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 the 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


Sound Clusters


Gregory Orr


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 140.

The American poet Theodore Roethke, like his contemporary Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet, loved sonic richness in poems. This is perhaps most evident in Roethke’s lyrics about the commercial greenhouse his father ran, where the poet worked as a child. In his poem “Root Cellar,” for example, Roethke uses sound to create a dense composition that is the sonic equivalent of the intense odors and textures of that place:

Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime
piled against slippery planks.

That we may not have any experience of root cellars doesn’t matter much: The nouns are pretty common, and the sonic intensity born of thumping monosyllables—alive with vowel variety, assonance, and the dance of plosives—carries us along.

Sonic pleasures of various kinds are at the heart of poetry. They derive from the language intensification that defines this curious form of literature. If you’re interested in cultivating such pleasure for your readers—and yourself—here’s an exercise that involves playing with sound while at the same time encouraging inventiveness.

The exercise consists of using eight specific words and following a few rules. Here are the words:

  1. Green
  2. Grab
  3. Brag
  4. Gravel
  5. Bashful
  6. Habit
  7. Fish (used as a verb or a noun, it doesn’t matter)
  8. Hollow

Here are the rules:

  1. Use all eight words in a poem that is ten to twelve lines long.
  2. You can use them in whatever order you wish.
  3. You can’t use more than one of the listed words in each line (i.e. no trying to jam all the leftovers into the last line).

If you find yourself engaged by the echoes and effects that these eight words produce, feel free to use words of your own choosing that continue, expand on, or play off their sounds. To do so will heighten, and possibly alter, the sonic texture of your poem.

If my chosen words have no appeal for you, then draft your own sonic-cluster of random words, then try them with the above rules. It’s a deep and mysterious fact of poetry that we all respond to sounds and sound patterns differently. My ear and tongue take pleasure in those lines of Roethke, but they may be too rich or cloying for another reader. Fifty years of writing poems has taught me this: Find the “music” that you most enjoy, and try to use it in your poems. No one can or should legislate another poet’s sense of sound-pleasure.


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: Papop Ruchirawat


Involuntary Ideas


Nuar Alsadir


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 139.

Writers often berate themselves for not working, by which they mean sitting down with a notebook or computer and producing writing that seems presentable to others. Yet much work occurs when we are doing something else, when our focus is on a physical or habitual task—walking the dog, making dinner—and we are less likely to censor the thoughts that pass into our mind.

There are ideas we consciously construct and ideas we are given—“involuntary ideas,” in Freud’s terminology—that emerge of their own free will when our critical faculty steps out of the way. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud depicts these involuntary ideas, which are crucial to free-association and poetic creation, as being policed by guards stationed at the gateway of our conscious mind to reject certain thoughts before they are perceived. He borrows this image from a letter Friedrich Schiller wrote in response to a friend who bemoaned a lack of productivity:

It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason makes too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in—at the very gateway, as it were…. [W]here there is a creative mind, Reason—so it seems to me—relaxes its watch upon the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it look them through and examine them in a mass.—You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves, are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds and whose longer or shorter duration distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.

Reason places watchers at the gateway of the mind to bar entry of “the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds.” To be creative, you must relax your watch upon the gates, let involuntary thoughts and ideas enter freely. Part of the work of an artist is to dream.

The challenge is that the “transient extravagances” that tumble out of us, if judged too soon, can make us feel “ashamed or frightened.” If we reject ideas too quickly, we will not be able to see where they might lead: “Looked at in isolation, a thought may seem very trivial or very fantastic; but it may be made important by another thought that comes after it, and, in conjunction with other thoughts that may seem equally absurd, it may turn out to form a most effective link,” Schiller wrote. As in dream analysis or writing poetry, following a trail of associations often leads to an unexpected, previously unknown revelation. But inhibitions need to be lifted for that to be possible.

When you free yourself from the goal of constructing meaning, pleasing the watchers at the gateway of the mind with Reason, you leave open the possibility of connections that are made with the participation of more than just your logical faculty, as I discussed in my last Craft Capsule: “To access genuine emotion, for your writing to be alive, it helps to soften your brain and let your impulses spontaneously express themselves.” The next time you feel unproductive, ask yourself whether the problem is “unfruitfulness” or what you have deemed edible.


Nuar Alsadir is the author of Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the poetry collections Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in England and Ireland, and More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012). She works as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice.

Art: Dave McDermott

An Authentic Conversation With Your Reader


Nuar Alsadir


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 138.

People often think that to move your reader, you need to find the right idea or story, but the most effective way is to be moved yourself in the process of writing. I learned this lesson in clown school, which I attended as research for my book Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation, published last week by Graywolf Press. For a clown, the equivalent of moving your reader is to make your audience laugh. The laughter occurs not because what you say is funny, but because it’s honest. If a performer’s expressions feel honest rather than rehearsed, the audience senses an authentic conversation, connects, and marks that connection with laughter.

In other words, it’s not only the content of what you bring onto the stage that has an effect, but also your relationship to what you bring. That’s because it’s not your material that the audience connects to, but the emotion you feel in relation to that material. For example, when a woman in clown school with me was on stage describing her love of eating chicken feet—particularly the sensation of moving the bones around in her mouth with her tongue—our class didn’t laugh because we thought her description was funny or clever. We laughed because we could sense the enjoyment she felt as she imaginatively enacted the process on stage. We connected viscerally with her pleasure—her genuine emotion—not with the idea of eating chicken feet.

But how does witnessing another person’s emotion provoke emotion in us? When we witness someone experiencing a strong feeling, that feeling is transmitted to us through mirror mechanisms in the brain, including mirror neurons. Mirror neurons allow us to feel the emotions of others inside ourselves as though they were our own. If you see someone cry, for example, your mirror neurons fire, causing the crying sensation to be mirrored within, so that you may even cry yourself. Because the same mirror neurons fire when we witness an emotion or action as when we feel or act ourselves, we are able to experience what happens outside of ourselves as part of our own subjective experience—to feel moved by experiences that are not our own.

That is why the most direct way for others to connect with your writing is by connecting with the emotion you feel in relation to the work. If you genuinely experience emotion within yourself during the writing process, that emotion will be transmitted to readers by way of mirror mechanisms in the brain. They will then experience your feeling within their bodies as though it were their own. “Indeed, a work of art,” writes composer Arnold Schoenberg, “can produce no greater effect than when it transmits the emotions which raged in the creator to the listener, in such a way that they also rage and storm in him.”

Accessing emotions that rage and storm in you is as much a psychoanalytic issue as it is an issue of craft. To lead with your emotions, it is helpful to avoid imitating your work that has been received well in the past, what you think your reader will like, or a voluntary idea. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion similarly advised psychoanalysts not to enter sessions with “memory, desire, [or] understanding.” This precept is repeated often in psychoanalytic circles, although most people drop “understanding” from the list. We are trained from our earliest days to lead with understanding: to have a thesis before writing a paper, an idea before pitching a piece. But what’s known is dead. “When you’re writing,” James Baldwin explains, “you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”

To access genuine emotion, for your writing to be alive, it helps to soften your brain and let your impulses spontaneously express themselves. You shouldn’t try to control what comes out, even when it doesn’t align with how you’d like to be perceived. Sometimes our idea of ourselves—who we’d like to be, how we’d like to be perceived by others—can get in the way of becoming who we are.


Nuar Alsadir is the author of Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the poetry collections Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in England and Ireland, and More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012). She works as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice.

Art: Steffen Petermann

Your Reader and the Unconscious


Nuar Alsadir


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 137.

When writers discover that I am a psychoanalyst, they often ask whether I think psychoanalysis can be helpful to the creative process. It seemed to help Samuel Beckett, who was in analysis with Wilfred Bion, I tell them, and H.D., who was analyzed by Sigmund Freud. But even without taking the plunge and going into an analytic treatment, a writer can benefit from thinking about their work through the lens of psychoanalytic principles. One area in which psychoanalytic thinking can be particularly useful is in understanding the unconscious dynamics that are at play in selecting your imagined reader.

A key concept in psychoanalysis is transference: We transfer expectations and emotions developed through experiences with people from our past onto figures in the present. If your father challenged your ideas in a mocking way when you shared them at dinner, for example, you may expect the instructor of your writing workshop to similarly take you down when you present your work to the group seated around a table. The more important the person from your past was to you—a primary caregiver, for instance—the more likely you will be to anticipate their responses from people you encounter in the present, your imagined reader included.

The figure you address when writing shapes your work through a psychological process literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin terms “addressivity.” In the split second before speaking, we project ourselves into the position of our addressee, imagine how they will take what we are about to say, then adjust our communication to fit those expectations. Addressivity explains why you can feel “on” while talking to one person but awkward, or bored, when talking about the same thing with someone else. This mechanism, performed in milliseconds, leads us to alter spontaneous expressions to account for how we predict our addressee will think and feel.

If your imagined reader is based on a person from your past who was judgmental, you will likely imagine and anticipate a critical response and adjust your writing accordingly. It’s important to note that the adjustments you make will aim to protect against being viewed critically, not to improve your writing. In other words, you risk sacrificing your writing in the interest of preserving your image of self—in your own eyes and in the eyes of your imagined reader, which are essentially the same, as you are projecting yourself into the reader’s position in imagining how they will respond. Thinking about transference can help you disentangle the work from the interpersonal issues in your life. If you don’t give thought to your imagined reader, you are likely to unconsciously adopt a figure based on a real person from your past. I’m always surprised by how often writers unknowingly address imagined readers who are rejecting, critical, or demeaning.

Why not be proactive and consciously choose your addressee instead? There’s a classic poetry writing exercise that taps into the dynamic of addressivity: Write the same poem four times, addressing each draft to a different figure—your lover, your mother, your childhood self, an editor at a well-known mainstream magazine. The exercise gets at how our writing changes according to the figure we conjure as our addressee.

Bakhtin suggests we address a “superaddressee,” a “(third), whose absolutely just understanding is presumed.” For some writers, this ideal reader is an “indefinite strange[r],” in critic Michael Warner’s terms, a figure that allows you to speak into a “social imaginary,” an “environment of strangerhood [that] is the necessary premise of some of our most prized ways of being.” How might your writing change if instead of addressing your harshest critic you imagined your reader as a superaddressee, an indefinite stranger, your most affirming friend?


Nuar Alsadir is the author of Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the poetry collections Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in England and Ireland, and More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012). She works as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice.

Art: Ioana Cristiana

Write It Again


Lauren Camp


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 136.

From 1916 to 1919, Edward Hopper painted the same stretch of rocks on Maine’s Monhegan Island multiple times. He rendered those rocks in charcoal, conte crayon, and oils. He sketched and painted, over and over again. Sometimes he was sloppy; he treated them roughly. He rendered the shapes in impasto, thick and heavy. He revealed them in shades of gray, olive green, and other muddy colors. Other times, he drew them with a delicate touch, barely there. Depicted so variously, the very same rocks might produce different emotional responses in the viewer.

I understand Hopper’s urge to return to the same subject. When something has hooked into my mind or heart, I write it into many drafts. I’d like to write one damn good poem on the subject, then move on. But that’s not how it goes.

I wrote more than one hundred poems about my father as he was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. His memory started to disappear before anyone realized it. Long after we were in the depths of it, I found a card I’d written to him five years earlier, promising that his brain was fine. But he knew he was susceptible. His mother and brother had died of Alzheimer’s. A cousin. Another brother had been diagnosed. A sister.

For three and a half years, I wrote poems that looked at his slipping memory. Or drafts. Or grabbed images of my father’s room, his clothing, his face. A single line could hold a remarkable moment. And in this way, I collected many sweet little realities and some strange and devastating ones.         

Like Hopper with his rocks, I repainted my father’s confusion and my exhaustion so often that they weren’t even “rocks” anymore, but shapes, sounds, and sustained moments. I never wanted tragedy. In my poem “Goodbye to Aggressions and Generous Gestures,” the disease is still everywhere, but the poem meshes the peculiar shifts of thought and action through enjambed lines, sharp breaks, and spaces.

Another poem I wrote on the same subject, “Reason Out,” is as full of holes and confusion as the disease is, but by this time in my writing I wanted the mismatched thoughts in an Alzheimer’s patient’s mind to be reflected in the structure I used.     

There are so many ways to write about a topic, and the more you write about it, the deeper you can go. I challenge you to write five poems on the same subject you’ve been circling. Write until you discover what was previously unknown, or articulate something familiar in a new way. Or maybe five poems won’t be enough. Push harder. Write more. Allow yourself to try something unexpected: a form, maybe? Come at the subject from another angle. Change the perspective, the tone, the timing. Allow yourself to write what you hadn’t known you could say. Then work to build a rhythm for your words.


Lauren Camp is the author of five poetry collections, including Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020), which received the American Fiction Award in Poetry, and One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), which won the Dorset Prize and was a finalist for the Arab American Book Award, the Housatonic Book Award, and the Sheila Margaret Motton Prize. 

Art: Andrew Seaman

Make It Strange


Lauren Camp


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 135.

If you are convinced that a creative project isn’t working AND WILL NEVER WORK, you have been set free to do anything at all to it. I learned this when I was actively working as a visual artist. One day I took a fiber portrait I couldn’t fix and—deep breath—I cut it up. It was shocking—and freeing. I rearranged those cut pieces and introduced other fabrics. No longer tied to the palette I’d been using, I was able to incorporate new colors and patterns and see what they’d do. In one instance, the eye of the face I had cut up turned into shapes. It was exciting—a fresh, unexpected composition. From that moment, I never went back to an organized, directed way of creating again. That earlier approach seemed too stagnant, too perfect.

The cut-up method I’d used as a visual artist often informs my writing. To create my poem, “A Partial List of Here and Far,” for example, I pulled apart drafts of two poems that weren’t satisfying to me. I saved the best parts of each and pushed them together to see what they could do when they interacted. As with the fiber portrait, I added new elements—thoughts, lines, and phrases, in the case of the poem—building surprise and complexity into the text.

Let’s look a little more closely: I selected the line “we evaluate our mortgage” from one draft poem; it was not particularly interesting. I thought about losing it, but decided to add in some new material, which would shift its meaning. I like to take something so darn normal, like paying bills, and spin it into strangeness. That’s how I ended up with the lines, “We evaluate our mortgage / to see what we owe / on the trees.” From another draft poem, I gathered the line about the man stirring “a pot and the town below tips sideways.” Such a fascinating image—I didn’t want to lose that! Put close together, the two lines start to tell a far bigger and more mystifying story than either did alone.   

One way you might achieve a similar effect in your own poetry is through the cut-up method I’ve described. If you have a few less-than-wonderful drafts, try splicing them together. In a way, it’s like braiding hair: You pull a line from here and a line from there, weaving them together until you have created a more complex structure than what you had to begin with. If your original two drafts are on the same subject, they may fit organically together to form a new poem. But it’s especially interesting if the original poems are very different from each other. You’ll likely have to weave in new thoughts too. For those of you who keep a file of evocative fragments, as I recommended in my first craft capsule, that file would be a good source to consult for a project like this.

It has always been important to me to capture ideas, sights, and sounds in my poetry in unexpected ways. I want to shake loose anything that feels too familiar, to confuse—just slightly—what I know and expect.


Lauren Camp is the author of five poetry collections, including Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020), which received the American Fiction Award in Poetry, and One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), which won the Dorset Prize and was a finalist for the Arab American Book Award, the Housatonic Book Award, and the Sheila Margaret Motton Prize. 

Art: Brecht Denil


Hold Your Darlings


Lauren Camp


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 134.

Sometimes you have to admit that the most precious part of your poem isn’t working. Yes, it might include some of the more elegant lines you’ve ever written, and yes, it shows your grand talent in alliteration, line breaks, enjambment, or some other poetic technique. But the line just doesn’t fit this particular poem. So what do you do with it?

William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings,” a directive almost every writer seems to know. But I want to make the case for holding your darlings. Over the last few decades, I have maintained a Word document—I call it my “Keeps” document—in which I collect phrases that weren’t right for whatever poem they first appeared in yet strike me as worth rescuing. Into this file I paste my “darlings,” margin to margin across the width and length of the page, smooshing them together with other beauties I couldn’t make work. When I’m drafting a new poem and looking for a remarkable verb or a fresh way to describe an action or emotion, I scan the hundreds of words jammed onto those pages of my “Keeps” document. There’s almost always something surprisingly ideal. And when I find that word or phrase that, by serendipity, suits the new poem I’m crafting, it’s exhilarating.

In a 2010 interview with the Times Union, a New York daily newspaper, poet Chase Twichell explained a poet’s evolving approach to composition this way: “Like many younger poets, you’re kind of self-conscious about the language that you’re using. You find a word that you really love, like ‘flinch,’ and you want it in the line. It may or may not be the perfect word, but you commit to it, and the line takes shape around it. Whereas later it’s the tenor of the experience itself that you’re trying to go for, and language becomes more of a means to get there.”

Like Twichell’s “means to get there,” my “Keeps” document is a pathway to access what I want to say. When I draw from it, I am searching for surprising and powerful language to invigorate the themes and images within the poem. I go shopping in that document: When I want to use a line or phrase, I mark it in red; when I’m sure that line or phrase will stay in a new poem draft, I delete it from the document. At its apex, my “Keeps” document was thirty-two pages; it’s currently only nineteen. It’s an unholy mess, and a treasure trove. This process of returning to my “Keeps” document also allows me to work with a different version of myself, an earlier me that liked a certain description enough to keep it. The later version of me is gleeful to grab a stored phrase or image. Words that at one time may have described a favorite object can now be used to characterize, say, wind or sun—two elements that claim my desert landscape frequently.

I could probably look at any of my poems and find at least one word or phrase that originated in “Keeps.” In my poem “Learn the Silken Rendering,” for example, the words “lucky hum” in the line “The lucky hum of plums and peaches” was a fortunate find I owe to “Keeps.” I found “reason” in my “Keeps” document too, using it to enhance the line “I turn around, talk reason into a microphone to a blank wall.” The entire eighth stanza was composed with language from “Keeps” that turned out to be aligned with the emotional truth of this poem. I like the way my “Keeps” document enables a blending of my earlier self and present self. I’ve often found that I make my most intriguing poems when I reclaim some of my earlier vocabulary or perspective.


Lauren Camp is the author of five poetry collections, including Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020), which received the American Fiction Award in Poetry, and One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), which won the Dorset Prize and was a finalist for the Arab American Book Award, the Housatonic Book Award, and the Sheila Margaret Motton Prize. 

Art: Carrie Beth Williams

Setting the Table for Your Reader


Trevor Ketner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 133.

Let’s begin with a question: Who do you write for, generally speaking? Take a minute to sit with that and see what you come up with.

All right. Now what kind of answer did you find? Do you write for yourself? Your community? Your family? Do you write for children? Teens? Adults? Do you write for people like you? People unlike you? Do you write for someone specific? Do you write for the world? For as many people as possible? For one person? These are important questions: Even if you only write for yourself, you should always have a reader in mind. And I don’t mean the amorphous phantasm which most workshops refer to as “the reader,” which so often undermines or dismisses the work of marginalized writers: I’m just not sure the reader will make that leap. Will the reader be generous enough to believe this story? I’m not sure the reader can engage meaningfully with this work. While such questions and comments might seem geared toward helping a writer avoid navel-gazing, they often mask an interest in maintaining dominant narratives and perspectives. So when I say, “a reader,” I mean someone you’d really like to read your work, not a figure that embodies white, straight, cis, hetero-patriarchal hegemony disguised as neutrality.

For me, identifying the reader is an essential part of starting any project. I’ll use my books as examples. I wrote my first poetry collection, [WHITE], published by the University of Georgia Press in 2021, for those like my parents and professors: white people between fifty and sixty-five years old who—while decent and caring in many ways—have resisted addressing the insidious, artificial nature of whiteness because of their own defensiveness. When whiteness comes up in discussion, they act as if they’re being accused of something. [WHITE] is meant to provide a new angle of engagement with the problems inherent in leaving whiteness uninterrogated. My second book—The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023—is a love letter to other queer folks, an exploration and fracture of the various facets of my experience of queerness, queer culture, and sexuality. My third manuscript-in-progress is for me: It’s a delicate, slightly pretentious book with a lot about birds and plants, which delight me more and more as I grow older (predictable, I know).

Because their audiences vary so widely, the books themselves have dramatically different aesthetics, shapes, and lexicons. In a workshop a few years ago, I shared poems that would eventually appear in my second book; another member of the workshop, who had liked my earlier work, vocally disliked these new poems: “I mean, they just don’t sound like the same poet.” This expectation of consistency echoes the demands of social media, where poets—along with other writers and artists—are pressured to treat their work like products of a personal brand. The question tacitly being asked is this: If people can’t depend on you to deliver a predictable stream of work they’re sure to like, then who is going to support you?

This question came to haunt me less, however, while I was drafting [WHITE]. For that book, I spent a great deal of time contemplating mid-twentieth century artist Robert Rauschenberg; many of the poems in the collection are in direct conversation with his work. Rauschenberg’s practices changed wildly across his life and career, creating an incredibly rich and varied oeuvre. Once he felt he’d accomplished what he wanted with an approach to painting or assemblage, he’d move on to whatever new mode of art-making he found most exciting at the time. For Rauschenberg, his audience—his reader—was himself; he worked to find personal delight in whatever he did. Rauschenberg’s experimentalism helped me realize I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my craft as a writer.

This realization was not easy for a writer like me who had formerly been a literary agent. I had grown used to thinking in terms of the market as opposed to the audience. While I think these are both essential concerns for writers to keep in mind if they want to publish, the problem is mistaking them for the same thing. Your audience is your ideal reader, the person with whom you most want to communicate. That reader should always be considered—especially during the writing process. Your market, on the other hand, is the type of person or organization you think would pay to support your work (whether by buying it, in the case of individuals, or funding it through grants or fellowships, in the case of organizations). Personally, I don’t think the market should be considered until after you’ve written and decided to publish. Targeting your market while writing is an easy way to eliminate all originality or risk-taking in what you make. What’s more important is to ask yourself who you’re trying to reach with your writing, not who you’re trying to sell it to.

The permission I felt I’d received from Rauschenberg to think less about the market and more about my audience, the reader, enabled me to approach my writing differently. Rather than wonder who might follow me on Twitter or buy my work, I could contemplate what formal decisions—what aesthetics—would touch the reader I pictured sitting with each specific piece. I could truly think about how to speak with each readership—whether that meant my parents, past lovers, fellow poets, or my future self. Many writers try to write for everyone and instead write for no one. But if you can write to a specific someone—or to a group of specific someones—the massive void that the world is waiting hungrily for you to fill suddenly becomes a more manageable and intimate space. The page gains a new shape. For me it takes the form of a kitchen table where I’m settling in for good conversation. My manuscripts, different as they are, have allowed me to enter very different kitchens, to sit down at very different tables where I can greet each reader: “Welcome, friend. Nice to meet you.”


Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023, and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), selected as the winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander.

Art: Debby Hudson

Revise Like a Painter


Trevor Ketner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 132.

When it comes to finishing our work, I think writers, of all artists, have the hardest time. In large part I think this is because we can so easily edit our writing, on both grand and granular scales. In a Word or Google doc, or on the notes app on our phones, we can poke and prod and fiddle with a piece forever. But this ability to incessantly fuss under the guise of editing can often stop us from actually revising our work to make it better.

It’s useful to remember that the word revision can be broken down into the prefix re—meaning “again”—and the root word vision. To revise, then, requires us to envision, or see, our work again, to find a new perspective. While this idea comes up in pretty much any decent writing workshop, it’s one that has always stuck with me. When I really sit with what it means to see my own work again, I realize that I must find a certain distance from what I’ve made that is difficult to achieve, a struggle I think I share with many other writers.

It’s at this point that I take my cue from our creative siblings: painters. When you look at the oeuvre of almost any major painter, you will find a lot of repetition of imagery and themes across multiple mediums. From quick sketches to more detailed plans for larger works to multiple large works on the same subject or using similar composition, painters quite literally create new visions from existing ideas. They adapt the successful elements of sketches or earlier pieces to draft new works, applying different techniques or perspectives gained during the time that elapsed since they last undertook a subject. Two painters with particularly dramatic approaches to revision come to mind: Edvard Munch, with his painting The Scream, and Claude Monet, with Haystacks.

In the case of Munch, the Norwegian artist created multiple versions of the same composition in different mediums over the course of seventeen years. According to one account, Munch initially composed The Scream in 1893 as a full-color pastel sketch. Later that same year he used tempera and crayon on cardboard to create a second version. Two years later, Munch created another stunning rendition in pastel on cardboard for a friend. He then created between thirty and forty-five lithographs, some of which he printed on paper of various colors and others he completed with watercolors. Finally, in 1910, Munch painted another tempera version, which is believed to be a personal copy he made for himself after selling the 1893 painting. Even after all those versions across all those years, many of us likely only know of one: Munch’s second iteration of The Scream, which is now on display at The National Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Perhaps better known than Munch’s many interpretations of The Scream are Monet’s Haystacks, a series of some thirty different takes on the eponymous subject. As the story goes, Monet observed how the light hit the haystacks in his neighbor’s field in Giverny, France, and he set out to paint two versions of the scene—one when the sun was out and one when the sky was cloudy. However, Monet found that two paintings were not enough to capture all the interesting changes he noticed in the field given the subtle variations in sunlight. Eventually he and his stepdaughter got in the habit of wheeling out (quite literally, in a wheelbarrow) canvases and easels near his neighbor’s field. Monet would observe the weather to figure out which of the many works he was simultaneously painting to continue that day, matching the outdoor lighting with the appropriate canvas. From this repetitive process came one of the world’s most well-known series of impressionist paintings.

Okay, but what can we as writers take away from Munch and Monet? Well, Munch shows us how changes in medium can enrich a composition that is, more or less, the same across versions. Monet shows us how much our perception can change over time, that sustained close observation of a subject can revise how we see it. In my last essay in this series, I advised writers to try a new genre when they find themselves stuck. But Munch and Monet offer ideas for changing things up even within the same genre: What happens if you rewrite a piece using a different tone? What if you change the verb tense? If you’re struggling to write about something emotionally difficult for you, what happens if you attempt to write it as if from a completely different emotional space? What happens if you print out a poem ten times and edit each one by hand rapid-fire, without referencing the others? Or if you keep five drafts going of a poem on the same subject? What happens if you take five minutes a day for a month to write about the same thing?

What I love about painters is that they don’t seem worried about the idea of exhausting their vision. In many ways, they seem to come to each canvas from a place of utter unknowing, even when, as in the case of Monet, what is before them is a field they’ve seen a hundred times. Rather than give up in boredom, they use that creative space to ask new questions of familiar subjects. By revising our own writing from this place of curiosity, of wonder, we can find the right angle to approach a topic and to write about it well—eventually, at least. And even if we don’t today, well, the haystacks will be there again tomorrow. And who knows? The light then could very well make all the difference.


Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023, and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), selected as the winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander.

Art: Artiom Vallat

Freedom From Genre as Freedom to Write


Trevor Ketner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 131.

Many of you may know that the English word gender is derived from the French word genre, meaning “kind” or “sort.” So maybe it follows that, as a nonbinary writer, I find the breaking or bending of genre to be an essential element of my craft. There is power in subverting the expectations that come from identifying as writers of poetry or fiction or nonfiction. By writing in a genre different from our norm, we can improve our craft as writers both in and outside our primary genres.

One of the first times I learned this lesson was as a young poet in an MFA program, where I’d struggled with a project that involved writing poems about my father. Previously, I’d had some success processing my mother’s chronic illness in poetry. But, much like my relationship with my father itself, writing poems about him was complicated; I continually found myself frustrated by how limited each poem felt in addressing this complexity. Then I took a nonfiction seminar with memoirist Patricia Hampl. One of the texts she assigned was a missive Franz Kafka wrote to his father—first published in English as Letter to His Father by Schocken Books in 1966and something clicked for me when I read it. Now, Kafka’s father was narcissistic and abusive, and my father was neither of those things. But what Kafka’s piece opened up for me was—in some ways quite literally—the space for complexity. It showed me that, in part, what each of the poems about my father lacked was the larger context: Every poem was held in its own little poem space, isolated from the other poems that, together, formed a more complete portrait. In some ways, then, the problem was that the topic literally lacked the space it needed for full exploration—my poet’s canvas was too small.

So for my workshop in Hampl’s class, I decided to combine the poems in the form of a lyric essay. I thoughtfully stitched the poems together, sequencing them so that they would be read with and against one another in a single unified piece rather than as separate poems. Arranging them this way gave each poem context and gave me room to explicitly address the limitations of writing about other people. Ultimately I ended up with something that I found moving, vulnerable, and satisfying. I was even lucky enough to work with editor Mary-Kim Arnold on the essay further to ready it for publication in the Rumpus under the title “Something Small and Heavy.”

By breaking out of my literary milieu, I achieved a couple of things. First, I avoided the tics and habits of language that allowed me to write without being intentional about my process, which in turn saved me from having to engage fully with a difficult subject. By repositioning the poems in a prose context, the poetic maneuvers that permitted me to avoid directly addressing my relationship with my father fell away. I couldn’t necessarily lean on the quick gesture of a line break or the muddied water of metaphor when I hit a part of our relationship I didn’t want to talk about, as I had done in the poems. I simply had to write straight into the complexity of what telling this story meant for me. Second, I entered a space that required me to actively reconsider how my own writing works. The images that provided the foundation for my original poems became, in the context of an essay, suddenly responsible to an entirely new paradigm of narrative and character, which, even if they played a role in the original poems, had to be approached and understood in new ways and from new perspectives. In short: The logic of the piece had changed. This meant that the relationships, the ratios, among the parts of the piece had to be reestablished. Balance in an essay can look very different from balance in a poem.

As a poet, this is what I learned by picking up the tools of an essayist. But maybe you’re coming at this from the perspective of an essayist who could use some of the tools of a fiction writer to solve one of your writing problems. If so, here’s a bonus tip I picked up from that Hampl workshop: Just about any fanciful notion or fictionalized scene or impossible image can come after the word “perhaps” in an essay and still technically be creative nonfiction. In any case, by writing in an unfamiliar genre, we free ourselves from the pressures of being experts or technicians in our primary genre. We become amateurs and, as such, our only possible goal can be to try and see what comes out of that attempt. That’s how we learn new things about our writing, things we can take back with us into the genres where we feel most at home. As amateurs, we are freed, too, from the need for this writing, this thing on the page in front of us, to be “publishable.” When we remove publishing from the equation, we can identify what actually makes a piece work according to our own judgment. What makes me want to continue reading this? How is this communicating my point or topic? Is this language coming together? These questions put us in direct contact with the writing itself—which, frankly, is how we should all be writing in our own genres anyway.

Now you might be saying, “Well, Trevor, that’s easy for you to say. The essay you wrote ended up getting published in the Rumpus!” And that’s a fair knock. However, I would say it is important that the goal for writing not always be publication. I worked on my essay with no expectation that it would be read by anyone outside of that seminar, much less published. I worked in the essay form because the story about my relationship with my father showed me that the best way to tell it wasn’t a poem or even a series of poems; this story needed to be told in an essay. Ultimately, by writing the story in the form it needed, I ended up with something I was proud of. That someone thought it was worth publishing was a bonus. I truly think I could have worked on those poems for years and still not have been happy with them. It took stepping into a new space, the space of an essay, to shift my perspective enough to reenvision the work in its most successful form.

So if you’re stuck on a piece, try making it something completely different. That problem chapter? Make it a poem. That poem that just can’t find its shape? Make it reportage. That wandering essay? Make it a stage play. Instead of repeatedly hitting your head against the same problems you always encounter in your genre, you’ll find new problems that require you to think in new ways to solve them. And who knows, you might end up with something amazing! Even if you don’t, you’ll likely have freed up at least some part of yourself from whatever was limiting your writing.


Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023, and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), selected as the winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander.

Art: Suzanne D. Williams

Mixing Up My Poetry Practice to Beat Writer’s Block


Trevor Ketner


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 130.

In March of 2020, I got very sick. The doctor I consulted at CityMD here in New York City told me it was “a flu that’s been going around” and sent me home. I could barely get out of bed for two weeks, then developed what was likely pneumonia. I say “likely” because by that point hospitals were so full that there was no way I could get into one or see a doctor. I say “I got sick” because at that point it was difficult to get a diagnosis for what I’m now fairly certain I had: COVID-19.

As I recovered over the next year (and the next; I am still recovering as I write this) I simultaneously felt the desire to write and was utterly overwhelmed by the prospect. I was having difficulty focusing on any one task and felt like the life I was living in quarantine wasn’t worth writing about. Even so, I wanted to write. So I decided to experiment by creating a set of parameters to guide my writing.

I had done something similar with my first book, [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), which includes a series of poems based on the major arcana cards of the tarot. Because the major arcana comprises twenty-two cards, I wrote twenty-two poems of twenty-two lines each. Those parameters gave me a confined space in which to work and, paradoxically, actually freed me up as a writer: By removing the variable of a poem’s length from my writing process, I found I could better focus on the language I would use to fill those twenty-two lines. It surprised me that something as simple, arbitrary even, as a set number of lines did so much to allow me to write.

I thought a similarly prescriptive process could help me write through the difficult period of my COVID-19 recovery. As my main struggle was coming up with my own language, I thought working with preexisting text seemed like a good option. But I knew I didn’t want to use erasure as a method, given how politically complex it can be, as Solmaz Sharif so thoughtfully articulates in a 2013 essay in the Volta. Instead, I wanted to see if I could keep all the language in a preexisting text on the page, using the language, quite literally, as material. At the time, I’d been enjoying the New York Times Spelling Bee, an anagram-style game in which players are given seven letters from which to make as many English words as they can. So I thought anagramming seemed promising as a poetic process. In this case, I would repurpose every letter in each line of the original poem to create the corresponding line in my own poem of the same length. I explicitly aimed to use the pool of letters in each line to form words that didn’t exist in the original line.

