: a faulty definition of the term setting and the Ohio suburbs.

The suburbs, I should say, were fine: I grew up in a safe neighborhood in a pleasant, small city. I have friends who live there now, and it’s lovely to visit. But growing up, I couldn’t say what distinguished my town from any other similar-sized Midwestern city. We had the same strip malls and subdivisions, the same Italian American restaurants and burger joints. I grew up assuming that regional identities were really just stereotypes and inventions. Real people were probably all about the same, I thought.

I was very young when I made these assumptions.

The other reason I avoided setting was because I equated setting with landscape, and to this day lengthy descriptions of trees and bushes put me to sleep. I thought that if I didn’t like landscape, I had to avoid setting altogether. We can call it a personal failing, but I am comforted by a John McPhee quote about his wife, who would only listen to him read “ten minutes of geology at a time.” We all have our preferences. My preference was to muddle along in my narratives, leaving my poor characters dangling in empty white space, to the frustration of my professors.

The sea change hit in my twenties when I moved to a city that did have a more specific sense of place. For one thing, I encountered more food traditions in Wisconsin than I had in my Ohio suburb. I was delighted to realize that just about every bar and restaurant in Madison—Italian, dive, or otherwise—offered a Friday fish fry. Going out for fish fry was a way of life. Even the terrifying biker bar had a fish fry, for god’s sake (and it probably contained a few more severed fingers than the church basement’s version). Here was a bona fide culinary ritual, borne of Wisconsin’s abundant lakes and generations of European Catholics who settled in the area in the nineteenth century, bringing with them a religion that once forbade eating meat on Fridays. There was also a local accent—one that was rounder in the O’s than the Ohioan pronunciation I was used to—and an outdoorsy, casual fashion aesthetic shaped by years of hiking and hippie counterculture. Finally, a place-y place!

I realized that all of this was setting: the accents, the Birkenstocks, the red-striped overalls University of Wisconsin undergrads wore to football games, the fried cod, and brandy Old Fashioned cocktails. Once I understood that setting is not a list of plants but the manner in which a place shapes characters and is shaped by them in return, I fell in love with all the different ways I could write about it. Everything was setting: customs and social graces, food and dress, religion and economics. Instead of cobbling characters together by sprinkling random details about their lives, I could think about where they were from and where they were in the now of my story. Setting, I was stunned to learn, was perhaps the most useful tool of all for knitting a tale together. I found I could create more nuanced, individual characters by considering the full context in which they lived. I understood how they fit into these places. Better yet, I found new ways for them to not fit in, because fiction thrives in the difference between social expectations and a character’s ability to meet them.

Of course I’ve had to be careful about stereotypes. I try to observe the broad cultural strokes my characters were formed by or rebelled against, but I never limit them to platitudes about those cultures. Similarly, I learned that setting should not be merely a static description of an unchanging place. If my character grew up eating fish fry every weekend, for example, maybe my story would begin the day he starts rolling his eyes at the thousandth plate of perch. Then I’d get to figure out why the character was behaving that way and how the people around him would react to his rejection of what helped make him who he is.

I find it useful to think of setting as a sphere that expands or contracts as the story needs it to, encircling only the most vital interaction between people and place. I focus on the place where my characters experience the most change and tension. If that’s their dinner table, I don’t feel the need to tell the reader all about the surrounding city and region—though both might be implied by the food or manners at that table. Or I might want to talk about how the characters identify strongly as Wisconsinites or New Yorkers: In that case, I would describe more of their feelings about the city or the region (I might even sneak in some landscape). Throughout my writing process, I ask myself how the various elements of setting matter to my characters, what causes trouble or change for them. While I might begin by describing their immediate environment—like that dinner table—I wonder how much of their larger world is significant to them at the moment I’m narrating: The building? The city? A whole industry? My character may love the place she’s in, but it helps me stoke tension if I keep some element at odds with her too. For example, I might write: She loves everything about this place except for _____. She never noticed [unsettling aspect] of this familiar place until now.

It comes down to this: A writer can include the parts of her characters’ world that interest her most. Be it farming technique or death rituals, driving habits or school lunches, setting encompasses so much more than trees and buildings. An expansive understanding of place and a clear grasp of your characters’ relationship to their world can take your story from a handful of crumbs to a substantial meal.


Michelle Wildgen’s fourth novel, Wine People, was published by Zibby Books in August. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; the New York Times’ Modern Love column and Book Review; and other publications.

Art: James Wheeler


The Perils of Using Real People in Your Prose


Elinor Lipman


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 175.

During the spring of 2020 I was working on what would become my thirteenth novel, Rachel to the Rescue (Mariner Books, 2021). The story is set in Washington, D.C., during the presidency of Donald Trump, and the protagonist works in the White House Office of Records Management (WHORM, truly), taping back together the documents that Trump chronically rips up.

Those early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I was isolating in the Hudson Valley, gave me uninterrupted time to work on the book. Mornings were pretty sacred, as I aimed to write a minimum of five hundred words per day. But no matter the word count, I’d stop mid-sentence if necessary at 10:58 AM, my alarm set so that I wouldn’t miss Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 11:00 AM briefings from Albany. Before the COVID-19 vaccine was available, his reports on the ticking down of deaths and hospitalizations resembled something like hope that life could return to normal and I could return to New York City.

On April 18, 2020—about a month into lockdown—Cuomo announced that he’d signed an executive order authorizing weddings to take place virtually. After casually naming potential officiants—clergy, judges, friends—he added with a rare, avuncular smile, “Or me!” Months later that moment returned to me as I was writing the last chapter of Rachel to the Rescue and needed a character to officiate at a wedding. Why not my governor, whose reassuring briefings had made him very popular, if not beloved? So into my novel went Cuomo. I took liberties with his dialogue and had a little fun. If writers are allowed to criticize and/or satirize public figures, surely it would be okay to invent dialogue that makes them sound charming, wouldn’t it? I have Cuomo quip that his own mother, Matilda, would be proud to see him acting like the priest she’d always hoped one of her sons might become. I also have him recite a Hebrew blessing, thanking his Jewish brothers and sisters, and end the service with an old-school, gubernatorial plug for the Empire State—a reminder to the bride and groom to keep Niagara Falls in mind as a post-lockdown honeymoon destination. Could I have made him any more likeable?

My editor didn’t question my putting Cuomo in the book. She had enough to worry about, such as my wearing my political heart on my sleeve and ridiculing Mr. and Mrs. Trump in every chapter. Besides, the real-life governor’s good times were still rolling. The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced in November 2020, that it would bestow its International Emmy Founders Award on Cuomo for his 111 daily coronavirus briefings. “People around the world tuned in to find out what was going on,” the press release said. “[A]nd New York tough became a symbol of the determination to fight back.”  

Once my manuscript was accepted, I printed out the passages in which Cuomo appeared and mailed them to an address listed for the governor at I enclosed a note, faux-apologizing for putting words in his mouth, quite sure he’d find them flattering. Two weeks later, a letter arrived; the return address: “State House, Albany.” It had been years since news of any importance—college admissions, job offers, rejection letters, test results—came in an envelope.  I just stared at it for a few seconds, thinking it could be nothing—or a request from Cuomo’s attorney to expunge the governor from the novel. But no; it was a note from Cuomo himself. “I wanted to thank you for sending me an excerpt from your book, Rachel to the Rescue. I was touched to be included in your story. It is an honor to be one of your characters. Thanks again. I will remain grateful for your extraordinary support.”      

Touched. How nice was that? I photographed the letter and posted it on Facebook and Instagram. It was the season of major goodwill toward Cuomo. There was even talk of him being named Biden’s running mate in the 2020 election. His thank-you letter to me apparently struck a very nice nerve, inspiring hundreds of Facebook friends to declare not only approval, but their romantic inclinations toward the bachelor governor.

Rachel to the Rescue was published in the United Kingdom in November 2020 and eight months later in the U.S. I sent Cuomo an inscribed copy of the finished book, and I was delighted when another thank-you note arrived from him on January 11, 2021. “Great to hear from you again,” it began. But soon my delight took a hit: Later that month, New York Attorney General Letitia James reported that the Cuomo administration had misreported deaths related to COVID-19 at state nursing homes, and in February her office announced an investigation into allegations that Cuomo had engaged in sexual harassment of his female employees. On March 11, 2021, the New York State Assembly authorized an impeachment investigation into the allegations.

Earlier, before my book was published, I’d consulted an intellectual property lawyer-friend about whether it was okay for the novel to ridicule Trump. He said it was. I hadn’t asked him to weigh in on Cuomo’s officiating, but after reading the galley, my lawyer-friend wrote back, “By July [2021], when the American paperback appears, Cuomo will be embroiled in the nursing home evidence suppression scandal, and he may even be facing impeachment charges. Come July he may still be in office, but I don’t think too many couples will be inviting him to officiate at their weddings. Especially not couples with grandparents in nursing homes.”

I replied: “The virtual wedding is a moment in time, which is not July 2021 but Covid-scary 2020. That spring, Cuomo was my rabbi. I tuned in religiously to his daily briefings until the death rate fell below 1 percent. His popularity was something like 78 percent. When I posted his thank-you to me on FB, every one of the comments by (middle-aged and older) respondents was funny, crush-like.”   

It turned out that my inclusion of Cuomo did draw some heat: In an otherwise lovely review of Rachel to the Rescue in the New York Times, Beck Dorey-Stein mused that it might have been better if I’d left him out. “When Andrew Cuomo makes a cameo, I couldn’t help emitting a sympathetic oy vey for Lipman, who paints the New York governor in the flattering light that was common before his rapid fall from grace.” In my thank-you e-mail to the reviewer, I didn’t take issue with her critique or try to make a case for Cuomo’s historical relevance. (One shouldn’t argue with a review. Not good form.)

My other choice to include real-world characters turned out to be vindicated. The Washington Post reported last February that Trump “was known inside the White House for his unusual and potentially unlawful habit of tearing presidential records into shreds and tossing them on the floor—creating a headache for records management analysts who meticulously used Scotch tape to piece together fragments of paper that were sometimes as small as confetti, as Politico reported in 2018.” Many readers of Rachel to the Rescue e-mailed me after the article appeared: Was I prescient? Had I made up my heroine’s crazy Scotch-taping job? No. I’d seen the piece on Politico about the record-shredding, which others apparently missed; in fact, I borrowed seven of its lines as the novel’s epigraph. And my favorite validation: The then Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, asked me in 2022 to inscribe copies of the book for the sixteen real-life “Rachels” who worked at WHORM.

In his introduction to Future Shock, originally published in 1970 by Random House, Alvin Toffler explores “the perishability of fact.” He writes, “It is inevitable…in a book written over the course of several years, that some of its facts will have been superseded between the time of research and writing and the time of publication. … We have not yet learned to conceive, research, write and publish in ‘real time.’”

I presume that every time a reader meets the jovial Cuomo on page 284 of my book, an “oy vey” is uttered. I can take it. I have history on my side; well, not big-picture history, but a thin slice of current events that went drastically pear-shaped. True, if I’d known what was ahead, I wouldn’t have turned Cuomo into a character. But, if challenged, I’d say redacting the ex-governor now would be the literary equivalent of cutting faces of the divorced and unforgiven out of family photos. Why dig up and edit a time capsule? Why deny the reality of the past? 

The reliable memory that serves me so well as an author also makes it difficult to forget both the fear I felt during the pandemic and the service rendered by Cuomo’s news briefs. Every weekday I’d hear the governor pledge allegiance to “the great state of New York, where love wins, where we are tough, we are smart, we are united, we are disciplined,” words that sent me back to my desk and to a fictional Washington, D.C., with Rachel.  


Elinor Lipman is the award-winning author of fourteen novels, most recently Ms. Demeanor (Harper Perennial, 2022).

Art: Himanshu Pandey

The Enchantment of Memory: Drawing Inspiration From Science and Fairy Tales


Rebekah Bergman


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 174.

Memory fascinates me. I find it both delightful and terrifying. There is magic in the very notion that the mind can conjure elements of the long-ago past. For instance: More than three decades have passed since my older sister and I were the flower girls in our uncle’s wedding. We wore matching dresses, and I can still feel them—soft velvet with lace that itched my collarbone. I tried not to scratch as I walked down the aisle. Something else: the sadness of learning that the flowers in our little white baskets were artificial. We wouldn’t actually toss any petals.

Remembering all this delights me. And the terror? The terror comes when I consider all that I don’t recall. What song played in the processional? Did my grandmother cry? Maybe family members can answer these questions from their own memories. Or maybe no one recalls: These and many other details may be lost. I said that I remember the wedding, but what I really remember is an itchy dress and the disappointment of plastic flowers. That’s it.

My debut novel—The Museum of Human History, out this month from Tin House—explores how time shapes us and what it leaves us with. To write it I drew from memory, and I researched memory. One early lesson was that the English language doesn’t make it easy to discuss this kind of thing. There are many names for the bit of the past we have access to: recollection, remembrance, reminiscence—or, simply, memory. Whichever word you choose, whatever does remain of events in your mind is dwarfed and outweighed by what is gone. What we cannot remember we have no words for. While writing my novel I invented a term for it: “forgottance.” Nearly all of the past is forgottance though. Given such enormity, the word started to slip toward meaninglessness. In the end, I couldn’t come up with a sufficient name for it.

And what we do remember may be further from the truth than we realize. While researching the mechanisms of memory, I uncovered a delightful and, yes, terrifying fact from neuroscience: Each time we recall an event, we change it. Our brains encode elements of the present so that the next time we remember that event, we may actually be remembering remembering it. In this way, our memories are natural writers—always busy revising and rewriting, never content to call their work “done.” 

This feels fitting to me, since my obsession with memory is inextricably linked to my obsession with narrative. Every memory I hold onto might just be a story I tell myself. And the more I tell it as a story, the more I forget about the original event. 

The Museum of Human History examines the link between narrative and memory.  It does this, in part, by pulling from the fairy tale genre. The book centers on Maeve Wilhelm, a girl in a strange coma who stops aging. Maeve serves as a Sleeping Beauty figure in the book, and I read various versions of the eponymous fairy tale and scholarship about it while working on my novel. “Sleeping Beauty” is a story about the stories we tell of the past and the power such memories hold, even—perhaps especially—when those stories are all that remain.

In the classic version of “Sleeping Beauty,” as recorded by the Brothers Grimm, a princess is cursed to sleep for a century, and her kingdom falls asleep with her. A hedge of thorns grows around the kingdom, shrouding it completely. For decades, it is forgotten. One day an old storyteller—the only one who remembers what happened—recounts the tale of their cursed slumber to a prince, who then sets out to awaken the princess.

Scholar Donald Haase argues that this version of “Sleeping Beauty” is emblematic of how the Grimms saw their own project of gathering old folk tales. In the preface to the second edition of the brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales, published in 1819, Wilhelm Grimm provides an extended metaphor to explain the importance of recording old stories: A fire destroys an entire crop except for a few stalks protected by hedges. These stalks, once fully grown and rediscovered, are treasured immensely because they now provide the only seed for the future. He writes, “That is how it seemed to us when we discovered that nothing was left of all those things that had flourished in earlier times; even the memory of them was nearly gone except for…these innocent household tales.” As in “Sleeping Beauty,” the hedges that hide also serve to protect. A small trace of the past remains—preserved and, for a time, forgotten.  And in both the fairy tale and Grimm’s preface, what saves the past from disappearing altogether is the act of storytelling—the only “seed for the future.”

After all, it isn’t the prince as much as the storyteller who is capable of reawakening the slumbering kingdom.

In my novel, as Maeve sleeps through the months and years and decades and, ultimately, a quarter century, almost all of her past is forgotten. The people who are drawn to her know nothing of who she was when she was a child. All they know is her many years of sleep. There is—however—one person who does retain a memory of Maeve’s true past. Once I realized Maeve was Sleeping Beauty, I saw this character was the storyteller: Evangeline, Maeve’s identical twin.

There is another way that memory played a role in my novel. The book follows many characters who are drawn to Maeve: a young widower, a performance artist, and a museum owner, among others. All of them struggle with memory. Some are desperate to remember the past but wind up forgetting it. Others try to bury the past but, try as they might, the past is exposed.

In depicting these inner conflicts, I was thinking of my grandfather. Born in Poland in 1925, Wolf Bergman was the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust. After the atrocities of his youth, he lived a long life: When the camps were liberated, he met my grandmother, the only survivor of her own family, and moved with her to the United States. They had four children, twelve grandchildren, and Wolf even lived to see a great-grandchild.

I cannot recall ever speaking to my grandfather about his time in the Warsaw Ghetto or any of three concentration camps. In my memory, these were not experiences he wished to talk about. But nightmarishly, he was forced to relive them. For two decades he lived with Alzheimer’s Disease. Trapped in his past, he spoke mostly Yiddish and, at times, of the trauma of the camps. Often he wept.   

I said earlier that what terrifies me about memory is the enormity of what we forget. That’s true. But it’s only partly true. My fear also lies in the persistence and power of what we do and must sometimes, in spite of ourselves, go on remembering.


Rebekah Bergman’s debut novel, The Museum of Human History, was published this month by Tin House. Her fiction has been published in JoylandTin House, the Masters Review Anthology, and elsewhere. She lives in Rhode Island with her family. Read more:

Art: Aron Visuals

The Challenge and Freedom of Managing a Large Cast of Characters


Rebekah Bergman


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 173.

By the time I realized that I was writing a novel—The Museum of Human History, which will be published by Tin House next month—I was many years into a manuscript that I thought would be a collection of linked stories. There were almost a dozen protagonists. I often felt overwhelmed by the challenge of having so many central characters, with timelines that went back not only decades but generations and even millennia. Revision required a lot of wrangling and untangling to ensure continuity and alignment of plotted events. I developed several strategies for managing it all. 

For starters, I kept a massive spreadsheet that I titled, simply, “Planner” to map and chart the characters, noting where they appeared in the book and how they connected to one another. I had tabs to keep track of chronology and potential plot holes, needs for future revisions, and even reminders of where the latest drafts were stored and what the files were named. Due to the complicated structure of the book, any change I made to one character’s story reverberated through others’, so it was important to keep track of these details. Maintaining the spreadsheet made me feel a bit like a conspiracy theorist, with one of those “evidence” walls with red string and thumbtacks. On many occasions I vowed to my writer friends that the next novel I wrote would follow a single character over the course of a day. 

Despite all the complexity that came along with such a big cast, I have to say that my characters also afforded me some freedom. In his craft book, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts (Soho Press, 2022), Matt Bell says a novelist should follow their excitement in a first draft. “In general,” he writes, “if you’re not excited about what you’re writing, consider writing something else.” By this he does not mean abandoning the manuscript but moving to a different point in it, going “to where your energy is highest,” or “somewhere else.” Bell’s advice, for me, became to write someone else. One day I would explore a young widower remembering the final trip he took with his late wife, and the next I would jump to a mysterious artist and dream up new concepts for her performance art. Or I would be with a lonely museum owner as he built his collection of artifacts to preserve the history he’d devoted his life to. Even though I was working on this project for far longer than anything I’d ever tried to write before, following my excitement by leaping to someone else in my novel meant I never grew bored with it. After all, I had populated the book with so many people who genuinely interested me. 

Maintaining a wide cast enabled me to more deeply explore my novel’s main themes. The book is concerned with time and the anxiety of forgetting and being forgotten. It considers if and how we might live on in someone else’s memory. Each of my major characters takes a primary role in one plotline and a secondary role in others. These interconnections opened up avenues through which I could investigate my themes. One character in my book says that memory is “a thing you cannot really share with anyone else.” That might be true for her—and for all of us—but through my chorus of voices, I was able to challenge that idea, examining the mechanisms of memory outside of any individual experience of it. What one character wishes could be forgotten, another character recalls. A key detail overlooked or misremembered creates a cascade of consequences, and the act of uncovering the past changes it fundamentally.  

I cannot say that these were the easiest ways to write a novel, especially a debut. I’m sure they were not! But is there any easy way to write a novel? Now that I’ve done it—wrangled and untangled these fictional lives to craft a braided, central narrative arc—I can see these strategies were essential: There was no other way I could have told the story I wanted to tell.


Rebekah Bergman’s debut novel The Museum of Human History will be published by Tin House in August. Her fiction has been published in JoylandTin House, the Masters Review Anthology, and other publications. She lives in Rhode Island with her family. Read more:

Art: Chuttersnap

How to Trick Yourself Into Writing a Novel


Rebekah Bergman


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 172.