Having established my method, I implemented another parameter: to work with language from poems that wouldn’t be overshadowed by my interaction with them. I knew I didn’t want to anagram the work of a living poet. Manipulating the work of the living can be a brutal gesture, even when well-intentioned, and must be handled with great care. For the most part I just wanted to be playful with language by using this method, so I looked to the canon because, frankly, I think it’s fine to mess with the canon—biased, white supremacist, and classist as it so often is. I decided on Shakespeare’s sonnets because they were easily accessible online, well known in their own right, and, to be honest, there were a lot of them to choose from. So it was decided: I would take a Shakespearan sonnet and—using the first line as the title of my new poem—write my own “anagram sonnets.”

This process helped me in several ways. First, it radically expanded my syntactical and lexical range. It also allowed me to discover, in an organic way, a thematic thread of queer desire, kink, and pagan imagery that unfurled as I went, following my own interests as a writer. And it produced some solid poems. After completing five or so of these anagram sonnets, I could see a full project forming. With encouragement from a trusted writing friend, a lot of research, some amazing fellowship opportunities, a year or two of writing, and a well-timed query letter, these sonnets (all 154 of them) were accepted by Wesleyan University Press in the form of my second full-length poetry collection, The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, which will be released next year.

At a time when writing can seem so small an act, and speaking up feels so essential, I hope that sharing my truly desperate attempt to find some way (any way) back into writing—some way to say something when it felt impossible—has encouraged you somehow. By breaking down a larger project into a series of smaller projects with distinct, prescriptive parameters, I was able to write again, to cut through the knot forming my writer’s block with the swift blade of process. And even if this particular experiment hadn’t led to a book—if it had only led to me writing those five original sonnets and putting them in a drawer—it proved valuable for enabling me to write again at a time when I was afraid I’d lost the ability to do it at all. And that, too, would have been a success.


Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023, and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), selected as the winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander.

Art: Mel Poole

I Could Not Give Up on My Characters


Dalia Azim


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 129.

When people ask how long it took me to write my first novel, Country of Origin, I sometimes say fifteen years. Or I share a different truth: Over the past fifteen years I’ve written several different novels about the same characters, and it was the last one that finally worked. I know that many writers have to retire early novels to the proverbial drawer and move on in order to find success. For whatever reason, I could not give up on my characters.

To be honest it probably has something to do with the fact that I am very stubborn. I do not like to accept defeat. Not that I have ever judged any of my fellow writers for abandoning projects that did not become published books, but I didn’t want to accept that fate for my book. Looking back, my ambitions for the novel far exceeded my abilities at the beginning. I had to grow considerably as a writer in order to realize my vision. When I began writing my novel(s), the books I most admired—Zadie Smith’s entire catalog, Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me (Nan A. Talese, 2001), Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009)—featured multiple perspectives and seamlessly spanned decades. That was how I wanted to write.

I set out to write a multi-generational story about a family of Egyptian immigrants in the United States, investigating the family members’ bifurcated identities. But I pursued the wrong track for a while. This was shortly after 9/11, and at that time I erroneously believed that a book centering on Arab American characters absolutely needed to include this horrific tragedy. I lived in New York City then, and my experiences of this catastrophic event and its aftermath informed the story. I explored the complex feelings about my Arab American identity evoked by 9/11—which compounded with my experience growing up in the shadow of Arab terrorism—but through feedback from others and my own fatigue with the narrative, I found my way to excavating the backstory of the early twenty-first century characters I was creating. I progressively moved back in time, eventually landing in Egypt in the 1950s, before the family in the first version of my novel immigrated to the United States. I decided to let go of the contemporary era entirely—even though it had provided an entry point into the story. The novel would still be about multiple generations of a family, but it would unfold from the 1950s to 1980s.

This was when the writing really started to come alive. But even once I discovered this way into the story, I struggled considerably with finding the right structure, especially with how to balance the multiple perspectives that braid the narrative together. At this point I was juggling six distinct third-person perspectives and for multiple drafts/years I felt I had to give equal page time to each character in order to justify my choice to rotate between perspectives. Every ten to twenty pages I would switch perspectives, which in hindsight ultimately caused the narrative to drag and lose momentum.

I have a slash-and-burn approach to revision, so each time I started again, I truly started over. Once I finally abandoned my attachment to short, rotating chapters, I was able to go deep within my characters. This time when I began again on page one, I let myself linger inside the perspective of a single character, Halah, and shifted her section to first-person perspective while keeping the other POVs in third person. I let myself linger with her until the arc of her storyline reached a natural conclusion—more than one hundred pages into the novel. Ultimately her perspective comprises almost half of the book, and when I shifted into other characters’ viewpoints, it was not about giving them page equity, but because the heart of the narrative moved with them.

So when people ask me how many drafts it took before I finished my novel, or at least struck on the version that was published, I don’t know how to accurately answer. For a long time I avoided interrogating this question. I also played little tricks on myself, like numbering new drafts with decimals (1.2, 2.3) instead of jumping to the next whole number. I suppose that a lot of writers rely on self-subterfuge to persist, when it can be so challenging to write books and get them published. I’m glad that I was able to fool myself into continuing in spite of the obstacles. Now that my novel is out in the world, I can also say that I am happy I remained committed to my characters and that they will have a chance to live in other people’s minds.    


Dalia Azim is the author of the novel Country of Origin, forthcoming from Deep Vellum on April 12. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Aperture, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Glimmer TrainOther Voices, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Art: Valdemars Magone

Conjuring Egypt With Music


Dalia Azim


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 128.

While sitting at my desk in Texas trying to write about Egypt, I listened to a lot of Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Abdel Halim Hafez, and other old-school Arabic music. Short of boarding a plane and traveling seven thousand miles, or accessing a time machine that could take me back sixty years, this was one of the most effective ways I found to put me into the right mindset to write about Egypt in the 1950s. I would close my eyes, fingers poised over my keyboard, and feel like I was in another time and place.  

Perhaps it was the quavering vocal stylings particular to Egyptian singers, the reverberatory lamentations of the flute-like oud, or the beat of the darbuka percussing in the background. Listening, I was transported back to my cousins’ late-night weddings at hotels in Cairo, where bands played and singers sang and belly dancers danced. I returned to the sense of wonder I felt at these parties, recognizing that this was my cultural heritage.

Listening to Egyptian music from the 1950s, I would guess that we are a somber people. Granted, if I advanced a few decades and put on a more contemporary Arabic soundtrack while I wrote, I’d find plenty of spirited pop or techno music, but the solemn artists of the mid-twentieth century captured a mood that better aligned with the emotional landscape of my book. These artists were also chronologically synchronous with the time period I wanted to capture—Egypt at the dawn of the postcolonial period. Abdel Halim Hafez, in particular, is known as an artistic emblem of this revolutionary era who gave voice to Egyptian patriotism and independence at a time when Egypt was wresting itself from British control. In fact, his patriotic songs were revived as part of the battle cry of the populace during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, sixty years after the revolution that originally gave birth to his art.

Umm Kulthum’s music is also considered a national treasure. Her famous song “Wallah Zaman Ya Selahy” was adopted as Egypt’s national anthem from 1960 to 1979 and captures the metaphorical energy of a country battling for its independence. I listened to this song over and over while writing scenes at the beginning of the book in which Cairo is burning in protest of British rule. And then there is Abdel Halim’s epic, airy, orchestral song “Ahwak,” which helped me access the nostalgic, homesick pining experienced by my character Halah—a young Egyptian woman who runs away from home and country—when she first settles in America. There are long passages in the song where the strings and drums almost seem to compete but ultimately collide into an energetic marriage—like the forces battling within Halah.

I credit my father with giving me access to this music, long before platforms like Spotify. He was the DJ of my youth, filling our home with an eclectic, rotating soundtrack of Arabic music from his younger days, as well as classical and opera, a lot of Beatles, and a selection of American folk music. Later he started building a large digital collection of Arabic music, expanding my exposure from the few CDs he had when I was young. When I still actively kept an iTunes music library, a large proportion of it was dedicated to Arabic artists shared with me by my father—music to accompany my writing. Though I listened to these songs over and over again, their lyrics never penetrated my consciousness the way that Beatles’ songs did (play a Beatles album, and you’ll likely be subjected to me singing along with every word of every song). I have a decent facility with slow-paced conversational Egyptian Arabic, but put on an Arabic television show, news broadcast, or album, and the language will wash over me, more atmosphere than anything. Normally I can’t write to music that has lyrics without getting distracted by the language, but for better or worse, Arabic music is obscure enough to my ears not to be distracting.

Rhythm is an essential element of both music and literature. There is a unique kind of alchemy that can be unleashed when listening to the right kind of music while writing. When the chemistry works, and the writing flows in tandem with music that activates the brain, it is a special kind of magic.


Dalia Azim is the author of the novel Country of Origin, forthcoming from Deep Vellum on April 12. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Aperture, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Glimmer TrainOther Voices, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas.


Portals Into Bygone Times


Dalia Azim


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 127.

There were few things that brought me more joy as a child than when my dad took the slide projector and folding screen out from the closet and set them up in our living room. We had a stack of carousels filled with slides chronologically arranged within large plastic rings. Like silent movies from the past, the slides transported me to places and times that preceded my birth and were not part of my memories. Sitting on the couch in our darkened living room, listening to the loud whir of the projector’s fan as images from the family archive glowed on the screen, an imaginative space opened up inside of me. In my mind I entered the vivid images, wanting to know everything about them—Where is that? Who is that? How are they connected to me?

There were many photos in which different configurations of family members posed in various homes in Cairo belonging to my relatives. There was my maternal grandparents’ aging villa and my paternal grandparents’ familiar and cozy living room, my uncle and aunt’s museum-like apartment densely cluttered with antiques, and the dwellings of other aunts and uncles enlivened by dark wallpapers and gauzy drapes and ornate brass chandeliers. I loved all of the people in the pictures, and I was also besotted with these settings, places that were familiar to me from visits to Egypt, but all somewhat hazy in my memories.

My parents emigrated from Egypt three years before I was born, settling in Canada and eventually in the United States. We traveled to their homeland almost every year, my parents scrupulously saving to fund these trips, especially in the beginning when they were living lean on graduate student salaries. I had my obsessions with photo-objects in Egypt, too. My grandmother kept a collection of black-and-white pictures in a red cookie tin with a white woman’s face on it. The ritual of opening that box and going through the prints was something I looked forward to every year. I slowly studied the familiar images, like savoring a delicious piece of chocolate cake. These photographs were generally from the 1950s and 1960s, decades older than the Kodachrome slides we had in Denver. They pictured a more spacious and elegant version of Cairo than the dense and hectic metropolis that I knew. A strong European influence was evident in my distant relatives’ fashion, a stark contrast to my immediate relatives’ less form-fitting, conservative wardrobes.

I likely inherited my love of photography from my father and his older brother Lotfy. The two of them were always in possession of still cameras and an assortment of ever-advancing movie technologies, from Super 8 to video cameras. I eventually followed their lead, requesting cameras for birthdays and studying photography in high school and college. After graduating from college, I worked for a gallery that specializes in photography and after that took a job in the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA has an extraordinary photography collection and working with it for four years gave me a robust education in the history of the medium. Unlike my colleagues who had an eye and an appetite for acquiring work by contemporary photographers for the museum, my interests lay entirely with historical photographs. At the time I thought of this as a professional failing, but looking back it makes sense why I gravitated toward photographic documents from the past.

Archival photographs were essential to me when writing my debut novel, Country of Origin. I relied on my family’s collections, as well as amazing digital archives one can access online, including the Arab Image Foundation. To imagine myself into the Egypt of my novel, I studied photographs that evoked past versions of Cairo and anchored my imagination in physical facts and details. The villa where the character Halah grows up is directly inspired by my grandparents’ house. My grandmother lived there until I was fifteen, and I spent many long summer days exploring its aging corridors. It felt like something from another time, and indeed it was almost a hundred years old by the time I arrived on the scene. My memories of the house are imprecise, but the pictures remind me of the stucco walls and the intricate wooden lattice work that covered the windows. They help me remember what hung on the walls and the contours of their Louis XVI–style furniture.

Photographs are powerful tools, portals into bygone times. What else can describe the architecture, furniture, decor, food, clothing, and styles of a particular era as well as pictures can? Since the middle of the nineteenth century, we have had these remarkable records of the past. It is difficult for me to imagine writing historical fiction without them. Would I have found my way to writing if I did not first discover my love of photographs? Probably. Have photographs enriched my creative life and helped me imaginatively travel through time? Certainly. My passions for writing and pictures feel very interrelated. I am not sure who I would be as a writer—or as a human—without these means of expression.


Dalia Azim is the author of the novel Country of Origin, forthcoming from Deep Vellum on April 12. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Aperture, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Glimmer Train, Other Voices, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Art: Alex Litvin.


Where I Found My Writing Community


Dalia Azim


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 126.

After years of struggling to get published through New York City agents and editors, I was chuffed to ultimately break into publishing via Texas channels. I have lived in Austin for fifteen years and wrote most of my debut novel, Country of Origin, here. But before I moved to Texas, I lived for a period in Brooklyn, and like a lot of people who have lived there, I maintained a bias toward New York as the pinnacle of American culture. I thought I needed the city to get my novel published. It turns out that I did not.

This is ultimately a story about cultivating community, which is the path that most writers must take in order to find success. Unfortunately, publishing opportunities do not usually come knocking; we must go out and find them. When I first moved to Texas, I was surprised by how welcoming the literary community was in Austin. Socializing with other writers in New York was often an exercise in maintaining my confidence in the face of overwhelming self-doubt and insecurity. When writers at these events asked me about my books, and I shared that I hadn’t published any yet, I sensed their attention wavering to other people in the room—presumably writers who had bona fide credentials. Perhaps some (all?) of this was in my head, for we writers are nothing if not imaginative and prone to projection.

My husband’s acceptance into the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers initially brought us to Texas. We naturally met a lot of writers through his program, but it was important to me to establish my own group of writer friends outside of his cohort. Luckily, I didn’t have to try very hard. At every reading or book event it seemed I met someone new, and soon I had a crew of writers to call my own. A lot of my early memories of being in Texas involve engaging in spirited dialogues about books and writing at backyard parties, where no one seemed to care whether I had published a book of my own or not.

Soon I was surprised to receive invitations to interview authors like Cristina García, Héctor Tobar, Brit Bennett, and others for the Texas Book Festival. The opportunity to be in conversation with writers I admired prompted a mind-shift, helping me to see myself as a “real” member of the writing community. Meanwhile I continued to feel like a failure by New York standards. I’d managed to find an agent who was based there, but year after year she told me that various revisions of my novel were not publication-ready. So I continued to revise and revise. I’m not one of those writers who chafes at suggestions for revision; in fact, one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I am, perhaps, too open to criticism and can easily lose sight of my own vision in the process. During the seven years I worked with my agent, this is precisely what happened: I lost my way. The problem was, my heart wasn’t always in these revisions, and this lack of emotional commitment came through on the page.

I typically experienced starry-eyed euphoria whenever I completed a manuscript draft, thinking it was brilliant and that my agent would love it, only to turn around and hate everything about it a few months later and hit a wall with my agent again and again. But when I discovered the structure that finally worked for the book, I thought, This is it. In early 2019 I sent off the latest draft to my agent, feeling uniquely confident about my success. After a long few weeks she wrote back and essentially said that the book was going nowhere, and she thought it might be time for me to put it aside.

I was heartbroken. But this time when I looked back at the pages I’d sent her, I still loved them and believed in their power. I also had the assurance of writer friends whom I greatly admire, who were always more than nice about my book and inspired me to keep going. If I didn’t have writer friends, I probably would have given up a long time ago. Then something miraculous happened: Jill Meyers, a writer from the Austin community who founded an independent press in 2012, inquired about publishing my novel. She had been an outspoken fan of my writing for years, and her words of admiration and encouragement had always been the perfect antidote whenever I received discouraging news from my agent. I knew that if she thought my book was great, then it had to be worthy of publication.

When you are going through the process of trying to get published, people will tell you that all you need is to find someone who shares your vision. I did not think I would find that person so close to home. In the end, finding my people in Austin wasn’t only necessary for my creative life and mental health, it was also a means to making my dreams come true. It makes me anxious to think, What if I hadn’t connected with Jill? But I did, and she changed my life, and there is no predicting how our books will ultimately find their way into the world.


Dalia Azim is the author of the novel Country of Origin, forthcoming from Deep Vellum on April 12. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Aperture, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Glimmer Train, Other Voices, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Art: George Pagan III.

These Walls Won’t Stop Talking


Allegra Hyde


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 125.

Who among us has not wandered into a Delphic grotto, or a haunted mansion full of portraits of veiled ladies, or a be-stickered dive bar bathroom, and thought: If only these walls could talk?!

The presumption is that these places—the grotto, the mansion, the bathroom—have served as the container for a parade of human dramas. Love affairs, prophecies, betrayals, murders have all transpired within them. And if these settings could speak, then we would be delighted and entertained.

It is generally agreed, though, that walls cannot speak. At most the settings for our human dramas can share only clues of what has come before: a wisp of incense, a bloodied knife, a sticker for a middling indie-folk band.

Alas, we think, all these potentially thrilling tales have evaporated in the ceaseless march of time!

Or have they?

When writing fiction, we could, if we wanted, give literal voice to stones or bricks or plaster—but we can also think of the “walls” of a story more broadly. Setting is often reduced to a simplistic notion of physical place and date—say a pirate ship in the Caribbean in 1675—when, in fact, the container for a story can be understood in more nuanced terms. Setting can be an economic context. It can be a cultural context as well—and an attendant moral code. Setting can be a social class, as well as a political reality. Setting can be demographics and it can be the density of human bodies packed into a pirate ship.

Setting, to put this all another way, can be people.

And people, as we all know, tell stories.

Which is to say: When a group of people embody a time and place, they can speak on behalf of setting. A story’s context—its walls, in a figurative sense—can also be its point of view. We see this famously in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The tale of Miss Emily and her ill-fated love interest is narrated by a first-person voice that speaks for the collective members of a small Southern town around the turn of the twentieth century. The town has specific beliefs, norms, and histories that it brings to its fixation on Miss Emily’s choices. This perspective is not omniscient—in fact, it is through the limitations of this scope that we come to understand the preoccupations and biases of the setting itself. These limitations generate narrative energy. Setting does the telling of a story—and is also the story itself.

A contemporary example of setting as point of view can be observed in Brit Bennett’s The Mothers (Riverhead Books, 2016). In Bennett’s novel, every chapter begins with a passage narrated by a group of gossipy elder church women—The Mothers—who all worship at Upper Room Chapel. The women represent a social milieu, a specific morality, an overall subjectivity connected to a Christian church located within a Black community in contemporary San Diego County. They are the voice of setting, therefore, and speak for the context that propels the novel’s primary fixations:

When we first heard, we thought it might be that type of secret, although, we have to admit, it had felt different. Tasted different too. All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season. But we didn’t. We shared this sour secret, a secret that began the spring Nadia Turner got knocked up by the pastor’s son and went to the abortion clinic downtown to take care of it.

Setting is more than a backdrop in Bennett’s novel. Setting listens. Setting sees. Setting—as a collective consciousness—can share its perception of events, a perception shaped by a specific value system. Setting speaks and causes things to happen because setting is people and people are full of contradictions, biases, agendas.

This is all great news for fiction writers—though it also reminds us that, if walls could truly talk, we might not always like what they have to say.


Allegra Hyde’s first novel, Eleutheria, was published by Vintage on March 8. Her debut short story collection, Of This New World, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award through the Iowa Short Fiction Award Series. Her writing has also appeared in numerous publications, including American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, and Tin House. Born in New Hampshire, she lives in Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College.

Art: Jonathan Beckman

If a Tree Falls


Allegra Hyde


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 124.

Let’s face the facts: Setting is undercelebrated compared to its flashier craft cousins. This is especially true when it comes to discussing narrative engines. While we talk about character-driven fiction, concept-driven fiction, and even voice-driven fiction, rarely do we discuss setting-driven fiction. Setting is often an afterthought. A touch of color. A splash of imagery as toothless as a stage set—or worse: intangible as air.

When setting does receive attention in discussions of narrative momentum, typically it is within the framework of “man versus nature”—one of several traditional sources of conflict in literature. A person is pitted against forces of the wilderness: a grizzly bear, an icy river, a very tall mountain. The person must fight or succumb. The possibility of death looms, and this generates conflict, choices, consequences—which drives plot. Canonical examples include Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Cool…but isn’t this construct a bit antiquated and limiting? Perhaps even an expression of the subjugation-minded colonial heteropatriarchy? Of an outsized fear of the wild? Other settings can provoke just as much conflict and danger in our everyday lives. Characters need not wander mountain forests to be antagonized by their surroundings. A Panera Bread, or a maternity ward, or a corner office in a high-rise skyscraper can impose challenges, which in turn can generate conflicts, choices, and consequences for our fictional characters.

But here’s the other thing: What if setting need not be antagonistic to be narratively propulsive? What if we expanded beyond “versus” to include other kinds of relationships to a setting—relationships that perhaps involve care and maintenance, or even affection?

An example of such a relationship can be seen in Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. In this novel, the protagonist, Keiko Furukura, works at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. She is diligently—even religiously—committed to caring for and maintaining the store’s atmosphere of consistency. Here’s an except (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori):

As I arrange the display of newly delivered rice balls, my body picks up information from the multitude of sounds around the store. At this time of day, rice balls, sandwiches, and salads are what sell best. Another part-timer, Sugawara, is over at the other side of the store checking off items with a handheld scanner. I continue laying out the pristine, machine-made food neatly on the shelves of the cold display: in the middle I place two rows of the new flavor, spicy cod roe with cream cheese, alongside two rows of the store’s best-selling flavor, tuna mayonnaise, and then I line the less popular dry bonito shavings in soy sauce flavor next to those. Speed is of the essence, and I barely use my head as the rules ingrained in me issue instructions directly to my body.

At this Smile Mart, the drinks and snacks never run out because Keiko replaces them. She is reacting to her setting—forever in flux due to consumer purchases and the passage of time—and her choices have consequences, especially as her commitment to the store pushes her further from cultural norms around age and gender. This creates conflict.

Care for a setting—be it for a convenience store or a grove of saguaro cacti—can generate conflict, as much as a battle with these places. This seems significant for fiction writers looking to create dynamic, complex narratives. It also seems significant for those interested in changing our relationship to our environments, natural and otherwise. If a tree falls in the forest, maybe we won’t hear it—we assume setting has no impact upon us. Or we do hear the tree and we run out of its way, screaming—antagonized. Or maybe, just maybe, we hurry toward the tree to see if we can help. Maybe we find a bird nest knocked to the ground—a nest we choose to place carefully, consequentially, in the branches of a yet upright tree.


Allegra Hyde’s first novel, Eleutheria, is forthcoming from Vintage on March 8. Her debut short story collection, Of This New World, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award through the Iowa Short Fiction Award Series. Her writing has also appeared in numerous publications, including American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, and Tin House. Born in New Hampshire, she lives in Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College.

Art: Steven Kamenar

The Face in the Whirlpool


Allegra Hyde


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 123.

When I (ill-advisedly) joined Twitter in 2016, I often scrolled through an account dedicated to images of nonliving things that appeared to have a face. A smiling banana slice, for instance. Or a frowning toaster. Or a surprised-looking cottage. None of these things were intentionally designed to look like a face, but once a viewer like me registered a pair of eyes and a mouth, the face was impossible to unsee.

I perused these images to amuse myself, but actual scientists have studied this face-perceiving phenomenon. Called face pareidolia, it is a product of evolution. We see faces where faces are none because our brains constantly scan for people—specifically for the presence of friends or foes. To search for people—then plumb their expressions for meaning—is an inherently human impulse.

It is also a literary one. Folklore and mythology across cultures are full of surreal faces. Volcanoes, trees, lightning storms are given consciousnesses, if not outright god-formed representation. Take Scylla and Charybdis, who appear in The Odyssey as a multi-headed cave dweller and toothy whirlpool, respectively. They are characters in the story—monsters who give Odysseus a hard time—but they also embody a real place: the Strait of Messina, which separates Italy and Sicily. This channel was once deadly for sailors because of its rocks and whirlpools. Applying faces to the waterway helps depict the experience of moving through a dangerous landscape.

Rendering the Strait of Messina into characters also serves the overall narrative. If Odysseus had merely struggled with ocean currents and rocky cliffs, that would not have been nearly as exciting as seeing him face a pair of characters with their own goals, stakes, and personal histories. A setting with a face has something to gain or lose; it can have an emotional reaction to changing circumstances. Readers can better recognize the dynamic relationships between people and the world they move through. After all, we affect our environments, just as they affect us. There is no way to truly leave no trace on our world, nor can we remain uninfluenced by our surroundings. Thus, when Scylla howls after being tricked by Odysseus, we register her rage as a part of this truth.

For contemporary fiction writers—even those not working in overtly magical or fantastical modes—I’d argue that there is much to be gained from embracing the human impulse to see faces where faces are not really there. A recent novel that demonstrates such narrative benefits is Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth, 2021). In the universe of the novel, synthetic water—or WAT-R—has become ubiquitous in California. As this artificial substance leaks into the landscape, its ecological and meteorological permutations are often described in personified terms that give aspects of the setting an animate and sinister quality. Take this description of clouds formed from evaporated WAT-R: “They remain still and quietly watching, waiting for their moment to approach, waiting for their moment to show what they really are.” Setting, in this instance, is given a human-like motive, which heightens the drama of the overall description.

Kleeman breaths humanness into other descriptions of setting as well. A starlet’s mansion is “half-living, multi-lunged and plushly organed, steeped in electricity and suspended in a continual sigh.” And though these household functions are “too massive, too slow, for any real creature,” a reader registers the animacy and near-consciousness of the home. It seems to breathe. To think. To live. This is a setting that could, perhaps, feel. There are stakes around the mansion’s existence, so when something happens—say, the house burns down—the sense of damage reverberates outward, not just for what was lost, but for who. And in the long hallucination that is lived human reality, whether there was ever actually a character there, a person—a face—is less important than how this lens helps us navigate the world and tell the stories we need to tell to survive.


Allegra Hyde’s first novel, Eleutheria, is forthcoming from Vintage on March 8. Her debut short story collection, Of This New World, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award through the Iowa Short Fiction Award Series. Her writing has also appeared in numerous publications, including American Short FictionKenyon Review, and Tin House. Born in New Hampshire, she lives in Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College.

Art: Francisco Kemeny


You Can Never Just Do One Thing


Allegra Hyde


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 122.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with terrariums. Maybe this couldn’t be helped. As a child in rural New Hampshire, there wasn’t much to do besides roam the woods or, god forbid, read. So I made terrariums: I collected soil, moss, saplings, and bits of rotting logs during my woodland wanderings, then arranged these ingredients as tiny landscapes in glass jars. Once I was satisfied with my creations, I sealed each container with plastic wrap and placed them on windowsills in my bedroom. I waited, watched. As small, isolated universes, the terrariums collected condensation, sprinkled moisture in miniature rainstorms. Vegetation grew, died, and decomposed, fertilizing new growth. Sometimes moths or mosquitoes hatched, flitted around, expired. The terrariums were in constant motion. Every element impacted every other element. Terrariums compressed and made visible the ecosystem mechanics beyond my bedroom walls.

For young Allegra, this was thrilling.

Was my interest in inventing tiny worlds a sign of burgeoning megalomania? Perhaps. But it is also possible that by making terrariums, I was preparing to be a writer. Because what are we doing when writing fiction, if not gathering ingredients, putting them together into small new worlds, and seeing what happens?

When crafting fiction these days—be it a story or a novel—I try to think in terrarium terms. Ecological principles, I have found, also make great writing advice. By considering the laws of nature and applying them to our stories, we can render fictional worlds that are multidimensional yet singular, structurally sound yet ever in flux. Worlds like Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a town intertwined with the legacy of a family. Or Guadeloupe in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, an island inextricable from the experiences of the narrator, Telumee. Or the house in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a singular structure that reverberates with the warp and weft of German history while also shaping the lives of those it shelters.

What are some of these ecological principles, you ask?

Quoting from Ecology—a textbook authored by Michael L. Cain, William D. Bowman, and Sally D. Hacker—let’s start with: “You can never just do one thing.” Or as the editors elaborate in italics: “Events in nature are connected, and what affects one organism or place can affect others as well.” Likewise, the elements of a fictional world are interconnected, and any action can have multiple implications. A character might eat a bowl of cereal because he is hungry—an event of mild interest—but what if that cereal is the last food item in a house full of twelve ravenous sisters? There’s a story I’d like to keep reading.

Or take another maxim: “Everything goes somewhere.” The idea here is that “There is no ‘away’ into which waste materials disappear.” In the context of fiction this means that any action—such as eating the last of the cereal, escaping into the woods, hiding for years in a cave—needs to have some consequence. Consequences, after all, are what help create a sense causality: the key to establishing plot.

Then there are maxims like “Evolution matters,” “Space matters,” “Time matters”—which are all pretty self-explanatory. In fiction these factors matter too. Evolution is at the heart of human drama. A person changes, or a situation does, or a place, and this prompts a reaction—which in turn generates story. “Evolution is an ongoing process because organisms continually face new challenges,” write our ecological experts, which speaks to the narrative benefits of giving characters the obstacles they would least like to face. And on the topic of time—that backbone of narrative—science reminds us, rather lyrically: “When we look at the world as we know it, it is easy to forget how past events may have affected our present, and how our present actions may affect the future.

As writers, let us not forget. In the “real world” we human creatures are interconnected, interdependent, ever reacting and causing reactions. To begin to capture this in the space of fiction is not only to mimic the realities of our existence, it is to generate a miniature world that, if all goes well, can be placed on a proverbial windowsill to be learned from and admired.


Allegra Hyde’s first novel, Eleutheria, is forthcoming from Vintage on March 8. Her debut short story collection, Of This New World, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award through the Iowa Short Fiction Award Series. Her writing has also appeared in numerous publications, including American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, and Tin House. Born in New Hampshire, she lives in Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College.

Art: Sven Brandsma

Ain’t We Got Enough Problems?


Destiny O. Birdsong


In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 119.

Though Agnes Kirkkendoll appears last in my forthcoming triptych novel, Nobody’s Magic, she was my first character, and let me say this with my whole chest, I fucking hated her in the beginning. She was and is everything I am most afraid of: my worst fleeting thoughts, my most bizarre impulses, my deepest fears about what I might have become without friends or poetry or therapy. When I read her biographical info in reviews, I cringe. She’s too close to home with her designer degrees and her deep-rooted traumas. I wanted to erase every sentence I wrote about her in my early drafts. In a proto-version of her section of the novel, I sent her off in a car with a stranger to parts unknown. I wanted her gone. But as I drafted and redrafted, I slowly came to feel something like a grudging admiration, and after a while—dare I say it?—love. When Agnes gets into confrontations, the petty person in me screams, “Yes! Clear that bitch!” I still find myself torn between rooting for her and being ashamed of the bareness of her life.

Agnes isn’t me, nor vice versa. I’ve never destroyed anyone else’s property, unless you count  shattering a phone, borrowed from my sister, in a fit of frustration over a cheating boyfriend. Unlike Agnes, I’m wary of getting in cars with strangers and I’ve never gone to a tanning salon. Still, her audacity thrills me. In spite of her basement-level self-esteem and all the ways she has allowed people to exploit her (especially Colin and the university at which she’s employed), Agnes believes deeply in her own capabilities and her intrinsic value (even if she doesn’t know exactly where that value lies). More important, she believes in retribution. When she gets the chance to pay someone back in spades, she takes it. As both her creator and a reader, I enjoyed fantasizing about embodying her rage. It’s nice to think about a Black woman, and particularly a Black woman with albinism, seeking her own form of justice after being fed up with other people’s bullshit. How often does that get to happen in real life without dire consequences? How often does that happen and the character survives, free to live another day?

So yeah, I hate Agnes, but over time she evolved into a character I still want to win in the end. Even now, I imagine her in another place, living a better life than the lives she’s survived thus far, and maybe even a better one than what she finds herself in by the end of the novel. For all her imperfections, I want there to be a place for Agnes somewhere because she deserves it. She deserves to be fucked up and annoying and still have a chance to make good on her untapped potential.

I know, I know, literature is rife with unlikable heroes, women with mommy issues, and siblings who hate each other. And there’s plenty about women who choose terrible men. All of this is vintage Agnes. But none of this consistently happens to people with albinism. In literature and popular culture, we’re either martyrs or villains with pitiable back stories, and I wanted to make a character who is sometimes good and sometimes bad, yet neither comically nor tragically so. She’s just misguided, self-absorbed, and wrong. I wanted a character I could relate to even when I didn’t want to, because in many ways, that’s what coming into myself as a person with albinism has been about. I know I am not the tragedy™ that complete strangers often view me as, but it took me some time to understand I am also not the paradigm of underdog perfection. I am not someone who is always performing goodness in the face of evil, someone everyone wants to root for because I’m always doing the right thing.

In short, I’m not a total victim. Neither is Agnes nor any other person with albinism. We’ve done our shit too. Sometimes we’re exceptional. Sometimes, we’re just regular and trifling. So perhaps what I wanted—and still want—in creating Agnes wasn’t an unlikeable hero, but someone a reader finds herself liking because she’s not that different from the rest of us. That, for me, is what diversity and inclusion can be: hearing a story and thinking, “Damn, never been there or done that. And I can’t even say I agree with it. But I understand.”


Destiny O. Birdsong is a poet, novelist, and essayist whose work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, African American Review, and Catapult, among other publications. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published in 2020 by Tin House and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award. Her first novel, Nobody’s Magic, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing on February 8.

Art: Agê Barros

How We Remember: A Profile of Clint Smith


Destiny O. Birdsong


Something magical happens when a poet turns their attention to prose. Sentences take on the lyric quality of the line, and paragraphs assume the compact perfection of stanzas. Multiple truths are given equal weight, and every single word is intentional.

Such is the case with Clint Smith’s second book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, an ambitious volume published in June by Little, Brown about the ways America remembers its history of slavery. Each chapter is devoted to a location or landmark, and while some cover familiar sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, others feature lesser-known places, like Blandford Church and Cemetery, which houses one of the largest mass interments of Confederate soldiers in the U.S. South. Stories about Smith’s travels and his conversations with employees and visitors slip seamlessly into history and historiography—all of which are knit together with the beauty of his magnetic prose. 

“You’ll probably hear my children in the background,” says Smith, who lives in Maryland with his wife and two kids, as we sit down for a Zoom interview near the end of March. My first question is about his new book’s inception, and I quickly learn that it began in another genre. Smith discovered his love of writing in 2008 during a visit to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a haven for Black and Brown poets located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Back then he was a self-described “disillusioned English major struggling to connect with the canon,” but after one night at the Nuyorican, Smith was hooked. He would go on to an illustrious career as a poet, winning the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review in 2017 and the National Poetry Slam championship in 2014 with the Beltway Poetry Slam team. He would also publish Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), a prize-winning collection exploring themes of race, genealogy, and coming-of-age. 

Less than a year later, after Smith’s hometown, New Orleans, removed a statue of Robert E. Lee in the spring of 2017, Smith began planning a second collection in which each poem would discuss a Confederate monument in the city. “At first it was just one poem, because poetry is how I entered my life as a writer,” he says. Smith envisioned a book that grappled with the question, What did it mean to grow up in a place in which there were more homages to enslavers than to enslaved people? The idea most certainly could have worked, but soon he felt he needed more space, so he decided to try his hand with an essay, penning “An Intimate History of America”—about visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture with his parents and grandparents—for the Paris Review Daily in late 2017. In an instant a would-be poetry book turned to prose, and the rest is—quite literally—history. 

Over time the project’s geographical scope changed to include other U.S. cities and Gorée Island, a major slave-trading post off the coast of modern-day Senegal. Still, the book’s concept wasn’t fully realized until Smith visited Monticello in 2018, shortly after learning about a newly added Sally Hemings tour. On the day of his planned visit, the Hemings slots were full, so he opted for a tour that dealt specifically with Jefferson’s relationship with slavery. Afterward he approached fellow visitors to hear their thoughts. His aha moment came during a conversation with Donna and Grace, two white women whose reactions to learning the truth about Jefferson are included in the Monticello chapter. “Reporting isn’t a natural thing for me,” says Smith, who recently became a staff writer at the Atlantic but is still surprised when people call him a journalist. “Walking up to strangers and asking them questions runs counter to my ethos, but I did it when I was at Monticello. And I was like, Oh, okay. This is what this book needs to be.” As the women talked, Smith realized he wanted How the Word Is Passed to contain more than self-meditation and personal reflection. “It had to be about the multiplicity of voices…how we all converge in these places and experience them in different ways depending on who we are.”  

During our interview I got to witness firsthand the attentive nature with which Smith approaches difficult conversations about slavery, racism, and systemic carceral violence. But don’t be fooled: Though he maintains a down-to-earth air, Smith holds an impressive résumé and has enjoyed a wildly successful writing career, one that has seen viral TED Talks, a formidable social media following (even his most casual tweets, like a recent one about air fryers, garner thousands of likes), and a doctorate in education from Harvard University. A simple Google search speaks to the breadth and depth of his accolades: links to old poetry slam videos are listed alongside New Yorker essays about racism in soccer, a sport he played from childhood to his undergraduate days at Davidson College. And his awards are just as prestigious as his publications. Counting Descent won the 2017 poetry award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award, and in 2017 was chosen as the One Book One New Orleans citywide read. [Smith is also a contributing editor of this magazine.] 

Yet, in the midst of all this, his deep commitment to education remains. Over the past decade, he has taught in high schools, jails, and prisons and currently teaches writing and literature in the D.C. Central Detention Facility. Smith is an ambidextrous scholar; his intellectual influences range from the work of noted historian Walter Johnson to the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, whose conviction for the 1989 murder of a police officer was based on dubious witness testimony and shoddy evidence. Indeed, Clint Smith wears many hats—poet, incarceration scholar, educator, father—all of which come to bear on the extensive research, incisive social critiques, and careful consideration of multiple perspectives that compose How the Word Is Passed.  

Perhaps the hallmark of Smith’s capacity for inclusivity—not to mention journalistic objectivity—lies in the new book’s fourth chapter, which chronicles his trip to Blandford Cemetery’s Memorial Day celebration, hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). The event included a color guard led by men in battle regalia, an acoustic rendition of the Confederacy’s de facto national anthem “Dixie,” and a speech by Paul C. Gramling Jr., SCV’s commander in chief at the time. Accompanied by a white friend, Smith stood apart from the attendants, but once the ceremony was over, he approached several individuals for interviews. When I confessed that I would have been unable to do a similar thing, Smith spoke candidly about his discomfort but explained the importance of hearing the attendees speak. “It was really helpful to see what the contemporary manifestation of the ‘Lost Cause’ looks like and to really understand that lineage and loyalty take precedence over evidence,” he says. “I couldn’t let my own issues with every inaccuracy they may have propagated get in the way of them telling me how they felt.” 

Still, How the Word Is Passed pulls no punches when dismantling the specious rhetoric of Confederate sympathizers. When Gramling, during his speech, attributes Memorial Day’s inception to a group of white Mississippi women in 1866, Smith follows up by tracing the holiday’s history to newly freed Black South Carolinians commemorating Union soldiers one year before. When an attendee mentions Richard Poplar, a Black man he claims willingly fought for the Confederacy, Smith produces historical evidence suggesting that Poplar was more likely a cook for the soldiers, since the Confederate Army prohibited Black men from enlisting for essentially the entire war. 

Earlier in the same chapter there was a similar moment I was eager to discuss with Smith. It was a conversation he had with a visitor center employee after visiting a site across from the cemetery: Blandford Church, its commissioned Tiffany glass windows their own monument to the Confederate States of America. It was Smith’s visit to the church that would lead him to attend the Memorial Day event. When he discovers a flyer for it on a counter at the visitor center, the employee apologizes profusely, insisting she was bothered by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who, according to her, take Southern pride too far. “I don’t think that Robert E. Lee would have been pleased with all this deitizing. He was a very humble person,” she insists. But again, Smith quickly parses fantasy from fact, writing that, while it was true Lee was hesitant to erect postwar memorials, it was not because he imagined an egalitarian society. Lee was a brutal enslaver who separated families and made examples of individuals who escaped. Smith includes the account of one such person, who describes how he was captured, beaten, and, in an act of excessive depravity, had his wounds doused with brine. 

During our conversation I describe how, while reading the passage, I found myself refusing to think about the beating for fear that, if I focused on it too intently, I might enter a dangerous emotional space. I asked Smith if, during any of his trips, there were moments when he felt similarly. He points immediately to two places he discusses in detail in the book: the Field of Angels and Angola prison.  

As Smith writes, the Field of Angels is particularly haunting. Located approximately fifty miles west of New Orleans on the Whitney Plantation, the Field of Angels is a courtyard filled with granite plaques listing the names of dead enslaved children. In its center sits the statue of an angel cradling one of the deceased. In the book, Smith says that, at the time of his visit, he was the father of a toddler, with another child on the way, which made standing in the Field of Angels undeniably emotional. He elaborates on the experience during our interview, explaining how, as a tour guide discussed rates of infanticide, he quickly became overwhelmed. “This is something we’ve heard from folks like Toni Morrison, and you hear it in the historiography…[but] that that would even cross someone’s mind is so—I don’t even have words for it,” he sighs. “I tried to lean into it emotionally as a writer, even if in the moment I was  experiencing an emotional paralysis.” 

Smith’s visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary—also known as Angola—is another experience that still haunts him. Though How the Word Is Passed recounts Smith’s trip to the facility in harrowing detail, the statistical evidence it provides tells its own story. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Seventy-one percent of its inmates are serving life sentences, and 75 percent of them are Black. At the time of Smith’s visit there were sixty-nine people on death row, and incarcerated workers in Angola’s massive fields earned seven cents an hour. Still, Smith says the execution chamber was the most frightening space, and during our conversation, he explains why: “Physically being in that room and experiencing the stillness, and just reflecting on the fact that we do this on purpose, and very, very intentionally…is something that will remain with me for the rest of my life.” 

When I tell him that reading about Angola made me, a fellow Louisianan, feel ashamed, Smith is careful to point out that the blame is not regionally specific. He notes that the prison, which was nicknamed after the plantation on which it now stands and the people who were enslaved there, is more than a local problem. It is an American problem. Experts’ comparisons of Louisiana’s incarcerated population to those of authoritarian regimes like China and Iran single out the state in ways that make it seem like a carceral anomaly instead of a national norm. And according to Smith, that is not the full story. “What are the specific manifestations of white supremacy and anti-Blackness in the U.S. that allow this plantation to be turned into a prison?” he asks me. “What are the failures of our collective memory and understanding of enslavement that have allowed the afterlife of slavery to be so present in the landscape of that space?”

These are questions How the Word Is Passed answers with tact and clarity—in the chapters mentioned as well as in others, like the one about Gorée Island, where captured Africans embarked on the Middle Passage, and New York City, where Smith reveals how banking companies, like what is now known as JPMorgan Chase, accepted enslaved people as collateral and seized them when plantation owners defaulted on loans. The book ends with an account of Smith’s own family history with slavery and Jim Crow segregation and his coming to understand the ways the two institutions have shaped both his personal and ancestral histories. 

Smith is, in fact, always aware of his subjectivity as both the descendant of working-class Black Southerners and a Harvard-educated PhD. But these multiple identities are also highly mutualistic. He says that his dissertation, which explores the relationship between education and incarceration, was heavily influenced by growing up in a city with the reputation as the murder capital of the United States. “That language was so central to my childhood,” he tells me. “Thinking about criminality and incarceration very much shaped the scholarly decisions that I made. [It was] the white noise of my coming-of-age.” 

Each chapter of How the Word Is Passed illustrates how, for better or worse, institutions shape how we see ourselves individually and collectively, how we think about the world around us, and how we remember the past. It also calls for a national reckoning with the amnesia that makes places like the ones discussed in the book so vitally important—and, in the case of sites like Blandford Church and Cemetery, deeply problematic. 

As our conversation drew to a close, we returned to the institution of slavery, whose importance remains the focus of the book from the first page to the last. Perhaps one of the most eloquent passages in How the Word Is Passed is about Frederick Douglass and how his exceptionalism might create a skewed sense of how difficult it was to escape bondage. “No one, enslaved or otherwise, was like Douglass,” writes Smith. “There were other brilliant, exceptional people who lived under slavery, and many resisted the institution in innumerable ways…. [Their] stories might be less sensational but are no less worthy of being told.” During our call we laugh about the sheer scope of Douglass’s genius; there was scarcely a contemporary about whom Douglass did not write, sometimes with scathing commentary included in the book because, according to Smith, Douglass often said things better than Smith felt he ever could. “He is literally one of the best writers this country has ever had. On a literary level, like on the level of the sentence,” says Smith, smiling. “There are not a lot of human beings like Frederick Douglass that ever exist in this world.” Yet he is quick to point out that Douglass’s story is not the definitive one about enslavement. In order to get a larger sense of the institution, “you have to look at folks who were illiterate,” he says. “You have to look at folks who lived in the Deep South. You have to look at folks whose sense of personhood was made clear in the moments where they hid behind a tree to kiss the person they loved, or cooked a meal for their children after they’d been in the fields all day. The small ways that people every day tried to carve out a space for their own fullness.” 

The task of making room for the totality of the Black American experience is one How the Word Is Passed handles beautifully. The book’s final note, in which Smith is as careful to point out the subjectivity of this historical text as he is loath to call himself an historian, belies the expansive nature of his analyses and the dexterity with which he makes sense of the triangular relationship between history, memory, and narrative—bodies of knowledge that complement but often contradict one another. Still, his ambitions for the book extend far beyond its potential for pedagogical utility. “So often books by Black writers and writers of color are read almost singularly through the lens of what they can teach someone, and I hope that this book does serve as an educational resource,” says Smith just before we end our call. “Part of what I wanted to do was write a history book that, in some ways felt like a novel and that took seriously questions of craft. That took seriously questions of syntax…. I also want it to exist in the world as a piece of literature.” 


Destiny O. Birdsong is a poet, novelist, and essayist whose work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, African American Review, and Catapult, among other publications. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published in 2020 by Tin House and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award. Her debut novel, Nobody’s Magic, is forthcoming in February 2022 from Grand Central Publishing. 

Clint Smith (Credit: Barry Harley Photography)

Episode 16: David Sedaris, Kevin Young, Kiki Petrosino & More

Related Reading: 

November/December 2017


Our annual Independent Publishing Issue includes information about fifty magazines and five small presses accepting submissions with no reading fees; a profile of poet Kevin Young, author of a new nonfiction book, Bunk, and the new poetry editor of the New Yorker; our second annual 5 Over 50 roundup of debut authors; William Giraldi on James Baldwin; a look at how book advances work; self-publishing advice; writing prompts; and more. 

Buy This Issue

In the sixteenth episode of Ampersand, editor in chief Kevin Larimer and senior editor Melissa Faliveno preview the November/December 2017 issue, which includes a special section on literary magazines and small presses open to submissions and a cover profile of Kevin Young. The episode also features readings by poets Kiki Petrosino and Victoria Chang as well as the one and only David Sedaris.

0:01 David Sedaris reads one of the diary entries from his book, Theft by Finding (Little, Brown), which was followed up by David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium, published by Little, Brown in October.

1:15 The cohosts discuss the November/December 2017 issue, featuring “Now Open: 50 Magazines and 5 Small Presses Accepting Submissions With No Entry Fees” as well as Laura Maylene Walter’s no-nonsense guide to submitting your work to magazines. “So happy submitting, and good luck.” The issue also includes a report from contributing editor Michael Bourne about how book advances work. Bourne interviews several agents and editors at publishing houses both big and small, as well as bestselling author Emily St. John Mandel, to get to the bottom of the financial realities of advances for authors and publishers. Also in the new issue is a Q&A with Jamia Wilson, the new publisher of the Feminist Press, a forty-seven-year-old nonprofit prepared to, as Wilson says, “speak truth to power through our books and voices in the midst of attacks on free expression and the rise of authoritarianism, misogyny, and racial violence.”

4:59 Our second annual 5 Over 50 features debut authors over the age of fifty whose paths to publication are “perhaps a bit longer—and, one could argue, more nuanced, often more complex, and even, dare we say it, interesting—than those of ‘younger’ writers who have the spotlight in today’s youth-focused culture.” This year’s 5 Over 50 are Jimin Han, Laura Hulthen Thomas, Karen E. Osborne, Tina Carlson, and Peg Alford Pursell. We’ve collected excerpts of their books in 5 Over 50 Reads 2017.

Kevin Young, whose new book is Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. (credit: Tony Gale)


5:43 Kevin and Melissa talk about “The Poet at Work,” Clint Smith’s engrossing profile of poet Kevin Young, whose second nonfiction book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, will be published in November by Graywolf Press. Young is also the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as well as the new poetry editor of the New Yorker. Smith, a writer, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, and the author of Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), visited Young at the Schomburg Center and talked about his experience as a young writer and member of the Dark Room Collective who found a vital community at Cave Canem retreat. Smith reads a section of the profile that describes this formative period in the life of the poet. “For young writers, part of Young’s approachability stems from a recognition that not so long ago he was also a young writer attempting to find a literary community. The community he found would both be personally and artistically tranformative.”  

12:32 David Sedaris, whose new book, David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium, is featured in this issue’s “The Written Image,” reads excerpts of his diaries, which he has kept over the past forty years. “May 9. This morning I made a list of chores that might lift my spirits: 1. Lose ten pounds. 2. Rewrite the last few stories so I can start something new. 3. Paint a picture of a mole. 4. Make myself go out when I don’t want to.”

David Sedaris, who has drawn from more than 150 diaries in his writing over the years.


18:45 This issue’s installment of Literary MagNet features Kiki Petrosino, who offers her take on a handful of lit mags, including GrimoireCrazyhorse, and Prac Crit, that first published poems from her new book, Witch Wife, forthcoming from Sarabande Books in December. The poet reads a couple poems from the book, in which she reckons with the decision of whether or not to have a child. “This is one terrain I can’t navigate with any map,” Petrosino says. “It’s personal, it’s emotional.”

Kiki Petrosino’s third poetry collection will be published in December.


21:46 One of the authors featured in this issue’s Page One column, Victoria Chang, reads several poems from her fourth poetry collection, Barbie Chang, published by Copper Canyon Press in November. 

26:36 Kevin and Melissa look ahead to the January/February 2018 Inspiration Issue, but not before giving a little shout-out to the iTunes listeners who rated the podcast and even wrote some nice reviews. (We’re looking at you “tayyba,” “dissonant1,” and “Kleinaho.”) This episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Five-Star Podcast is for you.


Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast is a production of Poets & Writers, Inc., and is edited and mixed by Melissa Faliveno. Music for this episode is provided by Podington Bear, Lonely Punk, Broke for Free, YACHT, and Springtide. Comments or suggestions? E-mail

The Poet at Work: A Profile of Kevin Young


Clint Smith


The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is located at the intersection of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. It is eight blocks from Langston Hughes’s famous brownstone, seven blocks from where James Baldwin once attended high school, and a three-minute walk from Zora Neale Hurston’s former artist-collective residence. It sits directly across from the Harlem Hospital Center and is surrounded by an array of delis, bodegas, and brownstones—quintessential emblems of Harlem that drape the neighborhood’s landscape. 

After stepping off the subway, I walk fifteen feet to the right and purchase a chicken-and-rice meal from the shawarma cart that is parked near the sidewalk in front of the center each day. I sit on one of the benches in front of the building as cars glide down Malcolm X Boulevard, their music thumping with enough bass to shake the street. 

Mid-chew I look up and see Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight, surveying a table of used books. The moment is almost too prototypically Harlem to be true. Here is one of the preeminent black artists of our time—and one of the most critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood—quietly perusing used books on Malcolm X Boulevard as passersby bustle along without saying a word to him, as if he were simply a fixture of the Harlem ecosystem. The Schomburg Center is, in many ways, the central home to the culture that Jenkins embodies, and its new director, the poet Kevin Young, sits at the nexus of participant and purveyor. 

When I step inside the Schomburg, I am escorted to meet Young in a small conference room with a dozen chairs, two square tables pushed against each other, and three rectangular windows that overlook a small courtyard. Young walks into the room with a stack of papers and several books with innumerable dog-eared pages. He moves with a sense of self-assuredness that one would expect from someone with his résumé, but counterbalances it with a disarming sense of humor.

Today he is wearing a light-blue oxford shirt with its sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows. The screen of his watch flickers as he moves his hand during the conversation. The ID at the end of his black lanyard is tucked into his left shirt pocket as if he didn’t want you to know that he is the director of the leading research center for black culture in the country. His thick, black beard is flecked with subtle streaks of gray, and he often runs his fingers through it while his other hand rests on the opposite arm. His hair is closely cropped on the sides, but the top of his head abounds with tightly coiled black curls that sprout up along his scalp. His glasses are round and thick and black and slide from the bridge of his nose when he laughs, which he does often, in a way that invites you into the conversation. I’m here to talk to him not only about his position at the Schomburg Center but also about his new role as poetry editor of the New Yorker as well as his new book of nonfiction, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, published this month by Graywolf Press. 

I first met Young two summers ago at the Cave Canem retreat—an annual weeklong workshop for black poets that serves as a refuge from the predominantly white literary spaces we spend most of our time in. Many of the fellows came from MFA programs and workshops where, as Junot Díaz put it in his 2014 treatise in the New Yorker, “the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight, and male.” 

I was not in an MFA program myself but had taken a poetry workshop as a small weekly reprieve from the datasets and statistical analyses of my own graduate studies in the sociology of education, only to have a similarly disillusioning experience as the only black person in a room full of mostly white writers. I talked to Young, for example, about how I had written a series of poems in the voice of my barber and didn’t bring any of those poems into the class because I didn’t want to endure the stress of navigating a scenario where my workshop mates had to decide how to engage a poem laden with the N-word. He laughed in the way some people do to signal that they understand—that they really understand—and nodded. “Cave Canem exists because of that need,” he said. 

At that first meeting, the gap between us couldn’t have felt wider. I was a twenty-something-year-old poet and graduate student who had not yet finished a draft of my first manuscript. I was simply thrilled to have even been accepted to the retreat. Young was a Guggenheim fellow and the author of ten poetry collections, including Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf, 2003), a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and a book of nonfiction, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of the PEN/Open Book Award. He was a professor of creative writing and curator of one of the most impressive literary archives in the country at Emory University. All that by the age of forty-six. And yet he was so different from what we imagine our preeminent literary figures to be. There was no bravado or pretense. There was no condescension or sense of snobbery. My first memory of Young is seeing him playing pool with poet Major Jackson in the lobby of the dormitories where we were all staying. He snacked on a bag of chips between shots, and when I walked in he looked up and asked, “You know how to play?”

That week, as Young led our workshop, it was clear that the collective project we were all embarking on was about far more than what we were putting onto the page. It served as reaffirmation that our work, our experiences, and the cultural idiosyncrasies of our voices were not something that should be compromised in order to be part of the literary community, but something that meaningfully contributed to its terrain. For many, it is often the only reminder they receive. “I think [Cave Canem] often serves as a healing place for folks,” Young says. “It helps focus the tradition that has always been there.” 

More than simply being a space of healing, Cave Canem, Young points out, has fundamentally transformed the landscape of black literature since it was founded two decades ago. He is adamant about this point. 

In the past decade alone, for example, there have been four black winners of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry—Tyehimba Jess (2017), Gregory Pardlo (2015), Tracy K. Smith (2012), and Natasha Trethewey (2007)—as compared with three winners in the previous eighty-five years of the prize combined. Smith and Trethewey would go on to serve as poets laureate of the United States. Both of their first books were published after winning the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Young was the judge who selected Smith’s debut, The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press, 2003). 

“It’s just like this unprecedented thing,” he says, leaning back in his chair, soaking in the realization as if having it for the first time. “Obviously not all of that is because of Cave, but Cave is part of what I would call the Renaissance of Black Letters, and it’s one that I think the Schomburg can be, and should be, at the center of.”

For young writers, part of Young’s approachability stems from his recognition that not so long ago he was also a young writer attempting to find a literary community. The community he found would be both personally and artistically transformative. 

In 1987, Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis, who would soon become friends and peers of Young’s, hopped in a car and drove from Boston to Harlem to attend James Baldwin’s funeral. The prophetic luminary had died in France, but his body had been brought back to the neighborhood of his birth. His community wanted to give him a homegoing celebration imbued with Harlem’s unique character and give so many of those who loved him most an opportunity to say goodbye for themselves. At the funeral the young writers encountered figures like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka, all of whom spoke at Baldwin’s service and all of whom represented the pinnacle of African American letters. Baldwin’s death was made especially difficult for the young writers who trekked from Boston not only because they were mourning the death of a distinguished black literary figure, but also because they never had the opportunity to meet him while he was alive. As Young puts it, they “swore to themselves that they would not let another black writer die without having met that person and connected.” As a way to remedy that problem, Strange and Ellis, joined by their friend Janice Lowe, started a reading series in which they paired young emerging black writers alongside their more established counterparts. The group became known as the Dark Room Collective and held the reading series in an old Victorian at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where several of the young artists lived. 

Writers like Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, and Yusef Komunyakaa made their way through the Cambridge residence—metal chairs unfolded across wooden floors and couches slid against the walls to make room for the guests who had come to see these literary forebears alongside their progeny. 

Young, then an undergraduate at Harvard studying under the likes of Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido, remembers attending some events there, before he became an official member of the collective himself, and being stunned at the sight of two hundred fifty black people packed into a single room—sitting on floors, peeking around corners, holding their breath—listening to poetry. “I think it spurred a community,” he says, pausing, reflecting on the word. “It spurred the writing community in Boston, which was really interesting then but probably was whiter than it knew, to really think about itself in new ways. It was important in that way.”

He must see it in my face as he describes how the series unfolded because he smiles knowingly as I share how shocked I am that a group of relatively unknown aspiring writers could get some of the most important artists of the day to show up and read at their house—for free. Young says that they simply wrote to them and said, “Hey, we have this thing and it’s special and we get this many people and we can get you great dinner.” “And folks came out,” he adds. “It was both a different time and also it’s an eternal thing that if you provide the space and build it,” they will come. 

After Young joined the group, the collective began traveling to venues beyond the Inman Street house to read their work. They read in other places throughout Boston and then across the country. “We’d read in a bar in Miami or we’d all get in a car, and me and Major [Jackson] had the cars and we’d drive,” he says with a laugh. “We’d drive to D.C. and sleep on people’s floors. Even then I knew it was a particular moment in time.” 

There were many poets who weren’t formally in the collective but whose presence and friendships shaped the distinctive literary sensibilities of the group. Among them was Elizabeth Alexander, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a current professor at Columbia University, and someone to whom Young felt particularly close. Alexander recounts with nostalgic tenderness the moment she met Young and another young undergraduate writer at Harvard, both of whom were in the nascent stages of their literary careers. 

“I read on Harvard’s campus through the Grolier Bookstore when my first book of poems came out in 1990. There were these two adorable, alive young men listening very, very carefully and they came up to introduce themselves afterward—Kevin Young and Colson Whitehead,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “Kevin sent me copies of the literary journal he edited and told me about younger writers who were his friends and comrades. We talked about writers and poems we admired and loved.  Later on, we sent each other manuscripts—we’ve been good book editors to each other. Now we text to make each other laugh.”

There is a photograph of the Dark Room Collective taken in 1996 that serves as an illuminating artifact of the time. Seven of the members—Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Nehassaiu deGannes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, and Adisa Vera Beatty—are sitting on a New England beach, some looking off in different directions, some looking directly at the camera. The photo is in black and white, and the young writers each appear to be wearing a mix of black, white, and beige clothing so their bodies blend into the sand. Young sits between Jackson and Trethewey—looking directly at the camera—his full beard then a tightly groomed goatee, the tight coils of hair on his head and a flock of thin dreadlocks falling down just past his shoulders. 

The very existence of the photo and others like it—color coordinated, posed, pensive—captures the group’s youthful ambition. Even before they achieved such high standing in American letters, they understood themselves as something worthy of being documented, archived. 

The collective would dissolve in the late nineties as its members transitioned to graduate school, new jobs, and opportunities to pursue their work full-time. 

Young’s life prior to his literary ascent was one of constant movement, expanding his conception of home beyond the limits of geographical location. His mother and father—both of whom grew up in segregated, rural Louisiana and were the first in their families to attend and graduate from college—were studying to become a chemist and an eye surgeon, respectively. As a result, they moved the family around every few years as the two of them pursued their careers. Before Young turned ten years old, he had lived in six different cities. But he always thought of Louisiana, where much of his family remained and where he frequently visited, as home. 

He attended high school in Topeka, Kansas, a place from which few might expect great writers to emerge, though Young points out that among both his heroes (Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes) and his contemporaries (Ed Skoog, Gary Jackson, Ben Lerner), Topeka has produced some of the top literary talent in American poetics. 

Young attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he joined the Dark Room Collective, and in the years that followed, his career, like many of his collective-mates, took off. He was awarded a Stegner fellowship from Stanford before going on to receive his MFA from Brown. He had brief tenures at the University of Georgia and Indiana University before moving to Emory University, where he remained for eleven years and served as curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume collection of both contemporary and centuries-old work. He also served as curator of the library’s Literary Collections, which contains the archival work of canonical writers such as Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, Jack Kerouac, and Flannery O’Connor, among others. 

During this period, Young’s writing was prolific, and his work helped to shape the twenty-first-century landscape of American poetry. He won or was a finalist for some of the genre’s most prestigious awards and served as steward not only to the work of the past—through his work in the archives—but also to the work of the present, editing several anthologies, including The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink (Bloomsbury, 2012), The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Jazz Poems (Everyman’s Library, 2006). Part of what served as a catalyst for Young’s prolific output was the unexpected death of his father in 2004. “I think I realized life is short,” he says. And part of Young’s mourning took place in his work. His books Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008) and Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014) eulogize his father in a series of poems that move between gentle nostalgia and violent grief. 

Last fall Young left the temperate seasons of Atlanta for the dynamism of Harlem to become the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Upon his arrival, he wasted little time ensuring that he would continue to build on the work of his predecessor, Khalil Gibran Muhammad (who left his post after five years to become a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School). Within the first few months of Young’s tenure, the Schomburg Center was named a National Historic Landmark by the Obama administration, and the center finalized plans to acquire James Baldwin’s papers, something that was of particular import to Young both because Baldwin is a son of Harlem and because the nature of our social and political moment renewed public interest in his work. 

“It was very important to me that the papers not just be announced, but be open,” he says. “And so, the day after we announced them, they were open to research service. And the researchers have come in droves to see them.”

The connection to Baldwin is also personal for Young, who says he could not have written his debut nonfiction project, The Grey Album, without the virtuosic guidance of Baldwin’s prose. The Grey Album was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the PEN/Open Book Award, but, more important, it expanded Young’s reputation from that of an acclaimed poet to a distinguished and erudite cultural critic. “Even [for] this new book, in which I think a lot about America and American history and race…his spirit provided an essential guide,” he says about Baldwin. 

Young’s new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, and his new job fit together in ways that have aligned with unsettling relevance. The book traces the history of the hoax and deceit in the American cultural and political life—moving from P. T. Barnum (who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus) in the late nineteenth century to Greg Mortenson’s infamously fabricated memoir Three Cups of Tea (Penguin, 2007) to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech. Young began research for the book long before the assent of Trump into mainstream national politics and certainly long before anyone could anticipate the extent that “fake news” would become common parlance in contemporary political discourse.

But as Young outlines in Bunk, there is a long and often insidious precedent for a society in which facts become secondary. And both through his book and in his role as director of the Schomburg, he hopes to more forcefully push back against the insurgent phenomenon. “Libraries are more important than ever now, because we provide free and accurate information for people across learning levels,” he says. “That’s what we do.”

The greatest hoax of them all, Young believes, is race. No other type of insidiously conjured fraudulence has endured as long and has had effects as deleterious. “I trace the hoax [of race], as an idea and a concept, and one that emerges in the eighteenth century—it isn’t a word until then,” he says. “I came to understand that that’s not an accident. In many ways, some of the aspects of the hoax and its systematic and stereotypical qualities allowed race to become more fixed around the nineteenth century. We tend to think there’s progress and things get better, but there’s a real hardening along originally unclear racial lines—or blurry ones, or ones not fully understood as biological and unredeemable in the case of black people, brown people, Native American people—all of these qualities became more and more fixed for very different reasons but similar ends, which is to justify slavery or displacement or aspects of supremacy.”

Ideas like those in Bunk serve as the bedrock of discourse at the Schomburg, where many black writers, artists, and public intellectuals come to share their work. Part of Young’s commitment as director is to flatten the hierarchies of intellectual engagement. It’s not that he wants to reduce such writers’ standing as thought-leaders in the community—indeed, many of them are his friends and colleagues—but he wants to continue opening up the space for more people to enter it. In reflecting on an event that took place right after he became director, Young says, “The discourse at that event, which was one of my first events as director, was so impressive. Just community folk asking really smart, interesting questions. The way I think of it is it’s not just scholars. Every student is a scholar; every scholar is a student. We have a lot of folks who are doing deep reading who are really engaged.”

Inevitably, the nature of Young’s new job means that he doesn’t have the same chunks of time to write that he once did as a young professor, but he says it’s well worth it. “I get to go to a place, every day, where Langston Hughes is buried and his spirit is felt. That’s amazing.” And it isn’t as if Young feels like he has less writing time; it’s just that now he has to be more purposeful in creating it. “I feel like people have this notion of writing that it’s inspiration-based and romantic. Both little-R and big-R romantic. I don’t think that’s how it works. I think we can put it many ways—perspiration not inspiration—but I think it’s really just being there in your space. It’s physical in order to prompt a mental space, but it isn’t inspiration, exactly. It’s being there and writing.”

I share with him my own struggles of clearly demarcating how much of my time I spend reading and how much of my time I spend writing. That when I do more of one, I never feel like I am doing enough of the other. I tell him how, for different writing projects, like the piece I am writing on him, I attempt to set specific word goals each day but become overwhelmed when I don’t meet them. He balks. “No, God no. You have to just think of it [all] as work. I think that’s the thing that changed for me a long time ago,” he says in the way people do when they’re reintroduced to a habit they attempted to leave behind. “It’s working. That’s why they call it your work.”

Going forward, Young will have to be even more purposeful about making time for his personal reading and writing—this month he begins his tenure as the poetry editor of the New Yorker, the first black person to hold the position. David Remnick, editor in chief of the magazine, gushed over Young’s work as both writer and editor when I called him. The two had met briefly at a dinner party at Elizabeth Alexander’s home years ago, and Remnick continued following, and then publishing, Young’s poetry and essays. “I love his work and have read him for a long time,” he says.

While online poetry journals and literary magazines have provided more and more opportunities for poets to be published, the New Yorker, with its circulation of 1.2 million, remains the largest commercial platform for poets to have their work engage the larger world. “The opportunity to get read at that scale is not a common thing for poets,” says Remnick, who wanted someone in that position who not only understands the role that the New Yorker has played in putting poems in front of those who may not regularly read them, but who would also use the platform to publish a range of different voices. “I think Kevin will,” he adds.