For a long time, if it came up in conversation that I was a fiction writer, I’d feel an intense need to specify: “I write short stories.” Or sometimes I’d go one step further: “Very short stories.” I wasn’t apologizing; I was clarifying. Don’t get me wrong, I love novels. But my love for novels was a reader’s love, whereas my love for short stories felt writerly. I read them to study their magic, so that I might learn to fold an entire world into as few words as possible. In seeking brevity, I could play with language and explore its power; I spent most of my time on revisions—experimenting with syntax, sentences, and rhythm, trying to whittle a piece down to its most essential, economical form. This was what first interested me about writing.    

In graduate school, I thought I’d found kindred spirits who came to the MFA for the short story too. But, one by one, my classmates were tempted by the pull of the long narrative. By thesis season nearly everyone had their “idea for a novel.” Meanwhile my work got shorter. 

I completed my thesis—a collection of short stories and flash fiction, which surprised no one—graduated, and took a full-time job outside of the literary world. Without classmates, workshops, a thesis advisor, or any external deadlines, my writing identity felt suddenly very tenuous. I had far less time for fiction, and I became worried: If my writing didn’t demand that I make space for it, I feared I might make no space for it at all. What if, after completing my MFA, I never wrote fiction again? 

And then I had an idea for a novel. 

It was just a seed: a girl in a coma who comes to hold a strange power over people. I had been remembering a true tale from my hometown about a girl who’d nearly drowned and became comatose. Reportedly she performed miracles while unconscious. Visitors flocked to her bedside and claimed that, afterward, they were cured of various ailments. I hadn’t understood much of this, being just a kid as it unfolded. But looking back as an adult, I was struck by the girl, by her family, and by the community of strangers that formed around her. I wanted to write about it. 

For months, I sat down early each morning to work on my novel. Somewhere along the way, I’d heard the tip to set a daily word count. I had no outline or plan, and I often fell short of my goal of one thousand words a day. I kept a document to log progress, following more advice I’d picked up somewhere. The aim is to gain confidence in the work as you see it grow. Days passed and one thousand words became two thousand, three thousand, five thousand. I hoped if I simply continued, the words would accumulate into a meaningful draft.

Ten thousand. Twenty-five thousand. I kept it up, stubborn and rudderless, on and on. Somewhere shy of fifty thousand, I let myself read through the draft. 

Nothing meaningful had accumulated; I could see this clearly. I abandoned the project. 

So I went back to short stories. There was comfort in returning to the form where I felt I belonged. The first piece I wrote after nixing my novel was a conscious attempt to cleanse my palate of my misguided novel attempt. The story was about a couple with a wide age gap between them grappling with the development of a new antiaging procedure: One of them wanted to try it.

I finished the story in 2016. It was about six thousand words—which was a long story for me—but I didn’t feel the need to trim it. If anything, I wondered if it might need to be longer. No matter how much I revised it, the story didn’t feel done. Or rather, I didn’t feel done with it.  

I wrote a second story set in the same world. Then I wrote a third. I decided I was writing a collection of linked stories. I read a bunch of linked collections and novels-in-stories that I loved, which fueled me: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan were two I returned to often. I kept going. 

With each story, I had a chance to start as fresh as I wanted to. I could create new characters, experiment with new structures and plotlines. I could also take whatever served me from the other stories. I let characters intersect and their plot lines braid. I am making this sound easier than it was—the drafting was hard. But it was also liberating: I could keep writing about the world of this book, following whatever direction it took me for however long I wanted. I also didn’t realize what I was doing yet, so I didn’t have any expectations for what I was supposed to be doing. I could just keep writing “short stories.”

The biggest surprise came when this new world I was writing about revealed a familiar character: a girl in a coma. I discovered what I was up to then. I wasn’t writing short stories; I was writing chapters. These pieces were fitting together to tell a larger story that might be bigger than the sum of its parts: I was writing a novel after all.

It took five years for me to complete the first full draft of The Museum of Human History, which will be published by Tin House in August. By then I was no longer calling it a collection of linked stories but a novel-in-stories. This term gave me a final set of training wheels for the work I had ahead of me: making my book, simply, a novel. 

Several full revisions and eight years after I started The Museum of Human History, I wrote its final scene. I made what I’d originally intended as standalone stories cohere into one unified tale.


Rebekah Bergman’s debut novel, The Museum of Human History, will be published by Tin House in August. Her fiction has been published in JoylandTin House, the Masters Review Anthology, and elsewhere. She lives in Rhode Island with her family. Read more:

Art: Zdenek Machacek

What the Orifice Wants: On Boundlessness


Megan Fernandes


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 171.

Let’s talk about holes.

In my new book, I Do Everything I’m Told, published in June by Tin House, there is a poem called “I’m Smarter Than This Feeling, But Am I?”  The first line of the poem states: “I watch your film about fisting,” invoking a beloved who is a filmmaker. Only it becomes clear that the film is not really explicitly about fisting, but follows a filmmaker who looks through a telescope deep into the cosmos. The telescope transforms into a wormhole-like tunnel. The tunnel somehow becomes an orifice. In the cinematic hole, which recalls black holes as much as it does the birth canal, an argument about orifices emerges.

Etymologically, orifice comes from the Latin or-, for mouth, and facere, meaning to make or do: interestingly, mouth-making. It also can mean “the opening of a wound” and has multiple origins in Sanskrit (“puts, places”), Greek (“to put, set, place)”, and Old Persian (“to make”). Put together, there is a triangulation of mouth, wound, and making/setting. If an orifice makes a mouth, it also provides an opening, sets up a passage. And it is often the site of the most intimate relationality. Donna Haraway, celebrated scholar of feminist science studies, once said that “sex, infection, and eating were old relatives.” By this, they meant, I think, that the moment in which your own bodily sovereignty is breached by some other being—whether it is another human, a virus, or a different species that has been ingested—an intimacy is sprung. You are no longer just your own body. You have become multiple, relational, boundless. You fuck, and bodies become entangled. You eat the apple, and you are full of apple. You get the virus, and you succumb to its spell. We are no longer just ourselves.    

“All I want is boundless love,” Frank O’Hara once wrote, and I’ve been thinking about boundlessness. About what we risk when we are boundless with others until they are no longer other, until the wall of separation lowers or dissipates into mist. Such intimacy. A womb drive. A distant memory of plurality. We might think we’d never be lonesome again.

But boundlessness has its cost. It can feel violent when our bodily sovereignty is disrupted. Not all boundlessness—as when we are taken over by a fever—is welcome. We are put under the power of something outside ourselves: the rules of a foreign game. In fact, many have argued that the language of contagion and illness reflects a racialized and xenophobic discourse of foreignness, of otherness. But I don’t want to steer too far off course here. My priorities are to think about how we write about what happens when we come undone.

One of my favorite poems about holes is Jameson Fitzpatrick’s poem, “Grasping at Being Filled” from the remarkable collection Pricks in the Tapestry (Birds, 2020). In it the speaker counts holes of all kinds: The absence of fathers. Holes of sexual difference and childhood. The holes of that feeling of forever. The holes left by our dead friends. The holes our militarized nation makes on other soil. The poem seems to understand that without holes, there is no desire—but there is also no pain. The hole is the wound from what has left, continues to leave, asks to be filled after it’s gone. In the poem, the holes accumulate until the speaker asks God to “fuck my mind for good /… / dissolve it / into absolute equanimity.” That word “dissolve” kills me. It’s the liquid metaphor, the want to stop being solid, that hits me. The “hole” becomes “whole” at the end of the poem, calling attention to the way boundlessness promises to keep us undifferentiated from the world and therefore transgressed to the point where there is no boundary left to be transgressed.

“When you say they make you feel whole, what do you mean?” my therapist challenges me in one session. She tells me to be suspect of wholeness. To be suspect of the language of fate and the cosmos when I tell her, in a performatively rational moment, how a series of chance circumstances threw me together with someone who I wanted badly to avoid. Of course, I didn’t want to avoid them at all. We were fated, I said, to always find each other. The trap of destiny was in my throat. She sighed. The desire, so much, to become undone to the point of being fluid: I can envelop anything. How god-like. What power. And that’s the tough pill to swallow. When our beloved “completes” us we become gods, temporarily. We become omniscient, and we never get over it. We chase that feeling, maybe one we had in the womb, where our vulnerability to another has the potential to transform us into feeling like maybe we don’t have to live in our bodies, alone.

In the book Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (Feminist Press, 2013) by trans scholar Paul Preciado, translated from the Spanish by Bruce Benderson, the speaker talks about fucking their girlfriend with a dildo. They call it digging. A way to dig a “hole” in her body “through which music flows.” They also say that the anus is the orifice that closes the divide between genders—a kind of short-circuit of sexual difference—and, later, that the body is always desiring power: “seeking to swallow it, eat it, administer it, wolf it down, more, always more, through every hole, by every possible route of application. Turning oneself into power.”

Desire is a route to deification, in a way. I try to think about this when I write. In “I’m Smarter Than This Feeling, But Am I?” I ask the beloved why they’re obsessed with smut and interiority. By our inner drunk shipwrecks. They respond, as they did in real life: “It’s not smut, it’s a love story.” We write our lyrical poems as if what we want from our beloveds is for them to love us. Or to punish them. Or to confess to them. We are so certain of our intentions. But our beloveds hold a sovereignty that is their own self-rule, their own power, and the pleasures and violence of any boundlessness is not knowing that there also might be care where there is dissolution. Later, in the poem, my speaker says: “You see who I was before I was a was. An am.” So powerful, that sentiment. To be seen as dust. Before the body’s edges. Before time itself.


Megan Fernandes is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, the American Poetry ReviewPloughshares, among many other outlets. Her third book of poetry, I Do Everything I’m Told, was published in June by Tin House. She is an associate professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

Art: Fotografías con Limón

Respiratory Flow: Lungs as Knowledge


Megan Fernandes


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 170.

I have asthma. I also smoke occasionally.

Someone once told me that British poetry is dictated by the heart—stress sounds, the iambs, the beat, ending with hard consonant sounds—while American poetry is dictated by the lungs: breath as measurement, breathlessness as energy and arousal, pause as suspense, rest as exhaustion, enjambment. If the lungs are our organ, what then can we make of their rooms, chambers, secrets? What can we know of their capacity?

My lungs and I have been in a tug-of-war all my life. I’ve been hospitalized before, unable to breathe. Luckily now I’m on the right meds and, for the most part, I’m okay. But I also test my lungs. I didn’t smoke for sixteen years and then picked up the habit again last summer, just at parties or the rare morning coffee. I’d say these days I smoke about three skinny Italian cigarettes a week, and I’ve begun to notice slight changes in my lungs—which matters, it turns out, for my poetry, since I read fast. I read with adrenaline; my lines are, in fact, in a compositional dance with my breathing organ. My rhythm is entirely based on my lungs. My lines, often erratic and frenetic, have in the past simulated my erratic and frenetic breathing. If I can’t get to the end of a certain line in a poem in one breath, I know my lungs are in trouble.

In Pacific Islander poetry, breathing is an important method of self- and shared knowledge. The Hawaiian tradition of sharing breath, for example, is a form of greeting that allows the sensory exchange of air and scents between people rooted in a sense of continuity and connectedness. In “Breath as Metaphor of Sovereignty and Connectedness in Pacific Island Poetry,” Otto Heim argues: “Attention to breathing thus concretizes a conceptualization of knowledge that emphasizes awareness of a relationship with a living environment, interdependence, and causation.” Heim goes on to discuss the Samoan idea of Va which, loosely translated, refers to the relationality between objects, such as the space-in-between the heart and belly (lungs!). To Samoans, this space is considered a cosmic center with “ancestral energies” and “a circular time/space continuum,” where a sense of the “presence and precedence of other life” resides, writes Heim. Va characterizes a “dynamic sense of connection” and the “ecological worldviews of Oceania” as well as notions of Hawaiian sovereignty whereby the same word for “sovereignty, rule, and independence” means “life, breath, vapor, gas, breeze, spirit.” In other words, a poetics from Pacific Islander indigeneity teaches us that breath is shared and mutual, present and ancient, and connected to the rhythm of our lives.

This idea is integral to an exercise I do sometimes with my college writing students. First, I make them watch this video of the visual artist Mimi Cabell reciting the phrase “I love you” over and over again. In it the artist rocks back and forth, keeps saying the words on repeat until she runs out of breath, takes a deep inhale, and keeps going for nearly nine minutes. It’s transfixing to watch. At first the “I love you” feels tender. Soon, the phrase takes on a range of emotional valences. It sounds menacing, full of exasperation, or banal. It’s a great lesson in the function of repetition for students, and it has also had me wondering about lung capacity and the lessons I learned from reading about Pacific Islander poetry.

In the next part of my exercise, I tell my students to take out their phones and record themselves saying “I love you” over and over again in a single breath, noting the time. I myself last thirteen seconds. Most of my students last a bit longer, and a few of them (swimmers, I imagine) can go to around thirty seconds. I then tell them to multiply the number of seconds they can hold the phrase “I love you” by three, since that phrase is three monosyllabic words, to come up with a number that will guide a composition exercise. That number represents how many syllables they can include in each stanza of a poem of at least three stanzas they will write. When they recite the poem later, they have to do so in exactly three breaths. My own stanza length lands at thirty-nine syllables. I wrote this on the fly according to the rules of my exercise:

Bet the boy in elm grove
held the might of gods
and when green crown fell
from his head, he ran
to the sea to stop the wave
of time, to care for me
and what of it? He

who chose to know
land, could not swim
or step on sand, could
not call or bow to
queen, how sad, how
wild, the skin of each
sea girl, a witch, a lake
a pool of blue, he knew

he would drown to give
up stone, a grove of trees,
some dead, but still, his
own, poor boy was slow
to own his gills, the chilled
thrill of float, his will
to stand on two feet:
hard, sown.

The students adore this exercise. Why? They learn something about their insides. Before this, they had no sense of their lung capacity, or—maybe even more telling—they had no sense of how embodied the craft of breath is to poetry. When they read their poems aloud, they usually whiz through the first stanza without any labor, but they’re wheezing by the last one. I can’t tell you how many students have asked me, How do I know when to break a line? Or they ask, point blank, What is a line made up of, anyways? There have been countless articles, theories, and traditions that attempt to answer these questions. Syllabic fidelity. Formal rules. But for me, my best poems occur when the line is dictated by my lungs, and that is deeply personal, subjective, and sometimes changes on the day or according to my lifestyle. They are my instrument and conversational organ.


Megan Fernandes is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, the American Poetry ReviewPloughshares, among many other outlets. Her third book of poetry, I Do Everything I’m Told, was published in June by Tin House. She is an associate professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

Art: Joseph Hersh


Race, Desire, and Mirror-as-Beloved


Megan Fernandes


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 169.

Do I love my beloved, or do I want to be my beloved?

Do I love my beloved, or do I love the way my beloved sees me?

Do I love my beloved, or do I want what my beloved has?

These are dark, important questions. They are also formal, craft questions.

When I wrote a sonnet crown entitled “Sonnets of the False Beloveds With One Exception OR Repetition Compulsion,” in my new book, I Do Everything I’m Told (Tin House, June 2023), I was, in some ways, trying to understand the dynamics of desire within interracial intimacy. The poems make few direct references to race, yet race engines the whole crown: the unruliness of the “dark child,” a speaker who is an “actress” both to her beloved and to a police officer who pulls her over, a final “Diaspora Sonnet” that enacts the frenetic shifting energies of a body that is constantly transforming and responding to the projections of her family, the state, and a series of lovers. No matter where she travels, she sees the mutability of desire and the constancy of power.

A few years ago, walking around a student neighborhood in Berlin, I saw posters hanging with propaganda from Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the nation’s right-wing, white-supremacist party. One poster had an image of a white woman’s pregnant belly and the words “‘Neue Deutsche?’ Machen wir selber,” which is loosely translated as “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”

Creepy, I thought, the way reproduction and nationalism go hand in hand. The poster’s not-so-subtle subtext being something about immigrants threatening white German children and white German children representing the future of the nation-state. The racism was too obvious to be interesting, but it did have me thinking: not about the political threat that nonreproductive interracial sex poses to the white nation-state, nor of the utopian vision of a post-racial future that interracial relationships—as they are often presented in the media, particularly when one party is white and the other party is not (a friend once called the first season of Bridgerton part of the “Shondaland interracial-industry complex”)—but about what happens in narratives of interracial intimacy when the relationship is nonreproductive and same-sex.

My therapist once told me that the first time two people “in love” have sex, it’s all projection. How cinematic. When she said this, a vision came to mind of two holographic ghosts, fucking. Not quite achieving a mirror effect, both parties try to fulfill idealizations of themselves in the eye of the “beloved.” Person A falls in love not with Person B but with how Person B reflects back to Person A a glorified (and ultimately harmfully unattainable) image of themselves (perhaps Person A loves the way Person B sees them as a successful, confident person, for example). Person B’s gaze tethers together the fragile self-perception of Person A like a wobbly scaffold. But what does mirroring mean, even metaphorically, in interracial sex—where difference is not abstract but embodied? Where the “oneness” that mirroring promises would be shattered by a “crack” in the mirror? And what might we be working out about power and race in our representations of intimacy between two differently racialized bodies?  

One of the most seminal theories in queer studies is Lee Edelman’s concept of “no future” from No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke University Press, 2004). Edelman argues that the figure of the “Child” is used by the dominant culture to enact and endorse violent policies against LGBTQ folks and punish those engaged in nonreproductive sex. Think of that meme and GIF of a scene from The Simpsons in which a cartoon woman screams “WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?”

Edelman argues that, if you politicize and stir hysteria around the innocence and future of the Child, you can punish queer behaviors by framing them as deviant or harmful to the Child. This has a “hetero-norming effect,” with the consequence being a society built on unquestioned ideas about the sanctity of the nuclear family and blood kinship, both of which are imagined to reproduce the nation-state. So powerful are these ideas of heternormativity that its rituals largely go unquestioned, and massive amounts of money and labor go into perpetuating narrow understandings of romance, marriage, children, and the division of labor along gendered lines. Edelman’s theory of the Child offers a lens for understanding the AfD advertisements, in which the promise of sustaining the German race is directly linked to the preservation of white-race citizenship, only made possible through—you guessed it—the child.

A few years ago in Montreal, I saw the scholar Bobby Benedicto give a talk about “boyfriend twinning,” a social-media trend of same-sex couples who dress alike and synchronize their facial hair and wardrobes so much that they look like twins. Bobby scrolled through images of couples in the same beanie hats, same “wife-beater” tank tops, same bleached hair, and—for some—the same neo-Nazi youth haircuts disturbingly popular in Brooklyn at the time. While in heterosexual relationships, racial homogeneity and sameness are produced through the promise of reproduction—or the Child—and blood kinship, Benedicto argued that in many homosexual relationships, taking those pictured on the website Boyfriendtwin as an example, racial homogeneity is preserved through the figure of the twin.

The point is that figures of the Child and the twin are familial and blood-oriented and that they might both be implicated in the project of white supremacy: “By definition, twinning cannot accommodate racial difference; its narcissism necessarily colludes with another prohibition: the prohibition against interracial desire,” Benedicto writes in “Agents and Objects of Death: Gay Murder, Boyfriend Twins, and Queer of Color Negativity,” an article that appeared in 2019 in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Any failure to look alike is a failure of the wholeness that mirroring promises, what he calls “a closed circuit between the self and its reflection, the ego and its projection.”

What does this have to with language? With poetry?

I want us to think deeply about what we mean when we say “beloved,” when we write lyric poetry, when we talk about desire and projection, when we like what we see in the beloved’s mirror held up to us. And how race matters for that mirror. How part of desire is how we see ourselves and see ourselves in each other (which has a homogenizing effect), and how race matters for that as well. Our bodies are assigned signifying codes handed to us by the culture: We have been told that certain looks, people, bodily features are “ideal.” Through these codes’ repetition—in literature and other media—they are granted the status of social consensus. This consensus is formalized or put more simply, becomes a form.

If you are a person of color in bed with whiteness, one might think about how desire and idealization operate. If you are a woman of color in bed with a white woman, one might think about how you are in bed with the idealization of Western beauty in the dominant culture. All of this is to say that, when I saw Bobby give his talk in Montreal, I felt my chest swell. I have never reacted so strongly to an academic talk before. It articulated something I had struggled to define in my own real-life experience and in literary representations of same-sex desire where whiteness was present. That my body was a “crack” in the mirror of similitude.

What is the mirror of the other person you are endlessly holding up, like Sisyphus with his rock? What is your body in relation?   

In one of the ending sonnets of the crown, I write, “In love, there are no rules to begin with,” and I’m a poet, so I’d like believe that love can undo and destabilize harmful structural realities, that those realities bend in eros. And it’s true that there might be no rules, but there are forms. With forms, there are ideals. With ideals, there are politics.