When I ask Young about it, he becomes more coy than he’s been in the previous moments of our conversation. His responses become briefer, as if the opportunity were a fragile vase that the wrong words might break into pieces. “I remember reading the New Yorker book of poems when I was a kid. I’m looking forward to participating in that tradition too,” he says shyly. I try to hype him up. “This is a big deal!” I tell him, attempting to pull something from him that it becomes increasingly clear he is not willing to give. I try again: “When these things happen to you, are you able to step back and say, ‘Man, I am the director of the preeminent center on black culture in the country. I’m going to be poetry editor of one of the most historically renowned literary magazines—”

He leans back in the wooden chair and laughs. “Every night, I say those exact words.”

He then becomes more reflective. “I think you’re busy doing the work of it, but that’s why you have friends, so you can sit back and celebrate or reflect. Also, it’s an actual day-in and day-out thing. You’re trying to get that work done.”

Throughout his career his friends have indeed lifted him up in celebration, and still, they recognize that despite the success he remains the person so many of them knew as an eager undergraduate trying to emerge in the landscape of black literature. “Kevin feels like his same self to me over all these years,” Elizabeth Alexander says. “He has always been prolific, hilarious, omnivorous, meticulous, dauntless, and sure-footed, a lover of black culture in its everythingness.” 


Clint Smith is a writer, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, and the author of Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and a 2017 recipient of the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. His writing has been published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the New Republic, among other publications. He was born and raised in New Orleans.


Photos: Tony Gale

A Life in Poetry: Our Sixteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets


Dana Isokawa


Every year since 2005 we have highlighted a group of writers who have published their first full-length poetry collections in the prior twelve months. We ask the poets to describe what set their books in motion, what keeps them returning to the page, and how they live as writers. When we inquire how long it took to write their books, every year several reply, “My whole life.” And this makes sense—a book is not the work of a moment or simply a product of the time the poet was setting down words on the page. Many of the poets have been writing poems—or the poems that helped them get to the ones in their books—for decades. Many have been fashioning their relationship to language, their manner of responding and speaking through and about their concerns, their entire lives. They have been going through, as poet Taylor Johnson says, “the process of articulation and learning my own language.” Or, to use Chad Bennett’s words, the “eccentric, vitalizing process” that makes up “a life in poetry.”

So this year, like every year, we want to spotlight ten debut collections and the ten lives in poetry that led to those books. We want to celebrate Anthony Cody’s inventive, visually sprawling Borderland Apocrypha and his practice of writing lines in a phone book. To celebrate Chessy Normile’s humorous, vulnerable Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party, and the four friends who read her manuscript and urged her to see it for what it was. To celebrate the taut and visceral poems in Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue and his habit of sitting by Walled Lake near Novi, Michigan, to write. To recognize the books of the poets featured here who write while balancing multiple gigs, who write while contending with trauma, illness, and great change.

In their replies the poets offer a broad range of advice for writing through impasses and publishing a collection. Common ideas surface: Many recommend writers take their time and take ownership over their work, like Destiny O. Birdsong, who says, “Time made it better because I got better at being myself as a poet, at hearing my own voice and following my own instincts.” Several suggest focusing not on public recognition, but on sharing your book with your community and, as Claire Meuschke says, “leaning toward the select few who enjoy your work.” And threading through all the poets’ replies is a sense of how joyful and how hard writing can be. “You are doing difficult, vulnerable work,” says Leila Chatti. “Language is such a complex and unwieldy technology, capable of profound softness and unfathomable violence,” says torrin a. greathouse.

Many authors and publishers have noted that 2020 has been an unusually difficult year to release a book, especially a debut. “You’re going to face challenges beyond your control,” Roy G. Guzmán says. Public health precautions have precluded many in-person book gatherings, and many writers have likely found releasing a book to be removed from, or secondary to, the demands of caring for themselves, their families, and their communities. So in a year when it might have felt strange for anyone to draw attention to their debuts, we are glad to fete these poets a little, these authors whose books have emerged from a committed and sustained engagement with poetry.

Anthony Cody, Taylor Johnson
Leila Chatti, Destiny O. Birdsong
Chad Bennett, Claire Meuschke
torrin a. greathouse, Chessy Normile
Tommye Blount, Roy G. Guzmán


Anthony Cody
Borderland Apocrypha  
Omnidawn Publishing
(Omnidawn Open Poetry Book Contest)

To narrow a body, excise.
from Bracero(s) & The Ice Car



How it began: I was preparing to leave the country on a trip and had to take a passport photograph at a local drugstore. While I was in line an older white man stood uncomfortably in my personal space and made a joke—in reality a microaggression—asking me if I was afraid of the current president and trying to flee the country. Perhaps it was milliseconds, perhaps it was minutes, but in that provocation all the scenarios of what could happen next played out in my mind. Would I confront him? Would I laugh it off? Would I say anything? Ultimately I took a half step toward him and looked into his eyes without expression. He backed away and left. This moment sat with me for months, and I ended up writing a poem about the event. As time went on I began making more connections between that poem, which would become the opening poem of Borderland Apocrypha; the archival research around the period the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed; and the subtle, and not so subtle, histories that had built up to the moment.

Inspiration: Being in community with other poets, writers, and artists. The act of writing feels like a meditation in loneliness and often a study in rejection, so community feels vital. To talk, collaborate, share your work, manifest, dream, and support one another in the struggle helps keep me grounded and focused. The Hmong American Writers’ Circle, CantoMundo, El Taller Latino Americano, and the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio are very specific sources of inspiration in my life. Within these communities, I have encountered others whom I have learned from and created alongside. They have nourished me, and I approach every day trying to put that cariño and energy back into the universe.

Influences: One day Juan Felipe Herrera said to me, “Abandon the left margin.” It was a new liberation to my practice and process. He is also the author of Akrilica (Alcatraz Editions, 1989), a collection that after almost three decades still reaches into the imagination of the possibilities of Latinx poetics. Even to this day, he still gathers others, dreams, and seeks. Witnessing him in action now, and throughout my life, reminds me to stay working toward honoring him as both a mentor and friend in everything I do.

To read a collection from M. NourbeSe Philip is to feel as though I am being invited into the sacred. A space I must read and enter with a care over the next several weeks. Her work re-synapses my understanding of language and navigation of the field in a way that requires me to turn off all other distractions and devote my full attention to her writing.

When I opened The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), my life changed. Douglas Kearney’s ability to have a multiplicity of voices, textures, and histories—all within a visual deconstruction layered in complexity—created something that was new to me. This book made me realize I had to start over and ask more from my writing.

I return to Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1 (Covici Friede, 1938) year after year. More than a primer in docupoetics, her collection delves into the experimental and grounds me with a deeper understanding of how a poem and a collection can be both a reckoning and a path toward truth.

So much of my life involves community that my list could go on and on. Bernardo Palombo, the founder of El Taller Latino Americano, has helped expand my mind. I spent nearly three years in New York City learning about language, art, music, and literature from the entirety of the Americas from Bernardo, an educator, an artist, as well as a songwriter and musician of the Nueva Canción movement. His passion to make space for others; his attention to languages, sounds, and voices; and his ability to scheme and dream against all obstacles astounds me and makes me a better person and poet.

Writer’s block remedy: I walk away. The internet, the algorithm, and capitalism want us to go as hard as we can until we are spent, only to start over again. If I can’t push a project any further, I change mediums or do something else entirely. I write inside a phone book. I break down cardboard and sketch and build. I read and read and read or dive into the internet and research or obsess over a song that I loop and dissolve into for days. Writing is often more about listening than it is about the act of writing, so if the writing ceases, I know it is time I stop what I am attempting, listen more, and reimagine the path.

Advice: Poetry is not a competition or a race. For many years I did not write regularly. I worked. I read. I wandered. For much of my twenties, and even a portion of my thirties, I engaged in a variety of creative projects all while working at nonprofits, as well as at a wastewater reclamation and recycling plant. I did everything except write poems. All those friendships, experiences, and time gave me a chance to slowly understand the book I wanted to write into this world. So feel urgency, but do not confuse that urgency with the need to rush into publishing your first book before it is at a place that you can accept.

The other piece of advice: Find yourself two or three friends, poets or not, you can text a poem to at 3 AM and who will unflinchingly tell you the truth: “Nope” or “This is good, keep grinding” or even “You’ve lost your way.” All the aforementioned replies have helped save me from myself. Without those people in my life, I am unsure what kind of book Borderland Apocrypha would have become, or if it would have even become a reality.

Finding time to write: I have learned that I cannot physically force myself to write, so setting time aside does not necessarily help me write more. Instead, I am often scribbling, sifting through the internet, listening to music, or sitting with an idea, a line, an image, or a concept. As a result, I may not be “writing” while doing a variety of other jobs and things, but I feel I am always mentally drafting and constructing in preparation to write.

Putting the book together: The second and third sections that center the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the subsequent lynchings, hate crimes, and traumas against Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the southwest United States are predominantly in chronological order. The series that begins the collection became the opening section after I realized I was writing a group of poems that created a divergence of pathways, both personal and not, related to my research. Initially I believed I was drafting two separate manuscripts. For the closing of the manuscript, I had at first titled all the poems with the ending clause “as Borderland Apocrypha.” While this maneuver did not make the final manuscript, the dissonance between the title and the subject matter of the poems did help me understand that the poems were steadily drifting from the harms of the past and present, beyond survival, and toward resistance.

What’s next: Immediately after finishing the final draft of Borderland Apocrypha, I returned to the MFA program at Fresno State—I had deferred the last two years of the program. Rather than use the book as my thesis, I made the decision to dive into my paternal grandparents’ experience in the Dust Bowl; make sculptures, both tangible and sonic; create mural-sized poems and scrolls; and assemble a new body of cross-disciplinary work that examines the Dust Bowl, climate change, complicities of whiteness, and annihilation.

I am grateful that this current work is steadily appearing in the world, and the best way I can describe the new work is as an escalation into the borderless aesthetic that I am exploring in Borderland Apocrypha.

Age: 39. 

Residence: Fresno, California. 

Job: I am currently shifting from my MFA in creative writing at Fresno State to looking for a full-time job. In the meantime I serve on the volunteer communications staff for CantoMundo and as an associate poetry editor for Noemi Press. 

Time spent writing the book: Outside of research that began several years ago, the majority of the collection was physically written and revised over thirteen consecutive months. This was an intense period of time during which I simultaneously researched, drafted, drew, constructed, and built poems at all hours of the day and night.

Time spent finding a home for it: It was about a year between when I first thought I was finished with the manuscript but continued tightening the collection to when I heard I had won the Omnidawn Open Poetry Book Prize.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Each year poetry gives us a staggering number of debut voices. Some of the collections that left me in awe to share a debut year with include Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books), Monica Sok’s A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press), Alan Pelaez Lopez’s Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien (The Operating System), Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed Editions), Michael Torres’s An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press), Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry (University of Nebraska Press), and Ricardo Maldonado’s The Life Assignment (Four Way Books).

Borderland Apocrypha by Anthony Cody  



Taylor Johnson
Alice James Books

No name in the city of undoing

I lengthen beyond what I know
from self/hood



How it began: I don’t know if I was thinking about the poems I was writing as something that would be a book. The poems in Inheritance were formed while I walked around D.C. or had conversations with friends and lovers, or as a response to a theoretical framework I was trying to understand. Each poem has its own sense of time and reality, and I wasn’t considering other poems that I’d written when I was in the process of writing a new one; I let the sounds emerge as their own. Ultimately the compulsion was to respond.

Inspiration: Riding public transportation in D.C., walking Georgia Avenue, walking Fourteenth Street, laughter, the Greyhound bus, The Poetics of Space (Presses Universitaires de France, 1958) by Gaston Bachelard, Fred Moten’s consent not to be a single being trilogy, go-go music, Roland Barthes’s essay “The Grain of the Voice.”

Influences: Christopher Gilbert’s Across the Mutual Landscape (Graywolf Press, 1984) found me in a used bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and when I read it, it seemed as if we’d always been in conversation. 

When I was twenty-one I was fading out of school and I found Fred Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and his collaboration with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013). Both texts changed how I understood critique, which is adoration, and study, which is connection. 

I first applied to Cave Canem when I was sixteen after reading Dawn Lundy Martin’s poem “Negrotizing in Five or How to Write a Black Poem.” In the moment, the poem reached me where I was, which was inside the process of articulation and learning my own language—“phonemic struggle,” as Martin says in the poem.

Writer’s block remedy: Lately, listening to Keith Jarrett’s concert in Köln, Germany, has kept me going. I’m moved by his vocalizations and foot-stomping in the first part of the improvisation. If I’m at an impasse it means I’m stopping myself. When I stop myself it’s because I’ve reached an emotional impasse, for which I take a walk to try and work it out. Sometimes if I’m at an impasse in writing, I’ll watch a film; it’s been Cléo From 5 to 7 these days.

Advice: I think it’s important to find silence and to be periodically defamiliarized with your voice and your sense of saying things.

Finding time to write: I write everyday, usually notes that may become a poem, or some other thought that expands into maybe a drawing or an idea for something more physical.

Putting the book together: I listened to John Coltrane and his quartet playing “India” live at the Village Vanguard in 1961. I listened to the poems I had and realized that I had a series of consistent sounds throughout. At the time of putting the manuscript together, I was in Paris and would walk around the Jardin du Luxembourg saying the poems to myself and figuring out the kinetic sense that I wanted to convey with the poems.

What’s next: Right now I’m looking for two telephones booths to work out an idea I have. I’m interested in experiences with art that are immersive and require the participant to step into a new reality in some way. 

Age: 29. 

Residence: New Orleans. 

Job: I engage my mind for a living. I write poems and have begun exploring creating installations and expanding my sense of a poem into something physical and immersive. 

Time spent writing the book: Four years. 

Time spent finding a home for it: I didn’t try to find a publisher. I felt that when I was ready to share the poems, there would be someone who would want to collaborate with me on that project of sharing. I took about three months to decide on whom I wanted to collaborate with.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Semiotics by Chekwube Danladi (University of Georgia Press), Horsepower by Joy Priest (University of Pittsburgh Press), and A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press) by Monica Sok.

Inheritance by Taylor Johnson 

Clockwise from top left: Anthony Cody, Taylor Johnson, Leila Chatti, Destiny O. Birdsong, Chad Bennett, Roy G. Guzmán, Tommye Blount, Chessy Normile, torrin a. greathouse, and Claire Meuschke.  (Credit: Eugene Smith)

Leila Chatti

Copper Canyon Press

…All night I listen

for you listening. If there
is something you need

to tell me, God you must
tell it to me

from Annunciation


How it began: I first became sick—or realized I was sick—in 2012, the year I applied to MFA programs. The entirety of my MFA overlapped with the illness at the center of Deluge; I would go to class, then to the hospital, and then return home to write my poems for workshop. I wrote the initial poems in Deluge not because I imagined I was writing a book, but because I was learning how to write and because I desperately wanted to understand my experience; poems were how I processed and grieved. It wasn’t until a year after my graduation, when I was living with my mentor Dorianne Laux, trying to sort out what to do next with my life, that I realized, with her insight, I had begun a book. What compelled me to finish the book were the questions writing unearthed for me and the understanding that my specific experience of misogyny—in faith, medicine, and literature—was part of a larger, urgent problem I couldn’t look away from.

Inspiration: I read a good deal of scripture and religious texts while writing the book—the Qur’an and the Bible, hymns and hadiths, as well as other spiritual texts such as Saint Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. I also spent a lot of time in museums looking at the religious artwork, particularly the depictions of Mary.

Influences: Sharon Olds is a major early influence on my work. Her poems emboldened me to write audaciously about the female body and sexuality. I was stunned when I came across her poems in college—I didn’t know a person could write about menstruation, desire, and the body quite that way. Her work opened a crucial door for me, and I am eternally grateful; I wouldn’t have written these poems if hers had not come first.

Louise Glück is another significant influence on my work. I first read “The Untrustworthy Speaker” as a high school student and thought, “Okay, this is poetry. I want to do this.” Glück’s Poems 1962-2012 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) is never far from me; I keep it on my desk, and take it with me when I travel. I admire her frankness, the clarity and concision of her language, and her unflinching self-examination. I strive to scrutinize the world, starting with myself.

Margaret Atwood is a writer whose work I also first encountered as a teenager and immediately became enamored with. The Handmaid’s Tale (McClelland & Stewart, 1985) engaged with themes I had already begun grappling with as an adolescent—faith, power, and the female body. After reading it, I hunted down the rest of her work in the library and devoured it. This thorough fixation lead me to discover Atwood’s poetry, and hers were the first full-length collections of poetry I ever read. Power Politics (House of Anansi Press, 1971) blew the top of my head off.

Writer’s block remedy: Form is something that helps pull me out of wordlessness. It’s like a rope I can hold on to and inch my way forward. I love rules and restrictions—I’m sure this is a vestige of my religious childhood—and I love puzzles. Often my impasses in writing arise because I am afraid or I am bored. Puzzles cure the boredom, and rules create a scaffold that’s comforting, secure. I feel less afraid when I know I won’t open up and spill uncontrollably all over the page, that there’s a shape to contain it. I also know what’s expected of me: Rhyme here, repeat there, wrap it up in x lines or syllables. 

Something along those lines, but a little more flexible, is the use of prompts. I keep word jars and lists, and will sometimes pick fifteen words at random and challenge myself to write a poem with them in fifteen minutes; I also include rules here, such as “a question must appear in the fourth line that is not answered” or “use a non-English word in an end rhyme,” because I find requirements generative. I read all the time and take notes on what I read, and flipping through these journals often sparks an idea. 

Regardless of how the individual poems start, what really is essential is that I keep to a daily writing schedule. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found I need to maintain momentum or else writing becomes much more arduous to pick up again; I experience it as a runner might, feeling winded and exhausted if I try to run a marathon without practicing consistently. A little every day keeps me from stalling when I look at a blank page, and often I discover my best ideas not from a bolt out of the blue, but through chipping away at something long enough and consistently enough.

Advice: The first thing: Protect your heart. You are doing difficult, vulnerable work. There are many factors along this path outside of your control, but you can control how you spend your energy and how you care for yourself. My friendships with other writers have been immensely nourishing and encouraging. Surround yourself with people who truly want you to succeed, and protect your heart so you can genuinely reciprocate. Be mindful of how much time you spend online; if it’s a source of negativity and incites feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and discouragement, you’re better off spending those hours reading a book or, of course, writing. Read a lot, widely, including some books published more than five years ago. If possible, try to work on another project (or three) while sending out your manuscript—this can help distract you during the insufferable waiting period, and reduce the stress you put on this one project. Have a trusted handful of people read it, and then have faith. It can take time for the right circumstances to line up—the right readers, the right judge or editor, the right moment—but have faith that this will happen if you keep showing up for your book, keep sending it out. Keep going.

Finding time to write: Usually I write every day. I fell off of my routine for about a year, however, after my book got picked up and I became distracted with new, ever-changing responsibilities. I believed, falsely, that I needed to first take care of everything else—work and life tasks—or else I wouldn’t be able to focus on my creative work, but there was always more to be done, and so writing got less and less of my time. I wrote right before bed, on my phone, tiny snippets, but I was miserable. Finding time, I realized, was a fantasy—I have to make it. I’ve now resumed my original routine, scheduling it in and taking it as seriously as I would a teaching or speaking engagement. I write first thing in the morning, at 7:30 every morning, no matter where I am, and I write for at least two hours. Instead of hoping my writing would squeeze in somewhere, now I find time to squeeze in my other assorted tasks. Writing is my priority, so I have resolved to give it my first and best attention each day. One tip that’s helped too: I check my e-mail only when I am prepared to respond. Cutting out random checks during the day on my phone or computer drastically cut down on wasted time and added anxiety. Those extra minutes add up, and I’d rather open up a document I’ve been working on and fiddle with that when bored or antsy. 

Putting the book together: I’m hyper-organized and obsessive, so I created a fairly complicated system of charts to track various aspects of the book and to have a clear overview of its threads, how things were balanced, and where I might need to write more poems. I also printed the poems very tiny and glued them onto notecards; on the other side of the card I had a system of symbols and colors representing themes and formal or structural elements in the poem. I scattered these across my living room floor and then moved them around, making connections through the randomness I might not have otherwise. I then kept these in a plastic bag and flipped through them during my commute, reading through them and tweaking the order. 

I also spoke with Gregory Pardlo about how to order a manuscript, and he gave me a great bit of insight. He said the “reveal” of the book, its dramatic climax, is not that I survive—that’s obvious, because I lived to write the poems. So, he pushed me to consider what understanding or revelation was the book working toward? This helped me to think outside of “sick then better, the end” as the book’s arc and chronological fidelity as the sole ordering principal. Breaking the book into sections—the version it exists as now—happened about six months after I finished the first draft; I realized the book felt very heavy uninterrupted, and I wanted to add in some space for breath. This also helped me to escape some of the constraints of linearity.

What’s next: I’m currently working on a project that I began this fall for a manuscript workshop for my PhD. The poems are all in form; I’m coming off of a long silence—the pandemic knocked language out of me, and before that, I was preoccupied with pre-publication work on and for Deluge—and the challenge of form is generative for me, keeps me pushing into the unknown. This project is much more playful than Deluge, which I think is good for me. My father always says, “Everything in moderation.” I find comfort in balance. Deluge is very serious, and I was very serious while writing it. Now I’ve wandered in another direction, playing games with language and ideas, loosening my grip, letting in some surprise and wildness. Unlike Deluge, for which I had very clear vision and aspirations, I don’t know what I’ll do with this project; at the moment I’m just having fun.

Age: 30. 

Residence: Cincinnati. 

Job: I am currently pursuing my PhD in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. I also teach online writing workshops, which I love. 

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poem in the book—“14, Sunday School, 3 Days Late”—was written in 2013. The last poem added to the manuscript, “Haemorrhoissa’s Menarche,” was written in 2018; I think of the book as having been finished in late 2017, but I wrote this teensy poem in a workshop led by Alicia Suskin Ostriker as a challenge to write a poem in under a minute. So, five years, technically, though the vast majority of the writing was concentrated between 2015 and 2017, during a heightened burst of creativity and production when I also wrote my chapbooks Tunsiya/Amrikiya (Bull City Press, 2018) and Ebb (Akashic Books/African Poetry Book Fund, 2018). 

Time spent finding a home for it: About a year. I was very cautious about sending the book out for a whole range of reasons, many of them silly. I first sent it to a few contests in the fall of 2017. I mustered the courage to submit my manuscript to Copper Canyon’s open call the following summer, as well as to another press whose editor invited me to send it their way. I was even more timid about sending my book to these presses because a no from a press felt absolute; I could always re-enter a contest, but if a press rejected the book, I figured (perhaps erroneously), that was that. That fall was silent and nerve-wracking. I finally broke one night and wrote my mentors these painfully despairing e-mails asking how to keep heart and expressing my doubt and dejection (to which they responded kindly, with encouragement, compassion, and stories of their own). I stayed up all night after this outpouring working on an impromptu research project tracing the lives of women writers I admired, mapping them out on timelines—education, books, prizes and other markers of achievement, marriages and children—to see if there was a pattern, and was relieved to see there was not, that there was a multitude of paths. This discovery filled me with great calm. The next day, January 14, 2019, I received the phone call from Michael Wiegers saying Copper Canyon wanted to publish the book. 

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: I loved Philip Matthews’s Witch (Alice James Books), Jessica Abughattas’s Strip (University of Arkansas Press), Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed Editions), and Jameson Fitzpatrick’s Pricks in the Tapestry (Birds, LLC). I’ve moved a number of times this wild year, so I’m still waiting to get my hands on books I had sent to different addresses—Marianne Chan’s All Heathens (Sarabande Books), Sumita Chakraborty’s Arrow (Alice James Books), and Allison Adair’s The Clearing (Milkweed Editions) are among them, and I can’t wait to read them!

Deluge by Leila Chatti 



Destiny O. Birdsong
Tin House

This is a singular, decadent life, a truth
I know would kill her,
or make her murderous in its knowing.
from Her



How it began: It was a few things. Rage at a hate crime I experienced in 2016. The fear that if I didn’t write it right then, I’d never finish a book that was good enough to publish. Sorting through trauma. Wanting to tell a very particular truth I wasn’t seeing in the world. A real sense that writing was the one thing I was supposed to be doing and the suffocating realization that I was wasting my life by not doing it because I was afraid of the work I knew it was going to take. 

Inspiration: When I first watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade I was…uncomfortable, and it wasn’t because of the content. As an artist I could tell that Beyoncé had taken inventory of an already-fruitful career and said to herself, “I can do more. I have more to give.” I could tell that she had broken through her own ceiling, and the gifts we got from that breakthrough are incredible: Lemonade, Black Is King, and my favorite, Coachella and its Homecoming documentary. When I watched Lemonade in 2016, I felt called out because I wasn’t even close to a “breakthrough” moment—I was barely writing at all. But three years later, after struggling to write my book through all kinds of emotional crises and health scares, I watched Homecoming and I felt like my struggles made sense. Beyoncé’s journey toward doing something that had never been done before—being a Black woman headliner for Coachella—gave me context for my own, and she sets a bar of excellence that I strive to meet every day. I’m nowhere close yet, but she gives me something to reach for. 

Influences: Natasha Trethewey: In graduate school, one of my professors looked at me in disbelief and said, “You’ve never heard of Natasha Trethewey? You need to read Natasha Trethewey,” and when I did, I understood his disbelief. When I think of my calling as a Southern writer, as a Black woman Southern writer, and as a Black woman Southern writer who writes about familial trauma, I think of Trethewey and the contemporary path she paved for folks like me. And when I think of books whose level of perfection I aspire to, I think of Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and how much she accomplished in such a small space: the interweaving of public and private histories, the use of form in service to narrative (and not as a mere stylistic flourish), and the beauty of brevity (which I’m still learning to do). Her work sets a bar—a distinctively Black, Southern, and woman bar. This is important because as rich as the legacy of Southern literature is, it’s also flawed. Some of our geniuses were virulently racist. I can go to Trethewey’s work to savor and learn without having to worry about being lampooned, tokenized, or insulted for being Black when I turn the page. 

Lucille Clifton: There are meals that remind me of home—beef tips, cornbread dressing, pancakes with jelly—that are rich in flavor and memory, and that fill me up and sustain me both nutritionally and otherwise. Clifton’s work does that every time I return to it. But there’s a deceptive quality to the plainspokenness of her lines that people often miss. It reminds me of how, now, every gentrified city in the country is overrun with soul food restaurants, not only because the food is good, but also because its flavors are complex, its variations are astounding. That’s what Clifton’s work does for me: I can settle into it, but I always find some new note of flavor I hadn’t tasted before. I try to create work that does that. 

Edwidge Danticat: I picked up Breath, Eyes, Memory (Soho Press, 1994) when I was eighteen, and it was the first book I ever read that spoke directly to the complicated but loving relationship I have with my mother; it gave me permission to write openly about it, which I would ultimately do nearly a decade later in my MFA thesis. But the other gift Danticat gave me happened when she visited the Nashville Public Library in 2013 to promote Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf, 2013). During the reading, she said that some of the best advice she ever received was, “When you have a book coming out, start another one.” That way, no matter what that forthcoming book’s reception is, it won’t stop you from writing, and you’ll have something to look forward to. With that advice, Danticat taught me how to write consistently, even when no one is looking for my work. My next book was drafted that way, and it was a luxurious experience. I got to spend as much time as I wanted with it because no one was expecting it, and no one’s opinion was there to shape what I wrote. I also didn’t feel any external (or egotistical) pressure to get it done because Negotiations was already under contract. So I set my own deadlines. It was awesome. 

Dolly Parton: I once watched a biography of Dolly Parton, and learned that, in the 1970s, Elvis Presley wanted to record a version of “I Will Always Love You.” The problem was that, according to Presley, he only recorded songs he owned the rights to, and Parton never sold the rights to her songs. So the deal fell through, and at the time it probably seemed like a huge missed opportunity. But fast forward a couple of decades: Whitney Houston records the same song for The Bodyguard, and Dolly Parton boasts that she made enough money from that recording to buy Graceland. I think the influence here is more about protecting the work than about the work itself (and “the work,” can mean anything—from your written words to how you want them represented): Stick to your principles. If you really believe you should retain ownership of something that’s yours, fight to keep it. Some stuff should never be for sale, no matter who’s asking. And finally, time will always reveal the full value of a good decision. 

The other thing I admire about Parton is her Imagination Library, which provides free books for kids from birth until they begin school. It’s an initiative she credits in part to her father’s illiteracy. What a way to live as an artist—giving back not only because you can, but because you deeply understand lack of access, so you give out of the memory of a familial wound. I aspire to that, and it may be the most important work I could ever do. 

Writer’s block remedy: Music. Talking shit and dreaming with my friends. Naps. Organizing my space. Walks. Recording voice notes of myself hashing out ideas. Outlines. Reading pieces outside the genre I’m working in. 

Advice: Time is your friend, and timing is divine. In the words of Ada Limón, I wrote the best damn book I could. But if I’d published it ten, five, or even two years ago, that wouldn’t have been true. Time made it better because I got better at being myself as a poet, at hearing my own voice and following my own instincts. That’s a process you can’t rush. Also, every single time I’ve tried to rush something, it’s done me more harm than good, and set me back farther than I would have been had I left well enough alone. I’ve learned to take opportunities when they arise, but to place the bulk of my focus and energy on preparation. I had a friend who used to say, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready.” I believe that. Being ready for the thing that’s coming is a way better use of my time than trying to hurry the thing up.

Finding time to write: Theoretically, I should have the whole day, but it doesn’t always turn out that way, and I don’t believe in spending more than four hours a day writing unless there is some huge inspiration or looming deadline that won’t let me go. During the pandemic my friend Claire and I started hopping on Zoom together for an hour or so to write on weekdays, usually in the afternoons. I also sometimes have trouble going to bed at a reasonable hour, and if I can’t fall asleep, I get up to write. 

Putting the book together: It happened in two parts: There was the order of the manuscript that got picked up, and the order of the one that got published. When I was ready to send it out I did the traditional thing and spread the pages out on the floor and grouped poems in sections by general theme: sociopolitical poems, poems about illness, poems about sexual violence, and poems about solidarity and joy. After the book got picked up, I had a conversation with my editor, Matthew Dickman, who (very gently) said two important things: 1) The first section was a little disjointed, and 2) you don’t have to try to squeeze everything into three or four sections. And it was like a light bulb came on. I went back to the floor, but this time I let the poems fall into as many sections as they wanted, even though I kept the general thematic order of the outlines above. Some poems left. Some poems were added, and two were written. When I was done, there were six sections, including the title-poem section that opens the book. 

What’s next: I recently sold a triptych novel about three women with albinism who live in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and I’m currently working on a few revisions for that. Also essays! I’ve been writing essays and thinking toward a collection. 

Age: 38. 

Residence: Nashville. 

Job: I write full-time for now, which sounds deliberate, but it isn’t. I lost my job at the end of 2019 and couldn’t find another one, so I said, “Welp, I guess I’ll try this thing out and see what happens.” It’s been good, but I do things to supplement my income, like freelance editing and facilitating community workshops. 

Time spent writing the book: Some people say their first book or album took their whole lives to write, and that feels somewhat true for me, but I began writing it in earnest in 2017. Some of the oldest poems date back to 2015. 

Time spent finding a home for it: I’ve sent manuscripts out for years, but I started submitting what would become Negotiations in late November 2018. It was picked up the following July. 

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Aricka Foreman’s Salt Body Shimmer (YesYesBooks) and Monica Sok’s A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press).

by Destiny O. Birdsong  

Chad Bennett
Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era  
Sarabande Books
(Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry)

What we have is small
and strange. But true.
from Trick


How it began: The book emerged from the off-kilter personal experience of ending a long-term relationship and coming out as a gay man at a relatively late age. It’s a book of love poems, and being in and out of love accordingly compelled most of the poems into being. 

As I wrote I was becoming aware of not wanting to write mere love poems, or perhaps rather of wanting to claim the value of that mereness. I was understanding poetry as a powerful form of knowing, one motivated by love and by love’s desire to name itself and its world. I was finding myself wanting to sing about and assert the joy and the grandeur and the potential of the self in love, the self at its most radically capacious. And I was also trying to understand and to live within the damage—to the self, to others—one’s love inevitably causes.  

Inspiration: Three loved volumes that I first read many years ago made me want, in earnest, to be a poet and to someday make a book of poems: D. A. Powell’s Tea (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), Carl Phillips’s Cortège (Graywolf Press, 1995), and Frank Bidart’s Desire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).

Each individual poem, too, has its own set of inspirations: The book includes a six-page set of “Annotations” that names the idiosyncratic archive of voices—ranging from Emily Dickinson to Francis Bacon to Joe Brainard to Cy Twombly to Arthur Russell to Bernadette Mayer to Frank Ocean—that inspire specific poems. I won’t rehash that list here. But queer histories, and the sustaining, communal repertoire built out of the detritus and ephemera of those histories, set many of these poems in motion.   

Influences: Not a poet or artist, but a formative entry to file under “influences”: My dad is—or was, he recently retired—a garbage man, and growing up, I used to work for him in the summer. This might sound hokey, but I think that seeing, each day, streets of trash cans lined up and moving down them—emptying one container after another into the truck by hand, counting them off—shaped my understanding of rhythm, of form, of pattern and embodiment. My dad’s route appeared like an ideal grid that we moved through, but each iteration of it contained endless variation. Also the content: Picking up people’s trash is instructive! You learn shit, seeing what people throw away. I still have dreams about it. 

Poetic influences? Given more space, this would be a very long and mutable list. Here, I’ll say that I am always returning to the erotics of style both theorized and enacted in the writings of Roland Barthes, to the frankness and acuity of James Schuyler, to the formal thinking—or thinking form—of Gwendolyn Brooks, and to the radical play and impossible ambition of Gertrude Stein. 

Writer’s block remedy: There’s a Jack Spicer epistolary poem in which he affirms “THAT POETRY ALONE CAN LOVE POETRY” and “THAT POEMS CRY OUT TO EACH OTHER FROM A GREAT DISTANCE.” When my writing gets stuck, I start reading and keep my ears perked for those poems that are calling out to my poems from across the distance. 

Advice: I’m somewhat old for a debut poet, and my circuitous path to publication—and through life, for that matter—often seems to me a sort of cautionary tale. All of which is to say: I’m wary of offering advice. But, for whatever it’s worth, I have found it liberating to embrace my slowness, my shyness, and to let the poems unfold in their own time and in their own ways rather than according to the pressures that structure the poetry world at its worst. I’m still learning this and find it useful to remind myself that, for me, anything that makes the poems feel more like products than part of an eccentric, vitalizing process is against a life in poetry. Anything that would reduce the deliciously noninstrumental pleasures and powers of the queer practice of poetry is against a life in poetry. 

Finding time to write: Writing, for me, involves the sort of close attention that can be a lot like spacing out; it involves long stretches of reading; it involves getting absorbed in fun, finicky formal exercises that might take up hours and produce only a few bad lines. All of which is to say: There’s never enough time for the large gaps of loafing and play that poetry requires. But I try to stay alert to the bits of song that zoom through my head, and to get them down somehow—they seem to make time dilate. Just a phrase on paper can form a snag in the day’s fabric, something to pull on and unravel into a poem, a sort of temporary stay against any demand for a putatively more productive use of my time.

Putting the book together: The book’s central poem, “Silver Springs,” thinks through the musical fade-out. The fade-out interests me because it ends without ending. It carves out an ongoing time (and space) somehow adjacent to the song; we can’t necessarily inhabit it anymore, but we can’t forget it, either. This technique resonated with my desire to write about relationships that end but don’t end, with histories that step in and out of present moments, with all of the artifacts of bygone eras that inform my and my culture’s seemingly new feelings. Starting from there, then, the book’s structure—its sections and the placement of poems within those sections—became chiasmic, or mirroring, fading in and fading out. Within this frame I thought a lot about montage: the cut from one poem to the next and the new meanings that emerge in those cuts. (These are also all good Generation X skills, honed while obsessively crafting mixtapes.)

What’s next: These days? Mostly just trying to hold on to some sense of inner quiet. But in the midst of that, three projects are vying for whatever attention I can muster right now. I’m writing new poems. I’m developing a critical study of the poetics of queer awkwardness. And I’m also trying to write a book—part poetic essay, part memoir, part theory—about the nourishing but often fraught relationship between women and gay men. Our culture’s vocabulary for that relationship (fag hag, gay accessory, beard) is impossibly impoverished. In writing about ending a long, intimate partnership and its off-kilter transition into some other potential way of being together, I’m trying to do justice to the affective space of this relationship and to situate it within a broader history of relationships between women and gay men both like and unlike ours. 

Age: 44. 

Residence: Austin, Texas. 

Job: I am an associate professor in the English department at the University of Texas in Austin; my teaching and research focus on contemporary poetry and poetics and queer studies.

Time spent writing the book: Most of the book was written during a weird six-year period beginning with my move to Austin. But it includes revisions of less recent poems, too; the oldest was first drafted about twenty years ago. So, six years? Nearly twenty years? The former is probably more accurate, but the latter feels to me more true.

Time spent finding a home for it: It was surprisingly fast: five months. Years ago, after previous manuscripts had repeatedly come close but failed to find a publisher, I started to feel like worrying about publication was keeping me from moving around in my writing, and that I was handing over the main pleasures I took in poetry—its ability to make its own little worlds and to foster queer connections—to other authorizing forces. So I took about a decade off from submitting my work, wanting to slow down and establish a poetic practice that existed, at least as much as possible, apart from the churn of Submittable or any sense of needing to produce or to publish for the sake of being published. The poems in Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era came out of that renewed sense of practice, and of poetry as a way of being in the world. When it eventually made sense to seek readers for this work, I was incredibly lucky to have Ocean Vuong select the collection for the good folks at Sarabande Books and its Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: It’s difficult to name just a few, but I’ve been especially taken by Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books), Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed Editions), Stephanie Cawley’s My Heart but Not My Heart (Slope Editions), and Ricardo Alberto Maldonado’s The Life Assignment (Four Way Books). And I’ve loved having my book elevated by being in the stellar company of Sarabande’s 2020 debuts: All Heathens by Marianne Chan, Index of Haunted Houses by Adam O. Davis, and Hotel Almighty by Sarah J. Sloat. 

Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era by Chad Bennett 



Claire Meuschke
Noemi Press

birds made homes out of trees and then we did

associated or dissociated
a figure is real
a number is literate
products like people
come with a number and a name
from figurative as literal


How it began: Two events happened that coiled my mind toward writing the book: In 2012 my twin brother and I went to the National Archives at San Francisco in the hopes that we might find out the name and specific birthplace of our Alaska Native great-grandmother. Instead we were handed a forty-two-page immigration trial documentation of her son, our grandfather, who was half Chinese. He, along with hundreds of thousands of predominately Asian people, was incarcerated on Angel Island, in California, during the Chinese Exclusion Act when he was seventeen years old.

In 2014, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service in a New Mexico oil and gas–centered bust town. I was the only young woman who worked in the district, and I left because of increasingly threatening behavior from male coworkers, neighbors, and oil and gas workers. 

It wasn’t until I started my MFA in poetry at the University of Arizona when I began to see these events as related—a trajectory of state-sanctioned violence. My great-grandmother lived and died in San Francisco around the turn of the century when the city was male-dominated, echoing recent gold depletion and California Native genocide. I obsessed over the U.S. concept of recreation, the corralling of beauty, and began to see what recreation conceals: genocide, the forced removal of Indigenous communities who lived and cared for what are now federal parks, and the incarceration and deportation of nonwhite immigrants or those suspected to be immigrants. I toiled over my love for nature, and the poems came out of this toiling. 

Also, I attempted to address connections between the gold rush and the tech boom in the West. I wrote the book in the Southwest, supported generously by the land and people there, and never thought I would be able to afford to return to the Bay Area, the place where I was born, financially or emotionally. I can’t really, but I’m here. The layered complications of gentrification, outsider-ness, and belonging through time and place compelled me to write Upend.  

Inspiration: I tried to catalogue my points of inspiration in the back of the book, but of course forgot and forget many of them. Here are some: the seemingly futile, lifetime task of recovering my ancestors; my twin brother, Gus Meuschke, and older sister, Nicole Meuschke, who both share the complicated relationship to family and belonging; paint color names (i.e. Sherwin-Williams and L’Oreal Paris nail polish); long walks with my dog, Mica; Josephine Foster singing Emily Dickinson poems; Big Thief; female vocalist and female-centered movie recommendations from, and general companionship with, my dear friend and linguistic-genius-poet, Paul Bisagni; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017); CAConrad’s (soma)tic poetry rituals; Saidiya Hartman; old newspaper articles from the San Francisco Call; old, racist settler manuals; Taneum Bambrick and her collection, Vantage (American Poetry Review, 2019), and our friendship that aligned serendipitously while we wrote poems involving workplace discrimination and recreation.

Influences: Fred Moten for his revitalizing commitment to sound and language and his community; Alice Notley for her bold sensitivity and ability to cross thresholds; Hoa Nguyen for the power she distills from daily life; and Brandon Shimoda for his ruminations on global and local phenomena, surpassing time and space.

Writer’s block remedy: I allow for the words to stop. I absorb as much as I can—books, poems by friends, and audio readings. I record my dreams. I write letters. I focus on the material world and how I can better exist in it. I rearrange my furniture. I weed garden beds. I take on a cooking project. I look at poems I love and try to mimic them. I wonder how I was ever able to write a poem and doomspiral about my place and the poem’s place in the world, and then chastise myself for being so self-centered. I curse myself for not having chosen another art form or for not studying science. Eventually, the impulse to write comes back, but I’m open to the idea that one day I’ll have writer’s block, and it’ll last the rest of my life. 

Advice: So much is up to chance: what’s happening in the world the day someone reads your manuscript and their associations to certain words and affinities. Try not to despair over recognition on a larger scale, and lean toward the select few who enjoy your work. Write for your own enjoyment and for your own lineages, friendships, obsessions, and daily survival. Recent recognition has given me many gifts and opportunities, but it simultaneously skews my sense of why I do this on a physiological, intellectual, and ritualistic level. For me, the idea of an audience can be draining. Try to enjoy the time of exploration and keep sight of the poet you wish to be.   

Finding time to write: I’m fortunate to have a fellowship that allows me time to write, though I found out I can’t write well when I have so much time to worry about the future (in the most expensive, exclusive region of the United States). I need to tether my hours to the land and people around me, and the writing happens in fragments. The impossible conditions of making a living as a poet have conditioned me to write in the odd hours. 

Putting the book together: For years I printed poems and shuffled them around my living room floor and taped them on walls. I looked at shape, form, context, and narrative energy versus narrative excess. I was lured by Bhanu Kapil’s gesture in her exquisite book Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011) to disintegrate the manuscript and write it again from the remnants, but I realized it wasn’t that kind of project. I needed to keep the facts intact. I wanted the book to exist as an archive for myself to remind me of where I left off. 

I thought the book might work best as a triptych or with sections that held an order related to color, afterimages, time, or place. However, the poems resisted any sort of linear narrative, categorization, or even a table of contents. My editor, Diana Arterian, generously helped me decide on which archival ephemera to stagger throughout the book. The paint swatches containing the word gold ended up filling the role of section breaks. In my earlier years of studying poetry, Anselm Berrigan introduced me to the phrase “elegant mess,” and that shaped and has shaped my approach to organization and writing. I’m a poet of excess, but I’m also stubbornly particular about how I want contextual sequence, appearance, sound, and space on the page to exist. 

Upend has become a blueprint for future projects. I hope that my readers can experience the book from front to back if time and energy allow, but I also hope readers can glean something from opening to any page at random.   

What’s next: I haven’t finished the project that Upend started. I’m a tacky poet of gimmicks, so the generative title for my new project is End Up, in which I write from the daily life of living in the Bay Area—the backdrop of Upend—where I can walk a few blocks to the cemetery in Oakland that holds my grandparents and simultaneously see Angel Island in the distance where my grandfather was incarcerated. There’s an archive in Eugene, Oregon, which has family letters between the missionaries who housed my great grandmother and her children in San Francisco Chinatown. I need to visit it to see if there are any offhanded mentions of my family in these letters. 

I also want to continue a research thread started in Upend on the U.S. Forest Service and NASA’s collaboration on moon trees. I’d like to visit the trees and write about the erasure of the communities who lived on those sites. 

I’m thinking about serpentine, as a rock and as a word. It emerges from oceanic floor through seismic activity. It’s not actually any singular thing, but it’s comprised of multiple minerals to create a snake-like appearance. I’m interested in how the quality (adjective) becomes a solid, symbolic rock (noun). As a mixed-race person, full of qualities and empty of singularity, I’m intrigued and slightly envious of its holistic acceptance as California’s state rock. 

Mostly I’m enjoying not having a project and have been writing poems that I hope can stand alone. Soon I’ll look at them together and understand the weight of the task at hand. 

Age: 30. 

Residence: Oakland. 

Job: Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and farmhand–farm assistant. 

Time spent writing the book: I tried to write poems in 2012 on the back of reproduced pages of my grandfather’s immigration trial, but instead used them for grocery and to-do lists. When I worked for the U.S. Forest Service, I wrote a couple of Upend’s earliest poems discretely on some flash cards I kept next to my computer mouse. I didn’t seriously begin the project until I started my MFA in 2015. Even when it was accepted for publication three years later, I kept working on it. I’m still writing poems for this book, so it’s ongoing.  

Time spent finding a home for it: In the second year of my MFA I sent the manuscript to presses I admire—Nightboat Books and Futurepoem—even though the manuscript didn’t feel ready. I was an adjunct the year following my MFA, and my mentor Farid Matuk told me he sent some of my poems to Carmen Giménez Smith to consider for Noemi Press. Carmen reached out to see my whole manuscript, and about half a year later, Noemi Press decided to publish it. The morning I found out I woke up from a gas-stove leak in my home. I was nauseous and disoriented, so it all felt very surreal when I read the e-mail. In short, I didn’t try very hard to publish and thought that I would be working on the manuscript for much longer. There’s a line in one of my poems in which the speaker says, “I don’t believe in luck,” but that’s not true for me. I’ve had so much luck and generosity thrown my way.  

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: I’m so behind, but I recommend wholeheartedly Jessica Q. Stark’s Savage Pageant (Birds LLC), Monica Sok’s A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press), Joy Priest’s Horsepower (University of Pittsburgh Press), and Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed Editions).

Upend by Claire Meuschke 


torrin a. greathouse
Wound From the Mouth of a Wound  
Milkweed Editions
(Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry)

…Misplaced chromosome.
Missing rib. Screw balded as a knuckle. First cell to
metastasize. Our language unable to speak my gender
out of disease…
from When My Gender Is First Named Disorder


How it began: It was several things simultaneously: beginning hormone replacement therapy after coming out as trans; entering therapy for the first time in an attempt to process years of trauma; pursuing medical care for help with, and a diagnosis for, my progressive health issues; and the beginning of Trump’s presidency, when he began to enact executive orders and push for legal actions strategically stripping away the rights of trans and disabled people. This collection came out of the urge to document my realizations about the inextricable and interconnected nature of my trauma, disability, and transness, and to explore and critique their parallel medicalization.

Inspiration: This collection is largely working within the realm of memory, of trying to build a kind of fragmentary narrative. Still there are a fair number of poems with unusual inspirations: the wedding dress of an ex who assaulted me, my hatred for the casual use of the word lame, and the list of fifty preexisting conditions which could have excluded an individual from accessing the American Health Care Act of 2017 (the Republican’s plan for replacing the Obama-era Affordable Care Act). Probably my favorite among these plays on the trope of “dream where you wake up in class naked,” prompting the reader to imagine the violence this means for a body like mine, before taking the poem in a different direction entirely.

Influences: Kay Ulanday Barrett, whose work gave me permission to exist on the page with the fullness of my being as a disabled trans writer, and whose uncompromising voice still pushes me to allow more unmediated joy and rage into my work. sam sax, whose book Madness (Penguin Books, 2017) was invaluable in shaping the rhetorical approaches of the poems in this manuscript that press against legal statutes and the medical-industrial complex. Ocean Vuong, without whose work I never would have taught myself to break a line. And my dear friend and contemporary George Abraham, whose work continues to teach me and has its DNA inextricably woven up in the craft of this collection.

Writer’s block remedy: I often return to two sources when everything else within me has run dry: etymology and ekphrasis. Language is such a complex and unwieldy technology, capable of profound softness and unfathomable violence. I try in my poetics to be attentive to this potential, and returning to the origins of English words—or their absence of traceable lineage—is a deep comfort and inspiration. Likewise, I have found the ekphrastic mode deeply generative, the image presenting a kind of door through which the poem can step. Many of my poems, even those that are not ekphrastic, begin with an ekphrastic impulse—the push to pick a lock and move deeper into an image. I am particularly interested in the potential of poems that decenter the traditional, received art-object, applying the logic of the ekphrastic to objects that might otherwise be ignored.

Advice: Don’t underestimate the importance of titles—of the book and the poems. A title has the capacity to do an immense amount of heavy lifting. It is what calls a reader into the work; it can construct an entire world before they enter it and is the first frame of reference for it once they have left it. Make sure you are leaving the readers carrying some part of the book after they finish it.

Finding time to write: My writing process has never been a particularly regimented one. As a disabled person living with chronic pain and fatigue, the romantic writerly practice that was described to me so often when I first began my career has always felt wholly inaccessible. Instead, my process is an act of accrual. I hold concepts, lines, and images in my head, on sticky notes, in my phone notes, or on scraps of paper throughout the house. They remain detached and unstructured until they require form. Then, almost regardless of the situation, they demand presence on the page. I’ve written poems parked in the freeway’s emergency lane, scrawled them frantically on my arm in marker, and gotten lost on a bus having ridden far past my intended stop.

Putting the book together: As a triple Virgo, I was pretty neurotic about the final ordering of the collection. I started by color-coding every poem for their themes, whether they were part of certain sequences, and the image systems they used. Then I created a flowchart organizing the poems into affinity groups based on these categories. I was lucky enough, despite being housing-insecure and not having easy access to a printer at the time, to have a partner working at a local university who secretly printed the entire manuscript during their lunch break. This meant that, for my next step, I could paper one wall of the tiny room I was renting with the pages, pinning them up and reorganizing them over and over again, following a set of rules I had established around allowable patterns in their categories, as well as based upon the arc created by poems’ first and last lines, until a pattern emerged.

What’s next: I’ve been working on a new collection for my MFA thesis, exploring the politics of desire, desirability, and intimate violence, through the lenses of transness and disability.

Age: 26. 

Residence: I live in Minneapolis, where I attend the MFA program at the University of Minnesota

Job: I’m balancing a couple different jobs and side-gigs. I teach writing studies at the University of Minnesota, as well as creative writing workshops through the Speakeasy Project. I also usually do consultation and editing work for other poets, but I’ve put that work on pause since the pandemic—it just feels wrong to advertise these services when I’m financially secure and so many others are struggling.

Time spent writing the book: From the first poems written for the collection—almost none of which are still included—to the final line edits, around four years. 

Time spent finding a home for it: To be completely honest, I began submitting this collection long before it was ready. But I was so sure I wouldn’t live to the age I am now that waiting seemed impossible. I submitted the collection for just shy of three years, but it would not reach the version it is in now until around a year before acceptance.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: This is a tough question, only because of the quality of debuts that were released this year. A few personal standouts were George Abraham’s Birthright (Button Poetry), syan jay’s Bury Me in Thunder (Sundress Publications), Roy G. Guzmán’s Catrachos (Graywolf Press), Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed Editions), and Jubi Arriola-Headley’s original kink (Sibling Rivalry Press). 


Wound From the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse  



Chessy Normile
Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party 
American Poetry Review
(APR/Honickman First Book Prize)

All the books on time
are pretty good.
from Ever



How it began, time it took to write the book, putting the book together: I’ve combined these questions because I didn’t try to write a book, you know, so it’s hard to answer that one, but I think I can answer these all together in a kind of impassioned mess. I didn’t think of these poems as leading toward anything beyond their own conclusions. Each poem was different—some took years to finish, and some were done the same day they were written. I’m grateful I was required to turn in a manuscript for my MFA thesis because I was wary about leaving the world of individual poems and needed a push. I started by going through every poem I’d written over the past eight years or so and just made a fat stack of the ones that still interested me. Then I began working my way through the stack. It felt like making a stew that mostly required that I ignore it but occasionally required that I give it my full, undivided attention for five to eight straight hours. Then the stew would say, “Now shut the lid, I need another three weeks of uninterrupted stewing, but don’t forget about me, but don’t look at me.” And I’d have to obey even though it felt crazy and like I wasn’t in control at all—oh, so I guess it was actually a lot like writing a poem! The last step was that when I’d done all I could do on my own, I gave it to four people I trusted—Michael Adams, Sarah Matthes, Hedgie Choi, and Jackson Holbert—and they helped me so much. I felt scared, and they made me feel less scared, like I’d made something worth attending to and caring for. I don’t know, I just respect them all so much as poets, artists, thinkers, whatever you want to call the way they approach the world—and they helped me feel ready. After that, feeling a little more confident, I tried sharing the book with my sister and my then-boyfriend-now-husband, Thom. I remember when I gave it to Thom I thought, “This will be great, he’s gonna think I’m hilarious” because he writes such funny plays and I wanted to impress him with my comedy. But then he never brought it up! So finally I said, “Hey, no worries if you didn’t but…did you read the book?” And he was like, “Yeah. I did. It was really hard to read.” Turns out, he found the book devastatingly sad! This shocked me, so I called my sister and she said, “Yeah, Chessy, the book is really sad, how did you not know that? It’s funny, but it’s also really sad.” By the time I read Li-Young Lee’s introduction to the book and saw him saying the same thing, it was clear to me that the book is just inextricably both—funny and sad. I’m cool with that now, but it was something I had to come to terms with. The book had left my control, and I didn’t have a say in what it was in the end—not that I’d want one, given the option.

Inspiration: The people in my life combined with the agony/joy of being alive combined with music, reading, and being lost all the time. I’m also really inspired by my sister Nora’s art—she drew the steps on the cover of the book. As I wrote this I read books about time, color, consciousness, and the calendar; a lot of great poetry; a lot of the Bible; the gnostic gospels; and a lot of old books I’d never read before. Right now I’m rereading Seamus Heaney’s translation of the medieval Irish poem “Sweeney Astray.” Listen to this: “Think of my alarms, / my coming to earth / where the fox still / gnaws at the bones, // my wild career / as the wolf from the wood / goes tearing ahead / and I lift towards the mountain…” I mean…what to even do with that! I love poetry. If I let myself list the names of poets I love, it would be too frustrating because I’d never be able to name them all.

Influences: Marie Howe, Jeffrey McDaniel, Li-Young Lee, and Christianne Karefa-Johnson (DoNormaal). Jeff and Christie got me serious about poetry as a possible life. Their poems lit me up at eighteen and still do. Marie, I don’t even know what to say—what would I say about mud if I was a beaver? It’s the foundation of my life, lol. That’s what I’d say. Marie’s poetry and her attention to the world influence me deeply. And finally, Li-Young Lee! I’ve never met him, but I learned so much just from reading his introduction to my book I could hardly believe it. I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. Reading that gave me a sense of where I was meant to go next.

Writer’s block remedy: When I was in college, Heather Christle gave me some great advice that I hope she won’t mind my repeating. She said, “You can’t break your talent.” This did not, for the record, refer to my being especially talented—it just highlighted a fear she could tell I had about breaking out of what I thought I was able to do well. At the time, that was writing jokes that made people laugh. I was scared that if I tried something else, I’d forget how to do the thing I was good at. But it turns out we aren’t static like that. So I started pushing out in every direction, and the poems I was writing suddenly plummeted into this deeper space—and I carried the jokes there with me. It’s like Emily Dickinson wrote, “And hit a World, at every plunge, / And Finished knowing – then –” Then! At an impasse, I push myself into what’s unfamiliar.

Advice: This probably depends on which way you already lean, but in case you’re like me and think, “I should wait to assemble/publish a book until I’m writing the absolute best poems of my life, so I think I’ll hold off until I’m at least sixty and just keep chugging along, poem by poem, until I get really good at this,” then here is my advice: Let go! I don’t ever read a poet’s first book and think, “Wow, this is nothing compared to her last book, why did she publish this? She wasn’t ready.” It often helps to imagine what it would sound like to say the things you say to yourself to someone else. It can help you realize how much of a dick you’re being to yourself.

Finding time to write: I had three years given to me by the Michener Center for Writers, which was an incredible gift. Before that, I wrote on the train to and from work and sometimes on Post-it notes under my desk. I’d slip those into my bag and when I got home I’d stick them up on my wall and build a big poem like that at night. That’s actually how I wrote the first draft of the last poem in my book, “My Life So Far.” These days, because of the pandemic, I’m learning that I need to actively seek and create time alone for myself in order to write poems, which is new information.

What’s next: I’m just now getting back to writing poems. From when the book was finished to when it came out, I really struggled to write poems. I would write a line and then think, “What am I going to write on the next line?” It was a level of self-consciousness I’d never experienced before. As soon as the book came out though, that self-consciousness broke apart and I was able to write poems again. It feels like I jumped over a fence and these are the poems on the other side.

Age: 30. 

Residence: Queens, New York.

Job: I do the packing and shipping for a ceramics studio. I guess it’s poetry-related in the sense that I’m surrounded by bells.

Time spent finding a home for the book: Two months. This was my first time sending the book out. My friend Sarah Matthes and I finished our books at the same time—she and Yuki Tanaka, another amazing poet, were the two other poets in my year at the Michener Center—and we thought, why not try this fancy route first and then, when we get rejected from all the prizes, we’ll try again, casting a broader net. But, lo! Both our books were taken. Hers comes out in April 2021 from Persea Books as winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and it’s called Town Crier. It’s so good; I’m so excited for it to come out. I still find it hard to believe that my book was published, but I’m being careful right now not to say, “I simply can’t believe it, la tra la la” because, yes, it’s how I feel, but I’m not sure how useful that is.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Maiden (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press) by travis tate is so good. There are other great debuts, but if I list others you might not read Maiden. So just read Maiden.

Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party by Chessy Normile 


Tommye Blount
Fantasia for the Man in Blue 
Four Way Books

Why not take his razor
to my face

to see if I can find

beauty buried
from Fable of the Beast


How it began: The backbone of the book, a quartet of poems called “Fantasia for the Man in Blue,” originated from two interactions I had with the Novi Police Department. When it happened I felt fractured. I set out writing the book to help me make sense of all those fractured parts, but it turned out to be an examination of the mutability, vastness, and dangers of beauty. When someone or something doesn’t fit a standard of beauty decided by the majority, it is deemed an intruder, and then suppressed, silenced, or killed—as we see so often now. This book is a testament of one such intruder to beauty.

Inspiration: Theater was definitely a huge influence. The book is interested in, among other things, the power play between performer and audience—each speaker appears on one sort of stage or another. Taking this a step further, Black queer adult-film actors—my men-in-blue movies—also serve as muses; each is a manipulator of the narratives around their selfhood and bodies. Lastly, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation was in rotation while putting this book together. That album is vast; Jackson’s voice adopts an edge in “Rhythm Nation” only to become, toward the end of the album, airy and sultry in “Someday Is Tonight.” It is that vastness of experience that I was after with this collection.  

Influences: Vievee Francis—without this brilliant poet, who has shaped so many other poets, I don’t think I would be writing poems right now. At a Detroit open mic, sometime around 2004, she beelined over to me, stared me deep into my eyes, and asked, “What are you doing with your poems?” I haven’t been the same since. For her deft manipulation of image, I return to Brigit Pegeen Kelly ever since C. Dale Young brought her work into my life. Kelly manages to build her own universe with its own physics and logic that grows from book to book—something I hope my work will do as I grow as a poet. One of the other wonders of putting this book together was getting deeper into the work of artist Peter Williams, whose “Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead” graces the cover and inspired a poem within the book. Lastly, I have been enamored with the choreographer Bill T. Jones for quite some time. I mean: Here is a Black gay man moving his body anywhere and with anyone he wants. I urge people to watch his TED conference performance called “The Process of Becoming Infinite” on YouTube.

Writer’s block remedy: I think I’m at that impasse right now. I am knee-deep in that struggle. At the beginning of the shutdown, because part of my process has been writing at cafés, I had a rough time. Now, almost a year into all of this, I have figured out that I love Pavilion Shore Park, which sits on the shore of Walled Lake. Nature was never really my thing before, but now it’s starting to open up something for me. So I guess my solution to this impasse, as it always has been, is to change my environment.

Advice: Keep writing whether your first book gets picked up or not. Who knows what new discovery may be on its way to you in the next poem. That book will find its way eventually, but you can’t be concerned by that—onward!

Finding time to write: Before COVID, very early on Saturdays and Sundays, I would drive thirty minutes to Avalon Café and Bakery in Detroit to set up shop on a rickety table by the window. There is something magical to me about beating the sun on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Writing, when it happens, becomes an event that I look forward to each week—and, not to mention, I get a baked sweet out of the deal.

Putting the book together: In the musical A Little Night Music, a singing quintet pops in and out of the story. Each time they appear, they’re singing about their own entangled lives, and it seems to have nothing to do with what’s happening in the main story. That just isn’t true. The quintet adds tonal registers that punctuate and complicate the events happening in the plot. I’ve charged “Fantasia for the Man in Blue,” the central sequence, with this same task: The sequence must strike a note while the poems around it must find that set register. Motifs and themes introduced in the major arterial poems are complicated and/or echoed by the minor poems.

What’s next: At this point, I am not working or thinking about what’s next. This isn’t to say I am not thinking through art and the world. I have been reading so much and streaming a lot of theater online. Part of my process has always been digesting art from other disciplines, but it takes so long for the effects to be seen in my own work. I will say that for the past four years or so, I have become obsessed with fashion history and biographies. One product of that obsession can be found in my book, the poem “Framing Debra Shaw.” But who knows if that will go anywhere. I’m just focused on trying to write the next poem—writing is hard.

Age: 41. 

Residence: Novi, Michigan. 

Job: Account manager at a print graphics company. 

Time spent writing the book: The actual sequencing of the book took a little over a year, but the oldest poems in the book are from 2008 or so. 

Time spent finding a home for it: I was not looking to publish a book until the poet Martha Rhodes, my dear friend and editor, essentially said: “Look, you have a book in you, I know it, and I know your work.” How could I not be ignited by this coming from Martha Rhodes? There was a contract before I had even finished the book. This is not the norm, I know. I’m very lucky.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Two amazing collections immediately come to mind: Nandi Comer’s Tapping Out (Northwestern University/TriQuarterly Press) and Aricka Foreman’s Salt Body Shimmer (YesYes Books). And then there is Chantal Gibson’s How She Read (Caitlin Press), a mind-bending collection that blurs the borders between visual art and language. Jubi Arriola-Headley’s original kink (Sibling Rivalry Press) just arrived, and I cannot wait to read. Special Education (Texas Review Press) by Caroline M. Mar is another debut collection I am looking forward to getting my hands on.

Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount  



Roy G. Guzmán
Graywolf Press

                                                                      What are we

witnesses to       that implicates us     insufficiently?
from Día de los Muertos



How it began: For a long time I didn’t know how or where to find the words to write this book. I didn’t believe I could write a book. The book itself is an extension of many trials and errors I committed in various degrees. As someone who comes from a background where books are written by everyone else but us, I had to learn why I needed to write Catrachos. The original idea was to take stock of what I’ve been through as a queer Central American immigrant and write about those challenges. Working through and against systemic silence, I increased the scope of the book to accommodate my family’s experiences, both in the United States and Honduras. The experience of seeing through a larger lens compelled me to think even beyond the parameters of human experience; that’s where the Queerodactyl, X-Men–inspired, and more abstract poems came in. In retrospect it’s always been a passion to write against injustice that informs so much of Catrachos. I wanted to share with the world that people like me, historically and violently relegated to the margins, have histories, cultures, ambitions, and dreams for the future. 

Inspiration: Besides my maternal grandfather, who passed from COVID-19 complications in 2020, I would say that I have been blessed with and challenged by a very complex mother. I was raised mostly by women, and I think my sensitivities are highly informed by how women approach the world. In that regard, feminism, femininity, womanhood, and maternal care have taught me so much about myself and given me the tools to make art. Besides my mother, some of the women that make cameos in my book include: my great-grandmother Rita, my grandmother Mamachela, my aunt, the Virgin of Suyapa, Mommie Dearest, Ana Mendieta, Phoenix and Marrow from the X-Men universe, Nora from A Doll’s House, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, Jane Fonda, Sinéad O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, and others. To echo Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” I am in “this woman’s world.”

Influences: My words wouldn’t have the intent and music they have were it not for the three brilliant poets who blurbed my book: Eduardo C. Corral, Heid E. Erdrich, and Patricia Smith. Smith’s work has taught me how to find the punta songs I’m meant to sing. Erdrich, who I believe is a walking archive of precious knowledges, has taught me to go beneath surfaces because there is so much to find there. As for Corral, Slow Lightning (Yale University Press, 2012) has become a holy book I carry with me everywhere. I love to reread it, teach it, and seek advice from it whenever I feel alone.

Writer’s block remedy: I turn to food, music, dance, a phone call, or a long shower. I am the kind of writer who often needs to boomerang the longest way possible to get back to what originally got me to sit and write. My journaling quickly devolves into making plans, so I try to stay away from the page if the page has become hostile, brittle, or disoriented. While there are days and projects that merit either a hostile, brittle, or disoriented page, when I’ve come across a combination of any of these two or three, I make the decision to engage with other art and activities. Music re-centers me. Phone calls abroad remind me of my purpose. A long shower is an excellent way to feel more aqueous and, therefore, to feel language with less premeditation.

Advice: First of all, we need to ensure that you don’t publish a book during a pandemic. You’re going to face challenges beyond your control. Otherwise I would encourage poets trying to publish their first books to think about community. That is, what kinds of communities do you envision your book being a part of? What kinds of conversations do you wish to start or amplify? Once those questions have been tackled, poets should look for a press that champions voices like theirs. This championing needs to come in the form of transparency—I’m not a fan of this word but it’s apt enough for this discussion—and encouragement. The right press should know how to market your book, help your book connect with the appropriate readers, find opportunities so you can write your next book, and ensure that you get paid for your work. At the end of the day, when you hold a copy of your book, you should feel a sense of pride and not shame.

Finding time to write: I don’t. That’s one price I have to pay for being in a PhD program, teaching, and doing gigs around my book. I set arbitrary deadlines for myself instead. This method sometimes gets me to write drafts. If and when I return to them is a different matter altogether.

Putting the book together: I’m not exaggerating when I say the first time I got a glimpse of how my manuscript would be organized was in a dream. In the dream I was holding a copy of my book, leafing through its pages. I was blown away because part of me knew I was looking at my book and another part couldn’t believe that I had written a book. I couldn’t read the writing in the pages, but I could make out how the book was organized. The book I held in the dreamworld inspired me to think about my book in five sections, each one representing the five stars in the Honduran flag. One of the original sections, which was a hybrid essay, was eventually taken out because one thing in common with the feedback I kept receiving was that the essay needed to be its own project; I hope you may one day read it. Placing the title poem at the very beginning of the book felt like a gesture in cartography: I see it as a map legend. Eventually, the book also wanted a place to talk about the origins of the title. Because I wanted readers to be drawn into the book without a specific framework, I left a note for the end, along with a list of other notes and allusions I wanted readers to be aware of. I am forever grateful to the people, places, and things that allowed me to bring this book into this world, which turned my “Acknowledgments” section into a festival that honors all of them. 