Desire is no exception. 


Megan Fernandes is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, among many other outlets. Her third book of poetry, I Do Everything I’m Told, was published this month by Tin House. She is an associate professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

Art: Zane Persaud

The Archive and the Everyday


Joshua Bennett


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 168.

Once I realized that what I was looking for was not simply a single, incandescent voice within a larger tradition, but a sprawling, trans-temporal collective, an endless ensemble—to borrow a phrase from the literary critic La Marr Jurelle Bruce—a window in my mind flew open. The work has a different purpose and texture now. I can hear the music everywhere.

Over at Penguin Classics, I edit an anthology series with my friend Jesse McCarthy. It’s called Minor Notes. Our shared project is to seek out largely unsung Black poets and recover their work for a contemporary audience through the publication of yearly collections featuring their poems. Minor Notes: Volume 1 was published in April and features seven poets who wrote during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: George Moses Horton, Fenton Johnson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, David Wadsworth Cannon, Angelina Weld Grimke, Anne Spencer, and Henrietta Cordelia Ray. At the core of our practice, our process, is the idea that by deepening our understanding of these brilliant, individual writers and their roles within the robust social scenes they inhabited, we can ultimately help create a fuller image of their shared context. The poems are at the center of our concern, of course. But they are not all that exist within the chosen frame. We set out to sketch a world.

For a while, I thought of this project as work meant to exist primarily within the realm of my life as a literary critic. My poems have always been informed by the study of Black literature, culture, and history: My first book, The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), opens with a poem dedicated to Henry Box Brown, a nineteenth-century abolitionist and autobiographer who escaped enslavement by mailing himself in a wooden crate to his supporters in Philadelphia. But I have more recently deepened my sense that an intentionally archival practice in the writing of poems is key. That is: a practice of not only returning to the sites and sounds of my own life, but to those of the literary forebears who helped make my practice possible without my knowing—the writers rarely mentioned in our working memories of the past, whose influence I picked up primarily through poets they taught directly or inspired from afar.

Put another way, I’ve gone in search of bandmates across space and time. I’m learning new ways to converse with the dead and the living, especially the innovators whose names were never offered to me—those whose contributions were never broached in my training or mentioned in polite conversation. I’m listening out for the minor notes in my daily routine. And not only the poets: the entomologists, historians, high school teachers, jazz composers, architects, and philosophers of science. The gardeners and librarians. The explorers. Across genre and form, era and discipline, I’m in search of the echoes of questions I already hold dear, as well ones I’ve rarely considered.

Where are the minor notes in your own life? Who are the writers, past and present, in need of further study, attention, and care? How do we elevate their voices in our work? Welsh author and critic Raymond Williams defined tradition as “the selection and re-selection of ancestors.” Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote that her “best allegiances are to the dead.” As we return to the page in our daily practice, let’s think on the affirmations of these ancestors, and their allegiances to the writers who cleared the way for them to flourish, experiment, and live. We write poems to remember. So let’s renew our habits of remembrance with an eye toward those excluded from the record. As we are building our own, living archives, let’s make as much room as we can. May our attention, our celebration, also be an act of recovery.



Joshua Bennett is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023); The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), which was a winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, longlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award, and is currently being adapted for television in collaboration with Warner Brothers Studios; Owed (Penguin, 2020), a finalist for the New England Book Award; Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize; and The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. For his creative writing and scholarship, Joshua has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. This summer, he will join the faculty of MIT as a professor of literature and distinguished chair of the humanities. He lives in Massachusetts.

Art: Eugenio Mazzone

A Shed Full of Golden Shovels


Joshua Bennett


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 167.

What’s a shovel good for?

I’ve been asking a version of this question in classrooms across the country during the past few months, always as an opener, and the range of replies has been illuminating. In a high school outside Boca Raton, Florida, we get to the core of the matter rather quickly: A shovel, one student says, can be used to dig for stuff. “What kind of stuff?” I counter, and a constellation of objects fills the room. Treasure, another student says. Graves, offers another. A third hand rises from the back left corner of the class: You can dig a hole and plant a tree.

Back home in Boston, the array of options further expands. My students tell me that a shovel is a toy (think here of the kind that comes with a plastic pail and the promise of a day building sandcastles), a way to manage backyard leaves in autumn, and a weapon of self-defense. This last suggestion gives me pause, in no small part because it’s a perfect pivot to what we’re reading that day: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” It’s a poem I’ve been reciting for thirty years, but rarely with much emphasis on the larger context Brooks provides just beneath the title: “The Pool Players. Seven at The Golden Shovel.” Here, the shovel is not only an instrument; it’s a site of gathering. It’s a place where seven friends assemble—I hear my mother in the back of my mind saying “biblically, seven is the number of completion”—to play a game of angles.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this question of archaeology and archetype, exhuming the past and clearing space for the future, since listening (this time on a trip to New York City, again to talk with classrooms full of young poets) to a recent episode of Kamran Javadizadeh’s podcast, Close Readings. During the episode, Javadizadeh is in conversation with my colleague, Chris Spaide, about Gwendolyn Brooks’s timeless poem—perhaps the most anthologized poem in American history, Chris reminds us at one point in the exchange. They also discuss an especially luminous, contemporary extension of it, Terrance Hayes’s “The Golden Shovel.”

To begin, you should know that “The Golden Shovel” is a golden shovel. The form is named for the banner under which it first appeared. With a golden shovel, you bury an older poem in the ground of your own, and it branches out from there. The last word of each line spells out the poem that is its condition of possibility; the lines of that antecedent work guide yours to its conclusion.

This spring I’ve been building a shed full of golden shovels. While searching for poems that best fit the exercise, I’ve revisited a coterie of poets who have helped shape my voice over the years: A. R. Ammons, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, W. S. Merwin, Thylias Moss, Pedro Pietri, Stanley Plumly. In returning to their lines, I find new treasure every day. I discover new passageways in my voice, and travel in directions I could not have anticipated. I would recommend the practice to anyone, in any genre: Find a sequence of lines you love, and let it serve as the foundation for an entirely new composition.

At the level of content, both Brooks’s and Hayes’s poems emphasize mortality, the brutal speed of life itself. The golden shovel,though, cuts in multiple directions; both towards the grave and against it. It calls on us not only to reckon with the vulnerability of life on Earth, but to build what we can while we’re here. To cultivate, collaborate, and look after one another.


Joshua Bennett is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023); The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), which was a winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, longlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award, and is currently being adapted for television in collaboration with Warner Brothers Studios; Owed (Penguin, 2020), a finalist for the New England Book Award; Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize; and The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. For his creative writing and scholarship, Joshua has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. This summer, he will join the faculty of MIT as a professor of literature and distinguished chair of the humanities. He lives in Massachusetts.

Art: Laura Cordido

On Covering


Joshua Bennett


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 166.

Earlier this year, the poet and essayist Ross Gay visited my poetry class at MIT. Our theme for the semester is “social poetics,” inspired by the Mark Nowak book of the same name. My students and I have been doing our best to figure out how to more thoughtfully theorize togetherness, as well as how an ancient impulse towards assembly shows up in the essential workings of what we call poetry, movement, and song. Ross talked to my students about joy, which he fittingly described, in response to a question, as “how it feels to practice the fact of our entanglement. He further elaborated this point later in the day while sharing an essay about his favorite pop-music covers during a public reading from his new book, Inciting Joy (Algonquin, 2022). The practice of one artist covering the song of another, he offered, is evidence of extensive study and deep admiration. It is a way of saying, I love this song, this sound, this feeling so much, I want there to be more of it in the world. I will reproduce its magnificence on my own time. In my own voice. This approach to thinking about covers, the act and art of covering, carries the echo of Elaine Scarry’s argument in her book On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, 1999): that beauty “brings copies of itself into being.” Even an act like staring, Scarry theorizes, is an attempt to replicate the initial moment of astonishment that a beautiful object evokes in us.

Ross’s lecture got me thinking about all the covers in my life that I love. Stevie Wonder’s double-cover of The Carpenters’ classic “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which he performed on the David Frost Show in 1972. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” which is a cover of an Otis Redding song, though Franklin’s is the much more famous rendition. And then, of course, there’s Anderson .Paak’s cover of “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service, which is featured on his 2013 EP, Cover Art (which can still be found, it bears mentioning, on Bandcamp). It is an album composed entirely of rock and folk covers, sung with a soulfulness that takes the music into another atmosphere. With a good cover, imitation is not only flattery. It is a kind of education. It is a practice of combing through all the voices in the world in search of a combination that feels true.

In the life of a poet, covering is one of the ways to enter a tradition, and it can take on a multitude of forms. Think here of Robert Lowell’s 1960 collection, Imitations, with its array of poems echoing everyone from Homer to Baudelaire, Rilke to Rimbaud. Or John Murillo’s poem “Variations on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop,” which further extends the range of Bishop’s canonical meditation on loss, “One Art.” For both writers, the precursory work they are in conversation with is a launchpad, an invitation to innovate rather than an unapproachable standard to be admired from afar. Influence is an occasion for dialogue. It’s part of how we discover our strengths and obsessions, our vulnerabilities, our sense of ourselves as part of a field—a never-ending ensemble, rather than a lone voice shouting into the great expanse. And sure, on some days, it might still feel that way. But the practice of reading and listening as widely as possible, of paying attention to the small, breathtaking details of your everyday life, allows you to approach the work of those who have come before us with something new, and vibrant, to say.

On my best days, I’m doing a solid cover of my father, who worked the night shift at the post office for forty years, and still had the energy when he got home to make sure that our hair was brushed and that we were armored in cocoa butter before we went off to school in the morning. When I dance, I know I’m pulling from both Bobby Brown and my big sister, LaToya, who used to bring me with her to step practice and house parties, where I learned the moves that I would carry with me all the way to college. When I teach, I know I’m reflecting the light of my grandmother, who could recite poetry and folklore from memory. She hosted a Christmas Day talent show at her apartment in the South Bronx for decades. All the kids present had to perform covers: of Bible verses, Michael Jackson choreography, favorite songs—it was up to us. The sharing was the point. The joy was the point. And if you forgot the words or the steps, someone was there to help you out. They would cover for you.

Most of us who turn to the page to bear witness, to dream, are working on covers in one way or another. To make that practice intentional—to actively seek out the voices of ancestors, literary, familial, and otherwise, in our compositional approaches—not only honors the past, but it builds a more expansive future for the writers who will follow us, as well as the ones we are working alongside in the here and now. Covering is a way of life. It is an aesthetic commitment to repetition with a difference, the dazzling flourish, our willingness to follow what we cherish as far as it can take us. We cover to preserve, adorn, and immortalize in a world where time eventually takes everything. We cover to take care. We cover to remind the world that we were here, once, and in love with what we could hold for only a moment.


Joshua Bennett is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023); The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), which was a winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, longlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award, and is currently being adapted for television in collaboration with Warner Brothers Studios; Owed (Penguin, 2020), a finalist for the New England Book Award; Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize; and The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. For his creative writing and scholarship, Joshua has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. This summer, he will join the faculty of MIT as a professor of literature and distinguished chair of the humanities. He lives in Massachusetts.

Art: Ronald Plett

Notes on Irreverent Translation


Christine Imperial


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 165.

In February 1899, Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist poem “The White Man’s Burden” was published in The Times, a British newspaper. Appearing at the beginning of the Philippine–American war, which would last more than three years, the now infamous lyric encourages the United States and its white citizens to take up the “burden” of empire, to civilize the “half devil[s]” and “half child[ren]” of the Philippines. In my book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues (Mad Creek Books, 2023), I embarked on a translation of Kipling’s poem into Tagalog, one of the most widely spoken languages in the Philippines. My intention, however, was not to offer a straightforward Tagalog version of Kipling’s lines but what I call an irreverent translation.

Instead of a translation that attempts to “lovingly…incorporate the original’s mode of signification,” as Walter Benjamin writes in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” an irreverent translation does not operate with love for the original, but vengeance, a desire to usurp the authority of the text and indict its language. Akin to erasure poetry, the irreverent translation seizes upon the language of the original to critique it and bring out what Travis MacDonald, in his essay “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics,” calls the “hidden poems of [the] host text.” If the original poem is host, then the irreverent translation of it is a parasite interfering in the host’s textual operations by “break[ing] the semantic field,” as French philosopher Michel Serres writes in The Parasite (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

I began by thinking about how the act of translating Kipling’s poem into Tagalog, the language of its Other, resists the original’s telos of fully assimilating non-Western natives into Western civilization. The English language was a tool of colonization, according to history professor Vincente L. Rafael. When the U.S. colonial government made English the primary language of Filipino school instruction during its rule from 1899 to 1946, it “meant to speed up the pacification process, drawing Filipinos closer to American interests and thereby putting an end to their resistance,” Rafael writes in his scholarly article “Wars of Translation: American English, Colonial Schooling, and Tagalog Slang.” What frustrated American officials was the persistence of vernacular languages, such as Tagalog, in the school setting and how it inflected the ways in which English was deployed by the colonial subject. What was seen as a “foreign language handicap,” an inability to suppress the mother tongue and fully adopt English, Rafael claims, was actually a subversion of linguistic colonization and evidence of the resilience of the vernacular: Filipinos selectively integrated English into their vocabulary rather than allow their language to be totally subsumed by it.

I wanted to gesture to this history of disobedience as a form of subversive resilience by transforming a poem apotheotic of imperial ideology into one that becomes foreign to its intended white audience. Translating “The White Man’s Burden” into Tagalog allows for a Filipino persona to emerge: This is how I found myself in the poem and what expanded the translation into a personal exploration of my relationship to language and identity. Simultaneously inhabiting and interrogating this persona, I asked, “Who am I to take translation on?”

While a conventional literary translation attempts to faithfully transmit the host text’s form and content, the irreverent translation forwards the subjectivity of the translator. It translates its process as much as it translates its host text. In my irreverent translation of “The White Man’s Burden,” for example, I offer metacommentary about my struggle to accurately translate the line “‘Why brought ye us from bondage?’” Here, Kipling offers an imagined question from a colonized subject, disparaging them as an ignorant savage who prefers the “bondage” of their native culture to the so-called freedom of Western rule:

“Bakit dinukot niyo kami sa kadena?”

The syntax isn’t right. I’m repeating myself again. What is the value of tautology?

“Bakit niyo dinukot kami sa kadena”
“Wag niyong dukutin kami sa kadena”
“Sa kadenang niyong dinukot”

I would rather go to tested systems.

“Bakit niyo kami dinukot sa kadena”

Return to the original: “Why brought ye us from bondage?”

Why did you snatch us from our chains?”

Not only do I reveal my process in these lines, but I grapple with the brokenness of my Tagalog and my desire to trouble my relationship with English. In DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020), poet Don Mee Choi writes, “I returned to South Korea. I returned in the guise of a translator, which is to say, I returned as a foreigner.” Translating Kipling into Tagalog meant confronting both English and Tagalog as a foreigner. English is my primary language, the language I think in, speak in, and write in—not only because I lived in California until the age of five, but because English was the language mainly spoken in the social and familial contexts I belonged to. Even when I lived in the Philippines, Tagalog was a peripheral language to me. To estrange myself from English meant retroactively remembering moments in which its naturalization was consolidated into me and by me. This estrangement was most palpable in the moments I would translate Tagalog into English, as I did in the section on Kipling’s phrase “Cold-edged with dear bought wisdom:”

Matalim pero matamis na karangunan
Literally translates
to “Penetrating yet sweet that is call,” in other words
“Penetrating yet sweet call,” in other words
“Matulis ngunit tamis na tawag,” in other words
“Sharp but sweet calls” from

After offering a Tagalog version of Kipling’s phrase, I gave a literal but crude translation of it back into English: The result is the syntactically awkward and grammatically incorrect “Penetrating yet sweet that is call.” Penetrating wasn’t right. I found myself looking for a better word in English, moving through a chain of signifiers until I arrived at one. A sense of pleasure accompanied the discomfort of searching for a word in English to translate the Tagalog, only to come up with the same word Kipling had used in the first place. It felt like I was learning English rather writing in my primary language. I settled on words I wouldn’t have employed otherwise and allowed myself to play with syntax.

I also experienced discomfort when writing in Tagalog or translating English into Tagalog, a feeling that was more familiar to me. Throughout my childhood, I was criticized and ridiculed by family, teachers, and peers for not being able to master the language. Whenever I spoke Tagalog, I felt shame for not being able to speak the language I was expected to call my own. Because of my lack of fluency in Tagalog, along with my fear of misrepresenting it, I tried to follow the syntactical and grammatical rules I had learned during Tagalog classes in my primary education in the Philippines. Part of my process of irreverent translation was translating my discomfort and making it central to the formation of Mistaken for an Empire.

This is how my translation of “The White Man’s Burden” goes beyond an uncritical transmission of vocabulary and grammar: by allowing moments of linguistic uncertainty to appear on the page, exploring the English and Tagalog words within the context of my own Filipino-American subjectivity, and bringing personal and public history, memory, and cultural symbols into conversation with Kipling’s lines. This rhizomatic process of allowing the translation to branch out beyond the confines of making one language correspond with another was an act of irreverence, allowing the parasite to overcome the host.


Christine Imperial is a PhD student in cultural studies at the University of California in Davis, where she was awarded the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship. Her first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, won the 2021 Gournay Prize from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, where it was published in April. Her work has appeared in American Book Review, Inverted Syntax, Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts.

Art: Jovis Aloor

Writing the Blur


Christine Imperial


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 164.

In her essay “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco writes that ethnographic displays of non-Western peoples have historically depicted their cultures inaccurately, serving as performances in which the Other fulfills the role of the savage as directed by the fantasies and desires of the colonizer. A prominent photographer during the U.S. colonization of the Philippines, Dean Worcester, for example, wanted to “convince his [American] audience that the Philippines was incapable of self-government,” and that its non-Christianized tribes required the presence of the U.S. to lead them toward “civilization.” Worcester, as Mark Rice notes in his book Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines (University of Michigan Press, 2014), was a trained zoologist whose photographs of native Filipinos were influenced by a desire to taxonomize peoples as a zoologist would taxonomize animals. Rice notes that, in pursuit of instantiating his argument for colonizing the Philippines, Worcester convinced and, at times, forced Filipinos into his photographs, where they performed the role of the fantastical exotic Other.

These photographs became integral to the project of writing my first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, a book-length hybrid essay that explores American imperialism, the colonization of the Philippines, and its afterlives as manifested in my subjectivity as a dual citizen of the United States and the Philippines. Encountering Worcester’s photographs, I was captivated by what I call “the blur,” parts of the image that are out of focus or blurred. The blur, as Fred Moten theorized in Black and Blur: Consent Not to Be a Single Being (Duke University Press, 2017), is a site of inscrutability, agitation, and excess. In a similar vein, philosopher Keith Allen identifies the blur as the “overrepresentation of experience.” In Worcester’s photos, attempts to document the native subject and her environment are dislodged by the persistence of what exceeds the photographer’s intention and, by extension, the imperial project of capture and erasure. Instead of a traditional ekphrastic endeavor of lyrical description propelled toward the epiphanic moment, I sought to write within and through the ruptures in clarity. I sought to write into the potential for resistance that resides within the images.

I began with one image emblematic of Worcester’s visual motifs meant to reinscribe the Western and “savage native” subjects into their respective categories. In the photograph, Worcester stands fully clothed beside a short Negrito man, with the jungle in the background. (The term Negrito refers to several Indigenous peoples of the Philippines; the photograph does not indicate which tribe the man belongs to.) In Mistaken for an Empire, I wrote about this image to both indict Worcester’s colonial mission as paradigmatic of the “white man’s burden” while also calling attention to the way in which the Negrito man resists passivity through his blasé expression and intentionally slouched body—potentially registering an unwillingness to be seen that exposes the artifice of the photograph’s construction. Yet there is something else within the photograph, lurking both between and behind Worcester and the Negrito man: blurred branches, reminiscent of the urgently frenetic strokes of one of Fernando Zobel’s abstract paintings. In contemplating this blur, I am reminded that Worcester was not a trained photographer but an amateur. This blur is a sign of his lack of training; it should not be overlooked, but rather seen as indicative of the limited vision of the imperial gaze, stemming from a false belief that the Western eye is the same as the “objective” eye of the camera. In addition, the blur appears as a fissure between Worcester and the Negrito man. It is a fissure that can be read as a refusal to reify the constructed boundaries between white and non-white individuals. The accidental blur disturbs the careful composition of the photograph, threatening its stability and betraying the reality it seeks to present.

In another photograph, Worcester stands in a group of Indigenous tribesmen, all carrying traditional shields and axes, in front of a wooden hut where two women watch Worcester and the rest pose. That Worcester stands comfortably with the native Filipinos even as they bear arms demonstrates his confidence in his subjects’ obedience. However, a man with a shield and sword, at the edge of the scene, seems to have been caught mid-motion. His instability is not a result of the limits of early photographic technology or the delay of the photographer’s hand. It comes from the movement of his body, which is both concealed and indexed by the blurring of his shield and axe. While we cannot know why exactly the man moves, it opens possibilities for speculative narratives of resistance and refusal, narratives which expand the life of the archived person beyond the confined spaces of colonial representation and subjugation.

Writing the blur of the colonial archive and imagining narratives beyond the frame, I keep scholar Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation” in mind. In her essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman writes that through critical fabulation’s process of speculative storytelling and historical research, the captive subject becomes an “agent that performs action.” However, this practice must “enact the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration,” Hartman writes. With critical fabulation in mind, I can consider the blur as a reminder to reject any determinative impulse directing my research and writing, to refuse “to fill in the gaps and provide closure.” The blur’s agitative force not only disrupts the restraints of the still image but agitates me into entering and dwelling in uncomfortable states of unknowing.

In rewriting and writing against Worcester’s photographic archive, I must contend with the danger of reinscribing its violence. Critical speculation about the blur requires an interrogation of the politics and ethics of my own gaze. Am I refusing, as Moten writes, the “full richness of [the blur’s] resistance to valuation”? How do I write about the blur without resorting to a gimmicky approach to its representation in language? How do I write with what Édouard Glissant calls “the right to opacity”—the right to resist being a completely legible subject whose difference can always be explained and assimilated? Moreover, how do I position my own gaze? Who am I in relation to these photographs? In writing through the visual blurs of twentieth-century colonial photography of the Philippines, what would it mean to extend the concept of the blur beyond the photograph? How can “blurring” become a framework by which I write through my own multitudinous and fragmented identities? I have no immediate answers to these questions, but I feel that my writing cannot be divorced from this persistent critical inquiry. In writing with the blur, I must continue to dwell in its tremors and move where it takes me.


Christine Imperial is a PhD student in cultural studies at the University of California in Davis, where she was awarded the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship. Her first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, won the 2021 Gournay Prize from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, where it was published in April. Her work has appeared in American Book Review, Inverted Syntax, Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts.

Art: Jolly Lau

The Essay as Experiment


Christine Imperial


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 163.

When I hit a wall in my writing—poetry, prose, or hybrid work—I realize that the approach I’m taking needs to be disrupted. Instead of pushing against the wall, I must break it down, dismantle the structure, and rearrange it. I become reenergized by the process of rearrangement via disarrangements of the intended or expected sequence of words, images, and sounds. An image: taking a razor to a strip of celluloid film, a fragment falling onto a table filled with scraps of potential scenes—an accidental epiphany from a renewed perception of the mass of discards. I do not physically cut up the page I’m working on, but rather return to discarded drafts or archived notes to renew my vision of it. Because I once saw these old documents as superfluous, I am able to deform them by digitally cutting them up, splicing their images, language, and insight in order to direct the new piece to an uncertain destination. Yet this uncertainty, this surrender to what John Keats calls “negative capability,” is how I move with the text rather than force it into my original intention. In other words, in the process of rearrangement, the initial intention of the writing—its promise of clarity—recedes as the impulse of association takes hold. When I say I become energized by the process of rearrangement, I am saying that I realize the need to abandon intention and surrender to accidents of slippage and contagion: the failure of certainty.

I recall essayist John D’Agata’s claim that if “we take to heart the traditional idea of the essay as an attempt to figure something out—an attempt, but not a guarantee—then the essay is also inevitably an apprenticeship with failure.” When taught how to write a formal essay in school, we’re taught the formula of introduction, body, and conclusion. We’re taught that the success of the essay depends on its organization and clarity. We’re taught to provide evidence to substantiate our claims. We’re taught that our process of “figuring out” needs to be evaluated in the form of a grade. We’re taught how to write against failure, against the possibility of not being understood. We’re taught to replicate procedure. But the essay should be an experiment—without a guarantee of success, like the hypothesis before an experiment. In the essay-as-experiment, however, the scientific process is stalled and undergoes hypothesis and experimentation dialectically. The essayist, as Theodor Adorno writes in “The Essay as Form,” is “discontent with the procedure [of the scientific method].”

In the Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class I took as a sophomore creative writing major, I remember the feeling of excitement when encountering fragmented essays in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, the nonlinear narratives of Joan Didion’s The White Album, and the elegant randomness of Sei Shonagan’s The Pillow Book. It was in this class that I learned that the word essay originated from the Middle French essai, meaning an attempt. Rather than analyzing how authors reached their arguments and the validity of their claims, we studied the essay as an experiment in thinking, which invited contradiction and imagination. It was in this class that I first learned how to let memory stand as a scene rather than try to explain what it meant or how I felt about it.

For my final project in that class, I wrote an essay called “Allegiance,” which I see now as the genesis of my first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues. In “Allegiance,” I juxtaposed memories of my life in the U.S. with my life in the Philippines alongside memories of my mother and grandmother. It was a study in ambivalence, a working through of complicated parallels between my dual citizenship and the expectations of choosing one maternal figure over the other in the face of familial conflict. After submitting “Allegiance,” I let it sit in my computer’s documents folder and moved on. Later, in my MFA program at the California Institute of the Arts, I rediscovered the essay while stuck on a draft for what is now Mistaken for an Empire. After cringing at certain stylistic choices and moments in which I made cliched connections between personal and national concerns, I began to highlight, cut, erase, and copy the text of “Allegiance” into my then-current draft. What was once a finished essay was now a receptacle of scraps that could be recycled into something less like an essay and more like a montage.

I was deeply inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of the montage while writing Mistaken for an Empire. In “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” Eisenstein defines the montage “as an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots—shots even opposite to one another.” Thinking of my book as a montage refused a hierarchization of materials and any desire to suture contradiction with explicative narration. In allowing this collage-like method to dominate the writing process, a hybrid form emerged wherein memories, documents, photographs, advertisements, and poetry all comingled, like a montage of images that spoke to the ambivalent tension of living a hybrid identity.

Hybridity itself can be understood as a type of failure, a failure to remain pure and authentic, a failure to define oneself legibly and singularly. Writers of hybrid identities—such as first- or second-generation immigrants, who balance the expectations of multiple cultures—often feel inauthentic, unable to meet any one culture’s standards. In her essay “Multiplicity from the Margins: The Expansive Truth of Intersectional Form,” Jen Soriano puts it this way: “This clash of internal multiplicity and external expectations of a single truth yielded one definitive result: my silence.”  

Maybe, then, the writer of the hybrid essay is not simply an apprentice of failure, but kin. Hybrid forms fail to fit into the box of genre and follow generic conventions. To fit into these forms is a silencing of difference, a silencing of what fails to be understood by the dominant culture. Positioning hybridity as failure does not mean it is lacking in rigor or technique, but that it resists being categorized. In “The Queer Art of Failure,” Jack Halberstam writes, “The concept of practicing failure perhaps prompts us…to be underachievers…to lose our way…to avoid mastery.” When I say the writer of the hybrid essay is failure’s kin, I mean that the writer is able to surrender to the uncertain paths of experimentation in order to find new ways to articulate herself. Writing my book as montage, I risked the failure of being understood by everyone for the prospect of remembering the histories and people erased by the continued legacy of imperialism, while also calling attention to moments of inscrutability, resistance, and excess. When one writes with failure as kin, one writes without the expectation of understanding, ceding to the persistence of the opaque. By relinquishing the goal of being understood, one gains the freedom to dismember, fracture, and play.

I return to the beginning of my essay: “The renewed perception of the mass of discards” cannot simply be an epiphanic moment of aesthetic possibility, it must be a reckoning with fraught associations; it must be a failure of forgetting. That is what I am doing when I find myself stuck during the writing process—resurrecting what would have otherwise been forgotten.


Christine Imperial is a PhD student in cultural studies at the University of California in Davis, where she was awarded the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship. Her first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, won the 2021 Gournay Prize from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, where it was published in April. Her work has appeared in American Book Review, Inverted Syntax, Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts.

Art: Denise Jans

The Accidental Poetry of Ninety-Nine-Cent Stores


Danielle Blau


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 162.

“Distractions can be useful,” writes Carl Phillips in his most recent book of essays, My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations From a Life in Writing, “for pulling us away from self-consciousness about making, and for increasing instead the chances for the seeming accident that, even now, after so many years, each new poem feels like.” Truer words were never written. What would my notebooks, whose scattershot contents have seeded virtually all of my work, even be, if not for the panoply of distractions I’ve let pull me away from respective tasks at hand—and, yes, from self-consciousness about making—over the course of my life as a writer?

Distractions increase the chances for accident, as Phillips says—and accident, I would add, increases the chances for encounters with what I like to think of as “accidental poetry.” Elizabeth Bishop’s extraordinary poem “The Man-Moth,” for instance, would never have come to be, had she not happened upon a particular newspaper typo and, most importantly, had she not recognized the accidental poetry lying latent in the mistake. “I’ve forgotten what it was that was supposed to be ‘mammoth,’” Bishop shared in the essay “On ‘The Man-Moth’” (1962). “But the misprint seemed meant for me. An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment.”

So, back to my notebooks’ all-over-the-place and all-generative contents: snippets of poorly dubbed movie dialogue, bizarrely phrased menu items, billboards with missing letters, nail polish color names (the more off-brand, the better); these are the found bits of accidental poetry that have, if not outright inspired, at least played critical roles in untold poems of mine over the years, and untold poems of mine yet to be written.

Ninety-nine-cent stores can often be—I’ve found by chance (how else?)—particularly fertile sources of accidental poetry. Many of the companies responsible for the merchandise arrayed on a discount minimart’s fever-dream shelves are located outside the United States and must not go in for things like professional translators (if they did, how could they sell you that permanent hair dye for only $1?). I would never disparage a person’s efforts to communicate in English—a hegemonic language I have no interest in policing—but I do think it’s worth paying attention to international corporations’ marketing jargon, suspect in any language. And the dry lingo of product descriptions and assembly instructions, transmitted and transformed by the various tongues of global capitalism, can be astonishingly (if unwittingly) poetic. 

I will always remember, for example, the school-supplies section of a dollar store in Brooklyn, New York, where, some two-odd decades ago, I came across a translucent sea-lettuce-colored plastic folder with nothing on it but the words, “Do you know the children’s times?” I have yet to decipher the meaning of this somehow ancient-sounding question—much less to find its answer—which is to say: I have yet to write this found-poetry fragment’s long-lost poem. But I will. And then, of course, there was the ninety-nine-cent store in Queens whose toy section presented me with a roughly orbuculum-sized package, which read:     

Beautiful Peacock (It will give you Infinite Pleasure!)

1. Flashing.
2. It’s Feather Consecutive Flexible.
3. Neck can stagger.
4. Immediately change dir-
ection when hitting obs-

This extraordinary and confounding Peacock—who, in its corporeal form, was housed in a box I never bothered to buy (for ninety-nine cents or more), or even to peek inside, during all the years I lived next door to Sunrise 99 Cents or More—for some reason gets outsize attention now as a stalker of my subconscious. It makes several cameo appearances over the course of my long-sequence “Arpeggio Progression in Missing Key,” for instance, the last poem in my book peep (Waywiser, 2022). Here’s one of its particularly Peacock-centric sequences (#7):

on the way to where
we’re going

we talk about missing

things on dry land on dry land
someone had a heavenly
peacock they never took out

of the box the box
said its function was changing
direction immediately when hitting
& flashing

the peacock will give you infinite
pleasure its neck can
stagger it is
feather consecutive   who knows

if any of that’s true though it was all
according to the box

I recently read Kathy Fagan’s fascinating second book, MOVING & ST RAGE, in the eponymous poem of which Moving and St. Rage “become mythic characters from a failed romance,” as Fagan herself puts it. The ur-source of the book’s profound lyric insights is, of course, a moving-and-storage-company sign with an errant “o” that she’d once rambled past.

“One is offered such oracular statements all the time, but often misses them,” Bishop continues in her brief essay on “The Man-Moth.” You have to be open to the world—to its newspaper misprints, its signs with fallen-off letters, its discount-store products with their curious phrasings—in order to receive its prophecies and poetries. Stop paying the world attention and it’ll slyly palm its offerings, like the Man-Moth himself at the close of Bishop’s eponymous poem:

       Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you’re not paying attention
he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.


Danielle Blau’s debut full-length poetry collection, peep, was selected by Vijay Seshadri for the 2021 Anthony Hecht Prize and was published in both the United States and the United Kingdom by Waywiser Press in 2022. Her nonfiction book, Rhyme or Reason: Poets and Philosophers on the Problem of Being Here Now, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.

Art:  Steve Harvey

Sometimes I Think That This Is What It Is to Write a Poem (and at Such Times I Am, Without a Doubt, a Monster of Grandiosity)


Danielle Blau


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 161.

I’m often overcome by a weird sort of wonder at the thought that the one and only thing on Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter) which can rightfully be called “free,” is, perhaps, a poem. The sort of freedom I’m flashing on at such wonder-struck junctures is Spinoza’s—so a weird sort of freedom. “I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature,” the Dutch philosopher wrote in a letter dated October 1674 to a person named G.H. Schaller. “You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity.”

A poem, it seems clear to me when I’m in this particular frame of mind, is an enactment in miniature of Spinoza’s “free necessity,” following its own internal laws of logic, the nature of which is determined utterly and decisively by the nature of the poem, and of the poem alone. And though the poem is beholden to nothing and no one beyond its own nature, if you listen, it will tell you—its writer—where it needs to go, in its own time, in its own language.

Needless to say, you’ll have to pay careful attention, since every individual poem has its own set of laws, its own sui generis but relentless—unwavering, unassailable—inherent order. And none of what the poem is, and must be—absolutely none of it—can be assumed or inferred. The poem—like the world, for Spinoza—is causa sui: the cause of itself. It is entirely unconstrained by external forces.

The norms of narrative don’t hold—unless they do, because the poem says so, or more accurately, because the poem’s very essence necessitates them—nor do the norms of language or grammar or logic itself, certainly not logic itself. If a sentence has started, you would be wrong, as either its writer or reader, to think you can predict how it will end. You would be wrong to trust that a sentence, once started, in a poem, will end.

This is no free-for-all, though. Far from it. To say everything is permitted in poetry couldn’t be further from the truth. Make no mistake: There are mistakes. In fact, at every given moment, as you write, every choice is a mistake—except the one. And which one that is is not your choice but the poem’s. And also: It is not a choice, not even for the poem; it is a necessity.

Once a poem has conjured itself—and don’t be fooled, it has conjured itself; you, the writer, were merely incidental—there is only one place it can end, and only one path it can take to get there. Every move here is radically determined and determining. Every component is connected, and every connection is necessary.

Such is my experience, at least, when I am in the throes of poem-writing—and believe me, it is a process every bit as grandiose and without-a-doubt deluded as it sounds. What else could drive a reasonable person, a putatively reasonable person, to lose herself for hours in grave and blissful deliberation over a line break—as if it mattered, as if it objectively mattered—if not self-delusion?

But, still, I can’t help but think, I can’t help but trust, implicitly, as I write, that it is, all of it, profoundly necessary. That at the truest and most fundamental level, there is no sentence, no line, and no line break, but only one thing: the poem’s single unified explanatory system, in which each seemingly inessential detail—each sentence, each line, each line break (yes, it may well seem inessential to you, that line break, but then, as it turns out, you’re totally wrong)—is in fact a necessary implication of the entire necessarily existing implicative order of the poem itself. That every step justifies the next. That every cause has one effect. That every fact has an explanation. That the particular world of the poem, as I have laid it out, as it has confided itself to me—if I have listened intensely enough, and have assumed nothing, and have made no mistakes—is the particular poem’s only possible world.

That this is how the poem will save me.

Because when you begin to sense what it might be like to think the poem’s own thoughts—when the accidents and vicissitudes and opacities of your own personal history, of your own personality, seem, not to disappear, no, because even as you’re thinking the poem’s thoughts, the poem, of course you realize, is thinking your own; so, no, not to disappear, but to dissolve, to melt back into the poem’s diamond-hard latticework, to reconfigure in the poem’s own image, and to reemerge intelligible, meaningful, and necessary; when you can come close to this, when you and the poem seem (very nearly) to be thinking with one mind—it is something (very nearly) like freedom.

Gone, at last, is the terrible burden of choice, of weighing what appear to be equally serviceable options, of forcing yourself to make what you deep-down doubt amounts to much more than an arbitrary decision (and does the fact that it’s arbitrary even matter? You doubt it.)—and here, at last, is what you need to do instead: listen.

Pay close—excruciatingly close, exquisitely close—attention. Do not miss, or misinterpret, the secret that the poem you’re writing is trying—in its own time, in its own language, in its own voice—to share with you. No, do not, under any circumstance, miss (or misinterpret) the poem’s secret, which is no less than its own nature, its own idiosyncratic and essential ordering principle, with which it has thought—is constantly thinking—its own self into existence.                       

And so long as you do listen in the rapt, quasi-possessed manner required, then you and the poem, thinking almost as one, will know exactly what needs to be done, exactly when it needs to be done. And you will know too (and perhaps here lies the most liberating notion of all)—it will be clear beyond a reasonable doubt; there will be no more question; it will be self-evident—yes, you will know that it needs to be done.

Remember, it is the poem—not the poet—that is absolutely free. The poet’s freedom is derivative only: She is free insofar as she can get nearer and nearer to thinking the poem’s own thoughts. In other words, the poet herself is never, can never be, completely free. And so, since only the poem itself can know the whole infinite sweep of its implications, the necessary magic of poetry’s free necessity goes further still, because even as, step by step, word by word, this individual poem discloses itself—even as it pounds out the one and only possible rhythm determined by its nature, even as you assimilate its essential pulse, even as this pulse becomes your own—it will still, somehow, surprise you.

As the inner workings of the poem subsume the inner workings of your mind, the poem will nevertheless continue, with each and every necessary line, to take your breath away, to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, right up until—and well beyond—the end.


Danielle Blau’s debut full-length poetry collection, peep, was selected by Vijay Seshadri for the 2021 Anthony Hecht Prize and was published in both the United States and the United Kingdom by Waywiser Press in 2022. Her nonfiction book, Rhyme or Reason: Poets and Philosophers on the Problem of Being Here Now, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.

Art: Austin Schmid

Somewhere Somebody Is Doing Something Right Now


Danielle Blau


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 160.

In one of his famous letters, John Keats wrote, “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence, because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.” In another letter, he coined the term negative capability: “when [a hu]man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats’s idea was that a poet should be a kind of negative force—that only by emptying herself of herself could she make enough room to be fully inhabited by whatever it is she’s contemplating.

Whenever I’m feeling uninspired, I think: Somewhere, somebody is doing something right now. You may say this sounds less like a hype mantra and more like the mother of all mediocre movie taglines; you would not be wrong. Nevertheless, this thought is, for me, a surefire poem-generator—lifting me up, up, and away from the well-worn facticity of myself, out into the contemporaneous “Mysteries” of unknown others and their unknown lives.

So think of the following as a negative capability tune-up, an exercise in temporary self-displacement—an empathic immersion program, if you will.

Begin by simply imagining some unknown Somebody, who, Somewhere on earth, is, even now, as we speak, in the middle of doing Something. The trick is to make the Somebody, Somewhere, and Something as specific, realistic, and concrete as possible. The resulting vignette can—and in fact probably should—be quiet, intimate. Whatever is currently taking place in this imagined person’s world likely won’t find its way into any newspapers. What you’re being asked to conjure here is an ordinary moment in an ordinary life in the ordinary process of unfolding on some ordinary stretch of the planet.

Each stanza should have as its subject a new imagined Somebody. The poem can be as long as you want—but aim for a minimum of four different Somebodies, or four stanzas. In the space of one stanza, can your readers come to feel that they know each Somebody—or better yet, that they know what it’s like to be that Somebody—just through the well-chosen details you’ve put on offer?

Keats’s psychic porousness was not reserved for members of his own species, however: “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel,” he wrote. So in a variation on this exercise, you might make some or all of your Somebodies nonhuman. But “[n]either was Keats bothered,” Mary Oliver points out in A Poetry Handbook, “by the categories of animate and inanimate: his friend Richard Woodhouse records that Keats claimed he could ‘conceive of a billiard Ball that it may have a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness & very volubility & the rapidity of its motion.’” In true Keatsian fashion, then, your stanzas’ respective subjects might include, in addition to imagined humans, imagined nonhuman creatures and/or inanimate objects.