What’s next: I’ve been working on a lot of academic papers that tackle issues in Central America with different theoretical frameworks. In general, I’m working with broader canvases, broader strokes. That means you might see some short stories and experimental essays out in the world soon. There are other projects I can’t yet disclose because the tea leaves have not found their stopping points. The point is that the work is there; what I need more of is time.

Age: 35. 

Residence: Minneapolis. 

Job: PhD candidate in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and an adjunct instructor at a community college. 

Time spent writing the book: I would say that, while the themes and images in Catrachos have haunted me for most of my life, the first drafts of poems that made it into this volume go back to about 2012 and 2013. If there’s one thing I’m notorious for, it is working with sometimes more than forty drafts of a poem until I can hear the poem say, “Enough.” It’s not what I want; it’s what the poems want.

Time spent finding a home for it: I am lucky that, back in August of 2016, Graywolf Press had an open call for poetry manuscripts. Word on the street is that they received more than two thousand manuscripts. As soon as I heard those numbers I realized how slim my chances of them publishing Catrachos would be. But if there’s one thing I learned in 2016 and 2017, it was patience. It would take a little over a year before I heard back from Graywolf with a yes. During that time, I may have received one or two rejections and, closer to when Graywolf welcomed my book, two offers from amazing presses I truly admire. What attracted me most about Graywolf—beyond the quality of books they publish—were three things: They were local, their books had a national reach, and their editors were known for being incredibly generous. I haven’t looked back!

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: 2020 has been a difficult year for debut poetry collections. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the following collections for their necessary contributions to the literary world: George Abraham’s Birthright (Button Poetry), torrin a. greathouse’s Wound From the Mouth of a Wound (Milkweed Editions), Leila Chatti’s Deluge (Copper Canyon Press), Sumita Chakraborty’s Arrow (Alice James Books), Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed Editions), and Michael Torres’s An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press).

Catrachos by Roy G. Guzmán  


Dana Isokawa is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine

Poetic Lenses: Our Fifteenth Annual Look at Debut Poetry


Dana Isokawa


For our fifteenth annual look at debut poetry, we chose ten poets whose first books struck us with their formal imagination, distinctive language, and deep attention to the world. The books, all published in 2019, inhabit a range of poetic modes. There is Keith S. Wilson’s reimagining of traditional forms in Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, and Maya Phillips’s modern epic, Erou. There is Maya C. Popa’s lyric investigations in American Faith, Marwa Helal’s subversive documentary poems in Invasive species, and Yanyi’s series of prose poems in The Year of Blue Water. The ten collections clarify and play with all kinds of language—the language of the news, of love, of politics, of philosophy, of family, of place—and, as Popa says, they “slow and suspend the moment, allowing a more nuanced examination of what otherwise flows through us quickly.”

While the books share a sense of urgency and timeliness, in fact these collections got their starts years, even decades ago. So we asked each of the poets to share the stories behind their debuts—what experiences or scraps of language incited the book’s first poems and what insight pulled them through the process of writing and publishing a collection.

Many of the poets described accepting the time it takes for poems to arrive and learning that making poetry doesn’t always entail sitting at the desk, pen in hand. “If I am looking at the world through poetic lenses and thinking of all of my work through the lens poetry has gifted me, then the poems are being written and will touch the page when it is time,” says Camonghne Felix. Sara Borjas reminds herself that everyday activities like reading and cooking are also “a making.”

Several of the poets also said their books began when they wrote through their original subject to its opposite or counter. In writing about Blackness, Felix wrote about survival but also thriving. Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes took on the ghost as “both the obstinate echo, as well as a willful, living fury calling us into question.” Jake Skeets wrote about the fields of Gallup, New Mexico, as a site of both desire and violence; Patty Crane found inspiration in beauty, but also the suffering and injustice that brings it into relief. 

And all the poets credit the people who helped them along the way—friends who pored over drafts, editors who challenged them to be better, mentors who encouraged and advised, family members who offered support. All the people who remind us that behind every book is a poet, and behind every poet is a community—or as Crane says, “the threads that bind us to one another and to the world.” So we hope that when we lift up these poets and their collections, it is also a testament to the communities that stand behind them as artists and nurture them far beyond the pages of a book.

Patty Crane, Camonghne Felix
Jake Skeets, Yanyi
Marwa Helal, Maya C. Popa
Sara Borjas, Maya Phillips
Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, Keith S. Wilson



Patty Crane
Bell I Wake To  
Zone 3 Press 
(First Book Award for Poetry)

as if desire is a kind of blindness
that listening unveils
from “Frogsong”

How it began: I didn’t set out to write a book. I set out to write the poems that came to me and compelled me to keep writing. Poem by poem, that writing was mainly driven by my daily life, the awarenesses unfolding from my roles as a woman, a mother, a friend, a citizen of a community, a country, and the earth—all the threads that bind us to one another and to the world, however tenuous and ephemeral. At some point I had a critical mass of poems and was eager to explore ways to connect them.

Inspiration: My richest sources of inspiration stem from my deepest connections. Rich because they’re deep. Deep because they require tending. My family and loved ones, especially my incredible daughters, who I once carried in my body and now carry at all times in my consciousness. My home and place, especially the natural world that surrounds me and informs how I live, work, and relate to the world. My translating, which allows me to inhabit another speaker and be the author of poems I did not write, their temporary surrogate and shepherd. My fellow artists—being around them, experiencing their work and inspirations. Beauty catches my eye everywhere, and everywhere its edges are defined, even heightened, by injustice and suffering, as if they’re beauty’s very outline—the way the dark shadings around [Giorgio] Morandi’s bottles suggest the power of the unseen. They’re what bring the bottles into relief, defining them as bottles.

Influences: The following are poets whose work I’ve read closely, sometimes with great difficulty, and through that close reading experienced some new awareness that helped me think differently about my own work. Emily Dickinson for the enduring boldness of her poetry and vision, the sheer weight of each word, and how she possesses a moment, telling it “slant.” Elizabeth Bishop for the lyrical precision, calm authority, and descriptive brilliance of her writing. Jean Valentine for the quiet intimacy of her poems, distilled to an emotional essence that often defies narrative conventions. Tomas Tranströmer for the way he moves so freely between the everyday and liminal worlds that his poems seem to bubble up from the realms of what’s inexpressible.

Writer’s block remedy: If I find myself losing a staring contest with the blank page, I usually set a timer for twenty minutes, put my pen to the paper and write, stream-of-consciousness, until the timer goes off. This often helps me uncover a subject hidden in the weeds of distraction or overthinking and gets me back in the groove. I try to stay open to the possibility inherent in letting the mind’s reins go. What gets me going is the timer and zero pressure to write anything “worthy.” What keeps me going is the subject, if I find my way to it. If not, and if I can’t read my way back into writing, I switch my focus. I might work on revisions, translations, or other creative endeavors such as erasures, collages, drawing, or exploring and scrounging around in the woods. I’ve also learned that impasses can be crucial for revitalization.

Advice: Believe in the work, be patient, persist. Quiet all the voices except the inner one. Less is more. If you’re not sure whether the poem belongs in the collection, it probably doesn’t. Make the book the final poem. Submit the manuscript to presses whose publications you love. Keep moving forward, thinking about poems for the next book.

Finding time to write: I’m most successful finding time to write when I make the time by scheduling it. Which is to say, I treat writing like work. It is my work, my job. One of my jobs. I also need to say that, for me, having a devoted space to write is as important as finding the time. I’m fortunate enough to have a tiny, humble studio I helped build with my own hands. It’s tucked into a field that overlooks an active beaver pond. This quiet space with no internet or cell service offers its own form of time, where I can enter the writing quickly and be more focused, making the most of the few hours I can devote to my writing on most days.

Putting the book together: The manuscript went through so many iterations! It’s been twice as long, half as long, had three different titles, and included poems that clearly didn’t belong. I think I needed to discover what Bell I Wake To was by first understanding what it wasn’t. Also, at some point I realized I was letting the feedback of others overtake my own innate feelings and sense of the work. While the feedback was often helpful, even crucial, in the end I had to set the manuscript aside for a good long while to settle all those voices and tune back in to the patiently waiting inner one. Ultimately, I ripped the manuscript apart and started over, allowing the process to flow by simply letting the end of one poem influence my choice of the next without overthinking it. Honestly, it was as simple as trusting my choice. This may have been the most powerful lesson of putting together the book. 

What’s next: Right now I’m actively sending out my second full-length collection, which was written during the three years I lived in Sweden. I’m also deep into translating the complete poetic works of Tomas Tranströmer. And I’ve been thinking and writing a fair amount about the growing disconnect between us humans and the natural world, the threats this disconnect poses, how being stewards of the natural world means stewarding humanity. I don’t know how or even if this preoccupation coheres in the poems, as it’s all still unfolding.

Age: 59. 

Residence: Windsor, Massachusetts, and Craftsbury, Vermont. 

Job: After a decades-long career as a registered nurse working in a variety of roles and settings—my undergraduate degree is in nursing, my master’s in creative writing—I’m now a literary translator, Swedish to English, and the president of a community-building nonprofit. 

Time spent writing the book: About fifteen years. The buildup to writing them surely took far longer, probably my whole life. A good number of those fifteen years involved setting the poems aside and letting them steep, free from my meddling long enough that I could come back to them with fresh-eyed amnesia. 

Time spent finding a home for it: I started sending out this version about a year ago. If you count other wildly different versions of the book, then ten years or so. In the latest round, it was rejected eight times and was a finalist twice before being selected by Zone 3 Press, whose editors are an absolute delight to work with and helped make Bell I Wake To a beautiful book.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: So many good debut books and wonderful presses, so little time! I’m excited about Space Struck (Sarabande Books) by Paige Lewis, Hail and Farewell (Perugia Press) by Abby E. Murray, and Bodega (Milkweed Editions) by Su Hwang.


Camonghne Felix
Build Yourself a Boat
Haymarket Books

No      but wait        you’re the water
from “Willing in the Orisha”

How it began: In my MFA program at Bard, Ann Lauterbach asked me, “Are you representing or presenting?” And I wanted to see if I could present Blackness both in theory and in practice without performing it or decodifying it for the consumption of non-Black readers. I had to ask myself a series of questions that ultimately came down to one question—what is the project of Blackness? The answer I found was that Blackness is survival. And then that question led me to the question behind the entire book project—what goes beyond survival? What comes after it? What does it look like to depart from a journey of survival and enter a journey of thriving? The need to answer those questions is what compelled me to write the book.

Inspiration: The Black Arts movement, psychology, the way a good R&B album pushes at the edges of your spirit and makes you feel new things, In the Break by Fred Moten, the everyday joy of being a Black girl, the everyday trauma of being a Black girl. 

Influences: Fred Moten, because he introduced a whole new framework by which to analyze the Black literary experience and the charge of “being” a writer. He also taught me that academic and artistic rigor is very much “a Black thing” and that has transformed my craftsmanship and my life. Mahogany L. Browne—my first mentor, my first teacher, the first authority figure I trusted to teach me what I didn’t know. My lyric is born from her lyric. Gregory Pardlo, who made me ask questions about my experience that helped me approach the stories I want to tell as an authority and not a bystander. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon—learning from Lyrae and reading Lyrae opened up a whole new world for me in how to think and write about heartbreak and love. I write the best breakup poems now.

Writer’s block remedy: Two things. One, I learned from a Black studies professor at the community college I attended that there is no such thing as “being a genius” but that we all have a genius, and that your genius comes and goes on her own accord. She will eat when you feed her but will rest when she’d like. I turn to this thought when I am afraid that I’ll never write a good poem again, because it reminds me that the first poem wasn’t up to me and neither will the last one. And two, I remember that by living with intention I am in the process of writing poems. A poem or a series of poems may ruminate in your brain for days, weeks, months—and you may sit down four or five times to write it, but it won’t come until it’s ready. But if I am looking at the world through poetic lenses and thinking of all of my work through the lens poetry has gifted me, then the poems are being written and will touch the page when it is time. 

Advice: You’ll never get another debut! Your first is your first. Fight for yourself, advocate for your project, and trust your community if they tell you it’s not ready. 

Finding time to write:  Lucky enough, it’s a core part of my everyday experience as a strategist. There’s never a day when I am not writing—and everything, even if it doesn’t look like it, is a poem. 

Putting the book together: I spent half of the process building the ethos of the book and deciding which tools and techniques belonged in the toolbox of the book. That’s how I came to the footnotes and use of white space as an apparatus of silence. Once I had decided on those things, I built an outline, and just let it go. I wrote poems about everything and anything while keeping the ethos and the outline of the project in the back of my mind. Toward the end of the process I gathered all of the poems I wrote during that time and looked to see if there were any through lines that led me back to the project. 

What’s next: Electing the first woman president of the United States, and my first prose novel. 

Age: 27. 

Residence: Boston—but I’m a proud and loud New York City native. 

Job: I’m a political media strategist, currently working on the Warren for President team. 

Time spent writing the book: I wrote all of the poems across a span of five years. 

Time spent finding a home for it: Well, I didn’t worry too much about trying to find a publisher until people started asking me if I had a full-length book. I sent the project to some of the publishers who showed interest, and I originally signed with one press, but after an initial experience that raised red flags for me, I canceled the contract and pulled my book. It sat collecting dust for a year, and racked up accolades every time I submitted it to a first-book prize, still with no contract. When Haymarket reached out, I knew it was the right time and the right press, and I’m very glad I waited and didn’t let the pressure of publishing a first book take my eye off the prize, which is a book product I loved with a publisher I could trust.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Invasive species (Nightboat Books) by Marwa Helal, Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press) by Aria Aber, and Brute (Graywolf Press) by Emily Skaja. 

Clockwise from top left: Patty Crane, Camonghne Felix, Jake Skeets, Yanyi, Marwa Helal, Keith S. Wilson, Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, Maya Phillips, Sara Borjas, and Maya C. Popa. (Credit: Eugene Smith)

Jake Skeets
Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers
Milkweed Editions
(National Poetry Series)

the closest men become is when they are covered in blood 

or nothing at all
—from “Naked” 

How it began: It started with the body. The learning of desire prompted many of the poems in the early versions of the manuscript. My life shifted when I moved back home to the reservation. I noticed that the fields that surround Gallup, New Mexico, where I first experienced desire during summers and winters home, were also fields where other men would lose their lives. I also returned to the portrait of my uncle—a photograph Richard Avedon took of him in 1979—that is on the cover of the book. I began excavating the layers that exist in the narrative and violence of Gallup. Suddenly the fields that surround Gallup became a place for reflection, both in the collection and in my real life. I knew I had to write this book and poetry was the only way to tell it. 

Inspiration: First, the land. The other day I noticed how quickly smoke from nearby forest fires can be cleared out by strong winds. Second, the way my mom and dad tell stories. They are the best storytellers. Third, the Black Mountain poets. Finally, all the other Diné poets. 

Influences: Sherwin Bitsui because his type of thinking is so uniquely tied to the land and our community on the Navajo Nation. His mentorship guided me so much during the completion of my collection. Orlando White because he is a great thinker in terms of language and the idea of moving poetry away from just expression. He taught me to approach poetry through language, and I learned so much about craft from that shift. Joan Kane because her use of the lyric is so beautiful. I am floored reading just one line from her poems, and that’s what I want to accomplish in my work: one-line moments when the poem leaps from the page. Finally, Santee Frazier because his understanding of sound influenced much of my attention to sound.  

Writer’s block remedy: I turn to craft. I turn to experimentation. If I am stuck on a particular image or trigger, I will give myself rules to compose a poem. I will use random word generators or word scramblers online. I give myself prompts that force me away from the left margin. I try to approach the poem through its language. This work and energy is a way to honor language and honor the image or trigger that inspired the poem. This communication with poetry is what keeps me carving through the white space until a poem is left.

Advice: In the words of my mentor Sherwin Bitsui, carry your manuscript everywhere with you.

Finding time to write: I don’t, which may be a crime to admit. If you’re in a circumstance with an end date, an MFA for instance, I understand the need to carve out writing time. During my MFA, I worked full-time, so I found time to write during my commute. I was very close to listing the Phoenix public transit system in my book acknowledgements because I finalized the first part of the collection in railcars and buses. Otherwise, it was small moments like waiting in a movie theater or waiting at the bar in a club. Now I am simply allowing myself to breathe. The collection took much to write. However, I do still find moments to write, and it’s often on drives. Residing on a reservation often means driving miles for daily needs. I get to experience so much on these drives in terms of image, time, and sound. Often, a poem finds its way through. 

Putting the book together: I used a variety of approaches to order the book. I knew I needed something familiar for the reader to grasp within the collection. For me, that became time. The linear coming-of-age, coming-out timeline is that field where the reader can find footing to wade through the collection. Finding the poems’ order within that timeline took many exercises that I learned from the Institute of American Indian Arts. These exercises included traditional ones like hanging poems on a wall and recording myself reading the manuscript. Others included carrying the manuscript everywhere, hiking while reading the poem out loud, or hiking while listening to a self-recording of the manuscript.

In the beginning I thought I was writing a collection about coming out and desire. However, midway I moved back home to the reservation and everything shifted. I saw the face and portrait of my uncle in the faces I saw everyday traveling to Gallup. I realized I couldn’t separate my queerness from the violence that occurred around me. So I started the collection again, this time on the border between my reservation and the outside world, the border between masculinity and sexuality, the border between beauty and brutality, and the border between the body and the land. 

What’s next: I am simply writing poems. I have written a few essays about the book and my poetics. My poems now have been revolving around the code used by Navajo Code Talkers during World War II, the idea of Diné love and Diné joy, and the many forest fires, diminishing water wells, and abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.

Age: 27. 

Residence: Tsaile, Arizona. 

Job: English faculty at Diné College. 

Time spent writing the book: Some of the earliest images and lines are from high school poems I have kept with me. Other poems and lines were born from my undergraduate years at the University of New Mexico. Conceptually, I would say the book has been simmering within me for about a decade. Physically, the manuscript took about three years to compose, revise, order, and revise again for publication.  

Time spent finding a home for it: I submitted the collection to several prizes before I heard from the National Poetry Series. I am very fortunate that the book was published only a year after finishing my MFA.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press) by Alison C. Rollins, Refugia (University of Nevada Press) by Kyce Bello, The Milk Hours (Milkweed Editions) by John James, The People’s Field (Southeast Missouri State University Press) by Haesong Kwon, Bodega (Milkweed Editions) by Su Hwang, Documents (BOA Editions) by Jan-Henry Gray, and The Last Visit (Autumn House Press) by Chad Abushanab. 


The Year of Blue Water
Yale University Press
(Yale Series of Younger Poets)

It is a certain life and not its answer that is worthy of being repeated. Invitation, invocation, request.
an excerpt of The Year of Blue Water

How it began: A series of events forced me into a major emotional reckoning. I was barely able to go through the motions of everyday life anymore. So, the urgency of being present with myself and my body. And the will to be alive on my own terms.

Inspiration: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts showed me that an integrated self was possible in writing. Aldrin Valdez’s poem “Shuffled Slides of a Changing Painting (After Robert Gober),” numbered like Nelson’s Bluets, was crucial to my understanding the technical power of a poem out of, and still in, order. And of course the person who told me to start the notebook, who learned that from Carolyn Forché.

It’s funny to think about what we’re inspired by: So much is timing with who we are as artists. People have compared the book to Bluets a lot. But though I had read it before, I had gotten Bluets mediated through Valdez. I finally met Carolyn Forché this past fall. We did, indeed, have a conversation about notebooks. But only after the fact. “Original” is an adjective—it describes an experience of relative origin.

Influences: Susan Sontag: passion. Agnes Martin: repetition, solitude. Linda Gregg: not understanding. Robin Coste Lewis: gathering, taking time for what is worth saying.

Writer’s block remedy: I read recently in an advice column that time is not what heals relationships: It is that things happen in time. I don’t see silence as an impasse. I work to be available to writing when it arrives. In silence I focus my erotic energy on my relationship with the world. I work on eating, sleeping, feeling, and enjoying my life. I read. I allow myself to change. The writing comes to me when there is something to say.

Advice: I’ve found that it is more important to love your own book than getting it published. I mean the kind of nourishing love you feel when you read the poetry you admire. This is the love that will help you edit it. It will help you advocate for it and send it out again and maybe one day read it over and over as though it is still new to you. Because it should be. Become your own reader and someone else will read it too.

Finding time to write: I now have the fortunate problem of figuring out when I should write versus when I can. When I was working I read and wrote early mornings, evenings, and all day during the weekends—any time I had a thought and a snatch of time (commuting, in line, walking somewhere, etc). I did not like it. It is a writing for survival, not choice. I don’t take for granted the depth of thinking I can choose in my writing now.

Putting the book together: I went through every note I had written and formatted them on individual pages, then printed out the pile. Then I would take, oh, three hours and find the one that felt like a beginning, then read again until there was another poem that felt right in following. In subsequent drafts I would reread the last manuscript and change things as I got bored or uneasy while reading. Lather, rinse, repeat with two-month breaks in between. I did not analyze or outline. The accumulating effect and the thematic overlaps were not apparent to me until the book was completed. It was an emotional and intuitive process. Even the breaks I didn’t time: I just noticed after a while, looking at the dates of my drafts, that I felt ready to reread the manuscript every two months.

What’s next: I’ve been writing love poems and thinking a lot about intimacy. I’m at the end of a second manuscript and have started a new pile for a third—it’s too early to say what that will be in its final stages, but it seems my interest in intimacy was too large for one manuscript. In between, I’ve been writing short pieces of criticism, a verse play, and a larger critical project on politics, poetry, and aesthetics, with a focus on fascism in modernism and all the threads that come to and from that.

Age: 28. 

Residence: Jersey City. 

Job: I worked for several years as a software engineer and am now exploring life as a full-time student and writer. 

Time spent writing the book: About eight months, then two years of editing until I handed it in to Yale. 

Time spent finding a home for it: About a year, and I am lucky for it. I benefited from the long, hermetic editing process, encouragement from friends who read it, and every reader who could meet the work where it was.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been reading very much in this century. I have accepted that I will always be somewhat out of sync. This year I’ve savored Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert’s discographies and am recently admiring Agha Shahid Ali’s. Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s To the Place of Trumpets (Yale University Press, 1988) and Lydia Davis’s The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories (Living Hand, 1976) are up there for best debuts I read this year.

Marwa Helal
Invasive species  
Nightboat Books

language first my learned i
see see
for mistaken am I native
go I everywhere
from “poem to be read from right to left”

How it began: Wanting to bear witness to the experience my family went through in immigrating, wanting to find others who had similar experiences, wanting to highlight the flaws in the “legal” immigration system—a conversation this country doesn’t want to have—they would rather focus on what they deem “illegal” immigration when in fact they are the ones who are illegal, if anyone is. I didn’t know at the time that Homeland Security would become ICE, and ICE would become children in cages by the time the book was out. My story is just a small snapshot of the systemic abuse inherent in the immigration-industrial complex.

Inspiration: My teachers—the forms they have introduced me to, the possibilities they’ve shared in editing, reading, and delivering the work; the Nile Delta; the heart and resilience of Randa Jarrar; Philip Metres’s abu ghraib arias and Sand Opera; the Egyptian people past, present, and future; the ocean; all of the ways journalism fails—especially “objectivity,” and how that’s where poetry begins; the America we are making together…

Influences: Harryette Mullen for her playfulness and subversiveness; Evie Shockley for her transformation of old forms and aphorisms; Rilke’s searching; Simone White for archive and music; and Suheir Hammad for syntax, witness, ancestry, and teaching others how to use resources. (You thought I’d say DJ Khaled?)

Writer’s block remedy: I turn to photography. Or a dream will get me back in the space I need to keep going. Integrating the liminal. There is no “here” and “there.” They are simultaneous, overlapping.

Advice: Take your time—or, I am paraphrasing, “Time is your friend,” which is what my teacher Sigrid Nunez once told me. Trust your path and your work. Talk about it; don’t be shy about sharing your dreams. You never know who is listening or willing to point you to the next step in your path. Making it real is a [daily] practice and process.

Finding time to write: I have to make it. But my favorite is getting together with my BFF Tavonne on Saturday mornings for a full day at the library to write, work, and catch up. Otherwise, I try to get my morning pages in over breakfast. I write in my head a lot or while traveling. Aren’t we always writing? Even remembering is a kind of writing.

Putting the book together: I wanted the order to mimic both an emotional journey of alienation, voyage (explanation of alienation), and gift (to the reader for coming on the journey) plus bonus/secret tracks. But I also needed the structure to imitate my own haphazard immigration path. Poetry and the lyric essay lend themselves well to relaying difficult experiences, so it was easy to trust the pieces would fall into the right place. Poet tip: The book can be read in both directions.

What’s next: Being a better, or more generous, literary citizen. I’m less interested in making the next thing you would call a book and more interested in becoming a better teacher and contributing my voice to reviews and other literary conversations. Meanwhile, the book project is happening on the backburner, which is how I work. It’s a project centered on the interiority of migration, how the body is read in its new [home]land, and how that impacts relationships.

Age: 38.

Residence: Brooklyn, New York.

Job: Teaching, writing, readings.

Time spent writing the book: About ten years from start to finish. First the lyric essay, “Immigration as a Second language,” then “I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN,” then Invasive species, the section and the book.

Time spent finding a home for it: I’m grateful to Nightboat for taking on this project and giving me the time to make it what it became. I don’t know how long I had been thinking about Invasive species when they selected it. They were only the second press I submitted to, and it looked very, very different when I did!

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Aria Aber’s Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press), Andrea Abi-Karam’s EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press), Zaina Alsous’s A Theory of Birds (University of Arkansas Press), Xandria Phillips’s HULL (Nightboat Books), Andrés Cerpa’s Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy (Alice James Books), Gala Mukomolova’s Without Protection (Coffee House Press), Ysabel Y. González’s Wild Invocations (Get Fresh Books), Ivanna Baranova’s CONFIRMATION BIAS (Metatron Press), Camonghne Felix’s Build Yourself a Boat (Haymarket Books), and Jan-Henry Gray’s Documents (BOA Editions), and so many more—it has been a satisfying year.  


Maya C. Popa
American Faith
Sarabande Books

It was earth that taught me
names for all the planets, how to look
at an angle for the hummingbird,
dark satellite of sugar in the blossom’s mouth.
I could picture that vast absence of us,
moons spinning coolly in unscripted pasts.
from “American Faith”

How it began: The heart of the book is a series in which different things—all, to some degree, metaphorical—are “canceled,” a term that’s deliberately glib paired against its subjects: the bees, the government, “the return to nature,” etc. The casualness of “canceled” felt at once chilling and right. The other poems in the book touch on themes and motifs from this series. 

Inspiration: Certainly, for this project, the news. One of poetry’s many strengths is that it slows and suspends the moment, allowing a more nuanced examination of what otherwise flows through us quickly. Responding to world events or headlines through poetry allows me turn these things over in the light, to puzzle out the implications beyond the immediate reaction. The reality is that poems are often the only answer to all that restless cogitation I feel daily. 

More recently, I’ve been thinking about wonder, since it’s the subject of my dissertation, and the marvelous sense of unlikeliness that presides over all things. I’m still preoccupied with the state of the earth and animals, which were central to my two chapbooks, as well as the usual existential difficulties that all writers negotiate, but my position toward these things feels freer and more exploratory than it did in the past.

Lastly—and vitally—conversations with friends, about writing or otherwise, are central to my practice and my life. I teach alongside fellow writers, which is a rare gift, and I correspond with writers I love and admire overseas. Sustaining these friendships is as generative and important to me as the work itself. 

Influences: Shakespeare’s sonnets for their logic and cognition, Gerard Manley Hopkins for the restlessness in the language and lush musicality, Emily Dickinson for the mystery and compression, Anne Carson for the poignant clarity, and Alice Oswald for how she writes the natural world.

Writer’s block remedy: It does happen, and often, that one writes oneself into a corner in poetry. It becomes like working in a Rubik’s Cube rather than a field of language.  I may work in prose if I need more space to think on the page, or I may return to older drafts if I want the wild pleasure of making radical leaps and cuts. There’s always the risk of over-editing and losing the initial urgency that inspired the poem, turning it into a purely rhetorical object. I try to avoid this by walking away for as long as necessary.

John Loughery, the art critic and biographer, and a dear friend for more than fifteen years, is a writer whose depth and prose style and wry wit I adore, but who also has a sort of stamina and lack of preciousness toward the writing process that I love. He gets it done without much existential whining, and that’s a valuable perspective for me to have as a refrain. 

Advice: Don’t worry about how much or how little you write. It’s judicious to practice some degree of self-discipline, assuming you’re serious about completing a project. But don’t compare your practice with that of others. Trust that as long you’re paying the right sort of attention to your life and the world, there’s a lot going on in the brain that will allow for writing to happen later on. 

Finding time to write:  I’m fortunate in that I’m not tied to a particular place, nor do I require solitude or quiet to write. I don’t have a daily routine, though on a good week I can write or edit for an hour before work. 

Putting the book together: The difficulty of a first book is that it’s often a miscellany of the poems one has written thus far in one’s practice. I tried to mask that initially by organizing the manuscript into three titled sections. The last ordering change came when I culled a large number of poems, changed the title, and the book become one in earnest. 

I owe a debt to the poets Jen Levitt, who is the first reader of every poem I write, and Lizzie Harris, who made the astute suggestion about frontloading the more direct and confessional poems. My instinct had been to tuck those away toward the end of the book in some bizarre attempt at mimicking the process of getting to know someone.

What’s next: A second book of poems and my PhD!

Age: 30. 

Residence: New York City, but I go back and forth to London. 

Job: I teach English literature and direct the creative writing program at an all-girls school in Manhattan. I am also the poetry reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and a graduate student at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

Time spent writing the book: Many of the poems in the book were written during the last two semesters of my MFA, so from 2013 to 2014. The most recent, “American Cowboy,” was written after Roy Moore pulled out a gun at a rally in late 2017. So, about four years total.  

Time spent finding a home for it: I first sent the manuscript out long before it was ready. I am grateful, in retrospect, that the early versions of this book were not the ones that stuck. I reordered and retitled the book one summer morning on Long Island, using various objects to keep the pages from blowing away and recognizing that I finally had what Zadie Smith calls “the head of a smart stranger.” I could look at the book impartially and see what needed to be done—which, in my case, was to cut a large portion of it. That was in August 2017, and I sent it out that fall. I was offered a contract with Sarabande as the runner-up for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize judged by Ocean Vuong about six months later. 

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Space Struck (Sarabande Books) by my press-mate, Paige Lewis, and Tap Out (Mariner Books) by Edgar Kunz, though every year feels like an embarrassment of riches for new voices. 

Sara Borjas
Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff
Noemi Press

I am the scrape of the lowrider as it exits the driveway, 
bothering the neighbors.
from “Ars Poetica”

How it began: In my heart I wanted to love better. We are a colonized people putting ourselves together for hundreds of years. Much of our lives, ideas, values, and traditions are survival tactics. I wanted to see my parents as individuals but also through this lens and love them wholly. I didn’t want my heartbreak, or theirs, to be for nothing. So in each poem I asked: How am I making myself and my family more simple and responsible for our lives than we actually are? And I never really stopped answering, even through all the revisions and drafts, and even now. Many of these poems are me puzzling together how I show love and what and who I think deserves it and why. When I began working with Noemi, one of the first things my editor, Carmen Giménez Smith, told me was that I had a manuscript but not a book yet. This stands out as the beginning for me. This is when I felt for real compelled, capable, and honestly challenged to write this very specific collection.

Inspiration: Oldiez. Fresno. The reliability of crop rows and how you can see all the way to the end no matter what. Books like Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, Crush by Richard Siken, Blood by Shane McCrae, and MyOther Tongue by Rosa Alcalá; Anne Sexton; Rumi; “punk poetics,” as Juan Felipe Herrera says; the word no out of any woman of color’s mouth; Lifetime movies; Real Housewives; really, any drama where the protagonists are women; oranges from my dad’s tree and zucchinis from his garden; my mom’s sense of humor; all shit-talkers everywhere; my sister’s ruthless sentimentality and her writing—she’s an amazing writer but stays low-key; and watching and helping my friends work on their books at the same time.

Influences: Roque Dalton for his sentimentality coupled with self-ridicule and the tendency to exaggerate, Richard Siken for his associative genius and how he writes about love, Dulce María Loynaz for showing me that my parts equal a center and are not scraps, and No Doubt for showing how to make fun of the patriarchy. All these artists showed me how to be extra and be beautiful in it.

Writer’s block remedy: When I reach an impasse, I accept myself and treat it as a liberty. I don’t feel the need to keep going if I’m not excited about writing. I think that’s always bothered me about the possibility of becoming a writer, that I’m expected to produce writing. It feels very capitalist and very colonial to make any part of myself or my behavior a commodity. I try to break the habit by being okay with not writing. I watch TV and films, talk to my friends and family, read, watch shows about outer space, and go down rabbit holes looking up phenomena. I cook. And all that, to me, is a making.

Advice: Write toward honesty, then, really write toward honesty. Stop lying. As Bruce Lee said: “It is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky…. I can show you some really fancy movement. But to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself—that my friend, is very hard to do.”

Finding time to write: Right now I have a dream schedule that creates an alternative problem of when not to write. However, I am not someone who can sit down and write like it is a job, which I am cool with. So I find time by reading and getting pumped about what others are thinking, asking, and their work leads me to writing. I’m an impulsive, and honestly, kind of dramatic, person, and my writing habits are equally volatile. If I’m feeling, it’s always deeply. If I’m writing, it’s always obsessively. I know this will probably be the only time in my life when I have this time, and I feel a pressure that accompanies that privilege, but I also feel really free.