Whoever or whatever you choose to include, your stanza-long vignettes should be stocked with evocative details, concretely physical yet—at the same time, and to the same degree—emotionally intimate.

I love to take an object made all but invisible by its mundanity—an egg-shaped container of pantyhose, a lawn chair turned on its side—and break it open to expose the full dimensions of the human vulnerability it carries. Characters inhabit most of my poems, characters with idiosyncratic voices and points of view, characters as liable to be overlooked as their own pathos-rich furniture and knickknacks. One of my aims is to let these characters’ hidden stories come through; it’s astonishing how much narrative can be stored in someone’s set of novelty coffee mugs or arrangement of washcloths.

Many of my poems from peep (Waywiser Press, 2022) were—despite their marked dissimilarity in form and content—born of some version of the thought, Somewhere, somebody is doing something right now. The perspective of this one—“Formal Proof That the Universe Is Neither Cruel nor Kind, and That This Is the Greatest Conceivable Horror,” an early draft of a poem in my book—is dispersed among tenants of a single apartment house during a single moment in time. The reader is given access to each tenant only by way of the odd physical detail; the tenants don’t have much more access to one another or to themselves. The “conclusion” of the poem’s “proof” delivers readers to a place of brutal remove, an “out there” with no mind to pay to the muffled phrases lost in the moment they’re uttered. 

The “out there” with no capacity to pay us any attention is, for me, inextricably linked to the urgency of these exercises in negative capability, because whatever can be said about the universe-at-large, we have minds and imaginations to lavish on each other, and it’s in all of our best interests, I think, to try and really use them. As Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in “A Defense of Poetry,” a “[hu]man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; [they] must put…[them]self in the place of another and many others.” Or in the words of contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum, from her article “Democratic Citizenship and the Narrative Imagination”:

The imagining [that the poet] demands promotes a respect for the voices and the rights of others, reminding us that the other has both agency and complexity, is neither a mere object nor a passive recipient of benefits and satisfactions. At the same time, it promotes a vivid awareness of need and disadvantage, and in that sense gives substance to the abstract desire for justice.


Danielle Blau’s debut full-length poetry collection, peep, was selected by Vijay Seshadri for the 2021 Anthony Hecht Prize and was published in both the United States and the United Kingdom by Waywiser Press in 2022. Her nonfiction book, Rhyme or Reason: Poets and Philosophers on the Problem of Being Here Now, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.

Art: Andres Gomez

How Do You Know When to Stop Revising?


Bryan Furuness and Sarah Layden


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 159.

The editors we interviewed for our book, The Invisible Art of Literary Editing, published by Bloomsbury Academic earlier this month, discussed the collaborative nature of their jobs: They help writers produce stronger, clearer work through an editorial conversation with those writers. Before a piece of writing lands in an editor’s inbox, however, the writer is in conversation with herself. We found ourselves imagining that inner dialogue and how we might answer the questions on her mind as she nears the final stages of a writing project.

How do you know when you’re done? 
If you have to ask, part of you knows you’re not done.

But what if the project is done? I’m worried about over-revising.
You’re probably worried about the wrong thing. For every writer who sticks with a project too long, there are ninety-nine writers who submit a piece before it’s ready. Any editor will tell you that half-baked submissions are more common than over-revised manuscripts.

But I want to be done. Can I be done now?
Interrogate your motives. Do you believe this project is finished, or are you just in a hurry to publish? (A confession from the people writing these answers: We wish our own answers were always, Yes, we’re done and No, we’re not in a hurry to publish; but that’s never the case. The best we can hope for is, Yes, we believe we’re done and Yes, we are in a hurry to publish. We’re not proud of this mindset, but let’s acknowledge the ever-increasing pressure in the writing world to publish frequently and widely. Read the contributors’ notes in a magazine and tell us it doesn’t feel like an arms race. We hate this pressure, every writer we know hates this pressure, and yet we all keep playing this numbers game, because we don’t trust anyone else to stop.)

So, about my original question…
If you have to ask, put the project aside for a while. “For as long as you can manage,” says Zadie Smith in “That Crafty Feeling,” her 2008 lecture to writing students at Columbia University, included in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin Press, 2009). “A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: You need to become its reader instead of its writer.” Once you make that transition—when you become your project’s reader—the answer to your question will probably be as obvious as the words on the page.

It will probably be obvious?
Not definitely, though. You could also give your project to some trusted outside readers and ask them if it’s ready for submission. But don’t trust them too much. They don’t know, either. Not really.

The internet says I’m done when my revisions start making the piece worse instead of better. That answer makes sense. Why can’t you be that straightforward?

That advice you got from the internet presumes that a writer is a good judge of her own work. Which is a funny thing to presume about the person who has the least critical distance from the manuscript. In our experience, writers are often the worst judges of their own material. The parts of our own work that tickle us most often turn out to be self-indulgent. 

Like using a Q&A format for an essay?
Stop distracting us from responding to your shitty internet advice, which also presumes that improvement happens in a linear way. The advice makes us picture a line graph: First the line goes up as changes make a manuscript better, then the line goes down as changes make it worse, forming a pyramid.

It would be cool if revision worked that way, but it doesn’t. Improvement is erratic, like the flight pattern of a butterfly. With each draft, you’ll make some good changes and some bad changes. But even if you make a bunch of bad changes and the overall project gets worse, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop revising, or revert to a previous draft. In fact, it might not mean anything. Your subsequent draft is as likely to be a breakthrough as it is to be a breakdown. You just don’t know.

Can I get a second opinion? 
Sure. When Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing (Knopf, 2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (Knopf, 2020), spoke at Butler University, she said something surprising about publishing her first book: She didn’t anticipate how sad she would be to be done with the project. “It felt kind of like I was missing a limb,” she said. 

So try this thought experiment: Imagine submitting your project to a publisher. What emotions rise to the surface? Your reaction may reveal something important.

Revise until sad? That’s your answer?
Look at it this way: To write creatively, you have to get comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt. Pitch a tent in the land of not-knowing. This is true not only while writing an essay, poem, or story, but during its submission and release to readers. This is true especially of books.

Whether you’ve let the project rest for three months or three years, whether the thought of sending it into the world fills you with sadness or relief or excitement, you won’t know if you’re done revising. Not definitively. And if you want to persist in the world of creative writing, you’ll have to make peace with that mystery.

In his craft book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (Random House, 2021), George Saunders writes, “We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs—or doesn’t—in that instant.” 

The more you know your work and your process, the more intuitive you will become as a writer and reviser. Which leads us to our final answer, the one we fall back on with every project, even this essay: You will feel the piece is done when you’ve made it as strong as you can, and you’re ready for an editor’s eye to spot what you can’t. Then you’ll be done revising. For now, anyway.


Bryan Furuness is the author of a couple of novels, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson (Black Lawrence Press, 2012) and Do Not Go On (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and the coauthor with Sarah Layden of The Invisible Art of Literary Editing (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023). Furuness lives in Indianapolis, teaches at Butler University, and believes that breakfast burritos are the perfect food. 

Sarah Layden is the author of the story collection Imagine Your Life Like This (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), the flash fiction chapbook The Story I Tell Myself About Myself (Sonder Press, 2018), and the novel Trip Through Your Wires (Engine Books, 2015). She is the coauthor with Bryan Furuness of The Invisible Art of Literary Editing (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023) and teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

Art: Taylor Grote

Found Forms, Found Stories


Grant Faulkner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 158.

Do we find our stories or do our stories find us?

For me, it’s a little of both. I’ve always thought my true calling was to be a junk collector. I love patinas of rust. I love ragged, torn clothing. I love finding abandoned items on the street. I save old plastic jewelry, torn-apart wrapping paper, and random shiny objects in a big box called my “collage box.”       

Similarly, I keep a computer document I call “stray phrases,” which is its own type of junk shop, a collection of odd sentences I’ve come across or thought of—stiff, voluptuous, rapturous, restrained, or just plain kooky, all of them special for reasons I can’t articulate. I just like them.

W. H. Auden once described writing a poem as connecting the best lines from his notebook, which mirrors the way I tend to write, especially when it comes to flash fiction. At some point after having kids—living in a state of perpetual transition on buses and subways, standing around on playgrounds—I started carrying a notebook in my back pocket. It was a type of net to capture stray thoughts, overheard conversations, or lines from whatever book I was reading.

My random jottings became part of my creative process. I type them up and either place them in my “stray phrases” document or in any number of other documents where I have writing projects in various stages of dress and undress.

Flash fiction allows the rags and detritus of the everyday to become gems and jewels. To be a junk collector is by definition a practice of looking at the world differently: finding purpose in other people’s castoffs, beauty in other people’s trash. Flash fiction holds similar transformative powers because brevity changes the contours of a conventional story.

“Part of the fun of writing them is the sense of slipping between the seams,” Stuart Dybek said of flash stories. “Within the constraint of their small boundaries the writer discovers great freedom. In fact, the very limitations of scale also demand unconventional strategies.”

Among these strategies is the repurposing of everyday, or found, forms of writing: A flash story can be a list, a letter, a text exchange, a Twitter argument. I’ve written stories in the form of customer reviews of Dansko clogs and a guest’s entry in a bed-and-breakfast log.

Leesa Cross-Smith wrote “Girlheart Cake with Glitter Frosting” in the form of a recipe that comprises a feast of “ingredients” that make up girlhood: “Too much black eyeliner. Roses. Champagne from a can, champagne in a bottle. ‘Music to Watch Boys To’ by Lana Del Rey.” The story goes on to list more singers, authors, celebrities, songs, movies, and objects—creating a montage of the joys and conflicts of girlish youth.

Michael Czyzniejewski uses an outline for his story “The Braxton-Carter-Van-Damme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline.” Kathy Fish uses a dictionary entry in her commentary on human nature, “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.”

Kim Magowan wrote a brilliant 100-word story, “Madlib,” in the form of a page from a Mad Libs game book. Sam Martone used Internet jargon for “404—Page Not Found,” a winding story that mingles the cold tech speak of error remediation with the fictional digressions of the page’s anonymous author. Lucy Zhang used the how-to form in her sultry hybrid piece, “How to Make Me Orgasm.”

Found forms can incorporate visual elements as well. In “The Death of Your Son: A Flow Chart,” for example, Isle McElroy tells the story of a family through the chart’s branching paths of life events. In “LifeColor Indoor Latex Paints®—Whites and Reds,” Kristen Ploetz inventively divides lived experience into whites and reds, starting with the first light of birth (a color named “Hospital Light—AR101”).

Found forms and found text gain layers of meaning when they are repurposed for a story. Annie Dillard described turning a found text into a poem this way: “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.”

Flash can animate ordinary places of discourse, alert us to the stories within otherwise pedestrian prose. It allows one to walk through the world as a junk collector might, looking at the different narrative objects that surround us, wondering if they might be vessels for a story.

Flashpoint: Junk Collecting With Words
Collecting junk naturally leads to playfulness because of the way randomness and the accidental is part of the process. Be a verbal junk collector: Search for text you might create a story with or text that might stand alone as a story. Look at your junk mail, the letter you receive with a new credit card offer. Look through the e-mails in your spam folder. Go to the library and read through old newspapers or diaries.

See how you can give the “junk” you find a different life through the simple frame of a story, a new context. The junkyard of everyday language is a playground of story possibilities.

Adapted from The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story, published last month by the University of New Mexico Press.

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and cofounder of 100 Word Story. He is the author of The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), All the Comfort Sin Can Provide (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo (Chronicle Books, 2017), and Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (Press 53, 2015). He is also an editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, 2019). Faulkner’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Southwest Review, and Tin House, among other publications, and have been anthologized in collections such as New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017). His essays on creativity have been published on Literary Hub and in the New York TimesPoets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Find Grant online on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast, Write-minded, and subscribe to his newsletter, Intimations: A Writer’s Discourse.

Art: Jakub Jacobsky

The Sentence and the Sentence Story


Grant Faulkner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 157.

A sentence has wishes as they decide.
—Gertrude Stein

A person recently asked me, “What unit of writing are you most focused on in ‘the art of brevity’: word choice, the sentence, the paragraph, or something larger, like a scene or chapter?”

My answer didn’t take much thought: It’s the sentence.

I love the sentence because, as Gertrude Stein posits, sentences are each their own unique being. A sentence can have sweep and circumference, a swing and a lilt. A sentence can be a fillip or a thud, a tickle or a trickle, a brush or a scratch. A sentence can prick or punch or flow or stop. A sentence can be carried by a cadence or a gust of emotion. It can march in a parade or slink into the background. The words of a sentence can pop and flop, slither and dither, hurtle and chortle.

Sentences are like people. Some sentences revel in their opulence—they live for the show, fulsome and rococo—while others bristle at any unneeded adornment. And then some sentences seem to know nothing more than their function, as if they’re a garbage disposal or a toaster.

The writer Christopher Allen opens his flash-writing workshops with the question, “Which sentence in a flash-length narrative is the most important?” Some students say the first sentence. Some students say the last sentence. Then he tells them it’s a trick question. “It’s every sentence, because flash-length narratives don’t allow for spinning wheels and throwaway sentences,” he says.

That’s true. The parts that go into making a short are more noticeable because brevity accentuates them. The shorter the story, the more work a sentence has to do. A sentence must be able to cast shadows through the most careful word choice, create mood with the rhythm and juxtaposition of its words, paint brushstrokes of nuance, and capture the microscopic even as it weaves its way into a string quartet of other sentences.

Sometimes a single sentence can be a story unto itself. The prime example of the practitioner of a “sentence story” is Lydia Davis. Here, for example, is Davis’s “A Double Negative”:

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”

Is such a sliver of a thought a story?

To some it might resemble a single somewhat awkward line drawn on a canvas. There is no setting. No characters with names or ages or any other kind of detail. And yet there’s conflict: over the choice of whether to have a child and the difference between wanting to have a child versus not wanting “not to have had a child.” That conflict reveals a state of mind, implies actions, and yet still holds questions.

Davis’s sentence communicates a sense of finality, and yet it’s unstable enough that you have to wonder whether she’s truly committed to any outcome. It’s a muddled sentence: using the double negative to maximum existential and dramatic effect yet so strangely phrased that it requires rereading to truly get its meaning. And then you’re stuck in the double negative, which by definition can never be quite a positive, so you’re left in an odd suspension. The character’s resolution seems unclear and requires rethinking.

The language of the sentence is the character of the story, for the narrative is a thought.
Davis’s stories can seem epigrammatic, yet they’re more than that. They don’t rely on any grandiosity of language or elaborate sentence structure. Rather, she constructs the lineaments of her story through subtle phrasal maneuvers, tuning them for different sonic impacts, stitching in the tiniest of narrative threads.

Interestingly, Davis’s short “sentence stories” were spawned by her translation of Proust’s long, winding sentences. “I started writing the one-sentence stories when I was translating Swann’s Way,” she told The Guardian in 2010. “There were two reasons. I had almost no time to do my own writing, but didn’t want to stop. And it was a reaction to Proust’s very long sentences. The sheer length of a thought of his didn’t make me recoil exactly—I loved working on it—but it made me want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke.”

While Davis’s sentence stories tend to be short and pithy, a sentence story can be winding and rambunctious and breathy as well. Ted McLoof ’s “Space, Whether, and Why” is told in a single sentence of 1,394 words. The narrative is not only an achievement of word count but of storytelling. There is nothing extraneous or engorged about McLoof ’s story. Every word and comma feels necessary. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was a single sentence until after reading it, when I traced back looking for a period—and there wasn’t one.

McLoof said the story is about lack of space, a momentum that takes over a couple’s relationship with such force that they never get to examine their relationship properly. “Each event piggybacks on the last one, and they never get the benefit of perspective, and that dooms them. I wanted the reader to have that same feeling of breathlessness, of an inability to pause even for the length of a period to reflect, because that’s a distance my characters weren’t allowed,” McLoof wrote.

Other flash stories that are long, winding sentences include Hananah Zaheer’s “Lovebirds,” in which she uses 703 words to capture the simultaneity of life; Kirstin Chen’s “Meine Liebe;” Jennifer Todhunter’s “The Levitation;” and Gwen E. Kirby’s “Friday Night.”

Sentences, no matter whether they’re long or short, are units of composition. How they are used in a story affects how they are experienced in an architectural way, with the space in the “room” of narrative allowing for different types of drama.

Flashpoint Exercise: A Story in a Single Sentence

“The most revealing story I’ve written is also the shortest,” Amy Hempel wrote in an essay on, referring to her sentence story “Memoir”: “Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?”
            Now it’s your turn. Write a story in a single sentence. It can be six words or sixty or six hundred. It can be long and winding—breathless—or short and truncated and blunt. A sentence can be viewed much as a longer story or as a book is viewed. It is a container. It can be a container that is pure and simple, or it can be a container cluttered with strivings and meanderings, adorned with the rubble of meaning.
            If you want to experiment and see how your story might change at different lengths, write it at all three lengths—six, sixty, and six hundred—and observe how the modulations affect the character of the sentence and the narrative itself. A perfect six-word story might be ruined by an extra fifty-four words, or vice versa.

Adapted from The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story, published last month by the University of New Mexico Press.

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and cofounder of 100 Word Story. He is the author of The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), All the Comfort Sin Can Provide (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo (Chronicle Books, 2017), and Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (Press 53, 2015). He is also an editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, 2019). Faulkner’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Southwest Review, and Tin House, among other publications, and have been anthologized in collections such as New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017). His essays on creativity have been published on Literary Hub and in the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast, Write-minded, and subscribe to his newsletter, Intimations: A Writer’s Discourse.

Art: David Pisnoy

The Fullness of Omission


Grant Faulkner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 156.

The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.
—John McPhee

Wringing language dry, I force excess from early drafts. This might mean leaving something bare, just the skeleton of elements. Or it might mean the sound of dripping, the sense of something lightening, trailing off, expressing, weeping.
—Carol Guess

I think writing itself is, from the start, distillation. When I write, I’m trying to distill how I need to say a thing down to the fewest and most necessary words.
—Carl Phillips

How much of a story can be left out?

Writer Deb Olin Unferth says that flash fiction—defined as a narrative of less than 1,000 words—forces the writer to ask not about what to add, but about what to subtract. “The short makes us consider such questions as: What is the essential element of ‘story’? How much can the author leave out and still create a moving, complete narrative? If I remove all back story, all exposition, all proper nouns, all dialogue—or if I write a story that consists only of dialogue—in what way is it still a story?”

In my writing workshops, I often heard (and gave) the critique, “I need to know more about _____.” More characterization, more background, more detail. But I rarely heard feedback on what to cut. Subtraction can be more difficult than addition, which anyone who has tried to declutter a house or clean out a closet Marie Kondo-style knows. Editing a story can feel as counterintuitive as pruning a tree. It can seem harmful to cut a branch, to remove what a tree has grown and alter the natural shape it wants to take. But pruning is necessary for both the health and aesthetic appeal of a tree: Proper trimming encourages strong growth, increases flower and fruit production, and removes damaged limbs—all of which make a tree more beautiful.

The same goes for pruning the “bush” of a story. An intimate act, the process of pruning brings a vinedresser closer to the tree. You have to notice the flow of a tree’s shape, its contours, its arches, the way it reaches up to the sky. You have to feel its wood, decide what is healthy or unhealthy. A good pruner inhabits the tree, sensing its spirit, following its energy. A writer does something similar. In looking for what to prune, you become more attuned to a story’s contours. You feel the story in ways you didn’t before.

Subtraction is perhaps the most challenging thing for a writer to do. But the ability to remove things so that their removal creates a better narrative “divides those who can write from those who can really write,” said David Mamet. “Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation” (italics mine). You’re not just cutting words and sentences; you’re pruning the story, deciding things like how sentimental you want the language to be or what pitch the main character’s emotions should reside in. What concrete details or information can you omit, hinting rather than explicating? What if you cut a sentence? Or a paragraph? Or an entire scene? Or the last two paragraphs?

There might be no better way to learn how to shape a story than to write in the confined space of flash fiction. I didn’t truly know how to work with omission until my early attempts at writing 100-word stories. My first drafts came in at 150 words or so, and I didn’t initially see any places to trim. As I kept trying to reduce those stories to exactly 100 words, though, I learned that a good 100-word piece strikes a precise balance between what’s left out and what’s included. The rigidness of the 100-word-story form put pressure on me to “mind the gaps,” as I like to put it—the gaps between words, sentences, paragraphs, and around a story itself. I practiced the art of omission, and in those spaces I discovered that wisps and whispers are as integral to good storytelling as hard information about a character’s surroundings or personal history.

A miniature story is a drama taken from its larger context, pruned to suggest a bigger world. Flash attunes the writer to the subterranean, the implied, the unsaid, the unseen. The world in flash fiction is always a little bit haunted by what’s left out. As Lu Chi said, “Things move into shadows and they vanish; things return in the shape of an echo.”

Exercise: Building a Story through Omission  

Our initial impulse as writers is to want to give context. To tell where we are, how we got here, what we’re feeling. Writing context is easy; the hard part is not to tell things. And to tell things by not telling them. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice. How can you provide just enough clarity and just enough ambiguity? Ambiguity is an essential aspect of the human experience, after all, and omission is the key craft technique to nurture it.

Here are three exercises that rely on different types of omission:

1. Write a story that consists of only a list. For successful examples of this form, read “Girlheart Cake with Glitter Frosting” by Leesa Cross-Smith, “Orange” by Neil Gaiman, or “To Do” by Jennifer Egan.

2. Write a story only through dialogue, using Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” as an example.

3. Take a story you’ve written of any length and give yourself the challenge to shorten it by 25 percent. Just for fun, see what you can trim, how you can fill the empty spaces with suggestion. Then ask yourself: Did your story gain through subtraction? If so, what did it gain?

Adapted from The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story, published this month by the University of New Mexico Press.

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and cofounder of 100 Word Story. He is the author of The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), All the Comfort Sin Can Provide (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo (Chronicle Books, 2017), and Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (Press 53, 2015). He is also an editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, 2019). Faulkner’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Southwest Review, and Tin House, among other publications, and have been anthologized in collections such as New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017). His essays on creativity have been published on Literary Hub and in the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast, Write-minded, and subscribe to his newsletter, Intimations: A Writers Discourse.

Art: Annie Spratt

The Erotics of Brevity


Grant Faulkner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 155.

Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes? 
—Roland Barthes

The gape in a garment—an undone button, the slit of a skirt—is erotic because of the way it reveals tantalizing glimpses of flesh. Brevity likewise lures the reader forward with hints and possibilities. As much as a writer might want to tell the whole story, fleeting appearances can be more exciting. The words and images of a short-short narrative, also known as flash fiction, are akin to the brush of a hand from a lover. Flash is the art of the sidelong glance.  

Desire forms itself around the ambiguous, those feints and teases that keep us captivated by the mere suggestion of fulfillment. The author calculates just how much and when to reveal. A question is posed, but not answered. Pleasure doesn’t come from the satisfaction of desire so much as it comes from its pursuit. Writers’ materials are traditionally the wiles we conjure with words—but in flash fiction, in particular, that also includes what we choose to omit, or subtly suggest. As Casanova said, “Love is three quarters curiosity.” Storytellers must think with the mischievous mind of a flirt.

Flirting is a silent language, a way of signaling interest and attraction in the space that exists between lover and beloved, writer and reader. The best flirts know how to strike the right balance between sending a signal and then withdrawing, knowing how each gesture changes the storyline. A veil exists between writer and reader, so you have to think about how to lift the veil. If you give too much information, you leave your readers no room for imagination. But if you’re appropriately coy, the reader will want more. It’s like playing with a cat with a ball of yarn. If you dangle the yarn, the cat will try to catch it over and over again, even after the string slides through its paws. Every paragraph you write might be like the string you tease a cat with.

Miranda Williams’s “The Apocalypse in Stages or Your First Kiss,” anthologized in The Best Small Fictions (Sonder Press, 2022), is a good example of a flash story that pulls you along, as if trying to grasp that string. The story is constructed around snippets that function like gapes in a garment, each of the six sections offering a peek at the progression of the narrator’s first kiss alongside equally brief and fragmentary views of the apocalypse. We read about “dresses the color of chewing gum,” a boy’s “honey-coated hair,” “fruit-scented perfume,” and the taste of “summer dew or saliva.” These details pull the reader forward, abutting apocalyptic descriptions of motionless vessels littering the streets, bodies disintegrating, the end of life. These apocalyptic visions also function as gapes in the garment. The two stories live alongside each other, touching each other, existing within each other—kissing each other, in their way. The last lines read, “He doesn’t speak to you again, but you keep grasping. Grasping at nothing. Like a child reaching for fairytales.” A world has ended. And begun.

One of my favorite images to describe the essence of flash fiction is lipstick traces left on a Kleenex. So suggestive. So colorful. So mysterious. And then the question: Is it the mark of a kiss that has happened, or the sign of a kiss yet to come?

Exercise: The Gape of the Garment

“The way her body existed only where he touched her. The rest of her was smoke,” wrote Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things (Random House, 1997). Write a single flash story of attraction that includes just one touch, but not necessarily a sexual touch. Focusing on a single touch allows you to tell the story of a moment, as opposed to the sweep of a longer story or novel. The narrative has to reside in the gape of the garment—the oblique, the tantalizing, the unspoken. How can a single touch be a charged moment? 

One of the most erotic moments of my youth might have been during a movie when I was fourteen and very romantically shy: My leg brushed against the leg of a girl whom I had a crush on. Or did her leg press against mine? And if it did, was it an accident? That might be the story I write for this exercise. Brevity is about the tiniest of moments, the fleeting. That is when the garment gapes, when life opens with hope or expectation.

After you write your story, ask yourself: How did thinking of the compressed form of your story as sensuous, as something centered around a touch, affect it? 

Adapted from The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story, published this month by the University of New Mexico Press.


Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and cofounder of 100 Word Story. He is the author of The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), All the Comfort Sin Can Provide (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo (Chronicle Books, 2017), and Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (Press 53, 2015). He is also an editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, 2019). Faulkner’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Southwest Review, and Tin House, among other publications, and have been anthologized in collections such as New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017). His essays on creativity have been published on Literary Hub and in the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast Write-minded and subscribe to his newsletter Intimations: A Writer’s Discourse.

Art: Stefano Pollio

Storytelling in Poetry


Roberto Carlos Garcia


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 154.

Poetry is a form of storytelling, particularly in the case of narrative poetry. Narrative poems contain all the parts of a story, but it is within the line that narrative poetry unfolds: through its use of diction, syntax, and line breaks.  

Tyehimba Jess’s leadbelly (Wave Books, 2005) is a historical narrative, a doorway into the world of blues and folk musician Huddie William Ledbetter, also known as Leadbelly. Jess creates a unique Southern voice in the poems by combining words in a way that skillfully and seamlessly recreates the music of the blues, ultimately enhancing the story he tells in his book. Lines like this from the poem “leadbelly: from sugarland” evoke Leadbelly’s music:

I push groan from gut, birthing a blood light into song, black
wave of Texas roil rippin’ cross cane field, heat mirage of field
holler syncopation, missin’ link in a chain of gospel moans

This elaborate arrangement describes Leadbelly playing guitar and singing his song. The poem’s active verbs—“birthing,” “push,” and “rippin”—and double-noun combinations, “blood light” and “heat mirage,” emphasize the phrasing of blues music. 

Jess frequently uses nouns as adjectives to mimic blues lyrics, and the subsequent syntactical rearrangement creates energetic lines like the opening sentence from “misfire”:

when jake carter’s scotch and whiskey hands came too close to
the music growling its way out of my baby’s hip, i told him slow
behind a clenched excuse for smile that them watermelon hips
and sundown lips was mine for dinner that night. 

The phrase “scotch and whiskey hands” immediately evokes a tense situation; there’s alcohol involved, and there’s danger.

Jess pays careful attention to the sound of words throughout the book. His use of long lines and long vowel sounds in the excerpt above, for example, slows down the narrative. The second stanza unfolds more quickly: “the .32 colt kicked hot into my grip, snarled its way level with / the head of a man who refused to take death seriously.” This sentence contains a mix of short and long vowel sounds. But the rapid-fire, short vowel sounds—“kicked” and “grip,” for example—intensify the action in the poem, pushing the reader to its conclusion:

    i tackled him hard,
cocked back the hammer, but I only recall the empty
shutter snap that froze him dead for a shell-shocked heartbeat,
then released, filled him full of Lazarus. left me with only a gun
butt to blast him into black and blue sleep.

leadbelly’s narrative poems are full of diction and syntactical choices that feel specially attuned to their subject matter, enabling Jess to better tell the story of the blues icon: his hard-scrabble life, the characters he interacted with, and the struggle for survival that was twentieth-century Black life.

While leadbelly told a comprehensive narrative capturing the life of a historical figure, storytelling can also be smaller scale and personal. The poems in Gerald Stern’s American Sonnets, for example, read like detailed recollections of singular moments. Between twenty and twenty-three lines, Stern’s sonnets are not the traditional Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnets. Each begins with an anecdote: the speaker invoking the memory of a person, place, or thing. Reading American Sonnets can feel like eavesdropping on a personal conversation. “I grew up with bituminous in my mouth,” he writes in “Winter Thirst.” “It was Jane Miller who called my lips beautiful,” he recalls in “Rebecca.” 

To tell the poems’ stories, Stern utilizes a kind of right-branching syntax, defined by Ellen Bryant Voigt in her book The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (Graywolf Press, 2009): “when modification follows in closest proximity to what is modified.” As an example, Voigt gives the text of the Pledge of Allegiance. In Stern’s improvisation, every phrase that follows the fundament, or initial statement, builds on or adds to the original phrase. 

Stern’s poem “For the Bee” is a perfect example:

The fence itself can’t breathe, jewelweeds are choking
the life out of the dirt, not one tomato plant
can even survive 

Stern is describing a scene, adding description as he goes. Stern’s narrative is also enhanced by his use of independent clauses, one after another. The combined effect is a heightening tension that pulls the reader more deeply into the story. For example:

      the crows are leaving, the worms
themselves won’t stay, the bricks are hot, the water
in one of my buckets has disappeared

The end of every line is also enjambed, propelling the story forward. Stern continues:

and I
am trying to get a pencil out of my pocket
without breaking the point though it is painful
lifting my leg like that;

Stern uses the conjunction “and” fourteen times in “For the Bee,” as he does throughout the collection’s other sonnets. The word serves as connective tissue while giving the sonnets their conversational feel.   

Both Jess’s and Stern’s use of diction, syntax, and enjambment in storytelling inspires me to push the boundaries of my own craft.


Roberto Carlos Garcia is the author of several books, including What Can I Tell You?: Selected Poems (FlowerSong Press, 2022) and Traveling Freely, an essay collection forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2024. He is the founder of Get Fresh Books Publishing, a literary nonprofit.

Art: Rombo

Vernacular Currency


Roberto Carlos Garcia


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 153.

At the 2022 Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, poet Willie Perdomo spoke to teachers about the importance of being in tune with the language their students bring into the classroom. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist is that recognizing students’ language validates their experience. Perdomo is uniquely positioned to speak on this subject. He has taught writing workshops and retreats for years. His poetry continues to give countless poets permission, myself included, to speak in their own specific dialect to tell the story of where they come from.

For a poet, finding her voice and the language of her world is imperative. I’m constantly searching for the reassurance I get from the vernacular of my place and time: the streets I grew up on, the music I listened to, and the people I dialogued or “rapped” with daily. I find comfort in the often-problematic lyrics of most 1990s hip hop music—not the misogyny or the glorified violence, but the hustle-and-grind lexicon of the culture back then, and the creativity intertwined with braggadocio. The reaffirming element of slang, signifying, and other vernacular devices resonated with me, the child of hardworking immigrants, and gave my life a soundtrack that helped me make sense of the world.

If hip hop was the soundtrack, then Perdomo’s poetic voice served as narrator—like Morgan Freeman and shit. See that, the “and shit?” Isn’t that familiar? Don’t you recognize that, connect to that? That’s vernacular currency. In an interview in the Common, Perdomo states: “The more specific the language, the more liberated the speaker.”

In “That’s My Heart Right There”—a ghazal from his poetry collection The Crazy Bunch (Penguin Books, 2019)—Perdomo uses the vernacular phrase “that’s my heart right there” to communicate the depths of love one character in the book, Skinicky, feels for another, Josephine. In the poem, “my heart” has various meanings: a person or object that literally keeps the speaker alive, gives their life meaning, or elicits joy. Yet “my heart” can also be the cause of heartache, melancolía, suffering, or other painful feelings. The phrase “right there” is epistrophe or epiphora, a phrase repeated at the end of a line to signify immediacy. It exhorts, rallies, and—to use a cliché—delivers a point: that one, right there, that specific person, inhabiting that or this specific space, inside me and my life.

If vernacular is the dialect spoken by ordinary people, then the repetition and the frankness of “That’s My Heart Right There” can touch a wide, unpretentious audience. Yet vernacular can be vulgar. “Sucker for Love Ass Ni**a”—also from The Crazy Bunch—makes excellent use of vulgar vernacular as the poem’s speaker playfully mocks Skinicky for getting caught up in unrequited love for Josephine. Divided into four parts, the poem mashes up formal poetic devices—such as anaphora, syllabics, and a regular rhyme scheme—with informal vocabulary, including the “n-word” and “jimbrowski,” which is a late-1980s slang term for penis or sex. The poem begins with the tercet:

Jimbrowski ass ni**a
That sucker for love ass ni**a

Here the speaker is chiding Skinicky for not only being a hopeless romantic, but also for chasing sex. In the next three four-line stanzas the speaker defines and redefines the kind of love Skinicky is a sucker for: “The love that curses & sweats,” as Perdomo puts it in one stanza.      

In the third part of the poem, Josephine enters, and we learn that she does not suffer fools. Skinicky’s idea of love is suffocating, and Josephine cherishes her autonomy. For her, love doesn’t mean shackles, and it definitely doesn’t mean sappy and mushy feelings.

That night, Skinicky had the nerve to pull out his black
         composition book.

In all of her waking language, Josephine needed to be free. She
         put her hand up like a crossing guard. Wait up, she said.
         There you go. Already putting shit in the game.

Josephine’s lack of sentimentality is only underscored by her use of the vulgar vernacular phrase “putting shit in the game.”

The final part of the poem finds Skinicky thoroughly dismissed and morose. His idealized and stylized love isn’t real enough for Josephine, and the poem ends on a powerful note:

Two couplets later, Skinicky was back on the Block heading
         straight toward the Age of Fuck It, and it was true then, as
         it is now, that there were only a few of us holding the street
         down with our hearts.

By the “Age of Fuck It,” the speaker means diving headlong into self-destruction. The phrase makes the last revelation, that Skinicky was among the few with “hearts,” all the more moving.

As a poet, I strive to capture not just the way people talk in general, but specifically how my people talk. The Crazy Bunch, and Perdomo’s body of work overall, are full of the living breathing energy of vernacular language that helps guide me.


Roberto Carlos Garcia is the author of several books, including What Can I Tell You?: Selected Poems (FlowerSong Press, 2022) and Traveling Freely, an essay collection forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2024. He is the founder of Get Fresh Books Publishing, a literary nonprofit.

Art:  Sandra Grunewald

Disturbing the Lyric “I”


Roberto Carlos Garcia


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 152.

I’m a lyric poet. Many of my poems have a first-person point of view led by an immediate and steady “I.” You see, I’m a storyteller. “I” have something to tell you, to share with you: my interior life, my experience, the depths of my emotion, my music. The lyric “I” is a vessel for this and more. At the Academy of American Poets’ 2015 Poets Forum in New York City, I attended a panel called “Tracing the Lyric” featuring Mark Doty, Linda Gregerson, and Jane Hirshfield. I review my notes from this panel often, and there is one idea in particular that has stayed with me: “We inherit this idea of the lyric as private,” I jotted down. “Yet it has the ability to be social, unstable, aggrieved, one among many.”

This notion of the lyric as “social, unstable, aggrieved” felt relevant to my reading of Randall Horton’s most recent poetry collection, {#289-128} (University Press of Kentucky, 2020), titled after his state prison number. As I’ve been exploring ways to be more flexible in my poetry—to rely less on the “private” lyric “I”— I’ve been seeking poetry that takes a different approach. The poems in Horton’s {#289-128} “address the prison industrial complex, the carceral state, the criminal justice system, racism, violence, love, resilience, hope, and despair while exploring the idea of freedom in a cell,” as a description on Horton’s website puts it.

Horton’s radical approach to the lyric is apparent from the collection’s opening poem. In “: ANIMALS,” the speaker takes the perspective of both a fly on the wall and an intimate part of the environment. The poem is less concerned with narrating the speaker’s “private” experience than with providing the bigger picture, setting both the scene and the condition of the people incarcerated. The poem opens on the prison’s exterior:

  a heatwave envelops the mid-atlantic
   abnormal like the notion of prison
   outside an unrelenting centigrade

As it goes on, Horton enters the prison:

  there is a spell cast over the complex
   a 5” fan oscillates the aroma of piss
   from the toilet bowl & it’s jungle-like

The poem closes on the incarcerated individuals themselves, “asking is this how the story ends?

In an interview with Gee Henry in Hypertext, Horton describes his strategy in the collection as “forsaking the ‘I’ for the sake of the ‘I.’ If I am going to bear witness, then the narrative needs to tell the whole truth.”

Part of the “whole truth” of prison life is the way it breaks down the humanity of those who are incarcerated: in effect, a killing of the “I” within oneself. A direct result of the dehumanizing prison experience is dissociation from emotions like fear and empathy, a disintegrated sense of self, and being trapped in survival mode. In an interview with Steven C. Tracy in MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Etheridge Knight explains:

See, when you go in prison, the first thing most guys do in jail is to somehow build a still kind of protection around their bellies. They try not to feel ‘cause it’s painful to feel in that joint, you know what I mean? Sometimes they build such a deep shield they become cut off from their feelings almost. I mean this is a situation.

Unsurprisingly, then, the first-person only appears twice in the sixteen poems of the first section of Horton’s book, aptly titled “Property of the State.” The poems in this section emphasize the speaker’s break with the self—that killing of the lyric “I.” Observe these lines from “: .OR. THIS MALUS THING NEVER TO BE CONFUSED WITH JUSTICE”: 

  nothing symbolic. okay. dark is dark—
   cage is cage. hunted & hunter are both

  in the literal. make believe & what ifs
   do not exist: a lie. nothing cryptic here.

  okay. rape is rape. prey must pray. no
   minute in the future safe from quiet

The punctuation creates a staccato effect, projecting the utterances in a matter-of-fact tone, and presenting the dehumanizing realities of prison life: rape, murder, suicide, and the constant threat of other kinds of physical violence. We can hear in the pacing of these lines—of the repeated “okay,” almost breathless—the process of dissociation from self, or the “I.”

In the collection’s second section, “Poet in Residence,” the “I” becomes present through an ever more intrusive poetic consciousness, as opposed to a singular voice. The section’s title is a play on the academic position of poet-in-residence, but in this case the distinguished position is in prison. (Horton jokingly claims the distinction of being the only tenured college professor with seven felony convictions.) These poems are marked by an intentional use of punctuation that creates a unique typography, squeezing, bending, and breaking open of the stream of consciousness. The poems blend images of the concrete prison environment with meditations on and philosophical interrogations of the so-called justice system and ideas of guilt versus innocence. Horton says, again in the Hypertext interview:

I have always been more interested in everything around the “I” in terms of personal aesthetics. There is a collective (We) in {#289-128} that puts humanity on display and trial. Yes, I have witnessed and/or experienced the ugly that is the inside, and I could situate myself as a rhetorical witness and recount from memory countless thematic threads, but in doing that, I feel that I’m not giving the reader everything I can in terms of a total experience—what about the couple in Cell 22? Actually, I feel I am doing the reader and poetry a disservice if I don’t go down these roads of creative inquiry.

Horton’s aesthetic ideas about first-person narrators echo traditions of the Black Aesthetic. One of Ron Karenga’s three criteria for the Black Arts Movement come to mind: that “the artist must be prepared to sacrifice her or his own individuality and, instead, always write with the good of the people in mind.” Unofficially, it is commonly accepted that a refusal to adhere to “standard English” conventions must also be present. For example, as the “I” begins to enter the poems in {#289-128}, it is lowercased. In the poem “:  On Reflection,” Horton writes: “because a box is a box humans are cultivated / into said box without choice or explanation, specimens / only existing—as in: (you—i—us). frame & flesh.” In other poems, he uses a capital “I” in brackets—“[I]”—deemphasizing the importance of the “I,” but still acknowledging its presence.  

This exploration of the lyric “I” continues and expands in the book’s third section, as the deemphasized “I” becomes a blended omniscient narrator. The speaker is still a fly on the wall, as in the book’s opening section. “: SUBWAY CHRONICLES” offers an interesting example of what Horton’s “[I]” enables him to accomplish:

  & [I] of no significance until he exits—
   the grinding wheels pull away
  from 155th—a ghost compartment now
   analogous to time spent in solitary.
  i occupied this same mute hush

It is clear that Horton has taken up Knight’s call for Black poets to “create new forms and new values, sing new songs (or purify old ones).” By disturbing the “I” and expanding the speaker’s possibilities, Horton also expands how and what the reader feels, experiences, and understands.