Putting the book together: I cannot stress how crucial editors are. Editors make the poetry world go ’round. For a few years, I maneuvered papers around my bedroom floor, as poets do. But when I became strategic, it was because my editors challenged me. The poet Ángel García charged me to organize the book according to theme and that’s how I found imbalances in the narrative. My friend Julia Bouwsma, who was a hero in helping me make this book, said, “You can have a narrative without a narrative structure.” Her comment freed me. Carmen Giménez Smith did not let me get away with shit. One day she called me and said, “You wrote ‘heart’ seventeen times in this book,” and hung up. I needed to be checked, and she was really good at holding me accountable. Blas Falconer, in the kindest way, showed me where I was circling the wound, peeking all around it rather than through it. J. Michael Martinez pushed me to think about form, marginalia, the reader’s way of participating, and the kind of double consciousness that was at work in my speaker’s voice. Ultimately, I wrote new work, and mostly rewrote, sometimes entirely, whole poems. I consolidated poems. I wrote an essay called “We Are Too Big for This House” and stuck it near the beginning to explain why the speaker is so resentful and still so tender. I used the myth of Narcissus to say things I couldn’t entirely own. At a point I decided I was done. And I accepted it.

What’s next: I’m writing new poems; working on lyric essays; trying to organize readings for poets in Los Angeles when I can alongside Joseph Rios; creating my courses without fear of being fired for the first time; learning to walk away, to eat healthier, to prioritize my heart as much as my body and mind; and growing food and parenting plants.

Age: 33. 

Residence: Leimert Park, Los Angeles. But I’m from Fresno, California. 

Job: I teach creative writing at UC Riverside and moonlight as a bartender. 

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poems in the book are eight years old but are wildly different. The only thing holding them is the memory or the first draft and the essential question I had and that I can still sense in their revised forms.

Time spent finding a home for it: About three or four years. In 2014 I was a finalist for the Andres Montoya Prize, and that’s when I started taking my poetry more seriously. Since then I reworked it until I was offered a contract by Noemi in 2017—the year the real writing began.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Why I Am Like Tequila (Willow Books) by Lupe Méndez, Careen (Noemi Press) by Grace Shuyi Liew, Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy (Alice James Books) by Andrés Cerpa. All fire. All so honest.


Maya Phillips
Four Way Books

Erou born in the county of Kings
raised in the lap of Queens
         sitting on the throne of his mama’s front stoop

Isn’t this how an Erou begins?
—from “Erou 1”

How it began: I’ve always been obsessed with mythology, and for years I knew I was, at some point, going to start writing about my relationship with my dad. It was a topic I kind of wrote around for a while, but our relationship, and the complicated ways that my family worked and related to one another, obviously had a deep impact on me. He died in 2014, and in those next few months I started writing about him but knew I needed some help shaping the work and the project, because I had been feeling a bit untethered from my work for a while. I started my MFA program, at Warren Wilson College, in 2015, and I wrote this collection almost wholly in that two-year period.

Inspiration: Mythology certainly. In particular, Greek myths, the epics, but I’ll broaden it and also say any kind of mythology or fairy tale or fanciful story in which there are heroes and villains and gods and quests. I like that sense of scope, of the largeness of humanity, and, beyond that, of some version of god, some kind of agency of fate. And visual art. Any kind of work that makes me experience something on a visceral level, and, because I think I must be a masochist, I particularly enjoy art that makes me feel sorrow or loss in a way that’s new and interesting and complex.

Influences: Anne Carson, for all of the ways she uses language. I’m talking about her poems but also her works of translation—she has such a rich understanding of language and there’s a cool kind of labyrinthine way that her poems work themselves out, like you can see the workings of her mind behind them, and it’s brilliant. Patricia Smith and Rita Dove were both influential in how I thought about these poems. I was introduced to Patricia’s work when I was in undergrad and had just discovered slam poetry. I heard her read in a dive bar in Cambridge and was stunned by her use of metaphor and how exquisite her sense of voice was. I spent several years writing toward her. And Rita Dove’s poems, particularly the ones about her parents and the Demeter and Persephone poems, helped me think about how one can mythologize family and relationships. And Louise Glück is a poet I admire for her spareness and thoughtfulness and use of white space. When I feel too bogged down in my own wordiness—which happens quite a lot!—I think of poets like her, how her poems feel light and airy and yet still so rich and substantial, like they’re whittled down to the most essential bits.

Writer’s block remedy: I panic a bit, honestly. I’m very hard on myself and struggle a lot with anxiety, so creative blocks are tough. I usually just try to push through, but if that doesn’t work, I try switching to another form of writing—there’s always a new article or review to write. Or I might try an essay or fiction or a play or something. Or I’ll just switch to another poem. I pace a lot when I’m stuck with poems, say the words aloud over and over again and try to let the sounds lead me somewhere new, because sounds and rhythms are really important to my work. I go from one room to another or just change seats to kind of trick myself into getting into a new headspace. A walk is usually my last resort—but sometimes that does the trick.

Advice: I’d probably say to be bold. Experiment with your work, and don’t edit out all the fun and the strangeness and the wonder. It’s so easy to get burnt out looking at the same poems over and over again and scrutinizing this manuscript that you want to be perfect, but I think the hardest part of being a writer is figuring out when you can trust that critical voice in your head and when you need to tell it to shut up.

Finding time to write: Though I’m a very A-type person overall, and I do think I can be fairly prolific, I don’t consider myself the most disciplined writer in that sense. I pretty much write when I feel like it. Sometimes I’ll go through periods where I sit myself down and make myself write every day, and those periods are always productive but draining. Doing an MFA while working full-time and freelancing really kept me regimented, but, again, I felt burned out after a while. But now I write when I decide to, sometimes in the evening, sometimes in the morning, sometimes at a random point in my day when a thought just occurs to me on my way to work or whatever. Between my journalism, poetry, and other creative writing, I’m always working on something. It’s just a matter of juggling them—that’s the real struggle.

Putting the book together: I love structure and order—I’m such an A-type—so I knew that I was going to use my central poem, “Erou,” my version of a contemporary epic poem, as the spine of the collection. “Erou” goes through the life of the main figure, the father/husband, from birth to death, drawing on tropes and symbols and patterns from the hero’s journey in various myths—the stories of Odysseus, Aeneas, Jason, etc. The tricky thing was figuring out how to interweave the other threads and how to introduce other characters and make sure that the narrative made sense. My MFA thesis adviser, Gaby Calvocoressi, who’s amazing, suggested that I group sets of poems together to make mini-arcs, which I did, and then I strung them together in and around the sections of my central poem. I made index cards for all of the poems, with the title, first line, and last line, and spread them all out on a table and just swapped them around, with the full poems handy nearby for reference, for the repeat images and themes and characters mentioned in the poems proper. I actually enjoyed that part, finally having the whole story there but just trying to decide how to tell it. It was like doing one of those big puzzles, but I could change the pieces to fit together in different ways to reveal the picture I wanted.

What’s next: Ugh, a bit of everything! I tend to overdo it, so I’m always working, or at least trying to work, on several things at once. There’s my culture writing, and I’m working on poems for what will be my second book. And then I’ll make various attempts at writing in other forms and genres if I’m feeling particularly daring.

Age: 29. 

Residence: Brooklyn, New York. 

Job: Copy editor/web producer/contributor at the New Yorker and a freelance culture writer. 

Time spent writing the book: About two to two and a half years. 

Time spent finding a home for it: Three weeks. I know that isn’t typical, and I feel so fortunate that this is how it worked out, but I had a list of publishers I knew I wanted to submit to, and I sent the manuscript to Four Way first and heard back less than a month later. I was pretty floored—and thrilled.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press) by Aria Aber and Invasive species (Nightboat Books) by Marwa Helal.


Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes
The Inheritance of Haunting
University of Notre Dame Press
(Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize)

these five hundred years in our bones
striated conquistas dragging
the letters of the harrowed tongue
into the geography
of our marrow, down
—from “prayer for the children who will be born with today’s daggers in their tomorrow eyes”

How it began: This book emerged as a result of poetry as a mode of survival and healing at the intersections of my own autoimmune illness and excavations into historical memory, generational trauma, and collective responsibility. I was undertaking familial genealogical research, as well as human rights research in militarized regions, while contending with illness that left me bedbound. Across the work, to be haunted is to live in an ongoing encounter with what will not let us rest, with what we face in the ongoing repetitions of violence in the afterlives of conquest, capital, coloniality. It felt necessary to write through some of the threads that intertwine our bodies with the world, with the political, with historical grief—to respond to the ghost as both the obstinate echo, as well as a willful, living fury calling us into question.

Inspiration: Family stories and ephemera passed down, prophetic dreams and how we carry our dead, colonial archives, histories of science, cultural mythologies and childhood legends, art and music and photography, monster studies, human rights reports and newspaper headlines, testimonies from survivors of state violence and authoritarian regimes. Jacques Derrida’s and Avery Gordon’s writings on haunting, and the film Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Saidiya Hartman’s work on the afterlife of slavery and critical fabulation. The awareness that my sadnesses are made up of the sadnesses of centuries. Somatic therapy, the Nueva canción movement, queer love.

Influences: Early on, I learned a lot about protest poetry from Agha Shahid Ali and Mahmoud Darwish: I find in their works a profound ability to document violence without spectacle, to bring me into the feel of the what else could be inside devastation and loss and various unfreedoms. Aracelis Girmay’s work has taught me a lot about wonder and intimacy inside of grief; close listening and cultivating familiarities; how to find the teeming universe in grain-of-sand moments. Aimé Césaire’s poetry gifts me with rule-breaking and the marvelous cacophony of anticolonial subversion—how poetry can do violence to the order of things.

Writer’s block remedy: I take walks or go to museums or read work by others—activities that draw me outward to listen and be in relation to the world around me, whether that be the sensory delight of pausing for a trail of flowers, or taking in new ideas through an art exhibition…things that will open me up in unexpected ways or transform me with a question or experience. I see writing itself as a process of transformation—of self, of reader, of the world. The impasse is prelude, inviting me to become something other than what I’ve ever been before. Transfiguration, metamorphosis, and translation (trasladar, other-siding ourselves) are called for at the impasse, and are conditions for traversing the moment between when the pen gets caught in stillness and begins to flow again.

Advice: Writing an abstract that articulates what the collection is about can help to communicate your work to editors while allowing you to create a map for what else your manuscript is asking to become. Take time to study presses and what they do, and ask others about their experiences with their presses. Seek advising and mentorship when things feel foggy. Submit, submit, submit. And don’t give up: Learn to know in your bones how much your stories matter.

Finding time to write: Given my schedule this year, I am insisting for myself that no matter what else I am in the midst of, I take at least two days a month to write poetry. Often things will come to me in dreams or in that space between sleep and waking, as if something (in me? outside of me?) is also insisting that no matter what, the writing must happen. And I also don’t only think of writing as a literal activity—there are ways we write or pre-write even if there is no page in front of us: Our bodies are writing our days; our thinking and feeling is writing before and through and after the writing. If we tune into that, we are making much more time for writing than we might otherwise assume. And then it is a matter of carving out spacetime to listen to what is wanted in the page.

Putting the book together: The book is divided into two parts, each moving through different kinds of ancestral memory, historical wound, and individual and collective modes of survival and flight. “El Otro Lado/The Other Side” winds through pieces of my family history in Colombia and the United States, reflecting our existence as a constellatory effect of histories of colonizers and colonized, violent and violated life haunting our present. “Casi Pájaros/Almost Birds” draws more on my human-rights work in different places contending with militarized atrocities; it relates a collective global haunted present in the afterlife of racial capitalism and traces a political inheritance that calls for response to material and symbolic violence. The two sections are meant to speak to each other, to convey the intertwining of individual and collective historical trauma and memory, as well as the forms of mourning, care labor, memory-work, imaginal endeavor, and political life necessary for healing.

What’s next: I am working hard on finishing my dissertation on settler colonialism and futurity in Colombia. As for poetry, I have begun writing my second collection while also trying to develop a generative workshop on queer science, and another on speculative memory. The Inheritance of Haunting took me through so much bone-deep grief; I’ve been coming up for air in the last couple of years, holding close the necessity of joy-work, of nourishing the imaginative and strange, of intimacy and love. And while none of that means the sadness has dissipated, I am interested in writing that senses more of the possible, and that, despite and through so much death and ongoing struggle, reaches for what it is to bring one another to life.

Age: 38.

Residence: Brooklyn, New York. 

Job: I am finishing up my PhD in political theory and want to teach interdisciplinary classes in feminist theory, decolonial studies, Black and Indigenous thought, aesthetics, politics, philosophy, and writing poetry. 

Time spent writing the book: Three years. The book was mostly written between 2012 and 2015, while I was bedbound from illness.

Time spent finding a home for it: Raspa, a queer Latinx journal and press founded by César Ramos, had invited me to publish a chapbook version of the book in 2014, but a whole confluence of things for which no one was to blame kept that from happening. I continued to build the manuscript, which came together in its current form at the end of 2017, and submitted it to the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. It was my sister, Chelsea, who dropped it at the post office, as I was too sick to leave my apartment the week of the deadline, so I have her to thank for that solidarity in getting the manuscript out. In May 2018 I got a very generous and kind phone call from Ada Limón, who told me she’d chosen my work for the prize, and everything unfolded from there with University of Notre Dame Press. It was such a dream come true; I was pinching myself for months.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Marwa Helal’s Invasive species (Nightboat Books), Gala Mukomolova’s Without Protection (Coffee House Press), and Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions). Enjoyed is an understatement. Reading those three was really more a series of devastations, of openings in the face of wreckage. 



Keith S. Wilson
Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love
Copper Canyon Press

You bankrupt the sun, underwater
statue. Dark galaxy of faults, our bed

a garden of the littlest sighs
of our waking. Our room, abstract.

Our body heat in space, the condensation
as the light makes heaven of it.
—from “Aubade to Collapsed Star”

How it began: At Callaloo, Gregory Pardlo challenged us to write the hardest poem we could write. So I started writing about love, which became heartbreak. And because of what’s happening on the news, that also became heartbreak for the world. I wanted to write through it. I wanted to live, and through writing I have.

Inspiration: I’ve always been indiscriminate about art: I would read either The Invisible Man by Wells or Invisible Man by Ellison. Comic books or video games or modernist art—nothing is more inspiring to me than someone who loves something so much that they can’t help but sing with it. It isn’t even wholly about talent. Passion is inspiring. It can be someone talking, if they do it with love.

Influences: Claudia Rankine changed everything from the kind of subject matter poetry could handle and the confidence with which you say what you feel directly to seeing any moment become extraordinary with the right context and structure. Gwendolyn Brooks is masterful with form and sound, and I’m influenced by her life outside of her poems—she was an extraordinary human being. Frank X Walker who believed in me and gave me the tools to believe in my poetry. Lucille Clifton, whose poems are perfect.

Writer’s block remedy: Time. They say time heals all wounds, which is a lie, but it is true that no wound healed without time. I hope that given enough time, I will come to an epiphany, or someone will happen to teach me just the right something, or I’ll learn to let go. It used to be harder. Now I have enough poems I’m waiting for that I’m much less afraid of famine.

Advice: Being published is a call someone else makes. It’s hard to know what to do to please others, and it’s maybe contrary to the place your poetry comes from. But someone’s first book changed you. Know that there are people waiting for yours.

Finding time to write: I make it an unquestioned part of my day, like brushing my teeth. There’s no day that becomes so busy you can’t find a moment to brush your teeth, because it’s everything else that finds a way to fit. Some days I only write a moment, but it adds up.

Putting the book together: Intuition and a series of broken systems. The same way I wrote them. There are a lot of love poems, but also a lot of poems about race and gender and justice and outer space and Greek mythology. I didn’t want someone to open the book and assume it was singularly any one of those things, so I color-coded the poems by theme and then arranged them by emotional intensity and tried to maintain a variance of color. I’ll never quite be able to explain it. I could barely fully feel it when it was happening.

What’s next: I’ve been experimenting with incorporating graphic design and visual elements into my work. Today we largely receive poetry through visual media: books and journals and websites. Like, it’s important to see the line breaks because often you wouldn’t hear them. Or how the white space between stanzas and between margins changes how a poem feels, changes the speed we read it. I want to push that. As far I can get it. I’m writing comics and lyric essays too. And video games. Interactive fiction.

Age: 36. 

Residence: Chicago. 

Job: Adjunct professor at Spalding University and writing and design contract work in video games. 

Time spent writing the book: Sometimes I’ll write the same poem dozens of times before I feel like one of those drafts is the poem, or I’ll take lines from finished poems and make a new one. It’s like the ship of Theseus: It’s impossible for me to figure out when anything really started.  But the earliest publication in the book, “The Lost Quatrain of the Ballad of a Red Field,” was published in Tidal Basin Review in 2010. 

Time spent finding a home for it: I’ve been trying since I was sixteen, but I got real serious about it ten years ago. I was so used to getting generic rejection letters! A week after I had decided to scrap the entire book again, I got a voice mail from Michael Wiegers. As I was calling him back I remember thinking, “They definitely already rejected me, didn’t they?” 

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press) by Alison C. Rollins and Brother Bullet (University of Arizona Press) by Casandra López. Go out and get both of them!


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

(Portraits by Eugene Smith)

Wilder Forms: Our Fourteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets


Dana Isokawa


This year’s focus on debut poets features ten of the most notable first books of poetry published in 2018. The selected books, which encompass a broad range of styles and subjects, take on complicated and weighty topics—Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us traces the impact of the Partition of India, Tacey M. Atsitty’s Rain Scald draws on Navajo ceremony to elegize and pray for the land, Mario Chard’s Land of Fire reckons with a sense of exile, and Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood and Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency contend with, among other issues, the injustices Black people have endured in America. Each poet seems to address the question Jenny George, author of The Dream of Reason, asks: “How much of our aliveness can we bear?” 

For all the gravity of the poets’ concerns, though, there is also a sense of play and invention throughout their work. Asghar’s book contains poems written as riffs on Mad Libs and bingo grids and crossword puzzles, José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal crackles with jokes, and Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin flashes with self-deprecating wit. When we asked the poets to describe the stories behind their books and how they work through writing impasses, many pointed to this balance between the serious and the playful. While writing his book, Olivarez says he wanted to tell stories with an “eye toward mischief.” Jenny Xie, author of Eye Level, says that when she reaches an impasse, it feels “completely necessary to lower the stakes, to restore some sense of play, or to build just for the sake of chasing a question, a sound, or the mind’s movements, wherever it leads.” Other poets describe it as the willingness to experiment—Clark discusses toying with different forms and syntax when she’s stuck—and other poets present it as daring: Diana Khoi Nguyen, author of Ghost Of, advises writers, “Dare to take on ambitious, large poetry projects that terrify you.” 

Whether it’s through mischief or experimentation or rebellion, through anger or pain or the process of recovery, the ten poets featured here all seem to seek the freedom to write without expectation, to eradicate feelings of obligation, and to proceed with a sense of possibility. And this, after all, is what we hope for most from a debut book of poetry: that we might meet language spoken in ways we haven’t previously encountered, that we might, as Xie says, find “wilder forms.” And perhaps the work of these poets might inspire you to play with new forms and move, as George says, “without attachment in a purposeful direction toward what it is you don’t know.”

Tiana Clark, Jenny George
José Olivarez, Jenny Xie
Justin Phillip Reed, Analicia Sotelo
Diana Khoi Nguyen, Mario Chard
Tacey M. Atsitty, Fatimah Asghar


Tiana Clark
I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood
University of Pittsburgh Press
(Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize)

I think about patience     and its stupid song.
I can’t wait—     Yes, I’m always looking     back.

                                                 at my dead.
from After Orpheus”

How it began: Survival. The seed of this collection is about poetry as a means of persistence, Black persistence: the extreme hyperbole of Black persistence itself, a tenacious ontological resolve, built and bred from struggle and resistance.

This collection emerged from my MFA thesis. However, after I graduated from my master’s program, I didn’t look at the book for four months. I needed a fallow season. I needed some voices to disappear. I am a deep people pleaser, and I lost my sense of control during the first draft of the book. So many edits were made to make my professors happy and to survive workshop. When I was finally ready to come back to the collection, I had clarity and freedom. I had learned to trust my own imagination again. The book revealed itself to me, and thousands of revisions ensued.

Inspiration: I’ll never forget the advice I received from Ross Gay when he visited Vanderbilt University for a reading and craft talk. I knew he had been a judge for several first-book contests, so I asked him what he looked for in a debut collection. He paused for a moment and said, “Broken shit.” He elaborated that he was interested in a collection that wasn’t highly curated but rather took great risks; even if some of the poems failed, he loved seeing new poets make magnificent attempts. My body slackened—and I took the deepest exhalation of my life. I’m paraphrasing his thoughts, but this notion that I didn’t have to have everything figured out provided a great sense of relief. It gave me permission to be audacious and messy with my work, to make mistakes, to risk making and breaking received forms, modulate my line breaks for speed and surprise, to split a sestina in tercets, to add air with caesuras to a sonnet, to reinterpret “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as my own, to add another epigraph to a poem despite what anyone has to say about too many epigraphs and so on—I say to you: broken shit.

Influences: Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Nina Simone, Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee, e. e. cummings, Kendra DeColo, Geffrey Davis, Bill Brown, Kate Daniels, Danez Smith, Donika Kelly, Hanif Abdurraqib, Natalie Diaz, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Jarman, Phillis Wheatley, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, June Jordan, Robert Lowell, Robert Duncan, T. S. Eliot, Muriel Rukeyser, Rita Dove, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ross Gay, Ada Limón, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Patricia Smith, Nikky Finney, Amiri Baraka, Kaveh Akbar, Dr. Houston A. Baker Jr., Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Fatimah Asghar, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Arthur Mitchell, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Rihanna, Nella Larsen, Audre Lorde, Federico García Lorca, and the list goes on and on.

Writer’s block remedy: I allow myself to take a break. I don’t force myself to write when the poem is breaking down or dissolving. I pivot. I read, often in another genre. I listen to music, sometimes the same song over and over (for this collection, it was mostly Nina Simone’s “22nd Century”). I clean or cook; accomplishing a simple task helps me feel like I’m still moving forward, especially when I feel like I’m failing. I take a bath. I watch TV with pleasure and without guilt.

For me, it’s crucial to let my writing ferment often in darkness and without my incessant need to revise and fiddle and fix. After a few hours or days, I’m excited to meet the poem again like a long-distance lover. All this anticipation has built up, and I’ve forgotten what has annoyed me about this person—I mean poem, ha! 

When I’m stuck I try to let my poems reveal themselves to me by experimenting with different containers. I will throw my poem in couplets, then tercets, or a ghazal. Sometimes I’ll employ what Carl Phillips calls the “grammatical mood” by changing tenses or adding a command or a question. With each costume change I’m weeding and slicing my syntax, and the poem can start to tell me what it wants from me. If I’m patient and attentive enough, the momentum of the poem swells and the shape starts to click into place like pushing down on matching puzzle pieces, satisfying.

Advice: Trust your imagination. Be on your own timetable. Ask yourself what you want out of this first-book process. Demand and determine your desires. Some advice from David Baker: “There is no hurry.” Some advice from my therapist: “Everything you want is not upstream.” Have a vision for your work before and after publication. Control your own narrative. Redefine what success means to you. Read or reread first books from your favorite poets. Write your own introduction to your collection. Ask a friend for their marketing questionnaire and fill it out. Trace your literary ancestry. Remember the last poem in your book is the entire book (I learned this from Nancy Reddy). Be kind to yourself and others. Keep submitting. Oh, and read this stunning excerpt from Heather Christle’s poem “Shelter in Place,” from the Harvard Review:

When you write a book you must not

forget to build a door you can use

to get out or else you will die there.

It is very exciting to make a new mistake.

Finding time to write: Due to teaching full-time and traveling for readings, I try to make the erratic and irregular nature of my schedule work for and not against me. For example, I often come up with poem ideas or lines in my car, so I’ll grab my phone and start recording. The major trick, for me, is to not only chase the impulse when it strikes, but to follow up on those notes whenever I can. My writing happens in a lot of intense bursts, so if an idea comes to me in the middle of a movie or during a conversation, I must stop and write it down. I’ve been woken up by a poem rattling through my body a few times too. I allow a new poem to take over my day, my weekend, all through the night when possible. 

I also try to give myself buckets of grace when I feel I’m not writing enough. I remind myself that paying intense attention to the world is also writing. Revising is writing. Resting is writing. Loving myself through my failures is a way into writing. Defining my own relationship to writing is writing.

Putting the book together: It took me about a year to organize the collection. My amazing thesis director, Kate Daniels, gave me the idea for the title, which comes from a line in my poem “The Rime of Nina Simone.” Once she voiced the idea, the bones of the book coalesced in my mind. Instantly, I knew wanted to organize the manuscript as a triptych from the title:

“I Can’t Talk”

“About the Trees”

“Without the Blood.”

This triad structure helped to define the themes and movements of each section and to guide the flow of the book. From there, I decided to shape each section into its own thematic collection like three mini chapbooks.

I wanted to bookend the collection with two poems that dealt with a racial epithet being hurled at the speaker. I began with “Nashville” as the prologue poem because I wanted to set the tone with this frantic chase between Apollo and Daphne, coupled with the speaker feverishly searching the mob repeating, “Who said it? Who said it? Who said it?” The hunt for an answer is at the seam of every poem in this collection. I then chose to end the triptych book with my triptych poem “How to Find the Center of a Circle,” a poem that circles back to the origin of the speaker, as a child, being called a “n—” for the first time by two white boys on roller skates. The wound at the end is raw, yet permanent. The trauma is in the past—indelible—but always fresh in the speaker’s mind, a wound that resists healing.

After the structure was set, I commenced with the floor stage. I printed out every poem and spread them out on the floor, shuffled papers in each section until an order and pattern revealed itself to me like a giant Magic Eye picture. I read the intros and outros of each poem out loud like musical arrangements, and then I addressed aesthetic concerns. I often think about the eyes and ears of the reader. After a long poem, I want their eyes to rest on shorter poem, but I want to maintain a satisfying balance between fulfilling and thwarting expectations. I think of bookmaking as curating a new exhibit in a museum, as deciding how much access I want my readers to have to each poem. Some poems want to be touched, others have a ten-foot velvet rope.

What’s next: I am working on my second book of poems, which is invested in transcending pain and exploring length. I am fascinated with reading and writing long poems at the moment. I am trying to take up as much space as I need on the page and not apologize for myself.

Similarly, I’ve also begun to write essays. The dilation from poetry to prose—letting my mind unspool without compression—has been a wonderful surprise. I have a new essay out from Oxford American, an immersive homage about Nina Simone. I was fortunate enough to visit her birthplace in Tryon, North Carolina, and also conduct an oral history with my family who live nearby in Lenoir, North Carolina, reckoning with the damage that made me. 

Age: 34. 

Residence: Edwardsville, Illinois.

Job: Assistant professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. 

Spent writing the book: Six years. The oldest poem in the collection, “The Ayes Have It,” after Trayvon Martin, is from 2012. In some ways, the book started after that tragic tipping point, which intertwines with my origin story in the South.

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

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: If They Come for Us (One World) by Fatimah Asghar, Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books) by José Olivarez, Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Julian Randall, Indecency (Coffee House Press) by Justin Phillip Reed, Virgin (Milkweed Editions) by Analicia Sotelo, A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco) by Emily Jungmin Yoon, Perennial (Coffee House Press) by Kelly Forsythe, and Ceremonial (Orison Books) by Carly Joy Miller.



Jenny George
The Dream of Reason
Copper Canyon Press

This is the afterlife, but
I’m not dead. I’m just
here in this field.
—from “Death of a Child”

How it began: The inquiry in these poems is shaped by the question: How much of our aliveness can we bear? Another way of asking that is: How much of our own capacity for violence must we tolerate in order to be fully awake? At the same time, I was very interested in humans’ complex, emotionally charged dependence on animal life and in the relationship between animal consciousness, dream consciousness, and childhood. These threads met in my work.

Inspiration: Fields and rivers; pigs and cows; object relations theory; Texas Hill Country; silence and solitude; Carl Jung; farming manuals; mystic traditions; conversations with my sister; dreams.

Influences: I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, the town where Emily Dickinson lived her whole life. Dickinson’s language was some of the first poetry I heard; that musicality and compression is still very much in me. I love Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich for political work with beauty and formal rigor. And Brigit Pegeen Kelly for restraint and mythic intelligence. I also read a lot of psychoanalysis. I read it like it’s poetry, in other words: to be moved, arrested, brought into relationship with my own interior.

Writer’s block remedy: I remind myself that language isn’t my job. Writing a poem isn’t my job. My job is the human job of waiting and listening, and language is just what poets use—like wind chimes—to catch the sound of the larger, more essential thing. Wind chimes themselves are not the point. The point is the wind.

Advice: All the best advice I’ve been given is some form of the same advice: A writing life is a long process, and engagement with the work itself is the antidote to fear and to anxiety around your career. The practice is to move without attachment in a purposeful direction toward what it is you don’t know. 

Finding time to write: I have a quiet and minimal life, and I work part-time, so I have space for writing.

Putting the book together: I shuffled my poems around fruitlessly for a long time before I realized there was content missing, which was why the book wouldn’t cohere. But I didn’t know what that content was. My mentor Louise Glück gave me some very good advice: She suggested that I discover the missing material by pushing myself to use new syntax, by writing different kinds of sentences than I typically do. Over time, the new sentences led to the new material that fleshed out the book. Then I sat down and tried various orders for the poems. At some point, the poems just clicked into place, down to the final poem—suddenly there was a deep, precise feeling, like a voice saying “Done.” That was an immensely satisfying moment.

What’s next: I am working on being more courageous. I’m starting to write poems again after a period of several years when I wasn’t writing at all because I was caring for my life partner who was sick with cancer. She died last year. Now I find myself asking: What is really crucial for me to write? What is my artistic responsibility—to my own lived experience, but also to the grave, raw need of the world in these times? Who must I be now as a writer? 

Age: 40. 

Residence: Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Job: I work in social-justice philanthropy.

Time spent writing the book: Eight years.

Time spent finding a home for it: One year.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Eye Level (Graywolf Press) by Jenny Xie, The Lumberjack’s Dove (Ecco) by GennaRose Nethercott, Ghost Of (Omnidawn Publishing) by Diana Khoi Nguyen, Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Julian Randall, and Half-Hazard (Graywolf Press) by Kristen Tracy.

José Olivarez
Citizen Illegal
Haymarket Books

i killed a plant once because i gave 
it too much water. lord, i worry 
that love is violence.
—from “Getting Ready to Say I Love You to My Dad, It Rains”

How it began: There are a couple of origins. The first was just play. I was unsatisfied with the narratives that were emerging in my poems. The speakers seemed too stiff, so I kept playing with those stories and narratives with an eye toward mischief. The second origin is that I was unimpressed by the narratives I saw about Chicanx people in culture. The narrative the news tells us is so tired. Either we’re model minorities or we’re experiencing violent trauma. I set about to write poems that felt realer to me and my particular Midwestern Chicano experience.

Inspiration: My brothers inspire me the most. All I do is laugh when I hang out with them. I stole all the good jokes in my book from them.

Influences: Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros, Aracelis Girmay, and Ada Limón are four poets whose work teaches me how to see new possibilities in poems. When I get stuck, I turn to Chicago visual artists Sentrock, Victoria Martinez, Yvette Mayorga, Kane One, and Runsy. I usually write in silence, but when I’m walking around the city gathering images, I’m listening to Kaina, VICTOR!, Sen Morimoto, Joseph Chilliams, and Saba. My friends are brilliant. Erika Stallings is such a great partner: She encourages me to write more courageously just by the way she lives.

Writer’s block remedy: I used to try to write every day, and I would get upset when I failed to keep this goal. And I often failed. I’ve learned that even though writing every day works for some people, it doesn’t work for me. So when I reach an impasse, I go for a walk. I eat ice cream. I call someone I love. I trust myself to come back to the work and try again.

Advice: My advice is to read as much as you can. Write a lot. Experiment in your poems. If you start to notice patterns in your poems, see if you can break them. Be generous to other writers. Remember that ciphers rise together.

Finding time to write: A lot of times I don’t find time to write. I have to reassess constantly to make time to read and write. I prefer to write early in the morning, but sometimes that’s not possible. I try to be flexible about finding time.

Putting the book together: My major breakthrough was splitting “Mexican Heaven,” which I wrote as one poem, into eight separate poems that happen throughout the book. I knew that I wanted the reader to keep arriving at those “Mexican Heaven” poems. Nate Marshall deserves credit too. He helped me rework the sections the night before I turned in the manuscript.

What’s next: Celebrating this book. The next project will come, but I just published this book, so I’m going to celebrate for a bit.

Age: 30.

Residence: Chicago.

Job: I write. I perform. I teach. I work at Young Chicago Authors, a nonprofit that organizes writing workshops, teaching residencies, poetry festivals, and more for young people. While writing this book, I was also a freelance tutor and a freelance arts administrator.

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poem dates back to my sophomore year of college in 2007, but the vast majority of these poems were written in bursts between 2014 and 2018.

Time spent finding a home for it: I found a publisher before I finished the manuscript. I have a longstanding relationship with Haymarket Books and the editors of the BreakBeat series, so I knew they were interested whenever I was ready to show them something.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: If They Come For Us (One World) by Fatimah Asghar, Black Queer Hoe (Haymarket Books) by Britteney Black Rose Kapri, Throwing the Crown (American Poetry Review) by Jacob Saenz, A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco) by Emily Jungmin Yoon, Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Julian Randall, and Virgin (Milkweed Editions) by Analicia Sotelo.


Jenny Xie
Eye Level
Graywolf Press
(Walt Whitman Award)

Desire makes beggars out of each and every one of us.

Cavity that cannot close.
That cracks open more distances.
—from “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season”

How it began: Some of the very earliest poems in this book were seeded in graduate school and crafted after a few years’ hiatus from writing poetry. I’d built up a mass of mental knots and stubborn questions, some of which had been born out of my time living abroad in Hong Kong and Cambodia. Others came out of certain appetites developed through reading: the drive to try out wilder forms or tones, to carry out conversation with selves I wanted to invite onto the page, to think and feel my way through certain modes, and so on. I’d also always been interested in sight as a manner of consuming and constructing the world and curious about how we are shaped by visual encounters and entanglements. This was showing in the poems, but it wasn’t until later that I saw the connective thread.

Inspiration: Basho’s travel writings; Forrest Gander’s Core Samples From the World (New Directions, 2011); Anne Carson’s poetry and translations; Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); books of translated Chinese poetry from Zephyr Press; sequences from the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Wim Wenders, and Chris Marker; Zen Buddhist literature and koans; critical theory; and the bottomless complexity of other people.

Influences: There are so many, more than I can name here. Some constants: Tracy K. Smith, James Richardson, Eduardo C. Corral, Li Shangyin, On Kawara, C. D. Wright, Linda Gregg, Brenda Shaughnessy, Anne Carson, Jeff Nunokawa, Ilya Kaminsky, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jean Valentine, Andrei Tarkovsky, Meghan O’Rourke, Rigoberto González, Deborah Landau, Sylvia Plath, Henri Cole, Sarah Manguso, Sahar Muradi, Vivian Gornick, and Yiyun Li. Also, the work of my friends, which I keep close.

Writer’s block remedy: Impasses often arrive when I’m heeding demands made by the ego. To work through it I find I need to extinguish self-set expectations for how I need to write and at what pace—concerns intertwined with how I anticipate the work will be seen. To keep going I have to strip myself of that layer of self-consciousness and self-watching. It feels completely necessary to lower the stakes, to restore some sense of play, or to build just for the sake of chasing a question, a sound, or the mind’s movements, wherever it leads. 

Advice: This is advice that gets repeated quite often, but I think there’s firm wisdom in it: Take your time, block out the noise that aims to conflate the work of writing with being visible as a writer, and hold out for a publisher whom you have faith in. I don’t regret at all not publishing my first book sooner, and I’m frankly relieved I didn’t send out earlier iterations. I also think that getting too much feedback on poems and manuscript drafts can be inhibiting at times and may lead you to mistrust your instincts, so be thoughtful about whom you choose to show your work to and at what stage.

Finding time to write: It’s difficult to find the time, especially when other demands seem to press much closer to the skin of daily life. Most days it feels less like locating a stretch of time that’s available for the claiming, and more like forcibly insisting on the clearing of space. Since I don’t have the inclination to write in small bursts, I need to be intentional about setting aside at least a few hours or half a day. When I’m off from teaching, the aim is to treat writing like any other work, which it is. This means if I mark off time to write, I can’t go off to run small errands, agree to coffee with friends or acquaintances, sit in front of my phone answering text messages and e-mails, or distract myself by chipping away at random tasks. When I’m teaching, I have to be in the classroom and devote my full attention to being there. What I owe to the students, I owe to my writing practice too.

Putting the book together: I didn’t entertain any ideas about ordering until I knew I’d accumulated enough poems to at least reach the minimum number of pages for a full-length poetry manuscript. It seemed to me a far more daunting task to write poems than to order them, which isn’t to say the latter came easily. 

When I had enough pages for a book, I printed all of the pages and separated them into piles. Some poems had clear relations, some seemed to be in dialogue, and some shared certain affinities or preoccupations. After this period of grouping, I thought about the ordering within these sections and tried to organize with an eye toward the movements across the poems. Thinking by way of film metaphors proved useful; I tried to visualize the “shots” that the poems presented and how they dissolved or cut to ones after. Some poems seemed to be invitations into some space or mood, so I would usher those to the front. Others felt like they faced in a different direction—outward toward some far-off horizon. Those I might save for the ends of sections. Slowly, I began to see the contours. Doubtless there was a good deal of accident and chance in all of it too.

What’s next: At the moment, I’m not yet writing toward another collection. I’ve been putting together new poems here and there, but I don’t know if they fit inside something yet or are threaded together in any coherent way.

In response to this same question, in these same pages, Rickey Laurentiis wrote that he was working to access “the kind of specific ignorance one writes from before the first book gets published: when you’re simply writing poem by poem because of some insistence that you have to.” This resonates quite strongly with me.

Age: 32.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I teach writing to undergraduates at New York University.

Time spent writing the book: Some of these poems had their start more than six years ago, but those were radically revised and rewritten. Much of the manuscript was shaped and written between 2014 and 2016, although I continued to write and tinker with the manuscript until August 2017, when I had to turn in my final edits.

Time spent finding a home for it: I had been sending out manuscript to a handful of contests for about a year or so. It was in the second round of sending out the manuscript that I received a call from Jen Benka from the Academy of American Poets. She let me know that Juan Felipe Herrera had selected it. I was very lucky in that respect.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin (Milkweed Editions), Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco), Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press), Chase Berggrun’s R E D (Birds, LLC), Amy Meng’s Bridled (Pleiades Press), Carly Joy Miller’s Ceremonial (Orison Books), Ben Purkert’s For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books), Celina Su’s Landia (Belladonna*), Soham Patel’s to afar from afar (Civil Coping Mechanisms), Mia Ayumi Malhotra’s Isako Isako (Alice James Books), Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency (Coffee House Press), Faisal Mohyuddin’s The Displaced Children of Displaced Children (Eyewear Publishing), Kelly Forsythe’s Perennial (Coffee House Press), Nabila Lovelace’s Sons of Achilles (YesYes Books), Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of (Omnidawn Publishing), and Duy Doan’s We Play a Game (Yale University Press).

Justin Phillip Reed
Coffee House Press

their whole heavy tongue slack
in my own throat, opiate-slow.
from “Anesthesia Is a Country You Leave for America”

How it began: It didn’t exist yet. I don’t mean that to be snide or dismissive. I wrote the poems in Indecency because I had not found them elsewhere. I needed text to represent and then transform the way that my body and my many iterations of self move through my life and its various environments.

Inspiration: It’s difficult to whittle this down, as I welcome inspiration from almost everything I encounter. I’ve been prompted to write by social-media posts, news articles, sculptures, paintings, songs, and films (with poems in direct conversation with Alien, Queen of the Damned, The Hitcher, The Witch, and a few porno clips). Most reliably my inspiration has come through reading literature, including essays, novels, and plays, in addition to poetry collections. I’ve found venturing out of my living space and spending time among natural landscapes to be an invaluable, productive practice. My local parks and rural landscapes have probably yielded most of the poems in my current manuscript-in-progress. 

Influences: This may be quite a catalogue of shoutouts. My teachers, of course: Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Bang, Wayne Thomas, Heather Elouej, Desirae Matherly, and Clay Matthews, to name a few. The writers—friends and peers among them—Dawn Lundy Martin, Douglas Kearney, CM Burroughs, Claudia Rankine, Timothy Donnelly, Frank Bidart, francine j. harris, Khadijah Queen, Blair Johnson, Harryette Mullen, James Baldwin, Jericho Brown, Essex Hemphill, Phillip B. Williams, Rickey Laurentiis, Jonah Mixon-Webster, and Jayson P. Smith. In my most recent work, I see the influences of Jorie Graham, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Jay Wright, Wallace Stevens, Federico García Lorca, and others. Quiet as it’s kept, I’ve been heavily influenced by the band Deftones and Chino Moreno’s lyrics, as well as music by Marilyn Manson, From First to Last, and—perhaps less quietly—the moods of Radiohead and Massive Attack.   

Writer’s block remedy: I revise, and I engage the work of other artists in various genres and media. From the friction between these two acts emerges the magnetism of new work, typically. What keeps me going is a conflict of awe and disappointment. Either I’m writing a poem that I’m sorry to have never read or written before, and/or I’m writing toward a feeling of dumbstruckness—sometimes to construct a similar feeling (the “inspiration”), and sometimes to create a sensation that doesn’t elsewhere exist in my life. I’m not terribly invested, though, in the idea of impasse. I can pass, and I prefer to—to write beyond where I expected to land in the lyric. 

Advice: Be patient and respect your instincts. Write the book you never expected to have in you. Contest judges and publishers, if they are right for you, can wait for that. Take time away from your manuscript and return with renewed energy. Recruit a few invested readers of your work—not many—and hear their feedback. Remember that you’re creating an artwork with which you will, fortunately, have to live. Aspire to a consistent book of poems where each poem puts in work and not for a handful of collections from which only a few poems apiece, if that, emerge. I will attempt to do the same.

Finding time to write: I don’t write consistently, and I certainly don’t write on a set schedule. I was taught that I should write every day, and while I think I do this in many forms, my practice doesn’t include carving out a piece of each day to sit down and attempt a poem. I try to carry my notebook with me everywhere I go, even when I know I won’t open it. My poems typically arrive in seasons. For a few months, I will write a poem every other day; it’s an ecstatic experience, and I live for it. But in the time between those seasons, I acknowledge that each moment has the potential to lodge a parcel of poetry in my mind and body—be it an image, an utterance, a somatic response, a gesture, or a sound.

Essays, though, are a different matter. When I write them, I write feverishly. Essaying finds me in a tenuous state because I’m liable to ignore such necessities as meals and regular sleep, to be late for work or distracted while there, and to grasp for my vices. While I welcome a poem to unravel from the edge of a dream and wake me up, I find a good deal of stress in how unavailable I become to myself when researching for and writing an essay. I sort of resent the possessive gravity of essaying. There’s a want for grace in it.  

Putting the book together: I let a more imaginative, intelligent, and prolific writer, Khadijah Queen, arrange it according to her experience of the poems. The order became a matter of resonance, a sort of ambulance effect of subjects and images. Also, people have asked me why Indecency has no section breaks: I wrote the book during a clearly intentional barrage of state-sanctioned murders of Black people and in a state of personal exhaustion—physical, emotional, spiritual. I wished to simulate that in the object itself, as much as it was possible. There is little pause. The onslaught is reciprocal.

What’s next: My sophomore collection of poems, at least three essays, my intuition, surviving winter, and the understanding that I’m worthy of a lot and am entitled to nothing.

Age: 29.

Residence: Saint Louis.

Job: An assortment of things that don’t include “gain exposure” and do include making art. I work as a server. I lead community poetry workshops when the time is right. I visit universities to deliver readings and lectures. I publish essays. I sometimes win monetary awards for my writing. All of these contribute in some way to subsidizing my living costs. In my mind, I live to write and to read and discuss writing, so what I do for a living is done to protect and enhance that particular livelihood. It’s largely a lesson in patience and intuition.

Time spent writing the book: In my body? My whole life. On paper? Let’s say three years. While I produced the majority of the poems as part of, or at least during, the creation of my MFA thesis, I like to think that they’ve been coming along for many years, reinterpreting here and there previous lived experiences and struggling for language to articulate feelings I’ve known for much longer than I’ve written poems.

Time spent finding a home for it: According to my personal publication datasheet, I started sending out drafts of the manuscript that would become Indecency in Fall 2014, which would leave a little over a year until I was in conversation with Coffee House Press. In that brief time, it was rejected on at least seven occasions—which, I understand, is relatively slight. Honestly, I felt during that time a distinct paranoia that I would be shot by police or similarly dispatched or driven to an otherwise ill fate before the book would meet the world. I am not exaggerating. This anxiety spurred me to spend much of my time trying to ensure its publication, and it is not an energy that I miss. I wish the circumstances had been different, but of course I would have written a different book. 

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: I didn’t read many debuts in 2018 while I allowed myself some space to gain productive distance from the inundating business of contemporary poetry. I wanted to better understand my voice and art as part of a continually unfolding lineage, ancestral and otherwise. Perhaps this is somewhat irresponsible, given how fortunate I am that Indecency has enjoyed such graceful and careful readership in the year of its release, but I also have hope that someone will read it years from now and welcome it then. Likewise, there are debuts stronger than my own that I look forward to experiencing in the future; good reading is timeless. That said, Sons of Achilles (YesYes Books) by Nabila Lovelace is an astounding arrival and deserves your attention. Lovelace is incomparably generous and perceptive, and I’m lucky to live and write in her lifetime.


Analicia Sotelo
Milkweed Editions
(Jake Adam York Prize)

My veil is fried tongue & chicken wire, 
hanging off to one side.

I am a Mexican American fascinator.
—from “Do You Speak Virgin?”

How it began: All I thought about when writing this book was whether the poems were honest in their investigations. While there are many poets I love, I don’t always think of their collections as a whole. I think instead of beautiful, sonic, individual poems and strong lines. I like it when a poem visits me unexpectedly while I’m doing the dishes or sitting around trying to figure out a feeling. There’s an emotional connection that a good, powerful poem can make across timelines and spaces. I often think there is so much more to that poem than the poet who originally wrote it. I think a poem is sometimes a conversation that was so powerful it was meant to continue. 

With this collection I tried to honor the power that language carries by writing first, then seeing what might go together. I like to explore the feelings between feelings, the relationships that aren’t exactly linear. That led me to an anachronistic project through which I wrote from the perspective of a young woman trying to understand love, loneliness, and desire. At times Greek myth, Victorian life, and the Southwestern landscape all arrived in the same poem. I was questioning what has changed and not changed about the power dynamics of relationships. The book shaped itself in the spirit of that transformation.

Inspiration: How a delicious, quiet dinner can make a conversation with a friend go on for hours until, by the end of it, life seems a little nicer. The titles of most surrealist works. Bodies of water. Art nouveau. Thrift shops. Victorian curiosities. Old love songs. New love songs. 

Influences: Elizabeth Bishop, Larry Levis, Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, Franz Wright, Dorothea Lasky, Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, Lorrie Moore, Andre Dubus, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville. In music: Janelle Monae, Lianne La Havas, Corinne Bailey Rae. Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Bill Evans, or any of the old-timey love songs that are irresistible even now. All the ones obsessed with longing. In visual art, everyone. Clyfford Still, Marc Chagall, René Magritte, my mom.

Writer’s block remedy: I’ve decided I don’t always have to be writing. I let myself live and try to let go of the pressure to always physically write. In some ways it feels like I’m collecting feeling. That’s not to say I don’t sit down and try regularly to get something on the page, but it might not look like a poem. It might look like writing in a journal about what I’ve seen and heard that day. That process helps me feel more willing to listen to what’s possible rather than predetermine what I think I should be on the page. 

Advice: Try to write authentically and read as much as possible; make notes on all of your favorite first books, and love poems more than publishing. Love poems.

Finding time to write: I try to leave every Saturday morning and early afternoon open to reading and thinking. On a good week, I wake up early and make coffee. Then I wait awhile, and I wake up to the world and try.

Putting the book together: At first, I tried to organize the poems as if they were emotional waves. I ate a lot of dark chocolate and drank copious amounts of black tea. I showed the poems to a couple of people, but they were sitting a little flatly next to each other, all the poems about heartbreak stacking on top of one another with very little breathing room. I read books and more books, and I thought about how I admire when a poet’s book has an overall form that gives their poems some space for me to absorb them. When I reordered Virgin, I was doing something labyrinthine. Each section is a path, with the poems in “Pastoral” leading into the poems in “Parable,” and then “Myth,” and so on. I wanted the reader to feel a little lost, but always aware of where they were, just as Ariadne leads Theseus through the maze of himself, only to find herself needing to articulate what it means to love someone that way. 

What’s next: I’ve been playing with nonfiction and fiction, as well as some new poems. I feel very superstitious about it all. My dad taught me one of my favorite clichés: “Don’t talk about the cake before it’s done.” It is one of the only clichés I have allowed myself to love, perhaps because I really do love most kinds of cake. But to give a hint and break the adage: I’m interested in color right now. Color and light.

Age: 32.

Residence: Houston, Texas.

Job: I work in communications, marketing, and development at a nonprofit.

Time spent writing the book: Seven years. Some poems took seven years of relentless tinkering, some took a few months, and some closer to a week. There were many things in between the drafts, like work and school and relationships. I have so many other drafts I never finished or published that are early versions of these, all in pieces. They’re a mess, but an important mess, because they show me how hard I was on myself, trying to get the poems just right, while not actually being honest with myself or even really enjoying the writing. I needed to trust myself to intuit my way through the process. After I started tuning in that way, it came together pretty quickly.

Time spent finding a home for it: I think I sent out the manuscript for a couple of years, while continually revising before it was chosen by Ross Gay for the Jake Adam York Prize run by Copper Nickel and Milkweed Editions. I had convinced myself it could take up to five years to get the book placed, and that I would write and rewrite it until I found a home for it.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: I enjoyed Eye Level (Graywolf Press) by Jenny Xie. 

Diana Khoi Nguyen
Ghost Of
Omnidawn Publishing

n empty hou
se, her siste
  rs dead bel
  ow her; no
  wind, no r
  ain; we st
—from “Triptych”

How it began: The suicide of my brother, which led me to look closer at my immediate familial history and then my parents’ histories in Vietnam and after the Vietnam War.

Inspiration: Max Richter, HBO’s The Leftovers, the Mediterranean Sea.

Influences: Abbas Kiarostami and his film Close-Up, Lucie Brock-Broido, Cal Bedient, Danh Vo, Harold Pinter, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Eliot Weinberger, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson.

Writer’s block remedy: I turn to other media, schools of thought. I read science texts, immerse myself in visual art and film, listen to avant-garde composers.

Advice: Be uncomfortable. Get lost intentionally. Dare to take on ambitious, large poetry projects that terrify you.

Putting the book together: By starting at the junction of my brother’s death and my ongoing life—and then weaving in familial histories, which include my parents’ exodus from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. I knew I wanted three sections in the book because my parents had three children: me, my sister, and my brother. Even though my brother is no longer with us, I wanted to keep the trinity intact.

What’s next: My PhD dissertation, a multi-modal collection that includes poetry, drama, and multimedia work (video-poems, site installations), all of which will explore poetry as a stylistic mode that manifests in multiple media and activates narratives in both Vietnamese and English as a visionary vehicle of resilience for refugees and children of refugees.

Age: 33.

Residence: Denver.

Job: Assistant professor of teaching at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

Time spent writing the book: Thirty days—fifteen in August and fifteen in December of 2016.

Time spent writing the book: Astonishingly fast—four months.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Jenny Xie’s Eye Level (Graywolf Press) and Duy Doan’s We Play a Game (Yale University Press).



Mario Chard
Land of Fire
Tupelo Press
(Dorset Prize)

What is your name? they said.    
     I am nameless I said.
          Yes they said.
 —from “Renditions”

How it began: I wanted to write poems about migration, war, parenthood, and childhood. But without authority beyond attention or observation, I wrote through personal implication. Migration is still the book’s heart. My mother waited twenty years to return to Argentina after marrying my father in the States—it took my parents twenty years to afford a trip back for all of us, back across the borders. And the truth is we couldn’t really afford that trip, but my parents took us, their four children, and the trip changed our lives. Today I know and work with many people who make regular trips home to their countries of origin or heritage; people who could, this afternoon, buy the first flight out to anywhere. And that, for me, proves the myth of borders: not of sovereignty or nationality, but the myth of their permanence, their precedence. How we often confuse what was given, found, or taken with what is owed, native, or heritage. The book was a reflection of my desire to understand why. 

Inspiration: Memory first. Great anger. The empty space a sense of recognition might fill and hasn’t. But also what has filled it: my wife, Wendy, and our sons. My family. And the greatest poem of exile and migration, parenthood and childhood: Milton’s Paradise Lost. And Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. The trees of Silicon Valley. Straight-line winds in Indiana. The desert outside Blanding, Utah.

Influences: Frost is my first wonder, followed quickly by Neruda. For these poems in particular, Milton and Herbert and Borges. All my teachers, and perhaps especially Marianne Boruch and Mary Leader. Naomi Shihab Nye. My friend Travis Crane and many others dead and many living. The list is much longer.

Writer’s block remedy: The impasse is never with the writing itself; it is with the reasons to keep going. I read Jericho Brown on Twitter recently: “Real gratitude looks like responsibility.” Yes, absolutely. I have reasons to be grateful—many. I was born on one side of a border that people this moment are marching toward from the other side. And what have I done? What am I doing? I have no right to speak for them, but I can listen. I can remember. I can be grateful. And grateful, I am responsible: to my family, to my people. I am responsible to the borders of my body, to my country, and what they will become. Poetry is an expression of gratitude. It is an action. There is too much to learn and do. I have a suspicion that many of our impasses are rooted in ingratitude. 

Advice: There may be only one Pacific, but there are many peaks in Keats’s Darien. I am grateful for those who cleared the path for me. I am grateful for the peaks I climbed alone. I am grateful for advice generally and suspicious of its worth. The conquistadors wept when they saw the ocean. Standing on the same ground, those they enslaved knew the sight from birth.

Finding time to write: With difficulty. Even with reluctance on some days. I remember the writers I love describing their sense of discipline to me: waking early to write, clocking in, and clocking out. I’ve tried both. I even took my briefcase hiking once, and everyone who passed me climbing down or climbing up laughed at the sight. But every day I carry that briefcase: I try. And sometimes I get an afternoon or a morning, and those are good days. And most days I live until it gets too heavy to carry and then I write.

Putting the book together: With obsession and revision. “Caballero,” a documentary poem in six sections, was the central weight. The rest of the poems would orbit its gravity. Sometime before publication, Jim Schley, the managing editor of Tupelo Press, reminded me that people rarely pick up a book of poetry and start from the first page (especially people new to that book or poet). So I knew that if someone were to thumb through it—looking for a short poem, an aesthetic idea of one, a line—the book needed to survive. The poems needed to persuade on their own. I still believe, however, that the best way to read Land of Fire would be from the first page to the last. It begins in the desert and ends in mountain snow.

What’s next: Every night for ten years when I was growing up, my family cleaned a grocery store called Jubilee. I am writing what my family saw there and what we learned. What I haven’t learned yet.

Age: 33.

Residence: Atlanta.

Job: Teacher at an independent high school.

Time spent writing the book: An arc of ten years. But I wrote and finished the majority of the book from 2011 to 2013.

Time spent finding a home for it: Four years or four months. Land of Fire was a manuscript in search of a home for four years, but the moment I saw its order, the moment after something in me confirmed it, I saw it as a book. I knew what it was. It was accepted four months later.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Cenzontle (BOA Editions) by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press) by Jenny George come immediately to mind. Many others I know in pieces and am eager to see their finished forms. We live in a lucky age.


Tacey M. Atsitty
Rain Scald
University of New Mexico Press

O Holy People, show me how I am human,
how I am soon to sliver.
—from “Evensong”

How it began: Healing, mostly. In Rain Scald you can find several histories that call for ceremony. But this was also my master’s thesis, so most of the writing was done in Ithaca, New York, where I lived for two years. Experiences I had in the gorges with the Cornell University community and neighboring tribes of Cayuga and Onondaga and Oneida influenced the genesis of this book. And I took a deeper look into the stories that land holds, both in New York and back home in the canyons of Arizona.

Inspiration: Jesus Christ, the land, death, love, almost-loves, memory of childhood experiences, and my family and ancestors both near and far.

Influences: My cohort at Cornell and my professors Alice Fulton and Kenneth McClane had the most influence on this work. I gleaned so much from everyone in my workshops—reading, hearing, and internalizing their work on a weekly basis for years was a blessing. Additionally I often listen to music while writing. Once I find the song that holds the emotion of the poem, I’ll play it on repeat for hours, sometimes days, until the piece I’m working on is ready. One song that helped me immensely was Louie Gonnie’s “Hooghan,” a Navajo early morning blessing song, and also Samantha Crain’s album Songs in the Night.

Writer’s block remedy: Prayer, desire, and knowing that I am a writer. It’s my makeup, a big part of who I am. Also, great friends who are poets, such as Benjamin Garcia, who are invested in my work and push me.

Advice: I know for some poets, myself included, it’s not our strong suit to be social, but networking and joining a community of writers can be beneficial, not only for publishing one’s work, but for building and strengthening ties and relationships. 

Finding time to write: As of late it’s been difficult to keep to a strict regime of writing, but when the lines come, they flow—I’ll run for pen and paper to get those lines down. Sometimes they’re just lines, and sometimes they fill out into an entire poem. Winter will free up some time for me, so I’m excited to see what the lovely gray skies will hold.

Putting the book together: Ceremony played a full role in the organization of Rain Scald.

What’s next: A second manuscript of poetry is currently underway. I’m just over halfway through, but got a ways to go still. 

Age: 36.

Residence: Salt Lake City. 

Job: Native American program coordinator at a state historical park.

Time spent writing the book: The two years of graduate school. 

Time spent finding a home for it: Not a month out of graduate school I was contacted by Laura Tohe, an acquiring editor for the University of New Mexico Press. She knew I had recently graduated with my MFA and asked if I had a manuscript to submit for review. There were years of revision, however, between that time and when the manuscript was accepted for publication.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Crisosto Apache’s Genesis (Lost Alphabet), Analicia Soleto’s Virgin (Milkweed Editions), Katherine DiBella Seluja’s Gather the Night (University of New Mexico Press) Fernando Perez’s Song of Dismantling (University of New Mexico Press), and Kristen Tracy’s Half-Hazard (Graywolf Press).


Fatimah Asghar
If They Come For Us
One World

…my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come…
  —from “If They Come for Us”


How it began: I was writing a lot of poems that were about my childhood, and my friend Kevin Coval pulled me aside one day and said, “You have a book you’re writing, and you should start compiling everything.” Sometimes someone else can see your potential when you can’t. So I compiled all my poems and looked at themes. It became really apparent to me that I was writing about my childhood, but I was also writing about historical legacy. I was writing about the things that we inherit historically, but also the way that both familial and historical violence sever those inheritances.

Inspiration: Years ago one of my uncles told me about how our family had to leave Kashmir during Partition. This sparked my obsession with Partition. For a long time I just couldn’t stop reading about it. I can’t explain what it feels like to be a marginalized person and not have your history taught in classrooms. And to also consider that 1947 was not that long ago and that history is one long conversation—and historical traumas continue to impact us today. Additionally, living in Chicago and crafting most of the book there was tremendously influential. Chicago’s artistic scene is incredibly vibrant and something that I’m always inspired by. It’s in the tradition of Chicago writers to embody a poetics of witness, which I strive to do. 

Influences: So many. Krista Franklin, Douglas Kearney, Tarfia Faizullah, Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, Patricia Smith, Arundhati Roy, Sandra Cisneros, Danez Smith, Franny Choi, Nate Marshall, Jamila Woods, Aaron Samuels, Safia Elhillo, Angel Nafis, Hanif Abdurraqib, Kaveh Akbar, Hieu Minh Nguyen, José Olivarez. I can go on forever.

Writer’s block remedy: I take a break. I think that if you bang your head against the wall trying to create, you’re going to resent the process of creation. Usually when you reach an impasse it’s a signal to move on to another thing. Maybe you haven’t slept in a while. Maybe you need some time to ponder, to just stare at the wall. Maybe you need to live, truly be alive for a little and not near a computer. Maybe you need to read, see, watch—to refill your well. 

Advice: I’d say you’re on no one else’s timeline. I know how anxiety-ridden it can feel when you don’t have a book out, and you feel the pressure to produce and put it out. But one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to wait and really craft a book that I would be proud to call my first book. What does that mean to you, to have a body of work that you would feel really proud to stand by? You can take your time. 

Finding time to write: Over the last year and a half I’ve been lucky enough that writing has become my full-time career. So for me, writing is my job. I was a teaching artist before that; I worked two jobs and toured. So I would just find time whenever I could and actively make time: I often wrote alongside my students in workshops. I woke up early. I stayed up late.

Putting the book together: It went through a lot of different orders, sections, and thematic renderings. My friends helped a lot, as did my editor, Nicole Counts. It was a really long, frustrating process of constantly looking at all the poems on the floor of my room and shifting stuff around. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that the Partition poems were woven throughout the book and not grouped off in one section alone, because I wanted to show the way that Partition echoes in my life. 

What’s next: A few different writing projects that aren’t poetry. I’m taking my time with writing poems again. I need to replenish my well a bit. 

Age: 29.

Residence: I am back and forth between Los Angeles and Chicago a lot.

Job: Artist.

Time spent writing the book: This is an impossible question, because every poem I’ve ever written was a craft lesson to another poem, which led to the book. So really, if we look at it this way, we’re looking at a really long-ass time. But the two oldest poems in the book are from my chapbook, After, which was released in 2015. But I didn’t start working on If They Come for Us in earnest until after the chapbook was out, so I’d say three years.

Time spent finding a home for it: A few months. I didn’t start sending the book out until Fall/ Winter 2016. It was picked up by One World/Random House in Spring 2017.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Indecency (Coffee House Press) by Justin Phillip Reed, Stereo(TYPE) (Ahsahta Press) by Jonah Mixon-Weber, and Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books) by José Olivarez.

(Portraits by Eugene Smith.)

The Whole Self: Our Thirteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets


Dana Isokawa


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

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

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


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


Kaveh Akbar
Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Alice James Books

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

as a bird flying over state lines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 28.

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

Residence: Lafayette, Indiana.

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

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

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

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



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

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

—from “Rebel Prelude”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 45.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the things
I meant to do are burnt spoons

hanging from the porch like chimes.

—from “Naloxone”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 28.

Hometown: Morgantown, West Virginia.

Residence: Oakland.

Job: Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

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

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

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



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

My job is to trick

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

            —from “Spell to Find Family”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 28.

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

Residence: Lubbock, Texas.

Job: Doctoral student at Texas Tech University.

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

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

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

Eve L. Ewing
Electric Arches
Haymarket Books

they mailed me from Mississippi
in a metal ice chest

—from “how i arrived”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 31.

Hometown and Residence: Chicago.

Job: Professor at the University of Chicago and writer.

Time spent writing the book: Three years.

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

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




Jenny Johnson
In Full Velvet
Sarabande Books

Let us speak without occasion
of relations of our choosing!

—from “Gay Marriage Poem”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 38.

Hometown: Winchester, Virginia.

Residence: Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

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

sam sax
Penguin Books (National Poetry Series)

you either love the world
or you live in it

            —from “Warning: Red Liquid”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 31.

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

Residence: Brooklyn, New York.

Job: I teach poetry and give readings.

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

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

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



Emily Skillings
Fort Not
The Song Cave

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

            —from “Crystal Radio”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 29.

Hometown: Brunswick, Maine.

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

Job: Assistant to poets and an adjunct professor.

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

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

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


Joseph Rios
Shadowboxing: Poems & Impersonations
Omnidawn Publishing

I am the American, güey

            —from “Southpaw Curse”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 30.

Hometown: Clovis, California.

Residence: Los Angeles.

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

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

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

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



Layli Long Soldier
Graywolf Press

make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses

            —from “Part 1: These Being the Concerns”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 45.

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

Residence: Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Job: Write, make art, do readings.

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

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

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


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

Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets


Dana Isokawa


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

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

Ari Banias

Ari Banias
W. W. Norton

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

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

—from “Recognition Is the Misrecognition You Can Bear”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 38. Ari Banias Cover

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

Residence: Berkeley, California.

Job: I work at Small Press Distribution.

Time spent writing the book: Nine years.

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


Ocean VuongOcean Vuong
Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 28.

Hometown: Hartford, Connecticut.

Residence: New York City.

Job: Writer and teacher.

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

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




Jana Prikryl

Jana Prikryl
The After Party
Tim Duggan Books

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 41. Jana Prikryl Cover

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

Residence: New York City.

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

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

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

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

“We live in a copy
            of Eden, a copy

that depends on violence.”           

—from “Albeit”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 40. Carolina Ebeid Cover

Hometown: West New York, New Jersey.

Residence: Denver.

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

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

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

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


Solmaz SharifSolmaz Sharif
Graywolf Press

“It matters what you call a thing.”

—from “Look”


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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 33. Solmaz Sharif Cover

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

Residence: Oakland.

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

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

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


Phillip B. Williams

Phillip B. Williams
Thief in the Interior
Alice James Books

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 30. Phillip B. Williams Cover

Hometown: Chicago.

Residence: Bennington, Vermont.

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

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

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


Eleanor Chai Eleanor Chai
Standing Water
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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

—from “Little Girl’s Auricle”


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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 49. Eleanor Chai Cover

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

Residence: New York City.

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

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

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

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

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

—from “Banquet”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Residence: Iowa City.

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

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

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


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

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


—from “Center of the World”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 32. Safiya Sinclair Cover

Hometown: Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Residence: Los Angeles.

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

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

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

Tommy PicoTommy Pico
Birds, LLC

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

—from “IRL”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 33.Tommy PIco Cover

Hometown: The Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation.

Residence: New York City.

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

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

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

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

Fractures Through Time: Our Eleventh Annual Look at Debut Poets


Dana Isokawa


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

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

Robin Coste Lewis
Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 51.

Hometown: Compton, California.

Residence: Los Angeles.

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

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

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

Time spent finding a home for it: Three years.

Three favorite words: pewter, black, pacific.

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


Alicia Jo Rabins
Divinity School

American Poetry Review (Honickman First Book Prize)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 38.

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

Residence: Portland, Oregon.

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

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

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

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

Three favorite words: Amethyst. Sage. Antediluvian.

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


Jay Deshpande
Love the Stranger

YesYes Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 31.

Hometown: Boston.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I write for Slate and other magazines.

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

Time spent writing the book: About five years.

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

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



Hannah Sanghee Park
The Same-Different

Louisiana State University Press (Walt Whitman Award)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 29.

Hometown: Federal Way, Washington.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: Freelance writer.

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

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

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

Three favorite words: Cleave, move, empathy.

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

Jonathan Fink
The Crossing

Dzanc Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age: 40.

Hometown: Abilene, Texas.

Residence: Pensacola, Florida.

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

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

Time spent writing the book: Approximately six years.

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

Three favorite words: Yes. No. Maybe.

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


Rickey Laurentiis
Boy With Thorn

University of Pittsburgh Press (Cave Canem Poetry Prize)



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


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



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



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



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



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



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



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



Age: 26.


Hometown: New Orleans.


Residence: New York City.


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


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


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


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

Three favorite words: Womb, whom. Dark.