Roberto Carlos Garcia is the author of several books, including What Can I Tell You?: Selected Poems (FlowerSong Press, 2022) and Traveling Freely, an essay collection forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2024. He is the founder of Get Fresh Books Publishing, a literary nonprofit.

Art: Nadine Shaabana

In Defense of Interiority and Backstory


Blake Sanz


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 151.

My first lesson in a fiction workshop was that a story can be defined as “a sequence of scenes that defines a conflict.” But what about those parts of a story that are definitively not scenic? Ever since that lesson, I’ve wondered about this. Zadie Smith has argued that fiction writers must justify why their stories need words at all, and that often the best answer is that novels and short stories give readers access to characters’ heads in ways movies and TV cannot. Indeed, many of my favorite parts of stories are ones where I learn about the consciousness of a protagonist, their inner emotional states. I’m thinking in classic terms, for example, about the delicious psychology of Jane Austen’s protagonists, or the compelling morass of guilt and madness to be found in Dostoevsky. But I’m also thinking about more contemporary mind trips like André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name or the memories and interior states of the female protagonists in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina.

For writers, this involves having characters either remember things (i.e. giving backstory) or process thoughts (i.e. revealing interiority). But how to do these things well? In the hands of an amateur storyteller, there is nothing more certain to turn off a reader than to digress into an expository paragraph that feels superfluous, or to insert a character’s thoughts at what seems like an artificial moment. But how to discern when witnessing a character’s way of thinking might be precisely what the reader wants? How to tell when backstory or exposition is superfluous, versus when it might become the very passage that unlocks something essential for a reader’s understanding of a character’s experience of living?

Brandon Taylor addresses this in his newsletter, which is so good it’s been praised by the Paris Review: “When taking on backstory, it’s not just When I was little, I got my leg broken,” he writes. “Backstory should flow from the needs of the character and the story and the moment, and it should, or can at least, operate as a modulating force upon the story. Don’t just fill in the gaps in the narrative. Consider the emotional dimension of your characters’ history. And how…the revelation of the past…shape[s]…what a character is feeling or doing in the present.”

Here Taylor is speaking of backstory—that is, what happened before the present action of a narrative—versus interiority, perhaps defined as writing that accesses a character’s inner life. But in both cases the point of such writing should not be to fill plot holes, but to help us get to know a character better. Flannery O’Connor once said that she knew that a story was finished when it had fully revealed the mystery of a character’s personality. If we think about interiority or backstory in that light, it becomes easier to justify why one might “resort” to these modes.

Early in my drafting process, I’m not so much writing interiority or backstory to reveal the mystery of character, but rather because I’m still inventing the character. I’m still figuring out what happened. I’m still figuring out what the inner life of my character even is, more so than carefully controlling when and how I reveal that information. It’s only after I’ve done that work of invention that I can think wisely about where and when to place interiority or backstory, how much of it might be needed, how to insert it.

And even then, I’m judicious in doling it out. I look for ways to combine scene and interiority together. Take as an example this passage from Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, in which interiority and scene are blended so well. In what follows, an excerpt from his story “No More Than a Bubble,” two single guys on the make have crashed a house party, hoping to hook up. Then, after meeting two women they’ll pursue the rest of the story, Brinkley gives us this:

“Dizzy chicks,” Claudius said, and we gave each other these goofy, knowing grins. The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing. You could half-ass it or go extra hard, either play the wall or go balls-out booty hound, and there would be no actual stakes, no real edge to the consequences. Nothing sharp to press your chest against, nothing to brave. You might get dissed, or you might get some play. You would almost certainly get cheaply looped. But at the end of the night, no matter what, you would drift off to sleep in the narrows of a dorm bed, surrounded by cinder block walls, swaddled in twin extra-long sheets purchased by someone’s mom.

The first sentence grounds us in scene. The rest of the paragraph offers both interiority, a commentary on parties of this sort, and some backstory: information about the characters’ forays off campus to festivities in Brooklyn and how they approach them. Why does it work? Because it delineates a specific way this narrator sees his life at this time. Because knowing that the narrator thinks this way teaches me how to witness his pursuits later in the story. Because the language is sharp and precise, and it’s fascinating to be inside this head. And importantly, his commentary is directly related to the present scene. As a result, we are not pulled out of the moment. And in that subtlety lies the magic of this trick of fiction: the art of providing a character’s modes of thought while masking the fact that we’ve stepped out of the scene for a moment. Ultimately even if we as readers don’t always know it, this is what we want from story: to be held in a scene, yes, but also to inhabit that scene from inside the head of a specific character whose vision lends the action a particular shape and color that can only be communicated via the written word.  


Blake Sanz is the author of the story collection The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, winner of the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, and other literary magazines. He and his writing have been featured in Writers’ Digest, Electric Literature, and other national forums. Originally from Louisiana, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida.

Art: Stefan Steinbauer

When to Break the Rules


Blake Sanz


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 150.

If you’ve tried writing stories or novels for some time, you’ve probably come to hold a few rules as inviolable. For example, there is a belief in MFA circles that switching point of view without obvious signaling is a blatant mistake, that to do so constitutes a mortal sin against the reader’s attention and may even indicate a writer who has lost control of their story—or worse yet, a writer who seems not to care about controlling it. Yet I can think of many moments in well-regarded works by award-winning writers in which precisely this move is made: The point of view abruptly shifts. Those moments engage me as a reader, and they clearly worked for the editors and publishers who vetted them. But I wonder what might have been said of those point-of-view shifts if the stories in which they appeared had been put up for critique in an MFA workshop.

I’m thinking about Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup, her 2001 novel that closely follows several characters from an omniscient point of view: Ibrahim, a Muslim immigrant to South Africa working as a mechanic; Julie, a white woman of wealthy lineage; and a distant third-person voice unattached to either character. As we watch Ibrahim and Julie cautiously move toward and through an unlikely romantic pairing, Gordimer takes great, almost reckless license with when and how she moves in and out of the characters’ heads. Sometimes those moves happen within a single chapter, without any clear signal to indicate a perspective shift; a few times, they even occur mid-paragraph.

I should admit that, as a professor in an MFA program, I usually flinch when I witness a student shift point of view in the middle of a paragraph, or even when one tries more intentionally to braid two or three points of view within a seven-page story. It’s a natural teacher-reflex, one that was likely inculcated in me during my own time as a student, though I can no longer remember where I originally picked it up. I mostly believe what I tell my students: Point of view is such a fundamental part of the architecture of any story that changing it often creates more problems than it solves. The change can be a sign that the writer is still figuring out how best to tell the story, or a subconscious attempt at experimentation. And even when a student is more intentional about point-of-view modulations, they may be unsuccessful because we as readers feel robbed of the joy of sinking into one character’s unique way of seeing life unfold.

I believe all of this. And yet I also love The Pickup precisely for how Gordimer manages to undo my understanding of what is possible with point of view. How does she get away with it? And when and how can any of us mere mortals do the same?

My sense is that in The Pickup—a novel in which readers’ intrigue emerges from the chance to witness wildly different and abutting perceptions of culture, class, and race—the shifts work because they show us those tensions in real time, within a single moment. In one part of the book, for example, the couple faces immigration issues for Ibrahim and must leave South Africa for the tiny unnamed African village from which he came. It’s an adventure for her, a moment of dread for him, and that gulf between them becomes apparent in the following scene soon before they depart, with Julie speaking first:

Come. We must take coffee.

He does not like this sort of claim by intimacy, this manner of talk doesn’t come well from a woman one makes love to. A woman who was not even considered to be for him.

She was not aware that she had offended his sensibilities but she once again took and squeezed his hand while they sat at a little tin table outside the shop and drank two small glass cups of coffee. I’m here, I’m here. We’re here.

He sees that this—the first cup of coffee at the EL-AY Café, the love-making in her bed, the wild decision to come to this place, this country, from which she could not be dissuaded, even—yes—the marriage he then had no choice to but to insist on—all this was another of the adventures she prided herself on being far enough from her father’s beautiful house always to be ready for. But how ready, now, for what is at the end of the bus ride.

Gawk with me! First we are in Ibrahim’s head for a comment on Julie’s “claim by intimacy,” then we shift into Julie’s head to witness her squeezing his hand and telling herself, We’re here. Then we return to Ibrahim’s head to recall what their relationship has been like, and what dread is associated with what it is becoming. How does Gordimer manage it? Maybe because she is so bold. Because she switches perspective often enough that we’re never in doubt that such moves are intentional. Because she knows that the engine that drives the story is the unspoken difference in how each of these characters perceive their circumstances together. And what better way to dramatize this difference than to continually juxtapose the characters’ private thoughts?

The hard part for those of us who would like to take a lesson from this example is that those reasons might not apply to our own, very different story drafts. What works for her may not work for us. But the lesson might be this: If you’ve got a clear vision for how some radically “wrong” move might benefit your narrative, then maybe you should at least allow yourself to draft toward that “wrongness,” even if you seem to be violating some long-revered principle of fiction writing. None of us are Gordimer, but the more we allow ourselves to think outside the confines of long-held maxims of fiction writing, the more likely it is that we’ll find a path forward that our stories are wanting us to discover.


Blake Sanz is the author of the story collection The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, winner of the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, and other literary magazines. He and his writing have been featured in Writers’ Digest, Electric Literature, and other national forums. Originally from Louisiana, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida.

Art: Ian Barsby

Openness to Influence


Blake Sanz


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 149.

There’s a scene at the beginning of an episode of The Wire that, as I write draft five of my novel-in-progress, I think about often. Drug lord Marlo Stanfield enters a convenience store as a security guard watches, aware of Stanfield’s power. Knowing he’s being watched, Stanfield takes a sucker from the counter without paying for it. Looking at the guard as he walks out, Stanfield puts it in his mouth. The guard can’t take it. He follows Stanfield out and confronts him. He calls out Stanfield for disrespecting his authority. Stanfield throws the sucker wrapper on the ground and says, “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.”

As an impotent witness to my draft’s unfolding, I am that security guard. My draft is Marlo Stanfield. I want my presence to matter to it, but my draft hardly acknowledges me. You want it to be one way, it says, then walks away unfazed.

And the way it is, I’ve relented, is this: My draft is a novel told from the first-person perspective of a middle-aged protagonist looking back at events from his youth—a change from my planned third-person. Thinking of that episode of The Wire weirdly helped me realize that I needed to acquiesce to the narrative’s demands. So did Sunset Boulevard and Goodfellas, movies famous for their protagonists’ retrospective voiceover narration.

On the one hand, I hesitate to admit these influences. They’re not “literary,” and a couple of them make it sound like I’m trying to write in some overly masculine register, which isn’t true. On the other hand, I want to affirm that this is how influence works. As writers, we are the art we consume, and that is not only okay, it’s liberating. My novel is better for the fact that, in revision, I am pulling as much from The Wire as from, say, James Baldwin. The more diverse our influences, the more chance there is for our drafts to take us in surprising directions.

I mention Baldwin because, as I work on this new first-person point of view, I’m carrying around Giovanni’s Room. I’m also rereading Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. In both cases, I hope to glean some sense of what effects those writers have created through their uses of first-person that I might write toward. And yet, even as I first thought to pull those books off my shelf, I hesitated. I worried that, by this fifth draft, I should know what my book is—that the time has passed for allowing in more influence.

We often imagine that a writer’s influences exist a priori, before the first draft was composed. But influence doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes, you think your story is one thing, but then, after rereading it many times—and hearing others talk about it—you realize it’s another. That is as it should be.

Changing my novel’s point of view after four drafts may seem drastic. But the narrative wasn’t right before, and when I initially tried out the first-person after reading Baldwin, after watching Sunset Boulevard and Goodfellas, I could see plainly that it worked. It’s crucial to be open to influence throughout the entire process, to follow one’s draft where it wants to go. This means nurturing a habit of thought toward your project that not only accepts but also requires you to consider as fodder all influences you come across—whatever images you see, video games you play, songs you listen to, or TV you watch. If your mind is always trending toward your novel and its characters, then anything you experience becomes ripe for affecting revision.

Yet the truth is that most of your new ideas will not work. Briefly, for example, I was sure that the TV show Fleabag was the solution to my revision. During another moment, I thought the key to unlock everything lay in a recent podcast about the power of the Catholic mystics. In yet another moment, spiritual biographies like Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain felt like the “right” writing to consult. Those works have so far turned out to be less important to what I was creating than I would’ve thought.

But if you’re open to multiple influences, then experimenting with diverse ones will help you attune to the right choice: Thomas Edison tried over six thousand different materials for the filament in his electric lamp before landing on carbonized cotton thread. It’s only because I’ve tried in so many ways to make my third-person drafts work that I can feel sure about moving to the first-person. Fleabag and Goodfellas and Merton have all played their roles in my drafting process. I now keep opening Baldwin and Greenwell and—in a way that has not been true before now—I can see clearly that doing so has value. I’ve finally accepted that my draft is the kingpin it always knew it was.


Blake Sanz is the author of the story collection The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, winner of the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, and other literary magazines. He and his writing have been featured in Writers’ Digest, Electric Literature, and other national forums. Originally from Louisiana, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida.

Art: Iwona Castiello d’Antonio

Ten Ways of Being in the Weeds With Your Novel, and Ten Ways Out


Blake Sanz


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 148.

Five times over, you read the same sentence taken at random from your 150,000-word draft. Each time, you have a different emotional response to it.

You receive contradictory feedback from three or more readers whose opinions, you have reason to believe, are each worth listening to.

Having changed the narrator’s point of view, you compare the old and new drafts to each other, unsure which is better or how to tell.  

You have a moment of liberation and write toward some new and exciting goal, but then abandon it after weeks of heavy rewriting, certain that it’s not so great after all.

Waiting in line at a concert, a guy has naively asked what you do for a living. When you gather that he might be a potential reader, you ask whether he thinks a story about a monk could be interesting if the monk has gone back on his blood-promise of loyalty to family by joining a monastery.

You cut your word-count by a third, then go back and add the scenes you’d just cut.

At a loss for how to make substantial changes, you remove all the extra pronouns, conjunctions, and other throwaway words—which, yes, needed to be done, but now what?

You’ve had the project rejected by agents and editors, and what little feedback they’ve given muddles rather than clarifies what you worried might be the problem with the narrative.  

You’ve pulled out a minor character and decided that the whole story should be told from her point of view. You’ve begun to write it that way, only to discover that this idea doesn’t work either.

You’ve decided to start at page 50 and make all the scenes that appeared earlier exposition, which you disperse in small increments across the entire manuscript.

Despite the book’s lingering flaws, and against all evidence that such a thing might ever happen, an agent whom you queried too early—months ago—writes back. She doesn’t take you on as a client, but she suggests a change you’ve never considered, one you immediately realize is worth your time to investigate.

You put down the old work and start something new. In the process, you see something about how the new work is being composed that could be a solution to the problems you were facing in your old work.

You attend a conference where you bond with someone who feels equally lost in their own project, and that person becomes a trusted reader of your subsequent drafts.

A major life event forces you to see a possibility for your story that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

You print out the whole jumbled mess and begin to retype it. In the process, you catch a problem you hadn’t seen before.

You listen to an author you admire discuss their work, describing one of their own challenges and how they moved past them. While you don’t have the same challenges, something about how they explain their process sparks a new thought about a solution to your own writing issues.

During the weeks in which you’re fretting over a problem in your story, you attend a concert. Or go on a long walk. Or have a lengthy, unrelated conversation with an old friend. When you return to the work, your approach is different enough that you nudge yourself in an important new direction.  

Some other story you’ve been working on is accepted for publication, and your newfound confidence gives you motivation to confront your old project anew.

You force yourself to read something from it aloud to a public audience, and this experience finally gets you to see it how others do, and in a way that reinvigorates your sense of possibility.

On the forty-third try, having experienced most of the frustrations listed above, you enact yet another change to the project and, for whatever inexplicable reason, the change works. You do not look back. You do not look back.


Blake Sanz is the author of the story collection The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, winner of the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Joyland, Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, and other literary magazines. He and his writing have been featured in Writers’ Digest, Electric Literature, and other national forums. Originally from Louisiana, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida.

Art: Aaron Brunhofer

The Quotidian and the Code


Sofia Samatar


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 147.

I want to talk about the quotidian and the code. These are what the novel is made of: the ephemera, the details, the everyday, and also the ancient narratives, the inherited structures, the myths.

The novel is made of days spent walking around the city of Dublin, and it is made of the voyage of Odysseus.

When the novel emphasizes the quotidian—when it’s steeped in the random details of daily life, when its myths are subordinated or occluded—it’s a realist narrative. When the novel emphasizes the code—when its details build purposefully toward the romance, the battle, the crime—it’s genre fiction.

The code is structure; the quotidian is fragment. The code is system; the quotidian is glitch. The code is theme; the quotidian is variation. The code is night, the dreamtime; the quotidian is day. The code is pattern; the quotidian is chaos. The code is tradition; the quotidian is modernity.

In his last lecture course, Roland Barthes explored the preparation of the novel. He wanted to know how one passes from what he called “Notation”—or “the Note”—to the novel itself. How does the writer get from the discontinuous to the flowing? He explained that the present is distinct from the topical: “The present is alive (I’m in the process of creating it myself) whereas the topical can only be a noise.”

Barthes’s notion of the topical resembles what he calls “studium” in his discussion of photography: the functional aspect of art, involving discipline, education, and the photographer’s intent. When he says present, he might be speaking of what he calls photography’s “punctum”: “the accident which pricks, bruises me.”

The quotidian pricks because it has no point. It’s beside the point. It might not be accidental, but it feels that way. It’s gratuitous, a surplus. In the realist novel, writes James Wood, “the margin of surplus itself feels like life, feels in some curious way like being alive.”

The novel is a narrative that is also made of this “margin of surplus,” or what Franco Moretti calls “fillers”: those everyday details that are “the opposite of narrative.” The novel consists of narrative and its opposite.

Narrative is told, passed on; its opposite is forgotten. The code is long-term memory. The quotidian is short-term memory. Short-term memory is ruptured and multiple. Long-term memory is continuous. It is family, society, civilization. Perhaps it is also planet.

Perhaps only the code has a memory long enough to approach the geologic, while the modern so-called realist novel, as Amitav Ghosh has argued, with its glut of quotidian detail, its obsession with the inner lives of its protagonists, amounts to “a concealment of the real.”

Ghosh is concerned that the modern novel cannot address climate change because it depends on probability. Developed in the era of statistics, under a regime of regular time, the realist novel banishes happenings considered unlikely, such as freak weather events, to the disdained genres of fantasy and science fiction. This suggests that the realist novel is not simply made of the quotidian and the code, but functions to separate those things: that this type of novel creates an opposite for narrative, an opposite that is privileged because it defines realism against older forms such as fairy tale and myth, as well as the contemporary rivals of genre fiction. So what Wood calls margin and Moretti calls filler, what’s described as peripheral and extraneous, is not merely characteristic of the realist novel; it constitutes its purpose.

This emphasis on the regular, ordinary, and everyday defines this quotidian literature not only against other forms of narrative, but also against life, which is stranger than fiction. This is why Ghosh, who experienced the first recorded tornado in Delhi, finds it impossible to describe the event in a novel.

“I buried my head in my arms and lay still,” he writes in a work of nonfiction. “Moments later,” he goes on, “the noise died down and was replaced by an eerie silence. When at last I climbed out of the balcony, I was confronted by a scene of devastation such as I had never before beheld.”

In a response to Ghosh, McKenzie Wark declares the obsolescence of the bourgeois novel in the Anthropocene. “Science fiction,” writes Wark, “is more, not less, ‘realist’ than literary fiction. It does not produce the fiction of a severed part of a world, as if the rest was predictable from the part. It produces a fiction of a whole different world as real.” But the problem Ghosh describes cannot be solved by science fiction or fantasy as we know them. He is not looking for a fiction of a whole different world; he wants a novel for this one. He desires an uncanny novel: one that evokes not the supernatural but the unthinkable—the narratively intolerable—reality of nature. He wants a novel that breaks its own rules, that understands the numbers and dodges them, that slips out from under the domination of probability. He wants a literature that creates a new reading experience, transforming the relationship between the quotidian and the code.

My terms are beginning to fail. I see that the quotidian, if it’s truly the experience of the everyday, has to include disaster. I see that the code, if it’s preserved in long-term memory, if it is in fact a code, is on the side of probability. So write me a novel there, where the terms fail. Write me a novel of this planet that isn’t topical, a novel that’s more than noise. The bourgeois novel may be obsolete; the quotidian is not. Rescue the everyday from the clutches of the plausible.

Rescue the code. Work the space between gradual and catastrophic time. Write me a fantasy that doesn’t produce the fiction of a totality. Write me the uncanny kitchen, the porch volcanic. Write me a science-fiction novel of short-term memory and of the flesh. Write me space-time in scattered notes. Make room for the transformed Delhi street of Amitav Ghosh: “In the dim glow that was shining down from above, I saw an extraordinary panoply of objects flying past—bicycles, scooters, lampposts, sheets of corrugated iron, even entire tea stalls.” Write me that dim glow: the weather, the wind, the change, the historical fracture, the glitch that revises all the probabilities. Don’t write me a novel about mutation, but write me a mutated, monstrous novel, the ghost story of your DNA, a book that a plant could read.

Be my accident. Prick me, bruise me a novel.


Sofia Samatar is the author of five books, most recently the memoir The White Mosque, published in October by Catapult. Her works include the World Fantasy Award-winning A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Monster Portraits (Rose Metal Press, 2018) a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. She lives in Virginia and teaches at James Madison University.

Art: Rikki Chan

Old Verdurin in His Frock Coat: On Literature’s Found Objects


Sofia Samatar


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 146.

What is this about? Last night, in my book club, we discussed Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which begins as a surreal fantasy and turns into detective fiction. Someone said this novel is about illness. Someone else said it’s about an innocent spirit that triumphs over trauma. A third person insisted it’s about the complex history and national identity of the town of Piran in southwestern Slovenia. 

In the novel, there is a description of a film that exists in the world of the story called Moon/Wood. The film was shot in color, but “the feel of it is almost entirely monochrome—black woods, white snow, gray sky etc.—with occasional splashes of blood-red.” Moon/Wood shows a woman’s entrapment by, and eventual escape from, the abusive leader of an ancient cult. The characters speak an unknown language. “The true language of Moon/Wood,” we are told, “is simple, stark imagery: moon, darkness, water, trees.”

Moon/Wood is a found object. It flashes up in the narrative for a moment, then sinks into the background, a lost work by a character the reader will never meet. Vivid yet mute, it communicates in a language made of images that combine to produce an experience: “the feel of it. The few paragraphs describing this nonexistent film send a pulse through the novel, a wash of color, a moody glow.

I didn’t mean to write about Piranesi here. I intended to begin with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: the moment when Charles Swann attempts to explain the mesmeric power of a certain piece of music. The sonata is almost a character in its own right in Proust’s novel, emerging and disappearing, engaging in relationships with the other characters, aging and changing throughout the story. At one point, Swann found the sonata full of profound, mysterious meaning. But now, he tells the narrator, what it means is simply “the moment when night is falling among the trees.” The music doesn’t reveal any grand truth; it restores a particular atmosphere, a springtime Swann lived, but to which he “paid no attention then,” a moment now encapsulated in the sonata and only available there. What the music shows is not merely the past, but the part of the past that seemed unimportant while it was being lived. The sonata preserves the lost part of life. It is precious to Swann because, he explains, it shows him “not ‘the triumph of the Will’ or ‘In Tune with the Infinite,’ but shall we say old Verdurin in his frock coat in the palmhouse in the Zoological Gardens.”

Another found object: old Verdurin in his frock coat, whom Swann used to see in the Zoological Gardens. For Proust, art is the place where all the found objects are held. The home of the accidental, the random, and the stray.

I didn’t mean to write about Piranesi, but then book club happened, and I thought, if art is the home of accident, then let’s start with what just happened to happen. Let’s consider writing as the act of injecting the found objects of one’s existence into the fabric of the language. Everything that’s missing from a resumé, everything that doesn’t fit into the “About” page on a website, everything obituaries fail to mention: the unplanned, unforeseen, everyday things, the conjunction of moon and water, the glimpse of an acquaintance in a public park. For Swann, the sonata is precious because it preserves what life is not about. It’s a reliquary for the minor, an amber casing for the incidental, a treasure trove of the fleeting moments he once considered useless, a bezel for old Verdurin in his frock coat.

I became a literature professor in order to make my life resemble a giant book club. I want book club all day long. In book club, you can argue over what it’s about. What a relief! I love the debate between Piranesi-as-illness-narrative and Piranesi-as-commentary-on-the-history-of-Slovenia. I play with conflicting interpretations like a happy kid. Yet while we talk about the book, existence is slipping away from us: the casual, the inapplicable, the real. Some of it will be lost forever, but some of it will be found by art.

In Piranesi, an occultist describes how excess energy from this world creates a second one. “Picture it,” he says, “like rainwater lying on a field. The next day the field is dry. Where has the rainwater gone? Some has evaporated into the air. Some has been drunk by plants and animals. But some has seeped down into the earth.”


Sofia Samatar is the author of five books, most recently the memoir The White Mosque, published this month by Catapult. Her works include the World Fantasy Award-winning A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Monster Portraits (Rose Metal Press, 2018) a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. She lives in Virginia and teaches at James Madison University.

Art: Alexander Grey

Fiat Lux: On Literary Atmospheres


Sofia Samatar


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 145.

Recently, at the Mennonite/s Writing Conference in Goshen, Indiana, I attended a panel discussion in which the scholar and crime writer Daniel Born was asked, “What is the function of the noir genre?” Born gave the best possible answer: “Noir is an atmosphere.” This wasn’t enough for the person who had asked the question, and an interesting conversation followed, considering violence, capitalism, urban decay, and the manifestation of power. These are all excellent themes for a study of the social function of noir, but they fail to explain why a person’s hand has picked up a certain book, much less—and for me this is the question of literature—why, once the person has read the book, that same hand might pick it up again.

A question of rereading. Once you know what a book contains, why read it again? Because literature is not information. It’s an atmosphere, a location, a space, a landscape you can enter, with its own weather and light that can be found nowhere else.

The German philologist Erich Auerbach offered a study of atmospheres in his investigation of literary worlds: Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Committed to a Western tradition whose brutal underside had driven him into exile by the Nazis in 1935, Auerbach wrote the book in Istanbul; published in Berlin in 1946, it was soon translated into several languages, arguably establishing the field of modern comparative literature. Mimesis is a dazzling voyage through Western narrative, from Homer to Virginia Woolf, in search of what Auerbach calls “the serious treatment of everyday reality.”

Auerbach digs deep into sentences, then tosses the flare of his attention to illuminate whole caverns. He’s interested in the dimensions of literary space, in foreground and background, extension and depth. He wants to know how the separation of styles in the classical Latin tradition—elevated language for noble themes, colloquial speech for comedy—breaks down, eventually leading to the birth of the modern novel. With intense exactitude, he traces feeling from form, showing how literary style calls up the ghost of bodily sensation, how reading can be like stepping into an airless, tapestried chamber (Medieval allegory); a perfumed garden (Giovanni Boccaccio); or a crowded city during a thunderstorm (Henri de Saint-Simon).

Here’s his commentary on a phrase from Genesis: dixitque Deus: fiat lux, et facta est lux (And God said, Let there be light: and there was light). This sentence has been a key subject in discussions of the sublime going back to Longinus; Auerbach shows how it creates a sense of space:

The sublime in this sentence from Genesis is not contained in a magnificent display of rolling periods nor in the splendor of abundant figures of speech but in the impressive brevity which is in such contrast to the immense content and which for that very reason has a note of obscurity which fills the listener with a shuddering awe.

In a sentence on light, Auerbach finds the darkness. He shows how the lightning strike of fiat lux reveals a vast, surrounding gloom, an expanse that can’t be fully plumbed: a world. The contours of an unknown land take shape out of the void. The listener stands in the dark, heart pounding. The words induce proprioception, a sense of the body’s position in space, a physical shudder.

Read Auerbach to see how arrangements of words create atmospheres. Read him to find out why Greek epic is horizontal and Old Testament epic is vertical. Follow him through Latin classics and medieval legends so he can prove to you that Dante is a miracle. Stick with him all the way to the final chapter, so you can completely freak out when he links Woolf to Greek epic and Proust to Old Testament epic, in a return to his first chapter that makes a whole field of literature stand up out of the page—like the town and gardens leaping out of Proust’s famous teacup—and might help you understand why someone would reach for To the Lighthouse on a particular day and not In Search of Lost Time, or vice versa: To the Lighthouse is limpid, tinny, watery, reflective, flashing, spreading, and luminous, while In Search of Lost Time is layered, reverberant, rhythmic, concentrated, verdant, tangled, rocky, and crumbly like ancient brick.

For what are we doing here? As writers, we are making worlds. In the atomic theory of Lucretius, atoms are like letters: The letters of the alphabet combine in different ways to make words, just as a limited set of elements produces grain, trees, and human beings. In his pursuit of “everyday reality” in literature, his effort to understand how abstract shapes on a page can induce complex feelings of being alive, Auerbach shows that letters are also like atoms. Every piece of writing calls a particular world into being, an environment through which a reader moves.

Rereading means returning to a landscape: running down ill-lit streets, gliding through radiant fields, climbing up mountains buffeted by the wind. To write is to generate a space, with its topography, its temperature, the quality of its air. Fiat lux.


Sofia Samatar is the author of five books, most recently the memoir The White Mosque, forthcoming in October from Catapult. Her works include the World Fantasy Award-winning A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Monster Portraits (Rose Metal Press, 2018) a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. She lives in Virginia and teaches at James Madison University.

Art: Jordan Graff

Blessed Citation


Sofia Samatar


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 144.

What is the joy of quoting? How to explain its curious, addictive charm? 

I’m taking notes. I’m copying the words of others. As the pen moves, I have the sensation of becoming someone else, someone more observant and eloquent than myself, the person who wrote the words I’m transcribing. Sometimes there are layers of distance: I might be copying words cited in an essay or translated from another language. But the line of energy comes through. My hand guides the pen, tracing shapes on the page, entering someone else’s precise, miniature gesture.

An embarrassing pleasure. I can’t quite justify it. Yes, I’m a scholar; yes, my nonfiction writing incorporates many notes. But not this many. Anxious dreams of sudden hospitalization, of my notebooks being found while I’m still alive. A figure of nightmare inquires: “What are you going to do with all those notes?” I’m caught, busted! How to explain that these writings are both treasure and dross, both a glittering reservoir (I might use them someday!) and, like sawdust or coffee grounds, the residue of a practice whose goal is already achieved?

“Blessed citation!” writes the scholar Antoine Compagnon. “Among all the words in our vocabulary, it has the privilege of simultaneously representing two operations, one of removal, the other of graft, as well as the object of these operations—the object removed and the object grafted on, as if the word remained the same in these two different states.”

As if being cut off was the same as being joined. The marvel of language: It is taken, it is absorbed, and it remains. “Is there known elsewhere,” Compagnon asks, “in whatever other field of human activity, a similar reconciliation, in one and the same word, of the incompatible fundamentals which are disjunction and conjunction, mutilation and wholeness, the less and the more, export and import, decoupage and collage?”

I’m taking notes. The sensation of my hand rubbing against the page enchants me. My notebook is a magic lamp.

I have dreamt of giving birth to myself, of creating my own vernacular. In my twenties, while writing an epic fantasy novel, I went so far as to develop a lexicon, a morphological system, and a number of grammatical features for three imaginary languages. I understand the lure of that crystalline playpen. But no one is, or can be, alone in words. Before birth, language is already given, granted without being asked for, without having been earned. In my religious tradition, this is the definition of grace.

When I take notes, I touch this truth: I am the language of others. The knowledge lasts as long as the pen is in motion. I am Clarice Lispector. I am Franz Kafka. I am Suzanne Césaire. I am Imru’ al-Qays, who has been dead for 1,400 years. I am all the translators: Stefan Tobler, Michael Hofmann, Keith L. Walker. I am Antoine Compagnon and Marjorie Perloff. “The dialectic of citation is all-powerful: one of the vigorous mechanisms of displacement, it is even stronger than surgery,” Compagnon writes.

Blessed citation, requiring so little—just a spark of recognition, a sudden yes, I must write this—and giving so much. The surgical, healing genre.

The line of energy flickers. Decoupage meets collage. Borders dissolve. I fall asleep in Cairo and wake up in Damascus. I vagabond through literature. I am not my mother tongue alone; I am no particular language. I am language itself.

“We need more you,” an editor told me recently. “You cite all these other writers, but there’s not enough you in here.” Dude, I’m right there. I’m in the quotations. I am the quotations.

Blessed citation, already present, dormant, requiring only one touch to awaken.

My hand rubs against the page, and the genie, the genius, rises.


Sofia Samatar is the author of five books, most recently the memoir The White Mosque, forthcoming in October from Catapult. Her works include the World Fantasy Award-winning A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Monster Portraits (Rose Metal Press, 2018) a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. She lives in Virginia and teaches at James Madison University.

Art: Annie Vo 

Real Person, Imagined Scene


Gregory Orr


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 143.

Specificity is the anchor of poetry as we write it now. Who can forget—or is allowed to forget—William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow? We may believe that love is a major concept and value and thus should be celebrated in poems, but we also know that abstractions are not all that vivid or useful in poetry. Behind every personal experience that we might label “love,” there is a specificity to be seized by language and put in a poem. That is: There is a who (or what), a where, and a when—the basics of context, the beginnings of story. What follows is an exercise in developing specificity of context and storytelling.          

Close your eyes and imagine some person who is significant to you. Try to bring that figure into focus in your mind: Picturing things like what clothes they are wearing might help. Now draw back from that figure a little bit, as if you were a movie camera. Where is this person? Are they indoors or outdoors? If indoors, in what space or room? If outdoors, where? Is it morning, afternoon, or night?  Now the key part: What are they doing? For instance: “My Aunt Betty knitting in front of the TV” might be something someone envisions.  

The next step is to create your own involvement in the scene, discovering its possible significance. So add that pronoun that stands for yourself: “I watch as Aunt Betty knits in front of the TV.” The personal pronoun and the presence it implies—though only in your imagination, which is fine—allows you to extend this image into a story:

I watch as Aunt Betty knits in front of the TV.
It’s another ugly sweater no one will wear.


I watch as Aunt Betty knits in front of the TV,
Her head bent so low over the needles
She can’t possibly see what’s happening
On the screen in front of her. It’s a red scarf
For my sister who doesn’t even like her
For my sister who lives in Florida
And will never need it.

The trick is to keep exploring, keep extending. Maybe the I is present and active in this scene:

I watch as Aunt Betty knits in front of the TV,
Her head bent so intently over the needles           
I’m afraid to speak and startle her…

And so on. Why should a scene like this reveal anything interesting or urgent? Because our memory and imagination are also symbolic. What action and setting we visualize for a given figure is symbolic of our attitude toward them, our assessment of them. If we remember or imagine our mother cooking, perhaps we felt her to be nurturing. Or not. Maybe she’s microwaving another TV dinner that everyone detests. In another memory, perhaps Grandpa Fred is planting tomatoes in the backyard: “I watch as my grandfather bends among the tomato plants.” Where will such a scene take the poet—and the reader? Each new line should add some noun or verb that is specific and moves the scene along.

When you run out of steam for extending and modifying the story, then stop. Is it a good place to end the poem? Maybe you wrote past the strongest lines, and so should cross out the last line or two. We—I—often write past the dramatically effective place to end, overlooking that gesture or detail that “says it all” and completes the poem.


Gregory Orr is the author of thirteen poetry collections, including Selected Books of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). His prose books include A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry (Norton, 2018) and Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia Press, 2002). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, Orr taught there from 1975–2019 and was founder and first director of its MFA Program in Writing.

Art: Mario Gogh

Story Dynamics in Poetry


Gregory Orr


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 142.

Story is one of the basic structural and meaning-bearing forms of language in human culture. Even lyric poems are often structured around story principles. Stories seem designed to tell us important things about ourselves as we live in and move through the world. They are also a deeply satisfying form of ordering for experience.

The most basic dynamic of stories is this: two centers of energy in tension with each other. With that in mind, it’s easy to create an intense narrative lyric. All you have to do is set up the centers of energy—two nouns or pronouns—and create tension between them with a strong verb. Then let it flow. For example: How about using the pronouns I and you in the opening of your poem, the start of your story?

I           you…

Who is you? It doesn’t matter. It’s up to you who the you of your story is.

Now place a verb between the pronouns, one of your own choosing. Why not start with a strong one? Love or hate, detest or fear?

I (verb) you…

I love you, I hate you, I fear you, I detest you, I disgust you—with this verb “disgust” the energy reverses toward the speaker—I envy you, I bore you. Okay, we’ve started. We’ve created an emotional tension that the story needs to get going and will seek, finally, to resolve. Let’s add another word: because.

I (love/hate/fear/detest/envy/disgust) you because…

What happens next? How do you extend and explore this situation you have created with just a few words? It’s simple: Ask yourself, What happens next? Use verbs and nouns to move the story forward. Don’t judge yourself or think too much. Give yourself permission to let the words flow. This is story in its essential form: This happens; then that happens.

The only rule is to try to surprise yourself or your reader: Suspense and surprise are essential to the pleasure and fascination of story. Keep the language interesting, full of concrete details:

I hate you because
Of that day at the laundromat
I hate you because
You cut down that maple

Keep extending. If your imagination falters, and you can’t think of any new twists or elements, then stop. Keep the last good line and cross out the rest.

What you are likely to discover with this exercise is that the story—or many stories—are waiting for you to invite them out onto the page of your poem. A trigger sentence can start them off, and your own ingenuity can extend them forward. The emotion, concrete actions, and details you choose may lead you into charged memories, or charged imaginings that contain a “true” story of the I and you.    


Gregory Orr is the author of thirteen poetry collections, including Selected Books of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). His prose books include A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry (Norton, 2018) and Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia Press, 2002). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, Orr taught there from 1975–2019 and was founder and first director of its MFA Program in Writing.

Art: Liz Sanchez Vegas

Some Things I Like About Lists


Gregory Orr


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 141.

It doesn’t hurt to think of poems as a project of ordering disorder—of turning lived confusion into structured coherence by translating the “world” into “words,” then shuffling those words into some cohesion that feels like a poem. One of the simplest and most ancient ordering principles is the list.

Lists are curious things. They might seem a bit uncool as a structuring principle for a poem, but it’s easy enough to give them an edge: All you have to do is make your list a bit challenging to yourself, emotionally and imaginatively. Poems, lyric poems in particular, often get their force by going all the way in one emotional direction, seeking the maximum intensity of expression in a single emotional register rather than a “wise” balance. Think of the strongest lyrics of Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath, for example. In poetry where there’s little risk, there’s little gain.

So why not compose a list poem with the title “A Few Things I Love About Myself”? Or if that’s too fraught—but shouldn’t poems be fraught?—you could tone it down a notch and try the title “A Few Things I Like About Myself.” Or—is this easier or more difficult?—a list generated by the title “A Few Things I Hate (Dislike?) About Myself.” Even better might be to try both: a list poem centered on love/like and another on hate/dislike. The two list poems together might give you a kind of existential or psychological balance by setting one strong utterance against the other.        

If one poem is easier to write than the other, then that’s all the more reason to work hard—imagining freely and nonjudgmentally—on the more difficult list. You might follow this rule: Keep each item on the list to two lines, or a single line if possible. If some scene, memory, or detail threatens to expand strongly, why not consider that you are being invited to write a separate poem about it? Treat that item as a spin-off seeking to become a poem of its own—a freebie.

But back to that initial list-poem exercise.

Is there an order to such a list poem? There should be. It can, and probably will, start with random things, with the first things that pop into your head. But who knows? Give yourself permission, and try not to censor yourself too soon or severely. When you’ve got a fairly extensive list, ask yourself: Are these all interesting ideas, with at least some of them unpredictable? Cross out the least interesting lines. The most important step is to ask yourself: Which line is a good one to end on? Try to be both playful and nimble.

List poems can be and usually are rearranged after the initial draft to achieve an effect on the reader. As you go through this crafting process, consider this question: Should my list poem with the strongly charged title “Some Things I Love about Myself” end with something “big” and grand—“I love that I like everyone I meet”—or something that seems minor? Such an ending—“I love that I like ginger snaps”—has an anticlimactic power, a charge of unexpected understatement.


Gregory Orr is the author of thirteen poetry collections, including Selected Books of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). His prose books include A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry (Norton, 2018) and Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia Press, 2002). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, Orr taught there from 1975–2019 and was founder and first director of its MFA Program in Writing.

Art: Amy Shamblen


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  • February 21, 2024